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.)


Year 3 – Source of Mahamudra 2020

This was the third year of teachings at Pema Osel on the Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra, which is the source of Mahamudra. “Mahamudra” means the nature that embraces all, samsara and nirvana both.

Rinpoche began by acknowledging how difficult a year this has been for all of humanity, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. In times like these, impermanence and death are more in our face than usual and taking refuge in the dharma becomes even more poignant. It is a time where we can best help ourselves by taking responsibility for our own karma and by meeting the future with a courageous vision rather than wallowing in hopelessness.

The source of all goodness in the world is the noble dharma, in other words, the universal truth. A key element of this truth is understanding where individual and collective suffering comes from. We all go around with a sense of self. This isn’t a problem unless it gives rise to an outrageous amount of force of emotion. We tend to become overly attached to this self and what belongs to it, which makes us insecure and unstable. From there, the feeling of aggression often arises in response to whatever seems to threaten our attachments. When these emotions lead to our temporarily doing well, we feel pride. When we fall behind others, we feel jealousy. All these afflictions manifest on both the individual and collective level, eventually resulting in global suffering, as we are experiencing now. And they all come from our deep mental fog, the stew pot for all our negative emotions to be stewed.

Right now we are all affected by a pandemic, but in a matter of months or years, there will be a remedy. The fundamental pandemic of the negative emotions will last as long as we are in samsara. This pandemic has only one remedy, which is to reverse self-centered mind and replace it with the altruistic mind of bodhicitta. This is something we can only do for ourselves, helped by the unsurpassable protector, the precious holy dharma. For this, we must develop knowledge of our own mind, particularly our sixth consciousness. We must learn to attend to our mind and connect the dots that lead to our own happiness or suffering.

The fundamental way of improving our state of mind is by cultivating loving-kindness. This emotion must be backed by the knowledge that all sentient beings are equal in the constant wish to be happy. We have to avoid segregation, which can turn or otherwise loving heart into something like an ocean of milk stained by an oil spill. Our heart may not be able to maintain a state of loving-kindness at all times, but if we have inspiration backed by wisdom, we can slowly make it change for the better. Bodhicitta is a wish-fulfilling jewel that gives birth to all the buddhas of the three times. It is dignified, it doesn’t seek confirmation from others, and it brings us to a state of bliss. The happiest people in the world are those who serve others and know the pleasure of doing so in their own hearts. There are so many people in this category, from parents and teachers to garbagemen. The nihilistic media doesn’t focus on this goodness and tends to portray our times as apocalyptic, but the world has always been sustained and will continue to be sustained by good people with good hearts. We should never be shy about expressing gratitude for this. At the same time, as Buddhist practitioners, we should turn the potential of our own good hearts into a constructive path that will enable us to bring ultimate benefit to beings, just as Buddha Shakyamuni did.

We all want to avoid harming others and to benefit them, but in reality things aren’t so simple because of our habits from past lives. Merely experiencing pain is not enough to break us out of these patterns, but if experience is combined with critical thinking, we will gain insight into our own lives. This insight, or vipassana, needs the conducive circumstance of a steady mind, or shamatha. These practices show us we have all we need to be happy. Ultimately, with the help of the Three Jewels, they lead to the happiness of realizing our own enlightened nature, the uncompounded state of dharmata.

The Buddha turned the Wheel of Dharma three times, all with the ultimate aim of helping us realize our nature. In the first turning, he taught the Four Noble Truths, in which he showed how suffering and its cessation are dependently originated. This understanding turned people such as the murderer Angulimala into superpowers who could swiftly pacify all their negativity and become arhats in a single lifetime. The view of selflessness in the first turning is an essential foundation for the Mahayana, making it possible not only to sympathize with others’ pain but even to take their pain upon ourselves.

In the Buddha’s second turning, he taught the emptiness aspect of the Mahayana by expounding on Prajnaparamita, the mother of all Aryas. This emptiness is not a void. On the contrary, it is what enables everything to appear and to function. Since the source of all suffering is holding things to be real, emptiness is the antidote to all suffering. In the Mahayana, samsara and nirvana are in equilibrium. What determines our state is whether we wake up to Mother Prajnaparamita or remain ignorant.

In some approaches, emptiness is put into various categories which can allow us to overcome specific attachments, but the ultimate emptiness is trotral – free of elaboration. This mahashunyata eradicates all possibility of shenpa in the ground, path, and fruition. At the same time, there is an ongoing experience of awareness. This primordial awareness, or jnana, is a yogic experience, not an object of intellectual analysis.

The third turning consists of ten of the Buddha’s sutras, which were later combined by Maitreya into the Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra. The subject of this treatise is tathagatagarhba, the Buddha nature we all possess. The book is laid out in seven vajra points, beginning with the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. We are now in the fourth point – the element, or kham, which refers to the Buddha nature itself. The heart of the kham chapter is the reasoning that explains buddha nature from three different points of view. First, buddha nature or dharmakaya is always radiating in every being. Second, it is not differentiated, meaning the nature of beings doesn’t have to change to become the nature of a buddha; it remains the same at all stages. And third, all beings have the disposition to realize their nature; this is the very disposition that the buddhas had when they were sentient beings.

How happy we are with ourselves depends on how well we are meeting our intentions with our actions. As Buddhist practitioners, our main intention is to make progress on our spiritual path. We can gauge this progress according to four stages described by Nagarjuna in his Letter to a Friend. At first our mind is dense and solid. Our thoughts and emotions make deep impressions that can last for decades. This is compared to engraving letters on stone. In the second stage, we have developed some understanding that everything in our experience is dependently originated. We still have our habitual reactions, but things are a little less solid. This is like writing on paper. We reach the third stage by practicing shamatha, which can be focused on the breath or have an object of contemplation. Here Rinpoche went into detail about using the practice of loving-kindness as a form of shamatha. Based on recognizing the equality of all beings, we broaden our own wish for happiness and make it a wish for all others’ happiness. Along with this thought, we cultivate the thought’s emotional juice, the juice of bodhicitta. This shamatha practice improves our concentration, which helps us to see our thoughts and afflictive emotions without reacting. Since our reacting is what makes them solid, through this process we move to the stage where it is like writing letters on a slate board that can easily be wiped off.

In the last of Nagarjuna’s four stages, all façade-like relative appearances become like letters written on water. We examine our thoughts and emotions and find they are like mirages. This direct seeing convinces us there is nothing to react to. Now we have a choice about whether to believe in the reality of appearances and this choice is a great gift. For yogins, the experience of thoughts being like letters written on water becomes increasingly stable and their minds become free. Anything can arise without restrictions. Rinpoche emphasized this point since people often mistake stability to mean some kind of constricted state.

After these instructions, Rinpoche got into the text, picking up where we left off last year. We resumed in the kham chapter with manifestation, the sixth of the ten aspects of buddha nature. Tathagatagarbha doesn’t change but it manifests differently according to our level of obscurations. Completely obscured beings like ourselves see things as singular and permanent, with separate identities, and inherently blissful of painful. Noble beings such as arhats have gone beyond these beliefs in permanence and so on. Tathagatas have completely gone beyond these views and rest in the unfabricated nature.

The seventh point concerns the three phases of being completely obscured, partially obscured and partially purified, and completely purified. The completely purified tathagatas are free of the emotional obscurations, which are the five negative emotions, and the cognitive obscurations, which means thinking that the skandhas are real.

The eighth point is all-pervasiveness. The analogy is between the dharmadhatu and space. Just as space pervades all the elements and, although invisible, allows them to exist and function, the dharmadhatu pervades all phenomena and all phases of tathagatagarbha.

The ninth point is unchangingness. As we progress from being completely obscured to completely purified, our obscurations appear to decrease and our qualities appear to increase, but this is only at the level of seeming. One of the most famous stanzas in the text is: “There’s nothing to be removed, there’s nothing to be added. Seeing it as it is, one is thus enlightened.” Our obscurations do not really have to be removed because they exist only in relation to ignorant mind. And as that happens, our qualities will emerge like the sun’s rays that appear when clouds part.

Space is a metaphor for the unchanging quality of our buddha nature. The fires of aging, sickness, and death can destroy our body, but our nature is like space, which can’t be destroyed by fire. If we realize our nature, it will overpower the appearance and we will go beyond suffering. Space is also the basis for wind, then water, and then earth being formed. Similarly, our empty luminous nature is the basis for tsulzhin mayinpé yjié, or inaccurate perception of the self. This is the basis for our afflicting emotions, which lead to karma, and then to the skandhas, ayatanas, and dhatus being created. We left off on p.134.

For many centuries, the Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra has given us so much confidence about why any sentient being can attain enlightenment. Confidence in our nature is what ultimately makes all the difference in our spiritual progress. This text gives us a clear map for our path of meditation. It is important to study traditional texts, which give authenticity to the teachings and enable masters to give their students a step-by-step way to progress toward realization. If that lineage is ever broken, we will have nothing to trace back to and we will have to resort to making things up.