Whenever conceptual thinking arises,
Don’t look at what arises: know what knows the arising.
Like an oak peg in hard ground,
Stand firm in awareness that knows, and go deep into the mystery.
Here is the genius of the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. In just four lines, Jigmé Lingpa gives precise instruction on the deepest aspect of meditation practice, connects it with the Heart Drop (སྙིང་ཐིག་) tradition of dzogchen, differentiates it from other approaches, and provides a vivid simile for practice. What more do you want?
What do you do when a thought arises? This is the central question in virtually all contemplative practice.
When we have no training or insight, we take our thoughts as real. Soon after we begin meditation practice, we see that, in the words of Henepola Gunaratana, our minds are shrieking, gibbering madhouses, completely out of control. As we progress in practice, we see more and more that the problem is not in what we experience but how we experience. We discover new possibilities, a clear open awareness in which thoughts, feelings and sensations simply come and go.
Different practice traditions take different approaches to the arising of thoughts. Most esoteric traditions agree that thoughts themselves are not the enemy. On the other hand, when we are thinking, awareness is dulled and confused. Some traditions encourage the development of a dispassionate observer, but that simply replaces one problem with another as I wrote about in connection with verse 2.5. The direct awareness traditions of Tibet teach the possibility of an awareness that is not an observer and is not affected by the coming and going of thought, an awareness in which thoughts, feelings and sensations form and dissolve like mist or like clouds in the sky.
Yet, when thoughts arise, it is all too easy to fall out of such a clear open awareness into the dulled confused state of thinking. The usual approach found in the middle way, mahamudra, dzogchen, and chö traditions, is to look right at the thought as it arises. Kongtrül, for instance, writes in Creation and Completion:
Whatever thought arises, when you look right at it
Without doing anything with it, it releases and becomes your path.
Here, Jigmé Lingpa is suggesting another approach. When a thought arises, don’t look at the thought. Know what knows the arising. In Kongtrül’s words, again from Creation and Completion:
Whatever arises, look inwardly, right at what knows the thought.
What happens when you do this? Basically, nothing, and that’s the point. You end up looking at nothing and, simultaneously, being nothing. Any vestige of an observer evaporates, and along with it, any vestige of conceptual thinking. If your attention is stable (and that’s the challenge for most people in this sort of practice), then, as Jigmé Lingpa writes, you stand in awareness. And just in case you don’t know, he tells you how to stand in awareness — like an oak peg in hard ground.
Where this takes you no one can say. It’s been given many names, but that’s a problem. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “There is no there there.” People talk endlessly about this nothing. They call it emptiness, the realm of totality or infinite space (dharmadhatu, ཆོས་དབྱིངས་), pure being or the essence of reality (dharmata, ཆོས་ཉིད་), buddha nature and so on, but all too easily, they forget that they are talking about an experience. The experience is so powerful, so meaningful, so wonderful and so transformative that it must be real, in some sense of that strange and mysterious word. The language of poetry — the language of metaphor, allusion and awe — gives way to the language of philosophy — definition, distinctions and reason. Then the fixations start. As I wrote in An Arrow to the Heart,
First it was an opening, then a memory, then an idea. Unnoticed, it became a belief and then an ideology. Now it’s a casus belli, and you are ready to wreak havoc on all who disagree.
When you look at what knows, you enter a mystery. Go into it as far as you want. It will probably change your life. But please don’t make anything out of it.