The Trikaya gives us a simple working model of how experiential reality functions. We don’t actually need to go to war with materialism in order to start incorporating this model into our base view of who, what and where we are in life, leaving the materialists to their own devices – literally.
First, it is worth pointing out the obvious, that this model posits our reality as fundamentally experiential. None of us has any direct knowledge of anything that exists outside the realm of sentient experience. We can imagine an objective world out there but we cannot know for sure if it exists on its own terms as such beyond our own physical and cognitive interface. Is the table we see the same as the table the housefly sees and the same as the table itself not seen by either? We can never really know but what we do know is that the world we know comes via experience of it and ourselves (via this fundamentally awake knowingness embodied as the ocean of Dharmakaya). A scientist may insist that he is studying objective data gathered by reliable machines, but he is still evaluating the data with his living, and thus also very subjective, mind.
Second, it posits a fundamental reality before any obfuscations. Which brings us to confusion. Even though the Three Kayas are inseparable but different aspects of the same overall reality, confusion creates duality in that we come to believe that the various particulars on the Nirmanakaya level are each distinct from the other and moreover not part of the same overall continuum. In other words, there is no One, there is only Many. Each object we see – spoon, fork, chair, table, building, sentient being and most especially our self – is seen as unique, individual and separate from any larger whole. In the Buddhist scriptures this is described as nama-rupa, or ‘name and form’ and it is one of twelve links (nidanas) in a process called ‘dependent origination’ each of which helps create our world described as a perpetually spinning wheel (samsara) of unending birth, death and rebirth moment after moment, life after life. These twelve nidanas are too complicated for this blog but suffice to say they describe how we get to creating a seemingly solid world made of seemingly solid and separate parts with seemingly solid and separate entities such as ‘you’ and ‘I.’
So essentially we now have two principal types of mandala, namely mandalas of confusion and mandalas of wisdom. The confused mandalas are out of touch with the Trikaya unified field theory whereas the wisdom mandalas are at one with it. This is why traditionally the Buddhist teachings involve three main Yanas, or vehicles, which correspond with the three main stages of spiritual development (essentially the same in all genuine traditions) namely:
a) working with confusion to tame and pacify it
b) working out of confusion into realization
c) working with realization to stabilize and complete it
Put more simply: confusion, in between confusion and realization, and realization. Each phase features both teachings and methods which can be briefly summarized as follows:
a) working with confusion: the teachings help deconstruct primitive beliefs about reality, principally the illusion that we are solid, separate entities trapped in bodies and various existential predicaments causing endless ups and downs from birth until death which experiences often leave us floundering in an ocean of turbulent emotions being driven from one extreme state of distress or exhilaration to another to the point of exhaustion and bewilderment. The methods involve learning to slow down through meditation practice so that we can pacify this turmoil and begin to live in a more simple way without roiling the waters of intense emotion.
b) on the way out of confusion and into realization: working on the assumption that we do actually possess the Buddha Nature inherent in dharmakaya we study and emulate the positive qualities of those who are more fully integrated with their own enlightened natures; the methods involve training in developing those qualities principally by further meditation practice including those which enhance tranquility and insight as positive radiant qualities in body and mind as well as serving others by habitually putting them before ourselves essentially replacing samsaric, ego-centered habits with more enlightened ‘bodhisattvic’ ones.
c) working with realization: as we progress on the path we begin to encounter our own true nature. This so-called ‘realization’ of the nature of mind at first comes in glimpses, most often by spending time with someone who is realized but then gradually having our own personal experiences until finally this becomes a 24/7 state of being, which at that point is called ‘enlightenment.’ Interestingly, the Tibetan word for meditation translates as ‘becoming familiar’ because really all that is going on is simply becoming familiar with our own true nature which is there all the time but which we kept ignoring because of samsarically dualistic habits of perceiving and thus being. Enlightenment is simply the absence of confused states of being. This is why the highest form of vajrayana meditation is called formless meditation or more bluntly ‘non-meditation.’ There is nothing to develop or produce, there is no goal to achieve or prize to be won. We have been home all along.
Because they are dealing with different stages of reality perception or states of being, the methods and vocabulary differ from one yana to the next. So to finish this post, lets look at how the bedrock meditation technique of mindfulness is worked with at each of these three main levels which traditionally are termed Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana.
Hinayana Mindfulness: the student is an ordinary sentient being fully enmeshed in the samsaric behaviours believing in an existential separation between self and other, mind and body, wisdom and confusion. The mind and body are perceived as essentially problematic, untamed, following one habitual impulse after another. So mindfulness practice is about learning how to slow things down so that one can avoid endless explosions in the minefield of experience. First one walks slowly, one step at a time. If necessary one goes to one side or another to avoid a direct confrontation with an explosive result and then returns to the original path until one makes it across. It’s about learning to navigate through hostile territory burdened by a body and mind that are themselves not fully familiar, not under control, not tamed.
So the Hinayana version of mindfulness at first has to do with basic taming of self and external situations so that one can calm down enough to actually hold the mind steady. The traditional analogy is that of a steady candle flame versus one that is flickering. If you put your attention on something it can stay there steadily without wandering. This sort of skill – which is common to all creatures including most animals – can take anywhere from a few weeks to many decades to develop.
In terms of meditation practice one learns how to apply antidotes to any disruptive obstacles so that one can place the mind on an object and keep the attention there without straying or lapsing into dullness or agitation. The object of attention might be the moving second hand of a watch, a stick, stone or painting, or most often people simply use the breath which is a naturally occurring phenomenon happening both inside the body as well as out in the world – plus it’s always there and always slightly changing. You can also place the mind on a sound, like birdsong or a babbling mountain stream, or waves breaking on a beach, or the hum of a refrigerator or air conditioner for that matter. In all cases the idea is to place the mind on something and train it not to wander but stay relaxed, awake and attentive. This skill is needed very much at the end as you will soon see.
Mahayana Mindfulness: Hina means narrow or straight. Maha means great or expansive. The Mahayana is about leaving the confines of the narrow self-centred approach and merging the inner and outer worlds, so it is about dissolving the ramparts of ego to become one with all others. Mindfulness here is about focusing on various positive qualities that bodhisattvas (literally awake beings) manifest, principally wisdom, compassion and vitality. We can learn to imagine ourselves possessing such qualities in various meditation practices such as sending and taking (used in the Lyme Liturgy for example), but also our sitting meditation mindfulness at this level has to do with maintaining an open heart connected with bodhichitta (awake heart-mind) which is making a direct connection with the dharmakaya aspect of ourselves common to all other living creatures.
The more we can establish a direct connection with this bodhichitta the more we find ourselves experiencing naturally spontaneous compassion and wisdom. In meditation practice following the breath as before in Hinayana this is now experienced as a significantly expanded sense of spaciousness and warmth. Again, if we are fortunate enough to encounter someone fully developed in this way we get a direct transmission of how this feels by being with them and this accelerates the familiarity process. In any case, the ability to place the mind and keep it somewhere attentively but without strain is now used to develop the heart-mind wakefulness of bodhichitta.
This can be likened to the stage in the journey of a river where it opens up shortly before merging with the ocean. So Hinayana is like learning to navigate minefields to the point where one can avoid them altogether, and Mahayana is like learning how to open up far beyond what we earlier thought conceivable let alone possible and begin to manifest as fully realized bodhisattvas possessing – and thus also sharing – wisdom and compassion with all other beings.
Vajrayana Mindfulness: Vajrayana is the path of realization. Vajra is a mythical substance akin to diamond which is known for being extremely hard. However vajra is beyond hard: it is indestructible and it is so because it cannot be divided. This is the idea encountered when deconstructing moments of time at the beginning of the Liturgy. Any given moment of time (just as any given dimension of space when measuring an object) is infinitely divisible. One second can be cut in half and so on ad infinitum just as any given distance between Point A and Point B can be halved and so on. The point here being that since it is infinitely divisible in fact it is not divisible at all because such divisions are fictive constructs. Any given moment in time, for example, has no duration and therefore cannot be subdivided, i.e. is indestructible.
That’s a conceptual definition of vajra indestructibility. On a more experiential level it is more like the following: in terms of time we can say that we find ourselves dwelling in the present moment, we can feel this as something which is always there meaning it never begins or ends and therefore transcends birth, death or any measurable dimension. In terms of place, when we are in a state of nowness the space is alive, awake, present and endlessly so, there are no boundaries between self and other, here and there, it is all one, hence indivisibly indestructible and this is something we now experience directly.
So mindfulness in Vajrayana involves resting the mind in its own nature, its own vajra nature without anything which arises distracting or separating us from that awareness presence. In early stages we go in and out, sometimes resting in a seemingly deep, luminous state of mind and other times being again distracted by habitual interruptions and distractions, be they imaginary discursive events on the meditation cushion or in daily life. So the mindfulness practice at the level of working with initial realization experiences involves maintaining a state of presence of vajra being, of resting in that perpetual nowness without effort or contrivance. As thoughts and feelings arise they do so from within this spacious presence and we learn to stop identifying with them as part of a ‘me’ which is separate from that spacious presence. Things keep coming up in the ever-playful dance of Sambhogakaya which is ceaseless and infinite in variegation, like waves on the ocean, but we never isolate the dance from the background, the dance is always part of the background. Mindfulness is resting in spacious awareness whilst enjoying any given dance displayed in the inner and outer worlds.
So if mindfulness in Hinayana involves taming and pacifying wild, hostile inner and outer terrains, and mindfulness in Mahayana involves attuning oneself to the more selfless qualities of an altruistic bodhisattva manifesting wisdom and compassion, then mindfulness in Vajrayana can simply be likened to that of actually being a Buddha or Bodhisattva, actually doing it in the here and now rather than striving to do it or be it at some point in the future. At some point the student – if the path and the practitioner are both worthy – becomes a master.
If you tell a beginning student to rest in the nature of mind when every time they sit down to meditate they are jumpy, sleepy, horny, excited or altogether discombobulated, it won’t work. Gradually, gradually the student settles into becoming more tamed and open until gradually, gradually they begin to experience their own ground nature, the always-there bedrock nature of dharmakaya which is at the core of their own being as well as that of all other creatures. This is an actual experience, not theory, and at some point one begins to know the primordial knowing, which is called wisdom. Wisdom is not about knowing all data, rather about knowing the nature of primordial self-existing knowing. When this happens there is a deep sense of relaxation because the endless existential struggle of samsara has been let go. Enlightenment ultimately is about letting go of unenlightened habits of body and mind. A release – or rather what’s there after release. A profound simplicity. You cannot tell someone to do that at the beginning. So at least in terms of the mindfulness aspect, first you tame and pacify unruly mind; then you open it to wider possibilities and view and maintaining that naturally; then it involves learning to rest in spaciousness without following or identifying with old habits born of lifetimes of recreating samsaric patterns of dualistic fixation and grasping. Indeed, such habits can be popped like bubbles as they arise. But that’s another story for another time…
The Hinayana level involves hard work to tame and pacify.
The Mahayana level involves developing limitless bodhisattva altruism whilst bringing all confusion to the path of awakening.
The Vajrayana involves mastery.