Understanding Emptiness with the Force of Bodhichitta

We’ve been discussing the three principal pathways of mind. The first is renunciation, which is turning away from obsession with – as we added – immediate gratification, taking interest in what’s going to happen to us later in this lifetime and in future generations. This is what we added as a preliminary step that is helpful for us Westerners.

And then turning away from our obsession with this lifetime and having our main interest be in future lives and ensuring that we will continue to have precious human lives and the opportunities to continue the spiritual path. Then turning away from our obsession with future lives and having our main interest be in complete liberation from samsara, from uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

In order to take care of what’s going to happen later in our lifetime, we need to refrain from destructive behavior and act constructively and put a direction in our life, meaning into our life, and that is the safe direction of refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And we need the same in terms of turning away from our obsession with this lifetime and taking interest in future lives. This makes a little bit more sense, although it’s difficult to actually see, because the ripenings of our behavior in this lifetime don’t usually occur in this lifetime, but in future lives.

To achieve liberation completely from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, we need to not just get rid of this unawareness of behavioral cause and effect, but we need to get rid of our unawareness of reality – how we exist, how others exist, and according to the most sophisticated Buddhist school, our unawareness of the reality of everything. With that understanding of voidness, then we are able to rid ourselves forever of what’s called the obscurations preventing liberation. These are technically called the obscurations that are the disturbing emotions and attitudes.

Now, when we look at this state of being rid of these obscurations, that is – of the four noble truths that Buddha taught – the third noble truth, those are true stoppings. The true stoppings of these obscurations is achieved by true pathways of mind – that’s the fourth noble truth, which entails many different types of understanding and communication behavior that follow from that, but primarily we can think in terms of what’s most important is a pathway of mind that has nonconceptual cognition of voidness – and not just the first time, but that we’re very, very familiar with it so that it does its work – it gets rid of these obscurations in stages.

These two noble truths, the true stoppings of the true paths, that’s the Dharma refuge. In other words, this is the Dharma Jewel that we’re aiming to achieve. Our life has that direction in going toward achieving this. Now, these true stoppings and true pathways of mind don’t just exist somewhere in the sky; their location is on the mental continuum. The mental continuums in which they exist in full are those of Buddhas, so we have the Jewel of the Buddhas, the Buddha refuge. They also indicate to us how to achieve them ourselves, by their teachings and also by their example.

Those who are partway there, who have achieved already some true stoppings, but not the complete set, these are the aryabeings. They’ve had nonconceptual cognition of voidness, but they haven’t really familiarized themselves fully with them; they’ve just achieved initial true stoppings and initial true pathways, only some of them, not the complete set. They constitute the Sangha Jewel, the Sangha refuge. These Three Precious and Rare Things, which is what the word “jewel” actually means, these are what indicate to us the safe direction to take in our lives, to become like them.

This is absolutely essential in order to achieve liberation, actually just to follow in general the instructions and teachings along the way, as in refraining from destructive behavior. So when we refrain from destructive behavior, it’s not because we don’t want to break the law, divine law or civil law, but because we have some understanding of cause and effect and a deeper level of reality. We want to restrain from destructive behavior, as I said, to be able to get favorable circumstances, so that we can go all the way to achieve the Three Jewels ourselves.

Now, when we achieve liberation, we’ve gotten rid of just this one set of obscurations, those that are the disturbing emotions and attitudes and their tendencies. We attain that state, that true stopping – out of the three pathways of mind – through renunciation and the correct understanding of voidness. And of course, as the basis for being really able to apply that, we have training in ethical discipline and training in concentration.

So, that mind which understands voidness is a mind that has renunciation. So renunciation is like the force behind that understanding; it’s the motivation in the sense of motivating emotion: you’re disgusted and bored with your suffering. And the motivating aim is to achieve liberation.

Now, when we spoke about voidness, we understood that, because of the habits of this unawareness, our mind projects appearances of impossible ways of existing. It appears and feels like everything – myself, you, everything that we encounter – to put it in the most simple terms, has a line around it that from its own side makes it into a solid thing. Even if we understand that everything is related to each other and dependent on each other, still we tend to think that what is dependent on each other has solid lines around them; that they are things.

We have to understand a little bit more deeply what that means of course, but for the moment let’s just leave it on this simple level. So, mind projects that and this is called the “appearance of true existence” and our minds then, out of unawareness and confusion, take that to be the way that things actually exist and that’s “grasping for true existence.” With liberation we get rid of this grasping for true existence and the unawareness that supports it, so we no longer believe this garbage that our mind projects; this deceptive appearance, we’re not fooled by it anymore.

However, even as a liberated being, an arhat, our mind still projects these deceptive appearances; it still projects lines around things. Don’t just think of this in terms of the table, a line around the table; think in terms of friend, enemy, love, anger. They seem like things, don’t they, with lines around them, definitions that come from their own side. But if we think about it, this is of course a deceptive appearance, this is impossible; there’s a total absence of this, a total absence of this referring to anything real.

We can understand this by an example – it’s not quite an example, it’s an explanation: if you think about emotions, there’s a huge, huge spectrum of experience. It’s not just human experience, animals have emotions too. If you think of the cave people, cavemen, when they started to form language, people came together in some group, a committee, or who knows what, and they made up words out of just meaningless sounds, what we call “acoustic patterns.” These are just arbitrary sounds that they were able to make and it’s as if they took a knife and they cut up that whole spectrum of feelings and put lines around one type of a piece of emotion from this boundary to that boundary and they gave it a definition.

They tried to describe what it is and then they said, “These meaningless sounds are a word and they mean this definition and they refer to this part of our common human experience.” And it’s not necessarily human, because dogs clearly have emotions. Each cave, each group of people, whether it was every single cave or it was groups of caves, different groups decided on different conventions.

These are called “conventions,” pure mental fabrications made up for the convenience of communication, totally invented by the mind for the purpose of communication. They’re very useful – they function, they work, they do communicate, but each group of caves divided the spectrum of human experience into different pieces and assigned to it and defined those little portions differently. They looked for some characteristic that you could use to define them; they made that up, they chose that. Then we get different languages, different words, different concepts, different conventions.

They of course don’t correspond to each other from one group of caves to another. Everybody divided the spectrum at different points, made different boundaries between categories, word categories. So we get “jealousy,” we get “envy,” which of course in English have very different meanings from what the words in Spanish mean. Both of them have different meanings, different boundaries from what the corresponding words in German mean. And these don’t correspond at all to the Tibetan term, which is translated usually as “jealousy.” It’s confusing. The definitions are slightly different in the different languages.

And it’s very interesting that in addition to these word categories, then we get “thing categories.” Any person who has a certain experience, then they are experiencing a thing, jealousy. It seems of course that jealousy is from its own side a thing that we experience, doesn’t it? That’s what I’m referring to with, “as if it had a line around it,” but there’s nothing on the side of this jealousy that is establishing it from its own side. There’s just the huge spectrum of mental feeling and emotion.

So jealousy is something which arises dependently only on words and concepts, the word and concept “jealousy” that was invented as a convention by some cave people. That word category and thing category, they do refer to something; they don’t refer to nothing. What do they refer to? They refer to jealousy. But that referent object, jealousy, you can’t find that anywhere, because nothing exists with lines around it as a thing. So that’s like an illusion: jealousy appears to be a thing with a line around it, but it’s not really a findable thing.

Especially if we think in terms of every time we feel jealousy, or every time anybody feels jealousy, including the dog – where is it? What is it? Even though it’s like an illusion, nevertheless – this is a very important word – it functions: we experience it, it makes us unhappy.

The only thing that proves that there is such a thing as jealousy is the fact that there’s a word for it, a concept for it. You can’t find it and prove that it exists by pointing to it, “There it is with a line around it.” For it to exist like that and to be able to establish its existence like that from its own side, this is impossible. There’s a total absence of that. That’s what voidness is talking about; voidness, more commonly called "emptiness," is that total absence. Obviously, if this is new to you, you have to chew on that – all the time.

Now, if we’ve achieved liberation, even though our mind is making this appearance of everything as things with lines around them, we don’t believe that that’s really the way that things are. We understand that nothing could function if it had a line around it. To have a line around it would be like, for instance, it’s encased in solid plastic, making it a thing. So, if two things are encased and frozen in solid plastic, how can they interact with each other? How can one be a cause and the other be an effect from it? They’re just frozen there, like items drawn on a cartoon page. Nothing could function. We understand that, so we don’t believe in this garbage that our mind is projecting – but nevertheless, we can’t stop it yet.

What’s the problem with this type of projection? The problem with this is that now our mind becomes very, very limited in what it can understand, what it can encompass. The example that I often use is that with this type of projection, our perception of the universe is like through a periscope. It’s very, very limited. We just see things. Our field of vision is very, very small, our field of comprehension – very small. We say that in colloquial language, “You can only see what’s in front of your nose.”

This prevents us from being of best help to everybody, because if we think in terms of no beginning and a countless number of beings... it’s a finite number, but it’s countless, meaning it’s the largest finite number. Don’t ever think of it as infinite, please, then you get terribly confused. Not an infinite number of beings, there’s a finite number of beings. If they were infinite, you could never liberate everybody. The largest finite number – so everybody has been interacting with everybody else forever and we’ve been affecting each other by our behavior and we’ve been affected by everything that everybody, including ourselves, ever did forever.

So, if we want to know how to benefit one particular being, we need to understand where they’re at, what their level of problem and so on is, we have to understand everything that ever happened before in the whole universe, how it affected this particular mental continuum, all the causes for why they are the way they are now. And if we wanted to teach them something and benefit them and help them to achieve liberation and enlightenment, in order to decide what would be most effective to teach, we really need to know the consequences of teaching this person this particular piece of Dharma.

And of course this being that we teach is not going to exist with a solid line around him or her, never interacting with anybody else in the future. This being is going to interact with everybody else from now until the attainment of enlightenment and even after that as well, affected by what we teach, and that’s going to have an effect on everybody that this person meets. To be able to benefit anybody as fully as is possible, we have to gain this type of mind – this is an omniscient mind; this is the mind of a Buddha.

We have to gain this type of mind, so that we really know how to help the others. Otherwise we’re just looking through the periscope; we just see what’s in front of our noses. So we need to get our minds to stop projecting lines around things, otherwise we’re never going to see the full, full scope of cause and effect and the interrelatedness of everything forever. This is the projection of these lines, which come from the habits of grasping for true existence; the habits of believing that these lines are true.

Those are the obscurations preventing enlightenment, preventing omniscience. They’re the “obscurations regarding all knowable things,” they’re called. What we want to do is to achieve a true stopping of this second set of obscurations. If we can achieve that true stopping, then we become Buddhas. Together with this omniscient state of mind that we will achieve comes unlimited body. In terms of our energy, we can manifest in any form to communicate. So we get enlightening body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.

With that unlimited mind will come the energy of that, which can then manifest in a form, so we get unlimited bodies or manifestations. And that energy vibrates, subtle sound it’s called, and that’s communication, that’s speech. So that becomes unlimited as well, the vibration of the energy. The energy can manifest in any form and the vibration of that energy, that’s communication, the speech can communicate in any form.

What is the true pathway of mind that will bring about this second set of true stoppings? That is again the nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

One thing I should add, I left out, is that that state of enlightenment, however, is not an omnipotent state. It has unbelievable capabilities, but one of it is not omnipotence. Omnipotence would be something that does not obey the laws of cause and effect, that an all-powerful being could do anything without any causes. And Tsongkhapa says very clearly in our text: “the laws of behavioral cause and effect are never fallacious,” can never be violated – things only come about by causes.

And so a Buddha can teach, a Buddha can inspire, a Buddha can explain, but a Buddha can’t understand for us. We have to understand ourselves and, for that, we need to be receptive and build up the causes ourselves. We can only get rid of our unawareness and, based on that, get rid of our suffering by understanding ourselves.

So, what will get rid of this second set of obscurations is the same understanding as what will get rid of the first set. This is according to the most sophisticated set of theories, Prasangika. There are many different levels of theories and explanations, which I will not go into, but the one that’s the most sophisticated is called Prasangika Madhyamaka. In other words, this understanding is the nonconceptual cognition of voidness, that all of this junk doesn’t refer to anything real.

When we focus on, “This doesn’t refer to anything real,” nonconceptually, we’re focusing on a total absence. In that total absence that projection is not there. Not only is the belief not there, the projection is not there. We’re just totally focused, nonconceptually – that means not through some category, like the word “voidness” or some mental picture, but just focused nonconceptually on, “There’s no such thing,” an absence of it. So there’s an absence of it, it’s not there; it’s not present in that moment of cognition.

When we achieve that, that’s the arya state – “arya” is “noble being,” but that’s a little bit of a silly term; I translate it as “a highly realized being.” It doesn’t have to do with aristocracy. An arya can’t stay in that “state of total absorption,” it’s called, can’t stay in that state all the time, comes out of that, has to eat, has to go the toilet, does other things, is involved with all sorts of things in life. And so an arya still has that habit of projecting true existence, because that’s what the mind automatically does when it’s not totally absorbed on this absence.

If we are able to stay in that total absorption on this total absence all the time, forever, never come out of that, and at the same time go about helping others and doing all sorts of things to be of benefit to others, not just sitting in meditation, if we’re able to do that, then we have gotten rid of the habit of projecting true existence, because it can’t come again. We’re never out of that total absorption. Hmm, so that’s the state of Buddhahood.

What is a habit? All we can say is that there are instances of similar events, like drinking cups of coffee. Now, how could we put that together to refer to that recurring sequence in order to communicate it, in order to think of it, and so on? We would mentally connect the dots of each event, we would make a mental abstraction and that would be a habit. Of course there’s no line around a habit. It’s a convention to help us to refer to a series of similar events.

Now, so long as it’s possible for a future recurrence of a similar event, so long as that’s possible, then you could say that there’s still a habit – “imputable” is the word, it’s imputable on the mental continuum; you can designate it, it applies to that mental continuum. So long as there’s a possibility for another recurrence of that similar event, you still have the habit; you still have the habit and it can produce a future recurrence of the similar event.

Now, if it’s impossible for there ever, ever, ever to be a future recurrence of a similar event, then all you could speak about is a past habit, “I don’t have the habit anymore.” That’s how you get rid of habits. I won’t go into it, but that’s how you purify karma. OK, so it’s with the understanding of voidness.

Now remember, we spoke about renunciation as a motivating force, which is behind the understanding of voidness, which gives it sufficient strength or force to be able to cut through the first set of obscurations and attain liberation, get rid of the disturbing emotions: anger, greed, naivety, and so on. But this is not enough energy, it’s not enough force for that nonconceptual understanding of voidness to be able to cut through the second set of obscurations and stay focused forever on this true absence, on this total absence and still be benefiting everybody.

OK, so it doesn’t have sufficient energy behind it to stay in that enlightened state. The only way that it can do that is with bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is a mind which is aimed at enlightenment. Now, it’s not aimed at the category “enlightenment,” a general thing as a category, it’s certainly not aimed at it as a thing. It’s not aimed at the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni; it’s aimed at our own future enlightenment, called – and you have to be very careful with the grammar and get it correct – the “not-yet-happening” enlightenment that can be imputed on my mental continuum.

You have to understand “not-yet-happening” things. The not-yet happening Christmas of this year – well, we can conceptualize the not-yet-happening Christmas, can’t we? It’s a concept, we don’t really know it vividly in detail. That not-yet-happening Christmas is not happening now, is it? It’s not happening off some place in another dimension and is getting closer and is happening there and then it’s going to happen here, is it? But we can think of the not-yet-happening Christmas and we can go shopping and prepare all sorts of things for when that not-yet-happening Christmas will transform into a presently-happening Christmas.

It’s not as if there’s a Christmas that exists with a big line around it and then it can be described as either not yet happening, or presently happening, or no longer happening. Well, don’t use the Western words, “future” and “past,” that’s very misleading. That can be described by “not-yet-happening,” “presently-happening,” “no-longer-happening.” The not-yet-happened, presently-happening and no-longer-happening Christmas's are not the same solidly existing Christmas moving through time. It’s not that it’s one solid thing.

It’s very complicated. It’s a continuum. That’s exactly correct. Well, actually, it’s not quite a continuum either; it’s much more complicated than that. Anyway, let’s leave it at that, this is not the occasion for that. That’s much, much more advanced; we don’t need that now, but my point is: what is bodhichitta focused on? It’s focused on that not-yet-happening enlightenment that can happen, validly can happen later on on my mental continuum.

But it’s not just going to happen by itself; it’s not like my death that every moment, regardless of anything that I do, is going to happen automatically. That not-yet-happening enlightenment, although you could say theoretically it’s getting closer and closer, is not going to automatically happen. We have to put in a lot of work, train to remove these obscurations. But the working basis is there, the factors that we need are there. That’s called Buddha-nature. Based on our mental continuum in this present moment, which is the only thing that is happening now, and all the Buddha-nature factors that are part of it, we can validly infer the not-yet-happened enlightenment that can be attained.

And bodhichitta has the two intentions: we want to achieve it, we are motivated by love and compassion, we want to be able to benefit everybody to help them out of suffering and because of that, we realize that the only way to do that most fully is to become enlightened, in other words, get rid of this stupid periscope vision, and so we aim to achieve that. The second intention is that, “Well, what are we going to do once we have achieved that state? We will help everybody as much as possible.”

We are aimed at that state of enlightenment – that’s our focus – which has not yet happened. That is focused on the state in which there’s this total absence of not only grasping for true existence, but the appearance of true existence to our minds, and when we have that all the time. So, we have to then understand and be convinced, “Is it possible to attain that state in terms of my mental continuum, in terms of what we usually just call mind?”

What do we mean by mind? That’s not an easy topic. Without taking hours to explain it, then we’re talking about a mental activity. It could be described in terms of all the electrical and chemical things that are going on, but we’re talking about the activity itself from the point of view of being a subjective individual experience, an experiencing of things. It’s an activity. We’re experiencing – experiencing, not the noun “experience.”

It’s not like, “I collect a lot of experiences,” and, “This person has a lot of experience.” We are experiencing, the verb. We’re not talking about a thing; we’re talking about something that is happening every moment to moment. We’re not talking about experiences that you collect in a box, OK? That’s very important to understand. That’s why I’m being a little bit picky here, excuse me. One could get a completely wrong idea based on this exact point.

OK, so this activity is going on all the time. So what is that activity? It could be described from two points of view. One is the arising of an appearance. An appearance isn’t just visual. This is basically like a mental hologram. If you think about it, it’s quite clear. In vision there are all these pixels of light hitting different cells of the retina and that sends electric information and we see a mental hologram; we don’t just see pixels of light or electric discharges. It’s a mental hologram.

It’s the same thing with hearing or any of the other senses. In any tiny, little millisecond of listening to speech, all we hear is the sound of a vowel or a consonant. That’s all that we hear and yet we make a mental hologram of not only of a whole word, but a whole sentence and understand its meaning. That’s a mental hologram. You don’t hear a whole sentence in one millisecond at the same time. That’s how we understand language. Only one sound occurs at a time, you only hear one sound at a time. Uuuh, it’s freaky, isn’t it?

But in any case, so that is one aspect of the mental activity. And it could [also] be described in terms of: that’s the knowing of it, that is what seeing is, that is what hearing is, that is what thinking is. It’s not that a thought arises and then you think it.

And this is all that’s happening. There’s no separate me with a line around it separate from this, making it happen with a mind, which is like a machine with a line around it and it’s pressing the buttons and, “Now I’m going to see,” although it seems like that, it feels like that. And that’s, again, impossible.

So, mental activity is going on all the time. So now this appearance-making: there’s a knowing. So ordinarily it is an appearance-making of true existence, things with lines around them, and our knowing it is: we see it or hear it or think it. But it’s with unawareness; we don’t know that it’s not referring to anything real. Now, is that what we would call part of the nature of mental activity? In other words, is that something that always has to be there?

Well, no. Why? Because it can be replaced by something which is totally the mutually exclusive opposite of it, in other words, a mental activity in which there is no appearing of true existence and no believing it to refer to reality – which does not have this appearance-making of true existence and doesn’t have any unawareness or grasping for it to refer to reality. This is the arya’s total absorption on voidness. Which is stronger? Our confused state or that arya’s total absorption? The mental activity with the junk or the mental activity without the junk?

So you examine: which has the support of valid understanding, valid reasoning? Which holds up to investigation? Which has the basis of logic and reason? Which produces suffering and which is free of suffering? Which allows us to not help people very well, because we make mistakes and we’re lazy and all these other things, and which allows us to benefit others as fully as is possible, if they’re receptive?

Although the force of the habit of projecting and believing in junk is much stronger than the force of the habit of not doing that, from our beginningless samsaric existence; the force of bodhichitta is even stronger than that, if we can have bodhichitta – not just what’s called “contrived bodhichitta.” Contrived bodhichitta is where you have to build it up by relying on lines of reasoning like, “Everybody’s been my mother and they’ve been kind to me...” and all that, that’s contrived, you have to build it up in steps. You don’t have it all the time.

Contrived means that it is artificial, in the sense that you have to force it, like if I have to remember to smile, so then I smile – that’s contrived. But if through familiarity we can get to the point where it’s uncontrived, where without going through the line of reasoning, without working ourselves up to feeling it, we just feel it like that, then we have what’s called the first pathway mind – it’s usually translated as “path of accumulation,” or the “path of building up” – then we’ve actually entered the path. Now we have an effective pathway mind.

Then, at that point, that bodhichitta is there all the time, day and night. Whether we’re sleeping, no matter what, it is there, because even if we’re not thinking of it, even if we’re not conscious, we never ever, ever lose the bodhichitta aim and intention as the absolute, secure aim of what we’re doing. You don’t have to be conscious of it, you don’t have to be meditating on it – “subliminal level” we would call it, technically.

That type of mind, that type of aim, what’s it aimed at? It’s aimed at this state in which there’s no projection of junk and no belief in junk. And, “I want to attain that, because it’s unbearable, all the suffering of everybody else.” That bodhichitta then gives the understanding of voidness, which is what’s going to bring us into that state, so much strength that it can overpower the habit of projecting the junk, of making the junk, so that eventually it will never happen again.

This is valid, because everything that supports – reason, logic, ability to benefit others, and so on – supports the side of no junk; it doesn’t support the side of junk. Because of that, liberation and enlightenment are possible; because the nature of the mind is naturally pure of these they’re called “fleeting stains,” these obscurations which can be removed and not just temporarily removed, but removed forever. All the negative and destructive mental states and disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes and so on, they are based on that mental activity with junk, the unawareness. So they can be removed. There’s nothing supporting them.

And all the positive, constructive qualities like love and compassion and patience and so on, although of course they could be mixed with junk, but what supports them is that mental activity without junk. In other words, the more we get rid of junk, the stronger these positive qualities are; whereas the more we get rid of junk, the weaker the negative qualities are. For that reason the negative qualities can be purified out and eliminated, but not the positive qualities. The positive qualities, as we approach enlightenment, get stronger and stronger until they become the great qualities of a Buddha.

Please don’t forget that bodhichitta is something that is developed on the basis of already having renunciation. We need to turn away from samsara and aim toward achieving true stopping, so this is just a further extension. We turn away from being a limited being, like an arhat, and aim to achieve enlightenment, determined to be free from that. So, this is a combination of renunciation and bodhichitta with the understanding of voidness, or the three principal pathways of mind, the three pathways of mind.

This is our general presentation of the three principal pathways of mind and we can see that these are very, very deep topics and they give us the context within which we can understand the Hinayana path to liberation, we can understand the Mahayanapath to enlightenment. Within Mahayana we can understand the sutra and the tantra path within this context.

What tantra adds to this is imagining that we have the various types of forms of a Buddha now and that we’re able to do things the way that a Buddha does now, although we know full well that this is not yet happening, is not really the case. But by rehearsing and practicing and imagining now, it acts as more force, it adds more cause to achieve that state more quickly. That’s tantra, imagining that we have the enlightening forms of a Buddha now, these Buddha-figures, Tara, Chenrezig, and so on, so that we actually imagine helping everybody, sending out infinite lights and infinite emanations helping beings. And we know full well that we’re not there yet.

So it’s very clear that it’s impossible to practice tantra without these three principal pathways of mind – it’s not impossible, but it’s a disaster to practice it without really renunciation of the ordinary appearances that my mind makes, my ordinary form, the ordinary thing, so that we will turn to imagining ourselves in these forms as representing what we want to achieve, and bodhichitta, we’re aimed at enlightenment to benefit others.

That’s what we’re doing with these Buddha-figures – not just a crazy person imagining they’re Cleopatra or Napoleon. And we have to have the understanding of voidness to differentiate this in terms of what’s actually happening now and to understand that the nature of the mind is naturally pure and it is possible through the understanding of voidness to actually achieve this.

So those are the three principal pathways of mind, the essence of the lam-rim graded path.

What questions do you have?

Question: When we have an art class we’re taught, when we’re drawing a chair for instance, to get rid of the concept of chair, preconception and so on, and just draw what is hitting our eyes. Is that getting us in the direction of the understanding of voidness?

Answer: Now, that’s hard to say, because every moment of our existence, except when we are totally absorbed on voidness, our mind projects this garbage, the line around things. So anything that we see, we see as a thing. That’s difficult to really analyze. We have to analyze it carefully. Let me explain:

What do you see? You see pixels of light. Or we could say – there are two theories here – we could also say that we see colored shapes, shapes that have color. Of course you could paint that and we have abstract painting which is like that and we have pointillism, which is just pixels. Another theory is that, well, you have to say we see a table. What exists is not just pixels or colored forms, but tables, chairs.

Now, you could eliminate let’s say a preconception that you might have of what a chair should look like and that would be a big step. We’re not denying that that’s quite a big step; but that’s not enough, because actually, what do we perceive? We perceive a boundary between one colored shape and another colored shape. As we paint, we’re going to have to paint boundaries between one particular colored shape and the next colored shape, and unless we’re just painting something totally abstract, a certain collection of those colored shapes are going to represent a chair. So it looks as though there’s a line around it separating it from the background, although we might not have a black line around it.

So, we have to go deeper and deeper here. It’s only the first step to get rid of our preconception of what a good table should look like, or a good chair, or a pretty chair should look like. That’s the first step; it’s not the final step. The point is that we do see a chair and unless we’re a Buddha, it’s going to appear to us with a line around it separating it from the background.

The question really is: how separated from the background is it? Could you erase the background and there’s still the chair? Then you get into the whole thing of interdependence. So if everything did have the lines around them, you could erase the other stuff and you’d still have the chair in your painting, but in reality it’s not like that. One has to really work with it. What you say is the first step.

Also, when we talk about mental labeling, I should mention, I didn’t say that this is an important point that we need to be not confused about: the mental labeling doesn’t create the chair. Regardless of whether I think “chair” or know what that is, that doesn’t create the chair. If I’m not thinking “chair,” does that mean that there’s no chair? It could be labeled validly a chair, it performs the function. Then you start getting very, very delicate.

Question: First of all, yesterday and today I heard that it’s very, very important to be convinced completely that we can achieve enlightenment and liberation. But we, as Occidental people, are not familiar with rebirth, which is very difficult for us; we have to work at lot on it. And second, I’ve been hearing for many years that to achieve this goal, we’re going to have to work eons and eons and lives and lives to get it. So is it not a bit disappointing, this problem for us? And how to work with it?

Answer: Yes, the teachings say that it’s going to take eons and eons and eons, a very incredibly large number of eons to actually reach this goal of enlightenment. Why? Because we need to build up a tremendous amount of positive force, a tremendous amount of positive energy to cut through all this junk. That would mean to take it very seriously that we need to build up this positive force. Don’t think of it in terms of “merit,” getting a number of points and then you win, but a tremendous amount of force, positive energy that has to build up stronger and stronger and stronger. That takes a tremendous amount of time, but there's no need to feel discouraged at that,

That’s why we need these far-reaching attitudes and so on: patience and joyful perseverance. Remember, I said at one point that the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. It’s going to go up and down all the way until we achieve liberation. And so if we are told, like a parent telling children on a journey, “It’s just down the road,” and if we’re told that it’s going to be easy and it’s going to be quick, just sort of, “Sit here, say the magic word, do a hundred thousand prostrations and you’ve got it,” then what happens is that we’re even more discouraged, because then at the end of it we see that we haven’t attained anything. And even if we feel a little bit high, as it were, at the end of all of this, it goes down again. That’s the nature of samsara. So then we get even more discouraged.

So it’s much better to have a realistic attitude that it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of time, so we don’t expect dramatic results, so that we’re not disappointed. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that when he realistically thinks that it’s going to take a tremendous amount of time, that gives him much more encouragement and hope than thinking that it’s going to be easy, “Just go into retreat and recite Mumbo Jumbo for three years and then you’ve got it, you’re enlightened.”

And what is driving us? Think renunciation, “If I don’t do anything, it’s just going to go on and on and on and on and on and on and on with all these problems,” and “How horrible, how boring!” Even stronger, we think that everybody else is in this situation and how terrible it is for everybody. Like a mother thinking of her hungry child – it gives her much more energy to get food than if only she’s hungry. So the mother says, “I don’t care how much work it takes, I’m going to get food for my children. I don’t care how long it takes, how difficult it is, I’m going to do it.” Similarly our working toward enlightenment – nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

Question: So there is the false me and the conventional “me.” The false me doesn’t exist, but the conventional “me” does exist. So is it all about deconstructing this conventional “me,” all these conventions that have created this conventional “me?”

Answer: No, what we’re deconstructing is the false me. Convention, there’s nothing wrong with convention. You have a name, “Mickey,” it’s very useful, so we can refer to you. In a previous lifetime you had another name. There are many conventions that are validly applicable to you: “human being,” “male,” “Mexican...” They’re useful. What we have to deconstruct is the false me, that there’s something on your side that makes you a human being. It’s just a mental construct, but it’s a useful one.

Look at the paleontologists, the ones that are trying to figure out, “Well, where in the evolution, when we look at all these bones, do we draw the line and say that this one is a human being and that one isn’t?” It’s just a construct where the lines are, somebody making up a definition of what would constitute a human being – a certain shape, bone of the head, or whatever. We have to deconstruct the inflation of the convention, but not get rid of the convention, so we’re deconstructing the false me, not the conventional.

Question: Society makes us rigid with all its conventions. So wouldn’t it be so that if we could get rid of all those social conventions, we would be more flexible and free?

Answer: No. Unawareness, our ignorance makes us rigid, not these conventions. Conventions are useful. If we didn’t have the convention of “parents” and “children” and so on, our society wouldn’t function at all. It’s only when we say, “I have a preconception, a concept, a solid inflation of this convention what a father should be, what a good father should be and a mother, a real mother, a good mother should be,” and then, “You’re not living up to that solid construct!” Then we get angry, we resent our parents, then we get trouble. But the problem is not the convention of “parent,” otherwise nobody would take care of the little ones.

So, the problem is not conventions, the problem is not mental labeling; the problem is our understanding of it. Don’t make them into solid things. And be flexible that there can be many, many, many conventions. OK? Some are valid, some are not valid. That gets into a whole ‘nother discussion. You can’t just label anything. I can’t label that thing that most of us would label “a chair,” I can’t label it “a dog” and that makes it into a dog. That’s not a valid labeling. Just because I mentally label it something doesn’t mean that it’s valid and it makes it that thing.

Question: When we see, hear, smell and so on, what is it that sees, hears, and smells, and so on?

Answer: Well, we can conventionally say that “I’m seeing,” “I’m hearing,” but that “me” doesn’t exist as a separate entity from the whole process with a big line around it, either observing it, or making it happen. It’s like what we explained and I think it was yesterday, that, “There’s a body sitting on this chair,” and we can say, “I’m sitting on the chair,” but those aren’t two different, separate things sitting on the chair. The “me” is a convention to connect the dots of every moment of experience in a mental continuum.

Part of the mental activity of course can be intention, like when you turn your head to look at something, but it’s not as though there’s a separate entity, me, that pressed the button and then turned. How could the me intend to do it? Intention is mental activity, so how can a me, separate from mental activity, intend to turn the head and press the button? The whole thing is absurd. Intention is mental activity, as is making a decision – all these things.

Question: When we speak in terms of a Buddha and how a Buddha knows things, does a Buddha just take in raw experience and knows these conventions and mental labels, but puts them aside and is not working with them and just works with the raw experience?

Answer: First of all, it’s very, very difficult to really know or describe the omniscient mind of a Buddha. All we can have is a concept of it, because we don’t know it nonconceptually, unless we’ve attained it. And actually there’s a big debate here in the various Buddhist schools on this point. A Buddha doesn’t have conceptual cognition. An omniscient mind is not conceptual, it’s totally nonconceptual. Actually it’s a much, much more subtle level of mental activity than what we discuss in sutra. It’s called the “clear light mental activity.” So a Buddha-mind does not work with words or concepts or mental labels. Then the question is: does a Buddha know mental labels?

And one opinion is that, “No, Buddha doesn’t know mental labels, because that’s a conceptual mind.” The other opinion is, “How can that be so? You can’t just say that conceptual mind and mental labeling and all these things are the activity of a limited mind and because a Buddha doesn’t have a limited mind, then a Buddha doesn’t have that. You can’t say that, although your line of reasoning seems to be OK.” And so their opinion is that, “Well, if that were the case, the absurd conclusion would follow that a Buddha is not omniscient, because a Buddha doesn’t know concepts and labels, ‘I don’t know what that is.’” So that’s a very difficult debate to settle.

Then the question is: what does a Buddha actually cognize? Well, with an omniscient mind you cognize everything simultaneously – no periscope, so you see all the connections in terms of all the causes, all the effects, everything that is conditions, everything else, and so on.

The problem here is the language and our translation of the language. You have to stick to the terms. Excuse me if now I get a little bit advanced here. When we talk about “true existence,” that’s how it’s usually translated, there is no word “existence.” That’s an incorrect translation. Or “existence merely in terms of mental labeling,” there’s no word “existence.” The word means “prove” or “establish.” So what proves or establishes that a chair exists? We’re not talking about how the chair exists; we’re talking about what proves that it exists, how do you know it exists? Well, what establishes that it exists, what proves that it exists, how we know that it exists is that there’s a word, there’s a concept for it and that concept refers to it. So, a Buddha knows that.

That doesn’t mean that a Buddha has to think with concepts or words, or that concepts and words exist somewhere out there. Buddha just knows concepts and words in terms of, well, it’s in terms of those that you could show that things exist, only from the side of the mind, not from the side of the object. Buddha knows all objects and so on and knows what people would call them, but Buddha doesn’t think in terms of concepts or in terms of words and names, because that parcels things out into these separate entities. He sees the whole picture. But the whole picture is not one undifferentiated grand soup. There are conventionally things.

So your question is an excellent question and a difficult one to answer and one that the various Tibetan masters have debated back and forth for centuries.

Question: What’s the difference, then, between a Buddha and a baby? The baby doesn’t have labels or names. It doesn’t have any idea. And the Buddha can perceive raw experience the same way, also without labels and ideas. Answer: It’s not as simple as that. It’s not that the only difference between a Buddha and a baby is that a Buddha knows that things could be mentally labeled and so on, whereas a baby doesn’t know. The omniscient mind sees the interconnectedness of everything, from beginningless time, in the entire universe and all the future consequences of everything. A baby certainly doesn’t know that. And a baby certainly has concepts and can distinguish between hungry and not hungry, comfortable and not comfortable; it certainly has a concept of “mother” and “food,” but no words. That’s not the Buddhist aim, to go back to the simple, innocent state of a baby.