The Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra
H. H. the Dalai Lama and Berzin, Alexander. The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1997
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Part IV: A Discourse on The Autocommentary to "A Root Text for Mahamudra"
Dharamsala, India, March 1982
translated by Alexander Berzin
All of us wish for happiness and none of us wish to have any suffering. This is true of everybody, but it is very difficult to come upon all the circumstances that will bring this about. If we look merely at external circumstances, we find it nearly impossible to eliminate all non-conducive conditions and bring about all conducive ones. But, if we think in terms of internal circumstances, if we can bring about all the causes for happiness and for eliminating suffering within our own minds, then, regardless of what the external circumstances might be, we are not adversely affected by them. Even if we are in difficult external situations that might not normally be conducive for bringing about happiness, nevertheless, if we have the proper causes for happiness within our mind-stream, we are able to experience joy and not distress.
If our mind is tamed, then whatever type of external situation we encounter, our mind gives rise to an appearance of it that causes us neither problems nor unhappiness. Whereas if our mind is untamed, it makes the same external situation appear as threatening as if encountering a fearsome enemy, causing us to become unhappy and suffer. Thus we can see that even though the external situation might be exactly the same, nevertheless, based on whether or not our mind is tamed or under our control, our mind gives rise to an appearance of it in such a way that brings about either happiness or fear and suffering. Thus the factor of whether or not we have tamed our mind shapes the appearances to which our mind gives rise as our experience of what we encounter in life.
If our mind is not tamed, not under our control, then even the tiniest external circumstance can make us extremely upset. We become angry and completely out of control, which creates a very unpleasant atmosphere for everyone around us, our family and so forth. If, on the other hand, our mind is at peace, serene and tranquil, then even the most disturbing external circumstances are unable to harm us – they will not reach us to the core. We remain ever calm, serene and happy. We can all see this if we reflect on our life experience.
If we are a Dharma practitioner, or religious person, and we spend our entire life helping others, trying to be of service and benefit to everyone around us, we provide ourselves with the most conducive circumstance to live a happy and fruitful life. It does not matter, then, how difficult the circumstances are that we encounter in life. They never adversely affect us because of our dedication and courage of heart with which we wish to be of benefit to all beings around us, no matter what the circumstances may be.
We can see the truth of this if we consider the situation of the Tibetans in Tibet. They have been facing extremely difficult circumstances and many have been thrown into prison or concentration camps. Nevertheless, if they have turned their mind to the Dharma, then even remaining for a long time in prison, they do not become depressed or overcome by their dire condition. While staying in prison, they practice Dharma by thinking about the karmic laws of cause and effect to understand how their previous behavior has brought about their experience of this result. They also practice tonglen, taking on and giving – namely taking on, in their mind, the suffering of all others and sending out to them the happiness they generate. In this way, regardless of how difficult their circumstances and conditions might be, they are not overcome by them. This same process can occur whether we are Buddhists, Christians or followers of any other religious or spiritual path. If we tame our mind with a religious or spiritual practice, training ourselves to the best of our ability, and if we do this with a pragmatic, down-to-earth attitude and a practical approach, we gain from it great peace of mind to deal with the trials of life.
Regardless of who we might be, we all must face the basic problems and sufferings of life, such as becoming sick, growing old, and dying. It is merely a matter of time when the problems and suffering of death will come to us, but inevitably they must come to everyone. But if we have tamed our mind, for instance by having practiced the Dharma methods, then even though we might experience a great deal of physical pain as we approach our death, our mind will not be affected by this. We are not overcome by fear, panic or depression, but are able to handle the situation with peace of mind, grace and dignity.
In general, if our mind is under the control of disturbing emotions and attitudes, such as attachment, greed, jealousy, competitiveness, arrogance and so forth, this brings us a great deal of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Consider longing desire or greed. Greed is something that can never be satisfied. Even if we devote our entire life to trying to satisfy our greed, we might be able to accumulate a great deal of material possessions and money, but merely having "stuff" around us or a large figure in our bankbook does not really bring us lasting happiness.
This is true on the level of society as well. The stronger the greed, hostility and confusion of the public in general, the more pervasive is social unrest and unhappiness in the place where they live. If the people of a society are tame, if their minds are under control, the society in general is happy and peaceful. Whereas if people's minds are out of control, totally untamed and wild, their society has so many troubles and so much unhappiness. We see this clearly in the world today.
If we look at the attitude of wishing to benefit others and compare it with the attitude of wishing to cause harm, evaluating which is better, which is more beneficial, it is a hundred per cent certain that we conclude that helpfulness is the superior attitude and malice is not at all any good. Even if we are not practicing Dharma – even if we are not a religious or spiritual person at all – we would agree with this conclusion. The crucial issue is whether or not we have the ability to develop an attitude of wishing to help others. But it is completely certain that such an attitude of helpfulness has no faults at all.
The important question, then, is how can we actually go about generating such a beneficial attitude? We must think in terms of our personal experience and approach the challenge in a practical, down-to-earth manner. The most crucial need in order to develop an attitude of helpfulness is to rid ourselves of all disturbing emotions and attitudes that would prevent it, such as selfishness, greed, hostility, foolish confusion and so on. As we are unable to overcome these mental obstacles all at once, we must tackle them in progressive stages. First, we reach the point at which we do not become completely out of control and under the sway of our disturbing emotions and attitudes. Next, we rid ourselves of them completely. Finally, we eliminate their instincts so that our mind does not even give rise to an appearance of things in the deceptive manner that had previously caused these troublemakers to arise. In order to rid ourselves of our disturbing emotions and attitudes, together with their instincts, we must rely on a profound method. This brings us to the topic of mahamudra.
When listening to a discourse on mahamudra, we must cultivate a proper motivation. We think of all beings spread out through the universe as extensively as space, and generate the sincere wish to benefit them all. In order to be able to do that as fully as possible, we must attain the enlightened state of a Buddha. Therefore, with a dedicated heart of bodhichitta as our motivation, we now listen to further instructions on mahamudra that we fully intend to put into practice and realize in order to reach that state of maximum benefit to all.
The actual body of this text concerning mahamudra is divided into three sections: the preparations, actual methods and concluding procedures. The preparation is presented within the context of tantra and, specifically, in terms of the four forward-leading preliminary practices. These are taking safe direction to lead us to dedicating our heart with bodhichitta, offering a mandala to lead us to establish and strengthen an enlightenment-building network of positive force, practicing Vajrasattva meditation and mantra recitation to lead us to purifying ourselves of negative force and mental obstacles, and practicing guru-yoga to lead us to having inspiration cascade upon our mind-stream.
For taking safe direction, we visualize the three sources of safe direction, the Three Precious Gems, before us as a field for positive force in the form of the tree of assembled gurus from A Ritual to Honor the Spiritual Master. The central figure of this visualization is Lama Lozang Tubwang Dorjeychang, namely Tsongkhapa with Shakyamuni Buddha in his heart and Buddha Vajradhara in the heart of Shakyamuni. In this way, the central figure not only represents all levels of practice, but, like a Buddha-figure for anuttarayoga tantric practice, is complete with beings for bonding ourselves closely, for deep awareness and for absorbed concentration. If we were to visualize ourselves in such a composite form, the outermost figure bonds us closely to the practice of a specific tantra, the figure in his or her heart helps us gather the energy-winds of deep awareness at our heart chakra, while absorbed concentration on the innermost figure helps us to dissolve those winds so as to manifest primordial clear light mind. These three figures are usually translated as "commitment beings," "wisdom beings" and "concentration beings." All the other sources of safe direction are arranged around this central figure in an appropriate manner.
Every Tibetan tradition of Buddhism agrees that when we practice Dharma, we need externally to uphold some level of pratimoksha vow for individual liberation, as presented in the body of hinayana teachings, internally to realize all mahayana practices of a dedicated heart of bodhichitta, and hiddenly or secretly to actualize the methods of tantra. Upholding hinayana vows for individual liberation establishes our stable foundation. On this basis, mahayana practices of the six far-reaching attitudes, or "perfections" – generosity, ethical self-discipline, patient tolerance, mental stability and discriminating awareness – coupled with a unification of a serenely stilled and settled mind, or shamata, with an exceptionally perceptive one, or vipashyana, provide the life-force for our subsequent practice of tantra. Thus each Tibetan tradition presents a spiritual path that combines into the practice for one individual the essence of the three vehicles of hinayana, mahayana and tantrayana.
The composite figure, Lama Lozang Tubwang Dorjeychang, symbolizes this threefold practice complete in one individual. His external form as a full monk represents the hinayana practice of ethical self-discipline. Shakyamuni Buddha in his heart and Buddha Vajradhara in Shakyamuni's heart, as the original teachers respectively of mahayana and tantrayana, represent the practices of these second two vehicles. Thus visualizing this central figure as our source of safe direction has special significance.
All four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism – Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug – have both householder or lay practitioners, as well as monastic ones. Regardless of in which category we fall, the common tradition of Tibet is to uphold one of the levels of pratimoksha vow – either the five vowed restraints for a lay person or the vowed restraints appropriate to our particular class of monastic ordination as a full or novice monk or nun. Thus no matter who we are, we uphold the threefold teachings of the complete path of hinayana, mahayana and tantrayana.
Moreover, the tree of assembled gurus contains representations of all three sources of safe direction. The central figure and the community of those around him represent the Buddhas and Sangha. The actual Dharma source of direction is the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the Buddhas' mind-streams. As these true stoppings and true pathways are quite difficult to imagine, we represent them by visualized Dharma texts in front of these figures.
Furthermore, it is important to take safe direction in the state of mind in which all causes are complete for so doing. Thus we need to feel dread of falling to a worse state of rebirth and have confidence that the Three Precious Gems can provide a safe and sound direction for avoiding that suffering. In addition, we need to supplement these causes with a mahayana motivation of compassion. Wishing for all beings to be free of not only worse rebirths but all possible types of suffering, we put a safe direction in our life. The ultimate endpoint of that safe direction is to become a Buddha ourselves through following the stages of progress of the Sangha of aryas, the highly realized ones, so that we can fully help all beings through the Dharma. Thus taking safe direction naturally leads us further to dedicating our heart with bodhichitta. To symbolize putting this safe direction in our life, we imagine a cascade of lights and nectars flowing to us from the visualized figures and texts before us, confirming our safe direction and dedicated heart.
Next we offer a mandala, a round symbol of a universe. There are four levels of mandala that we offer – external, internal, hidden or secret, and that of the very nature of reality. Each can be explained in several ways. An external mandala consists of all the external phenomena of the universe, both the inanimate environment and all animate beings in it, usually imagined in the form of Mount Meru surrounded by four continent-worlds. An internal mandala is constructed of the limbs of our body, dissected in our imagination and visualized arranged like four continents around our trunk and head, imagined in the center like a Mount Meru. A hidden or secret mandala is made of the subtlest level of mind generated into a blissful consciousness and used as the mind that understands voidness – in other words, a subtlest mind that is inseparably both a blissful awareness and an understanding of voidness. A mandala of the very nature of reality is constructed of the inseparable unified pair: (1) that blissful, subtlest mind that understands voidness and (2) all appearances that come spontaneously and simultaneously with it as its emanation.
Aku Sherab-gyatso has explained that these last two types of mandala offering have as the basis for their actualization, respectively, the deep awareness of inseparable bliss and voidness, and the two truths as a unified pair - meaning the unified awarenesses of the two truths. This means that we offer a hidden or secret mandala by offering, with a symbol, our understanding that the three circles of the mandala offering – the person making it, the object to whom it is offered and the mandala offering itself – are all equally the play or emanation of the subtlest primordial mind that is inseparably both a blissful awareness and an understanding of voidness. They do not go beyond this as their nature. Likewise, we offer a mandala of the very nature of reality by offering, with a symbol, our understanding that these three circles of the mandala offering are the play of the two truths as a unified pair. We can take the two truths in this context in several ways, such as inseparable voidness and conventional appearance, inseparable primordial mind of indivisible bliss and voidness and its play of appearances, and so on.
We can also understand these four levels of mandala in terms of Gungtangzang's explanation of the four types of offering. Gungtangzang was the teacher of two of Aku Sherab-gyatso's teachers. External offerings are of all external objects of desire – sights, sounds, fragrances, tastes and tactile or bodily sensations. Internal offerings are of purified transformations of substances connected with the mind-stream of animate beings, such as the five types of flesh – of cattle, dogs, elephants, horses and humans – and five kinds of nectar-like bodily fluids – feces, blood, semen, marrow and urine. These ten are symbolic of either the aggregates and bodily elements, the disturbing emotions and attitudes, or the energy-winds of the subtle vajra-body. The hidden or secret offering is of the play of deep awareness of inseparable bliss and voidness, while the offering of the very nature of reality is of the play of the two truths as a unified pair. Gungtangzang then correlates the two truths with the unified pair of the object to whom the offering is made, namely the Buddhas, and the enlightening activities of that object. He admits that this is very difficult to understand.
His special manner of explanation of the last two types of offerings is different from the usual, common way in which there are taken. Within the context of inseparable bliss and voidness – meaning a blissful subtlest consciousness used as the mind that understands voidness – the hidden or secret offering is commonly of the blissful consciousness of this inseparable unified pair, while the offering of the very nature of reality is commonly of the voidness it understands. Thus we make the last two offerings by realizing that the person making the offering, the objects to whom the offerings are made and the offering itself are all the play, respectively, of the blissful primordial mind that understands voidness and the voidness understood by that blissful primordial mind.
Gungtangzang explains the four offerings in the special manner he does because he asserts that we must connect them with the four empowerments of anuttarayoga tantra. The external offering is connected with the vase empowerments, which are conferred with an external object, a vase. The internal offering is associated with the hidden or secret empowerment, conferred with secret substances connected with the mind-stream. The hidden or secret offering is suggested by the deep awareness empowerment, conferred with the experience of the deep awareness that is inseparably a blissful primordial mind and an understanding of voidness. The offering of the very nature of reality is connected with the fourth or word empowerment, conferred by words that indicate the state of the two truths as a unified pair. I think we can adopt this presentation of the four types of general offerings and apply it to the four types of mandala offerings as well. This is suggested by the similarity between Gungtangzang's explanation of the last two types of offerings in general and Aku Sherab-gyatso's presentation of the last two types of mandala offerings.
Concerning the mandala of the very nature of reality, however, it is very difficult for us, at our level, to focus on the two truths as a unified pair. Only the omniscient mind of a Buddha can have straightforward, nonconceptual perception of the two truths simultaneously. In the context of the Guhyasamaja system of anuttarayoga tantra, however, we take the illusory body and clear light as representing the two truths. On the final steps of the complete stage path, we have an inseparable unified pair: a blissful mind of clear light understanding voidness and the appearance of an illusory body. Neither block the other and are thus inseparable in the sense that if one is the case, so is the other.
On a basis level, subtlest mind and subtlest energy-wind are also inseparable. Subtlest mind is what we transform on the path into the primordial clear light mind that is a blissful awareness of voidness, while subtlest energy-wind is the obtaining cause for an illusory body, as well as what transforms into all pure or impure appearances as the play of primordial mind. I therefore think, when we offer a mandala of the very nature of reality, we can offer, with a symbol, our understanding that the person making the offering, the objects to whom the offering is made and the offering itself are all the play of inseparable subtlest mind and subtlest energy-wind.
In order to be able to offer, in a proper manner, a hidden or secret mandala and a mandala of the very nature of reality, we need to understand what we mean by all appearance-making and appearances of phenomena being the play of voidness, or of the primordial mind of great bliss, or of the inseparable unified pair of the two truths, or of the inseparable unified pair of subtlest mind and subtlest energy-wind. As this topic of appearance-making and appearances being the reflexive play or emanation of primordial mind will arise over and again in our later discussions, let us examine this topic beforehand, although it is quite difficult.
Because tantric practitioners meditate on primordial deep awareness generated inseparably as both a blissful awareness and a discriminating awareness of voidness, the tantra teachings show high regard for both greatly blissful deep awareness and voidness as its object, the two of which become of one taste, like water poured into water. It is commonly accepted that all phenomena are the play or appearances of voidness. The devoid nature of sights, for example, is that which allows for and makes possible their arising. Sights do arise. They arise dependently on factors other than themselves, and it is perfectly reasonable that they arise because they are devoid of existing in impossible ways such as by virtue of their own power. In this sense, all phenomena as things having a devoid nature are like the play of their devoid nature. That being the case, then as a consequence of tantra's high regard for a greatly blissful deep awareness and voidness as its object becoming inseparable by nature – in other words, having the two arise inseparably in the same package – then the appearances of everything categorized as the play of voidness can also be presented, in terms of the appearance-making of them, as the play of a greatly blissful awareness. This is one point.
Furthermore, we can speak of appearance-making and appearances as the play or emanation of simultaneously arising, primordial clear light mind. Simultaneously arising refers to the fact that the clear light mind of each individual has no beginning and will have no end, even after each of us becomes a Buddha. It has always existed and always will – there is no time when it was nonexistent or when it will cease to be. Therefore primordial clear light mind arises simultaneously with each moment of experience, with an everlasting, constant nature. On the path, through various methods, we cause that clear light mind to arise as a blissful awareness simultaneously with each moment.
The cognitive arising of all phenomena can be presented within the sphere of clear light in the sense that the appearances, to which mind gives rise, of anything that exists are the emanated luster or effulgence of simultaneously arising clear light. In the context of cognition, all emanations of the appearance of things arise, or literally "dawn" from clear light and, ultimately in the end, set as well into the sphere of clear light mind. Thus the nature of emanations, in this context, comes down to clear light mind. Our experience of all phenomena, then, is the result of both the appearance-making and appearances of this ever-present mind. In this cognitive and not substantial, chittamatra sense, then, all phenomena are the play of clear light mind arising simultaneously with each moment.
Let us look at this point more deeply. In The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, Maitreya has explained that the elements withdraw or disintegrate progressively, one into the other, starting from earth, water, fire and wind up to space. They also emerge or arise progressively from each other, but in the reverse sequence, starting from space, wind, fire and water down to earth. Thus on the external level, at the end of a universe, the elements of earth, water, fire and wind – in other words, matter in solid, liquid, heat and gaseous forms – dissolve in a progressive order, one melting into the next, ultimately ending with empty space. Then with the emergence of a new universe, the elements of wind, fire, water and earth arise once more from empty space.
The growth and decay of the form of the elements on the external level parallels and is thus related to their growth and decay on an internal level concerning our body. Thus, in the formation and development of a human embryo, for example, the five forms of the constituent elements grow or emerge progressively out of each other. Emerging from empty space, our body grows from a gaseous form through heat and liquid stages to, finally, a solid one. With death, it decays in the reverse order of these stages from a solid form back into empty space.
When we speak of the growth and decay of elements into and out of space on an internal level, however, we are referring not only to a material level and some sort of empty space like the ether, but also to a cognitive level and simultaneously arising, primordial clear light mind. All coarse and subtle levels of mind and energy-wind withdraw, contract or dissolve into internal, all-void, subtlest clear light mind, and then slowly emerge as well from this all-void clear light mind, becoming increasingly more gross or coarse in stages. These coarser levels of mind are the ones that give rise to the appearance of the elements. Thus it is in this sense that we can probably understand that the place from which the luster or effulgence of emanations arises and into which it sets is clear light mind of deep awareness.
We can understand further how subtlest clear light mind is the source of all that is pure or impure by considering the anuttarayoga tantra explanation, from the Guhyasamaja system, of the relationship between clear light mind and impure appearances. Mind, as mere clarity and awareness, must have a physical basis for its functioning. It is always supported on energy-wind as its "mount." The two abide in the same package and, in this sense, mind always "rides" on energy-winds. At the time of death, mind withdraws progressively from the elements of earth, water, fire and wind as its basis. This means that mind is supported by progressively less coarse levels of energy-wind and there is less movement of these winds in the subtle vajra-body. As a result of this process, all coarse levels of mind cease to function – in other words, the five types of sensory consciousness cease to function since mind no longer gives rise to the coarse appearance of the five elements. It no longer gives rise to the appearance of any sights, sounds, smells, tastes or tactile or bodily sensations.
The process of the strongest movement of energy-winds ceasing occurs in four stages, and is usually described as earth dissolving into water, water into fire, fire into wind and wind into space or consciousness. Through this four-stage process, the coarse levels of mind, with their attendant mental factors, likewise dissolve or cease. At the first stage, we no longer see anything. At the second, we no longer hear or feel any level of physical pleasure or pain. At the third, we no longer smell or distinguish any remaining sensory object. At the fourth, we no longer taste or feel any tactile or bodily sensation, such as hot or cold, or have any remaining mental factors regarding sensory objects, such as the intention to move. Simultaneously with this process, our conscious, personal level of conceptual mind gives rise to four stages of appearance that resemble progressively less congealed forms of light – namely, a mirage, a mist or smoke, sparks of light and a dim flame at the bottom of a well.
Although the process of falling asleep progresses through similar stages as the process of dying, sleep is different from death. With sleep, sense perception does not totally cease, but is merely accompanied by increasingly thicker inattention the deeper we sleep. The fact that sleeping persons can be awakened by a tickle on the foot indicates clearly that their coarse levels of mind have not completely ceased to function.
At this stage in the dissolution process of death, mind is supported only on the more subtle levels of energy-wind, and their movement through the subtle vajra-body is only slight. Consequently, mind can only give rise to more subtle appearances, namely the appearances cognizable by subtle conceptual levels of mind. As the dissolution process continues as the energy-winds enter and abide in the central channel, mind gradually withdraws from those winds as well. There is even less movement of winds, and mind is supported only on even more subtle energy-winds at the center of the heart chakra. This is described as the energy-winds dissolving at the center of the heart chakra.
As the energy-wind basis for mind becomes more and more subtle, and its movement continues to decrease, the level of mind that can be supported also becomes proportionately more subtle. First we reach the level of the eighty preconscious, primitive conceptual minds – sometimes translated as "indicative conceptual minds" – in three groupings of progressive subtlety indicative of the next three levels of mind also being progressively more subtle, one from the next. The first group of thirty-three include such primitive conceptual minds, or preconscious thoughts, as those of repulsion, sorrow, fear, hunger, thirst and protectiveness. The next group of forty include more subtle preconscious thoughts of longing, satisfaction and wishing to suckle, kiss, hug or be unruly; while the last group of seven include even more subtle thoughts of boredom, indifference and laziness. Even animals have these subtle, preconscious conceptual minds, perhaps called "feelings" in Western schemes of psychology. According to the explanation of most Gelug masters, this level of eighty preconscious, primitive conceptual minds ceases all at once, whereas most Sakya masters, on the basis of their personal meditation experience, assert that these minds cease in three stages.
Mind is now supported on even more subtle levels of energy-wind at the center of the heart chakra. As it continues to withdraw from these as its basis, the three most subtle levels of conceptual mind cease in the order of their decreasing coarseness. These are the usually unconscious, conceptual appearance-making minds called appearance-congealment, light-diffusion and threshold, which give rise, respectively, to appearances of white moonlit snow, the red glow of sunset or sunrise, and pitch-black darkness.
Finally, mind is only based on the subtlest level of energy-wind. The mind that is left, devoid of all coarser ones, is the subtlest level of mind, known as clear light. In fact, the Guhyasamaja literature refers to these three subtlest, conceptual appearance-making minds and clear light as the four voids – void, very void, greatly void and all-void – since each is progressively more devoid of coarser levels of mind. The all-void clear light mind is always inseparable from – in the same entity or package as – subtlest energy-wind. As clear light mind, individual in each being, has neither beginning nor end, it is called primordial, arising simultaneously with each moment of experience of life, death, samsara, nirvana or enlightenment. On the basis level, at the time of death, it gives rise to an appearance of clear light which, according to Kaydrub Norzang-gyatso – a disciple of two of Tsongkhapa's disciples, Sherab-senggey and the First Dalai Lama, Gedun-drub – in An Ornament for "The Stainless Light" [Commentary on "The Abbreviated Kalachakra Tantra"], is the appearance of voidness. It does not, however, normally apprehend it as voidness.
As it is impossible for mind ordinarily to remain in the state of clear light devoid of coarser levels of mind, continuing to experience the death phase of uncontrollably recurring existence, it soon begins to deviate from this state. This occurs with movement of the subtlest energy-wind upon which clear light mind is supported and heralds the re-emergent sequence of the coarser levels of mind and body. This quickly passes, in order, through the stages of the threshold, light-diffusion and appearance-congealment unconscious, most subtle conceptual minds and reaches the level of the eighty preconscious, primitive conceptual minds. At each of these levels, mind gives rise to the appearances associated with each of these states.
Starting with the experience of these stages of re-emergence, the mind-stream continues through bardo, the samsaric state of existence in between death and the conception of a new rebirth. The mind in bardo, being on the level of coarseness of the eighty primitive conceptual minds, gives rise to various appearances, pleasant or frightening, depending on the instincts and habits built up from previous lives. At the end of an appropriate period of time, up to a maximum of seven days, mind again withdraws to clear light with what is called a "small death." This emergence and dissolution sequence may recur a maximum of seven times, lasting over a maximum period of forty-nine days.
Finally, the coarser levels of mind re-emerge once more through these same four stages, heralding conception at the start of a new rebirth. At this point, if the mind-stream takes as its physical basis a human or animal embryo, mind becomes increasingly more coarse as it is progressively supported by the increasingly more coarse form of the constituent elements of this basis – energy-wind, fire, water and then earth. Correspondingly, mind gives rise to appearances of these elements in the form of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile or bodily sensations. The specific forms in which it gives rise to these appearances are shaped by the instincts built up by the karma of previous actions and transmitted with the continuity or mind-stream of clear light mind. Thus, we can understand clear light mind as the source of all impure appearances within the context this dissolution and re-emergent process. It is through this process that we can explain, on the anuttarayoga tantra level, how impure appearances set into and rise out of clear light mind, in a manner reminiscent of the sun.
These are the points we need to ponder in order to understand that all appearance-making and all appearances – in other words, all phenomena – are the emanation or play of the clear light mind of deep awareness of inseparable bliss and voidness. We offer the hidden mandala and the mandala of the very nature of reality with this understanding.
We can say that the three planes of samsaric existence (three realms) – the planes of sensory desires, ethereal forms and formless beings – are the creations of karmic impulses on yet another level. The instincts, habits or propensities built up from our previous karmic actions ripen not only into our experiences of happiness or suffering, but also into the external conditions that provide the circumstances for those experiences. We can understand this in terms of our discussion of the dissolution and re-emergence of the elements on not only an internal level, however, but also on an external one. The internal progressive re-emergence of the elements from primordial clear light mind is not only parallel to the external emergence process from empty space, but in some intimate way is causally related to it.
For example, these days in Dharamsala it is especially cold. As a result of the habits and propensities built up by their previous actions, some people experience the cold with happiness, while others with unhappiness and suffering. If we investigate the cause of the cold weather itself that is acting as the circumstance for the ripening of people's karma into their experience of delight or discomfort, we would have to say that the immediate cause is the movement of weather systems or, more deeply, the movement of the elements, in the world in general and, in particular, in the Arabian Sea and Himalayan plateau. If we trace the causes for the movement of the elements in our local region back ever further, we come eventually to the causal relation between the emergence of the internal and external elements.
The most important factor regarding karma or impulses is mind. Although the vaibhashika and prasangika theories assert some types of karma to be subtle forms of physical phenomena, in general we can say that karmic impulses always involve mind. When the impulse of a karmic action ceases, it builds up a habit, instinct or propensity that can be labeled onto the mind-stream of the person, or onto the person himself or herself, as the basis for its labeling. The problem is how does such an instinct on a mind-stream – specifically on a mind-stream of primordial clear light – bring about any immediate change in the external world, for instance this cold spell in Dharamsala? Since the scriptures are not clear on this point, we need to analyze it ourselves.
My own thinking is that there definitely is some kind of relation between internal and external elements. On one level, we can say that now our internal elements are totally under the power or influence of the external elements. But when we reach an extremely advanced state of meditation realization, we gain control over our internal elements. At such a time, through meditation methods, our internal elements can affect the external ones, for example in starting and stopping rain. Because of this relationship, on the level of the spiritual path, of actions involving the internal elements affecting changes in external ones, I believe there must also be some sort of level of similar relationship on the basis level as well.
If we investigate the cause for changes in the external environment, for example the changes in the external elements that cause the daily variations in weather, we could say that it is the work of God. But if we conceive of God as a supreme, omnipotent creator, an individual whose actions arise unaffected by anything, we would have to conclude, on the basis of logic, that this is an impossible mode of existence. Actions can only arise dependently, affected by causes and conditions. Therefore Buddhism does not assert the existence of such a God. This is not intended as a criticism of other religions, nor does it deny that other religions that speak of God assert many levels of understanding God that go deeper than the superficial, popular one. But since we all assert that there is order in the universe, we must find a cause for external changes in it. Buddhism asserts that this cause is karma. And, since the impulses of karma arise from mind – and ultimately from primordial clear light mind – and set back into that mind, building up instincts and propensities, we can say that the deepest cause is mind.
In A Supplement to [Nagarjuna's "Root Stanzas on] the Middle Way," Chandrakirti has discussed two types of karma, common and uncommon, in other words shared or collective karma and individual karma. The instincts or propensities from shared karmic actions on the mind-streams of many beings ripen into their common experience of the same event, while propensities from their individual karmic actions ripen into their individual experiences. My own idea is that there are similarly two levels of cause for changes in the elements of the external environment.
The propensities from shared karmic actions on the mind-streams of many beings ripen not only into their common experience of the same event, but also into external circumstances that provide the conditions for those events. When we speak on the level of the comprehensive results of shared karma, the ripening is in the form of the environment. Thus we could say that the universe and this world in general are the result of the shared karma of the enormous number of animate beings – in other words, "sentient" beings, those with a mind affected by karma – who will live in and experience it. But it would be very difficult to assert that individual karma is responsible for the minor changes in that environment once it has arisen, although of course there can be man-made changes in the environment such as global warming and degradation through pollution and abuse.
For example, it is very problematic to try to explain, on the basis of karma, why one leaf on a certain tree is bigger than another, or why two leaves on the same tree fall from it at different times. It seems better to say that these minor happenings occur as the result of physical factors from the power of the external elements themselves. Thus shared karma would shape the formation of the elements of the universe and world in general and, although man-made actions could also affect the environment, the play of physical factors associated with the elements themselves would bring about minor daily changes in the weather.
In short, although we can understand voidness on the basis of logic and reason, we cannot do so with respect to karma and the full mechanics of cause and effect. The workings of karma, and how all phenomena are the play of mind in the sense of being the result of karma, are extremely obscure points that are very profound and difficult to understand.
The next forward-leading preliminary practice for mahamudra is Vajrasattva meditation with recitation of his hundred-syllable mantra. We can practice this in conjunction with either the generation or complete stage of anuttarayoga tantra. On the generation stage, we work primarily with the imagination and complex visualizations. We focus on overcoming our mind's ordinary manner of producing an appearance of things in general, and especially of our own body, as if they were truly and inherently existent, and then implying that they exist in the manner in which it makes them appear. Thus when we practice Vajrasattva purification in conjunction with generation stage practice, we imagine the flow of purifying nectars from Vajrasattva flushing our entire body, purifying it completely of the way in which our mind ordinarily makes it appear and implies it as existing.
On the complete stage, when all causes are complete for bringing about actual changes on the more subtle levels of body and mind, we work with the subtle energy-body, particularly the central energy-channel, to gain access to subtlest mind and energy-wind so that we can actualize what we have only imagined on the former stage. When we practice Vajrasattva meditation in conjunction with the complete stage, we imagine the flow of purifying nectars from Vajrasattva penetrating vital points of our central channel and flushing that channel of all its knots and other obstacles that would prevent our realizations of the attainments of this stage. Although these two levels of Vajrasattva practice have these differences in focus, their general meaning and procedures – openly admitting to our negative actions, invoking the four opponent forces and so forth – are the same.
The last of the four forward-leading preliminaries, guru-yoga, also has two levels of practice. These are in conjunction with the two levels of guru, the definitive one to which we are led and the interpretable one who can lead us there. We sometimes refer to these as the inner and external gurus. We can understand them in analogy with the definitive and interpretable levels of the Buddha source of safe direction. The definitive level Precious Gem of a Buddha is his or her dharmakaya, or bodies encompassing everything – both omniscient deep awareness and its nature. The interpretable level Buddha Gem is a Buddha's rupakaya, or bodies of form in which an enlightened being appears. A Buddha's external bodies of form lead us to the attainment of a Buddha's more inner aspects, the bodies that encompass everything.
On the anuttarayoga tantra level of mahamudra, we use various methods to make manifest subtlest primordial mind and use it to realize its own nature. The subtlest primordial mind that we all have within is the definitive level guru to which we are led – our inner guru. Our external guru is the interpretable level one who can lead us to it. Therefore, with guru-yoga, we make requests to our external guru for inspiration to manifest the inner guru. We also receive inspiration from our inner guru, as our Buddha-nature, to complete this endeavor.
The autocommentary now cites several great Kagyu and Sakya masters of the past as examples of highly realized gurus who have taught the general stages for training the mind that we too must follow as a preliminary for mahamudra practice that is common to all sutra and tantra mahayana paths. These masters have expressed these stages in terms of the tradition known as "parting ourselves from the four forms of clinging."
First we part ourselves from clinging to this life. Instead of total involvement with affairs of this life, we involve ourselves with future lives. We accomplish this by thinking about our precious human life with all its freedoms and endowments for spiritual growth, how we lose it because of death and impermanence, and then the karmic laws of behavioral cause and effect that shape our future lives. Next we part ourselves from clinging to future lives and involve ourselves, instead, in the quest for liberation. By thinking about all the suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, or samsara, we generate sincere renunciation of it – the strong determination to be free and attain the total liberation that is nirvana.
In addition, we part ourselves from clinging to our own selfish concern and involve ourselves fully, instead, with the welfare of others. We dedicate our heart with bodhichitta and, not merely leaving it at that, actually involve ourselves in the practices that benefit others. Therefore we train ourselves with the six far-reaching attitudes of generosity and so forth. Finally, we part ourselves from clinging to our apprehension of true, inherent existence and involve ourselves totally, instead, in the understanding of voidness, the absence of this fantasized, impossible manner of existence. For this we develop the state of mind that is both serenely stilled and settled as well as exceptionally perceptive – a state of joint shamata and vipashyana.
Each of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions presents these same basic points as the common preliminary for all mahayana sutra and tantra paths. The only differences are the order and emphasis, as well as the name given to the presentation. The Gelug tradition organizes these points into the lam-rim, or graded stages of the path, arranged according to three levels of motivation – aiming for better rebirth, liberation from samsara, or enlightenment – as presented by the Indian master, Atisha, in A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment and transmitted to Tsongkhapa through the Kadam lineage. Tsongkhapa has presented the teachings for persons of these three levels as all being rooted in a whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual master, a guru. The Kagyu tradition mostly organizes the stages of the path in terms of parting from the four forms of clinging. Its most famous textual presentation of this is A Jewel Ornament for the Path to Liberation by Gampopa. Following the teachings of Milarepa, it presents the stages of the path as all being possible because of Buddha-nature, the factors in everyone that allow for their liberation and enlightenment.
The Sakya tradition's unique presentation of the stages of the path – lamdray, the paths and their result – derives from the Indian mahasiddha, Virupa. It organizes these stages around an initial discussion of suffering, as Buddha had done with the four true facts in life, and elaborates in terms of three stages of appearance-making – the impure one of sentient beings, the pathway one of those who strive, and the pure one of the Buddhas – and the three everlasting continuums – the causal one of the alaya, the all-encompassing foundation, the pathway one of methods concerning the body, and the resultant one of mahamudra. The Nyingma tradition organizes the graded paths in terms of the teachings of the nine vehicles – three sutra ones of the shravakas or listeners to the teachings, pratyekabuddhas or self-evolving practitioners, and bodhisattvas or dedicated beings; three lower tantra ones of kriya, charya and yoga tantra; and maha-, anu- and atiyoga. Its classic text for this is Longchenpa's A Treasury of Deep Awareness, which presents all these commonly shared preliminaries, starting from recognizing and appreciating the precious human life.
Our success in Dharma practice, whether of mahamudra or any of its other multitude of facets, totally depends on the efforts we make in these preliminary practices, especially the commonly shared preliminary of training our mind through the graded stages of the path. Therefore we never trivialize or dismiss these preliminaries, or devote only a minimum of effort to them. Even if we spend our entire life developing and strengthening these preliminary realizations, it will only serve to further support and strengthen our success with the actual advanced practices. Thus we devote as much effort to the preliminaries as we do to the actual methods such as mahamudra.
All the texts of the great mahayana masters stress the importance of practicing with a proper motivation, namely with a dedicated heart of bodhichitta. This is a heart set on achieving enlightenment, through the various practices, in order to benefit fully all beings. Practicing the advanced Buddhist methods without such motivation can be very dangerous and disastrous. For example, if we devote our efforts to visualizing ourselves as a multi-faced, multi-armed, multi-legged Buddha-figure and reciting the appropriate mantras, but without a bodhichitta motivation of doing so in order to reach enlightenment to benefit all, we certainly cannot achieve enlightenment as a result of our practice. On the contrary, if we have a worldly motivation, indicative of our lack of understanding voidness, we experience a downfall as the result of our repeated visualization and are reborn as a ghost or spirit in the shape of this Buddha-figure. As there are many accounts of such things happening, it is crucial to practice with a proper motivation. Since none of us would wish to be reborn as a ghost with a bizarre form, we must sincerely dedicate our heart with bodhichitta as the foundation for our mahamudra practice.
In general, in order to see the nature of mind, we need to establish and strengthen an enlightenment-building network of positive force. But let us be more specific than that. When we discuss the nature of mind, we can differentiate its conventional and deepest natures. We need to recognize and see both with certainty, parallel to how, during a tantric empowerment, we need to recognize and see both the conventional and deepest natures of a particular Buddha-figure's mandala, or symbolic universe. To be able to recognize and see, with straightforward, nonconceptual perception, not only mind's nature in general, but specifically mind's conventional and deepest natures simultaneously, we need an especially vast enlightenment-building network of positive force. We also need to purify ourselves of the mental obstacles that would prevent this, namely the obstacles preventing both our liberation and omniscience. Thus the preliminary practices of building up (collecting) and cleansing, namely building up positive force and purifying ourselves of mental blocks, are especially essential for mahamudra practice.
When we discuss the nature of mind, it is important not only to differentiate its conventional and deepest natures, but also to note the difference between discussing in terms of the nature itself and that which has this nature. This differentiation is prominent in Kagyu and Nyingma texts and affects their presentations of the two truths.
Various traditions and texts define differently the two truths – conventional and deepest. For example, the Nyingma master, Longchenpa, in the eighteenth chapter of A Treasury of Deep Awareness, presents the two truths in the context of that which has the nature of reality. If we look at his presentation in light of the usual Gelug definitions of the two truths presented in terms of the nature of reality itself, and are unaware that we can make other distinctions, we are likely to miss the point and become confused. Therefore it is important to know that there is a wide variety of definition and usage of technical terms.
For example, Maitreya's Differentiating the Middle from Extremes presents three deepest or ultimate things – the deepest, ultimate meaning; the deepest, ultimate attainment; and the deepest, ultimate practice for realization. Likewise, the literature of the stages of Guhyasamaja practice speaks of conventional and deepest levels of its complete stage. Here, the terms "conventional" and "deepest," or "ultimate," levels have a specific meaning in the context of the steps into which we divide the Guhyasamaja complete stage.
Thus, whenever we read and study a Dharma text, it is essential that we pay particular attention to such crucial terms as "conventional" and "deepest truths," "nature" and "things having this nature," and so on. We must know the precise significance and meaning these have within the context of that text. If we are clear about how the author is defining and using his or her technical terms in this particular text, we find that everything in that text makes sense. Otherwise, if we take the meaning and usage of technical terms that we have learned from the context of one text and try to apply them to the extraneous context of another text – even, sometimes, the context of another book by the same author – we may see many contradictions and become very confused. Thus it is important to understand the use of terminology within the context of each specific text we study.
Consider, for example, the term "dual appearances." It does not refer to the appearance of two things, but rather to discordant appearances – appearances that do not accord with reality. Furthermore, it not only refers to the side of the discordant appearances themselves as objects of mind, but to the action of mind giving rise to them. Although we need to refute that the appearance of something in a manner discordant with reality refers to something real, the main focus of our practice is to eliminate the true causes of our problems. The true causes are our mind's discordant appearance-making and its apprehension of the discordant appearances it fabricates as referring to something real.
Within this context, then, there are many kinds of discordant appearance-making. For example, as soon as we see something, our mind usually gives rise to the discordant appearance of an idea of the object, which it projects onto and mixes with the mere appearance of that object itself to which it also gives rise. Then there is the discordant appearance-making of conventional phenomena whereby our mind gives rise to an appearance of them as if they existed truly and inherently. Furthermore, there is the discordant appearance-making of objects of mind and minds having these objects as being two separate, unrelated phenomena existing independently. We need to be aware of which type of discordant appearance-making is meant in any specific passage of any particular text we study.
Furthermore, we sometimes have different names for a very similar type of practice in various traditions. For example, our text mentions that some of the Kagyu traditions speak of "actualizing through the guru." Various Nyingma texts speak of "actualizing through the descendents of the vidyadharas, those apprehending pure awareness" and "actualizing through the mind of the vidyadharas." The Gelug tradition uses the term "guru-yoga," while Sakya lineages present "guru-yoga of three rounds of inspirations." Despite the difference in names and slight variations in mode of practice, in essence they all come to the same intended point of preliminary practice.
The most important point in the practice of guru-yoga is to have respect and confident belief in our guru or spiritual master. As a result of this respectful faith, we receive a steady flow of inspiration from our guru filling our mind-stream, serving as the basis for gaining insight and realization. At the beginning, do we start our practice of Buddha's teachings simply on the basis of faith alone? Definitely no, we do not. It is not that way at all. Out of faith and wisdom, wisdom or discriminating awareness is the more important.
Buddha's scriptural texts stress the four reliances. Concerning a teacher, do not rely simply on the person, but on the Dharma measures he or she imparts. Concerning those measures, do not rely simply on their words, but on their meaning. Concerning that meaning, do not rely simply on their interpretable meaning that leads deeper, but on their definitive meaning to which they lead. For understanding that definitive level of meaning, do not rely on an ordinary consciousness, but on deep awareness. Thus, discriminating deep awareness is extremely important for Buddhist practice. We must examine every point of the Dharma teachings with logic and reason. We only accept what accords with reason and makes sense, and never accept anything that is illogical or makes no sense. Thus reason and understanding are totally essential and required.
This is particularly true when it comes to establishing a guru/disciple relationship with a spiritual teacher. We must base our choice of someone as our guru by relying on reasons. We must first thoroughly investigate this teacher on the basis of reason and examine all his or her qualifications. On this basis of discrimination and reason, once we are totally convinced that this person is properly qualified and personally suited for us, then, and only then, do we regard this teacher as our guru. Following this, on the basis of confident belief in our guru's qualifications, we may receive tantric empowerments and guideline instructions from him or her when we are fully prepared and the appropriate opportunity arises. Only then does meditation with absorbed concentration on our confidence in our guru lead to stable progress. If we follow the proper procedures in this way for bonding ourselves to a guru who can provide us with inspiration for gaining realization, we are not on shaky grounds.
Thus entering into tantric practice requires a great deal of examination beforehand. This is extremely important. In short, confident belief in a guru – the essential point in meditation on guru-yoga – is one that we develop not in contradiction with the order of priorities indicated in the four reliances.
In some cases it happens that disciples do not examine a spiritual teacher very carefully before accepting him or her as their guru and committing themselves to a guru/disciple relationship. They may even have received tantric empowerments from this teacher. But then they find they were wrong. They see many flaws in this teacher and discover many serious mistakes he or she has made. They find that this teacher does not really suit them. Their mind is uneasy regarding this person and they are filled with doubts and possibly regret. What to do in such a circumstance?
The mistake, of course, is that originally the disciples did not examine this teacher very carefully before committing themselves to him or her. But this is something of the past that has already happened. No one can change that. In the future, of course, they must examine any potential guru much more thoroughly. But, as for what to do now in this particular situation with this particular guru, it is not productive or helpful to continue investigating and scrutinizing him or her in terms of suspicions or doubts. But rather, as The Kalachakra Tantra recommends, it is best to keep a respectful distance. They should just forget about him or her and not have anything further to do with this person.
It is not healthy, of course, for disciples to deny serious ethical flaws in their guru, if they are in fact true, or his or her involvement in Buddhist power-politics, if this is the case. To do so would be a total loss of discriminating awareness. But for disciples to dwell in their mind on these points with disrespect, self-recrimination, regret and other negative attitudes is not only unnecessary, unhelpful and unproductive, it is also improper. They distance themselves even further from achieving a peaceful state of mind and may seriously jeopardize their future spiritual progress. I think it best in this circumstance just to forget about this teacher.
It may also occur that disciples have taken tantric empowerments prematurely, thinking that tantra is famous as being so high, it must be beneficial to take this initiation. They feel they are ready for this step and take the empowerment, thereby committing themselves to the master conferring it as now being their tantric guru. Moreover, they commit themselves as well to various sets of vows and a daily recitation meditation practice. Then later these disciples realize that this style of practice does not suit them at all, and again they are filled with doubts, regrets and possibly fear. Again, what to do?
We can understand this with an analogy. Suppose, for instance, we go to a store, see some useful, but exotic item that strikes our fancy and just buy it on impulse, even though it is costly. When we bring it home, we find, after examining the item more soberly now that we are out of the exciting, seductive atmosphere of the glittering store, that we have no particular use for it at the moment. In such situation, it is best not to throw the thing out in the garbage, but rather to put it aside. Later we might find it, in fact, very useful.
The same conclusion applies to the commitments disciples have taken prematurely at a tantric empowerment without sufficient examination to determine if they were ready for them. In such situation, rather than throwing the whole thing away in the trash and deciding that they are never going to use it at all, such disciples would do better to establish a neutral attitude toward it, putting tantra and their commitments aside and leaving it like that. This is because they may come back to them later and find them very precious and useful.
Suppose, however, disciples have taken an empowerment and have accepted the commitment to practice the meditations of a particular Buddha-figure by reciting a sadhana, a method of actualization, to guide them through a complex sequence of visualization and mantra repetition. Although they still have faith in tantra, they find that their recitation commitment is too long and it has become a great burden and strain to maintain it as a daily practice. What to do then? Such disciples should abbreviate their practice. This is very different from the previous case in which certain disciples find that tantric practice in general does not suit them at the present stage of their spiritual life. Everyone has time each day to eat and to sleep. Likewise, no matter how busy they are, no matter how many family and business responsibilities they may have, such disciples can at least find a few minutes to maintain the daily continuity of generating themselves in their imagination in the aspect of a Buddha-figure and reciting the appropriate mantra. They must make some effort. Disciples can never progress anywhere on the spiritual path if they do not make at least a minimal amount of effort.
If, for whatever reason – lack of time, sickness, travel and so forth – we need to abbreviate our practice, we must be careful not to omit fulfilling the main purpose in tantra of visualizing ourselves in the aspect of a Buddha-figure. In general, that purpose is to stop our mind from making things appear in their ordinary fashion and implying that they exist in the ordinary manner in which it gives rise to an appearance of them. The ordinary manner in which our mind makes things appear is as if they existed truly and inherently, findable at the place where they appear to be. Therefore, no matter how abbreviated our practice may be, we precede the visualization of ourselves in the aspect of a Buddha-figure by first withdrawing our mind from ordinary appearances.
This does not mean that ordinary appearances of true and inherent existence actually exist in the place where they appear to be existing independently of the mind that is fabricating an appearance of them, and that we simply withdraw our attention from them in the manner of becoming inattentive of or ignoring them. Nor does it mean to realize that ordinary appearances of true and inherent existence do not occur or exist at all and to withdraw from them in the manner of denying their conventional existence. Rather, we withdraw our mind from its usual activity of producing these ordinary appearances. We do not literally collect these ordinary appearances back into our mind like collecting trash back into a garbage pail from which it has spilled. Rather we collect our mind back from making them appear. We stop our mind from its ordinary appearance-making – from its giving rise to an appearance of things as if they existed truly and inherently – by focusing on their voidness, the total absence of their existing in this fantasized, impossible manner.
If, after ascertaining voidness, we were to leave this understanding aside and, forgetting about it, let our mind resume giving rise to an appearance of ourselves as if truly and inherently existent, but now in the aspect of a Buddha-figure, and let it resume apprehending ourselves to exist in the way we appear to exist, but now in this new shape and form, this would not do. There would have been no purpose in doing this voidness meditation. Rather, having dissolved our ordinary appearance-making and withdrawn our mind into a state of focus on voidness, we try to gain as stable an understanding of the voidness of true, inherent existence as deeply as we can. Then, without losing awareness, we have one part of this mind that understands voidness create an appearance of the aspect of a Buddha-figure. In this way, the appearance-making of this Buddha-figure is the play or emanation of the mind that understands voidness.
Let us explore this process more deeply. Ordinarily, our mind has two levels of appearance-making that occur simultaneously, mixed together like milk and water. One is ordinary, impure appearance-making – the mind's making conventional phenomena appear as if they were truly and inherently existent. This is the work of the contriving mind that mentally fabricates and projects appearances of totally fantasized, impossible modes of existence. The other is pure appearance-making – mind's simply giving rise to an appearance of conventional phenomena as what they are, dependently arising phenomena. When mind is accompanied by unawareness of voidness, it apprehends the impure appearances it makes arise as truly existing in the manner in which they appear to exist.
Although the pure and impure appearances of anything are ordinarily mixed together like milk and water, they are not of the same entity – they do not always come, by nature, in the same package. They can be separated in the sense that when we stop impure appearance-making by removing the instincts of unawareness of voidness that cause our mind to fabricate them, we are left simply with our mind giving rise to an appearance of conventional phenomena purely in the way that they actually exist. The conventional and deepest truths about any phenomena, on the other hand – their pure or accurate conventional appearance as something that dependently arises and their lack of existing in any fantasized and impossible way – are of the same entity. They always come in the same package in the sense that they are always both valid with respect to anything. They cannot be cognized simultaneously in one moment of mind, however, until we have removed the obstacles preventing this, which again are the instincts of unawareness of voidness. These instincts constitute, then, the obstacles with respect to knowable phenomena. They prevent omniscient awareness.
Just as mind itself has two truths that are both valid about it, it also has two aspects for validly knowing what is true. One aspect is valid for apprehending what is conventionally true, while the other is valid for what is deeply true. Each of these two aspects of mind can only cognize that truth about something specific to its aim. The obstacles preventing omniscience block these two aspects of mind from functioning in the same moment of awareness.
Here, in our practice of tantra, when we stop our mind's ordinary appearance-making, we focus on voidness with that aspect of mind that is valid for apprehending phenomena that are deepest truths – namely the voidnesses of all phenomena. On this level, our apprehension of voidness is not with straightforward, nonconceptual perception with which, in addition merely to achieving, we have thoroughly familiarized ourselves over a long course of repeated meditation. Although, because of that, we are unable to have our mind focus directly on both conventional and ultimate truths in the same moment of awareness and, when our mind gives rise to conventional appearances, stop its impure appearance-making from occurring mixed with its pure appearance-making, nevertheless we try to do both, at least in our imagination. As an aid, we have the aspect of our mind that cognizes conventional phenomena make ourselves appear not in our usual form, but in the form of a Buddha. At the same time, we try to remain aware, at least indirectly, of the voidness of that pure appearance by accompanying our appearance-making mind with the discriminating awareness of all appearances to be like illusion. We refer to this as having the mind that understands voidness give rise to an appearance of a Buddha-figure. This is usually translated as "having the mind that understands voidness appear as a Buddha-figure."
Just as previously we took as a basis for labeling "me" our aggregates appearing in their ordinary fashion, likewise here, once we have gained a certain stability in visualizing the pure appearance of this Buddha-figure, we take this appearance as the basis for labeling "me." The mental labeling of "me" on the basis of an appearance of a Buddha-figure that our mind creates, accompanied with discriminating awareness of its voidness, is what we call "setting the pride" or "establishing the dignity" of being a form of Buddha.
This entire procedure of withdrawing our mind from its ordinary appearance-making, focusing on voidness, having our mind, accompanied with an understanding of voidness, create a pure appearance, and taking that pure appearance as the basis for mentally labeling "me" is exactly the same whether we practice tantra as a male or a female. Furthermore, as the mind that realizes voidness understands that all appearances, whether ordinary or pure, are equally devoid of existing truly and inherently as male or female, the gender of the practitioner doing the visualization and the gender of the Buddha-figure visualized make no difference on the deepest level. Therefore, both male and female practitioners of tantra can visualize either the appearance of a male or female Buddha-figure and equally take either as the basis for labeling "me." Visualizing ourselves in this manner, while reciting the appropriate mantras, then, are the main points on which to focus in our tantric practice no matter how much we abbreviate it.
Furthermore, if we have received an empowerment into the anuttarayoga class of tantra within the Gelug tradition, it will not do to break the continuity of our daily recitation and practice of the six-session yoga, at least in its abbreviated form, three times during the daytime and three times at night. Regardless of what might happen to us, we must at least remember to do this each day and night. This is extremely important.
Just as the alarm on our wristwatch can remind us of our important appointments during the day, Buddha Vajradhara himself has designed the six-session yoga to remind us each day and night of the essential practices that will bring us to our goal of enlightenment – the practices of bodhichitta, meditation on voidness and the nineteen practices that bond us closely to the five Buddha family-traits. Therefore, even though we might not be able to practice many sessions each day and night of single-pointed meditation, focusing on ourselves in the aspect of a Buddha-figure so as to gain shamata, we must at least maintain this six-session practice so that slowly our mind goes closer to our goals along that direction
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