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.
“As we meditate, we begin to learn about what the mind is. We gradually uncover the mind’s true nature — that it is essentially clear, knowing and unbiased.”
What is the nature of this thing we experience as the mind? According to the Buddhist understanding, we say that mind is clear, knowing and unbiased.
First, mind is unbiased. The mind is a relatively neutral situation through which we experience things; it takes on the form of whatever we project at it. When the mind is more settled, we find that qualities such as love, compassion and understanding arise. These are generally more in harmony with the basic nature of mind than the negative emotions are.
The mind is not physical, obviously; it does not have a form. Rather, it is translucent, and it can penetrate anything. There is nothing that impedes it. What does it mean that the mind can actually penetrate forms?
This means, for example, that if we get very angry, or if we feel very desirous, or if we feel a lot of arrogance and pride, then we feel as though we are becoming that emotion. If we are sitting in meditation and suddenly we have a thought that makes us very angry, it feels as though the anger is moving toward us, almost like a physical thing. Our mind becomes completely absorbed and heavy with that particular emotion.
So in a sense, the emotion changed the format of the mind. Because the mind has no inherent bias, it takes on the form of that emotion. And what happens over time is that the mind becomes laden and heavy with all these emotions and the other habitual patterns that we take on.
This is why it is so important and helpful to understand the basic nature of mind. We can be hopeful because we know that fundamentally the mind is not stupid and angry, not ignorant and confused. Sometimes we may feel that we are stupid or angry, but that is only because the mind has been conditioned. Traditionally, the mind is compared to a white cloth that has been soiled. But fundamentally it remains pure.
Second, the mind is knowing. It is intelligent. How is it that we are able to recognize the difference between a rock, a book and a pear? How do we know that we are outside, or that we are inside, and so on? It is because of the knowing aspect of mind, the intelligence of mind. It’s like the sunlight: when the sun comes out, its warmth penetrates everywhere. We can say this warmth is like the quality of knowing.
Generally we take the mind’s ability to know for granted. But it is very important in the process of meditation to really understand knowing as a basic quality of the mind.
When we have established a meditation practice, we tend to think about the mind and what it really is. What is the mind made of, fundamentally? Can we describe the mind? I often compare the mind to a wild horse. It is wild and unruly, but it has the potential of being tamed. And when it is trained, our mind can be of service to us, instead of throwing us around unpredictably. So we need to know what it is that we are taming.
As we meditate, we begin to learn about what the mind is. We gradually uncover the mind’s components—that it is essentially clear and knowing and unbiased. As we do, we are able to access these pure aspects of mind; we get more and more to the source. We might feel angry or stupid, but through the process of meditating we begin to see through the layers of the mind, and finally we might reach something that is closer to mind’s true nature.
Finally, the mind is clear. Clarity here means that there is very little distance between us and the objects we perceive. I like to use the analogy of swimming underwater with a mask. The first time I went scuba diving the water was very muddy, so I didn’t see much. But the second time I went it was very clear and I was struck by how everything was so brilliant and close. This is the quality of clarity I’m talking about. It surprises us because everything is much clearer than what we’re used to, and there’s a feeling that we’re not separated from our surroundings. We just feel right there. It’s immediate.
To put this understanding of the mind into practice, there are different techniques that are appropriate at particular times. With each stage of meditation there are obstacles we encounter, and there are also various antidotes, the methods for overcoming these obstacles.
As meditators, we really need to understand the path: we need to know the know the stages, the obstacles and the antidotes. We need to have some guidelines, because the mind is so vast that left to our own devices, our tendency is just to wander in thought. We come up with some idea, and for a while it seems a good idea, and then something else comes along. We go from thought to thought, idea to idea, emotion to emotion. So in order to traverse this landscape of concept and thoughts, we need guidelines.
When we’re meditating we might notice brief thoughts like, “I wonder if I fed the dog?” We can all recognize thoughts like that. But there are some thoughts and concepts that last years, or a lifetime, and that are much harder to notice. Attitudes, beliefs, political affiliations—these are concepts that we may not even know we have. Through our meditation practice, we have the opportunity to uncover these, layer by layer.
Mind you, the journey of meditation is not about overcoming concepts. That’s looking at it in a negative sense, as if we were naturally confused. Our view is that we are trying to develop the natural intelligence of the mind. At first we might think, “I need concepts in order to understand what is going on,” and at this point, that’s okay. As the great yogi Milarepa said, “Mistakes, mistakes, if it weren’t for the mistakes I wouldn’t be here.”
So we have to make mistakes. That’s not a problem. Our journey is just a deeper and deeper understanding of the nature of concept and the natural aspects of mind.