Clarifying Stillness and Emptiness

There’s been a lot of interest on the topic of stillness and emptiness.

The nature of mind and mind consciousness are not the same thing, and neither are they separate. The nature of mind – our essential nature – essence – utilises mind consciousness to communicate, and so mind consciousness can also reflect essence.

It’s important to recognise that, whether the mind is moving or still, awareness is always present. We can become a little fixated about the term ‘stillness’, mistaking this for emptiness. It is the very nature of mind that is empty awareness, pure awareness – it’s just a step back. This pure awareness has natural clarity and is self-aware; it is also aware of a ‘self’. This means awareness can face inwards as well as outwards.

In order to function in a skilful manner, we need a mind consciousness that has clarity and stillness. This is when the sixth, seventh and eighth consciousnesses (perception, judgement and memory-the first five consciousnesses are the senses) are present but inactive.

Here is where confusion may come about: usually, when we are introduced to meditation, we start off with shamata practice, which is watching the breath in order to tame the mind and cut through our thinking patterns. This is one approach, and for some, it’s a good starting point; we still the mind through shamata and move on to vispassayana (insight) and finally to Mahamudra which is pure awareness. We start with a firm foundation to realise the golden roof. This is the Mahamudra way and it is a gradual process.

There is, however, another approach and this is to start with the golden roof – pure awareness. This is Maha Ati or Dzogchen. Here, in the first instance, we are introduced to the nature of mind by being aware of awareness, looking into that awareness and finding nothing else, and realising uncontaminated emptiness. Having recognised this, it is then noted whether the mind is moving or still; whatever occurs, pure awareness is still present.

If we are having problems with this, we could then return to shamata practice, with and without support (watching the breath or the stillness when the support of the breath is dropped) which will bring us back to rigpa/pure awareness/empty essence. The wonderful thing about Dzogchen is that we know what we are looking for!

So maybe our problem is knowing which system we are working under. They both have the same fruition, but the methods are different.

Another aspect is the eighth consciousness, called the Alaya Vijnana in Sanskrit. This is the store house of memories and karma. When this is stilled, awareness can mistake this stillness for emptiness, but there is still an ‘I consciousness’ present. The step back into emptiness is subtle letting go, and this is where the pointing out instruction is necessary.

Stillness of mind is a subtle state; it’s just a matter of recognising that stillness, and merely letting be – uncontaminated being. This is being pure awareness, as opposed to being aware of awareness. One is non-dual while the other is dual.

Clarity of mind + clarity of essence + clarity of karma = enlightenment.

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