Introduction to the Four Noble Truths
In this seminar, we will be looking at the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. To attain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth – in other words, liberation from samsara – and to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha, we need to focus on these aspects of the four noble truths and understand them fully. For that, we need to recognize and distinguish correctly what are true sufferings, then what are the true origins that cause these sufferings, what are the true stoppings of them in which they are gone forever and never recur, and what are the true pathways of mind or states of mind that will bring about these true stoppings. In other words, these states of mind act as path that leads to true stoppings of sufferings and their causes. That’s why sometimes they’re just called “true paths,” but it’s not talking about actual steps. It’s talking about the state of mind that will bring about these true stoppings.
Each of these four noble truths are called noble because “noble” is the usual translation of the term “arya.” Aryas are those highly realized beings who have attained non-conceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. These are the truth facts that are seen to be true by these highly realized beings and which ordinary beings might not necessarily recognize as true. But they are the true facts of reality. Therefore, each of these four noble truths, these four facts of life, have not only sixteen aspects, but they also have four distorted ways of embracing them or understanding for each. I’m not going to list the sixteen, that’s just a list. We will go through them one by one slowly as the seminar unfolds.
Introduction to Meditation on the Four Noble Truths in Relation to the Four Close Placements of Mindfulness
The way that we meditate on these sixteen aspects is in terms of the four close placements of mindfulness. We need to understand what the word “mindfulness,” here, means. In the West, people nowadays use the word “mindfulness” to mean that you notice what is going on in your mind and around you; you are aware of what’s happening. That is not the meaning of mindfulness according to the Buddhist definition of it from the Pali, Sanskrit, or Tibetan words. Mindfulness is defined as the mental glue. It is holding onto a cognitive object and is what prevents you from losing it. As a result, your attention stays there and doesn’t go away. That’s mindfulness. It’s the same word as to remember, to keep it in mind. That’s what mindfulness means.
“Close placement” means that the mindfulness you maintain has an understanding associated with it. So, you stay focused on an object with an understanding, with a way of taking that object to mind. For example, to be mindful that you need to go somewhere at a certain time, you keep it in mind while paying attention to the time.
So, in this practice we have close placement of mindfulness on the body, feelings, the mind, and phenomena. When we focus on these four topics, we focus on each of them in terms of one of the four noble truths. We focus on them distinguishing certain characteristic features about:
- The body, which we understand in terms of true suffering
- The feelings, which we understand in terms of true origins of suffering
- The mind, which we understand in terms of true stoppings of suffering
- Phenomena – referring specifically to discriminating awareness, one of the mental factors – which we understand in terms of a true pathway mind.
When we look at the topics of these four close placements of mindfulness, they cover and include the five aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience.
- The body is the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena.
- Feeling is the aggregate of feelings of happiness and unhappiness.
- The mind is the aggregate of consciousness, the six types of consciousness.
- Phenomena here is the aggregate of distinguishing and the aggregate of other affecting variables, including all the other mental factors and so on.
In this way, it’s quite an all-encompassing meditation when we meditate on the four close placements of mindfulness in connection with the four noble truths. We do this in relation to body, feelings, etc. on the plane of desirable sensory objects, and then in terms of body, feelings, etc. on the plane of ethereal forms or the so-called “form realm” and the plane of formless beings, the so-called “formless realm.” We do this because the mental continuum can take rebirth in any of these planes of existence. We become familiar with the planes of existence of the so-called form and formless realms when we go further and further in the direction of shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind and go into the deeper and deeper meditative absorptions.
In some non-Buddhist traditions and in some misunderstandings of Buddhist traditions, people tend to think that being absorbed in these higher so-called trances are a state of liberation, whereas they are not. It’s also important to understand that whatever type of body we might have in these higher realms or planes of existence, whatever type of feelings we might experience with such a body, whatever type of mind we might have, whatever type of mental factors we might have, that they still are within the context of samsara. The four noble truths still pertain to them and they are things that we want to get rid of, forever.
In the actual meditations that are done, we focus on the body, mind, etc. and our experience in the desire realm and then in the form and formless realms. Obviously, most people put the emphasis on what we experience in our ordinary lives, the realm of desirable sensory objects. This is what we are experiencing now, not the subtle forms that we have in the so-called form realm, and just these states of mind in these formless absorptions. In formless absorptions by the way, you can focus on anything. In the formless absorptions, it’s just that you are attached to the mind being like space, mind being like the infinity of consciousness, and so on. But you can focus on many other things in these states.
The Building Up State of Mind – Path of Accumulation
We want to meditate on the four close placements of mindfulness in the context of the four noble truths. We meditate like this as a structure for progressing through the five so-called “paths,” these are five levels of pathway minds or levels of minds that are going to lead to the goal of liberation or enlightenment.
First, we attain a building up state of mind. This is usually translated as the “path of accumulation”and we have such a level of mind when we have either unlabored renunciation – the determination to be free – or we have in addition unlabored bodhichitta. “Unlabored” means that we don’t have to build up to these in stages, like for renunciation going through the lines of reasoning of how horrible samsara is and why we want to get out, and so on. We’ve done all of that beforehand with a tremendous amount of effort and time, so that now we can just instantly have that state of mind. That’s the unlabored state and, once we achieve that, we attain a building up pathway of mind with which we build up more and more positive force.
With a determination to be free, we are aiming the positive force we are building up, which is called “merit” by most people, to bring about our individual liberation from the suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. So, we are aiming for a true stopping of suffering and its causes. The positive force will lead to a true stopping of true suffering and the true causes of suffering because it’s aimed for that, it is dedicated for that. If we just do positive things without a specific intention and dedication, the positive force from that just goes to improve our samsara. It will make a nicer life for ourselves either in this lifetime or in future lives. So, if we really want to attain a true stopping of suffering, we need to build up positive force with the intention that it serves as a means for attaining that true stopping.
The Importance of Bodhichitta Based on Great Compassion
Then, with bodhichitta, based on great compassion, we want to be free not only of our own suffering, but we want everybody to be free of their suffering too. We want to be able to help countless beings to achieve a true stopping of suffering, and if there’s a certain amount of positive force in wanting one person, ourselves, to be free of suffering, then you can imagine how much larger and greater that build up of positive force is if we have great compassion and want everybody to achieve a true stopping. That’s why great compassion is so much stronger than merely this renunciation of our own suffering.
Then, we realize that to be able to help them overcome their suffering and its causes, we have to attain Buddhahood. So, bodhichitta is based on this great compassion and, with it, there’s much more positive force that is built up than with merely renunciation.
When we have these aims in an unlabored way, this means that we’ve worked on them so strongly that we just automatically have them as the main aim in our life. As Shantideva says in Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, talking about this unlabored state of bodhichitta, then whether we’re awake or asleep, and even if we’re drunk, we still are building up this positive force because this is our main aim in life. This is underlying everything; this is what we are dedicated in our life to doing, with absolutely no doubts. There is nothing that is going to detract us from that.
Unlabored bodhichitta is not just the mere wishing state – the mere aspiring state – or the pledged state in which we promise that we’re never going to turn back from this goal of enlightenment and benefiting all others. Unlabored bodhichitta is with an engaged state of bodhichitta, which means that we have taken bodhisattva vows. With these vows, we’ve committed ourselves to enlightenment and to helping all beings. By meditating over and again on bodhichitta, we are not only fully committed, but we can generate a bodhichitta state of mind instantly and in fact we have it underlying all the time. That’s really quite an accomplishment. Then we really are starting to build up this strong positive force.
Of course, there’s a difference of opinion in the various monastic textbooks as to whether, before bodhichitta is unlabored, is it actually called “bodhichitta.” Is it only called bodhichitta once it’s unlabored? When do you actually start building up the three countless eons, the three zillion eons of positive force? When does that start? From a strict point of view, according to some of the textbooks, it starts only when you have this building-up state of mind, when you have unlabored bodhichitta. Before that you have a facsimile, something that is similar to it, which starts to help go in the direction of enlightenment. But, if you don’t have even labored renunciation or bodhichitta, then whatever positive things you do are just going to improve your samsara. This is fine, because the first level of motivation of lam-rim is that we need to have better rebirths. So, that’s fine; but, that’s not going to contribute to a true stopping of suffering and the causes of suffering, which is, after all, what we’re aiming for in terms of aiming for liberation and enlightenment.
I think it is extremely important to understand the necessity for the determination to be free and bodhichitta for any type of practice that we do that’s aiming for liberation and enlightenment. A lot of people do tantra practice very prematurely and is that going to act as a cause for liberation or enlightenment if they don’t have this renunciation and bodhichitta behind it? No, absolutely not; and so, what are you doing with these practices? It is essential in both sutra and tantra practice to have this aim that you want to get rid of suffering and its causes and not only our own but everybody to be rid of it. Then, with correct understanding, we can gain a true stopping of suffering and its causes. This needs to be quite clear.
Bodhichitta and Concentration on the Four Noble Truths Can Occur Simultaneously
The practices of the meditation on the four noble truths in the detail of the sixteen aspects, then, could be done just on their own, but for them to lead to the attainment of liberation and enlightenment, the mind that does that meditation needs to have all the qualities of the motivation with it. We can have all these qualities simultaneously even though our focus is simply on one of the four noble truths at a time. How is that possible?
For instance, we can have two mental states simultaneously, two types of cognition simultaneously. After all, we can see somebody and listen to what they are saying at the same time. That’s two consciousnesses, two objects, and we can have a varied amount of attention on each of them. The variable here is attention. In the same way, we can have full shamatha and vipashyana totally focused on some understanding within the context of the four noble truths, but also have manifest compassion at the same time. This is the wish for everybody to be free from their suffering. It’s just that we are not distracted by that. It’s there, but it’s not where our major attention is.
So, like that, when we are sitting here and listening, our body consciousness is cognizing the sensation of the clothing on our body and the seat underneath us, but we are not paying attention to it. It’s like that. It’s not that the tactile consciousness is totally absent. It’s the same thing with having compassion and bodhichitta at the same time as having perfect concentration of something else. The force of bodhichitta is there all the time when it is unlabored, even when we are focused completely on one of the four noble truths. It is just that we are not paying attention to the objects of compassion and bodhichitta. But either unlabored determination to be free or both that and unlabored bodhichitta are needed together with the four close placements of mindfulness to attain liberation or enlightenment.
Shamatha and Vipashyana
So, with this building up pathway of mind, what do you build up to? You build up to a state of shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind. What is it focused on? It’s focused on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths in terms of these four close placements of mindfulness. You focus not just with shamatha on that, a stilled and settled state of mind, but also with shamatha joined with vipashyana. Vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. Vipashyana and shamatha are topics that are taught throughout all the various Buddhist systems, not just the Tibetan system; but, it’s important to understand what is meant by them.
Shamatha is a state of mind. It’s talking about the actual state achieved at the end, although there are practices leading up to it. The actual state of shamatha is one in which you are focused on an object and it must be a mental object. It’s not just staring at a table or an apple or staring at a picture of a Buddha or a statue. But, the object needs to be something generated by the mind and you need to have a certain way of understanding that object. It’s not just that you are staring at it in your mind as it were and just focusing on it. We are focusing on it with an understanding.
So, if you are focusing on a Buddha, a visualized Buddha, it’s with an understanding of the qualities of a Buddha, and the causes for the qualities of a Buddha. In terms of the thirty-two physical features of a Buddha, each of them has a cause. The eighty minor signs also have a cause. So, what you’re really focusing on are the causes for achieving a physical body of a Buddha with which you can help everybody. It’s important to have some understanding of that and that this is what you’re focusing on.
With shamatha, you’re not focusing on all the details. You’re just focusing on the Buddha, for instance, with an understanding that the Buddha’s physical features represent all the qualities that I’m aiming for with safe direction, with refuge. I want to go in that direction and achieve what a Buddha has achieved.
With shamatha on our samsaric body, the understanding is that this is an example of true suffering, in terms of the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age, death and these sorts of things. You focus on it with that understanding, just a general understanding. You have no flightiness of mind; your mind doesn’t go anywhere else. You don’t have dullness; you have that placement with complete clarity. In addition, you have an exhilarating feeling of body and mind which is not disturbing in the slightest way. It’s blissful that the body can stay this way for four hours without any pain or anything like that, with no distraction, and the mind can stay this way, focused wherever you want to put it. That’s shamatha and it’s a container. There are methods for attaining shamatha and vipashyana in non-Buddhist systems as well. It’s not exclusively Buddhist, but a common Indian practice. It’s the content of how you understand the object that becomes Buddhist, not the level of concentration and mechanics for attaining it.
Then, within that foundation – that container of shamatha – vipashyana discerns all the fine details about the object, but not in a discursive way, not reciting them in your head. There are thirty-two signs of a Buddha and you are aware of what each of them mean. It’s not that you are reciting it. You’re familiar with this very much before and now, with that container of shamatha, the mind not wandering anywhere and not verbally thinking anything else, you discern in all the fine details all these aspects of a Buddha.
With a building up pathway of mind, you follow a similar procedure when meditating with close placement of mindfulness on the body, feelings, mind, and discriminating awareness representing all phenomena and you do so with the understanding of each as being in the nature of one of the four noble truths. You first attain shamatha on this and then a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana, discerning all the details of the four – body, feelings, and so on –in terms of these sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. All of this is also with the force of unlabored renunciation, compassion and bodhichitta backing u and adding force to that state of mind.
In short, you’re building up to attaining joined shamatha and vipashyana focused on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths with unlabored renunciation or with both unlabored renunciation and unlabored bodhichitta. When you attain that joined pair with a conceptual mind, then you have attained the second pathway mind, the next level.
The Applying Pathway of Mind – Path of Preparation
The second pathway mind, or next level, I call the “applying pathway of mind.” People usually translate it as “path of preparation,” but the term actually means “applying.” You are applying that joined shamatha and vipashyana over and again so that it goes from being conceptual to being non-conceptual.
“Conceptual” means your focus is through a category. For example, it might be a category of true suffering or a category of the true origin of suffering. In conceptual cognition, you focus on something through the filter of a category together with something that represents that category. For instance, if you think of a dog, you have something in your mind that represents what a dog is and then when you see some animal in front of you, whether it’s a chihuahua, or a German shepherd, or a Saint Bernard, or a great Dane, you fit that animal into the category of “dog.” It might not look exactly like your mental image that represents a dog when you merely think of one, but still you understand the animal before you to be in the category of dog. That’s conceptual cognition. By the way, when seeing the animal and then conceptualizing it as a dog, the mental image that represents the dog can also be just a reflection of the dog you see and not your mental image of what a nice dog should look like.
It’s the same thing when focusing on the body as an example of suffering. With conceptual shamatha and vipashyana, your focus on the body is through the categories of both “body” and “true suffering.” The mental image associated with your body could be a reflection of what you see when you look at your body or just a mental image you use in thinking about your body. What represents the category of true suffering would just be its meaning. It doesn’t have to be verbal. You may be able to put the meaning into words, but you don’t have to say the word in your head for it to be conceptual.
That’s conceptual. People use these terms very loosely, conceptual and non-conceptual, and most of us have no idea what they actually mean. It’s important to understand that conceptual cognition is necessary. We can’t have language without conceptual cognition, so that no matter with what volume or what voice and what accent somebody says a word with, we understand it as meaning a particular word. That’s an audio category. Otherwise we couldn’t understand language and we couldn’t communicate with each other. We couldn’t recognize that all these animals are dog if we didn’t have a category dog and a concept of dog. It’s not that conceptual thought is a hindrance or evil or something like that. A Buddha doesn’t have conceptual thought, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that conceptual cognition is something that blocks your liberation and enlightenment, like an emotional or cognitive obscuration does.
The Seeing Pathway of Mind – Path of Seeing
The applying pathway of mind is applying this joined shamatha and vipashyana over and again on these sixteen aspects so that eventually it becomes non-conceptual. When you attain that non-conceptual cognition, you have a seeing pathway of mind that sees the four noble truths non-conceptually. That brings about a certain amount of true stoppings. We will get into the technical details later about what it gets rid of.
The Accustoming Pathway of Mind – Path of Meditation
Then you have the so-called “path of mediation.” That’s an accustoming pathway of mind. That’s what the word “meditation” means. You accustom yourself to this non-conceptual cognition. From the attainment of a building up pathway of mind up until the seeing pathway of mind, you build up the first of three zillion eons – so-called “countless eons” – worth of positive force, whatever that means. “Countless” is just the name of the largest finite number. That means you need a tremendous amount of positive force behind your meditation in order to gain that non-conceptual cognition.
That’s not so easy to understand and it’s something that is very often not really analyzed deeply enough. Why does your understanding of the four noble truths and the voidness or emptiness of the person experiencing them need that amount of positive force behind it in order to become non-conceptual? How is it that whether some understanding is conceptual or non-conceptual depends on the amount of positive force that’s behind that mind? It’s an interesting question.
You can’t get non-conceptual cognition of voidness without that zillion eons of positive force built up with the aim and dedication to attaining enlightenment. I don’t know the amount of positive force with unlabored renunciation and dedicated to attaining liberation that’s needed for attaining that non-conceptual cognition. That I have not seen and I’m sure it is less; but, for attaining enlightenment, you need a zillion eons worth. A non-Buddhist university professor can understand voidness correctly, but he or she could never get a non-conceptual cognition of it because they don’t have the positive force.
Anyway, when we have that seeing pathway of mind, it’s non-conceptual. Then you accustom yourself to it. So, you build up another zillion eons of positive force and according to the Prasangika presentation of that, then, step by step, in stages, you get rid of another bunch of obscuration and attain more true stoppings. You attain liberation after seven of the ten bhumi minds, as a division of this accustoming pathway mind. Then you need a third zillion eons to go from there to enlightenment.
Throughout this whole process, what are you focusing on? You’re focusing on the same thing basically. I mean there are many other things you can focus on, but the basic structure is the close placement of mindfulness on body, feelings, mind, and phenomena, represented here by the mental factor of discriminating awareness, and understanding them in the context of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths.
So, it’s a very basic, fundamental meditation and all the stages that we learn of lam-rim, all of that is preliminary to this. All of lam-rim necessary as your foundation if you’re doing this type of practice.
The Pathway of Mind Needing No Further Training – Path of No More Learning
The fifth pathway mind is the pathway of mind needing no further training, often translated as the “path of no more learning” or just “path of no learning.” With the attainment of this pathway mind, you have attained either liberation or enlightenment. You can attain liberation as a shravaka arhat, a listener to the teachings, which you do while the teachings of the Buddha are available, in which case you’ve heard the teachings either from Buddha himself or from a teacher; or, as a prateykabuddha arhat, living at a time when the teachings aren’t available, the so-called dark ages. This is when you have to just rely on your instincts from having heard the Buddha and the teachings in some previous lifetime when they were around. It’s pretty difficult to practice during those dark ages.
You can also go through the same structure as a bodhisattva aiming for enlightenment, but to attain enlightenment, you have to get liberated from samsara first. The structure, regardless of whether you are aiming for liberation or enlightenment, is meditation with these four close placements of mindfulness in terms of the four noble truths and the sixteen aspects. So, there are Hinayana ways of meditating on them and now the Hinayana system that is available is the Theravada one. At one time, there were eighteen such system, but only Theravada has survived to the present. This you can find in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. There is also the Mahayana way of practicing them.
[For more detail about the five paths, see: The Five Paths to Liberation & Enlightenment]
Question about the Distinction between Liberation and Enlightenment
Could you say a little bit more about the distinction between liberation and enlightenment?
The difference between liberation and enlightenment is that with liberation you have attained a true stopping of the emotional obscurations and with enlightenment you have attained, in addition, a true stopping of the cognitive obscurations. The emotional ones preventing liberation are the disturbing emotions and attitudes and their tendencies. The tendencies cause disturbing emotions, like anger, to arise intermittently. This means from time to time. You are not angry every moment of your existence, so you’re only angry sometimes. A tendency is literally the word “seed” and it gives rise to its result sometimes, but not all the time. Those disturbing emotions, which include unawareness, so-called ignorance, and their tendencies are what prevent liberation.
You have among them the doctrinally based emotional obscurations. Those are the disturbing emotions based on having learned, accepting and believed in an atman, a self, with all its characteristics from one of the non-Buddhist Indian philosophical systems. The doctrinally based disturbing emotions come from thinking of yourself, “me,” as an atman described in these Indian systems – a “soul” that is static (it never changes), partless and can exist independently of a body and mind when liberated. Believing ourselves to exist as such an atman, we think, “I’m the one that is suffering; I’m the one that has these feelings; I’m the one who will attain true stoppings. I will be liberated and I’m the one that has this discriminating awareness, this wisdom.” When you think of yourself like that and, based on that, get proud, angry, or greedy and so on, those are doctrinally based emotional obscurations. You attain a true stopping of them with the attainment of a seeing pathway of mind, and that requires a buildup of a zillion eons of positive force.
In addition to these doctrinally based disturbing emotions, you also have automatically arising ones that even a dog has, such as automatically arising anger, attachment and so on. Nobody had to teach the dog to get angry. They’re not based on learning and believing in an Indian non-Buddhist concept of a “me.” Automatically, when I’m sitting here, it just feels like “here I am.” You don’t think of a body sitting here and a “me” as an imputation on the body. It’s just “here I am.” So, that’s automatically arising; and the automatically arising disturbing emotions are based on feeling that it is that kind of a “me,” knowable all by itself, independently from the body and mind as its basis for imputation, that experiences all the four noble truths.
According to the Prasangika point of view, you attain a true stopping of these automatically arising emotional obscurations at the completion of the first seven of the ten so-called “bhumi stages” of an accustoming pathway of mind. That takes the second zillion eons of buildup of positive force. Now rid of all emotional obscurations, you attain liberation.
Then what are you still left with? You’re left with the so-called constant habits of unawareness and the other disturbing emotions. These constitute the cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience. The constant habits are what cause the mind constantly, in every moment, to give rise to an appearance of self-established existence, that there is truly something on the side of the object that makes it what it is and, in a sense, encapsulates it in plastic and makes it a separate entity all by itself. There it is sitting right there. “Here I am, established as sitting right here, independently of everything else, all by myself.” Me, experiencing the four noble truths, seems to be a person that has arisen independently of all causes and effects that I will have, let alone all the parts or aspects of myself and the relations I have with other things. So, although the mind makes this appearance, as a liberated being, an arhat, we no longer believe in it. When we believed that it corresponded to reality, we developed automatically arising disturbing emotions, but now we are free of that belief and these disturbing emotions.
But, still the mind makes that deceptive appearance. We know that this is nonsense. We don’t believe it, but because our mind makes that appearance, we don’t know really when we see somebody what are all the causes for the way that they are now in terms of infinite past lives or what would be the effect of anything that I teach them. They are going to interact with zillions of other beings and whatever I teach them is going to affect not only them, but it’s also going to affect their interaction with everybody else. It’s a huge interaction. For understand all that, we have to become omniscient in order for our mind not to make that appearance of everything encapsulated in plastic and unrelated to each other. For that we need this third zillion eon of positive force behind our understanding that this does not correspond to reality. That’s what voidness is talking about, a total absence of the real, findable referent “thing” that corresponds to the deceptive appearance. The appearance is just a projection of nonsense with nothing backing it up in reality.
When you get rid of that, those constant habits, then you become an enlightened Buddha. Then you see the interdependent arising of everything. Then you fully know cause and effect so you know how to actually help somebody. You see non-conceptually what is useful.
You actually see it?
Well, non-conceptually means without the category of “what would be useful.” That’s a category, “what would be useful.” Something represents it, it might not be a precise mental image, but at least you have an idea of something being useful. With conceptual cognition, you’re always thinking in terms of this category. The problem with categories is that it gives the impression that the category is like a box and that there is something on the side of the object that allows it to fit in that box. But, in reality, things don’t fit in boxes like words in a dictionary. Things don’t even exist in boxes. If you look at emotions, there aren’t these boxes of love and loyalty and this feeling and that feeling. These emotions don’t exist in boxes, but categories give that appearance of a box. So, when your cognition is non-conceptual, it’s not with that appearance of things existing in boxes. That’s what non-conceptual means. So, a Buddha is able to cognize everyone and everything non-conceptually like that, without categorizing them.
If you see people in boxes, there’s this person and that person and that person, and it’s like there is a plastic coating around each of them, and that what I teach this person or that person exists in this or that box and I just have to pull it out of its box, ready-made, as it were. But, if I could perceive not through a box or a category each of these persons non-conceptually, although conventionally there are boundaries between the persons, empty space between them, nevertheless there’s an influence that each could have on each other and on everybody else throughout endless time. Because you don’t put them in a box, and you don’t perceive them through a box, then you are able to perceive them with the interconnectedness of things.
Then you’re able to help everybody because you can see what the effects are. It’s like with chaos theory saying if a feather moves it affects everything in the universe. You’re able to see how everything is interconnected like that. That’s the only way to be able to benefit everybody, because you can’t benefit one person individually isolated from how that is going to affect everybody else in the universe. If you think in terms of endless time, that each being will eventually interact with every other being, then you can’t just benefit and do something that’s only going to have an effect on one person. You have to be able to encompass and deal with infinity in a sense. That’s why Mahayana is so vast in a sense. Shantideva says it very clearly, countless beings for countless times and eliminate countless suffering and so on. Everything is this countless enormous thing.
The interconnectedness of everything is not like boxes that are connected with lines between them like on a chart. This makes sense even from a physical point of view. If you take it down to the level of atoms, there is the energy and force fields and so on. There are no boundaries and the light from everything goes out to infinity. Everything is interconnected from the physical point of view as well. Nothing is encapsulated in plastic.
This is at least one aspect of what it means to become enlightened. It’s not just liberation, just being free myself from uncontrollably recurring rebirth or, in other words, being free from having the continuity of my mental continuum going on out of the force of unawareness and the disturbing emotions that unawareness brings on and the compulsiveness of my behavior which is what karma is talking about. Karma is not just actions, but the compulsiveness of them. If karma were just actions, then all you would have to do is stop doing anything and you would be free of karma. So, it doesn’t mean that. It’s the compulsiveness of our actions, like when I compulsively yell at somebody or compulsively clean the house over and again. Even though I might be doing something positive, it’s out of control and neurotic being a perfectionist. “Me, me, me; I need to be perfect.” Rebirth is the continuity of the mental continuum out of the force of that. That’s samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth and that is always with suffering and with problems. That’s what you want to get rid of.
Once you’re rid of that, then the mental continuum will continue on the basis of what? The basis is on the force of compassion. You want to be able to continue to help others. If it’s just liberation, if you are just doing it for yourself alone, there isn’t much force there. There’s enough force to get out of samsara, but then why is it continuing? Is it just to be peaceful and so on? That’s pretty boring. Eventually it is possible to develop concern for others and not just hang out in some pure land. Then even as a liberated arhat, you can work toward attaining enlightenment.