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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 IV: A Discourse on The Autocommentary to "A Root Text for Mahamudra"

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala, India, March 1982
translated by Alexander Berzin
July 1996

Session Eight

Removing the Obstacles Preventing Liberation and Enlightenment

The First Panchen Lama now continues with the method for gaining a decisive understanding of the deepest devoid nature of mind in accordance with the intentions of Chandrakirti and other masters of the prasangika-madhyamaka tradition of explanation. According to them, the first of the two sets of obscuration, those that are disturbing attitudes and which prevent liberation, refer to all disturbing emotions and attitudes, including ignorance or unawareness of voidness, as well as their seeds or traces. When we have removed this entire set, we attain nirvana, total release from samsara, or uncontrollably recurring rebirth filled with true suffering and true causes of suffering.

The attainment of the non-abiding nirvana of Buddhahood, however, is a much greater achievement. It requires eliminating not only the obstacles preventing liberation, but also those preventing omniscience, namely the obstacles concerning all knowable phenomena. These refer to the instincts of unawareness of voidness that cause mind to make things appear as if they ultimately existed as inherently findable, and thus preventing mind from giving rise simultaneously, as its object of cognition, to the two truths about anything. Because of this second, deeper set of obstacles, mind makes all phenomena appear as if existing ultimately, although they do not exist in this way. The setting, like a sun, of all discordant appearance-making like this into dharmadhatu, the sphere of devoid nature, such that it never rises again, is non-abiding nirvana.

But isn't this nihilism? When all discordant appearance-making has set into the sphere of devoid nature, doesn't this negate everything? Aren't we left with nothing at all, like seeing nothing when our eyes are closed? No, this is not at all the case. While training ourselves through a course of pathway minds, we strengthen our enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness jointly. Consequently, even though the veiling mist of mental fabrication and fabricating has set forever into the sphere of devoid nature at the time of the resultant state of Buddhahood, still, by the force of compassion, prayers and altruistic acts, there is someone remaining who spontaneously and effortlessly fulfills others' purposes. There is still someone remaining who is straightforwardly and omnisciently aware of everything knowable, whatever exists, while simultaneously knowing that anything mind produces an appearance of cannot ultimately be found existing under its own power as something solid and tangible we could touch. It simultaneously knows that phenomena indeed perform functions yet cannot ultimately be touched.

This is quite extraordinary and difficult to explain. Omniscient awareness has two aspects that operate simultaneously with full understanding – one that validly apprehends the deepest truth about everything and the other everything's pure conventional truth. It can do so because it is free of the obstacles preventing omniscience. The aspect that sees the deepest truth apprehends the devoid nature of everything. This is the sphere of devoid nature upon which all appearance-making that mentally fabricates relies, and thus out of which it arises and into which it sets. Although this aspect of omniscient awareness that apprehends voidness does not make phenomena having devoid nature appear before its own face, yet the other aspect of an omniscient mind, valid for seeing conventional truths, makes these phenomena appear before it. Apprehending both simultaneously, omniscient awareness, as an integrated whole, starkly sees both devoid nature and phenomena having this nature, fully aware that, with an absence of true and inherent existence, these phenomena cannot ultimately be found and touched like something solid and tangible. Thus an omniscient mind has combined total absorption on voidness which is like space – the absence of anything tangible and obstructive – and subsequently attained deep awareness of appearances to be like illusion. This is very difficult to understand and explain. When we gain actual experience, we see it is unlike anything else. It is, not only figuratively, but literally beyond imagination.

General Discussion of Identitylessness

For meditation on identitylessness, it is important to know what the nullification of a true and inherent identity means, and what is the meaning of a true and inherent identity that we focus on being absent from everything. The nullification here is not a matter of removing something that actually existed before, as in the case of eliminating suffering or disturbing emotions and attitudes. Rather, it means to eliminate and exterminate the deceived mind that apprehends things to exist in a way that is contrary to their actuality – namely, with a true and inherent identity. Such a mind is deceived with respect to its implied object – actual true and inherent identities. Therefore to eliminate such a deceived mind, we need to recognize that its implied object, which it misconceives as actually existing, is something that does not exist at all, even conventionally.

For this we must rely on reason. We need to become convinced that the implied object of the mind that apprehends a true and inherent identity of anything – namely an actual true and inherent identity – does not exist at all as that mind would imply. Only such conviction directly undermines the mind that apprehends a true and inherent identity. No other method exists that can eliminate such a deceived mind. Thus only a mind that decisively understands identitylessness – the lack or total absence of any such thing as true and inherent identities – directly undermines a mind that apprehends such an identity. In short, the true and inherent identity that is implied by a mind that apprehends such an identity has never been experienced as existing at any time. Its total nonexistence is called identitylessness, or "selflessness."

From the point of view of its nature as an absence, identitylessness cannot be divided into coarse and subtle. Yet, from the point of view of the object that is the basis lacking a true identity, it can be divided into the identitylessness of phenomena and of persons or individuals. This is substantiated in the works of Chandrakirti. In this context, the "me" or "self" who feels or experiences things is a person or individual, while the aggregate factors felt or experienced, such as happiness or suffering, are phenomena. There is nothing that cannot be included as either someone who feels and experiences, or something that is felt or experienced. Since we are so concerned about being a person who wants to feel happy and never unhappy, and we are therefore so preoccupied with happiness and suffering as something that is experienced, we have this type of division. I think this is its significance.

According to the tradition of textual exegesis, we explain how to gain a decisive understanding of the identitylessness of phenomena first and then of persons second. But in terms of the meditation of yogis, we meditate on the identitylessness of persons first because it is easier to understand. As The King of Absorbed Concentrations Sutra explains, "When you have distinguished with respect to yourself, apply your understanding to all phenomena. The nature of all phenomena is that they are completely pure, just like space. If you know this on the basis of one thing, you know it on the basis of everything. If you see this on the basis of one thing, you see it on the basis of everything." In other words, since the manner in which everything is, by nature, devoid of true and inherent existence is exactly the same, if we understand voidness in terms of one basis, we understand it in terms of all bases, without need to rely on additional lines of reasoning to prove it.

Avoiding the Two Extremes in Recognizing the Object To Be Refuted

For meditating on the identitylessness of a person, we need first to recognize the object to be refuted. This is part of the procedure for achieving vipashyana focused specifically on how everything exists. In general, for gaining such an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, we need to gather together the preliminaries such as building up positive force and cleansing ourselves of negative force. In addition, we need specifically to study well the scriptural texts that provide a correct explanation of identitylessness, and thoroughly ponder and think about their meaning.

In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Shantideva has said, "If you have not come in contact with the object that is to be refuted, you cannot gain an understanding of its refutation." As this quotation states, if we do not see the target at which we are aiming, we cannot shoot an arrow into it. If we do not recognize the thief, we cannot capture him or her. In the same way, we must recognize the true and inherent identity at which we are aiming our refutation. Although logical reason undermines its existence and establishes its nonexistence, we must be clear about how to apply it. If we do not recognize the true and inherent identity at which we are aiming our refutation, then no matter how many logical reasons we cite, we cannot apply them accurately to hit the mark. If we do not recognize correctly the true and inherent identity that we are trying to understand with decisiveness does not exist at all, we find logic and reason impotent to give us conviction in its nonexistence. Thus, we must be sure about what is to be refuted.

If what we recognize as the object to be refuted is over-pervasive – in other words, too extensive in scope – we consequently refute too much. Because we also refute and nullify what is not to be refuted, we are in danger of denying everything and thus falling to a position of nihilism. If, on the other hand, what we recognize as the object to be refuted is under-pervasive – in other words, too limited in scope – we consequently refute too little. Because we do not refute and nullify the subtlest object to be refuted, we are in danger of neglecting it and thus falling to a position of eternalism as we still, unknowingly, affirm the existence of that object. Therefore, as the consequences of such mistakes are dire, we must take great care. As Nagarjuna has explained in Root Stanzas on the Middle Way, "Seeing that the correct view is so difficult to understand in its depths, Buddha hesitated at first to teach about the correct view of reality."

Madhyamaka is the middle way that falls to neither of two extremes – nihilism or eternalism, total nonexistence or true, inherent existence. We need to recognize this middle way so as to avoid falling to either extreme. Having recognized this middle way, we train to view everything in this manner. In this way, we achieve a correct view of reality.

Falling to the extreme of denying and nullifying all manners of existence comes from being overzealous in filling the ranks of what is to be refuted. If we do not leave in the ranks of what actually exists everything that definitely does appear, we fall to the extreme of nihilism. If, on the other hand, we do not fill the ranks of total absences of impossible ways of existing with nullifications of everything to be refuted, from the final, most subtle level on up, we leave behind a basis at which our apprehension of true and inherent existence still aims and on which it still focuses. Thus we fall to the extreme of eternalism, which will also not do.

In short, if we overextend what is to be refuted and do not hold back when it is appropriate, we hurl ourselves to the extreme of nihilism in our zealous insistence. But if, on the other hand, we apply too little strength to our refutation, thinking in an overly pedestrian manner, we neglect certain things that must be refuted. If we nullify merely the coarse levels of what is to be refuted, then no matter how much we meditate on a view of reality that goes only this far, we are only able to undermine slightly the coarse level of disturbing emotions and attitudes that arise. We lack the weapon to undermine the subtle levels of attachment and hostility brought on by the subtle levels of apprehending true and inherent existence. Therefore, Buddha and the great masters have said that a correct view of the middle way is very important, although indeed very difficult.

The Three Ways of Apprehending "Me"

Having discussed this point at length, the First Panchen Lama now quotes from The Eight Thousand Stanza Prajnaparamita Sutra. "Apprehending 'me' and 'mine' binds all beings from round to round of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. The ultimate, deepest root of all faults is the automatically arising apprehension of true and inherent existence – the automatically arising self-preoccupation of apprehending everything in terms of 'me.'"

Are all moments of mind that arise thinking "me" included in the ranks of the self-preoccupation of apprehending things in terms of "me"? No, they are not. In general, there are three states of mind thinking "me." One has a manner of apprehension of "me" characterized by the apprehension of it as truly and inherently existent. Another has a manner of apprehension of "me" that thinks of "me" as lacking true and inherent existence, or as being simply what a name refers to, or simply what a mental label that can label it refers to, similar to an illusion. The third is a manner of apprehension of "me" that neither inspects nor scrutinizes it and is not accompanied by characterizing "me" as being either truly and inherently existent or devoid of such an impossible manner of existence.

Of these three, the last one that merely thinks "me" without characterizing it as existing truly and inherently or not is, as our text explains, "a mind validly cognizing a conventional truth, that involves itself with the mere 'me.'" This is the "me" with which our mind normally involves itself when, without inspection or scrutiny, it perceives, "'I' am walking. 'I' am sitting. 'I' am reading. 'I' am meditating."

The middle manner of apprehending "me" does so characterizing it as lacking true and inherent existence, thinking it to be simply what a name or mental label refers to, like an illusion. Once we have refuted with logical reason what is to be refuted on the basis of "me," then, in the place of what has been nullified by reason, we are left with a "me" who exists simply as what can be labeled with a name. This is the "me" who generates the mind that thinks of "me" as being simply what a name or mental label refers to. Such manner of apprehending "me" only arises on the mind-stream of those who have gained a decisive understanding of the middle way view of reality.

The first manner of apprehension of "me" is the apprehension of a true and inherent identity of a person – in other words, the apprehension of a person, namely "me," as having the identity of being truly and inherently existent. Characterizing "me" as existing truly and inherently, it apprehends it in an insistent manner when it thinks "me." It involves itself with a "me" as if it were something standing on its own feet and holding its own – something establishing its own existence and identity independently, under its own power, by virtue of itself. This very forceful and compelling manner of being involved with "me" is the apprehension of a true and inherent identity.

The Automatically Arising, Deluded Outlook toward a Transitory Network That Apprehends Everything in Terms of "Me"

 

Any moment of mind that takes as its focal object our own person and thinks "me," characterizing it as existing truly and inherently, is both an apprehension of a true and inherent identity of a person as well as a deluded outlook toward a transitory network of aggregate factors composing our experience. Any such moment of mind that takes as its focal object another person, however, is merely the former and not the latter. Nor is it the automatically arising self-preoccupation of apprehending everything in terms of "me." Thus our text says, "The automatically arising self-preoccupation of apprehending everything in terms of 'me' – in other words, the deluded outlook toward a transitory network that apprehends everything in terms of 'me' – is an aspect of disturbing discrimination, focused on the 'me' included on one's own mind-stream, that apprehends it as established as something inherently and findably existent." Of the two levels of deluded outlook toward a transitory network – that which apprehends such a network in terms simply of "me" and that which apprehends it in terms of "mine" – the former is the level that arises automatically.

The First Panchen Lama now cites A Precious Garland by Nagarjuna, "As long as there is apprehension of one's aggregates [as truly and inherently existent], there is, from this, the self-preoccupation of apprehending "me" [as also truly and inherently existent]. If there is this apprehension of "me," there is also karma. If there is karma, there is also rebirth." The meaning of this quotation is as follows. An automatically arising, deluded outlook toward a transitory network that apprehends that network in terms of "me" is a mind that gives rise to the transitory network that constitutes the aggregate factors of some moment or episode of our own experience and apprehends it in terms of "me." For example, our mind gives rise to all the aggregate factors that constitute the experience of seeing our face in the mirror – the form of its appearance with wrinkles and grey hair, mental consciousness of it, distinguishing its appearance from that of the wall behind, attention to it, feeling unhappy about it and so forth – and apprehends it as "me." It apprehends the network of all these factors as having the true and inherent identity of "seeing the sight of an old person" and then apprehends that transitory, impermanent network in terms of a true and inherent identity of "me" – "I" exist with the true and inherent identity of being old. Thus the apprehension of a true and inherent identity of a person arises on the basis of apprehending the aggregates as existing truly and inherently. In other words, apprehending the continually changing phenomena on our own mind-stream as having the identity of being truly and inherently existent is the basis for apprehending our own person as having such an identity.

Therefore, so long as we apprehend the ever-changing aggregate factors composing our experience as existing truly and inherently, we also maintain a deluded outlook toward that transitory network of aggregates. With that deluded outlook or view, we apprehend that network in terms of a "me" that we apprehend as existing truly and inherently. We project and apprehend such a false "me" when we focus on the "me" that merely can be labeled simply on the basis of those aggregate factors. So long as we maintain our self-preoccupation apprehending the aggregate factors of our experience in terms of such a "me," we commit impulsive karmic actions. As a result of such actions, we experience uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

Our author next quotes both Chandrakirti and the King of Logicians, Dharmakirti, to the effect that the apprehension of true existence is the root of uncontrollably recurring existence. So long as we do not discredit the object of its manner of apprehension – its implied object, namely actual true existence – we are unable to rid ourselves of, or "abandon" apprehending true identities.

Chandrakirti and Dharmakirti, as upholders of the prasangika-madhyamaka and chittamatra views respectively, assert different voidnesses, or total absences of fantasized and impossible ways of existing, from the point of view of the nature or manner of existence each nullifies and so forth. Thus each discusses different levels of apprehending true identities. Nevertheless, when each speaks of the discriminating awareness of identitylessness as that which discredits the apprehension of true identities, each accepts, in exactly the same fashion, the manner in which logical reason refutes the implied object of these minds that apprehend things in a manner contrary to fact.

The implied object of minds that apprehend true identities is actual true identities – in other words, identities of persons and phenomena as things existing in fantasized and impossible manners. Unless we discredit, refute and nullify these impossible identities as being actually true, we cannot rid ourselves of apprehending true identities. In short, the implied object of the apprehension of a person, or an individual, or "me," as existing truly in some impossible manner is a person, individual or "me" that can be established as actually existing truly in that impossible manner. We must discredit this implied object. The only thing that can discredit it is a correct view of the absence of true existence – the total absence of existence in truly impossible manners. Because the decisive understanding that persons totally lack existence in truly impossible manners is mutually exclusive with the apprehension of persons as having existence truly in those ways, they cannot co-exist in the same moment of mind. Therefore familiarity with the former state of mind weakens and eventually brings the latter to extinction.

The First Panchen Lama concludes this introductory discussion in his autocommentary, "For these reasons, I shall first show, on the basis of guideline instructions and meditation experience, how to recognize the manner in which mind gives rise to an appearance of the object to be refuted and the manner in which it apprehends it."

Scrutinizing the Manner of Appearance and Manner of Existence of "Me"

The author begins his discussion of meditation on the identitylessness of a person, "me," in the root text, "While in a state of total absorption as before, and, with a tiny (portion of) awareness, like a tiny fish flashing about in a lucid pond and not disturbing it, intelligently inspect the self-nature of the individual who is the meditator." While totally absorbed into the mere clarity and awareness that is coarse primordial mind, we use a corner of that mere clarity and awareness to inspect and scrutinize carefully the nature of the person or "me" who is meditating. Without losing or disturbing our absorbed concentration on mind itself, we look closely and try to discern three things about the manner of existence of this person, this "me." We try to discern and distinguish the manner of existence our mind makes it appear to have, the manner of existence our mind apprehends it as having, and the manner of existence it actually has.

What is this thing we call "me"? Where would we say that this thing we call "me" is located? Especially when a mind that thinks very strongly, "me," arises, how does that mind make that "me" appear to exist and how does that mind apprehend it as existing? When we are neither inspecting nor scrutinizing, what manner of appearance of "me" does our mind normally give rise to? What type of "me" does it imply exists? These are the issues we investigate and explore.

It is the normal custom to break here for the day in order to leave time for practice, specifically for pondering and thinking in order to try to recognize the "me" to be refuted. Tie a rope around its neck and drag it here to show me tomorrow! Once Milarepa asked a shepherd boy who was his disciple to make a similar investigation. The boy stayed up all night searching for this "me." He came back the next day completely upset and worried. Crying as if he had lost his sheep, he told Milarepa he could not find this "me." He had thought that since Milarepa had been so sincere in asking him to find it that it must be findable somewhere.

Whether this actually happened or not, we should investigate how this "me" arises to our mind. Especially when we are experiencing moments of greed, attachment or anger, what appearance of "me"does our mind give rise to then? Check and think about it carefully. There is no one among us who has not experienced moments of greed, attachment or anger. We experience them all the time. How does our mind at that time make this "me" appear? How does our mind make this "me" appear when we are not experiencing these strong and disturbing emotional states? Investigate thoroughly.