Look directly at your mind. Look directly at your thoughts and emotions, and you discover their true nature is wisdom—empty, liberated, and blissful. This is Mahamudra practice. The Tibetan teacher Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche offers instruction on key verses from one of the Mahamudra’s seminal texts, A Song for the King by the Indian sage Saraha.
Realization Will Remove Faults
Just as the ocean’s salty water
Taken into the clouds turns sweet,
The stable mind works to benefit others;
The poison of objects turns into healing nectar.
If we realize the true nature of the mind, this realization itself will remove all defects and problems. These could be of various types—disturbing thoughts or emotions, experiences of intense sadness or regret. They can all be removed through the recognition of mind’s nature in mahamudra practice. How this is possible is explained in this verse through an analogy of ocean water. We cannot drink seawater because it is too salty. Nevertheless, after the ocean’s water evaporates, gathers into clouds, and returns to the earth as rain, it has become pure. No longer salty, it is fit to drink.
The meaning of this analogy is as follows. We continually give rise to various forms of disturbing emotions. For example, when we encounter an external object that makes us angry, this experience of anger causes us to be unhappy. If we act on this anger, others can suffer as well. To give another example: When we are frustrated by the failure of our endeavors, we can become highly anxious and miserable, and this may last for our whole life.
In each of these situations, it seems to us that the disturbing emotion or suffering that arises in our mind is very solid and powerful. Since it is so intense, it appears to be more powerful than we feel we are. However, if we actually look and meditate on the mind’s nature, we discover that all the things arising in our mind—thoughts, disturbing emotions, sadness, and misery—are mere appearances. If we scrutinize them, looking to see what they really are and where they really are, we will discover they are empty of substance and location. When we look directly at the thoughts, disturbing emotions, and misery that arise in our mind, we cannot find where they are located, or where they came from, or whether they have a shape or color. We never find any of these qualities that all the objects seem to have.
Examining here means looking at the thought within the mind, not examining the object that inspired the thought or the condition that led to the disturbing emotion. It is scrutiny of the thought itself; we directly observe the emptiness of the thought. Whether we do this in the context of benefiting others—as the verse states, “the stable mind works to benefit others”—or simply in the context of benefiting ourselves, what happens when we see the nature of thoughts is that the previously poisonous quality of the thought, the disturbing emotion, or the suffering is transformed into a situation of great benefit. And so as the verse states, “the poison of objects turns into healing nectar.” We believe that disturbing emotions are terrible, that thoughts are bad, and that sadness is a shame. But the nature of these conditions that arise in our mind is actually flawless bliss. Since we do not recognize their nature, we are afflicted by them. Actually, in and of themselves, thoughts and emotions are not bad, because their nature is peace. Nevertheless, as long as disturbing emotions arise as afflictions, they are, of course, a problem. When we recognize the nature of thoughts, disturbing emotions, or sadness, it is like experiencing a healing nectar. The poison of thoughts and disturbing emotions is transformed into medicine.
In the context of the gradual instruction of mahamudra, this process of scrutinizing thoughts is called looking at the mind within occurrence, or looking at the moving mind. It is normally preceded by the practice of looking at the mind within stillness. This latter practice means that when we are in a stable state of meditation, we look directly at our own mind. Specifically, we look to see where and what the mind is. Through this investigation we eventually discover that there is no location and no substance of mind to be found. In this way, we resolve experientially that the mind is empty.
This verse presents looking at the mind in motion. Occurrence, or movement, means that a thought occurs within the mind. The thought could be any kind of thought—an angry thought, a jealous thought, an arrogant thought, a desirous thought, a sad thought, a happy thought, or a compassionate thought. Whatever the content of the thought may be, when we recognize that a thought has arisen, we look directly at it. In looking at the thought, we see its nature and discover that it is like the nature of the mind itself: it has no location and no substance. It is empty. So through the practice of looking at the mind within the occurrence of thought, we transform the mind’s apparent poison into healing nectar, which is its true nature.
Despite Fear, Realization Turns into Bliss
When you realize the ineffable, it is neither suffering nor bliss.
When there is nothing to meditate upon, wisdom itself is bliss.
Likewise, though thunder may evoke fear,
The falling of rain makes harvests ripen.
This verse is concerned with the benefit of realizing the inexpressible or ineffable, which here refers to emptiness. When we use the word emptiness or empty, it can sound very threatening. Its literal meaning is “nothing,” making it sound like annihilation, but the nature of emptiness is great peace or great bliss. We may incorrectly fear the realization of emptiness, believing that this realization will produce the annihilation of experience; however, the realization of emptiness is the realization of great peace and great tranquility. When the realization of emptiness occurs, it is different from what we fear it will be, because there is nothing within emptiness that inherently justifies the fear. Emptiness is not in and of itself negative or threatening.
The word emptiness, of course, connotes nothingness and makes us think of something like empty space, a mere absence, such as the absence of any qualities or content. But the emptiness of the mind is what is called “emptiness endowed with the best of all aspects.” This means that while the mind is empty, it is not a voidness; rather, it is cognitive lucidity. This means, for example, that when you look at your mind, you do not find the mind, nor do you see thoughts in terms of their having a location or possessing substantial characteristics. The mind and the thoughts within the mind are empty but they are not nothing, because there is an unceasing display of mind’s cognition. This shows that the absence of substantial existence does not mean that the mind is dead like a stone. For this reason, the realization of this absence of true existence does not cause the cessation of experience.
While being empty of any kind of substantial existence, the mind remains an unceasing awareness. Yet, when you look for it, you cannot find it anywhere; you cannot find anything substantial because the mind is empty. It is also unchanging. If the mind were not empty, if the mind had solidity or substantial existence, it would definitely change. Often called “the inexpressible” or “that which is beyond intellect,” the mind’s emptiness is the reason that the mind is unchanging. And because the mind is unchanging, its nature is great bliss.
The analogy in this verse is the sound of thunder, which represents emptiness, or more precisely, our concept of emptiness. A child, for example, may be frightened by the sound of thunder and may perceive it as threatening. But when you think about it, thunder is a good thing, because thunder is a sign of rain, which ripens the crops. In the same way, while we might think of emptiness as threatening and negative, in fact its nature is great bliss, and therefore the realization of emptiness is very positive.
Appearance and Emptiness Are Nondual
First a thing and in the end a nonthing—neither is established;
likewise, there is nothing other than these two.
There is no place to abide in the beginning, middle, or end.
For those whose minds are obscured by continual concepts,
Emptiness and compassion are expressed in words.
The next verse is concerned with the lack of an inherent substance in the arising, abiding, and cessation of thoughts. Or we could say that it deals with the unity of appearance and emptiness, which then brings forth the realization of the unity of emptiness and compassion.
When we consider the nature of mind or the essential nature of the thoughts that arise in the mind, we assume that these things must have begun somehow and somewhere. They must dwell somewhere and at some point they must cease. But when we actually look at how a thought arises and what actually happens, we don’t find anything creating the thought, nor do we find the location of this arising. When we look for the characteristics that a thought might possess, such as color and shape, we do not find them. When we look to see where the thought is, even though it is vividly present within the mind, we cannot find it anywhere. The thought is not specifically located in any place within the body nor outside the body nor in some area in between. We must conclude that not only does the thought not truly arise, but it also does not abide or rest anywhere.
Finally, when a thought disappears, we look to see what really happens. Where does it go? We do not find anything. In this way, we are brought to the conclusion that thoughts do not truly arise, do not truly abide, and do not truly cease. Whether recognized or not, the nature of our mind has always been just this. It is not that the discovery of this nature makes the mind empty, because the mind has always been so. The problem is that we have never looked into our mind. We have always turned and looked outward, or away from it. This is the meaning of the verse.
This verse also answers this question: What qualities are produced by meditation on emptiness? The purpose of dharma is to help others, and the root of this is compassion. But if all things are empty and if the emptiness of things is realized, is there then no object and therefore no root of compassion? This verse answers that question in the negative. As the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, pointed out in his Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra: “The very recognition of emptiness itself is the root of compassion.” This is because the realization of mind’s empty nature and the realization of phenomena’s empty nature produces a state of well-being and tranquility in the mind. Disturbing emotions and suffering are pacified, and this causes all manner of positive qualities to develop within the mind. When we realize the true nature of mind, we gain the understanding that all beings without exception possess this same nature, this same potential to achieve all of the positive qualities through realization. At the same time, we realize that only those few fortunate individuals who recognize the nature of mind have all their suffering pacified, and so compassion arises for those who have not attained this realization.
In general, we do not look at our mind and, therefore, do not recognize the nature of the mind and the nature of the thoughts. Rather, we are caught up by these thoughts, which then generate disturbing emotions, which lead to suffering. Since the basic nature of ordinary beings is the same as the nature of those who have realized mind’s nature, we come to see that all of this suffering is really unnecessary; since beings possess this nature, they do not need to suffer at all. This recognition is why the realization of emptiness is the root of compassion. The Third Karmapa wrote: “May intolerable compassion be born in my mind through the realization of emptiness.” The compassion that is born through realization is not merely words but intolerably intense.
How Habits Reify Concepts
When a wintry wind strikes and stirs up water,
Though soft, it takes the form of stone.
When concepts attempt to disturb mind’s nature, where ignorance cannot take form,
Appearances become very dense and solid.
This verse illustrates that all appearances are the appearances of the mind. Earth, stones, mountains, rocks, and so forth all seem very solid to us, so it is quite hard to understand how these things could be merely the appearances of our mind. The Ocean of Definitive Meaning points this out in stages: First it shows that appearances are mind; then that mind is emptiness; further, that emptiness is spontaneously present; and finally, that spontaneous presence is liberated in and of itself. The subject of this verse is this same point. While earth, mountains, and rocks in their true nature are no different from our mind, in terms of how they appear, they seem vast, huge, and very solid. We might wonder, How can our mind encompass and perceive what is so big and so apparently solid? The analogy here is of water and ice. When it is not frozen, water is a liquid; but when a body of water is subjected to a very cold wind, it freezes and becomes ice, which is hard like stone.
Normally we don’t think of water as being hard, and yet ice is water and it is hard.
In this same way, when our mind is disturbed by ignorance and disturbing emotions, which resemble the cold wind, it produces coarse thoughts. The gradual production of coarser and coarser thoughts, which entail coarser and coarser modes of appearance, corresponds to the gradual freezing of the water. These coarse thoughts cause the solid appearance of earth and mountains, even though the thoughts themselves began as mere insubstantial things.
Mind Is Not Affected by Stains
The true nature of any state of mind is free of flaws
And unaffected by the mire of existence and nirvana.
Even so, if a supreme gem is placed in a swamp,
Its radiance will not be clear.
The analogy presented here is of a jewel that has somehow fallen into a swamp. The jewel itself has excellent color and shape and is completely pure in being a jewel. It does not degenerate at all while mired in the swamp; it remains exactly what it was. On the other hand, it can’t be used. The jewel’s qualities are not apparent because it is concealed. If the jewel is removed from the swamp and the mud is cleaned away, the jewel will be a perfect jewel and can be used appropriately. In the same way, as long as our mind is immersed in bewildered appearances, we cannot gain access to and make use of the mind’s innate qualities. Through meditation, however, if we can separate the mind from ignorance, we will be able to make use of the innate qualities of the mind to engage in effortless and spontaneous benefit for ourselves and others.
Although the mind is empty, it is not empty in the sense of being a voidness. The mind’s basic nature is simultaneously emptiness and cognitive lucidity. This nature has never been damaged or even affected by all the appearances, confusion, and ignorance within the three realms of samsara, the wheel of cyclic existence. So we have to ask, Is liberation from samsara actually effecting a change in the mind at all? It is not. From the very beginning the mind has been empty and lucid.
In meditation, therefore, we are not trying to change what the mind is; we are not trying to make what is not empty into something that is empty or to make something that is not lucid into something that is lucid. All we are doing in the practice of meditation is experiencing the mind as it is and as it always has been. When the mind is experienced and finally realized, that is liberation. There is no need to change the mind’s nature, because the nature of the mind has never been affected by any confusion.
Often the nature of the mind is called buddhanature or sugatagarbha (“the essential nature of those gone to bliss”). When the term sugatagarbha is used, even though it refers to the nature of our own mind, it is thought of as a high state, as something very distant from us and unapproachable. It is therefore important to understand what sugatagarbha really means. Sugata means “those gone to bliss.” The syllable su here is “bliss,” which means that if you recognize and realize the nature of mind, you eliminate the suffering of samsara: the result of realizing the mind’s nature is bliss. Gata, or “gone,” means that innumerable buddhas have appeared and all of them have achieved enlightenment through realizing the nature of their mind and thereby attaining the bliss of full awakening.
All of the buddhas began as confused, bewildered sentient beings. They transcended the ignorance and suffering of samsara and entered into bliss. It is up to us now to follow the example of the buddhas and realize the nature of our mind and discover this indwelling bliss. Do we have the ability to do so? Yes, we have the innate capacity to follow and emulate those who have gone to bliss. If we lacked some qualities or abilities that they had, we might not be able to do it, but in the nature of our mind, we have everything that they ever had or have. Since we have what they have and they accomplished full awakening, we can do it also. This is why the nature of the mind is called the essential nature of those gone to bliss.
The Uttaratantra states: “Like a jewel, like space, and like pure water, it is continually free of disturbance.” When a jewel is purified and the dirt that surrounds it is removed, the nature of the jewel itself does not change. The jewel was always a jewel in its nature or composition. Likewise, when clouds disappear from the sky, the space of the sky does not undergo any change. The space was not inherently affected or polluted in its nature by the presence of the clouds. The third example is water. Water in itself is just pure water; it only becomes polluted when sediment is mixed with it. But even so, the water itself remains just water. Muddy water is water combined with something else, but the water is not in itself changed or damaged by the presence of the sediment.
In the same way, while our mind is afflicted and obscured by ignorance, disturbing emotions, and thoughts, the nature of the mind is not touched by their presence. However, when these obscurations are present, the qualities of the mind’s nature will not be evident. So it says in the verse, “Even so, if a supreme gem is placed in a swamp, its radiance will not be clear.”
The Basis for Samsara and Nirvana
When stupidity is clear, wisdom is unclear.
When stupidity is clear, suffering is clear.
Like this, from a seed, a seedling arises;
With this seedling as a cause, offshoots appear.
This verse describes why we wander in samsara and how the confused appearances of samsara increase and spread. All samsara begins with ignorance, and in this verse, ignorance is referred to as a state of stupidity. By its nature, stupidity is unclear. It is an absence of knowledge, a lack of recognizing ultimate truth, which could be called a mere lack of clarity. However, simultaneous with that lack of recognition, there is a great clarity of ignorance in the projection of relative truth. As samsara increases, it becomes clearer and clearer.
The basic nature that lies within every living being can be called the sugatagarbha or the dharmadhatu. Dharmadhatu refers primarily to the aspect of emptiness, and sugatagarbha refers primarily to the aspect of wisdom. The inability to recognize this basic nature of mind is called ignorance. It is the beginning of the eighth (alaya, or all-base) consciousness. This failure to recognize the mind’s nature occurs because the empty aspect of the mind’s nature is not recognized due to the appearance of its lucid aspect. This causes ignorance and the arising of the eighth consciousness along with the habits it holds, which produce confused appearances. As these bewildered appearances increase, from the eighth consciousness arise the afflicted seventh consciousness and then the six functioning consciousnesses (the five sensory consciousnesses and the mental consciousness). At that point, the structure of the bewildered appearances of samsara is fully established. This process of intensification is described in the verse: “When stupidity is clear, wisdom is unclear.” As the stupidity of samsara becomes more and more vivid and distinct, the underlying wisdom becomes less and less clear and more and more obscured. This is the same idea expressed in the previous verse with the lines, “If a supreme gem is placed in a swamp, its radiance will not be clear.” The radiance of the wisdom is obscured by the intensity of the stupidity.
When the mind is bewildered, the alaya consciousness begins to accumulate negative habits and tendencies. The alaya consciousness itself is not confused; it is mere cognitive lucidity. Nevertheless, it functions as the foundation for accumulating negative habits and for misperceiving the existence of the self. When we have this incorrect view that takes the self to exist, we also develop the incorrect view that the other exists as well. Through the increase of negative habits, based on thinking that a self and other exist, negative karmic latencies enter the alaya consciousness, and this leads to the arising of the other seven consciousnesses.
Even though they are nonconceptual consciousnesses, the five sense consciousnesses arise as the result of habits accrued in the alaya consciousness. The five sense consciousnesses are limited to perceiving a specific sensory input; for example, the eye consciousness just sees, the ear consciousness just hears, and so forth. The sensory consciousnesses do not appraise, recognize, judge, or in any way conceptualize what they see, hear, and so on. The sixth consciousness, the mental consciousness, is the consciousness that appraises, identifies, and judges what is perceived by the five sense consciousnesses. Therefore, it is the sixth consciousness that makes errors, such as believing different things to be essentially one and the same.
With the development of all eight consciousnesses, there is a state of full-blown ignorance, which is clear. The verse reads: “When stupidity is clear, wisdom is unclear.” When wisdom is clear, the nature of the mind is realized. But when bewilderment, stupidity, and ignorance are clear, the true nature of mind is obscured. This leads to disturbing emotions, which in turn lead to the accumulation of negative karma, which then leads to suffering. Strictly speaking, not everything that results from actions causes suffering, because actions are of different types (positive, negative, and neutral) and so their results may be different. Nonetheless, directly or indirectly, the result of the disturbing emotions is suffering. For example, being very ill is obviously suffering and is called the suffering of suffering. But even an experience of happiness or well-being will change into a state of suffering because it is impermanent. In this sense, even states of temporary well-being are called the suffering of change. Furthermore, the pervasive environment of impermanence in which we live causes everything to turn eventually into suffering; this is called all-pervasive suffering. These three types of suffering are the result of the bewildered projections or appearances of samsara.
This verse presents an analogy to illustrate how the progressive intensification of stupidity causes suffering: “From a seed, a seedling arises; with this seedling as a cause, offshoots appear.” Ignorance is the seed. When it is planted in the ground, it produces a seedling, from which emerges a stalk, and eventually branches grow from the stalk. In the same way, through increasing stupidity, we begin to suffer. This suffering keeps us in the midst of samsaric appearances, which always entail suffering in one way or another. Sometimes we experience the suffering of suffering, sometimes we experience the suffering of change, and sometimes we experience all-pervasive suffering. But we always experience suffering.
The verse also shows us, by implication, how to put an end to suffering. Everyone wants to stop suffering. Since the immediate cause of suffering is the disturbing emotions, it is clear that in order to get rid of the three kinds of suffering, we have to eliminate the disturbing emotions. When we look for the cause of disturbing emotions, we see that it is ignorance; obviously, we have to get rid of our ignorance if we want to lose these disturbing emotions. Remember that ignorance began with not seeing dharmata, the true nature of our mind. So the remedy for ignorance is evident: seeing our mind’s true nature.
If we see the true nature of dharmata, then ignorance and bewilderment will vanish. Within the sutras, which emphasize vastness, we would refer to this nature as the dharmata, the nature of all things, often explained as the unity of space and wisdom. Within the secret mantra, or the Vajrayana, which emphasizes profundity and not so much the vast scope of the mind’s nature, we would refer to this as the nature of our mind. We can also think of our mind as the nature of the sixth consciousness or the nature of the eighth consciousness. In either case, it is through looking at the nature of our mind that ignorance will be removed. We are bewildered and ignorant, because we have never looked into and realized this true nature. If we directly recognize it, we will eliminate ignorance, which is like the seed, and so the seedling will not grow, the stalk will not appear, and the branches will not develop.
© Thrangu Rinpoche 2006. Reprinted from A Song for the King: Saraha on Mahamudra Meditation with permission of Wisdom Publications.