In one of the very earliest western books on Tibbetan Buddhism entitled The message of the Tibetans, Arnaud Desjardin reported a conversation that he had had with Kalu Rinpoche. He had asked Rinpoche the age-old question, “What is Truth?” Rinpoche replied, “You live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality, and you are that reality, but you don’t know it. If you should ever wake up to that reality you would realize that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That is all.” In these very few words, Rinpoche evoked in the minds of Desjardin’s readers a variety of concepts about Eastern thought—like the “veil of Maya,” the oversoul, cosmic consciousness, etc.—of which they had only the fuzziest understanding. Even the terms that came to mind in those days, the late sixties and early seventies, were inadequate when employed to interpret what Rinpoche was talking about, because they were expressed in the kind of language Hinduism tended to use, not in the language of Buddhism. In those days the two tended to be all mixed together in the minds of Westerners.
It was not until 1982, during Rinpoche’s fourth visit to the West, that he began to explain in greater detail to Western audiences, from the point of view of the mahamudra tradition, the meaning of this very simple statement. The first two teachings in this edition
of Shenpen Ösel were given by Rinpoche during that visit in Little Bridges Hall of Music at
Pomona College. In them he describes the empty, clear, and unimpeded nature of mind— tong, sal, magakpa—as the true nature of all sentient beings, as well as four “layers” of confusion, four “veils,” that have obscured the minds of all unenlightened sentient beings in varying degrees since beginningless time: the veil of knowledge (shes bya’i sgrib pa), the veil of habitual tendency (bag chags kyi sgrib pa), the veil of emotional affliction (nyön
mongs pa’i sgrib pa), the veil of karma (las kyi sgrib pa). It is these veils, he taught, that obscure one’s understanding of the true nature of mind and the true nature of reality and are the source of all of one’s suffering, frustration, anxiety, and mental and emotional affliction.
Rinpoche also explained—step by step, veil by veil—which practices in the Buddhist tradition are designed to purify these veils. Through the practice of ngöndro one eliminates the negative karma and push-button reactivity of the veil of karma. Through the practice
of shamatha one pacifies the veil of emotional affliction. Through the practice of vipashyana one purifies the habitual tendency to cognize one’s experience dualistically, which tendency is the precondition, the sine qua non, of all emotional affliction. And
through the practice of mahamudra one removes or dissolves the subtlest of all these veils, the veil of knowledge—which we sometimes call fundamental ignorance, the basic misperception of reality.
During these two teachings, Rinpoche also gave direct pointing-out instructions and led short guided meditations. Later, I asked Rinpoche what kind of mahamudra instructions he had given, and he replied that he had given ground and path mahamudra instructions. I also asked him what the difference is between teaching about mahamudra and actually
giving pointing-out instructions. He replied that teaching about mahamudra entails simply describing the true nature of mind, whereas, when a lama actually gives mahamudra pointing-out instructions, he or she tells the student or students to look directly at their
mind in such and such a way. I then asked Rinpoche whether we might transcribe and distribute these teachings, and he said yes. And then I asked whether Rinpoche wanted us to include the pointing-out instructions, and he said it would be better not to.
Therefore, faithful to the injunction of the lama, we have omitted the actual pointing-out instructions in the publication of these teachings. The reason that these instructions are not generally published in the marketplace is that in giving these instructions the
lama introduces the student very directly and experientially to the true nature of mind. This involves using the fruitional state of enlightened mind as the path, rather than simply seeing fruition as some kind of extremely distant goal. For this process to work, the
student must be very open and devoted, and the lama must have authentic experience or realization. These instructions also must be received in the actual presence of the lama; it won’t do to get them out of books or off tape recordings. If all of these elements are present, the pointing-out will be very effective, and will become the basis for the student’s subsequent meditation practice. If any one of these elements is absent, then the instructions will not work for the student, as a result of which the student may very well lose faith in the teachings, not practice them, and thereby lose the tremendous opportunity to attain liberation and enlightenment that they afford. It is for this reason that students traditionally have been expected to finish ngöndro before receiving these instructions. However, from time to time some very highly realized lamas may give these instructions without requiring completion of ngöndro, and this happened to be one of those times.
–Lama Tashi Namgyal