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The Great Medicine Which Conquers
Clinging To the Notion of Reality

Steps in meditation on the enlightened mind

Root text by Shechen Gyaltsap Pema Namgyal
Explained by by Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche

Part two of a monthly series (Click here for part one.)

The main teaching is also divided into three parts. The first part describes bodhichitta, the enlightened mind; the second part concerns the way to train in bodhichitta; and the third part explains the results of practicing.


First, we should consider the ultimate aspect of enlightenment from the perspective of absolute truth; secondly, how we lose recognition of absolute truth through delusion and how the process of delusion occurs, how sentient beings become deluded in what we call conditioned existence or samsara; and thirdly, how we can dispel that delusion in order to rediscover the absolute truth.

The following two verses describe the nature of this absolute truth and how the absolute nature is present in all sentient beings.

All phenomena remain in the expanse
Of beginningless time;
Since this is the case,
All sentient beings can achieve nirvana.

Just as there is perfectly clear water
Within the earth,
Within the obscuring emotions
There is great primordial wisdom.

"Great primordial wisdom" is the buddha nature that is present in all sentient beings, the tathagatagarbha. As it says in the scriptures, "All sentient beings without exception have buddha nature;" yet a transient veil of delusion that is extraneous to our buddha nature obscures it.

How does our confused and obscured state affect buddha nature? "Within the earth, there is perfectly clear water" demonstrates that even within the obscuring emotions, which invade and condition our minds, primordial wisdom dwells though we may not realize or see it. Just as pure water cannot be seen at the surface of the earth, but still flows underground, within the realm of obscuring emotions and confusion, the great primordial wisdom or ultimate bodhichitta remains unchanged.

The sutras that explicate emptiness
And all the words spoken by the victorious ones,
Speak of getting rid of the obscuring emotions.

The three main categories of Buddhist teachings are known as the Tripitaka. At root all the Buddha's teachings are meant to explain the ultimate nature of emptiness, the emptiness of intrinsic existence, and are all designed to clear away afflictive mental states. Buddha nature itself has remained at all times; from the beginning to the end it is immaculate and unstained by any obscuration. So all we have to do is dispel the veil that obscures our buddha nature, which is:

Buddha nature is immaculate.
It is profound, serene, unfabricated suchness,
An uncompounded expanse of luminosity;

"Uncompounded" means it has not been fabricated or created from various causes and conditions. Buddha nature is the ultimate, unfabricated, primordial nature of mind. It does not dwell as a truly existing entity and therefore will never cease. It is simply the ultimate nature of phenomena and:

Non-arising, unceasing, primordial peace,
Spontaneously present nirvana.

Just as sesame oil pervades sesame seeds,
The essence of the tathagatas
Is primordially present and inseparable from
The basic state of all beings.

Just as each and every sesame seed is pervaded with oil, every sentient being primordially has buddha nature. It is "the basic state of all beings," meaning the absolute or true nature of mind, the dharmata. Buddha nature dwells in us simply because it is the ultimate nature of mind. Therefore, it is primordially present, not something that has been fabricated, nor is it ever separate from us.

The Origins of Delusion

Sentient beings become deluded because they are,

Obscured by the deluded notions of subject and object,
Shrouded in the cocoon of the three habitual tendencies,

Delusion occurs when we reify the phenomenal world and ourselves, create the notions of subject and object, and build up habitual tendencies related to the external world, our mind and our body.

Like a treasure lying hidden in a poor man's house
This nature remains unrecognised:

In this well-known example a man believes he is poor because he is unaware that there is a treasure buried directly under him. In actual fact, he is quite rich. Likewise, the treasure of buddha nature is buried within us, but we are not aware of it. Not recognizing our own inherent wealth, we live as paupers. By forgetting one's buddha nature, one falls into delusion.

Now let's analyze how these "deluded notions of subject and object" come about in more detail. "Deluded" means there is a sense that there appears to be a split between subject and object; however this is just us mentally fabricating something that does not truly exist.

There are three types of habitual tendencies that make our delusions thicker and thicker, until they completely enshroud us in a cocoon of ignorance. The first is related to the objects and beings we perceive to be the external world, all that we feel is "out there"—whatever we perceive through the five senses. We attribute values to what we see, imagining them to be intrinsically pleasurable, unpleasant or neutral. Then follows the process of wanting to attract anything pleasurable, repel that which is unpleasant and neglect what seems to be neutral. In doing so, we weave a cocoon of delusion and suffering like a caterpillar imprisons itself inside a cell of its own making. It all begins by craving what appear to be external objects, even though they do not inherently exist since there is no such thing as an intrinsic characteristic of an external object.

The second habitual tendency is related to consciousness, the inner subject that grasps after external "things." The inner subject functions with the eight aspects of consciousness. First there is the basic consciousness, the vijnana alaya, which is the mere fact of being aware of the world. Then follow various other aspects of consciousness related to the five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Then comes an aspect of consciousness related to the kleshas, the different mental poisons. These taint and obscure the eighth aspect of consciousness, which is the intellect. So these eight aspects of consciousness create a habitual tendency of perceiving an "inner" subject.

The third habitual tendency comes from our perception of the body. In Tibetan the word for "body" is lu which literally means "something that is left behind," referring to the fact that when we die our body is going to be abandoned and disintegrate. Lu denotes the body's ephemeral and composite nature. Nevertheless a very strong habitual tendency is created due to clinging to the idea of "my body" and the notion that it is through the body that we have all our experiences. Even when we dream we believe our body is experiencing sensations like being burned, falling into water or going through different trials and tribulations. We tend to associate all experiences of suffering and pleasure with the notion of a body. These three types of habitual tendencies accumulate on the ground of the basic consciousness and become ever thicker and stronger. This is what creates our mental dispositions, confusion and ignorance.

Obscuring emotions and wrong actions
Cause sufferings to fall upon us like rain.

Being completely wrapped up in such confusion, the obscuring emotions and the wrong actions they engender "cause sufferings to fall upon us like rain." Suffering is a result of our actions of body, speech and mind. These actions, being motivated or triggered by obscuring emotions, continue generating one another and so suffering continuously afflicts us. This is not just happening now, but has been going on since beginningless time.

We have wandered into the conditioned existence of samsara and even though it appears extremely real, if we examine its ultimate nature we see that it remains devoid of any intrinsic existence. It appears, yet is unreal. And so:

Since beginningless time you have roamed
On the immense plain of existence, which is apparent yet unreal.
Alas! Such is the power of ignorance and karma.

Dispelling Confusion

So how does one dispel this confusion?

Having fully prostrated
At the lotus feet of an authentic master,
You should cleanse the stains of ego-clinging
With the nectar of his instructions.

Having found and attended to a fully qualified and authentic teacher, you should eliminate all your obscurations as if you were removing stains from a cloth. The stain is clinging to the notions of self and phenomena. You remove this stain not with ordinary water but with the nectar of the teacher's oral instructions.

The path itself has various stages. First one lays the foundation with the preliminaries—the four reflections that turn one's mind to the Dharma. Then comes the aspiration to seek refuge, while the third and main part explains how to generate the enlightened mind, bodhichitta.

The Four Mind Changings

The four reflections that turn one's mind away from samsara and towards the Dharma are called preliminaries, which might give a false impression that they are not of primary importance. However, the preliminaries are the foundation on which all our practice is built. If we engage in these four preliminaries—reflecting upon the value of human existence, death and impermanence, the law of cause and effect, and the shortcomings of samsara—there is no doubt we will develop a genuine wish to escape samsara and will eagerly pursue the path. This is called renunciation. Without the urge to get out of samsara, we would not be impelled to stay on the path, take refuge and so forth. So, although we call them preliminaries, perhaps they should be thought of as the main practice.

Look at the example of the great practitioners of the past in Tibet. There are many accounts of those who truly immersed themselves in these preliminaries to great effect. Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo once said that he achieved the most profound spiritual realization by genuinely experiencing these four changes of attitude. Masters of the past would reflect on the truth of impermanence and the preciousness of human existence for months, if not years; by doing so they gained a completely real and direct appreciation of human existence. They did not just think, "Oh yes, it's great to have this human existence, it's quite valuable," but developed a deep and stable recognition of the true value of human existence and a constant awareness of impermanence, and so their urge to practice became second nature to them.

Once, Patrul Rinpoche went to meet a very great meditator in retreat. Patrul Rinpoche himself was, of course, a very realized person, yet he asked this hermit for teachings on these four reflections, which many people consider to be very basic. The hermit, however, was not surprised. So on the first day, he uttered the line about the rarity and preciousness of human existence, "Alas! Freedom and favorable conditions are so difficult to obtain." Then he just sat quietly and these two great masters began to weep, and, being so overwhelmed by the truth of this statement, they ended the session. The next day the hermit said, "Life rushes by like a mountain cascade." Having contemplated this line, they again began to cry. And so it continued with only one line on each of the four days.

First one reflects:

Now that you have at last obtained
This free, privileged human birth,
Which is so hard to find and so meaningful,
It is worthwhile to transform your being in solitude,
Without being attached to this life,
Which is of such small importance.

According to the Buddhist teachings there are many other realms or states of being we could experience. For various reasons however none of them are as conducive to encountering the opportunity to engage on the path. For example celestial beings are gods with incredibly long lives. In their celestial realms everything seems to be easy and all one's needs, including every comfort and pleasure, are fulfilled. There is no sickness and life spans are very long. However as beings tend to get easily distracted by so much comfort and happiness, beings in this state of existence lack incentive to become interested in Dharma practice.

Human existence is unique in having just enough suffering to make us want to be free of suffering, yet not so much that we cannot practice. In this sense, as it is such a precious opportunity, it is, "worthwhile to transform your being in solitude."

To obtain a human existence is pointless if you do not take advantage of it. Unless you develop this potential, the richness of existence will not be realized. People however tend to waste this potential through indifference or, even worse, engaging in destructive and negative acts. If you do not cherish this precious opportunity and use it to full advantage, then your life will be a mere imitation of what true meaningful human existence can be.

A Tibetan master once said that, compared to all other possible existences, to be born as a human being is as rare as the specks of dust upon one of our fingernails; which is almost nothing compared to all the dust on earth. Missing the point, someone from China said, "These Tibetans think there are so few people in Tibet, but if they came to China they would see that human existence is not rare at all - China is full of people". It may appear that the earth is becoming overpopulated, but still there are far fewer humans than other species and among human beings very few live a truly meaningful life. Just ask yourself how many of those who realize how precious this life is think of using it to practice the Dharma? How many of them actually start to practice? And of those who start, how many continue? And of those who continue, how many attain ultimate realization?

Since it is so hard to find, yet so meaningful, why does Shechen Gyaltsap then say that this life "is of such small importance?" The reason is twofold. First, it is our ordinary preoccupations and mundane pursuits that are of small importance, and distract us from what can bring immense benefits for many lifetimes to come. In this life we are constantly busy trying to subdue threats and enemies, while protecting and favoring those who are dear to us or who treat us well. Also, this life is just one brief episode among so many past and future lives. We need a much wider perspective, one not entangled in our usual petty preoccupations nor so concerned with the temporary success of the moment. If you go somewhere where you can concentrate on your spiritual practice, you soon discover that it is the best use of your time. You should avoid distractions, as peace and solitude are conducive to concentration. Such conditions help beginners like us develop, stabilize and deepen meditation.

Even if we do recognize the true value of human existence, often we still fall prey to inertia and laziness. This laziness is the main obstacle to actually making the most of this life and putting the Dharma into practice. We are always postponing practice saying, "Oh, I will do that later when I have some free time or when I retire." But, with this attitude, the time will never come. So, to dispel this laziness, the sutras time and time again emphasize the thoughts of impermanence and death. These thoughts spur us on to practice. That is why Shechen Gyaltsap wrote:

Amidst the clouds of impermanence and illusion
The lightning of life dances:
Are you sure you won't die tomorrow?
Death is unavoidable so practice the Dharma!

We are quite lackadaisical when it comes to death. When we go for a holiday we make elaborate preparations—we plan, book flights, make hotel reservations, pack our bags, etc. If we are going trekking or skiing we do some exercise. We put a lot of time and energy into just one holiday! So how is it that we can be so casual about the inevitable trip that awaits us upon death? We are going to leave this body; yet it seems we are not interested in preparing ourselves at all, even though it is so momentous. Considering the import of these two events our respective attitudes certainly seem a bit disproportionate.

We are not always aware of impermanence because it has many levels. There is the impermanence of the external universe on both the gross and subtle levels, as well as the impermanence of beings. Near Bodhgaya there is a small hill covered with shabby huts made of tin and plastic sheets; but in the time of the Buddha this same hill used to host a vast monastic congregation, with a great number of communities studying and practicing. Now all that is left are memories, barely a stone remains.

Beings, too, are impermanent and impermanence does not discriminate between great enlightened beings and ordinary beings. Everyone is subject to impermanence: we all age, get sick and die. No one can escape this cycle and we see it everyday. The conditions of our own lives are constantly changing too; we may be rich one day and bankrupt the next or vice versa. However much we wish the opposite, there is nothing lasting and permanent that we can rely on.

Seeing the transitory nature of human existence lessens our attraction to and rejection of the things of this world. Thinking that they are solid and lasting, we grasp at things hoping to find happiness; yet nobody would bother grasping at something that lasts for a fraction of a second. So, the more we meditate on impermanence, the more our grasping, and hence our impulses of attachment and repulsion, will diminish.

All the great masters and practitioners of the past took impermanence as one of their main subjects of reflection, so they would not waste time. The great meditator Karak Gomchung stayed in a cave with a thorny bush at the entrance. Each time he exited the cave, his robes would get caught on the thorns and he would say, "Oh! I should cut that thorn bush down." But then, moments later, he would change his mind and think, "Oh, what's the use? Who knows if I will ever go back inside again or if I will still be alive even a few minutes from now?" Later, when entering the cave again, the same thing would happen and he would think, "Oh, I should cut that bush! Ah, but who knows if I'll ever come out again? Better I make use of every minute and meditate, rather than waste time." As Karak Gomchung had taken impermanence to heart, after many years of retreat that bush was still there as a reminder.

The third reflection to change one's attitude is on the shortcomings of samara. As long as ignorance prevails in this conditioned existence, it will be nothing more than a veiled expression of suffering. This is why the very first sermon of the Buddha begins with "O Bhikshus, you should recognize the truth of suffering."

To be continued next month

Translated by Ani Jinba Palmo.

Continue with part three.

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