The Tantric journey

The meditation we did in that last article — Highest Yoga Tantra: the quick path to enlightenment — was to provide a taste of what we can expect in Highest Yoga Tantra, where we purify our mind at its deepest level.

If everything is the nature of our mind, and we can gain the experience that everything is the nature of our very subtle mind of great bliss, then it follows that everything will be exceedingly blissful day and night in life after life.

To understand how everything can be a manifestation of great bliss, we need to understand the different levels of our mind. Then we need to know how to manifest and use our very subtle mind. This is where Highest Yoga Tantra really comes into its own.

Buddha didn’t talk about levels of mind in Sutra. If we practice Sutra alone, we’ll gain all the realizations of Sutra, including emptiness, with our normal waking awarenesses. In Highest Yoga Tantra, we learn to realize emptiness and everything else with our very subtle mind, the so-called “clear light of bliss”.

The different levels of mind

In the modern materialistic world, it is generally assumed that reality is what we experience when we are wide awake – at that time we are considered to be in tune with reality, whereas when we’re dreaming everything is highly subjective and not real at all.

This is because most people don’t know much if anything about their deeper levels of mind or awareness. Our waking mind is the grossest level of our mind and, as it happens, the most dualistic and mistaken. All those solid real things appearing to it right now don’t exist at all; these are just mistaken appearances. Therefore, our waking mind is, in important ways, our least reliable mind. It is also just as subjective as our dreaming mind. And our dreaming mind is also unreliable, as we know already. It turns out that the only mind we can fully trust is our very subtle mind.

This is all explained succinctly and powerfully in How to Understand the Mind:

The gross mind 

During our waking life we normally use gross minds such as our eye awareness through which we can see things, ear awareness through which we can hear sounds, nose awareness through which we can smell, tongue awareness through which we can taste, body awareness through which we can experience tactile objects, and mental awareness through which we strongly think ‘I’ and ‘mine’. These awarenesses are gross minds because they are relatively easy to recognize. Without these awarenesses we cannot communicate with others and we cannot perform our daily activities.

We must be awake to do most things at the moment! And so must all the other people around us. We can only get our to-do list done and communicate with each other while using our grosser levels of awareness. However, as Geshe Kelsang says, all these awarenesses, even the good ones, are mistaken awarenesses!

What is mistaken about them?

They perceive inherently existent objects, which do not exist, and therefore they cause us to experience suffering.

And there you have it. Nothing is really there but it appears to be. Right now we have little choice but to use our gross waking minds, and yet they are all mistaken in this way, which leads directly and indirectly to our daily suffering. So that sucks.

For example, when our mental awareness thinks ‘I’ or ‘me’ through perceiving either our body or mind, we mistakenly perceive our body or mind to be our self.

Although we perceive it (or appear it), there is no self anywhere to be found in our body or our mind. Right now, for example, as you read this, you can ask yourself, “Who is sitting here reading this?” Ans: “I am.” That me or I seems to be sitting right here reading. But if we go looking for this I, we will not find it anywhere either in our body sitting here or in our mind comprehending what we are reading, or in the combination of the two. This searching and not finding is the meditation on the emptiness or true nature of things.

However, if we don’t go looking for it, our self will continue to appear to exist somewhere within our body and mind, and:

Because of this when our body is sick we think ‘I am sick’, when our body is old we think ‘I am old’, and when our mind “experiences suffering or pain we think ‘I am suffering’ or ‘I am in pain.’

There is no I there, but we believe there is, so our waking mind is in a constant state of hallucination! Is it any wonder we experience one pain after another? As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:

We experience suffering and problems throughout our life and in life after life without end.

If all our waking minds are mistaken awarenesses, then definitely we are not tuned into reality when we are awake. We all keep trying to make this work, to find real happiness within this hallucination. But we can’t. Grasping at it produces more and more delusion, contaminated karma, and suffering — samsara just gets longer. As Geshe Kelsang says:

This is our normal painful situation. Understanding this we should develop renunciation, the sincere wish to liberate ourself permanently from this hallucination by realizing the true nature of things, the emptiness of all phenomena.

The subtle mind

Dream minds are called subtle minds because they are difficult to recognize and to use.

During sleep while we are dreaming we use subtle minds such as our dream eye awareness, ear awareness, nose awareness, tongue awareness, body awareness and mental awareness, through which we experience the appearance of various kinds of dream things. All these appearances are mistaken appearances.

It’s hard for us to keep any mindfulness together when we’re dreaming, which explains why our dreams are so weird, except while they’re happening when they seem completely normal. That’s the point – we don’t usually know we’re dreaming and so we just believe it’s all happening and go along with it, even when the story line is totally random and things are popping up all over the place. With no mindfulness we cannot keep the plot together for any length of time at all.

We have the same reactions and delusions in our dreams as when we’re awake because the ignorance is the same — asleep or awake, we believe that what we’re seeing has nothing to do with our mind, that it is out there, really happening. However, we only notice our mistake and feel somewhat foolish once we wake up.

Eyes wide open  

Recently, I’ve been helping care for someone dementia. He has periods of lucidity when he knows moreorless what is going on and what things are, and periods of dullness and confusion when he might think the bed is the chair or not recognize his surroundings, “I am in someone else’s house.” Over the months and years that this dementia has been growing, I have several times tried to get to the bottom of how he feels and, as I suspected, when he is not lucid he fees as if he is asleep and dreaming, even though he is wandering around with his eyes open. “I haven’t woken up yet”, he says, whilst trying to navigate the room. At those times we have far less shared reality, so it is harder to converse or get him to follow simple instructions, and he panics more easily.

I have been thinking that we are all a bit like that – sometimes we’re lucid, but sometimes we feel dull, out of it, half-asleep, or perhaps day-dreaming, and just want to be left alone.

I have also been thinking that even when we are lucid, it is still only a relative lucidity. Our delusions are still relating to things that are not actually there! When we get angry, for example, the inherently unpleasant person we’re angry with doesn’t exist at all, no more than the chair as a bed – we too are in our own private fantasy. When we develop non-deluded minds such as compassion, things are still appearing as real, ie, we still have mistaken appearances. However, we are not apprehending or believing these inherently existent things, which is a huge improvement that’s taking us in the right direction.

The only true lucidity is when we know we are hallucinating.

No real meaning

Geshe Kelsang then says something a little bit devastating:

Because the appearances in our dreams and during our waking life are all mistaken appearances and hallucinations, our normal activities both in dreams and while we are awake have no real meaning.

Hang on a minute! No real meaning?!!! That’s a bit strong! Can it be true?

Let’s say we have a dream where we believe it’s all happening and we do lots of activities, really thinking we are going places – travelling, getting things done, meeting people, having a rich full life. Then we wake up.

Where did that go?! And where is the meaning in it?

It is the same with this waking life. We run around all our life going places trying to get things done. Then we die, and all these appearances dissolve away. (They even dissolve away each night when we fall asleep.) Why do they disappear? Because, however real they seemed, they were only ever appearances to begin with.

This is not to say we should just give up and be lazy and not bother being kind, etc. If we do good things in our dreams, for example, we will experience a happier more harmonious life and create good karma. Karma is definite precisely because everything is empty of independent existence and therefore totally dependent-related – being kind to others will result in happiness and being cruel will not. Therefore, if we don’t want to suffer, we have to observe the laws of karma.

So, what we do is not completely meaningless – that is not what’s being said here. Because our normal activities do have relative meaning, practicing the method teachings such as compassion, moral discipline, faith and all the rest will make our life meaningful and joyful. More about that here. However, our normal activities have no real meaning because we keep buying into something that just isn’t there.

If our normal activities in dreams and while we are awake have no real meaning, where does that leave us?!

It leaves us with the need to learn how to use our very subtle mind as explained in Highest Yoga Tantra.

Out of time, hoping to carry on in the next article … comments and questions welcome below!

Just a couple of practical points before you go …

I’ve been writing these recent articles in preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra Festival coming up in two short weeks. The empowerments of Heruka and Vajrayogini take place from Friday to Sunday at 4 set times, so people will have to carve out the weekend to attend. They are also longer than other Tantric empowerments, with no intervals, so best not to plan lunch in the middle. And, while this may sound obvious, given our (my!) increasingly casual approach to livestream events, I think we’ll get the most out of these precious empowerments if we approach them with a more mindful mindset and planning to be as undisturbed as possible. The subsequent commentaries are available to view more at our leisure as needs be over the next couple of weeks.

Related articles 

Find all the articles on Tantra in one place

What is life according to Buddha?

samsara's oceanWe can start the meditation on the mind, as mentioned here, just by watching the cloud-like thoughts come and go within the clear sky-like mind, without reacting or intruding or indeed thinking them through. Our mind may not seem much like a clear sky to begin with – it may indeed feel totally overcast, with no glimpses of clarity – but we just watch the clouds scud by. Then we can come to observe what is beneath those scudding thoughts, asking, “Where is each thought coming from? Where is it going to? What is it? Where is it? What is that space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?”

(I am carrying on from this article.)

Once we are through to the clarity of our mind at the level of our heart, we think that we are meditating on our root mind, our deepest level of consciousness, also known as our “very subtle mind”.

No matter how good or not we are at this meditation, we can always create very special causes by thinking that we are meditating on our root mind itself. As Geshe Kelsang said in 2000 (and it also comes up in his new ear-whispered Oral Instructions of Mahamudra):

We don’t need to expect quick results. Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. We will get closer and closer. In reality this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.heart chakra 2

If you get a chance to sit down with the chapter on “The Gross, Subtle and Very Subtle Minds” in How to Understand the Mind, please do, as it is quite — for want of a better word — mind-blowing. As for our very subtle mind, also descriptively known as our “continuously residing mind”, Geshe Kelsang says in this book:

Without the very subtle mind we would have no life because our gross and subtle minds cannot hold our life. This is because they are only temporary minds, and very unstable.

They are like the waves on the ocean, where the root mind is the ocean itself. Or like the clouds in the sky, where the root mind is the sky itself.

Therefore only our very subtle mind holds our life continuously throughout the day and night, and in life after life until we become an enlightened Buddha. ~ How to Understand the Mind

“Almost mind”

There is more philosophical stuff coming up in this and future articles, but really the meditation on the mind should be done in the spirit of relaxed experimentation. We’re not pushing for a result or an insight, but allowing our own simple observation of our thoughts and what is appearing to those thoughts to improve our understanding of the nature of the mind and its objects.

So in this meditation we are meditating on the conventional nature of the mind, but also indirectly gaining a deeper insight into ultimate truth, emptiness, by seeing the interdependence of perceiver and perceived; that we can’t have one without the other. Thoughts and their objects are not identical, but they depend on each other, and you cannot separate them out.

The clarity of mind is the basis for perceptions AND their objects. A mountain, for example, is form, not clarity itself; but it is also not other than that clarity.
elephant in dreamTake dreaming. We know that an elephant in a dream is not the mind, or clarity, itself, as it is grey and big whereas the mind is colorless and shapeless. However, it is also not other than clarity. It is not outside the mind. It is mere aspect of clarity, mere appearance of mind.

One way we can know this is because when the dreaming mind dreaming the elephant ceases, so does the elephant. That’s the only reason the elephant ceases, according to Geshe Kelsang in How to Understand the Mind. Only mind has that power.

In the same way, waking objects are all mere aspects of the minds that perceive them. Although forms and so on are not mind itself, they are “almost mind”, Geshe Kelsang has taught.

Karmic movie

When we did the meditation mentioned at the beginning of this article, we began by watching our thoughts. This is rather as if we are watching a karmic movie – wave after wave of appearance arising from the winds of karma blowing on the ocean of the root mind. Through this simple observation, it looks like we are already improving our wisdom.

Once we have a feeling of watching the karmic movie, we move to the clarity. We don’t force it or hold onto a dry, intellectual image, but observe that it is our actual mind that is clarity.

If we allow all our wave-like thoughts to dissolve into the clarity of our mind, all the objects of those thoughts also disappear. They have no life of their own, they cannot exist without being apprehended. When we develop deep concentration on the clarity of our mind, everything dissolves away into it.

The ocean analogy can really help this happen – wave-like thoughts arise from the root mind and they also dissolve back, we can actually observe this. We get a feeling for the waves returning to their source, rather than trying to hold a hard generic, or mental, image of a clear mind.

Appearances don’t obstruct the clarity because they are aspects of clarity. For example, the sound of a bird appearing to the clarity of ear awareness is not other than clarity itself. It is not outside it.

A wave is just the ocean making itself known.

By the end of our meditation on the mind, all appearances have settled into our root mind like waves settling into the ocean, and we focus on the clarity, which is the main object of meditation.

Inner luminosity

Instead of staying endlessly preoccupied with the most superficial of appearances, in this meditation on the mind we can learn to recognize instead the inner luminosity that allows us to experience everything, which is always present and always accessible. Only our mind is “clear enough to perceive objects”, as Geshe Kelsang has said. It is animation itself. It is life.

(And, mind-boggling as it may seem to us at the moment, once this mind is no longer obstructed by delusions and their imprints through the practice of Dharma, we will know everything simultaneously and directly; we will be omniscient.)

life after deathAs mentioned, whenever there is an appearance – eg, a memory, or a feeling, or a physical sensation — there is a mind to which it is appearing that is the same nature as that appearance. We try to see that the mind itself is the cognizer; we are aware of the cognizer. We can see ourselves how it is formless. Experientially, it is observed to be rather like an inner empty space with the power to perceive.

This is proof enough that the mind is not the body and, indeed, as a formless continuum it will go to future lives – we don’t need to debate whether or not the mind is the brain as it clearly is not. It’s enough to gain at least some understanding of past and future lives. As Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind page 6:

Through understanding the nature and function of the mind correctly, we can understand that our mind is completely different from our body, and this proves that, after our death, although our body will cease the mind will not.

Life continues through and after the death of our meaty body, as life is mind. So, if our body ends today, where will our mind and all its experiences be tomorrow? Today might be a good day to think about this, before that tomorrow is upon us!

Meditation on clarity and non-duality

Right now, reading this, what is the consciousness you are having of your screen, or the room around you? That consciousness is not physical. You cannot see it with your eyes or with any physical instrument, however subtle. You cannot touch it, you cannot sit on it, you cannot photograph it, you cannot reproduce it, you cannot measure it, etc.

(I’m carrying on from this article.)

universal love 1Try this brief experiment if you like: close your eyes and generate the wish, “How wonderful it would be if everyone was happy and had the causes of happiness!” Hold that thought.

Got that? Now ask, still with your eyes closed: “What is that wish? Where is it? Is it physical or is it non-physical? Is it in my body? My brain? Or does it feel like a different entity, a different dimension?”

That was universal love. (Nice job! Shows it is possible for us to develop that precious wish if we just put our mind to it and, through training, deepen and expand it.)

And for the purposes of this meditation, we can observe clearly that this love was not physical – it had no shape, color, size, location … It was clear awareness, a different entity to the body, and somehow both nowhere and everywhere.

No expectations

Another good way to get to the clarity of the mind is just to observe our thoughts for a while and then ask: “What is that thought? Where is it?” Or “What is that perception of the sound? Where is it?” We are not going to find it anywhere in the physical world, are we? We meditate on that awareness itself, which is clarity.

We let that clarity dissolve into the clarity of the root mind where it came from, and come to feel that we are meditating on the root mind at the heart.

“When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick. Every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.” ~ Milarepa

If, while meditating on our root mind, we hear the sound of a car, we can ask ourselves: “Is that sound of the car inside my mind or outside my mind?” Up until now, if we find we get distracted in our meditations, it could be because of our instant assumption that it’s out there, and I either like it or don’t like it. There’s an instant narrative based on duality and separation: “I have time to go out shopping in my own car later. Which reminds me, I am out of ketchup. Oh, and darn, my Florida driving license has expired!” Or, “It’s so noisy here! How am I ever supposed to get good at meditating?” etc. Or the person next to us shuffles around and it takes us outwards instantly to the time they annoyed us earlier, and reminds us that, oh yes, this person is proving to be a cause of irritation in my life, and now would be a good time to plot a way to get rid of them. We spend most of our life caught up in these narratives. “Elaborations” is the word Buddha used.

I used to do this clarity of mind meditation a lot on the beach when I lived in Florida. To begin with, I’d hear a crunch and my mind would immediately be after it, going out to the sound and creating a narrative, so, so fast. How big is that dog? Where is he? What’s he up to? Is he coming over here? I wonder what he looks like.” Sometimes I’d make myself so curious that I’d open my eyes to peep, and every time the appearance was completely different to my distracted imaginings.

This was illuminating as I realized that I was doing that all the time with everything. Living in an hallucination that is appearing as if outside my mind, and as if it’s really happening; but I created it and now I’m stuck in it. I’m craving certain bits and rejecting others, and getting depressed, then excited, then depressed again. There’s a lot of inappropriate attention. But it’s a dream. And once we realize it’s a dream we’re free. We’re free to create our dream, the dream of enlightenment.

In the meditation, once we feel we are in our heart, we recognize simply that we are experiencing our own mind, clarity: an inner empty space that always lacks form and is the basis for perceiving objects. We abide with it. Then when we get distracted, we ask “What is it that is aware?” Don’t run after the object, don’t go out. Let your thoughts dissolve inwards. We let the wave-like or bubble-like thoughts dissolve back into their own clarity, with no fighting. It is so relaxing, such a relief.

Don’t be perfectionist

I beseech you, when doing this meditation on clarity, please do not be perfectionist. “I’ve tried this already, I know what’s coming, I’m going to fail. I am a failure. Thanks a lot!” One of the biggest obstacles to any meditation is perfectionism. This basically means grasping at results — having an idea of what we SHOULD be experiencing and then being unhappy with what we ARE experiencing.

In this meditation we have to be in the moment, very present, moment by moment; and within that, stop having the idea that I should be experiencing an inner empty space devoid of thoughts and appearances, vast, peaceful, spacious, joyful etc., but instead I am experiencing a mass of confusion! It’s all grey! I can’t do this meditation! That’s like saying I should just be experiencing light but all I’m experiencing is a bunch of trees with light on them. See the point?

blue sky with cloudsWe can use analogies both to get a feel for our mind and to stop us struggling with our distractions, eg, a crystal clear sky or a boundless ocean. Then we are not pushing thoughts out of our head but just letting them dissolve – we are not bothered after all by clouds drifting across an empty sky or water bubbling up in a blissful clear ocean. We know there is nowhere else for these to go, so we let them be, pay them no heed, and let them dissipate or pop themselves. We don’t push in this meditation — we just let thoughts go. We drop them. Pay them no attention and they naturally dissolve back. If we are not thinking them, thoughts disappear.

With our thoughts we create our world

Our mind creates everything – we come to see this in the meditation. Normally we are so busy focusing on objects rather than thoughts that we don’t realize how creative our thoughts actually are! We are so conditioned to assuming that the world we created with our thoughts has nothing to do with us — it is just there and we bump into it. Shifting our focus from the perceived to the perceiver, from the object of consciousness to consciousness itself, really gives us a feeling for how our mind is the creator of everything, including the mind itself.

If we understand the power of our mind, we can see how we need to exert control over it as it can and does take us in any direction, including to immense suffering. Examples of the destructive power of uncontrolled minds, anger for example, can be seen every day, eg, in the 254 mass shootings there have been in this country just this year alone. There is crazy stuff going on all over the world, all the time.

Instead of continually changing externals, we have to understand that we need to change the mind and then help everyone else do the same – otherwise, this world will remain an out of control reflection of out of control minds.dreamscape

That power of the mind is the most powerful force there is. The deeper we go into this meditation, the more we understand through our own experience that everything is created by the mind. Everything is the nature of the mind, which means there is nothing outside the mind. We cannot find anything outside the mind. This is why one of the benefits of this meditation is to set us up for the experience of emptiness — not just of the mind, but also in general.

If you are in any doubt about the creative power of your mind, just consider what you did last night. In your dream, you created a whole world. You didn’t even realize you were doing it at the time — in fact you assumed the dream world was outside your mind and reacted accordingly. But it was always projected by your own mind. In the same way, if you were to look now, you could not find anything outside of your experience of your world, for example your own experience of sitting here reading this blog.

The other day in the Denver Botanical Gardens I was looking at reflections in a lake (pictured) and asking myself: “Where is that reflection of the sky? Inside the lake or outside?”  It seemed that the sky reflected was not other than the clarity of the lake reflecting it.

From the lake’s perspective, the sky is already there – so there is no need to go out to it.reflections

Is the object we hanker after inside our mind or outside? And after all, who else even has exactly the same reflection in their lake-like mind, and therefore the exact same hankerings? Seeing everything as the nature of the mind is an effective way to reduce attachment (see what Geshe Kelsang says about the Chittamatrins in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.) We already have what we need inside the mind so there is no need to go chasing it somewhere else where it isn’t. We can, if we are skillful, even use our worldly pleasures to stimulate bliss, which was already and always will be inside the mind, not outside.

If we think we can find the object of attachment outside the mind, we can always go looking for it, as in the meditation on emptiness, more coming later.

What’s the point of rearranging the screen?

This meditation helps us understand the futility of putting all our energy into externals when the world is not outside our mind. The world is a projection of our conceptual thoughts, mere imputation – putting all our efforts into changing it outside is a bit like getting up during a movie and trying to rearrange the actors on the screen. To clean up our world, we need finally to clean up the projector of our mind, change the movie reel. Of course we can still DO things – the definition of a person is to create actions and experience their effects, and our actions are mental, verbal, and physical. But what is going on in our mind is key.

Next installment here.