Dakpo Tashi Namgyal’s Essential Advice on Maintaining Mahamudra Practice
These days, many of us have received the sublime teachings of Mahamudra as handed down from the Mahasiddhas of Tibet and India. Still, as days and months go by since we may have received all of their precious and helpful advice, we tend to forget or alter the actual instructions and then we may find our practice deteriorates rather quickly into a much lesser practice. Even though later we may remember key terms of Mahamudra meditation such as “non-meditation” and “non-distraction,” in practice we find we simply do not sit in this way. To use a popular Tibetan saying, the difference between our practice and that of the Mahasiddhas is “as great as the difference between earth and sky.”
Fortunately, for those who have completed the tranquility and insight meditation series of Mahamudra, in his guide to Mahamudra the great Kagyu master, Dapko Tashi Namgyal (1512-1587) specifically addresses ways to continue to train in meditative equipoise and post-meditation (mnyam rjes).
Meditation or “Equipoise”
In terms of meditative equipoise, we are taught to train in “sustaining or nurturing (skyong) the essence (ngo bo).”
The method we use to do this involves three ways of resting or “leaving be” or remaining or “allowing to stay” (bzhag pa). These are to (1) continue in “freshness” (so ma), (2) continue in uncorrected “naturalness” (rang thang) or “casualness” (rang gar; simply just as we are) and (3) relax in “natural ease,” awake and yet not at all uptight (lhug pa.)
If we have completed the tranquility and insight meditations of Mahamudra, then we should really keep these pith instructions of Dakpo Tashi Namgyal in mind, especially at the outset of our meditation sessions. To help us be clear on them and remember them, he summarizes these teachings in three short verses.
The first verse is as follows:
rtsis gdab med par rang lugs so mar bzhag
bzhag means to rest or remain or keep in place and so ma means freshness, so first we are reminded to stay in freshness. Why does he say to stay or continue in this manner and, for instance, not first generate freshness? Since freshness as the unimpeded play of mind is our true nature. It is not something we have to newly fabricate or bring there.
For instance, we may remember that as we had previously explored the nature of our minds through insight practices, we begin to experience the freshness of everything which arises. We get to know this first hand and indisputably, immediately in our own experience.
To take this a bit further with a metaphor, I think that anyone who has sat at the source of a mountain spring or stream will tell you that there is nothing as fresh as sparkling, running mountain stream water. The freshness is maintained by its continual, unceasing flow. Similarly, in our lives, that which what we previously had assumed to be “solid,” such as the rocks of our world, soon takes a back seat to the realization that the experience of “solid rocks” takes place in our minds. When we explored that “experience of the solid rock” (e.g. by sitting on one or and looking at one), we discovered that the experience of the rock is anything but frozen and solid. It is very open and vibrant. It remains fresh. There is an aliveness to the perception of the rock itself and, beyond our perceptions and conceptions, we actually never really encounter a rock first hand. However, we do encounter experiences “first hand” and so can get to know the nature of our experience intimately, for example, by investigating the experience directly itself. Eventually this new realization extends itself beyond a few “objects of meditation” until it completely embraces all of our perceptions And then, of course, we also find it to be true for all our inner thoughts and assumed rigid identities as well. We find nothing is actually rigid, nothing is substantial, and nothing is a solid, self-existing entity.
The more we get familiar with this the more we return to the openness and freshness of all that arises in our universe of experience. Nothing in the realm of our experience is frozen; nothing is “dead.” And in experiencing this nature directly, free from opinions, recollections and labeling, we remain in this completely and timelessly and remarkably fresh nature. We can and do come to know this nature beyond any doubt.
And in this way, on one level, we have started to get to know the profound significance of impermanence, which is often called the elephant footprint of the Buddha Dharma since nothing makes as big an impression on us like impermanence. The impermanence of all that we experience and all that we become is really profound and it is fair to say, as its greatest gift, keeps us from the imagined horror of stagnation.
Now how is it that we may practice to remain in freshness? Not by recalling freshness, but by being simply as we are in “our own way” (rang lug). This way is the expression of freshness itself.
To make sure we don't misunderstand this, Dakpo Tashi Namgyal goes on to say rtsis gdab med par.
rtsis gdab means “to caste” or “stab” with” a “reckoning” or “calculation” or “evaluation.” med par means to be “without” doing so. So we should remain in freshness and continue in our own way, without stabbing it with opinions, without sizing it all up. So we are told to remain as we are free from any reckoning.
So perhaps one loose translation of the first verse could be:
Stay in freshness, just as you naturally are, without sizing anything up.
This concludes our introduction to Dakpo Tashi Namgyal’s first verse for Mahamudra meditation.
Next we have:
dgag sgrub kyis ma bcos par rang gar bzghag
No matter how much we stay with Verse One, stuff comes up. So next we are asked to remain (bzhag) in simple casualness (rang gar). “Casualness” here doesn't refer to how we dress or act but rather expresses having a sense of being self-sufficient and therefore staying somewhat nonchalant.
We are always making a big deal out of things. Here we remain rather nonchalant about everything which arises in mind. An example of the sense of this could be as follows: Let’s say we are dressed in ragged blue jeans and our hair is messed-up and we are hanging out. No problem. Then, a little later we have a surprise guest. The pope himself decides to grant us a visit and before we know it he walks into the room! rang gar means we don't give our clothing or hair a second thought. Similarly, your condition in each moment is what it is, no more, no less. Today you have a headache, today you notice your nose is rather crooked, and yet you are totally ok with it. “Totally cool!” So whatever meditation experience dawns, great bliss or unusual light, or nagging pain of a toothache or anger, we don’t make a big deal of it. We begin to retire our internal “drama queen!”
Now we need to be careful here. This is meditation instruction and not post-meditation instruction. As we sit, all kinds of appearances arise and all kinds of things do “bite us in the ass!” Sometimes we are so uncomfortable we find we are unable to sit for another moment. Now as Mahamudra practitioners, we already know all experience arises in mind. But still we make a big deal about what arises in mind, isn't it so? So we either get up excited or decide we cannot sit more or sometimes we get up a bit frustrated or agitated. Increasing our afflictive and disturbing emotions is not good Dharma practice; in fact, it is just the opposite of doing Dharma.
Of course, getting up may be the right thing to do if, for example, we need better circulation in our legs or our spouse is calling us or our baby is crying. But the point is that, in our meditation, we need to be completely natural. We need to remain in this naturalness, just as we are.
So that we understand how to do this correctly, let's look at the rest of the verse: dgag sgrub kyis ma bcos pa
dgag sgrub together mean to “to suppress or make happen”, with dgag referring specifically to “blocking” or cessation and sgrub to “accomplishing” or achieving or ensuring. ma bcos pa means “uncontrived.” So how are we to remain in casualness? By remaining completely uncontrived.
Now “uncontrived” is a word we happen to hear a lot of in Mahamudra. Some even call Mahamudra “the path of non-contrivance.” In this case, Dakpo Tashi Namgyal has a specific meaning which he makes clear to us. To be uncontrived we need to be free from suppressing things or encouraging them.
A translation of the second verse could therefore be:
Stay casual, without contriving by rejecting or encouraging.
Sounds good, eh? But we are quick to find that no matter how much we want to not prefer something, we do. No matter how much we want to be without rejecting something, we find something comes up and we want it to end. So how do we work with this?
Dakpo Tashi Namgyal introduces the third point to make sure we have our mind “in the right place.” He tells us to “relax” or “stay loose” or “be at ease.” When something we want to suppress comes up and we want either (a) for it to stop or (b) we want the rejection of it that we feel to stop, we just relax right there. Don’t add anything to this.
Right here we are done. There is nothing we have to accomplish. Really.
Here there is nothing we can achieve by effort or fighting it. And in this way our mind can truly relax.
And this brings us precisely to the third verse:
rtsol sgrub mi bya bar lhug par bzhag
lhug par means to be relaxed, at ease, loosened up, so lhug par bzhag means to continue to be like that. Again why remain or continue to be like that? Because peace is our true nature and condition. While adventitious anxiety and disturbing emotions seem to dominate our life, as soon as their causes vanish, they vanish, and we return to an open and clear mind. Through our Mahamudra practice we have discovered that the most disturbing emotions themselves have an insubstantial nature, they have the nature or essence of peace. At the same time, in our own experience when we fail to recognize their nature, they may seem as solid as that earlier imagined granite rock.
rtsol sgrub means to accomplish by making an effort, by exerting yourself. mi bya bar means “not the preceding but rather do the next.”
So perhaps one translation of the third verse is:
Stay loose and at ease, instead of trying to achieve or ensure through effort.
lhug pa is a relaxation with full presence of mind or mindful awareness (dran rig).
So in summary, we can really stay with this. In meditation we should remain in our natural freshness, natural casualness and natural ease. Our meditation should include all three points, not as a fabricated state, but as being thoroughly in harmony with what we are right now.
Now that said, Dakpo Tashi Namgyal also realizes we are not always able to do this. In that case he observes that even though we may not give rise to a genuine Mahamudra meditation, we can still be “training.” That instruction is very likely an important point for us.
So what do we do then? He is very specific in this regard. He emphasizes that it is still meditation training provided we remain with “mindfulness of self-awareness” or with a “naturally aware presence of mind” (rang rig gi dran pa).
An introduction to the meaning of the term rang rig probably has occurred already in your introduction to Mahamudra. Briefly stated, rang rig is evident when you investigate your own experience, your own aliveness. In doing so, your awareness may be noted to have a natural “self awareness” aspect to it. Here “self” is not at all referring to the “ego,” but rather means “on its own” or “natural.” You naturally know you know.
This kind of knowing, “knowing you know,” takes place in our ordinary deluded, dualistic state (rang rig rnam shes.) For example, when we hear something we can think, “Hey, I heard that” and you know you heard that. The rang rig referred to by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal here is similar, in the sense of the “knowing you know” quality, but otherwise it is radically different from our most common way of experiencing that. Here rang rig refers to a non-dualistic, timeless way of self-knowing (rang rig ye shes.)
It is the naked knowing which takes place, in and of itself. It is the knowing of bare awareness, unclothed by thoughts. It is that which knows we know even when we brush our teeth or sleep. It never changes (mi ‘gyur), it is spontaneously present or ensured (lhun sgrub). It is uncreated yet self-occurring. dran pa means mindfulness or a presence of mind, so rang rig gi dran pa is mindfulness of natural, self-awareness or a “self-aware presence of mind.” This self-aware presence of mind is free from all the subject-object dualities and is not at all fooled by or stained by their appearances in the play of mind.
So the key is, as a minimum to stay with that and you are still “training in” or “nurturing the essence.”
Post-Meditation or “Subsequent Attainment”
Now in post-meditation we have to deal with everything under the sun….driving on crazy highways, people yelling at us, states of mind so fatigued we can't wait for the oblivion of sleep, doing our homework or prescribing a prescription. Most of us heard that ultimately we should come to realize that meditation and post-meditation are the same thing, but for some reason or other, we always seem to be a long way off from that.
Dakpo Tashi Namgyal says that until your meditation and post-meditation are one, you should spend most of your time in meditation equipoise on “nurturing the essence” by keeping with the three aspects of resting discussed above, and that one should do so without wavering. However, when it comes to post-meditation, thoughts (rtog pa) and appearances or perceptions (snang ba), basically whatever comes up, should become the basis for your training and carried on the path.
So how to do that? Basically when your meditation stops, you can continue with rang rig gi dran pa. This is one step further than just saying “practice mindfulness” although mindfulness still remains at the core of maintaining this practice. Here it is mindfulness imbued with self-awareness or our natural awareness. One can say it is our natural mindfulness.
Now this mindfulness is completely uncontrived so if you feel you have to hold on to something from your meditation, you are missing the point. Still something does continue and one can say the sense of meditation continues into the post-meditation. What sense is this? The sense of being naturally mindful of an uninterrupted and yet all encompassing expression of your awareness as it is.
In terms of post-meditation practice, there is no further to go than this.
Now to be sure, this is not a thing you have to “attend to.” Rather it shines forth as a naturally resting cognition or awareness (rang zghin bzhag pa rig), at home right where it is.
Sounds too wonderful to be impossible? Well, the old masters say this will become as evident or clear as the sun and moon in the sky.
How do you go about actualizing this? Again an example of this from our ordinary day-to-day life may help explain this. In life, you don't go around every daytime moment thinking “Hey, I don't need a flashlight because the sun is out.” You simply know the sun is out. You have actualized the realization that the sun is out, completely and unambiguously, free from any doubt and hesitation.
Similarly, you don't use contrived thoughts such as “Hey, all appearances are mind” or “Let me remember my rang rig nature to actualize it.” Just as it is self-evident to you when the sun is up, rang rig is self-evident in all situations and at all times and, in that way, we truly actualize our realization of it. In this way the practice or meditation equipoise and post-meditation become essentially the same; their oneness is not a dream but rather a manifest reality, and becomes as real as their apparent distinctiveness.
This is very natural and does not take us away from functioning completely normally in our lives. In catching the person who is about to fall from the stage, we aren’t busy thinking about Dharma. We are spontaneous and just catch the person who falls.
We are able to function in the world without artificial religious barriers, obstructions, and contrivances.
In this manner, thoughts and appearances, which seem as hard as ice sometimes (the famous Saraha quote comes to mind), now genuinely dawn or arise “co-emergent with emptiness.” Even if we try, we can’t lose sight of this. In this way, we actualize our realization of it.
Previously so fixated on “things” and “happenings,” suddenly we recognize an incredible openness to our condition. There is spaciousness to all those things and happenings while experiencing them, as tight as they might appear. And this gives us a true sense of ease with respect to them. We are no longer “boxed in” or “pulled along” by whatever may arise.
Just as in meditation we stopped stabbing the life out of our basic fresh condition and stopped casting evaluations and judgments, now we begin to relax our habit of reifying both experience and who and what we are moment-to-moment. Even though nothing can be established to be this or that, we are still able to function completely with a mind that continually thinks of this and that and which habitually reifies things and self. There is no contradiction here and right here we can know “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”
In support of all this, Dakpo Tashi Namgyal tells us, from time to time to make sure we are not caught up again in delusions or attaching to various states in preference to other states. In such case, you may bring forth an extra sharp alertness of mind to help to bring forth your natural presence of mind. Similarly, at the outset he notes that when we sit we need to relax our minds and bodies. Unfortunately they are often habitually full of so many tensions.
I think the habitual tendencies of samsara are a bit like how we find ourselves after we have been in a bad car accident. After being traumatized, no matter what, when we return to driving down the road, we can’t help but tighten up when other cars come near us. In that case, everyone tells us to just relax, but all we feel is a very gripping uptightness. It takes time for that to heal. Similarly, at the outset, we may need to make an extra effort to relax, deeply within our minds in order to help clear the residual “uptightness” from to traumas of samsara on our minds and body. On a practical level, it may even help to stretch or do some yoga you to release our tensions.
Ultimately, we may actually come to recognize and actualize our inherent peace, our inherent relaxation. This peace is already fully actualized in the rang rig aspect of our minds. Like a mirror, it remains untouched by anything that arises. It is always ready for anything in samsara or nirvana to arise, provided that the conditions for that apparent arising are there.
So finally, in order that we may actualize realization of this nature, with “no more to do” or “no place to go,” a freedom from hope and fear with respect to our absolute nature, Dakpo Tashi Namgyal reminds us to maintain and nurture this naked freshness (so ma rjen pa) itself.
In conclusion, in considering these words and realizing the intent of these teachings, it is in deep harmony with aspects of our apparently more formal practice sessions, for example by bringing to life some of the verses of the Dorje Chang Thungma Prayer, chanted by many Kagyu practitioners on a daily basis. A connection to the teachings of Dakpo Tashi Namgyal is found in many aspects of this prayer, including, for example, the following verse:
Comments, Translations and Errors by Lama Thapkhay