- Stilling the Mind
- Cover Page
- Title Page
- Table of Contents
- 1 - Introduction
- 2 - The Questions of Faculty of Wisdom
- 3 - The Questions of Great Boundless Emptiness
- 4 - Taking the mind as the path
- 5 - The Explicit Instructions
- 6 - Accomplishing Shamatha
- 7 - Pit Falls
- About the author
- Copyright Page
Unlike the vast majority of Tibetan texts, the Vajra Essence is not subdivided into sections and subsections. It is written instead as a stream of consciousness that flows unimpededly for some four hundred pages. My translation, however, does divide it into chapters with subsections in order to help the reader navigate the material.
We begin with the introduction, which in many Dharma texts has two parts. First comes the homage, and second is the author’s promise to compose the text, to take it to its completion. This text is no exception to that rule, although of course in this case the author didn’t so much “compose” the text as he simply manifested it—an act very much in the spirit of Dzogchen.
Homage to the manifest face of Samantabhadra himself, the Omnipresent Lord, the original, primordial ground!
The enlightened awareness lineage of the buddhas is so designated because the minds of all the buddhas of the three times are of one taste in the absolute space of phenomena. The symbolic lineage of the vidyadharas is so designated because the symbolic signs of ultimate reality, the treasury of space, spontaneously emerge, without reliance upon the stages of spiritual training and practice. The aural lineage of ordinary individuals is so designated2 because these practical instructions naturally arise in verbal transmission as an entrance to the disciples’ paths, like filling a vase.
The homage—to Samantabhadra, the Primordial Buddha, the Timeless Buddha, the Buddha from which all other buddhas manifest—is quite concise. That is followed by a reference to the three lineages of the Dzogchen tradition, the first of which I am translating as “the enlightened awareness lineage of the buddhas.” This lineage is identified thus because the minds of the buddhas are indistinguishable and of the same nature. This being so, there is no transmission as such.
This initial paragraph introduces some crucial terms, which I will provide in Sanskrit, since they are given different translations into English. The “absolute space of phenomena” is my translation for dharmadhatu. Dharma in this context means “phenomena.” Dhatu means “domain,” “element,” “space,” or “realm.” “Absolute space” here means the space out of which relative space, time, mind, matter, and all other dualities and all other phenomena emerge. It is the ground of being, the primordial ground. Its relationship with primordial consciousness (jñana) is nondual.
Primordial consciousness, your own rigpa, or pristine awareness, is that out of which all relative states of consciousness emerge and is nondual from the absolute space of phenomena. In that ultimate reality, the minds of all the buddhas—past, present, and future—are all of the same taste in that absolute space of phenomena. They are undifferentiated. This, then, is the ultimate lineage—if indeed we can label something that transcends time and is inconceivable as a “lineage.”
The second of these three Dzogchen lineages is the “symbolic lineage of the vidyadharas.” Vidya is Sanskrit for rigpa, “pristine awareness”; dhara is “one who holds.” So a vidyadhara is literally “one who holds pristine awareness.” A more precise meaning is “one who has gained a conceptually unmediated, nondual realization of rigpa, of buddha nature.” This is a lineage transmitted from vidyadhara to vidyadhara. It is not vidyadhara to ordinary sentient being, nor vidyadhara to buddha, but rather a community of vidyadharas, similar to the classic meaning of sangha, comprised exclusively3 of aryas—those who have gained a nonconceptual, unmediated realization of emptiness. In this case it is a sangha of vidyadharas, and they have a way of communicating, of transmitting Dharma horizontally—not down to us, not up to the buddhas. Their method is symbolic, and as such, it is not verbal in the ordinary sense of the term.
“The symbolic lineage of the vidyadharas is so designated because the symbolic signs of ultimate reality . . .” Here is another crucial term. In Sanskrit, “ultimate reality” is dharmata. Dharma, again, means “phenomena”; ta is like “ness,” making for “dharma-ness,” or “phenomena-ness,” an abstract noun. This refers to the very nature of being dharmas, of being phenomena. Dharmata is a synonym for emptiness, for “thatness,” and for “suchness”: just that—reality itself.
The “symbolic signs,” the symbolic manifestations, the archetypal symbols “of ultimate reality, the treasury of space”—this last term is used interchangeably with ultimate reality, space being of course empty, and a treasury—“spontaneously emerge,” they just appear, like bubbles rising in water, “without reliance upon the stages of spiritual training and practice.” In other words, this is pure discovery. They appear spontaneously. This is not the result of striving diligently along the path of training or practice—a developmental approach. Until we become vidyadharas, we needn’t be too concerned with this. Basically we are being told that vidyadharas have a way of symbolically communicating with each other.
The third lineage is the one most pertinent to us: the “aural lineage of ordinary individuals”—folks like us. Note that it is not verbal but aural. In Tibetan, aural lineage is nyengyü. Nyen means “to listen,” as in something is coming to the ears. How do we receive the transmission of Dzogchen? Through the aural lineage of ordinary individuals. It is “so designated because these practical instructions . . .”—the Tibetan word means teachings that are synthesized into practice from the vast body of Buddhist teachings—“naturally arise in verbal transmission,” in words, “as an entrance to the disciples’ paths, like filling a vase.”
The practical instructions tell you what you actually need to do as opposed to receiving and assimilating a mass of theoretical context, background, and 4 the like. The words being transmitted from mouth to ear—filling your heart and mind, like filling a vase with ambrosia, opening the way to your own path to enlightenment—are the entrance, the gateway.
So, depending on context, the transmission of Dzogchen can be mind to mind, it can be symbolic, or it can be verbal.
DÜDJOM LINGPA AND THE VAJRA ESSENCE
These instructions were revealed by themselves, not by human beings, as the magical display of primordial consciousness. May I, the spiritual mentor of the world, embodying these three lineages, being blessed with the inexhaustible ornamental wheels of the three secrets of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and holding the permission of the Three Roots and the oceanic, oath-bound guardians, bring this to perfection.
What is the source of these teachings? The ultimate source, the ground of the teachings, is not some human being. They arise spontaneously from the dharmata—the teacher is the Buddha. At this point we must take care, because the presentations and commentaries of teachings such as these are made by human teachers. They are not infallible. No matter how high the realization of the teacher, our task as students is not simply to absorb the words of the teaching and then apply them unquestioningly like soldiers acting under orders. In Buddhism we often encounter the metaphor of the empty vessel that is appropriate to be filled by the teachings, and we may come to believe that all the wisdom is coming from the teacher’s side and that we as students must absorb it uncritically.
Though the teacher should not blindly be viewed as literally infallible, nevertheless every word is there to arouse our intelligence, to awaken our heart, to draw forth our buddha nature. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has so often commented vis-à-vis the Buddhadharma as a whole, one of the core elements of spiritual maturation, which is absolutely antifundamen-talist, is developing our own discerning wisdom, our own discerning intelligence. If we ignore such advice, we run the risk of being unable to 5 determine which meanings are definitive and which are interpretive. That can lead us, for instance, to accentuate ultimate reality while completely ignoring conventional reality. We are warned by Padmasambhava and by all of the realized teachers that this is a big mistake. There are two truths for a buddha—the ultimate and the conventional. Neither one stifles the other. They are of one taste.
“May I, the spiritual mentor of the world . . .” Here the author, Düdjom Lingpa, is using the true referent of the word I; he is not referring to some nineteenth-century Tibetan. He knows that he is a vidyadhara. He says so with no pretense, no arrogance; he is just giving us the truth. He tells us he embodies the three aforementioned lineages and that he is “blessed with the inexhaustible ornamental wheels of the three secrets of the buddhas and bodhisattvas.” “Ornamental wheels” is a quite literal translation. Gyatrul Rinpoche comments: “The attributes of the buddhas and bodhisattvas are inexhaustible ornaments of reality, which continue on forever like ever-revolving wheels. Hence they are called inexhaustible ornamental wheels.” The three secrets are the three mysteries—body, speech, and mind. Each contains an element of mystery. What is the true nature of the body of a buddha, the speech of a buddha, the mind of a buddha? That’s very deep. The Three Roots are the lama (or spiritual mentor), your yidam (or personal deity—Tara, Padmasambhava, Manjushri, or whomever it may be), and the dakini (the enlightened feminine principle).
Düdjom Lingpa tells us he has been fully authorized to reveal, to manifest this text. He has been blessed by the qualities of the Buddha. He holds the permission of the Three Roots and the “oceanic, oath-bound guardians.” By the blessings of all of these, “May I . . . bring this to perfection.” He doesn’t say “compose,” but rather he will bring it to perfection, manifest it perfectly. And he does this with the permission of the Three Roots—lama, yidam, and dakini—and the oceanic, oath-bound guardians. These are the dharmapalas, the Dharma protectors who have sworn an oath to guard and preserve the Dharma. Therefore, Düdjom Lingpa has a great deal of support for manifesting this text, support that forms part of his commitment to offer it: May I bring this to perfection; may I reveal it perfectly.6
The primordial, originally pure nature of existence, which is great, intellect-transcending, ultimate reality, free of conceptual elaboration, is obscured by conceiving of a self and grasping at duality. Because of this, individuals are bound by clinging to the true existence of the three delusive realms of samsara.3 Still, there are those who have accumulated vast merit over many eons and who have the power of pure aspirations. Therefore, for the sake of those with the fortune to master ultimate reality, the treasury of space—by awakening the karmic force of engaging in the action of nonaction in great, self-originating, primordial consciousness—I shall present this fundamental king of tantras, spontaneously arisen from the nature of existence of the sugatagarbha.
“Primordial” is a technical term closely associated with the quality of being “originally pure” (kadag). Ka, being the first syllable of the Tibetan alphabet, implies “primordial,” “original,” and dag means “pure.” However, Gyatrul Rinpoche explains: ka refers to the beginning of time and dag means “pure” in the sense of transcending—in other words, “timeless.” So, although “originally pure” is a very common translation for kadag, the term also carries the connotation of transcending time, of being beyond past, present, and future.
Seeking to enrich each statement, this text commonly compounds adjective upon adjective as in “great intellect-transcending” (beyond conceptual grasp), “ultimate reality,” (dharmata), and “free of conceptual elaboration.” Conceptual elaboration is the entire matrix of “this and that,” “up and down”—all of our mental contexts and designations.
Thus, this originally pure nature of existence, this ultimate reality that is free of conceptualization, is obscured by the concept of self, the notion “I am,” and by grasping at duality. If “I am,” then “you are,” and all that other stuff out there “is.” Assuming that view, I respond to what’s happening to me as if all these phenomena were absolutely real.
We have been given an elegant and very loaded sentence. At this point we could say, “OK, we’re finished. That sums up everything.” A student who understands the full meaning of this sentence could just go home and 7 practice. But let’s probe a little more deeply. Is this sentence no more than an elaborate way of saying that the nature of reality is obscured by thought? You could say that, but that would be only partially correct. Remember that in the practice of tantra and of Dzogchen, all thoughts are regarded as emanations of dharmakaya. Therefore, in those practices, simply putting an end to thoughts would not be appropriate.
Let us focus on something more subtle: grasping at thoughts. Here we must use language very carefully because the practice to which we are being introduced is neither elaborate nor complicated; it is very simple. Therefore, the few concepts we use to describe it must be applied with great precision. Otherwise our terms will be confused and all understanding will be lost. What does it mean to grasp at a thought? What is the nature of grasping? The Sanskrit graha means “to hold on to,” “to grasp.” It’s exactly that. When you say, “Have you grasped what I was trying to tell you?” this means “Have you understood?” but it also means, have you got a “hold” on it, did you “get” it? And as soon as you have done so, grasping is involved.
We can view a phenomenon such as grasping in gradations from coarse to subtle. The coarsest level of grasping, which blatantly obscures the nature of reality, would be to say something like, “How dare you say that to me! Don’t you know who I am?” In such a case I, the speaker, am holding on to my great big, thick, robust ego, and since you’ve infringed upon it, I am reacting aggressively. We can grasp on to possessions as well as personal identity, as in: “This cup isn’t mine. Why did you bring me this when my cup is in my room?” But grasping needn’t be that coarse. When you are asked, “What am I holding in my hand?” and answer, “a cup,” you have just grasped on to “cup-ness.” You have identified an object within the context of a conceptual framework—a word, a sign. So the mind that latches on to a sign—here an image commonly designated as a “cup”—does so through grasping. Although you are merely identifying “That’s a cup,” this is also a form of grasping. It may not be the kind of grasping that will lead to endless misery, but it is a subtle form of grasping.
Ultimate reality, then, is obscured by the concept of self. It is not the concept alone that is obscuring ultimate reality. Rather it is the reification, the grasping on to the concept, that creates the obscuration. The Tibetan term 8 for reification (dendzin) means grasping on to inherent existence, grasping on to true existence. You decontextualize, you grasp something as existing independently, by its own nature. One example is to believe that there really is an inherently existing person—you or me or anyone—that could be praised or insulted. Moreover, anything believed to exist by itself is a product of reification. This reification is the root of samsara, the cycle of existence. On the other hand, grasping is a broader term. When I hold up a cup and ask, “What is this?” your answer that it is a cup doesn’t necessarily mean you are grasping on to it as truly existent. It is still grasping in that you are holding on to the concept of “cup-ness,” but by designating it as a cup you are not necessarily reifying it by grasping on to it as inherently real. It is possible to use language without being trapped by it, although generally we are unable to avoid it. To sum up, grasping can be more or less subtle, and one form of grasping is reification, the grasping on to inherent existence.
In the proper context grasping can be very useful. Madhyamaka insight practices can employ grasping to deliver you from grasping. Subtle grasping is also used in the tantric stage of generation, which is saturated by grasping. There, visualizing your environment as a pure land and imagining yourself as a deity, you develop some understanding that your normal sense of identity is only a construct, that it is conceptually designated. In those practices you are removing that construct and substituting another identity, one that is much closer to reality than your ordinary one. Seeing all of your thoughts as expressions of dharmakaya, all sounds as sambhogakaya, and all appearances as nirmanakaya is grasping. You are seeing them as something, overlaying an interpretation upon them. However, in Vajrayana Buddhism that is very useful grasping.
Bear in mind, though, that from a Buddhist perspective you do not consciously, deliberately use grasping on to true existence—reification—as part of the path. In Vajrayana particularly you avoid that. When you are generating divine pride or pure vision and so forth, you do not think, “I’m really a buddha,” or “this is really Padmasambhava,” and grasp on to the vision as having inherent existence. The whole point of Vajrayana is to simultaneously maintain the awareness of the emptiness of self, other, the environment,9 and so forth, together with the divine pride and pure vision. All of that is held in a delicate balance. In the same breath you generate the deity, the divine pride, and pure vision, knowing that all of it is apparitional. Therefore grasping is a tool to be used on the path but reification is not. Grasping also has its uses in Dzogchen. In most cases we cannot simply go directly to utter simplicity; we need teachings and methods to help us arrive there.
Because of this reification of the concept of self, grasping on to duality, “individuals are bound by clinging to the true existence”—a term that means existing by its own nature, independent of conceptual designation—“of the three delusive realms of samsara.” “Delusive” is a good translation of the Tibetan trülpa. Phenomena, appearances, are not deluded; it is we sentient beings who are deluded about them. For instance, the color of a person’s hair is not deluded, but it invites the delusion of sentient beings. Why? Because it appears to us to be truly existent from its own side—some phenomenon way over there that exists independently of my perception of it over here. It appears that I am merely a passive witness of truly existing phenomena, and in that way appearances are delusive or misleading. This delusion binds us to samsara.
In a striking metaphor, one of the most powerful I have seen in all of Buddhism, Tsongkhapa refers to existence in samsara as being in an iron cage, shackled, blind, in a river—a torrent, actually—in the pitch black of night. Can you imagine how terrifying that would be? On a starless night, in an iron cage, being tumbled down a river. Sheer panic! If you were on the shore with a flashlight and saw someone in this situation, how could you respond with anything other than a massive, spontaneous outflow of compassion—“How can I help you?” Here Tsongkhapa is using the metaphor of the tumbling cage to say, “That’s how it is, folks—that’s what it’s like to be in samsara.”
Although we are bound and caged, “still, there are those who have accumulated vast merit over many eons and who have the power of pure aspirations. Therefore, for the sake of those with the fortune,” who have the merit “to master,” to come to know, “ultimate reality, the treasury of space—by awakening the karmic force of engaging in the action of nonaction in great, self-originating, primordial consciousness—I shall present 10 this fundamental king of tantras, spontaneously arisen from the nature of existence of the sugatagarbha.”
Up to this point Düdjom Lingpa has written the homage and promised to manifest the text. Now he describes those for whom this text is intended. While the great majority of sentient beings are completely caught up in and bound to the cycle of existence, blindly wandering, there are among these myriad beings some who have tremendous merit, who have made pure prayers over many lifetimes, and, because it may benefit them, Düdjom Lingpa is manifesting this text for them. These fortunate people have something that might be described as karmic force or karmic momentum. The Tibetan term is létro. Lé is karma; tro is something left over, a residue. We could use the metaphor of a cup of water, filled to overflowing, where some of it, something left over, spills over the rim. The term connotes momentum in the sense that our dedication to spiritual practice, the karmic momentum from past lives, is flowing over. It wasn’t exhausted in our previous lives, so it is spilling over into this one.
Parents are aware that their children bring something with them into life in terms of personality, behavioral patterns, and so forth. If they arrive with a karmic aptitude for the Dharma derived from activities from previous lives, how is that to be aroused, activated? After all, such a child might be born into an environment where there is nothing that would catalyze that aptitude. They could be born into a family that has no interest whatever in religion, or into a deeply religious family whose beliefs are far from those of Buddhism. There are many possibilities. I know of people for whom their interest in Dharma was only triggered late in life. This is why Tibetan lamas are concerned with identifying tulkus—those who have strong karmic momentum for the Dharma from previous lives when they were lamas. It is best to catalyze them as soon as possible, rather than running the risk of their exhausting their positive karmic propensities in the torrent of cyclic existence. In the case of Düdjom Lingpa, his létro, his karmic spillover, was watched over by dakinis for the first three years of his life.
“For the sake of those with the fortune,” this text is designed to awaken, to arouse this “karmic force.” In this sentence we encounter a wonderful paradox: “the action of nonaction.” And this nonaction occurs “in great, 11 self-originating,” self-manifesting, “primordial consciousness.” For those who have the fortune to follow this path, this text is intended to arouse their karmic propensities to engage in Dzogchen, in nonaction. What specifically is nonaction? What is not active? Does this mean that buddhahood or enlightenment is completely stagnant, static? Of course not. What a farce it would be to declare, “I will become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings,” and then do nothing at all.
When you rest in rigpa, you are nonactive. Even with positive intentions such as “I’m going to do some good for the world; I’m going to help,” there is often the subtext of “I’m gonna, I’m gonna,” which is doing—ego-driven activity. In rigpa, however, your ego—your reified sense of “I am”—doesn’t get to do anything. When resting in rigpa you free up space for another mode of activity to manifest, one that does not arise from the narrow confines of an ego that thinks, “I want this; I don’t want that.” Rather, it derives from the natural effulgence of ultimate bodhichitta—the effortless, spontaneous, in-the-moment, self-originating expression of dharmakaya. For that to come to the fore we must silence the ego with nonaction. Otherwise the ego is going to take credit for everything.
In presenting “this fundamental king of tantras, spontaneously arisen,” Düdjom Lingpa is saying that this is not something he conjured up; this is no treatise that he conceived of and wrote down. Rather, it arose spontaneously from “the nature of existence of the sugatagarbha.” Here we encounter another technical term. Sugata is an epithet of the Buddha, like Tathagata. Su is “good,” “well,” and gata is “gone,” making “well-gone.” Sugata , “the one who is well-gone to genuine happiness,” is followed by garbha, which in Sanskrit has the connotation of “womb,” or as the Tibetans translate it, “essence.” The sugatagarbha is the womb from which all the sugatas have arisen, which is none other than rigpa, our buddha nature.
Here is how this tantra originated: On the evening of the fifteenth day of the first month of the male water-dog year, by the power of the profound, swift path of the direct crossing-over, the vision of the direct perception of ultimate reality arose. Because I had practiced the path of skillful means of the stage of generation a little, I12 reached the ground of a matured vidyadhara. Through that power, all appearances and mental states dissolved into originally pure, ultimate reality, the space of awareness free of conceptual elaboration. Then the very face of the dharmakaya manifested.
This tantra, the Vajra Essence, appeared to Düdjom Lingpa in 1862, in February or March of our calendar, on the day of the full moon, “by the power of the profound, swift path of the direct crossing-over.” “Crossing-over” is the English translation of tögal, the second major phase of Dzogchen practice. It is quite visionary—involving a lot of imagery—and it arises spontaneously from rigpa.
His next phrase, “the vision of the direct perception of ultimate reality arose,” is pregnant with meaning. The tögal stage of Dzogchen practice has four major phases of realization, each with a host of correlated experiences and transformations. Whereas in advanced samadhi practices you engage in specific techniques to develop particular siddhis, or paranormal abilities, in the practice of tögal those same siddhis emerge spontaneously. They are exactly the same abilities—walking on water, flying through the air, and so forth—only in tögal they emerge directly from rigpa, like cream rising from milk. Here is a hint as to how powerful these can be: The final, culminating phase of realization in tögal is the extinction of all phenomena into ultimate reality. In that experience the universe dissolves into the absolute space of phenomena. The first phase of tögal is called the direct perception of ultimate reality. Düdjom Lingpa had this realization when he was twenty-seven years old.
His next line, “Because I had practiced the path of skillful means of the stage of generation a little,” is beautifully understated. This is in reference to the stage of generation and the stage of completion, the two main facets of highest-yoga Vajrayana practice. It seems like a very casual statement, yet it is anything but that. Here he hints at something that becomes explicit later in the text: On the Dzogchen path it is not necessary for all individuals to practice the stage of generation to full attainment, nor, having that as a basis, to fully develop in linear fashion the stage of completion, continue on to the first stage of Dzogchen (tregchö), and after perfecting that, 13 accomplish tögal. That would be following a developmental model—very linear and sequential.
Tsongkhapa is magnificent in laying out this royal sequence of practices. Lamrim (Tibetan for “stages of the path”), using a gradual approach, is the quintessential developmental model and a perfect complement to the Vajra Essence, which strongly emphasizes a discovery approach. Dzogchen, following the discovery model, is not so linear. There are phases, but it’s very clear that if your passion, your calling, is Dzogchen, then some of these sequential, developmental practices may be used essentially to “prime the pump.” They are an aid to facilitate the practice. In Dzogchen, drawing from the whole array of tantric practices—stage of generation, deity practices, and so forth—may be very helpful, but you needn’t necessarily follow each of them to their culmination.
Düdjom Lingpa refers to this when he says he “practiced the path of skillful means”—the upaya side as opposed to the prajña side, that is, skillful means as opposed to wisdom. He achieved a direct perception of ultimate reality because he practiced the path of skillful means of the stage of generation, “a little,” which means “enough,” and thereby, having achieved the vision of the direct perception of ultimate reality, he “reached the ground of a matured vidyadhara.” This is the first of four levels of vidyadharas, the final three being a vidyadhara with mastery over life, a Mahamudra vidyadhara, and a spontaneously actualized vidyadhara.
He tells us more of his experience: “Through that power, all appearances and mental states dissolved into originally pure, ultimate reality, the space of awareness free of conceptual elaboration”—in other words, they dissolved into emptiness. Then, being a Vajrayana practitioner, a Dzogchen adept, he not only realized emptiness, but in that open spaciousness, “the very face of the dharmakaya manifested.” He ascertained buddha nature. There is more to the experience of buddha nature than the realization of emptiness. The realization of emptiness prepares the way to recognize your own face, your own nature, as the dharmakaya.
After some time, the following spontaneous appearances arose in the form of a buddhafield:14
On that very occasion of self-originating, originally pure, great bliss, my environment naturally arose as the actual Akanishta . . .
Before we go into this extraordinary vision, let’s examine the mind to which such appearances might arise in order to be clear about its nature. We can establish a three-dimensional model of the mind. First there is the psyche, typified by dualistic thinking, imagination, personal history, and so forth—the subject matter of psychology. The psyche is also called the ordinary mind, and, in Sanskrit, chitta. The psyche emerges from what Sogyal Rinpoche calls the “ground of the ordinary mind.”
The Sanskrit term for this second layer, this ground of the ordinary mind, is alayavijñana, which is translated as the “substrate consciousness.” (This corresponds closely to the Theravada Buddhist term bhavanga, or “ground of becoming.”) That ground, from which your individual psyche emerges, is not the brain. The substrate consciousness carries over from lifetime to lifetime, so its existence doesn’t depend on the brain you have in this or any other lifetime. Your individual psyche will be finished once you have died. But it will have left imprints in your substrate consciousness. It is there that your karma, your talents, your proclivities, and so forth are stored, much as information is stored in electromagnetic fields when sending emails from one computer to another using wireless internet. So the substrate consciousness is deeper than the psyche, but it is still not buddha nature, which is the third and most profound level in our three-tiered model.
We tap into the substrate consciousness at times quite naturally, without effort, without our having to be a great yogi. This happens, for instance, in dreamless sleep, which usually occurs several times every twenty-four hours. In the dreamless state of deep sleep, mental activities become dormant and we slip into the substrate consciousness. Because our awareness is dull rather than luminous, we don’t receive much benefit except for a good night’s sleep. We also experience the substrate consciousness at the time of death. We need to be clear here—this is not the “clear light of death.” The ground of the ordinary mind, the substrate consciousness, is not “ground awareness”—synonymous with buddha nature, 15 rigpa, and dharmakaya. The ground of the ordinary mind is individual, conditioned, and linear within time—it is within the causal nexus.
In the dying process the senses shut down one by one. They retract. The tentacles of awareness withdraw from the five physical senses back into mental awareness, where you still have imagination, thoughts, feelings, and so forth. And then, as you are withdrawing, the derivative mental processes of feeling, discernment, memory, imagination, recognition, and so on are also withdrawn. The dying person experiences images of light—white light and red light—so some mental imagery arises, and then that too goes. After that you literally lose your mind when you experience the “black near-attainment,” which is a kind of blackout. This is an experience similar to going under general anesthesia. Here the mind hasn’t become completely extinguished, simply disappearing into nothing. Rather, the coarse mind has become utterly dormant by dissolving into the ground of ordinary mind, leaving no vestiges of imagery, personal history, or ego.
Most people, when they enter that phase of the dying process, simply black out—they have no recognition of anything. Next, they emerge from that blackout directly into the clear light of death, which is the primordial ground underlying the ground of the ordinary mind. Everyone has that. Then, once the clear light of death passes, it’s over—“you” are gone—and the body begins to decompose.
Comparing the two—the ordinary ground of the mind (alayavijñana) and the clear light of death (rigpa, dharmakaya)—I would characterize the former as a relative vacuum state of consciousness and the latter as the absolute vacuum state of consciousness. They are not the same; they are qualitatively different, and they need to be distinguished. How do you achieve the former apart from falling into deep sleep or dying? How do you deliberately gain access to the ground of the ordinary mind? By way of meditative quiescence—shamatha. That is what shamatha is good for.
The substrate consciousness, a relative vacuum state of consciousness, is implicitly structured by concepts but has enormous potential. That potential—in terms of creativity—is revealed in deep hypnosis, which is another situation where you are very close to the ground state of the ordinary mind. We know that hypnosis can be used to break strong habits such as 16 smoking. Furthermore a person can be convinced that an onion tastes like an apple, or can be made to believe that he or she is some kind of animal. (I recall seeing a demonstration on television where a man was convinced he was a kangaroo and hopped around the stage with a contented smile on his face.) In such circumstances the mind is unusually flexible because it is in a mode of great potentiality as opposed to its normal state of manifestation.
In like manner, if you wish to develop mundane siddhis—paranormal abilities, extrasensory perception—shamatha is the basis to bring forth, to manifest, that potential. Attaining such abilities can be extremely beneficial, as the great eleventh-century Indian mahasiddha Atisha made clear, saying, “The merit gained in a single day by someone with extrasensory perception cannot be gained even in a hundred lifetimes by someone without extrasensory perception.”4 In the same commentary he said that by achieving shamatha you can attain extrasensory perception. Therefore, if you want to tap into the full potential
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