Mahāmudrā: Part Five

Please refer to The Defilements Are Superficial, The Nature of the Mind is Clear Light  as Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche’s  presentation found there – concerning the emptiness of the mind – immediately precedes that of the current post.  






In his mahāmudrā teaching, Paṇchen Losang Chökyi Gyältsen (who completed the graduated path to enlightenment and the whole tantric path) said that his guru Sangye Yeshe (one of the mahāmudrā lineage lamas) taught that if you realize that whatever appears is an object apprehended by superstition, then the ultimate Dharma sphere (which means emptiness) appears, without depending on other (reasonings).

Though my translation here is not very poetic, the actual verse reads:

In short, as my virtuous friend Sangye Yeshe, who understands all according to the meaning [emptiness], said from the [his] holy mouth, “Regarding whatever appears, if it is discovered completely that these are all objects of superstitious belief, the ultimate sphere of existence [emptiness] will appear without depending on other [reasonings.] While emptiness is appearing, then focus the mind on emptiness and engage one-pointedly, placing the mind in equipoise meditation. How wonderful it is!”[1]

What it means is that we should realize that this truly existent I who is talking or listening now, together with all the objects we see, or hear, and which appear to be real and truly existent, are the objects of ignorance. They are the objects of the concept of true existence.[2]

In this context “superstition” means the truly existent I, action and object seen with the concept of true existence. All these truly existent things, in other words, are the view of the concept of true existence. This means they are not true. All are empty. When you are aware that all these things are objects of superstition, objects of the concept of true existence, what comes naturally to your mind is the thought that they are empty. So, if you realize this, the ultimate-Dharma sphere, the sphere of all things—meaning emptiness—appears.[3]

Panchen 1 477

Paṇchen Losang Chökyi Gyältsen (1570-1622)

The next lines of the verse “While emptiness is appearing, then focus the mind on emptiness and engage one-pointedly, placing the mind in equipoise meditation” are saying that while emptiness is appearing, wisdom enters and single-pointedly meditates upon that. What this means is that when emptiness appears, you put your wisdom there and one-pointedly concentrate. Paṇchen Losang Chökyi Gyältsen says that his guru Sangye Yeshe explained that your experience of such a meditative equipoise is wonderful.

Referring again to the root verse I have just quoted, that it is giving an essential instruction is indicated by his use of “in short”; that is, “In short, as my virtuous friend, Sangye Yeshe…” and so forth. These two words indicate that the importance of the view is to recognize (the nature of) whatever appears as an object to the senses.[4] 

Sangye Yeshe

Mahasiddha Sangye Yeshe (1525-1591)

Earlier I explained about objects of the senses and emptiness, so won’t do that again here. But in terms of your experience, what you must do is meditate like this: when you see someone with whom you are angry and with whom there is the danger that you might create very negative karma, you must observe how they appear to you in a truly existent way as truly undesirable, truly ugly or truly whatever. At that time you should be aware that the truly existent way the person is appearing to you is the object to be refuted. This means it (a truly existent person) is empty and doesn’t  exist.

Recognizing this “real” appearance of the person is the essential point when meditating on emptiness. As much as you are aware of the object of refutation, that much understanding of emptiness will naturally come. So what the verse is saying is that recognizing the object that appears is the important or vital point of the view. When you recognize this true existence then you are able to see emptiness.[5] Conversely, when you don’t recognize that the object of refutation doesn’t exist in reality, there is no chance to meditate upon and see the emptiness of the object. Therefore,  seeing the object of refutation becomes the essential point. It is the same thing with any object of desire. When there is some real, beautiful object from its own side, some truly object, just be aware that it is not true. Such an awareness itself becomes an unmistaken meditation on emptiness.



After that there are two other verses:

If you analyze in detail how things are appearing to you, reality will naturally appear.
In short, don’t cling to your own mind and to whatever appears to it.

Try to understand the reality of the mind and what appears to it and always develop wisdom.[6] If you realize the emptiness of one thing, for example, the I, then as you focus on any other object, such as the aggregates, in a similar way you will be able to realize the emptiness of each and every object one after the other.” That is what is mentioned here.[7]

Though there are many verses written by yogis, this is dealing just with what Paṇchen Losang Chökyi Gyältsen has said in the mahāmudrā teachings. Though the translation is not very poetic, the meaning is there. It is good to remember, recite and meditate on the meaning of these verses just as we can do with The Essence of Wisdom (Heart Sūtra). Relate them to the things that appear to you and in this way meditate on the meaning of the teachings.[8]

Even though I did get to talk a little bit on emptiness I didn’t get to go through the mahāmudrā text. Of course you can’t do everything in such a short space of time. There are so many different points of view in the other traditions concerning how to do mahāmudrā meditation. But in the end they all explain how to meditate on the clarity of the mind as well as generate guru devotion in order to receive the guru’s blessings to recognize the mind’s clarity. Then, by focusing on the clarity, skilfully watching, in the manner of a spy, you try to recognize how the I that is the object to be refuted is appearing.[9] Once this real I appearing from there is recognized, you then use the four-point analysis.

The heart of meditation on emptiness is to recognize how things do not exist as they appear to one’s own mind.[10] You must look at the hallucinations as hallucinations. This is the essential meaning of Paṇchen Losang Chökyi Gyältsen’s text. So the actual meditation has been done!



You must live in the meditation on emptiness and in a way integrated with the lamrim. Anyhow, it is not the case that I have any experience. Not that. My experience has nothing there. It is what the Tibetans call the horns of a rabbit. Of course the rabbit doesn’t have a horn. So I think if there has been some blessings it must be because of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and also all the gurus’ blessings and prayers.

With mahāmudrā it is not a case of spending the whole life watching the conventional nature of the mind which is clear, while thinking it is the ultimate nature![11] So in order to meditate on the ultimate nature we have to make preparations such as doing the Lama Chöpa, which contains the whole path to enlightenment, thought transformation as well as the three principles of the path and highest yoga practice. Doing guru yoga was how Milarepa, Tilopa and Gyalwa Ensapa and so many other great meditators were able to achieve quick enlightenment.[12] Additionally, it is very powerful to do prostrations while reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas of Confession.

But what I really want to emphasize is how we must meditate during the retreat break-times on how everything comes from the mind, as this is an essential preliminary to meditation on emptiness. When not in sitting position and not in the gompa we should meditate on emptiness and bodhicitta as continuously as we can. While in retreat we have a special situation for meditation, whereas at home it is difficult to practice mindfulness as life is so busy. One must make a special effort to practice mindfulness as much as possible by bringing back the mind when it becomes distracted. Even while dreaming we should try and be mindful and meditate on emptiness. This is very good if we can remember to do it.


I would like to mention that when you do guru yoga such as the Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga or the Six Session Yoga you should do a little bit of mahāmudrā meditation, perhaps not every time, but when you can. You may use the four-point analysis as explained in the lamrim[13] or one of the many other analytical techniques. Particularly you may use the very simple one of dependent arising as just that alone is so very powerful. That is why it is called the King of Logics.[14] As long as it is used right on top of the right target—which is the object to be refuted in the sense of the I that appears to oneself as the real one existing from its own side—it will work. So, at the end of a meditation course, or studying, or reading, one doesn’t have to stop. You can keep doing your practice like this.



Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Berzin’s translation reads, “In short, as my spiritual mentor, Sanggyay-yeshey, omniscient in the true sense, has said, ‘When, no matter what dawns in your mind, you are fully aware that what it is an appearance of exists simply as what can be apprehended by conceptual thought, you experience the deepest sphere of reality dawning without need to rely on anything else. While this is dawning, to immerse your awareness in it and totally absorb, my goodness!’” See the Dalai Lama, Gelug/Kagyü Tradition, 100.

[2] The Dalai Lama notes that the possibility of this realization pertains to “those having considerable familiarity with a correct view of voidness ” as one needs “a great deal of experience in scrutinizing and analyzing things with a correct view.” He continues: “Through the power of their experience, no matter what phenomena their mind gives rise to an occurrence or appearance of–within the categories of apprehending minds and objects apprehended–they are fully aware that these are simply what can be apprehended or labeled by conceptual thought. By the force of this deep awareness, a decisive understanding of the devoid nature of phenomena dawns in their mind without need to rely on any other line of reasoning” (ibid., 330-31).

[3] Following the root verse just quoted by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Losang Chökyi Gyältsen continues,:

“Similarly, fatherly Pa Dampa-sanggyay has said, ‘Within a state of voidness, the lance of awareness twirls around. A correct view of reality cannot be impeded by anything [ultimately] tangible or obstructive, O people of Dingri.’ All such statements come to the same intended point” (ibid.).

The Dalai Lama glosses, “No matter what arises now in our mind, we understand, simply because of the fact of its appearing as ‘this’ or ‘that,’ that it exists as such by virtue simply of circumstances. Thus no matter how many appearances our mind produces, they induce conviction in their voidness. In other words, whatever our mind makes appear, the fact that its cognitive appearance as ‘this’ or ‘that’ is something that dependently arises, and the fact that it is unmistakenly appearing, grant credibility to its lack of true, inherent existence. When this happens, then, while remaining focused on the sphere of voidness, the lance of our awareness of non-inherent existence twirls around. A correct view cannot be impeded. It applies to everything. This has been the actual meditation on the correct view, with total absorption on voidness which is like space (ibid., 156, italics mine).


Mahasiddha Pa Dampa-sanggyay 

Further, regarding the “sphere of voidness” and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s reference to the ultimate-Dharma sphere, the sphere of all things—meaning emptiness,” the Dalai Lama explicates the meaning of natural nirvāṇa (rang bzhin myang ’das), which is the final nature of all phenomena: “It, in itself, is naturally pure, and also—due to this pure sphere that is the nature of phenomena—defilements are suitable to be removed and liberation can be attained. Furthermore, the entity of liberation is just this pure nature. Hence, from these points of view, the pure nature of phenomena is called the natural nirvana.” Harvard, 105.

He further details, “Chandrakirti says that a nirvana is an ultimate truth; this is because a nirvana is a true cessation, which itself is identified with emptiness. How is this? Through the power of the antidote, that is to say, the wisdom realizing selflessness, or the absence of inherent existence, the defilements are extinguished in the sphere of the final nature of phenomena; such a pure sphere of reality is called a true cessation. This is how a nirvana is an ultimate truth” (ibid., 106, italics mine).

In resultant terms we can also consider the two types of the buddha’s nature body: “natural purity,” the “final reality or sphere of reality [dharmadhātu; chos kyis dyings] into which into which defilements are extinguished” and “purity from adventitious defilements,” referring to “the factor of having separated from those defilements through the power of their antidote” (ibid., 15).

For further mention of the “all-pervading Dharma sphere,” see Gampopa, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1998), 252.


[4] Writes the Dalai Lama on this very point, “In everyday life, our mind gives rise to an appearance of so many things—mountains, fences and pastures, houses, towns and so on, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile or bodily sensations, and mental objects or events. When we have gained an understanding of voidness to some extent, according to our capacity—in other words, when we have gained some understanding of existence established by virtue of dependent arising—then no matter what our mind gives rise to an appearance of right now, we think that it exists as what it is simply relative to conditions and factors. It exists as what it is by virtue simply of mentally labeling—by virtue simply of the conventions or labels that can label it as ‘this’ or ‘that.’ It exists relative to conditions and factors other than itself. Since it exist simply as what can be apprehended as a cognitive object by conceptual thought, then anything mind gives rise to an appearance of as its object of cognition exists simply as what can be labelled by a conceptual thought that labels or ascribes a name to it. It exists simply as what can be apprehended as an object of cognition by the conceptual thought that can conceive of it.” Gelug/ Kagyü Tradition, 153.

Yet Berzin (introducing His Holiness’s commentary) also stresses that we should not mistake the named object for the name itself. Discussing the mind, he writes, “Mind exists by virtue simply of mental labeling. The word ‘simply’ does not imply that the mind is merely the word ‘mind.’ A word signifies a meaning. It is not the same thing as its meaning. Mind can know something, the word ‘mind’ cannot. Nor does ‘simply’ imply that mind only exists when someone actively labels it and says or thinks ‘mind.’ If it did, we would hardly ever have a mind. ‘Simply’ merely excludes there being anything solid or ultimately findable on the side of the mere arising and engaging that renders it ‘mind,’ independently existing on its own. We can say no more” (ibid., 80).

[5] The root text continues:

“Having accustomed yourself like this [to seeing with a correct view], when you subsequently inspect how your mind makes the object of any of your six collections of consciousness appear, [you experience] their bare mode of existence dawning in an exposed, resplendent manner. This is called the essential point of a correct view–recognizing whatever dawns in your mind” (Ibid., 101).

[6] The corresponding root text reads:

“In short, always cultivate your realization by not apprehending things, such as your mind and so forth, [to exist in the manner in which] your mind gives rise to an appearance of [them]. Do this by keeping firm to their actual mode of existence.” See the Dalai Lama, Gelug/Kagyü Tradition, 101.

The Dalai Lama comments: “No matter what apprehending mind and apprehended object our mind produces an occurrence or appearance of, including the mind itself, we do not apprehend them to exist in the manner in which they appear to exist. Their actual mode of existence is that they are devoid of existing as truly and inherently findable. We keep firm to this by always apprehending everything with mindfulness of this fact. In other words, we further cultivate and enhance our conviction in voidness by always remember it no matter what arises to our mind. (Ibid., 333).

Earlier, His Holiness gave detailed meditation instruction on how not to “cling to your own mind”:

“The commonplace nature of mind as a basis for voidness is that it is not established as being any form of physical phenomenon. It is immaterial and has no form. It is a bare absence, like an open space, that can be neither contacted nor touched. Furthermore, mind’s uncontrived or primordial nature is something not obstructed by conceptual thoughts. It allows for an aspect of any object to arise as something known. Through the power of regarding and relying on an aspect of some external object, it allows for a corresponding aspect to arise within. Likewise, without obstruction, mind emanates, projects, or gives rise to various objects it cognizes. When an object, cognitive sensors and consciousness meet together, it allows for an aspect of the object to arise and be known without obstruction. Its nature is mere clarity and awareness. It cannot be extinguished like the dousing of a flame, but is an awareness and clarity that has continuity with no beginning or end….When mind gives rise to a cognition of clarity and awareness having these defining characteristics and appearing to our reflexive pure awareness, we inspect and scrutinize its factors and parts—its basis for labelling. Mind is something that is labeled by relying on its numerous factors and parts. When our mind gives rise to an appearance of mind, it appears as if it were something existing through its own power, by virtue of itself, not dependent on anything other than itself, not needing to rely on any circumstances or conditions in order to establish its existence. The apprehension of it as existing in the manner in which mind fabricates an appearance of it is the apprehension of true and inherent existence focused on mind. The implied object of this apprehension of true and inherent existence—a mind that is actually established as existing as some true and solid reality—is what must be refuted and nullified. Shantideva has explained how to refute and nullify it in Engaging in a Bodhisattva’s Deeds” (ibid., 327–28).

[7] The root text reads,

“In short, always cultivate your realization by not apprehending things, such as your mind and so forth, [to exist in the manner in which] your mind gives rise to an appearance of [them]. Do this by keeping firm to their actual mode of existence. When you cognize [one thing] like this, [you see] the nature of all phenomena of samsara or nirvana as being uniformly the same. Āryadeva has confirmed this point: ‘As has been explained, the way in which [mind] becomes the seer of one functional phenomenon is the way it becomes the seer of everything. The voidness of one thing [suffices for] the voidness of all things’” (ibid., 101).

See also Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise where, in a debate context, he quotes this same verse and comments: “Āryadeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas says that one who knows the emptiness–the lack of inherent existence of one thing can know the emptiness of all phenomena.” The Great Treatise, Volume Three, 304-5.

[8] The Dalai Lama in his commentary on the Paṇchen Losang Chökyi Gyältsen’s Auto-commentary, alerts to the mistaken tendency of regarding the object of negation as something apart or separate from every appearance to which mind gives rise. He gives the example of a person: “Taking our conventionally existent person to be the actual person who exists, in the way our mind gives rise to an appearance of it, as someone solid, able to stand on his or her feet and hold its own, they put such a person aside and do not deconstruct it. They then posit another type of imaginary person separate from this that they conjure with their mind and decisively refute and nullify that such a person, as a basis for voidness, is established as existing truly and inherently. The extensiveness of the range and scope of their refutation is not large enough, and so they fall to the view of eternalism.


Gungtangzang has explained, in one of his Thousands of Songs of Meditative Experience, that if we do not try to poke, with a correct view of voidness, the appearances to which our mind conventionally gives rise, we cannot come to an accurate understanding of the madhyamaka view. In other words, we must involve or engage our understanding of voidness with whatever appearances our mind normally produces of things in each moment, now, and try to dislodge them. We do this by seeing that the mode of existence mind makes appear and implies actually to exist does not exist at all. If we set that fact aside, letting these appearances stand as referring to something real, and engage our understanding of voidness with something else, we cannot come to an accurate understanding of the madhyamaka view. If we have gained an accurate understanding of the madhyamaka view that is exactly to the point, we must experience it unsettling and dislodging the appearances to which our mind normally gives rise.” (ibid., 342-3).

Further to the same point, Lama Yeshe indicates that it is a unique feature of the Mahamudra practice instructions that the student is invited to meditate not on their cushion but out of doors: “Therefore when we give Mahamudra teachings traditionally, instead of sitting inside meditating, the student is outside, just walking, put in the situation so he can experience moment to moment: he captures the thief of the projection of ego. So this time even in session, at break times, you try to just skilfully investigate.” Lama Yeshe, Mahamudra, 23.

[9] Regarding the meaning of the root text, which instructs, “While in a state of total absorption as before, and like a tiny fish flashing about in a lucid pond and not disturbing it, intelligently inspect the self-nature of the person who is meditating,” the Dalai Lama details, “How do we meditate here? While in a state of mind that is totally absorbed on mind, we employ a small part of that mind to inspect and scrutinize, intelligently, learnedly and discerningly, the nature of ourselves as the person or individual who is conventionally ‘me’ and who is focusing with absorbed concentration on mere clarity and awareness. In other words, we supplement our serenely stilled and settled mind with the additional accompanying mental factors of inspection and scrutiny” (ibid., 143–44).


Lama Yeshe likewise observes: “So we contemplate on this clarity experience and then from there sort of move to investigate the wrong view of the ego, how we perceive it. It is like the Panchen Lama in the root text explains that one has to be like a fish. A fish moving without the ocean moving. Similar. When we investigate..the opposite of Mahamudra wisdom we need much contemplation without being distracted. So from the clean clear state of mind, then investigate without the unclear thought coming, So now this is a very important point, a very important point, the first beginning.” Lama Yeshe, Mahamudra, 18. Throughout his powerful experiential commentary, Lama Yeshe repeatedly refers to the “mindfulness fish.” For example: “While we are meditating on the clarity of consciousness remember we talk about the mindfulness fish. All the time keeping ready to capture the conception of the ego” (Ibid, 49).

[10] It would appear that Rinpoche is quickly glossing the last verses of the root text. After explaining how “The voidness of one thing [suffices for] the voidness of all things,” it instructs, “Before the face of proper, total absorption on the actual nature of reality, there is just the severance of fantasized, impossible extremes—namely, inherent, findable existence or total non-existence—with respect to everything of samsara and nirvana. Yet after you arise, when you inspect, you see that your mind again still gives rise to the appearance of things that dependently arise, which do function and can only exist as simply what can be labeled by names. It is unmistakable that such things still naturally dawn, yet they are like dreams, mirages, reflections of the moon in water and illusions” (ibid., 101).

[11] This would seem a case of mistaking the conventional nature (mere clarity and awareness) for the ultimate nature. This, apparently, is not a new problem . Losang Chökyi Gyältsen observes, with more than a touch of humour: “The great meditators of the snow mountains are practically of a single opinion in proclaiming that this is a guidelines indicating how to force a state of Buddhahood. Be that as it may, I Chökyi Gyältsen, say that this is a wondrous skilful means for beginners to accomplish the settling of their mind and is a way that leads you to recognise [merely] the conventional nature of mind that conceals something deeper. As for the methods that can lead you to recognise the actual [deepest] nature of mind, I shall now the personal instructions of m root guru, Sanggya-yeshey, who [as his name literally means] is the embodiment of the Buddha’s deep awareness.” (ibid., 99-100).

The  Dalai Lama also frequently stresses the difference between the conventional and deep/ultimate natures of the mind and that to mistake one for the other is to totally miss the point of what is meant by emptiness. He describes how, while the luminous and knowing nature of the mind does appear empty of color, shape, substance etc., this is not at all what is meant when the Buddha says in a Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra that the mind does not exist: “In the mind, the mind is not to be found; the nature of the mind is clear light.” His Holiness carefully elaborates the meaning of “the mind is not to be found” in terms of indicating how “that luminosity and knowing nature” are “not the mind’s deepest and final nature.” Rather, its “deep nature is a mere emptiness of its own inherent existence.” He continues, “This means that the faulty defilements that pollute the mind—such as ignorance, lust, and hatred—are temporary, and therefore separable from the mind. Once these defilements are understood to be superficial and not in the mind’s basic nature, we see that the deep nature of the mind is clear light, emptiness.” How to Practice, 171–73. For more on this critical point, see the Dalai Lama, Gelug/Kagyü Tradition, 239.

[12] For concise histories of these masters see Keith Dowman, Masters of Mahamudra (Albany: SUNY Press, 1985). See also Willis, Enlightened Beings.

[13] For example, see Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise, Volume Three, 289-308.

[14] “Among the many reasons that induce conviction in voidness, the line of reasoning of dependent arising is the most devastating and important. When we say that phenomena are not established as existing from their own side because they arise dependently, with their existence established by their reliance on serving simply on factors other than themselves–in other words, when we say that objects, which exist inasmuch as their existence is established by their reliance on serving as a basis for the functioning, do not exist with an inherently findable self-nature, precisely because their existence is established simply by their being related to factors other than themselves–we are making a very potent statement. Therefore, dependent arising, as the “king of lines of reasoning” is called “that which eliminates at once the two extreme, impossible modes of existence.” Dalai Lama, Gelug/Kagyü Tradition, 340.






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