The Defilements Are Superficial, the Nature of the Mind is Clear Light

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The delusions, as mental phenomena, can be said to have clarity.[1] We looked at this before when discussing points of similitude between the grasping at inherent existence and the magician’s illusions. Because this phenomenon called “mind” is merely imputed by thought relating to a base that is formless (meaning without shape or color and so forth) and has the nature of clarity able to perceive its object, the delusions, which are mental aspects, also have this clarity.[2]

So what is mind? It is nothing more than that. There is nothing that is the slightest bit extra or additional to that. However, the mind that normally appears to us and in which we normally believe, appears as a real mind from there. That one is completely nonexistent. When we analyze what is mind, what we see is that the one in which we have been believing all along is totally empty. So emptiness is the ultimate nature of the mind. So the heart of wisdom, the essence of wisdom, is the emptiness of our mind.[3] By developing this wisdom the defilements, both gross and subtle, are directly ceased. This is how realization of the mind’s emptiness is the very essence of the perfection of wisdom. It brings us to liberation which is free forever from saṃsāra and also, with the support of bodhicitta (the path of method) to full enlightenment. The heart of wisdom must therefore be related specifically to the ultimate nature of your own mind, your own wisdom.[4]

When we put effort to practice as much as we can in this life, then it is possible to develop the wisdom realizing emptiness according to one’s capacity. The reason is because the mind is a causative phenomenon which means that it is dependent upon causes and conditions. Conditions which may currently make the mind difficult to work with, or change, can give way to other causes and conditions through which as much merit as possible may be accumulated and obstacles purified. In this way the mind can become more effective engaging with the meditations on the path.

At present the mind appears so disturbed and selfish. It seems to want only objects of desire or it is only jealous—nothing else! But because how it is now appearing is dependent on causes and conditions it is definite that, just as we can renovate, rebuild and fix up a house, this current mind can be changed if we change those causes and conditions. Because the mind is a dependent arising, a causative phenomenon, and is in the nature of clear light, there is always a hope to change. Always![5] This is the case even if the teachings seem so difficult we find it hard to generate faith. This is the case even if in the past, due to ignorance, one has created karmas such as heresy and the ten nonvirtuous actions. Depending on other causes and conditions, the difficulties arising from such karmas can be stopped.


Even now, when it seems impossible to feel and practice patience, let alone achieve enlightenment, this is the case. By accumulating merit and purifying obstacles in conjunction with relying correctly on a virtuous friend and practicing the preliminary practices described in the jor chö (sbyor chos) practice,[6] as one trains the mind, again and again, trying once more, two times, three times, four times, five times, one week, one month, one year, another year, more and more, then one makes definite progress no matter how heavy the karma we might have created. Gradually we are able to train the mind in patience more and more. In this way we make progress by generating renunciation, bodhicitta and (the wisdom of) śūnyatā (emptiness) and can practice the two stages (generation and completion stages of highest yoga tantra) and become enlightened!

Because the nature of the mind is clear light and is a causative phenomenon, there is always hope all the time for liberation and leading all sentient beings to enlightenment by freeing them from all the obscurations and sufferings. Hence there is nothing to say that can support the idea that a depressed mind, even when it has reached a suicidal point, cannot be changed. In fact it is the belief that one cannot change our mind that is generating and enhancing depressed thought. But thinking in this manner is a most unskillful way of acting and amounts to self-torture, for no one else is torturing yourself in this way. The main thing is that you have to guide yourself because you are the protector of yourself. It is in this way that success comes.

So we should have the attitude of wishing to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings even if it takes so much time for even one realization to arise. Not only is this extremely worthwhile but there is no other choice, no other way of finding happiness. Since we want happiness and don’t want suffering, we need to actualize, as just mentioned, renunciation of saṃsāra, bodhicitta and śūnyatā as well as the two stages of highest yoga tantra. Yet to practice tantra and achieve tantric realization, even to achieve one realization, we need renunciation. There’s no liberation without the realization of renunciation. But without the wisdom realizing emptiness you cannot cut saṃsāra’s root, just as, without bodhicitta you cannot enter the Mahāyāna path. So tantra as the quick path to enlightenment must be practiced on the basis of the three principles of the path. You should therefore strive to have realizations of these no matter how many eons it might take to generate even one realization.

On the other hand, to engage in nonvirtuous actions and meaningless work, even for one second, is too long. One second too long! By considering like this, we should generate the attitude of directing one’s whole life toward actualizing the path to enlightenment. It is not like taking a drug and then seeing the whole maṇḍala, or whatever, because one is on a high! Why? Because such transformation is dependent on transforming the mind itself, otherwise our experience will last only as long as will that pill that has gone into our mouth!




Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] When asked “If the nature of consciousness is luminous, is the nature of ignorance dark?” the Dalai Lama replied, “This is a difficult point. As is said in the Great Completeness system of Nying-ma, all consciousnesses are pervaded by the nature of mere luminosity and knowing. This is indeed true; it is really something to be contemplated. Even though a consciousness such as ignorance or anger has a perverse mode of apprehension, its very nature—its mere entity of luminosity and knowing—is not polluted by any sort of defilement. We need to realize this.” He demonstrated, “Because consciousness is not something physical, it is not that the main mind is one lump and the mental factors that accompany it are other things tacked on to it. Therefore, it seems that the explanation that, when anger is generated, there is a main mind and a mental factor of anger means that there is a factor that is the mere entity of luminosity and knowing and another factor that at the same time is a misapprehension. Thus, the one consciousness, though mistaken in terms of its mode of apprehension, has a nature of mere luminosity and knowing. Simultaneously, the five omnipresent mental factors—from among the fifty-one mental factors—have to be present. Therefore, we certainly must say that the luminous and knowing nature of even ignorance is luminous.” The Dalai Lama at Harvard, 95–96.

[2] Of the conventional nature of the mind, Geshe Rabten details, “One defining characteristic of the mind is its quality of being devoid of physical properties: it has no color, no shape and it cannot be touched. But its essence is not merely this lack of material content; space too is clear and empty in this way, but it is not mind. The difference between the mind and space is that the former is a dynamic, temporal phenomenon that undergoes momentary change, whereas space is non-temporal and not subject to such change. The mind is always arising in dependence upon its preceding causes and conditions, which include both other states of mind and material phenomena. In addition to being clear and empty of any physical properties, it is in a constant state of transformation. Furthermore, this dynamic property of mind has the quality of cognition. Cognition is a defining characteristic of the mind which indicates that every one of its particular instances and states necessarily apprehends a specific object.” Echoes of Voidness, 115–16.

Likewise, the Ven Geshe Doga details, in the context of meditating according to the Mahamudra tradition:

“The First Panchen Lama’s auto commentary explains:

However, most lineage gurus of their tradition have used the mind itself as an object for obtaining calm; abiding; likewise it is this method that is presented here.

Thus it is significant to recall the definition of mind as it can be used as an object for obtaining calm abiding. The mind that is referred to here is the entity that is clear and knowing. As another commentary explains, the mind itself will not appear vividly in one’s first attempt to focus on the mind, so one resolves to focus on an image of the mind to begin with–that is sufficient. As the auto commentary presents, the referent mind that  is initially used as an object for developing calm abiding is the conventional mind which has three attributes. The first is that it has the nature of being clear and the function of knowing. The second is that the mind is devoid of all form, meaning that it is not made of matter and so forth. The third attribute is that it is the basis of the appearance of all phenomena. As the commentary further explains, the benefit of focusing on such an object is that it will help one to actually realise the voidness or the actual emptiness of the mind itself later on. Another benefit is that focusing on the mind helps to lessen one’s preoccupation with external objects or distractions. It is also easier to develop calm abiding using the mind itself as an object.”

Mahamudra: The Great Seal of Voidness, Commentary by the Venerable Geshe Doga, Translated by the Ven Michael Lobsang Yeshe, 2 December, 2008, 3.  Edited Study Group transcript.

[3] Berzin explains, “As the First Paṇchen Lama has stressed, we must not leave our mahamudra practice simply focused on the conventional nature of mind as mere arising and engaging. We must supplement it with meditation on the deepest nature of the mind, and then meditate on the inseparability of the conventional and deepest level natures of mind.” H.H. Dalai Lama, The Gelug/ Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra, 77. Further, “How can we describe how it exists? We can only say that mind is or exists simply as what the mental label or word ‘mind’ refers to when it is labeled onto a mere arising and engaging with contents of experience” (ibid., 80). Pabongka Rinpoche similarly gives an account of how, although “Apart from the mere conceptual imputation made upon the basis of imputation—the collection of these parts—consciousness is not in the least established on its own part,” consciousness “presents itself to us as something quite independent and self-sufficient that independently engages with its object….This is the way in which the object to be refuted presents itself to us,” he adds, before presenting how to logically establish its emptiness. Liberation, 644–45.

[4] Explains Master Atiśa, “Nothing in this world of appearance and [everyday] convention does not come into being from one’s own mind. The mind, too, is an empty awareness, and the recognition of it [i.e., the empty mind] as the nonduality of awareness and emptiness is the view. Abiding in this continuously with mindfulness, free of distraction, is the meditation. The gathering of the two accumulations from within such a state in an illusion-like manner is the action. When one can accomplish this in one’s immediate experience through one’s practice, this will become possible in dreams [as well]. When this becomes possible during dreams, it will [then] be possible at the time of death. When this becomes possible at the point of death, it will [then] become possible during the intermediate state [as well]. And when this happens during the intermediate state, one is certain to achieve the supreme attainment [of buddhahood.]. See Jinpa, Book of Kadam, 562.

Also, discussing the significance of meditating on the ultimate nature of mind, the Dalai Lama writes, “In tantra, it is as if something’s own essence were manifesting as its own realization. This can only take place when one takes the ultimate nature of mind as one’s object, culminating in an indivisibility of awareness and emptiness. This is why the Indian master Aryadeva states that it is extremely important to realize the ultimate nature, or reality, of the mind, for it is the mind that is the root of samsara and nirvana. This is the way it is explained from a tantric perspective.” He elaborates, “From a sutra perspective, it is generally said that because there is a difference in the quality of the object, one begins by meditating on the lack of self, or emptiness of the person, because it is easier to understand the emptiness of the person than it is to understand the emptiness of phenomena. However, from the perspective of highest yoga tantra, the realization of the ultimate nature of mind must come first.” H. H. Dalai Lama, Meditation on the Nature of Mind, 29.

[5] For a concise but comprehensive overview of mind according to the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism focused particularly on the issue of the relationship of adventitious defilements (and states of ordinary mind) to the mind’s ultimate nature see ibid., 17–28. In another teaching, the Dalai Lama observes, “It is clear that the mind exists, but since it is not established as its own final nature and basic disposition, what is its mode of being? Its deep nature is a mere emptiness of its own inherent existence. This means that the faulty defilements that pollute the mindsuch as ignorance, lust and hatred—are temporary, and therefore separable from the mind. Once these defilements are understand to be superficial and not in the mind’s basic nature, we see that the deep nature of the mind is clear light, emptiness.” H.H. Dalai Lama, How to Practise, 173.

[6] These are cleaning the room and arranging the objects, acquiring and arranging the offerings, posture and generation of thought, visualizing the merit-field, offering the seven-limb prayer and supplication. See, for example, Ngag-dbang Chos-’byor, Jorchö: The Six Preparatory Practices (Dharamsala: LTWA, 2001). See also Tsongkhapa, Great Treatise, Volume One, 94–99, and Pabongka’s extensive treatment in Liberation, 105–213.



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