Discovering the Potentiality of the Mirror

An excerpt from a talk given by Steven Landsberg at Lekdanling, UK, on July 2, 2022

discovering potentiality mirrorWe have three gates – body, speech and mind – and to have deep relaxation we need to notice the interdependence of those three doors. Sometimes it may be that by relaxing mind through various kinds of focus, body just responds and so does our energy. Sometimes we can concentrate more on the energetic aspect such as our breathing. We do some yantra, for example, and discover that through stretching in certain ways, focusing upon breathing, that mind is also naturally controlled. If mind is heavily burdened with a lot of tension and suddenly we feel that our energy is not too smooth, then the body can be susceptible to various problems. 

No matter how we go about whatever method we use for relaxation, we notice that whatever we apply, we need to have a very precise presence. Oftentimes Rinpoche would tell us about certain types of exercises to do like spending some time just observing oneself. When we take a tea, we remind ourselves that we are preparing a tea, or when we answer the phone, we are aware and remind ourselves of what we are doing. This is just a method to train us to be more precisely aware of what we are doing because sometimes body does one thing while mind travels in a completely different direction. Then it’s very easy to get distracted and many things can happen. 

Yesterday we already talked about how Rinpoche applied the meaning of presence and awareness. We see that those two points are like two pillars upon which the door of the mind can be opened up as a kind of enlightened possibility, even if we are talking from a very secular point of view. If we don’t have presence and awareness it’s very difficult to get satisfaction and find meaningful purpose from whatever we are doing. In any case, we’re practising on a spiritual path. There is no method that doesn’t require presence and awareness.

Just for a moment let’s review what we were doing this morning. Instead of just making an abstract conclusion about the passage of time, we try to be in time. We’re not looking at the watch and seeing the second hand move. In order to do this, we notice that thought is always occurring in time so if we relax our presence upon the first thought that arises and we are present in that thought, it’s the same thing as being present in time. Then we sense this continual flow but we don’t get distracted or torn away by the content of the thought. If we really do this well then we begin to feel that nothing is very concrete, nothing is really solid, and yet at the same time everything is moving forward. 

[Short meditation] 

I think you can see through practicing in this way that this is something that is a particular reference point in our practice, having a particular place to concentrate upon and place our attention, a kind of context. This is what it means to have a reference point when we get confused or we don’t know exactly what we’re doing. We remember the instructions and try to apply them. This is not precisely contemplation but there is the possibility that any time we apply a focused practice that it can spread and open up as contemplation. That means we relax our focus on the particular indications of the instructions, and we open ourselves up to all possibilities, which refers to all of the space. We don’t necessarily need to maintain our focus upon the initial thought that is arising, that manifests as a beginning point. We’re not distracted even by extraneous thoughts that may come up. We look at the space in front and then at the space behind and then we relax between those two spaces. We cannot separate the two. And then we look back at the mind that is focusing. This is a way of indicating to us that the one that we cannot discover,  the slightest separation or difference between the one who is focusing and the space in front, or the one who is focusing and the thought that is arising. 

From time to time we ask ourself what is the interval or the space or gap between the mind that is looking and the thought that is arising, all the appearances that are manifesting and the one who is looking at them. And when we can do this more or less well, the thoughts no longer disturb. And when thoughts begin to arise again, as for sure they will, what we continue to recognize is that there is space, and then all that is required at that point is to relax in that space. It means that thoughts are now arising as enlightened possibilities. But we need to go through those steps. They need to be precise so when we feel we are getting distracted again by our thoughts then look again at the space in front and the one who is looking from behind. Don’t let your mind wander even a hair.

It’s the same thing when we look in a mirror. When we look in the mirror we see our face but we forget we are looking in a mirror. So when we are distracted by a thought, we forget the original space from which that thought is arising, or forget about the potentiality from which that thought arose. 

Distraction requires some kind of discipline. We determine that we are not going to get distracted and when we do we return to that initial thought that is there. We look sharply there and make up our mind that we are not going to let ourself be pulled off this point. And then at a certain point we will see that thought is no longer conditioning us and we have the possibility to integrate with the movement of the thoughts without getting distracted by the particular characteristic of any thought. 

Remember this example of the mirror. Now we’re trying to discover what the potentiality of that mirror is. It’s something like the potentiality of the ocean, like the potentiality of our primordial base. It’s really important not only as some kind of philosophical conclusion but in terms of our own experience as practitioners of Dzogchen. We need to become aware of the primordial condition of the individual, although it’s a condition that is completely empty and doesn’t have a hint of any particular phenomenon. It is something that is unborn, unproduced, unfabricated. That means that we don’t create that base by pointing a thought at it. We can’t just imagine it or create some concept about it. It’s not the result of making some kind of philosophical conclusion or directing our attention in some particular way. 

There is no particular reference point in regard to what is referred to as the ultimate dimension, this primordial base. We can call it the primordial cemetery because it’s where everything disappears and dies. We could also call it the primordial birthplace. I’m tempted to use primordial cervix which is a more appropriate description. It doesn’t have any bias. And wisdom arises in that space, that ultimate dimension, and how it is characterized is like the wetness of water. Or the heat in fire. Or the solidity in earth. It is not separate from that very primordial space. We cannot separate wisdom from that ultimate dimension. Wisdom is just self-effulgence. 

In Mahayana sutra when they address the subject of absolute truth they say it is something unelaborate or beyond any extreme. It means that there is no guarantee that absolute truth is anything at all. So there is no way to focus our attention or point our mind at something and call it absolute truth. There is no way to objectify absolute truth. How are we going to know that? In this case wisdom as the very quality of this primordial space is more like a kind of spontaneous radiance of that space. In other words, it’s not just something empty. So this is a way to discuss or give us some idea of what is referred to in Dzogchen as the base. 

As far as the path is concerned it is more related to how various appearances arise and how they are liberated. Appearances are generally something that we accept or reject, those things that generally distract us. They are conditioned by our emotions. But here appearances are liberated or self-liberated when we recognize them as a display of energy that is inseparable from this base. In that case it doesn’t matter what the appearance is, good or bad. There is nothing to accept or reject. There is nothing to overcome or make some particular assessment about. All of that turns into limitations where what we are doing is just recognizing the common source of this infinite variety of possibilities. 

So we’re talking about that here as a kind of description for us, but now we try to apply that understanding to ourself. If we don’t do that this is just….. interesting stuff. But if we are really going to follow Dzogchen then it is necessary to understand what is meant by the base, and what is meant by the path. What is mean by appearances arising from the base and how they will be self-liberated. If we don’t recognize the simultaneity of appearances and their source, then there is no technique to make it possible for appearances to be self-liberated. 

This is not some kind of intellectual game. This is based upon a genuine understanding. And when we recognize this common source, or this unborn space, unfabricated space, then when dualistic vision arises, we don’t consider dualistic vision to be a problem any longer because now we have a much broader sense of duality and all of our dualistic vision arises as an enlightened possibility. This doesn’t mean that everything is the same, that everything is one. We understand that everything is still distinct and separate: black is not white, tea is not coffee. We can distinguish between the various phenomenon that arise, but they have this common source, this undefinable, unborn, ultimate dimension and wisdom arises as the play of illusion. That means, when we speak about illusion, that everything maintains a form. Everything has its own particular size, shape, color, and at the same time it has its own radiant non-solidified lucidity. That means it is clear, it is transparent form, but it still has a shape, still has a size. We know that Guru Dragphur is not Simhamukha. Each one has its own shape, color, and particular characteristics, but there is nothing solid about their appearance. 

Sometimes appearances can arise in many different ways. Sometimes they arise clearly, sometimes they are confusing, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant. There is no limit to the possibilities of what can arise. And we’re not sitting there adjudicating – this counts and that doesn’t count – with our idea of acceptance and rejection. That is a disqualification and we will immediately feel ourselves distracted. If we get caught in acceptance and rejection, it means that we don’t recognize the illusory quality of this appearance. We don’t recognize the singularity of the base. Don’t get confused. If we say singularity it doesn’t mean that everything is one. And if we recognize that singleness of this variety of all possibilities and appearances, then we cannot be beguiled by appearances and caught in the web of acceptance and rejection. But you know how we are actually: very much conditioned by our karmic vision, very much conditioned by appearances. It is important to study this and understand it well, but even though we understand it well, our karmic vision is very intense and it is unlikely we are going to succeed just by having this understanding of the base. 

What is the symptom of being attached to our karmic vision? We prioritize, we prejudice one thing over another, we divide things, we consider this is important, that is not. Then when we sit down to meditate maybe something really mundane arises in our mind and we say, oh no, that is not the point. Don’t look there, look over here. But this is saying quite the contrary. It says that we don’t need to do that. Our karmic vision has this potentiality as well. We don’t need to look over, above, on the side, or below our ordinary vision. It is telling us that our ordinary vision has this self-perfected quality. 

This awareness is very expansive and embraces everything. In fact the point is more that if we can penetrate our relative vision more thoroughly and actually become more intimate with our own relative vision, then we will automatically understand what its absolute source is. So it’s not a question of objectifying some kind of absolute condition somewhere. It’s more about getting more intimate with our own relative vision, which generally means coming to know what our resistance is about because our resistance is very much connected to our relative vision. 

If we need some examples of the relationships between the infinite variety of appearance and its ultimate source, we can say the ocean and its waves, the wind and all-embracing space. The wind can blow in many directions and can be really disturbing, but it never separates from space. Basically this is saying that we can never be lost. Even in our most desperate moments there is possibility for salvation, not that someone is going to reach down and save us, but it’s just built in to the nature of who we are. We can use another example: appearances are like the clouds and this primordial source is something like the sky. There can be so many kinds of clouds but they never separate themselves from the sky.

All of this is just something to give us an idea about the real condition, just to provide some clarity to us on an intellectual level. Even though we understand this, it doesn’t really touch the point. It can be helpful, it can guide us, but it cannot be an experiential conclusion for us. It’s like a pretty picture, intellectual speculation. So it’s important to distinguish that because sometimes people are confused. They get a very clear idea of how things are on an intellectual level and can explain this relationship very well, but it is not the same thing as having experiential clarity about this condition. That means we need to apply practice. It means we need to do the practices that are indicated, really understanding in a concrete way that makes it very evident to us, profoundly and deeply, so that it pervades our whole being and we can actually feel that thing. 

Sometimes we listen to something that is explained really well, very clearly, and we say, Wow, that is so fantastic. I really get it. But what do we get? Nothing, just some kind of intellectual picture of the thing that was explained very nicely and now we have some understanding about that on a certain level. But when we do practice and try to embody that understanding, bring it to an experiential level, it becomes clear to us through our three doors, body, speech and mind, not just some mental configuration that we’re calculating. As long as we’re calculating something and trying to paste words together, we are trapped by verbal designation, we’re trapped by concepts, and that is far from the genuine meaning.

There are three aspects: there is the base, the path, and the fruit. As far as the fruit is concerned from this perspective there is really nothing to do. Oftentimes we consider that we have to engage in something in order to proceed. But in this path of self-liberation it is more about learning how to do nothing in a proper way. When we started this course we spoke about the difference between meditation or actively doing something, and contemplation which is more of a reflexive thing. We don’t actively point or focus our mind in any direction. 

But sometimes when we say not to do anything, we can fall into a kind of hazy nihilism, thinking that there is nothing to do. And at the same time we do not try to direct our attention at a particular reference point. Pointing mind in a certain direction is a method of developing one thing over another thing. That’s no longer contemplation. At this level of practice, trying to accomplish something is more of an obstacle. 

At the beginning we said that this ultimate dimension doesn’t prefer enlightenment over samsara. There is nothing superior or inferior about samsara or nirvana. But this ultimate dimension is not something we reach by some particular effort or striving. It’s also not increased through meditation, no matter what situation we find ourselves in, maybe happy, maybe sad, maybe up, maybe down. There is this single flavor of it all and it’s that single flavor that we are talking about but we need to discover it. It’s not enough to simply say that it’s all one taste. That is a big topic in Dzogchen and also Mahamudra but we can’t just jump on that. We have to go through precise steps for some experience of that to come.

And once we discover that single flavor then we can also understand that this state is beyond any particular action. So the imperative here is that in order to understand the simultaneity of the unborn absolute condition and its natural wisdom quality, there is no particular action aimed at uncovering it that needs to be applied. 

Transcribed and edited by L. Granger


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