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

Following the scriptures and the guru’s pith instructions,
Fortunate beings that aspire to freedom
Must first acquaint themselves
With the non-existence of beings and phenomena.

In order to dispel our ordinary delusions we should follow the authentic scriptures, heed a qualified teacher’s oral instructions and try to put them into practice. Combining these two aspects is important. The scriptures are authentic reasoning and cognition based on the profound understanding of the Buddha and his followers. The profound pith instructions of the guru are based on experience. The guru’s assistance can help us have a direct experience of what the teachings are actually describing.

Identify the Object of Clinging

Clinging to the notion that a self actually exists
Is taking the thought of “I” to be an actual entity
And results from a mistaken apprehension
Of the perishable five aggregates.

The “I” is a transitory collection of the five aggregates. These different aggregates constitute our psychophysical system. We mistakenly take the gathering of mind and body, which is the collection of the five aggregates (skandhas) of form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness to be the self. The aggregates are by essence multiple and ephemeral. Yet we create the idea of a self that is unitary and perpetual. Ego clinging is a concept of a distinct ”I” that we superimpose on these aggregates.

If one examines properly
The collection of these five aggregates,
Which are multiple and impermanent,
Like lightning, a waterfall or a butter lamp,
One sees, as when mistaking a rope for a snake,
That the self is nothing but a misperception:
It is non-existent, devoid of intrinsic reality.

We need to deconstruct our notion of self. When we say “I” or the self, we think of a lasting and unitary entity. But in fact, that “I” is only a collection of aggregates, and these aggregates are ephemeral and change every instant like a waterfall or the flame of a butter lamp. A waterfall appears to be continuous but, actually, it is composed of an ever-changing flow of drops of water. Likewise, the flame of a butter lamp is just a continuity of flickering instants with no permanent flame.

Examining and analyzing our perceptions is essential. In the dark, we can easily mistake a coil of rope for a snake and become frightened. But upon investigation we discover that a snake was never there. All the fear and dread we felt came from our misperception of the rope as a snake. The fear disappears as soon as we recognize our mistake and see that nothing else happened. We were frightened of the snake, but experiencing that fear does not make the rope a snake. Likewise, if we properly examine the self we will discover that it does not truly exist. We are not getting rid of anything; the self simply did not exist in the first place! The self is nothing but a misperception.

When we say, “someone pushed me,” it indicates that we associate ourselves with the body. When we say, “I’m sad,” we are associating the “I” with the mind. These are two different locations. So where is the “I”? Is there a specific “I” in the body? Since we are not able to find it, we generally associate the “I” with a kind of mental or physical experience.
What actually is that experience? Past thoughts are gone, future ones have not yet arisen. The stream of consciousness is just a succession of present moments. So how can there be anything permanent, anything separate that exists when these moments disappear?
The feeling of “I” is natural as long as we do not believe it denotes a permanent entity. It is legitimate to give the label “I” to a continuous stream of consciousness that is a constantly changing dynamic process. That process has characteristics and its own history. That process is different than that associated with another body. We can call it “I” if we know it is merely a name, a label. Just like calling a river by a name according to its characteristics. But as we mentioned in an earlier verse, the river is understood to be a changing phenomena. No one thinks that if we call “Amazon”, a small head will come out of the river saying, “That’s me, I am the Amazon” So likewise there is no “I” swimming in the stream of consciousness.

In the same way, the idea of “mine” is just a label. Let’s examine how labeling phenomena as “mine” transforms the way we perceive things. Imagine that you are looking into a shop window at a beautiful and expensive vase. Then a cat knocks the vase down and it breaks into pieces. You think “what a pity, it was such a nice vase” and you go on walking. Now, imagine that a friend had given you an expensive vase and it is on your mantel and your cat knocks it down. You say, “My vase is broken! Oh no!” and that is a catastrophe, simply because of the label “mine” that you put on the vase. The label made a big difference.
Therefore, it is essential to always remember the selflessness of the individual.

Establish the Emptiness of Inner and Outer Phenomena

Clinging to the notion that phenomena truly exist
Is clinging to the notion of subject and object.
All the objects one apprehends, outer and inner phenomena,
Are illusory appearances resulting from habitual tendencies.

Like visual aberrations,
Like reflections of the moon in water and like mistaken perceptions,
When unexamined they are taken for granted;
When examined they are seen to be nothing at all.

Just as we have concluded that our personal identity has no truly existing nature, we must examine the nature of outer phenomena to determine whether they are also empty. Our habitual tendencies make us accept phenomena as they appear. The world appears solid since we do not analyze phenomena. By carefully examining external phenomena, such as a house or table, we discover that they too have no inherent existence. A house is a composite of parts made up of atoms. But, a proper analysis of atoms reveals that, no matter how small they may be, no indivisible particles of matter truly exist. By examining like this, we will find that there is an absence of identity in everything.

The appearance of phenomena is inseparable from emptiness. The interplay of emptiness and appearance is like the example of the reflection of the moon in water. To think that the moon is actually in the water is a mistaken perception. The reflection appears but it is empty of a solid moon.

The main point of the union of appearance and emptiness is that emptiness is not the absence of phenomena, but its very nature. That is why things can appear in so many different ways. They appear although they are devoid of intrinsic reality. The inseparability of appearance and emptiness is the most essential and direct way of describing reality.

Phenomena are not definable entities
As atoms and instants would be.
Therefore, you must conclude that subject and object
Cannot in any way be said to exist.

All phenomena are constantly changing. They never remain the same for even an instant. However, in our distorted perception we do not notice the constant occurrence of minute transformations. We must therefore conclude that both external objects and the grasping mind that perceives them have no fixed inherent existence.

By continuously turning the wheel of investigation,
You will gain confidence
In the non-existence of both beings and phenomena
And a time will come when you achieve certainty
That the two truths,
The illusory arising of interdependent events
And the emptiness that is devoid of all assumptions,
Are not contradictory, but, in essence, one.

Analyze and examine the personal self as well as phenomena until you are certain of their inherently empty nature. When you have truly taken this to heart, you will fully understand that the two truths are essentially one. They are not two separate things like the two horns of a cow. Absolute truth is the ultimate nature of all phenomena, and relative truth is how all phenomena appear. The ordinary deluded mind perceives a difference between the way things seem and their true nature. But at the end of your journey, you will directly perceive the ultimate nature of phenomena in which all disparity between appearances and reality vanishes.

It is said by the Kadampa masters, “even if you do not have a complete understanding of emptiness, if just a genuine doubt regarding the solidity of phenomena arises in your mind, this thought has the power to turn the delusion of samsara into dust.”

When I was in Los Angeles I visited a film studio and saw the sets. Everything — the houses, the streets, and so on — looked so real from the front. But when I walked behind the sets, I saw that nothing was there. They were empty. We visited a hospital set and saw doctors and nurses walking around as if it were a real hospital. I was wearing my monks’ robes and one actor came to me and said, “Are you real?” Now when I watch movies, I keep remembering that there is nothing really behind the sets, and I do not get so emotionally involved.

When all preconceptions that assert separation
Between manifestation and emptiness collapse,
Investigation comes to an end.
Then what is the use of conceptual reasoning?

Certainty that both beings and phenomena lack an inherent self, as gained through thorough investigation, will allow us to realize that phenomena appear through interdependent origination. Like a dream or a mirage they appear as the results of complex relationships between countless causes and conditions none of which truly exist.

We will stop clinging to notions of subject and object once we gain certainty about the non-duality of appearance and emptiness. At that point, we will no longer need further analysis and conceptual investigation.

A Mistaken View of Emptiness

Emptiness is the antidote to all views,
But if one clings to the concept of emptiness,
Like a purgative turned into poison,
It becomes ineffective.

Clinging to the concept of emptiness can be quite dangerous. For instance, imagine that you are sick and there is only one single remedy for your illness. If you do not follow the prescription properly, the illness will get worse and you will have spoiled your only chance for a cure. Emptiness is the best cure for our mistaken clinging to the reality of phenomena. But if you cling to the concept of emptiness, it will cease to be the remedy, provide no benefit, and you will lose the opportunity to be cured.

Like two sticks that when rubbed together
Are consumed in the fire of their own making,
The antidote itself must disappear of its own accord.

Once we have started a fire by rubbing two sticks together, there is no further use for the sticks. Likewise, use emptiness to subdue your clinging, and then simply rest in the true nature of emptiness. By genuinely resting there you will encounter the absolute nature that has been present from the very beginning, free of object and reference point.



Relax in the continuum of primordial simplicity,
Which is the absolute nature that remains since the beginning,
The natural state, the expanse endowed with the three doors of liberation:
Emptiness, absence of characteristics, and absence of intent.

The natural state of emptiness is endowed with “three doors to liberation”: (1) its essence or nature is empty; (2) its cause is free from mental elaborations or conventional characteristics; (3) and the fruit is not “something” to be obtained but rather a state of wisdom to be actualized. We should rest, uncontrived and relaxed within that state.

Then you will see the radiant buddha-nature,
In which all fabrications and workings of mind
Are at peace in the absolute expanse.

When the meaning of emptiness is perfectly realized, then the entity called mind, together with all its mental events and elaborations, will naturally be pacified. The cessation of all conceptual thought is the dharmakaya. Ignorance, its delusions and the resulting mental constructions all must cease in order to stabilize this wisdom that is beyond concepts. When these fabrications vanish in the absolute expanse, the fundamental nature of the mind is realized.

Uniting Appearances and Emptiness

Empty by nature, it is free from eternalism;
Cognizant in its expression, it is free from nihilism.
Although one thus considers two aspects,
It is the basic nature in which
All notions of dualistic perception are freed in their own space:
Inconceivable, ineffable, apprehended by wisdom alone,

The buddha-nature is void in nature and luminous in expression. It is a state of realization, not an entity endowed with intrinsic reality. It is free from the concepts of existing and not existing. It is not an eternal entity. By recognizing this, we will not fall into the mistaken view of externalism.

Empty by nature” does not mean that it is a complete void or nothingness. It is “cognizant in its expression” because it manifests as boundless enlightened qualities. By realizing this cognizant, luminous aspect we counteract the danger of falling into the extreme view of nihilism.

The empty and cognizant nature of buddhahood is one. Emptiness and appearance occur together without contradiction. This great equality in which there are no dividing concepts is indescribable. It cannot be experienced with the ordinary intellect, but only by the wisdom of self-existing awareness.

Uncompounded by nature,
Seen without seeing
As when gazing into vajra space,
It is called “seeing the sky of the absolute.”

When we look at the sky we say we see space, but in fact there is nothing to see. Seeing the absolute nature is a way of seeing without the split between that which is seen, a seer, and the act of seeing. This inconceivable wisdom is uncompounded. It is like “vajra space” — the expanse of pure awareness free of something to be seen and something that sees. “Seen without seeing” indicates that you have recognized the ultimate nature.

There is nothing to dispel,
Nor the slightest thing to add.
Looking perfectly at perfection itself,
Seeing perfection one is perfectly liberated.

There is nothing that needs to be eliminated from nor added to the tathagatagarbha. Nothing can spoil it, just as clouds cannot change the actual light of the sun. Emotional obscurations are just extraneous veils that never penetrate or spoil the primordially perfect and unchanging buddha-nature. It simply rests naturally as it is. Look without dualistic clingings (“perfectly”) at the buddha-nature (“perfection itself”) and you will be “liberated.”

When tangible things and intangible things
Cease to remain present in the mind,
In the absence of other alternatives,
Naked of all concepts, this is complete peace.

Once you can perceive in actuality that neither substantial nor insubstantial things truly exist, you will be free of any reference points and grasping to reality. Your mind will not be torn apart by dualistic perceptions and will be perfectly at peace.

Unaware of this vital point,
To painfully nail down your mind
With mental fabrications is not calm abiding;
To construct intellectual boundaries is not insight.

This verse is a quote from the ninth chapter of the Way of the Bodhisattva.
The practice of shamata meditation is directed at making the mind stable and clear. Our present mind is like a pot of boiling water — agitated, bubbling, and swirling around. In order to catch a glimpse of the real nature of the mind, it is often necessary to begin by calming unruly thoughts and making the mind more peaceful.

To see the bottom of a lake, we need to stop stirring up the mud below. So too let the mud of the wild and discursive thoughts settle down. When this happens, the mind will naturally become transparent. We will then be able to see far into the mind’s depths and perceive its true nature.

Being guided towards the inconceivable nature through calm abiding is called insight. Insight is the natural and necessary complement to calm abiding.

However, in an effort to try and stop the mind from wandering in meditation, practitioners sometimes try to forcibly suppress thoughts or create an artificial sense of calm. This is not calm abiding. Trying to fabricate the nature of emptiness by simply blocking the mind is a mistake that can easily lead to a state of torpor. We should experience the union of appearances and emptiness. In doing so, we come to apprehend the ever-present pure awareness whether thoughts arise or not.

To see perfectly the inconceivable absolute nature,
Without any intellectual fabrications,
Is an example of pristine wisdom.

We may have an idea of what this absolute nature is from being introduced to it by a teaching or by the pointing out instructions of a qualified teacher. This idea is like an example that points at something, but is not the thing itself. That is why Shechen Gyaltsap speaks of the “example of pristine wisdom”— something that is in tune with wisdom but is not wisdom itself. Once the teacher has pointed out the true nature of the mind, the next step is to remain in equanimity and unite with this understanding and integrate it into our being so it becomes a genuine realization. Only when we have a direct experience of the absolute nature free of mental constructs have we realized the pristine wisdom itself.

The Union of Calm Abiding and Insight

Beyond this, the supreme absolute wisdom -
The field of understanding of the sublime beings
Who have reached the state of unity,
The meaning of the primordial union of insight -
That brings about the wisdom and tranquillity of
Remaining in the continuum of the natural state,
Will be realized by the power of the guru's pith instructions.

The union of calm abiding and insight (shamata and vipashyana) is to remain in the tranquility of a mental state free from distractions and torpor while achieving a deeper insight into the true nature of mind.

Rely on the teacher’s pith instructions in order to realize this wisdom of non-dual calm abiding and insight. These days people try to meditate according to instructions they read in books. However useful book knowledge might be, it will not bring you to the perfect wisdom. Just reading translations of the instructions or listening to tapes of the teachings will not be sufficient. But, if you have devotion to your teacher and have made prayers of aspiration in the past, then you will realize the absolute nature through his instructions.

Meditation experiences tainted by the notion of true existence,
Whether bliss, clarity or non-thought,
Are all deceptive and misleading.
If you cling to things as real, you feed samsara
And will never transcend the three worlds.

Try and remain free of the various meditative experiences that may arise such as feelings of bliss, all-pervading clarity, or states free from thoughts. These experiences will naturally appear, but if you cling to them, they can lead to rebirth in the three realms of samsara. Clinging to the reality of the experience of bliss will cause you to be reborn in the desire realm; clinging to clarity, you will be born in the form realm; and clinging to the absence of thoughts will lead to rebirth in the formless realm. Instead, strive to liberate yourself from samsara altogether and not merely seek temporary happiness and bliss.

Therefore, with consummate skill,
Rest in simplicity, letting everything be
In a state free of taking things as real,
In which the one who realizes, the realized and realization
Become inseparable, like pouring water into water.

This is the fundamental nature beyond speech and intellect,
The definitive meaning, the transcendent perfection of wisdom
That can only be realized through one's own awareness.
Be determined to master this understanding!

If you are free of attachment to meditative experiences, and can skillfully and naturally rest without contrivance according to the teacher's instructions, then the observing mind and what is observed will be experienced as one. “Let everything be” does not mean to force yourself to try and be complacent. That would be a dualistic concept. Instead, rest in simplicity, which is a state without fabrication.

Then that which is to be realized and the realization itself will all appear to merge, like pouring water into water. The “watcher,” the “watched,” and the watching, though divided into three, are indivisible in the true nature of mind. Pure and direct awareness is the only way to understand this inexpressible nature, “the transcendent perfection of wisdom.”

Establish the Ultimate View and Meditation

In brief, as the protector Atisha said,
"Within the absolute, there are no distinctions;
There are neither conditioned phenomena nor absolute phenomena.
In the face of emptiness there are no distinctions, none at all.

“Realizing this without realization
Is called simply 'seeing emptiness,'
Seeing what cannot be seen.
So it is said in the most profound sutras.
Nothing to see, no one who sees,
No beginning, no end,

“Utterly beyond 'really there' and 'not really there,'
Free of classification and reference point,
It does not cease, does not remain,
Never comes, never goes;
It cannot be captured in words.

“It cannot be expressed; it cannot be viewed;
It never changes and has never ever existed as a solid reality.
The yogi who realizes this
Rids himself of the two veils: the veil of the obscuring emotions
And the veil covering all that is to be known."
So said Atisha in “Entering the Two Truths.”

In the above quotations, Atisha explains that there is no essential division between relative and absolute truth, and, likewise, there is no real difference between phenomena and their true innate nature. There are no distinctions within the nature of emptiness.
Ultimate reality cannot be apprehended by concepts. We can, however, in an experiential way that transcends the ordinary conceptual mind, achieve a genuine understanding of reality as being the union of appearances and emptiness.

There are two “veils” that obscure our true nature. “The veil of obscuring emotions” is formed by afflictive mental states such as desire, hatred, and jealousy. These states are the immediate cause of our sufferings in samsara. The second veil, the one that covers “all that is to be known,” masks the understanding of the true nature of phenomena and of our own mind. Our attachment to believing in the true existence of the phenomenal world and a personal self forms this veil, which is more subtle and difficult to dispel than the emotional veil.

A yogi who has relied on his teacher's instructions, analyzed his mind and realized its ultimate nature will see “what cannot be seen,” which is the true nature of things. Such a yogi is free of both the emotional and cognitive obscurations.

The Great Perfection and Devotion

The eight qualities of understanding the ultimate truth
Are expounded in the sutras, and
All this falls naturally into place in the Great Perfection
By pointing out the true nature of mind,
Which is achieved through direct transmission
Effected by the guru's blessings.

The Prajnaparamita Sutra explains that ”The eight qualities of understanding the ultimate truth,” will naturally be present with realization of the Great Perfection. It can only be realized by a student with great perseverance, effort, and devotion, who keeps the precepts and practices under the guidance of an enlightened and compassionate teacher.

This is not within the scope of ordinary minds,
And those who are experts at discursive thought
Will have no taste of it.
“Absolute truth, arisen from itself,
Is realized through faith alone.”
So it is said.

To experience the Great Perfection requires more than mere cultivation of intellectual understanding or study of many texts and books. Devotion and deep confidence in an authentic spiritual teacher are necessary for this realization. Transmission of the understanding of the nature of mind can genuinely take place when there is the combination of an authentic realized teacher and a disciple who sees the teacher as the Buddha himself. When these two meet and the circumstances are right, the transmission of the true nature of mind can happen.

Direct transmission between guru and disciple does not necessarily need elaborate words and detailed instructions. There are examples of this in the life stories of the great masters. Once Patrul Rinpoche was with his long-time, close disciple, Nyoshul Lungtok. They were lying at night in the meadow above Dzogchen Monastery in eastern Tibet. Patrul Rinpoche asked him “Lungtok, do you know the nature of mind?” And he replied, “Not really.” Then Patrul Rinpoche said, “Do you see the stars shining above in the sky?” And Lungtok said “yes.” “Can you hear the dogs barking down near Dzogchen Monastery?” “Yes.” Then Patrul Rinpoche asked, “How is the nature of mind?” And at that moment, Lungtok had an understanding of the absolute nature of mind. A pure connection between the teacher and disciple can allow this to happen, so please try to generate perfect devotion.

Therefore, hold on to the vital force of devotion
That sees the guru as dharmakaya;
Relax into unbroken pristine simplicity
And you will realize the essential meaning.

You cannot achieve spiritual accomplishment without devotion. In terms of qualities and achievements, your teacher is no different than the Buddha. But, because your teacher is helping you at this very moment, his kindness is even greater than that of all the buddhas of the past.

From the relative perspective the guru appears in human form, turns the wheel of Dharma, and shows the path. Develop unchanging faith in your teacher and then mingle your mind with his. By remaining in that state and maintaining the natural flow of awareness — perfect simplicity without any fabrication — you will realize the true nature of mind. Your mind will become one with your teacher’s mind. At that point, from the absolute point of view you will see him as the dharmakaya, the state of great evenness.


If you miss this vital point
And complacently believe that you have not strayed into heretical deviations,
Or claim that you make no assertions,
Or cling to emptiness as a bare nothingness,
That is not the Middle Way.

If you fail to destroy the mental fixations
Of a materialistic point of view,
You have strayed even farther from the Middle Way.

The Middle Way is the indispensable foundation for realizing the view of the Great Perfection. It is free from the extremes of nihilism and materialism. It is free from clinging to both emptiness and phenomena as being solid. If emptiness means to you just to eliminate all thoughts and get rid of all phenomena without leaving space for the luminous quality of wisdom to shine, that is not the authentic Middle Way.

If you have not fully realized the nature of emptiness and are merely adept at talking about it, you have not perfectly understood the Middle Way. Awareness and wisdom both have to be present. Just to talk about emptiness will not bring about the intimate realization of the view in one’s own experience.

Therefore, foster freedom from clinging and all mental constructs.
So-called great meditators who fail to realize this,
Afraid that their practice will starve itself to death,
Are zealously torturing themselves.
What's the point of that?

Intellectual investigation can continue endlessly and fruitlessly like a small bird that flies off a ship in the middle of the ocean in an attempt to find the sky’s limit. The sky is so vast that the bird will tire and have no choice but to return to the ship failing to accomplish its goal. Similarly, we will never find an end to mental fabrications.

As it is said, “If there is clinging, there is no view.” Once we catch a glimpse of the absolute nature and stop clinging, we can fly through samsara, the world of existence, without any fear or difficulty.

What's the point of keeping track
Of the comings and goings of thoughts?
"Wakeful awareness that is beyond the consciousnesses,"
"Dharmakaya beyond the fundamental consciousness,"
"Freedom from the conditioned intellect,"
I am sorry to say that none of these
Are actually heard by ordinary beings
And the meaning remains untapped.
But I won't say too much about it.

All beings have tathagatagarbha
And thus they all possess the cause for buddhahood.
So, view all of them as pure
And consider their great kindness.

Practitioners who make an endless effort to count their thoughts like mantras, yet fail to realize the union of appearance and emptiness, miss the point. Nor will they get very far by just being aware of the arising and ceasing of thoughts. Just repeating what they have read or heard or trying to grasp these theories by mental concepts will not lead them to true understanding. These are not the correct ways to go about realizing that which is beyond intellect and concept. Shechen Gyaltsap says that he will “not say too much about it” because he is not writing a philosophical treatise. Rather, he is trying to convey his own deep experience as an indication to others on how to also achieve this experience.

Find an authentic teacher, learn to be a good disciple and, most importantly, put your teacher’s instructions into practice. The point is not just to hang out around a teacher, but to achieve a true transformation, changing your attitude and becoming a better person. If you run after various teachers, practicing this and that without ever making a commitment, you will never directly deal with your afflictive emotions, and they may even get worse. The Dharma is a teaching for self-transformation and not merely a form of entertainment.
Becoming jaded is one of the greatest pitfalls on the path. Once the teachings no longer permeate our awareness, the Dharma will not “work” as it should. To turn a stiff hide into supple leather the Tibetans knead it with butter. Some hides remain hard even after they are constantly in contact with the butter. If we become complacent and do not genuinely try to change, we too will get “stiffer and stiffer” until we will resist any teachings we may hear.
See the dharma in every experience. All sentient beings possess the buddha-nature, the tatagathagarba, and the cause of buddhahood. Consider them with great kindheartedness, warmth, and loving-kindness. We progress on the path and cultivate loving kindness, patience, and compassion as we learn to see other beings as pure. They provide us with the necessary means to achieve buddhahood.

To be continued next month

Translated by Ani Jinba Palmo.

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