Oh, mind that is my teacher,
I meet you by recognizing what I am.
I pray to you by letting go of doubt and hesitation.
I revere you by letting go and settling naturally.

I serve you by resting continuously in how things are.
I provide you with food by resting without strain in empty clarity.
I provide you with drink by knowing attention and distraction make no difference.
I clothe you by knowing appearance and sound as enchantments.

—Excerpt from a song by 12th-century teacher Kyer-gong-pa

At its core, Vajrayana is a devotional practice. Mahamudra, Dzogchen, all the direct awareness practices in the Tibetan tradition, as well as advanced energy transformation practices, use the emotional energy of devotion to power attention.

Vajrayana works on multiple levels simultaneously. In the Tibetan tradition, these levels are often called outer, inner, and secret. These are literal translations, of course, and only helpful when you know the levels. In most cases, the outer refers to the physical: people and objects, rituals and ceremonies, actions and behaviors. The inner refers to understandings and experiences: the meanings of symbols, rituals, and ceremonies, as well as the feelings and understandings that arise in practice. The secret, or as I prefer to call it, the mystical, refers to the ineffable, the mystery: the direct experience of mind nature, emptiness, clarity, nonreferential compassion, and so on.

Devotion itself works at these three levels, too. Outer devotion means faith and respect in your teacher, in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Inner devotion means confidence, faith or trust in what is awakening in you. Secret or mystical devotion is the direct experience of the mystery of knowing itself, unmediated by the conceptual mind.

The two verses above describe the practice of devotion at the mystical level. They use poetic language. Specifically, they rely on the metaphor of outer devotion to illuminate the experience of mind nature. These lines describe result, not method, but many people mistakenly take them as method, something that they can do through thinking or through an act of will. That doesn’t work, and in what follows, I try to bring out as clearly as possible what these lines are pointing to and how one might approach them.

I meet you by recognizing what I am.

One approach here is to look at what you are. You can do so by posing the question “What am I?” As soon as you pose the question, there is a shift. Conceptual thinking stops. You look and see nothing. That nothing, however, is not simply nothing. It is a clear empty knowing. You have met what you are, but do you recognize it? If you don’t, there is a fleeting moment of panic, and then you immediately fall into ordinary thinking. 

How do you recognize it? That is a big question, and that is where the practice of devotion plays a crucial role. When you give rise to deep devotion or you experience awe deeply, conceptual thinking simply stops. That is why devotion plays such an important role. Through devotion, you touch again and again an open clear awareness that is not mediated by the conceptual mind. Eventually, you come to recognize an awareness that is free from thought and movement, has no sense of inside or outside, and is utterly clear and transparent, like space. Most of us do not recognize this knowing at first because we are deeply immersed in the patterning of conceptual thinking and emotional projection. But it is there, right in front of us. As 20th-century cultural critic H. L. Mencken said, “Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.” 

Through practice, however, we can develop sufficient stability in attention and dismantle enough patterns of emotional reactivity that we do recognize that knowing. And that is when you meet what you are and your own mind can become your teacher. 

I pray to you by letting go of doubt and hesitation.

If we try to let go of doubt and hesitation directly, we find ourselves mired in the conceptual mind once again because we are trying to do something. But if we adopt the attitude of prayer, reaching out to we-don’t-know-what, we find a natural, clear awareness, in which doubt and hesitation are simply movement in the mind.

I revere you by letting go and settling naturally.

Mind is mental activity, the coming and going of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Mind nature is the clear open knowing, where thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise. Most of the time, we are caught up in the thinking, feeling, and sensing, and we don’t notice or honor the knowing, which is just there. Take a moment, now, and let your mind and body settle. Follow the breath as you breathe out, and at the end of the exhalation, just rest. The breath will continue on its own. Do this several times a day, and bit by bit, you may find a knowing that permeates everything you experience.

I serve you by resting continuously in how things are.

The things here are our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, not the objects we navigate in the world. Those objects that comprise the world “out there” are constructed from thoughts, feelings, and sensations. In the end, that is all that we actually experience, and it is worth taking a moment to consider this. When we say “things,” we are talking about the content of our actual experience. When we say “how things are,” we are talking about how those contents arise and subside, come and go, appear and disappear in our experience. 

How do they come and go? Take sound, for instance. Make a simple lasting noise—pluck a string on a guitar, or something like that. Now pay attention not to the sound, but to the hearing of the sound. Ask yourself, where is the experience of hearing? Is it inside or outside? Is it in between? Where would that be? It’s hard to locate the experience of hearing. It is just there, and then it isn’t there. It doesn’t come from anywhere. It doesn’t go anywhere. Yet it comes and it goes. Very mysterious! That is how things are.

To serve your teacher, you relate to his or her needs. What does mind nature need? When you rest in how thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise and subside and don’t try to do anything with them, you are relating with mind nature just as it is. When you do, you may experience a peace that is vibrant, awake, infinitely deep, and imbued with a quiet joy that knows no limit.

I provide you with food by resting without strain in empty clarity.

How do you nourish mind nature? Energy transformation practices are an important component of Vajrayana. They can induce experiences such as sheer clarity or ecstatic bliss, but they are not easy and take a lot of work. These induced experiences are similitudes of mind nature and are helpful in that they assist you in recognizing what mind nature is like. The actual experience of mind nature, however, involves no effort at all. It just happens. When the conceptual mind drops away, whether through devotion or practice, or by chance, you are just there. You nourish mind nature by just resting there without strain. Again, this is poetic language. Mind nature does not need to be nourished. It is simply there, like space. What we are actually nourishing is our experience of it.

I provide you with drink by knowing attention and distraction make no difference.

This line is the source of much misunderstanding. People often interpret lines such as this to mean that you don’t have to worry about attention or distraction. This is a serious error. There is a knowing that has nothing to do with attention or distraction, a knowing in which these words simply do not apply. You come to this knowing by practicing resting and looking deeply, so deeply that the resting and looking acquire their own momentum and that momentum carries you into this knowing. Again, this line is a poetic description of the experience, a knowing and resting so deep that the peace it elicits tastes like a glass of cool, clear water.

I clothe you by knowing appearance and sound as enchantments.

The basic elements of experience are thoughts, feelings, and sensations. A sensory sensation, such as the sight of a flower, the smell of perfume, the taste of an apple, or the sound of a flute, can be extraordinarily clear and vivid, but when you look right at the sensory sensation itself to see what it is, you cannot find anything there. When you are simultaneously open to the vividness of appearance and sound and the “being nothing there,” experience is imbued with a dreamlike quality, a magical quality. You experience the world in a qualitatively different way, intensely meaningful, but without any meaning as such. 

The mystical devotion I’ve tried to describe here is not a practice in itself, but the result of other efforts. Insight—looking into the nature of mind and thus stopping the conceptual mind—is one such effort. Another is opening deeply and resting in what we actually experience: sensory sensation, feelings, and thoughts. But for some people, the most effective method is to nurture the natural confidence and trust they feel in their teacher through prayer, and let that trust and confidence mature into faith and devotion. Through devotion, you touch again and again an open, clear awareness that is not mediated by the conceptual mind, and it is this open clear awareness that will lead you into the experience of mystical devotion.

Temple
Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

Liberate this article!

You’ve read all three of your free articles for the month. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.