In INSIGHTS by Erik Pema Kunsang4 Comments

What is the real purpose of meditation? What is the difference between an enlightenment experience and enlightenment? What does the awakened state have to do with our consciousness? When after intensive meditation, or unexpectedly, you experience a totally naked state of mind, how do you proceed? What is real progress for a meditator and what is the main catalyst for progress? You will find the answers to all these questions in the following teachings by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.

Buddhist practice involves three steps known as intellectual understanding, experience and realization. Intellectual understanding occurs when, for instance, we hear that emptiness, meaning empty cognizance, is our nature. The mental idea we get of this is called understanding. In the case of experience, we are told how to recognize emptiness so that we can see exactly how this empty cognizance is. We have a taste of it, maybe no more than a glimpse, but, nevertheless, an experience of what is called recognizing mind essence. That is what the word experience means in this context. When this glimpse is followed by training in repeatedly recognizing the nature of mind and avoiding being carried away by thoughts, we gradually grow more and more used to this experience. In this case, by recognizing the empty nature we are disengaging from its expression, the stream of deluded thinking. Each time the expression dissolves back into the state of awareness, progress is made, and in this way realization finally occurs. Ultimate realization is when delusion has totally collapsed and there is no reoccurrence of conceptual thought whatsoever.

Thoughts are like clouds and can vanish just as clouds naturally disperse into space. The expression, meaning thoughts, are like clouds, while rigpa the awakened state, is like sunlit space. I use the metaphor of sunlit space to illustrate that space and awareness are indivisible. You do not accomplish or create the sunlit sky. We cannot push the clouds away, but we can allow the clouds of thought to gradually dissolve until finally all the clouds have vanished. Ultimate realization occurs when there is no trace of the cloud layers whatsoever.

It is not as if we need to decide, “I hate these thoughts. I only want the awakened state! I have to be enlightened!” This kind of grasping and pushing will never give way to enlightenment. By simply allowing the expression of thought activity to naturally subside, again and again, the moments of genuine rigpa automatically and naturally begin to last longer. When there are no thoughts whatsoever, then you are a buddha. At that point the thought-free state is effortless, as well as the ability to benefit all beings. But until that time it does not help to believe that you are a buddha.


Listening to this explanation is merely getting the idea. We intellectually comprehend that emptiness is empty yet cognizant and that these two aspects are indivisible. It is like going to a buffet where we don’t actually taste anything, but only receive a guided tour or explanation of the different dishes: “This is Indian food, that is Chinese food. Over there is French cuisine.” Without eating anything your knowledge of the food is only intellectual understanding. Once you finally put the food in your mouth, that is experience. When your stomach is full, that is realization. Realization is the total and permanent collapse of confusion.

Empty cognizance is our nature. We cannot separate one aspect of it from the other. Empty means not made out of anything whatsoever; our nature has always been this way. Yet, while being empty, it has the capacity to know, to experience, to perceive. It’s not so difficult to comprehend this; to get the theory that this empty cognizance is buddha nature, self-existing wakefulness. But to leave it at that is the same as looking at the buffet and not eating anything. Being told about buddha nature but never really making it our personal experience will not help anything. It’s like staying hungry. Once we put the food in our mouth, we discover what the food tastes like. This illustrates the dividing line between idea and experience.

In the same way, if we have correct understanding, the moment we apply what our master teaches, we recognize our nature. That there is no entity whatsoever to be seen is called emptiness. The ability to know that mind essence is empty is called cognizance. If it were only blank, bare space, what or who would know that it is blank or empty or nothing? There would be no knowing. These two aspects, empty and cognizant, are indivisible. This becomes obvious to us the very moment that we look; it is no longer hidden. Then it is not just an intellectual idea of how emptiness is; it becomes a part of our experience. At that moment, meditation training can truly begin.

We call this training meditation, but it is not an act of meditating in the common sense of the word. There is no emptying the mind essence by trying to maintain an artificially imposed vacant state. Why? Because mind essence is already empty. Similarly, we do not need to make this empty essence cognizant. All you have to do is leave it as it is. In fact, there is nothing whatsoever to do, so we cannot even call this an act or meditating. There is an initial recognition, and from then on we do not have to be clever about it or try to improve it in any way whatsoever. Just let it be as it naturally is, that is what is called meditation, or more accurately nonmeditation. What is crucial is not to be distracted for even a single instant. Once recognition has taken place, undistracted non meditation is the key point of practice.

Distracted means that once the attention wavers and loses itself, thoughts and emotions can take place. Distraction is the return of all these kinds of thoughts, in which the continuity of nondual awareness is lost. The training is simply to recognize again. Once recognition takes place, there is nothing more to do; simply allow mind essence to be. That is how the cloud-covers gradually dissolve.

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