Mahamudra by The Great Path to Enlightenment (Part 1 of 3)by Khenchen Sherab Gyaltsen Amipa
The essence of Buddha’s teaching is loving compassion, for Buddha’s nature is loving compassion. Wisdom develops from loving compassion and leads to enlightenment. This particular Mahamudra practice comes from the Lam Dre. Maha means “great” and mudra means “spiritual posture”. In this case, mudra signifies love, compassion and wisdom as the path to enlightenment.
Lam means “way”, Dre means “fruitful”, “leading to completion or success”, so Lam Dre signifies the fruitful path, by which is meant the path leading to the fruit of enlightenment.
The Lam Dre goes back to the Mahasiddha Virupa and from him through Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, it was transmitted to the Sakya Order, where it represents a root practice. Primarily, it is concerned with the development of Mahamudra and Mahakaruna. The goal, which is enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, is reached through a series of practices. A more exact description follows later.
The Lam Dre has two parts: Sutra and Tantra. The Mahamudra practice consists of a preparation and three parts, namely, foundation, path and goal. In the preliminary exercises the aim is to accumulate merit. The foundation lays the groundwork for the training of the mind, that is, the development of relative and absolute Bodhicitta. The path consists of the six paramitas, samatha: uncommon or extraordinary concentration (Tibetan: shiney) and vipashyana: uncommon or extraordinary insight (Tibetan: lhag- tong). The goal is enlightenment or Mahamudra of which two different expressions refer to one and the same state.
The accumulation of merit is obtained through: 1. Taking refuge 2. Prostrations 3. Meditation and the practice of Bodhicitta 4. Mandala offering 5. The purification practice of Vajrasattva 6. Guru yoga
In Mahayana Buddhism taking refuge is of great importance, since it opens up to us the possibility of following the right path. Whether we are meditating on loving compassion and bodhicitta, or on samadhi and vipashyana, we always take refuge at the beginning of any meditation session.
In common ordinary refuge, the object of refuge is what we call the Three Jewels (Sanskrit: triratna): Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
The first object is Buddha, the fully enlightened one. Though there is more than one Buddha, we have a special connection with Buddha Shakyamuni. He had already reached enlightenment a long time before but because of our good karmic relationship with him he re-incarnated yet again. He left the Pure Land of Tushita and was reborn in Lumbini. On the night of his conception his mother dreamed of a white elephant. Immediately after his birth Buddha took seven steps and at each step a lotus blossomed. He had chosen a royal family in which to be reborn, and to begin with, he lived in great luxury in his father’s royal palace. On his excursions outside the palace, which he undertook without his family’s knowledge, he saw people who were old, sick and dying. This suffering affected him so much that he left his family and the palace, withdrew into solitude and exercised great renunciation.
Although he was already enlightened, he followed the path of human life, so as to serve as an example. This too is a form of renunciation. There are many different kinds of renunciation, the most important being to renounce suffering. The Buddha became a hermit and meditated for six years during which time he accumulated many virtues. One night, sitting in deep meditation under a tree in Bodhgaya, he vanquished all the maras. By maras we mean the five non- virtues. They are not external to us, but come from within ourselves. During this meditation Buddha reached full enlightenment. He then travelled to Sarnath where he gave his first teaching on the Four Noble Truths, the basis of our practice.
Buddha Shakyamuni gave many other teachings pertaining to Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. In this way he gave everyone a possible path to enlightenment corresponding to their varied aptitudes, outlook and station in life.
When we take refuge we think of the explanations Buddha Shakyamuni gave, his compassionate nature and his activities for the benefit of all living beings. We then develop a deep yearning to realise these qualities in ourselves.
The second object of refuge is the Dharma. “Dharma” is Buddha-nature, that is, Buddha’s wisdom and knowledge. “Dharma” is also the path. As we come to a deeper understanding we realize that “Dharma” is also our own innate wisdom. At the beginning of our practice we take refuge in the Dharma. When we have developed our consciousness and reached the state of Mahamudra, we take refuge in our own original mind, for the Dharma is our own original mind, the opposite being ignorance and non-virtue. In order to deepen our understanding of the Dharma we need to study the scriptures and to hear teachings, then to reflect upon and practise what we have read and heard.
The third object of refuge is the Sangha, the holy community of Bodhisattvas. All those who practise correctly and fervently also belong to the Sangha. Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are the three objects in common ordinary refuge. When we focus our attention on them we take the Buddha as our doctor, the Dharma as the medicine and the Sangha as our helpful carers. The person who takes refuge is like someone who is sick. We need a great deal of patience in order to get well as our ignorance is a severe illness. We need a good doctor, the right medicine and someone who can take good care of us. If we follow the exact prescriptions of our doctor, take the right medicine and recover our health, we may also one day become doctors ourselves. However, as long as we suffer from our illness we must do as the doctor says. Not to follow the holy Dharma is to be like a sick person who does not listen to the doctor or take the prescribed medicine. The Dharma demands correct and virtuous behaviour of us, and this is our medicine. Our aim is to obtain peace and happiness, but if we behave nonvirtuously and without kindness, we will achieve the exact opposite.
It is also possible to take refuge in four, five, even six objects, that is, in the Guru, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, Dharmapalas and Yidam. If we take refuge in four objects, then the fourth object, the Guru, is put first. We can also take refuge in five objects. The fifth object specifies the Dharmapalas or Protectors (Guardians). They have received a mission from the Buddha to protect those who are seriously practising the Dharma. The sixth object is the Yidam. A Yidam is a divinity given to us by our guru and with whom we build up a personal meditation practice.
Taking refuge is not only important for beginners in the Buddhist practice but it continues to be necessary until we reach enlightenment.
We carry out prostrations with the “three gates”: body, speech and mind. Before beginning we take refuge and should generate the enlightenment thought, that is Bodhicitta. We should then stand upright and put the palms of our hands together at the level of our heart. The right hand symbolises wisdom, the left hand method, the two elements which are fundamental to the conduct of all Mahayana practices. We then raise the folded hands so that the wrists touch the top of our head. This signifies the desire to be reborn in a peaceful Buddha-land. Next we hold the hands in turn in front of the forehead, throat and heart. This purifies any faults of body, speech and mind. We separate our hands as a sign of the activity of the Samboghakaya and kneel down with the feet close together. In this way we express the gradual steps towards the completion of the five paths and the ten Bodhisattva- bhumis. We bow down and touch the ground with the forehead to symbolise the wish to reach the eleventh Bodhisattva-bhumi.
Prostrations stretch the energy channels along the spine. In this way blockages are loosened and energy flows unhindered. On rising we are symbolically released from the sufferings of samsara. We should take care to keep the back straight so that air flows freely through the main channel, the kundalini.
To obtain the full blessing of this practice we should follow the instructions very precisely and control our mental and bodily attitude carefully throughout.
MEDITATION AND PRACTICE OF BODHICITTA
If we have developed our mind through correct and continuous practice to the point where no ignorance remains, we produce a deep wish within us to reach enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. To achieve this, we practise giving and taking which is part of the Bodhicitta practice (Tibetan: tong len).
With clear consciousness and free from ignorance, we visualise in front of us someone who suffers from ignorance or other problems. At the same time we experience the deep wish to free them from their suffering through our meditation. Our compassion then is as pure as the sun or moonlight. If we have chosen someone who is sick, then this light goes exactly to the seat of their pain. At this point, the power of our virtue is so great that it purifies the illness. This method is also helpful in cases where conventional medicine is no longer effective.
Giving and taking means transmitting our happiness and peace to others and taking all their sufferings and difficulties upon ourselves, thereby freeing them. Many people are afraid that they will lose their peace and themselves incur the sufferings of others, but if our serenity is strong enough, nothing can happen to us. We will have developed so much strength through practice and meditation that we can give our own serenity to the person who is suffering.
A further meditation practice consists of imagining that our nature is full of happiness and peacefulness and then we give these qualities to all those who are suffering. This exchange encourages the development of Bodhicitta.
Our consciousness can be compared to a jewel or to gold. When the precious jewel is taken from the earth, it needs to be cleaned and cut. On the spiritual level, this is accomplished through the training of the mind. Our original consciousness is a precious jewel; our ignorance is the dirt covering it. Through the development of the mind we experience a deep desire to find more effective ways of helping others. For this we need the right practice which leads to absolute Bodhicitta and so to the best way of helping other living beings.
The mandala offering helps to transform body, speech and mind into the form of the universe. We then offer this universe, and in so doing we accumulate virtue. The study of Buddhist philosophy is not enough in itself if we wish to understand shunyata, we also need an accumulation of virtue.
VAJRASATTVA PURIFICATION PRACTICE
There are two kinds of purification:
1. Common or ordinary purification through which incorrect attitudes of body, speech and mind are purified. We can also purify negative karmas and nonvirtues in this way. The practice can also help us to relieve many spiritual, mental or bodily illnesses for which there is no suitable medicine, since they arise out of negative karmic connections.
2. Uncommon or extraordinary purification through the Vajrasattva meditation: through the blessing of Vajrasattva, our body, speech and mind can take on his qualities. An initiation is required for this purification.
Guru yoga plays a special role in Mahayana since many practices such as the path by which enlightenment can be reached in one lifetime, are not possible without the help of a qualified guru. In addition, the guru watches over our mental training and oversees our development. The guru’s energy helps us to make more rapid progress.
The Guru yoga practice gives us a very special blessing.
If we wish to have more information about Guru yoga, we need more precise instructions from a qualified guru.
3. THE FOUNDATION
TRAINING OF THE MIND
The aim of training the mind is to transform it. We can reach this goal by learning to behave virtuously, that is, by being free from all doubt and by developing respect, faith, love and compassion.
If we earnestly wish to practise the Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, we should harm no living being, but on the contrary, strive to help all beings. However, if we desire to help, we must first learn what help is needed. This means that we must first of all reflect on the innumerable sufferings of samsara so that we can recognise them. Nevertheless, true clarity can only be achieved through the development of deep compassion as well as intellectual understanding.
On this path, above all, we must learn to abandon our way of looking at life exclusively from our self centred point of view. Ego and attachment generate the greatest sufferings of samsara, while at the same time they are the very cause of samsara.
At Sarnath in his first teaching after his enlightenment, Buddha showed us the way to liberation from samsara. We call this teaching the sermon of the Four Noble Truths.
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
The first noble truth is the truth of suffering. It says all life in samsara is suffering. Even when we feel happy momentarily, we do not know how long this happiness will last. We are all subject to the sufferings of illness, birth and death and we are not able to protect ourselves from them.
The second noble truth is the truth concerning the cause of suffering. Here Buddha points to the fact that we are the cause of our own suffering created by the false view that ego and attachment impose upon us.
The third noble truth is the truth of the cessation of suffering. This means that our suffering will end when we have recognised that our false view and ignorance are the root of evil, and have renounced them.
The fourth noble truth is the truth of the path of release from suffering. In order to end our suffering, we must put aside the erroneous belief that our own self and all other phenomena exist of themselves, independently of cause and effect.
If we observe our lives, we note that this or that annoys us or that something is not proceeding as we would like. We lose people and things we love and cannot protect ourselves from those whom we do not love. Time robs us of the attraction of what we desire. We are constantly under the threat of mental and physical illness, catastrophes and unpleasant incidents. Old age reduces our strength and dulls our senses. We become weaker, sometimes apathetic and severely limited mentally. In the end, we die.
This is samsara. By definition, it implies difficulties, worry and relentless suffering.
EGO AND ATTACHMENT
However the misery of samsara is not produced by any higher being but by ourselves.
The greatest evil and chief cause is our ego. Ego means “only me”, “me alone and no-one else”. The ego considers itself to be the centre of the world and thinks all else should be at its service. It only recognizes itself and has no room for others. It snatches all that appears desirable and defends itself against anything which feels threatening. This is how attachment and hatred arise. Such narrowing of the mind inevitably results in insecurity, because those who are blind to all but themselves, without feeling, live in a strange menacing world. These people cannot even trust themselves. The result is constant, tormenting doubt and lack of inner peace.
Ego, attachment and ignorance are thus the three root illnesses from which we all suffer. Though it seems to us that we suffer many ills, in reality, they are all merely effects of the ego. In order to free ourselves from them, we must give up false representations and recognize that we are subject to the law of cause and effect. The first step towards this is to think less of self and more of others. There is no difference between them and us. We are all striving towards happiness and wish to avoid suffering. When we consider how many other people there are in comparison to one person, we realise that others are more important than us. This kind of attitude helps us to open the prison of our self-centredness. We discover a world inhabited by others like ourselves and recognise in ourselves unlimited freeing thoughts. For this reason it is a fundamental principle in Mahayana never to practise for oneself alone but always for the benefit of all living beings.
The ego and the “I” are not identical. The ego or “me alone” can be defined as egocentricity or selflove. The “I” is neutral. The “I” is what is active in us. Sometimes it only takes care of itself, imprisoned in the representation of the ego or it may endeavour to help others. This “I” seeks enlightenment. It is this “I” which expresses the wish to practise at the beginning of every sadhana.
Ignorance is the opposite of wisdom. Ignorance has two aspects, a common or ordinary aspect and an uncommon or extraordinary one. Ordinary ignorance accompanies us in our daily lives. It produces innumerable sufferings and difficulties. By extraordinary ignorance we mean that our consciousness is not sufficiently clear. We have not studied enough and do not know the different aspects of the Dharma. We are unable to observe and control our own mind. Our thoughts are confused and we find it difficult to distinguish right from wrong.
Ignorance is purified when the mind no longer depends on samsara. We will then have achieved the nature of a Bodhisattva, fully released from ignorance.
Buddha himself designated karma as the result of earlier deliberate actions. Intentionally carried out, these actions are the source of happiness and suffering both in the present and in future lives, and the cause of rebirth in the samsaric cycle.
There are two types of karma, non-virtuous and virtuous. If, for example, in one life we impose suffering on another apparently separate being, then inevitably this will have negative effects on us as well, for all living beings are united. Only our ignorance leads us to believe that we can gain from harmful behaviour towards others. If we think that at the end of our life everything we have done is wiped out and forgotten, we are still succumbing to our ignorance. We will experience in our next life discord and pain because of it. If, on the contrary, we have helped someone to the best of our ability, then our karmic connections will help make one of our next lives a peaceful one.
We can also alter our karma. Buddha’s teachings show us ways and means by which we can produce the cause of positive effects and avoid the cause of negative results. We can purify non-virtuous karma through renunciation, accumulation of virtue, and above all through purification practices, such as the Buddha Vajrasattva practice.
Through his teaching on the Four Noble Truths, Buddha shows us how to change our state of involvement. Anyone who is suffering mentally can alleviate both their own suffering and that of others through the development of loving compassion.
This means that we must first of all feel love towards ourselves. As long as we do not accept ourselves we have nothing with which to produce loving compassion or Bodhicitta. This present precious human body and precious mind are all that we have to reach enlightenment. It is only as human beings that we have this possibility. Nor can we alter anything that goes wrong in our lives without first accepting ourselves.
If we find it difficult to accept ourselves and others, we should call to mind that we all have Buddhanature already within us. It is just that we are not aware of this in our present ignorant condition. Ignorance is indeed the reason why we are subject to the sufferings of samsara. If, however, we give the right care to the seed of our Buddha-nature, it will grow into a plant and unfold itself. We will develop the ability to turn towards all beings with love and be able to protect them, for Buddha-nature, as it grows, awakens in us the desire also to liberate all those who like us suffer in samsara.
THE PRACTICE OF LOVING COMPASSION
There is a particular practice directed towards the development of loving compassion. We visualise in meditation someone who is close to us. Usually our own mother is taken as the object of contemplation. We can also visualise anyone who has been particularly good to us. We feel their suffering and develop the sincere desire to free them from it. In order to be really capable of this we must first develop a rich warm feeling of loving compassion towards ourselves, and feel it within our own body. Only then can we direct it towards others.
After we have thought of our mother or some other person who has been good to us, we can develop loving compassion towards those who are our enemies. Someone who always treats others with respect may have only a few enemies. However, since enmity in this life also goes back to karmic connections, an individual may not be well disposed towards us. The cause may be negative actions that we have done to that person in an earlier life. This is how false views in our present life arise and for this reason enemies are extremely helpful in our practice; meeting them gives us the opportunity to free ourselves of these false opinions.
This is why we treat our enemies with respect and we strive to practise loving compassion, steadfast in our belief in karma and the Dharma. In our mind and in meditation, we give our enemies all our accumulated virtues, all our merit. We have the desire to make friends with them and the wish that they may be freed from all their suffering. If we succeed in purifying all our negative feelings of anger and rage, then, even though the whole world turns against us, we have no enemies. Our own anger is our worst enemy. However, it would be useless to repress our anger out of fear of the negative effects on our accumulation of virtue. If we feel anger arising in us, we should try to recognise its root. If this is not possible at the time because we are too angry, at least we should attempt to develop loving compassion as an antidote. It is only when anger no longer arises, when our nature has become entirely gentle and kind, that we can help those who need our help.
Mahakaruna links our loving compassion with the desire to liberate other living beings from their suffering whether bodily or mental. “Maha” means great and “karuna” is compassion. Mahakaruna is the most important prerequisite for the practice of Bodhicitta.
There are three possibilities:
1. THE FIRST MAHAKARUNA MEDITATION PRACTICE:
We visualise someone who is in great difficulty. We then reflect on the source of these difficulties: non-virtue. Non- virtue has its source in ignorance. In order to protect ourselves, we practise the ten virtuous actions daily, with a clear understanding of non-virtue (see below: virtue).
Nobody wishes to experience suffering. Since suffering is produced by non-virtue, we must avoid non-virtue. Just as we do not wish suffering for ourselves, other living beings also wish to be free from it. Through our heart-felt desire to help them realise this aim, we are able to find real liberation from the sufferings of samsara both for ourselves and for others.
In this way we can meditate for the person whose suffering we have visualised.
2. THE SECOND MAHAKARUNA MEDITATION PRACTICE:
We visualise someone whose ignorance is great. Even such a person can lessen their ignorance, above all by hearing Dharma teachings, reflecting on them and by doing the practices. We meditate with the deep desire that the ignorance of this person, who does not know the Dharma, may be purified.
Consciousness is in itself pure and free from non-virtue. If it is sullied it can be purified through teachings and practice. This is an extremely important point. Wisdom and ignorance are opposite poles. Ignorance diminishes in proportion to the development of wisdom. We therefore meditate for this person in such a way that they may be freed from ignorance.
3. THE THIRD MAHAKARUNA MEDITATION PRACTICE:
This meditation concerns attachment.
Since our life is impermanent and insecure, a desire to possess things or people sooner or later leads to suffering. Attachment goes hand in hand with ignorance. As long as we hold on to something, we cannot be free. This is not the same as holding on to the desire for enlightenment. No suffering can arise from this.
In order to release ourselves from our attachment, we should think about the reason for our re-birth in this universe. The reason is to be found in our strong ego that always gives rise to attachment and self centredness. Little by little we can undo this greedy craving, which is like a cramp inside us, through the desire to reach enlightenment, through loving compassion and attention to other living beings. We meditate in this way so that the person we wish to help may be released and freed from attachment.
However, before we can help others through our practice of Bodhicitta and Mahakaruna, we must change our own nature through our daily practice. It is only when our nature has become gentle and our mind free that we can really practise Bodhicitta for the benefit of other beings.
Bodhicitta can be relative or absolute. Relative Bodhicitta is the wish to develop the enlightenment thought for the benefit of all living beings. Absolute Bodhicitta is the enlightenment thought itself. It gives rise to our complete liberation from samsara through the recognition that neither phenomena nor we ourselves exist independently, but that everything comes into existence dependent on cause and effect.
In order to practise relative Bodhicitta, we take refuge and direct our thought deeply and sincerely to the idea that we must become a Buddha as quickly as possible for only a Buddha has the skills necessary to help liberate all living beings from the sufferings of samsara.
In this way our whole nature is filled with love, compassion and strength. We see the innumerable sufferings of living beings and have the wish to help them. In fact, there are different ways of helping someone who is in difficulty: we can offer relative help, that is, material means of sustaining the body, such as food or clothing or medicine in the case of illness. If the problem is mental, we can offer advice or comfort. In this way, we will only alleviate acute suffering and help to remove the symptoms for a time, while the cause of suffering remains.
We need far-reaching methods in order to help people recognise the cause of suffering. We can help most effectively if we transform our own body, speech and mind through the development of virtue.
Virtue signifies protection. When we behave correctly, not harming others but lovingly exerting ourselves on their behalf, that is, when we avoid the ten non-virtuous acts, we protect others as well as ourselves.
The ten non-virtuous activities are:
a) the non-virtuous activities of the body 1. killing 2. stealing 3. sexual misconduct
b) the non-virtuous activities of speech 1. untrue speech 2. harsh speech 3. slander 4. useless chatter
c) the non-virtuous activities of the mind 1. greed 2. enmity 3. attachment to wrong views
If we avoid these negative activities we will find ourselves less often in situations where we think we ought to act, yet are not clear as to the consequences of our acts. In this way the consequences of our activities will not come back to us from outside in the form of negative forces, limiting our freedom. Furthermore, we obtain inner and outer peace.
Since all living beings form an entity, we can share this peace with others as soon as we have attained it for ourselves. It is hardly possible to help others as long as we ourselves are lacking in compassion, peacefulness and patience, and are limited by our own suffering.
In the development of relative Bodhicitta we can also practise giving and taking. This means giving to others our good thoughts and the strength of our virtue and taking upon ourselves their troubles and pain. We need not be anxious about doing this or afraid of bringing catastrophe or illness upon ourselves. Our pure loving attitude will protect us while helping others.
For the meditation practice of absolute Bodhicitta we contemplate the Buddhas. We recognise their great compassion, their wisdom and their activities. We beseech them to grant all living beings these same abilities. Our mind then enters into Bodhicitta meditation and we experience the development of our nature. Day after day we obtain greater inner clarity, just like the moon growing from a small crescent to a full circle. Contrary to our original state of mind when we began our practice before purification, our mind becomes pure, strong and full of virtue.
A distinction is made between powerful and powerless virtues. Ordinary virtues can easily change: for example, they may disappear through anger or at least diminish greatly. Bodhicitta virtue on the other hand always keeps its quality. This is like a tree that is stripped bare in harvest-time while the wish-fulfilling Bodhicitta tree bears a richer harvest the more we pluck its fruit.
Someone who does not practise Bodhicitta leads an ordinary life; through the Bodhicitta practice our life is filled with the extraordinary power of virtue. This is also the difference between ordinary people and Buddhas. We all have Buddha-nature within us, but without Bodhicitta practice it is concealed under our ignorance. At the beginning of the practice, our mind is like the sky when clouds cover the sun and moon, we can no longer see them although they are shining. If, however, we allow the teachings to fully penetrate our being and practise regularly with attention, we drive away the clouds of ignorance and gradually Bodhicitta arises in us like the clear light of the sun or the moon. In reality, Bodhicitta is the essence of love, compassion and Mahakaruna, no different from our own unveiled pure mind, Buddha-nature. As soon as Bodhicitta arises in us we feel as though all beings were our children whom we wish to care for like a mother or a father.
Through the Bodhicitta practice our body, speech and mind are transformed, even our name. For those who have reached absolute Bodhicitta there is no more bodily suffering, no more illness. They are called Bodhisattvas.