When you return home exhausted after a long day of hard work, you are usually very ready to take a break from that work and simply rest. If you have been engaged in particularly arduous physical labor, such as construction, cleaning, or even exercising on a treadmill, then you will naturally feel extremely tired. When you have reached the very peak of your exertion, when you have expended every ounce of energy you have, you reach a point where you simply take a deep breath and sit down. When you allow yourself to wholly let go and relax in that moment, your mind becomes completely nonconceptual. You do not have a thought in your head; body and mind start to calm down and loosen up, and yet you are not distracted. There is a sense of being fully present and appreciating that moment. That experience of resting after hard work, along with the relief that accompanies it, is given as an analogy for the bardo of meditation. (1)
The bardo of meditation in Padmasambhava’s teaching is connected to the experience of vipashyana.
Vipashyana means “clear seeing,” or “superior insight,” and what is being seen at this point is the nature of mind, that is, the nature of ordinary mind, our naked awareness.
Thus, vipashyana refers to the insight that directly realizes this nature of mind. This is sometimes expressed as “insight into emptiness,” and this superior realization relates to the emptiness of both self and other, or mind and its phenomena.
The key point in vipashyana meditation is, therefore, awareness. What is awareness? It is simply a state of mind that is not distracted from the present moment.
When we bring the mind to rest in its own state, in its own nature, without distraction, then we are in a state of awareness of the present moment.
Regardless of our outer circumstances or inner state of mind, if we are present within the very experience of nowness, if we are fully experiencing the moment, then that is non-distraction. That is awareness. That is meditation.
Thus, awareness, non-distraction and meditation are one and the same.
Vipashyana meditation in the Vajrayana (2) sense begins with the practice of meditation on emptiness.
When we practice from this perspective, the object upon which we focus is the nature of mind itself, its aspect of clear emptiness.
However, in order to be able to rest our mind in this way, we must rely on the ground of shamatha, (3) or calm abiding meditation.
If we are well trained in shamatha, then we can place our mind on any object—a pebble, an image of the Buddha or the sky—and it will rest there unwaveringly.
Thus, the mind of shamatha has two aspects: it is not only calm, but also it abides wherever it is placed. Once we have developed this skill, we will also be able to rest our mind in the state of emptiness, in which there is no tangible focal object.
Without shamatha, there is no possibility of developing vipashyana.
However, if we do not go on to develop vipashyana, then our shamatha cannot help us very much. While it will calm our mind, it cannot ultimately cut through and eradicate our disturbing emotions. Only the superior insight of vipashyana can do that.
In a classic example of the relationship between the two, shamatha is compared to a pond, and vipashyana to the flowers that grow in and beautify the pond.
The great yogi Milarepa said:
“Not being attached to the pond of shamatha
May the flower of vipashyana bloom.”
Accordingly, vipashyana, which cuts both suffering and the causes of suffering, is seen as the more essential aspect of meditation.
It is important to understand that the bardo of meditation is where we train our minds to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the transitional experiences of all six bardo states.
We are not simply trying to have a good meditation session or to become a calm person. We are not only working to improve our conditions or psychological state in the bardo of this life. The benefit of our training goes far beyond that.
If you view your training here as the means to acquire the tools and precious possessions you will carry with you wherever you go—even in your journey beyond this life—then you are hearing the message of Padmasambhava and the lineage.
The message is clear: to recognize the nature of your mind is to possess the key to liberation. All the trainings we undertake in the bardo of meditation lead to this point.
Because the explanations of the meditations can be detailed and lengthy, it is possible to lose sight of the larger context in which they are presented. It is therefore essential to remind ourselves of the connection between our trainings in vipashyana and our journey through the bardos.
Whatever bardo we may be passing through, it is transcended when we wake from our confusion and recognize the nature of mind.
(1) Bardo – The bardos, or intermediate states, are popularly understood to be the realms between death and rebirth.
Bardo is translated as “intermediate,” “interval” or “in-between” state. In one sense, it refers to the experience of the present moment; in another, it refers to an experience of certain duration of time, marked by a clear beginning, a sense of continuity and distinct end. In the latter sense, six bardos are taught: the natural bardo of this life, the bardo of dream, the bardo of meditation, the painful bardo of dying, the luminous bardo of dharma-ta, and the karmic bardo of becoming.
Natural bardo of this life: The interval between our birth and the moment we meet with the condition that will cause our death.
Bardo of dream: The interval between falling asleep and re-awakening, in which one experiences the arising of dream appearances.
Bardo of meditation: The interval in which one’s mind is resting in a state of meditative absorption, or samadhi.
Painful bardo of dying: Interval between the moment one meets with the condition that will cause one’s death and the actual moment of one’s death.
Luminous bardo of dharmata: The interval that begins immediately following the moment of death and ends when we enter the bardo of becoming.
Karmic bardo of becoming: The interval that begins after the luminous bardo of dharmata and ends when we enter the womb of our future parents.
(2) Vajrayana: In context, may be understood as follows.
Hinayana (“lesser vehicle”): Includes the first two yanas, or stages of the general Buddhist path, the Shravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana, whose fruition is individual liberation.
Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”): Also called the Bodhisattvayana, it is the teachings and practice of the second and third turnings of the wheel of dharma taught by Buddha Shakyamuni. It is characterized by its dual emphasis on compassion, which desires the liberation from suffering of all beings, and wisdom, which perceives the true nature of phenomena. Through entering and riding this vehicle, one brings all sentient beings to the state of complete enlightenment.
Vajrayana: The tantric teachings of the Mahayana. It is the short path that utilizes a variety of methods that take the results of awakening as the path. Also called Secret Mantra or the resultant vehicle.
(3) Shamatha: Tranquility meditation. Its aspects are mindfulness (recollection of the object of meditation) and alertness (continuity of mindfulness). Shama means “calm,” and tha is “abiding”: so shamatha means “calm abiding.” It is thus called since distraction towards objects such as form and so on has been calmed, and the mind abides one-pointedly in whichever samadhi one is practicing.
Ponlop, Dzogchen. Mind Beyond Death . Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition. Source: Ponlop, Dzogchen. Mind Beyond Death. Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.