Knowing the mind of the Buddha


A little under two years ago I was on a retreat with other members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, which I’ve been a member of since 1993. We were discussing the visualization meditation practices we were each given at the time of our ordination.

At the time of my own ordination, the practice I had requested and was formally given — the visualization of Padmasambhava — was described as being my orientation toward enlightenment. The visualized form of Padmasambhava — a red-robed figure with a trident and skull cup overflowing with the nectar of immortality — embodied my personal connection with awakening.

“Enlightenment” can be a rather abstract concept. How can we aim to attain a state if we have no feel for what it’s like to experience it? Imagine that you wanted to develop the quality of kindness, but had no examples of kind people to inspire you? Developing the quality of kindness wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a lot harder. So it’s helpful to develop a clear and embodied sense of what an awakened being is like, so that we can resonate imaginatively and emotionally with it (which is now no longer an “it,” but a “he” or a “she”).

I started my contribution to the discussion without much enthusiasm, because my practice of the visualization of Padmasambhava had fizzled out a long time ago, and I didn’t feel good about that. When I was ordained there was a lot of stress put on doing the visualization practice regularly, and although I’d started off well, I found visualizing to be very hard. I’m actually a very visual person, but I had some kind of block regarding the practice.

Actually, before my ordination, I had a very strong personal connection with Padmasambhava. I had many dreams about him, and sometimes when I looked at pictures of him I’d “hear” him speaking to me — often giving me very useful advice. (No, I’m not crazy; I’m aware this was really me speaking to myself.) I spent months sculpting his trident, which is very elaborate, and then rowed out into the middle of a loch in the Scottish Highlands and offered the trident up to the depths. My connection with Padmasambhava was a big deal for me.

Somehow the meditation practice I was given interfered with all this. Struggling with the visualization made me feel that there was a barrier to communing with Padmasambhava, and gradually that sense of connection faded away, and I stopped doing the meditation practice.

And there was a sense of shame about my lack of fidelity that came up as I talked on the retreat about how I’d ceased doing this visualization practice. But as I continued to talk about how I’d been exploring alternative approaches to awakening that were more rooted in direct experience, I realized that I had never lost my fidelity to an underlying quest, which I expressed that day as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha.

This was the quest I’d been involved in even before I encountered the Buddha. Even in my teens I knew there was an alternative, more real, and more satisfying way to experience the world. There was a different way to see, and a different way to be. And I wanted to know what that was like. I wanted to experience the world that way — whatever “that way” was.

When I encountered the Buddha’s teachings — and even more when I encountered the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom Sutras — I was aware of being in the presence of that different way of seeing. And I wanted to know the mind of the Buddha.

Although I’d stopped visualizing Padmasambhava, knowing the mind of the Buddha was always my goal. And my connection with Padmasambhava was just one particular way to seek that goal.

Now, just as mudita is the joyful appreciation of the skillful in others, where the good in us resonates with the good in others, so I believe that upekkha can involve valuing and appreciating the insight that others have. It’s that within ourselves that seeks insight resonating with the insight in others. Upekkha involves wishing the highest possible good — the benefits of awakening — for others. And so we naturally respond with gratitude, respect, and even devotion, to those who embody awakening. And that in fact is the point of the practice of visualizing enlightened beings.

The Buddha himself (or possibly his early disciples) seems to have encouraged this way of approaching awakening, and there was a practice that they called “Buddhānusati” — reflecting on the Buddha and allowing ourselves to resonate with his qualities.

And I think that Buddhānusati can be an important part of our upekkha practice. I discussed a couple of days ago how we have to be engaged in a quest for awakening ourselves before we can really wish awakening for others. And I think that it’s helpful, if we’re on a quest for awakening, to develop a sense of a personal relationship with enlightenment.

This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of a visualization meditation. That didn’t work out well for me, although perhaps I gave up too soon.

  • It could take the form of having pictures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on our walls, or on our phones or computer screensavers.
  • It can take the form of reading the Buddhist scriptures (many are available free online) and allowing ourselves to get to know the Buddha from the records that have been passed down to us. This may not be an easy thing to do, because much of the depth of the Buddha’s personality has been flattened by centuries of oral repetition. But enough of the Buddha still shines through for us to have a sense of his extraordinary personality.
  • It can take the form of having a Buddha statue on the altar we meditate in front of. Don’t have an altar? I’d suggest putting one together. It doesn’t need to be elaborate.
  • It can take the form of bowing to Buddha images. Bowing doesn’t mean subservience. It’s simply a respectful greeting. And so every time I walk into a meditation hall, I bow. This reminds me of my debt of gratitude to the Buddha.
  • It can take the form of chanting verses. This is done in every Buddhist tradition that I know of. In the Triratna Buddhist Community of which I’m a part, we have a number of texts that we commonly chant together. There are various recordings here. The earliest forms of Buddhānusati seem to have involved chanting.
  • And lastly, you can do visualization practices. This doesn’t have to the done in a formal way, but can be as simple as imagining that the Buddha is sitting beside you when you’re meditating. I often do this. I don’t even necessarily “see” anything, so visualizing isn’t the right word. But just as you can know someone’s sitting beside you when you have your eyes closed, you can imagine someone sitting beside you while you’re meditating. There’s a feeling of a physical presence. And what I often do is to drop in the words “Feel the love of the Buddha.” So not only am I experiencing the Buddha sitting beside me, I feel him as a loving presence. Often this results in a feeling of warm on the skin of the side of my body that’s nearest to him.

So we seek to know the mind of the Buddha, to get close to him and to develop an appreciation and respect for awakened qualities — qualities which we ourselves are bringing into being. And in the upekkha bhavana practice we can wish that those qualities manifest in others, so that they know the peace and joy of awakening.

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • michael felberbaum
    July 20, 2013 5:48 pm

    Thanks for the personal and honest post.

  • Patricia Hughes
    July 21, 2013 9:52 am

    Thanks, Bodhipaksa, that helps me in where I find myself today. Timely – both your post and the fact that I chose to read it!

  • Clayton Leopold
    July 21, 2013 11:35 am

    I hope your having Buddha statues, images, posters, screen-savers and so forth doesn’t become worshiping and making a religion about the great man versus attempting to emulate his qualities. That is always a slippery slope.

    I wonder how your prevent this from happening.

    Thank you for your honesty and I appreciate your desire to make the world a better place.

    • Hi, Clayton. You’d have to define terms like “worship” and “religion” and explain in what ways you think they are unhelpful in the pursuit of awakening before I could begin to answer. I simply don’t know what you intend when you use those terms.

  • Clayton Leopold
    July 21, 2013 11:22 pm

    Hi Bodhipaksa,

    By religion I mean a particular system of worship and faith. By worship I mean acts and rites that express adoration or reverence.

    I just think, and am wary of, systems that worship the person who promulgated a view of the world and life and/or who showed us the way out of suffering and into compassion, as opposed to our actually doing things to achieve a better view of life and more compassion.

    I think we all can have the potential to confuse worshiping an idol (or statue, photo, or icon), with doing what the religious leader or prophet or teacher actually taught. It’s a “slippery slope.”

    • Worship and expressing reverence go back to the days of the Buddha himself. He encouraged (even expected) his disciples to show him reverence. So those things always have been a part of Buddhist practice, and I think most people have found them helpful. They promote humility and a sense of valuing the goal and those who have attained it.

      As you say, those activities can become a substitute for the effort to attain enlightenment, but then so can many other things, like study or doing good works. There’s no sure-fire way to stop yourself from losing the purpose of your practice, unfortunately! Mindfulness can help, so can study, and spiritual community. Those things could also become traps too, though.

      I’m wary of the term “slippery slope.” If I was to say, for example, that studying the suttas is a “slippery slope” then it suggests that it’s a dangerous activity and something to be avoided. And that’s obviously not a helpful perspective. I’d apply the same logic to devotion and reverence. Those things aren’t “slippery slopes” or dangerous in themselves. In fact they’re useful. It’s losing your sense of purpose that’s the problem.

  • Clayton Leopold
    July 23, 2013 11:23 am

    I appreciate your candor and equanimity, and am just concerned as I have seen so many religions, movements (religious, political, and more) adorate a spiritual leader, and commit heinous crimes, aggression, and prejudice in the name of worshiping a leader, alive or deceased. That is why I used the term “slippery slope.”

    Then how is one to avoid losing one’s sense of purpose, if everything (including, as you write: study, doing good works, spiritual community, logic, devotion, reverence) can become traps?

    Thanks Bodhipaksa for your valuable clarification.

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it? All the things that can help us can also become traps. There’s no guaranteed way to avoid being sidetracked, and in fact it’s going to happen. The best you can hope for is that you’ll notice you’ve been sidetracked and break free again.

      The first thing I’d say is to seek out and practice with people who seems to have a genuine desire to attain awakening, and who aren’t just talking about it or are in it for power and prestige. Seek people who talk from their experience rather than just repeating what the commentaries say. Find people who support you but also challenge you. Avoid people who say there’s “one right way” to meditate — unless it’s to learn what you can from them before moving on.

      Keep trying to take your practice deeper. Make time for retreats. Treat meditation as a skill to be mastered.

      Read the scriptures and try to understand where the Buddha was coming from. Seriously believe that you can become enlightened.

      Be prepared to stick with difficult practices, even when you don’t think you’re getting anywhere. But, one piece of advice I’ve always tried to follow is said to have originated with Bashō: “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the wise: seek what they sought.” Be prepared to be a spiritual rebel when necessary.

  • Thanks for this post Bodhipaksa. I can recognise myself in that what you are saying. I find it quite helpful in recent years actually to be aware of and to connect with the qualities of the Buddha, which he incorporates. Often I start my meditation exploring these qualities (peace of mind and heart, freedom, generosity …); how does it feel like.

  • Clayton Leopold
    July 26, 2013 3:24 pm

    Thank you very much Bodhipaksa for your help and advice…. I will print it out and post it in my home office so that I will always remember it. Now I just have to fit meditation into my daily routine. That’s for being so helpful!


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