Buddhist Philosophy

Understand Ignorance to Reveal Buddha-Nature

Understand ignorance.  Why would we need to do that if we are studying our minds?  Here, in this video teaching from a Mahamudra meditation retreat at Gomde Cooperstown, Tulku Migmar Tsering explains why we need to understand ignorance.  This teaching is in Tibetan with English translation.

Most of us come to meditation retreats or Buddhist teachings because we are searching for answers.  We know that we are unhappy, or anxious, or we may just feel like something is not quite right.  If we have studied for some time, we may have heard a lot about how we are confused by ignorance.  But why do we need to understand ignorance?  Because if we just think that we suffer from ignorance, we may start to think of ignorance as something solid and unchanging.

Shedding a Light

However, if we begin to examine things more closely, we can conclude that our ignorance is not a permanent condition.  The good news about ignorance is that it is empty of any inherent existence.  Once we understand ignorance, we can reconnect with our true ground or natural state.  We can clear away the mists of confusion and begin to see clearly.

Understand Ignorance: Awakened Nature Reveals Itself

Understand ignorance

Tulku Migmar explains that we all share this common ground.  Though it has many names, they all refer to the same condition.  We all have Buddha-nature–this is the cause for awakening.  And all sentient beings without exception have this as their essence.  Stop and take that in!  We all have the awakened nature–but it is temporarily hidden due to ignorance.  We may hear references to “buddha-nature” or “bodhicitta.” And sometimes we read terms such as “primordial ground,” or “emptiness.”  We can also call this ground “awareness” or rigpa.

In the Mahamudra, or “great seal” tradition, teachers explain the realization of Mahamudra as the unity of emptiness and clarity.  “Emptiness” here does not mean a complete absence, a vacuum, or some sort of black hole.  Instead, we speak of “lucid emptiness,” a quality of awareness.  And we can understand this buddha-nature as ultimate happiness.  So the next question is–where is this ultimate happiness?

Looking Within

Ironically, we all have been searching for happiness outside of ourselves.  We look to outer objects, or to people or experiences to bring us this illusory goal.  And according to Buddhist thought, we’ve been doing this for lifetime after lifetime.  Ignorance obscures this buddha-nature, so we miss this amazing ground.  But, instead, if we come to understand ignorance, we can stop the frantic search.  And then we can loosen our clinging to the notion of “I” and “me” who looks for happiness.  Yet, there is no truly established self, is there?  Think about this carefully.  Coming to this understanding is why we come to retreats.  It is why we reflect on teachings and practice meditation until we come to trust this basic ground.

As we gain experience through practice we can then relax and let our own buddha-nature emerge from behind the clouds of ignorance.  And then, and only, then we can become ultimately happy!

Reflection Exercise

Spend some time reviewing this video teaching.  Do you recognize your own patterns of looking elsewhere for happiness? What do you normally do to try to achieve that?  And how does that work–is it lasting?  Remember that we’re not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t experience pleasure. 

Of course, we can have positive or happy experiences–and we can also have unpleasant or negative situations.  Think of the ways in which you pursue happiness now.  Can you see how tiring this pattern is?

But what if you chase less, cling less, and relax into your deepest nature?  How does that feel?

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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.