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The Beautiful Energy of Thoughts (May 2012) Print

The Beautiful Energy of Thoughts

Working with our thoughts is the greatest challenge in meditation—maybe in life. SHYALPA TENZIN RINPOCHE tells us how we can experience them as freedom not imprisonment.

Destructive habits and careless behavior are the cause of our suffering. If we seek to live our lives fully, we should not become trapped in our routines. When a bee settles on a flower to suck its nectar, it is intoxicated by the taste. Unaware that night is descending, the bee is trapped in the flower as the petals slowly close. As human beings, we should use our intelligence and hone our awareness so that our habits do not shackle us and rob us of our freedom.

Discursive thoughts and afflictive emotions obscure the naturally expansive and luminous nature of mind. Awareness is lost when we narrowly focus on ourselves and what the “I” experiences. This tunnel vision creates the breeding ground for a strong sense of ego. When we cannot transcend our ordinary, habitual ways of thinking, we become mired in our confusion. Not recognizing the pristine nature of mind, we suffer because there is a great deal of attachment to the “I.” An endless stream of thoughts, with one thought linked to the next, traps us in a perpetual cycle of confusion and pain.

Each thought should remain in its own place. It would not make sense to drag a caterpillar from its cocoon and expect it to make honey; that would be unnatural. Similarly, if you placed a honeybee in a cocoon, it would not know how to transform into a butterfly. So the caterpillar should remain in its cocoon, and the honeybee should make honey. When you experience each thought in its completeness, the energy of the thought arises and dissolves in its own place. Therefore, you do not need to tamper with your thoughts. Further elaboration causes bewilderment and confusion. When the energy of each thought is complete and independent, it is liberated upon arising and leaves no trace.

If you cannot see the nature of each thought as complete and independent, it is because you are attached to the “I” and what the “I” creates. When you think, “I am going to do this,” you create continuity for the “I.” If you think, “I want this,” you mentally select one button, and if you think, “I want that,” you select the next button. There is no space for each thought to be complete and independent because you are thriving on the illusion of continuity. One could say that an independent thought is natural energy that is fresh, vivid awareness. It is not dependent upon further support.

When you follow your thoughts in pursuit of an illusory “I,” your entanglement with each thought enslaves you. This mental confusion compels you to follow the first thought with a second thought, the second thought with a third thought, and so on, and so on. Therefore, each thought does not exist independently. We write our own story based on an illusory self. Bound in an endless chain of confused thoughts, we suffer in a vicious cycle of misery, which we call samsara. Samsara is the state of unenlightened ignorance. Unaware of the pure nature of mind and experience, one is helplessly controlled by disturbing emotions and karma, and one experiences an endless stream of mental and physical stress and suffering.

During the practice of meditation, we experience gaps in the flow of thoughts, and this space allows us to relax and loosen the grip of entrenched habits and reactive behavior. Glimpses of space in our mental landscape slowly free us from a tangled web of discursive thoughts and allow us to live more fully in the luminous present. Meditation is an effective tool for breaking free of deep-seated habits. Other methods, such as those offered in some self-help books, attempt to replace negative habits with positive thinking, but this does not address the real source of the problem. If we wish to free ourselves from our habits, the most effective approach is to ask ourselves, “Who is bound by habit, and how do these habits originate?”

The frequently quoted metaphor of the lion and the dog illustrates this approach. If you throw a stone at a dog, the dog will chase after the stone. If you throw a stone at a lion, the lion will chase after you! The dog will continue to chase stones, but the lion will be finished with it once and for all. Look directly at the source of each thought rather than following its trail. Habits are conditional and fabricated by thoughts. These patterns of thought and action are the result of our failure to discover their source. Habits are a form of energy, and energy emerges and subsides like waves on the surface of the ocean. When you recognize the source, the energy will selfliberate upon arising; it will not result in more habitual behavior.

Your practice is to find the source of the stone. You can continue to behave like a restless dog chasing after each thought, or you can pounce like a fearless lion and discover that the source of your thoughts is pure energy arising from emptiness. In this state of timeless purity, nothing truly comes into existence and nothing solidly exists, so there is no obstruction. If you have the courage to rest in this vast space, the fictions that fuel your enslaving habits will find no fertile ground in which to grow.

We should not reject our thoughts and feelings, since they are all valid. However, our thoughts and feelings cause us problems when we cling to them as if they were fixed and unchanging. When we abide in the empty and spacious nature of self and phenomena, we are free from all confusion. Therefore, let everything arise as sheer inspiration. Let everything be a celebration. Whatever arises is perfectly fine, but if nothing arises, that is fine, too. With a flexible mind, we can direct our lives with sophistication. We will be beyond corruption, and no matter what happens, we will be above the fray, so to speak. When we recognize the luminous quality of our true nature, clear essence will appear everywhere. This is amazing indeed!

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche is the spiritual guide of Shyalpa Monastery in Kathmandu, the founder of the Tibetan Refugee Children’s Fund, and the head of Rangrig Yeshe, a nonprofit that organizes teachings and retreats throughout the United States.

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

Excerpted from Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath, by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. © 2012 by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, California.

The Teacher-Student Relationship (May 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2012
You'll find this article on page 69 of the magazine.

A yearlong series of teachings to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of the Shambhala Sun. 

The Teacher-Student Relationship

“The teacher is regarded as an elder, spiritual friend, or vajra master. He or she has ways and means to create situations in accordance with our own receptivity, our own particular style, in order to waken our native intelligence.”

CHÖGYAM TRUNGPA RINPOCHE on how our relationship with the teacher evolves in the three vehicles of Buddhism.

When we are infants, we need someone to babysit us—to change our diapers, to give us a bath, to tell us how to eat, to put us in pajamas. That’s the first reference point in our lives for a hierarchical relationship with another human being.

This basic human experience of growing up is an analogy for the teacher– student principle on the Buddhist path. The development of the teacher–student relationship in the three yanas, or vehicles, of Buddhism is analogous to bringing up infants, relating with teenagers, and finally relating with grownups.

The Teacher as Elder

The starting point is the relationship to hierarchy or a parental figure in the Hinayana, the vehicle of personal liberation. Our ordinary sense of the growing-up process, whatever we think it entails, is based purely on our dreams. We think we’re going to become Ph.D. candidates without knowing how to speak or write or read properly, almost without being toilet-trained. That’s the kind of ambition we usually have. We say to ourselves, “Of course I can push my shortcomings aside. I can just grow up, and soon I will be accepted in the mainstream of the respectable, highpowered world. I’m sure I can do it.” That’s our usual approach.

Many people believe that professionalism means having a self-confident but amateurish approach to reality, but we’re not talking here about being “professional” Buddhists in that sense. We’re talking about how to actually become adults in the Buddhist world, rather than kids who appear to be grown up. We actually have to grow up and face the problems that exist in our lives. We have to develop a sense of the subtleties, understanding our reactions to the phenomenal world, which are our reactions to ourselves at the same time.

To do this, we need some kind of parental figure to begin with. In the Hinayana tradition, that figure is called a sthavira in Sanskrit or thera in Pali, which means “elder.” The elder is somebody who has already gone through being babysat and has graduated to become a babysitter. In ordinary life, that person is very important for our development, because we have to know what will happen if we put our fingers on the hot burner. We have to learn the facts and figures and the little details that exist in our lives. That kind of discrimination is important.

There are spiritual facts and figures as well. As a practitioner, you might regard yourself as a grownup who doesn’t need a babysitter. But in terms of spiritual discipline, that reaction is infantile. You are closing off large avenues of learning if you reject those possibilities. Then you have nothing to work with. You will have no idea even how to begin with the ABCs of basic spirituality.

So in the beginning, relating to the teacher as acharya—as master, teacher, elder, parent-figure, and occasionally babysitter— is necessary. That person’s primary goal is not to teach us what’s good and what’s bad, but to help us develop a general sense of composure. That is the beginning of devotion, in some sense. At this point, devotion is not faith at an ethereal or visionary level but a sense of practicality: learning what it is necessary to do and what it is necessary to avoid. It’s a simple, basic thing.

So to begin with, the teachings tell you that your view of the world is an infantile view. You think you’re going to get ice cream every day. As a baby and a young child, you throw temper tantrums so that your daddy or your mommy or your babysitter will come along with a colorful ice-cream cone. But things can’t be that way forever. What we are saying here is that life is based on pain, suffering, misery. A more accurate word for that experience of duhkha, which we usually translate as “suffering,” is “anxiety.” There’s always a kind of anxiousness in life. Initially, you have to be told by somebody that life is full of anxiety.

The elder helps us to relate with that first thing, which is actually called a “truth.” It is truth because it points out that your belief that you can actually win the war against pain and that you might be able to get so-called happiness is not possible. It just doesn’t happen. The elder tells us these facts and figures. He or she tells us that the world is not made out of honeycombs and oceans of maple syrup. The elder tells us that the world has its own unpleasant and touchy points. When you have been told that truth, you begin to appreciate it more. You begin to respect that truth, which actually goes a very long way—all the rest of your life. For the elder, such truth is old hat: he or she knows it already. The elder has gone through it herself. Nevertheless, she doesn’t give out righteous messages about those things. She simply says, “Look, it’s not as good as you think. It is going to be somewhat painful for you, getting into this world. You can’t help it—you’re already in it—so you’d better work with it and accept the truth.” That is precisely how the Lord Buddha first proclaimed the dharma. His first teaching was the truth of suffering.

So when you are at the level of being babysat, having the teacher as a parental figure, you are simply told how things are. Being told about the truth of suffering is like having your diapers changed. This is an example of the trust and faith in the teacher that develops in the early stage of the teacher–student relationship, when the teacher acts as a babysitter.

The Teacher as Spiritual Friend

Having understood the first noble truth, your relationship with your teacher begins to evolve into a different level in the Mahayana, the vehicle of the bodhisattva path. He or she becomes the kalyanamitra, a Sanskrit word meaning “spiritual friend,” or “friend in the virtue.”

The kalyanamitra is less heavy-handed than the elder or parent, but on the other hand, he is more heavy-handed. He is like a rich uncle who provides money for the family. However, he doesn’t want them to just lounge around and live off his money. The rich uncle would like to be more constructive than that; he would like to have industrious relatives, so that he can increase his capital. Unlike a rich uncle in ordinary life, the bodhisattva’s approach, the Mahayana approach, is not based on self-aggrandizement. It isn’t self-centered. It is a much closer relationship. The teacher has become a spiritual friend. When relatives give us advice, we have a certain attitude toward their advice: we know that we are being told the relative truth. It has some value, it has some application, but it is still relative truth. When friends give us advice, its effect is more immediate and personal. If we are criticized by our parents, we think it’s their trip, or we think something is wrong with their approach, so we take it lightly. But if we are criticized by our friends, we feel startled. We begin to think there may be some element of truth in what they are saying.

So in the Mahayana, the teacher is a spiritual friend. He or she is much more demanding than the purely relative level. The spiritual friend makes us much more watchful and conscientious. At that point, relative truth has already become somewhat old hat: we already know about pain, the origin of pain, cessation, and the path, the four noble truths. At this point, the spiritual friend tells us, “Don’t just work on yourself. Do something about others. Relate with your projections rather than with the projector alone. Do something about the world outside and try to develop some sense of sympathy and warmth in yourself.”

That is usually quite hard for us to do. We are already upset and uptight and resentful that life is painful. It’s very hard to relax, to let go of that. But it can be done. It’s being done in the present and it will be done in the future. So how about giving an inch? Just letting go a little bit? Opening a little bit? We could be generous and disciplined at the same time. Therefore we should be patient and exert ourselves, be aware of everything that is happening, and be clear, all at the same time. That is the teacher’s prescription.

Following this approach is what is called the practice of the six paramitas. These six transcendent actions—generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and discriminating wisdom—are practiced by the Mahayana practitioner, the bodhisattva.

This practice puts us in the spotlight, so to speak. We have a general sense of wanting to open, for the very reason that we have nothing to lose. Our life is already a bundle of misery and chaos. Since we already have nothing to lose, we gain something by just giving, opening. That step is the transition between experiencing the teacher as elder and as spiritual friend.

The Teacher as Vajra Master

In the Vajrayana, or tantric vehicle, your relationship with the teacher becomes very complicated, very tricky. Your teacher becomes what is known as the vajra master, and your relationship with him or her has a different slant entirely. In some sense, the teacher becomes a combination of the elder and the spiritual friend. The process is the same, the line of thinking is the same, but it has its own particular twist. The vajra master is not an elder, a parental figure, a spiritual friend, or a rich uncle. He or she is a born warrior who accepts only a few students. The vajra master will not accept students who are sloppy and unreceptive.

Vajra is a Sanskrit word meaning “indestructible.” The idea of vajra mind is that it is completely well put-together. It does not have any cracks; it cannot be criticized. You cannot bring any confusion into it because it is so well guarded, not out of paranoia, but out of its own existence. It is self-guarded.

The closest analogy for the vajra master is the samurai. Such a teacher is ferocious, but at the same time he has the qualities of a father, an elder, and a friend. He could be very passionate, warm, and sympathetic, but he doesn’t buy any bullshit, if we could speak American at this point. Studying with such a person is dangerous, and it is a very advanced thing to do. You might actually progress much faster on the path. But if you start with the expectation of going faster, you might actually go slower.

Having gone through the Hinayana and Mahayana, you are well trained and disciplined. At this point, the vajra master’s approach is to create successive teaching situations in your life. He or she demands complete, unconditional trust and openness from you, without any logic. Maybe some little logic applies, but the invitation and the demand are simple and straightforward: “Would you like to come along with me and take part in this historic battle? Come along, here’s your sword.”

Of course, there is always room to chicken out. But once you accept the invitation, if you chicken out, you could go through a lot of problems. The more you are a coward, that much more the vajra master might try to terrify you, if that is what you need. I don’t want to paint a black picture of the vajra master, but that is the simple truth. The more you try to escape, the more you will be chased and cornered. However, the more you work with the vajra master, the more you will be invited to join that fantastic celebration and mutual dance.

The notion of celebration here is that of sharing a feast. It is not the usual idea of indulging, having parties and eating a lot. Feasting here means sharing rich experiences of all kinds. Sharing together in that sense is the only way that the Vajrayana teachings come alive and become completely appropriate. However, if you are not ready for that, then the vajra master may send you back to your spiritual friend, or if necessary to your elder.

Your commitment to the vajra master is not purely to the external person alone. As well, it has possibilities of commitment to the internal guru, the teacher as expressed in you. However, that takes place only after you meet the vajra master. At that point, you begin to experience a greater level of heroism, fearlessness, and power. You develop a sense of your own resources. That journey takes much longer than you would expect. The vajra master doesn’t want to give you any chance to play out your trip. Otherwise, you might decide to reject your irritating and overwhelming vajra master; you could deceptively internalize by saying, “I don’t have to deal with that person anymore. I can just do it on my own.”

The point here is that, at the Vajrayana level, there is a great deal of magic, power, and immense devotion. That devotion is different from devotion in the theistic traditions. In this case faith and devotion are based not on the sense of giving up or surrendering completely; devotion here is taking on more things, taking all sorts of examples and insight and power into yourself. At this point, you can actually be initiated—that is precisely the word. You can be initiated or empowered. The formal ceremony of empowerment in the Vajrayana is called an abhisheka. You can be abhisheka-ed, to coin a verb.

Faith and devotion in the theistic traditions may have a remote quality. Somebody is out there who will care for you, make you feel secure. Everything is somewhat on an ethereal level, on the level of otherness. The reason why lizards exist, the reason why snakes coil themselves, why rivers run to the ocean, and why trees grow tall—the reason for all this mysteriousness must be because of “him” or “it.”

That belief actually keeps you from understanding real magic. It keeps you from understanding how things come about or from finding out how you can do something in your own way. When you think that the world must be someone else’s work or creation, you begin to feel as though the whole world is run by a gigantic corporation, including the weather. But we run our own corporation, according to the nontheistic tradition of Buddhism. In order to have complete access to our world, so that we can run our own corporation, we need to have the vajra master give us manuals, techniques, and instructions. And if we are playing dumb, if we are not exuberant, he might actually put us into a very difficult situation to wake us up.

All together faith in the teacher is not worship; the teacher is not particularly regarded as a link to God. The teacher is regarded as a spiritual elder, spiritual friend, or vajra master. He or she has ways and means to create situations in accordance with our own receptivity, our own particular style, in order to waken our native intelligence. In relating with the teacher, your critical input and surrendering work together. They’re not working against each other. The more you get input from the teacher and the phenomenal world and the more you develop, the more, at the same time, you question. So there is a kind of dance taking place between the teacher and yourself. You are not particularly trying to switch off your questioning intelligence and switch on some sort of mindless devotion. Rather, the two—cynicism and devotion—are synchronized together.

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

Excerpted from Teachings on the Sadhana of Mahamudra, to be published in 2012 by Shambhala Media. ©2012 Diana J. Mukpo. Used by permission. Edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian, senior editor of the works of Chögyam Trungpa.

This Is My Mind, Luminous and Empty (May 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2012
You'll find this article on page 42 of the magazine.

This Is My Mind, Luminous and Empty

According to Vajrayana Buddhism, the fast track to awakening is to look directly at your own mind and discover its true nature. TSOKNYI RINPOCHE shows us how to experience two of mind’s most profound qualities.

As a young child I used to sit on my grandfather’s lap while he meditated. At two or three years old, of course, I had no idea what meditation involved. My grandfather didn’t give me instructions and didn’t speak to me about his own experience. Yet, as I sat with him I felt a sense of deep comfort, together with a kind of childlike fascination with whatever was going on around me. I felt myself becoming aware of something becoming brighter and more intense in my own body, my own mind, my own heart.

That something, when I was old enough to fit words to it, is a kind of spark that lights the lives of all living beings. It has been given various names by people of many different disciplines, and its nature has been debated for centuries.

In many Buddhist teachings, it’s known as buddhanature. The term is a very rough translation of two Sanskrit words, often used interchangeably: sugatagarbha or tathagatagarbha. Sugata may be roughly understood as “gone to bliss,” while thatagata is usually interpreted as “thus-gone.” Both refer to those, like the Buddha, who have transcended, or “gone beyond,” conflict, delusion, or suffering of any kind—a condition one might reasonably understand as “blissful.” Garbha is most commonly translated as “essence,” although on a subtle level, it may also suggest “seed” or “root.” So a more accurate translation of buddhanature might be the essence of one who has gone beyond conflict, delusion, and so on to an experience of unclouded bliss. One of the core teachings of Buddhism is that we all possess this essence, this root or seed.

Buddhanature is hard to describe, largely because it is limitless. It’s a bit difficult to contain the limitless within the sharp boundaries of words and images. Although the actual experience of touching our awakened nature defies absolute description, a number of people over the past two millennia have at least tried to illuminate a course of action using words that serve as lights along the way.


Traditionally, one of the words that describes the basis of who and what we are—indeed, the basis of all phenomena—has been translated as emptiness; a word that, at first glance, might seem a little scary, a suggestion, supported by early translators and interpreters of Buddhist philosophy, that there is some sort of void at the center of our being.

Most of us, at some point in our lives, have experienced some sort of emptiness. We’ve wondered “What am I doing here?” Here may be a job, a relationship, a home, a body with creaking joints, a mind with fading memories.

If we look deeper, though, we can see that the void we may experience in our lives is actually a positive prospect.

Emptiness is a rough translation of the Sanskrit term shunyata and the Tibetan term tongpa-nyi. The basic meaning of the Sanskrit word shunya is “zero,” while the Tibetan word tongpa means “empty”—but not in the sense of a vacuum or a void, but rather in the sense that the basis of experience is beyond our ability to perceive with our senses and or to capture in a nice, tidy concept. Maybe a better understanding of the deep sense of the word may be “inconceivable” or “unnameable.”

So when Buddhists talk about emptiness as the basis of our being, we don’t mean that who or what we are is nothing, a zero, a point of view that can give way to a kind of cynicism. The actual teachings on emptiness imply an infinitely open space that allows for anything to appear, change, disappear, and reappear. The basic meaning of emptiness, in other words, is openness, or potential. At the basic level of our being, we are “empty” of definable characteristics. We aren’t defined by our past, our present, or our thoughts and feelings about the future. We have the potential to experience anything. And anything can refer to thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.

An Emptiness Exercise

I’d like to give you a little taste of emptiness through a practice that has become known as “objectless shinay.” Shinay is a Tibetan term, a combination of two words: shi—which is commonly translated as calmness or peace—and nay, which means resting, or simply “staying there.” In Sanskrit, this practice is known as shamatha. Like shi, shama may be understood in a variety of ways, including “peace,” “rest,” or “cooling down,” while tha, like nay, means to “abide” or “stay.” Whether in Sanskrit or Tibetan, the combination terms describe a process of cooling down from a state of mental, emotional, or sensory excitement.

Most of us, when we look at something, hear something, or experience a thought or motion, react almost automatically with some sort of judgment. This judgment can fall into three basic categories: pleasant (“I like this”), unpleasant (“I don’t like this”), or confused (“I don’t know whether I like this or not.”) Each of these categories is often subdivided into smaller categories: pleasant experiences are judged as “good,” for example; unpleasant experiences are judged as “bad.” As far as one student expressed it, the confused judgment is just too puzzling: “I usually try to push it out of my mind and focus on something else.” The possibilities represented by all these different responses, however, tempt us to latch onto our judgments and the patterns that underlie them, undermining our attempt to distinguish between real and true.

There are many varieties of shinay or shamatha practice. The one that most closely approaches an experiential rather than a theoretical understanding of emptiness is known commonly as “objectless,” because it doesn’t involve—as some other variations do—focusing attention on a particular object, like a sound, or a smell, or a physical thing like a flower, a crystal, or a candle flame.

The instructions for this meditation are simple:

• Just straighten your spine while keeping the rest of your body relaxed.
• Take a couple of deep breaths.
• Keep your eyes open, though not so intently that your eyes begin to burn or water. You can blink. But just notice yourself blinking. Each blink is an experience of nowness.
• Now, let yourself be aware of everything you’re experiencing— sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
• Allow yourself to be open to all these experiences

Inevitably, as you begin this exercise, all sorts of thoughts, feelings, and sensations will pass through your experience. This is to be expected. This little exercise is in many ways like starting a weight-training program at the gym. At first you can lift only a few pounds for a few repetitions before your muscles get tired. But if you keep at it, gradually you’ll find that you can lift heavier weights and perform more repetitions.

Similarly, learning to connect with nowness is a gradual process. At first you might be able to remain open for only a few seconds at a time before thoughts, emotions, and sensations bubble up to the surface and consume your attention. The basic instruction is simply not to chase after these but merely to be aware of everything that passes through your awareness as it is. Whatever you experience, you don’t have to suppress it. Even latching onto irritations—”Oh, I wish that kid next door could turn down his music.” “I wish the family upstairs would stop yelling at each other”—are part of the present. Just observe these thoughts and feelings come and go—and how quickly they come and go, to be replaced by others. If you keep doing this you’ll get a true taste of emptiness— a vast, open space in which possibilities emerge and combine, dance together for a while, and vanish with astonishing rapidity. You’ve tasted one aspect of your basic nature, which is the freedom to experience anything and everything.

Don’t criticize or condemn yourself if you find yourself following after physical sensations, thoughts, or emotions. No one becomes a buddha overnight. Recognize, instead, that for a few seconds you were directly able to experience something new, something now. You’ve passed through theory and ventured into the realm of experience. As we begin to let our experiences come and go, we begin to see them as less solid. They may be real, but we begin to question whether they’re true.

Experience follows intention. Wherever we are, whatever we do, all we need to do is recognize our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as something natural. Neither rejecting nor accepting, we simply acknowledge the experience and let it pass. If we keep this up, we’ll eventually find ourselves becoming able to manage situations we once found painful, scary, or sad. We’ll discover a sense of confidence that isn’t rooted in arrogance or pride. We’ll realize that we’re always sheltered, always safe, and always home.


The exercise described above raises another aspect of our basic nature, and now I’m going to let you in on a little bit of unconventional understanding.

As mentioned earlier, according to many standard Tibetan translations, the syllable nyi means “ness”—the essential quality of a thing. But I was taught that the nyi of tongpa-nyi, on a symbolic level, refers to clarity: the capacity to be aware of all the things we experience, to see the stuff of our experience and to know that we’re seeing it. This capacity is the cognizant aspect of our nature: a very simple, basic capability for awareness.

This basic, or natural, awareness is merely a potential. Just as emptiness is a capacity to be anything, clarity is the capacity to see anything that enables us to recognize and distinguish the unlimited variety of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and appearances that continually emerge out of emptiness. Without clarity, we wouldn’t be able to recognize or identify any aspect of our experience. It’s not connected with awareness of any particular thing. Awareness of a thing—in terms of a subject (the one who is aware) and an object (the thing, experience, etc., of which the subject is aware)—is something we learn as we grow up.

This cognizant, or knowing, aspect of our nature is often described in Tibetan as ö-sel-wa, which can also be translated as luminosity—a fundamental capacity to illuminate, or shed light on, our experiences and, thus, to know or be aware of them. In his teachings, the Buddha sometimes compared it to a house in which a lamp has been lit and the shades or shutters have been drawn. The house represents the patterns that bind us to a seemingly solid perspective of ourselves and the world around us. The lamp represents our luminous quality of the spark of our basic nature. No matter how tightly the shades and shutters are closed, inevitably a bit of the light from inside the house shines through. Inside the house, the light from the lamp provides the clarity to distinguish between, say, a chair, a bed, or a carpet—which corresponds to our personal thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. As this light seeps through the shades or shutters we see other things—people, places, or events. Such experiences may be dualistic; that is to say, a tendency to perceive our experience in terms of self and other, “me” and “not me,” but if we take a moment even to appreciate such glimpses we can arrive at a deeper, broader experience of basic, or natural clarity.

Meditation: Tasting Clarity

To experience clarity it is often necessary to embark on another shamatha exercise, this time using a formal object as the focus of our attention. I advise using a physical object, like a clear glass, because that object is already clear and transparent. Start off by setting such an object where it can easily be seen whether you’re sitting in a chair, on a meditation cushion, or on the floor.

Take a few moments to rest in objectless shamatha, in order to open yourself to experience. Then look at the object you’ve chosen—no longer than a minute for a little while—a process that isn’t all that different from staring at a TV screen or a person ahead of us in a line at a grocery store.

Then, slowly, slowly, turn your attention from the object of attention to the aspect of your being that is capable of perceiving objects. Recognize your ability to simply see and experience things. This ability is all too often taken for granted.

When we first begin to rest our attention on an object, we tend to see it as distinct or separate from ourselves. The capacity to make such distinctions is, according to neuroscientists and psychologists with whom I’ve spoken, in part a survival mechanism that helps us distinguish between objects in our environment that can harm us and objects that can help us. This survival mechanism, in turn, influences our internal sense of “I” as uniquely defined beings—solid and separate from “not I.”

Now, let’s just take a taste of clarity.

• First, just rest in open presence.
• Then turn your attention to the object on which you’ve chosen to focus. Thoughts, feelings, and judgments about the object will almost inevitably arise: “This is pretty.” “This is ugly.” “This is—I don’t know—it’s just a glass.” You may even wonder, as I did many years ago when I was first taught this practice, “Why am I doing this?”

The point of the practice—the “why” of it—lies in the next step.

• After focusing for a few moments on an object, turn your attention inward, from the object to the awareness that perceives not only the object, but also the various thoughts, feelings, judgments surrounding it.

As you do so, a very gentle experience of what many of my teachers called “awareness of being aware” emerges. You’ll begin to recognize that whatever you see, however you see it, is accompanied by emotional, and cognitive residue—the stuff that remains from being a neglected child, a failure in the eyes of parents or teachers, the victim of a schoolyard bully.

When we turn our awareness inward, we begin to decompress the images we hold about ourselves and the world around us. In so doing, we begin to use the process of distinction rather than be used by it. We begin to see how past experiences might turn into present patterns. We glimpse the possibility of a connection between what we see and our capacity to see.

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

From Open Heart, Open Mind: A Guide to Inner Transformation by Tsoknyi Rinpoche with Eric Swanson. © 2012 by Tsoknyi Rinpoche with Eric Swanson. Published by Harmony, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Embracing Change, We Discover the Changeless (Editorial/May 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2012
You'll find this article on page 11 of the magazine.


Embracing Change, We Discover the Changeless

All compounded phenomena are impermanent. That simple, almost banal statement is where Buddhism starts. Everything made of parts eventually falls apart. It’s so obvious as to seem uninteresting. Yet there is no truth more important to our lives. We humans struggle mightily to deny impermanence (call it death instead, and you’ll see what I mean), and so cause ourselves the endless suffering known as samsara. When we embrace it, it’s the gate to the path of enlightenment.

The truth we call change, the theme of our special section in this issue, goes by many names. Impermanence, in terms of time. Emptiness, in terms of space. Anatman, no soul, in terms of religion. Or just plain death, when we’re ready to really face the truth. No matter what we call it, the sad but beautiful, threatening but liberating message is: there is nothing we can hold on to.

But how hard we try. There are so many things we take refuge in, places where we seek identity, security, and comfort: home, family, accomplishment, political belief, pleasure, our favorite sports team, and failing all that, the ultimate refuge of religion.

All are good things, but in the end they will betray us, revealing life’s fundamental transience. But the cost of our illusion is much greater than mere disappointment. It lies in the very nature of denial.

To deny the world’s openness and fluidity—and our own—we must close and solidify it, and ourselves. This is not a selective process, in which we can customize our denial according to our likes and dislikes. We either deny reality or we don’t. We are open and vulnerable or we are closed and solid. We protect ourselves from fear at the cost of our happiness. We protect ourselves from sadness at the cost of our love.

Fortunately, there is a qualification to Buddhism’s basic premise: all compounded phenomena are impermanent. Yes, all relative, conditional phenomena are unreliable and unsatisfactory. And if that were the whole story, then what would be left besides pessimism and nihilism, the natural reflection of a purely materialist point of view? Under those circumstances, “party on” would seem to be as good a response as any.

This is why Buddhism has been mistakenly accused of being negative or pessimistic. The truth of change—and our denial of it—means that life as we habitually live it is full of suffering. But we’re not stuck there.

When we open ourselves fully to the reality of change—when we go through that gateless gate— we open ourselves simultaneously to a deeper, truer nature that is beyond all conditions, concepts, identities, and boundaries. This is the level of unconditional being called buddhanature, the open space of awakened heart and mind.

Buddhanature is not a myth, distant goal, or article of faith. It is always present and available. In the traditional phrase, it is the buddha in the palm of our hand. It appears whenever we give it a chance. All we have to do is notice.

Consider how in the presence of a suffering loved one, we drop our usual self-concern. What we discover in that space is not some neutral blankness but our natural warmth and compassion. That is buddhanature. Or when we are lost in thought and some surprising sight cuts our internal discourse. What we experience in that gap is openness, clarity, and appreciation without commentary. That is buddhanature, so beautifully described by Tsoknyi Rinpoche in this issue as the mind of emptiness and luminosity.

Embracing change, we discover the changeless. Accepting loss, we discover love. Finding no refuge, we discover that is the true refuge. And finally, returning to those very conditioned phenomena whose impermanence was giving us so much trouble, we find that they are but the joyful display of awakened mind, magically manifesting moment by moment.

MELVIN MCLEOD, Editor-in-Chief

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

Science, Buddhism, and Your Mind: A Shambhala Sun Spotlight Print

Science, Buddhism, and Your Mind: A Shambhala Sun Spotlight

The Shambhala Sun's online archives include fascinating stories of the research from the world of Buddhism and science, and the personalities behind it all. Links open in new windows; just click any article’s title to start reading.

Taking the Measure of Mind

At the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, prominent neuroscientist Richie Davidson (left) and his team try to see how far our minds can go and how meditation helps. Senior Writer Barry Boyce reports.

The New Science of Mind

Scientists study phenomena. Meditators study experience. And never the twain shall meet. Until now. Jill Suttie reports on the Mind and Life Institute and the growing field of contemplative science.

Two Sciences of Mind

In Francisco Varela, the Dalai Lama found a kindred spirit. Together, with some of the greatest names in neuroscience and Buddhism, they laid the groundwork for a scientific revolution. Barry Boyce reports on the dialogue between cutting-edge science and Buddhism's 2500-year study of the mind.

The Science of Mindfulness

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. looks for the “active ingredient” that makes mindfulness so beneficial to our health, psyche, and overall quality of life. 

The Lama in the Lab

Daniel Goleman reports on the Dalai Lama and the dialog between science and Buddhism, especially on how neuroscientists are measuring the effects of meditation.

Survival of the Kindest

Psychologist Paul Ekman reveals Charles Darwin’s real view of compassion—and it’s not what you might think. His belief that altruism is a vital part of human and even animal life is being confirmed by modern science.

Studying Mind from the Inside

While scientific methods are useful, says His Holiness the Dalai Lama, mind should also be studied through rigorous observation of our own subjective experience.

The Science of Mindfulness

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. looks for the “active ingredient” that makes mindfulness so beneficial to our health, psyche, and overall quality of life.

The Science of Love

Are there provable methods we can use to become more altruistic and compassionate? Can Buddhist compassion practices be adapted for a secular society? Barry Boyce reports on the growing number of scientists and researchers who are studying how to bring out the best in human nature.

Mindfulness of Mind

Dispassionately observing what goes on in our mind is one of Buddhism’s central practices. As Michael Stroud reports, the technique is being used to work with a variety of mental health problems, including depression.

The Cosmos Wakes Up

It was a 14-billion year journey from simple hydrogen to Mahatma Gandhi. David Loy asks: Is evolution the universe waking up to itself?

And for more, see our ongoing science coverage from our blog, Shambhala SunSpace.

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