Discovering the True Nature of Mind

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal teaches us a Dzogchen meditation that goes from contemplating our worst enemy to the discovery that mind is empty, clear and blissful.

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
1 May 2004
Photo by Olivier Riché.

Vision is mind.
Mind is empty.
Emptiness is clear light.
Clear light is union.
Union is great bliss.

This is the heart instruction of Dawa Gyaltsen, a Bön meditation master who lived in the eighth century. Bön is the native, pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, which has incorporated many Buddhist elements. This teaching is a direct introduction to the nature of mind and is not elaborate with ritual. The pith instructions of these masters—their heart advice to their students—are often only a few lines, but these few lines can guide the fortunate practitioner to recognizing his or her own true nature as Buddha.

Vision is mind

How do we work with Dawa Gyaltsen’s instruction, which begins, “Vision is mind”? Vision includes everything we perceive, but I suggest that you use what bothers you as an entrance to this practice. Do you have a famous person in your life? The famous person is the one who seems to be born to create a problem for you, as if that were his or her number-one mission in life. Sometimes we feel there are people like that. Such people can make trouble for you not only with their presence, but with one single postcard sent to you. When you see the postcard with their handwriting on it, you are immediately disturbed.

So we begin our meditation practice with this famous person as our starting point. Create a protected environment and sit in a comfortable upright position. Now invite the image of your famous person to come into your awareness. They always come anyway, but this time you are inviting them so that you can look more deeply into this experience. What exactly is this famous person composed of? See the image of the person, the character of this person who bothers you so much. Sense the energetic or emotional presence of this person. When your famous person was born, he or she did not show any physical signs or marks of what you now see. And not all people share your view of this person. What you perceive is your mind, your karmic vision, which is more karma than vision.

So in this moment, instead of looking out and focusing on that person, look inward. Step back and let the experience come in. Do not step forward but step backwards. Don’t go to your office and make phone calls and send emails. Just sit and close your eyes and reflect on this person, and experience what you’re experiencing at this very moment. This is your vision. It is very much in you, in your mind. That famous person is now an image or a felt sense. Perhaps you have a sense of being contracted, closed or agitated in the presence of this person; feel this fully, not simply with your intellect. Sit with the image of your famous person, and with the resulting feelings and sensations, until you recognize that this experience is in you, and you conclude, “Vision is mind.”

Mind is empty

The next question is, “What is this mind?” Look for your mind. Look from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. Can you find anything solid? Can you find any permanent color, shape or form that you can call your mind? If you look directly, you come to the conclusion that your mind is empty. Some people come to this conclusion very quickly; for others it requires an exhausting search to discover this clear awareness. But this is what mind is. You can obviously pollute that clarity in any given moment, but by continuing to look directly, you can discover that mind itself is just clear. Clear means empty. “Empty” is a philosophical term, but as experience it is clear and open.

So what began as the famous person is now clear and open. If this is not your experience, you are grasping the image and holding on to the experience in some way. Just be. Relax into the experience. Simply be. Mind is empty. When we arrive at the experience of emptiness and vastness through the doorway of the famous person, it is possible to have quite a strong experience of emptiness.

Emptiness is clear light

Our next question is, “What is this emptiness?” Sometimes emptiness is scary to the point where someone may prefer even their famous person to this nothing where one experiences the absence of self. But this experience of open space is essential. It clears the identity that creates the famous person. In order to clear the obstacle of the famous person, you have to clear the identity that creates that famous person. There is an expression, “The sword of wisdom cuts both ways.” Don’t be scared by this. Remember: “Emptiness is clear light.” It has light. It is possible to feel the light in the absence of the stuff.

Usually we accumulate a lot of stuff in life. Then we have a big yard sale in order to get rid of that stuff. For a moment we might feel “Ahhh . . .”—a sense of relief at getting rid of our old stuff—but soon we are excited again about all the new stuff we can accumulate to decorate and fill the open space. In your meditation, when things clear, just be with this. Don’t focus on the absence of the stuff, but discover the presence of the light in that space. It’s there. I’m not saying it’s easy to recognize and connect with the light—clearly it will depend on how much you are caught up with appearances and with the famous person. I’m not talking about the clear appearance of the famous person; I’m speaking of the clear appearance of the space.

So when you look at appearance and discover it is mind, and then discover that mind is empty, clear light emerges. When you look for the mind, you don’t find the mind. When you don’t find anything, the Dzogchen instruction is to “abide without distraction in that which has not been elaborated.” What has not been elaborated is that space, that openness. So you look for mind; you don’t find anything. What you don’t find is pure space which is not elaborated. So don’t do anything. Don’t change anything. Just allow. When you abide in that space without changing anything, what is is clear light. The experience or knowledge of emptiness is clear light. It is awareness.

Clear light is the experience of vast emptiness. The reason you have a famous person in the first place is that you experience yourself as separated from the experience of the vast, open space. Not recognizing the vast space, not being familiar with it, you experience visions. Not recognizing the visions as mind, you see them as solid and separate and out there—and not only out there, but disturbing you and creating all kinds of hassles for you that you have to deal with.

Perhaps you say, “Well, I am very clear about the direction in my life.” Here, you are clear about something. The clarity Dawa Gyaltsen points to is not clear about something; it is clear in the sense of being. You experience your essence, your existence, your being as clear. That clarity is the best. Through experiencing that clarity, you overcome self-doubt.

Clear light is union

From this experience of vast emptiness we say, “Clear light is union.” The space and the light cannot be separated. Clear refers to space, and light refers to awareness; awareness and space are inseparable. There is no separation between clear presence and space, between awareness and emptiness.

We have a lot of notions of union: yin and yang, male and female, wisdom and compassion. When you pay close attention to the experience of emptiness, you experience clarity. If you try to look for clarity, you cannot find it—it becomes emptiness. If you don’t find it, and you abide there, it becomes clear. The experiences of clarity and emptiness are union in the sense that they are not separate. Clarity is the experience of openness. If you don’t have the experience of openness, you cannot be clear. What is clear is that openness, the emptiness. What is empty and open is that clarity. The two are inseparable. Recognizing this is called union.

This means that our experiences do not affect our relation to openness. It is usually the case that experiences affect our connection to openness because immediately we get excited and attached. Then we grasp, or we become agitated, conflicted and disturbed. When that doesn’t happen, when our experience spontaneously arises and does not obscure us, that is union: the inseparable quality of clear and light. You are free; you are connected. You are connected; you are free.

This combination experience, whether in deep meditation or in life, is rare. Often, if you are “free,” that means you are disconnected. So this sense of union is important. Having the ability to do something and the ability to feel free, having the ability to be with somebody and still feel a sense of freedom, is so important. That is what is meant by “clear light is union.”

Union is great bliss

If you recognize and experience this inseparable quality, then you can experience bliss. Why is bliss experienced? Because that solid obstacle to being deeply connected with yourself has disappeared. You can have a strong experience of bliss because you have released something. Bliss spontaneously comes because there’s nothing that obscures you or separates you from your essence. You have a feeling that everything is complete just as it is.

So you begin with the famous person, and you end up with bliss. What more could you ask for? This is the basis of the whole Dzogchen philosophy in a few lines. The famous person you project is great bliss, but you must understand this as your mind, and that very mind as empty. From there, emptiness is clear light, clear light is union, union is great bliss. You can experience this in an instant. The moment you see the famous person, you can instantly see light. But sometimes we have to go through a longer process to see this. It is a question of ability. So this progression, this process, is our practice. It takes time. But there is a clear map.

These five principles can be applied in daily practice. You can do this practice anyplace, in any given moment, and especially when the famous person is bothering you. When a difficult circumstance arises, of course you could just live with it, or you could try to find one of many solutions. But as a Dzogchen practitioner, this practice of the Fivefold Teachings is what you do. Perhaps you lost a business deal and you feel bad. What does “lost” really mean? You look at that; that is vision. Whether fear-based vision or greed vision, you look directly at that experience. Be with that experience. Then you realize it is mind, and you look at your mind and discover that mind is clear— just clear. Even when we have a lot of problems, the essence of mind is always clear. It is always clear. There is always the possibility to connect with the essence of mind rather than the confusion aspect of it.

How we conclude

I love this practice very much. On the one hand, it is so practical. It gives you a tool to deal with a very specific situation. On the other hand, it guides you directly into the essence, to the root of yourself. It always amazes me when people fight with one another and say, “Oh, that terrible person. We have been good friends for a long time and I always thought that person was so honest. It took me a long time to discover that that person is really terrible.” So your conclusion is that that person is terrible. Have you heard people say things like that? This is not really a healthy solution. It’s like going to therapy and realizing, “My dad was really a bad guy. Now I feel much better.” Of course, you might realize some difficult aspect of your situation, but realizing that is not the conclusion. You need to conclude into the essence, conclude into the root, to come to the place in yourself where you realize your mind is clear and blissful and the image that was bothering you has finally dissolved through your meditation.

What is the conclusion here? The conclusion is bliss. “Union is great bliss.” What better conclusion would you want than that? And it will be like that if you open your mind to learn, trust with your heart, and pray. It’s really important to pray, and to pray for a deep experience. Because if what you think is not that deep, the result won’t be that deep either. Through prayer, you open your heart and receive the blessings of effortlessness. The quality of effortlessness is a quality of heart, and devotion and prayer open the heart. So praying is wonderful. It sets up the intention and puts you in the right direction, so when you do the practice of meditation—of directly looking and being with your experience—it will work.

I encourage you to practice this heart advice of Dawa Gyaltsen, to look directly into what is disturbing you and discover the nature of your mind. Through the profound simplicity of these five lines, not only can you heal your day-to-day life and make it lighter and more pleasant, but you can recognize and connect with your innermost essence, the nature of your mind as Buddha.

Questions and Answers

Question: In terms of the experience of “vision is mind,” it seems that our grasping mind, our small mind, is different from the natural state of mind which is clear light. I don’t know how to bridge the gap between the grasping mind and emptiness, because the grasping mind doesn’t seem empty.

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: It doesn’t seem empty, but it is. If you look at the ocean you might find it calm and peaceful, or with small ripples, or bigger ripples, or small waves, or bigger waves. All these appearances – from calm to ripples to waves – have the quality of wetness. All are water in every appearance. The appearance of the ocean can never be anything other than water, no matter how terrible or peaceful the ocean appears. In the same way, no matter what vision appears, it is always empty. The essence is always there. The only question is, “Am I able to see it or not?”

Question: It is wonderful when the famous person dissolves, but I still have an obligation to him or her, a responsibility. He or she is my child. So the “famous person” situation may keep recurring. Do I keep dissolving in the same way?

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: Sure. The famous person can still be famous without disturbing you as much. The reason we call him or her “famous” is that they really bother you. Do they really need to bother you? No. He or she can be as they are or they can be different, but they don’t have to bother you. We have expectations that things need to be a certain way. Do they really have to be a certain way? No.

Let’s take a situation in which I’m trying to help my child. How am I trying to help? I want him to go to school and study well. So what’s the problem? Well, the child has some difficulty learning. O.K. So I’m trying to do the best I can under the circumstances. If I’m doing that, then what am I worrying about? Some people learn faster, some learn slower. Right?

But the problem is not about the child learning too slowly; it’s that I can’t accept the situation. It’s not about the child; it’s about me. I have some fixed idea about what would be good for my child. This is usually the case. I think, “What I want is good for you.” The child probably doesn’t agree. He might be interested in a completely different thing than I am. But I feel like I’m the boss, and of course I am: I have a moral responsibility and so on. But there is someplace where it is just fine. I need to realize that.

Question: Is it just the lack of practice of recognizing that “vision is mind” that makes me feel there is a hook that draws me back to, “Yeah, but that famous person really is mean”?

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: I am not suggesting that this is the only way to deal with life. This is one of the Dzogchen ways. It is not a samsaric way, and sometimes we have to deal in a samsaric way. If somebody is trying to cheat me, of course I don’t like that. If somebody asks me for something, I don’t mind giving. But if somebody is taking something from me, then I don’t want to give. If that aspect of me seems to be who I really am in this moment, then I will fight or do whatever needs to be done. It’s not a question of one approach being more valid than another. Who I am and what realization I have determines how skillfully I am able to work. In the end, the real sense of victory is the practice. But in the conventional sense, we do whatever we have to do. We naturally defend and we fight. Sometimes, you defend, you fight, and you still lose. Then maybe you don’t have any other choice but to see it as emptiness! That is a forceful way of discovering emptiness.

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet. His is the author of Spontaneous Creativity: Meditations for Manifesting Your Positive Qualities (2018).