While on the one hand, it is said that Mahamudra is a very advanced form of meditation, on the other, if one were already advanced one would not need any instructions. Mahamudra manuals often tend to explain everything step by step as if the reader does not know anything. Obviously then, they are meant for people like us. In the King Doha, Saraha gives a step by step account of the pitfalls a meditation practitioner can fall into and how to avoid them. With a background of practicing extensively in the tantric tradition, he gives his reasons for considering the Mahamudra approach an appropriate path. Based on a commentary by Karma Trinleypa, Traleg Rinpoche gives a straightforward and clear explanation of Saraha's message to us as practitioners of Mahamudra.
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About the Author
Traleg Kyabgon (1955–2012) was the founder of the Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute, which is headquartered in Melbourne, with a major practice center in upstate New York and a practice community in New York City. He taught extensively at universities and Buddhist centers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia, and is the author of such books as Essence of Buddhism and Karma: What It Is, What It Isn't, Why It Matters.
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OVERVIEW OF MAHAMUDRA
Buddhism: More than One Approach
Sometimes people think of Mahamudra practice as too esoteric and profound to be practiced by those who are not experienced meditators. From my point of view, though, that's not the right attitude to take. As a practice, Mahamudra is presented gradually. The traditional manuals even teach us how to settle the mind through shamatha (Skt.). This in itself implies the intended recipients are not particularly advanced. If they were, one would hope this would be something they would already be familiar with.
Mahamudra teachings are designed for all of us who want to learn something about ourselves and how to deal with our experiences. They are about learning how to be, in fact, which is what Mahamudra puts emphasis on. Mahamudra meditation is like other forms of meditation insofar as it teaches how to settle the mind, but Mahamudra teachings, and Dzogchen teachings, for that matter, are quite unique.
They are unique in that they teach us to settle the mind in terms of how to be, as opposed to what to do. A lot of Buddhist teaching is about what to do and what not to do — you do this, you don't do that, you refrain from this, you engage in that — and if you do this, you will become holy, you will be doing something that other people are not doing. In many ways Buddhism has always taught people to go against the grain. The whole notion of going against samsara is like that. Everybody is immersed in samsara, so anyone who dares to go against samsara is going against the grain, against the mainstream, against what is acceptable and regarded as worth pursuing by most people.
When Buddhism says we become holy through the cultivation of certain virtues, even that is a form of rebellion. It involves non-acceptance of what is normally regarded as the good thing to do. In Mahamudra though, notions of what to accept and what to reject, what to cultivate and what not to cultivate are not encouraged as much. Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings are not simply about what to do or not do, but, as mentioned earlier, about learning how to be.
Generally in Buddhist history, three different kinds of techniques are mentioned in terms of what we should do: renunciation, purification, and transformation. Then there is self-liberation. Self-liberation teaches us how to be — in ourselves, with ourselves — and how to be friendly with the whole gamut of our experiences. Even if an experience is disturbing, we just try to be friendly with it. We try to be with it rather than thinking, "I have to do something, I have to renounce this" or "I have to purify it" or "I have to transform it."
With the idea of renunciation, Buddhism teaches us to renounce bad thoughts, bad emotions, bad attitudes, and bad habits and replace them with good thoughts, good emotions, and good habits. We renounce, we give up and, in order to do that, Buddhism even teaches us to avoid circumstances and situations that may give rise to bad thoughts, bad emotions, and bad feelings. This is why some people become celibate or go into retreat. It is thought that by removing yourself from situations that give rise to strong emotions, you could feel better and give yourself the opportunity to understand how you become entrapped in delusory, samsaric states and how delusory, samsaric experiences are perpetuated.
Renunciation is one technique we can practice and there is no doubt that it can work. Then there is the technique of purification. This approach suggests, for example, that we don't really have to try to avoid everything we desire. Instead, we look at the nature of the things we desire and, in doing so, purify them. We see that it is not just the things themselves that draw us in but, rather, it is our belief that the things we desire have some kind of intrinsic reality that is the issue.
We tend to think that if we possess this or that thing, we are going to "be somebody" or that as a person we are going to be enriched. Conversely, by not having them, we tend to think we are less of a person. Realizing that whatever we desire has no intrinsic reality in itself releases us from that obsession. Then if we have what we desire it's great, but if we don't, that's okay too. Instead of thinking, "I should not desire these things, I shouldn't have them; the less desire I have the better I will become as a person," one thinks, "even if I have these things, as long as I realize they are just things and do not have any intrinsic worth, that is okay." In other words, they have what in Buddhism is called "relative worth." We see that, relatively speaking, some things are worth more than others but they do not possess the intrinsic worth we attribute to them. That is called purification. We understand these things are in themselves shunya (Skt.) or empty. A particular thing is worth something or other based on other things, not because of anything intrinsic to it.
Even though this may seem a simple idea, it is not. Purification, in this sense, means purified by the understanding of shunyata (Skt.) or emptiness. If you think carefully about it, this really is very profound. It's as if our mind is designed to latch onto things and say, "this is real," but whatever we attribute to any particular thing or situation or event is just that, an attribution. Nothing in itself has any worth. This is so in terms of what we are doing, what we are trying to achieve, and also what we possess, what we are trying to accumulate.
To give an example, inflation shows very clearly that our money has no intrinsic worth because inflation and deflation dictate its value. Even without Buddhist education, we know money doesn't have intrinsic worth; it is only worth whatever it is worth depending upon context, depending upon other considerations. The notion we are discussing is the same. "Purification" means we understand that.
Then, as Mahayana Buddhism tells us, we can actually dance with life a little more. Even in terms of money, we may in fact become more skillful at handling it because we are not so obsessed with its intrinsic reality. We develop a flexible way of looking at things, and being fluid in terms of how we work with things is always a good thing.
The next approach, transformation, is practiced in Tantrism. Tantrism is the Buddhist form of esotericism. Transformation is not only about seeing things in terms of relationships and interdependence, but also seeing how something that may appear really bad or repulsive or disgusting can be turned into something positive, something good, something helpful. For example, in Tantrism we try to transform what we call the five poisons into five wisdoms. So, excessive desire, anger, jealousy, pride, and ignorance can be transformed into discriminating wisdom, mirror-like wisdom, wisdom of accomplishment, wisdom of equanimity, and wisdom of the natural state. The five poisons are transformed into five wisdoms because it is not by renunciation or purification but through transformation that we attain our true selfhood.
Whether you believe it or not, in Buddhism we actually try to attain our own true selfhood. Many people tend to think Buddhism teaches selflessness, so it follows that as Buddhists we are trying to become nothing, nobody, a form of self-extinction. That is a total misunderstanding of what Buddhism is teaching. The notion of self-transformation is emphasized precisely because of that. If there were no "self" to transform, why would we bother? Who would there be to be transformed? Even the notions of renunciation and purification wouldn't make any sense if we really believed there was nobody home. We are trying to really find ourselves and we want to achieve liberation, as we say in Buddhism. We want to find freedom.
Freedom is valued only because there is somebody who is going to benefit from achieving that freedom. If there is nobody who will achieve anything from being free, then what is the point in aiming towards freedom? It would be better to be in bondage than to be free. We seek freedom because we think that if we achieve freedom, liberation, nirvana, then we will be in a different state to what we are in now, that's the key.
Self-transformation also emphasizes that point, but in a different way from the approach of renunciation or purification. We are not saying, "I don't want to be angry, I don't want to be lustful"; we are saying that through lust, through anger we will transform ourselves. We do that by the use of extreme forms of imaginative exercises. We become angrier than we can even imagine. We become more lustful than we can even imagine ourselves being. We manifest ourselves as a wrathful deity wearing a necklace of severed heads and drinking blood from a skull-cup. I am not exaggerating. Instead of restraining ourselves, we are unleashed and give expression to all of our hidden passions. But it is done in a totally symbolic and imaginative way, so nobody is actually harmed. In other words, we give expression to our hidden passions.
Sometimes, as we know, holding things back and repressing them in fact makes us worse; aggression will still come out, and all our hidden passions will find their way out somehow, have an adverse effect on things, and may even hurt people.
Tantric practices are done in such a manner as to use these unbridled emotions and feelings and galvanize that energy for a purpose, for real transformation. We become a different person and are able to give expression to them without doing any harm; instead, benefit is gained from having given expression to these emotions. That is the secret tantric method. The reason it is called secret is because it is a dangerous method to use. Here we shall be talking about the method of self-liberation which is at least easier to discuss, even though it is very profound.
In Mahamudra, the approach is called self-liberation, rangdröl, in Tibetan. It is not the approach of renunciation, purification, or transformation that we have been talking about. Rang means self and dröl means liberation, so the simplest translation for rangdröl is self-liberation.
What this means is that we should just try to be ourselves in the most fundamental sense. It doesn't mean taking a stance, as some people think it does, along the lines of, "I am just an angry bastard, accept me as I am." That is not the Mahamudra approach. Mahamudra instead refers to having a much more fundamental sense of being in our totality or, in other words, being a total person. If we can be with ourselves, then we can have some experience of self-liberation.
We are always thinking such things as, "I need to do something," or, "I need to achieve something." Even when we do meditation, we think like that. We think things like, "Every time I sit, my mind is all over the place," or, "When I first started meditating, I was a bit better, I found some kind of mental equilibrium, but it didn't last." We may even think, "The more I sit, the more agitated my mind becomes, so my meditation is not working." Even with simple things like that, Mahamudra teachings say it is exactly the kind of thing we should be working with. Just seeing that in itself is meditation; we don't actually have to do something to change it.
A lot of emphasis is put on recognizing, seeing. If we recognize or see something happening inside us, we are already meditating. If we don't recognize, if we don't see, we are not meditating. It is not the state of mind or the quality of the experience that determines whether we are in Mahamudra meditation or not, but whether we actually see what is going on so that whatever we experience can be self-liberated. Good experience, bad experience, neutral experience — everything can be self-liberated, and that is the key. If we approach our experience this way, we learn how to bring our state of being and experience together — being and the experience. Otherwise we think of experience and being in a totally separate way.
We think we have to look for experiences and that experience is something outside of our being. We may think that if we find certain experiences, then these might allow us to find our own state of being. What Mahamudra says, however, is that if we allow ourselves to be in our own state of being, our primordial state of experience will arise.
In Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings we talk about primordial experience and the primordial state of being coming together, prior to any specific experience. I suppose you could say our potential for having all kinds of experiences is the primordial experience. That is the level of experience that we work with in Mahamudra. This is the one experience which gives rise to all experiences but is not confined to any one particular experience. It is unconditioned experience which is, as sometimes stated, all-encompassing.
When we have that kind of experience, we do not get all worked up about "our experiences." As is said in the teachings, any experience we have is seen in a very fundamental sense as a good experience; even a bad experience is seen as a good. This doesn't mean in the sense of seeing it as a good experience as opposed to a bad experience, but as something beyond. The Mahamudra experience leads us to having that experience which is beyond thinking, "Oh, this is a really wonderful experience" or "this is a horrible experience." With any experience we have, while recognizing it as a good or a bad one, we still have another experience that we would not normally have. That is called self-liberation.
Practicing Mahamudra does not mean we become totally idiotic. It's not that we end up being unable to judge whether something is good or bad, or pleasant or unpleasant. We also don't start thinking, "Oh, this is so painful, I am so great," in a masochistic way.
We don't stop thinking something is good or something is bad, but we are less fixated, we grasp at these things less. Good experiences are already good, so we don't have to worry about them, but bad experiences also do not render us hapless and hopeless. We don't become obsessive about them, bogged down, or thrown into a deep depression where we despair and feel sorry for ourselves and think we are the worst person on the planet.
How to experience things primordially is a very valuable lesson to learn, and we don't have that normally. Our experiences don't get self-liberated because of fixation or obsession. Obsession and fixation are what bind us, entrap us, and keep us from reaching liberation. This is why even good experiences stop being good. Instead of thinking, "Oh, that was a great thing" and enjoying it, and then using that to further our future experiences and bring more joy and enrichment to our lives, we start thinking, "It didn't last, it disappeared, I'll never have that kind of experience again, what a miserable person I am for letting that go." Our life then gets worse by the minute because of our fixation and grasping.
Primordial experience means not doing that kind of thing. Then any kind of experience we have can be self-liberated. We then say things like: unitive experience of bliss and emptiness, appearance and emptiness, and luminosity and emptiness. With the approach of self-liberation, the whole gamut of our experiences can be primordially experienced through these modes: as appearance and emptiness, as bliss and emptiness, as luminosity and emptiness.
Bliss and emptiness experience, for example, doesn't have to do with having some wonderful experience. One can have a painful experience and still primordially experience it as bliss and emptiness or as appearance and emptiness or as luminosity and emptiness.
Contrasting the path of liberation with the path of method
At times the path of liberation, drölam (Tib.), is contrasted with and also paired with another approach called thaplam (Tib.), which means the path of method. Mahamudra teaches the path of liberation. The tantric practices of transformation as practiced in the Highest Yoga Tantra are the Six Dharmas Naropa employed and they teach the path of method, transformation. The tantric Six Dharmas of Naropa are illusory body yoga, mystic heat yoga, dream yoga, clear light, the transference of consciousness, and the practice of intermediate stage, the bardo.
In the Highest Yoga Tantra, using the path of method, one can also attain Mahamudra. The aim of Highest Yoga Tantric practice is to realize Mahamudra. The route taken to reach Mahamudra is however different to taking Mahamudra itself as the path to liberation. The difference lies in how one practices shamatha and vipashyana (Skt.) meditation. In Tantrism, Mahamudra is attained through engaging in tantric yogic practices such as mystic heat yoga. By mixing the male and female life essences and so forth, one attains the realization of mind's own innate luminosity or "clear light," thus leading to the realization of Mahamudra. In this particular context, though, we are speaking about Mahamudra in terms of Mahamudra as path to liberation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "King Doha"
Copyright © 2018 Felicity Lodro.
Excerpted by permission of Shogam Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche x
Biography of Author xiii
Editor's Introduction xviii
Editor's Biography xxiii
Introductory Remarks xxiv
Overview of Mahamudra
Buddhism: More Than One Approach 1
Contrasting the path of liberation with the path of method 9
Establishing the View 10
Combining paying attention with remembrance 10
Understanding the mind 11
Adopting an uncontrived approach 11
Learning how to simply be 12
Having confidence that buddha is no other 13
Being in the state of authenticity 14
Understanding the different aspects of the mind 14
Appreciating what meditation is about 15
Working with the three aspects of the mind: nature, essence, and characteristic 18
Appreciating mind's creative energy 19
Not battling thoughts 20
Being skillful 22
Realizing the ground is the fruit 23
The Path: Shamatha and Vipashyana 24
Letting go of the running commentary 25
Maintaining awareness whether the mind is stable or in movement 26
Strengthening awareness 28
The insights of vipashyana 30
(i) Seeing all appearances as mind 30
(ii) Seeing mind's nature as emptiness 33
(iii) Seeing emptiness as spontaneously-established phenomena 34
(iv) Seeing spontaneously-established phenomena as self-liberated 35
The non-separability of appearance and reality 36
Shamatha and vipashyana combined 39
Maintaining the Mahamudra Attitude 40
Correcting mistaken ideas about objects 40
Correcting mistaken ideas about time 41
Correcting mistaken ideas about the essence 42
Correcting mistaken ideas about the nature 44
Correcting mistaken ideas about knowledge 45
Maintaining our sense of basic confidence 46
Experiences and Realization 48
The three different kinds of meditative experiences 49
Understanding bliss 49
Understanding clarity 51
Understanding non-conceptuality 52
The four stages of realization in Mahamudra 55
Saraha's King Doha
Part 1 How We Have Gone Astray 63
Part 2 How We Can Rectify the Situation 68
Part 3 Preparing to Restore Our Natural State-Overcoming Fixation 73
Part 4 Determining the Significance of the Path 79
Part 5 Discarding Attachments to Mistaken Paths 98
Part 6 Explaining the Mahamudra Method 111
Part 7 Result 119
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche's Concluding Remarks 123