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.

Year 4 – Source of Mahamudra 2021

This was the fourth year of teachings at Pema Osel on the Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra, based on the Buddha’s Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

First, Rinpoche asked us to generate bodhicitta and then immediately put the importance of bodhicitta in perspective. Our lack of bodhicitta has made us wander in samsara for countless lifetimes and will continue to entrap us in endless rebirths. To break this cycle, we need to acknowledge deeply who is our friend and who is our foe. Our greatest foe in samsara is dak che dzin, self-centered mind, which harms us on a daily basis by producing all our afflictive emotions, which lead to all our suffering in samsara. We need to be willing to look at this process in an unbiased way, not like parents who indulge their spoiled children. By seeing clearly what dak che dzin does, we can gradually transform our deep habit of acting upon it.

Here, Rinpoche focused on specific forms dak che dzin can take, especially in the modern world. For example, because of the general encouragement to be competitive, it’s common to feel insecure about being left behind and unhappy that everyone else seems to be doing better than us. And if we have some success, it’s hard not to keep craving more, which prevents us from enjoying what we have. Then we can only use our success to feed our arrogance and put ourselves above others. We’re rarely encouraged to think clearly and constructively in order to cultivate dö chung chok she—little needs, much contentment.

Our greatest friends in samsara are the Three Jewels and all mother sentient beings. In lifetime after lifetime, our mothers have given us birth and raised us with deep love, our teachers have taught us how to read, write, and speak well, and countless others have given us guidance, support, and care. We need the humility to acknowledge we would be nothing without others; this humility is necessary for us to feel appreciation. And for us to attain enlightenment, we need not only the Three Jewels but all the sentient beings who give us the ground to practice the four immeasurables and cultivate bodhicitta.

The basis of the four immeasurables is the universal wisdom that all beings without exception strive for happiness and its causes. If we acknowledge this irrefutable fact, there is no room for dak che dzin to creep in and spoil our loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy. This universal wisdom allows us to develop universal tsewa. But the warmth of tsewa takes a while to cultivate. It is like taking wet wood and needing to dry it first before there’s any possibility of starting a fire. Our wood is wet with dak che dzin, which must first be addressed before we can build a warm fire. One of the greatest hindrances is the habit of thinking that everything good has to be ours. The antidote is sympathetic joy, the purest and most sustainable form of happiness. It’s also the most accessible because it only depends on our own mental power. Overall, we need to learn how to discern genuine happiness from “knock-off happiness,” which is based on ego.

Practicing the four immeasurables is like preparing a field to sow the seed of bodhicitta, which we must start doing at the very beginning of the Mahayana path. We’re in a good position to generate bodhicitta because we have the five necessary conditions that are necessary: buddha nature, compassion, merit from past lives, a spiritual friend, and hearing the Mahayana teachings—which was the focus of this weekend.

From here, Rinpoche picked up where we left off last year, with the fourth of the seven vajra points (Buddha, dharma, sangha, the element, enlightenment, qualities, and activities).

The element, or kham, is the buddha nature itself.

In the beginning of this section, Lord Maitreya gives three reasons why all beings possess buddha nature. The first is that the dharmakaya is always radiating, no matter how obscured it is.

The second reason is that suchness is the same in all beings, whether they are impure sentient beings, partially pure bodhisattvas, or completely pure buddhas. In the analogy, an earthen pot, a silver pot, and a golden pot are all different, but the space inside them is the same. Sentient beings are “impure” because their nature is veiled by emotional, cognitive, and habitual obscurations. The emotional obscurations are the five afflictive emotions, which come from holding the self as real. The subtler cognitive obscurations come from holding all skandhas as real—not realizing they are empty. The habitual obscurations are a byproduct of the first two; they are the cruise control mechanism run by the power of built-up habits. When we attain the first bhumi, the emotional obscurations are purified, and on the higher bhumis, the cognitive and habitual obscurations are purified. This process continues until we are completely purified in the state of Buddhahood.

It’s only possible to make this progress with the help of a spiritual friend who gives us teachings on the relative and absolute. In the relative, everything is compounded, which means phenomena are always flowing in a continuum. This continuum is what allows things to function. Everything arises and ceases simultaneously, but its absolute nature—the dharmakaya—is empty.

The third reason all beings possess buddha nature is that they all have the disposition. However, although everyone has the natural disposition (rangzhin ne rik), very few have the development disposition (gyengyur gi rik), which requires a connection that comes from many lifetimes of accumulating merit. We should cherish this connection because we could easily lose it.

Rinpoche resumed his transmission of the text in the section on unchangingness, the ninth of the ten aspects of buddha nature. Once we’re stationed in the unchanging nature of dharmata, we have no reason to suffer from birth, old age, sickness, and death. The bodhisattva appears to go through these four stages, but that is for the purpose of relating to sentient beings and teaching impermanence. We only go through suffering when we cling to the self as if it really exists. This inaccurate perception, or tsulmin yijé, brings about all the afflictive emotions, which produce karma and its results that ripen when the right conditions come together. Bodhisattvas take birth in samsara to help beings in many ways, most of all through teachings. They teach the truth even though not many people are interested in the truth. We should contemplate our own resistance to hearing the truth so that we don’t waste our lives caught up in trulpa, or delusion.

Next, Rinpoche gave a brief explanation of the Buddha’s Second Turning, the teachings on emptiness of self and phenomena. Without studying emptiness, it’s very difficult to not to make buddha nature and its qualities into something like the atman of Hindu philosophy. When we realize emptiness, our tsulmin yijé will come to an end, which will lead to the cessation of our afflictive emotions and all that naturally follows. From the path of seeing onwards, bodhisattvas have an understanding of emptiness that is free of elaboration. They could choose to enter nirvana in seven days, but they remain on the path for countless eons in order to perfect the accumulations of merit and wisdom by practicing the six paramitas. Through these accumulations, they eventually become completely enlightened and can manifest buddhafields such as Dewachen.

It’s easy to say everything is empty and have a superficial understanding of that, but developing certitude requires us to contemplate deeply on the cushion and come to know emptiness personally. To do so, we need great diligence based on devotion to the cause of awakening ourselves; only in this way can we achieve what the masters of the past have achieved.

Though buddha nature is beyond mental constructs, it still contains qualities, such as awareness, love, and transformative ability. These are innate and integral to the nature itself, but in ourselves they are currently malfunctioning. Other qualities of sentient beings that are byproducts of ignorance are not integral and will naturally fall away along the path. When we go beyond duality, we will discover the inseparability of emptiness and jnana, or primordial wisdom. This is the nature not only of the buddha’s mind but of the entire universe.

The last of the ten aspects of buddha nature is inseparability of the qualities. Four synonyms for buddha nature are used in different contexts: dharmakaya, tathagata, noble truth, and absolute nirvana.

The text continued with the nine similes: the Buddha statue in the decaying lotus, the honey surrounded by bees, the grain in the husk, the gold in filth, the treasure under the poor man’s house, the seed in the fruit, the Buddha’s image wrapped in rags, the future king in the womb of a poor woman, and the gold statue in a clay mold. The two parts of each example refer to the buddha nature and what obscures it. The obscurations in the first three similes are the dormant aspects of passion, aggression, and deep mental fog; in the fourth, it is their active aspect. The obscuration in the fifth simile is the co-emergent ignorance that arhats must still purify. In the sixth and seventh, the obscurations are what must be purified on the path of seeing and the path of meditation; the eighth and nine relate to what is purified on the first seven bhumis and the last three bhumis, respectively. The nine similes also correspond to the three reasons all beings have buddha nature: dharmakaya, suchness, and the disposition.

Our buddha nature must be realized through faith and inspiration, which takes time. We need to rely on those who can see until we’re able to see for ourselves. Then we will discover the truth of what is said in the most important verse of the text: “Nothing whatsoever is to be removed. Not the slightest thing is to be added. Truly looking at truth, truth is seen. When seen, this is complete liberation.” The obscurations that need to be removed are actually like mirages that never existed in the first place. The qualities of enlightenment have always been with us and don’t need to be created.

Reality is free of the four extremes of existence, non-existence, both, and neither. Everything based on deep mental fog is empty, but buddha nature and its qualities are not empty.

The kham section concludes by explaining why the Third Turning was taught in the first place. This was to overcome five obstacles: low self-esteem, pride, exaggeration, denial, and lacking empathy to reach out to other beings because we don’t think it is possible to help them.

This was the fifth year of teachings at Pema Osel on the Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra, based on the Buddha’s Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

Year 5 – Source of Mahamudra 2022

Talk One

Rinpoche began the program with general teachings, or chidön. He emphasized that this is a long, long path. At first it appeared that he was speaking mainly to the younger students in the assembly, but soon it became clear that he was including all Dharma practitioners, from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to those who have recently met the Dharma.

We’re all attracted to Dharma for sound reasons, but we have to go beyond merely understanding the teachings intellectually and appreciating how they make sense. It takes a long time to integrate the Dharma into our lives and to change our thousands of habits. All these habits ultimately come down to our attachment to ourselves, or dak che dzin, which Rinpoche compared to mussels clinging to their ropes in the Irish seas. Like those doomed mussels, we cling to ourselves because it never occurs to us that we can let go.

This is largely a matter of education. In the last century, knowledge of physical hygiene has become widespread, improving the lives of people all over the world. Dharma has also become much more widely available and people are more literate and able to understand complex topics. But the Buddha’s vision was never for Buddhism to take over the world. It’s more about reducing dak che dzin and becoming free from our habits. Though schools like Harvard have produced many brilliant minds, Western education is based on namshé, ordinary consciousness, which is founded on deep mental fog.

To reduce our dak che dzin, we need to take a keen interest in what’s happening in our emotions and habits, which we can only do when we admit we are suffering. True diligence is based on joyful honesty to look at ourselves clearly and make deep aspirations to change. In this, we should look up to the great masters of the past, focusing on emulating their inner transformation rather than their outward achievements. Thoughts that clarify the relative truth will contribute to this transformation, but in the Buddhist path, thoughts are secondary. The primary thing is to develop certitude in the emptiness nature. This will gradually lead to our being liberated from dualistic thoughts and projections—and all the pain those cause.

Rinpoche said that, as a teacher, one of his main tasks is to help students drop their preconceptions and fantasies about Dharma by speaking of what liberation really means and where it comes from. This requires recognizing what needs to be shed and joyfully letting that go. All Dharma comes to a single point, which is to reduce le tang nyönmong—karma and afflictive emotions. Karma includes actions of body and speech, but most of all, we need to focus on the actions and reactions that take place in our mindstream. There are four reasons the afflictive emotions—attachment, aggression, pride, jealousy, and deep mental fog—are afflictive: they create obvious suffering in our own and other’s lives; they increase and proliferate as we engage in them; most people have no counteragent, and even the ones who do often fail to use it; and they create karma, which leads to rebirths in samsara.

Talk Two

Rinpoche contrasted namshé, the consciousness we’re all familiar with, with yeshe, primordial consciousness that transcends the ordinary. Yeshe is one of the many synonyms for buddha nature, which also include dharmadhatu, suchness, dharmakaya, and emptiness. To train ourselves in this absolute nature, we can do practices such as tonglen, which are so counterintuitive that they test our core beliefs and reveal the depth of our conviction in emptiness. As our faith becomes more experiential than intellectual, we will move toward the state Avalokiteshvara describes in the Heart Sutra: “Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear.”

What distinguishes Buddhism from other religions and philosophies is the view of emptiness (tongpa nyi) and selflessness (dak mepa). This view also differentiates Buddhist compassion, which is based on knowing that beings in samsara can all wake themselves up to the ultimate truth, where there is no sufferer or suffering. This wisdom is the birthright of every sentient being.

In other religions, there is renunciation toward suffering upon suffering and the suffering of change, but the suffering of all-compounded things, which is based on subtle changes taking place every split second, can only be remedied by emptiness. All phenomena are merely designated by thoughts; all appearance is mere appearance. But meditators shouldn’t separate the emptiness from the appearance, going back and forth between the two. Instead, we should aim to have an unshakeable core of nonreactivity toward mere appearance.

Attaining such a stable seat for ourselves also has to be in relation to the universe we’re part of. Therefore, it’s important to develop compassion from the ground onwards. Without compassion in the ground and path, the fruition will be gokpa, a state of cessation for ourselves alone.

Rinpoche took the time to speak of emptiness at length because when studying the Uttaratantra Shastra, there’s a danger of thinking of buddha nature as something like the Hindu notion of atman. With tongpa nyi and dak mepa as a foundation, we can see how tathagatagarbha and its qualities are in no way contradictory to the emptiness teachings. Thus the Second and Third Turning teachings are in perfect sync with each other.

Yeshe is primordial “consciousness,” but this consciousness is baseless, rootless, and unconditional. At the same time, it is the basis of all experience, from samsara to enlightenment. Beings are only “ignorant” in that we are ignorant of yeshe, which we possess in the beginning, middle, and end. This is true of every being in every realm, which is why great teachers like Drom Tönpa and Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche show so much reverence for every sentient being they encounter. We all have the natural disposition to enlightenment and all of the Buddha’s qualities. Therefore, one of the five reasons the Buddha gave the teachings of the Third Turning was to foster respect for all beings without any discrimination.

We returned to the text itself at the beginning of the Fifth Vajra Point, Enlightenment. This chapter explains enlightenment according to eight topics: essence, cause, fruit, function, endowment, manifestation, permanence, and inconceivability.

In this talk, Rinpoche commented briefly on the first three of these. The essence of enlightenment is purity, which encompasses the primordial purity of our nature and the purity that comes from removing our obscurations on the path. The cause is attaining wisdom through in-meditation and post-meditation. The fruit is freedom from the emotional and cognitive obscurations.

Talk Three

Rinpoche clarified that buddhahood, the subject of the enlightenment chapter, does not refer to a person but to the universal nature we all possess. When we attain buddhahood, our ability to benefit specific beings will come from our having made karmic connections while on the bodhisattva path. If we spend a longer time on the path after having generated bodhicitta, we will be able to make more connections with beings. This is why bodhisattvas like Manjushri, though fully enlightened, have chosen to remain on the tenth bhumi.

For ourselves, there is nothing to be concerned about once we reach the stage of forbearance, the third level of the path of application. From then on, we’ll no longer experience pain the way we have for countless lifetimes in samsara. Though at this stage we won’t yet have a direct experience of emptiness, we will have a mental image, or dönchi. We can develop dönchi of the absolute truth through the process of namchö, or reduction, in which we eliminate everything that is not the truth. The eventual result is not that we end up empty-handed but that we are left with a state beyond description, unmistakably experiencing the absolute nature like a mute person knowing the taste of sugar.

When we discover our own nature, we will also see that this is the nature of all beings who are suffering in samsara. This leads to a state of unconditional love for all beings, and an overwhelming desire to benefit them. Of all the qualities of a buddha, what brings the most benefit to beings is the power of enlightened speech. The Buddha Shakyamuni’s speech has benefited countless beings over the last 2500 years and will continue to do so for as long this era lasts. These teachings can’t be destroyed by any outside force. They have been safeguarded in their entirety for many centuries in Tibet, an isolated country that hasn’t kept up with modernization but has preserved a wisdom tradition that is the world’s most valuable heritage.

The value the Dharma brings to us personally depends on our motivation. If our motivation comes from bodhicitta, then we must focus on developing compassion for all beings along with the wisdom of tongpa nyi and dak mepa. But until we’ve overcome our self-centered mind, we shouldn’t act prematurely to benefit beings. Otherwise, we will eventually find that people are quite sharp and will see through our ulterior motives.

After speaking for a bit on how the way people have become his students has changed over the years, Rinpoche remarked that the way we are studying here is different from traditional shedras. His aim in giving these teachings isn’t simply to give us more knowledge but to help us integrate our studies into our path.  On the other hand, he described his approach as traditional, especially in comparison to a teacher like Trungpa Rinpoche.

Talk Four

In the final talk, Rinpoche read through the rest of the enlightenment chapter and gave brief commentary on the eight topics.

The fourth topic, function, consists of the best possible benefit for oneself and the best possible benefit for others. The fifth, endowment, includes the fifteen ultimate qualities of the nature. Rinpoche emphasized that these are not personal qualities but qualities of the universal nature that come forth when the individual merges nondually with that nature.

The sixth topic, manifestation, refers to the dharmakaya and the form kayas. Sambhogakaya buddhas manifest for bodhisattvas on the bhumis. Instead of teaching verbally, they are like mirrors, reflecting the students’ imperfections. The nirmanakaya buddhas are born in our world. They include Buddha Shakyamuni, the Supreme Nirmanakaya, as well as great beings in the world and even inanimate objects such as a bridge or a breeze on hot day.

Permanence, the seventh topic, again refers to the kayas, each of which is permanent in its own way. The dharmakaya is permanent in terms of its nature. The sambhogakaya appears uninterruptedly. It is compared to the moon in the sky, which doesn’t change. The nirmanakaya appears continuously according to the needs of beings. It is compared to the moon’s reflection in different ponds, which always changes but which never ceases since there are always ponds to reflect. The eighth topic is inconceivability, which refers to dualistic mind’s inability to comprehend enlightenment.