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When we talk about mind or consciousness, we usually mean something unitary, autonomous, permanent and eternal. But when we cultivate mindfulness of the mind, it turns out that we cannot find any basis for our usual interpretation of the mind. Instead, we are led to a totally different insight: the understanding of the impermanence and the interdependence of the mind – the fact that the mind is without a permanent self – that it is selfless.

In that case, the mind is not a single unit, some form of a big lump. It can be classified into different collections of consciousnesses and the different mental events that spring from these. Therefore, when we talk about the mind, the term “mind” is simply a label, and the mind does not exist as a single unitary entity after all.

The nature of mind is clarity and intelligence as a cognitive capacity. Because of the mind’s selflessness, we can make it evolve to reach the culmination of enlightenment, or we can cause it to deteriorate. The mind is not stuck but can be made to change direction and go the other way. If we cultivate positive qualities, it can begin to move upwards; by growing negative attributes, it can start to move downwards.

Being mindful of the mind also allows us to understand and experience the interdependence of the mind. For instance, visual perception takes place when specific causes and conditions come together, like the sense consciousness, sensory organs, and sensory objects. Three elements are needed to have visual perception.

From the conventional point of view, consciousness comes into existence because of the assembly of these kinds of causes and conditions. But from the point of view of the true spiritual nature of phenomena, the ultimate nature, mind has never experienced birth, dwelling or cessation.

Ordinarily, most of us regard nirvana as something to be pursued and samsara as something to be abandoned, and we see the person as an individual self that takes the journey from samsaric existence to nirvanic peace. But the fact is that there is no distance to cover between samsaric misery and the peace of nirvana because there is no place to go. The difference between samsara and nirvana is as simple as awareness and unawareness. Cultivating mindfulness of our phenomenal experience will produce insight into the selflessness of samsara as well as nirvana.

If you want to create a dream appearance, you don’t need to travel someplace else. Even if you think you are flying in your dream, in actuality, you are not going anywhere. In the same manner, from the perspective of samsara, there exists no other place we have to reach. The term “peace of nirvana” or “enlightened state” is designated to an individual who has recognized the true nature of his or her mind. Samsaric misery occurs when the individual fails to acknowledge the true nature of the mind. So the difference between samsara and nirvana is the difference between being awake and being asleep, or being aware and being unaware.

The individual mediator should also cultivate mindfulness of nirvanic peace, although the true nature of nirvanic peace is also empty of self. Grasping onto the reality of nirvana causes suffering in the same way as gripping onto the reality of samsara, just as falling off the right side of a horse causes the same kind of pain as falling off the left side. Only by cultivating mindfulness of the phenomenal existence of both samsara and nirvana will one realize the true nature of phenomenal life, which is that both samsara and nirvana are empty of self. Therefore, there can be no nirvana to pursue and no samsara to abandon, and there can be no individual who, as a permanent entity of self, needs to cover the distance from samsara to nirvana.

The Taer-si Monastery is one of the most significant Gelugpa monasteries in eastern Tibet. As the story goes, there was a very strict “police-monk” in this monastery who discovered some monks trying to smoke a pipe. The next day, during the usual gathering in the main hall, he stood up and spoke about the disadvantages of smoking. He then made the monks who were caught smoking stand up to humiliate them. But while he was doing this, a small pipe fell out of his pocket. When he saw this, he started laughing and said, “It is not allowed to smoke on a big pipe like yours, but it is allowed to smoke a small pipe like mine.”

Of course, it is the same whether you smoke a small pipe or a big pipe. Whether you cultivate attachment to the reality of samsara or nirvana, it is the same. Do you have any questions?

Q: So, is not having a self like staying on the horse?

Rinpoche: Having insight into the selflessness of the person is like being able to sit on the horse without falling into the extremes of nihilism, which is the left side, or eternalism, which is the right side. Laughter. But if one remains on the horse, and grasps onto the reality of the horse itself, this will also cause difficulties related to falling into the extreme of nirvanic peace. If one develops an attachment to the horse, the rider will suffer pain in his bum. I have experienced this myself in Tibet! Laughter.

Q: If you do something that you enjoy, and it is not harmful or positive—it is just something you like to do—how does this relate to selflessness?

Rinpoche: The sensory object of your enjoyment, whatever it is, is not a valid criterion for whether it is something one should pursue or not. The actual test that determines whether an action will be positive or negative lies in the individual’s mind as the mental motivation for acting. If one involves oneself with sensory objects with a spirit free from the emotional reaction of attachment, then it does not matter. But if one ends up cultivating the emotional response of attachment for the things one likes, and aversion towards the things one does not like, one will become a victim of the experience.

The external world, with its sensory objects and grosser forms of reality, does not possess the right criteria for something to be positive or negative. It is the state of the mind that is the exact criteria. It is a little bit like the gentle movement of a cat; it does not create any noise, but its mental state can be that of an aggressive predator.

Translated by Lama Changchub at Karma Tashi Ling Buddhist Centre, Norway