On Realization of the Nature of Mind by Dezhung Rinpoche Kunga Tanpa’i Nyima
When you come to approach the Dharma you should do so with the attitude that it is for the benefit of others; the concern should be for all sentient beings who have been your mother and father since beginingless time. Out of a concern to help them you are listening to the Dharma in order to become a buddha, for this is the one way in which you can truly help others. But when you listen to the Dharma you should be free from inattention, free from ill feeling or emotional disturbance and you should listen as one who is hoping for some kind of cure for an ailment which is with us intrinsically, all the time. When we listen to the Dharma we should be free from any sense of ordinariness; that is, we think no longer of this world of mundane cares, this world in which we live, but imagine that we are listening to the Dharma in the presence of a buddha whose resplendent form sits shining before us, that the place we are in is a beautiful meadow filled with light, with flowers, with fragrance in the air, that we ourselves are not in our corporeal forms, but that we are all in the form of enlightenment, the bodhisattva, that nothing is weighted down by tangibility, by substantiality, that everything appears, magic, fresh and breathtaking, like a clear dream. If with these ideas in mind we listen to the Dharma, we will understand it and apply it.
What I’m going to say now doesn’t at all come from me; it’s no product of my imagination, but has been taught to me by very great teachers, very wonderful people, who represent a living tradition of study and realization that extends back in time for about 2500 years. I would like to share some of this tradition with you, because I think that its teachings are very valuable, very important, and for this reason I hope that you’ll listen very carefully.
There are about three and one-half billion people living in the world at this time, if I have the figure right, and most of them have little real concern for any form of religion. Most people are concerned with just looking- after their own needs and those of their families, or escaping from enemies or problems, just struggling for survival in the world, one way or another. Most people are quite involved with just living from day to day, and the few people who do manage to begin to think about the end of life, of death, or about their actions in this life and their consequences, or maybe of special ways in which they can make their lives more satisfactory, less painful, the people that we call ‘religious’ can be divided for our purposes now into two groups.
Most ‘religious’ people basically see themselves as existing in a relationship of God and man; and this relationship, I think, is commonly felt to be one of, you might say, master and servant, or even of owner and slave. Out there, there is something, someone, who is much stronger, more powerful, wiser, more intelligent, than I am, and if I do what he wants me to do; if I live as he tells me to live, then I will have done what he wants me to do, and he, in turn, will give me what I want. It might sound like a business relationship in some religions, or in some other religions one’s own position might be much less strong; I am poor, weak, miserable, I will throw myself on the mercy of him out there and he, out of his kindness, will help me; in some religions this almost has the sound of a begging relationship.
The way of the buddhas, the Dharma, although we call it a ‘religion,’ in comparison with the situation described before, might not even be called religious’; because it is basically concerned with man himself, and with the most important part of man’s personality, his mind. We can describe the buddhas Dharma as mind training. As a person I have certain abilities, there are things that I can do, and if there are certain things that I want, my mind, as the controller of my body and speech, needs training to be able to provide what I want. Now, anybody can understand that if I want to be an accountant I can take an accountant’s course; if I want to learn French I can study it, but buddhists claim that the most useful thing that I can learn is what the real nature of the world really is; and that the course I can take, the mind training that will provide direct awareness, through insight, of the true nature of reality, is meditation. Everything in buddhas teaching is concerned with the training of mind, and it’s a difficult and complex teaching to explain.
The source of the teachings that we know today as Dharma, which means the ‘law’, or the ‘way’, is the buddha named Gautama, the sage of the Shakya clan, who was called Shakyamuni, a buddha, or enlightened person, who reached full enlightenment in India some 2500 years ago, after a career which began with his determination to reach enlightenment in order to help all sentient beings. On the basis of that determination he practiced mind training, and cultivated the positive qualities which resulted in his full enlightenment as a buddha. During his lifetime he taught the Dharma throughout India. If we consider how to approach his teaching, it can be summarized in one concise verse, “Through connection one is bound, through disengagement freedom becomes complete.” These two lines may be expanded into the four truths; “There is suffering, suffering arises from emotionality, the cause of suffering that is emotionality can be removed, there is a way that this removal can take place.” To elaborate, ‘connection’ and ‘suffering’ refer to the ignorance, emotionality and the actions and their results that we are all caught up in, and that as long as we have ignorance and emotionality, or act out of emotional motivation, then this action binds us to the sort of existence that is called daily human life. Yet, when we are free from ignorance, have come to a full realization of the nature of reality, so that there is no longer any basis for emotionality, then there is only freedom; freedom from any kind of compulsion or constraint, and one has attained the goal of enlightenment, of buddhahood.
What does it mean for an individual to practice or follow the teachings of the buddhas Dharma. First, it means that he has a certain orientation; second, it means that he ]earns, or begins to appreciate, a certain approach to the understanding of life.
The orientation is called ‘going for refuge’ and it focuses upon the possibility of enlightenment as expressed in the concept of buddha; that is, that it is possible to become a buddha; that the way to such enlightenment is through the practice of the buddhas teaching, the Dharma, and that help and support in such an undertaking will come from the congregation, those who are engaged in the practise and teaching of the Dharma. A buddha is the direct realization of reality; he is that realization expressed as communication; he is the form which a buddha can take in order to help sentient beings. The Dharma is both experience and learning; it is the learning which is training in morality, training in meditative ability, training in wisdom and understanding, and it is the direct experience of the realization of reality. The congregation are people who can lend guidance and support to one who undertakes to become a buddha, and a person who is practising buddhism takes these references as the basis for his way of coming to an understanding, for his practice and, in a way, for his life,
A buddhist, then, is oriented toward, takes refuge in, the buddha, the Dharma and the congregation; now, the way he begins to approach the world can be laid out in four statements: All composite phenomena are impermanent, all emotionality is suffering, all phenomena lack, or are empty of, a self-nature, and the transcendence of suffering is peace.
How can we explain the possibility of, the process of enlightenment! There is the potential for enlightenment called buddha nature, there is the framework for the achievement of enlightenment which is the human existence, there is the contributing factor of contact with a spiritual teacher, the means which are the instructions of that teacher, there is the result which is buddhahood, and there is the continuous activity which is the manifestation of enlightenment which works for the welfare of others. This classification of the six elements of enlightenment shows the real possibility that one can become a buddha, and the fundamental concept is found right at the beginning; the concept of buddha nature, the seed of buddhahood. We have to recognize that there must be some potential within us if it is going to be possible for us to become a buddha. Not only must there be some potential within us, but it must also be the case that we are not already buddhas, otherwise it would be difficult to become a buddha. If there were no buddha nature, we would be caught in the cycle of suffering with absolutely no possibility of freedom; we would continue to suffer the pains and frustrations of existence that we do now, and this process would have no possibility of ending; there would be nothing that we could do about it. But this is not the case, for many people have become enlightened, have become buddhas. On the other hand, it is not the case that we are enlightened now, because we do experience pain and frustration, and a buddha is totally free from pain or frustration. So how are we to understand this potential! Buddha nature in essence is mind itself. Once it’s recognized as such — then you are a buddha. And as long as it’s not recognized, there is suffering. A scriptural reference says, “The mind of a sentient being is buddha itself; it just happens to be clouded and bewildered. When this bewilderment and misunderstanding are removed, buddha is present.” This is to say that, in a sense, we are each a buddha and yet don’t realize it; only our blindness, our emotionality and ignorance prevent us from realizing this.
To understand more clearly, it would perhaps be helpful to investigate what we mean by the word ‘mind’. There are various words which denote mind; mind as a complex of attitudes, mind as a complex of emotions, and mind as a function of consciousness. When we consider the scope of mental activity, we have to consider six things. First, we are conscious of what we see, of what we hear, of what we touch, taste and smell, and we are conscious of our own thoughts. So there are six aspects to consciousness. Now to these six aspects we may add two further ones–mind as emotionality; that is, regarding the essential ignorance which is present in mind, and then, mind as just a basic cognition, something which is conscious of, or cognises events. It is this which actually becomes, which we actually designate the potential for buddhahood, buddha nature; the fact that mind is simply aware of things.
I think that we can recognize that there is a distinction between the way consciousness of the objects that we perceive functions, and the way consciousness of thought functions. By this I mean to say, that consciousness of objects does not discriminate. We just see an object, and in the actual being conscious of the seeing there is no thought of good or evil, or of “that’s a nice form, I don’t like this one,” it is simply awareness that seeing is taking place. In the same way, when we hear a sound, there is simply consciousness of the sound, without any discrimination or ascription to the nature of the sound, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, The same is true of taste, touch and smell. So, these forms of consciousness can be free from discrimination; yet, these are not buddha nature.
Discrimination, discursive thought, is the province of emotional thought. These are all the thoughts that we think; for example, “Oh it’s too hot out, It’s cold today, I like this, I don’t like that, I’m attracted to that, I don’t want that, I don’t understand this, What’s happening over there!” All of these thoughts, and there is an endless infinity of them, are the province or domain of mental consciousness; we are aware of these thoughts, that we can observe the thing that we are thinking about, the thoughts that we think about the objects that we perceive. But this tremendously active aspect of consciousness is not buddha nature either.
And then, if we can still our mind so there is no perception taking place, so that there is no discursive thought taking place, there is still a definite sense of ‘I’ –I am, I exist, and we regard ourselves as being some-thing. And it is that sense of” which is the cause of emotionality; the cause of our self-interest. Even though, when we are put to it, we cannot find out what this ‘I’ is, we still feel that it is very, very present. And this habitual, or instinctive, grasping at the sense of an ‘I’, this pseudo-consciousness of an ‘I’, is what may be called the emotional aspect of consciousness.
And suppose. that the mind were to become so still that even the sense of ‘I’ were gone. Then, there is nothing that is apprehended. No colour, no form, no shape of any kind, yet there is a clarity; there is no grasping after ‘I’ and ‘mine’, but just a brilliant clarity, and there is a total freedom, a total lack of any obstacle, a total lack of any dualistic impediment of any kind. And this, which is clear, empty, unimpeded; this is basic cognition. If one recognizes basic cognition for what it is–if there is a direct realization of that, ignorance is banished and one understands; but as long as that is not recognized for what it is, there is bewilderment, and so all that happens, for good, for evil, has free play, because there is no understanding present to perceive what is, in fact, taking place. So in a sense this basic cognition, when it is realized, becomes buddhahood; when it is not realized it becomes the cause of everyday existence. It is like a jewel in a mud puddle. A jewel covered with mud doesn’t shine, no fire burns inside it, but when we take it out of the puddle and wash the mud off it and hold it up to the light, it burns with its inner fire. Basic cognition is also a bit like gold in the ground. Gold ore is not visible and we don’t see the gold in the ore right away, but if we take gold ore and smelt it, refine it, then the gold becomes very evident and glistens in its pure state.
We might review what has been discussed by distinguishing between three aspects of mind: there is mind itself, which would correspond to basic cognition, the simple act of cognizing. This is mind as clear, empty, and unimpeded. Then there is mind as an emotional attitude, which would be this attitude or feeling that ‘I am some-thing’. And there are all those aspects of consciousness; consciousness as thought, sound, touch, sight, etc., which are properly termed just ‘consciousness’. And a distinction should be made between being conscious of things, the habitual grasping of the sense of”, and mind as it is in itself.
Now our concern here is to recognize basic cognition; but even here we have to distinguish, because there is within basic cognition something which is basically composite, which leads to ordinary courses of action; it is consciousness functioning in its ordinary way, and this is the cause of everyday life, our existence as we know it. And there is also what we might call an uncomposed, non-dualistic aspect of basic cognition, and this is what we really need to realize. When we try to determine what it is, we are led to view it as simply nothing, as being empty; there is simply nothing which can be grasped there. Yet, if it is only regarded as empty, then a serious error has been made. Because, if it were in fact simply empty; that is, there were nothing, then where would any possibility of action come from? From what could anything emerge? What would be the concept of action if there were nothing for a foundation? It would be like trying to expect the sky to do some work; there is simply nothing in space, so space is totally impotent; there is just nothing there to act. So this basic cognition, in its uncomposite aspect, is not simply nothingness, is not simply empty, there is a clarity which could almost be called an immediacy; this emptiness and clarity are, in fact, identical. Yet, there is simply nothing that can be grasped conceptually. And this is why we say that this essence of phenomena, which is a synonym of mind-in-itself, is divorced totally from any concept, any process of conceptualization.
The very great Indian Buddhist teacher Taranatha has said, “One must distinguish between mind, and mind-in-itself. Mind is simply consciousness; it is the basis of life as suffering, but mind-in-itself is the essence of what really is. Most people simply realize mind, and they feel they’ve come to some realization; they have experienced emptiness and clarity, but this is simply the impotency of basic cognition which is of no value. It is only when you meditate, and continue, and deepen that realization over a long period of time that you begin even to get a glimpse of what mind-in-itself is really like.” Another statement comes from one of the greatest teachers of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, “All that we do in Dharma practice, right from the very beginning of going for refuge, is concerned with coming to this total realization; everything that we do is a means by which we clear away the various levels of distracting thought, emotionality and habitual grasping, until we come to see mind-in-itself ”
I have tried to explain, then, something about this basis, this seed of buddhahood, this buddha nature, which makes it possible for us to become — for each of us to become — a buddha. The framework in which we can become such a buddha is the human existence, the human existence which we have now. This is the framework because it is the only form of existence in which we have the opportunity to hear, and we are able to comprehend, such teachings as these. This is the true uniqueness of the human situation, the ability of communication, and the inclination to pursue religious practice. What makes it possible for us to do this is contact with a spiritual teacher; it is through contact with a teacher that you come to understand, to learn that there is something to be understood. The means by which we can come to such an understanding are the instructions of the teacher; we must apply them if we are to benefit from them. And this is a very broad area; the means start with various kinds of contemplation and various ways of acting. We can begin by thinking about how fortunate we are to be human, to have contact with the buddhas teaching, how very precious such an opportunity is; we think about the effects that our actions will have on us in the future, what experiences such actions will develop into, and we think about the presence, the continual presence, of suffering in any form of existence that is based on ego-clinging. These kinds of contemplations will lead us to a firm determination to become free of everyday existence, to remove all ignorance and lack of understanding.
Then, we continue to develop compassion and love so that we can undertake to reach enlightenment for the benefit of others, and on such bases we need to develop meditative ability, the ability to still the mind, so that we can understand what the nature of phenomena is. If we are going to realize buddha nature, this emptiness, clarity and unimpededness, we have to understand much about the nature of phenomena, the nature of the world that we perceive, how it operates. And the key to this understanding is to gradually eliminate the sense of tangibility, of reality and concreteness with which we work in the world now; to learn to understand that the appearances that we perceive are not really as real as we would like to suppose them to be; they are not non-existing, but they are not existing either. This point of view is called the ‘great middle way’, and it is understanding of it which leads directly to the realization of buddha nature.
Now, there was a man named Atisha, a very great Indian master, a great scholar, a great teacher, one who came to a very great realization. He was invited to Tibet to teach the Dharma there –this was about a thousand years ago– and when he first arrived, he met with a number of Tibetans who were interested in learning more about the Dharma; most of these people had already had some contact with it, so Atisha started to instruct them in the great middle way. He said, “All appearances, all phenomena, all things that happen, are like magic; they do not have any absolute reality, there is no essence to any of these phenomena.” And he looked around and saw that his listeners looked a little bit puzzled .
So he said, “Let me explain–in India there are many magicians, sorcerers, who can create the experience of a whole life.” And he told the story of a young family, the husband of which had a friend who was a sorcerer, and the husband thought it would be beneficial to himself if he could learn something about sorcery. So he asked his friend to come to dinner one day, and explained what he wanted; the sorcerer said, “Well, perhaps, we’ll see,” and as they sat down and were eating a meal of soup together, the husband noticed a strange-looking man coming down the road in front of the house; he was leading an absolutely magnificent horse, a beautiful animal, quite large, well formed, and as the stranger approached he called out, “How would you like to buy this horse!” The husband replied, “Oh, I would never have enough money to be able to purchase an animal like that.” The stranger said, “Well, maybe I don’t want so much, maybe just a few needles or something.” The husband was taken aback in surprise, but before he could say anything, the stranger said, “Don’t decide too quickly, why don’t you ride the horse; after all, you want to make sure you like it.” The husband agreed, and mounted the horse and rode off. The horse was indeed a magnificent animal; it galloped with the speed of the wind over rivers and through forests, across meadows, over mountains; the husband had never ridden such a magnificent animal before; he galloped along for hours and hours. It was such a thrilling experience that he lost track of time completely; he lost track of where he was, lost the road, and after many hours he noticed the sun was setting; he drew up and dismounted and looked around him, and he thought that he’d never been in a country like that before. Nothing around him looked at all familiar; he wasn’t at all sure what to do, and after such a long ride he was tired, hungry, and thirsty, and he wasn’t even sure where he was going to stay the night. But in the distance he saw a light, a lamp burning, so he walked towards it, and he found that the lamp was burning in the window of a house.
Out of the house stepped a woman, and he asked her where he was; she replied, but he didn’t recognize the name of the place; he told her his own country; she’d never heard of it. I guess he looked a bit distressed and she asked what the matter was. He said, “I’ve ridden a long way, I’m hungry and tired, and I don’t even know where I am.” She said, “Well, do come in” And she served him supper, he stayed the night there, and since he didn’t know how to get back to his own country, he stayed there. He lived with this woman and they had a family together, and once, after many, many years, when their sons and daughters were beginning to get older they all went to a favourite lake of theirs for a picnic, and as they stood beside the lake, looking over it–it was a very beautiful place — the oldest of the sons jumped into the lake and disappeared. Then, one by one each of the children jumped into the lake; then his wife, whom he had loved all this time, and lastly his horse. And there he was, an old man with white hair, completely alone; and completely overcome with grief he broke down in tears. And as he cried, he felt someone shake his shoulder; he turned around, looked up, and there was his wife of many years before, saying, “What are you crying for, what’s the matter with you!” And he said, “If you only knew what has happened to me!” “But nothing’s happened to you;” she said, “It hasn’t been half an hour since we had our dinner. See, the soup pot is still hot.” And the husband began to realize that everything that he had experienced had had no reality at all.
Now, when Atisha had finished telling the Tibetans this story, he said, “And this is what all the world is like. It has no reality; it is simply an experience without any absoluteness to it at all. Oh, by the way,” he said, “Do you have any magicians as good here in Tibet” And the Tibetans said, “No, no, we don’t have any sorcerers who can create illusions like that.” And Atisha sat very thoughtful for a minute and then said, “Well, it’s going to be very difficult to explain the great Middle Way here, then, but, tell me, do any of you dream?” And the Tibetans answered, “Yes, yes, we dream, we’re human, after all, of course we dream.” “Well then,” said Atisha, “Life in a sense, is like a dream; we have a dream, and it seems very real while we are dreaming it. When it’s over, when we wake up, we realize that it was nothing more than a dream.” So Atisha used this way to explain the great middle view. Everything that we experience is simply appearance; it has no intrinsic reality, and when we come to understand this, then we understand buddha nature, and we have become free from suffering.
[Translated by Ken McLeod, edited by Thomas Quinn. (©Tom Quinn, New Sun Books, 1979]