Our Pristine Mind: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Happiness (2016)
Realization: Revealing Our Pristine Mind
8. THE THIRD ASPECT OF REALIZATION
Mental Events Are Illusions
THE THIRD ASPECT of realization requires careful articulation and contemplation in order to be understood correctly.
Once we realize the pristine nature of our mind and have learned to remain within that pristine state, we eventually begin to understand that our mental events are not the well-defined, discrete experiences we thought they were. Instead, more and more our mental events are discerned to be illusions.
This third aspect of realization means that we begin realizing that any mental events that arise—happy, sad, good, bad, positive, negative, thoughts, or emotions—are projections of our own mind and do not exist independently of it. They are like the illusory magic of a magician.
It is important to see the difference in our experience as we move from the first two aspects of realization to the third. With the second aspect of realization, we still feel as if we need to let the mental events that arise pass by. While we have realized that they are just temporary events, we still attribute a sense of reality to them and feel we still have to endure them or accept them as if they were real. This requires us to exercise some degree of patience to wait for them to pass. That is because we still think mental events are real.
But with the third aspect of Pristine Mind realization, when we realize that mental events are illusory, we do not need to wait for them to pass. The moment anything arises, we realize at that very moment that it is illusory and does not exist as we perceive it. The mental events that once grabbed our attention in ordinary mind lost their tenacious grip on us when we reached the second aspect of realization. With the third aspect of realization, however, they have no impact on us at all. We notice them, but because they are illusory, they do not faze us.
Before we realize this aspect of reality, we are like a small child at a movie theater who believes that what appears on the screen is real rather than images projected onto the screen. Even as adults, sometimes we forget that the movie is not real and we react mentally and emotionally to what we see. As we practice Pristine Mind meditation, however, we know in the deepest parts of our being that any events in our perception are circumstantial, just as a rainbow is circumstantial; not only does the rainbow’s existence depend on the circumstances of moisture, sun, and sky, but it also depends on our perceiving mind to make it appear.
The rainbow’s appearance is just a perception. It looks as if it is there, but actually it is not really there any more than living movie actors are really on the screen. The movie is an illusion created by the film, the projector, the screen, and our perceiving mind, making it seem real.
In the same way, our mental events do not inherently or independently exist. They come and go easily. They appear and then disappear. Practitioners of Pristine Mind meditation eventually experience that all mental events are illusory; they do not exist independently of our perception. They are insubstantial. They are circumstantial like clouds or rainbows.
Illusoriness is sometimes misunderstood to mean that there is nothing there. If nothing appeared, however, we would not refer to it as an illusion because there would be no object to be an illusion. The point of illusoriness is that there seems to be something there, but it doesn’t really exist as we think it does. Something appears, and in ordinary mind we are convinced something exists; we are convinced something is real, but what we think it is in actuality does not exist in the way it appears.
It is like a mirage in the desert. Circumstances of heat, light, distance, and the way we perceive things create a vision of a distant oasis with water and green trees, but when we reach it, the oasis is not there because our viewpoint, our perception, has changed. It was an illusion. We experience, feel, see, hear, or touch something, but it is just circumstantial. It doesn’t have its own reality. That’s why it’s called an illusion.
In the very popular Mahayana scripture known as the Heart Sutra, the Buddha makes this famous statement: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” The meaning of this is that events are illusory events; thoughts are illusory thoughts; emotions are illusory emotions; experiences are illusory experiences; images are illusory images. Realized beings experience everything to be illusory—as not having any existence independent of their perceiving minds. They are not fooled by their thoughts. In this way they move closer to the true nature of ultimate reality. As the Buddha says in the Dhammapada:
Nothing is real. When we see this through our own wisdom, suffering can no longer harm us. This is the perfect path.
As we have seen, in the second aspect of realization, we realize experientially during meditation that if we pay attention to events, they appear to be significant; if we do not pay attention, they diminish, until eventually they vanish. So we see that if we pay attention to our anger and other negative emotions, they grow more powerful; if we do not pay attention to them, they disappear. Now, on further examination, we see that they are all illusory—they don’t really exist at all in the way we think they do. The more we abide in Pristine Mind, the more this perception gains momentum. Then we don’t need to keep chasing rainbows.
This is the experience of illusoriness. Trying to appreciate this truth through logic or intellectual analysis cannot do justice to its power of liberation. It must be experienced to be appreciated. That experience is available through diligent Pristine Mind meditation.
LOOKING CLOSELY AT THE NATURE OF THOUGHTS AND EMOTIONS
Now we are ready to look at the significance of this third aspect of realization, the illusoriness of our mental experiences.
Let us suppose we see a beautiful rainbow on the far side of a valley, and beyond that rainbow is an imposing mass of clouds. The rainbow is incredibly beautiful as it radiates light and color across the entire valley, looking like a masterpiece of nature’s artwork. And we see the billowing clouds that are like mountains looming above us in the sky. The rainbow looks gorgeous and the clouds very majestic when we view them from a distance.
But the closer we get to the rainbow, the more it fades, because there is nothing really there, no solid physical object. Circumstances caused that colorful arc to appear, but if we attempt to approach it, it vanishes, because the rainbow can only be seen from a particular angle. Similarly, the clouds that look so powerful and majestic are not really there either; if we could enter the clouds, we would experience only moisture and mist. What happened to that powerful mass? It was never really there. It only looked that way because of how we saw it. From far away, that distance creates a certain impressive image, but up close, it is just moisture in the air.
In the same way, when we are angry, depressed, or sad, when mental events are overwhelming, we experience those things vividly. For example, if we are very angry at somebody, if we focus on the person we are angry with and say to ourselves, “He is such a jerk. I don’t know why he did that. I am so angry,” then we get very angry. While we are actually focusing on that person, we feel our anger and resentment intensely. If, however, we shift our attention from focusing on the object eliciting our anger, and instead observe more closely our feeling of anger itself, we see that it is really circumstantial, like the rainbow and the clouds. In that moment, when we simply witness the anger, we may find that our anger ceases to exist, just as the rainbow and the clouds cease to exist as we saw them before, when we move closer to them.
When we do this, the angry energy fades away into nothingness because it was an illusion. Anger is an illusory appearance like the rainbow and the clouds. Circumstances and our perception make that anger appear. When we look closely at that anger, when we focus on the energy of anger and look directly at it, our perception shifts; we see there is nothing really there that we can identify as “anger.”
This exercise of looking more closely at our feeling of anger gives us insight into the implications of our discovery that all mental events, including negative experiences like anger and sadness, are illusions. They are just our arbitrary interpretation, a construct that is in our mind because, in truth, everything we experience is circumstantial. This does not mean that our emotion is unjustified and that we must repress it. It means that we look at the emotion from the pure, open, boundless viewpoint of Pristine Mind and know that the emotion is not who we are. The emotion is then manageable.
Our mental events depend on circumstances. They have no inherent existence by themselves but are a function of our interpretation of ever-changing circumstances. Just like the rainbow, which is merely an impression produced by certain circumstances and our viewpoint, the energy in our mind looks like anger from one angle of interpretation, but from another angle, it’s not even there. Our idea of reality is a subjective interpretation of ephemeral circumstances that are not what we think they are.
Whenever a mental event makes us feel angry, depressed, or otherwise unhappy, we naively, reactively grab on to the experience as if it were real. When we focus on mental events, we give them energy, and we experience them more vividly as a result. It feels as if they are more compelling and more powerful than they actually are.
We can appreciate this very clearly when we are in Pristine Mind. We have our mental events—our anger, resentment, or desire—but we do not reflexively imbue them with so much significance, because when we more closely observe the feeling itself instead of attending to the object of our feeling, the mental event subsides. In our true being, in our Pristine Mind, we remain calm, content, and fearless. This is not something we are able to do when we identify with mental events and believe that they are an essential part of us. In our confusion, we let them drag our subjective experience all over the place, unwittingly giving them the power to exert control over us. Pristine Mind meditation lets us see and realize all of this in a meaningful way and lets us experience the liberating impact it has on our minds and our experience of our life.
At this point, you may have some intellectual understanding of what we are discussing. It is crucial, however, to meditate in earnest in order to get any significant benefit from this discussion. Otherwise it is devoid of any real meaning for us. With Pristine Mind meditation, when we are angry, sad, or fearful, instead of getting caught up in what makes us angry, sad, or fearful, we look closely at the feeling itself and see that our mental event is illusory. That is what Pristine Mind practice enables us to do. That is what helps us see that our mental events are powerless unless we give them power.
So authentic meditation does not mean just sitting quietly on a cushion for five or ten years, continuing to treat our mental events as real without looking at the workings of our mind carefully. Those who meditate in this way may experience relaxation or some transitory “spiritual” experience, but they are not moving toward the realization of Pristine Mind and eventually to complete, perfect enlightenment.
If we are to benefit from meditation practice, we must do it in such a way that we truly learn who we are beyond our mental events. These mental events are not who we really are. If we think of them as who we are, our life remains insecure and uncertain. In contrast, our Pristine Mind is not caught up in such mental events and helps us live in accord with truth and reality. And there lies happiness. This is why we must understand the nature of illusion.
People with realization know how mental events arise, remain, and disappear. Ordinarily, people do not understand this, so they naively take everything they experience to actually be just the way it seems. They do not know how things appear and are sustained or disappear.
They do not know whether mental events are real or just circumstantial because they do not know how to differentiate the two. They experience what they think is reality and take everything that appears seriously. This makes everything feel real, not illusory. It’s like someone who indiscriminately eats anything they are given, without considering the nature of the food. They assume all food is of the same nutritional value. They eat everything put in front of them, but then they look up and say, “I’m sick.”
It’s similar with people who are still in ordinary mind. Anything that appears to their minds, they get caught up in. A happy moment occurs and they think, “Okay, I’m happy.” A sad moment occurs and they think, “Oh, no! I’m sad.”
They do not realize that those things are illusions, because the feelings appear so real and significant. So people delude themselves and get entangled in whatever manifests in their perception, believing it is truly as it seems to be. These experiences seem very powerful to people who do not investigate them carefully. But when they do examine them, the closer they get, the more they find that they’re illusions—convincing and apparent, but ultimately not real.
Highly realized Pristine Mind meditation practitioners are masters at understanding how mental events appear and behave. They know that when we focus on an outward object, then the mental events appear strong. But if we move our awareness more closely toward the energy of those mental events, they vanish. When we can do this well, we are left with our natural, pristine state of mind.
The more we experience our natural state of mind, the more deeply we know what illusion means—not just intellectually, but experientially. For example, we can try to explain to someone who has never seen an airplane that three hundred people can fly in the sky in a giant gray bird-shaped metal box. We can liken it to a vehicle they are familiar with, like a boat, but for someone who has never seen an airplane, it will be challenging for them to understand. Once they get on a plane, however, they can experience it directly and understand what an airplane is and know that it really flies.
In the same way, when we hear about illusoriness, our habit of assuming that things really are as they appear is so strong that it is hard to convince us that mental events are illusions. This is why illusoriness is very difficult for us to really understand. Even when we gain some intellectual understanding of it, the real meaning of illusoriness is something that has to be experienced through familiarity with meditation. Only after we experience it can our understanding of illusoriness be strong enough to help us remain aware of our Pristine Mind.
The difficulty in understanding illusoriness has nothing to do with what is true or not. Instead, it has to do with what is familiar to us. The unfamiliar is difficult, while the familiar is easy. When we become familiar with the experience that things are illusions, it is no longer difficult. Our ability to understand just depends on which experience is more familiar.
This is why this third aspect of realization is more challenging to accept just from reading about it. Once we gain access to this experience through meditation, it gradually becomes easier to understand and realize in a very profound way. Since things are illusory, not solid and permanent, perceiving their illusory nature is consistent with reality. We are realizing the truth.
To summarize, then, Pristine Mind realization has three aspects: Perceiving the natural state of mind; perceiving that all thoughts and emotions are mental events; and perceiving that all mental events are illusory. These three realizations are the key to unlocking enlightenment, liberation, peace of mind, and both conditional and unconditional happiness. As we develop each of these aspects of realization, our perception becomes more and more beautiful. This is the path to fully realizing our Pristine Mind.
In The Ornament of the Sutras, Bodhisattva Maitreya says:
For those who realize everything is illusory, life is like taking a walk through a park. No matter how successful they are or how badly they fail, they have no fear of negative emotions or suffering.
THE POWER OF ILLUSIONS
If thoughts and emotions like anger, desire, jealousy, and all other mental events are illusions, why do they have such power? It is because we do not realize that they are illusions. We do not know that they are circumstantial. We take them to be real, and in doing so give them power. We do this with anything that appears in our mind, no matter how fleetingly. It has become an ingrained habit.
Mental events do not have any inherent power apart from what we bestow on them with our attention. We perceive them as real, and that perception makes them powerful. Even if something is not real, if we think it is real, then it becomes powerful to us.
Some people believe in the hallucinations they see, the voices they hear, and the paranoia they feel, because those experiences seem so real. But that does not mean that those visions, voices, and feelings are based in reality. They are not. This is an extreme and unusual example, but in the same way, when we have more ordinary experiences such as anger, desire, sadness, or frustration, we take these perceptions seriously because they feel real. We do not realize our mental events are illusory, and in that way they are just like hallucinations. In failing to realize this, we give our perceptions power. Even if it is an illusion, nonexistent, if we think it is real, we make it real.
Certain mental events may predominate in an individual. Some people have a lot of guilt or anger. Some people feel very unworthy, while others have the good fortune to have positive feelings most of the time. Any pattern of mental events that we repeat and become familiar with will become a predominant pattern in our life. Why? Because we feed that pattern and recharge it with our attention. That is why it has power. It is not because that pattern is real. It is just because we think it is real and respond accordingly.
Sometimes people think we are denying or dismissing their emotional experiences if we say that mental events are illusions. They can become defensive. But identifying mental events as illusory is not intended to discount them. Of course, they do seem real, powerful, and able to affect our life. The point is that they are not the way they seem, and they do not have to have the powerful grip over us that we give them. That is why it is so transformative to understand their illusory nature. We can become free of them if we understand that. It is profoundly liberating.
Through understanding and experiencing the three aspects of realization, we align our mind with the truth. Our mind is innately pure and pristine; when we perceive that, we realize the truth. Positive and negative thoughts and emotions are just passing across our consciousness; when we perceive that, we realize the truth. The emotions and thoughts we have are illusory, which means they do not exist in the way they appear and they are completely dependent upon our interpretations. When we perceive that, we also realize the truth. But this is not something to accept on faith just because it says so here. It is something to be experienced through Pristine Mind meditation.