Some Mahamudra Teachers and practitioners assert that when a meditator directly perceives clarity and cognizing without the veil of conceptualizations, he or she has realized the emptiness that is the ultimate nature of the mind. This is because they believe that clarity and cognizing is the mind’s ultimate nature. Students who listen to these instructions also fall into this mistaken view. This misconception arises from a failure to understand the correct view as explained by Protector Nagarjuna. They do not fully understand what ‘ultimate nature’ means, and, if asked what the ultimate nature of the mind is, they cannot establish it as a non-affirming negative. They think that the ultimate nature of the mind is clarity and cognizing free of conceptualization; they do not realize that the ultimate nature of the mind is the non-affirming negative that is the mere absence of the inherent existence of the mind. This mere absence of inherent existence is very subtle and therefore quite difficult to comprehend. Clarity and cognizing, however, is not nearly as subtle and so it is relatively easy to understand. This is one reason why meditators can hold onto erroneous beliefs concerning the ultimate nature of the mind.

According to the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the view of Nagarjuna, actual emptiness is mere absence of inherent existence, and so it is a non-affirming negative. Those who do not understand the subtlety of this view are unable to see any difference between such a non-affirming negative and utter non-existence. For this reason, they make mistakes when trying to understand the ultimate nature of the mind. They assert that non-affirming negatives do not exist at all and therefore reject the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the view of Nagarjuna. Instead, when they meditate merely on clarity and cognizing and experience it very vividly, they think they are realizing the emptiness that is the ultimate nature of the mind. The emptiness that they are experiencing, however, is merely the lack of physical form and the freedom from conceptualization; it is not lack of inherent existence.

The first Panchen Lama, Losang Chökyi Gyaltsän, soundly refuted this misconception. In his root text on the Mahamudra he wrote:

The mind that is free from conceptualization
Is merely a level of conventional mind;
It is not the mind’s ultimate nature.
Therefore, seek instruction from qualified Masters.

Thus, the Panchen Lama clearly stated that what some meditators take to be the ultimate nature of the mind—clarity and cognizing—is merely the mind’s conventional nature.

If we mistakenly believe this conventional nature of the mind to be its ultimate nature, we may easily develop deluded pride and many other related faults. For example, when through meditation we gain a vivid perception of clarity and cognizing, we may feel that we have gained a direct realization of emptiness, and, as it is possible to develop a slightly blissful feeling from such a meditation, we may conclude, ‘Now I have developed the spontaneous great bliss of Secret Mantra.’ Later we might even come to think, ‘Now I have developed the Mahamudra that is the union of spontaneous great bliss and emptiness.’ It is possible that, through the force of further meditation, we might for a short time become free from conceptual thought, in which case we may develop the deluded pride that thinks, ‘Now I am free from the two obstructions; I have become a Buddha!’ In reality, we will not have attained such a sublime state, and sooner or later we will have to confront circumstances, such as objects of anger or attachment, that give rise to the various deluded states of mind. It will then become evident that the ‘enlightenment’ we experienced was not even a realization of emptiness, let alone enlightenment. All these mistakes come from misunderstanding the ultimate nature of the mind as a result of not following the instructions of qualified Teachers, or not studying such instructions well.

The first Panchen Lama was a highly realized practitioner who always behaved in a very humble manner, but when writing about the need to refute mistaken and misleading teachings he was quite direct:

As we cannot perceive the mindstream of others,
We should strive to appreciate the teachings of all;
But I cannot accept those who spread wrong views
And through these wrong views lead many astray.

What the Panchen Lama wrote several hundred years ago is particularly applicable today. If pure Dharma is to flourish in Western countries, it is essential that we examine our beliefs carefully, to ensure that they are fully in accordance with the pure teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni. The ugly, unfortunate result of not understanding pure Dharma, and of following misleading teachings that pretend to be pure Dharma, is sectarianism. This is one of the greatest hindrances to the flourishing of Dharma, especially in the West. Anything that gives rise to such an evil, destructive mind should be eliminated as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Clear Light of Bliss: the Practice of Mahamudra in Vajrayana Buddhismpp. 151-153, © 2002)