Knowing our Experiencing Mind

lama ole nydahl

This article was published in issue # 21 | Spring-Summer 2008


This article is a shortened version, edited for publication, of a lecture given by Lama Ole Nydahl in June 2004 in Prague, Czech Republic.

In 1959, when Communist Chinese attacked and destroyed Tibet, we nearly lost some of the finest and most advanced psychological and philosophical wisdom known to man. It was a streak of extreme luck that about eighty five thousand Tibetans managed to flee over the Himalayas into India, Bhutan, and Nepal. While most of the fugitives had little education, there were several hundred wisdom holders, people with a full practical or theoretical training concerning the nature of mind, that made the journey. This gave the idealists of the world a precious opportunity to keep and save that knowledge.

Back in the late 60s and early 70s, the West was getting ready. Especially in North America and Northern Europe, some people had already gone beyond their own cultures and were eager to learn new things. That was my very visible generation of hippies. I won’t say we were the most regular of students. Most of us had spent twenty years at schools and universities, so we were not satisfied to simply hear something. Also, we usually arrived with exotic smoke coming out of our noses and ears. What we wanted was experience.

To the Tibetans, we took some getting used to. Not only was our democratic and taboo free culture a mystery to them, but our appearances made many think we might be from another universe. Carrot-colored hair, big noses, and booming voices were a novelty. And long arms and legs like ours they only knew from their Eastern warrior tribes, the Khampas, who can be truly majestic.

However, they also noticed that we had compassion and were very honest, that as Westerners we said and did the same, which is quite different from Asian preferences for politeness over directness. We were always trying to make them eat vitamins, avoid polished rice, and stuff like that. Even though they couldn’t always understand us, they did see that we wanted to benefit them.

In 1969, sensing an interesting potential, two brave teachers started instructing Westerners for the first time. The highly learned Geshe Rabten, from the Gelupa school, started teaching their conceptual way in the Western Himalayas, but stopped soon after, as he got sick. He continued later at Rikon in Switzerland, with the blessing of the Dalai Lama.

Kalu Rinpoche, a great Kagyu yogi with thirty years of meditation experience in Eastern Tibet, worked from his monastery in foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. His small village, called Sonada, lay on the road to Darjeeling and Sikkim. He taught with the blessing of the 16th Karmapa.

Later he went to the West several times, as my books Entering the Diamond Way and Riding the Tiger describe. He kept working until his yogi death in 1989.

In 1969, the main Tibetan rinpoches decided that to preserve their heritage, they had to teach Westerners. The neighboring Asian cultures were too rigid and as desperately poor refugees in a country like India, most Tibetans could not afford years of education. Instead, many of their young men wanted to trade and experience the world. Worst of all, especially due to tuberculosis, the main Tibetan wisdom holders were dying very quickly. If they did not pass on their insights, they would disappear. The conscious exchange between two rich cultures that started there has continued ever since, producing 560 Diamond Way centers worldwide to date. It fills halls everywhere.

So why the happiness every time we meet? Well, we celebrate both mind’s potential and Buddha’s trust in us. He only taught because we can recognize that happiness comes from functioning well; behaving like buddhas until we become them and then living his highest level of identification with the finest of motivation. From these perspectives, meaningful activities must follow.

The key to this is knowing our experiencing mind. How many of you have ever tried to find out what is aware right now, looking through your eyes and listening through your ears? If you did and discovered that your mind was green, or striped, or had any other material characteristic, this would be a historic discovery. On the other hand, if you didn’t find anything, you should be happy beyond compare. Though at first you might have a nihilistic flash, thinking that maybe mind doesn’t exist, soon a state of freedom and great bliss will pervade. And why? Imagine that your mind has a certain weight, color, smell, size, or form. That what is looking through your eyes has given dimensions and that you want to think of something much bigger. Would you then try to stretch mind, or would you try to fold whatever object you wished to make it fit?

Thus, any materialistic concept of mind presents major practical problems and the emotional ones are much worse. If mind had been made or born or put together, like all discernible things, it would certainly also die, disappear, and fall apart. The reassuring thought that mind is a thing, that it has a certain voltage or some other physical characteristic, and the superficially secure feeling that people seek through such a view, would become a short-lived happiness at one’s second realization: that all things and events are transitory and impermanent. On the other hand, if we recognize that mind is not a thing, that it is without size, color, smell or form, then like space, we see that our awareness has not been created and also can never die nor disappear.

The realization of the non-existence of any personal ego or self is the goal of the Theravada Buddhist traditions in of Indochina (minus Vietnam) and Ceylon, and it brings the unshakeable state of liberation. As there is no me that can be a target, suffering is an illusion and upon discovering this, disappears. It is a most relieving insight that we are not the bodies that get old, sick, and die, no matter how many vitamins we eat, and also not the thoughts and feelings which come and go, which would make confusion a lasting state.

In its essence, mind can only be explained as potential, a neutral element, a non-thing. But the best description of mind remains indestructible space. And this understanding gives beings a true refuge, something we can rely upon. It is not the experience of not being anything or vulnerable that really transforms peoples’ awareness.

It provides a growing certainty that mind is indestructible and has a pervasive and very strong effect. It really does remove fear, tightness, and so on. One becomes ever more aware that the clear light experiencing the world through our senses is outside the limitation of time. That it has never been made, created, born or put together, and can therefore be trusted to last.

“ On the other hand, if we experience our power of awareness, feel something to be conscious right here and now, know that there is something between and behind the thoughts that perceives and understands, then everything is free play and a gift.”

If beings see only the pictures in the mirror and not the mirror behind them, experience only the waves but not the unmoving ocean underneath, living only for objects of awareness, the things we think of and notice, then everything is Disneyland. We are then always in the past or in the future, holding onto or pushing away, trying to prove or excuse things, and there is no center. We are like leaves in the wind; sometimes here, sometimes there. On the other hand, if we experience our power of awareness, feel something to be conscious right here and now, know that there is something between and behind the thoughts that perceives and understands, then everything is free play and a gift.

Once the mirror is known, whatever comes and goes is its richness and always interesting. When we rest in the indestructible certainty that what knows and experiences consciousness can neither be improved nor harmed in any way, then we stop being like ordinary people, going to the cinema and hoping for a good film. Instead, we own the film studios and the whole industry and are simply impressed by all the amazing things going on. With this view, things become interesting and fantastic, just because they reveal mind’s potential.

We live in highly productive societies and usually think of mind as intelligence. But after recognizing its empty essence and the non-reality first of a self and later also of an existent outer world, its boundlessness becomes evident. Mind is much more than abstract or practical thought. One also has memory, feelings, dreams, artistic and inventive abilities and so on. Beyond its space and awareness, one will notice yet a third quality, that mind plays incessantly and is limitless in its expression.

After fearlessness and love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity become inseparable and it is difficult to separate one’s own experience from that of others. At this point one notices how everybody thinks they are very special cases and should be happy. More than that, it becomes evident that others are countless and each of us is only just one. Simple arithmetic then makes it clear that others must be more important and naturally brings forth the four kinds of perfect love mentioned above. They peak as mind’s quality of compassion, meaning, and active kindness.

And how can a normal critical person trust something so wonderful to be true and dependable? Because space with its inherent awareness, constant play, and active compassion is indestructible. Realizing that, mind’s disturbing feelings lose their hold. From the view of indestructible space, any thought, feeling, or situation will be seen as at least interesting. We may then think, “A while ago I was proud, then I got jealous. Right now I am confused. How interesting. Let’s see what comes tomorrow.”

Viewing the whole circus from an unshakeable point of reference, one merely notices the originality of an interesting show. If desired, there also exists a whole box of tools. When formerly disturbing feelings come, one may avoid them, be aware of the situations of others or simply think, “Make yourselves a cup of coffee, I’m busy right now.” Also one may be smart enough to let the thief come to an empty house. On the way to true inner freedom, one learns to experience whatever pleasant appears as a blessing and everything difficult as purification and a teaching to better help others later.

Buddha had a most practical goal, to give others the chance to become like him. He instructed his students to ask any questions they wanted and to continue until they were satisfied. With his powerful presence, it was important that his students did not just choose the easy way and start believing things. Therefore, he frequently used concept-shattering methods.

It is said that one monk was afraid of the doctor but had a bump on his head that was infected. The doctor went to Buddha and said, “He always runs away from me and if I don’t operate, it will go into his brain and he will die.” So Buddha replied, “Tonight I will give a teaching which will especially interest him. While he is listening with the others, you come from behind and do the operation.” It is actually said that the man only knew the bump was gone after the teaching ended.

It seems that Buddha could have sold refrigerators in Greenland and woolen underwear in the Congo. But he also knew how quickly superficial convictions can change. That’s why his teachings always included a phase of analysis and clarification. What he wanted to avoid were teachings that were fulfilling on a Friday afternoon before a sunny weekend but lacked power on a rainy Monday morning when the boss is sour. He provoked his students to be sure that they really understood what was said and that the level of teachings corresponded to their lives.

Buddha’s teachings consist of 84,000 non-dogmatic instructions and pieces of advice, contained in four groups of 21,000 each. In print, they fill 108 books, called the Kanjur. If we take these teachings as information to study and learn, we see that three of the groups are fit for that, but the fourth one is not. The Vinaya, given against desire and attachment, holds rules mainly for monks and nuns. It concerns things to do and not to do. His second field of advice, the Sutra, is for lay people. It transforms anger and shows us how to skillfully protect others and benefit society. The third group, called Abhidharma, targets ignorance. It is a practical and very interesting kind of logic, unlike the formal kinds we learn at Western universities. Buddhist logic deals with scenarios that can be understood through real world observations, and avoids premises that cannot be solved with experience.

Vinaya was given for monks and nuns, Sutra to the lay people, and the Abhidharma was presented to philosophers, the thinkers. Buddha also gave a fourth and self-secret level of teaching to those who can see him as a mirror to their minds and not as a god or a person. Showing them their timeless inner essence, they could only respond with devotion. A deep kind of trusting thankfulness arose in them because they understood that perfection may only be seen outside because it is inside one all the time. This insight confirms that beings can achieve buddhahood.

The fourth group of teachings which point directly to mind has several names: Buddhist Tantrayana (Hindus use the same word for a very different practice), Vajrayana, and Mantrayana. Tantra in Sanskrit means weaving, using one’s totality of body, speech, and mind. Accordingly, experiences are made which have a lasting and enlightening effect. Tantra is therefore the opposite to a Buddhist intellectual understanding, often gathered under the title of Sutra, which is like covering a hole in one’s development with a patch. When the thread wears out, the patch falls off and the hole reappears. In Tantra, experiences mature and become a part of one, like the first act of lovemaking or the first time tasting sugar.

Mantrayana is the name for conscious and protective vibrations. They open and charge one’s bodily awareness centers with beyond personal energies. The energy forms invoked and the mantras used in this practice are really like making telephone calls. The OM at the start is like lifting a receiver and getting a dial tone. The next syllables are like dialing a Buddha’s number, and the line is never busy. The last syllables show direction, like HUNG for strength, HRIH for compassion, TAM for the female compassion of liberatrice, PE for cutting through, and SOHA for spreading out.

The third term for these transformative teachings is Vajrayana or Diamond Way. This is not to attract rich ladies who have read that such compressed pieces of carbon are their best friend, but because it makes mind exceedingly radiant and indestructible, like a diamond. The Diamond Way of behaving like buddhas until we become them uses the three truly transforming powers inherent in all beings: their capacity to know and their awareness to act, their energy, and above all, their ability to identify with their enlightened potential through their bond to a teacher.

The first of these, using one’s power of awareness, calms and holds mind through focusing on one object. This makes a meditator intuitive. Its effect is markedly enhanced though the bodhisattva motivation, that one will use any progress for the benefit of all. Methods of breathing and one’s focus on the inner energy channels and wheels of the body are the basis for the second way of energy, yielding results which amaze scientists even today. Most important, however, remains the guru yogas of identification, used by countless Westerners, that give free access to both mind’s awareness and energy, and skillfully manifest one’s buddhanature.

Enjoyed this article? For more like it, subscribe today!
Lama Ole Nydahl

Lama Ole Nydahl is one of the few Westerners fully qualified as a lama and meditation teacher in the Karma Kagyu Buddhist tradition. In 1972, after completing three years of intensive meditation training, Lama Ole began teaching Buddhism in Europe at the request of H.H. the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. He has since transmitted the blessing of the lineage in a different city nearly every day, traveling and teaching worldwide as an authorized lama. His depth of knowledge and dynamic teachings inspire thousands of people at his lectures and retreats in North and South America, the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and Asia.

on your