Without Center or Limit

The great Dzogchen teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche on the primordial union of emptiness and awareness, the space-like nature of mind.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
30 August 2020

Mind is not a thing that has physical form, sound, smell, taste or texture. Mind is empty. Space is also empty. No matter where you go in space, there is no limit, no boundary, no edge. If you were to travel in a space ship in a single direction for a hundred billion years, you would not reach the end of space. It’s the same with the other directions—you can travel forever, and you’ll still never reach a place where space ends.

Now, how can something without limits have a center? It can’t, can it? That is why it is taught that space has no center and no edge. The Buddha used space to point at how mind is. He said that mind is empty like space: that just as space has no limits in any direction, mind has no center or edge. As a matter of fact, wherever there is space, mind is present. And Buddha taught that throughout space, wherever space reaches, there are sentient beings. And wherever there are sentient beings there are disturbing emotions and the creation of karma. And wherever there is the creation of disturbing emotion and karma, there is also buddha nature. The awakened mind of the buddhas is all-pervasive.

The indivisible unity of being empty and cognizant is our original ground that is never lost.

As sentient beings, we think, we remember, we plan—and the attention thus exerted moves towards an object and sticks to it. This mental movement is called thinking or conceptual mind. We have many different expressions in Tibetan to describe the functioning of this basic attitude of mind, of this extroverted consciousness unaware of its own nature. This ignorant mind grabs hold of objects, forms concepts about them, and gets involved and caught up in the concepts it has created. This is the nature of samsara, and it has been continuing through beginningless lifetimes up to the present moment.

All these involvements are merely fabricated creations; they are not the natural state. They are based on the concepts of subject and object, perceiver and perceived. This dualistic structure, together with the disturbing emotions and the karmanhat is produced through them, are the forces that drive us from one samsaric experience to another. Yet all the while, there is still the basic nature, which is not made out of anything whatsoever. It is totally unconstructed and empty, and at the same time it is aware: it has the quality of being able to cognize. This indivisible unity of being empty and cognizant is our original ground that is never lost.

What we are missing is the recognition that our natural state is the indivisible unity of emptiness and cognizance. We miss that recognition because our mind is always searching somewhere else. We do not acknowledge our actual cognizant presence, and instead are always preoccupied by looking elsewhere, outside of ourselves. And we perpetuate this process continuously. Shantideva said, “Unless you know the secret key point, whatever you do will miss the mark.” The secret key point of mind is that its nature is a self-existing, original wakefulness. To identify the key point we need to receive the pointing-out instruction, in which the master tells and shows us that: “The nature of your mind is the buddha mind itself.” Right now we are like the dim-witted person who lost himself in downtown Kathmandu, who runs around wailing, “I’ve lost myself. Where am I?” The pointing-out instruction is just like telling him, “You are you!” Through beginningless samsara, sentient beings have never found themselves until somebody says, “You are right here.” This is a metaphor for introducing the secret key point of mind.

If it weren’t for the buddhas’ teachings, all sentient beings would be totally lost, because they need to be pointed towards that basic ground which is always present, but never acknowledged. That is the purpose of the pointing-out instruction, literally, the “instruction bringing you face-to-face with your own essence.” This instruction is given impressive great names like Mahamudra, the Great Middle Way (Madhyamika), or the Great Perfection (Dzogchen). All of these teachings point towards the same basic nature. They are the exact opposite of the conceptual thinking that holds a subject and object—the dualistic frame of mind that is unaware of its own nature.

Our mind is spacious, wide-open and empty, yet it still feels pleasure and pain.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can know our own nature. We can realize it by applying the pith instructions of Mahamudra, the Great Middle Way, and the Great Perfection. Even though our nature is primordially enlightened, we are oblivious to that fact. Therefore we need to become reenlightened. First we need to recognize; next, train in that recognition; and finally, attain stability. Once we are reenlightened, we no longer need to wander in samsara.

The buddha nature is the very identity within which the body, speech, mind, qualities and activities of all buddhas are complete. The unchanging quality is called the vajra body, the unceasing quality is called the vajra speech, and the undeluded quality is called vajra mind. The indivisible unity of the three is exactly what is meant by buddha nature. It is out of the expression of these that the body, speech and mind of all beings appear. In fact, the body, speech and mind of any sentient being have the same origin as the body, speech and mind of the awakened ones. Body, speech and mind cannot come from earth, or stone, or matter.

Not recognizing in our own experience the unchanging quality of this buddha nature, we entered into the encasement of a physical body of flesh and blood. Our speech became wrapped within the movement of breath to become voice and words. It appears and disappears. Consciousness began to hold a perceiver as separate from the perceived. In other words, it became a fixation on duality, a stop-and-start process that arises and ceases in each moment. Thoughts come continuously, one after the other, like an endless string. This endless string of thought has continued from beginningless time and just goes on and on. That is how the normal state of mind is. If we don’t now recognize our own nature in this lifetime, we fail to capture our natural seat of unchanging, self-existing wakefulness. Instead, we chase after one perishing thought after the other, like chasing after each new bead on the string. This is how samsara becomes endless. While we are governed by this involvement in thought, we are truly helpless.

Who can stop samsara for us? There is nobody but ourselves. Even if all the sentient beings of the six realms were lined up and you cried, “Please, help me, so I can stop being overpowered by my own thinking!”—even then, not a single one of them could help. How sad that we are controlled by this involvement in thought, day and night, life after life! We could try to blow up a nuclear bomb to stop samsara, but it still wouldn’t help. Nuclear bombs can destroy cities, even countries, but they cannot stop the mind from thinking. Unless we become free of conceptual thinking, there is absolutely no way to end samsara and truly awaken to enlightenment.

Great peace is when the conceptual thinking subsides, calms down. There is a way for that to happen. Thoughts are actually an expression of the buddha nature. They are expressions of our natural face. If we truly recognize buddha nature, in that very same moment, any thought will vanish by itself, leaving no trace. This is what brings an end to samsara. There is a supreme method to do this. Once we know that method, there is nothing superior we need to know. This way is already at hand in ourselves. It is not something that we need to get from someone else—it is not something we need to buy, bribe, or search for and finally achieve. Such effort is not necessary at all. Once you recognize your own natural face, you have already transcended the six realms of samsara.

What is the method? It is what one asks for when requesting a master to give instructions on how to recognize mind essence and train in it. Our mind essence is incredibly precious. It is the natural inheritance we possess right now. Receiving teachings on how to recognize the essence of mind and correctly apply them is called “the Buddha being placed in the palm of your own hand.” That analogy means that at the moment of being introduced and recognizing, you don’t have to seek for the awakened state somewhere else. Line up all the money, all the wealth in the whole world in one big heap and put it on one side. On the other side put the recognition of buddha nature, the nature of your own mind. What is most valuable? If you are going to somehow compare the two, I can promise you that recognizing mind essence, the “amazing buddha within,” is more valuable, a billion times more valuable.

What is of true value? We need to think about this for ourselves. When we do business and make a profit, we rejoice. If we have a loss, we fall into despair. Let’s compare our business capital to our buddha nature, which is like a wish-fulfilling jewel. If we don’t use this wish-fulfilling jewel, endless sam- sara lies before us. Isn’t it just incredibly stupid to throw away our fortune—and troublesome as well? We need to think about this. I am not reciting this from memory. It is not a lie either. This is the real, crucial point. If we didn’t have a buddha nature, nobody could blame us.

But we do have buddha nature, a buddha nature that is the identity of the three kayas [bodies] of all buddhas. However, as Jamgon Kongtriil said:

Although my mind is the Buddha, I don’t recognize it.
Although my thinking is dharmakaya, I don’t realize it.
Although nonfabrication is the innate, I fail to sustain it.
Although naturalness is the basic state, I am not convinced.
Guru, think of me. Quickly, look upon me with compassion!
Bless me so that natural awareness is liberated into itself.

In this world, nothing is more essential than mind, except for one thing: the nature of this mind, buddha nature. All sentient beings have this nature, without a single exception. This buddha nature is present in everyone, from the primordial buddha Samantabhadra down to the tiniest insect, even the smallest entities you can only see through a microscope. In all of these, the buddha nature is identical. There is no difference in size or quality—not at all. Buddha nature never differs in terms of quality or quantity. It is not like Samantabhadra has a large buddha nature and a small insect has a small one, or that the Buddha has a superior buddha nature and a fly an inferior one; there is no difference at all.

We need to distinguish between mind and mind essence. The mind essence of sentient beings and the awakened mind of the buddhas is the same. Buddhahood means to be totally stable in the state before dualistic thought occurs. A sentient being like ourselves, not realizing our essence, gets caught up in our own thinking and becomes bewildered. Still, the essence of our mind and the very essence of all awakened buddhas is primordially the same. Sentient beings and buddhas have an identical source, the buddha nature. Buddhas became awakened because of realizing their essence. Sentient beings became confused because of not realizing their essence. Thus there is one basis or ground, and two different paths.

Mind is that which thinks and remembers and plans all these different thoughts that we have. It is the thinking that perpetuates samsara. Samsara will go on endlessly unless the thinking stops. Thought in Tibetan is called namtok. “Nam” means the object, what is thought of. “Tok” means to make ideas and concepts about those objects. Namtok is something that mind churns out incessantly, day and night. A buddha is someone who recognizes the essence itself, and is awakened through that. A sentient being is someone who doesn’t, and who is confused by his or her own thinking. Someone who has failed to recognize the essence of mind is called a sentient being. Realizing the nature itself and becoming stable in that realization is called a buddha.

True virtue, real goodness, is created through recognizing our buddha nature, our natural state. Recognize your mind, and in the absence of any concrete thing, rest loosely.

In short, the nature of this mind is empty in essence; it is like space. Because it has no form, no smell, no taste, sound or texture, it is completely empty. It always was, primordially. In being empty, mind seems like space. But there is a difference: space is not conscious; it doesn’t feel pleasure or pain. Our mind is spacious, wide-open and empty, yet it still feels pleasure and pain. It is sometimes called the “ever-knowing, ever- conscious mind.” Whatever is present is known by mind.

When this mind is put to work, it can invent any possible thing, even nuclear bombs. Mind creates all these amazing gadgets—voice recorders, airplanes that can fly through the sky. These inventions don’t think, but they were created by the thinking mind. Sentient beings create the samsara that we have right now. The creation of samsara will not ultimately help us in any way.

Mind is invisible and intangible. That is why people don’t know it. That is why they wonder, “Have I really recognized this nature of mind?” If it were a concrete thing, scientists would have figured it out a long time ago. But it isn’t, so scientists don’t necessarily know what mind is. If they did, all scientists would be enlightened! But have you ever heard of scientists becoming enlightened through science? Sure, they know a lot of other things. They can make telephones that let you instantly talk to anybody anywhere in the world. And they can make machinery that flies hundreds of people together through the sky. They can drive trains directly through mountains. All this is possible. If mind is put to work, it is an inexhaustible treasure; but that still doesn’t mean enlightenment. When the mind is put to use for something and gets caught up in it, this does not lead to enlightenment. We need to know the essential nature of mind.

What is the way to dissolve thoughts, to totally clear them up and let them vanish? The Buddha had the technique on how to clear up thinking. That’s what the pointing-out instruction from a qualified master is for. When you go to school, you have to repeat the ABC’s back to the teacher so that he can be aware of whether you know the alphabet or not. Until one knows, one needs to be taught, to be shown. Until one fully knows mind essence, one needs a teacher. It’s as simple as that.

True virtue, real goodness, is created through recognizing our buddha nature, our natural state. Recognize your mind, and in the absence of any concrete thing, rest loosely. After a while we again get caught up in thoughts. But, by recognizing again and again, we grow more and more used to the natural state. It’s like learning something by heart—after a while, you don’t need to think about it. Through this process, our thought involvement grows weaker and weaker. The gap between thoughts begins to last longer and longer. At a certain point, for half an hour there will be a stretch of no conceptual thought whatsoever, without having to suppress the thinking.

The essence of mind that is primordially empty and rootless is unlike holding the idea of emptiness in mind, and it is not the same as the sustained attempt to feel empty. Neither of these helps much. By growing used to this natural, original emptiness again and again, we become accustomed to it. Then there will be a stretch throughout the whole day from morning to evening, which is only empty awareness untainted by notions of perceived objects or the perceiving mind. This corresponds to having attained the bodhisattva levels, the bhumis. When there is never a break throughout day and night, that is called buddhahood, true and complete enlightenment.

From the perspective of mind essence, the interruptions of thoughts are like clouds in the sky. The empty essence itself is like the space of the sky. Our cognizance is like sunshine. The sky itself never changes whether it’s sunny or cloudy. Similarly, when you realize the awakened state of the buddhas, all cloud-like thoughts have vanished. But the qualities of wisdom, meaning original wakefulness, are fully developed, fully present, even now when thoughts are present. We need to train in slowly growing more and more used to the recognition of mind essence. This will dissolve our negative karma and disturbing emotions. In this recognition it is impossible to be tainted by karma and emotions, just like you cannot paint mid-air.

Adapted from As It Is, Volume II. Translated by Eric Pema Kunsang and edited by Marcia Schmidt and Kerry Moran. © 2000 Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche & Rangjung Yeshe Publications.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920–1996) spent thirty-three years at Nagi Gompa Hermitage—twenty of those in retreat—and established six retreat centers and monasteries in Nepal, including Tergar Osel Ling Monastery in Kathmandu. He was recognized as the reincarnation of both the Chowang Tulku and Nubchen Sangye Yeshe (one of Padmasambhava’s principal students). His teachings have been published in the two-volume As It Is and in the new Vajra Heart Revisited, published this year to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his birth.