Appearances to mind, mind itself, and mind’s lack of inherent existence go together in what we call coemergence.

We might think that the existence of something conventionally and the non-existence of that thing ultimately are different. In fact, they are not, and their being together is coemergence.

To say that the mind is free from production, resting, and cessation does not mean that it is dead like a corpse.

The sutras say that mind is the union of luminosity and emptiness.

Because that luminosity has an aspect of bliss, in the tantras it is said that there is a union of bliss and emptiness.

In the sutra context, we speak about a union of the two truths – relative and ultimate truth. All this is concerned with the way in which mind itself is coemergent.

To approach coemergent mind, we settle into shamata and the mind looks at itself. It does not stop thought but simply purifies itself and becomes peaceful. At that point, mind cannot be identified as anything at all.

It rests vividly and clearly in a state of awareness that does not become dull or unclear. Mind doesn’t wander, but remains clear and luminous.

In Moonlight of Mahamudra, Tashi Namgyal says, “The mind itself remains luminous and does not stop understanding.” The mind doesn’t lose its intelligence but is aware of and illuminates itself.

The way it does this cannot fully be explained; it has to be experienced. Even though we cannot express this state in words, we can say that it is an experience of knowing things as they are. This experience gives rise to real certainty. This experience is vipashyana.

We begin this meditation when our mind is free from sinking and wildness. We rest in a very relaxed way. Simply by looking at itself, thought is pacified. This brings forth the experience of shamata in the context of mahamudra.

From within shamata, we investigate the qualities of luminosity and emptiness.

If our mind appears to be luminous and vivid, we look into that. Just what is that vividness? If our mind seems to be empty, we investigate that emptiness. What is that emptiness? How is it empty? We do not need to put these questions to anyone else; we need to answer them from our own experience.

Within that experience, the stability is called shamata and the intelligence that realizes the nature of things is called vipashyana. Their names are separate but, at this point, shamata and vipashyana are not separate, rather they are different aspects of one thing. They are united and integrated. When our experience of this settles, that is coemergent mind.

Coemergent Thought

Thoughts are also coemergent. At times, the mind and its thoughts seem to be different things and at times they seem to be similar.

For instance, in Milarepa’s song to Bardarbum he says that mind is like an ocean and thoughts are like waves on this ocean. Although waves appear in the ocean, and we see them, they are not different from the ocean itself.

Similarly, thoughts appear and are perceived but are not actually different from the mind. In certain circumstances, however, thoughts seem to be something other than mind.

By mind, we mean the aspect of luminosity, and by thoughts we mean the various things that come from the mind, such as joy, suffering, desire, and devotion. These appearances are called discursive thoughts. The nature of these thoughts is mind. Nevertheless, they are experienced as and seen to be something coarse.

In the Kagyu Lineage Supplication, Jampal Zangpo says, “The nature of thought is dharmakaya.”

Some scholars may say this statement doesn’t make sense. How, they ask, could confused thoughts and the pure dharmakaya be the same thing?

They have a point, for if you look at all the different aspects you would have to say that in some respects thoughts are not dharmakaya.

On the conventional level, mind and thoughts appear to be different.

But in the context of meditative experience, the nature of thought is the dharmadhatu, and the dharmadhatu is the dharmakaya. Therefore, the nature of thoughts is dharmakaya. From this point of view thoughts are coemergent – there is no difference between thoughts and mind.

Some people misunderstand the teaching “thought is dharmakaya” to mean that when a thought arises, it is pacified or dissolved, and then we are left with dharmakaya.

Others misunderstand it to mean that if we realize thought to be dharmakaya, it is dharmakaya.

The word dharmakaya, however, is made up of dharma meaning “the truth” and kaya meaning “embodiment”.

Thus, dharmakaya refers to the ultimate mind of the Buddha.

These two ways of misunderstanding the teaching stem from not understanding that, from the very beginning, thought is nothing other than the ultimate reality of the Buddha’s omniscient mind. Thought doesn’t become dharmakaya at some later time, and it doesn’t depend on whether or not we are aware that it is dharmakaya.

The first dharma in the Four Dharmas of Gampopa is, “May the mind be one with the Dharma;” the second is, “May the Dharma go on the path;” the third is, “May the path destroy confusion;” and the fourth is, “May confusion dawn as wisdom’. The fourth dharma refers to thoughts. When we look into the nature of the thoughts, we see the union of luminosity and emptiness; in that way, thoughts are seen to be of the very nature of wisdom.

To experience coemergent thought, we begin with meditative equipoise of coemergent mind. Within that state, we deliberately cause a particular thought to arise – it could be a pleasant or an unpleasant thought.

We give rise to it so that it is very vivid and sharp and then look right at it nakedly. It’s important that it is not an ordinary thought but rather a thought that appears vividly and clearly.

In this context, we regard the thought as not truly existent so that when it arises, we don’t latch onto it as if it were real.

What is the nature of this thought that arises from within coemergent mind? It is an emptiness that cannot be identified as this or that. Its nature cannot be fixed as this or that. The thought is vivid and clear, and the clarity of that thought is inseparable from its emptiness. The luminous aspect of thought and the emptiness that is its nature are inseparable.

When this thought arises without any obstruction and the meditator does not become attached to it, that’s shamata.

When the meditator sees that this thought has no nature of its own, that’s vipashyana.

To accomplish the meditation fully, shamata and vipashyana must be completely integrated.

When thoughts appear, they have no nature of their own. This is called “the union of appearance and emptiness.” Whether or not we realize it,  this union of appearance and emptiness has no effect on the nature of thought.

Within the experience of a particular person, however, there is certainly a difference between realizing the union of appearance and emptiness and not realizing it.

But emptiness is the nature of things whether we realize it or not. When we understand this in meditation, we realize coemergent thought.

Why do we need to point out coemergence of thought? We generally think that we must meditate with a relaxed, peaceful state of mind, and indeed it is very helpful to do so.

But that is not the only way to meditate. In fact, just the opposite is true as well: it is also helpful to meditate with many thoughts.

Thus, there is the instruction on pointing out coemergence of thought.

Once again, we meditate within samadhi, or stabilized mind, in which the recognition of the mind’s nature and the mind resting in peace in shamata are united.

Within that, we cause a thought such as joy, passion, or aggression to arise. Such thoughts are described as coarse because they seem very strong and vivid. Whatever thought it is, whether of pleasure or revulsion, we look directly at the thought itself.

From where does this thought arise? Where does it dwell? Where does it go? What is it? When we look clearly and precisely, the meaning of coemergent mind and the meaning of coemergent thought are the same.

We tend to see the coarse mind and the peaceful mind as different but, in fact, the nature of coarse mind and the nature of peaceful mind are the same.

The mind’s nature does not change when its state changes. These animated states of mind might appear to be something, but in fact they have never been born.

At this point, the realization is not just a theory to be deduced; rather it is seen directly. This is why we say in the Kagyu Lineage Prayer, “Whatever thoughts arise, their nature is dharmakaya,” which means that the nature of thought is mind itself, dharmakaya.

There is also a very practical use for this realization of coemergent thought. When we experience great joy and pleasure and become strongly attracted to it, or when we experience strong pain and are quite miserable, we give birth to disturbing emotions. These are painful and cause hardship, and our minds become very disturbed. At times like this, the teaching on coemergent thought is particularly valuable.

If we look directly at the pain that we are experiencing and the disturbing emotions, they will be pacified. And if we look directly at the strong attachment, it will diminish. This is the real purpose of understanding and being able to practice this coemergence of thought.

Coemergent Appearance

Gampapa’s student Gomchung separated coemergent appearance into coemergent thought and coemergent appearance to make it easier to understand.

In the previous section, we looked at the coemergence of appearances as it pertains to feelings of pleasure and pain.

In this section, we will discuss coemergent appearance as it applies to external things such as colors, shapes, and sounds.

Here we are investigating the appearance of colors, shapes, sounds, and smells that arise in common because all the people who inhabit the environment performed similar actions to bring those appearances about.

We begin the meditation by resting in the meditative equipoise of coemergent mind that was explained in the previous section and look at mind itself.

We then pay attention to what appears as external phenomena, such as a vase, a building, or a mountain. At this point, we might experience some difficulty. This is because, until now, we have established very strong habitual tendencies to see things as external to ourselves.

We tend to think that, for example, the mountain that appears is outside and the mind is inside; we think that the mind is looking out at the mountain.

Practicing this meditation is a little uncomfortable at first because we are introduced to appearance as an aspect of our mind.

It’s not that the eye is looking at a mountain; rather, there is an appearance of the luminosity of our own mind as a mountain. The appearance is part of the perceptive fabric of the mind itself. It is nothing other than the mind’s innate luminosity. It is not something outside the mind.

When this array of color and shape appears, the meditator does not stop or allow it to become vague. The practice at this point is not a matter of just looking at the mind itself and experiencing luminosity and emptiness, but rather of looking nakedly at whatever aspect appears.

The luminosity of that appearance is of a nature that is impossible to identify intellectually. It is an emptiness that cannot be grasped and fixated upon. It is this coemergent luminosity and emptiness, this coemergent appearance, that the meditator is working with in this phase.

Lingrepa said, “The mind itself, which is groundless and rootless, is well understood by thinking about last night’s dreams. Last night’s dreams are an excellent teacher for pointing out appearance as just mind.”

When we dream, all kinds of things appear, but when we awaken, we realize that these appearances were nothing other than the mind itself.

Dreams are a wonderful teacher, for they help us to understand that the appearances in waking life are also nothing other than mind.

The proponents of the Mind Only school hold that all appearances are just mind. They say that all appearances, including solid external things such as mountains and buildings, are mind.

They say apparently solid external phenomena are nothing other than the appearances of internal mind – they are not truly external things.

While this is true, it is not what is being pointed out here. Here the term “appearances” does not refer to the external appearances, such as a mountain; rather, it refers to the experiential sense of perceiving something, such as seeing an image or hearing a sound.

Some feeling goes with that perceptual experience. We aren’t trying to make a point about whether or not apparently external phenomena are external and real.

We are simply looking at the experience we have of seeing, hearing, and so forth. We are looking directly at that, and as we do, we see the truth of the matter. That experience becomes inseparable from dharmata. It doesn’t go beyond mind itself

Coemergent thought and coemergent appearance are not different natures, but rather different ways of speaking about one nature.


QUESTION: Why is it that appearances are not established as what they appear to be? Is it because things do not exist in the way that they appear?

RINPOCHE: This is to be understood in terms of coemergent appearance, which means that whatever appears, we inquire into the way in which it appears.

The seeing of it and the hearing of it are not done through inference; rather, they are direct experience, direct perception.

When we talk about illusion-like appearance in the context of inferential reasoning, we say things such as, “Because things are empty of inherent existence, they are like illusions.”

That is not what we are talking about here. What is being discussed here is coemergent appearance. It is looking directly at the experience, or, we could say, the “experiencing.”

QUESTION: Rinpoche, I wonder if you could say more about the Tibetan word salwa, which is being translated as luminosity?

RINPOCHE: When we describe the mind as luminous and empty the word “luminous” might suggest light, but that is not what it means.

Instead it means that the mind knows, that the mind understands. At the same time, it is empty because it isn’t anything and it cannot be located.

For instance, we speak about an eye consciousness—something that sees physical forms, colors, and shapes. But where is it? If we look, we can never find it. That is emptiness. The eye consciousness isn’t anywhere.

Nevertheless, it sees colors and shapes, and that seeing is called its luminosity.

Similarly, the ear consciousness hears sounds, yet it can never be found. It doesn’t exist anywhere, but it does hear sounds, and that hearing is called its luminosity.

This is true for the five sensory consciousnesses—the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body sensation consciousness—and also the sixth consciousness—the mental consciousness.

Where is the mental consciousness? Is it in the upper or the lower part of the body? Is it in the body at all? Is it outside the body? No matter where we look for it, we never find it. Nevertheless, it remembers, it is attentive.

Sometimes the mental consciousness is very coarse and sometimes it is very subtle. The mental consciousness can also realize its own nature. It is the mental consciousness that perceives all appearances of samsara. It understands, and this understanding is described as its luminosity. So, we say it is the union of luminosity and emptiness.

QUESTION: I heard that the mind has no inherent nature but it has qualities like luminosity. That means that things can have qualities without existing. Can my personality, my nature, my inherent way of being, exist without my mind?

RINPOCHE: The mind itself is empty and, at the same time, has the aspect of luminosity. People have their own individual characteristics or personalities. We’re talking now about the relationship between the ultimate and the conventional.

When we say “conventional,” there is a sense of something that is covering up and hiding something else.

From the conventional perspective, everyone has their own particular qualities: some are proud, others angry, still others kind and compassionate. No question about it.

But, in reality none of this exists, the mind is empty; there is nothing there.

Because it is empty, good qualities and wisdom can develop. Because thoughts and feelings have no real existence, faults can be purified. These qualities are not in the true nature of things, they are just superficial additions and don’t need to be there.

So, we say that because defilements are only add-ons, or adventitious—they can be purified. How can they be purified? By realizing this lack of their real existence, which is the ultimate truth.

QUESTION: I don’t understand the difference between coemergent thought and coemergent appearance because I think of thought as no different from your description of appearance or mind; that is to say, there is a mental phenomenon going on.

RINPOCHE: First of all, coemergent thought and coemergent appearance are ways of speaking about one nature, not different natures. That is why Gampopa classified the different types of coemergence into only two: coemergent mind itself and coemergent appearance.

Later Gomchung subdivided coemergent appearance into two: coemergent thought and coemergent appearance.

When that division is made, coemergent appearance refers to the different appearances of visible images, sounds, etc., or the appearances of the five sense consciousnesses, and coemergent thought refers to the various appearances for the sixth mental consciousness.

QUESTION: Are samsara and nirvana inseparable because thoughts are confusion and thoughts are empty?

RINPOCHE: Yes, basically that is right. We can talk about samsara and nirvana that way. Thoughts are mistaken yet we speak about confusion dawning as wisdom. We are not saying confusion is wisdom. But what we are saying is that confusion is not primordially established, and therefore it can dawn as wisdom.

QUESTION: Does the Tibetan word sem, which is translated as mind, include the eight consciousnesses or just the sixth?

RINPOCHE: Generally speaking, sem refers to all eight consciousnesses.

In this context, however, it is the sixth consciousness, the mental consciousness, that is doing the principal work.

This is because the seventh and eighth consciousnesses are somewhat covered over and they do not identify internal or external sensory information very much. Then there are the five sensory consciousnesses, which are nonconceptual. So, at this point what we are principally talking about is the sixth, or mental, consciousness.

QUESTION: When I’m doing sitting practice, there always seems to be an observer. Can you expand a little bit on what the observer is and how to work with it?

RINPOCHE: Yes, we do have the sense of a watcher. That watcher is namtok, or discursive thought.

And if we look very closely into it, where is it? It isn’t really there.

But, I don’t think that beginners ought to worry about this very much.

There is a story in a sutra in which the Buddha explained that we have a sense of a looker and of something looked at, but that it is like rubbing two sticks together to make fire. When fire starts, it burns both of the sticks up. It is like that in your meditation. If you go along in stages, the two of them will become nonexistent, like the sticks burning up.

QUESTION: Rinpoche, I have a problem trying to connect the understanding of emptiness that we arrive at through inference and reasoning with the direct perception of emptiness we have when we look straight into our mind. It seems that both are path.

It seems that there should be some nonconceptual aspect of the emptiness by inference that would help us with the discovery of emptiness when we look directly at our minds. Could you discuss that?

RINPOCHE: The Buddha spoke of the sutra path and the tantric, or mantra, path.

The sutra path is principally the path of inference. It is a long and protracted path. The sutras say that to reach buddhahood in this way requires three eons, with each eon lasting millions of years. So, we need to accumulate merit and wisdom for centuries to develop certainty about the nature of things. The certainty about the nature of things becomes clearer and clearer until we arrive at direct perception, meaning a nonconceptual state.

In the sutra path this realization comes about through our own ascertainment; we have not been introduced to the nature of mind by a guru.

In this way we achieve first the path of accumulation, then the path of preparation, and then the path of seeing. On the path of seeing we have direct perception of emptiness. Then comes the path of meditation and finally the path of no more learning, which is buddhahood. That is the way we go about it in the sutra path.

In the Vajrayana we take direct perception as the path. In this path, millions of years are not required for achieving enlightenment.

Rather, having renounced the world, enlightenment can be achieved in this lifetime. Even if we do not succeed at that, we can achieve complete enlightenment in two or three human lifetimes.

In this path the guru introduces us to direct perception, and we simply meditate on the mind to which we have been introduced.

Even though we have been introduced to such direct perception, sometimes it is not stable. When this happens, it is very good to study the presentations that are made in the path of reasoning and inference. This will help us to develop stability in what we have ascertained and bring about good experience and realization.

Some people, having been introduced to this nature of mind, think, “I can just forget the sutras and shastras because I have the transmission, and I don’t need any of that.” That is not so. Studying the sutras and shastras will help bring about a very stable, clear meditation in terms of the nature of mind, which the guru has introduced.

QUESTION: Rinpoche, it seems possible to imagine seeing mind and even thoughts as empty and luminous, but I can’t imagine seeing the body as empty and luminous.

RINPOCHE: At this point in the presentation of mahamudra we are pointing at the nature of mind.

By knowing the nature of mind, we begin to understand the nature of all phenomena.

The analysis of external phenomena is extremely important when we proceed by the inferential path.

When we proceed by the direct perception path, the mind is already right with us, and we can look directly into it, so it is an easier path.

The examination of the nature of mind in the path of direct perception goes like this:

Appearances are mind and mind is empty, and this emptiness is spontaneous.

When we proceed in this way, first we must resolve that external appearances are mind.

We do this by using two logical arguments together:

(1) The argument of clear and knowing

(2) The argument of the definite observation.

We look into all these external appearances and how they appear clearly and vividly to consciousness.

They are not existent except from the perspective of consciousness.

We determine external phenomena are just appearances for mind.

We do this using our body, which is merely an appearance for mind like the elephant in the dream.

By examining mental factors, we would say that the body is an appearance for mind, not a mental factor.

It is an appearance made by the mind and it is an appearance made for the mind; in short, it is an appearance for mind and it is mind appearing.

How this comes about is through predispositions that have been established formerly in the alaya, the eighth consciousness.

Lingrepa spoke about this in a spiritual song in which he said that, when we go to sleep and dream, the appearances in dreams are the teacher showing us the way in which all appearances are mind.

Source: Based on Rinpoche, Khenchen Thrangu. Essentials of Mahamudra: Looking Directly at the Mind. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2014.

Appearances to mind, mind itself, and mind’s lack of inherent existence go together in what we call coemergence.
We might think that the existence of something conventionally and the non-existence of that thing ultimately are different. In fact, they are not, and their being together is coemergence.
(Thrangu Rinpoche)
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