When the mind is realized, that is the Buddha.
- The Wisdom of the Passing Moment Sutra, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
You’re not the limited, anxious person you think you are. Any trained Buddhist teacher can tell you with all the conviction of personal experience that, really, you’re the very heart of compassion, completely aware, and fully capable of achieving the greatest good, not only for yourself, but for everyone and everything you can imagine.
The only problem is that you don’t recognize these things about yourself. In the strictly scientific terms I’ve come to understand through conversations with specialists in Europe and North America, most people simply mistake the habitually formed, neuronally constructed image of themselves for who and what they really are. And this image is almost always expressed in dualistic terms: self and other, pain and pleasure, having and not having, attraction and repulsion. As I’ve been given to understand, these are the most basic terms of survival.
Unfortunately, when the mind is colored by this dualistic perspective, every experience - even moments of joy and happiness - is bounded by some sense of limitation. There’s always a but lurking in the background. One kind of but is the but of difference. “Oh, my birthday party was wonderful, but I would have liked chocolate cake instead of carrot cake.” Then there’s the but of “better.” “I love my new house, but my friend John’s place is bigger and has much better light.” And finally, there’s the but of fear. “I can’t stand my job, but in this market how will I ever find another one?”
Personal experience has taught me that it’s possible to overcome any sense of personal limitation. Otherwise I’d probably still be sitting in my retreat room, feeling too scared and inadequate to participate in group practices. As a thirteen-year-old boy, I only knew how to get over my fear and insecurity. Through the patient tutoring of experts in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, like Francisco Varela, Richard Davidson, Dan Goleman, and Tara Bennett-Goleman, I’ve begun to recognize why, from an objectively scientific perspective, the practices actually work: that feelings of limitation, anxiety, fear, and so on are just so much neuronal gossip. They are, in essence, habits. And habits can be unlearned.
It is called “true nature” because no one created it.
- CHANDRAKIRTI, Entering the Middle Way, translated by Ari Goldfield
One of the first things I learned as a Buddhist was that the fundamental nature of the mind is so vast that it completely transcends intellectual understanding. It can’t be described in words or reduced to tidy concepts. For someone like me, who likes words and feels very comfortable with conceptual explanations, this was a problem.
In Sanskrit, the language in which the Buddha’s teachings were originally recorded, the fundamental nature of the mind is called tathagatagarbha, which is a very subtle and tricky description. Literally, it means “the nature of those who have gone that way.” “Those who have gone that way” are the people who have attained complete enlightenment - in other words, people whose minds have completely surpassed ordinary limitations that can be described in words.
Not a lot of help there, I think you’ll agree.
Other, less literal translations have variously rendered tathagatagarbha as “Buddha nature,” “true nature,” “enlightened essence,” “ordinary mind,” and even “natural mind” - none of which sheds much light on the real meaning of the word itself. To really understand tathagatagarbha, you have to experience it directly, which for most of us occurs initially in the form of quick, spontaneous glimpses. And when I finally experienced my first glimpse, I realized that everything the Buddhist texts said about it was true.
For most of us, our natural mind or Buddha nature is obscured by the limited self-image created by habitual neuronal patterns - which, in themselves, are simply a reflection of the unlimited capacity of the mind to create any condition it chooses. Natural mind is capable of producing anything, even ignorance of its own nature. In other words, not recognizing natural mind is simply an example of the mind’s unlimited capacity to create whatever it wants. Whenever we feel fear, sadness, jealousy, desire, or any other emotion that contributes to our sense of vulnerability or weakness, we should give ourselves a nice pat on the back. We’ve just experienced the unlimited nature of the mind.
Although the true nature of the mind can’t be described directly, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to develop some theoretical understanding about it. Even a limited understanding is at least a sign-post, pointing the way toward direct experience. The Buddha understood that experiences impossible to describe in words could best be explained through stories and metaphors. In one text, he compared tathagatagarbha to a nugget of gold covered with mud and dirt.
Imagine you’re a treasure hunter. One day you discover a chunk of metal in the ground. You dig a hole, pull out the metal, take it home, and start to clean it. At first, one corner of the nugget reveals itself, bright and shining. Gradually, as you wash away the accumulated dirt and mud, the whole chunk is revealed as gold. So let me ask: Which is more valuable - the chunk of gold buried in mud; or the one you cleaned? Actually, the value is equal. Any difference between the dirty nugget and the clean is superficial.
The same can be said of natural mind. The neuronal gossip that keeps you from seeing your mind in its fullness doesn’t really change the fundamental nature of your mind. Thoughts like “I’m ugly,” “I’m stupid,” or “I’m boring” are nothing more than a kind of biological mud, temporarily obscuring the brilliant qualities of Buddha nature, or natural mind.
Sometimes the Buddha compared natural mind to space, not necessarily as space is understood by modern science, but rather in the poetic sense of the profound experience of openness one feels when looking up at a cloudless sky or entering a very large room. Like space, natural mind isn’t dependent on prior causes or conditions. It simply is: immeasurable and beyond characterization, the essential background through which we move and relative to which we recognize distinctions between the objects we perceive.
In natural mind, there is no rejection or acceptance, no loss or gain.
- THE THIRD GYALWANG KARMAPA,
Song of Karmapa: The Aspiration of the Mahamudra of True Meaning, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang
I’d like to make it clear that the comparison between natural mind and space as described by modern science is really more of a useful metaphor than an exact description. When most of us think of space, we think of a blank background against which all sorts of things appear and disappear: stars, planets, comets, meteors, black holes, and asteroids - even things that haven’t yet been discovered. Yet, despite all this activity, our idea of the essential nature of space remains undisturbed. As far as we know, at least, space has yet to complain about what happens within itself. We’ve sent thousands - millions - of messages out into the universe, and never once have we received a response like “I am so angry that an asteroid just smashed into my favorite planet” or “Wow, I’m thrilled! A new star has just come into being!”
In the same way, the essence of mind is untouched by unpleasant thoughts or conditions that might ordinarily be considered painful. It’s naturally peaceful, like the mind of a young child accompanying his parents through a museum. While his parents are completely caught up in judging and evaluating the various works of art on display, the child merely sees. He doesn’t wonder how much some piece of art might have cost, how old a statue is, or whether one painter’s work is better than another’s. His perspective is completely innocent, accepting everything it beholds. This innocent perspective is known in Buddhist terms as “natural peace,” a condition similar to the sensation of total relaxation a person experiences after, say, going to the gym or completing a complicated task.
This experience is illustrated very nicely by an old story about a king who had ordered the construction of a new palace. When the new building was finished, he was faced with the problem of secretly transferring all his treasure - gold, jewels, statues, and other objects - from the old palace to the new one. He couldn’t perform this task by himself, because his time was taken up with performing all his royal duties, but there weren’t many people in his court that he could trust to carry out the job without stealing some of the treasure for themselves. He knew of one loyal general, though, whom he could trust to carry out the job in complete secrecy and with great efficiency.
So the king summoned the general and explained to him that, as he was the only trustworthy person at court, he would like him to take upon himself the task of moving all the treasures from the old palace to the new one. The most important part of the job, aside from the secrecy, was that the transfer had to be completed in a single day. If the general could accomplish this, the king promised in return to bestow upon him vast tracts of rich farmland, stately mansions, gold, jewels - enough wealth, in fact, to allow him to retire in comfort for the rest of his life.
The general accepted the assignment willingly, dazzled by the prospect of being able to accumulate enough wealth in a single day’s work to guarantee that his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren could spend their days in comfort and splendor.
The general woke early the next morning and set himself to moving the king’s treasures from the old palace to the new one, running back and forth along secret passage ways with boxes and chests of gold and jewels, and allowing himself only one brief rest for lunch to keep his strength up. Finally he succeeded in transferring the last of the king’s treasure to the storehouse in the new palace, and just as the sun set, he went to the king and reported that the task was complete. The king congratulated him and handed him all the deeds and titles to the rich lands he’d been promised, and the gold and jewels that were part of the bargain as well.
When he returned home, the general took a hot bath, dressed him-self in comfortable robes, and, with a deep sigh, settled himself on a pile of soft cushions in his private room, exhausted but contented that he’d successfully completed the incredibly difficult task he’d been assigned. Experiencing a complete sense of confidence and accomplishment, he was just able to let go and experience the freedom of being exactly as he was in that moment.
This perfectly effortless state of relaxation is what is meant by natural peace.
As with so many aspects of natural mind, the experience of natural peace is so far beyond what we normally consider relaxation that it defies description. In classical Buddhist texts, it’s compared to offering candy to a mute. The mute undoubtedly experiences the sweetness of the candy, but is powerless to describe it. In the same way, when we taste the natural peace of our own minds, the experience is unquestionably real, yet beyond our capacity to express in words.
So now, the next time you sit down to eat, if you should ask your-self, “What is it that thinks that this food tastes good - or not so good? What is it that recognizes eating?” don’t be surprised if you can’t answer at all. Congratulate yourself instead. When you can’t describe a powerful experience in words anymore, it’s a sign of progress. It means you’ve at least dipped your toes into the realm of the ineffable vastness of your true nature, a very brave step that many people, too comfortable with the familiarity of their discontent, lack the courage to take.
The Tibetan word for meditation, gom, literally means “becoming familiar with,” and Buddhist meditation practice is really about becoming familiar with the nature of your own mind - a bit like getting to know a friend on deeper and deeper levels. Also like getting to know a friend, discovering the nature of your mind is a gradual process.
Rarely does it occur all at once. The only difference between meditation and ordinary social interaction is that the friend you’re gradually coming to know is yourself.
GETTING TO KNOW YOUR NATURAL MIND
If an inexhaustible treasure were buried in the ground beneath a poor man’s house, the man would not know of it, and the treasure would not speak and tell him, “I am here!”
- MAITREYA, The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra, translated by Rosemarie Fuchs
The Buddha often compared natural mind to water, which in its essence is always clear and clean. Mud, sediment, and other impurities may temporarily darken or pollute the water, but we can filter away such impurities and restore its natural clarity. If water weren’t naturally clear, no matter how many filters you used, it would not become clear.
The first step toward recognizing the qualities of natural mind is illustrated by an old story told by the Buddha, about a very poor man who lived in a rickety old shack. Though he didn’t know it, hundreds of gems were embedded in the walls and floor of his shack. Though he owned all those jewels, because he didn’t understand their value, he lived as a pauper - suffering from hunger and thirst, the bitter cold of winter and the terrible heat of summer.
One day a friend of his asked him, “Why are you living like such a pauper? You’re not poor. You’re a very rich man.”
“Are you crazy?” the man replied. “How can you say such a thing?”
“Look around you,” his friend said. “Your whole house is filled with jewels - emeralds, diamonds, sapphires, rubies.”
At first the man didn’t believe what his friend was saying. But after a while he grew curious, and took a small jewel from his walls into town to sell. Unbelievably, the merchant to whom he brought it paid him a very handsome price, and with the money in hand, the man returned to town and bought a new house, taking with him all the jewels he could find. He bought himself new clothes, filled his kitchen with food, engaged servants, and began to live a very comfortable life.
Now let me ask a question. Who is wealthier - the man who lives in an old house surrounded by jewels he doesn’t recognize, or someone who understands the value of what he has and lives in total comfort?
Like the question posed earlier about the nugget of gold, the answer here is: both. They both owned great wealth. The only difference is that for many years one didn’t recognize what he possessed. It wasn’t until he recognized what he already had that he freed himself from poverty and pain.
It’s the same for all of us. As long as we don’t recognize our real nature, we suffer. When we recognize our nature, we become free from suffering. Whether you recognize it or not, though, its qualities remain unchanged. But when you begin to recognize it in yourself, you change, and the quality of your life changes as well. Things you never dreamed possible begin to happen.
MIND, BIOLOGY, OR BOTH?
The Buddha abides in your own body. . . .
- Tlie Samputa Tantra, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
Just because something hasn’t been identified doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We’ve already seen this in the attempt to concretely identify the location of the mind: While there’s ample evidence of mental activity, no scientist has been able to confirm the existence of the mind itself. Likewise, no scientist has been able to precisely define the nature and properties of space at the most fundamental level. Yet we know we have a mind, and we can’t deny the existence of space. Mind and space are concepts deeply ingrained in our culture. We’re familiar with these ideas. They feel normal and, to some degree, quite ordinary.
Notions such as “natural mind” and “natural peace” don’t enjoy the same degree of familiarity, however. Consequently, many people approach them with a certain amount of skepticism. Yet it would be fair to say that by using the same processes of inference and direct experience, we can gain at least some familiarity with natural mind.
The Buddha taught that the reality of natural mind could be demonstrated by a certain sign obvious to everyone, posed in the form of a question and an answer. The question was “In general, what is the one area of concern shared by all people?”
When I ask this same question in public teachings, people give a number of different answers. Some people answer that the main concern is staying alive, being happy avoiding suffering, or being loved. Other replies include peace, progress, eating, and breathing; not changing anything; and improving living circumstances. Still other responses include being in harmony with oneself and others or understanding the meaning of life or the fear of death. One answer I find especially funny is “Me!”
Every answer is absolutely correct. They just represent different aspects of the ultimate reply.
The basic concern shared by all beings - humans, animals, and insects alike - is the desire to be happy and to avoid suffering.
Although each of us may have a different strategy, in the end we’re all working for the same result. Even ants never stay still, even for a second. They’re running around all the time, gathering food and building or expanding their nests. Why do they go to so much trouble? To find some kind of happiness and avoid suffering.
The Buddha said that the desire to achieve lasting happiness and to avoid unhappiness is the one unmistakable sign of the presence of natural mind. There are in fact many other indicators, but listing them all would probably require another book. So why did the Buddha assign such importance to this one particular sign?
Because the true nature of all living creatures is already completely free from suffering and endowed with perfect happiness: In seeking happiness and avoiding unhappiness, regardless of how we go about it, we’re all just expressing the essence of who we are.
The yearning most of us feel for a lasting happiness is the “small, still voice” of the natural mind, reminding us of what we’re really capable of experiencing. The Buddha illustrated this longing through the example of a mother bird that has left her nest. No matter how beautiful the place she has flown to, no matter how many new and interesting things she sees there, something keeps pulling her to return to her nest. In the same way, no matter how absorbing daily life might be - no matter how great it may temporarily feel to fall in love, receive praise, or get the “perfect” job - the yearning for a state of complete, uninterrupted happiness pulls at us.
In a sense, we’re homesick for our true nature.
We need to recognize our basic state.
- TSOKNYI RINPOCHE, Carefree Dignity, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang and Marcia Binder Schmidt
According to the Buddha, the basic nature of mind can be directly experienced simply by allowing the mind to rest simply as it is. How do we accomplish this? Let’s return to the story about the general charged with moving the king’s treasure from one place to another in a single day, and remember how relaxed and contented he felt once he’d finished the job. As he sat on his cushions after his bath, his mind was completely at rest. Thoughts were still bubbling up, but he was content to let them rise and fall without hanging on to any of them or following any of them through.
You’ve probably experienced something similar after finishing a long and difficult job, whether it involved physical labor or the type of mental effort involved in writing a report or completing some sort of financial analysis. When you finish the job, your mind and body naturally come to rest in a state of happy exhaustion.
So let’s try a brief exercise in resting the mind. This is not a meditation exercise. In fact, it’s an exercise in “non-meditation” - a very old Buddhist practice that, as my father explained it, takes the pressure off thinking you have to achieve a goal or experience some sort of special state. In non-meditation, we just watch whatever happens without interfering. We’re merely interested observers of a kind of introspective experiment, with no investment in how the experiment turns out.
Of course, when I first learned this, I was still a pretty goal-oriented child. I wanted something wonderful to happen every time I sat down to meditate. So it took me a while to get the hang of just resting, just looking, and letting go of the results.
First, assume a position in which your spine is straight, and your body is relaxed. Once your body is positioned comfortably, allow your mind to simply rest for three minutes or so. Just let your mind go, as though you’ve just finished a long and difficult task.
Whatever happens, whether thoughts or emotions occur, whether you notice some physical discomfort, whether you’re aware of sounds or smells around you, or your mind is a total blank, don’t worry. Anything that happens - or doesn’t happen - is simply part of the experience of allowing your mind to rest.
So now, just rest in the awareness of whatever is passing through your mind. . . .
Just rest. . . .
Just rest. . . .
When the three minutes are up, ask yourself, How was that experience? Don’t judge it; don’t try to explain it. Just review what happened and how you felt. You might have experienced a brief taste of peace or openness. That’s good. Or you might have been aware of a million different thoughts, feelings, and sensations. That’s also good. Why? Because either way, as long as you’ve maintained at least a bare awareness of what you were thinking or feeling, you’ve had a direct glimpse of your own mind just performing its natural functions.
So let me confide in you a big secret. Whatever you experience when you simply rest your attention on whatever’s going on in your mind at any given moment is meditation. Simply resting in this way is the experience of natural mind.
The only difference between meditation and the ordinary, everyday process of thinking, feeling, and sensation is the application of the simple, bare awareness that occurs when you allow your mind to rest simply as it is - without chasing after thoughts or becoming distracted by feelings or sensations.
It took me a long time to recognize how easy meditation really is, mainly because it seemed so completely ordinary, so close to my everyday habits of perception, that I rarely stopped to acknowledge it. Like many of the people I now meet on teaching tours, I thought that natural mind had to be something else, something different from, or better than, what I was already experiencing.
Like most people, I brought so much judgment to my experience. I believed that thoughts of anger, anxiety, fear, and so on that came and went throughout the day were bad or counterproductive - or at the very least inconsistent with natural peace! The teachings of the Buddha - and the lesson inherent in this exercise in non-meditation - is that if we allow ourselves to relax and take a mental step back, we can begin to recognize that all these different thoughts are simply coming and going within the context of an unlimited mind, which, like space, remains fundamentally unperturbed by whatever occurs within it.
In fact, experiencing natural peace is easier than drinking water. In order to drink, you have to expend effort. You have to reach for the glass, bring it to your lips, tip the glass so the water pours into your mouth, swallow the water, and then put the glass down. No such effort is required to experience natural peace. All you have to do is rest your mind in its natural openness. No special focus, no special effort, is required.
And if for some reason you cannot rest your mind, you can simply observe whatever thoughts, feelings, or sensations come up, hang out for a couple of seconds, and then disappear, and acknowledge, “Oh, that’s what’s going on in my mind right now.”
Wherever you are, whatever you do, it’s essential to acknowledge your experience as something ordinary, the natural expression of your true mind. If you don’t try to stop whatever is going on in your mind, but merely observe it, eventually you’ll begin to feel a tremendous sense of relaxation, a vast sense of openness within your mind - which is in fact your natural mind, the naturally unperturbed background against which various thoughts come and go. At the same time, you’ll be awakening new neuronal pathways, which, as they grow stronger and more deeply connected, enhance your capacity to tolerate the cascade of thoughts rushing through your mind at any given moment. Whatever disturbing thoughts do arise will act as catalysts that stimulate your awareness of the natural peace that surrounds and permeates these thoughts, the way space surrounds and permeates every particle of the phenomenal world.
But now it’s time to leave the general introduction to the mind and begin to examine its characteristics in more detail. You may wonder why it’s necessary to know anything more about natural mind. Isn’t a general understanding enough? Can’t we just skip to the practices right now?
Think of it this way: If you were driving in the dark, wouldn’t you feel better having a map of the terrain, instead of just a rough idea of where you were going? Without a map, and without any signs to guide you, you could get lost. You might find yourself taking all sorts of wrong turns and side roads, making the trip longer and more complicated than necessary. You could wind up traveling in circles. Sure, you might eventually end up where you want to go - but the journey would be a lot easier if you knew where you were going. So think of the next two chapters as a map, a set of guidelines and signposts that can help you get where you want to go more quickly.