The Non-Conceptual Method

Whatever gets us to liberating wisdom is to be honored fully, for all it means for us personally, and in terms of what we are then able to offer to our loved ones…


I resist saying there is only one way, and am uneasy with the dogmas that have come down to us in traditions. This includes both the methods that use analysis to arrive at insight, and those that rely on our fundamental nature, and create the conditions allow insight to blossom.

People are different, and even within one person’s life, different methods will be more or less effective. We’ve encouraged to see for ourselves what works to resolve confusion and our difficult emotions, and lead us to nibbana, which is freedom.

Strictly speaking, some teachers and traditions oppose calling their meditation ‘a method’ when it implies going from one state to another.

What’s called apranihita, translated as aimlessness, or wishlessness is more in line with what they intend though. As Thich Nhat Hanh explained this term, we don’t put something in front of us and run after it, even our ideas about liberation or enlightenment. Then we can take up these teachings and practices.

There’s a natural kinship between the different traditions of non-conceptual meditation. In fact, I’ve had this image for years of Padmasambhava and Bodhidharma as Dharma brothers, traveling the road together until they parted with one of them going to Tibet, and the other into China. They are that familiar.

In Our Pristine Mind,  Orgyen Chowang wrote:

If you meditate properly and leave your mind alone, thoughts will subside.

Thoughts and emotions originated from your attention to the past and the future. Now that you are no longer paying attention to the past or the future, the thoughts and emotions naturally dissolve.

We know that clouds cannot exist without the presence of certain circumstances. If no such necessary conditions are present, then clouds cannot continue to exist. They just vanish. They are gone. Similarly, if there are no supportive conditions for thoughts and emotions, then they too just vanish. When clouds dissolve or disappear, only blue sky is left.

The spacious blue sky of our mind has always been present, but it has not been visible because there are so many clouds of mental events obscuring it. As mental events dissolve, our Pristine Mind naturally emerges. This is our fundamental nature. This is the ultimate reality. This is the true nature of our mind.

When we come across teachings like this, we can see the need for ethics, and loving kindness, and a basic practice of meditation that quiets the mind and makes it clear. Without these, the natural state is hidden. Although wisdom is there, it needs the right conditions to manifest. Then we can experience the results of this kind of approach.

The 12th century Japanese Zen Master Dogen taught in the Fukan-zazengi, The Way of Zazen Recommended to Everyone:

Cease studying words and following letters
Learn to withdraw, turning the light inwards,
illuminating the Self

Doing so, your body and mind will drop off naturally,
and your Original Self Nature will manifest

If you wish to attain suchness,
practice suchness immediately…

Stop considering things with your memory
and imagination…
this is a practice that is prior to the discriminating mind…

and in the 20th century Deshimaru Roshi, expressed the way Zen works, saying:

In zazen, images, thoughts and mental structures which surface from the unconscious pass like clouds in the sky and fade away naturally. When we stop entertaining our personal thoughts, hishiryo-consciousness–beyond thought and non-thought- appears. It is the return to the normal condition of the mind.

and the Nyingma Khenpo Palden Sherab Rinpoche said

If you meditate by simply maintaining the natural state, everything unnatural will be removed.

The Venerable Master Hsuan Hua adds:

When you sit in Chan, your stupidity disappears, and your mad mind and wild nature vanish. Wouldn’t you say these are tremendous advantages?

For someone who relies on their intellect, the challenge is to set it aside, at least for a time when practicing. We can always bring it back to further our understanding and realization.

One place where the different lineages of non conceptual meditation differ is in fact in their use of the intellect before and after meditation. The Kaguyud Mahamudra tradition in particular brings together both the analytical approach, and the method that reveals innate wisdom. Ideally, these compliment each other.

The appeal of Ch’an or Zen, or the other non conceptual ways of practicing meditation can be because we have relied too much on this one part of our mind, this one skill and ability, and we have found that by itself it is not enough to free us.

Zen sometimes seems to me to be proud that it is only remotely connected to Buddhist Traditions, which is surely a great loss. Many great teachers have left us a precious heritage, and it’s there for us to claim and make use of in our life and practice.

In the introductions to this entire set of writings, I’ve returned again and again to the questions:

Is a liberating teaching?,


Is this in line with what the Buddha taught?

These questions cut off a lot of the nonsense that is put out there as ‘zen’ or high sounding practice. It brings it back to earth. It’s also there so we can measure even our positive experiences, of peace, or light, against a true standard. Some experiences are good as far as they go, but if we’re aiming for freedom from suffering and being able to offer that, it is important to be exacting.

Non-conceptual insight is arrived in some schools at after analysis, or directly, quietly countering intellectualism, and as a practice that can uncover a deeper truth about ourselves and others than we’ve previously known. Whether this deeper truth frees us from suffering depends on whether it uproots wrong view, ego grasping, and so the further teachings in these lineages tell us not to identify with or take hold of any experience. This allows our understanding to continue to grow.

The focus in meditation itself here should be on the nature of the mind. This will reveal everything. Meditation on the true nature yields a lucid clarity and profound openness which is very mysterious. Abiding continuously in that state will cause beautiful qualities, such as compassion and wisdom, to arise and shine naturally.

– Khenpo Palden Sherab Rinpoche

Realizing the view, authentically and totally, melts away the obscurations of karma and disturbing emotions, and this allows the qualities of original wakefulness to unfold. 

– Tulku Urgyen

When it comes to meditating on the nature of the mind, abide in the state beyond conceptions, beyond grasping and clinging, and beyond duality, open and free. Afterwards, dedicate the merit.

– Venerable Khenpo Palden Sherab Rinpoche