IF NOT EGO, THEN WHO? MANDALA CONSCIOUSNESS, TRUE SELF & THE NATURAL MIND

Picture of Henry M. Vyner, M.D., M.A.
Henry M. Vyner, M.D., M.A.

Physician, psychiatrist, cultural anthropologist and writer

Buddhism’s science of the mind has established that the Ego’s addiction to its identity is the cause of much of humanity’s suffering and unhappiness. Buddhist philosophy has established that the Ego and its identity are actually illusions, and that a person’s Ego is not who they really are. It thus follows that Buddhism recommends that our path to happiness is to let go of our Ego.
If we are not our Ego, then who are we? Who do we become when we let go of our Ego? The answer is this: there is, within each and every human mind, a mandala; an inner mandala that is your own unique picture of how you see life and the universe. This inner cosmology has been created by, and is the sum total of, all of the experiences that you have ever had in your life. This inner mandala is also your True Self, and it is the person that you will become when you stop being your Ego.

As socialized human beings, our minds have two selves: a True Self and an Ego. Your True Self is the person you really are. Your Ego is the person within your mind that seeks to make you become a social identity instead of being your self. To be an Ego is to wear a mask. We all do it. Every society brings up its young to have an Ego.
The problem with having an Ego is that it creates conflict: conflict within the mind and conflict within the world. Your Ego and your True Self are constantly at war with one another to determine who you are going to be. Your Ego wants you to be the social identity it has constructed for you, and your True Self wants you to be the person you really are – the person created by your experiences of life.

This conflict between the Ego and the True Self is the cause of much of the unhappiness that we suffer as individual human beings. It is also the cause of humanity’s identity-based sociopolitical conflicts: racism, misogyny, our culture wars, wars between nation states and the like.
The Ego causes sociopolitical conflict because it makes us need to see ourselves as being better than people who are different than ourselves. My religion is better than your religion. My subculture is better than your subculture. My ethnic group is better than your ethnic group.
The Ego’s quest for superiority is rooted in its relationship with its own True Self. The Ego begins its pursuit of dominance by first establishing hegemony over its True Self. That quest for supremacy over its own True Self then becomes the Ego’s basic modus operandi in the world. Having established hegemony over the True Self, it then seeks to establish that same kind of superiority over other people as well. Thus it is, that we have war and racism.
The True Self, in contrast, does not have the Ego’s need to feel superior to people who are different than itself. To be one’s True Self is to take joy in seeing other people being their own True Selves. To be your True Self is to live a life grounded in a joy and goodness in which you feel no need to be better than other people.

Your True Self is, once again, your inner mandala. This mandala is your true self in the sense that it is the source of the egoless meanings – the nondual thoughts, feelings and epiphanies – that move you to be the person you really are in each and every moment of your life. Your inner cosmology is the ground from which those meanings arise. We become the mandala that is our True Self by cultivating the Natural Mind – the state of mind this is cultivated by the Buddhist path.

For more than thirty years now, I have been interviewing Tibetan Buddhist and Bön lamas about their experiences of their own mind for the purpose of empirically mapping out the structure and dynamics of the Natural Mind. Here, in the interview below, the joyous and erudite lama Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso will talk at length about both the inner mandala that is our true self, and the empty awareness that is uniquely able to know and express that mandala as it really is:

KTG: Within every human being there is a naturally present mandala — the spontaneously accomplished deity mandala that is naturally present within the mind stream.
HMV: Given that a mandala is a picture of a universe – of an enlightened universe, are you saying that the actual content of this picture of the universe that is naturally present in the mind stream is ultimate truth?
KTG: Yes. There are many different kinds of mandalas. The mandala that we are talking about, the spontaneous deity mandala, is none other than the true nature of one’s own mind. It is also our True Self, and it is present within every single human being. But sentient beings do not experience this mandala because we are obscured and confused with respect to reality.
HMV: What is the Tibetan word that you are using for self here?
KTG: Rang-bzhin.
HMV: The nature.
KTG: Your true nature.
HMV: That is a person’s true self. 
KTG: Yes.
HMV: Would it be correct, then, to say that the egocentric mind is unable to be aware of and live in this mandala that is one’s true nature?
KTG: Yes.
HMV: Would it be correct to say that the egocentric mind is unable to be aware of this mandala because it creates obscurations that block its ability to be know it?
KTG: Yes.
HMV: And are those obscurations the thoughts, emotions and mind films that appear in the mind stream?
KTG: Yes. Those are the obscurations.
HMV: Can Rigpa, empty awareness, know the mandala as it is?
KTG: Yes. (Emphatic)
HMV: Would it be correct to say that empty awareness and the mandala are one and the same?
KTG: Yes. For a realized being, empty awareness and the mandala are the same thing. But an ordinary being – even though in the ultimate sense empty awareness and the deity mandala are present within their mind – is not aware of them because they have not had realization and are still lost in the ego and samsaric mind.
HMV: Would it also be correct to say that the spontaneously accomplished mandala is the same as empty awareness?
KTG: Yes.
HMV: This is not quite intuitive for me. I’d like to pursue this notion for a moment. On the one hand, empty awareness is awareness.
KTG: Yes.
HMV: On the other hand, the mandala seems to be a vision of the universe; a picture of the world.
KTG: Yes. A picture of the enlightened world.
HMV: How can a picture, on the one hand, and awareness, on the other hand, be the same thing?
KTG: Because the whole deity mandala is not other than one’s awareness.
HMV: So empty awareness and the picture of the enlightened world are the same.
KTG: Yes. This whole deity mandala is not other than one’s awareness.

Annotation: Think about this for a moment. How could empty awareness and the natural mandala be one and the same? The answer is that they are the same when empty awareness actually abides in, and sees the world from the perspective of, its inner mandala – the vision of the universe that is contained in the mandala that is naturally present within your mind. This is, to be sure, a state of mind in which empty awareness receives nondual thoughts and epiphanies from the mandala in its mind stream. But it is more than that. It is also a state of mind in which empty awareness incorporates the mandala, and as a result sees the world as the mandala sees it.

HMV: Is the deity mandala that is spontaneously present in a person’s natural mind stream a person’s true nature?
KTG: Of course. If that picture of the universe is the spontaneously appearing deity mandala in the natural mindstream, then it is that person’s natural mind.
HMV: Here’s the reason I am asking these questions of you. Twenty years ago I asked myself a question. The question was this: If I am not an ego, then who am I? And the answer that came to me at that time was that I am a cosmology, a mandala. I am simply a vision of the universe and the empty awareness that knows that vision. Is that what you are saying here?
KTG: Yes.
HMV: It sounds like you and the DzogChen tradition are saying that the spontaneous mandala is a person’s true nature; that the picture of the universe that appears as the deity mandala is a person’s true nature.
KTG: Yes.
HMV: Thank you very much.

Khenpo is saying here that a human being has a “true self,” and that in Buddhist mind science this True Self is called the true nature of the mind. He also says that there are but two aspects to a person’s true self: (1) the mandala that is naturally present within the mind and (2) the nondual empty awareness that makes it possible to know and express that mandala as it is.
But wait a minute! Have we not been told over and again that the foundation of Buddhist thought is the axion that a human being does not have a self? It is true that this is how Buddhism has been presented to the west for more than a century now, but this framing of Buddhist thought is actually the mistaken result of a translation error. I will explain that error at length in another article.
For now, though, what Buddhism actually does say is this: a person does not have a permanent conceptual identity. Buddhist mind science says that it is an illusion to believe that you have a permanent identity, and that holding onto this belief, which is the Ego’s raison d’être, is the psychological cause of humanity’s suffering and unhappiness.

What then, does it mean to live in your mandala? To live in your mandala is to see the world through the lens of your mandala.
One way to live in your mandala is to know and express the meanings that your mandala gives to the each of the moments of your life. To know those meanings in a constant way, one must cultivate empty awareness – the awareness that knows the mind as it really is. To cultivate empty awareness, all you have to do is stop believing the thoughts, emotions and stories that are created by your Ego. Just let them flow by without believing them, and they will dissolve into awareness. The rest will take care of itself.

Thoughts and feelings dissolve
On the ground of my awareness
Like snowflakes
In an early winter storm
That make no sound
And leave no trace.

As Penor Rinpoche once said to me, “We don’t have to create primordial wisdom. It is already there within us.” As you learn to recognize and let go of the creations of your Ego, your inner mandala will spontaneously express itself.
The Natural Mind is a state of mind in which one abides in the joy and goodness that are empty awareness. Abiding in empty awareness will, in turn, give you the ability to know and express the meanings that arise from your inner mandala more and more often. Full enlightenment is yet a further development in which your inner mandala actually becomes one with your awareness. This is a state of mind in which you see the world from the perspective of your mandala in every moment of your life.

Henry M. Vyner, M.D., M.A.

Henry M. Vyner, is a physician, psychiatrist, cultural anthropologist and writer who has dedicated thirty years of his career to doing in-depth research on the nature of a healthy human mind.  As the son of an academic psychiatrist, Dr. Vyner grew up in an environment where dinner table talk was often about Freud and the nature of the mind.

As a young man, while looking for a way to do research on what would become his life’s work – the nature of the healthy mind, he went on to also get a degree in cultural anthropology and completed a body of research on the psychological effects of ionizing radiation. During this period, Dr. Vyner served as Director of Research at the Radiation Research Institute in Berkeley, California.

While working at the Research Institute in Berkeley, Dr. Vyner came across the book Buddha Mind, which is a collection of writings by the 14th-century Dzogchen master Longchenpa, compiled by Tulku Thondup. Upon reading Buddha Mind, Henry M. Vyner found that this great Yogi-Scholar-Poet was actually describing many of the same phenomena that he himself had found crucial to understanding the healthy mind.

At the age of 42, Dr. Vyner left for Asia where he still serves as an adjunct professor at the national university of Nepal. It was the beginning of a long journey interviewing Tibetan lamas in villages and monasteries all over Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Sikkim and India. During this period, Dr. Vyner was a visiting scholar twice at the University of California at Berkeley.

Related Posts