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Mahamudra and Dzogchen: Thought-Free Wakefulness

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The ability to dissolve thoughts is essential to attaining liberation, says renowned Dzogchen teacher Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. Devotion and Pure Perception are two principles that lie at the root of Vajrayana practice that lead beyond confusion to thought-free wakefulness.


Meditation training, in the sense of sustaining the nature of mind, is a way of being free from clinging and the conceptual attitude of forming thoughts, and therefore free from the causes of samsara: karma and disturbing emotions. Please do not believe that liberation and samsara is somewhere over there: it is here, in oneself. Thought is samsara. Being free of thought is liberation. When we are free of thinking, we are free of thought. The problem is that the causes for further samsara are being created continuously. We spin through the six realms and undergo a lot of suffering.

Compared to the other life forms in samsara, we human beings do not suffer that much. We don't experience the unbearable, overwhelming suffering that countless other beings do. But for some humans, their mental or physical pain may be unbearable. If we continue to allow our ordinary thinking to run wild, we cannot predict what is lined up for us in the future, where we will end up, in what shape or form. The bottom line is this: we need to know how to dissolve thoughts.

Ego-clinging is simply a thought. Clinging to the notion of self is a thought. Clinging to the notion of other is also a thought. Clinging to duality is a thought. The concept of good is a thought, and the concept of evil is a thought. A neutral concept is also a thought. Whenever there is thought, it follows that there is clinging. The attitude of clinging follows the tracks of the three poisons—passion, aggression and ignorance. Since the formation of thought involves the three poisons, that means that thinking causes samsara, the endless suffering of cyclic existence. Whenever there is involvement in thought, our experience will be samsaric. Deluded thinking is the root of samsara.

Deluded thinking forms karma and disturbing emotions. When there is thinking, there are the acts of accepting and rejecting, of pleasure and of pain. The circumstances may be external, but the thinker is this mind within. Beauty and ugliness appear to belong to external objects. However, that which creates the beauty or the ugliness is actually the forming of a concept in this mind, here. Also, the liking and the disliking of what is considered beautiful or ugly are actions taken by this mind. The circumstance is the sense object, but the main factor is our mind.

In order for all six classes of beings [gods, asuras, humans, animals, pretas and hell beings] to be totally free of the entirety of samsara, we need to solve the problem of the thinking that forms the causes that propel us around through the various realms. We understand that thinking is delusion. However, to want to be free and at the same time to want to hang on to conceptual thinking is a contradiction in terms. It is something that will not happen. It is an impossible task.

If you want to attain liberation and omniscient enlightenment, you need to be free of conceptual thinking.
Meditation training, in the sense of sustaining the nature of mind, is a way of being free from clinging and the conceptual attitude of forming thoughts, and therefore free from the causes of samsara: karma and disturbing emotions. Please do not believe that liberation and samsara is somewhere over there: it is here, in oneself. Thought is samsara. Being free of thought is liberation. When we are free of thinking, we are free of thought. The problem is that the causes for further samsara are being created continuously. We spin through the six realms and undergo a lot of suffering.

Compared to the other life forms in samsara, we human beings do not suffer that much. We don't experience the unbearable, overwhelming suffering that countless other beings do. But for some humans, their mental or physical pain may be unbearable. If we continue to allow our ordinary thinking to run wild, we cannot predict what is lined up for us in the future, where we will end up, in what shape or form.

The bottom line is this: we need to know how to dissolve thoughts. Without knowing this, we cannot eliminate karma and disturbing emotions. And therefore the karmic phenomena do not vanish; deluded experience does not end. We understand also that one thought cannot undo another thought. The only thing that can do this is thought-free wakefulness. This is not some state that is far away from us: thought-free wakefulness actually exists together with every thought, inseparable from it—but the thinking obscures or hides this innate actuality. Thought-free wakefulness is immediately present the very moment the thinking dissolves, the very moment it vanishes, fades away, falls apart. Isn't this true?

The Buddha described in detail that we can have 84,000 different types of emotions. In a condensed way, there are six root emotions and twenty subsidiary ones. An even shorter categorization of thoughts is that of the three poisons. Whatever the number of types of emotions or thoughts, the Buddha taught how to eliminate all of these by giving 84,000 sections of the dharma.

Perhaps you do not have the time to study and learn all these teachings, or maybe you don't have the desire, the ability or the intelligence to do so. In this case, the Buddha and the bodhisattvas very skillfully condensed the teachings into a very concise form. This is called the tradition of pith instructions that deals with overcoming all the disturbing emotions simultaneously. The basic instruction here is to understand that all of these emotions are merely thoughts. Even ego-clinging and dualistic fixation is simply a thought. The pointing-out instruction given by a master to qualified students shows how to dissolve the thought and how to recognize the nature of the thinker, which is our innate thought-free wakefulness.

The root of confusion is thinking, but the essence of the thinking is thought-free wakefulness. As often as possible, please compose yourselves in the equanimity of thought-free wakefulness. It is said, "Samsara is merely thought, so freedom from thought is liberation." Great masters explain this in more detail, because simply being thoughtless is not necessarily liberation in the sense of thought-free wakefulness. To be unconscious, to faint, to be oblivious, is surely not liberation. If those states were liberation, attainment would be swift since it is very easy to be mindless. That would be a cheap liberation!

Simply suspend your thinking within the nonclinging state of wakefulness: that is the correct view.
One important point about the teachings on mind essence is that they need to be simple and easy to train in. Particularly in Mahamudra and Dzogchen practice, the view is said to be open and carefree. The less you cling and grasp, the more open and free it is. It is the nature of things. The less rigid our conceptual attitude is, the freer the view.

The mind is empty, cognizant, united, unformed.
Please make the meanings of these words something that points at your own experience. You can also say the mind is the "unformed unity of empty cognizance." These are very precious and profound words. “Empty” means that essentially this mind is something that is empty. This is easy to agree on: we cannot find it as a thing. It is not made empty by anyone, including by us—it is just naturally empty, originally so.

At the same time, we also have the ability to know, to cognize, which is also something natural and unmade. These two qualities, being empty and cognizant, are not separate entities. They are an indivisible unity. This unity itself is also not something that is made by anyone. It is not a unity of empty cognizance that at some point arose, remains for a while and later will perish. Being unformed, it does not arise, does not dwell, and does not cease. It is not made in time. It is not a material substance. Anything that exists in time or substance is an object of thought. This unformed unity of empty cognizance is not made of thought; it is not an object of thought.

Whenever there is an idea based in time or substance, its upkeep becomes very complex; it takes a lot to sustain or maintain its validity. This unformed basic nature, however, is very simple, not complicated at all. So many complications are created based on concepts of time and substance—so much hope and fear. Honestly, substance and time never did exist; they never do exist, nor will they ever exist in the future, either. The conceptualization of time and substance is the habit of the thinking mind. Although right now time and substance do not exist, it seems to the thinking mind as if they do.

Concerning substance, if you look around, it seems like everything is solidly and precisely there. In the experience of a real yogi, time and substance do not exist, of course. Even a scholar can, through intelligent reasoning, feel convinced about this fact. When we think that which is not, is, then, it seems to be. As perceived by a buddha, however, all the experiences that samsaric beings have are no more substantial than dreams. It all looks like dreaming.


At the very foundation of Vajrayana practice lie two principles: devotion and pure perception. We should have devotion towards the unmistaken natural state, in the sense of sincerely appreciating that which is truly unmistaken, unconfused, never deluded. In reality, the nature of all things is totally pure. Impurity occurs only due to temporary concepts. That is the reason why one should train in pure perception.

In this context, there are three levels of experience: the deluded experience of sentient beings, the meditative experience of yogis, and the pure experience of buddhas. Whenever there is dualistic mind, there is deluded experience. The deluded experience of sentient beings is called impure because it is involved with karma and disturbing emotions. In deluded experience, there is the attempt to accept and reject; there is hope and fear. Hope and fear are painful: that is suffering. Whenever there is thinking, there is hope and fear. Whenever there is hope and fear, there is suffering.

The meditative experience of a yogi is free of giving in to ordinary thought. It is something other than being involved in normal thinking. We can call it the state of shamatha or vipashyana or other names, but basically it is unlike ordinary thinking. The meditative experiences of a yogi are good and they become evident because of letting mind settle in equanimity. The most famous of these meditative moods are called bliss, clarity and nonthought. They occur during vipashyana meditation, but they can arise even during shamatha practice. Through meditation training, the mind becomes more clarified, more lucid. But if we are not connected with a qualified master and if we do not know the right methods of dealing with these meditative states, we may believe that we are somehow incredibly realized beings. That becomes a hindrance; it can even turn into a severe obstacle.

The Mahamudra path is presented as the twelve aspects of the four yogas. These four yogas of Mahamudra constitute the path of liberation. The first of these, one-pointedness, essentially means that you can remain calmly undisturbed for as long as you want. The next yoga is simplicity, and means to recognize your natural face as being ordinary mind, free from basis and free from root: "Simplicity is rootless and baseless ordinary mind." We need to develop the strength of this recognition; otherwise, we are as helpless as a small child on a battlefield. We train by means of mindfulness, first effortful, then effortless. We train in simplicity at lesser, medium and higher levels, and then arrive at one taste, the third of the four yogas of Mahamudra. One taste means that the duality of experience dissolves, that all dualistic notions such as samsara and nirvana dissolve into the state of nondual awareness.

Having perfected one taste through the levels of the lesser, medium and higher stages, the fourth yoga is nonmeditation. This is the point at which every type of conviction and the fixing of the attention on something completely dissolves. All convictions and habitual tendencies have dissolved and are left behind. One has captured the dharmakaya throne of nonmeditation.

In the beginning one needs to be convinced about how reality is: one needs to have confidence in the view. Ultimately, however, any form of conviction is still a subtle obscuration, still a hindrance. At the final stage of nonmeditation, all types of habitual tendencies and convictions need to be dissolved, left behind. There is nothing more to cultivate, nothing more to reach. One has arrived at the end of the path. All that needs to be purified has been purified. Karma, disturbing emotions and the habitual tendencies have all been cleared up, so that nothing is left.

The path is necessary as long as we have not arrived. The moment we arrive, however, the need for the road to get there has fallen away. As long as we are not at our destination, then it is also necessary to have the concept of path in order to get there. But once the destination has been reached, once whatever needs to be cultivated has been cultivated and whatever needs to be abandoned has been left behind, the whole need for path is over. That is what is meant by nonmeditation, literally non-cultivation. This is the dharmakaya [the formless body of ultimate reality, one of the three bodies (kayas) of Buddha] throne of nonmeditation. In Dzogchen, the exhaustion of all concepts and phenomena is the ultimate level of experience. This is the state of complete enlightenment. Both these levels of realization are equal to that of all buddhas.

At this point, for oneself, there is exclusively pure experience. At the same time, other beings are still perceived, along with their impure, deluded experiences. Take the example of the six classes of beings. When their experiences are compared with each other, each being will feel that his or her way of experiencing is more profound than the realm below. In general, everyone thinks that what they experience is real. The difference in the experiencing of the different realms is the difference in the density of their karma and obscurations. The less dense the karma, the closer to real experience. Compared to the ordinary samsaric sentient being, the meditative experience of a yogi is more real, more pure. But compared to that, the pure experience of a buddha is more real and more pure still.

We need to dissolve impure deluded experience. Deluded experience comes from not knowing the nature of mind; it comes from unknowing, from being ignorant of the natural state. When not knowing our nature, we are sentient beings. Ignorance clears when knowing the natural state, the state of a buddha. While not knowing, there is the forming of karma and disturbing emotions. While knowing, karma and disturbing emotions are not formed. If, in the very moment of knowing innate nature and sustaining the continuity of that, you were to never stray again, then you would be a buddha.

Buddhist philosophy has many splendid words to describe what happens. The Chittamatra, or mind-only school, presents a threefold classification of reality as the imaginary, the dependent and the absolute. In the Dzogchen teachings, ignorance is described as having three aspects: conceptual ignorance, coemergent ignorance and the single-nature ignorance. These are all very nice words. Basically, it is in the state of not knowing that confusion can take place. Not knowing our own essence is confusion. The essence of what thinks is dharmakaya. The thinking itself is not dharmakaya, but the identity of that which thinks is dharmakaya. Thinking is thought. Thinking is not the thought-free state. It is the identity of that which thinks that is thought-free.

Whether we use the terms mind-essence, the primordially pure state of cutting through, original coemergent wisdom, or the Great Middle Way of definitive meaning, one point is true: at the moment of not being involved in thought, you spontaneously have arrived at the true view, automatically.

There are two ways to approach the view. One is through scriptural statements and reasoning, and the other is through experience. The first way is called "establishing the view through statement and reasoning." Although we want to train in Mahamudra or Dzogchen, still, without some feeling of certainty about the view obtained through studying and through our own reasoning, it is not that easy to be sure.

It is sometimes possible to transmit or communicate the view without using any scriptural statements, but this requires that a totally qualified master possessing the nectar of learning, reflection and meditation meets with a qualified disciple who is receptive. There are three types of transmission. The first two, the mind transmission of buddhas and the symbolic transmission of the knowledge-holders, are like that. Mind transmission uses not even a single word or gesture, no sign. Yet, something is communicated—the wisdom of realization is communicated and fully recognized. Symbolic transmission uses no more than a word or sentence—no explanations, just a gesture—to point out the wisdom of realization and have it recognized. The third type is the hearing lineage, which uses a very brief spoken teaching.

In these times we are in, most people would have a hard time if we were only to use mind transmission, symbolic transmission or hearing transmission with nothing else, no explanation. Explanation is generally necessary in order to point out the natural state. There are two ways to do so. One of these is the analytical approach of a scholar; the other is the resting meditation of a simple meditator. There are some people who can trust a master and be introduced to the natural state without using any lengthy explanations. For other people, this is not enough. Then it is necessary to use scriptural references and intelligent reasoning in order to establish certainty in the view. But after arriving at the intellectual understanding of the true view, the scholar still needs to receive the blessings of a qualified master and to receive the pointing-out instruction from such a master.

Do you have doubts about anything? Does anything need to be cleared up?

Student: Could you give a few more details about pure perception?

Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche:
To refrain from hurting others and to abandon the basis for harm is the main precept of the Hinayana teachings. To help others and to create the basis for benefit is the main precept for Mahayana. Vajrayana is called the path of pure perception, taking sacred outlook as the path. This is done on the foundation of the two previous precepts: the attitude of wanting to avoid harming others, and of wanting to help them. In addition to this, we train in pure perception, not only in a spiritual context but also in any normal life situation in human society.

The Vajrayana statement to regard everything as pure could at first sound strange, maybe even awkward. But examine very carefully and you will discover that the very nature of everything is one of purity. Therefore, to regard everything as pure is very reasonable. Pure perception is very close to ultimate reality, to how things actually are. All sentient beings have an enlightened essence, buddhanature. It is said that all beings are buddhas, yet they are covered by temporary obscurations. Even though all beings are veiled by obscuration, they are still in reality buddhas, and therefore, it is perfectly all right to see all beings as perfectly pure.

The Hinayana precepts of refraining from hurting others are vital. The Mahayana precept of the will to assist other beings is extremely important. In addition to that, the Vajrayana training in pure perception is tremendously profound. It is a training in recognizing and acknowledging the natural purity of everything. Therefore, the Tibetan approach to Buddhism is one in which the three vehicles are not separated, but are practiced in combination.

We need to very carefully examine this principle of pure perception, because seemingly things are not pure. On the seeming level, we can have notions of something being pure or impure, but on the level of what really is, everything is pure. The Vajrayana perspective of pure perception is that everything, since the very beginning, is in actuality the three kayas of the Buddha [nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya and dharmakaya]. All movement of thought is the play of original wakefulness. We discriminate and judge because of not knowing this.

It is a mistake to hold the opinion that something which is actually pure is impure. But to regard that which is pure as being pure is correct. Compared to the attitude of regarding things as being permanent and concrete, the attitude of regarding everything as being impermanent and insubstantial is correct. To regard everything, all phenomena, as not only being insubstantial and impermanent but as being completely pure is an even higher view.

Student: With regard to pure perception, it seems easier to see oneself as pure, doesn't it?

Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche: Without pure perception, Vajrayana is very difficult. Vajrayana is the swift path because through the power of trust and devotion it becomes much easier to realize the nature of things.

Generally speaking, pure perception means appreciating that everyone has the capacity to be enlightened, everyone has a nature that can be totally revealed and perfected. Moreover, the five elements, the five aggregates, the five poisons—all the different aspects of experience—are by nature already pure. It is only because we see these in a confused way that they appear as impure. In the pure experience of not forming concepts of clean or unclean, pure or impure, everything is seen as it actually is—as manifestations of original wakefulness.

When someone understands the value of devotion and pure perception and is willing to train in this way, he or she is a suitable recipient for Vajrayana teachings. This suitability for Vajrayana entails being both broad-minded and sharp. Everything is total purity, all-encompassing purity. Unless someone is very open-minded and has a sharp intelligence, he or she just does not understand that this is how reality is.

Moreover, we should also train in perceiving the teacher and our fellow practitioners as pure. One person cannot truly judge another. Therefore, we should have appreciation for our vajra brothers and vajra sisters. As for the teacher who expounds the Vajrayana, we shouldn't have the attitude: "He is just another guy, another human being, probably a little special, but what do I know?" Not like that! Have a pure appreciation of the teacher as well. There is great power in such pure perception.

According to the Vajrayana tradition, it is through devotion and trust that realization dawns in our stream of being. Devotion springs from pure perception of everyone. All sentient beings are potentially buddhas. They are temporarily obscured, but in essence they are buddhas. Obscured suchness may become unobscured suchness, which is buddha. The obscuration can be purified; it will be purified; it is able to be purified.

So pure perception is very profound and precious. It is through pure perception that we can have true devotion. And through this devotion, realization dawns. This is like Milarepa's statement to Gampopa: "Unlike now, there will be a time in the future, my son, when you will see me as a buddha in person. At that point, the true view will have dawned within your stream of being."

Vajrayana is not like the general teachings of the Buddha. A Vajrayana saying goes: "Regard whatever the teacher says as excellent, whatever he or she does as pure, and mingle your minds as one." Unless a person is very open-minded and sharp as well, it is just not easy to be that way. When seeing somebody as pure, it does not mean being blind. That is not what we are talking about here. That would be stupid admiration, false admiration. Real trust has more to do with acknowledging the basic purity of all things.

Devotion or trust and pure perception are the basis for Vajrayana practice. And that holds true whether we are listening to a dharma talk, whether we are applying those teachings or whether we are interacting during daily activities: in any situation pure perception is vital.


Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche is the abbot of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery in Kathmandu. Eldest son of the late Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, he also teaches annually at Rangjung Yeshe Gomde, his retreat center in northern California.

This teaching is excerpted from Present Fresh Wakefulness: A Meditation Manual on Nonconceptual Wisdom, published by Rangjung Yeshe. This article © 2003 Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. Reprinted with permission of Rangjung Yeshe Publications.

 This article was originally published in the November 2002 issue of the Shambahala Sun, and is excerpted in our 30th-anniversary collection of the finest meditation teachings from the magazine, as printed in our January 2010 issue. To read all of the other excerpted pieces in their complete form, click here.



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