The Beautiful Energy of Thoughts (May 2012)
The Beautiful Energy of Thoughts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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)
The Teacher-Student Relationship
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
CHÖGYAM TRUNGPA RINPOCHE on how our relationship with the teacher evolves in the three vehicles of Buddhism.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
The Teacher as Spiritual Friend
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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
The Teacher as Vajra Master
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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)
Shambhala Sun | May 2012
This Is My Mind, Luminous and Empty
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 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)
Embracing Change, We Discover the Changeless
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Science, Buddhism, and Your Mind: A Shambhala Sun Spotlight
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.
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.
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.
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.
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. looks for the “active ingredient” that makes
mindfulness so beneficial to our health, psyche, and overall quality of
Daniel Goleman reports on the Dalai Lama and the dialog between science and Buddhism,
especially on how neuroscientists are measuring the effects of
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
While scientific methods are useful, says
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, mind should also be studied through
rigorous observation of our own subjective experience.
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. looks for the “active ingredient” that makes
mindfulness so beneficial to our health, psyche, and overall quality of
Are there provable methods we can use to become more altruistic
and compassionate? Can Buddhist compassion practices be adapted for a
society? Barry Boyce reports on the growing number of scientists and
researchers who are studying how to bring out the best in human nature.
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.
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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