The Mind of the Dragon and the Power of Non-Self
The mind of the dragon is powerful, vast, and skillful. That’s because it sees the emptiness of all things, both self and other. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on how to bring the wisdom of the dragon’s mind into our lives.
When my friend Jon and I were running in the Scottish Highlands one day, we came into a valley and saw a big dog. We started strategizing how we were going to avoid being attacked. Should we run? We were already running. What about climbing a tree? There wasn’t a tree in sight. As we approached the “dog,” we realized it was just a large stone. We laughed at ourselves and kept running. We had created an object in our minds and then responded to it with fear. We were afraid of our projection, which had stemmed from ignorance. The minute we saw our mistake, the fear dissolved. Our relief came from seeing how things really were. Seeing things as they are is prajna, a Sanskrit word that means "best knowledge." This intuitive wisdom is the self-existing conﬁdence of the dragon.
The tiger, the lion, the garuda, and the dragon represent the four kinds of confidence of the ruler. The tiger represents the contentment that comes from discernment; the lion, the joy that comes from discipline. The winged garuda symbolizes the equanimity that arises from going beyond attachment to hope and fear, and the dragon represents wisdom that sees the elemental reality of all situations. Developing these qualities results in strong windhorse, which is confidence in basic goodness, the awakened nature of everything. Strong windhorse increases life-force energy and leads to success in all activities.
The dragon is a symbol of rulers and master meditators. It represents ultimate wisdom, conﬁdence, and power. There is something inscrutable about the dragon, something that cannot be understood. It has the form of a serpent, yet it ﬂies. There are many stories about dragons, but who has seen one? The Tibetan word for thunder is drukdra—the sound of dragons. Like thunder, the wisdom of the dragon wakes us up. It shatters conceptual mind and uproots our insecurity.
The dragon says, “I dance and play in the depth of your own mind. Let me out!” The dragon mind is fathomless. It cannot be read. It rests naturally in the Great Eastern Sun—the wisdom of prajna. With prajna, our mind goes beyond the limits of space. The Shambhala teachings describe the dragon mind as “space which cannot be punctured by an arrow.” The dragon is deep wisdom that looks precisely at everything. It sees how we’re always trying to make appearances into “things,” projecting a concrete world onto a ﬂuid process. We say, “I have a self. I exist,” but there is no self in the way we perceive the self. Just as I mistook a rock for a dog, we are always mistaking our ever-changing experience for a solid self or “me.” As we continue to sit quietly, meditating and contemplating, we begin to understand that our own wisdom is always trying to awaken us to this truth, which is as elusive as the breath, or as the dragon itself.
We can start by contemplating what the Buddha said: the self we imagine to be solid and continuous is really just a gathering of ingredients—heaps. It is the conjunction of blood, bones, memories, emotions, thoughts, and perceptions. When we experience this conglomeration of elements, ignorance says, “I think I’ll call this ‘me.’” We are creating an illusion and giving it a name. Not only is the illusion transparent and dreamlike, but the things we make it with are the same. It’s like watching clouds form into the shape of a dragon. We know it’s not a dragon. We know the clouds themselves are not really solid. But when we see that form, we give it a name—something recognizable.
The moment we mistake the collection of heaps for “me,” attachment arises, fear arises, pride arises—and we believe in “me.” This projection forces us to perceive the whole world in a certain way. We think, “I’m real, and so are they,” and therefore it follows, “If I’m real and they take something away, I will get mad.” We suffer from that ignorance. Suffering is the reverberation of not knowing selﬂessness, the virtue of the dragon.
In his ﬁrst teaching after his enlightenment, the Buddha made this very point. Life is painful for the basic reason that we are self-obsessed. Sometimes we think, “If I didn’t feel angry and jealous, then I would have peace.” In fact, negative emotions are simply the embodiment of thinking of a self. Every time we feel irritation or attachment, we are experiencing self-absorption.
If we contemplate this, we will see that it’s true. Anger, desire, jealousy—all negative emotions are rooted in attachment to “me.” They are ﬁghting a losing battle, for there is no “me.” If there is a self, where is it? Contemplating selﬂessness reveals that looking for “me” is like trying to ﬁnd the horizon. It looks like a straight line, and from afar it’s a deﬁnite geographical reference point. But if we’re asked to pinpoint it, we’ll only go in circles. We’ll never ﬁnd it. We’ll just ﬁnd moods that come and go. Those moods are also selﬂess; they come and go because they are on unstable ground. There is not another self, apart from the self we try to hold together with the pride of our view, seeing ourselves as separate from—and maybe slightly better than—everything else. The bewilderment from which this pride arises is always telling us a lie. We’re making a cloud into a mountain. Without this confusion, there is no belief in a self, for there is no self-infatuation.
Even when we speak of selﬂessness, the mind goes to “me.” We think, “I’m selﬂess,” but everything is selﬂess. Saying “everything is selﬂess” is like calling that stone “dogless.” It might give the impression that a dog was there at some point, but it never was. It was our idea of a dog that was there. Similarly, we say that everything is selﬂess, but the self was never there. There was only our idea of a self. When we realize that we have always been selﬂess, what is missing? The conceptual mind that centralizes into “me” and then projects a world out there that is solid and separate. Who we think we are and what we think of the world is a concept that we are creating with our mind. We create a concept in our mind and we believe that concept. Our belief in a self is the most obvious example of this fundamental ignorance.
The wisdom of the dragon asks us to contemplate why we are trying to make things so solid. What is it we’re trying to hold together? The chair is not saying it’s a chair, nor are our arms and legs and chest saying, “I’m me.” Our mind is weaving the elements of our body, feelings, sense perceptions, and judgments into a solid entity called “me.” “Me” is a mental fabrication. There is no “me,” and that’s okay. Seeing this and losing the idea of “me” is the point of liberation. What is liberated? Lungta—windhorse—and the wish-fulﬁlling jewel of wisdom and compassion.
Because negative emotions are rooted in ignorance, it’s sometimes hard to know when we are bound by their inﬂuence. To see them we need prajna, which grows from the mindfulness and awareness of the tiger. It is enriched by the discipline and joy of the lion. With the sharp eyes of the garuda, it recognizes when negativity has thrown us off balance. When we blame, cling, compete, or complain, prajna sees these signs of self-fabrication. It knows what we need to do when they arise: generate compassion and courage, the fortitude to overcome fear. Fear is just lack of prajna. Prajna and compassion are the ultimate drala—blessing energy—because they burn through negativity like a laser. The result is great bliss, a mind that has risen above the mistake of the self.
When my own teachers would ask me to look for my self, in the beginning I thought, “What a silly question. I’m right here.” When I tried to ﬁgure out exactly where “here” was, it became a little tricky. I had assumed a “here.” My body might be sitting in a chair right now, but where is the body I had when I was three? Where is the self I thought I was yesterday? And where is my mind? Westerners think the mind is in the head, Tibetans think it’s in the heart. In looking for my mind, I discovered that it seems to be in many different places. Sometimes it is drinking a glass of water, remembering swimming in the summer, feeling the breeze. In this contemplation, I observed that the self is more elusive than I thought. Thus began my journey into discovering that my experiences are not as real and solid as I had assumed. Questioning that assumption is what my teachers wanted me to do.
My teachers then instructed me to contemplate appearances—all the things I could see, touch, smell, hear, or taste. Which of those things is not generated by mind? The conclusion I drew was that if my mind weren’t here to experience these appearances and—if what they were saying is true—generate them, then I would have no way of knowing if something is not generated by the mind. My teachers wanted me to realize the power of the mind and how it generates our whole environment. We think that there is a self, and that everything else is separate from it. But there is no self, and nothing is separate from selﬂessness.
When I ask people to contemplate selﬂessness, they sometimes react as if I’ve asked them to put their house on the market or give away all their money. If there were a self that existed in the way we think, discovering selﬂessness would be like putting our house on the market. But in the Buddhist tradition, the discovery of selﬂessness is called “completely joyful.” It’s not called “the raw end of the deal,” or “I’d rather go back to bed,” or “This is scary and depressing.”
I remember rising from my meditation seat one day and being struck by the transparency of the world’s appearances. This was not like being in some kind of dream or god realm. It felt like a balance between groundedness and ﬂuidity. I could no longer solidify every thought, every word, every appearance, because the transitory quality of myself and everything around me—the lack of substance—was so vivid. My mind felt buoyant and joyful, because it was open, free from concept.
When we separate ourselves from the world and imagine that “me” has to conquer it, we are paupers who think that there is something to subjugate, own, or manipulate. Because we are objectifying the world, we see it as a threat and we defend ourselves against it. With the virtue of knowing selﬂessness, we are pulling the rug out from under the world’s ability to terrorize and confuse us. Truly ruling our world is seeing the world for what it is—constantly shifting appearances that we attempt to freeze with assumptions and expectations. It is moving waves and particles that, like the illusion of “me,” we take as real and solid. The selﬂessness of the dragon understands that the world is appearing, but that, at its heart, those appearances are empty. In reality, there is no world to rule. We are ruling a dream, and we are all sharing the same dream.
Discovering the selﬂess nature doesn’t have a monumental “Eureka!” quality. It is more like being continually perplexed, the way we feel when we’re looking for the car keys we’re so sure are in our pocket, or when the supermarket is being renovated and what we need has moved to a different aisle each time we go shopping. That experience of being somewhat dumbfounded is the beginning of wisdom. We can no longer believe what our negative emotions are telling us, because prajna is bringing us in tune with deeper truths. We’re beginning to see through our ignorance—the everyday vigil we sustain to conﬁrm that we exist in some permanent way. We look at our mind and see that it is a ﬂuid situation, and we look at the world and see that it is a ﬂuid situation. Our expectation of permanence is confounded.
Glimpsing selﬂessness requires us to penetrate reality, as every enlightened ruler has done. If we are to rule our world—generate compassion without attachment—we too will have to embark on this monumental quest. The starting point is our contemplation. Seeing clearly how things are on the relative level takes us toward the truth about how things are at the ultimate level. It loosens our discursive mind and lets prajna emerge. We can sit and contemplate, “If I have a self, where is it? Is it inside me, or outside me?” As we contemplate, a little prajna pokes out its head. It’s a feeling that maybe that sense of self is not really there. We have let go of our concept for just a moment. We are having a glimpse into reality. In Tibet, people write poetry about this experience.
We can only understand the truth of emptiness by contemplating a concept like the self. Placing our mind on this concept and contemplating it is like a taking a spaceship to the sun, which is wisdom. As we get closer to the sun, the heat of wisdom ignites the concept. Finally there is no concept, and we realize the empty, ungraspable nature of everything, beyond the four extremes of existence, nonexistence, neither, or both. This is how we arrive at an understanding of emptiness. There is no way that concept can land on wisdom, but we have to use concept to get there.
It helps to have a teacher to point us in the direction of the truth and give us a description of the way to see it accurately. For example, “If the accurate understanding of selﬂessness were a person, it would look like this.” Contemplation is like taking that picture and ﬁnding the face that matches it. Once we ﬁnd that person, our job is to live with her, get to know her intimately, and marry her. Our bond is ﬁnally cemented with the ﬁrst child, which is our realization. It means we have internalized the truth of selﬂessness. Understanding one thing, we understand all things. We are no longer fooled. Seeing the world in the light of ultimate prajna, the Great Eastern Sun, we know that all is basic goodness. This is the royal view.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is spiritual director of Shambhala, an international network of meditation and retreat centers. He is the author of Turning the Mind into an Ally. This teaching is from his new book, Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies for Modern Life, published by Morgan Road Books in October.