Shining in Freedom

When you experience the three realms as self-arisen and self-liberated, says Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso in this commentary on a song by the great yogi Milarepa, you realize their true nature is shining in freedom.

Outside the three realms are shining in freedom
Inside the wisdom, self-arisen, shines
And in between is the confidence of realizing basic being
I’ve got no fear of the true meaning—that’s all I’ve got!

In this verse from the song “The Seven Wats Things Shine Inside and Out,” Milarepa sings about his realization of the true nature of reality. To realize the true nature of reality, the necessary outer condition is for the “three realms” to be “shining in freedom.” The three realms refer to the universe and all of the sentient beings within it. Sentient beings inhabit the desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm, so these three realms include all the experiences that one could possibly have, and they are shining in freedom—they are self-liberated. (Most sentient beings, including animals and humans, inhabit the desire realm, so named because desire for physical and mental pleasure and happiness is the overriding mental experience of beings in this realm. The form realm and the formless realm are populated by gods in various meditative states who are very attached to meditative experiences of clarity and the total absence of thoughts, respectively.)

“Self-liberation” in one sense means that appearances of the three realms do not require an outside liberator to come and set them free, because freedom and purity are their very nature. This is because appearances of the three realms are not real. They are like appearances in dreams. They are the mere coming together of interdependent causes and conditions; they have no essence of their own, no inherent nature. This means that the appearances of the three realms are appearance-emptiness inseparable, and therefore, the three realms are free right where they are. Freedom is their basic reality. However, whether our experience of life in the three realms is one of freedom or bondage depends upon whether we realize their self-liberated true nature or not. It is like dreaming of being imprisoned: If you do not know you are dreaming, you will believe that your captivity is truly existent, and you will long to be liberated from it. But if you know you are dreaming, you will recognize that your captivity is a mere appearance, and that there is really no captivity at all—the captivity is self-liberated. Realizing that feels very good.

The term “self-liberation” is also used in the Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings, which describe appearances as “self-arisen and self-liberated.” This means that phenomena have no truly existent causes. For example, with a car that appears in a dream, you cannot say in which factory that car was made. Or with the person who appears in the mirror when you stand in front of it, you cannot say where that person was born. Since the dream car and the person in the mirror have no real causes for arising, all we can say about them is that they are self-arisen, and therefore they are also self-liberated.

When we apply this to an experience of suffering, we find that since our suffering has no real causes, it does not truly arise, like suffering in a dream. So, it is self-arisen, and therefore it is self-liberated. Since the suffering is not really there in the first place, it is pure and free all by itself. Apart from knowing self-liberation is suffering’s essential nature and resting within that, we do not need to do anything to alleviate it.

Thus, Milarepa sings that what one needs on the inside is to realize self-arisen original wisdom. This wisdom is the basic nature of mind, the basic nature of reality, and all outer appearances are this wisdom’s own energy and play. Original wisdom is self-arisen in the sense that it is not something created; it does not come from causes and conditions; it does not arise anew, because it has been present since beginningless time as the basic nature of what we are. We just have to realize it. The realization of original wisdom, however, transcends there being anything to realize and anyone who realizes something, because original wisdom transcends duality.

How can we gain certainty about this wisdom and cultivate our experience of it? Since wisdom is the true nature of mind, begin by looking at your mind. When you look at your mind, you do not see anything. You do not see any shape or color, or anything that you could identify as a “thing.” When you try to locate where your mind is, you cannot find it inside your body, outside your body, nor anywhere in between. So mind is unidentifiable and unfindable. If you then rest in this unfindability, you experience mind’s natural luminous clarity. That is the beginning of the experience of original wisdom. For Milarepa, original wisdom is shining. It is manifesting brightly through his realization of the nature of the three realms and of his own mind.

In the third line, Milarepa sings of his confidence of realizing the true nature of reality, the true meaning. There are the expressions and words that we use to describe things, and the meaning that these words refer to—here Milarepa is singing about the latter. He is certain about the basic nature of reality, and as he sings in the fourth line, he has no fear of or doubts about what it is. He is also not afraid of the truth and reality of emptiness. When he sings, “that’s all I’ve got,” he is saying, “I am not somebody great. I do not have a high realization. All I have got is this much.” This is Milarepa’s way of being humble.

One can easily be frightened by teachings on emptiness. It is easy to think, “Everything is empty, so I am all alone in an infinite vacuum of empty space.” If you have that thought, it is a sign that you need to meditate more on the selflessness of the individual. If you think of yourself as something while everything else is nothing, it is easy to get a feeling of being alone in empty space. However, if you remember that all phenomena, including you yourself, are equally of the nature of emptiness, beyond the concepts of “something” and “nothing,” then you will not be lonely. You will be open, spacious, and relaxed.

In the context of this verse, it is helpful to consider a stanza from the Song of Mahamudra by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye:

From mind itself, so difficult to describe,
Samsara and nirvana’s magical variety shines.
Knowing it is self-liberated is view supreme.

“Mind itself,” the true nature of mind, original wisdom, is difficult to describe—it is inexpressible. And from this inexpressible true nature of mind come all the appearances of samsara and nirvana. Appearances do not exist separately from the mind. What appears has no nature of its own. Appearances are merely of mind’s own energy, mind’s own radiance, mind’s own light. And so appearances are a magical display. To describe the appearances of samsara and nirvana as a magical variety means that they are not real—they are magic, like a magician’s illusions. Appearances are the magical display of the energy of the inexpressible true nature of mind. When we know this, we know that appearances are self-arisen and self-liberated, and that is the supreme view we can have.

Sense Experience and the Conduct of Equal Taste

Outside the five sense pleasures are shining
Inside the wisdom, free of clinging, shines
And in between is conduct where everything tastes the same
I am not thinking joy and pain are different things—that’s all I am!

In this verse Milarepa sings of the conduct of equal taste and how to practice it. What we need on the outside to practice equal taste are the five objects of sense experience: pleasant and unpleasant forms that appear to our eyes; sounds that we think are pleasant and unpleasant; smells that we enjoy and that we find revolting; tastes that we like and do not like; and finally inner and outer bodily sensations that feel good and bad.

The conduct of equal taste sees all of these experiences to be equal, in the sense that they all equally lack inherent existence. They are all equally appearance-emptiness. Because Milarepa realizes this, he sings that on the inside he abides in wisdom—wisdom that realizes emptiness. This wisdom is therefore free of clinging, free from attachment to sense experiences as being real. When we think that good experiences are real, we get attached to them and want more; when we think bad experiences are real, we are averse to them and want them to disappear. That way of adopting what we fancy and rejecting what we do not is completely opposite to the conduct of equal taste. On the other hand, when we realize that none of these experiences is truly existent, the conduct of equal taste naturally follows from that realization.

The conduct of equal taste is very similar to the conduct one performs in a dream when one knows one is dreaming. When we dream and do not recognize it, although the sensory objects that appear are not truly existent, we do not know that and we cling to them as being real. However, when we recognize that we are dreaming, we abide in the wisdom that realizes sense objects are dependently arisen mere appearances, appearance-emptiness inseparable, and we are free of clinging and attachment. When that happens, whatever sensory objects appear, they do not cause us suffering.

As a result of realizing sense experiences are appearance-emptiness and performing the conduct of equal taste, Milarepa does not think joy and pain are different things. He is neither attached to being happy nor afraid of being in pain. He knows that in genuine reality, joy and pain are equal. Milarepa does not differentiate between joy and pain like ordinary people do, because he realizes their basic nature. Milarepa demonstrated this many times, and it is good to look at Milarepa’s life story to see how he practiced equal taste and realized the equality of joy and pain. At the end of the verse, Milarepa sings, as a way of preventing himself from being arrogant, that realization of joy and pain’s equality is “all I’ve got!”

Freedom from Hope and Fear

Outside creations are shining in ruins
Inside the freedom from hope and fear shines
And in between, I’m not sick with striving or straining, no, no, no!
I am not thinking right and wrong are two different things—that’s all I am!

How is Milarepa able to achieve freedom from the fixations that produce hope and fear? First, he sees that on the outside, “creations are shining in ruins.” This means that Milarepa knows that whatever appears on the outside is impermanent, because all things are creations or composites of causes and conditions. When a particular thing’s causes and conditions change, that thing will fall apart. Sentient beings make problems for themselves when they think that appearances will last, that the situations they find themselves in are permanent and unchanging. In fact, whatever we do or create, whatever situation we are in, and even we ourselves have no power to remain. Everything is subject to decay.

Realizing that, on the inside Milarepa is free from hope and fear. He is not attached to outer appearances as being permanent, so he has no hope that things will remain nor fear that they will not, no hope that things will come out one way nor fear that they will not.

Then in between, Milarepa sings of how it is a sickness when, while meditating on the genuine nature of reality, one tries to make something happen or tries to change or improve things. The true nature of reality transcends all concepts of what it might be; it is inexpressible and inconceivable. Therefore, the true nature transcends improvement and degradation. So the way to meditate on it is to simply relax within it, free from striving and straining. That is how Milarepa is—he is able to rest in the basic nature of reality in a spacious, uncontrived, natural way.

These first three lines reveal how Milarepa practiced dharma at the end of his life. When it was time for Milarepa to pass away he did not suffer, because he knew that his body and life were subject to decay. Therefore, he had no hope to live forever and no fear of dying. He did not strive or strain to avoid death. He meditated on death’s true nature, which transcends even the concept of death, and so he experienced his death as simply another manifestation of the true nature of mind’s energy and play. Unlike ordinary beings, for Milarepa death was not frightening. It was blissful.

At the end of the verse, Milarepa sings, “I am not thinking right and wrong are two different things—that’s all I am!” Milarepa does not deny that there is any difference between right and wrong, between positive actions and negative ones. Rather, he is free of thinking that right and wrong truly exist. He is free of attachment to right and wrong as having any inherent nature—he knows they are dependently arisen mere appearances.

The way that ordinary people relate to right and wrong, good and bad, and virtue and nonvirtue is to believe that they are real. This is just how someone would relate to a dream of good and bad actions when they did not know that they were dreaming. However, when one realizes the nature of emptiness, one relates to virtue and nonvirtue in a different way, understanding them to be mere appearances that do not truly exist, just as one would during a dream when one knew that one was dreaming. That is Milarepa’s perspective.

That is why karma, right, wrong, virtue, and nonvirtue only exist for ordinary sentient beings who have not directly realized the true nature of reality. In contrast, the noble ones, who directly realize the true nature of reality, transcend all concepts of right and wrong. As the Buddha taught in the sutras: “For those belonging to the family of the noble ones, karmic actions do not exist, and results of karmic actions do not exist, either.” Since the noble ones have purified themselves of clinging to true existence, they transcend the concepts of virtue and nonvirtue.

The Indian master Aryadeva explained that there are three levels of teachings about virtue and nonvirtue:

First, the lack of virtue is counteracted,
Second, the self is counteracted and,
Finally, all views are counteracted.

The first level’s purpose is to reverse the tendency beginning students have to do things that are negative. In order to accomplish this, students are taught the benefits of performing good actions that are helpful to others, and the suffering that comes from doing bad things that are harmful to others.

At this stage, virtue and nonvirtue’s true nature—emptiness—is not taught. Furthermore, in order to have a basis for the explanation that there is an actor who performs actions and experiences their results, the self is described as if it exists. The self is the one who performs actions, good or bad, and then experiences happiness or suffering respectively as a result.

Once students have gained confidence that it is important to perform positive actions and refrain from negative ones, they are introduced to the second level, whose purpose is to reverse the students’ clinging to a truly existent self. Students are taught how to analyze the self and determine that the self does not exist in genuine reality. From this, they understand that there cannot be any truly existent virtuous or nonvirtuous actions either, because there is no truly existent actor to perform them. At this stage, virtue and nonvirtue are taught to be nonexistent in genuine reality.

Then, when students have gained certainty in selflessness and emptiness, they are introduced to the third level, whose function is to reverse clinging to any view or reference point at all, even the views of emptiness and selflessness. This level leads students to the realization that reality transcends all of our concepts about what it might be, whether they be concepts of existence, nonexistence, emptiness, or anything else. At this point, we are taught that even the more subtle understanding that we had at the second stage, of things not truly existing, cannot accurately describe the true nature of reality, which lies beyond all concepts. So we transcend even the idea of nonexistence, even the idea of emptiness.

Questions and Answers

Why in the song is everything “shining”?

Everything is shining because the true nature of mind is luminous clarity, buddhanature, Mahamudra, and all appearances are that luminous clarity’s own energy, radiance, and light. When sunlight is refracted through a colored crystal and rainbows shine on the walls of the room, that is an example of the relationship between mind and appearances. And furthermore, the true nature of mind is naturally shining and naturally liberated.

At the dharma center where I am staying, in the shrine room there are beautiful crystal offering lamps of many different colors. Each offering lamp’s light mixes and plays with the light of the others to create even more changing, beautiful colors. I think those are the best offering lamps I have ever seen. If you look at those beautiful lights, you get a good example of how appearances are naturally shining and naturally liberated, self-arisen and self-liberated. You cannot find any real reason for why the lights appear—they do not have any truly existent causes and conditions. So the appearances themselves do not really exist. What are they then? Self-arisen. And since they are self-arisen, they are self-liberated. These qualities of appearances are important to know: they are luminous and shining, self-arisen and self-liberated.

Our teacher, the Buddha, looked with his eye of wisdom and did not see a single truly existent cause or condition. Therefore, he taught that all phenomena are appearance-emptiness, like in a dream. The ultimate way to express this is to say that phenomena are self-arisen and self-liberated.

It was mentioned that Milarepa remained in a state of equal taste, and I was just wondering how you ever get there, because sensations are so overwhelming. For example, when you eat something you do not like, you can conceptually tell yourself: “Oh, it is not so bad and I should really think of the true nature of things.” But yet you sort of cringe—you have a strong physical response. So can Rinpoche please give some suggestions of what to actually do with unpleasant sense experiences?

We must proceed step-by-step. First, we need the view of emptiness. All phenomena are empty of essence—they are empty of there being any actual identity to them.

We also need the view of equality. In the Noble Sutra of the Ten Grounds, the Buddha taught ten types of equality—ten ways that all phenomena are equal. Three of these are most important: First, in terms of genuine reality, all things are equal in that the true nature of each one of them equally transcends any concept about what it might be. Second, also with reference to their genuine nature, all phenomena are equal because they are all originally and perfectly pure—since beginningless time the nature of all phenomena is perfect purity. Finally, in terms of apparent reality, the appearances of all phenomena are equal because all appearances are equally like dreams, illusions, and water-moons. Certainty in this view of emptiness and equality is the first thing you need in order to start developing the conduct of equal taste.

Even though the term that is used is equal taste, it is not the usual use of the word “taste.” Rather, it is a quality that applies not only to the sense experiences but to all experiences. It means to know that friends and enemies are of the nature of equality, and that happiness and suffering are of the nature of equality. We can understand this more easily if we think of the example of a dream. If you dream and you do not know that you are dreaming, and you eat something that tastes good and then something else that tastes bad, then because you do not know you are dreaming, you think that these experiences are real and very different. Once you know that you are dreaming, however, you know that the appearance of a good taste and a bad one are not real. They are just mere appearances. So you know there is actually no difference between them at all—they are equality. As for the ultimate reality of the dream, it transcends the concepts of existence and nonexistence both. The actual reality of the dream is beyond all concept of what it might be.

So initially, we need to gain certainty in this view. We need to analyze in order to understand it and to be free of doubt that this is in fact how things are. In meditation we rest in that certainty. We cultivate that certainty again and again. Then we can begin to experience equal taste. That is how the process works.

For beginners, which means all ordinary sentient beings, we who are not noble bodhisattvas, there is no direct realization of equal taste. Beginners can, however, make preparations that lead to direct realization by listening to teachings about equal taste and reflecting on it. Through these two activities of listening and reflecting, we develop our knowledge of the true nature of reality, and we can give rise to certainty that this is really the way it is. Then when we meditate we can start to gain some experience of it. When this experience becomes direct realization, one becomes a noble bodhisattva.

Think about the stages of the dream: when you do not know that you are dreaming, when you know that you are dreaming, and the ultimate nature of the dream. Thinking of the dream example will also help you to gain certainty.

When your teacher gives you the instructions pointing out the nature of your mind, how is it possible to ascertain the difference between “getting it” and just fantasizing about getting it?

If the true nature of reality could really be pointed out, it would be some truly existent and identifiable entity. But it is beyond that. The true nature of reality transcends being an object of recognition, so it cannot actually be pointed out. Therefore, the true nature is beyond “getting it” or not.

Pointing out instructions are only given in traditions that assert self-awareness. Therefore, when these instructions are given, what is pointed out is just your own mind experiencing itself. So you can look at your own experience of your mind to see whether you recognize its true nature. But remember that there is nothing really there to get, and no one really there to get it or not. The true nature of mind is beyond that.

The Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, taught that if you have very clear certainty that your mind does not truly arise, abide, or cease, that is what it means to “recognize” your mind’s true nature; that is what it means to “get” the pointing out instruction. His definition of recognizing mind’s true nature is in harmony with the middle turning of the wheel of dharma’s teachings.

From the perspective of the traditions that assert self-awareness and self-arisen original wisdom, what is pointed out is self-experience that is nondual (meaning that there is no perceived object and no perceiving subject) and nonconceptual and unconfused.

How is this done? The teacher might ask the student: “Do you have happiness? Do you have suffering?” If the answer is “yes” then the next question is, “What is that joy like? What is that pain like? Others cannot experience your joy and pain, so you describe it.” Very quickly, the student recognizes that their mind’s experience of happiness and suffering are actually inexpressible. Then the teacher says, “Rest in that inexpressible self-experience.” That is how nonconceptual and unconfused self-awareness is pointed out—that is how to recognize it and how to rest within it.


KHENPO TSULTRIM GYAMTSO RINPOCHE is a meditation master in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He taught extensively in the West for many years and now resides in Kathmandu, Nepal. He is well known for his teachings on the songs of the great yogi Milarepa, and for his own spontaneous songs of realization that offer insight into the nature of genuine reality. This teaching is adapted from his new book, Stars of Wisdom: Analytical Meditation, Songs of Yogic Joy, and Prayers of Aspiration, translated and edited by Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor, and published by Shambhala Publications, 2010.