To think or not to think. Is that the question?
Already in India, the teaching styles of Mahāmudrā were quite diverse. There is a bewildering multitude of terminology like “mental inactivity” (yid la mi byed pa), “innate yoga” (lhan cig skyes sbyor), “ordinary consciousness” (tha mal gyi shes pa), or “natural mind” (gnyug ma[ʼi sems]). This posting will look at some aspects of the “natural mind” in Gampopa’s writings. We will see that, like the innate yoga, the natural mind practice uses thoughts for realizing the dharmakāya, yet it seems that it does so (at least at Gampopa’s time) in a more radical way. Future research may show that subsequent masters like Jigten Sumgön might have combined both into a single approach.
However, before I investigate Gampopa’s instructions on the matter, I would like to make a few remarks about translating esoteric instructions. My main point is that there is something not right when the terminology of such instructions is treated as if we are reading a philosophical debate or a more systematized form of a text. Esoteric instructions in the Kagyüpa tradition, especially those pointing out the nature of the mind or teaching mahāmudrā practice, are often spontaneously spoken words recorded by disciples or sketchy notes that reply to questions from disciples. Sometimes they are delivered in the form of poetry or song. Characteristic for them is the use of colorful metaphorical language (“space,” “light,” etc.), sometimes in the form of similes (“like a rainbow”). These metaphors are done an injustice when we translate them like the technical terms they sometimes turn into in the later literature of systematical treatises and commentaries. Such powerful metaphors as “clear light,” which originally illustrates the unobstructed quality of the mind, then turns into the abstract noun “luminosity,” and a term like “innate,” which refers to inborn qualities, morphs into such a terrible linguistic monstrosity as “co-emergent.” Translated like that, they are not metaphors anymore; they have solidified from a once-dynamic metaphor to a cold technical term. To use such technical terms when translating esoteric instructions is, in most cases, a mistake.
When we read a scholarly work, its technical language is often well-explained and specified by definitions. Although these explanations and definitions may vary between traditions or even from scholar to scholar, the scholarly activity of analyzing, defining, and teaching makes it often relatively easy to analyze and translate such terms. On the other hand, esoteric instructions are often brief to the point that they even seem cryptic. Their colorful terminology is much harder to pin down. Such texts virtually avoid definitions. They are on the spot compositions spontaneously delivered by experienced masters, often to remedy a problem in the meditative practice of their disciples. However, even though the terms are sometimes literally the same as in more technical texts, we should never make the mistake in our translations to define esoteric language through later technical terminology. That would be like putting the cart before the horse: The mahāmudrā instructions of the early Kagyüpa masters precede their more technical explanations of later generations. Therefore, translations of such texts should reflect the original and powerful metaphor, not the technicality of a philosophical debate.
That being said, let us have a look at the term “natural [mind]” (gnyug ma[ʼi sems]) as it appears in numerous esoteric instructions of Gampopa. To understand this key term in Gampopa’s system, we must carefully read it in the context of the teachings in which it occurs. Looking at more than fifty occurrences of the term in Gampopa’s instructions, we find it often in close vicinity of such terms as these:
– ordinary consciousness (tha mal gyi shes pa)
– nature of the mind (sems nyid)
– innate gnosis (lhan cig skyes pa’i ye shes)
– dharmakāya (chos sku)
– true reality (de nyid)
– sameness (mnyam pa nyid)
– unerring emptiness (stong pa nyid ma nor ba)
All these are terms pertaining to the level of the absolute truth. Accordingly, when we find descriptions of the qualities of the natural mind, we find that it
– cannot be seen, pointed out, or expressed
– has no basis or support, and no labels can be attached to it
– has no tendency toward anything and no aim
– is not produced from causes and conditions
– is like a dream or an illusion
In Buddhism, these descriptions through negation are typical for something belonging to the sphere of the absolute truth. After all, absolute truth is beyond the sphere of the mind and cannot really be expressed in words. The experience of the natural mind is therefore like a dream or an illusion, not because it is false, but because it cannot be expressed. Gampopa says that it is like the happiness of a young girl and the dream of a mute person—both the girl and the mute person cannot express their experience. However, there are also a few descriptions in positive terms. The natural mind is also described as genuine, fresh, and simple, and it is explained to possess clarity and bliss. The descriptions through negation tell us what the natural mind is not, and the positive descriptions provide us with some kind of an idea of how it feels when such a mind is recognized. Nevertheless, these are not precise definitions as we can find them in scholarly works. Such a mind seems to escape all attempts of precise linguistic expression.
In some instructions, however, Gampopa provides several interesting statements about the natural mind that can provide us with a clearer idea of what it is. First of all, he describes some preliminary steps for attaining it. Accordingly, an essential preliminary practice is to cut off all kinds of thoughts pertaining to subject and object, or, in other words, to the apprehending and the apprehended. This places the natural mind in the vicinity of the teaching that all phenomena are nothing but mind: If there is no thought about subject or object, then there is no idea of an apprehending mind and an apprehended thought or object. This is the state in which one must dwell, namely a state of nonduality, in order to experience the natural mind. However, this is not a state of total emptiness or nothingness. Gampopa says (vol. 6, 8r, all quotes are from the Derge edition):
The essence [of the natural mind] is not nonexistence but to be separate from all arising and ceasing. The result [of the natural mind] is that nonexistence of arising and ceasing, the dharmakāya.
Therefore, thoughts are not merely cut off. Instead, one dwells in the realization that the thought that arises has no place where it originates from, no space where it dwells, and nothing into which it finally disappears. Moreover, Gampopa explicitly says (vol. 27, 9r): “Thought is the path of the natural mind.” But how does that fit with the many other passages where he speaks in the context of the natural mind of “nonthought” and “cutting off all thoughts?” A crucial passage may be the following, where Gampopa explains two systems of taking thoughts as the path. The first part of the passage says (vol. 10, 47v):
What is the difference between the natural [mind] (gnyug ma) and the innate yoga (lhan cig skyes sbyor, Skt. sahajayoga)? Innate yoga [also] takes thoughts as the path. Thoughts have two aspects: good thoughts and bad thoughts. Whichever arises, the thought is taken as the path by understanding it as a blessing. Thus, concerning the roaming in samsara, one roams because one has not recognized thoughts. There is no fear of samsara since one has made thoughts the path.
This is a very abbreviated explanation of the innate yoga. He states that thoughts are understood as a blessing, but he does not explain here how thoughts are used for practice. Elsewhere, Gampopa is more explicit and thus, before we continue with the above quote, let us briefly look into some other passages. In an instruction on innate yoga, Gampopa says (vol. 19, 17r):
All phenomena of the whole world are one’s mind. Come to a definitive decision [about that], thinking that the mind is without origination. Rest serenely inside yourself without evaluation. Remain without evaluating “this is fresh,” “it exists,” or “it does not exist.” Rest without hesitation, like a swallow enters its nest. “Unfabricated:” remain free from blocking or establishing, as the garuda soars in the sky. “Loosely:” remain without exertion. Have a smooth attentiveness that has abandoned all the activities of a person and remain [like that]. “Remain:” remain without blocking faults and establishing qualities. Remain lose and utterly without fabrication. Like that, be without focussing and rest at ease. Thereby, with a clear and unobstructed essence of the consciousness, loosen [the mind] through relaxation within complete purity, and practice! If relaxation is best, practice is best. If it is medium, practice is medium. If it is low, practice is low; it is impossible that it is any other way than that. Within dwelling like that, pacify any proliferating thought! This is like a cloud adventitiously rising in the sky that is pure by itself: It arises from the sky, and in the end, it dissolves back into it, yet it dissolves into the sky itself, and it is of the sky’s nature. An adventitious thought may arise, but it arose from the innate nature of the mind itself. In the middle, it remains, but it remains as the innate nature of the mind itself. In the end, it dissolves, but it dissolves into the innate nature of the mind itself. Know it to be not beyond the innate nature of the mind itself and practice [like that].
Although later authors like Jigten Sumgön go into more details, this should suffice here. The meditative practice described here is characterized by being both relaxed and attentive. Arising thoughts are to be pacified but not by blocking them, but by understanding that the thought arises from and dissolves back into mind itself, and between that, while it remains, it is none other than the mind itself. This is often explained through the example of waves and the ocean: The waves are not different from the ocean itself. Understanding it like that, Gampopa’s disciple Phagmodrupa, who was Jigten Sumgön’s root guru, says about the innate yoga (vol. 2, p. 288):
The rainbow of duality disappears in space. The emerging of thoughts and getting involved in them disperse like clouds. In this fine palace of spontaneous victory, the person of the natural mind who is free from proliferation sits cross-legged on the seat beyond thoughts.
And elsewhere very clearly (vol. 4, p. 292):
Thoughts arise in the essence of the natural mind, but like the darkness at daybreak, they disappear by themselves.
Garchen Rinpoche has pointed out that this innate yoga practice of mahāmudrā is a training, but when one dwells entirely without thoughts as described in Tilopa’s Gangama Mahāmudrā, that is the result. Probably to point out the difference between the training and the result, Gampopa, from the perspective of the natural mind, stated these critical words to those who practice the innate yoga (continuing the above passage of vol. 19, 17r):
Because you take thoughts as the path, the thing to be cut off and the means of cutting off are perceived as two, and there is no end to thoughts. A thought that arises is recognized. However, that one that arises may be recognized, but if you do not perceive the essence, you are not up to the task! When a chance to perceive [the essence] arises, that is it! There is no other chance to perceive [the essence]!
The point is here that a practitioner of the innate yoga may dwell in a state where mind and thoughts are like the ocean and its waves, but the actual task is to perceive in that arising thought the “essence.” Gampopa teaches explicitly that apart from thoughts, there is no other way to realize the dharmakāya! Gampopa’s disciple, Lama Zhang, also taught that one must take thoughts as the path. He said (vol. 8 of the 2004 edition, pp. 566‒67):
Following after afflictions or thoughts one is an ordinary person, abandoning or stopping them, one is a Hīnayānist, purifying and transforming them with mantra, mudrā, and samādhi, one is [a practitioner of] the outer mantra. Here, through the endeavor of bad thoughts, one is not spoiled. By looking at the essence of an arising thought, thoughts subside for those in whom experience arises, and something is inevitably added to their experience. For those in whom realization arises, there is nothing to subside.
And he quotes the “precious guru” (Gampopa?):
If one does not use thoughts for one’s favor, the time when gnosis arises will never come. A fire whose firewood is discarded is like a lotus on dry ground. If you know how to use thoughts in your favor, all outer and inner obstructions become aids for meditative practice.
Thus, what is that essence of thoughts? There is an interesting passage in the collected works fo Marpa Lotsāva, where he says (vol. 2, 211‒12):
Just that essence of thoughts (rtog pa’i ngo bo) is the “self of phenomena” and the “self of the person.” If you know the nature of thoughts to be clear light, then they stop by themselves.
Thus the self of phenomena—the belief that phenomena have an independent existence—and the self of the person—the belief in an independent existence of the self, like a soul—are here likened to thoughts. This is undoubtedly an interesting remark and deserves further investigation. I believe that the point here is that, like thoughts, the self has no origin, abiding, and cessation. Since the self shares these characteristics with the thoughts—the very thing with which we identify ourselves so much—realizing the essence of thoughts will cause the realization of the self: There is no identifiable essence. Therefore, the essence, the true nature of the self or natural mind, can be realized by understanding thoughts. Once one has realized the essence, thoughts and mind are realized as having no origin, abiding, and cessation—they are the dharmakāya. Gampopa actually explains this in the continuation of the above-quoted passage on the difference between the natural mind and the innate yoga (vol. 10, 47v):
If [the essence, i.e.] the “I” is not perceived [as it is], thoughts have no end. Through that, you possess the defect of endlessness with regard to that [arising of thoughts]. The “I” is [in truth] at the beginning unborn, in the middle without remaining, and at the end without cessation. It is without an essence to be identified. Its nature is uninterrupted. Its charateristics are beyond the mind. Now, from the perspective of mantra, with respect to the characteristics, even the buddhas of the three times do not perceive it. With respect to the absence of characteristics, it is uninterrupted at all times. From the perspective of the perfections, there is nothing to be removed from the “I” and there is not the slightest thing to be added. Watch perfectly the perfect purity! If you see the perfectly pure, you are free. Here, the perfectly pure is the “I.”
This essence, the perfectly pure self, the “I,” is, of course, the “natural mind” (gnyug ma), or dharmakāya. Thus, thoughts are used to attain the state of nonthought, just as firewood is completely burned up in a fire.