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Looking at the Mind within Appearances 

Pointing Out the Dharmakaya

Teachings on the Ninth Karmapa’s Text

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

In this text of instruction on mahamudra, Pointing Out the Dharmakaya, the vipashyana presentation consists of five ways to view the mind or look at the mind and five corresponding introductions to the mind’s nature. Of these five pairs of sections, the most important are viewing the mind within stillness and viewing the mind within occurrence. These are the most important because, in the case of viewing the mind within still- ness, this teaches one how to generate the wisdom of vipashyana in the midst of the experience of the stillness of shamatha, and in the case of viewing the mind within occurrence, it teaches on how to generate this wisdom when thoughts arise within that experience of shamatha. Therefore, these two are the most important to practice and, in a sense, the most useful and beneficial.

Looking at Appearances

Now we come to the third way to look at the mind, which is looking at the mind within appearances. Generally speaking, when we present mahamudra, the format is the threefold presentation of view, meditation, and conduct.37 From among these three topics, what we are concerned with here is view, which is very important, because it is the ground or basis of practice. There are two types of view. One is the view that comes from learning, contem- plation, and study. This view is gained by thinking about the nature of things and attempting to come to an approximate understanding of it through analysis. This type of view is very hard to apply in meditation practice. The other type of view, which is characteristic of the Vajrayana, is not a concep- tual position that is arrived at through analysis. View in Vajrayana is called the view of direct experience, because it is the view that is generated through the prajna of meditation that, arising as meditation experience, is able to rec- ognize directly the [true] nature. In other texts, we find the terms, “co-emer- gent mind in itself,” “co-emergent thought,” and “the co-emergence of appearances.” In this text, these same topics are presented as “looking at the mind within stillness,” “looking at the mind within occurrence or thought,” and now the third topic, “looking at the mind within appearances.”

Two Kinds of Appearances

Now appearance refers to two aspects of experience; one is what are called external [or outer] appearances, which are externally apparent objects, and the other is what are called internal appearances, which means what appears within or what is experienced within your mind. The first of these two cat- egories, external appearances, consists of the objects of the five senses: the forms that are perceived by the eye; the sounds that are perceived by the ear; the tastes that are perceived by the tongue; the smells that are perceived by the nose; and the tactile sensations that are perceived by the whole body. Because we have five sense organs, then we generate five sense conscious- nesses which contact their respective objects, of which we then become aware. And our sense experiences are an unlimited variety of things. Forms, shapes, colors, sounds, smells, and tastes can be pleasant, unpleasant, neutral and so forth. In any case these are what is meant by the term, external appearances.


The second type of appearance we experience is inner or internal appearances which consist of, to begin with, the replication by the mind of the similitudes of what is experienced by the senses. Internal appearances include the mental images of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations, and also all of the concepts generated on the basis of these, which generally start out as being [in each case] an abstraction based upon the initial sense impression. Internal appearances also include sicknesses, experiences of pain and suffering, of pleasure, of heat and cold, of joy and depression, and so on, negative states of mind such as kleshas, positive states of mind such as love and compassion, and so forth. All of these different mental experiences are called internal appearances.

Whether one is working with external, physical appearances or internal, mental appearances, in either case, the technique here is to look at the nature of these. It is somewhat harder to look at the nature of external, physical appearances, simply because we have such a deeply entrenched habit of see- ing them as separate from our minds. We think of the various things we perceive (columns, vases, walls, and so on) as being external to ourselves. But what you are actually experiencing — what you are actually seeing, for example — is not out there. The appearance, that is to say, the experience of the appearance, occurs within your mind. When you see a column, a pillar, you see it within your mind. Ordinarily we think of the column as external, as being made of whatever it is made out of (plaster or cement or whatever), but in fact, what you are seeing is actually made out of the stuff of your mind. It is inseparable from your mind. Seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting are really mental experiences. If you analyze this with reasoning, you can deter- mine that the externally apprehended objects are not separate from the inter- nal apprehending cognition, and you can determine through reasoning that the perceived appearances, therefore, are not composed of particles, but in fact, are mental creations or designations based on physical perception. How- ever, we nevertheless have a very strongly entrenched habit of seeing external things as separate from ourselves, because we naturally experience our perspective or viewpoint as being a mind that is looking out at the world that is somehow outside of and separate from that perceiving mind.

What we are doing in this style or approach to looking at the mind, is using the context of the mind experiencing such an appearance to see the mind’s nature within that context.

Working with External Appearances

This technique begins with looking at an object of visual perception, such as a pillar, a vase, a wall, a mountain, and so on. It could be almost anything. It could be big, it could be small, it doesn’t matter. Simply direct your gaze to that chosen object of visual perception and look at it directly.

It may be helpful, in order to work with this problem, when you are meditating on external appearances in particular, to allow the focus of your eyes, the physical focus of your organ of vision, to relax. Without allowing your eyes to focus on any one thing or another, allow your vision to relax to the point where you do not see any given thing particularly clearly. This will cause a slight reduction of the vividness or intensity of visual appearances and can help generate an experience of the non-duality of appearances and mind.


The particular point here is to look in a way that is relaxed so that your vision is somewhat diffused and not focused on any one thing. By allowing your vision to be unfocused you will not see the details of the forms that are present in your line of vision. The reason why this is helpful is that it is by see- ing details, through focusing on a specific thing physically, that we promote or sustain our fixation on the apparent separateness of visual perception.

At this point, we need to make a distinction between this use of an object of visual perception and the use of an object of visual perception in the shamatha techniques that I explained earlier. In the techniques of shamatha or tranquility meditation, you direct your mind to a bare visual perception, for example, of a pebble or a small piece of wood. In that case, what you are doing is actually concentrating your mind on that visual perception; you try to hold your mind to that object. Here we’re using the visual form in a different way. We’re trying to use the experience of visual perception as an opportunity to discover or reveal the mind’s nature, to see the emptiness or insubstantiality that is inseparable from the vividness of the perceptual experience. So what we are really looking at here is not the object but the nature or essence of the experience of the object, which is the unity of emptiness and lucidity.

In this technique, look with your eyes in a way that is very relaxed so that, not seeing the details of any of the things in your line of vision, your mind will start to relax and you will experience an absence of separation between the perceived external objects and the perceiving or experiencing cognition. Whereas we normally think that externally perceived objects and the perceiving cognition are inherently separate, that the one is out there and the other is in here, nevertheless, when you relax your vision in this way and simply look without concepts at appearances, then in your experience at that time, there will be no distinction between the apprehended objects and the apprehending cognition. There are still appearances, you are still physically seeing things, but there is no fixated apprehending of them.

So look directly at the object, but without examining it or particularly attending to its characteristics, and don’t be too outwardly focused on the object. You don’t need to stare at it wide-eyed. Look at your experience of the object and simply see the insubstantiality, the emptiness of the experience.

Having directed your attention to the experience of the object of visual perception, then relax slightly, and then look again. By alternating relaxation and attention to the experience of the object, you can continually examine that experience, by looking at it directly. In the same way, you can apply this technique to the other sense consciousnesses, to the experience of sound, of smell, of taste, and of tactile sensations. When you do this, then you are looking at the nature of the experience of the object in each case, rather than at the characteristics of the objects themselves. You’re looking to see if there is any substantiality whatsoever in the consciousness that is this experience of the appearance of the visual form or the sound or whatever it may be.

Among other things, you can look to see what are the differences, if any, between different consciousnesses of different objects. For example, is the consciousness that is generated when you see something yellow different from the consciousness that is generated when you see something red? Or, is the eye consciousness generated when you see a form different from the ear consciousness that is generated when you hear a sound? Of course, they are different in the coarse sense that one is an eye consciousness and the other is an ear consciousness. But is the nature of the mind or consciousness that experiences these two types of objects fundamentally different?

As you apply this technique, you are not really looking at the object. You are looking at that which experiences the object. You can also look to see where that consciousness arises. Does it come from anywhere? Does it abide anywhere? Does it go anywhere? If you come to the conclusion that it arises in such and such a way and goes somewhere else or disappears in such and such a way, that is probably conceptual. You have to look very directly. It can’t be a matter of speculation or reasoning. This is very different from analyzing sense perception and thinking that this consciousness must arise from these causes and conditions and must dissolve in such and such a way. It’s a matter of looking directly at the consciousness that experiences.

When you’re looking at the consciousnesses that experience these external appearances, then you’re experiencing the essential emptiness of that consciousness. You do this by looking at the consciousness to see if it has any substantiality. For example, if I’m taking this vase as the objective support for the technique, then what is happening is that I am generating an eye conscious- ness of the vase. With regard to the eye consciousness that is generated in bringing together my eyes and the vase I see: where exactly is this consciousness generated? Does this consciousness arise in the vase? Does the consciousness arise in my eyes? Does it arise somewhere in between them? If it arises in between them, does it actually fill the distance between the vase and my eyes? Or is it less substantial than this? Is it insubstantial? These are the kinds of things to be looked at. That is working with outer or external appearances.


Working with Internal Appearances

In working with internal appearances you are working with the sensations that arise for you internally and all the things that appear to your mind — the forms and sounds and so forth — as mental perceptions, and all the other things that arise in your mind. Previously, when you looked at the mind within stillness and occurrence you were looking at what you would normally regard to be the internal or subjective aspect of mind, the mind that experiences. Here, although really there is no ultimate distinction between the internal cognition and the externally experienced object, in this technique of looking at the mind amidst appearances you would probably say you were looking at what appears to be the external, objectively appearing aspect of mind. You are looking at appearances that appear to the mind, rather than looking at the mind to which they appear. Ultimately, of course, these two are not two different things, but in our normal and confused way of per- ceiving them they do appear to be. Here you are concerned with forms and sounds and pleasure and pain, and so forth, all of the things that you experience. In other words, you are looking at the experienced aspect rather than the experiencing aspect. Nevertheless, if you look at these directly, in a relaxed way and without concept, then there will be no fixated apprehension of the characteristics of appearance, and in that way, while the appearances them- selves will not cease, they will not be a cause of further fixation because there is no fixated apprehension of them to begin with. And as you look you dis- cover that you can directly experience the nature of this consciousness, yet it is beyond being apprehended either as existing or as non-existing. And the recognition that this consciousness is beyond any kind of imputation of existence or non-existence is cutting through the fixation on either its solidity or its utter non-existence.

When you look at these things, again don’t let this become a logical analysis of sense perception; don’t try to deduce or infer how it must be. Try to experience it directly. Then, when you pursue this process of directly look- ing at sense experience, you will resolve that appearances are inseparable from the mind that experiences them, and that the imputed objective aspect of appearances has no existence beyond the experience itself. Therefore the nature of what we ordinarily impute to be an objective aspect of experience, as an appearance or a phenomenon separate and distinct from the subjective cognition of it, is in fact not separate from it. And the nature of the experience in which the cognition and the object are really inseparable is the unity of the appearance, or experience, and its emptiness.

When you look at the object, if it seems to you that the object is vividly out there — it’s vividly or obviously out there and separate from you — then look to see, is there something that exists separate from the object that thinks the object is out there? By looking in that way, you’ll find that, while the appearance of the object is unimpeded (in other words, is present and vivid), there is nothing in the experience that exists apart from that object which would let you say that the object exists apart from it. While the vividness of the expe- rience itself is pervasive and penetrating, there’s nothing other than the vivid- ness of the experience itself. When you recognize the non-duality of mind and appearance, then you will cease to fixate on the mind that is viewing the object as having any existence separate from the object. Any fixation on that mind as being a perceiver outside or beyond the object simply vanishes.

Five Ways to Look at Mind within Appearances

In this technique, as in the previous ones, there are several subdivisions of ways that you look at the mind within appearances.


The first is to examine the relationship between your mind and the objects that appear to it. Whether we are speaking of the sensations that appear in your mind or the objects that appear, supposedly, externally to the mind, in either case, you have an experiencing cognition and an experienced object. The first way of looking at the mind within appearances is to look at whether this experiencing cognition and what it experiences are the same or different. You should not let this become an exercise in logical reasoning; you are not attempting to analyze the situation and determine this through thinking about it.


What you are looking at is: When you are experiencing an appearance, is that appearance truly separate from you, in other words, is it separate from the experiencing mind? How do you experience it? Do you experience the mind and what it experiences as different, or as the same? The second way of looking at the mind within appearances is related to that. If appearances are in some way separate from the mind, then how do they arise within the mind? Do they arise in the mind like a reflection arising on the surface of a mirror? Or is the mind projecting outward as an appearance? In other words, when objects appear to you — principally here externally apparent objects—is it the case that the appearances come into and enter your mind, or that the mind somehow goes out and enters into appearances, and if they’re separate, what is the meeting point between the appearances and the experiencing mind? Which of these is the case? Again, this should be looked at experientially and not analytically.


Do appearances come into the mind or does mind go out to and enter into appearances are the second and third ways of looking at the mind within appearances. The fourth way, with regard to this inseparability of mind and appearance, which you may have discovered — where, although there is the appearance of a subject and an object, you may nevertheless be experiencing them as inseparable — is: Do you experience this as nonexistent objects that nevertheless appear and a nonexistent cognition that nevertheless experiences these objects? Do you experience this in that way as a unity of appearance and emptiness?


The fifth part of the technique concerns another type of experience: You observe that, while objects that appear to you do not cease to appear — even when you look at them in this way — in experiencing them without fixation you observe that, while appearing, they are nevertheless empty of true, inherent, or independent existence. When you look inward at this mind that experiences these objects, you discover that, although your mind experiences these appearances, that mind itself has no substantial existence as any “thing” or being anywhere at all. In that way, although there is the continued experience of appearances, you are without fixation on any supposed existence or reality

to either the apparent objects, or the apparent subjective cognition. You experience an absence of a viewing mind and an absence of an inherently existent viewed object. Nevertheless there is the continued appearance or experience of apparent objects by the mind. In this way, it is said that appearances appear while being empty and remain empty while appearing, which is what is meant by saying that they are a unity of appearance and emptiness. This way of looking at appearances, the traditional image for this, is said to be like the way a small child will look at the images in a temple when it enters that tem- ple. The child has no fixated apprehension of one thing or another. In this case, we’re talking about a Vajrayana temple that’s full of things, such as stat- ues and images of lineage gurus and yidams, offering utensils and thangkas. If we were to enter into the temple, we would say, “Here is a statue of so and so, here is an offering bowl,” and so on. But a very small child would not identify any of these things nor be able to name them. Yet, at the same time, the child would see everything perfectly clearly; they would see exactly what we see, but without superimposing a conceptual designation of things as being this or that. Similarly, in the mahamudra recognition of sense perception, there is the same pure experience. Not only is there no fixation on the object being separate from the mind or on the mind being separate from the object, but there isn’t even any fixation on a substantial thinker who thinks that these two aren’t separate from one another. This fifth point is to look to see whether this is how you experience it or not.

From the point of view not of meditation practice, but of reasoning, it can be determined that all the things that appear to us are of the nature of our mind, and also that the mind itself is obviously of the nature of the mind itself. Normally when we think about things we regard that which appears to us externally as composed of particles, and therefore as made up of matter, and we regard our cognition or our mind as a mere cognitive clarity or aware- ness and therefore as fundamentally different in nature from what we experience or what appears to us. But if we analyze carefully how we experience, we will see that what appears to us are actually fixated images created by our minds through taking many things together and designating them as units with certain designated characteristics. If you analyze the objective bases in physical reality for these designated images — and it is the designated images which we experience, not the objective bases — then you determine that the objective bases themselves, while apparently composed of particles, are actu- ally composed of particles that when analyzed [in greater and greater detail] to the end, eventually disappear under analysis, and end up being composed of nothing. Nevertheless, appearances do appear to us. This of course is about reasoning and not about meditation; this is not an exercise for meditation.

Why then, if this is how things are, if the appearances that we experience are merely designated, fixated images based upon taking things as lump sum, why do we experience these things as externally existent and separate from ourselves? Simply, because appearances appear to our mind, we assume that they have an existence separate from our mind. Because we see something, we assert or assume that it exists. We never assert the existence of something we have to perceive. The basic argument that we always use for asserting the existence of something is that we perceive it. Nevertheless, given the way we perceive things, when we perceive things, we are really perceiving mental images, so, therefore, since there is no way to say that anything exists other than having the reason that you perceive it, and since everything you perceive is by definition, in fact, cognition perceiving its own clarity in the form of these fixated images, then as was said by Dharmakirti, “Everything you expe- rience is really just cognitive clarity, or cognitive lucidity.”

Nevertheless, many of the things that appear to us as external objects, such as rocks and mountains and trees, and so on, seem very solid, very inde- pendent, and one might ask, “How can we assert that such things are men- tal appearances?” For example, when you dream of rocks and mountains and trees, these things are very vivid and seem quite external to you and yet they are not external to you; they are simply mental images and mental appearances. The reason why those specific mental images arise in that specific dream is the force of habit. In the same way, the reason why a given being experiences the world in their particular way is because of their particular habit. Things are not really external to the perceiver. They are experienced as though they were external to the perceiver through the power of that perceiver’s habit. In this way it is taught that appearances are mind.

Pursuing this kind of reasoning, which establishes that appearances are mind, will lead to certainty about this. If it does lead to certainty, then you can rest within this certainty in your meditation, and there will arise some experience in the meditation of the absence of inherent existence of external appearances — the unity of mind and appearances, and so on.


This may arise from time to time. However, you should not be discouraged if you find that you cannot generate any resolution or certainty about the mental nature of appearances. It may be helpful to use the distinction that was proclaimed by the omniscient Longchenpa when he said, “Appearances are mind, but apparent objects are not mind.” The distinction he was making was between appearances — the actual subjective experience of a thing, such as the inter- nal mental experiences — and the external objects that generate appearance.38 Therefore it may be helpful to limit the training of your mind within appear- ances to those things that are clearly subjective appearances.

you use those things that clearly appear to you as mental phenomena, such as sensations, emotional states, and so on, then you can still use these for training the mind within appearances and [at the same time] you will not be troubled by the inability to resolve whether [external] appearances are mind.

Of the three techniques we’ve looked at—looking at the mind within stillness, within occurrence, and within appearances—the first two were somewhat easier to understand and to apply, because they were concerned with experience that we easily recognize as occurring within the mind. The problem we face with the third technique, which makes it a little more difficult, is that we have a very strong habit of considering sense perception to be an experience of something outside the mind. Nonetheless, when you perceive something, when you, for example, look directly at the conscious- ness that is the actual experience of seeing that form, you realize that that consciousness, while clear and vivid, is at the same time utterly insubstantial; it has no solidity, no location, nor any other kind of substantiality. You’ll never find those qualities. If you can discover the same nature of mind that we looked at in the earlier techniques, the same unity of lucidity and emptiness, in the context of the experience of appearances, this will enhance your recognition of the mind.


Pointing Out Appearances

That was viewing the mind within appearances. Next is pointing out the mind within appearances, and this is a presentation of what is an authentic experience of the relationship between mind and appearances. When you are meditating and looking at the mind within appearances, then you may have the experience that, while the perceived objects and the perceiving mind do not seem in any way to disappear or cease to exist and are, in a sense, still present, when you actively look at them, you do not find anything in either that exists separate from the other. And in that way, when looking at the mind that experiences appearances, you find that there is nothing in that mind to fix upon as a truly existent subject or apprehender, yet the mind still appears to experience. And when you look at the perceived objects, while they do not disappear and while you are looking at them, they remain vivid appearances that are without anything in them anywhere that you can fix upon as existing separate from the experience of the non-duality of appearances and mind. This non-duality of appearance and mind is held to be the authentic experience or recognition of the mind within appearances.

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