Becoming Our Mother Versus Becoming a Buddha

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Today we’re going to discuss a very important topic: How do we develop bodhichitta for the first time? Is it free will, determinism, or something else? You see, if our motivation is to help all beings and in order to do that we need to become liberated and attain enlightenment, the question is: How does that happen? Is it a matter of just free will – we can just choose to do that? Is it determined already – either Buddha has prophesied it or somehow it comes from karma or from some other mechanistic explanation?

I’ve written a whole lecture on this, and also given two seminars on the question of free will versus determinism. What I would like to do in today’s sessions is introduce you to analytical meditation about that.

[See: Why Haven't We All Become Enlightened Already? See also: Analysis of Free Will Versus Determinism, as well as Karma: Neither Free Will Nor Determinism]

What I’ve written is rather long, and I don’t think it would be so helpful to just read it to you, but what I would propose to do is to just go through it slowly, because the important point I think is to get some training in how we analyze such difficult problems, because you can’t just look it up in some book (they don’t really discuss these sorts of topics in the traditional treatments of Tibetan Buddhism). So we will get as far as we can, and then hopefully you have gained a little bit of the tools so that you can go on further yourself if you like. After all, the whole point of coming here is to learn. And for going on the Buddhist path, the way that one learns is to be given the tools, and then one learns to use them oneself, because the path of spiritual development is one of self-development. We learn to analyze and work ourselves to reach enlightenment. That way, through our effort and inspiration (guidance from our teachers), we can develop all the way to enlightenment.

Now to analyze, we need a great many tools, and this means we need to have at our fingertips a great deal of the basic information of the Buddhist teachings. That’s why study is so important. For instance we can study the lam-rim (the graded stages of the path), but that’s not a onetime process. You learn things, and then you take everything from the entire lam-rim and go back to the very beginning and try to fit everything that comes later into each of the points as you go through again, and then you fit in all the Madhyamaka studies and all the other things that you’ve studied.

You see, in the way in which we study Dharma, it’s like being given pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. So we have all these little pieces, and what we need to learn to do is to put them together, and they go together in many different ways, not just in one way. That’s why I often use the term network, because all of these things network together and reinforce each other in so many multidimensional ways. The more things that we can factor into this network, the deeper our understanding and insight will be, until eventually we develop the omniscient mind of a Buddha, in which everything, all knowledge and understanding, is networked together into the omniscient awareness of a Buddha. So it’s an adventure. If one looks at it as an adventure rather than as a difficult task, then we can develop joyful perseverance. You enjoy working with this. So let’s begin our adventure today.

Neither Free Will Nor Determinism

Samsara is referring to uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and it has no beginning, yet there can be a first time when we develop a bodhichitta aim. Those are two things that are quite difficult to put together: no beginning of the mental continuum, and yet there’s a beginning of when we first develop bodhichitta. Of course, from the translation what comes up is that you use the expression beginningless time. Time then becomes a very difficult issue here, so I don’t want to go into too much detail about that – I have a lot of material on my website concerning the Buddhist concept of time – but it’s very different from our conventional Western ideas of time, because we’re not talking about time as a container, that things happen inside this container and that container has no beginning. That’s certainly not the Buddhist way of looking at things, and nor is it the modern scientific way of looking at it either. But what we’re talking about are continuums – mental continuums, continuums of universes, matter, energy and so on – and these continuums have no beginning. A continuum can’t have a beginning, that a nothing starts to become a something. That’s the problem with an absolute beginning. A nothing can’t become a something.

So in any case, how does the decision arise to aim to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings if it happens for the first time? Is it a matter of free will – we choose to aim for enlightenment? Is it all determined by our karma and it happens mechanistically, and so we have no choice – it sort of just happens? Or is it much more complex than that? Neither free will nor determinism, however, explains how we make decisions and choices. Both of these are extreme positions. For this we need to apply our voidness meditation on it.


When we talk about voidness, what we’re referring to is an absence. We’re talking just about an absence. So an absence of what? What is absent is that what we imagine, what we project, does not correspond to reality. What is absent, then, is an actual referent that corresponds to what we imagine. There’s no such thing. We imagine things that are impossible, specifically what is impossible and specifically impossible ways of existing. For instance, that things exist all by themselves, independent of anything else, as if encapsulated in plastic and then just sort of sitting there. That doesn’t correspond to reality. No such thing. So voidness is an absence of that.

So we’re not talking about a glass that is empty of water. That’s why the word emptiness is misleading, this English word empty. You see, in German it’s quite easy: you only have one word. In English there are two words, empty and void; those are very different in meaning. We’re not talking about something that is empty of something else. We’re talking about nothing. It’s just absent. There is no such thing. (The word shunya in Sanskrit is the word for zero, nothing.) But it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing. It just means that what’s impossible doesn’t exist.

Free Will

So when we talk about free will, what does free will imply? It implies a truly existent me that can make decisions independently, without being affected by causes and conditions. It also implies decisions existing independently by themselves – like choices on a menu, and the independently existing me can just choose on the menu these independently existing choices. But that’s impossible. If such a me existed, it would be like encapsulated in plastic, and these choices would be encapsulated in plastic, and there could never be an interaction. Anything that exists independently means that it can’t do anything. It can’t be affected by deciding to do something. It can’t be affected by having done something and then something results from it. It can’t be affected by anything. So “No such thing.” The alternative of free will is actually impossible if we take free will quite literally (that you can do anything). So let us digest that for a few minutes.

I’ll give an example: You can’t choose to eat unless there is some condition, like you’re hungry or there’s food on the table and this is the only opportunity to eat. You can’t choose to eat unless there’s food there. You see, when you analyze you have to think of further examples to demonstrate the point, and you try to come up with counterexamples that would disprove the statement.

The conclusion, by the way, of any type of analysis like this is to focus on “No such thing.” That’s how we focus on voidness. For example, Father Christmas. A lot of people think that there is Father Christmas. There’s that convention. Very nice, but it doesn’t correspond to anything real. There is no Father Christmas living at the North Pole with reindeer, if you have that myth here in Germany. (Santa Claus lives at the North Pole with reindeer. I don’t know if Father Christmas does.) So there’s no such thing. It doesn’t correspond to reality. No such thing. There is no such thing as Father Christmas. How do you focus on that? I mean, I didn’t want this to be a lecture on voidness, but it’s useful. Can you see that there is no apple on this table? What do you see? Nothing. You see nothing on the table, but you know what that nothing is referring to: it means no apple, an absence of an apple; it doesn’t mean an absence of an elephant. So what appears is nothing, but what you understand is that this means there’s no Santa Claus, no Father Christmas.

So it’s the same thing: no free will, absolute free will (you can do anything with absolutely no reason behind it). We’re not refuting decision-making. Decision-making occurs. We’re talking about how decision-making occurs. So “No such thing.” Focus on that. Basically you don’t pay attention to what your eyes see. We’re not focusing on a visual nothing. Mental. All right? So you don’t pay attention to what you’re seeing. Good.

There are many reasons why in Tibetan Buddhism we encourage people to meditate with their eyes open not shut. One of the reasons is a very Mahayana reason: If, in order to remember and be mindful of voidness or compassion or whatever in daily life, you had to shut your eyes first, it would be impossible to apply the teachings in daily life. Let that sink in. If you’re in the custom of having to shut your eyes in order to feel love and compassion, please. People don’t realize that actually. They get into a really heavy habit of always shutting their eyes: “Don’t bother me. I’m meditating.” You shut out the world. It’s not very Mahayana. I think that’s worthy of a few moments of reflecting.


OK, now the other extreme is determinism. If one has studied Madhyamaka, the teachings on voidness, then that enables us to fit this concept of determinism (which is a Western phrase) into some sort of category that would suit it in the Madhyamaka type of analysis of voidness. This is very, very important. Our Western way of thinking, which of course will differ from country to country – but if we can speak in general, our Western way of thinking conceptualizes our experience in quite a different way than traditional Buddhism does. I mean, there are so many things that we experience that it would be very, very difficult to say in Tibetan, for example – even simple words like insecurity, let alone things like “I’m out of touch with my feelings” (which makes absolutely no sense in Tibetan).

So it’s important to be able to somehow fit our way of thinking of things into the Buddhist system in order to be able to use the Buddhist system to help us, and of course there won’t be a one-to-one correspondence. That’s really the key to being able to use our Buddhist tools for helping us in our daily life, because we conceptualize our experience differently.

Conceptualize. Let me at least clarify that word since so many people have really a very confused understanding of that. Conceptual just means “thinking with categories.” That’s all that it’s referring to. We think in categories, like the category of man, woman, dog, apple, anything. All of them are categories in which there are many, many individual examples of it which are all individual and different and yet we can put them together into a category: man, woman. So we put our emotional experience into categories: insecurity, nervousness, depression, whatever. And of course we need to have these categories, because that’s what words are assigned to. We assign words to categories. You don’t have a different word for every apple in the universe; you have the word apple that can be used for all of them.

So we categorize things differently. How would we categorize determinism? Determinism implies that the result truly exists already findable in the cause, truly existent there, sitting there just waiting to pop out and become manifest. It’s already determined, what’s going to happen, what I’m going to choose. So that decision is sort of sitting there, like sort of offstage, waiting to come onstage and happen, and then it will go offstage.

So if that were the case… We have the Buddhist refutation of this, the classic refutation that you find in all the texts: If that were the case, the result would already have been produced, and so it could not be affected by any condition to arise. No conditions could cause it to arise, because it’s arisen already. Moreover, there would be no need for something to arise again which has already arisen. How could a decision happen if it’s already sitting in your mind and it’s happened? Remember truly existent means like encapsulated in plastic, if you want to think of it in very simplistic terms. (When I pause, that means “think about it,” obviously.)

OK. So if everything is determined then, in a sense, everything has happened already, and it totally destroys any timeline: nothing could develop, nothing could grow. Like a flower. It’s not that the flower exists inside the seed and you just press a button and it pops out. The Buddhist method: use absurd examples.

This last refutation, the refutation of determinism, we can fit into another format of voidness analysis, which is: The result neither is truly existent nor totally nonexistent at the time of the cause. If it truly exists, if the result already exists, then something can’t become itself again (it already exists). We’re talking about at the time of the cause. If at the time of the cause the result already exists, it couldn’t happen again. On the other hand, if the result were totally nonexistent at the time of the cause, a nothing can’t become a something. How could a nothing be affected to become a something if it were totally nonexistent at the time of the cause?

That, by the way – sorry, I can’t resist to add this – is a very, very important thing to understand if we are going to consider the case of abortion. When does life begin? It’s a very difficult question. Is it that, for a certain period of time during the early pregnancy, it’s a nothing, and then all of a sudden it becomes a something, a human being? Is it first a nothing and then a something? If it’s a nothing, how could it become a something? And then there are many, many things that follow in the analysis of that, but I won’t go into that. I’ll let you play with that. A very, very interesting and important analysis to apply if you’re going to consider the whole case of what’s the Buddhist position about abortion.

Why Has Everyone Already Been Our Mothers, But Not Everyone Has Already Attained Enlightenment?

OK. So if neither free will nor determinism is the case in making decisions and choices, then our discussion really comes down to an analysis of how does decision-making occur, such as the decisions involved in developing bodhichitta for the first time (this is the decision to aspire and work toward enlightenment for the benefit of all). I’d like to discuss this issue in terms of a larger question, a very difficult question. It’s based on certain assumptions that we have in Buddhism. We are not now questioning the basic axioms or beliefs of Buddhism. We are taking these axioms and now putting them together and saying how do we explain something further. In other words, we’re putting together some pieces of the puzzle and now we’re trying to figure out what does this imply – how do we fit some other pieces into here?

If our mental continuums have no beginning, and consequently everyone has been our mother in some previous life, then why hasn’t everyone decided to develop bodhichitta and attained enlightenment already? Beginningless time wasn’t time enough? That’s the question. Think about that. That really is an important question.

OK, let’s give the fuller question, putting a few more pieces together. Given that

  • there’s no beginning to the continuum (so in just our ordinary language we would say that time is beginningless, although time is not a container),
  • the number of limited beings or sentient beings is finite,
  • everybody is equal,
  • there have always been Buddhas, with no beginning,

given all of that, those pieces of the puzzle, then the question: Why hasn’t everybody become enlightened already? Beginningless time, limited beings. So as each person becomes enlightened, there are less – there’s countless minus one, countless minus two, etc. No beginning.

This is a very different situation from the other question: Given that time is beginningless, the number of limited beings is finite, everyone is equal, how do we prove that everybody’s been my mother at some time? Because that’s accepted in Buddhism. It is accepted in Buddhism that everybody’s been my mother, and it also is stated that not everybody has become enlightened already. How do you prove both? These are what you analyze when you’re doing analytical meditation. Why? To get rid of doubts. So what’s the difference?

Why All Beings Have Been Our Mothers

In the case of being my mother – if we analyze this situation – the difference is that there is no beginningless, mutually exclusive opposing force preventing anyone from being my mother. Nothing beginningless needs to be overcome in order to become my mother. Moreover, in every life that I’ve been born from a womb or an egg, I’ve had a mother, so I’ve had an infinite number of mothers. That’s the difference, one of the differences.

To become enlightened you have to overcome unawareness or ignorance. This unawareness prevents enlightenment, but there’s nothing that prevents somebody from being my mother. What’s the opposite (like awareness and unawareness)? There’s no mutually exclusive opposite preventing someone becoming my mother. OK?

So now the proof that everybody’s been my mother. It’s a prasanga style of proof. My students and I came up with this – you’re not going to find this in any text – but I’ve checked this proof with some geshes, and they agree that this is a valid proof. Here’s the proof:

If one being has been my mother, then all beings have been my mother, because everyone is equal and there’s no beginningless opposing force that needs to be overcome in order to become my mother. Right? To prove something: here’s the subject, what you want to prove about it, and the reason. All right? If one person’s been my mother, everybody’s been my mother, because we’re all equal, etc. Now the prasanga method (then you give the opposite): If that were not the case, then if one being has not been my mother, then the absurd conclusion would follow that no one has ever been my mother, including my mother of this lifetime, for the exact same reason – because everybody is equal and no beginningless opposing force had to be overcome in order to become my mother. So you have to think about that. If one has been my mother, then everybody has been my mother, because if one has not been my mother, nobody’s been my mother. That’s a prasanga method of proof. Think about that.

OK. So here’s the important point with this argument. If one’s been my mother, everyone has been my mother, because nothing is preventing it and we’re all equal. Everyone’s equal and nothing is preventing it. (And that also would prove that if one has not been my mother, nobody’s been my mother.) Because we’re all equal and nothing is preventing it, so why should that one not have become my mother? So nothing would have prevented that one who wasn’t my mother from being my mother. You have to understand the prasanga way of thinking.

I hope that you are getting the idea here that when you study Nagarjuna’s texts and so on, which I know you’re studying here, which have all these prasanga type of arguments, that you learn that they are not just something that sits in a textbook, they’re not something which is a method of analysis and proof that is just limited to what is discussed in the texts, but it is a tool that we can use for analyzing and understanding many, many other things.

Why Everyone Has Not Already Attained Enlightenment

OK. Now, the case of why hasn’t everybody become liberated and enlightened already is different. What’s different here? The difference is that here there are mutually exclusive opposing forces, beginningless ones, that prevent liberation and enlightenment – the two obstacles or obscurations, emotional and cognitive – so unawareness or ignorance, grasping for truly established existence, their tendencies, their habits, and so on. And all limited beings, all sentient beings, are equal in having had this unawareness and grasping as part of their mental continuums also with no beginning. So that has to be factored into our equation.

So now – the classic Indian style of commentary and analysis – a doubt arises. You have to consider the doubt. This is naturally what would come up in your meditation, in your analysis. I’ll just say it very simply first: Well, everybody’s had beginningless ignorance, but hasn’t everybody had beginningless Buddha-nature? So let me say it in a fuller way: We’re all equal in having, with no beginning, as part of our mental continuums, the Buddha-nature factors that will allow for this unawareness and grasping to be stopped forever, that will allow us to overcome these beginningless obscurations.

This is referring to what I call the network of positive force (bsod-rnams-kyi tshogs) and network of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs). That’s usually called collection of merit and collection of wisdom (or insight or whatever you want to call it). I chose those terms very consciously that I use for these. We’re not talking about a collection like a collection of stamps, that if you get enough stamps then you win a prize or something like that. And merit sounds like stamps, doesn’t it, or points in a game – and if we get enough points, if we get enough merit, we win the game. It’s certainly not that. You get the prize, enlightenment, that’s right, but it’s positive force, and all this positive force will network and reinforce with each other.

And wisdom or insight is completely inappropriate, because the earthworm has this as well, so you can’t say the earthworm has wisdom. We’re just talking about the ways in which the mind functions here, being able to take in information, put things together, know what to do with things, and so on. They’re very deep in the sense that it’s the fundamental way in which the mind works. And of course it can become deep in another sense, of profound (understanding voidness).

So these are the Buddha-nature factors. We have these two networks. You can prove that. How do you prove it? Don’t just accept that it says that in the text. You have to prove it. What is the main thing that ripens from positive force? (The basic teachings on karma – now you have to remember them.) Happiness. Because we have all at some point, no matter how miserable we are, experienced some moments of happiness, that demonstrates that we have a network of positive force. All right? What are the laws of karma? Happiness is the result of positive force. Unhappiness – suffering – is the result of negative force. You see, that becomes a little bit difficult if you’re thinking in these terms of merit and sin; it doesn’t work like that. And everybody has a network of deep awareness, because we can take in information, we can put things together. Even an earthworm knows when it sees something that it’s food not a rock, and it knows what to do with it. It knows to eat it, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t call that wisdom.

So we have these beginningless networks and beginningless voidness, the deepest nature of the mind. However, the two networks (beginningless) and beginningless unawareness and grasping for truly established existence – what do you get? Put the two together, what do you get? Samsara. Uncontrollably recurring rebirth and suffering. This is because, unless accompanied by renunciation or both renunciation and bodhichitta, the networks of positive force and deep awareness are samsara-building networks. So that’s a problem, isn’t it? Without renunciation or renunciation and bodhichitta, the mechanism that we have there will just perpetuate samsara. Nasty, isn’t it?

Now I have to introduce something before we have our tea break. According to Haribhadra’s commentary on Maitreya’s Abhisamayalamkara (The Filigree of Realizations)… That’s the main thing. The Tibetans study it for five years in their geshe program. Haribhadra’s commentary is the main commentary to it, an Indian commentary. It’s the text that talks about the most minute points of what one develops on these stages of the path. So anyway, in this commentary he explains the Sanskrit word that the Tibetans translated with this word which means either collection or network and so on. Just because the Tibetans translated it one way doesn’t mean that that’s really the connotation of the Sanskrit. They just take one connotation. So the way that Haribhadra explains it is that: It’s the Sanskrit word sambhara. Sam means “pure” and bhara is “something that builds,” and so we’re talking about something that builds up a pure state. These networks are what enable us to build up the pure state of liberation or enlightenment. So if we talk about positive force, for example, then in this context we’re not talking about positive karmic force. Remember, karma is just going to build samsara. The karmic positive force just gives us nice rebirths, nice ones, the better type of rebirths. That’s not what we want. We’re talking about a different type of positive force that you have to build up for three countless eons in order to reach liberation and enlightenment. Those are the pure-builders, liberation-building and enlightenment-building.

[See: The Two Collections: Two Networks]

It’s only from another text by Maitreya, Uttaratantra (The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, rGyud bla-ma)… Everybody studies that as well. That’s the basic text on Buddha-nature. There you have the structure of basis, path, and result. So there we get the idea of these networks as a basis level (what produces samsara), path level is referring to when they are building up liberation and enlightenment, and the resultant level are the two Bodies of a Buddha, the Form Body Rupakaya and Dharmakaya (mind body, the mind).

So in order to analyze, to have more tools, it’s very important to have studied many different texts and then take the little pieces from them, the pieces of the puzzle, and put them together. That’s our responsibility, not the teacher’s responsibility. The teacher can show a few ways in which they go together, but it’s up to us to put more and more pieces together. That way you develop, and it’s interesting and it’s fun, and the more that you do it the happier you become, because all of it is intended to help us to overcome suffering, all the teachings on joyful perseverance. It’s not like having to do your mathematics homework at night from school.