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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Explanation of Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment > Session Five: Higher Discriminating Awareness, Manifesting the Result, and Tantra

Explanation of Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment

Alexander Berzin
Prague, Czech Republic, January 2003

Session Five: Higher Discriminating Awareness, Manifesting the Result, and Tantra

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:59 hours)

Additional Instructions for Gaining Concentration on a Visualized Buddha

Let me say a few words about gaining concentration by focusing with a visualization of a Buddha. When we do this, we need to be familiar with what a Buddha looks like and this could be based on seeing a painting of a Buddha or a statue. But when we visualize, we’re not looking at this image with our eyes, rather we are imagining it with our imaginations. Imagination here doesn’t mean that we make up something that is our own invention or fantasy. It’s based on what the standard image of a Buddha looks like, because the body of a Buddha has thirty-two major and eighty minor physical features that each has a deep significance, and so the form of a Buddha is very standardized. Each of these features represents one or another of the causes for achieving Buddhahood.

When we visualize a Buddha, we’re visualizing a very small figure, about a few centimeters high, three-dimensional, alive, but made of clear, transparent light. So, we’re not visualizing a painting, we’re not visualizing a statue, we’re not visualizing something solid. And we visualize it about an arm length away from us at the level of our mid-brow. And our eyes are neither closed, nor looking in the direction of what we’re visualizing, but rather our eyes are loosely focused looking down at the floor while we visualize at the level of our forehead. And once we choose the object and the appropriate size and so on, then we don’t change. We keep it like that.

Anyway, that’s just a little bit of information about how it’s done or what we do if we’ve not heard of that before. But obviously, if we want to actually practice this, we need much further instructions. Actually, it’s quite difficult for most of us in the West who don’t have so much familiarity with visualization. But what’s very important is, at the beginning, to have just very, very short sessions, just a couple minutes. Don’t try to push yourself to do this for too long, then there’s a danger of really upsetting the energies in the body by squeezing too hard or trying too hard. So, one has to be very careful.

Training in Higher Discriminating Awareness

The discussion of training in higher discriminating awareness starts with the second half of verse forty-one:

(41b) However, if you have failed to apply yourself
    to far-reaching discriminating awareness,
You will be unable to deplete the obscurations.

The concentration, a stilled and settled mind by itself and the advanced awarenesses by themselves are not enough for gaining enlightenment. To gain enlightenment we have to get rid of the two sets of obscurations. The first set is referring to the various disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes that we have and their seeds, karmic seeds or legacies. These obscurations prevent our liberation from samsara. They obscure our ability to see reality clearly.

And then the second set of obscurations are regarding all knowable phenomena. This second set of obscurations was what we were referring to yesterday in terms of our periscope vision. They prevent us from gaining enlightenment in the sense that they prevent us from being able to see all sentient beings and all the karmic connections and all the influences of everything on them and what effects all our teachings will have on various people, and so on. So, we need to get rid of this second set of obscurations in order to achieve enlightenment.

And in order to eliminate each of these sets of obscurations we need this discriminating awareness of voidness.

(42) Therefore, in order to rid yourself of all obscurations,
   without exception,
Regarding the disturbing emotions and knowable phenomena,
Always meditate on the yoga of far-reaching discriminating awareness
Together with methods.

If we speak of the obscurations preventing liberation as basically our ignorance or unawareness of voidness and the disturbing emotions and attitudes that come from that and the legacies from our previous unawareness that cause this to recur, then the obscurations that prevent omniscience refers to the habits of that unawareness. The habits are what causes things to appear as if they were truly existent or solidly existent – they go with the unawareness itself, where you grasp at it and believe it to exist in the way that it appears.

To get rid of both these sets of obscuration we need this discriminating awareness of voidness to get rid of our unawareness. And we need this in conjunction with the methods. Just sitting and gaining this discriminating awareness by itself is not sufficient.

(43) This is because discriminating awareness lacking methods
As well as methods lacking discriminating awareness
Have been said still to be bondage.
Therefore, never abandon having both.

If we have just this discriminating awareness of voidness, but we don’t actually involve ourself with methods of helping others and actually help others, then that just remains intellectual knowledge. We don’t actually apply it in a practical way. And in order for that discriminating awareness to get deeper and deeper, we need some positive force behind it; otherwise we’re not able to really get deeper insights. That discriminating awareness by itself, if we just approach it in a very dry way, without actually doing anything to build up positive energy, it’s not going to get deep enough.

Similarly “methods lacking discriminating awareness.” In other words, if we just try to help others as much as possible, but without that discriminating awareness in terms of what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate, how do they exist, how do we exist, and so on, then we can easily have our help degenerate into a big ego-trip and that also is not going to bring liberation or enlightenment. So, in either case it’s “said still to be bondage.” We need both; it says “never abandon having both.

Then what actually is this division between discriminating awareness and methods? Atisha elaborates this in the next two verses:

(44) To get rid of doubts concerning
What is discriminating awareness and what are methods,
I shall clarify the actual division
Between methods and discriminating awareness.

(45) The Triumphant One has explained that
Leaving aside far-reaching discriminating awareness,
All networks of constructive factors,
Such as far-reaching generosity and so forth, are the methods.

What’s usually called “method and wisdom” is defined in terms of the six far-reaching attitudes or perfections. So, the sixth of these, discriminating awareness, is obviously the discriminating awareness or wisdom side and the other five are the method side. Those five are far-reaching generosity, ethical discipline, patience, joyous perseverance, and mental constancy or concentration.

(46) It is by the power of having meditated on the methods that,
Through meditating thoroughly
    on something with discriminating awareness,
Someone with a (bodhichitta) nature can quickly attain enlightenment.
It does not come about by having meditated on
   the lack of inherent identity alone.

For our meditation on discriminating awareness to be able to cut through our unawareness and its legacies and its habits and so on, it needs to have a strong amount of positive force behind it. So we need a great deal of patience, we need a great deal of discipline, we need a great deal of perseverance, and obviously concentration, and so on, and generosity that we’re going to use this understanding to help others, give it to others.

If we have all of that, a strong positive force from that, then by “meditating on discriminating awareness,” that discriminating awareness will cut through the unawareness and habits. Then, if we have this “bodhichitta nature,” this Buddha-nature to achieve enlightenment, then we can “quickly attain enlightenment,” in other words, if we have this bodhichitta motivation. Just “meditating on the lack of inherent identity” by itself is not going to be sufficient, is not going to bring us enlightenment.

When we talk about inherent identity, this means that there is something inside an object – that’s what “inherent” means, that it’s inside the object – that by its own power makes the object what it is, gives it its identity. An example that I often use is: if we are driving a car or riding a bicycle and there’s somebody in a car on the road trying to pass us and beeping the horn very wildly and so on, then it seems to us, it appears to us that “this person is an idiot,” that there’s something wrong with this person inherently, on the side of the person, that makes them into an idiot.

It doesn’t appear to us at all that being an idiot arises dependently on the concept of “an idiot” and the situation that we’re in and all these sort of things. It seems that inherently there’s something wrong with this person; they really are an idiot, truly. So, that’s what we mean by inherent identity and that’s an impossible way of existing. Nothing exists as what it is by the power of something inside it making it what it is, independent of anything else.

Even if we look at it on a very basic level, the person in the car there is made of atoms, the atoms are made of little particles and energy – what’s inside there that’s making this person an idiot? Nothing. That absence of impossible ways of existing, that’s what voidness means. Voidness means there’s no such thing as this, completely absent, there never was this type of an impossible existence.

(47) Awareness of the voidness of inherent existence
That has come to realize that the aggregates, cognitive sources,
And cognitive stimulators lack (inherently existing) arising
Has been fully explained as discriminating awareness.

Now, we have to go a little bit quickly because we don’t have so much time, so I can’t explain absolutely everything here, but “aggregates, cognitive sources, and cognitive stimulators” are referring basically to everything that we experience in terms of body, mind, emotions, and so on.

[See: The Five Aggregate Factors of Experience, Twelve Cognitive Stimulators and Eighteen Cognitive Sources.]

Translator: Everything we experience...?

Answer: Body, mind, emotions, various sights, sounds that we hear, and so on.

When we speak about voidness, “voidness of inherent existence,” that there’s no such thing as these impossible ways of existing, then we’re talking about the inherent existence of everything that we experience. Like for example, we were talking about this idiot in the car next to us. Now, that’s an impossible way of existing, that this person inherently exists as an idiot, an inherently existent idiot. Let’s use an image here: it’s an idiot, somebody, with a solid line around them like out of a child’s coloring book, that “there they are,” a solidly existent, inherently existent idiot.

There’s no such thing, so obviously such an idiot couldn’t arise, you can’t have the birth of an inherently existent idiot, because there is no such thing as an inherently existent idiot. How could somebody like in a coloring book be born? Nobody exists that way. That total absence, which is what we mean by voidness – the discriminating awareness of that voidness is what we’re talking about here as far-reaching discriminating awareness.

(48) If things inherently existed (at the time of their causes),
   it would be illogical for them to have to arise.
Further, if they (inherently) did not exist at all
   (they could not be made to arise),
   like a flower out of space.
Moreover, because there would be the absurd conclusions
   of both these faults,
Things do not come about from being both
   (inherently existent and nonexistent
   at the time of their causes) either.

That’s filling in a bit from the actual words of the text. If we leave out what’s filled in here, then the verse would just read:

(48) If things inherently existed,
   it would be illogical for them to have to arise.
Further, if they did not exist at all,
   they would be like a flower out of space.
Moreover, because there would be the absurd conclusions
   of both these faults,
Things do not come about from being both either.

This is saying that in order to really gain this discriminating awareness of voidness, we need to have certainty about it, certainty that there is no such thing as these impossible ways of existing. We gain that certainty through logical conviction, through a process of inferential understanding, through logic. The logic is what’s called “the exclusion of the middle” in Western logic. It’s like, if something were inherently existent, it would have to be either this, or that, or both, or neither. And if it’s none of those, then there’s no alternative, so it’s impossible.

It’s saying, “If something inherently existed at the time of their cause, then it’s illogical for them to arise.” In other words, we’re looking now in terms of causation. So, if this person inherently existed as an idiot at the time of, for instance, this person’s birth, then there’s no reason for them to actually arise. That’s not a very good way of explaining it. Let me explain it in a different way. This is not really speaking in terms here like that. Here we don’t have to speak just in terms of an inherently existent identity as this or that, we just can speak in terms of inherently exists at all.

We’re talking about, on a more general level, how is it that something exists at all? Inherent existence would be that there’s something inside it that makes it exist in general. So, if things inherently existed – there’s something on its own side that made it exist, independent of anything else – then the question is, how could they ever arise? If something already existed by its own power at the time of its cause, then how could external circumstances and things bring about its existence? Because it would already exist.

The usual example is a sprout and a seed: if the sprout already existed at the time of its cause, at the time of the seed, then how could the sprout ever arise? There would be no need for it to arise, it already existed. And at the time of the seed, if you say that the sprout doesn’t exist at all and that it inherently doesn’t exist at all, that there’s something inside it that makes it inherently not exist by its own power. Then it could never arise at all; it would have to be like that always.

Translator: Could you repeat that point?

Answer: If that sprout inherently did not exist at the time of the seed, in other words, if there was something inside the sprout at the time of the seed that made it inherently by its own power not exist then, then it could never arise.

Nothing could make it arise, because there’s something already there that made it not exist by its own power, so nothing could affect that. So its creation would be like a “flower” magically appearing “out of space,” it couldn’t happen. And you’d have these “absurd conclusions of both these faults,” if you said, “Well, in one way it inherently exists, but from another point of view it really inherently doesn’t exist either.” That’s impossible as well.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The question is: how can someone with special powers, like Sai Baba, make things materialize, like a flower out of space, without a cause?

Well, things arise not on the basis of inherent existence – there’s no such thing as inherent existence. So he’s not making an inherently existent flower appear in space. There’s nothing on the side of the flower that makes it either inherently exist before he’s materialized it, or inherently not exist before he materializes it. Because there’s nothing on the side of that flower that makes it either inherently exist or inherently not exist, then through a combination of various methods, of his concentration and ability to control the elements and so on, then he’s able to materialize something or cause something to appear which does not inherently exist. It relatively exists, but it doesn’t have inherent existence.

So, this first line of reasoning is that things don’t either inherently exist, or inherently not exist, or both, or neither at the time of their cause. So, how do things arise?

(49) Phenomenal things do not arise from themselves,
Nor from something (inherently) different, nor from both.
Neither do they (arise) from no causes at all.
Because of this, everything by nature lacks inherent existence.

Let’s say the sprout, does it come from the seed? Well, is the sprout already in the seed and so it’s arising from itself? Well, that’s not possible. If something was already there, then how could it arise? That again doesn’t make any sense, that the cause is the same as the result.

And it can’t arise from something inherently different. If the cause has a big solid line around it and the effect has a big solid line around it and they exist totally by themselves by their own powers, then the effect couldn’t possibly arise from the cause. The cause couldn’t do anything. So it can’t arise from something different than itself.

And things don’t arise from either both themselves and something different, something that’s both itself and yet something different. And things don’t arise from neither, in other words “from no cause at all.” So, because of that, there’s no such thing as inherent existence in terms of things arising from self or from other.

(50) Furthermore, when you analyze all things
If they are (inherently) one or many,
Then since you cannot be aimed at anything that has existence
   from its own nature,
You can become certain of the nonexistence of inherent existence.

This is the argument of “neither one nor many,” and this is saying that if there was such a thing as inherent existence, there would have to be either just one thing or many things that inherently existed.

If we talk about “me” and “my identity,” let’s say as a father – I’m not a father, I don’t have children – but let’s say my identity is a father, and if these had inherent existence, me and father, with solid lines around it, then if there was such a thing as inherent existence, then there’d have to be either only one thing that inherently exists or many things that inherently exist. And so, if there’s only one thing that inherently existed, then me and father would have to be absolutely identical, just one thing, which would mean that I would have to be a father even before I had children, which is absurd.

And if there were many inherently existent things, then me would be one inherently existent thing, father would be another inherently existent thing. They’d have to be able to exist totally separately by their own power. So then who’s the father? It couldn’t be me. This means that that also is an impossible way of existing.

From all these different logical reasonings, we gain conviction: we’re convinced that although things appear to have inherent existence – this person in the car appears to be an idiot inherently, but that’s impossible, that’s not referring to anything real. Although it appears to us as though there’s inherent existence, nevertheless, as Atisha says, our mind is “not aimed at anything that actually does have inherent existence.” It’s like an illusion, it appears to be inherently existent, but it’s not. We’re not actually aimed at something that really has inherent existence, because that’s impossible.

Therefore we “can become certain of the nonexistence of inherent existence.” That’s voidness, that there is no such thing as inherent existence. When we focus on that absence, “there’s no such thing,” with conviction that it’s impossible, that’s the understanding of voidness, that’s the discriminating awareness of voidness. And then, when we’re really familiar with that, then we no longer believe that things actually exist in the way that they deceptively appear to us.

So, “Although that person appears to be like an idiot, an inherent idiot, I know that they don’t really exist like that. They are acting this way in terms of my concept of an idiot and all the circumstances and so on.” That understanding helps us to avoid getting angry; we don’t get angry. This is the way you get rid of the disturbing emotions.

And the more familiar we become with not believing in inherent existence, not being fooled by it, eventually our minds will stop making that appearance of inherent existence. Then we’re rid of the obscurations preventing omniscience – we are enlightened, an enlightened being.

But for our conviction, to be totally convinced that this is an impossible way of existing, inherent existence, we need to rely first on valid lines of reasoning, because the ordinary perception is not going to indicate that at all. These lines of reasoning come from texts, so Atisha says:

(51) Furthermore, the lines of reasoning in
The Seventy Stanzas on Voidness
And from The Root Text on the Middle Way and so forth
Explain as well how the nature of phenomenal things
Is established as voidness.

So he mentions some of the sources. Then he goes on:

(52) However, because this text would have become too long,
I have therefore not elaborated here.
What I have explained has been for the purpose of meditation
On merely a proven system of philosophical tenets.

So, he just mentions these things in brief, he says that it’s “for the purpose of meditation,” in other words, one has to meditate on this, really think about it, accustom it, and so on. And this is an explanation of reality which has been “proven,” in other words, it has been proven logically, it’s been proven then by experience, by valid experience. Once one is convinced that this is so, that gives us the opportunity to actually perceive this, to perceive things in this way. So, it has been proven; it’s not just an invalid set of philosophical tenets.

He summarizes:

(53) Thus, since you cannot be aimed at the inherent existence
Of any thing, without exception,
Meditation on the lack of inherent identity
Is meditation on discriminating awareness.

No matter what we focus on, nothing has inherent existence, nothing has an inherent identity. Then what about voidness itself? Does that have an inherent existence? And how do we actually go from a conceptual to a nonconceptual cognition of voidness? Those two questions are very much related to each other.

(54) With discriminating awareness, an inherent nature
Of any phenomenon is never seen;
And it is explained that the same is true regarding
   the actuality of discriminating awareness itself.
In this (way) meditate (on voidness) nonconceptually.

When we meditate on voidness, first we would gain a conceptual cognition of it. That conceptual cognition would be to focus on voidness through some idea of voidness. And so we meditate, “Well, there’s no such thing as inherent existence. That’s impossible and so there’s a total absence of it.” How do you focus on an absence? Well, you have some sort of idea of it: it’s sort of like empty space, an absence of everything. One focuses on voidness conceptually through an idea that represents voidness, namely an idea of some sort of empty space. That’s an idea of, “there’s no such thing,” a total absence.

But when we’re focusing conceptually like that, that idea itself of an absence, that can’t either have inherent existence. And when we talk about an absence, an absence can’t have something inside it that by its own power makes it a total absence. So when we focus conceptually on voidness and there’s some idea of an empty space, an absence, an idea of voidness, that as well lacks an inherent existence. We can’t really be aimed at an inherently existent absence of inherent existence; that’s impossible as well.

Shantideva says it very nicely in his text, Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Conduct. He says that when a mind is not focused on inherent existence and it can’t be focused on noninherent existence, so the voidness of inherent existence, either, as solidly existent objects, then mind can’t be aimed at anything like that – that’s nonconceptual cognition of voidness. The mind is not aimed at inherent existence, it’s not aimed at some representation of an absence of inherent existence, it’s not aimed at anything, it says.

But it has – this is absolutely one of the most important points here – it has, nevertheless, the conviction that there’s no such thing as inherent existence. In other words, to just be blank with no conviction, that’s useless. It still has that conviction – that’s left – that there’s no such thing as inherent existence. That’s the nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

When we understand the voidness of a phenomenon, we get a conceptual cognition of voidness. When we go further and get the cognition of the voidness of voidness, of that conceptual cognition of voidness, then we get the nonconceptual cognition of voidness. That’s what really will get rid of our unawareness, the cause of our problems and suffering.

(55) This compulsive existence which comes from conceptual thoughts
   (of inherent existence)
Has a true nature (merely fabricated) by these conceptual thoughts.
Therefore, the state of being rid of all these conceptual thoughts,
   without an exception,

Is the supreme Nirvana State Beyond Sorrow.

When we talk about grasping for true existence, for inherent existence, this is something which occurs in a manifest way only with conceptual cognition. Everybody accepts that. But the habits of that grasping for inherent existence are there while we have just a sense perception. So we’re not rid it by just getting nonconceptual sense cognition.

But we have it in a manifest form conceptually, with conceptual cognition. So, grasping for inherent existence means to grasp at things to exist inherently the way that they appear, so it means believing it. So, our “compulsive existence” in samsara, with all its problems, “comes from these conceptual thoughts,” in other words, the grasping for inherent existence.

And samsara “has a nature that’s merely fabricated by these conceptual thoughts,” in other words, that conceptual thought makes up that things exist in this impossible way in which they appear – and mind you, all conceptual thoughts have this grasping for inherent existence – and the habits of that is what makes the appearances of inherent existence. That also is indicated here, our samsara is “fabricated by these conceptual thoughts.

So, “the state of being rid of all these conceptual thoughts without an exception, that’s nirvana” – here referring to not just nirvana of liberation, but of enlightenment.

Atisha now supports his explanation with quotations from the Buddha:

(56) Like this as well, the Vanquishing Master Surpassing All has said,
Conceptual thought (of inherent existence) is great unawareness,
That which makes you fall into the ocean
   of uncontrollably recurring existence.

That’s samsara

By abiding in single-minded concentration
   devoid of conceptual thought (of inherent existence),
You will make clear (the mind) that is
   without these conceptions just as is space.”

The “Vanquishing Master Surpassing All,” that’s the meaning of the word bhagavan; vanquished, gotten rid of all the obscurations, mastered all the good qualities, and surpassed even Brahma.

So, Buddha said that when we have this conceptual thought, that this is unawareness. The conceptual thought itself has not only grasping for true existence... well, conceptual thought is not merely, as I say, just thinking verbally, the main point of it is that it has the grasping for inherent existence. That’s what is meant by “conceptual thought is great unawareness.

It is very important to identify what is the fault of conceptual cognition. The fault of it is not that it focuses on something through an idea of it, which is what conceptual cognition is – if you have no idea of what voidness means, how could you actually focus on it? So that’s not its fault. Its major fault is that it has grasping for inherent existence with it. That’s the troublemaker of it. So, it’s this grasping for inherent existence that comes with conceptual cognition, that conceptual cognition has as part of it, that makes you fall into samsara.

Atisha says to “stay in single-minded concentration devoid of this conceptual thought,” and the only way it can be devoid of this conceptual thought is with the understanding of voidness – not only voidness, but the voidness of voidness. By staying with this nonconceptual cognition of voidness, then that will clear the mind, so that it is “without these conceptions,” in other words, without grasping for inherent existence, “just as space is” free of that.

The second verse that Atisha quotes:

(57) Also, from The Dharani Formula
   for Engaging in the Nonconceptual, he has said,
“If the Offspring of the Triumphant

Offspring of the Triumphant means bodhisattvas

   involved in this pure Dharma practice
Were to contemplate this state
   of no conceptual thoughts (of inherent existence),
They would transcend these conceptual thoughts
   which are difficult to pass through
And would gradually attain the state of no such conceptions.”

That means that if you’re on the bodhisattva path, you really have to think about – this is “contemplate” – think about what it means to be nonconceptual, what actually is the point of nonconceptuality. When we really understand what it means to be nonconceptual then, through meditation in accordance with that correct understanding, we’ll be able to break through this level of conceptual cognition and “attain the state of no such conceptions,” in other words, nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

Remember, when we talk about nonconceptual cognition, there are two types. There’s nonconceptual sense cognition – seeing, hearing, etc. – these things are automatically nonconceptual, but they’re still accompanied by unawareness. We’re unaware of how what we’re seeing exists. That’s not what we’re aiming for, to just have nonconceptual sense cognition; we have that anyway. What we’re aiming for is nonconceptual cognition of voidness; that’s what we’re aiming for, and that’s only attained by getting rid of grasping for inherent existence. So, we have to understand very clearly what it means, this “state of no conceptions.

(58) When you have become certain,
   by these quotations and lines of reasoning,
That all things are devoid of inherent existence
And without an (inherently existent) arising,
Meditate in a state of no conceptual thoughts (of inherent existence).

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The question is: isn’t voidness of voidness also a conception?

We could have a concept of it, that’s true, but what we’re talking about here is not the idea of the voidness of voidness, we’re talking about what you actually experience in meditation. Because when you have no conception of inherent existence and then you get rid of the concept of the absence of inherent existence, then there’s no concept left. Then you get non-conception. He’s talking about the actual process in meditation.

So, that completes the section on higher discriminating awareness.

Manifesting the Result

(59) When you have meditated on actuality like this

This is referring to voidness

And have gradually attained the heat (stage) and so forth,
You will then attain (the stage of) extremely joyous one and so on,
And the enlightenment of Buddhahood will not be far.

In the stages to enlightenment one passes through five paths – these are pathway minds, in other words, five different levels of mind, of understanding. You achieve the first of these, a pathway mind of accumulating or building up, when – if you’re following this in a Mahayana way – when you have uncontrived bodhichitta; in other words you don’t have to build up to it with all the meditation lines of reasoning. You’re able to just automatically have it.

And then you’re building up or accumulating, basically, the two enlightenment-building networks more and more and you’re working to gain shamatha, the stilled and settled state of mind, and vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, which has a correct understanding of voidness. So, that’s what you’re working on on this first path.

When we actually gain that shamatha and vipashyana, in other words, when we gain the perfect concentration with the correct understanding of voidness – first it’s going to be a conceptual cognition of voidness – then we achieve the second path, which is the path of application or a path of preparation – we’re applying the skills that we’ve learned in the first path, that we’ve developed in the first path, going deeper and deeper with the understanding of voidness. So, that second state or path has various stages and “heat stage” is the first of these.

So what it’s saying is that “when you’ve meditated on voidness and then gradually you attain the heat stage,” that means the conceptual cognition of voidness, then we achieve nonconceptual cognition of voidness and then we start progressing through the ten bodhisattva stages, the ten bhumis. And the first of these is the “extremely joyous one.” So he says, “and then,” basically after you achieve the conceptual cognition of the heat stage, the conceptual cognition of voidness, “you attain the extremely joyous one,” that’s the nonconceptual cognition of voidness, and then, it says, “the enlightenment of Buddhahood will not be far.

Then we have to proceed to the fourth path, which is the path of meditation or accustoming ourselves to this nonconceptual cognition of voidness so that we’re going to be able to have it all the time, not just in meditative absorption, and that we are able to cut through everything that’s blocking enlightenment.

Buddhahood will not be far” – the fifth path is the path of no more training, when you actually achieve Buddhahood. But although it’s possible to achieve enlightenment in this way, it’s going to take a very, very long time. We have to build up positive force over what’s called “three countless eons,” that’s three zillion eons of time.

The first zillion eons is to get the nonconceptual cognition of voidness; the second is with that to get rid of the obscurations preventing liberation, so in other words, no more grasping for true existence at all. And then the third is to get rid of the appearances, the appearance-making of true existence, that our mind makes the appearances of true existence. So it’s the third zillion eons to get rid of the obscurations preventing enlightenment.

Translator: In the first you get the...?

Answer: ...the nonconceptual cognition of voidness. So you get rid of the intellectual grasping for true existence, the true existence which is based on conceptual thought; it’s made up by concepts of strange systems, propaganda, philosophical systems and so on. That’s the first.

Translator: The second is getting rid of also the conceptual?

Answer: No, let me say it more slowly, I’m sorry. The first zillion eons is to get the nonconceptual cognition of voidness. So, when we first get that, then we no longer have grasping for true existence that’s based on conceptual frameworks. But we still have automatically arising grasping for true existence. So the second set of a zillion eons is required to get rid of that. Then, when we’ve gotten rid of that, we are rid of the obscurations preventing liberation, in other words, we’re liberated, we’re an arhat.

But we’re still left with our mind making appearances of inherent existence due to the habits of grasping for true existence. That appearance-making of inherent existence is what prevents enlightenment or omniscience. So it takes the third set of zillion eons of building up more and more positive force so that our nonconceptual cognition of voidness will get rid of those obscurations. Because basically, if we’re able to stay focused nonconceptually on voidness always, absolutely forever, then no more appearance-making of inherent existence, it’s finished.


That’s going to take a very long time, three zillion eons, and if our bodhichitta is really, really strong, then we want to find a method which is going to build up this positive force more efficiently and quickly. This would mean that we would need to engage in anuttarayoga.

(60) If, however, through actions such as pacifying,
Stimulating, and so forth, attained from the force of mantras
And through the power as well
   of the eight great actual attainments and so on,
Such as actualization of an excellent vase and so forth,

These are all methods for building up a tremendous amount of positive force very quickly.

(61) And through a blissful awareness,

that’s yet another method for building up great positive force

   you wish to fully complete
The enlightenment-building networks,

In other words, through all of these things we want to build up this tremendous positive force to be able to break through unawareness and these habits and so on that would normally take three zillion eons – we want to do that.

And if you wish also to practice the actions of the secret mantras
Discussed in the kriya, charya, and so forth classes of tantra,

So we want to be able to follow all the procedures of tantra which will bring us enlightenment more quickly. So, if we want all of that and so we want to follow the tantra path, the highest tantra path,

(62) Then, in order to be conferred the (vajra) master empowerment,
Please your hallowed guru by all such things
As respectful service, giving him precious substances, and so on,
And doing what he says.

For practicing tantra we need an empowerment, which is usually called “initiation,” which basically is to activate our Buddha-natures. There are many, many different parts of a tantric empowerment. For the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, there are four empowerments: vase empowerment, secret empowerment, deep discriminating awareness empowerment, sometimes called wisdom empowerment, and the fourth empowerment. The vase empowerment has two basic parts, the vajra disciple empowerments – there’s five of them – and the “vajra master empowerment.”

The first class of tantra, kriya, has only the first two of the five vajra disciple empowerments; charya tantra, the second class, has all five vajra disciple empowerments; yoga tantra has the vajra master empowerment as well, so it has the complete vase empowerment; and anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class, has all four empowerments, the complete vase empowerment and then the other three as well. It’s only when we receive the vajra master empowerment that we take and receive the tantric vows – so that’s only with yoga tantra and anuttarayoga tantra, the two highest classes.

Now remember, Atisha was teaching at a time where people were practicing tantra very wildly with a great deal of misunderstanding. So he put a big emphasis on keeping vows and following the vows if one is going to practice either the Mahayana sutra path of bodhisattvas or the tantra path – the tantra path is also Mahayana bodhisattva path. So he emphasized you have to keep one level of the pratimoksha vows, individual liberation, a huge emphasis on the bodhisattva vows, and here, by pointing out the vajra master empowerment, he’s putting the emphasis on the tantric vows as well.

So indirectly he’s saying that if you really want to achieve enlightenment through tantra, really you need to take the tantric vows and that’s with the vajra master empowerment. That’s why he specifies that specific empowerment out of all the stages of empowerment.

Now, in order to have success on the tantric path, we absolutely need the guidance of a fully qualified tantric master and the main reason for that is that the tantric master not only guides us in our practice, but provides the inspiration which will awaken the Buddha-nature and which will continue to cause that Buddha-nature to grow and grow through our practice. That inspiration from the spiritual teacher is absolutely essential. And so it’s very important to have a very pure, close bond with the tantric master.

That word “close bond” is the Sanskrit word samaya or the Tibetan word damtsig (dam-tshig). To have that close bond it’s important to “please” the teacher and so what pleases the teacher is “respectful service,” in other words, you help the teacher in whatever way that you can. And you make offerings to the teacher so the teacher doesn’t have to go out and work a regular job in order to make money; the teacher is supported so that the teacher can spend full time in teaching and helping others. And the main way to please the teacher is “to do what the teacher says” in terms of our practice; it doesn’t mean to become a mindless slave like in the army.

(63) By being conferred the complete (vajra) master empowerment
From having pleased your guru,
You will purify yourself completely of all negative forces
And, in nature, become endowed with the proper share
   to achieve the actual attainments.

When we’ve established that close bond with the teacher – by thoroughly examining the teacher, we’re fully convinced that the teacher has all the qualities of a tantric master, they’re fully qualified, and we’ve established a close bond with that teacher and then we receive the empowerments, then that empowerment will help us to “purify negative forces” and to gain the activation of our Buddha-nature, which will allow us “to achieve the actual attainments,” not only the ones along the way that are mentioned earlier with the excellent vase and so on, but the greatest supreme actual attainment of enlightenment.

Remember, in Tibet there was a great deal of abuse of tantra, misunderstanding of tantra, by taking the sexual imagery literally, particularly in terms of monks who have vows of abstinence, of celibacy. And in anuttarayoga tantra, after the vase empowerment, we have the secret and the discriminating awareness or deep discriminating awareness empowerments.

In anuttarayoga we are trying to generate a blissful awareness, an extremely blissful state of mind, through an inner yoga dealing with the energy channels within the body, because that blissful awareness is a state of mind that is conducive, that’s helpful for making the energy winds of the body more and more subtle, which then is going to help us to be able to bring those energy winds into the central channel to dissolve them so that we’re able to manifest the most subtle level of consciousness – that’s called clear light – which is far more subtle than any conceptual mind and so it’s the level of mind that is the most efficient for gaining nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

So, this blissful awareness that we want to generate is something which is generated, as I said, through an inner, very sophisticated, unbelievably difficult yoga with the energies of the body. That blissful awareness is represented by sexual bliss and sexual bliss can stimulate or help to bring on this blissful awareness. But it’s not something which is actually practiced literally, particularly not by those with vows of celibacy, monks and nuns.

And obviously in Tibet, monks and nuns were taking all of this literally and indulging in various sexual type of behavior, particularly during empowerments. And so that occurs specifically in the secret and the discriminating awareness empowerment. The secret one is one which involves something that’s done on the part of the teacher, and in the discriminating awareness something that’s done on the part of the disciple. And so Atisha says:

(64) Because it has been strictly prohibited
From The Great Tantra of the Primordial Buddha,

That’s referring to the Kalachakra Tantra that Atisha studied in Sumatra when he went there, in Indonesia.

(64´) The secret and discriminating awareness empowerments
Are not to be (conferred or) received (in a literal fashion)
   by those who are abstinent.

He’s making it very, very clear. The secret one, where the disciples have a taste of the blissful awareness of the teacher, is not to be done in a literal fashion and so it’s represented by tasting a little bit of yoghurt and tea. And in the discriminating awareness empowerment, in which the disciple is instructed to have his or her own experience of a blissful awareness, this is done in terms of visualization of being in union, not literally being in union with somebody. If one were to do these things in a literal fashion, particularly if one were a monk or a nun with vows of celibacy, then that would be completely improper, so Atisha says:

(65) If you were to take these empowerments so conferred

in other words, in a literal fashion

While living according to the ascetic practice of abstinence,
You would be committing prohibited actions
And because of that, your vows of asceticism would degenerate.
(66) In other words, as a practitioner of tamed behavior
You would contract the downfalls of total defeats
And since you would definitely fall to one of the worse rebirth states,
You would never have any attainments.

So, he’s saying very strongly that this is not to be done in a literal fashion at all. This would be completely violating all the vows. And the way that it’s practiced actually is that this is the case not only for those with vows of celibacy, but for everybody. None of this is ever to be practiced in a literal fashion. And Atisha says this quite specifically, saying that when you receive this in a nonliteral fashion, don’t think that you haven’t actually received the empowerment.

(67) However, if you have received (in a nonliteral fashion)
The conferral of the (vajra) master empowerment
    and are aware of actuality,
There is no fault in your actions of listening
   to all the tantras, explaining them,
Performing fire pujas, making offering pujas, and so forth.

Starting with the vajra master empowerment in which you visualize, you imagine that you’re embracing a partner, from there – the implication is that you’re keeping the tantric vows, it’s conferred there – so if you do that “and you’re aware of actuality,” in other words, through the whole process of the empowerment one is working with the understanding of voidness and so it’s the combination of the understanding of voidness with a blissful awareness – if one is doing that on the basis of this being nonliteral, visualization and so forth, then one has actually received the empowerment.

As a result of that, “then there’s no fault in” doing all the things that the empowerment qualifies us for, which he lists here, “listening to the tantras, explaining them, performing fire pujas and offering pujas, and so forth.

Then, the conclusion of the text:

I, the Elder Shri Dipamkara,

That’s Atisha’s name.

having seen (everything to be) as is explained from the Dharma teachings of the sutras and so on, and having been requested by Jangchub-wo, have composed this abbreviation of the explanation of the path to enlightenment.
This concludes A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment composed by the Great Master Dipamkara Shrijnana. It was translated, edited, and finalized by the Indian Abbot himself (Dipamkara Shrijnana) and the Tibetan translator monk Geway-lodro.

In other words, Atisha helped to translate it into Tibetan.

This Dharma (text) was composed at the Toling Temple in Zhang-zhung.

In other words, in west Tibet, where Atisha was invited and where he went.

It’s the Tibetan custom to read the first lines of the text again as an auspicious sign that we will continue studying this further in the future.

A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, in Sanskrit Bodhipathapradipam, in Tibetan Jangchub lamgyi dronma (Byang-chub lam-gyi sgron-ma).

I prostrate to the Bodhisattva Youthful Manjushri.
Having prostrated most respectfully to all the Triumphant
   of the three times,
To their Dharma and to the Sangha community,
I shall light a lamp for the path to enlightenment,
Having been urged by my excellent disciple, Jangchub-wo.

I myself studied this text first with my main teacher Serkong Rinpoche and then, afterwards, also I listened to teachings on this text from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

So, that concludes the teaching on this text, requested by Khyongla Rato Rinpoche. I’m really very happy and appreciative, in fact, for this opportunity to meet with you and to offer you this explanation. And even if there are things in this which we might not understand yet, particularly in terms of the teachings on voidness, this is a start and it gives us a general idea of the graded stages.

As we’ve seen, one of the main things that Atisha is emphasizing throughout the text is ethical self-discipline – this is very, very important – in other words, if we want to make progress and eliminate problems in our lives, we need to take control of what we do, how we speak, and how we think and use our human ability to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And when we know from our own experience and from the experience of the great masters of the past and the Buddha what is harmful, what causes harm and suffering to ourselves and others, then to avoid that. And when we know what’s helpful, to practice that.

Just as we don’t take the appearances of inherent existence literally, even though things appear that way to us, but we try to understand more deeply how things actually exist, similarly in Buddhist writings, particularly in tantra, we don’t just take the appearance of things literally in terms of various teachings. Whether we’re talking about the sexual imagery in tantra or we’re talking about amazing stories from the biographies of great masters and so on, we need to look more deeply to see what actually is the meaning behind all of this, so that with our feet firmly on the ground, based on reality and being realistic, we can follow the path to enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Are there any final questions?

If not, let’s end with a dedication.

We think, whatever understanding we’ve gained, may that go deeper and deeper and act as a cause not to just improve our samsaric situation, but act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.