THE MAHAMUDRA OF VOIDNESS
True meditation upon emptiness depends upon a fullness of preparation through a series of stages of moral practice. Without proper preparation, authentic insight into the nature of voidness (shunyata) is impossible. It matters not how long this preparation takes; it must be honest and genuine, devised by each human being according to his or her own individual karmic agenda. Otherwise it is impossible to launch seriously into meditation, to enter into it with an inward assurance that one will never abandon it. Even after one has entered the path leading to dhyana, one will, inevitably, experience difficulties. Yet one's very presence upon that path must be based upon an immutable resolve. One's preparation for deep meditation upon emptiness must be rooted in a commitment that is irreversible, inalienable and irrevocable.
In Tibetan Buddhism this arduous course of preparation is understood as a necessary precondition for a further and even more fundamental transformation of consciousness that is the fruition of meditation upon emptiness. This quintessential transformation of consciousness is conveyed in a text composed by the First Panchen Lama as a mahamudra. His teaching, first written down in the sixteenth century, derives from a series of oral instructions transmitted by Tsong-Kha-Pa, the founder of the Gelukpa Order in the fourteenth century. These teachings are said to have been received by Tsong-Kha-Pa ultimately from Manjushri, one of the Dhyani Bodhisattvas and an emanation from one of the Dhyani Buddhas. The First Panchen Lama crystallized an oral tradition around a central Teaching which he called a mahamudra.
According to a contemporary commentary upon this Teaching delivered by Geshe Rabten, a religious counsellor to the present Dalai Lama, a mahamudra may be understood as a great seal symbolizing an immutable realization of voidness. When one enters into a formal agreement, as in signing a contract, one puts down one's name or seals a document. Everyone knows what this means in statutory law. It is sacred and irrevocable. It is firm and binding. So, too, in a deeper and spiritual sense, one may seal one's entire consciousness irreversibly upon the path of dhyana – meditation. Ultimately, this is a direct subjective experience of voidness. Yet as Geshe Rabten's commentary points out, this fundamental transformation of consciousness cannot come about except as the sequel to a long and difficult period of preparation through moral practice, mental development and preliminary exercises in meditation. Even these, as set forth in the Sutra Yana teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, require resolves, vows and the development of an unshakeable determination that once one has begun upon this path, no matter what the difficulties, one will seek to become increasingly honest with oneself and strive ever harder to overcome them.
One must be committed in advance not to become infatuated with one's own difficulties, but rather to see beyond them and to persevere in one's course of self-induced and self-devised inner growth. As in all of Buddha's teachings, the only authentic basis of such resolve is a motivation to heal the suffering of humanity. Every time one is inclined to falter upon this path, one should think of the pain of human beings and the misery of human ignorance. Thinking of one's own share in the world's pain, one may realize one's obligation to lessen the burden of the world. To think about this deeply and in detail is to find the motivation necessary to carry on and to persist in a heroic search for deep meditation and the realization of truth or satya.
The primary means of preparation for the mahamudra meditation is taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. As soon as one directs one's mind towards the supreme compassion and enormous sacrifice of Gautama Buddha and the entire Host of Bodhisattvas, one is filled with a tremendous purifying strength. By thinking of these beings, who have attained to the state of supreme enlightenment solely for the sake of humanity, one can gain the energy and strength to form an irreversible resolve. Thus all efforts at meditation should begin with an adoration of predecessors, a rejoicing in their very existence and in the reality of their deeds and their living presence. To this joyous practice each individual may bring devotion and an undivided seriousness entirely of his or her own choice. Thinking of the meaning of one's own life in relationship to the meaning of the lives of all, and in relation to the world's pain and need, one may contemplate the great work of the Bodhisattvas, inserting one's own resolve into the broader mission of building a rainbow bridge between the Host of Dhyanis and the world of Myalba. Taking refuge in the triple gem, one can find the courage in oneself to try to aid the earth with all its plight and pain, caused ultimately by a fundamental alienation from the true Self, an ignorance of the true destiny of humanity.
It is not possible to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha without prostrating oneself before their clearly visualized presence. In his commentary on the mahamudra, Geshe Rabten recommends performing one hundred thousand such prostrations, and acknowledges that even these may not be enough to bring about the necessary purification. In the East, physical prostration before objects of veneration comes naturally because of a pervasive sense of the sacred and heartfelt sentiments of gratitude towards ancestors and benefactors of every kind. But in the West, physical prostration is not something that everybody can readily undertake. It may come naturally, but one had better not simulate it, force it or fake it. Nonetheless, mental prostrations, an inward humility, and the surrendering of the personal will and the judgemental mind can be of great benefit. Nothing but good can come to a human being through the surrender of a divided and treacherous heart. The total prostration of one's being, as enjoined by Krishna in the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, is an essential mental posture preparatory for true meditation.
The Tibetan texts lay down for monks a series of mantrams to be chanted. As Geshe Rabten explains, the set of recitations and visualizations revolving around vajrasattva is intended to assist in the elimination of negative tendencies. This aspect of the mahamudra preparation is of particular significance to individuals who have yet to master the discipline and momentum of a mendicant. Vajrasattva represents the embodiment of the power of purification of all the Buddhas. Whilst Tibetan tradition lays down for monks specific modes for visualizing vajrasattva and specific mantrams to be chanted, these details are inappropriate and unnecessary for lay individuals outside the tradition. What is of crucial importance is to bring to bear from within oneself the purifying power of the Buddha-nature upon the whole assemblage of one's unholy modes of thought, feeling and will. There are, in every human being, a myriad such elements in a state of interconnection. These negative tendencies no doubt arose in former lives, and if they are not extinguished in this life, they will have their fruition in future lives of pain and suffering. The entire assemblage should be acknowledged so as to create a mental posture of total honesty.
To enter the Path, one must be free of all self-deception. Otherwise, as the Sutras teach, one will be arrested from further progress and thrown back from further growth. Such devices as prostration and chanting are intended to help one confront all one's errors, especially those that may have caused pain to other beings and which were avoidable, occasions when one knew better and yet acted wickedly. Purification in preparation for the path leading to meditation requires that all of these must be confronted. They must be collected together, brought to the forefront of one's attention, and then burnt out at the very root. Their force of persistence must be destroyed through a resolve in relation to the future and an honest recognition of their effects upon others.
This is, no doubt, a difficult practice and must be repeated again and again. Which ever purificatory chants one selects – whether it be from The Voice of the Silence, the Bhagavad Gita or The Jewel in the Lotus – these must all be taken as means that are helpful in confronting what is called the papapurusha – the assemblage of sins. It is this hideous aggregate of negative tendencies that forms the basis, at the moment of death, of the kama rupa. On average, it will take some one hundred and fifty years for this form to disintegrate. But if it is more tenacious, owing to a life of self-deception, dishonesty and spiritual pretension, it can last much longer, emitting a foul odour and precipitating crimes and even murders, recognized and unrecognized, on this earth. After-death consequences involving the kama rupa pertain to a plane of effects, but what one does in life pertains to the causal plane of human consciousness. If one is not vigilant, one may be gestating the energies that become powerfully coagulated into a tenacious kama rupa. All such entities are based, in Buddhist theory, upon the force of self-grasping, bound up with the false imputation of inherent existence to the personal ego. Naturally, the presence of such entities putrefying and disintegrating over many centuries throws an oppressive pall over humanity that puts a tremendous brake upon the aspirations of every single human being. Yet this should not be allowed to become a subject of fascination or speculation. Rather, one should recognize one's own liability to contribute to astral pollution and so one should resolve to purify oneself and one's emanations.
In describing the preparation for mahamudra meditation, Geshe Rabten compares these negative tendencies to seeds. It is as if one wished to build a beautiful building, but could not do so without preparing clean ground for its foundations. Before laying the foundations, one must clear away rocks and weeds, cleansing the ground of all obstructions and removing seeds that spring up and interfere with the building. At the same time, this work of purification must be coupled with the collection of materials that will be helpful in setting up the foundations. In the long run, one's fundamental attention must be directed towards the constructive end of serving universal enlightenment. There is little or no essential interest in the obstructions and tendencies that come in the way of the release of this higher motivation. All these tendencies can be classified into certain broad types which are, in the end, both banal and boring. Most of them have to do with attraction and aversion, anger and pride, greed and delusion, and, above all, a false conception of the self. Owing to this false conception of a fake ego, reinforcing it through unconscious habit and semi-conscious patterns of reaction, a persistent aggregate of tendencies has originated.
Instead of becoming preoccupied with the melodramatic history of this aggregate of tendencies, one should merely note them as they arise and mark them for elimination. They will inevitably appear when one starts to engage in meditation, and one should note them only with a view to removing them through the setting up of counter-tendencies drawn from positive efforts to visualize spiritual strengths. Hence the connection, in the Tibetan practice, between the visualization of vajrasattva and the elimination of negative tendencies. Each individual must learn to select the appropriate counter-forces necessary to negate the particular strong negative tendencies that arise. In drawing upon these counter-forces from within, one will discover that one can bring to one's aid many an element in one's own being that can serve to one's spiritual advantage. Every human being has a number of elements which represent a certain ease, naturalness, decency and honesty as a human being. Sometimes there is a debilitating tendency to overlook these or take them for granted. The spiritual path requires a progressively heightened degree of self-awareness. One should give oneself full credit for whatever positive tendencies one has, whether they have to do with outward energies on the physical plane, mental energies, moral tenacity or metaphysical insight. In order to find that in oneself which can work in one's favour, and can help in counteracting negative tendencies, one should engage in regular recitation and frequent reflection upon sacred scriptures. Thus one will discover points of resonance in one's individual karmic inheritance that can help release purifying energies flowing from the ideation of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
If this practice is going to prosper, one must bring to it a moral insight rooted in an understanding of metaphysics. The mind must be focussed upon general ideas. One must reflect upon the relationship of insight and compassion. Insight is not merely intellectual, but rather arises through the recognition of what skill in action means in specific contexts. Insight involves a perception of how wisdom is reflected within action, and which can come about only through a deep reflection upon the process of how such insight is released. On the other side, before one can truly generate a conscious current of compassion, one must create a state of calm abiding. One must find out one's resources and potentials for calmness and for generating the maximum field of patience, peacefulness, gentleness and steadfastness. Then one must combine in practice one's capacity for calmness with one's capacity for discerning what is essential. Inevitably, this will involve a protracted study lasting over lifetimes, and include enquiry into the fundamental propositions of Gupta Vidya, the study of karma and the study of what Buddhist thought refers to as the chain of dependent origination.
In essence, this entire course of study is aimed at bringing about a meta-psychological encounter with a false view of the self that must be confronted and dispelled. Ultimately, this complex matter goes to the core of the mahamudra meditation. But at a preliminary level and in the course of preparation for that meditation, one must come to grips with the confused notion of oneself that is identified with bodily desire, proclivities towards pleasure and avoidance of pain. At subtler levels one must confront one's conception of oneself that is bound up with the entire chaotic series of thoughts, all of which have particular histories and form associative chains of memory that have been built up over lifetimes of indulgence. All take a variety of forms and leave discernible tracks, all are connected with certain fantasies, wishes, hopes and expectations. They are designated in various ways in different analytic traditions, but always at the root there is the protean force of self-grasping. It is not easy either to confront or to abandon, and hence The Voice of the Silence warns that even when one is very close to attaining dhyana, one may be completely disrupted by a sudden eruption of self-grasping.
This passage from The Voice of the Silence refers primarily to an extremely high state of consciousness and an advanced stage along the Path. It refers to a point at which the very core of self-grasping must be let go. Long before one has earned the privilege of such an archetypal confrontation with the false self, one will have to win many minor skirmishes with the force of self-grasping. For this purpose, The Voice of the Silence gives a specific recipe that is indispensable. It is emphasized in every authentic spiritual tradition and it is central to the New Cycle and the Aryanization of the West. It is put in terms of the metaphor of the mango fruit. One must become as tender as the pulp of the mango towards the faults of others, feeling with them their suffering and pain. Yet one must also learn to be as hard as the mango stone towards one's own faults. One must give no quarter to excuse-making or shilly-shallying. Instead, one must fully accept what one thinks to be one's own particular pain, while recognizing that it is, at its core, nothing but a manifestation of delusive self-grasping.
The mango metaphor sums up all the elements involved in the preparation for deep dhyana – continuous uninterrupted meditation. Geshe Rabten points to a specific preparatory exercise called "taking and giving", which is a beautiful and profound instantiation of the mango metaphor. One begins by visualizing all the ignorance and all the suffering of the world. Then one must consciously take in with every inhalation of breath everything that is ugly, unsatisfactory, violent and disturbing. For the purpose of understanding and contemplation, the world's mess may be thought of as sticks of fuel burning with a thick black smoke. One must inhale this dense black smoke and let it flow through one's body, permeating every nerve and cell, penetrating to the centre of one's heart, where it destroys all traces of self-concern. Then as one exhales, one should visualize sending out light-energy towards all beings, acting through one's positive tendencies and serving to eliminate their sufferings.
This exercise of taking and giving should be conjoined with one's adoration and prostration before the Buddhas and before one's Ishtaguru. Indeed, Guru Yoga is the fifth and quintessential element of the preparation for mahamudra meditation. One may, at first, contemplate the Ishtaguru as a drop of light, or, at a more advanced stage, one may actually contemplate the essential form of the Ishtaguru in the space before one's mind. It is implicit in the very conception of the Ishtaguru that the individual must choose whichever form of contemplation will be most beneficial. Once a choice is made, however, it is crucial that one persistently and with full fidelity bring the distracted mind back, again and again, to the object of its contemplation. The test of this devotion is that one will find a deepening, and yet spontaneous, longing to be of service to others. More and more, one's motivation will be that the black smoke of human ignorance and suffering should pass through oneself and become converted, through persistence in dhyana, into a healing light that will radiate, brightening and helping the lives of others. In other words, one will become an instrument through which a great sacrifice is made consciously, a channel through which a great redemptive force can proceed. At that point, of course, there can be no separative self.
One must have become like an alabaster vase, pure and radiant, a translucent sphere mirroring the Dhyanis through dhyana. In the act of choosing one's Ishtaguru or Ishtadevata – whether it be under the form of Buddha or Krishna or some other Avatar – one will in fact have entered the ray of a particular Dhyani. One will have activated the potentiality of a Fohatic circuit through which may be drawn the beneficent energies of the entire Host of Dhyanis. One will infallibly recognize this because one's body and mind will be greatly lightened. So free does one become from any dependence upon anything outside that one can subsist upon the food of meditation. This is an extremely high stage which cannot be attained and maintained except by individuals who have early made the great renunciation spoken of in The Voice of the Silence.
Every neophyte can approach the threshold of that path and gain an intuition of that exalted condition. The entire practice of the paramitas at every level – cycling from dana through virya to dhyana and gaining a glimpse of prajna and coming back to the foundation of boundless charity in dana – will bring about an inevitable loosening and lightening of the tendency to grasp, to crave and even to think of oneself as separate from other beings. The entire preparatory course of the paramitas is summed up in Mahatma Gandhi's mantramic phrase: one reduces oneself to a zero. In mystical terms, one becomes a sphere of light.
As one treads the difficult path towards the dhyana haven of pure, uninterrupted meditation, one is sure to encounter distractions. According to Geshe Rabten, these may be broadly classified into two types that always work in one or another of two directions. On the one hand, distractions may work as a kind of excitement. On the other, they may operate as a kind of sinking or slackening. With either type, one is liable to become over-active and therefore agitated, and so lose concentration through exaltation in one's happiness or joy or sense of release, or one is likely to get sluggish, drowsy, enfeebled, and thereby lose the power of concentration. These two dangers will combine, recurring again and again. Everyone, therefore, must find out where his or her propensities lie. Different individuals at different times will be more or less liable to become distracted from a current of meditation by excitement or by sluggishness. If one tends to get distracted by excitement, it is suggested that one not close one's eyes during the practice of meditation, but rather keep them open and focussed upon a form that is representative of the object of meditation. Yet, if one is liable to get sluggish and fall prey to sinking, then one may benefit by focussing attention on the navel and taking one's breath from below. Different suggestions will be applicable to different people; in the end, propensities towards distractions are only significant in relation to a process of learning by trial and error.
As with all efforts to purify one's moral practice, the effort to establish a non-distracted mind must begin with a contemplation of the possibilities of a state of perfected meditation. In Tibetan tradition the state of mental quiescence needed for true meditation is represented by myriad analogies. Thus, for example, the clear cognitive nature of the mind may be represented by the image of the sun ablaze in a cloudless sky. There is light and luminosity throughout the field of the mind, giving a supreme clarity to all its operations. There is a simultaneous omnidirectional transmission of light, and, in relation to concentration on any specific object, there is a sharpening of the contours of existence and a heightened alertness to details in the phenomenal world. The cloudlessness signifies an absence of obstruction and confusion of the cognitive nature of the mind, but also a total suffusion of the mind by the overarching, refulgent light of the sun. As Geshe Rabten explains, this analogy represents the nature of the mind as clear cognition, and though it is not to be confused with a realization of the mind's ultimate nature as voidness, it is an authentic intimation of the future course of the mahamudra meditation.
Another analogy, perhaps more applicable to the situation of aspirants who are just beginning the practices leading to dhyana, is the sureness of the eagle soaring through the sky. The eagle glides gracefully through the sky, ascending without apparent effort, and only periodically flapping its wings. The gliding state represents the absorption of the mind in the object of meditation. The flapping of the wings represents the use of the analytic faculty to dispel a temporary distraction. Whilst it will be necessary in the initial stages to employ the analytic mind to confront and dispel a great variety of distractions, one should steadily move towards the ideal of an eagle's soaring flight. One must advance from a state that is essentially one of great distraction to a steady state, in which one may remain undistracted for relatively long periods of time. Then, when distracting thought currents arise, whether they involve excitation or sinking, they may be noticed, confronted and mastered without breaking the course of meditation any more than the eagle's flight is broken by a single flapping of its wings. In meditation one's basic concern is with the graceful glide, the smooth ascent, movement towards the One.
If one is able to take the standpoint that all human history is a series of successes and failures in preparation for meditation and for initiation into the Mysteries, one may understand that the seemingly burdensome accumulation of history is nothing but the collective residues of a series of over-reactions to distractions in meditation. Confronted honestly, the entire pseudo-drama of history is nothing but a mass of excuses for the inability to maintain concentration. Thus, if one truly wants to effect a fundamental transformation in consciousness so that one becomes incapable of falling back from the true path of dhyana, one must be willing to carry out the full course of preparation for that transformation. One must begin by honestly taking stock of oneself and learning to engage in a sufficient degree of self-surrender of the will, through humility, devotion, adoration and prostration, so that one may begin to attune oneself to the higher chords of one's being. Once one begins seriously to meditate, one may begin to visualize the meaning of a harmonic balance within oneself. Whether one pictures oneself as a fish swimming in the ocean of wisdom or as an eagle soaring in the heavens of light, one's emphasis must be upon developing a continuous current of meditative practice. One must develop those spontaneous reflexes whereby one confronts and dispels distracting thoughts without fascination or excess, bringing the mind back again to the main focus of attention. This must be done again and again at first, and one should never underestimate the tremendous effort involved in the beginning.
Every honest student of the path intimated in The Voice of the Silence will understand these difficulties. But a point must come in the practice of dhyana when there is a taste of the flow of uninterrupted contemplation, when there is a lightening of the load, when tension disappears – including the tension of striving – and when it becomes easier, subtler and more discriminating. Losing preoccupation with oneself, one begins to forget even the meditating self, and so becomes more aware of the vast, boundless expanse into which one proceeds. One will still be far from the summits of meditation and the accomplishment of the true mahamudra, whereby one permanently sets aside the bonds of delusion, but one will have embarked upon the authentic preparation for real meditation and sensed thereby the boundlessly buoyant life of the spirit.
Hermes, May 1985