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Library: Member Essays

Mahamudra and Dzogchen, Two Systems of Buddhist Yoga

It is now in the present century, that for the first time, the West is finally beginning to learn something in depth about the ancient mystical teachings and practices of Buddhist Yogacara. Yogacara means to practice yoga, or in other words, to practice meditation, stilling the mind, searching inwards so as to acquire self-realization. This is the "practice tradition" at the heart of the Buddhist religion. Where ever Buddhism exists, there are those who commit themselves to this tradition - to the genuine "practice" of Yoga-meditation.

Here, the concept "practice" stands in contrast to "scholasticism". It means to practice a spiritual path, rather than study and debate philosophy. It means to practice yoga-meditation rather than trying to understand the meaning of life by using discursive reasoning.

In Thailand and Burma, monks have for centuries taken themselves off to the forest, living simple ascetic lives, so as to devote themselves to contemplative practice. Likewise in Ceylon. Similarly, amongst Buddhists in China and Japan, we can see how various "practice tradition" movements have emerged in the form of what is now known as Ch'an meditation or Zen. An exemplar of the "practice tradition" in Tibet was the great yogi Milarepa, and it is from the latter that the Ka'gyu Order, now headed by His Holiness the Karmapa, descends to modern times.

Today, we follow the "practice tradition" of Buddhism than comes under the guidance of the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Urgyen Thinley Dorje. That is, we follow the tradition of yoga as taught in the Ka'gyu Order of Tibet.

By "practice tradition" we mean a tradition that is focused on the practice of spiritual conduct and meditation, where the individual aims to attain Enlightenment in his or her present life. Believing that the discursive intellect, on its own, is not capable of reasoning a way to true Enlightenment, the Yogin is a woman or man who turns to yoga-meditation so as to experience directly the nature of the mind.

Yogacara does not mean a particular set of views or religious beliefs. It does not imply a specific philosophy, such as the Middle Way View of Nagarjuna (Madhyamaka) or the Mind-only doctrine (Cittamatra), nor a system of thought like Vedanta or the scientific speculations of someone such as Stephen Hawkings. Though anyone may benefit from pondering the nature of existence and studying the thought of philosophy and science, and although we do study the above systems of thought, "Yogacara" strictly means to do meditation or various spiritual exercises that will lead to direct experience of the nature of the mind in and of itself. To know mind in the yogacarin sense is far more than a study of psychology—it means to directly experience one's own mind, fully and in all its aspects, including its deepest self-reflexive nature.

In Buddhist India and Tibet, the culmination of the long development of contemplative yoga practice led to two close systems of practice: the one known as "Mahasamdhi" or Dzogchen, and the other called "Mahamudra" or Chag-chen. These are two branches of one original yoga system, which we can refer to as simply two methods of what may be called tantric Natural Mind Meditation (gnyug-ma'i sems kyi goms-pa), both of which were introduced from India many centuries ago. Mahasamdhi means "absolute wholeness", or all-inclusive completeness, i.e., the Absolute Totality of Ultimate Reality. Mahamudra is a term referring to the "Great Seal" or the "Absolute State" of nonduality - the Great Seal of Awareness, which is but another way of defining Ultimate Reality. Both describe that final state of realization in which the duality of apparent existence, the differentiation of subject (consciousness) and object (world), collapses into original wholeness.

Dzogchen or Mahamudra is a "tantric" teaching concerning absolute Reality. In practice, this tradition says that absolute Reality (dharmata) can be known, but only through coming to experience the fundamental nature of one's mind. What is mind? Can we experience it?

We can perfectly well see that every sentient being has consciousness. We can see that consciousness is the perception of an object. There is no consciousness, without being conscious of something. What is consciousness conscious of? To guide the enquirer to an understanding of this question, it is pointed out that visual-consciousness is that which is conscious of visible phenomena. Through vibrations making an impression on the organ of sight, the eye, visual-consciousness is made aware of colour, light and form. The same goes for auditory-consciousness, tactile consciousness, and so forth. So "consciousness" is a state of mind that always is conscious of something. To recognize this, is to see that consciousness does not observe itself, because its very nature is to be preoccupied with observing something other than itself. At least this is apparently so.

Besides the actual five "sense-consciousnesses," associated with seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, we can also speak of a mental-consciousness (mano-vijnana). Mental-consciousness is that which is aware of mental phenomena, such as our thoughts, feelings, desires and instinctual impulses, etc. When in Western psychology, and when in common western speech, we refer to the term "Consciousness", we are from a Buddhist perspective generally referring to the mano-vijnana. But we should take account of the other five consciousnesses as well. Indeed, we can assume that within the human brain there are thus six centres of consciousness.

But there are also, apparently, mental processes that go on, of which we are not conscious. In western psychology we say that these processes occur unconsciously, or subconsciously. Likewise, in Yogacara terminology, we speak of a process of mentation that is called the klista-manas, "obscured mind" or the "unconsciousness." A fundamental aim of Buddhist yoga practice is to remove this "obscuration" and bring to light this significant region of the human mind. The traditional yogi or yogini learns to penetrate into the unconsciousness (klista-manas) through the practice of one-pointed concentration and the nine stages of Shamatha meditation. Just as the darkness of a shadow vanishes before the light of a lamp, so it is said that the klista-manas exists not in the mind of the enlightened Arhat.

When the veil of the klista-manas is penetrated, the meditator experiences a vast new wealth of awareness. This deep and refreshing state of oceanic awareness is the unified field of consciousness (alaya-vijnana) of which each individual sentient being is, as it were, a finite spark. To experience unified mind is to gain a sense of communion with the very ground of existential consciousness in its own true nature. It is to know evolving "mind" (citta) in its fullest and most universal sense.

Nevertheless, to gain this experience, it has to be understood what mind or consciousness is. As emphasized above, we have to understand that "consciousness" (vijnana) is a mental function concerned with perceiving something other than "itself". This means that the world of experience is apparently divided into subject and object. To be conscious of an object, to "see" something, is to separate the consciousness which "sees" from the apparent object which is "seen." And this division of subject and object is a function inherent to consciousness itself. Thus, in a sense we might say, this is what makes "consciousness" what it is. Amazingly enough, if you think about it, this means that consciousness could not exist on its own, if no "object" were to exist. Thus subject and object are mutually interdependent.

To know mind in its own nature—to directly experience mind and arrive at awakened realization—the process of consciousness has to undergo a reversion in its very basis. This means that the continuous function of perceiving an object has to stop. The duality of observer and observed, of subject and object, has to collapse. In doing so, when there occurs a reversal of the basis in the depth of being, there then emerges an innate but previously not experienced, self-reflexive awareness (svasamvedana). For the yogin, this event comes as a stunning breakthrough. Strangely enough, however, nothing has actually changed-self-reflexive awareness is realized to have been there all along, from the very beginning. Recognizing this, we are made aware that self-reflexive awareness is precisely a unique state of knowing (jnana) innate to all intelligence. In other words, it is an absolute condition of intelligence "to know." "To know"-this IS what intelligence (vidya) actually is. Bare knowingness is nondual. It just is intelligence.

In the ancient Dzogchen Tantras, which for generations have been kept as actual "secret treatises" in the temple libraries of the yoginis and yogis of the Himalayas and in Tibet, it is revealed how, through meditation and insight, one may come to experience bare Intrinsic Intelligence, in its own essence. Indeed, the Dzogchen or Mahamudra system in particular, shows us that our own essential nature or "ultimate identity" is neither the body nor the consciousness, but rather, an immaculate and original Intelligence, which in the Tantras is described as being Param-adi-Buddha, the one supreme Absolute Intelligence itself. Original Intelligence-the very ground of all existence-is said to be entirely empty of ipseity; a self-luminous uncreate Clear Light of innate Knowingness, that is unlimited or unimpeded in the ever spontaneous manifestations of its endless love. The yogini and yogi who, through the methods of Mahamudra meditation, awakens to the intrinsic nature of mind, immediately realizes just this profound state of Absolute Totality (dzog-pa chen-po). To experience this is to make life meaningful. To experience this is to know that no one "disappears" when they die. It is to know the ultimate divine beauty of one's Essence. That knowing is perfect peace.

The purpose of the "Guru" (Tib: bLa-ma, the Master) in this Tradition is to point the spiritual seeker towards an immediate recognition of this "wholeness," which is our own root identity as bare Intelligence, and then to teach the yogacara methods concerning how to stabilize in one's consciousness, so that liberation may unfold naturally. The Master introduces one to one's own mind, by giving the pointing out instructions that describe what the actual nature of the mind is. The uniqueness of Dzogchen or Mahamudra is the rapid way in which meditation can lead to an experience of Enlightenment in this very lifetime.

An important step to understand the Mahamudra View is to distinguish between the nature of relative mind (citta) belonging to the worldly experience of consciousness and appearance, and that original uncreate state of bare, nondual Intelligence (known as Vidya), which is the essence or ground of what mind is, in and of itself.

The Master Shantideva, 7th century author of the Bodhicaryavatara, says:

"The absolute is beyond Consciousness; that which is within the realm of Consciousness is known to be always relative."

It is the all-inclusive Intelligence (vidya), empty of subject and object differentiation, that the Master attempts to point out to the seeker, and recognizing the meaning of that is what is called "acquiring the View of Absolute Wholeness." Mysterious as it may sound, this very recognition allows mind to undergo the fundamental reversion of its basis, so basic for realization, whereby mind's inherent nature becomes revealed nakedly. Abiding in a state of attention, which merely holds to the View, without falling into linear thinking, forgetfulness or distraction, is the meditation. Sustaining that calm abiding state allows natural evolution to unfold into eventual Liberation.

As the great yogi-master Patrul Rinpoche used to say:

"The essence of mind, the very face of Intelligence, is introduced [to the seeker] at the very instant that conceptual consciousness is let go of."

To approach the teachings of Mahamudra there are certain preliminary meditation practices. One of our great teachers, the late Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche, emphasized the importance of these preliminaries (Ngön-dro) when he said:

"Without the preliminaries, or foundation practices, the main practice [of meditation] will not resist deluded thoughts, and carried away by circumstances the mind will be unstable."

Therefore those who come to the Dharma Fellowship seeking instruction in Mahamudra, are introduced to the teachings in a step-by-step process. They must begin with the preliminaries, the Purvaka Exercises, so as to lead them into the profound methods of Buddhist Yoga safely and carefully.

As the seeker becomes more confident in performing meditation, and as a spiritual foundation is laid, he or she may then be introduced to the Tantric yoga methods of our school. With time, the Four Transmissions of Tilopa are explained - consisting of Chandali-yoga (or what is sometimes called, Kundalini), the Illusory-body meditation, Clear Light, and Karmamudra practices. Such a spiritual path, with its attendant exercises, leads deep into the heart of Mahamudra. Then rapid unfoldment can happen in earnest.

This is meant to be a very brief outline of what Dzogchen or the Mahamudra Yogacara way is all about. Forgive us if we have left much out, or been less than clear in trying to explain this most difficult to describe, profound Path of Nondualist Mysticism.

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