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
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…
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.