books for practitioners

Clarifying the Natural State

Dakpo Tashi Namgyal


Reviewed by Hugh Williams at www.ordinarymind.net

This book is a meditation manual written by Dagpo Tashi Namgal, the esteemed 16th Century Tibetan lama and scholar of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, who also wrote the much larger volume of meditation theory and practice, Mahamudra: the Quintessence of Mind and Meditation. By comparison, Clarifying the Natural State is a fairly thin volume with no historical or philosophical component - it is a very precise, 'hands-on' instruction manual on how to meditate in the Mahamudra tradition.

Mahamudra is a variation of advanced Vajrayana (tantric) practice with its own peculiar slant on meditation. By observing the mind, while not accepting or rejecting anything at all, one can achieve a non-dualistic perception of reality in a relatively short time. The emphasis is on seeing directly into the 'nature of mind,' rather than attempting to control the mind through the use of purificatory practices or the use of antidotes.

As a meditation manual, Clarifying the Natural State is considered a Buddhist classic. It is about 200 pages long, with the English translation on one page and the original Tibetan text on the other, which is very useful for students of Tibetan language. Despite its brevity, Clarifying the Natural State covers an enormous amount of ground. It sketches the path of meditation from the initial steps of the general and specific preliminaries, right through to the levels of attainment said to accompany the practitioner traversing the bhumis on the way to full Buddhahood.

The majority of the text, however, is squarely focused on the establishment and stabilisation of mindfulness and calm, through shamatha practice, and developing analytical understanding through vipashyana techniques. There is plenty of practical advice: practising in short sessions that are repeated many times, dealing with lethargy and doubt, correct posture, breathing techniques, what to focus on, the type of inquiry to be made of the mind and so on. Even though there is a substantial amount of technical detail, it is always accompanied by pithy advice on the correct attitude, on how to employ the Mahamudra philosophy of non-resistance, of not trying to cultivate anything, of not inhibiting one thing and promoting another. The idea is to let one's meditation attention be 'as it naturally is: relaxed and free.'

It is probably true to say that Clarifying the Natural State is most suited to experienced practitioners, for it assumes a traditional religious framework. This is to be expected, given Tashi Namgal's intended audience over four hundred years ago. Instances of this are when he occasionally recommends keeping to a mountain retreat or keeping silent for a couple of years! Even so, his advice on meditation is impervious to cultural distortion and at a fundamental level will inspire meditation practitioners of all levels.

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