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Potential and the Nature of the Mind

by Kamalashila

Potential and the Nature of the Mind
11/22/2006 02:23 PM
Potential and the Nature of the Mind (2001)
One of the oldest and most pithy collections of Buddhist scriptures is the Pali
Dhammapada. It contains no stories, but is filled with hundreds of very direct
teachings delivered by the Buddha himself. Its very first verse goes like this:
1. Mind is the forerunner of all things. Mind is their chief; mind-made are they
Which, in Pali, goes: Manopubban.gamaa dhammaa | Manoset.t.aa | Manomayaa.
So the very first word we encounter is mano: mind. But in what sense is mind is
the ‘first thing’? It is rather an interesting idea. Even more so is the Buddha’s
second statement that all dhammas or phenomena are mind-made, are manomayaa
– that they are actually made up of mind.
So right from the very beginning of these verses we find ourselves introduced to a
profound reality. What is mind? It is a challenging question to try to answer. Each
of us experiences mind, but what can we really say about its real nature?
A famous example of meditation on this classic question can be found in the life of
Milarepa, the great Tibetan yogin. A young shepherd boy came and asked him for
instruction. “In the house of the body is there just one mind, or are there
several?” It’s a good question; after all, we experience many different sides to our character. Why shouldn’t these be
different minds? What is a mind, after all? Milarepa told the boy to find out for himself: “Just have a look at your actual
After work that night the boy thought deeply. Next morning, he came back to Milarepa’s cave. “Dear Lama, last night I
tried to find out what my mind is and how it works. I observed it carefully and found that I have only one mind. Even
though one wants to, one cannot kill this mind. However much one wishes to dismiss it, it will not go away. If one tries
to catch it, it cannot be grasped… If you want it to remain, it will not stay; if you release it, it will not go. …You try to
see it; it cannot be seen. You try to understand it; it cannot be known. …It is something illuminating, aware, wide-
awake, yet incomprehensible.” One might expect a lad who looks after sheep all the time to be unimaginative or dull; but
not this one!
Milarepa gets interested. “Now, when you get home, try to find out the shape and colour of your mind. Is it white, red,
or what? Is it oblong, round, or what? And also, while you’re about it, see if you can locate where your mind is in your
body”. Again, this lad really applies himself. When Milarepa asks the next morning what the mind looks like, and where
it is in the body, he replies: “Well, it has no colour or shape. When it associates with the eyes, it sees; when with the
ear, it hears; when with the nose, it smells; when with the tongue, it tastes and talks; and when it associates with the
feet, it walks. If the body is agitated, the mind, too, is stirred”.
It is obvious to Milarepa that the boy is very committed to the Dharma. So he introduces him to the Buddha, the Dharma,
and the Sangha, and says that he should recite the Going for Refuge verses continually, all the time. Presumably this is to
encourage him to reflect on them, so that he really gets to understand the meaning of Going for Refuge. But at the same
time, Milarepa says, he should enquire as to who goes for refuge. Does the mind go for refuge? Does the body go for
refuge? Again, it is a very good question. What is it, actually, that goes for refuge?
When the boy comes along next morning he hasn’t had much success. “Dear Lama, last night I tried to find which of
these two takes refuge, the body or the mind. I found that it is neither … I asked myself, ‘is it the body as a whole
which takes refuge?’ [Well], it cannot be so, for when the mind leaves the body, the [body] no longer exists. People then
call it a ‘corpse’ – certainly [that] cannot be called a ‘refuge seeker’… I then asked myself, ‘Is it the mind which takes
refuge?’ But the refuge-seeker cannot be the mind.” The more the shepherd boy looks into his experience, the less easy
it becomes to understand how the mind can be said to go for refuge. “You can’t say it’s the mind I experience in the
present that goes for refuge, because that’s gone in a split second. And obviously it’s not the past mind that does it
either, because that went some time ago. And you can’t say it’s the future mind, because that doesn’t exist yet. Yet you
can’t say it’s all of these either, because it’s not as though they fit together in a seamless continuity. That isn’t my
experience at all. So, dear Milarepa, what actually goes on? Please teach me how to realise the nature of my mind – I’m
amazed and baffled at what I have discovered!”
In response, Milarepa starts singing one of his famous songs.
“Listen carefully, dear shepherd.
What characterises the mind is clinging to the notion of a self.
But if one looks carefully into this mind, one actually sees no self at all.
If you can learn how really to observe this [apparent] ‘nothing’,
Then you’ll find that ‘something’ will be seen”.
Continuing his song, Milarepa makes clear just how much faith and energy the shepherd boy will need, if he is to realise
the mind’s nature. He will need to develop merit, he will need to become courageous, and he will need to learn how to
disregard discomfort and difficulties. In other words Milarepa spells out much more explicitly what it will mean for this
shepherd boy actually to go for refuge to him as a teacher of the Buddhadharma. He’s asking, ‘is this what you really
want?’ And he concludes: “When you sought the ‘I’ last night you could not find it. Your meditation on the self revealed
to you just a little a taste of the essential selflessness of your personality (pudgala). But there is a larger dimension of
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Potential and the Nature of the Mind
11/22/2006 02:23 PM
non-self, and that is the selflessness (nairatmya) of all dharmas, the emptiness of all existence whatsoever. If you follow
my example and meditate for twelve years, then you will also realise this – you will then understand for yourself the
nature of the mind. So think well on this, dear boy!” The shepherd, as you might imagine, is deeply affected. He says, “I
offer you my whole life. Please make me understand my own mind definitely and clearly.” Milarepa is encouraged and
thinks, “Well, let’s see whether this child can really practice”. And he gives him some instruction in concentration, and
sends him away.
Nothing is heard of the boy for a whole week. In fact he goes into a state of samadhi for that whole time. His family
eventually send out a search party, and find him meditating. At first he’s a little irritated and doesn’t understand what
all the fuss is about. But when he sees the sun showing an earlier time than when he sat down, he really gets confused!
Time can pass quickly when you transcend the ordinary mind. This incident convinces Milarepa that the shepherd boy can
practice, so he gives him the full Going for Refuge with the precepts – and also teaches him the Dharma. The text
that Milarepa then ‘granted him the teaching of the Innate-born Wisdom’, and after some years of practice the shepherd
boy became a realised yogin like Milarepa himself.
We don’t know exactly what this teaching of the innate-born wisdom was, at least the text doesn’t tell us – but it clearly
has to do with the idea that wisdom, or Enlightenment, is innate; in other words, Enlightenment is already within us in
some way, so that what we have to do is to uncover it. This is the doctrine of the Buddha-nature, which is also known as
Tathagatagarbha, the seed or the womb of Buddhahood. The idea is difficult to grasp correctly – because it’s easy to
grasp it, incorrectly, as meaning that we are literally already enlightened. People often like the idea that there’s
something already there in us, just waiting to be woken up. It rings true in a certain kind of way. It also makes the
spiritual path appear an easy, simple matter: relax, let go the hindrances, and just let the Buddha nature shine forth!
Indeed, the idea does have a certain ring of truth. When we actually do manage to relinquish some obstacle, something
certainly happens. But was that ‘something’ there already? If it was indeed already there, what need could there have
been to let anything go? Why did we need to make that effort in the first place? At this point we can get rather knotted
up in logical problems, which arise because we are trying to describe something that cannot adequately be described. Of
course the Buddha nature wasn’t there already in a literal sense. Yet nonetheless, the Buddha nature is there in all
beings, all the time. It’s one of those paradoxes that are unavoidable when you are talking about something that
transcends ordinary logic and experience. To understand what the Buddha nature really is, we have to enquire within
ourselves what it means, in actual practice, to ‘relax’, ‘let go’, and ‘uncover’ it.
The spiritual path does indeed ...

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