What I’m trying to say is that we may well succeed in becoming extremely rich and gain great material profit. We can buy the most expensive clothes or manage to be famous in this world so that everyone knows our name. That is quite possible. We can pursue these worldly attainments very enthusiastically and think that there is plenty of time to enjoy them while we are in the first half of our lives.
However, in the second half of our lives, as we age and become elderly, life starts being less fun. I speak from experience here. It begins to be difficult to stand up and to move around. You get sick more often and you start to ail in different ways. What lies ahead of you is only further sickness and finally death.
All these disasters are lined up in front of us, and we will meet them one after the other. What comes after death is not clear to us right now, because we cannot see our next rebirth. We cannot even see if there is anything after this life. When we look down at the ground we don’t see any lower realms; when we look up in the sky we don’t see any heavens or buddhafields. With these eyes we have now, we don’t see that much.
Please consider this: right now, you have a body, a voice and a mind, don’t you? Of these, mind is the most important. Isn’t it true that your body and voice are the servants of mind? Mind is the boss, and here comes more about mind. The five physical elements of earth, fire, water, wind and space do not perceive. Mind, in contrast, means that which can experience, that which perceives. The five sense organs of eyes, ears, tongue, nose and body do not perceive and experience. A corpse possesses the five sense organs, yet a corpse does not perceive, because it doesn’t have a mind.
The term corpse means that the mind has departed. We say that the eyes see, that the ears hear, that the tongue tastes, the nose smells and so forth—but it is only possible for this to happen when there is a mind to experience through the senses. The moment what we call consciousness, mind or spirit leaves the body, the five sense organs are still there, but there is no experience taking place through them.
Mind means that which knows pleasure and pain. Of all the different things in this world, only mind experiences and perceives, nothing else. Therefore, mind is the root of all states—all samsaric as well as all nirvanic states. Without mind there would be nothing to feel or perceive in this world. If there were nothing that feels or perceives in this world, the world would be utterly empty, wouldn’t it? Mind is completely empty, but it is at the same time able to perceive, to know.
The three lower realms [as depicted on the Wheel of Life] are arrayed according to the degree of pain experienced in each, just as the three higher realms are arrayed according to degrees of pleasure. Everything is based on that which feels pleasure and pain, which is mind. In other words, mind is the basis or root of everything.
Mind is empty, and while being empty, it still knows or experiences. Space is empty and does not know anything. That is the difference between space and mind. Mind is similar to space in that it is insubstantial, not material. Isn’t it quite amazing that something that is insubstantial is also able to experience?
There is mind, but it is not tangible or substantial. You cannot say that there is no mind because it is the basis of everything; it is that which experiences every possible thing. You cannot say really that there is a thing called mind, and yet at the same time you cannot say that there is no mind. It lies beyond both extremes of being and not being. That is why it is said, ‘Not existent, since even a buddha does not see it; not nonexistent, since it is the basis of both samsara and nirvana.’
If we were without a mind, we would be corpses. You are not corpses, are you? But can you say that there is a mind that you can see, hear, smell, taste or take hold of? Honestly, you can continue to search for it exactly like this, scrutinising for a billion years, and you will never be able to find mind as something that either exists or doesn’t. It is truly beyond both extremes of existence and nonexistence.
The absence of contradiction between these two is the principle of the Middle Way—that mind is beyond conflict between existence and nonexistence. We do not have to hold the idea that there is a concrete mind or that there isn’t. Mind in itself is natural ‘thatness’, meaning that it is an unformed unity of being empty and cognisant. The Buddha called this unformed unity shunyata, emptiness. Shunya means empty, while the -ta in shunyata, the ‘-ness’ in emptiness, should be understood as meaning ‘able to cognise’. In this way, mind is empty cognisance. Natural thatness means simply what is by itself. Our nature is just like that. Just recognise that fact without colouring it with any kind of idea about it.
If you believe there is a thing called mind, it is just a thought. If you believe there is no thing called mind, it’s just another thought. Your natural state, free of any kind of thought about it—that is buddha-nature. In ordinary sentient beings, this natural state is carried away by thinking, caught up in thought. Involvement in thinking is like a heavy chain that weighs you down. Now it is time to be free from that chain. The moment you shatter the chain of thinking, you are free from the three realms of samsara.
In this entire world, there is nothing superior to or more precious than knowing how to break this chain. Even if you were to scan the entire world, or piece by piece put it through a sieve in an attempt to find something more precious, you’d come up with nothing. None of the Buddhas of the past, present and future have discovered an instruction that is more profound or more direct in attaining enlightenment. To ask for teachings on the nature of mind means to understand how to recognise mind nature.
The traditional way of receiving the instruction on how to realise the nature of mind involves first going through the training of the preliminary practices of the ‘four times hundred thousand’. After that, you would carry out the yidam [deity] practice, staying in retreat and completing the set number of recitations.
Finally, after all this, this teaching would be given. But nowadays we live in different times. People are so busy that they have no time to actually sit down and go through all this training. My root guru told me once that different times were coming. He said, ‘If you happen to be in front of people who ask about and want to hear about the nature of mind, explain it to them. If they have the karmic readiness, they will understand, and if they do understand, they are benefited. To benefit beings is the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings. It’s all right.’
When I was young, I often tried to do that. It’s like someone pointing out the sunrise. Often people look towards the west and see that the sunlight has hit the mountain top; that’s how they know the sun has risen. But actually what they have to do is turn around and see the sun rising in the east. When someone tells them to do so, they turn around and say, ‘Well, yeah, the sun is actually rising in the east!’ That is how I have been teaching, and that is how I will continue to teach now.
So, you have heard that our mind is actually empty, meaning it is not a concrete thing, and that at the same time it is able to perceive, to understand, to experience. When you hear this and think about this, can you trust it? Is it clear? Can you decide on this point?
Our mind is empty, and yet it does think. That it is empty means there is no concrete substance with any definable attributes. And yet, mind does think. Isn’t it true that we are always thinking about the past, present or future? And aren’t we so busy thinking that we have one thought after the other, day and night, incessantly?
This is not something that has suddenly happened. It has been going on for a long time, through countless past lives in samsara. We have been spinning around involved in one thought after another in different realms in samsara. That is the essence of samsaric existence. And if we carry on in the same way, we will be busy thinking one thought after the other until the very end of this life.
It doesn’t stop there. Of course there is no body in the bardo [the intermediate state between death and rebirth], but mind continues churning out one thought after the other due to habit. After a new rebirth, regardless of whether it’s in the lower realms or the higher realms or the deepest hell, everything is simply one thought after the other. Yet all the time, the very nature of all this thinking is buddha-nature, the enlightened essence.
Let me give you an example of the relationship between thinking and the nature of mind. The nature of mind is like the sun in the sky, while thinking is like the sun’s reflection in water. Without water, it’s difficult for the sun to reflect, isn’t it? Water here is the analogy for all perceived objects, for anything held in mind. If you drained the water from a pond, where does the reflection go? Does it run out with the water? Does it stay suspended in midair?
Holding subject and object, perceiver and perceived in mind, is symbolised by the reflection of the sun in the pond. Without the sun in the sky, would there be any light in this world? No, of course not. And yet, one single sun is able to illuminate the entire world. This single sun is like the nature of mind in that it functions or operates in many different ways—it has great warmth and brilliance, and through its heat it sets wind in motion. In comparison to this, the reflection of the sun is nothing. Is the reflection of the sun able to illuminate the entire world? Can it even illuminate a single pond?
Our enlightened essence, the buddha-nature, is like the sun itself, present as our very nature. Its reflection can be compared to our thoughts—all our plans, our memories, our attachments, our anger, our closed-mindedness, and so on. One thought arises after the other, one movement of mind occurs after the other, just like one reflection after another appears. If you control this one sun in the sky, don’t you automatically control all its reflections in various ponds of water in the whole world? Why pay attention to all the different reflections? Instead of circling endlessly in samsara, recognise the one sun. If you recognise the nature of your mind, the buddha-nature, that is sufficient.
Understand the difference between buddha-nature and its expression, which is thoughts. Thoughts appear in many types. There is attachment, anger and stupidity; there are the fifty-one mental events, the eighty innate thought states, the eighty-four thousand disturbing emotions. No matter how many different types of content the mind can manifest as, they are all simply expressions of the nature of mind. The eighty-four thousand different types of disturbing emotions are like eighty-four thousand different reflections of the sun in different ponds of water. If you take the sun and put it in your pocket, you automatically control all eighty-four thousand reflections. Similarly, the very moment that you recognise your natural state, the buddha-mind, your enlightened essence—in that same moment, all eighty-four thousand types of disturbing emotions are simultaneously vanquished.
All the different thoughts we can have are either of the past, present or future, so they can be called past thought, present thought, or future thought. The Tibetan word for thought is namtok. Nam means the perceived forms of the five senses and the mental objects. Tokpa means the concept formed about what is perceived. Sentient beings are constantly busy producing namtok, making one idea after the other about what is experienced. This thinking of your own mind’s thoughts is exactly what hinders and obstructs liberation and enlightenment.
If we try to stop thinking it only gets worse. You cannot shake off or throw away the thinking. Can you throw away your shadow? Can you somehow cut the flow of thought created by your own mind, maybe by detonating a nuclear bomb? Will this stop the mind from thinking? It will kill you, sure, but your thoughts will continue in the bardo and into the next life. Is there anything else in this world that can stop the mind from thinking?
To stop thinking, you need to recognise your essence. It’s like seeing the sun in the sky just once—forever after you know what the sun looks like. If you chase one reflection of the sun after the other, you’ll never be able to see all possible reflections. There is no end to that. The sun in the sky is the real sun, and without it, there would be no reflections. Its reflection in the water is only an imitation.
In the same way, all thoughts are only expressions or displays of your essence; they are not your essence itself. Without being free of thought, without the thinking having dissolved, vanished, disappeared, there is no way to be liberated or enlightened. There is a saying: use the thought as its own antidote. In the same way, the reflection of all suns comes from the original, real sun. If you recognise the real sun in the sky, there is no need to chase around after all its reflections in this world in order to see the sun.
The most important thing is your empty, cognisant mind. Its natural emptiness is dharmakaya, also called empty essence. Your natural ability to know and to perceive is cognisant nature, sambhogakaya. This being empty and being cognisant are an original unity. The famous statement ‘unity of empty cognisance suffused with awareness’ refers to your own nature, the essence of your mind.
After having your nature pointed out and recognising your essence, you see that there is no ‘thing’ to see. As I have repeatedly said, ‘Not seeing a thing is the supreme sight.’ We need to see that. It is seen the moment you look, and in the moment of seeing, it is free, liberated.
This seeing may last no longer than a few seconds, perhaps no longer than three snaps of your fingers. After that brief period of time, we either get carried away by the thought of something, or we become forgetful. This happens to all ordinary sentient beings. From beginningless lifetimes until now, we have been continuously carried away by forgetfulness and by thinking.
The moment you recognise, it is already seen. There is nothing extra remaining that you missed. This is not like space looking at itself, because space does not see anything. When your mind, which is cognisant, recognises itself, you immediately see that there is no ‘thing’ to see. It is already seen in the same moment. At that very moment there is no thought, because the present thought has naturally vanished.
The moment of recognising mind-nature is called ordinary mind, whether you talk about Mahamudra, Dzogchen or the Great Middle Way. When recognising, don’t do anything to it; don’t try to correct or improve it; don’t alter it by accepting one thing and rejecting another, motivated by hope or fear—don’t do anything to it. An ordinary person is involved in conceptualising with the present thought. Don’t conceptualise with a present thought. Present thought means wanting or not wanting, with hope or fear. Just disconnect from the present thought; don’t follow it up. The moment you are free from thoughts of the three times, that is the buddha-mind.
You don’t have to try not to think the present thought. We need to train in just letting go of what is thought of; that is the practice. In this letting go there is not even a dust mote to imagine, so it is not an act of meditating. At the same time, do not be distracted from this for even one second. It’s like trying to imagine space, because there’s nothing that needs to be imagined or meditated upon. Do you need to imagine anything to imagine space?
When we hear ‘Don’t be distracted’, we may think that we have to do something in order to be undistracted. People usually think that trying to remain undistracted is some kind of deliberate act. This would in fact be so if the aim was to maintain a particular state of concentration for a long time. Deliberate action would be necessary in that case. But I am not telling you to do that. The moment of natural empty cognisance doesn’t last very long by itself, but that’s perfectly okay. You don’t have to try to prolong that moment; rather, repeat it many times. ‘Short moments, many times’—this is the training in uncontrived naturalness. Uncontrived naturalness means you don’t have to do anything during that state. It’s like ringing a bell. Once you ring the bell there is a continuity of sound; you don’t have to do anything in order for the sound to continue. Simply allow that continuity to endure by itself until at some point the sound fades away.
At the moment of recognising your mind essence leave it in naturalness, simply as it is. If you keep striking the bell, the sound is interrupted by the effort. Just leave that recognition be without altering it. That is the way to not lose the continuity. Soon enough the recognition will vanish by itself. As beginners, naturally we will forget after a bit. We don’t need to try to prevent that or guard against it with great effort. Once distracted, again recognise. That is the training.
Excerpt from As It Is by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1999. Courtesy of Rangjung Yeshe Publications.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche passed away on 13 February in 1996 at his hermitage, Nagi Gompa, on the southern slope of the Shivapuri mountain. He was born in eastern Tibet on the tenth day of the fourth Tibetan month in 1920. His main monastery was Lachab Gompa in Nangchen, Eastern Tibet. He studied and practised the teachings of both the Kagyü and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
The overall background of the teachings of Dzogchen and Mahamudra, which are tremendously vast and profound, can be condensed into simple statements of immediate relevance to our present state of mind. Tulku Urgyen was famed for his profound meditative realisation and for the concise, lucid and humorous style with which he imparted the essence of the 84,000 sections of the Buddhist teachings. His method of teaching was ‘instruction through one’s own experience’. Using few words, this way of teaching points out the nature of mind, revealing a natural simplicity of wakefulness that enables the student to actually touch the heart of the Buddha’s wisdom mind.
Among his published works in English are Repeating the Words of the Buddha and Rainbow Painting.
Adapted from the Rangjung Yeshe Translations & Publications.
First published in the August 2000 Buddhism Now
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