Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on November 5, 2014

The Latin phrase "Ignorantia juris non excusat," is also true when it comes to karma. Ignorance of the law of karma does not exempt us from its results. That is why "awareness" is the primary key to Buddhist mind training methods. And that awareness extends to how aware we are of our thoughts.

When it comes to thoughts and thinking, what we are aware of can be almost nothing or almost everything that comes to mind, and that's a lot. For one, we have all these thoughts. Some days I find myself standing at the prow of the mind and batting down thoughts like unwanted mosquitoes that obviously have no future, thoughts that are just not worth thinking about further or, for that matter, ever.

I am not required to entertain every thought that arises. I am free to drop thoughts as soon as I recognize them for what they are, which, as the Rinpoches point out, is still just a little too late to stop them from recording at least some karma. If you register the content of a thought, that thought is dutifully recorded in the firmament of the mind.

Many mind training techniques encourage us to not even consider the content of thoughts, but instead look at their nature. Yes, we can learn to look directly at the true nature of thoughts regardless of their content, what they are about.

It should be clear that we exist in an unending sea of thought, a literal thought-soup, much of which is our own making. The thoughts that do come to our attention, perhaps trying to flag us down, may not be ones we want to pick up on, much less follow. Just how does that work? How do we decide which thoughts to "think" without first entertaining them and thus recording them (at least to some degree) as karma? There is no such thing as a thought preview or junk-filter for thoughts. And looking at them all (each one in detail) would be like being stuck in an endless traffic jam or at customs. We would go almost nowhere, which is probably what most of us are doing anyway, or worse, going to somewhere we don't want to visit. What can Buddhist mind training offer us?

The Tibetan Buddhists have a method that disregards the content of thoughts (what they are about) and instead favors learning to look at the true nature of the thought, something that all thoughts share -- a common nature. If this is done properly, the teachings state that we do not record karma because there is no examination of the content whatsoever; it's like having a built-in SPAM filter. What remains (according to the textbooks) is the true nature of the mind, which is luminous clarity, and that beats the heck out of gnarly thoughts.

However, this looking-at-the-nature-of-the-mind technique is not an easy one to learn, but well worth seeking out the instruction for. It is repeatedly stated in the highest Buddhist teachings that we cannot recognize the true nature of the mind without instruction, period, end-of-sentence. So, those of you who "think" you can go it alone might want to consider that point. The highest form of meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is called Mahamudra, Dzog-Chen, and Maha-Ati, the results (not the methods) of which are exactly the same.

In my particular lineage, the Karma Kagyu, it is called Mahamudra Meditation, but this is an advanced practice, something most of us can't just up and do on-demand. We have to be introduced to it and, of course, practice diligently.

In these blogs I do my level best to introduce readers to the least difficult access to mind training that I am aware of. However, with that said, it finally comes down to life priorities: how we want to spend our life? Like anything worthwhile, we have to make an investment of time and energy in training the mind. All I can offer (aside from these endless blogs) is my testimony that learning the Tibetan Buddhist methods of mind training is the single best investment I have ever made, bar none. They work!

Stopping thoughts or trying not-to-have thoughts goes against the Buddhist logic. Thoughts are not only unstoppable, they are a natural aspect of the mind, much like the force of gravity, not to mention that they are key in many advanced meditation techniques. Without thoughts, there would be no advance. So I am not suggesting here to attempt any strong-arm tactics with thoughts; that just doesn't work. Thoughts eventually prevail because, as the Buddhists say, thoughts are to the mind as waves are to the ocean, both are just water -- a natural part of it all. They can't be stopped, successfully inhibited, or surgically removed. Thoughts are a natural and integral part of the mind.

Yet, as I wrote yesterday in my blog about "negativity," some thoughts lead us up, while other lead us down, or is that just us? Is it how we take thoughts that lead us up or down? I would say that is the case. Like so many things Buddhist, ultimately it is we who are responsible for our own thoughts or at least how we take and use them, and let me parse that sentence just a bit. The operative word there is "responsible," the ability on our part to respond. How we respond to the swarm of thoughts around us is up to us. Thoughts will always be there as stair steps leading up or down, depending on our inclination and intent. Thankfully, the Tibetan methods also include attitude adjustment, which most of us will require. We can't always change the outer world, but we can change our attitude toward it, how we take it.

I know that I generate some thoughts myself, but others seemingly are just there, perhaps thoughts thought by others that relate to me and to which I somehow have access. In other words, thoughts of all kinds are just naturally present. What am I supposed to think about those thoughts that I don't recognize as my own and that seem to just come out of the blue? Do I think on them or just drop them? Here is where ignorance (ignoring) almost seems to be the sane thing to do. We can't dwell on (and follow out) all the thoughts that occur to us. It would not only take all day, but drive us crazy to boot, or perhaps that is what we mostly already do, take every thought too seriously.

And what about whole areas of life where I have had "bad" experiences? Encountering or just bringing them to mind can be nauseating. How is that different from the "Revulsion of Samsara" that the Buddhists write about? Revulsion at what I find embarrassing to me is still just all about my self being embarrassed. Where is the dharma in that? There isn't any. However, the tough-love experiences in life can indeed wear down our enthusiasm for certain areas of life until we are no longer as game. This appears to be only somewhat better.

What little experience I have with turning away from Samsara seems to indicate that I do it because I am no longer interested; I am content (perhaps not a strong enough word) with where I am in the mind and anything else is less satisfying, like a step down or away from clarity. I am not so much repulsed by Samsara as I gradually become less interested in it. Once bitten, twice shy. I tend to be happy where I am.

When I was younger I felt responsible to entertain every thought that came my way, lest I miss a message or a directive from the cosmos that I might ignore at my own peril. It is the old baby and the bathwater thing, but in the case of thoughts I gradually have surmised that most are just bathwater and that they could mostly be summarily dismissed. I no longer take every thought seriously enough for it to have its own day in court, so to speak. So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to thoughts?

The Buddhists seem to use thoughts, like a spider uses a web, as something to crawl across or, like some of the newer video games, as temporary handholds (or footholds) to climb beyond themselves. Thoughts are a means to enlightenment. That is the whole idea of identifying the true nature of all thoughts, i.e. that they share a common nature. All thoughts in fact share the same nature, just like, as mentioned earlier, all waves and the ocean are finally just water, no matter how intricate and different they may appear. Thoughts are like that, just another form of the mind appearing. Thoughts are just the waves of the mind when it is in motion. They nothing other than mind.

When we learn to recognize this, we can begin to relax in our attempts to do justice to every thought that arcs through the mind. Just as every wave falls back to the ocean, so does every thought fall back to mind. The Tibetan Buddhists frequently invoke the image of a boat far out at sea. And on that boat is a bird that flies away from the boat in search of land or whatever. We can be sure that, sooner or later, that bird will return to the boat. So will each thought return to the mind from which it came, just as all waves return to the ocean.

The nature of each wave is the same as the nature of the ocean itself. Each thought shares the exact same nature as the mind. The teachings posit that if we can realize the nature of even a single thought, we simultaneously realize the nature of the mind itself. This statement is worth considering carefully.

To repeat, in Buddhist mind training there is a gradual transition from identifying with the content of a thought (its meaning) to identifying with the nature of that thought. And all thoughts share a common nature, just as all waves on the ocean are just the appearance of the ocean. Thoughts are just the appearance of the mind in motion, nothing more.

Somehow we manage to ignore the true nature of thoughts in favor of whatever the content of a particular thought might be. We think on a thought's content and it becomes our train of thought, one that we follow for who knows how long, all of the time ignoring (being unaware of) the actual nature of that thought, which, as pointed out, is just the appearance of the mind in movement.

It is not that there are no thoughts that we should read the content of, just as there are critical notices that come in the mail that we must pay attention to, but they are rather rare. Mostly we can spot junk mail and just delete it without opening. It is the same with thoughts. Not all of them are required reading.

I sometimes have to laugh at those who claim to read the thoughts of others, when others don't even read their own thoughts. Please, be my guest. It must be like reading the telephone directory or the dictionary. I have enough trouble just reading my own thoughts, thank you very much.

I seem to be rambling here, so let's button this up. We are each immersed in a sea of thoughts which are to some degree competing for our attention. What to do about that? We can't acknowledge, read, and follow every thought or if we do, we essentially become something like a telephone operator – a full-time gig. And thoughts can be like the daily news headlines, mostly negative or pure sensationalism. The good news may be hidden in the back pages, where we seldom go.

The Tibetan Buddhists have some very interesting ways to address the thought situation. For one, they consider thoughts an essential part of a healthy mind, and in no way attempt to control or remove thoughts. Instead, they advocate learning to use them to become more aware than we now are. Initially, Tibetan mind training teaches us how to rest in our own awareness, right in the midst of all these thoughts. This is basic meditation training, what is called Shamata Meditation.

At a more advanced level, we learn to see the true nature of thoughts and to rest in that. Instead of focusing on the content of a thought, which is what most of us are doing now, we learn instead to transfer our focus from the content and begin to identify with the true nature of thoughts and then rest in that nature. This is called Vipassana (Insight) Meditation. And eventually thoughts themselves become the means or stairway to ever-greater clarity and awareness in Mahamudra Meditation.

What is happening here in this mind-training progression is something that eventually has to take place in us no matter what, and that is to gradually remove distractions and transfer our identity (who we think we are) from all of our endless self-related issues to the true nature of all thoughts and the mind itself. This we can call "transmigration of consciousness," the same kind of transmigration we will all undergo at death. What is involved is learning to identify with the true and lasting nature of our mind instead of the more ephemeral everyday busyness of Self which distracts us now. IMO it is never too early to start this transition.

Without losing our grip on life, handhold by hand, we transfer our identity from things which have no permanent existence (like our Self) to that which does have permanence, including the awareness of the true nature of the mind itself. We finally identify with the nature of what we have been all this time.


[These recent graphics I have put together are all blue, so this must be my "Blue Period." LOL]