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This Very Mind, Empty and Luminous

By The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

We can see awakening in the world around us, but we can also turn the telescope inward and look directly at our mind. In the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, we discover that this very mind is the mind of the Buddha, and what we’ve been searching for so long has been right in front of us all the time.

Only when we have a genuine, abiding desire to free ourselves from suffering and all its causes does our spiritual journey begin. That original desire is very potent and very real. It is the basis upon which we enter the path that will lead us to our goal. Yet from the point of view of the Vajrayana, or tantric, school of Buddhism, there is no place to go on that path, no end of the road where we will one day satisfy our thirst for liberty. Why? Because the very thing that we are looking for—freedom, wakefulness, enlightenment—is right here with us all the time.

There is a story in the tantric meditative tradition of Mahamudra about a farmer who owns a buffalo. Not realizing that the buffalo is in its stable, the farmer goes off in search of it, thinking the animal has strayed from home. Starting on his search, he sees many different buffalo footprints outside his yard. Buffalo footprints are everywhere! The farmer then thinks, “Which way did my buffalo go?” He decides to follow one set of tracks and they lead him up into the high Himalayas, but he doesn’t find his buffalo there. Then he follows another set of footprints that lead way down to the ocean. However, when he reaches the ocean, he still doesn’t find his buffalo. It is not in the mountains or at the beach. Why? Because the buffalo is back home in the stable in his yard.

In the same way, we search for enlightenment outside ourselves. We search for freedom high up in the mountains of the Himalayas, at peaceful beaches, and in wonderful monasteries, where there are footprints everywhere. In the end, we may find traces of the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa’s enlightenment in the caves where he meditated, or hints of the Indian pandit Naropa’s enlightenment at the bank of the River Ganges. We may find signs of the enlightenment of many individual masters in different towns, cities, or monasteries. What we will not find, however, is the one thing we are looking for: our own enlightened nature. We may find someone else’s enlightenment, but it is not the same as finding our own.

No matter how much you may admire the realizations of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and yogis of previous times, finding your own freedom inside yourself, your own enlightenment, your own wakefulness, is much different. When you have your own realization, it is like finding your own buffalo. Your buffalo recognizes you and you recognize your buffalo. The moment we meet our own buffalo is a very emotional and joyful moment.

In order to find our own enlightenment, we have to start right here where we are. We have to search inwardly rather than outwardly. From the Vajrayana point of view, the state of freedom, or enlightenment, is within our mind and has been from beginningless time. Like our buffalo comfortably resting in its stable, it has never left us, although we have developed the idea that it has left home. We think it is now somewhere outside, and we have to find it. With so many footprints leading in different directions, so many possibilities for where it could be, we may start to hallucinate. We might think it was stolen by a neighbor and is gone forever. We start to have all kinds of misconceptions and mistaken beliefs.

To summarize this, we can say: There is nothing called “buddha” or “buddhahood” that exists outside of one’s mind. We can say the same for samsara: It does not exist apart from one’s mind. That is why Milarepa sang:

Nirvana is nothing imported from somewhere else
Samsara is nothing deported to somewhere else
I’ve discovered for sure the mind is the buddha…

From the point of view of the Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism, there is nothing within samsara—our state of dualistic confusion—to be relinquished, discarded, or left behind. And nirvana—the state of enlightenment—is not a place we go to from here. It is not a place found outside of where we are right now. If we wanted to renounce samsara, leave it behind physically, where would we go? To the International Space Station, the moon, or Mars? We would still be within samsara. So how can we leave samsara behind?

What we are trying to leave behind is duality, the mind of confusion, our perpetual state of suffering. Physically, yes, you can leave your hometown and go to some secluded place such as a mountain cave or a monastery. Your body will be somewhere else, but will your mind be in a different state? How your mind functions when you are in a mountain cave, a monastery, or at home is what determines whether you are in the state of samsara or nirvana.

According to the Vajrayana teachings, enlightenment is right here within our mind’s nature. That nature is what we are trying to discover and connect with. It is what we are trying to recognize, realize, and perfect. The entire journey on this path is trying to discover the nature of our mind as it is.

How can we recognize this nature of mind? The experience of awakening, of complete enlightenment, can be arrived at through many different methods. The methods of the three vehicles of Buddhism—the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana—all lead to the same goal. The difference is not in the result achieved but in the time it takes to reach that result and in the methods used. Only the Vajrayana is said to possess the methods that can lead to the realization of the true nature of mind in one lifetime. In the Vajrayana liturgy, this way of achieving the state of wakefulness is called attaining “complete enlightenment in one instant.” When we take the instructions to heart, when we employ the methods properly, stage by stage, and when we focus on the path and do not drift on to any sidetracks, this awakening can take place in any minute. One moment we can be a totally confused, ordinary sentient being, and the next we can be a completely enlightened being. This outrageous but very realistic notion is known as sudden enlightenment, or “wild awakening.”


The Path of Devotion

The tantric path is sometimes known as the path of devotion. With the eye of devotion—toward our guru, our lineage, and our instructions—we can see the true nature of mind. What role does the guru play in our journey to find enlightenment? On the one hand, it is said that enlightenment is right there within you, and on the other hand, it is said that there is no enlightenment without devotion to the guru or lineage of enlightened masters. It sounds a little contradictory.

Why is devotion so important? How does it work? Devotion is a path, a skillful means through which you develop basic trust—trust in your own enlightened heart, trust that your mind is totally, utterly pure and has been right from the beginning. Trusting in that truth is what devotion is. You come to see the truth of your own enlightened heart through the guru and the lineage. Your relationship with your guru is personal, yet it is also beyond the personal. It is so close that you feel like you can control it, yet at the same time you realize it is beyond your control. It is similar to your ordinary relationships—with your spouse, friends, and family—yet it goes beyond them. If you can work with the relationship with the guru, it opens a door to working with every relationship in the world. It becomes a great vehicle for transforming your negative emotions and suffering.

The point here is that the guru simply plays the role of a mirror. When you look in a mirror, your own face is reflected back to you. The mirror does not reflect itself. It shows you whether your face is clean or dirty or if you need a haircut. The mirror is unbiased; it reflects positive and negative qualities equally clearly.

In the same way, when you look at the guru with devotion, you see both your positive and negative qualities. You see your failures, your struggles, your disturbing emotions arising, just as you see dirt on your face in an ordinary mirror. At the same time, you see beyond the surface impurities—which can simply be washed away. You see your true face, your actual reality, which is the perfectly pure nature of your mind.

What happens, though, if you are sitting in front of the mirror in a room that is dark? The mirror still possesses the potential to reflect, and you still possess all those qualities to be reflected. But if there is no light, you could sit there in the dark for ages and nothing would happen. You would never see anything. Therefore, it is not enough just to sit in front of the mirror. You need to turn on the light. In this case, the light is the light of devotion. When this light is on, and when the mirror of the guru is in front of you, you can see the reflection of your own nature of mind very clearly and precisely—yet in a nonconceptual way. That is the role of the guru and the lineage in our enlightenment. The guru is not the creator of your enlightenment. He or she is simply a condition for attaining your own enlightenment.

The mirror does not turn on the light for you. It does not bring you into the room and tell you to sit in front of it. It doesn’t say, “Look here!” The mirror is just a mirror occupying a certain space. You have to enter the room, turn on the light, walk toward the mirror, and look into it. So who is doing the job here? It’s us. We are activating this relationship.

Some traditions say that you have to be passive to receive divine grace or to have mystical experiences, but here it is the opposite. To invoke the blessing of the lineage, you have to be active. Everything is done by you; the guru is simply a condition, a mirror, that you have chosen to keep in your room. That mirror did not mysteriously land there, you know. You selected it and placed it there through your own efforts.

The lineage instructions are also not the creator of your enlightenment. They are simply another condition. They are powerful and profound tools, which you must employ. Instructions are like directions for getting where you want to go. The instructions, the directions, play an important role, but not more important than your own role in initiating and taking the journey. You play the more active role on the path. You act on the directions. They give you all the information you need—which way is the safest, which is a little bit risky, and which is the fastest but most hazardous. However, if you take no action, then eons from now you will still be wandering around without reaching your destination.

We have full power to decide the course of our personal journey. This is the Buddhist view. Even from the perspective of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, you are the center of the path and your enlightenment depends on your own effort. It does not depend on anyone or anything outside of you.


Using Mind to Discover the True Nature of Mind

The basic nature of our mind, and the basic nature of all phenomena that we perceive as being external to our mind, is luminous emptiness. In other words, all forms, sounds, and so on, as well as all thoughts and emotions, are appearing yet empty, empty yet appearing. There are various approaches to discovering this nature of mind that is with us all the time.

From the Mahamudra-Dzogchen point of view, we first look directly at the appearances of thoughts and emotions and ascertain their emptiness. Their nature of appearance-emptiness is easy to see, because such mental forms are fleeting and insubstantial. Once this is seen with confidence, then we look at external appearances. Having penetrated the nature of thoughts and emotions, seeing the true nature of the outer world—the external objects that appear to our sense consciousnesses—is much easier. We see that they are equally empty.

In the Hinayana and Mahayana approach, the order is reversed. We first focus our analysis outside and ask: How is form empty? How is sound empty? How is smell empty? and so on. Through reasoning, we discover that the true nature of all these forms is emptiness. Once we find that the nature of all perceived objects is empty, we conclude that the nature of the perceiving subject is naturally empty as well. Subject and object exist only in dependence upon one another.

From the Vajrayana point of view, it is easier and more straightforward to analyze your mind first. Your own mind is very clear to you—you know your thoughts and emotions very well and you experience them directly. They are not hidden from you. They are not something you have to discover through analysis. Your emotions and thoughts are right there in front of you, so when you look at them, your examination is experiential.

When we analyze a form or sound, or turn our mind to the metaphysics of seeds and sprouts, it is conceptual, an academic exercise. We come to “know,” but our knowing is not direct knowledge. Therefore, from the Mahamudra-Dzogchen point of view, that approach is regarded as indirect analysis. It is not a direct experience. For this reason, the Hinayana and Mahayana stages of the path are called the “causal vehicles.” They cause us to have, or lead us to, the direct experience later. The methods of the causal vehicles will bring us to that experience at some point, but not right now.

Mahamudra-Dzogchen uses the approach of direct analysis, which is known as the “analytical meditation of the simple meditator,” or kusulu. This does not mean simple in the sense of being intellectually deficient, but simple in the sense of being intellectually uncomplicated. The Hinayana and Mahayana approach to analysis is known, on the other hand, as the “analytical meditation of the scholar,” or pandita, which is theoretical or scholarly analysis.

While the scholarly approach is necessary, if used alone, it does not bring us direct experience right away. The analysis of the simple meditator, in which we begin by looking at our immediate experiences of mind, is very clear and brings direct experience to everyone. Using this method, when you look closely at a thought or emotion, you can see its nature of inseparable luminosity and emptiness. You do not find any solid or substantially existent thing. The reason you do not find anything solid is that, on the absolute level of reality, nothing exists in that manner. Therefore, when we look for it, we do not find it.

True emptiness, however, is not just “not finding” something. If, for example, you searched your home to see if there was an elephant somewhere in your house, and you did not find any elephant, would it mean that elephants do not exist? No. There are elephants living in zoos and in the wild.
Simply searching for something and not finding it is not the kind of analysis that leads us to the genuine experience of emptiness. To arrive at the true experience of emptiness, we must base our analysis on looking at something we do see, that appears to us to exist, whether that is an external or internal object. When we analyze that object, let’s say an elephant, we look at it in order to discover its true nature, its fundamental reality. We look for that nature by thoroughly analyzing the existence of the elephant and each of its parts—ears, trunk, eyes, great body, legs, and tail—until we exhaust our looking. At that point, we come to the conclusion that we cannot find the true existence of this solidly appearing being. Nevertheless, we can see, smell, hear, and touch this empty-yet-appearing elephant. That is the method of analyzing that leads to the experience of emptiness.

In the same way, when we look directly at a thought or emotion, it is hard to find anything solid. We may be experiencing strong anger, but when we look at those intense feelings of aggression, we can’t really pinpoint them. We can’t really identify what they are. We may not even be certain why we are angry. After a while, our anger dissolves. One moment, we can barely speak or breathe because we are so enraged. In the next moment, the fury is gone, leaving nothing behind. Even if we wanted to maintain our anger so we can continue tormenting our rival or foe, it is too late. Our empty-appearing anger is gone. In truth, it was never there in the first place.


Ordinary Mind

The actual point of all our efforts on the spiritual path, whether we are studying, meditating, or engaged in socially oriented activities, is to return to the genuine state of our mind, the inherent state of wakefulness, which is very simple and completely ordinary. This is the goal of all three vehicles, or yanas, of the Buddhist path.

The Hinayana school calls this state egolessness, selflessness, or emptiness. The Mahayana school calls it the great emptiness, or shunyata, freedom from all elaborations, all conceptuality. It is also known as the emptiness endowed with the essence of compassion, or as bodhichitta, the union of emptiness with the qualities of compassion and loving-kindness. Further, it is known as buddhanature or tathagatagarbha, the essence of all the buddhas, the “thus gone ones.” In the Vajrayana, it is called the vajra nature, or sometimes the vajra mind or heart, which refers to the indestructible quality of awareness. In Mahamudra, it is called ordinary mind, or thamal gyi shepa, and in Dzogchen, it is called bare awareness, or rigpa. The meanings of all these terms point to the most fundamental reality of our mind and phenomena, which is luminous emptiness. All is empty yet appears, appears yet is empty.

While many different methods are taught to reach this ordinary state of mind, the methods themselves can appear to be anything but ordinary. In some sense they are extraordinary, rather than ordinary; abnormal, rather than normal; and complex, rather than simple. The Hinayana path of personal liberation, for example, is known for its many detailed instructions for practice and postmeditation conduct. For monastics, there are the customs of shaving one’s head and putting on beautiful robes, which are rituals prescribed in order to lead the practitioner to the realization of selflessness.

In the same way, followers of the Mahayana system for realizing the great emptiness undertake the paramita practices, the six transcendent actions of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence (or exertion), concentration (or meditation), and discriminating knowledge (or prajna). In the Vajrayana, there are many complex practices, such as the visualization of deities and mandalas, which lead to the realization of the vajra mind.

So with all these practices, are we getting any closer to the natural state? Since it is natural for our hair to grow, the Hinayana practice of continually shaving our heads seems unnatural. It is also not the normal custom of society. In the Mahayana, there are many highly conceptual and occasionally “counterintuitive” methods for purifying negative states of mind, such as breathing in the impurities of the minds of others in tonglen practice. In the Vajrayana, in contrast to the Hinayana practice of shaving off our hair, we visualize not only extra hair, but also we imagine extra heads, extra arms, and extra legs.

Why do we do this, when such methods seem to take us further and further away from an ordinary, normal, and simple state of mind? There must be a reasonable explanation! The answer is simply that in order to reach the level of ordinary mind, to truly arrive at the basic state of simplicity, we have to cut through our habitual, dualistic pattern of labeling some things as normal and others as abnormal. If we have too much fixation on normalcy, on day-to-day convention, we have to cut through that to experience our mind as it truly is.

Therefore, in order to break through and transcend such solid, dualistic notions, we create “abnormal” situations to practice with on the path. In the deity yoga practice of the Vajrayana, you might be visualizing yourself in the form of an enlightened being with multiple heads, arms, and legs when you suddenly realize that you have no idea who you are—which is a wonderful experience. We usually have too many preconceived notions about who we are and about the world “out there.” We are so caught up in the process of labeling that we never see beyond the surface of those labels to the nonconceptual reality that is their basis.

When we work with profound and skillful methods like those of the Vajrayana path, they cut through the very root of our dualistic concepts. With these methods we rely on concept to go beyond concept, on thought to go beyond thought. A good example of this is a bird taking off from the ground. When the bird wants to fly, it has to either run a little bit or push down against the ground so that it can leap up. It has to rely on the earth to go beyond the earth—to leap into the space of sky. In the same way, we have to rely in the beginning on dualistic concepts in order to leap into the space of non-conceptuality or non-duality.

This is what all these teachings do for us. Through words and concepts, they point out the nature of phenomena, which is emptiness beyond words and concepts. If, when Buddha realized the true nature of mind and the world, he had never spoken about it, never communicated his wisdom to us through words, we would have no way to enter this profound path.

When it comes to the Mahamudra-Dzogchen tradition, however, the masters of these traditions introduce ordinary mind, or bare awareness, with utmost simplicity. Such a master might say to a student, “Look, a flower. Do you see it?” The student will say, “Yes, I see the flower.” The master will say, “Do you see the beautiful sunshine outside today?” The student will say, “Yes, I see the beautiful sunshine today.” Then the master will say, “That’s it.”

Normally we feel that our perceptions, thoughts, and emotions are too ordinary to mean much. Just seeing a flower or the sunshine on a beautiful day is too simple to be profound. As meditatorswe want whatever is profound, and so we look past our mundane experiences. We are looking for something that is extraordinary. Something big. We want the maha, or “great,” religious experience that we know is out there somewhere in a mysterious place called “the sacred world.” However, whenever we try to look outside, that is the point at which we depart from our own enlightened nature. We start walking away from the natural state of our mind—the basic state of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. “Looking outside” does not mean that we literally leave our home and go look in our neighbor’s backyard, or that we pack our bags and catch a bus for the next town, or shave our head and enter a monastery. Looking outside means looking outside whatever experience you are having right now.

Think about it from the perspective of your own experience. What do you do when an aggressive thought suddenly arises? You might try to stop that thought, deflect its energy by justifying it, or even correct it—change it from a “negative” thought into a “positive” one. We do all these things because we feel that that thought, just as it is, is not good enough to meditate on. We will meditate on the next pure thought we have; or even better, we will rest in the essence of the gap between our thoughts, the very next one we recognize. In this way, we continually miss the moment that we are awake now. The problem is that we will never catch up to the wakefulness of the next moment, the wakefulness we will have in the future. If aggression is here now, then that aggression is at heart, in its very nature, vividly awake, empty, and luminous. As our simple-minded master of Mahamudra and Dzogchen might say, “Do you see it? That is it.”

You may prefer to meditate on the Buddha rather than on your emotions. The Buddha is always perfectly relaxed and at ease; therefore, you feel very comfortable. When you are meditating on your emotions, you may start to feel slightly anxious and uncomfortable. You may think that your mental health is at risk, or that the environment of your mind is not in a sacred, uplifted, or spiritual state. It is helpful to a certain point, at the beginning of our training, to meditate on pure objects like images of the Buddha, deities, or great masters. If, however, you get addicted to relying on such objects, there can be negative consequences. When you feel you cannot invoke the experience of sacredness or connect with your basic, enlightened mind through your everyday experiences of perceptions, thoughts, and emotions, you are developing a serious problem. Your emotions are as familiar, as commonplace, as sunshine and flowers, and that is great news for realizing ordinary mind. You have so many opportunities. Appreciate and take advantage of them.

What we have been looking for—the true nature of our mind—has been with us all the time. It is with us now, in this very moment. The teachings say that if we can penetrate the essence of our present thought—whatever it may be—if we can look at it directly and rest within its nature, we can realize the wisdom of buddha: ordinary mind, naked awareness, luminous emptiness, the ultimate truth. The future will always be out of reach. You will never meet up with the buddha of the future. The present buddha is always within reach. Do you see this buddha? Where are you looking?


Adapted from the “Wild Awakening” lecture series presented in Vancouver and Toronto, Canada, in February, 2004.

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a meditation master and scholar in the Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the president of Nalandabodhi, a network of meditation centers, and founder of the Nitartha Institute, a course of Buddhist study for Western students.

This Very Mind, Empty and Luminous, The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, May 2008.


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