Meditating on the Mind Itself

A teaching on the practice of Mahamudra by the late Kagyu master Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche.

By Traleg Rinpoche

According to the Buddhist Maha­yana tradition, practitioners need to eradicate certain defile­ments and obscurations of the mind in order to realize ultimate truth, or ultimate reality, and the most effective way to achieve this is through the practice of meditation. Generally speaking, two types of meditation are engaged in: shamatha, the “meditation of tranquillity,” and vipashyana, the “meditation of insight.” Through the practice of shamatha, the meditator learns to quiet the mind so that it becomes more focused, resilient, and aware—and therefore less suscep­tible to distractions. Vipashyana, on the other hand, is usually conducted as a form of analysis. While the practice of shamatha encourages the mind to be calmer and less disturbed by concep­tual thoughts, vipashyana uses these thoughts to gain certain insights, such as the realization that there is no enduring or immutable self.

The way that shamatha is usually presented suggests that as the mind becomes more focused, and as discursive thoughts subside, our mind goes through different levels of concentration and absorption. Then, when we engage in vipashyana after having perfected shamatha meditation, our thinking no longer gives rise to conceptual con­fusion; instead, it gives rise to various insights.

Buddhist meditation is said to be different from the meditation of other traditions because of this vipashyana practice, since other traditions also have techniques of quieting and focusing the mind. It is through vipashyana meditation that we come to realize there is no such thing as an enduring or permanent self and that physical entities have no enduring or permanent essence.

Mahamudra: A Tantric Approach

Mahamudra practice includes these two tech­niques of shamatha and vipashyana, but according to the Mahamudra teachings, it is not important to go through the different levels of concentration and absorption in shamatha medi­tation. Instead, it is sufficient that we stabilize the mind. Even if you have not achieved an ultimate state of concentration and have not managed to obtain any level of absorption, if your mind has become more stable and less susceptible to dis­tractions, you can proceed with the practice of vipashyana.

The Mahamudra practice of vipashyana is actually quite different from the conventional sutric Mahayana approach. In the Mahayana tradition, we normally use the analytical method to understand the lack of essence in all things and to realize that everything in the physical and mental realms is a product of causes and condi­tions. Through this vipashyana practice we can gain some conceptual understanding of what emptiness is, and that understanding will lead to a direct experience of emptiness.

However, the Mahamudra teachings say that if you focus your mind on the mind itself, you will realize the nature of the mind, and the nature of everything else. So instead of using reasoning and the analytical method to reduce everything to emptiness, you focus your mind on the mind itself and realize that the nature of the mind is emptiness. Then you realize that everything else has the same nature, which is emptiness.

According to Mahamudra teachers, the sutric Mahayana approach uses external phenomena as the object of vipashyana meditation, whereas the tantric Mahayana approach of Mahamudra uses the mind itself as the object. However, the Mahamudra approach does not analyze the mind to realize that the nature of the mind is empti­ness. Instead, the meditator uses contemplation. In this practice, the meditator allows the mind to be in its natural state, so that mind itself reveals its own nature. We do not analyze the nature of mind and we do not need to have a conceptual grasp of the fact that the nature of the mind is empty. If the mind is allowed to be in its natu­ral state and all discursive thoughts subside, the nature of the mind will be revealed as empty of an enduring essence.

In following the meditation instructions of sutric Mahayana, we employ different antidotes for different obstacles in the practice of sha­matha. In contrast, according to Mahamudra, we should not become too concerned with the obstacles or with the use of antidotes to quiet the mind. We should have a general sense that all the obstacles that arise in meditation can be divided into two categories: the obstacle of stupor, or drowsiness, and the obstacle of mental agitation.

When the obstacle of stupor arises, the mind is not disturbed by the agitation of discursive thoughts or emotional conflicts, but it lacks clar­ity. The mind has become dull, and sometimes this is followed by sleepiness and drowsiness. Mental agitation, on the other hand, is easier to detect because the mind has fallen under the influence of discursive thoughts, distractions, and emotional conflicts. Instead of using antidotes to control the mind in these situations, the Maha­mudra approach recommends two methods: relaxation and tightening.

If the mind becomes dull, we “tighten” it through the application of mindfulness. We try to regenerate and refuel our mindfulness of the meditation object, whatever it happens to be. And if our mind is agitated, we must be careful to not apply too much mindfulness; we just try to relax the mind a little more. We can “loosen” the mind by letting go of mindfulness or whatever we are using to make the mind more focused.

If our mind becomes dull, we could also straighten the spine, expand the chest, and tighten the body, making our posture a little more rigid. If mental agitation is present, we could soften our posture so that we feel more relaxed and focus the mind on the lower part of the body. In all situations, these two methods of either loosening or tightening are used.

How to Practice Mahamudra

In Mahamudra, beginners to shamatha meditation should use an external object, such as a piece of wood, a pebble, or any physical object in your visual field, and concentrate on that. Whenever the mind becomes distracted, remember to go back to that physical object. After practicing that for a period, you can use your own breath as the object of meditation by applying mindfulness to the incoming and outgoing breath. To help with this process, you can even count your breaths. Counting helps the mind focus on the breath when that is the object of your meditation.

Each outgoing and incoming breath should be counted as one. When you can do that with some success, move on to using the mind itself as the object of meditation. Try to be mindful of thoughts and emotions as they arise, without labeling them, without judging them, but simply by observing them. As this process of observation becomes stabilized, mindfulness will transform into awareness. If distraction arises, become aware of that distraction; if dullness or stupor arise, become aware of that; if mental agitation arises, become aware of that.

When you contemplate the mind itself and let the mind be in its natural state, you will experience a sense of clarity as well as mental stability. In the Mahamudra teachings, this is described as the aspect of stability and the aspect of clarity. Both mental clarity and stability must be present. According to the Mahamudra teach­ings, if you can pursue this practice and make the mind more stable and clear, then even when thoughts and emotions arise, the stability and clarity of your mind will not be disturbed. If you can maintain mental clarity equally whether your mind is calm or agitated, that is the best form of meditation. The ultimate goal of meditation is not to eradicate thoughts and emotions but to maintain that sense of awareness when mind is in movement as well as in a restful state.

Awareness is present whether the mind is in a state of rest or a state of movement; it does not make any difference. The nature of the mind is realized when the mind does not make any dis­tinction in meditation between mental agitation and rest. By not making this distinction, the mind is left in its natural state, and thoughts and emo­tions become self­liberated.

The Mahamudra teachings also say we should not think of thoughts and emotions (particularly negative ones) as having to be eradicated or removed. If we can realize the nature of these thoughts and emotions, we will understand the nature of mind itself. In the teachings, the rela­tionship between the nature of mind and delu­sions is compared to a lotus blossoming in mud or grain growing in a field of manure. Just as a lotus blossoms in mud and farmers use smelly manure to cultivate their fields, we attain wisdom by real­izing the nature of the defilements and obscura­tions, not by getting rid of them. In Tibetan it is said, “Having abandoned the delusions and conceptual confusions of the mind, one cannot speak of wisdom.” According to the Mahamudra understanding, wisdom is not attained through the eradication of defilements but from under­standing the nature of the defilements.

The Mahamudra teachings use the phrase “ordinary mind,” which means that to realize the nature of the mind, to realize buddhanature, does not involve getting rid of anything that exists within the mind. It comes from realizing the nature of this very mind we already have: the mind that thinks, wills, anticipates, and feels. The problem is not that we have thoughts and emotions; the problem is that we do not under­stand the nature of these thoughts and emotions. Through the practice of meditation, the mind becomes more stabilized and develops a sense of mental clarity. Then, if awareness is maintained as thoughts and emotions arise and the mind is left to itself, those thoughts and emotions will reveal the nature of mind, just as a mind undis­turbed by thoughts and emotions reveals the nature of mind.

Letting the Mind Be in Its Natural State, Effortlessly

The simple technique of letting the mind be is conducted by either tightening or loosening body and mind. However, even these two methods should not be done with extreme deliberation or effort, which is why another expression in Mahamudra is very helpful: “Letting the mind be in its natural state effortlessly.” This effort­lessness comes from not judging, not thinking that the arising of thoughts and emotions has somehow disturbed the mind or upset your medi­tation. As long as your mind is focused and there is a sense of awareness, no matter what arises in the mind—whether the mind is stable and at rest or in a state of movement—you can realize that everything that occurs in the mind has the same nature as the nature of mind.

Through awareness, we realize that the nature of mind has the dual characteristic of being empty yet luminous. In terms of its emptiness aspect, the nature of the mind is not different from non­mental physical things, such as tables and chairs, because the nature of the table and the chair is emptiness and the nature of the mind is also emptiness. However, in terms of the clarity aspect of the nature of mind, it is different from non­mental physical things, because the nature of the mind is not just empty—it is luminous at the same time. This luminosity and clarity are what distinguish the nature of the mind from non­mental things.

Ultimately, the nature of the mind is said to have three qualities:

  1. The nature of the mind is emptiness.
  2. Even though the nature of the mind is emptiness, unlike the emptiness of physi­cal things or entities, it is also luminous.
  3. When the mind is stabilized and awareness is maintained even when the mind is busy with thoughts and emotions, bliss will be experienced.

In other words, even if the mind is active, bliss is revealed if the mind does not give rise to agita­tion or to delusions and obscurations—which are the basic cause of suffering and dissatisfaction.

Traleg Rinpoche

Traleg Rinpoche

The Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche (1955–2012) was president and director of the Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute in Melbourne, Australia and established the E-Vam Institute in upstate New York. He is the author of The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice.