Mahamudra by The Great Path to Enlightenment (Part 2 of 3)
by Khenchen Sherab Gyaltsen Amipa
4. THE PATH
The path consists of the practice of the six paramitas as well as samatha practice – extraordinary or uncommon meditative concentration (Tibetan: shiney) and vipashyana – extraordinary or uncommon insight (Tibetan: lhag-tong).
THE SIX PARAMITAS OR PERFECTIONS
The practice of the paramitas goes back to the Hinayana, the vehicle of the Shravakas, that is, “those who seek solitary self- realisation” and the Pratyeka Buddhas.
Over and above this, but on the same moral basis, Mahayana Buddhism has developed various yoga practices.
We can give material things and, in the mental sphere, give help or advice. If someone is ill, we can give medicine and care. If someone is in a difficult situation, it is possible through mind training to help find a solution to their problem. However, we should always give with a pure motivation.
MORALITY OR SILA
Morality means the practice of the ten virtues with which we protect our minds against false ideas.
There are different kinds of morality: that which applies to monks or the Upasaka morality. Upasaka in Sanskrit refers to the precepts for lay people. When we receive an initiation, we are also under an obligation to observe the fourteen Mahayana rules or precepts. An initiation (or “empowerment”) is an enabling process, giving us the means to transform our body, speech and mind.
The fourteen Mahayana precepts are:
1. Follow the directions of your Mahayana teacher. Cause him no suffering. If we have a spiritual master our respect for him creates a deep bond, especially if we receive empowerments from him. An initiation (empowerment) from our spiritual master means that we receive it with all the instructions of the guru’s lineage.
2. Follow the rules of the tantric texts. As Buddhists we believe in the teachings of the Buddha and the Dharma. Mahayana rules and Hinayana rules are very different. If we have received the Mahayana rules we do not need to follow all the Hinayana rules since the Mahayana rules are more inclusive.
3. Keep a good relationship with your Dharma friends, particularly those with whom you have received initiation. We are all related in the Dharma, we belong to the same initiatory mandala. When we have received the same initiation, a spiritual connection is created through having the same guru. If we do not feel like a family, we have broken the rule.
4. Feel Bodhicitta and compassion for all living beings. We develop compassion towards all living beings and try to trouble no-one’s happiness or peace. If we forget this deep compassion or disturb the peace and happiness of even one single being, the rule is broken.
5. Bodhicitta is the basis of all religions. We cannot practise religion without Bodhicitta. Since the essence of Dharma is Bodhicitta, we must study the meaning of Bodhicitta as closely as possible and imprint it in our mind. Bodhicitta is the truth, the foundation of Dharma practice; we must have complete trust in it, otherwise the mind becomes weak. Without this trust, the rule is broken.
6. Preserve your own tradition, but do not assert that any one school or practice is the only correct path or way to practise the Dharma. We have respect for Hinayana and Mahayana as well as for other religions, and also for Tantrayana and the Sutras as far as the Buddhist path is concerned. We should not denigrate our own religion or that of others; otherwise, the rule is broken.
7. Do not discuss secret meanings or texts with people who have not had the necessary initiations. We should not explain the Mahayana path to those who have neither faith nor respect. We do not speak about the secret Tantras; otherwise, the tantric rule is broken.
8. Do not disturb someone who is meditating. When we meditate we become the body of the Buddha and should not disturb others or ourselves in the process (for example, by entertaining negative thoughts). In meditation we become the five Dhyani Buddhas and should have deep respect for this practice. We should be very careful to act correctly in this; otherwise, the rule is broken.
9. Do not doubt the Dharma teachings. All Dharma practice is true. Have no doubt about it; otherwise, the rule is broken.
10. Do not have any connection with people who harm other living beings. If someone wittingly disturbs others in any way whatsoever, advise that person to desist. We should always offer good thoughts and explanations because we already have a guru to show us the meaning of the Dharma and of religion. If we behave wrongly, we break the rule.
11. Do not interpret Dharma teachings in your own way. We must have respect for the purity of the Dharma. We are aware that we obtain happiness through holy religion and Dharma practice. If we do not think in this way, we experience no happiness and the rule is broken.
12. Do not try to convert people who believe in another religion. We should not wish to convert to our belief anyone who practises a different religion with deep faith. We leave them on their own path; otherwise, the rule is broken.
13. We should not allow people who do not practise the Dharma to see religious symbols such as the vajra (Tibetan: dorje) and the bell. We should not show holy objects to nonpractitioners nor should we explain any of their particularities. Once they have been offered, offerings are no longer material things but blessing and nectar. If any offering falls to the ground we should not step on it because it represents a blessing. Thankas should also not be shown to those who have no faith; otherwise, the rule is broken.
14. Do not despise or humiliate women for they are the symbol of wisdom. The dakinis, such as Vajrayogini, symbolise wisdom. We show respect to them; otherwise, the rule is broken.
We should exercise patience in our cohabitation with others and in our practice. If we only practise now and then it is not enough. Practice must be regular. The quality of patience is important. The essence of Buddha’s teaching is loving compassion. This is what we need to gain first, and for this we need four different kinds of patience, for instance:
If someone speaks harshly to us, we do not speak harshly in return.
If someone slanders us, we do not slander in return, but remain patient and without bitterness.
If someone is angry with us, we should stay calm and be as loving as possible.
Even if some one strikes us, we should not return their blows.
We should also be patient with ourselves when we experience disturbances in our practice. We should accept these disturbances and try to find out their cause.
First of all we must be clear about the precious nature of human existence and of the time given us to live. We may think, seeing the immense number of people on this planet, that it is not extraordinary to be re-born as a human. This is not so. There are indeed many people, but in most of them the qualities and skills needed for Dharma practice are not strongly developed. All living beings do have Buddha-nature yet we can only really practise if we have a human body. This is why our life is precious and we should make use of it.
We can all of us reach Buddhahood in a single lifetime. Many people find this hard to believe, yet it depends entirely and solely on good practice and understanding. Therefore, in our daily lives we should act for the benefit of other living beings and should be careful not to harm anybody. We should closely examine who we are, what we do, and whether our mind is following the path of virtue or non-virtue. If we wish to avoid difficulty, we must renounce nonvirtuous activities. It may be that we are not clear about what is virtuous and what is not. Many people believe that it is virtuous to pray from morning to night. Though this is not without virtue, it is not what is most important. We achieve the best kind of virtue when the nature of our mind is so completely transformed that it has become gentle and full of compassion. Our actions are then virtuous whether we are sleeping, eating or working. Practice is not meditation alone; it colours all of our daily life. If our mind has acquired this quality, every meditation bears fruit.
With this understanding and practice, we develop diligence.
Concentration is called sam-den in Tibetan; this means unshakeable consciousness and also the capacity to keep an object in mind.
There are two types of concentration: common or ordinary and uncommon or extraordinary.
Common or ordinary concentration is involved when we carry out our work. From time to time other thoughts which have nothing to do with the job in hand may go through our head. Likewise, listening to Dharma teachings requires ordinary concentration. One can compare it to filling a cup. If we are not attentive we may spill the liquid, but if we are attentive, we can fill the cup up to the brim without losing a drop.
Even if we are directing our thoughts on to a holy object, this is still ordinary concentration.
Uncommon or extraordinary concentration means constant, attentive self-observation. In this, no false thoughts arise and we develop extraordinary understanding.
We learn how to observe our mind by first listening carefully to Dharma teachings, meditating on what we have heard, and testing and examining our thoughts. We should ask ourselves if we have any doubts. If so, we must find out where our doubt lies. There are many different possibilities. Doubt is always harmful since it hinders our development. If, for instance, we wish to leave our house but hesitate in the corridor before choosing the door which leads outside, we will never be able to go out, yet we will not be completely in the house either.
In order to put aside doubt it is important to develop wisdom.
Maybe we have doubts about the truth of karma. If so, we should remember that virtuous deeds result in joy and happiness, whereas non-virtuous deeds lead to discord and suffering. Observations such as these will resolve our doubts.
We can check whether our mind produces virtuous thoughts, and we should also observe whether our thoughts are free from ego (me-only) and attachment.
Often our consciousness is not sufficiently relaxed for this special concentration. The cause lies on the one hand in disturbances due to wrong thoughts, and on the other hand in our uncertainty as to what produces them. Good deep concentration combined with relaxation cannot be forced. But, if in our daily lives we avoid modes of behaviour that are harmful to ourselves and to others, this inner relaxation will come of itself.
In order to develop this extraordinary concentration we must practise shiney.
Uncommon or extraordinary insight (Sanskrit: vipashyana or Tibetan: lhag-tong) is wisdom. It is also called shunyata, that is, voidness. Shunyata is called tong-pa nyi in Tibetan. This also means emptiness, not complete emptiness but rather the absence of something. By this we mean the absence of disturbances or non-virtue. Shunyata means the correct view untouched by ego, attachment or ignorance. In other words, in this state we understand that our representation of ego is erroneous, that all phenomena are empty of the property of unconditional arising. Everything that exists in samsara arises through the convergence of different conditions which represent the cause of the existence of a living being. Nothing occurs independently, everything is dependent on cause and effect and this decides what the experience or the activity will be. When we reach shunyata it means that we have recognised and understood this interdependence, and our original mind, free from ignorance, can emerge. We sometimes speak of the inner light of wisdom which clears away the darkness of ignorance.
In order to reach this state, our most important task is to liberate ourselves from the two principal errors, that is, ego and attachment, for these are the greatest obstacles on our way to enlightenment. Those who concentrate on themselves in the erroneous view of the ego are limited in their room or scope. If we think only of ourselves the door to our prison is closed. If we open ourselves up to others we experience light and joy.
SHINEY OR SAMATHA
What is the meaning of shiney? shi means foundation, ney means to remain. Shiney practice means training in the ability to maintain our concentration on the object.
Shiney is the most important exercise if we wish to succeed in any yoga practice or meditation. Our commitment to our daily life, in our normal existence, also comes into play, for meditation alone is not enough. Buddha’s teaching always includes both the relative and the absolute path. The relative path is one method and means that we accept things existing outside of ourselves. The absolute path is the practice of Bodhicitta, shunyata and great meditative concentration. It leads to the realisation that all truth is endless.
When a house is being built we begin with the foundation, not the roof. This is what we must do in our practice, except that in this case we are building a mental house, not a material one.
In order to begin constructing this foundation, we must proceed through outer and inner preparation.
Whenever possible we should find a peaceful place with good fresh air and pure water and maintain a balanced diet. These are conditions which help the mind relax. We should then familiarise ourselves with the five obstacles which can be met in shiney practice and which we have to recognise and overcome.
THE FIVE OBSTACLES TO SHINEY PRACTICE
The first obstacle is laziness.
Laziness here has a special meaning. In daily life, laziness results in not doing what we should do. In this case, however, laziness means that we take no interest in karma, virtue, and Dharma study. This hinders the development of the mind. If we wish to have at our disposal more compassion and wisdom in our next life, we must comply with the corresponding preparations in this one. If we do not reach enlightenment in this life, we will nevertheless be much nearer in the next. So laziness is the first obstacle in shiney practice and we try to avoid it.
The second obstacle is forgetfulness.
We need a good memory for shiney practice. A good memory is also useful in everyday life, but in our practice it acts as a protection. As long as we keep the teachings firmly in mind, they prevent us from taking a wrong path. Body, speech and mind commit no wrong acts.
If we do not listen attentively we run the risk of wrong practice. It would be as if we wanted to climb a mountain without using our hands. We would not get far. Someone who does not listen carefully cannot meditate properly.
There are several different kinds of teachings, for example, the normal oral teachings for practitioners. The most important kind is direct personal teaching, which is exclusively oral, from an experienced lama. A master has two types of knowledge: theoretical knowledge appropriated through the study of texts and personal experience gained through practice. The combination of the two enables the lama to give advice that is appropriate for the individual. We should always keep in mind the counsels we are given.
The third and fourth obstacles are lack of faith and lack of trust.
The Tibetan word for faith is ded-pa; this means that faith permeates everything: body as well as speech and mind. Trust is yi-che in Tibetan. With faith and trust permanently pervading our whole being, our practice will be powerful. Without these qualities we are like someone who is walking in a park and wishes to take a particular path. However, in spite of their deep-felt desire, if they are blind and cannot see, they may well go in the wrong direction.
Likewise, the result is not the same if we act with faith and trust alone or with the addition of knowledge or with none of these qualities. For knowledge, faith and trust are like the light of our eyes, the vision of the stroller in the park.
Faith depends on reliable knowledge of the quality of a fact or an object, such as, for instance, the Three Jewels when we take refuge. When we recognize the quality of the Guru or the Buddha and understand the meaning of the Dharma and the activity of the Sangha, then faith grows within us quite spontaneously. The better our understanding, the deeper our faith. Faith therefore is not a blind acquiescence in the truth of something that we do not know, but the conviction we have gained through constant trial.
In this sense we can develop faith and trust in ourselves. Thus we gain this faith and trust and a clearer understanding of our own mind.
The fifth obstacle is lack of attention.
Sometimes we can become sleepy during our practice and lose our clarity of mind. When we observe this we need a powerful antidote to re-direct our attention. We can think of three things:
1. We reflect on how important it is for us to practise diligently, otherwise we will lose our precious human life without having made full use of it. Time goes by so quickly and it is not good to use it all up without practising.
2. We must be aware that one day we will die but we do not know exactly when. However, we can prepare ourselves for death already by developing our minds powerfully and virtuously through our practice.
3. We keep in mind that our belief in karma has to be very strong. Karma is true. We are all connected through karma. If at the present time we enjoy a fairly good life, if we are healthy and in a peaceful state, this too has its cause in a former life. Even bodily and mental illnesses derive from karmic connections which we have forged.
When our minds become inattentive, negligent or lazy, we should remember these three things. In this way our practice becomes more profound, we become calmer, and disturbing thoughts disappear.
So, to conclude, shiney practice requires diligence, a good memory, faith, trust and attentiveness.
This provides us with the foundation on which we can build our mental house, our mind becomes joyful and ready to begin shiney practice.
We should sit in the lotus or semi-lotus position for meditation. If we cannot do this, we should sit in what is for us a comfortable position. Whatever the case we should be careful to keep a straight back so that breath and energy can flow freely. We place our hands in the Buddha Vairocana position, that is, laying them about four centimetres below the navel, with the left hand beneath the right hand. The palms of the hands are turned upward and the thumbs should be just touching.
Once we have settled into the right bodily posture, we put aside the five obstacles and calm our mind, if necessary, through a breathing exercise: for example, twenty-one deep breaths, in and out. We then choose an object on which to concentrate.
The object may be external or internal. Some examples of external objects are the Three Jewels (Sanskrit: triratna), Buddha, Dharma, Sangha when taking refuge, or the form of the Buddha Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of love and compassion.
We direct our thoughts towards the object that we have chosen with the deep desire to obtain similar qualities.
Internal objects are our breathing, our chakras which are the energy centres in the body, or our own consciousness.
While directing our attention to one point and keeping it there to the best of our ability, we should be careful at the same time to remain relaxed. If we are tense we will not be able to maintain our concentration on the object. We try to keep out any unnecessary thoughts and above all, any doubts about the Dharma or the truth of karma. Even positive thoughts are disturbances to concentration in their very diversity. So, patiently, we try to be calm and not allow our mind to wander restlessly around.
Buddhist philosophy recognises different manifestations of the mind. However, it is difficult to pin them down to a precise concept in another language. Mind in its ordinary form is called sem in Tibetan. In this, our desires and representations change form every few seconds. We cannot see it, but only feel it. It has two states. On the one hand, there is the samsaric state, very unclear and confused. Our thoughts dart here and there and cannot settle. The mind is disturbed but it is still our own mind. On the other hand, when nirvana is reached there is no obscurity in the mind. Peace and glowing untroubled joy arise in us. This is the original pure nature of our mind, Buddha-nature.
It is possible to say that everything comes from our mind: virtue, love, compassion as well as nonvirtue, hatred, suffering and ignorance. Sem is the basis, the precious foundation which we always have at our disposal. It is our own clear, original consciousness. Sem exists without interruption and consists of a principal mind and fifty-one mental factors.
The principal mind could also be called consciousness. The mental factors correspond to our subjective perceptions. The principal mind perceives the reality of something, for example, a flower. The different mental factors, working through sense impressions, allocate specific, mainly evaluative, attributes. So we say: this flower is beautiful, it smells nice, we would like to have it.
This in turn gives rise to three qualities of mental factors: a feeling of attachment, of non-attachment, or of neutrality. Some of these mental factors act virtuously, others non-virtuously and some again neither virtuously nor non-virtuously. If the feeling involves attachment, then the mental factors belong to the non-virtuous part; if no attachment is involved, then they belong to the virtuous part; if the feeling is neutral, to neither.
Let us take the flower as an example:
The flower is beautiful; we want it for ourselves alone. This involves mental factors which are acting non-virtuously. They always lead to suffering.
The flower is beautiful; we want nothing to happen to it, only that it may flower without disturbance and produce fruit. In this case the mental factors act virtuously. They always lead to joy.
The flower is beautiful. This involves neutral mental factors.
In the practice of samatha (Tibetan: shiney) it is possible to transform all the activities of body, speech and mind into virtuous behaviour.
When sem (mind) has developed into higher consciousness, it is called rigpa in Tibetan.
In an iconic representation of samatha practice which is very common in Tibet, the mind is shown in the form of an elephant. The elephant is a very powerful animal, its virtuous and non-virtuous qualities are very strong. At the beginning of the path which it is going to follow in shiney practice, the elephant is still black, that is, non-virtuous. On the path, its colour changes gradually until it is finally white. Its mind has become clear and is following the path of virtue. A monkey restlessly jumping here and there represents the disturbances in the mind.
In shiney practice we try to overcome this restlessness and practise reining in the mind until it loses its monkey-like quality and becomes peaceful.
In order to test the development of the mind we need to observe it carefully. At the beginning of the practice it is very stiff and stubborn, exclusively concerned with itself (me-only). Disturbing thoughts rush through us like a waterfall tumbling from the mountainside. As we progress in the practice the mind resembles a lake, hardly any movement is perceptible across its surface. Wrong thoughts and doubts diminish.
Doubts are particularly perturbing; for a good practice we need to put them aside. If they still torment us, we should ask where they come from. There are two possible causes: doubt arises when we have too little faith or not enough practice and insufficient self-knowledge; or it may come from a lack of knowledge as to how to practise correctly. In order to put aside these doubts, a very precise control over the mind is necessary.
The physical and mental signs of progress in shiney are a feeling of lightness and health, and a joyful mind constantly at peace. Our darting thoughts will settle when we have learned how to remain concentrated in observing our mind. Endless pure joy and lasting peace then arise within us. We recognise that the Dharma is in truth no other than the pure original nature of our own mind, Buddha-nature.
Other meanings can be given to the concept of Dharma; holy teachings, for example, may be called Dharma, and the path to enlightenment as well.
In all types of meditation we use wisdom and method. Shiney and Bodhicitta are the method, vipashyana – uncommon or extraordinary insight – is wisdom. Without shiney and Bodhicitta one cannot practise vipashyana, the mind will be too restless.
VIPASHYANA, UNCOMMON OR EXTRAORDINARY INSIGHT
Vipashyana means wisdom, knowledge free from ego.
If we really desire peace and happiness but remain strongly self-centred, we stand in our own way. This is also true of attachment. As soon as the state of nirvana becomes our goal, it is already within us, but attachment holds us back. The ego’s self-centredness and attachment are the two root illnesses. Until we have freed ourselves from them, we suffer from morning to night. All roads are blocked because we are living in duality.