Chögyi Nyima Rinpoche, “Present, Fresh Wakefulness”
A Meditation manual on nonconceptual wisdom
In our life, the greatest good we can do is to work for the welfare of infinite sentient beings. Therefore, generate this noble attitude: “I will study the Dharma and apply it in practice to establish all sentient beings in the supreme state of irreversible and un surpassable enlightenment. To do so, I will learn, reflect and practice meditation.”
Beings are countless, and they all suffer in innumerable ways. All their anguish is created by their negative karma and disturbing emo tions. As long as beings continue to make negative karma by acting out their disturbing emotions, permanent happiness is unattainable. Permanent happiness is only possible once dualistic fixation and the habitual tendencies for that are brought to an end. The only way to completely end dualistic fixation and habitual tendencies is by the practice of the sacred Dharma.
Honestly, the sacred Dharma is simply how things are – the reality of what is, when we are unconfused. The very definition of Dharma is ‘the unmistaken’, that which is not confused. The way to be unmistaken is by first learning, next reflecting and then training in being unconfused. Through this training, we can completely and totally clear up deluded experience.
The sacred Dharma can grow in us and manifest the eminent qualities of loving kindness, compassion and insight.
The greatest miracle the sacred Dharma can perform is to bring selfish emotions to a complete and permanent halt, and to make deluded experience dis solve or subside. That is the capacity of the sacred Dharma.
I mentioned earlier that until our thoughts dissolve and are cleared up, karma and disturbing emotions will not end. Being angry, attached or dull are negative thoughts that create a great deal of suffering and trouble for us. We make the bad habits of being ag gressive, attached, stupid or close-minded into our ‘second nature,’ so to speak. When these tendencies have become ingrown, they per petuate themselves in life after life. It is these intensified thought states that create the fuel for future rebirths. They produce the very states of sentient beings who inhabit the hells, as well as the hungry ghost and animal realms. Therefore, in order to benefit both our immediate situation and our lasting welfare, we should do some thing about changing our states of mind from being angry, attached or close-minded.
You might be laughing now, because maybe you are the type of person who doesn’t believe that there is a life after this. Simply look at how human beings are right now. Some people make being ag gressive, selfish and unpleasant towards others into a strong habit. They are not nice to be with – in fact, they are not even that happy to be with themselves! Other individuals try to be kind, unselfish and helpful towards others. They are nice to be with. In this way, we can see that whoever has the habit of being involved in selfish emotions is unpleasant for themselves as well as others. Isn’t that obvi ous?
The point is that we can grow used to being a certain way. And it is definitely easier to be selfish than to be kind. We do not really have to study to be selfish! To be nice, to be gentle, helpful and kind, is something that a person must learn and train in. Some one who gives in to common thought patterns of attachment, ag gression and dullness is called an ordinary person. But someone who gains understanding through learning, through reflection and through meditation starts to change their way of being. He or she speaks and acts in a way that becomes more relaxed, softer, more considerate. Such a person is called a practitioner, a spiritual person.
On a more advanced level, someone for whom all selfish emo tions have totally subsided and dissolved is called a buddha. But being a buddha is not just a matter of being purified of these selfish emotions. Accompanying this absence of self-absorption is a won derful presence that is the sublime knowledge of knowing the nature of things as it is, as well as the knowledge that perceives all possibly existing things. Thus, the definition of a buddha is to be both puri fied and perfected.
In Buddhism, the aim that we try to achieve is to be a purified and perfected person, a buddha. The attainment, in short, is buddhahood. But this attainment is not reached through our own striving alone. It does not happen by pushing, by being smart and trying to figure out everything that is possibly knowable. Buddhahood is the state free from the web of conceptual thought. All other kinds of understanding or discoveries, all other kinds of intel ligence, are within the web of conceptual thought. The innate nature that is beyond conceptual thought, beyond the web of thinking, is not understood through thinking. In short, the state of enlightenment is thought-free wakefulness.
Thought-free wakefulness is not discovered or realized through thought. The understanding we gain through study and reflection is not enough to realize this ultimate state; we need different methods. We need to realize the twofold wisdom free from the two obscura tions, which is called buddhahood. This buddhahood is realized through the combination of learning, reflection and meditation. We do not realize enlightenment only through the use of sharp intelli gence. It is not enough to only have understanding through learning and reflection. However, based on that understanding, we can ac quire the knowledge resulting from meditation. That is the way to enlightenment.
The state of enlightenment that is free from the two obscurations and endowed with the twofold knowledge is, on one hand, difficult and far away. For example, it does not seem likely that an animal can easily get enlightened. According to the Buddha, there are also hell beings, hungry ghosts, jealous gods and gods. We do not see those beings, so therefore we may decide that they do not exist.
Some human beings suffer tremendously in their life. They may he as dull as animals or as aggressive as hell beings. It is very difficult for such people to pay attention to being free from the two obscurations. They simply don’t seem to have the opportunity to do so. Even among more fortunate human beings, very few are interested in being free from the two obscurations and realizing the twofold knowledge. Compared to other sentient beings, a human being has the best chance of becoming a buddha. Human beings are in fact the closest to being a buddha, because they are suited to learning, reflec tion, and meditation. They are fundamentally capable – yet very few are interested.
For those few who want to apply themselves, to understand, re flect and practice meditation, there are still many hindrances. There are so many reasons for why we believe we have no time! Our big gest preoccupations are known as distraction, self-discouragement and laziness. We do not say that; we do not admit this to ourselves, of course. Instead, we say “I have work to do. That is why I have no time. I have family, I have parents and children I need to take care of. That is why I am busy.” It is true that our responsibilities make us busy, but not that busy! The reason we are so busy is that we constantly occupy our attention, with what we see, hear, smell and taste and so forth – with what we think of. That makes us busy. Or perhaps we are just lazy or telling ourselves that we cannot practice.
Having learned and reflected, our real job is to apply the teachings in practice. I would like to mention one more troublesome point here. We humans are very busy, so we tend to think that spiritual practice is sort of a side job. It is not a main pursuit; it is more like a hobby, but not even a true hobby.
From the time you wake up in the morning until you fall asleep at night apply yourself at every moment with great care, with great mind fulness. Make sure that every time there is the impetus to be selfish or carried away by disturbing emotions, that you instead do some thing to change that. Apply some method, no matter what that method is. Just do whatever helps. If it helps to intellectually study the teachings and think about them, then do that. If it helps to bow down or make offerings and be formally nice in different ways, do that. Whatever the level of training we’ve learned to reduce our selfishness, our disturbing emotions, our stupidity, we should use those practices all the time, from morning to evening. Someone who does that is truly a practitioner and for such a person it is not that difficult to progress to enlightenment.
To the same degree that our selfish emotions diminish, the qualities of realization spontaneously grow. It is similar to the sun light increasing as the dark clouds vanish. The brilliance of the sun is unchanging. It only seems to decrease or increase due to the pres ence or absence of clouds. In the same way, the nature of mind the very identity of that which thinks and feels all these thoughts and emotions – is unchanging, just like the sun. In our basic na ture, the qualities of enlightenment are primordially and perfectly present. But at the same time, although our nature is originally perfect, the cloud covers of the two obscurations prevent these qualities from being manifest. In our case, the two obscurations have not yet been purified, but they can be purified. Like the clouds, the obscu rations are temporary; they can disappear. If the clouds were in separable from the sun, it would be impossible to ever have a clear sky. But the clouds are not an intrinsic component of sunshine. Because they are temporary, they can vanish.
We should apply this example of the sky with clouds to our own situation. This is one of the special qualities of the Buddhist per spective. In essence, every sentient being is actually a buddha. Every sentient being has the potential for being a buddha. Every sentient being has a basic nature that is completely enlightened. That is because the identity of that which thinks is already a state of thought-free wakefulness.
The thinking, the clinging to duality, is like a layer of clouds, covering the thought-free wakefulness, which is like the shining sun. To experience the pure sunshine of our true nature, we need to be free of all the different kinds of karmic, emotional, and habitual obscurations that cover it. The heart of the matter is simply this: we need to be free of our thinking.
It is our thinking that obscures our nature. Our thinking makes all the disturbing emotions. In fact, all of samsara, all disturbing emotions and karma, unfolds from our thinking. Do you remember the definition of a buddha as one who is both purified and per fected? ‘Purified’ means our thoughts are purified or dissolved. ‘Per fected’ means that the knowledge of knowing the nature as it is, and of perceiving all possibly existing things, is perfected. In order to realize this state of purified perfection, we need an understanding of how to train in meditation that is based on learning and reflection.
All the different meditative methods can be condensed into three types: stillness, insight and loving compassion. These three types of practice can be applied to overcome any kind of selfish emotion. The most eminent way to overcome this nasty frame of mind, the selfish attitude of being attached, angry, dull, conceited, and jealous, is the knowledge of emptiness. Shamatha practice prepares for realization of emptiness. Shamatha, training in being quiet, practice is simply a technique against our selfish emotions and thoughts, this constantly busy, restless attitude. It is an easy method to apply to reduce the unpleasant manifestations of our nasty mind. Shamatha practice re duces this selfish attitude. When our mind is quiet, the selfish atti tude is not evident, not visible. However, that is not enough. Merely being quiet does not uproot selfishness, it does not cut it from the very root. What else is necessary? It is clear insight, vipashyana. If insight is indeed an essential element, you might wonder why the Buddha didn’t teach that from the very beginning? “Why not teach the best from the beginning,” you might think – ‘Why wait?” The simple reason is that our mind has a very strong habit of getting in volved in thoughts and feelings towards or against different things. To immediately teach the opposite of that, clear insight, is not so easy to either understand or to adopt. For this reason, the Buddha first taught us how to relax, how to calm down our minds.
When we allow ourselves to simply be at peace as in shamatha practice, our strong emotions calm down until eventually they are not visible and may seem to not be present at all. There are many different methods traditionally taught for training in being at calm and at peace. Some involve holding an object in mind, while others involve holding nothing at all in mind. Of course, it would be better to remain calm without directing your attention towards something in particular – to be able to rest in a totally undirected state of at tention. But if that is not easy, it helps to first begin with directing your attention towards a particular focus and to grow used to that. Eventually you can practice suspending this point of attention alto gether.
Focusing your attention is a way of remaining undistracted. You use the focus as a support; you keep your attention on something in order to not drift off and think of all sorts of different things. The object of meditation does not need to be particularly fancy or ornate. It could be a pebble or stone. Or you can use the movement of breath, the inhalation and exhalation. While you train in this way, at some point you will discover that you’ve wandered off and are think ing about something else. Once you notice that, immediately direct your attention back to the object. That is the training.
People differ: different individuals have different kinds of na tures. For some it is more practical to focus on a solid stone or peb ble, while for others it’s better to use the movement of the breath, to simply follow the breathing. Traditionally, most people benefit from using the breathing as an object of meditation. The reason is that we always breathe; we have to, naturally. The notion ‘breathing’ is something neutral; it is a neutral concept. You do not have to rejoice that you are breathing. You do not have to be depressed about it. The only thing that is necessary to do here is to pay attention, be cause the breathing happens by itself You do not have to breathe deliberately. You simply notice that the breath is being inhaled. You can feel it coming in through the nose. You do not hold the breath in continuously or forever – you have to breathe out again, you need to exhale. Again, you notice that also. Breathing is not some thing you have to do or regulate in any fashion; you simply pay at tention to it. When you can keep your attention on the movement of breath for a long time without starting to think about all sorts of other things, there is some sense of calm that accompanies that. This is called the attainment of shamatha.
The person who grows increasingly accustomed to this practice will notice a change in character. You can say that he or she has calmed down. The effect of this practice shows itself in all the other moments in life. You can see that the person has settled and has be come gentler and more relaxed. Shamatha practice has a lot of bene fit. By calming down, you become much less involved in selfish emotions.
Shamatha prac tice means simply being at ease, very physically and mentally relaxed. Don’t get involved in thoughts of past or future. Simply pay atten tion to the movement of breath, and nothing else, with a sense of thought-free wakefulness.
When you have trained like this for a while and are relaxed and peaceful, your mind is still directed towards something – it’s still focused on the object of attention. The next step is to let go of that and rest in undirected attention; to move from focused shamatha to shamatha free of support.
Another method that speeds up the realization of emptiness is loving compassion. There are two types of bodhichitta: relative and ultimate. Loving compassion is the relative bodhichitta. The more we apply being loving and compassionate, and the more we train at the same time in stillness, the more opportunity we have to realize ultimate bodhichitta, which is the realization of emptiness suffused with compassion. Through the practice of relative bodhichitta, com passionate emptiness is realized increasingly, and this realization is both effortless and spontaneous.
STUDENT: Could you explain a little more about shamatha with support?
RINPOCHE: As I just said, shamatha practice is the training in being quiet and calm. This is very unlike the usual state of our mind, which is continually disturbed by waves of emotions and thoughts. These waves need to subside. Shamatha practice allows these emo tional waves to calm down. There are many types of shamatha, but they can all be included within two types: shamatha with focus, and shamatha without focus.
To train in shamatha with a focus or support, you might start by placing a small stone or stick in front of you, at a comfortable angle for viewing. Simply look at it, without forming a lot of thoughts about the object or investigating what it is. Just keep your attention focused on it, as a support for not thinking of anything else. Simply do that. Do not try to discover something special about the stone or pebble. Another support I mentioned is paying attention to the movement of the breath in the natural process of exhaling and in haling. This type of practice is also something neutral; it is a way to calm down our attention, to settle our focus.
The more calm and quiet our attention can be made through this training, the easier it is to be introduced to vipashyana, the clear seeing which is thought-free wakefulness. That is why shamatha is important. In the New School lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, it is taught that one should ideally train in practicing shamatha for one year, to begin with. Next best is to practice it for six months, or at least for three months. This is how it is written in the guidance manuals for meditation.