Source of Mahamudra 2018 & 2019 Summaries

Year 1 - Source of Mahamudra 2018

Rinpoche began the program by speaking of the importance of mind training. These days, there is an increasing tendency for people to become alienated and stuck in negative thinking, especially as we get older. But as we lose the abilities of our youth, we can take advantage of this transition by letting go of our attachments. Practicing self-discipline to work with our negativity may not sound like the most attractive idea, but it’s crucial to confront our disturbing emotions rather than make lame excuses for them. When it dawns on us how much our attachments and our enslavement to this self keep us on an emotional rollercoaster that makes us crazy, we develop some renunciation. At that time, instead of being paralyzed by the fear of letting go, we can try not being so predictable, for example by saying, “Have a great time!” when our spouse wants to go out drinking with his or her buddies. We will find that instead of undergoing some kind of destruction, we discover new ways of being. Each time we take the opportunity to act unpredictably, we make headway in overcoming our shameless weaknesses. As we grow in strength and confidence, we will find that this self that seems to have so much control over us is merely a projection of our mind. 

At the same time as applying ourselves to overcome our negativity, we must also work to develop bodhicitta. All of us possess the innately tender heart of tsewa, and we’ve all had many joyful experiences of expressing and receiving its warmth. But tsewa does not become bodhicitta until we are able to express it freely to all beings. This unconditionality only comes about through wisdom—in particular, the wisdom that all beings are equal in wanting, needing, and having a right to happiness and freedom from suffering. But even if we understand this to be true, we may shut down our tsewa because of our grudges. Even a single grudge undermines our bodhicitta and perpetuates the cycle of karma. If our intention is to heal from our past hurts, there is no alternative to forgiveness. We should also recognize that everything we have in this life including our body is a gift of others. If we ignore this fact and have idiot loyalty to our contracting self, we will keep ourselves in darkness. But if we use our fortunate human life to cultivate our bodhicitta, we will go from light to light. 

Then Rinpoche clarified the term sonam, which is translated as merit, a term that can be confusing. We all have the intention to be happy and free from suffering, and we accumulate sonam through actions that are aligned with this intention. These actions have to be based on bodhicitta because whatever we do merely for the sake of our small self will only bring us more suffering. The positive side will always win out over the negative because wisdom always overcomes ignorance in the end. This is what makes the Buddha’s teachings so powerful and what gives us confidence and optimism as his followers. Here Rinpoche covered many levels and examples of the Buddha’s teachings. 

The Buddha first turned the Wheel of Dharma by giving us the Four Noble Truths, which present us the mechanism of suffering and freedom from suffering and show us how samsara can be transformed into nirvana. The Buddha gave us three kinds of training: observing moral discipline, developing concentration through shamatha practice, and developing the wisdom of relative and absolute vipassana. Of the three wisdoms—hearing, contemplating, and meditating—Rinpoche emphasized the importance of contemplating, without which attending teachings would be similar to going to the opera. 

In the second turning of the Wheel of Dharma, the Buddha taught on emptiness to clarify the difference between how things appear and how they are. The main purpose of these teachings is to break down our shenpa to reality. But overcoming this shenpa does not leave us with a void. There still remains the aware mind. 

The third turning, which is where the Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra falls, is mainly on this subject, known as luminosity. This is the primordial wisdom, known as jnana or yeshe, that is self-aware of the emptiness nature. When we speak of the emptiness side, we use the term dharmata, and when we speak of the awareness side, we say jnana, but these are not two separate things. Their union is the source of everything in the universe. 

The Uttaratantra Shastra, which came to us from the Buddha’s regent Maitreya through Arya Asanga, is a bridge between the Mahayana and the Vajrayana. It is a condensation of ten sutras and is one of the most popular texts in Tibet, where it has been studied for the last thousand years. It is part of the Mahayana category of vast and elaborate teachings, which focus on the paths and bhumis. 

The main part of the text covers the Seven Vajra Points. Vajra refers to something that can destroy everything, but can’t itself be destroyed. Here Vajra is analogous to the dharmata, which pervades all seven points: Buddha, dharma, sangha, element, enlightenment, qualities, and activities.

Before this main section is the traditional preliminary section, which begins with the name, Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra. Maha means greatness. There is the greatness of relative bodhicitta, with its vast vision to bring all beings to enlightenment. And there is the greatness of the nondual view, in which samsara, nirvana, and the path itself are all illusory. Our tragedy is that we don’t realize this illusory nature and cling to self and other as real. From here arise the need to cherish and protect the self, which gives birth to attachment and aggression, and their extensions, pride and jealousy. But all of these are based on the most painful and subtle emotion, deep mental fog. The five disturbing emotions naturally lead us to engage in negative actions of body, speech, and mind, which sow karmic seeds that determine our experiences for lifetime after lifetime in samsara. But as we wake up to the nondual nature, we progress through the paths and bhumis until the whole process evaporates and we become buddhas. A buddha has fully realized the two kinds of knowledge, has unconditional love for all beings, and has the ability to transform beings’ minds through teaching. 

The word tantra means continuum, referring to the unchanging nature of the dharmata in ground, path, and fruition. Uttara means “unsurpassable” because this is a continuum of the Buddha nature, or tathagatagarbha.Shastra is a treatise composed by a qualified teacher other than the Buddha, which protects and elevates us. The translator’s homage to the buddhas and bodhisattvas puts this text in the category of Sutra. 

In the final talk, Rinpoche covered the first three Vajra Points: Buddha, dharma, and sangha. The Buddha possesses three qualities that are for the benefit of the self: uncompounded; spontaneously present; and not realized through dualistic mind (but through purifying obscurations). He possesses three qualities that are for the benefit of others: knowledge of the nature and all things knowable (most importantly, the knowledge that all beings have buddha nature); unconditional love (which manifests as an urge to share this knowledge); and the ability to transform beings’ minds through turning the wheel of dharma. 

The dharma has three qualities associated with the truth of cessation and three associated with the truth of the path. The first set is: inconceivable (the five aggregates are free from conceptual elaboration); free from the two veils of karma and klesha; and free from improper mental activity. The second set is: pure, clear, and serving as a remedy for the obscurations. 

The sangha refers to the bodhisattvas in the bhumis. It has three qualities of awakening and three of freedom. The first set is: realizing the emptiness of self and phenomena; realizing that all beings have this nature; and, these realizations are internal. The second set is: freedom from emotional obscurations; freedom from cognitive obscurations; and having a more complete realization than the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas.

The Buddha is the main refuge for bodhisattvas; the dharma is the main refuge for pratyekabuddhas; the sangha is the main refuge for shravakas. The ultimate refuge is the Buddha because he is equivalent to the absolute truth, which is the dharmakaya. 


Year 2 - Source of Mahamudra 2019

On the Buddhist path, we contemplate topics such as impermanence and death, not to be dark and gloomy but to stop going through life half-blind and half-asleep and instead sow positive seeds for our next lives. Normally we think external circumstances are what determine our well-being and our reactions, but this is because we fail to look inward, at the mind that is reacting. This approach is similar to trying to cover the world with leather instead of wearing shoes. 

It’s hopeless, for example, to remedy our insecurities by fixing the outer world; that would be like trying to deny the facts of life, such as birth, old age, sickness, death. Instead we need to look at the cause of all our insecurities—our attachments. These attachments wear us down, both mentally and physically, and this gets harder as we age and become less resilient. We are attached to many objects, but everything that is “mine” must come from a “me.” Therefore, we can resolve all our attachments by purifying our self-attachment. Here it is important to distinguish between the natural, positive love and care we have for ourselves and those close to us, and the neurotic attachment that wears us down. The second is based on ignorance: we are blind to the fact that all beings are exactly the same as ourselves in longing for happiness and freedom from suffering. This blindness makes us prone to harming others and sowing poisonous karmic seeds for ourselves. We won’t be able to get past this ignorance without taking breaks from our external stimulations and looking within. Then we’ll be able to replace our attachments with positive states of mind. 

By making case studies of our specific attachments and connecting them to the suffering that inevitably results, we will develop natural renunciation. We can observe this connection both in ourselves and in others, such as powerful people who are tormented by their overgrown self-attachment. Such a wisdom-based approach will work much better than puritanically or overzealously trying to renounce. The latter is actually a form of spiritual materialism because it becomes another way of piling more upon our self. 

Next, Rinpoche spoke of counteracting negative states by replacing them with positive states. While both are relative, positive thoughts and emotions are closer to our genuine nature because they are based on being conscious rather than unconscious. The best positive state to cultivate is bodhicitta, which has tsewa at its essence. Tsewa has four qualities. It is first of all an open heart, which is not contracted by self-centeredness. It is a tender heart, where the tenderness we naturally feel toward ourselves goes beyond habitually narrow boundaries and is extended toward others. Tsewa also poses no threat to others and instead refrains from harm. Finally, it is aimed toward benefiting others through our body, speech, and mind. These qualities ensure that tsewa is a perfect combination of wisdom and compassion. Wisdom ensures that compassion is directed toward all beings equally; while compassion ensures that the wisdom is based on a warm heart rather than empty concepts. 

Tsewa expresses itself through four pathways, which are the four immeasurables. The more infused these four are with tsewa, the less dualistic they become. Our loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy are then based on feeling others’ happiness as our own happiness and others’ suffering as our own suffering. And our equanimity is then pointed toward an ultimate, lasting state in which the purification of our ignorance will purify all three poisons. The four immeasurables lead us to cultivate aspiration bodhicitta, which is finally born within us when we have not only the heartfelt wish to help all beings find their own enlightenment but also the vision and confidence that such a result is possible. If our aspiration is overwhelmed by the power of our negative habits, then we should make use of the tremendous blessings we can gather through prayer. 

When we have made the aspiration to travel toward enlightenment for the benefit of others, then we must actually make that journey by practicing application bodhicitta with the six paramitas. These contain all the wisdom and skillful means necessary to propel us along the path from lifetime to lifetime. For example, patience gives us the means to work creatively with adverse circumstances and ensures us physical and mental health. 

From here, Rinpoche began to talk about the text we are studying, the Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra. This is divided into seven vajra points: the three jewels, the element or tathagatagarbha, and enlightenment with its qualities and activities. All seven are aspects of dharmata, which is the enlightened nature of all beings. They are given the name “vajra” because of dharmata’s indestructible vajra-like quality. Dharmata has two aspects, emptiness and luminosity. Rinpoche approached this topic by first touching on the eight consciousnesses. All our relative experiences, from day to day and from lifetime to lifetime, arise out of the eighth consciousness, known as the alaya. But when we examine this alaya, we can’t find anything to pinpoint. In this way, it is empty; but it is not a mere vacuum because there is a luminous presence of mind that realizes this emptiness. Dharmata, the union of this emptiness and luminosity, is the material that makes up the entire universe.

Enlightenment is possible because the empty luminous nature is always present. By recognizing it as often as possible in short bits we can develop a faith that helps us see through our delusions, or trulpa, which Rinpoche explained as a “reality” that we impute, similar to when we get emotionally lost in a movie. 

According to the Mahamudra teachings, the true nature of our minds is the unchanging dharmakaya and all appearances are the radiant light of that dharmakaya. Realizing this view gives us a sense of equanimity toward experiences of pain and pleasure, and this freedom from shenpa is experienced as bliss. Attaining the true Mahamudra state, in which samsara and nirvana are equal, is not like going to some exotic Shangri-la. It is simply a matter of regularly sitting on the cushion and going within. This will give us the strength to face circumstances where our karmic delusions get ramped up, especially during birth, old age, sickness, and death. We need to take responsibility for getting ourselves through these difficult situations, like a sailor who doesn’t lose his or her nerve during a violent storm. 

Rinpoche then reviewed the first three vajra points: the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Although all three are considered the fruit of realizing our buddha nature, the Buddha is really the ultimate fruit and ultimate refuge because buddhahood is the complete fulfilment of our destiny to merge completely with the dharmakaya nature. 

This year, we focused on the kham, or element, chapter. The first stanza,* which is one of the most important in the whole book, explains buddha nature from three different points of view. Dharmakaya, which is a term that usually describes the fruitional enlightened state, is actually present in all beings. Suchness, or dharmata, is the same in enlightened beings and in sentient beings—thus it cannot be differentiated. And when we speak of sentient beings, we use the term “disposition,” because the buddha nature exists more as a potential to be realized. The sign of this disposition is our constant striving for happiness and freedom from suffering. Though our nature is primordially pure, it must become doubly purified through our application of the path, which removes our adventitious, mirage-like obscurations.

Then Rinpoche began to cover the ten aspects of buddha nature. The first aspect is “essence,” or what is to be purified. Here Maitreya makes analogies between the dharmakaya and a wish-fulfilling jewel; between suchness and stainless unchanging space; and between the disposition and water that gives moisture so things can grow. The second is “cause,” which is the means of purification. This section explains how the lower views of materialism, spiritual paths that contain a belief in an intrinsic self, and the incomplete views of the Shravakas and Pratyekabuddhas are remedied by application of the Mahayana path, which here is condensed into four components: interest in the Mahayana, realization of the Mother Prajnaparamita, concentration, and compassion. 

The third aspect is the fruit, which is beyond relative, dualistic notions of pure and impure, self being there or not, bliss and pain, and permanence and impermanence. The first of each of these pairs is the view of ordinary beings; the second is the view adopted by the Shravakas; but the bodhisattva view transcends both. When we realize the dharmata, we attain true purity, true self, true bliss, and true permanence. This is to see through the mirage of samsara altogether—to see that samsara is in fact nirvana.

The fourth aspect is function. All sentient beings strive for happiness and freedom from suffering, but the general problem is we have no long-term approach. Here we travel toward our aim by relying on the four wheels: the spiritual friend, a conducive place to practice, accumulations of merit from the past, and making aspirations in this life. These four give us the development disposition, which we must have in addition to the natural disposition that all beings are born with. 

The fifth aspect is endowment with qualities. These include qualities in terms of the cause. These are like the ocean, which contains the vessel of devotion, the jewels of wisdom and samadhi, and the water of compassion. And there are the qualities in terms of the fruit—the lamp-like qualities of clairvoyance, jnana, and stainlessness. 

*The perfect buddhakaya is all-embracing,

suchness cannot be differentiated, 

and all beings have the disposition. 

Thus they always have buddha nature.


“Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra with Commentary,” Shambhala Publications, p. 117. (This year we will resume on p. 127.)