Recognising the Thinker, by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

Tulku Urgyen RinpocheOnce you have truly received the pointing-out instruction and recognised mind essence, becoming enlightened through training is not out of reach; it is in your own hands. You can remind yourself to recognise your mind essence as often as possible. If you train in this way, you can be liberated even if you spend your entire day doing something as simple as grazing cattle. If not—if you know all the words of the Dharma but don’t really experience the essential meaning—the mo­ment you depart from this life you will just roam about in confusion. This is the essential point.

There is another thing that I would like to say. The Buddha was totally awakened and saw the three times as clearly as if they were held in the palm of his own hand. The teachings are based on this immense clarity. We don’t have to speculate about whether the words of the Buddha are true or not. I am not saying this because I am a Buddhist, but because it is really true. It is not the same as certain spiritual sys­tems taught by unenlightened beings who had some partial insight and gave some portion of the truth but not the complete picture. Because of not being enlightened themselves and not having this completely unimpeded clarity, they were not able to teach in the same way as a fully enlightened buddha. This is something to bear in mind. I am not being prejudiced here, but it is really true that we don’t have to judge the words of a fully enlightened being. They have already been checked thoroughly.

Question: How to not be distracted in this practice?

Rinpoche: When distracted, the best thing to do is simply to recognise your essence. In that moment, we don’t see any concrete thing whatsoever. There is an immediate knowing that the essence is empty. There is something that cognises that the mind is empty, and this cognisant quality is indivisible from the emptiness itself. At the moment that this is an actuality, you don’t need to do anything more. Simply let be in naturalness, until at a certain point you forget, and it slips away. That doesn’t mean we have to keep pressing ourselves to continuously recognise mind essence. It’s like switching on a light in a room: you press the switch once and the light comes on to illuminate the room. In order for that brightness and light to stay, you don’t have to do any­thing. If on the other hand you keep pressing the switch, something gets disturbed. If in order to see the mind essence you keep saying, ‘I want to see it, I want to see it, I want to see it,’ it becomes a deliberate conceptual act. Instead, just let be, just like letting the light shine. At that point there is no other technique you have to use. This is called ‘naturalness without technique.’ We don’t have to try to keep the mind essence. It is seen without fixating.

Mind is empty, we don’t have to make it empty. It’s not that there is something remaining that is left out or is incomplete at this point. We usually understand empty as meaning ‘there is no thing’. If you come into an empty room, there is nothing in the room. The mind is like that empty room; in actuality, it is not some object of sight, sound, smell, taste or texture. In the moment of recognising, we see that im­mediately. ‘Seen in the moment of looking, freed in the moment of seeing.’

Do not hold onto the notion that mind is empty. To hold an idea, ‘Now it is empty; now it is empty,’ is a conceptual construct that we keep in mind. That is not necessary. In the moment of recognising, you see that mind is empty. At that point allow it to be naturally as it is, without applying any technique whatsoever. That is naturalness with­out technique. That will last for a little while. Your attention will then stray, and you will at some point notice that your attention wandered off. Our mind is not completely beyond us—we know when we get distracted. Simply recognise what was distracted. Again, the moment you do so, you see that there is no thing to see; and the moment of seeing that there is nothing to see, it is free of thought. And again leave it in uncontrived naturalness for a short while. The mind of all sentient beings is already empty; it is not something that we have to create.

VajradharaWhen a thought moves, simply recognise the thinker. The thinking then dissolves. No matter what the thought is about, the thinking and the thinker are empty. A thought in itself is not made of any concrete substance; it is simply an empty thought movement. By recognising the empty essence in a thought, it vanishes like a bubble in water. That is how to deal with any particular present thought at hand. Once you know how to let the present thought dissolve, any subsequent thought can be dealt with in exactly the same way, as simply another present thought. But if we get involved in the thought, thinking of what is being thought of, and continue it, then there is no end.

It is our thinking that propels us or forces us into further samsaric existence. As long as we get caught up in our own thinking, samsara doesn’t stop. On the other hand, any thought is an empty thought, in that it has no concrete substance to it whatsoever. It is very easy to no­tice this, because the moment you recognise mind essence, the thought dissolves right there. The thought vanishes into your empty essence, into your basic nature which is emptiness. There is no remnant whatso­ever. That is the only way to solve the problem. When recognising your essence, the thought is executed on the spot; it is totally obliterated.

Samsara is created when we let our mind extrovert through the five senses. We focus on an object through our eyes, or through the ears, or the nose, and make thoughts and emotions about this object. It may seem like we have different consciousnesses through the different senses, but actually it is one mind that alternately grabs at objects through the various senses. The traditional example for this is of a monkey in an empty room with five windows, restlessly jumping around and looking out through one window after the other. An out­side observer might think there are a lot of monkeys in that room, but in fact there is only one. If you catch hold of that monkey and tie it up, there is no jumping around any more. In other words, the way to cap­ture the monkey is by dissolving the thought.

Another example is of a fireplace in the middle of the house, with smoke coming out through all the openings. If you throw a bucket of water in the middle, the flames are extinguished, and the smoke si­multaneously disappears in all directions. ‘Smoke’ is an example for the expression of the essence; just as thoughts are the expression of dharmakaya [essence body]. They are not dharmakaya itself, but they are a manifestation of our basic nature. Just like our basic nature, this manifestation has no concrete substance to it.

The essential teaching is never to just recognise dualistic mind. That is what all sentient beings are doing all the time—noticing their feel­ings and thoughts, and then acting upon them. The meditation in­struction is not to perpetuate that; it is more than simply recognising dualistic mind, dualistic thinking. Rather, it is to recognise the essence of this mind. That is the crucial difference. Being caught up in one’s thoughts and acting upon these feelings is the cause of endless samsara. This is being caught up in the expression and not knowing the essence itself.

You may have heard this famous statement by the vajra-holders of the Kagyu lineage: ‘Intrinsic mind essence is dharmakaya; intrinsic ex­perience is the radiance of dharmakaya.’ Experiences and thoughts are not dharmakaya itself, the same way that the smoke from the flames is not the flames, but is the expression or manifestation of the flames. Caught up in noticing the smoke, you forget the flames themselves. The principle in the practice here is not to be occupied with the smoke, meaning recognise the essence and don’t be caught up in the expression. Recognise that this expression doesn’t come from any other place than the essence itself.

Caught up in thinking; we focus on the false, the unreal. Yet the real, the indivisibility of the three kayas [bodies], is already spontaneously pres­ent as our own nature. The choice simply lies in either not recognising, which is samsara, or recognising, which is nirvana. If you don’t recognise mind nature, you stray again into the three realms of samsara. Recognising self-existing wakefulness is the very essence of nirvana. At that very moment of recognition, nothing is concealed in any way at all—your nature is laid utterly bare.

The statement that ‘not recognising is samsara’ means that the mo­ment you link your mind up with some object of experience, the imme­diate reaction is one of the three poisons. Either you like something, or you don’t like it, or you remain indifferent. Caught up in these three emotions, people might still claim, ‘I create no negative karma.’ But how can there be any negative karma besides the three poisons? The three poisons are exactly what creates the three realms of samsara. At­tachment creates the realms of desire. Aversion creates the realms of form. Indifference creates the realms of formlessness. Not recognising one’s own essence and being caught up in the three poisons perpetuates nothing other than the three realms of samsara. It is unavoidable.

If you simply recognise your essence, you are immediately face to face with the three kayas. It is so simple that it’s actually incredibly easy. There is no way you could miss it. The problem, in fact, is that it’s too easy! It’s too close to oneself. Some great masters have said the fault lies in not that it is complicated, but that it is too simple. People don’t trust it. They think, ‘This is just my present state of being awake, so what use is it? It’s not very special. I want something astounding, something totally different. Something that is far superior to this pres­ent state of wakefulness. Something with amazing lights and great splendour.’ And they ignore their present natural state of mind and hope that something extraordinary will happen, maybe coming down from above. They are right: this present state is not that special. But by sitting and hoping like that, they turn their backs to the innate three kayas. If you recognise your own mind, on the other hand, in the mo­ment of seeing, there is freedom. You are liberated from any thought involvement at that time. That itself is the essence of nirvana. If, however, we ignore that fact and chase after something else—some kind of altered state we believe to be superior to the present nature of mind—it is going to very difficult to ever find the buddha mind.

Right now, the difference between samsara and nirvana lies in recognising or not recognising mind essence; that should be clear. The moment you recognise mind essence, the present thought involvement dissolves, vanishes without leaving a trace. You are left with the intrin­sic three kayas. It is not that we need to create the three kayas or achieve them. You are recognising what is already there. On the other hand, if you are caught up in what is thought of, samsara goes on end­lessly. In the moment of thinking, recognise the identity of that which thinks, and the thought dissolves. That is so easy!

Recognising is not the problem. Anyone who is taught to recognise their own mind essence will see that it is ‘no thing’; they can identify mind essence. The problem lies in our habitual tendencies from innu­merable past lives. Just because we recognise once doesn’t mean that recognition stays. There is no stability there; it just slips away again. We have the bad habit or the negative pattern of always grasping towards objects. For so many lifetimes, life after life after life as well as in the bardos between, we have been reinforcing the habit of looking away from mind essence itself. We keep re-creating samsara, again and again. Every time you get caught up again, the training is therefore simply to recognise and dissolve the thought.

Small Buddha © David BlancoOur habit of thinking extrovertedly, focusing only on external ob­jects, is what propels us day and night, life after life, and in the bardo state in between. We have this habit in the dream state as well: our body runs around and does things in our dreams, even though it is not a real body, but a body created out of habitual tendencies. In dreams, we experience loss and gain, enemies and friends, and all different types of pleasure, pain, and so forth. But at the moment we wake up, where are all these entities? They are gone without a trace, not to be found any place at all. The dream state is created by our own thoughts. Likewise, in the waking state, these same thoughts create this whole drama of life. In the bardo state there is no physical body, but due to habit we still believe that we have a physical body with the five senses. Of course there is no real body there; this physical body definitely doesn’t go through the bardo. Neither does it go to the hell realms, the buddha-realms, and so on. Our present body is just a temporary dwelling place, like a hotel.

The person living in this hotel right now is the mind. It’s this person, rather than the body, who will experience all the different effects of various karmic actions. This body won’t feel a thing, because as soon as it dies it is gone—there is nothing there. But the mind continues in these patterns, and it will continue to experience. Still, all this experience is no more real than the dream you had last night. It is the dream-like thinking that goes on experiencing the hell realms, it is only more thinking. The bardo is also just more thinking. And when we eventu­ally enter into a new physical body at the end of the bardo, it is more thinking again, day after day, life after life.

Unless we now bring an end to this thinking by dissolving it, samsara is not going to end by itself. It will go on and on indefinitely, as it has through beginningless lifetimes until now. All the while the essence of enlightenment, the fully awakened state, has been with us always; it has never been separate from us for even an instant. The moment you recognise your nature, you are face to face with the three kayas. These three kayas, intrinsic to our buddha nature, were never lost at any point whatsoever.

The Buddha sees that all sentient beings are dreaming: they are dreaming the six realms, they are dreaming the four places of rebirth, they are dreaming all their joys and sorrows. When we are on the bodhisattva bhumis [stages], we are just about to wake up from the dream. Only the fully enlightened Buddha is totally awakened. Buddhas see that beings are ignorant. Sleep is only a subsidiary of ignorance; the real stupidity is not knowing our own awareness wisdom. Buddhist training is all about first recognising this basic nature, then training in the strength of recognition, and finally attaining complete stability. That is the only way to awaken from this dream state.

We need to obliterate this deluded thinking, and no material thing in this world can do that. The only way is to recognise the insubstantial identity of the thinker and experience the three kayas indivisibly. There is no other way. No drug, not even the strongest anaesthesia, will totally eliminate deluded thinking; it only puts it on pause, bringing it to a temporary halt. The moment the anaesthetic wears off, thinking begins again. Drugs also block the enlightened qualities of original wakeful­ness, the wisdom qualities. Under their influence, there is no wisdom of seeing the nature as it is, and no quality of seeing all that exists. Rather, we are totally obscured by mindlessness. To make oneself mindless and oblivious is not a solution. An anaesthetic that lasted forever would certainly wipe out all conditioned states of pleasure, pain and indiffer­ence, but there is no such drug. Every drug has only a temporary effect, which soon wears off.

Instead of bringing the mind to a halt, recognise mind nature with its basic quality of unimpededness. A scripture called the Ngakso, the Ocean of Amrita, says, ‘By conferring upon you the empowerment of the unimpededness of Samantabhadra, entwined with the nonarising quality of Samantabhadri’—in other words, by conferring this empowerment of the male and female in union, meaning experience of emptiness indivisible—’may your perceiver and perceived,’ your grasping at duality, ‘dissolve into basic space.’ That is what is neces­sary.

The Tibetan word yeshe, original wakefulness, implies an absence of clinging to subject and object, perceiver and perceived, which is not the case with normal mind. Normal mind is always structured as the duality of perceiver and perceived. Without any duality of perceiver and per­ceived, there is no way a normal thought can survive; it vanishes. The phrase ‘single sphere of dharmakaya’ refers simply to this original wakefulness. It is called single or sole, meaning not a duality, whereas the normal thinking mind is dualistic, and is never called single. If this holding onto duality is not dissolved from within, there is the per­petuation of subject and object, perceiver and perceived. Another fa­mous phrase goes: ‘As long as duality does not become oneness, there is no enlightenment.’ When recognising, this duality is dissolved into oneness.

The nature of mind is yeshe, original wakefulness, which in itself is free of duality of the perceiver and perceived. The normal mind of sen­tient beings is called namshey. Nam is the objects of the senses; the shey is the forming of concepts about these objects. Yeshe is the awakened mind of the buddhas, the nirvana aspect, whereas namshey is the deluded mind of sentient beings. Yeshe means to recognise the nature of mind, while namshey means that the wakefulness reaches out through the five sense doors at the sense objects and holds onto them.

Excerpt from As It Is, Vol. 1 by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, 1999. Courtesy of Rangjung Yeshe Publications.

Buddhism Now November 2000

More posts by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche here.

Categories: Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Mahayana, Tibetan Buddhism, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

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11 replies

  1. The words “just my present state of being awake” are so simple, and yet so precious. Many thanks for sharing this exceedingly useful teaching! May all beings benefit.

  2. Thank you may all beings be free from suffering.

  3. Incredible article on the nature of the mind and meditation.

  4. Seeing seeing, see nothing to see . . . (something that came to mind while readig As It Is). Also, the similarity between this teaching and Ramana Maharshi’s Who is thinking, and Zen’s Who Am I and What Is This, koans.

  5. Meditation as a complete emptying of the mind. Then thought functions without identification as the me and the non-me.

  6. I was a little surprised at reading this comment of Tulku Urgyen It isn’t of his style of teaching, which as the text shows is experiential and questioning. I think he may have been talking of confidence in the teachings of the Buddha, which culturally exists in respect for the Dharma, but the more secular western students are more obviously sceptical.

    A great text, he was a wonderful teacher, I often think of him.

    • Cheers David,

      We’re sure ‘secular western students’ will find plenty of blogs around. At Buddhism Now we try to cater for both newcomers and those who wish to go a bit deeper into the Dharma.

      All the best,


  7. ” it is really true that we don’t have to judge the words of a fully enlightened being”

    I am curious. Would it also be true that if one is truly enlightened, they would also have no need of judging the words of the unenlightened? Does judgment of the words a human being speaks, reduce our capacity to see the beloved within each individual, whether or not they are enlightened? Would the view of one who is enlightened, be to see others as enlightened; thus, having enlightened vision of the true nature of a human being regardless of their current circumstantial status of either enlightened or unenlightened?

    Thank you for this most excellent post. It has inspired many wondrous questions.

    • Good comment Saunsea.

      The following sentence ‘They have already been checked thoroughly.’ should not be ignored in this context.

      However, the Buddha made it clear we should make sure for ourselves. Best way to make sure is to put his teachings into practice and see what happens. Is there less suffering in our lives when we do? Then something is working.


  8. Thank you, this writings/Teachings is incredibly clear and profound for my mind, and may this writings have the same positive effect on all beings without exception as it had on my mind. With Metta.


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