Part I: An Introduction to Mahamudra and Its Practical Application to Life
1 The Buddhist Framework
“Mahamudra” is a Sanskrit word meaning “great seal” and refers to the nature of all phenomena. Just as a wax seal is stamped on legal documents to authenticate their signature, likewise the nature of reality is figuratively stamped upon everything as a guarantee that nothing exists in a fantasized, impossible way. The fact that everything is devoid of existing in any impossible manner thus validates that things actually exist.
Mahamudra also refers to sophisticated Buddhist systems of meditation and practice to realize this great sealing nature. The distinctive characteristic of these methods is to see this nature by focusing on mind itself and discovering the relationship between mind and reality. When our mind confuses reality with fantasy, we produce problems for ourselves. Furthermore, when our mind gives rise to an appearance of others in a way that does not correspond to their reality, we are unable to know them accurately in order to be of most help. Understanding the intimate relation between mind and reality, therefore, is essential for achieving both liberation and enlightenment, the goal of mahamudra practice.
The most commonly discussed fantasized and impossible manner of existence in Buddhism is literally called “true existence,” namely existence truly independent from a relation with mind. Since true existence is, paradoxically, false existence, referring to a manner of existence that is impossible and not at all real, we can perhaps avoid the confusion by using, instead, variations of the term “solid existence.”
We can begin to appreciate the complex relation between mind and reality by examining it from various points of view. For example, if we approach the topic in a practical, down-to-earth manner and call the actual way in which we and the universe exist “reality,” we live “in reality.” On the basis of our everyday experience of reality, we can know and perhaps understand it. This process can only occur through the medium of mind.
If directly experiencing and knowing reality is not sufficient to be able to understand it clearly and we also need to think about it, we can only do so through a conceptual scheme, which is a construct of mind. Furthermore, if we need to formulate and express to ourselves or others what reality is, we can only do so through words or symbols, which are also a construct of mind. Reality exists, but it is a fantasy to imagine that we can experience, understand, prove or describe it independently from the relationship between reality and mind. If we may borrow a term from post-modernist philosophy, we must “deconstruct” reality from being some solid thing “out there.”
If we ask how do phenomena exist, we have already involved mind in merely asking the question. Moreover, we can only answer this question by also involving mind. Suppose we reply, Yes, that is obvious, but on a theoretical level don’t things exist separately from mind? We would have to say that a theoretical level does not exist by itself, independently from a mind that is either formulating or at least thinking about it. We cannot say anything further about how a theoretical level exists, because to say anything involves language, which is a construct of mind.
In fact, as soon as we raise the issue of how things exist, we have entered the realm of description which can only be carried out by mind. But that does not mean that everything exists only in the mind and that the earth did not exist before there was life on it. An object need not be experienced by a specific mind at this moment in order to exist. But if we are going to talk about how things exist, or try to understand, prove and know it, we can only do so in relation to mind. Mahamudra starts on this premise.
We can formulate the relationship between mind and how things exist in several ways. There are two major approaches in mahamudra. Let us characterize them in very general terms. The first presents what exists in terms of phenomena being either mind or objects of mind – in other words, experience or the contents of experience. Phenomena, including minds, exist merely by virtue of the fact that mind can simply give rise to an appearance or occurrence of them as an object of cognition. We can establish that our children and love for them exist simply because we can know and experience them. The other major approach discusses what exists in terms of mental labeling, which means things exist as what they are simply in relation to words and what words refer to or signify. Phenomena exist as what they are by virtue of being simply the meaning of the words, mental labels or conceptual formulations of them. We can establish that our children and love exist simply because we can give them names that refer to them.
In neither case is the existence of phenomena established from their own side by virtue, for example, of an inherent, findable self-nature rendering them truly what they are, independently from any relation with mind. Our children do not exist as our children because they have some defining characteristic somewhere inside them making them inherently “our children” even if we ourselves never existed. And love does not exist by itself somewhere in the sky with a defining internal force empowering its existence. These are impossible, fantasized manners of existing, and all phenomena are devoid of existing in those ways. The absence of any phenomenon’s existing in impossible manners is called its voidness, or “emptiness.”
Each of these two approaches entails its own characteristic style of mahamudra meditation on the nature of reality. With the former, we focus on the mind that apprehends voidness as its object and come to realize that all appearances are the play of that mind. With the latter, we focus on voidness as an object of cognition, specifically on the voidness of mind, and come to realize that even mind itself exists merely by virtue of the fact that it can simply be labeled as “mind.” With the former, then, we focus on a mind that apprehends a certain object, while with the latter, on an object apprehended by a certain mind.
The Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug traditions of Tibet each transmit lineages of mahamudra presented in its own distinctive manner of explanation and with its own individual style of meditation. All derive from common sources in India transmitted to Tibet during the early eleventh century. Kagyu and some schools of Sakya present mahamudra in terms of the inseparability of appearance and mind. Gelug presents it in terms of mental labeling, while other schools of Sakya combine the two by first seeing the relation between objects of mind and mind itself, and then realizing the nature of mind itself in terms of mental labeling. Kagyu and Gelug present mahamudra methods involving both coarse and the most subtle levels of mind, whereas Sakya approaches this only from the point of view of the subtlest level. Kagyu explains two styles of mahamudra practice – one for those who progress through graded stages and the other for those for whom everything happens at once. Sakya and Gelug describe paths of practice for only the former. The Gelug tradition of mahamudra is known as Gelug-Kagyu because it uses Kagyu-style methods for recognizing the conventional nature of mind and then typically Gelug ones for its deepest nature. In the end, as the First Panchen Lama explains in A Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, each approach comes to the same intended realization and result. Each leads, on the basis of mind itself, to the elimination of all confusion and the realization of all potentials so that we can each be of fullest benefit to others.
In order to understand, appreciate and, if we are so inclined, eventually practice mahamudra methods, we need to see them within their appropriate context. Let us begin by outlining this context briefly in terms of the four facts in life that Buddha realized and taught, and which all aryas, or highly realized beings – “noble ones” – see as true. They are usually called the “four noble truths.”
Living in India two and a half thousand years ago, Buddha was a person who liberated himself from all confusion and thus became able to use all his potentials for the benefit of others. He achieved this state of enlightenment basically by understanding reality, namely what is true in life. First he saw the truth of suffering. The standard way of expressing this first true fact, however, that “life is suffering,” sounds rather ominous and pessimistic. It does not quite convey the intention. He saw, in fact, that no one who looks at life truthfully could deny that it is difficult.
Nothing in life is ever easy. It is not easy to live in society, make a living or raise a family. As trying as these normal aspects of life may be, we tend to make them even more difficult than necessary. For example, we become so nervous, upset and worried about everything that we do not handle life’s trials as well or as gracefully as we could. Always tense, we make not only ourselves, but everyone around us miserable.
Buddha explained that the deepest cause of our making life more difficult than need be is our unawareness, or “ignorance.” This is the second true fact of life – the true cause of suffering. Unawareness can be about either behavioral cause and effect or reality, and we can be unaware of each by either simply not knowing about it or, in addition, apprehending it in an incorrect manner. “Apprehending,” usually translated as “grasping,” means to cognize an object in a certain way. Since apprehending reality in an incorrect manner is the root cause of our difficulties in life, we shall refer to unawareness in this context as “confusion about reality.”
Being confused about reality, we naturally feel insecure and are nervous and tense. We tend to make such heavy ordeals out of everyday things in our life, such as driving to work or putting the children to bed, that we feel constantly stressed. Of course we need to be concerned about life and take care of our responsibilities, but there is never any need to handicap ourselves with compulsive worry and chronic anxiety. They only prevent us from effectively dealing with life. They certainly do not lead to happiness and peace of mind. To paraphrase the eighth century Indian master, Shantideva, “If there is something difficult in life that we can change, why be upset? Just change it. But if there is nothing that can be done, why be upset? It doesn’t help.”
When we are feeling tense, either about a specific situation, like being caught in traffic, or in an unlocalized manner, such as when in a bad mood, we tend to externalize our tension. This is not simply in the manner of communicating and perhaps spreading it to others. On a deeper level, we misapprehend our tension as something solid and project it onto all situations we are in. Our mind gives rise to an appearance of the traffic jam, and even of our getting up in the morning, as if they were themselves solid, monstrous ordeals. It gives rise to an appearance of them as though their very natures made them truly and inherently stressful, regardless of who might experience them. In addition to our mind automatically and unconsciously giving rise to appearances of things in that way, we may also dwell on these appearances with morbid, uncontrollably recurring thoughts, reinforcing our belief that these appearances are true reality. Everything feels so tense and stressful, it seems as if life were a bear-trap, somewhere “out there,” and we are caught tightly and inexorably in its cruel grip.
Buddha explained that this confusion about reality – our imagining that everything exists in the manner in which our mind gives rise to an appearance of it – is the root cause of our trouble. In this way we make difficult aspects of life even more difficult for ourselves. It does not appear to us that tension is merely an experience of a situation, but rather that it is truly and inherently part of the situation itself. If a situation were inherently stress-producing, there would be no way to avoid becoming stressed by it. As a personal experience of a situation, however, stress arises dependently on many personal facts and is not inevitable. Unless we understand this well, we condemn ourselves to unremitting stress.
Certainly it is difficult to live in a crowded city and be caught in traffic, noise and pollution each day, not to mention being prey to possible crime. No one can deny that. But when we construct a concrete, fixed mental image of the city as some fearful, horrible, tense place “out there,” impinging like a monster on poor me, the victim, “in here,” we make living there even more difficult. The city in our head that we project onto the streets seems even more concrete and solid than the actual city made of cement. In this way, our belief that our image is the actual reality generates all our tension and stress. Sadly, many people view not only where they live, but all of life like that.
Buddha taught that it is not inevitable that we experience such painful syndromes as this. It is possible for these syndromes and their causes to cease, not just temporarily, but forever. Their true stopping or ending, equivalent to their total removal, is the third true fact in life – the true “cessation” of suffering and its causes. If we eliminate the recurrence of the causes for suffering, we definitely experience the absence of the suffering that would have arisen as their results. Without a cause, a result cannot arise. Moreover, since the root cause of the recurrence of our problems is the confusion with which we imagine that things actually exist in the impossible manner in which our muddled mind deceptively makes them appear to exist, it is possible to eliminate the recurrence of this cause. This is because confusion cannot be verified. Based on fantasy, not fact, it lacks a stable foundation and cannot withstand close scrutiny. Therefore true endings can definitely occur.
In order to realize a true stopping of our problems and their causes, however, we must actively do something to bring it about. Otherwise, due to strong habit, we endlessly continue to make our life miserable – for instance by generating tension over and again. Since the root cause of our suffering is a confused state of mind, we need to replace it permanently with an unconfused state so that it never arises again. Such unconfused states of mind with which we see reality, are the fourth true fact in life – true pathways of mind, or true “paths.” It is not sufficient, therefore, merely to mask over the problem of stress, for example, by taking a tranquilizer or having a drink. We must rid ourselves, or “abandon” the confusion with which we believe that somehow the tension exists “out there.” We must replace confusion with correct understanding, for example with understanding that tension is a creation of mind.
Our attitudes of mind can be changed much more easily than the entire world. To paraphrase Shantideva once more in the context of his discussion of patience, “It is impossible to cover the entire rough surface of the world with leather. But, by covering the bottom of our feet with leather, we accomplish the same purpose.” Therefore, to liberate ourselves from our problems in life and be of best benefit to others, it is crucial to understand the nature of the reality of the appearances we experience and to do so in terms of their relationship with our mind. The mahamudra teachings present effective, sophisticated methods for accomplishing this aim.
If the first true fact is that life in general is not easy, we should certainly not expect that seeing the nature of our mind will be simple. The actual nature of mind, on any level, is not very obvious. Even to identify and recognize correctly what is mind is extremely difficult. Just to start to try to see it, we need strong motivation. We need to be clear about why we would like to see the nature of our mind. Let us briefly review the Buddhist presentation of the graded stages of motivation through which we progress to gain optimum success in this undertaking.
The foundation for any level of spiritual motivation is to take ourselves and the quality of our life seriously. Most people get up in the morning and either have to go to work or school, or stay home and take care of the house and children. At the end of the day, they are tired and try to relax by maybe having a beer and watching television. Eventually they go to sleep, and the next day get up and repeat the sequence. They spend their whole life trying to make money, raise a family and catch whatever fun and pleasure they can.
Although most people cannot alter this format of their life, they feel they also cannot change the quality of their experience of this format. Life has its ups, but also lots of downs, and it is all very stressful. They feel they are a tiny part of some solid, giant, mechanical structure they can do nothing about. They therefore go through life in a mechanical, passive manner, like a passenger on a life-long speeding roller coaster going up and down and round and round, assuming that not only the track, but also the tension and stress experienced while circling on it are an inevitable part of the ride that must always recur.
Since such experience of one’s life, despite its pleasures, can be very depressing, it is vitally essential to do something about it. Just drinking ourselves into oblivion each night, or seeking constant entertainment and distraction such as by having music or television on all the time, or incessantly playing computer games so that we never have to think about our life, is not going to eliminate the problem. We must take ourselves seriously. This means to have respect for ourselves as a human being. We are not just a piece of machinery or a helpless passenger on the fixed ride of life that is sometimes smooth, but all too often bumpy. We need, therefore, to look more closely at what we are experiencing each day. And if we see that we are stressed by the tension of our city, household or office, not just accept this as something inevitable.
Our living, work and home environments, including the attitudes and behavior of others in them, merely provide the circumstances in which we live out our lives. The quality of our life, however – what we ourselves, not anybody else, are experiencing right now – is the direct result of our own attitudes and the behavior they generate, not anybody else’s. This is clear from the fact that not everyone in the same environment experiences it in the same manner.
Admittedly, some environments are more difficult than others, for instance living in a war zone, and we must be always alert to avoid real danger. But alertness is different from tension, and the latter does not necessarily need to accompany the former. If, however, we feel that our tension is inescapable, we do not even try to overcome it. We condemn ourselves to an extremely unpleasant experience of life. It does not have to be that way.
If we are feeling very nervous all the time, the first step toward doing something to remedy the situation, then, is to take ourselves and the quality of our life seriously. Suppose we are walking down the street and we step on a bug and partially crush, but have not actually killed it. If we continue walking and ignore the bug’s experience of its leg being crushed or severed, we do so because we do not take the insect and its life seriously. We have no respect for it. If we treat ourselves no better than we do a bug and ignore our innermost pains and anguish, that is really pathetic.
Taking ourselves seriously means actually looking at how we are experiencing our life and, if there is something unsatisfactory about it, admitting it to ourselves. Our tension and stress do not go away by denying them or avoiding taking an honest look. And admitting that something is amiss is not the same as complaining about it and feeling sorry for ourselves. Nor does it imply that something is fundamentally wrong with us and we are guilty of being a bad person because we are nervous. Being objective, not melodramatic, and remaining non-judgmental are essential for any healing, spiritual process.
Once we take ourselves and the quality of our life seriously, and acknowledge the difficulties we may be experiencing, the next step is to have confidence that (1) it is possible to overcome them, (2) there is a way to accomplish this, and (3) we are capable of achieving it. This brings us to the topics of refuge and Buddha-nature.
Taking refuge is not a passive act of placing ourselves in the hands of a higher power that will do everything for us, as the English word “refuge” might imply. It is an active process of putting a safe, reliable and positive direction in our life. That direction is indicated by the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha – the Three Precious Gems. They are precious in the sense that they are both rare and valuable. Each has two levels of significance – interpretable and definitive – and a common representation. The interpretable level leads to the definitive one, while the representation serves as a focus for respect without providing an actual safe direction in and of itself.
The Buddhas are those who have eliminated all their confusion so that they are able to use their potentials fully to benefit others. On the definitive level, the safe direction of the Buddhas is provided by their dharmakaya or bodies encompassing everything – namely, their omniscient awareness and its nature, both of which encompass everything. The rupakaya or body of forms that Buddhas manifest serve as the interpretable level, while Buddha statues and paintings are the representation of the first precious gem.
On the definitive level, the Dharma source of direction refers to the complete removal, or total absence of obstacles, and the full attainment of good qualities the Buddhas have achieved. Its interpretable level is what they indicate that helps us achieve the same ourselves, namely their scriptural pronouncements and realizations. These are represented by Dharma texts.
The definitive level of the Sangha source of direction is the internal community, within the mind, of total removals, or “cessations” of obstacles, and attainments of good qualities. Specifically, it is the community of these gathered together by all aryas – those who have straightforwardly and nonconceptually seen reality – as they progress further along the spiritual path. Its interpretable level is the community of aryas, both lay and monastic, with some token of these true removals and attainments. The general community of monastics represents them.
In short, the definitive level of the Three Precious Gems of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, presents the goal we would like to achieve. Their interpretable level indicates what we rely on, externally, to bring ourselves there. But we also have internal factors that we need to rely on as well. These refer to our Buddha-nature.
We are capable of eliminating our problems and achieving the definitive Three Precious Gems because everyone has Buddha-nature, namely the various factors, or working materials that make it possible. Of all our natural resources, the most important is mind. We all have a mind which, in its nature, is unhampered by anything from experiencing whatever exists. No matter what happens – no matter how confused, stressed or unhappy we may be – we experience it. Even death is something that we experience when it occurs. Therefore, because we have a mind that allows us to experience whatever exists, we have the basic resource that allows us to experience a total absence of confusion and a utilization of all possible good qualities for helping others – provided that such a total absence and utilization actually exist. In other words, if we can establish that it is possible for these two things to exist – and that they are not just objects of nice, but totally unrealistic wishes – we can be confident that we are capable of attaining to them, simply because we have a mind.
We can experience things without confusion and without being tense. Even the most disturbed, nervous person has moments of clarity and calmness – even if only when he or she is peacefully asleep and dreaming pleasant or innocuous dreams. This demonstrates that confusion and tension are not integral parts of the nature of mind. Thus confusion can be removed. Not only can it be removed, but since confusion cannot be validated and can be totally replaced by understanding, which can be verified, confusion can be eliminated forever. Thus it is possible for a total absence of confusion to exist. Furthermore, since confusion limits mind from using its full potentials, once confusion is gone, a utilization of all potentials can also exist. Therefore, since we all have a mind, and all minds have the same nature of being able to experience whatever exists, we can all realize and experience the definitive Three Precious Gems.
Thus, if we aim to remove our confusion and realize our potentials as indicated by the Buddhas, their achievement, their teachings, what they have built up along the path and those who are progressing along it, we are traveling through life with a safe, reliable and positive direction. Taking refuge, then, means to put this realistic, safe direction in our life. Without it, our practice of mahamudra either has no direction and leads nowhere, or an unsound direction leading to more confusion and trouble. In addition, the further we travel in this safe direction through the mahamudra methods – in other words, the more we realize the nature of mind and its relation to reality – the more confident we become in the soundness of this direction and our ability to reach its goal. The stronger our confidence, the further we progress along the path.
To proceed in the safe direction of eliminating our confusion and realizing our potentials the way the Buddhas have done and the highly realized community is doing, we need to understand that all life’s experiences arise through a complex process of cause and effect. What we are experiencing now has come about from causes and will produce effects. For example, we may discover that we are often unhappy and have little peace of mind. This may be because most of the time we feel nervous and stressed, and this is because we run around constantly and never relax or take time out for ourselves. We need to realize that if we continue to lead our life in this manner, we are going to experience the same unhappiness and tension, if not worse, in the future. Therefore, if we wish to avoid having a nervous breakdown, we take responsibility upon ourselves to modify our behavior. This is how we travel in a safe and positive direction in life. We need to pay closer attention to our state of mind and try to relax. We try to stop running constantly, for example, and take time each day to sit in a hot bath and calm down.
Thus, at this first stage of our development, our dread of our situation becoming worse motivates us to try to understand the nature of our mind. Taking ourselves seriously, we try to become increasingly aware of the state of our mind so that when it is tense we modify our behavior in order to affect what we feel. We do this because of our confidence in the laws of behavioral cause and effect. To experience something better in life, we realize we must enact their causes.
Although taking a hot bath may make us feel slightly better and our tension subside for a little while, that does not really solve the problem. The next day we return to the same frantic pace, and our tension and unhappiness recur. We need to progress to a second level of motivation. We need to develop renunciation.
Since many people think of renunciation as a bit masochistic, as if it meant giving up all pleasure and comfort in life, we need to understand it properly. Renunciation has two aspects. The first is a strong determination to free ourselves totally from both our problems and their causes. It is important to stress here that we do not simply wish for someone else to free us, but that we are determined to free ourselves. Moreover, we are determined to rid ourselves of not merely our problems, but their causes as well so that they never recur. That does not mean simply being willing to take some superficial measure, like swallowing a pill or taking a hot bath, so that we receive temporary relief. We are willing to probe very deeply to discover and root out the innermost cause of our difficulties in life.
It requires a great deal of courage to probe deeply to reach the actual source of our problems. We gain the strength of that courage, however, from being totally disgusted and bored with the poor quality of what we are experiencing in life – our constant unhappiness and tension, for example. With renunciation, we decide we have had enough of them. We must definitely break out of their grip.
The second aspect corresponds more closely to the Western notion of renunciation. We are determined not only to free ourselves, but in order to do so, we are willing to sacrifice something. This does not refer to forgoing something trivial, like television or ice cream, or even giving up something not at all trivial, like making love with our marriage partner, or ever relaxing and having fun. We need to let go of our problems and all levels of their causes.
We might be willing to give up the problem, for instance of being unhappy, because it is painful. But to let go of even the first levels of the causes of our problems is a different matter. The usual first level cause of our problems is our self-destructive personality traits. We must be willing to sacrifice these. We need to give up our attachments, anger, selfishness and, in this case, our nervousness, tension and constant worrying. If we are not totally willing to forego these disturbing factors that are causing our problems, we can never be rid of our unhappiness. It is much more difficult to give up worrying than it is to stop smoking or watching television. But this is what we focus on when we try to develop renunciation.
Many people who approach the practice of Buddhism are willing to sacrifice one or two hours of their day in order to perform some ritual practice or engage in meditation. Time is relatively easy to give up, even though their life may be very busy. But, they are not willing to change anything of their personality – they are not willing to forego anything of their negative character. With this type of approach to Buddhism, it hardly matters how much meditation we do, our practice remains merely a hobby or a sport. It does not touch our lives. In order actually to overcome our problems, we have to be willing to change – namely change our personality. We need to renounce and rid ourselves of those negative aspects of it that are causing us so much trouble.
This requires even more courage – a tremendous amount of courage – to forge ahead into new territory in our life. But it definitely is possible to have such courage, even though it may be a bit frightening at first. For instance, the water in a pool might be very cold. But if, in the summer, we are sufficiently hot and sweaty, then because we are so disgusted with being uncomfortable, we have the courage to jump into the water. We are willing to give up, to renounce, not only being sweaty, but the cause of the discomfort, namely our being in the hot sun and not in the pool. When we first jump into the pool, of course it is cold. It is a great shock to our system, but we soon become used to the water. In fact, we discover that it is much more comfortable than standing on the side of the pool and sweating. So, it is quite possible to have this courage, this determination to be free of our negative qualities and this courage to be willing to give them up.
We must also have the courage to probe ever deeper into the source of our problems. Being nervous, tense and worried, for example, is both a cause of unhappiness as well as the result of something deeper. With the first level motivation, we modify our behavior in order to avoid our problem from becoming worse. We try to stop running around all the time and do something to relax as an initial measure to reduce and relieve our stress and tension. But now, in addition, we must discover the inner process behind the tension.
When we investigate more deeply, we realize that our running around is either the result of our tension or the circumstance in which our tension is manifesting. However, it is not the actual cause of our tension. There is something deeper happening that is responsible for this state of mind we have while running around – we are constantly worried, for example. But we must also delve even deeper to discover why we are so anxious and worried all the time.
The nature of reality is that the contents of what we experience, such as sights, sounds, thoughts and emotions, are all objects that arise dependently on a mind. They do not exist independently “out there,” separately from the process of a mind experiencing them. Traffic is quite different from the sight of traffic reflected on the retina of our eyes in connection with visual cognition. What we actually experience is the latter, the sight of the traffic, while the former, the traffic itself, is merely what we call, in Buddhist analysis, the focal or objective condition for the experience of traffic. It is what the experience is aimed at, but not what actually appears to the mind experiencing it. Furthermore, our mind gives rise not simply to the appearance that constitutes the contents of our experience, but also to an appearance of a manner of existence of these contents that normally does not correspond to reality.
Normally, we fixate on the contents of our experience and imagine, or misapprehend that they exist independently from their being merely what a mind gives rise to in one way or another as part of an experience. Fixated upon these contents and imagining they exist solidly “out there” – as they appear to be – we become nervous and worried about them, which is the source of our tension and thus our unhappiness. This is because if we believe they are actually “out there,” there is little we can do about them. So we feel helpless and hopeless.
With the mahamudra methods, we shift our focus from the contents of our experience to the process of experience itself and, from that point of view, understand the relation between mind and the reality we experience. This allows us to deconstruct our experience and its contents from being solid and frightening to something fluid and manageable. To make this shift of perspective requires strong renunciation of our morbid fixation on the contents of our experience and the way in which we imagine them to exist. Thus there can be no practice of mahamudra without a proper development of renunciation.
To develop the most advanced level motivation, we consider how our nervousness and tension are adversely affecting others, for instance our children and friends. Our disturbed state of mind is not only preventing us from being able to help them effectively, it is making them as well feel nervous and tense. Only if we overcome all our confusion and realize all our potentials are we able to help them most effectively. In other words, to help them fully we must become an enlightened Buddha ourselves. In this manner, through our concern for others, we develop a dedicated heart of bodhichitta – a heart that is set on achieving enlightenment in order to benefit everyone.
Both overcoming confusion and realizing potentials require seeing the nature of mind. Mind is the basis for all confusion, as well as the foundation for all good qualities. Thus, with a dedicated heart of bodhichitta as motivation, our concern for others causes us to feel we absolutely have to overcome all our problems and limitations, for example chronic worry and tension, and realize all our potentials by seeing the nature of mind. We have no alternative. We must do so urgently because we cannot bear our inability, otherwise, to be of benefit to anyone, not even ourselves.
Bodhichitta is not only the strongest motivation providing the greatest strength for mahamudra practice, but cultivating it as our state of mind helps in yet other ways to enhance this practice. Technically, bodhichitta is a heart or mind taking enlightenment as its object and accompanied by two strong intentions – to achieve that enlightenment and to benefit all beings by means of that achievement. Unless we are Buddhas, however, we cannot possibly know enlightenment directly and nonconceptually. We can only focus on enlightenment through the medium of an idea of it, or something that represents it such as the visualized image of a Buddha.
Before we are a Buddha ourselves, however, we can focus on and know directly and nonconceptually our Buddha-nature, namely the factors that allow us to attain enlightenment – specifically, the nature of our mind. The nature of mind is not stained by any disturbing emotions, confusion or even their instincts, and is the foundation for all good qualities for helping others, such as omniscient awareness and total concern for others. Thus the nature of mind can also serve as a representation of enlightenment for the purpose of meditation.
Focusing on the nature of our mind, then, with the strong intention to realize it and to benefit all beings by means of that realization, can serve as a way to meditate on bodhichitta. Such practice is known as cultivating the ultimate or deepest level bodhichitta, while focusing conceptually on enlightenment itself through any other image is the practice of relative or conventional bodhichitta. Thus the deepest level bodhichitta practice is, in fact, the practice of mahamudra.
Concern for others to be happy and compassion for them to be free from their suffering are needed not only as the basis for a bodhichitta motivation for mahamudra practice, but also for keeping that practice on correct course to its intended goal. When we have changed our focus in life from the contents of our experience to the process of experience, there is great danger of becoming fixated on mind itself. This is because the direct experience of mind itself is totally blissful – in a calm and serene sense – and entails extraordinary clarity and starkness. Concern for others is one of the strongest forces for bringing us back down to earth from being up in the clouds. Although all appearances exist as a function of mind, other beings do not exist merely in our head. Their suffering is real and it hurts them just as much as ours does us.
Furthermore, to be concerned about someone does not mean to be frantically worried about this person. If we are fixated on our child’s problems at school, for example, we loose sight that whatever appearance of the problems our mind gives rise to is a function of mind. Believing the appearance to be the solid reality “out there,” we again feel hopeless to do anything and thus become extremely anxious and tense. We worry to the point of becoming sick and we over-react toward our child, which does not help. If we focus instead on the process of mind that gives rise to our perception of the problem as if it existed as some horrible monster “out there,” we do not eliminate our concern for our child, only our worry. This allows us to take whatever clear and calm action is necessary to alleviate the problem. Thus not only is compassion necessary for successful practice of mahamudra, but mahamudra realization is necessary for successful practice of compassion.