Excerpt from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,
by Sogyal Rinpoche:
The still revolutionary insight of Buddhism is
that life and death are in the mind, and nowhere
else. Mind is revealed as the universal basis of
experience the creator of happiness and the
creator of suffering, the creator of what we call
life and what we call death.
There are many aspects to the mind, but two stand
out. The first is the ordinary mind, called by
the Tibetans sem. One master defines it: "That
which possesses discriminating awareness, that
which possesses a sense of duality which grasps
or rejects something external that is mind.
Fundamentally it is that which can associate with
an 'other' with any 'something,' that is perceived
as different from the perceiver." (2) Sem is the
discursive, dualistic, thinking mind, which can
only function in relation to a projected and
falsely perceived external reference point.
So sem is the mind that thinks, plots, desires,
manipulates, that flares up in anger, that creates
and indulges in waves of negative emotion and
thoughts, that has to go on and on asserting,
validating, and confirming its "existence" by
fragmenting, conceptualizing, and solidifying
experience. The ordinary mind is the ceaselessly
shifting and shiftless prey of external influences,
habitual tendencies, and conditioning: The masters
liken sem to a candle flame in an open doorway,
vulnerable to all the winds of circumstance.
Seen from one angle, sem is flickering, unstable,
grasping, and endlessly minding others' business;
its energy consumed by projecting outwards. I think
of it sometimes as a Mexican jumping bean, or as
a monkey hopping restlessly from branch to branch
on a tree. Yet seen in another way, the ordinary
mind has a false, dull stability, a smug and
self-protective inertia, a stone-like calm of
ingrained habits. Sem is as cunning as a crooked
politician, skeptical, distrustful, expert at
trickery and guile, "ingenious," Jamyang Khyentse
wrote, " in the games of deception." It is within
the experience of this chaotic, confused, undisciplined,
and repetitive sem, this ordinary mind, that, again
and again, we undergo change and death.
Then there is the very nature of mind, its innermost
essence, which is absolutely and always untouched
by change or death. At present it is hidden within
our own mind, our sem, enveloped and obscured by
the mental scurry of our thoughts and emotions. Just
as clouds can be shifted by a strong gust of wind
to reveal the shining sun and wide-open sky, so,
under certain special circumstances, some inspiration
may uncover for us glimpses of this nature of mind.
These glimpses have many depths and degrees, but
each of them will bring some light of understanding,
meaning, and freedom. This is because the nature
of mind is the very root itself of understanding.
In Tibetan we call it Rigpa, a primordial, pure,
pristine awareness that is at once intelligent,
cognizant, radiant, and always awake. It could be
said to be the knowledge of knowledge itself.
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