Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Vipashyana meditation can eventually show us the basic nature of everything, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. It has the power to cut samsara at the root—to liberate us from ignorance.
When things work out the way we think they should, we call it a good day. We feel successful when we can make the world do what we want it to do. In meditation practice, though, we begin to see that living a successful life or having a good day is beyond this level of conventional expectation. Practicing the dharma is a process of having the rug pulled out from under us. It foils our expectations.
Undoing our expectations deepens our understanding and creates flexibility in our mind. If the mind is flexible, the world is flexible. Instead of shattering when we hit reality, we land in an ocean of cool water, a new dimension that reflects life in a different way. We call this dimension vipashyana, a Sanskrit word that means “to truly see.”
We’re always trying to see clearly, because what happens in life has a direct effect on us. Our usual motivation is to suppress the suffering and uncertainty that permeate everything. Vipashyana meditation teaches us to do something different. To work with our mind and bring it to its full potential is to see what’s at the core of our being. Clearly seeing reality is the best way to overcome suffering.
Truly seeing is a process of letting go. We’re taught at a young age to fight for everything, to hold on to everything. We spend our whole life believing that appearances are real. The Tibetan word dzinpa (sometimes spelled shenpa) means “to grasp,” “to fixate.” Whether we are attached to a kingdom or a walking stick, by fixating we are solidifying an appearance. Most of us are fixated on the appearance of a self. At the time of death this approach becomes very painful because everything we fought for dissolves.
The dharma tells us that we need to look beyond food and wealth and everything else we hold on to in this life. It asks, What is it we can gain that we can truly have? What can we strive for in life that will give us any ultimate return? What will give us freedom? Where does that freedom come from? Does it come from a teacher or from some other external situation?
The secret is that freedom is within our own consciousness. All of our activity is based upon the inspiration and the motivation that’s generated in our mind. The mind, with its inherent compassion and wisdom, is all we have at the moment of death. Its true nature is often obscured by strong emotions like anger and passion. We might even think that strong emotions feel good. But from a Buddhist point of view, these experiences lull us into delusion. The result of this delusion is suffering.
In vipashyana meditation, we’re trying to discover what is ultimately worth seeing and therefore worth experiencing. We want to see what the Buddha saw, which is the enlightened nature in every living being. This superior kind of seeing goes beyond the three times and the ten directions, beyond birth and death. It leads to enlightenment by bringing the Buddha in us out.
The basis for vipashyana is having the right kind of motivation. The Tibetan word is kunlong, “to rise above.” We’ve looked at how we’re living our life and we want to rise above our usual ways of seeing. This takes courage and determination. In the process of vipashyana meditation we examine who we are—or are not—and what the world is—or is not—made of. The fruition of this kind of meditation is directly experiencing ourselves and the world. The only way we can do this is to let go of fixation.
Meditation is the process of holding the mind to an object long enough to penetrate it. In shamatha (peaceful abiding), we strengthen our mind by focussing on the breath. In vipashayana, we begin by using a particular thought as our object—impermanence, suffering, or selflessness. We could say that each of these thoughts reflects a facet of the nature of reality. To penetrate the nature of reality, our mind needs to be stable enough not to get entangled in emotions like anger or jealousy. This is why we first calm, strengthen and stabilize it through shamatha.
Just as we can stabilize our mind through short periods of shamatha, so we can develop contemplative insight through short daily periods of vipashyana. We can look, we can examine and we can develop a little certainty about the nature of reality. To do this, we have to be able to focus our mind. So through shamatha we practice making our mind one-pointed by bringing it back to the breath, and in vipashyana we use it to penetrate the nature of reality. As we do this, we might notice that in general we’re convinced that things are solid and real. We live our life trying to force appearances to be real, to make them exist. Once we are fixated in this way, what happens? Samsara and suffering.
It’s not a matter of trying to push suffering away, but of seeing clearly how suffering is created. Through clear seeing we understand suffering thoroughly, so that it’s no longer a foe. Realizing the root of suffering allows us to develop wisdom. Then we’re able to say, “Oh yeah, the notion of suffering is real. The preciousness of human birth is real. What the Buddha is saying about karma and samsara is real.” We come to the point where we wonder, what else is the Buddha saying?
The Buddha is saying that having clear insight into how things work leads to certainty about the nature of reality. The practice of vipashyana meditation can eventually show us the basic nature of everything, which is luminosity emptiness. Sometimes people tell me, “Emptiness is just too much for me to understand.” Well, that’s the point of emptiness. We’re not supposed to understand it. It transcends the four extreme views of existence, nonexistence, both and neither. This emptiness is inseparable from the wisdom inherent in our own mind. It has radiance, which is compassion. In the same way, the sun shines inseparably from the empty space it inhabits. This suchness, the nature of all, this basic goodness, is simply what is.
Clearly seeing the nature of all has to power to cut samsara at the root, which means that we are liberated from ignorance. In overcoming ignorance, we are awakening our wisdom, or yeshe, as we say in Tibetan. Liberation from ignorance is enlightenment. We are no longer bound. We experience the world as inseparable compassion and emptiness. That’s how it is, whether we see it clearly or not. To see it directly gives rise to great joy.
As Tilopa, one of the teachers in the Kagyü tradition, said to his student Naropa, “Son, the basis of samsara is not appearances; it is fixating on those appearances.” In meditation we practice focussing our mind and using it to see how reality works. Gradually, our expectations dissipate. We’re talking about learning to live without fixating, about having a genuine experience of the truth. And the truth is that things are not as solid as they seem.