The Process of Taming the Mind

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche
HITS( 553)

This subject is a key instruction from Mipham Rinpoche.

We need to know the process of taming the mind because there are many difficulties at the beginning of practicing the Dharma. If we don’t know what lies ahead on the path or how to cope when running into problems, we may end up feeling defeated, disappointed, and indolent to the point of even giving up the practice altogether. This is a concise but thorough teaching from Mipham Rinpoche.


The key to all Mahayana practices can be summed up roughly in two essentials:

First, things in the external, material world and various internal feelings are all phenomena of mind, illusions created by the mind. Other than the illusions produced by the eight consciousnesses, there is no real samsara. The gods and semi- gods of the higher realm, the hell beings and ghosts of the lower realm, are also illusions of mind; besides these illusions, the six realms of sentient beings do not exist.

Second, mind itself is also empty. Although it is not specifically stated in Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhamakakarika (The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way) and Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara (Introduction to the Middle Way) that the external world is a projection of the internal world, the disciples of the two masters acknowledged all external objects are phenomena of mind in their subsequent writings about the process and actual practice of the Middle Way. Normally we can examine the twelve sense bases (ayanatas), the eighteen elements (dhatus), and so forth, and determine they are all emptiness, but such examinations are unnecessary when undertaking actual practice. We just need to know that all external phenomena are products of mind, then observe the nature of mind directly. Once the nature of mind is known, so is the nature of all things.

According to Mipham Rinpoche, these two essentials encompass all the pith instructions of sutra, tantra, and even Dzogchen. Thus, Buddhists only fight with their own mind, not with heaven or earth, nor with other people. The central question to learning the Dharma is how to tame the mind and ultimately realize emptiness.

There are two pith instructions regarding how to tame the mind. First, attain realization of emptiness as the nature of mind, then abide in this state of emptiness. Mipham Rinpoche said these two contain all the pith instructions.

The process of taming the mind consists of four stages:

1. Resisting – At first, mind wants to resist our demands, to act on its own.

2. Weakening – Although mind continues to resist, it has already lost its power.

3. Cooperating – At this stage, mind has basically been tamed and will do what we command. That is, if we ask mind to practice impermanence or emptiness, it will do so accordingly.

4. Self-liberating – Finally, mind enters the state of Dzogchen.

Classifications of meditation (Chan)

There are explanations regarding the classifications of meditation in the six paramitas, but there is also an unofficial way to classify meditation into three types:

Meditation with thoughts

Some may ask, “Shouldn’t meditation be conducted with calm, without any discursive thoughts? Is it still meditation if thoughts are employed?” Yes, it is, because the attention is focused on just one point of thought, not a myriad of thoughts.

The Chinese word Chan is a transliteration of dhyana (Sanskrit, meaning meditation) which refers to the tranquil state of mind. It can be explained in both a broad and narrow sense. Broadly speaking, the practice of both the outer and inner preliminaries is Chan.

Meditation without thoughts

There are two types of meditation without thoughts. The type here is merely stilling the mind – there is no realization of emptiness. It is a narrow definition of meditation – the four/ eight stages of concentration (jhanas), which is not specific to Buddhism; non-Buddhists and atheists can also undertake this practice, albeit with different purposes. If people with light symptoms of mental disorder practice meditative concentration before going to bed every night, they can gradually reduce stress and fully recover.

The meditation practice of Sutrayana is described clearly in both Abhidharmakosa and Mahayana Abhidharma. The practice, simply put, is to let go of the conceptual mind completely, then observe mind itself. While matter cannot perceive itself, mind can not only analyze, observe, and judge the external objects but also perceive its own condition. This is a unique characteristic of mind, also called the reflexive self-awareness of mind.

Meditation without thoughts but with realization of emptiness

Meditators abide in the state of realization of emptiness with no thought whatsoever.

The four stages of meditation


Indeed, it is hard when first starting to practice the Dharma because mind tends to resist and fight the changes that come with the practice. When mind is asked to generate renunciation, instead of getting weary of the material world, it becomes greedier; when asked to develop compassion or bodhicitta, rather than striving to do so, it becomes even more selfish and unkind; with weak faith in the Buddhadharma, mind is entangled in huge waves of greed, hatred, delusion, pride, etc., which is incompatible with the path to liberation. It is groggy sometimes and distracted other times. As our ability to meditate is still quite weak, our minds, like a piece of paper in the wind, are at the mercy of negative emotions. No matter how we try, we cannot overcome the constant attacks from these afflictions, resulting in verbal or physical harm to others in the end. This is the most painful stage for practitioners.

But we must know this stage is only temporary, one that all regular practitioners must go through. And it will pass over time. If one practices well in a retreat, it will take just six months to overcome this hurdle. However, if one chooses to avoid facing this stage, one can never cross this hurdle, nor practice meditation or attain enlightenment.

In general, there are two obstacles to practicing meditation: external obstacles such as various difficulties in life and at work; internal obstacles such as health problems. But these are not the most serious. The biggest obstacle to all meditations is discursive thoughts and emotions.

On the surface, we cannot say all illnesses are caused by emotions. It is also stated in Abhidarmakosa that body and mind have two different attributes; they are classified separately in the five aggregates. However, at a deeper level, all illnesses and pain are created by the mind; other than the mind, the so-called illness and misery don’t exist.

In fact, the nature of the four maras in Buddhism is our jumbled thoughts, or a type of phenomena produced by our destructive emotions. Except for emotions and illusions, there are no ghosts or demons out there.

For example, when yogis practice the kusali chöd, dreadful images of ghosts, demons, beasts, etc. will appear to them. These phenomena do not really exist, just illusions created by the mind.

If we don’t know this is a path we must go through, that all are manifestations of the mind, we can still find it hard and unbearable to face even if we have garnered some merit from our practice. Sufficient courage is needed to face this situation.

Just as with an illness, however difficult or painful it may be, we are willing to pay for the treatment and accept the pain to regain our health. So we must accept the difficult challenge at present for liberation in the future.

There are many ways to gradually tame the mind, such as the practice of the preliminaries, the practice of generation stage to gain samadhi, and so on.


After six months of battling the mind, a practitioner can gain some strength from meditation when discursive thoughts exert less influence. At this point, there are still various thoughts and afflictions, but they are not as strong as before and do not affect the practitioner as much. In any case, thoughts, like an army created by a magician, cannot cause any real harm. So long as one knows they are illusory, they will just disappear by themselves. When a negative emotion arises, one no longer needs to fight it with much effort; just rest a bit and it will go away on its own.

Negative emotions and discursive thoughts at this stage are likened to a spring breeze which can never be as biting cold as the wind in winter, no matter how strongly it blows. As one has tasted the first victory in this battle with mind, one begins to have more interest and faith in meditation practice.

Does it mean one has attained the first bhumi on the bodhisattva path at this stage? No, it is not even sure if this qualifies as entering the path of joining. If realization of emptiness is attained, it can then be deemed the path of joining; otherwise, it is normally classified as the path of accumulation.

There are two reasons for the power of discursive thoughts to subside. One is realization of emptiness − realize that all thoughts are illusory. The other one is being able to abide in meditative concentration for a longer time so that discursive thoughts do not arise; and even if they do arise occasionally, they are powerless.


At this stage, discursive thoughts are still around but they co-exist with our minds peacefully. Not only do they not disturb our meditation, but they become supporting conditions for the practice of renunciation and bodhicitta. It is as if mind has become an obedient servant who will do what we command without any resistance. Like a gentle spring breeze passing through, it leaves no trace and causes no harm. Now we can say we have conquered our minds, which also means we have conquered all the trillions of universes. Once reaching this state, practitioners are filled with great joy; meditation is no longer a chore but an enjoyment.

At this point, discursive thoughts are necessary for the generation of renunciation and bodhicitta. Absent these thoughts, mind can be very quiet, but it may fall into the second type of meditation mentioned above, that is, without realization of emptiness, which possibly has no connection to liberation.


Although there are still thoughts, practitioners having realized emptiness can instantly perceive the empty nature of thoughts the moment they arise. Thoughts cease as soon as they are produced before any karmic actions are committed.

Generally, thoughts also disappear for two reasons: one, all conditioned phenomena cannot possibly remain at the second, third, or fourth moment, as impermanence is the natural law of all phenomena; two, when a thought, however subtle, crosses the mind and a person (even an ordinary person who has never practiced Dzogchen, tantra, or Madhyamaka) tries to perceive the nature of the thought, it will stop automatically. But neither of the two denotes the stage of self-liberating.

The so-called self-liberating means the mind having realized emptiness has severed the root of its existence – attachment. Herein, thoughts and awareness of emptiness (also called relative truth and ultimate truth) are inseparable, one and the same. Although only the eighth bhumi bodhisattvas can perceive the two truths as truly inseparable, a similar experience can be obtained at this stage. This state of realization is normally considered that of Mahamudra or perhaps the lowest level of Dzogchen, not quite the pinnacle of Dzogchen realization.

When impure thoughts disappear, the true face of mind − the buddha’s mandala − will reveal itself; this is also an inherent function of the mind. Attachment manifests impure samsara; enlightenment manifests the buddha’s mandala. Upon entering the state of buddhahood, neither pure nor impure phenomena exist, only the luminous and empty nature of mind is spontaneously present. This is called the primordial mind.

Most of the time “mind” denotes the eight types of consciousness, including the alaya consciousness, but “primordial mind” means luminous mind which refers to mother luminosity in tantra. The ultimate attainment of Chan Buddhism is “knowing the mind and seeing the nature.” Here, “mind” and “primordial mind” are different. In this case, “mind” denotes child luminosity; “nature” denotes buddha-nature, luminous mind, primordial mind, the nature of mind, all of which represent mother luminosity in tantra.

In fact, the nature of mind never changes in the four stages of meditation. For example, in the first stage, mind is full of various thoughts, but its nature remains pure and luminous; in the second stage, as progress is made, child luminosity which belongs to the truth of the path (of the Four Noble Truths) becomes more distinct, while mother luminosity which belongs to the truth of the cessation of suffering remains unchanged, eternally stable. A practitioner finally enters the state of mother luminosity through child luminosity, that is, enters the end of suffering through the path that leads to the end of suffering. At this point, one realizes one’s intrinsic nature never changes. There are four different stages that one goes through in meditation practice, but that is just what appears on the surface. From the point of view of buddha nature, the intrinsic nature of a first bhumi bodhisattva and that of an ordinary person at his or her most confused stage are one and the same, unaltered forever.

Dzogchen uses very direct methods to attain realization, but like Chan Buddhism, it may not be suitable for all practitioners, only those endowed with related capacity can practice Dzogchen.

How to ripen one’s capacity? There are people born with matured capacity, but not many; most people need to undertake the outer and inner preliminary practices step by step in this life until their minds are transformed. Then they are ready for Dzogchen. With practice, one can enter the state of Dzogchen at last. This is attaining buddhahood.