Wonder of Wonders: The Truly Enlightened Nature of Mind
Editor’s note: This is the first wonderful guest post by my friend and fellow UWest classmate Akasa Skye. Akasa and I first met several years ago at Shambhala Mountain Center (now pre-evacuated due to fire, though not touched yet) where we both worked/volunteered. Akasa entered the chaplaincy program one year after me at UWest and he is also the new UWest Student Association President. Perhaps more interesting, Akasa truly interfaith. He brings a great wealth of wisdom from not only Buddhism, but also Wicca and Sikhism. Akasa practices in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism and also avidly pursues Kundalini yoga. So welcome Akasa!
We are intrinsically enlightened and lack nothing.
– HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
I first remember having problems with my mind when I was 13. A popular kid my whole life, at age 13 I went to a new school and was promptly picked on. As people hurled “faggot” down the hallway and sometimes hurled me against lockers, I began to experience bewilderment in my mind. I was suddenly faced with the idea that maybe there was something wrong with me.
At first I put up a fight, fought back, tried getting teachers involved, tried talking it out, tried punching it out. But, when the insults and punches continued, my mind finally caved in: there was something wrong with me. I began to see myself as odd and broken. Because I was broken, so was the world. The world was dark, judgmental, and hateful and I didn’t believe anything to be otherwise.
My mind had created its own Hell: no one could be trusted. There was no God, there was no angel. There was no one to save me: only my mind in darkness. Only a deep shame in myself.
In the movie Amongst White Clouds, a Chinese Zen monk living in the Zhongnan Mountains paraphrases a section in Chapter Two of the Lotus Sutra, saying, “The one great vow is to lead all beings to see what a Buddha sees. See like a Buddha and see what a Buddha sees.” What does a Buddha see? A Buddha sees the world as already enlightened, fundamentally awake, completely luminescent. Paraphrasing Zen Priest Kobutsu Shindo, the first thing the Buddha said when he awakened was, “Wonder of wonders, all beings are truly enlightened.”
While I find this to be true today, if someone had tried to tell me this at age 13, I probably would have said some choice four-letter word and slumped away. I was proof that while our awakened mind is always existent and is, indeed, talked about in Buddhist texts, we just don’t see it.
According to the teachings, our Nature of Mind gets obscured by clouds of ignorance – an ignorance that believes in duality, that there is a “real self” here that is separate from the “real others” out there. It’s not until this ignorance is finally exhausted that we see our Original Nature, the Nature of Mind. Chinese Zen teachers believe that the Buddha’s teachings are all aimed at showing us this Nature.
So while that’s all good and true, I can say without a doubt that when people were hitting me and I was suffering, it seemed pretty clear that there was indeed a world “out there” and a world “in here.” However, Buddhism isn’t telling us that the dualistic, relative world isn’t there. According to Vajrayana Buddhist teachings, human beings – indeed, all of life – already exist and have for always existed in a state of wholeness, brilliance, and luminosity. This state of existence is, in some Buddhist traditions, called the Nature of Mind. Although there is this Nature of Mind that is awake and brilliant, the Vajrayana acknowledges that there is a relative world that also exists and that the path to enlightenment is not to forsake or withdraw from this world but, rather, to engage it fully.
As Vajrayana practitioners, we try to engage in the world with the eyes of a Buddha: we try to see its awakened nature. This holding the seemingly contradictory truths that, one, the nature of reality is luminescent and no different from ourselves and yet, two, that reality also arises as confused and deluded, is the essence of tantra, the essence of the Vajrayana path.
One question that naturally arises when we begin to have this conversation about the Nature of Mind is: why do we need to know that the nature of reality is enlightened and that it is no different from our mind? Lama Yeshe, a Tibetan monk, in his book Becoming your own therapist says it very bluntly: We need to know this because “(y)ou’re mentally ill…(Y)ou’re obsessed with the sense world, blinded by attachments, and under the control of the fundamental ignorance of the true nature of your own mind.” What Lama Yeshe is saying, in case you missed it, is that the way we live our lives – in every moment – is based on a mental illness. What is this mental illness? According to the teachings, this mental illness is ignorance; specifically, ignorance of the nature of our mind.
You might say that at 13, I was suffering from an acute case of this ignorance. However, this is a common occurrence amongst humans: rather than knowing or trusting in the luminous nature of our minds, we create a dualistic world that we incorrectly assume we are separate from. It is through this error in perception that we then create attachments and cling to this seemingly external world. We spend so much time trying to hold on to this fabricated dualistic existence that we become ignorant of the nature of our minds. It is this ignorant state that Lama Yeshe considers a “mental illness.”
“Problems exist in the minds of individuals,” Lama Yeshe goes on to say. At 13 my problems didn’t really begin when the teasing and taunting began; instead, they began when my mind created a world around me that was frightening, untrustworthy, hateful, and full of pain. This mind led me to drugs, cutting, fighting, belligerence, hate, serial lying, theft, breaking and entering, betraying friends, using people, estranging myself from my family, and attempted suicide. But this is not who I am today, and why is that? If it is true that problems exist in our minds, as my situation suggests, then I believe that if we are going to make any headway in reducing the amount of suffering in the world, we must begin by understanding the nature of this mind that creates our reality.
So what is this Nature of Mind? Well, it is difficult to talk about the Nature of Mind as it is an intangible state of existence in which we all live. Indeed, trying to talk about it is much like a fish trying to talk about the water in which it swims. However, it is possible, and one way that Buddhists get around this problem is with the help of symbols. Luckily, symbols abound in teachings about the Nature of Mind. First, the Shambhala and Zen Buddhist traditions say that the Nature of Mind is like the sun; then, The Tibetan Book of the Dead says that it is like light. Other teachings say that it is like the sky and even that it is like a mirror, as is believed in the Dzogchen tradition. These symbols come from different lineages, but notice the one thing these lineages all have in common: each says that the Nature of Mind is “like” something. None of them say that the Nature of Mind is exactly one thing or another. That is because, to use a traditional Buddhist parable, each symbol is like a finger pointing at the moon. The finger pointing at the moon can describe where the moon is located in the sky, and it can show you where to look or where to go. However, the finger cannot tell you what the moon is like exactly. In order to know that, you will need to either go to the moon directly or create your own relationship with it. In the same way, we must find a way to connect with and make a relationship with the nature of our minds.
The first step in doing so is to understand it through the use of these symbols. The two symbols that I would like to use in this paper are sun and mirror.
In the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, it is said that the Nature of Mind is like the sun. The sun has powerful and self-existing brilliance and luminosity. It is always bright all by itself – no one has to go and help the sun be bright, no one has to go and give it a pep talk. The sun just shines. According to the aforementioned Chinese Zen monk from the movie Amongst White Clouds, “On a cloudy day you can’t see the sun. There’s nothing wrong with the sun – it’s just that we can’t see it.” Our Nature of Mind is like that: though it may seem to be covered up by clouds of conceptions, misperceptions, and misunderstandings, it is nonetheless there as a self-existing, brilliant luminosity.
David Nichtern, a senior teacher in the Shambhala lineage, asks us these questions: “Can you trust your life and say that the ground of it is good? Can we experience life and see it as fundamentally good, fundamentally wholesome?” What David is pointing out in these questions is that both the ground of our existence and the ground of life are fundamentally good and wholesome.
Upon hearing this, you might ask: “But if that were the case, wouldn’t we know that?“ According to the Shambhala teachings, no. Over the years, we have created the habit of forgetting; we have learned to forget how powerful we are. As such, we need to be reminded that we are vast, brilliant and luminous: that is our true nature, that is the nature of our mind. Thus, we are given the symbol of the sun to represent the nature of our mind so that we can begin to remember who and what we are. “The point is to trigger the recognition,” David says. The sun can be our trigger.
In the Dzogchen tradition, as presented by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, the Nature of Mind is akin to a mirror. According to Namkhai Norbu, “(B)eyond the mind, beyond our thoughts, there is something we call the ‘nature of mind’, the mind’s true condition, which is beyond all limits.” Since the Nature of Mind is beyond the mind and therefore cannot be analyzed directly by mind, Rinpoche helps us understand it through the analysis of the nature of a mirror.
What is the nature of a mirror? The mirror’s nature is purity, clarity, and cleanliness. Without the mirror’s nature, the mirror cannot do what a mirror is meant to do: reflect. If a mirror is not pure or clean and instead has stains or is murky, it does not reflect. It can be said, then, that purity and cleanliness are indispensable conditions for the manifestation of reflections. But manifesting reflections is not the nature of the mirror – instead, manifesting reflections is only what a mirror does. Its nature – its purity and cleanliness – is not actually visible. All we see of a mirror is its ability to reflect, so all we can understand of a mirror is how it reflects or manifests external images.
Now, let’s connect the nature of the mirror with the Nature of Mind. In the same way that we cannot see the nature of a mirror, we cannot see the Nature of Mind. Like a mirror, the only way that we can see the nature of mind is through its reflections. In other words, like a mirror, the mind’s job is to produce reflections of itself in the world around us. According to Rinpoche,
Truly speaking, from the absolute point of view, there really does not exist any separation between the relative condition [i.e., the world] and its true nature [i.e. the Nature of Mind], in the same way that a mirror and the reflections in it are in fact one indivisible whole.
But in our ignorance, rather than realizing that our mind and the world around us are inseparable, we instead act as if we have stepped out of the mirror; we act as if we have somehow stepped outside of our mind. Thinking our mind is somehow separate from us, we look at its reflections and think that they are not part of us – we do not realize that we created them. Because we consider things outside of us to be real, we develop aversion and attachment to these things. This attachment to reflections and our believing them to be real is none other than the dualistic condition, which is the general situation of all human beings. According to the teachings, this dualistic condition is called ‘ignorance’ – the mental illness mentioned earlier by Lama Yeshe.
I have had the good fortune to stumble upon these teachings at the age of 20, and I began to study them with gusto. Over time, I was able to see my own ignorance, see my own clouds that were obscuring my mind, and begin to brush them aside. I have become increasingly more interested in the sun and, these days, letting it shine through is my primary modus operandi.
Over the years, as my faith in my awakened, true, enlightened nature becomes more and more sturdy, the way that I view the world has changed. I have allowed the world to show up as it is – which is not always rainbows and pink fluffy unicorns. I believe that it is by addressing our ignorance and being honest with ourselves about what our obstacles are that we can begin to dismantle the mountain of problems that we humans have created on this planet.
Lama Yeshe says that problems begin in the minds of individuals, and that has certainly been true of myself. And because I have seen the changes in myself and have seen how they are a result of my becoming more aware of the truth of my enlightened Nature of Mind, I feel that I must help individuals understand their minds and the nature of their minds.
Further, I want to help people understand that, like a mirror, what the mind creates and the mind itself are indivisible. When this is grasped or experienced directly, the state of ignorance that sees the world as a duality can be transcended. What remains is an inseparable mindworld that is clear, fundamentally good, awake, luminous and pure.
How do I know this is true? Because I have experienced it: through meditation. In flashes. It is difficult in Graduate School and in our society to maintain this experience for long. Glimpses during meditation and sometimes in daily life are the best that I have. Luckily, we also have Namkhai Norbu telling us:
When we find ourselves in the knowledge of our true nature…(a)ll that arises is experienced as part of the inherent qualities of our own primordial state. For this reason, the fundamental point is not to abandon or transform the [world], but to understand its true nature.
It is my opinion that if we understand the world to be a manifestation of our luminous, basically good, and awake minds, we could begin to experience the world around us as the same. My experience is that when a person goes through life with this view, it is that much harder to think selfishly, to harm others, and to perpetuate suffering in this world.
Our friend the Chinese Zen mountain monk could not agree with me more. He says,
Beings in this world live in ignorance. They summon heaven and they summon hell. If we are not aware of Buddha Nature, then this world is hell. If we have this awareness and are kind, then this world is heaven.
If you don’t believe it, just ask your mind.
It will show you.
Amongst White Clouds. DVD. Directed by Edward A. Burger. 2004; Calgary, Alberta: Cosmos Pictures, Inc., 2005.
David Nichtern, November 2009. Shambhala Training Level One, Akron-Canton Shambhala Meditation Center, Cuyahoga Falls, OH
Karma-glin-pa, Padma Sambhava, Gyurme Dorje, Graham Coleman, Thupten Jinpa, and Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho. 2007. The Tibetan book of the dead [English title]: the great liberation by hearing in the intermediate states [Tibetan title]. New York: Penguin.
(Lama Yeshe) Thubten Yeshe, and Nicholas Ribush. 1998. Becoming your own therapist: an introduction to the Buddhist way of thought. Boston: Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.
Namkhai Norbu, and Adriano Clemente. 1989. Dzogchen: the self-perfected state. London, England: Arkana.