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The Problem with Distraction

This excerpt from a famous book about dzogchen describes the lost-in-thought state, which is referred to here as ‘mind’ and ‘distraction’.

By Kenchen Thrangu

As Khenpo Gangshar says:

It is very important to distinguish the difference between mind and awareness.

Reprinted from
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Sometimes we look at the nature of the mind, recognize it, and rest within it. That is called awareness. But sometimes we forget what we’re doing and many different thoughts arise. These thoughts well up because of the imprints of habituation from beginningless time. When we are unable to rest in equipoise and there is some confusion, or when we forget what we are doing, that is mind. These are the two aspects we need to differentiate. If we confuse them, there is a danger that we will mistake not meditating for meditating and our practice will not go well. We need to clearly distinguish what is meditation and what is not meditation. When are we distracted and not meditating? When are we undistracted and meditating? Clearly knowing the difference between these two is very important.

The reason this is so important is as the Great Omniscient One, Longchenpa, described:

The big oxen pretending to know ati nowadays

Claim that discursive thinking is awakened mind.

Such ignorant people, in their realm of darkness,

Are far away from the meaning of the natural Great Perfection.

Although many people think they are practicing atiyoga or dzogchen, many of them do not know how to differentiate between mind and awareness. Such people are actually just big, stupid. oxen — bullheaded and dumb. If they try to meditate, they don’t know how. They don’t know what is good and what is bad. When such people practice dzogchen, a thought happens and then they follow it, thinking that the movement of thoughts in the mind is all ultimate bodhichitta. They think it is the dharma nature, the way the mind-essence is: they think they have realized the nature of all phenomena. But this is a big mistake. Actually, all of these discursive thoughts circling through their minds are the confused appearances of samsara, not ultimate bodhichitta, and to think they are wisdom or ultimate bodhichitta is actually complete delusion. People who think they are in the midst of darkness. They lack clarity. If they could come to a place where it was clear and light, they would be able to see and to free themselves, but they do not know this and instead wander about in the confused darkness of delusion. This is why they are said to be far away from the natural great perfection — they are unable to practice dzogchen meditation.

This is the difficulty that can arise if we do not distinguish between mind and awareness — between the distracted and undistracted mind. In addition to recognizing the nature of the mind, we also need to know when we are experiencing resting in awareness of the nature of mind and when we are experiencing mind, the confused aspect.

The reason we need to distinguish mind from awareness is that there is a nondistracted aspect that recognizes the nature of mind and a distracted aspect that has forgotten its nature. When we rest within the nature of mind, that is what Khenpo Gangshar calls “the continuity of undistracted naturalness,” but when we get distracted, we forget that experience and lose it. Then many thoughts arise and the mind becomes unclear. It is as if we don’t know when we got distracted. In some meditation manuals, this is called the undercurrent. There are small thoughts that start without us knowing how or when. This distracted aspect is called mind. The undistracted mind that has mindfulness and attentiveness — the continuity of undistracted naturalness — is called awareness.

Above we used the word mind when discussing looking at the nature of mind, and here we are using mind for the distracted aspect that must be given up. Although the word is the same, the meaning is different. In this context, mind is when experience has not yet arisen within ourselves, or if experience has arisen, it is when we fall under the control of thoughts. Above, looking at the nature of the mind means recognizing the mind itself and knowing its utterly pure nature. We need to realize that these are different. Resting in equipoise undistracted within the recognition of the nature of the mind is what we call awareness.

To put it concisely, awareness is unconfused — it is what realizes the nature of things. When we have confusion or thinking, that is mind. We need to clearly differentiate these two because, as Khenpo Gangshar says:

If you fail to distinguish between mind and awareness you may engage in conduct which confuses cause and result and thus turn away from the path in which view and conduct are united.

Sometimes our awareness is very strong and clear, and at such times there is no danger of mixing up karma, cause, and effect. But sometimes when we do not clearly distinguish the confusion of mind from awareness, we might think that the distracted aspect of mind is meditation. Many thoughts will arise, and we will not deal with them, thinking that this is dzogchen. If that happens, the afflictions will arise, we will follow them, and then we will engage in wrongdoing. We will have turned away from the path in which view and conduct are united. We will disregard karma, cause, and effect. We will not give up nonvirtue and will not cultivate virtue. We will confuse cause and effect, and make many mistakes. When we have the right view and understand the difference between mind and awareness, this leads us to good behavior — proper view and proper conduct are united. But if we do not distinguish between them and do not behave well, it is the opposite: our view and conduct will not be good.

When we meditate on the nature of the mind, we need to have both right view and right conduct. It is very important that we achieve a proper understanding of the view and that we realize the mindessence. At the same time, our conduct should be proper; it should not be mixed with misdeeds, obscurations, and nonvirtue. When our view and conduct are united, our good view enhances our conduct, and our conduct enhances the view. When we are meditating, we need to follow this unified path, but if we are not able to differentiate mind from awareness, we will turn away from the path.

Text copyright © 2011 Khenchen Thrangu. Reprinted from Vivid Awareness: The Mind Instructions of Khenpo Gangshar.

Photo by Cesare Naldi. The Asian elephant Rajan, together with his mahout (elephant driver) Nazroo, enjoys the warm sea water in front of the Andaman. Rajan is the last of the floating working elephants that settled here in the 19th century. He is now retired — and only swims for fun.

Khenchen Thrangu, born 1933, is a prominent teacher and abbot of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

This page was published on January 8, 2020 and last revised on January 8, 2020.


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