“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 is buddhanature.” Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche gives a teaching on the existence and nonexistence of mind.
Whatever practice you do, please do so while embracing it with the Three Excellences.
The first is the excellent preparation of bodhichitta, translated from Sanskrit as “enlightened mind.” The bodhisattva resolve is to form the thought, “I will attain complete enlightenment for the sake of all beings.” Engendering that motivation is a superb way to begin one’s practice.
This excellent preparation is indispensable for all Buddhist practitioners because we all have had many lifetimes other than this one. In every one of these, we had a father and a mother. We have had so many lifetimes that every sentient being, without a single exception, has been our own father and mother. Thus we are connected to all other beings, and to merely wish enlightenment and liberation for ourselves is far too limited. To achieve enlightenment in this way would mean abandoning all our parents.
Please understand that all sentient beings, all our parents, want nothing but happiness. Unfortunately, through their negative actions, they create the causes for further pain and suffering. Take this to heart and consider all our parents, wandering blindly and endlessly through painful samsaric states. When we truly take this to heart, out of compassion we feel motivated to achieve enlightenment to truly help all of them. This compassionate attitude is indispensable as a preparation for practice.
Please understand that all sentient beings want nothing but happiness.
The excellent preparation also includes the taking of refuge. Do we actually have the ability to genuinely help other beings? Do we have the power, the wisdom, the boundless compassion to do so? At present we don’t. Who does? Only the fully awakened Buddha possesses the power to protect others, as well as the pure teachings on how to attain enlightenment. In addition to these two, there are those beings who uphold these teachings in an unbroken lineage. These three, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, are the only true protection and rescue for unenlightened beings.
We should regard these Three Precious Ones as our shelter, our refuge, and our escort. They embody a reliable and authentic source of protection. To entrust ourselves and place our confidence in the Three Jewels from this point until we ourselves become truly able to benefit others is called “taking refuge.” Together with bodhichitta, taking refuge is the excellent preparation. Taking refuge essentially embodies all the teachings of the path of individual liberation, while all the Mahayana teachings are contained within forming the bodhisattva resolve.
The second of the three excellences is called the “excellent main part beyond concepts.” This has two aspects: the development stage and the completion stage. This “excellent main part beyond conceptual focus” is a synonym for Vajrayana, the vajra vehicle of Secret Mantra.
The development stage is usually understood as visualizing the support, which is the buddha field and the celestial palace, and what is supported therein—the form of the deity. The palace and deity are considered to be the pure world and pure being. We may think that this is a product of our imagination, but it is an exact replica of the original state of all things. It is how things already are in actuality—also called the great mandala of the manifest ground.
Thus, visualization is ultimately not a matter of imagining something to be what it isn’t, but rather, of seeing it as it actually is. It is acknowledging things as they already are. This is the essential principle of vajrayana. Within this principle is contained both the development stage and the completion stage.
The development stage is not like imagining a piece of wood to be gold. No matter how long you imagine that wood is gold, it never truly becomes gold. Rather, it’s like regarding gold as gold: acknowledging or seeing things as they actually are. That is what is meant by training in deity, mantra, and samadhi. The body, speech, and mind of the deity are contained within the three aspects of vajrayana practice called development, recitation, and completion.
All appearances are the mandala of the deities, all sounds are the mandala of mantra, and all thoughts are the mandala of enlightened mind. The nature of all apparent and existing things—of this entire world and all its beings—is the great mandala of the manifest ground, our basic state. These three mandalas are present as our ground. The practice of a sadhana is based on manifesting from this ground. Sadhana practice is also based on some very essential principles: that the tantras are contained within the statements, the statements within the oral instructions, and the oral instructions within the application of the sadhana itself.
Let me rephrase this vital point. In vajrayana, a sadhana is the act of manifesting what is originally present in the form of the threefold mandalas of deity, mantra and samadhi. When practicing a sadhana, we are not superimposing something artificial atop the natural state of things. Rather, it is a way of acknowledging our original state, in which the nature of all forms is deity, the nature of all sounds is mantra, and the nature of mind is samadhi. This is the basic principle of the development stage. And the differences in profundity between the teachings of sutra and tantra lie in how close the teachings are to the original nature. The closest, the most direct, are the Vajrayana teachings.
What are the reasons for the development and completion stages? The profound development stage enables us to attain enlightenment in one lifetime and in one body through deity, mantra and samadhi. And the completion stage means that the deity is none other than our originally enlightened buddhanature. Its essence is present as Body, its nature radiates as Speech, and its capacity is pervasive as Mind.
Our originally enlightened essence contains within itself the awakened state of all buddhas as the three aspects of vajra body, vajra speech, and vajra mind. Training in these three vajras is intrinsically contained within the profound state of samadhi, which is none other than one’s own nature. That is the starting point or source of the excellent main part beyond concepts.
Deity, mantra, and samadhi are the enlightened body, speech and mind. Vajra body means the unchanging quality which is the identity of the deity. The unceasing quality is the identity of the mantra, while the unmistaken or undeluded quality is the identity of the deity’s mind. These three vajras are complete in our buddha nature. They are also called dharmakaya (absolute, primordial mind), sambhogakaya (energy, emotions, and symbols), and nirmanakaya (manifested form).
These profound methods of Vajrayana—practicing a sadhana, meditating on the deity, reciting its mantra, and training in samadhi—are called a quick path. The essence of this is the nature of mind. This is the unfailing, unmistaken vajra speech of the perfectly enlightened Buddha, which can enable us to attain complete enlightenment in one lifetime. This teaching has been passed through an unbroken lineage of great masters all the way down to my own root guru. While my ears have been very fortunate to receive this teaching, I myself am nothing special. Although I may take great words in my mouth, please understand that I am merely repeating what I have been fortunate enough to receive.
It is very difficult to really learn something or to be educated in it without a teacher. You probably all know this very well, having gone to school so many years. The education we have received is something that we can make use of our entire lives. Even so, our education has not brought us even one inch closer to the state of perfect enlightenment. Our years of effort in school are ultimately of no real benefit.
Because you are all intelligent, I think you can understand why I am saying this. No matter what we do in this life, all the information we gather and all the knowledge we accumulate and all the effort we make to amass wealth through work and business—when the time comes for us to leave this life, all of it is futile and in vain. It will not help us in any way whatsoever. I can easily say this since I am not educated at all! So I can smile and act big about this. Don’t be angry, please.
No matter what we do in this life, all the knowledge we accumulate and all the wealth we amass, when the time comes for us to leave this life, all of it is futile and in vain.
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 be famous enough 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.
You have a body, a voice, and a mind. Of these, mind is the most important. Isn’t it true that your body and voice are the servants of mind? The five physical elements of earth, fire, water, wind, and space do not perceive. In contrast, mind is 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 five sense organs are still there, but there is no experience taking place through them if mind leaves the body.
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 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 and 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. Isn’t it quite amazing that something that is insubstantial is also able to experience?
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 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. It is said that mind is “not existent since even a buddha does not see it, but it is also 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? You can continue to search for it exactly like this, scrutinizing 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 cognizant. The Buddha called this unformed unity shunyata, emptiness. Shunye means empty, while the ta in shunyata–the ‘-ness’ in emptiness–should be understood as meaning “able to cognize.” In this way, mind is empty cognizance. Natural thatness means simply what is by itself. Our nature is just like that. Just recognize that fact, without coloring it with any kind of idea about it.
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.
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 recognize mind nature.
The traditional way of receiving the instruction on how to realize 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, see that the sunlight has hit the mountaintop, and that’s how they know the sun has risen. But actually, they have to 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.
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 happened suddenly. 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. If we carry on this 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 for 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 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 mid-air?
Holding subject and object, perceiver and perceived in mind, is symbolized 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 buddhanature, is like the sun itself, present as our very nature. Its reflection can be compared to our thoughts—all our plans, our memories, our attachment, 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, recognize the one sun. If you recognize the nature of your mind, the buddhanature, that is sufficient.
Understand the difference between buddhanature 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, 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 recognize your natural state, the buddha mind–your enlightened essence–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 namick, 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.
To stop thinking, you need to recognize your essence. It’s like seeing the sun in the sky just once—forever after, you know what the sun looks like.
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 recognize 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. 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 recognize 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, cognizant mind. Its natural emptiness is dharmakaya, also called empty essence. Your natural ability to know and to perceive is cognizant nature, sambhogakaya. This being empty and being cognizant are an original unity. The famous statement “unity of empty cognizance suffused with awareness” refers to your own nature, the essence of your mind.
After recognizing your nature and 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 recognize, 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 cognizant, recognizes 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 recognizing mind nature is called ordinary mind, whether you talk about Mahamudra, Dzogchen, or the Great Middle Way. When recognizing, 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. An ordinary person is involved in conceptualizing with the present thought. Don’t conceptualize with a present thought. Present thought means wanting or not wanting. 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. 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 be the case if the aim was to maintain a particular state of concentration for a long time. Deliberate action would be necessary for that. But I am not telling you to do that. The moment of natural empty cognizance 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 recognizing 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 recognize. That is the training.
Every level of teaching has its own purpose, and even though the very heart of the Buddhadharma is to recognize mind essence and train in that, still, there are obstacles and hindrances that need to be cleared away and enhancement practices that need to be done.
An obstacle is something that prevents us from remaining in the natural state. These can be cleared away by certain practices. There are also ways to improve or enhance our practice and to deepen our experience. These two—clearing hindrances and enhancing—are extremely useful.
“In the moment of love, the empty essence dawns nakedly.”
Outer obstacles are connected with our environment; inner obstacles with our physical body, and innermost obstacles with our thought patterns. To dispel these, it’s extremely beneficial to do the preliminaries and the inner practice of deity, mantra, and samadhi. Hindrances need to be removed, as they are the result of negative deeds that obscure our nature. Relying on the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and on the guru, yidam, and dakini as support quickly clears away hindrances.
Enhancement practices, for instance, are to develop devotion to the enlightened ones and compassion for sentient beings. Devotion and compassion strengthen the recognition of mind nature. Other practices also further enhance mind essence. However, the Third Karmapa said: “In the moment of love, the empty essence dawns nakedly.”
In the moment that either devotion or compassion is felt sincerely, from the core of our heart, there is really nothing to obscure us any longer. The more we train in devotion to all enlightened masters, buddhas, and bodhisattvas, the more our progress in recognizing mind essence will be enhanced. In exactly the same way, generating loving-kindness and compassion for all sentient beings will also help tremendously to enhance our realization of buddhanature.
Published March 2000 on LionsRoar.com. Reproduced with permission. This article is excerpted from As It Is. ©1999 Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.