The tantric path of Buddhism is complex and arduous, but its surprising culmination is the practice of spaciousness, ease, and simplicity known as Dzogchen, the Great Perfection.
One of the first things I learned as a Buddhist was that the fundamental nature of the mind is so vast that it completely transcends intellectual understanding. It can’t be described in words or reduced to tidy concepts. For someone like me, who likes words and feels very comfortable with conceptual explanations, this was a problem.
In Sanskrit, the language in which the Buddha’s teachings were originally recorded, the fundamental nature of the mind is called tathagatagarbha, which is a very subtle and tricky description. Literally, it means “the nature of those who have gone that way.” “Those who have gone that way” are the people who have attained complete enlightenment—in other words, people whose minds have completely surpassed ordinary limitations that can be described in words.
Not a lot of help there, I think you’ll agree.
Other, less literal translations have variously rendered tathagatagarbha as “buddhanature,” “true nature,” “enlightened essence,” “ordinary mind,” and even “natural mind”—none of which sheds much light on the real meaning of the word itself. To really understand tathagatagarbha, you have to experience it directly, which for most of us occurs initially in the form of quick, spontaneous glimpses. And when I finally experienced my first glimpse, I realized that everything the Buddhist texts said about it was true.
For most of us, our natural mind or buddhanature is obscured by the limited self-image created by habitual neuronal patterns—which, in themselves, are simply a reflection of the unlimited capacity of the mind to create any condition it chooses. Natural mind is capable of producing anything, even ignorance of its own nature. In other words, not recognizing natural mind is simply an example of the mind’s unlimited capacity to create whatever it wants. Whenever we feel fear, sadness, jealousy, desire, or any other emotion that contributes to our sense of vulnerability or weakness, we should give ourselves a nice pat on the back. We’ve just experienced the unlimited nature of the mind.
Although the true nature of the mind can’t be described directly, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to develop some theoretical understanding about it. Even a limited understanding is at least a signpost, pointing the way toward direct experience. The Buddha understood that experiences impossible to describe in words could best be explained through stories and metaphors. In one text, he compared tathagatagarbha to a nugget of gold covered with mud and dirt.
Imagine you’re a treasure hunter. One day you discover a chunk of metal in the ground. You dig a hole, pull out the metal, take it home, and start to clean it. At first, one corner of the nugget reveals itself, bright and shining. Gradually, as you wash away the accumulated dirt and mud, the whole chunk is revealed as gold. So let me ask: which is more valuable—the chunk of gold buried in mud, or the one you cleaned? Actually, the value is equal. Any difference between the dirty nugget and the clean is superficial.
The same can be said of natural mind. The neuronal gossip that keeps you from seeing your mind in its fullness doesn’t really change the fundamental nature of your mind. Thoughts like “I’m ugly,” “I’m stupid,” or “I’m boring” are nothing more than a kind of biological mud, temporarily obscuring the brilliant qualities of buddhanature or natural mind.
Sometimes the Buddha compared natural mind to space, not necessarily as space is understood by modern science, but rather in the poetic sense of a profound experience of openness one feels when looking up at a cloudless sky or entering a very large room. Like space, natural mind isn’t dependent on prior causes or conditions. It simply is: immeasurable and beyond characterization, the essential background through which we move and relative to which we recognize distinctions between the objects we perceive.
In natural mind, there is no rejection or acceptance, no loss or gain.
—The Third Gyalwang Karmapa, in The Song of Karmapa: The Aspiration of The Mahamudra of True Meaning
I’d like to make it clear that the comparison between natural mind and space as described by modern science is really more of a useful metaphor than an exact description. When most of us think of space, we think of a blank background against which all sorts of things appear and disappear: stars, planets, comets, meteors, black holes, and asteroids—even things that haven’t yet been discovered. Yet, despite all this activity, our idea of the essential nature of space remains undisturbed. As far as we know, at least, space has yet to complain about what happens within itself. We’ve sent thousands—millions—of messages out into the universe, and never once have received a response like, “I am so angry that an asteroid just smashed into my favorite planet,” or “Wow, I’m thrilled! A new star has just come into being!”
In the same way, the essence of mind is untouched by unpleasant thoughts or conditions that might ordinarily be considered painful. It’s naturally peaceful, like the mind of a young child accompanying his parents through a museum. While his parents are completely caught up in judging and evaluating the various works of art on display, the child merely sees. He doesn’t wonder how much some piece of art might have cost, how old a statue is, or whether one painter’s work is better than another’s. His perspective is completely innocent, accepting everything it beholds. This innocent perspective is known in Buddhist terms as “natural peace,” a condition similar to the sensation of total relaxation a person experiences after, say, going to the gym or completing a complicated task.
As with so many aspects of natural mind, the experience of natural peace is so far beyond what we normally consider relaxation that it defies description. In classical Buddhist texts, it’s compared to offering candy to a mute. The mute undoubtedly experiences the sweetness of the candy, but is powerless to describe it. In the same way, when we taste the natural peace of our own minds, the experience is unquestionably real, yet beyond our capacity to express in words.
So now, the next time you sit down to eat, if you should ask yourself, “What is it that thinks that this food tastes good—or not so good? What is it that thinks that recognizes eating?” don’t be surprised if you can’t answer at all. Congratulate yourself instead. When you can’t describe a powerful experience in words anymore, it’s a sign of progress. It means you’ve at least dipped your toes into the realm of the ineffable vastness of your true nature, a very brave step that many people, too comfortable with the familiarity of their discontent, lack the courage to take.
The Tibetan word for meditation, gom, literally means “becoming familiar with,” and Buddhist meditation practice is really about becoming familiar with the nature of your own mind—a bit like getting to know a friend on deeper and deeper levels. Like getting to know a friend, discovering the nature of your mind is a gradual process. Rarely does it occur all at once. The only difference between meditation and ordinary social interaction is that the friend you’re gradually coming to know is yourself.
Getting to Know Your Natural Mind
If an inexhaustible treasure were buried in the ground beneath a poor man’s house, the man would not know of it, and the treasure would not speak and tell him, “I am here!”
—Maitreya, in The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra
The Buddha often compared natural mind to water, which in its essence is always clear and clean. Mud, sediment, and other impurities may temporarily darken or pollute the water, but we can filter away such impurities and restore its natural clarity. If water weren’t naturally clear, no matter how many filters you used, it would not become clear.
The first step toward recognizing the qualities of natural mind is illustrated by an old story told by the Buddha, about a very poor man who lived in a rickety old shack. Though he didn’t know it, hundreds of gems were embedded in the walls and floor of his shack. Though he owned all of the jewels, because he didn’t understand their value, he lived as a pauper—suffering from hunger and thirst, the bitter cold of winter and the terrible heat of summer.
One day a friend of his asked him, “Why are you living like such a pauper? You’re not poor. You’re a very rich man.”
“Are you crazy?” the man replied. “How can you say such a thing?”
“Look around you,” his friend said. “Your whole house is filled with jewels—emeralds, diamonds, sapphires, rubies.”
At first the man didn’t believe what his friend was saying. But after a while he grew curious, and took a small jewel from his walls into town to sell. Unbelievably, the merchant to whom he brought it paid him a very handsome price, and with the money in hand, the man returned to town and bought a new house, taking with him all the jewels he could find. He bought himself new clothes, filled his kitchen with food, engaged servants, and began to live a very comfortable life.
Now let me ask a question. Who is wealthier: someone who lives in an old house surrounded by jewels he doesn’t recognize, or someone who understands the value of what he has and lives in total comfort?
Like the question posed earlier about the nugget of gold, the answer here is: both. They both owned great wealth. The only difference is that for many years they didn’t recognize what they possessed. It wasn’t until they recognized what they already had that they freed themselves from poverty and pain.
It’s the same for all of us. As long as we don’t recognize our real nature, we suffer. When we recognize our nature, we become free from suffering. Whether you recognize it or not, though, its qualities remain unchanged. But when you begin to recognize it in yourself, you change, and the quality of your life changes as well. Things you never dreamed possible begin to happen.
We need to recognize our basic state.
—Tsoknyi Rinpoche, in Carefree Dignity
According to the Buddha, the basic nature of mind can be directly experienced simply by allowing the mind to rest simply as it is. How do we accomplish this?
Let’s try a brief exercise in resting the mind. This is not a meditation exercise. In fact, it’s an exercise in “non-meditation”—a very old Buddhist practice that takes the pressure off thinking you have to achieve a goal or experience some sort of special state. In non-meditation, we just watch whatever happens without interfering. We’re just interested observers of a kind of introspective experiment, with no investment in how the experiment turns out.
Of course, when I first learned this, I was still a pretty goal-oriented child. I wanted something wonderful to happen every time I sat down to meditate. So it took me a while to get the hang of just resting, just looking, and letting go of the results.
First, assume a comfortable position in which your spine is straight, your body relaxed, and your eyes open. Once your body is positioned comfortably, allow your mind to simply rest for three minutes or so. Just let your mind go, as though you’ve just finished a long and difficult task.
Whatever happens, whether thoughts or emotions occur, whether you notice some physical discomfort, whether you’re aware of sounds or smells around you, or your mind is a total blank, don’t worry. Anything that happens—or doesn’t happen—is simply a part of the experience of allowing your mind to rest.
So now, just rest in the awareness of whatever is passing through your mind…
When the three minutes are up, ask yourself, How was that experience? Don’t judge it; don’t try to explain it. Just review what happened and how you felt. You might have experienced a brief taste of peace or openness. That’s good. Or you might have been aware of a million different thoughts, feelings, and sensations. That’s also good. Why? Because either way, as long as you’ve maintained at least a bare awareness of what you were thinking or feeling, you’ve had a direct glimpse of your own mind just performing its natural functions.
So let me confide in you a big secret. Whatever you experience when you simply rest your attention on whatever’s going on in your mind at any given moment is meditation. Simply resting in this way is the experience of natural mind.
The only difference between meditation and the ordinary, everyday process of thinking, feeling, and sensation is the application of the simple, bare awareness that occurs when you allow your mind to rest simply as it is—without chasing after thoughts or becoming distracted by feelings or sensations.
It took me a long time to recognize how easy meditation really is, mainly because it seemed so completely ordinary, so close to my everyday habits of perception, that I rarely stopped to acknowledge it. Like many of the people I now meet on teaching tours, I thought that natural mind had to be something else, something different from, or better than, what I was already experiencing.
Like most people, I brought so much judgment to my experience. I believed that thoughts of anger, fear, and so on that came and went throughout the day were bad or counterproductive—or at the very least inconsistent with natural peace! The teachings of the Buddha—and the lesson inherent in this exercise is non-meditation—is that if we allow ourselves to relax and take a mental step back, we can begin to recognize that all these different thoughts are simply coming and going within the context of an unlimited mind, which, like space, remains fundamentally unperturbed by whatever occurs within it.
In fact, experiencing natural peace is easier than drinking water. In order to drink, you have to expend effort. You have to reach for the glass, bring it to your lips, tip the glass so the water pours into your mouth, swallow the water, and then put the glass down. No such effort is required to experience natural peace. All you have to do is rest your mind in its natural openness. No special focus, no special effort, is required.
And if for some reason you cannot rest your mind, you can simply observe whatever thoughts, feelings, or sensations come up, hang out for a couple of seconds, and then dissolve, and acknowledge, “Oh, that’s what’s going on in my mind right now.”
Wherever you are, whatever you do, it’s essential to acknowledge your experience as something ordinary, the natural expression of your true mind. If you don’t try to stop whatever is going on in your mind, but merely observe it, eventually you’ll begin to feel a tremendous sense of relaxation, a vast sense of openness within your mind—which is in fact your natural mind, the natural unperturbed background against which various thoughts come and go. At the same time, you’ll be awakening new neuronal pathways, which, as they grow stronger and more deeply connected, enhance your capability to tolerate the cascade of thoughts rushing through your mind at any given moment. Whatever disturbing thoughts do arise will act as catalysts that stimulate your awareness of the natural peace that surrounds and permeates these thoughts, the way space surrounds and permeates every particle of the phenomenal world.
Adapted from The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness. © 2007 by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.