Meditation on the Emptiness of Self and All Phenomena

The Great Compassion of Bodhichitta

When we think of the most kind and compassionate Buddha Shakyamuni, we think of his great qualities and his amazing deeds, and specifically of all the teachings he gave purely to benefit all others. Among all these teachings, when we think of his incredible kindness to teach us bodhichitta – the heart dedicated to enlightenment and to all others – it is extremely moving. In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, the full teachings on how to develop a bodhichitta aim are extensively elaborated.

If we reflect on the best method of benefiting others, we can think of nothing other than bodhichitta. The greatest kindness of Buddha Shakyamuni was to teach us how to develop this dedicated heart of bodhichitta. We have to consider ourselves extremely fortunate now because we have a precious human body and we have come into contact with the Dharma, specifically with the Mahayana Dharma. Now that we have all these conducive conditions gathered together, and we’re not hampered by negative or obstructive circumstances, it is absolutely imperative that we make use of this excellent opportunity, as a way of fulfilling the incredible kindness of the Buddha Shakyamuni in showing us how to dedicate our hearts to others and to achieving enlightenment.

Dignaga’s Compendium of Validly Cognizing Minds (Tshad-ma kun-btus, Skt. Pramanasamuccaya) demonstrates that we can know that the Buddha is a valid person from his development of compassion. We refer to the Buddha as the Great Compassionate One. Why do we use the word compassionate? It is because his heart is entirely turned toward benefiting others. It was because of his intense concern for others that he was able to remove all his own shortcomings to reach a point at which he could fully benefit all limited beings. Being compassionate is beneficial, whether or not we are a religious person. Anybody, if they have a kind and warm heart, can be in a position to help others.

I often joke and say, “If you have to be selfish, at least be selfish with wisdom!” If we want happiness for ourselves at the expense of others, then of course others are going to ignore helping us. Therefore, if we want to bring ultimate benefit to ourselves, we need to take others into consideration – that is being selfish with wisdom. So if we really are concerned about ourselves, if we are wise about it, we will realize that the best way of benefiting and improving ourselves is through helping others.

In this world, if people have general concern for others and for society, most others, except perhaps for some negative types, will consider that they are good persons. They will be very upset when such people pass away because they will have been such great assets to society, always interested in helping others. The benefit that such people have contributed will be remembered years and years after they are gone. Whereas, in some of the communist countries, those who have engaged in power struggles and worked for their own benefit are forgotten as soon as their status diminishes, and their deeds and benefits are no longer remembered. Compare this to other leaders who were moved by the wish to help others, whose deeds are recalled with devotion and great love and fondness. If there is somebody in the world who has caused a great deal of harm and destruction on a mass level, then even non-religious people will regard that person as having been very evil, and nobody will be very happy about them; they will want to forget them as soon as they can. When there is someone with such a hard and cruel heart, even birds will not want to stay around.

We live in a society of human beings, so we all have to depend on each other. The whole structure only works in terms of the kindness of its members toward each other, their willingness to cooperate. An American friend of mine has told me that he thinks the nature of human beings is to be cruel. Joking with him, I said I wondered whether this is really so. This is because among animals, those that are cruel by nature, such as tigers, lions and other types of carnivores that kill other animals in order to live, also look very cruel, with fangs and claws and all that; whereas there are other types of animals that are very peaceful looking, that just eat plants and grass. Human beings aren’t really like those cruel animals – they don’t go around clawing and biting each other and they have beautiful short nails instead of claws! If we look at a cat, no matter how much its owner feeds it, by nature the cat will hunt and kill mice, even if only for fun. So I don’t think the basic nature of human beings is to be cruel, like a carnivorous animal.

It is possible then to work and improve the qualities within ourselves as human beings, to expand our hearts out further and further toward others, with kindness. And since we all depend on each other, it is absolutely necessary to work to benefit and help each other. This is just in the nature of the way a society exists, as an interdependent group. For it to work, everybody has to be kind and helpful to each other. It is extremely important to generate this attitude of wishing to help other beings, and then to extend it out as far as possible, to an ever-expanding group.

Of course, we have to take into consideration that when the Buddha gave his teachings on types of discipline and how we need to behave, certain things were prohibited and others were allowed or recommended. When necessity overcomes the prohibition, when the circumstances call for something that is usually prohibited, then it can be done. We need to use our judgment, within the parameters of always intending to benefit others.

So we need to try to have kind thoughts and actions toward others and try never to hurt anybody. We first start to train with the people we have some relationship with and then try to extend it further to all the people in our area, then to all the people in our country, and then to all the people on the earth. We can then extend it farther and farther, to all beings in the universe. All beings are just like us and, just as we would like to have happiness and not to have problems, the same is true with absolutely everyone else that exists. This is how we need to think.

Of course, a mother has the wish for everything to go well for her children. This is something very powerful; but, on the other hand, this concern is very limited in its scope, as it applies only to her children. Whereas we need to try to develop extreme, intense concern for the benefit of others and extend it out to everyone, not just limiting it to a few beings.

In order to actually be able to benefit everyone, we need to actually achieve the state in which we are fully capable of doing this. That is, the full state of nirvana, enlightenment. When we speak of these two intentions, to help all others and to achieve enlightenment in order to be able to do that, this is what a bodhichitta aim entails. We find this in the texts and we can read it for ourselves. And now you have heard it from Dalai Lama! So now we can try to gain a confident belief that this is the very root of all happiness, of getting rid of all problems in the world: developing a kind and warm heart, an attitude of being able to benefit everyone. Resolve strongly that we are always going to have this attitude, the altruistic thought to always be able to benefit and help everybody, and that we will never let it degenerate or weaken. We must cherish this attitude more than any possession we have.

The Unity of Method and Discriminating Awareness

The commentary to our text now continues with a quote from Chonyi Lama, “In order to achieve the state of a Buddha, you need a unified attainment of the body and mind of a Buddha.” This means that we need to follow a path of unified method and wisdom or discriminating awareness, in which method is held by discriminating awareness and discriminating awareness is held by method. On the resultant stage, method and discriminating awareness are of one essential nature – in a sense, they come in one “package” – but they have different conceptual isolates.

The same is true in terms of the pathway stage. The path or pathway minds need also to be those in which method and discriminating awareness are of the same essential nature, coming in one “package.” The same goes for the basis level, on which the two truths about anything always come together in one package, being of one essential nature. It is extremely important to see that the two truths always come together and are inseparable.

Of all the levels of explaining reality, the most clear and decisive one is the Prasangika, as espoused by Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti. These two Indian masters are extremely clear in their following Nagarjuna’s intentions and refuting all possible wrong understandings. There were many great masters in Tibet who put great effort into understanding and expounding a correct outlook on reality, particularly the great Tsongkhapa. From early childhood, Tsongkhapa took a deep interest in this and put a great deal of effort into making clear the correct view of reality. In a previous lifetime, Tsongkhapa, in the presence of the Buddha, had made a strong resolution, with a sincere bodhichitta aim, praying that he might always be able to expound the Madhyamaka Middle Way view in connection with tantra. This was his particular dedication, that he may always be able to have that special combination of Madhyamaka and tantra. As a result of this, from his early childhood, Tsongkhapa had strong interest in this direction.

Out of his great regard for the correct view of voidness based on Chandrakirti, Tsongkhapa wrote many texts on voidness, in particular his presentation of the exceptionally perceptive mind of vipashyana in his long and short lam-rim graded stage texts, his commentary to Nagarjuna’s Root Verses on the Middle Way, Called “Discriminating Awareness” (dBu-ma rtsa-ba shes-rab, Skt. Prajna-nama-mulamadhyamaka-karika), his commentary on Chandrakirti’s Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Verses on) the Middle Way” (dBu-ma dgongs-pa rab-gsal) and his Essence of Excellent Explanation of Definitive and Interpretable Meanings (Drangs-nges legs-bshad snying-po). If we look at these five texts by Tsongkhapa, we will see how clear his explanations are. The main point is, of course, to be able to understand the correct view of voidness, and for this it is necessary to build up a bountiful store or network of positive force from constructive actions. From that bountiful store and from relying on fully qualified spiritual mentors and the proper valid texts, we will be able to understand voidness correctly.

This present text by Tsongkhapa’s disciple, Namkapel, was expounded in keeping with the Seven Point Mind Training by Chekawa. It contains elaborate explanations of the first two points: the preliminaries and the method of training in the two bodhichittas – relative and deepest; the other five points are explained sort of as an aside. Those were: transforming adverse circumstances into a path to enlightenment; condensation of the practice in one lifetime; the measure of having trained our attitudes; the close-bonding practices for attitude-training; and the points to train in for attitude-training. These points are covered briefly in the prayer at the end of An Offering Ceremony to the Spiritual Masters, Lama Chopa. Take, for example, the verse that says, “Inspire us that, if we have not completed the points of the path at the time of our deaths, we pass on to pure lands, either by the drastic means of transference into the guru full state or through the instructions for properly applying the five forces.” This verse is referring to the condensation of the practice in one lifetime, specifically the discussion of the application of the five forces at the time of death.

In Namkapel’s text itself, we are at the point of ascertaining and recognizing the object to be refuted. We covered that yesterday, and today we will discuss the lack of truly established existence of persons, then of all phenomena, and finally seeing everything to exist like an illusion.

The Lack of Truly Established Existence of the Person

Now let us examine the lack of truly established existence of persons. The object that the mind is aimed at in this meditation is the conventionally existent self or “me.” There is a slight difference in tenets among the different Buddhist schools. Some say that the mind is aimed at all five aggregate factors in terms of their being the conventional “me” or at only some of the aggregates, particularly the consciousness. Others assert that the mind aims at the all-encompassing foundation consciousness or alayavijnana in terms of it being the conventional “me.”

All these schools say that the existence of a “me” cannot be established merely as something totally imputed, but that it is necessary for there to be a basis having the findable defining characteristics of a “me” – that is, something findable by ultimate analysis. So they say that either the consciousness, or the foundation consciousness, is something that can be found upon ultimate analysis as having the findable defining characteristics of a “me.” On the other hand, in our tradition, the Prasangika, it is not the case that we assert any basis having the findable defining characteristics of a “me.”

In Prasangika, although we are aiming at the network of the five aggregate factors, we are not aiming at this network as the basis having the findable defining characteristics of a “me.” Rather, we are aiming at this network as merely the basis for labeling a “me.” The conventionally existent “me” is merely the referent object of the name “me” labeled on this basis for labeling. It is merely what the name “me” refers to on the basis of this network. More precisely, the basis for labeling “me” is either the network of the five aggregate factors of our experience or the continuity of those aggregate factors of our experience. These are the bases for labeling, dependent upon which we label a “me.” On that basis, the conventional existence of “me” can only be established merely as what the name “me” refers to.

The basis for labeling “me” can be the five elements, the five aggregates, and so forth, but the “me” is not any of these individual factors, nor is it the collection or network of these factors. It cannot be found. When we say or think “me,” what the name “me” refers to is something labeled on the basis of the body, mind, and so on; but the “me” is not the same as any of these bases for labeling, nor is it their collection or network.

When we try to analyze that, we ask if the “me” comes from the side of the body or does it come from the side of the clothes we are wearing or from the side of our mind? We cannot find a “me” or the defining characteristics of a “me” in any one of them. If we analyze, for instance, is Tenzin Gyatso his body? No he is not. Is he his mind? No, he is not specifically only his mind. Can he exist separately from his body? No. Can he exist separately from his mind? No. Now the person “Tenzin Gyatso” definitely exists; he is definitely a person; he is definitely a Tibetan; he is someone from Amdo; he is a monk; and, as a monk, he is a fully ordained monk. All these things are true. But if we were to ask, who is this person? Who is this monk? It is not his body; it is not his mind. Of course he exists, but when we try to point at who he is, we find that there isn’t actually anything for us to point to.

The same is true for flowers, and vases, and tables, and so forth. On the basis of all their parts and the continuity of their parts, we have the object that can be labeled. But we can’t say that each of these items is actually the full collection of its parts or the individual parts either. It is on the basis of all of these that we can label what the item is – a flower, a vase, or a table – and establish its existence. When we say that there is nothing that we can point to as being the actual referent “thing” corresponding to the name, that doesn’t mean that the object doesn’t actually exist or doesn’t exist at all.

When we say that its existence cannot be established at the place where we would imagine that it exists, what does that actually mean? It means that there are all sorts of circumstances, conditions and causes, and on the basis of all of these, the object dependently arises. But its existence is not established from its own side, as if the object were standing up all by itself, unbound from all these other factors upon which it is dependent. What the object especially arises dependently upon are the names and concepts that refer to it. Its existence can only be established in terms of merely being what can be mentally labeled by a valid mind.

All of these technical terms – existence not established from something’s own side, existence established by something’s self-nature, existence established by something’s definable characteristics – all of these terms have the same meaning. When we analyze the shared meaning of these terms to try to understand that the existence of all things can only be established merely in terms of what mental labels refer to, it is much easier to understand it in terms of a “me.” This is because it is quite obvious that the “me” is labeled on a network of aggregate factors. So a person is merely what can be labeled on a basis for labeling, but the existence of the referent object of that label cannot be established from the side of either that referent object or its basis for labeling. When we look at what the object of automatically arising unawareness is, then in this case it is a person or “me” that seems to just appear, to just pop up, as if its existence were self-established, all by itself from its own side. The same is true regarding vases, flowers, tables, and so forth. Their existence appears to be established in a manner completely divorced from being merely what names and mental labels refer to.

In order to see how this “me” to be refuted actually appears to us, we can look at times when we are in a strong emotional state and we are thinking “me” and “my” and so on. On those occasions, the “me” to be refuted appears to us as the basis for great attachment and hostility, and so we can more easily recognize it then.

The text goes on to refute a truly existent “me” from the point of view of a “me” that, if its existence were established independently from its own side, would have to be established as existing as either “one” or “many” with its basis for labeling. [Note: Being “one” means the “me” would be totally identical with its basis; the two – the basis for labeling and the referent object of the label – would have to be the same findable “thing.” Being “many” means the “me” would be something totally different from its basis, so that the “me” and its basis would “many” totally different, unrelated findable “things.”]

The text then presents various absurd conclusions that would follow in either case. If the “me” were one with its basis for labeling, the two would always have to be the same – they could never be separate. If it were different from or “many” with its basis of labeling, then since there are many different bases for labeling “me,” there would have to be many different “me’s.” We can find all these lines of reasoning in standard texts, such as Chandrakirti’s Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Verses on) the Middle Way”.

The “me” is also described in terms of what comes from many lives in the past. If the “me” had no relation to the continuity of the experiences of past lifetimes, then the whole process of cause and effect would not be able to work. The “me” in this lifetime would experience the results of actions committed by somebody totally irrelevant in the past. If that were the case, what happens to us would be chaotic. Since we could experience the results of actions of just anybody, anything could happen to us. This is not the case.

The Lack of Truly Established Existence of All Phenomena

Thus far, we have discussed grasping at the truly established existence of a “me.” Now the text examines grasping at the truly established existence of “mine” – in other words, what a “me” might experience or possess. This refers to grasping for the truly established existence of all phenomena.

Discussing the lack of a truly established identity or “soul” of all phenomena, the text uses the same argument of “neither one nor many,” and describes how the existence of things can only be established as merely what can be labeled on the network of their parts, causes, and so forth. Then the text discusses the relationship between a whole and its parts, particularly in terms of dependent arising. Things are related to each other because their various parts and causes are related to and dependent upon each other, and that is how results come about.

Dependent arising means that things come about as a result of being dependent or reliant upon various other things. The only possible way for that to function would be for things not to have a truly established independent existence of their own. If things had truly established independent existence all by themselves, they would be able to stand, figuratively, on their own feet. If they could do that, they would not have to depend on anything else or have any relation with anything else. In that case, neither could they enter into any relationship with other things in terms of dependent arising, since they would be totally self-sufficient. As an image in a mirror doesn’t just arise by itself, things cannot arise without depending on certain circumstances.

Take the example of a man who walks with a cane. If he walks with a cane, he can’t stand on his own. In other words, the existence of his standing can only be established dependently on his leaning on a cane. So these two possibilities are mutually exclusive. His standing can only be established either independently on his own or dependently arising on his leaning on a cane.

If we speak in terms of all phenomena, then likewise their existence can only be established either independently on their own or dependently on other phenomena. [Note: These two mutually exclusive possibilities form a dichotomy: things can only be one or the other, and not both or neither.] For example, if we divide all phenomena into either human or non-human, then all phenomena have to fall into one of these categories, as either human or non-human. But if we divide phenomena into the categories of human and vase, that doesn’t cover all existent phenomena, because there are things that are neither human nor vase. [Note: Thus, although human and vase are mutually exclusive – nothing can be both a human and a vase – they do not form a dichotomy.]

Just as in our example of dividing things into human or non-human, which covers all phenomena, likewise phenomena are either dependent on other things or not dependent on other things; there are only the two possibilities. If the existence of something can only be established in terms of other things, then that would accord with saying that the existence of things can only be established dependently. On the other hand, if we determine that the existence of things can be established by their own power, on their own, without relying on anything else, they would have truly established, independent existence. So there are only two possibilities: as with human or non-human, things can only be one or the other.

When we refute or disprove that the existence of things can be established independently on their own, disconnected from all other things, we’re left with only one other possibility. The existence of things can only be established dependently on other things – specifically on what names and concepts refer to.

Take, for example, the word middle. This word can only be understood as referring to something not on the left side or the right side. The existence of a “middle” can only be established in terms of or in relation to something being neither one side nor the other. Likewise, when we speak of Madhyamaka, the “Middle Way,” we understand it to mean a position that is established in terms of its being neither of two extremes. The two extremes are the nihilist position and the eternalist position. When the existence of things cannot either be established independently which would render them eternal since they could not be affected by causes in order to arise or perish or not established at all which would render everything as totally nonexistent, then in relation to those two extreme positions, we are left with a “middle way.” We then know that the existence of things can only be established dependently on other things. So, voidness – the total absence of impossible ways of establishing the existence of things – is neither something preposterous just made up by the mind or a nihilistic concept that denies everything.

The Two Types of Meditation on Voidness

There are two types of meditation on voidness: discerning or analytical meditation and stabilizing meditation, in which we absorb our concentration on voidness. First, we need to ascertain, which means come to a decisive understanding, of voidness. This is an understanding that discerns voidness. Then we need to stabilize this understanding by absorbing our concentration single-pointedly on voidness, the total absence of the object to be refuted. We ascertain, decisively understand, and then discern the total absence of the object to be refuted by relying on logical reasoning and the texts that present the five lines of reasoning to be used.

It is important that our understanding be in the form of what is called a “nonimplicative negation phenomenon.” This is a negation or refutation of the type: “there is no such thing as this,” which means that, once we have excluded or refuted the object to be refuted, there is nothing left in its wake. In other words, nothing is left there by implication. So, we come to a decisive understanding that there is no such thing as the object we are refuting.

This is not an implicative negation phenomenon, namely a refutation of the type: “it is not this” or “it is not that.” Such a negation leaves or implies some alternative possibility left over in the wake of the negation. The decisive refutation with voidness, here, is: “there is no such thing as this at all” – which leaves no other possibility in its wake.

Next, the text points out that if we haven’t well-identified the object to be refuted, then when we say that the object is impossible and doesn’t exist at all, we are not going to be left in a very clear state of mind. This is because we haven’t yet fully defined and understood what it is that we’re saying doesn’t exist at all.

Further, when we absorb our concentration on the total absence of what doesn’t exist at all, it is necessary to do so with full mindfulness and alertness following all the instructions for developing shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind. For that, we need to clearly identify the coarse and subtle levels of mental dullness and flightiness of mind, mental agitation. We need to identify them correctly so that we can remove these faults that keep us from being totally absorbed on the object of our focus. That object of focus is the total absence of the object to be refuted, and that object to be refuted is a totally impossible way of existing.

Namkapel’s text then covers the six forces and the nine stages of settling the mind, the five types of attention, and so forth that are also explained in texts on developing this stilled and settled state of mind. When we are able to absorb our concentration in such a state, free of all faults, having progressed through all nine stages of settling the mind, we experience a state of complete flexibility of body and mind, with an exhilarating sense of total fitness. When we achieve such a sense of total fitness of mind and body, we are able to apply our stilled and settled mind to any kind of absorbed concentration. This is extremely important – I can’t stress enough the importance of achieving a stilled and settled mind of shamatha. Particularly when gained in connection with the tantra methods, this is the best form of absorbed concentration.

We always talk about two ways in which the Buddhist teachings are indicated: scriptural indications and indications from realization. There are many scriptural indications, but it is important to gain a realized indication of the teachings on our own mental continuum and actually to achieve a stilled and settled mind of shamatha and an exceptionally perceptive mind of vipashyana. With these two, based on the scriptural indications, we’ll be able to generate all the good qualities that the scriptures speak of and we’ll actually realize these teachings on our mental continuum.

Vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, induced by the state of physical and mental fitness that we achieve not only from having the mind be totally concentrated with shamatha, but in addition also induced by the mind having discriminating awareness. In other words, we get this state of fitness not only from the mind being able to concentrate perfectly on anything, but also from its being able to discriminate anything correctly. So when we attain this second, special sense of fitness, which would be a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana, our mind will be both stilled and settled as well as exceptionally perceptive.

Seeing Everything to Exist Like an Illusion

From these stilled and settled states of mind it is possible to absorb our concentration into more and more subtle states of mind, trying to reach the shamatha states of the higher planes of existence. These higher planes are the plane of ethereal forms and the plane of formless beings. The text goes on to indicate, however, that having merely achieved a nonconceptual state of mind will not allow us to see all things as illusions as our subsequent attainment or subsequent realization when we rise from that state. Perceiving things “merely nonconceptually” means cognizing them not merely without it being through the medium of a conceptual category, but also without an understanding of their lack of a truly established identity or “soul.” To arise from such a state of mere nonconceptuality does not bring a subsequent attainment or realization in which we seeing all things to be like an illusion.

On the other hand, if we can perceive things in a nonconceptual way as being devoid of self-established existence or identities, then when we arise from that state, we can subsequently see all things to be like an illusion. If we don’t have such an understanding, when we arise from our absorption, we may fall into a state of nihilism, in the sense of refuting all things, even their conventional existence.

In the vipashyana section of The Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, there is a great deal of discussion about how we actually gain an understanding of everything existing like an illusion. For example, suppose our understanding of voidness is that things are merely just made up of a collection of parts and are not findable as wholes. Even if we are able to see things like that nonconceptually, nevertheless, without understanding voidness in the sense of everything dependently arising in terms of mental labeling, we’re not going to gain a clear realization of things existing like an illusion. In order to gain that clear understanding of things existing like an illusion, it is necessary to see things in terms of dependent arising – their arising dependently on merely mental labeling. Only when we see voidness in terms of dependent arising can we gain the two realizations together: realization of the space-like voidness of everything and everything being conventionally like an illusion.

In dzogchen meditation [Note: in which there is no differentiation between total absorption on pure awareness, rigpa, and a subsequent attainment or realization], at the same time as we are totally absorbed on the total absence of the object to be refuted, the appearances of things actually do spontaneously arise. But they arise in terms of our understanding of voidness as being dependent arising. In this way, we see things to exist like an illusion in dzogchen practice as well.


This concludes Namkapel’s discussion of the points found in Chekawa’s Seven Point Mind Training.

Now come praises to bodhichitta, and to the lineage: praises to Atisha, who combined the lineages from Maitreya and Manjushri and also the lineage from Shantideva. Then come praises to the teachings and in the commentaries to this text praise to the author, a disciple to Tsongkhapa called Namkapel.

[Note: Togme Zangpo’s edition ends with the additional verse, “From the awakening of karmic remainders from having previously trained, my admiration (for this practice) abounded. And due to that cause, ignoring suffering and insult, I requested the guideline instructions to tame my self-grasping. Now even if I die, I have no regrets.” Pabongka’s edition also ends with this verse, but omits its first line, “From the awakening of karmic remainders from having previously trained.” Namkapel’s edition does not contain this verse.]

We have now concluded the transmission of the Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun. This is something very beneficial to the mind, a text on the methods that will lead us to become extremely happy. I often feel and tell people that I must be the happiest person in the world. It is half due to the position of Dalai Lama that I occupy and it is certainly half due to the attitude-training that I follow, which gives me the happiness and the courage to face all the difficulties that I bear on my shoulders. The preventive measures of Dharma are measures that we actually take, that we practice. We would all do well to devote our every effort to this.