Chögyi Nyima Rinpoche, “Present, Fresh Wakefulness”
A Meditation manual on nonconceptual wisdom
Up until this point, our main meditation practice has been to rest our mind in a calm way, in stillness. Now, let us take a step further and move into the insight of vipashyana, the clear seeing. While in the relaxed state of shamatha, we should now train in see ing the mind’s nature very clearly. These two practices of stillness and insight, shamatha and vipashyana, are the very heart of Bud dhist meditation training. Our minds have two sides, positive and negative. Because there is a negative aspect to our minds, our nature at present is called obscured suchness. We need to change this, and remove the obscurations covering the suchness or essential nature. The way to do so is by means of vipashyana, which in this context can be considered thought-free wakefulness.
While thought-free wakefulness is an excellent starting point for training, it is not so easy to simply start here. Shamatha practice is the preparation or prelude that makes it easier to recognize the state or thought-free wakefulness and train in it. Training in simply being at peace allows our busy minds to calm down and remain quietly. Through training in shamatha, we will become much more able to recognize the state of thought-free wakefulness.
First of all, what is the difference between shamatha and vipashyana – how do we distin guish between these two? When training in shamatha, there is some sense of resting, of being quiet and tasting a feeling of quiet peace. There is a sense of being fond of that feeling, of being attached to it. When remaining in a very calm and quiet way, we are primarily un disturbed by sense impressions. There is a taste of tranquility, a taste of serenity in shamatha practice that we could become too addicted to, to such an extent that we don’t want to get involved in anything else. We enjoy remaining quietly uninvolved.
But shamatha itself is not liberation. One does not become free through shamatha, and definitely not enlight ened. There is no freedom here because of that fondness, the cling ing to the taste of shamatha. While shamatha is not the ultimate practice, it is important because it is the support or basis for vipashyana. When the surface of a body of water is calm, it can reflect your face. Similarly, when your mind, your attention, is calm, it is possible to see clearly the nature of mind. This clear seeing is vipashyana.
The sole difference between eI1lightened and unenlightened beings is the presence or absence of obscuration. It may be a cloud less, clear, sunny sky, or a sky obscured by clouds. In either situation, the sun always rises in the morning, moves up and across the sky, and sets at night. The only difference is whether or not clouds are present in the sky, and how dense the layers of clouds are.
The sun can be com pletely obscured; it can be covered by a thin haze; or perhaps there are no clouds at all, and the sun is totally unobscured. The example of thick clouds points at our emotional obscuration, our preoccupa tion with selfish emotions. Aren’t we sometimes totally caught up in love or hate? Just like water boiling, we find we cannot control our selves. This situation is called disturbing emotion, and it is definitely an obscuration. At that very moment of loving or hating, our innate suchness is densely obscured. Similarly, we may also have more docile or mild thoughts of attraction or aversion, which run like this: “I like this. I don’t like that.” These ordinary likes and dislikes are not such strong involvement in emotion, and yet they do obscure the basic suchness of our minds.
The most subtle type of obscuration is to simply conceive of something – like simply thinking, “It is.” Any notion we may hold is still a way of conceptualizing the three spheres: subject, object and action. Whenever there is a thought which conceives the three spheres, karma is created. People ask, ‘What is karma? I don’t get it! Where is karma?” In fact, karma is our mind conceiving something. Karma is the doings of conceptual mind. This subtle forming of a notion of anything is like a web, a haze that obscures our innate suchness just as mist obscures the sun from being vividly seen.
The great master Nagarjuna said, “There is no samsara apart from your own thoughts.” Samsara is based on thought; samsara is made by thought. A thought includes attachment and aversion. A thought by its very nature involves an attitude of selecting and excluding. Every thought is hope and fear. Hope and fear is painful, in the sense of making you uneasy. Implicit in hope is the idea that “I have not yet achieved.” That is painful, isn’t it? Likewise, fear is accompanied by the thought, “It may happen and I don’t want it.” That is also painful; that is also suffering. Whenever there is involvement in thought, whenever a thought is formed, there is disturbing emotion. There is hope and fear, and therefore there is suffering.
We may think, “To be liberated is to escape from ending up as one of the six classes of sentient beings”. We may even think we have to go to some other place in order to be liberated. But honestly, connecting this directly to our own experience, freedom means free from any type of thought - bad thought, good thought, neutral thought. After hear ing this we may think, “Certainly we should be free of evil thoughts, but not good thoughts – we should keep good thoughts. All good actions are done by a good attitude, a good thought. If a good thought is thrown away, who will do good?” However, we need to understand that there are different kinds of good. There is conditioned goodness and unconditioned goodness, and the goodness of the state of unity. Conditioned goodness means any good action, words or attitude formed out of a good, wholesome thought. That is definitely virtuous. But unconditioned goodness means being free of thought and acting while in the state of the innate nature, out of dharmata. Unconditioned goodness is nonconceptual; it is beyond thought.
We need to gain the taste of liberation through experiencing the awakened state, and then proceed to enlightenment. In actuality, freedom means freedom from dualistic mind. Freedom from selfishness, holding the idea of “I”, freedom from holding the notion of other, “of that.” Free of any type of conceptual attitude that something is, or something isn’t. Otherwise there is no freedom. To hold the no tion “It is” is still a way of holding. To hold the notion “That isn’t” is also a way of holding.
Shamatha practice involves allowing our state of mind to be calm, to be at ease. Vipashyana is simply letting the mind be in equanim ity, free of forming concepts, in thought-free wakefulness. For this vipashyana, the insight of clear seeing, to take birth in us, it is im portant to gather the accumulations, to purity the obscurations, and to train in shamatha.
Merely being calm is not true liberation. It is closer to liberation, because it is free from waves of emotions. If somebody asks, “Are you now free of emotions in the state of shamatha?” you could an swer, “Almost!” But the root cause for further emotions is still re tained in this state. When the root is kept, the plant will grow back. The root of further emotions needs to be destroyed. There is only one way to do that, and that is through training in vipashyana, the clear seeing which is thought-free wakefulness. Nothing else can do that job totally; nothing else can completely cut through the root of all thoughts. On a more general level, the root cause of samsaric ex istence is ego-clinging, the attitude of holding onto a self. In a more subtle way, it is the conceptual attitude, the mental doing, the forming of a thought. So to be free of samsara we need to train in the direct opposite of its root cause; we need to train in the thought- free wakefulness which is the absence of any conceptual attitude. This entails also being free of ego. But it is not only being free of ego- it is the knowing of the state that is free of ego. In other words, it is the knowledge that realizes egolessness, also called the knowledge of the threefold purity, the wakefulness that does not conceptualize the three spheres.
According to the Tibetan tradition, true vipashyana is to see the natural state while being free of dualistic clinging. Traditionally, this natural state is introduced after the practitioner has gone through the ngöndro, the ‘preliminary practices of the four or five times hun dred thousand’, as well as the yidam practice with its detailed recitations. After completing these, the student is given thepointing-out instruction according to the tradition of Dzogchen or Mahamudra or one of the other traditions of ultimate wisdom. That is the general way, but times have changed somewhat in the sense that many peo ple these days are earnestly drawn to the essential teachings from the beginning. My late father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, used to give the pointing-out instruction to whomever was sincerely interested, whether that person was a long-term practitioner or a beginner. He also gave me the mandate to do so.
What I am going to explain are instructions my own root gurus gave me. I will simply repeat a few things.
Confusion is made by our minds. Karma, disturbing emotions, and all the different modes of experience are all mind-made. Mind is the main creator of everything. If we allow our mind to continue forming dualistic fixation, samsara will continue endlessly. If you want to leave samsara behind, if you want to be free from samsara, you need to dissolve dualistic fixation. In order to let it dissolve, you need to train in the opposite of dualistic fixation. Thinking itself involves dualistic fixation. The opposite of this duality-fixated thinking is nondual wakefulness. You can arrive at nondual wake fulness the moment that thought vanishes – the moment that du alistic thinking falls apart or collapses. The moment dualistic thought vanishes, nondual wakefulness can be clearly present.
Samsara is simply our thinking. Likewise, disturbing emotions and karma are merely our thinking. Generally speaking, we need to be free of disturbing emotion. In a more subtle way, we need to free from forming notions, free from conceptualizing that some thing is or that something isn’t. This includes metaphysical concep tualizing such as, “I am mistaken, I am deluded,” or that “All things are like a dream – it is all an illusion.” This kind of thinking is also a way of fixating.
Unless we allow every single kind of conceptualization – of forming a notion of something, whether it is in a coarse way or a subtle way, shallow or profound – unless we allow all of that to dissolve, to simply evaporate, we do not clearly see our innate nature. Thinking “Because this is, that isn’t. This should be selected, that should be excluded,” is all mind-made. To think ‘is’ actually includes ‘isn’t’. Whenever something is denied, something is affirmed at the same time. Whenever something is rejected, another thing is auto matically accepted. This dualism is the very nature of conceptual judgment. We need to be in a way in which there is no involvement in making any conceptual reference point of any kind, regardless of how subtle or philosophically astute this might be.
How do we experience or see this freedom? Instead of using the phrase “seeing the nature of mind,” maybe it is better to say “sustaining the continuity of mind essence.” ‘Mind’ here means simply thinking. ‘Mind essence’ is buddha nature, also known as innate suchness. Innate suchness transcends all philosophical positions. A philosophical position is something we arrive at after having given detailed thought to what is. We thoroughly inquire, investigate, analyze, reject and accept, prove and disprove, until we reach a position that we feel we have verified, and can thus establish the conviction “This is how it is.” We then hold onto that position, thinking “This is the ultimate, absolute formulation of how reality is. I’ve got it!”
The natural state of mind, innate suchness, transcends all phi losophical positions because it is not a philosophy; it is not an idea. Any rational viewpoint, no matter how deep or profound, is still conceptual. It is based on concept, and thus within the domain of conceptual mind. Innate suchness is naturally beyond the bounds of conceptual mind, and is not its object. We need to distinguish be tween mind and mind essence, thinking and thought-free wakeful ness. We need to differentiate the conceptual mind from the basic state.
Primary mind simply means the consciousness that is conceptual. Sense impressions themselves are not conceptual. When hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, or noticing texture, we are not engaging in conceptual thought. It is only when the primary mind, consciousness, directs its attention to one of these sense impressions and starts to evaluate and judge that it becomes conceptual.
When thinking of any object, we generally react in one of three basic ways: either we like it, we don’t like it, or we don’t care about it that much. To like is subtle attachment. To dislike is subtle anger. When we feel neutral or indifferent, it is sub tle dullness. Involving our attention through any of our five senses in this way creates karma, because we are forming the attitude of either like, dislike or indifference. This creates an habitual pattern of being fond of or against something. Through forming the habits of liking this and disliking that, over and over, again and again, our minds become inclined to automatically attach a solid reality to whatever we think of.
It’s the same when we dream or daydream. When we think of a beautiful flower, mentally we experience a bit of enjoyment. Con versely, when we think of the disgusting, filthy garbage lying around the streets in Boudha, we have an opposite reaction. We understand these different words and connect them to some attitude we’ve formed in the past; in other words, we plug these concepts into pre existing attitudes. These words hold power in a way which is called habit, or habitual tendency. So, instead of saying, “I like such and such,” we might just as well say, “It is my habitual tendency to be fond of that.”
To summarize, dualistic mind is severely flawed because it is lim ited to the attitudes of liking, disliking and feeling indifferent. It hopes and fears, accepts and rejects, and thus it suffers. Whenever there is thought, there is hope and fear; we’ve already discussed this point. Hope and fear itself is suffering. If we want to go beyond suffering, we need to be free of thought. If you want to be free of disturbing emotion, you need to be free of thought. If you want to he free of all the myriad of deluded experiences of samsara, you need to be free of thought. To want to continue thinking and still be free of samsara is impossible.
Next, we need to look at where and what is buddha, the awak ened state. The Buddha said, “Buddha is present in everyone.” How is this nature or quality present? Is our dualistic mind the buddha? If we say that dualistic mind is the buddha, then all sentient beings would already be buddhas and there would be a lot of buddhas who don’t happen to manifest any enlightened qualities! If the dualistic mind is not the buddha, then what exactly is it in us that is the bud dha? This term must refer to something. Mind essence is the buddha. Mind is that which knows pleasure and pain. It is the very essence or identity of this knowing that is the buddha.
Where exactly is this mind that knows pleasure and pain? If we were to ask each of us, we would all have to say “It is in me.” When saying ‘me’ we usually refer to this body of flesh and blood, this voice that speaks, and this mind that experiences, that feels pleasure and pain. But again, we need to ask: what exactly is it that feels pleasure and pain?
One of the characteristics of mind is that it is empty, in the sense that it has not come into being as any concrete thing; it does not assume any particular form. At the same time, it is aware. It has a nature that knows, unobstructedly.
Mind’s nonarising essence is empty and its nature is cognizant, unobstructedly aware. We speak about mind’s two qualities, essence and nature. These two words describe the same identity. These qualities are an indivisible unity, just as you cannot separate water from its inherent wetness.
Now we need to ask: does this empty nature of mind exist, or not? Is there such a thing or not? If we say that it is, does it exist in the same way as some other concrete thing, like earth, water, fire or wind? We have to agree that mind is not material. The nature of mind does not exist in a material way like those four elements. Yet if you say it does not exist, you have to deal with the fact that it is not a total nothingness, because mind is capable of knowing in all differ ent ways. We cannot deny our own basic intelligence; the fact that there is something in us that knows, that experiences in countless ways.
Thus, we cannot say that mind is nonexistent, that there is no mind. At the same time, we cannot say it exists in material form like the elements. We cannot say that mind is something we can see, hear, smell, taste or touch. If mind was a visible thing, we should be able to describe its shape: either square, round, spherical, or oval, whether it is long or short. Similarly, if mind were to have a physical form, it should also have a color and a smell. It is impossible for anything to have form and not have a color, isn’t it? If you say that mind has form, it must have a color – so which color does your mind have? Likewise, anything that has form and color also has a smell of some sort. Does mind have a nice smell? Does its smell change over time? Does this mind have a physical form, a shape, a color? If mind had physical form, we should be able to touch it, to catch hold of it, keep it, and put it in a nice place. We are still talk ing about mind, that which experiences.
Mind, however, is described as inconcrete because it is intangible, formless. Being formless, it has no color, no smell, no tangible char acteristics whatsoever. Still, if it exists, we have to be able to describe it. We can start by saying that mind is empty.
Our mind, the knower, is like space because it has no form, color or shape. In short, mind is anempty cognizance. Space is merely empty. The empty quality of mind and the empty quality of space are similar. But mind can cognize; it can know, while space cannot. Because of this cognizant quality, its intrinsic ability to know, mind is called empty cognizance, while space is called empty void, empty nothingness. Mind is naturally empty and naturally cognizant. It is empty in essence and cognizant by nature - and these qualities are an indivisible unity, primordially, from the very beginning. No one made the self-existing, innate nature the way it naturally is. It is not made by either a divine or devilish power, nor did any human being create it. Nobody made mind the way it is; it is just naturally so.
It is because of mind’s cognizant quality that we experience. And it is in the act of experiencing that we become confused. It is not through the empty quality that confusion arises – only through cognizing. This cognizant quality, when directed towards experi encing, fixates on things like “It is,” and all thoughts of “I and mine, you and yours.” In this process, there is attachment to the notion of me, and a subtle aversion to what is you and yours. This subtle attachment and aversion is mistaken, though, because really, ulti mately, there is no basis for these concepts of I and you! It is pre cisely our failure to know this that constitutes ignorance. This unknowing is the basis, the very root, of confusion. If this is where confusion starts, this is also where it should end. The originally empty cognizance fixates; it creates confusion. To be free, we need to experience the empty cognizance that does not fixate.
To apply this in terms of practice, we need to know how not to be caught up in our thinking.Thinking a particular thought does not make us thought-free. While a thought cannot remove thought, the presence of a thought can prevent thought-free wakefulness. In thought-free wakefulness, there is no thought. In thinking, there is no thought -free wakefulness. Presence and absence do not happen at the same moment; they are mutually exclusive. A conceptual attitude cannot dissolve a conceptual attitude. That which dissolves conceptual atti tude is the absence of holding anything in mind. A fixated thought does not dissolve the presence of fixated thoughts. The absence of fixation dissolves fixation. We need to clearly understand what the remedy is. The remedy to ego-clinging is the knowledge in which egolessness is an actuality. The remedy to thought is non-thought. When we know the remedy well, we can overcome what needs to be overcome. It is when we’re not aware of or familiar with how to use the remedy that we fail to do that which needs to be done.
Let’s practice for a few minutes right now. Remain wide open. Don’t hold any reference point. If we focus on something, on any thing in particular, we are not wide open. When you are free of reference point, free of focus, you are wide open. It is very comfortable to be wide open.
STUDENT: Rinpoche, you talked about the process of conceptuali zing. How is this different from discernment?
RINPOCHE: Mind is that which observes everything; that which notices or experiences whatever takes place. Mind, in this context, is the mental cognition that works through the five senses. Unless the mind pays attention, we do not see, hear, smell, taste or feel any texture. Mind is thus the basis for all pain and pleasure. Whether we are deluded or not depends upon mind. Whenever we are caught up in the duality of perceiver and perceived, we experience delusion. When we are able to cut through this chain, this bind of perceiver and perceived, we are free.
The perceived is easy to understand: it is simply the objects we ex perience; whatever we see, hear, taste, smell or feel as a tactile sense. But there is also the perceiver, the mind within, which connects through the five senses and then takes hold of these objects and forms thoughts, concepts. For instance, when the eye consciousness connects with the visual form and takes hold of it, it will form a thought about what is seen. When we simply look with our eyes to wards something while our mind is strongly occupied by some other topic, we do not really see what is in front of us. Whenever our attention is directed towards what is seen, however – when we are interested in what we are viewing – we actually see it.
What happens is that the object seen through our eyes is con nected with mind through the act of seeing, and then thoughts are formed. The process of forming of thoughts in this way has two aspects to it, two degrees. One is more coarse, the next more subtle. For example, let’s say we notice the outline of a human being. This is called conception. In other words, we form the concept, “There is a human being.” But it is not clear to us yet who this person is, or whether we know that person or not. As we move closer in our minds, paying more attention, then we distinguish the details, “That is someone who looks such and such.” Maybe it is an acquaintance, maybe not. That is a more detailed form of thought which we call discernment. Thus, there are two levels: conception and discern ment. At the first level of conception, our emotions of liking, dis liking or remaining indifferent cannot really gain any foothold. But when we start to discern, they can strike very strongly.
Take this example. The moment we discern that what we are looking at is beautiful, we experience some sense of being attracted, of having the notion, “I like that.” Or, if the feeling of attraction becomes very strong, it’s “I love it!” Our attention is attached to that notion of liking and the feeling of being attracted. If we are dis cerning something that is ugly, then in a subtle way we feel ourselves to be opposed to it; we feel some aversion. In a more strongly devel oped way, we absolutely hate the sight of it, we detest it.
Now, if the object we are looking at evokes neither of these reac tions – say that it’s something that provokes no interest, something that doesn’t fascinate us in any way, something we don’t want to in vestigate any further – then we shut off our mind to it; we simply close off. This is in a subtle way a kind of indifference. In a more strongly developed way, it can be outright dullness. So these three possible reactions of liking, disliking or being indifferent, which when experienced to a stronger degree manifest as desire, hate or dullness are all involvements of our mind towards the object we per ceive. This process happens again and again in the course of our daily lives, our ordinary perceptions.
As for the coarser or more strongly felt expressions of these three basic reactions, we do not have to be particularly religious to under stand that they are plainly no good. But you might ask: is there any thing wrong with just feeling like or dislike, or feeling indifference, towards the objects we see and hear, towards the smells, the tastes, and the textures we perceive? Is there anything wrong with liking something we hear, see, smell, taste or feel? What about when we feel mild aversion or dislike – is there anything wrong with that? And what’s wrong with closing off our mind and remaining indif ferent?
How about a noble attitude, a good heart? Is it something we should keep? It’s supposed to be good, isn’t it? So why should we destroy that? The best feeling we can have is to wish to help others and to directly act from that virtuous attitude. Is it good enough to always train in that? Or is there something wrong with that? If there is something imperfect in that, then what exactly is this shortcoming? We need to know this very clearly. If there is an imperfection in simply being good, we need to understand what that is. If there is something superior to being good, we need to know what it is and how to train in it.
My point here is that we need to be really clear. Let’s say we think there is something better than simply being good, though we don’t quite know what it is. Therefore, we conclude that having a good heart, a virtuous state of mind, is something that should be given up. We then throwaway the good heart, and because we are not clear on what is superior to this, we fail to attain it! That would be a huge mistake. We need to be very clear about this point.
Let’s take a step back and look at the situation. All these good thoughts, the nasty thoughts, the neutral thoughts – why do these thoughts come about? They are all due to a subtle formation of a conceptual attitude. This attitude is as insidious and dangerous as a nasty disease, like a cancerous growth that starts out in one tiny little place in the body. If it is allowed to grow, this disease can spread all over the entire body, making the chances for being cured extremely difficult. In the same way, the Buddhist metaphysical studies out lined in the Abhidharma discuss something called subtle developers. Unless we can get rid of these cancer-like subtle developers, there is no way for us to be free of full-fledged negative emotions.
The Buddhist teachings tell us that there is a root cause for all kinds of deluded states of mind, for all deluded experience. There is a root cause for all kinds of karma, all types of emotions, all kinds of thoughts. They are all rooted in the very subtle formation of a con ceptual attitude. Unless this subtle conceptual attitude, this mental doing, is released and dissolved, there is no way in the world that we can be free from delusion; there is no way to be free from thoughts, from emotions, and from karma. In the same way as the example of a spreading cancer, we need to be free of the tiny root cause. Once we are free of that, all the rest can disappear quite naturally. The root of karma, the root of emotions and the root of delusion is a subtle conceptual attitude. To identity that root cause and the means of eradicating it is an extremely important point in Buddhist study.