Mind, Karma, Ego-formation, and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism
By His Holiness Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche
All of us have a vague or naive understanding of the mind. We all know that we have a mind, and we think in terms of “my mind.” We have the idea that “I have a mind” and so we say “my mind.” But how much do we understand about the nature of our minds and the nature of our experience?
Actually there is a great deal of ignorance and a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion as to what exactly is going on.
What exactly do we experience? What exactly do we mean when we use the word, “mind”?
When we look at our mind, rather than finding control, precise understanding, and insight, we find that there is emotional confusion in the mind. There are all kinds of passions which arise in the mind, such as attachment, aversion, stupidity, anger, jealousy, pride, and so on. All of these things are continually boiling up in the mind as a result of this emotional confusion and thus we experience a great deal of frustration, suffering, and pain.
Understanding the nature of the mind is something that has a great calming and cooling effect on all of that boiling turmoil in the mind. It is as if we had a pot of boiling water and into it we threw a cup of cold water. The boiling ceases immediately. The activity immediately calms to a certain extent. Even mere intellectual understanding of the nature of the mind can be very beneficial in helping one to sort out the emotional confusion and eliminate the suffering that it causes.
To begin with, let us take, for example, the eyes we see with. The eyes are situated in the face and with these eyes we can see anything in the outside world. That is the function of the eyes—to see clearly.
But the one thing that the eye cannot see clearly is the face itself, even though it is so close to the face. It simply does not work that way.
There is a fundamental lack of recognition, a fundamental inability of the eye to see the face in which it is situated.
In the same way, what we, as sentient beings or unenlightened beings, now experience is this fundamental lack of recognition. The mind simply does not directly experience its own true nature. So this fundamental ignorance or this fundamental unknowing of the mind is the root of all problems—the mere fact that there is this lack of direct experience.
Perhaps we should define terms.
What do we mean by mind?
When we speak of mind we mean that which is aware. That which gives rise to thoughts, emotions, feelings, such as “I’m happy or I’m sad.” That which experiences all the thoughts, states, and emotions that arise is what we mean when we speak of the mind. Not the contents but that which experiences the contents.
The “nature of mind itself” is what we term “emptiness” in Buddhism.
Mind itself has no color, form, shape, or size. Mind has no limiting characteristics that one can ascribe to it. So, in speaking about the mind, one is speaking about that which is intangible. Mind is completely empty or devoid of these kinds of limiting characteristics.
We might use the example of open space, such as the space in this room, when talking about the nature of the mind. Because mind is as intangible as the space in this room, you cannot describe it. The space in this room has no color, shape, nor size. There is simply space in the room.
If the space in this room represents mind, then we need to take into account that in this particular space there is also a kind of illumination. This is not a dark room. We can see perfectly clearly. If all the sources of illumination were shut off or blocked at this point we would be in total darkness. We could not see a thing. There would be space, but no clarity. But the fact is that we have illumination from electric light and natural sources which makes the room very bright and clear and we can see everything perfectly clearly in the room.
Mind has its own kind of illumination, although not in a visual sense. It is not as though there were a kind of lighting up of the mind or that the mind would light up or that the kind of illumination we are speaking of is any kind of visual perception.
But rather it is the inherent ability of the mind to experience. The fact is that mind can experience. Mind, being no thing in and of itself, nevertheless experiences everything.
That potential to experience is the illuminating potential of mind—the
illuminating nature of mind. So in speaking about the mind, we can make reference to the fundamental intangibility of the mind and the illuminating potential which it demonstrates.
On a practical level, this illuminating potential of mind, this ability to experience, is something we encounter when we sit quietly by ourselves and think of a place very far away like New York or San Francisco. We can call that place to mind immediately. There is the possibility of thinking of, remembering, or recalling that place. This is an example of this illuminating potential of mind.
The space in this room and the illumination in this room are not two things that we can separate. They are two different aspects of a unitary experience.
In the same way, when we refer to the intangible nature of mind, the essential emptiness, and the clarity or illuminating nature of the mind, we are not speaking of two separate things, but two aspects of one experience.
We have not yet completed our description of mind itself. We have space in this room which we use as an analogy for emptiness, and we have illumination. But we do not have an effective consciousness. We do not have anything other than empty and illuminated space.
With mind we have something more. We have the actual awareness that can decide— “this is form,” “this is sound,” “this is such and such a shape.” We can make judgments and we are conscious of the particular details of a situation. That is the unimpeded manifestation of mind, which is also the dynamic intelligence or awareness of mind as well.
So by describing mind in and of itself rather than the contents of mind, we are speaking of something which is essentially intangible. By this we also mean the illuminating potential and the dynamic unimpeded manifestation of awareness.
Perhaps at this point we could use a kind of approach to allow oneself to experience this fundamental nature of mind rather than the particular content of mind.
We must consider that most of us have the idea that the mind is located in the brain or in the heart region or some other fixation of where the mind is. This is not particularly helpful at this point:
Mind has no particular location; it is not in any particular part of the body. This state of bare awareness or fundamental awareness is prior to a state of any attachment to any particular state.
It is not a particular place in the body nor a particular locality or object in the environment.
It is simply intangible, clear, unimpeded nature of mind itself.
This fundamental nature of mind as intangible emptiness, illuminating clarity, and dynamic unimpeded awareness is what we term, in the Buddhist tradition, tathagatagharba, buddha nature, the seed or potential for enlightenment.
It is that inherent nature of mind which emerges as the fully enlightened experience. It is that which allows the fully enlightened experience to take place in the first place.
This is something that is shared by each and every living being, human or otherwise. Anything that is sentient—anything that has consciousness—inherently has this fundamental purity or nature of mind in its make-up.
We find in the Buddhist teachings that Buddha Shakyamuni said, “This tathagatagharba—this seed for potential enlightenment—pervades all forms of life. There is not a single being that does not have this as part of its make-up.”
To give this experience a name for reference, or simply to label it for practical purposes, in the Buddhist tradition we refer to this fundamental nature of mind as tathagatagharba—the seed or essence of enlightenment. It is the potential for enlightenment.
Referring to the causal factor for enlightenment, we find reference in one of the tantric scriptures of Buddhism to the effect that all beings are born enlightened, but incidental obscurations are blocking the experience of enlightenment. Once those obscurations have been removed that experience simply emerges and becomes actualized and we can experience the original clarity of our minds.
We might think of this tathagatagharba potential as a seed just like a living seed that can grow into a flower. If one takes a seed and nurtures it, cares for it, and goes about things the right way, one can produce a flower from that seed.
In the same way, if we recognize the inherent nature of mind and its potential and learn how to cultivate it—learn how to cause it to emerge through spiritual practice—then we ourselves can actualize that experience. We can become a buddha. We can become completely enlightened.
Another label which we give to this state or this experience in Buddhism is jnana or transcending awareness, primordial awareness, to which we sometimes add the word alaya, which means fundamental or original awareness.
We could perhaps think of this in terms of a practical example.
If we think of clear, transparent, pure water before any pollutants or sediments have been added, we note that the water is pristine in its clarity and transparency.
Or perhaps you might think of a sky totally free of any clouds and the sun shining brilliantly in the sky. There is again no obscuration and nothing in the way—nothing obscuring or limiting the experience at all.
Now given that there is this naturally pure, positive nature of mind, then where has all this negative conditioning come from? Where have the negative aspects of confusion and suffering arisen from? How has the clear, pure, transparent water been polluted by sediment?
First and foremost there is the lack of direct experience that we mentioned previously—the fundamental ignorance or unknowing, which we call the obscuration of knowledge, the fact that the mind does not see itself, is not directly aware of its own nature.
In Buddhism this is not something to which we ascribe an origin. We do not say that at a certain point it happened that mind could not see itself, that mind lost this direct experience; but rather, when we speak of the beginningless cycle of existence, we say that mind has always been obscured by this ignorance. It is co-emergent with or
co-existent with consciousness itself.
Another example which is often used in the text is gold. Since there is gold there is tarnish forming on the surface of the gold. In the same way as long as there is unenlightened mind there is and always has been this fundamental ignorance.
This fundamental lack of the direct experience and understanding of the nature of mind is the basis of all the other problems and levels of confusion and obscuration which we now experience. The technical term which we use for this basic level of ignorance or basic unknowing in Buddhism is coemergent ignorance, which indicates that it is coemergent or simultaneous with consciousness itself. As mind arises, so does this ignorance. Practically speaking, it is impossible to speak of the mind separate from this ignorance in our present state, and so it is co-emergent with mind itself.
This co-emergent ignorance has always been there in the same way that the eyes have always been unable to see the face. From the moment that we are born and begin using our eyes up to the present time, we have never yet seen our face directly. It simply does not work that way. It has always been the case that mind can experience anything but its own nature. This fundamental ignorance is built in, so to speak.
Given that this is the case, a further distortion takes place. The essential intangibility or emptiness of the nature of mind in and of itself, is distorted into what we experience as the self or subject—something solid, real, or existent in and of itself, something tangible which we experience as the self or the subjective pole in our experience.
Then the illuminating potential of the mind, which can and does give rise to all of these appearances and experiences that mind undergoes, is distorted into the objective pole of our experience, into the phenomenal world and the sensory objects that we experience as separate from the self.
At this point a dualistic split has already taken place. We experience the distortion of the essential intangibility and illuminating potential of mind itself in a subject/object frame of reference that we think of as the basis of our on-going experience. Again we
are going to label this and give it the name, obscuration of habitual tendencies.
From beginningless time, just as there has been ignorance of mind, there has also been this habit of experiencing in terms of subject and object. This is a state or condition that will continue if we do not attain enlightenment. If one does not transcend the ignorance and obscuration which lead to this distortion, then this state is permanent. One cannot expect such a fundamental habitual tendency to simply wear itself out and disappear. Instead, it continues to reinforce itself and will do so as long as the individual does not
Even in the dream state, when we go to sleep and have a dream, we can see this fundamental dualism as part of our experience, as an on-going experience of something which carries over from waking consciousness. Even though one goes to sleep and dreams and experiences an entirely different realm than the physical waking state of existence—with all sorts of projections of mind playing themselves out in the dream—there is still the fundamental perception of “I” and “other.” It is still that basic dualistic split that permits all the other more complex aspects of the dream state—such as pleasure, happiness, pain, and so on, to take place, because there is that underlying on-going dualistic
element in our experience.
In the future when each and every one of us comes to die, that is, when the physical body dies and is disposed of, the mind goes on to experience a totally formless nonphysical state of experience, a totally disembodied state, in that there is no physical basis for the
consciousness at that point. There is, however, a continued impression in the mind of some kind of embodiment, some kind of mental body. There is still a fundamental split, in that the appearances that arise in the mind are projected into the environment and experienced as something other than mind itself.
So even in the bardo state, the after-death state between physical death and physical rebirth, there is the on-going habitual tendency of mind to experiences self and other.
We have the distortion of this essential, intangible nature of mind into something solid and tangible—the ego or subject. The illuminating potential of mind is distorted into something other, which is projected as separate from the self. Now based upon that, and given that there is this dualistic framework, emotional reactions develop between subject and object.
So an emotional complexity of mind, which we call the obscuration of afflictive emotions, or the obscuration of kleshas, develops based upon this dualism.
Initially, there are the patterns of either attraction, or aversion and repulsion.
In other words, there is a love-hate relationship between subject and object that mind perceives in the world around it. That is the beginning of the most basic level of emotional confusion in the mind. And so given that there is this fundamental split in the first place—the subject/object split of self and other—then the situation arises where the subject or the object is pleasing to the self, and also there arises the situation where the object is threatening or repulsive. As well, there is an element of stupidity, mental dullness or apathy in the situation, in that one is simply not aware of what is really taking place. Instead, one is caught up in the superficial appearance of the emotional situation.
In seeking the basis of emotional confusion in the mind, we first distinguish three patterns: attraction or attachment, aversion, and stupidity or dullness. These are the three basic emotional patterns in the mind.
The question then is: What experiences this dualism? What is experiencing self and other and all the emotional reactions between self and other?
Mind itself, due to its inherently intangible, illuminating, dynamic, and unimpeded nature, is experiencing dualistic mind.
It is good to pause for a moment to reflect on this and to attempt to experience for ourselves whether this is the case or not, whether what has been described is what is taking place
The unenlightened being we have examined so far has a fundamental lack of direct experience.
Mind does not experience its own essential intangibility, its illuminating potential, or its dynamic and unimpeded awareness. Because of this fundamental lack of direct experience, our experience has been distorted into a subject/object frame of reference. And a certain level of emotional confusion has set in based upon this dualistic frame of reference.
We are caught up in emotional reactions due to the syndrome of subjects being attracted to or repelled by objects which is based on the basic misunderstanding of what exactly is taking place.
Further development of emotional complexity takes place in the following way:
From the attachment syndrome, an emotion f greed (avarice or grasping) develops. Based upon aversion, anger and jealousy develop. Based upon stupidity, pride develops.
We find reference in the Buddhist tradition to six basic emotions: three primary emotions and their three secondary developments. In fact, the complexity does not stop there, because from any one of these primary emotions, thousands of secondary ramifications, variations and permutations can develop. There would seem to be an almost infinite number of different emotional situations, if one wished to analyze them and assign a particular primary emotion as the dominant factor.
We find described in the tradition that there are 21,000 emotional states based upon attachment, 21,000 based upon aversion, 21,000 based upon stupidity, and 21,000 in which these forces appear in combination. In an attempt to describe this emotional complexity the tradition describes it as the 84,000 different emotional states, 84,000 types of emotional afflictions.
Because of this emotional complexity based upon fundamental confusion, we behave in certain ways: physically, verbally, and mentally.
We react to emotional confusion through these three gates. These actions, be they physical, verbal, or mental, by repetition become tendencies and these tendencies become reactive habits. These reactive habit-tendencies, once they are established, lead to specific results in our experience later on. There is a causality between one’s reactions and one’s experiences. This is the level of obscuration that we call the obscuration of karma.
The karmic level of these tendencies reinforced by physical, verbal, and mental actions or thought patterns is based upon this confusion. Therefore, this confusion itself is directly or indirectly harmful both to oneself and to others, because it perpetuates the confusion.
These four levels of confusion or obscuration are dependent one upon the other. Not that one is arising after the other, but simply that one is based upon the other.
The confusion in the mind is first and foremost the lack of direct experience of mind’s essential purity, the inherent transcending awareness which is the nature of mind itself.
Due to this fundamental ignorance in the mind, the dualistic frame of reference—the fixation of self and other as separate and independent entities—develops. This is the second level of confusion which is based upon this primary lack of direct experience of the true nature of mind.
Based upon this dualistic clinging to self and other, a mass of complex emotional confusion, the 84,000 afflictive emotional states, has developed, which is the third level of obscuration.
Finally, the fourth or the gross level of obscuration is the karmic level of all of these unskillful and negative tendencies, reinforced through physical, verbal, and mental actions and thought processes based upon emotional confusion.
In our present confusion then, as unenlightened beings, we experience the totality of these four levels of obscuration all at the same time. The inherent purity of mind has not been lost in us and cannot be lost, but it is obscured to the point that what one experiences is one big state of obscuration. The impurity, which is the confusion, covers the pure nature of the mind as clouds obscure the sun.
The single most important element in our experience, which binds all of that confusion together, is egocentricity, the clinging to the reality of self or ego, the thought, “I am.” We might say that it is the glue or the binding that holds the obscurations together.
Until there is illumination of all of those levels of confusion and obscuration in the mind, then there can not be a true state of enlightenment or realization. Given that the water has already been polluted by sediment, then the idea is to recover its original purity and transparency. Given that the sky has become obscured by clouds and fog to the point where the sun cannot be seen, then the idea is to clear away the clouds and fog banks so that one can see and be warmed by the sun without hindrance.
Once we understand and experience this essential intangibility and this illuminating quality, then the dynamic and unimpeded awareness of the manifestation of mind can begin to loosen the bond of ego-clinging. At that point, this almost incredible binding stricture,
which the clinging to self and to the appearances of reality produces, can dissolve.
Once this initial loosening takes place, then one can begin to use one’s physical, verbal and mental capacities in a skillful and productive manner. This is why there are physical spiritual practices such as prostrations. This is why there are verbal spiritual practices such as recitation of mantra and prayers. This is why there are mental spiritual practices such as meditation and various states of mind generated through meditation.
To use these physical, verbal, and mental faculties in skillful spiritual practice is to eliminate the karmic level of obscuration, is to counterbalance negative karmic tendencies and eventually to remove them as factors of, or leading to, confusion.
More specifically, through the practice of meditation, one develops the experience of shamatha, which is the experience of stability or calmness of mind, the ability of mind to rest in a given state without emotional confusion and distractions. At that point, one begins to eliminate the third level of obscuration, the level of emotional confusion.
The next phase of meditation experience is one we term the vipashyana experience, which is insight into the nature of mind. This is often technically termed egolessness or the experience of egolessness, the egolessness of the individual self or ego and the egolessness of all phenomena as independent entities in and of themselves. In the experience of vipashyana one begins to realize that both the ego and the objects and situations we perceive in the external world lack any ultimate reality. With the vipashyana experience—insight into the nature of the mind—the second level of obscuration, dualistic clinging, is eliminated.
[While the third and fourth levels of obscuration are regarded as
gross, emotional obscurations, the second and first levels are regarded as subtle, cognitive obscurations.]
Then finally, developing beyond this experience of insight, there is a fundamental transformation of unknowing to a state of knowing, changing a state of unawareness to a state of awareness, from ignorance to a state of direct perception and direct experience of mind. Then mind can see or experience its own nature. This is what we term the mahamudra experience. Mahamudra means “great symbol,” which is a code word for the direct experience of the fundamental nature of mind. At this point the most subtle level of obscuration or level of confusion in the mind has been removed. Ignorance has been transformed into intelligent awareness. This is how we define buddhahood, the attainment of complete enlightenment.
The word “buddha” is a Sanskrit term which was translated into Tibetan as sangye. Sang means to eliminate, in the sense that all of these levels of obscuration and confusion in the mind have been eliminated. Gye means simply to manifest or unfold, which refers to the unlimited expression of the inherent awareness and nature of mind that ensues upon enlightenment. That is the definition of buddhahood, the illumination which allows this manifestation.
On September 11, 1982, at the Blaisdale Institute for Advanced Study in World
Cultures and Religions in Claremont, California, His Holiness Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche gave a teaching on mahamudra. The following is an edited transcript of that teaching, which Rinpoche gave in Tibetan and which was translated orally by Lama Chökyi Nyima.
This is an excerpt from the transcript. The full teaching can be found at
The Clear Light of the Buddha’s Teachings Which Benefits All Beings
His Holiness Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche
Volume 3, Number 1