Mahamudra and Dzogchen: Thought-Free Wakefulness
by Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche
Meditation training, in the sense of sustaining the nature of mind, is a way of being free from clinging and the conceptual attitude of forming thoughts, and therefore free from the causes of samsara: karma and disturbing emotions. Please do not believe that liberation and samsara is somewhere over there: it is here, in oneself. Thought is samsara. Being free of thought is liberation. When we are free of thinking, we are free of thought. The problem is that the causes for further samsara are being created continuously. We spin through the six realms and undergo a lot of suffering.
Compared to the other life forms in samsara, we human beings do not suffer that much. We don’t experience the unbearable, overwhelming suffering that countless other beings do. But for some humans, their mental or physical pain may be unbearable. If we continue to allow our ordinary thinking to run wild, we cannot predict what is lined up for us in the future, where we will end up, in what shape or form. The bottom line is this: we need to know how to dissolve thoughts.
Ego-clinging is simply a thought. Clinging to the notion of self is a thought. Clinging to the notion of other is also a thought. Clinging to duality is a thought. The concept of good is a thought, and the concept of evil is a thought. A neutral concept is also a thought. Whenever there is thought, it follows that there is clinging. The attitude of clinging follows the tracks of the three poisons — passion, aggression and ignorance. Since the formation of thought involves the three poisons, that means that thinking causes samsara, the endless suffering of cyclic existence. Whenever there is involvement in thought, our experience will be samsaric. Deluded thinking is the root of samsara .
Deluded thinking forms karma and disturbing emotions. When there is thinking, there are the acts of accepting and rejecting, of pleasure and of pain. The circumstances may be external, but the thinker is this mind within. Beauty and ugliness appear to belong to external objects. However, that which creates the beauty or the ugliness is actually the forming of a concept in this mind, here. Also, the liking and the disliking of what is considered beautiful or ugly are actions taken by this mind. The circumstance is the sense object, but the main factor is our mind.
In order for all six classes of beings [gods, asuras, humans, animals, pretas and hell beings] to be totally free of the entirety of samsara, we need to solve the problem of the thinking that forms the causes that propel us around through the various realms. We understand that thinking is delusion. However, to want to be free and at the same time to want to hang on to conceptual thinking is a contradiction in terms. It is something that will not happen. It is an impossible task.
The bottom line is this: we need to know how to dissolve thoughts. Without knowing this, we cannot eliminate karma and disturbing emotions. And therefore the karmic phenomena do not vanish; deluded experience does not end. We understand also that one thought cannot undo another thought. The only thing that can do this is thought-free wakefulness. This is not some state that is far away from us: thought-free wakefulness actually exists together with every thought, inseparable from it — but the thinking obscures or hides this innate actuality. Thought-free wakefulness is immediately present the very moment the thinking dissolves, the very moment it vanishes, fades away, falls apart. Isn’t this true?
The Buddha described in detail that we can have 84,000 different types of emotions. In a condensed way, there are six root emotions and twenty subsidiary ones. An even shorter categorisation of thoughts is that of the three poisons. Whatever the number of types of emotions or thoughts, the Buddha taught how to eliminate all of these by giving 84,000 sections of the dharma.
Perhaps you do not have the time to study and learn all these teachings, or maybe you don’t have the desire, the ability or the intelligence to do so. In this case, the Buddha and the bodhisattvas very skillfully condensed the teachings into a very concise form. This is called the tradition of pith instructions that deals with overcoming all the disturbing emotions simultaneously. The basic instruction here is to understand that all of these emotions are merely thoughts. Even ego-clinging and dualistic fixation is simply a thought. The pointing-out instruction given by a master to qualified students shows how to dissolve the thought and how to recognise the nature of the thinker, which is our innate thought-free wakefulness.
The root of confusion is thinking, but the essence of the thinking is thought-free wakefulness. As often as possible, please compose yourselves in the equanimity of thought-free wakefulness. It is said, “Samsara is merely thought, so freedom from thought is liberation.” Great masters explain this in more detail, because simply being thoughtless is not necessarily liberation in the sense of thought-free wakefulness. To be unconscious, to faint, to be oblivious, is surely not liberation. If those states were liberation, attainment would be swift since it is very easy to be mindless. That would be a cheap liberation!
Simply suspend your thinking within the nonclinging state of wakefulness: that is the correct view. One important point about the teachings on mind essence is that they need to be simple and easy to train in. Particularly in Mahamudra and Dzogchen practice, the view is said to be open and carefree. The less you cling and grasp, the more open and free it is. It is the nature of things. The less rigid our conceptual attitude is, the freer the view.
The mind is empty, cognisant, united, unformed. Please make the meanings of these words something that points at your own experience. You can also say the mind is the “unformed unity of empty cognisance.” These are very precious and profound words. “Empty” means that essentially this mind is something that is empty. This is easy to agree on: we cannot find it as a thing. It is not made empty by anyone, including by us — it is just naturally empty, originally so.
At the same time, we also have the ability to know, to cognise, which is also something natural and unmade. These two qualities, being empty and cognisant, are not separate entities. They are an indivisible unity. This unity itself is also not something that is made by anyone. It is not a unity of empty cognisance that at some point arose, remains for a while and later will perish. Being unformed, it does not arise, does not dwell, and does not cease. It is not made in time. It is not a material substance. Anything that exists in time or substance is an object of thought. This unformed unity of empty cognisance is not made of thought; it is not an object of thought.
Whenever there is an idea based in time or substance, its upkeep becomes very complex; it takes a lot to sustain or maintain its validity. This unformed basic nature, however, is very simple, not complicated at all. So many complications are created based on concepts of time and substance — so much hope and fear. Honestly, substance and time never did exist; they never do exist, nor will they ever exist in the future, either. The conceptualisation of time and substance is the habit of the thinking mind. Although right now time and substance do not exist, it seems to the thinking mind as if they do.
Concerning substance, if you look around, it seems like everything is solidly and precisely there. In the experience of a real yogi, time and substance do not exist, of course. Even a scholar can, through intelligent reasoning, feel convinced about this fact. When we think that which is not, is, then, it seems to be. As perceived by a buddha, however, all the experiences that samsaric beings have are no more substantial than dreams. It all looks like dreaming.
At the very foundation of Vajrayana practice lie two principles: devotion and pure perception. We should have devotion towards the unmistaken natural state, in the sense of sincerely appreciating that which is truly unmistaken, unconfused, never deluded. In reality, the nature of all things is totally pure. Impurity occurs only due to temporary concepts. That is the reason why one should train in pure perception.
In this context, there are three levels of experience: the deluded experience of sentient beings, the meditative experience of yogis, and the pure experience of buddhas. Whenever there is dualistic mind, there is deluded experience. The deluded experience of sentient beings is called impure because it is involved with karma and disturbing emotions. In deluded experience, there is the attempt to accept and reject; there is hope and fear. Hope and fear are painful: that is suffering. Whenever there is thinking, there is hope and fear. Whenever there is hope and fear, there is suffering.
The meditative experience of a yogi is free of giving in to ordinary thought. It is something other than being involved in normal thinking. We can call it the state of shamatha or vipashyana or other names, but basically it is unlike ordinary thinking. The meditative experiences of a yogi are good and they become evident because of letting mind settle in equanimity. The most famous of these meditative moods are called bliss, clarity and nonthought. They occur during vipashyana meditation, but they can arise even during shamatha practice. Through meditation training, the mind becomes more clarified, more lucid. But if we are not connected with a qualified master and if we do not know the right methods of dealing with these meditative states, we may believe that we are somehow incredibly realised beings. That becomes a hindrance; it can even turn into a severe obstacle.
The Mahamudra path is presented as the twelve aspects of the four yogas. These four yogas of Mahamudra constitute the path of liberation. The first of these, one-pointedness , essentially means that you can remain calmly undisturbed for as long as you want. The next yoga is simplicity , and means to recognise your natural face as being ordinary mind, free from basis and free from root: “Simplicity is rootless and baseless ordinary mind.” We need to develop the strength of this recognition; otherwise, we are as helpless as a small child on a battlefield. We train by means of mindfulness, first effortful, then effortless. We train in simplicity at lesser, medium and higher levels, and then arrive at one taste , the third of the four yogas of Mahamudra. One taste means that the duality of experience dissolves, that all dualistic notions such as samsara and nirvana dissolve into the state of nondual awareness.
Having perfected one taste through the levels of the lesser, medium and higher stages, the fourth yoga is nonmeditation. This is the point at which every type of conviction and the fixing of the attention on something completely dissolves. All convictions and habitual tendencies have dissolved and are left behind. One has captured the dharmakaya throne of nonmeditation.
In the beginning one needs to be convinced about how reality is: one needs to have confidence in the view. Ultimately, however, any form of conviction is still a subtle obscuration, still a hindrance. At the final stage of nonmeditation, all types of habitual tendencies and convictions need to be dissolved, left behind. There is nothing more to cultivate, nothing more to reach. One has arrived at the end of the path. All that needs to be purified has been purified. Karma, disturbing emotions and the habitual tendencies have all been cleared up, so that nothing is left.
The path is necessary as long as we have not arrived. The moment we arrive, however, the need for the road to get there has fallen away. As long as we are not at our destination, then it is also necessary to have the concept of path in order to get there. But once the destination has been reached, once whatever needs to be cultivated has been cultivated and whatever needs to be abandoned has been left behind, the whole need for path is over. That is what is meant by nonmeditation, literally non-cultivation. This is the dharmakaya [the formless body of ultimate reality, one of the three bodies (kayas) of Buddha] throne of nonmeditation. In Dzogchen, the exhaustion of all concepts and phenomena is the ultimate level of experience. This is the state of complete enlightenment. Both these levels of realisation are equal to that of all buddhas.
At this point, for oneself, there is exclusively pure experience. At the same time, other beings are still perceived, along with their impure, deluded experiences. Take the example of the six classes of beings. When their experiences are compared with each other, each being will feel that his or her way of experiencing is more profound than the realm below. In general, everyone thinks that what they experience is real. The difference in the experiencing of the different realms is the difference in the density of their karma and obscurations. The less dense the karma, the closer to real experience. Compared to the ordinary samsaric sentient being, the meditative experience of a yogi is more real, more pure. But compared to that, the pure experience of a buddha is more real and more pure still.
We need to dissolve impure deluded experience. Deluded experience comes from not knowing the nature of mind; it comes from unknowing, from being ignorant of the natural state. When not knowing our nature, we are sentient beings. Ignorance clears when knowing the natural state, the state of a buddha. While not knowing, there is the forming of karma and disturbing emotions. While knowing, karma and disturbing emotions are not formed. If, in the very moment of knowing innate nature and sustaining the continuity of that, you were to never stray again, then you would be a buddha.
Buddhist philosophy has many splendid words to describe what happens. The Chittamatra, or mind-only school, presents a threefold classification of reality as the imaginary, the dependent and the absolute. In the Dzogchen teachings, ignorance is described as having three aspects: conceptual ignorance, coemergent ignorance and the single-nature ignorance. These are all very nice words. Basically, it is in the state of not knowing that confusion can take place. Not knowing our own essence is confusion. The essence of what thinks is dharmakaya. The thinking itself is not dharmakaya, but the identity of that which thinks is dharmakaya. Thinking is thought. Thinking is not the thought-free state. It is the identity of that which thinks that is thought-free.
Whether we use the terms mind-essence, the primordially pure state of cutting through, original coemergent wisdom, or the Great Middle Way of definitive meaning, one point is true: at the moment of not being involved in thought, you spontaneously have arrived at the true view, automatically.
There are two ways to approach the view. One is through scriptural statements and reasoning, and the other is through experience. The first way is called “establishing the view through statement and reasoning.” Although we want to train in Mahamudra or Dzogchen, still, without some feeling of certainty about the view obtained through studying and through our own reasoning, it is not that easy to be sure.
It is sometimes possible to transmit or communicate the view without using any scriptural statements, but this requires that a totally qualified master possessing the nectar of learning, reflection and meditation meets with a qualified disciple who is receptive. There are three types of transmission. The first two, the mind transmission of buddhas and the symbolic transmission of the knowledge-holders, are like that. Mind transmission uses not even a single word or gesture, no sign. Yet, something is communicated — the wisdom of realisation is communicated and fully recognised. Symbolic transmission uses no more than a word or sentence — no explanations, just a gesture — to point out the wisdom of realisation and have it recognised. The third type is the hearing lineage, which uses a very brief spoken teaching.
In these times we are in, most people would have a hard time if we were only to use mind transmission, symbolic transmission or hearing transmission with nothing else, no explanation. Explanation is generally necessary in order to point out the natural state. There are two ways to do so. One of these is the analytical approach of a scholar; the other is the resting meditation of a simple meditator. There are some people who can trust a master and be introduced to the natural state without using any lengthy explanations. For other people, this is not enough. Then it is necessary to use scriptural references and intelligent reasoning in order to establish certainty in the view. But after arriving at the intellectual understanding of the true view, the scholar still needs to receive the blessings of a qualified master and to receive the pointing-out instruction from such a master.