7-Part Bodhichitta: The Lam-rim Basis

Dharma-Lite vs. The Real Thing Dharma

I’m very happy to be back here in Seattle once more and to have the opportunity to speak to you about the meditations for developing bodhichitta.

I suppose that it would be appropriate to give an introduction.

Bodhichitta is something that is very, very advanced. It’s very difficult even to imagine what it’s actually talking about. Why is that? Because it is aimed at – speaking in terms of relative, or conventional bodhichitta – our own individual future enlightenments that we have not yet attained but that are possible for us to attain on the basis of our Buddha-natures. That obviously means that we have to have some understanding of what enlightenment is and that it is something that is not happening now. So how do we focus on something that is not happening now, something that is not yet happening?

We also need to have some understanding of Buddha-nature and how enlightenment is possible on the basis of that Buddha-nature. And not only do we need to understand how it is theoretically possible, we also need to be convinced that we are able to achieve enlightenment ourselves; otherwise, our wish to attain it cannot really be sincere.

We also need to have an intention for achieving that enlightenment. What are we aiming for and why? In other words, how do we, our minds, take this not-yet-happening enlightenment, our own individual not-yet-happening enlightenment, as an object of mind? We take it as something that we want to attain – “I want to attain this” – with the intention, “I want to benefit all beings by means of this.” That obviously implies taking some responsibility to do that.

Having that intention also implies that we already have, as a basis, what we call “love” and “compassion” – the wish for others to be happy and not to be unhappy and the wish for others to have the causes of happiness and to be free of the causes of suffering. We have that wish for everybody equally. “Everybody” is a very large number of beings. It includes all those who at present have been reborn as ants, cockroaches and so on. We equally want them to be happy. We have no favorites, which means that we are as concerned about the cockroach or the ant as we are about our best friend.

We’re certainly not talking about something that is very easy to achieve. Nor are we simply talking about helping others to be free of hunger and poverty and these sorts of things – though, of course, we want others to be free of those things too; rather, we want them to be free of something far, far deeper.

What we want them to be free of is uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which means, of course, that we need to understand what uncontrollably recurring rebirth, or samsara is. It also means that we have to believe that there is such a thing as rebirth; otherwise, how could we possibly have any sort of sincere wish to free others from it? And, of course, in order to free others from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, we ourselves have to be free from it as well.

So, what we’re talking about here is not just “love everybody” and “may everybody be happy.” That type of love and compassion is wonderful and very, very helpful, but we don’t have to be Buddhists to develop that. We can develop that with many other religions. We can develop that with many secular philosophies – humanism, etc. If we come to Buddhism to learn methods for developing humanistic love and compassion or Christian love and compassion – fine, OK. There’s no problem with that. Buddhism has a lot of very helpful methods that can be borrowed and used in many other contexts. However, this type of approach to Buddhism is what I call “Dharma-Lite” – like Coca-Cola-Lite. If we want “The Real Thing Dharma” – like Real Thing Coca-Cola – then we have to consider all the points that I just mentioned, starting with rebirth.

As it is a rather formidable task to consider all of that, one that requires a tremendous amount of preparation, I didn’t think that it would be so useful to teach just about love, compassion and these sorts of things in a Dharma-Lite fashion. In any case, I’m not terribly good at teaching what I sometimes call “feel-good Dharma.” Instead, I thought that it would be more useful to speak more deeply about some of the issues that are fundamental for developing bodhichitta in the true Buddhist way.

Once we have looked at some of these issues, then we can speak about the seven-part cause and effect meditation for developing bodhichitta. We could speak about that seven-part cause and effect in terms of just this lifetime – being nice to everybody, helping everybody, etc. – which would be fine, but I’m sure you’ve heard about that from many others. So, let’s use this opportunity to look more deeply at what actually is involved with developing bodhichitta.

Graded Levels of Pathway Minds

Now, where to begin? That’s a good question: where to begin? We have what’s called the “graded stages of the path.” I’m a translator, so I have great reservations about many of the more standard translation terms. We’re not talking about the stages of a physical path. “Path,” here, refers to a mind – to a “pathway mind,” as I call it. It’s a state of mind, a level of mind – a level of understanding and dealing with the world – that acts as a pathway for reaching enlightenment. We go through stages of that pathway as we develop our minds – develop our attitudes, our understandings, our motivations and so on. So we’re talking about graded levels of a mind, a pathway mind.

The Initial Scope

The initial level of motivation is one that is very difficult for most of us to relate to and to feel sincerely. It is the level of motivation of wishing to benefit our future rebirths and to continue having precious human rebirths. That initial level is not particularly Buddhist, however. Many other religions talk about turning our concern away from this lifetime and toward a better one to follow – a higher rebirth in heaven, for example. That’s not Buddhist.

What makes that motivation Buddhist is the further step of wanting to gain precious human rebirths lifetime after lifetime. We want to continue having precious human rebirths because we know that things could get an awful lot worse and that we wouldn’t have the opportunities that we have now. Why do we want those opportunities? It’s not because we want to be with our friends and teachers, and so on; it’s because we want to continue on the path to liberation and enlightenment – because we have taken refuge.

Taking refuge is not a passive act, which the English word “refuge” might imply. It’s one that is very active, and so I translate the term as “safe direction.” Taking safe direction means putting a safe direction in our lives – the direction indicated by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. By actively putting that direction in our lives, we protect ourselves. That’s really where the idea of protection comes from: We protect ourselves from suffering. We can gain inspiration from others, but nobody can save us; we basically have to save ourselves. Nobody can understand reality for us; we have to understand it ourselves.

What is that direction? This is a very, very important point for understanding what’s involved in developing bodhichitta. That direction is the one that is indicated by the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha Jewels – specifically the Dharma Jewel. The Buddha is the one who teaches it, but what really we’re aiming for is the Dharma Jewel – the third and fourth noble truths. What are those?

The third noble truth is a true stopping of suffering and its causes. It’s usually translated as true “cessation,” but “stopping,” I think, is an easier word. The fourth noble truth is a true pathway mind that leads to and results from that stopping. That’s what we’re aiming for. That’s the direction. It’s indicated by the state of mind that is free of suffering and the causes of suffering and that has the understanding that eliminates all suffering and its causes. That understanding is there at the end as well. It doesn’t go away; we continue to have that understanding. Buddhas are those who have achieved this in full on their mental continuums. The Arya Sangha are those who’ve achieved it in part; so, they’ve gotten rid of some of the junk forever but not yet all of it.

That’s the direction, and if we are speaking about it in the context of bodhichitta, then we’re talking about wanting to actually achieve those stoppings and true pathway minds ourselves in order to be able to benefit everybody else by bringing them to that state as well. That indicates the importance of understanding that it actually is possible to achieve this stopping of suffering and its causes and that there is an opponent that can actually get rid of it.

Understanding that means – going backwards to the first two noble truths – that we have to understand what the suffering is that we want to get rid of. What is “true suffering”? “True suffering” is exactly how the first noble truth is worded. What is the truth of suffering that aryas see as true – which is what is meant by a “noble truth.” Nobles are the aryas, those who have had nonconceptual cognition of these four things, basically, who have seen that this suffering is true. Ordinary people don’t see the suffering that is referred to here as true suffering, but aryas see it as true suffering. They see that this suffering is true suffering, and they see what the true causes are (the second noble truth).

What we want in this initial scope is not just to improve our ordinary, everyday lives – though that’s fine too; that’s a legitimate goal. I feel very strongly that as Dharma practitioners, we need to be very honest with ourselves. What are we actually aiming for? Are we really, really, deep in our hearts, aiming for good rebirths, or are we aiming just to make this life a little bit better and to be able to deal better with the everyday problems of life? Practicing Dharma in order to improve our lives now is what I call Dharma-Lite. If we like to drink Dharma-Lite – wonderful; it’s a great drink. But be clear that it’s Dharma-Lite and not the real thing. Have respect for the real thing. We can, perhaps, have the aspiration eventually to be able to follow the real thing, but we have to understand a great deal before that aspiration can be sincere.

This is the initial scope motivation. It could take decades before we sincerely feel it. That obviously requires having more than just an intellectual understanding. If we were facing our own deaths right now, what would we actually feel, on a gut level, about future lives? Would we really, really believe with full confidence that our lives are going to go on? Of course, in order to understand how that can happen, we need to understand the Buddhist teachings on the self, the “me,” the person that goes on from lifetime to lifetime. We’re certainly not talking about a “soul” – a Hindu soul or a Christian soul – going on from one lifetime to another.

Though we don’t really need a Buddhist understanding of the voidness of a person in order to achieve better rebirths – it’s not presented at this stage of the lam-rim teachings in any case – I feel, from my own experience, that believing in rebirth certainly becomes more Buddhist, in a sense, when we’re not thinking of it in terms of a solid, permanent “me” that is going to be in a next body.

The Three Types of Suffering

What is the suffering – the “true suffering” – that we want to rid of? There are three types of suffering.

We have (1) what’s called the “suffering of suffering.” This is unhappiness, a feeling of unhappiness, basically, which is a mental factor that can accompany any of the physical senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, taste – as well as the mental activity of thinking.

I think it’s important to differentiate, here, between unhappiness and pain. We’re not talking about physical pain. We’re not talking about a physical sensation. Physical sensations can be experienced with happy or unhappy feelings. Take hunger: Some people might be very happy to be hungry. If they’re on a diet, feeling hungry might make them happy because they think, “Ah, I’m losing weight.” Other people, when they’re hungry, feel quite unhappy. So, it’s the level of happiness or unhappiness that accompanies these things that is significant. And here, in the context of the suffering of suffering, it’s the accompanying unhappiness that we’re talking about. That’s what we want to get rid of first. We want to get rid of that unhappiness, which can, of course, have many levels of intensity. That’s the suffering of suffering – something that we are all familiar with.

Unhappiness is defined as that state of mind that, when we have it, we would like to be parted from – a simple enough definition. Wanting to be parted doesn’t mean a desperate wanting. It’s more that we would just naturally want to be parted from it. For most of us, though, there is a certain desperation associated with it. That comes into the category of clinging – we cling to be free of it. That’s another mental factor, however.

As a person with an initial scope motivation, what we are really focusing on is getting rid of this first kind of suffering, the suffering of unhappiness, the suffering of suffering – which, of course, we can’t get rid of completely at this stage. Another way of defining unhappiness is as the way in which we experience the ripening of negative, or destructive, karma – that as a result of previously committed destructive actions, we experience something with unhappiness. So the unhappiness we experience indicates the types of causes that we want to get rid of. It is hard to get rid of unhappiness completely without the understanding of voidness, but refraining from acting destructively and acting in a constructive manner will get rid of some of the unhappiness temporarily – at least the gross unhappiness.

Then we have (2) the suffering of change, which is the suffering of our ordinary happiness. What’s wrong with our ordinary happiness? The problem with it is that it doesn’t last, it never satisfies, and we never know what is going to come next. If our ordinary happiness were true happiness, the more we had of it, the happier we would become. A simple example: eating our favorite food – let’s say it is ice cream. The more we ate of it at one time, the happier we should become. But obviously, after we have eaten five gallons of it, we are no longer happy. Our happiness has turned into unhappiness. So, that is not a reliable type of happiness – not at all. Therefore, we would like to get rid of that type of unhappiness as well.

Just to be rid of that type of unhappiness is not particularly Buddhist. In Hindu systems, as well, there are practices of going into very deep meditative trances in which one experiences just a neutral feeling – neither happy nor unhappy. That’s not Buddhist. That’s a more generic type of meditation – certainly in the Indian systems of meditation. That’s not what we’re aiming for, but we want to get rid of that too.

That gets us into the realm of the intermediate scope of motivation. That’s a hard one too. Even if we get to the point where we are seriously thinking of our next rebirths and are actively doing something to benefit them – and looking at the causes for a happy rebirth, we see that there are many things that we can do besides just making prayers: acting constructively, refraining from destructive behavior, practicing the other far-reaching attitudes of patience, perseverance, generosity, etc. – I think it’s important that we also do something to actually prepare our next rebirths. For instance, we can help train young people – we will need to depend on them in future lives. If we come around again – and presuming we have precious human rebirths – we will need teachers, for example. We also want to make Buddhist materials available for future generations – not just for other people’s kids, not just for my kids, but also for me, for my next rebirth. Thinking like that, for many of us, creates more of a sense of urgency. “I really am preparing because I really would like Dharma centers and various institutions to be available when I come around next time.” That’s what I personally think – that we need to actually do something in preparation for future rebirths, in addition to the meditational prayers and so on.

What’s difficult about being at the level of the initial scope is that, usually, we have attachment to the precious human rebirth: “I really would like a precious human rebirth, and I would really love for all my Dharma friends and teachers to be with me as well.” We want all the things that we like: good friends, a comfortable situation and so on. So, there is attachment there. It is our worldly happiness that we’re involved with. For many of us, perhaps, the aim is not to go into some higher trance of a neutral feeling – so, there we are, just wanting a better samsara. Maybe we don’t want it in this lifetime, but we want it in the next lifetime – a good samsara.

We therefore look at the third type of suffering, (3) the all-pervasive affecting suffering, which is the main one that Buddhism is concerned with getting rid of. I wouldn’t say that getting rid of that type of suffering is specific to Buddhism either because the Hindus and Jains also seek to attain liberation from samsara – samsara according to their definition of it. What’s distinctive to Buddhism is what is seen as the cause of samsara.

So, here, what is it that we want to get rid of? What is the all-pervasive affecting type of suffering? In other words, what is the all-pervasive thing that affects the first two types of suffering? It is samsaric rebirth, rebirth driven by unawareness, or ignorance – unawareness of how we exist and how everything else exists – which entails having the types of bodies and minds that are mixed with that confusion, that unawareness, and as such, form the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering.

The first two types of suffering have to do with our everyday ups-and-downs. We never know what’s going to come next. Now we’re in a good mood, and then, all of a sudden, we’re in a bad mood. Now we’re happy – it’s not usually anything dramatic; it’s usually just that things are going OK – and the next minute, we’re unhappy. Some worry has come into our heads, or some feeling of nervousness has cropped up, or a pain has arisen here or there. Again, don’t think of this in dramatic terms. Things just go up and down, up and down, up and down. So, what is it that we want to get rid of? We want to get rid of the basis for those ups and downs. Whether it is the case that we’re up with worldly happiness or down with unhappiness, it’s a drag, to put it in colloquial terms. It’s boring. It’s not fun. And it’s going to go on forever if we don’t do something about it. We therefore want to get rid of the basis, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Obviously, we have to believe that there is such a thing.

The way we aim to get rid of it is by getting rid of its cause. As I say, the other Indian systems believe in rebirth as well, but what Buddhism identifies as the cause for such rebirths is what’s unique to Buddhism. And what does Buddhism identify as the cause? There are many different Buddhist tenet systems, but speaking very generically, it is what’s translated as “ignorance.”

I don’t like the word “ignorance” because it implies being stupid, and it’s not that we’re stupid. Literally, the word means to be “unaware”: we just don’t know. The negative prefix can be understood as “to know in an incorrect way” – incorrectly knowing behavioral cause and effect and, more specifically, incorrectly knowing reality, namely how I exist, how you exist and, more generally, how everything exists. So, either we just don’t know something – we’re just naive – or we know it in an incorrect way.

Unawareness: the Root of Samsara

Why does that unawareness cause uncontrollably recurring rebirth? It’s important to understand that. So what do we have here?

We have unhappiness, the first type of suffering, which is that feeling that, when we have it, we’d like to be rid of. More specifically, feeling unhappy is the way we experience the ripening of negative potentials built up from having engaged in destructive behavior.

The suffering of change, our ordinary happiness, is the way that we experience the ripening of positive potential, positive force built up from having engaged in constructive behavior. I don’t use the words “merit” and “sin.” They’re absurd in a Buddhist context. They’re Christian terms. I use “positive force,” “negative force,” “constructive”and “destructive behavior” – there’s no value judgment here. That happiness is defined as that feeling from which, when we experience it, we would not like to be parted.

On the basis of this unawareness of how we exist, we get all sorts of disturbing emotions. “I want to be happy, and I want to have more happiness” – so we act out of attachment, desire, or greed. “I want to be free of unhappiness” – so anything that we think or imagine will cause us unhappiness, we have aversion, anger, or hatred toward. And in general, we’re naive; we don’t know what’s going on.

All this brings on impulsive behavior, impulses to act in certain ways. How do these things bring on impulses? Impulses is what karma is talking about. Karma is an impulse, a mental urge to do, say or think something. It is brought on by a feeling of liking to do something. For example, “I feel like yelling at you.” That feeling then leads to the impulse that brings us into the action. That impulse is the karma.

How does that come about? It gets complicated. Basically, what’s happening is that when we have feelings of happiness and unhappiness, we also have clinging. This goes back to the teachings of the twelve links. When we have the feeling of happiness, i.e., the feeling that we want not to be parted from, we crave not to be parted from it; we cling to it. When we have the feeling of unhappiness, namely the feeling we want to be parted from, we crave to get rid of it. The word “clinging” that’s used in the twelve links is actually the Sanskrit word that means “thirst.” We’re literally thirsting. “I’ve got to get rid of this,” or “I’ve got to have this.” So, it’s sort of desperate.

That craving, or thirst activates the karmic force we’ve built up along with a whole configuration of other attitudes, in particular, the “obtainer attitude,” which is often poorly translated as “grasping.” That translation is confusing because there are other terms where the word “grasping” is used – for instance, “grasping for true existence.” It is not the same word as the one we’re using here. It’s an “obtainer attitude,” an attitude that will obtain for us an activated karmic force that will give its result.

So, there’s a little cluster of things involved, but they basically have to do with this unawareness. We identify with what’s going on – “Oh, it’s horrible!” – and then crave to be parted from the unhappiness: “I’ve got to get rid of this.” It doesn’t have to be so dramatic, but you get the general flavor of it. It could also be “Oh, I’m so happy! Aren’t we having a good time!” or “Don’t ever leave me, I can’t live without you,” or “I have to have it my way,” or “I have to be first in line.” These things activate the karmic force. We then experience more happiness and unhappiness. On the basis of experiencing more happiness and unhappiness, we have greed, attachment, and anger, which just bring on more karmic impulses to repeat what we’ve done before. It just goes on and on and on.

So it’s this unawareness that is the root of having a continuing basis for experiencing the ups and downs of samsara, the happiness and unhappiness. And it’s also the root that gives us that happiness and unhappiness, which are samsaric.

Intermediate Scope

What I just explained is rather complex and requires a great deal of thinking about, but it explains what we have compassion for in others – what we want them to be free of. It’s not just that we want to eliminate their hunger and to give them a meal. It’s much, much deeper. It’s Mahayana – it’s great, it’s vast, and very deep.

So, on this intermediate level of motivation we want to achieve – for ourselves – liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. That’s a tough one, a very tough one, because then, of course, the question that comes up is, “We gain liberation – and then what?” Most of us think, “Well, but I would still like to be with my friends. I would still like to be with my teachers,” and these sorts of things. And if we’ve heard teachings about having a light body and living in a Buddha-field, we might aim to achieve something like that. However, that very quickly degenerates into wanting to go to a paradise, which is not quite Buddhist either.

We have to understand that the individual mental continuum is something that goes on forever and ever. The question is, what is going to be driving it? Is it going to be driven by unawareness, confusion, karma, disturbing emotions and all these things, driven by impulsive behavior so that, compulsively, we get into difficulties? Or is it going to be motivated by equanimity, wishing for peace from all of this? Or is it going to be motivated by something even deeper, such as bodhichitta – wanting to reach enlightenment in order to benefit others? Would it be enough for it to just be driven by compassion and love? In Theravada, they meditate on love and compassion. Is that enough? Is that what we would like to have our mental continuums driven by?

It’s not an easy thing to be convinced that there is such a thing as liberation – that it is possible to get rid of unawareness, the disturbing emotions, and the karmic impulses. We have to be convinced that these things are not part of the essential nature of the mind, of the mental continuum. To be convinced of that, we first have to understand what mind is.

What’s mind? Mind, from a Buddhist point of view, is not a thing. We’re not talking about some sort of tool in our heads or our hearts that a separate “me” uses in order to understand things. There is that type of explanation in some of the non-Buddhist Indian systems, but that’s not the Buddhist explanation of it. Mind is mental activity. It’s activity. It’s not a thing that’s doing the activity. Nobody would deny that there’s a physical basis, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Nor is it some non-corporeal, some immaterial thing either.

We’re talking about mental activity, moment-to-moment activity. There’s only one moment happening at a time. There’s one moment, then a next moment, a next moment, a next moment – so, a continuum of moments. And each continuum is individual. It’s the case for most of us that our mental continuums are driven by the cause and effect sequence of our behavior. We are our own personal movies, produced and directed by ignorance and given the title, “Me.” “Me” is playing now. Well, it’s not quite like that, but you get the idea – only one moment of the movie is playing at a time. That actually is a very good metaphor for understanding the nature of the “me,” of the self.

In any case, we have moments of mental activity. Is it essential to the nature of moments of mental activity that confusion, unawareness, be present? This is really the question. Are these disturbing emotions – anger and so on, what we call “fleeting stains” – part of the essential nature of mental activity? Are they always there? Well, we’re not angry all the time. We’re not angry when we’re sleeping, for example. Still, anger comes back, doesn’t it? So, although the disturbing emotions are not always present – we can temporarily be free of some of them, and we are, in fact, temporarily free of them – that doesn’t demonstrate that they are not part of the essential nature of the mind, does it?

Where does the anger go when we’re not angry? Is it in some little box inside our heads, waiting to pop out? No, it’s not. Is it unmanifest? We can get into big philosophical discussions about what happens when we’re not actually experiencing the anger. In any case, it comes back somehow – actually, the explanation of how it comes back is very complicated. Anyway, the fact that anger is not always present doesn’t prove that we can get rid of it. What we want with a true stopping, this third noble truth, is to get rid of things like anger forever; we want them never to come back again. Is that possible? How can we become convinced that that’s possible?

Why Unawareness Is a Fleeting Stain, But Compassion Is Not

It’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? How would we become convinced? It gets complex, very complex. Why? Because there are certain things, such as fleeting stains, that we can get rid of, and then there are other mental factors, such as compassion, that we don’t get rid of – they are part of the essential nature of the mind, in a sense, depending on what system we use to explain the nature of mental activity.

The thing is that when we have nonconceptual cognition on voidness – and we have to explain a little bit what that means – there is no unawareness. The unawareness is gone. Some of it comes back, initially. Getting rid of it altogether involves a long process of focusing nonconceptually on voidness. It’s only on the third of the five stages, the five pathway minds, which is the so-called path of seeing, the seeing pathway of mind, that we start to get some true stoppings. At that point, some types of unawareness go away forever. We then have to work on getting rid of more and more.

Unawareness is based on what’s called “grasping for true existence.” I don’t want to get into what that literally means because each of the tenet systems defines it differently and so it gets very complicated. Let’s just say it’s “grasping for impossible ways of existence.” True existence is an impossible way of existence. When we talk about voidness… first of all, I prefer the word “voidness” to the word “emptiness.” I take objection to the word “emptiness.” I think it’s misleading. Emptiness implies that something is empty, that there is something there and that it is empty of something else. And that’s wrong. That’s not what the term means, and it misleads us when it comes to knowing how to meditate on voidness.

Voidness is a total absence. There is simply no such thing, period – no such thing as this impossible way of existing. When we meditate on voidness, we just cut off any belief in this impossible junk. It is a vacuum, in a sense. Of course voidness refers to an impossible way of existing of something, but it’s not that that something somehow appears while we’re meditating on voidness. There’s no such thing, period.

When we focus on voidness nonconceptually, we don’t focus on it through a category, i.e., the category of voidness. That, of course, is very difficult to understand. What in the world is nonconceptual? It means “not through a category.” It doesn’t have to be verbalized in our heads. It’s just a general category. For example, when I look at this object, I see a table. “Table” is a category through which I observe this object. I don’t have to say “table” when I look at this object in order see it is a table; nonetheless, I see it conceptually as a table. That’s a category. So conceptual cognition of voidness is through the category of voidness. Nonconceptual cognition is without the category.

The thing is that we, our minds produce appearances of impossible ways of existence, and then we believe those appearances to be true. So, grasping for true existence, for this impossible way of existence, has two phases. Two things are included in the term “grasping.” That’s why “grasping” is a very difficult term to translate correctly. It doesn’t mean what we would ordinarily understand it to mean. It actually means “to cognitively take something as an object.” So, there are two components here. One is just perceiving an impossible mode of existence – because the mind produces that appearance; the other component is believing it, believing that it corresponds to reality.

What we have to get rid of is believing that it corresponds to reality. That’s our unawareness: We think that what appears actually corresponds to reality, that things actually exist in this impossible way. When we focus on “no such thing,” then not only do we stop believing in this junk that our minds produce, our minds don’t even produce it at that time. There’s no such thing. So, there’s no appearance of this impossible way of existing and certainly no belief in it. We understand that this is garbage. It never was, and it never could have been. The more we focus on that and the more we stay in that state, the more the momentum is broken – this you have to experience. Focusing on voidness breaks the momentum of the mind producing that junk and breaks the momentum of believing it.

This way of breaking the momentum is not the same as being angry and then breaking the momentum of being angry by going to sleep. We might not be so angry or upset when we get up the next morning, but that anger comes back very quickly. Here, the breaking of the momentum is different. Why is it different? It’s different because we have stopped the appearance of and belief in that impossible existence through understanding – not simply by going to sleep. That understanding is something that remains.

Even though we might not have manifest compassion when we are nonconceptually focused on voidness – and though there’s a difference of opinion according to different textbooks in the Buddhist schools, everybody would agree that we at least don’t have manifest compassion at that time – the understanding that we have at that time doesn’t eliminate compassion. So, we don’t get rid of compassion by focusing on voidness, but we do get rid of unawareness, of ignorance. The more we stick with that understanding, the weaker the appearance-making and the belief in that appearance become. Eventually, they are gone altogether. That demonstrates that unawareness is not part of the essential nature of the mind. That’s the explanation from a sutra point of view.

From an anuttarayoga tantra point of view, it can also be said that the clear light mind that we experience at the moment of death doesn’t make this impossible appearance; it doesn’t have this unawareness. That also demonstrates that it’s not an essential part of the mind. For most of us, however, it’s not so easy to experience what’s going on at the moment of death with any sort of awareness. In any case, that also demonstrates that this junk is not part of the essential nature of the mind – whereas compassion can be. These are things that we have to think about.

Because unawareness is not part of the essential nature of the mind, we can actually get rid of it. We can achieve the third noble truth with the fourth noble truth and the understanding of voidness. Here’s our refuge. That’s the safe direction, the direction we want to go in. It’s not just never to be hungry again. If we’re rid of that false appearance, then appearances of “Oh, my worldly happiness! My TV and my music and all that stuff is so great” – believing that these things can give us ultimate happiness, clinging to that and so on – won’t appear. We won’t want those things – they’re impossible.

It’s like looking for Prince or Princess Charming on the white horse – my favorite example. We think that the perfect partner will come along and that we will live happily ever after. Come on! It’s a fairy tale. It’s not going to happen. Nobody exists that way – as a prince or princess on the white horse. It’s the same thing as thinking, “Oh, everything is going to be so wonderful,” and then clinging to these things.

That kind of grasping and clinging is not going to happen at the time of death if we are very familiar with voidness meditation. The mind won’t make things appear to be “the most wonderful thing in the world.” And we certainly won’t believe it. In that case, we won’t activate “throwing karma,” karma that brings about another rebirth – which means we get liberation.

Thinking like this, we start to become a little bit convinced that liberation is possible.

Advanced Scope

There are two types of obscurations that we need to get rid of in order to attain liberation and/or enlightenment: the emotional obscurations and the cognitive obscurations.

An obscuration is not an obscuration of the mental activity; rather, it occurs on the basis of a mental activity that obscures how things actually exist. Mental activity goes on, even if we are confused; it’s the same mental activity. It doesn’t obscure the mental activity. An obscuration exists on the basis of the mental continuum. It obscures how things exist. It obscures both the appearance of things and the understanding of them.

The emotional obscurations obscure our understanding. Because of that, we have all the disturbing emotions. We have to get rid of that type of obscuration to get liberation. The cognitive ones obscure the appearance of everything. They make everything appear to exist separately, as if in little boxes, boxes that correspond to words in the dictionary – “good,” “bad,” “this” or “that” – whereas, in fact, everything is interrelated. Things don’t exist in boxes in the way that words and categories might imply. Nonetheless, our minds make things appear that way – as “friend,” “enemy” and these sorts of boxes. That deceptive appearance-making is a cognitive obscuration, and it prevents us from seeing the interconnectedness of everything.

Becoming convinced that we can get rid of believing in the junk that the mind produces and that we can be liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth is what we are striving to do on the intermediate level. On the advanced level, which is where our topic of bodhichitta comes in, we need to be convinced that it’s possible to get rid of the cognitive obscurations – that it’s possible to become an omniscient Buddha. Now, do you really believe that your mental activity is capable of not just knowing but also understanding everything in – to use the jargon – the ten directions and the three times (whatever in the world that means)?

That’s a tough one. The other things that we’ve been discussing are not as tough. This is a really tough one. Do we really think that enlightenment is possible? It’s meaningless to aim to achieve enlightenment if we don’t think it’s possible. If we don’t think it exists, then this is all just a game. What are we doing? “I’m wishing to become the Easter Bunny,” or something like that – the Tooth Fairy. What are we aiming to achieve? Do we really think we could become Buddhas? Or is what we believe something like believing in the Tooth Fairy? I think it’s very helpful to give ridiculous examples because they can give us a little bit of a wake-up call and make us think, “Am I just being naive here and being fooled by some sort of Buddhist propaganda, or do I think that this goal that I’m aiming to achieve with bodhichitta is a realistic one?”

The bodhichitta aim is not something to trivialize. All these words that we repeat are, in a sense, quite silly: “May I become a Buddha to liberate all sentient beings.” Come on! Come off it! Is that really what we feel: “I want to liberate every mosquito in the universe”? I’m certainly not there yet, certainly not. I think we need to be unpretentious about our goals. Even just to want to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit all beings – which I find hard to imagine: even wanting to reach the level at which I could sincerely wish for that – implies understanding, conceptually, what enlightenment is, as well as being confident that there is such a thing and that we can achieve it.

So, we look at omniscience. That’s a tough one. Is mental activity capable of understanding everything? How would we even go about analyzing that? We would go about analyzing that by looking at what obscures it, what prevents it from understanding things. And what prevents it are these cognitive obscurations.

What are the cognitive obscurations? According to Gelug Prasangika, it is the deceptive appearance-making of the mind, of mental activity. There are some other things included in this category of obscurations, such as the inability to have the two truths appear simultaneously, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. For our discussion here, this weekend, let’s look just at this false appearance-making.

What are our minds doing when they give rise to these deceptive appearances? As I mentioned briefly already, our minds makes things appear to exist in categories, as if things actually existed in boxes, out there and from their own sides.

The example that I always use, since I think it is an easy one to understand, is that of the colors red and orange. We have the words “red” and “orange,” and they refer to something. We have agreed on a convention of attributing meaning to these arbitrary, meaningless sounds, “rr-ed” and “or-unge.” These are just meaningless sounds. Some cave people or whoever decided, “Let’s put these meaningless sounds together and assign a meaning to them. And we’ll agree – we’ll put this one in the box of ‘red,’ and this one in the box of ‘orange.’ Obviously, people will disagree, but OK.” So we have these conventions. They’re useful for communicating. But when we look at the light spectrum itself, we don’t see any walls dividing red and orange. Not at all. Light doesn’t exist as boxes of this color or that color.

It’s the same thing with emotions – that’s the example that hits home a little bit more. Love, jealousy – what in the world are those? Do they exist in boxes? “Now I am going to feel love, and the love that I feel is going to be the same love that you feel,” or “The love that I feel for my dog is the same as what I feel for my lover or the same as what I feel for my country.” What’s love? It doesn’t exist in a box. We have a word, and there’s this vast spectrum of emotions that everybody feels. Emotions don’t exist in boxes, don’t exist from their sides – which words would imply that they do. That’s the deceptive appearance. It’s not just due to conventions or mental labeling.

The mental label “love” doesn’t create love. Whether we call an emotion “love” or something else – whether we call it anything at all – doesn’t matter. We have emotions, and we can communicate with words and concepts. Those words and concepts refer to something, but what they refer to doesn’t exist in boxes. That’s what we can’t find when we do the Madhyamaka analysis: We can’t find things existing by themselves in boxes, in these categories.

The question is, when we focus on “no such thing as these boxes” – in other words, our minds aren’t making these boxes appear – how are we focusing on that? That’s an important point: How do we focus on “no such thing?” I use a very simple example to demonstrate this – though it’s not so much in terms of “no such thing”; it’s that there “is no” of something. What happens when we have lost our keys? We look everywhere, but we can’t find them. They’re not anywhere, but we don’t want to believe it, so we look again and again. Finally, we come to realize, “There are no keys.” When we focus on “there are no keys,” what appears to our minds? Nothing. Nothing appears. We might be looking at the wall – the wall appears – but that’s not what our minds are actually focusing on. Our minds are focusing on nothing – no such thing. But we understand that it’s not just nothing: it’s the absence of the keys.

Like that, we focus on “no such thing as things existing in boxes.” At the time that we are focusing on that, nothing appears. So, the mind is not making appearances of these boxes, not making things appear to exist as if encapsulated in plastic or something like that.

Then, coming back to our wanting to become convinced that omniscience is possible, there is another question that arises. If our minds are not making these solid lines around things – to put it in simple terms – as if they existed in boxes, what would appear? We understand that there’s “no such thing.” So now, if we can keep that focus… this is the significance of the other cognitive obscuration, which is that we have problems keeping that “no such thing” together with seeing everything. But if we could get rid of that obscuration – and the clear light mind is capable of doing that, which is why we need tantra – and we could focus without putting these lines around things, what would appear? Everything.

Would everything appear, though? So, now we start to think, “Well, I can only see things from out of these holes in the front of my skull. So, even if I didn’t see things with lines around them, would I know what’s behind me? Would I know what has not yet happened and what is no longer happening, the so-called past and the future?” That’s an interesting question. It has to do with why, when we have gained liberation and enlightenment, we no longer have bodies that have these types of limitations. Right now, we have limited hardware. We can only see out of the two holes in the front of our heads. We have to sleep as well. That’s obviously not so desirable if we want to be omniscient all the time. So, we’re talking about a different type of body. It would exist on pure energy – this type of thing. Then we would have Buddha-bodies.

If our bodies existed in terms of pure energy and were not limited by the hardware deficiencies that a samsaric body has, and if our minds didn’t make lines around everything, we would be able to see the interconnectedness of everything that appeared. And the interconnectedness isn’t limited just to what exists at present and in spatial terms; there is also the interconnectedness of everything in terms of cause and effect – which then brings in the past and the future.

The topic of what a Buddha knows when a Buddha knows the past and the future is a very difficult one. That’s actually what I’m in the middle of writing about at the moment. But take my word for it, the Buddhist understanding of it is very complex. It has to do with karmic tendencies and these sorts of things.

[See: A Buddha's Knowledge of the Past, Present and Future]

What has not yet happened is the future – for example, the year 2008. Does a Buddha know the year 2008? A Buddha knows the year 2008 – even though it’s not happening now. So, something can exist even though it is not happening now. Is there such a thing as the year 2008? Yes. Does it exist? Yes. Can we make plans for it? Yes. Is it happening now? No. Is the year 2006 happening now? No. Can you know it? Yes, I remember; I know what happened in the year 2006 – but it’s not happening now.

In order to start to understand the Buddhist teaching on how a Buddha knows the past and the future, we have to think in terms of things that are happening now and things that are not happening now. Just because something is not happening now doesn’t mean we can’t know it: I know tomorrow will be a tomorrow; I know there is a yesterday.

My point is that when we aim for our future enlightenments – which are not yet happening; they’re not happening now, but they could happen – it’s not that we’re focusing on something impossible. We’re not focusing on something that doesn’t exist, but we have to understand that it’s not happening now. Then how would we know it? We would know it on the basis of the causes for enlightenment, causes that exist now, namely the Buddha-nature factors.

That gets into the discussion of Buddha-nature – which gets into the nature of the mind. That’s why this topic is relevant. Does the mind have natural purity and the ability to understand? That’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the essential nature of the mind being pure of these stains – and not only the fleeting stains but also the stains of impossible ways of existing. That’s what’s known as the Nature Body, Svabhavakaya, which is the type of body one has when one becomes a Buddha. It’s directly related to the third noble truth.

Mind has the ability to make appearances of things and to understand them without the lines around them. That means that it could encompass everything, including the past and the future – if we understand the past and the future in terms of the interconnectedness of everything and the cause and effect relationship of everything. That ability is part of Buddha-nature, part of the essential nature of the mind. Mental activity is naturally capable of that. But don’t think in terms of mind as a thing – mental activity is capable of that. That’s another aspect of Buddha-nature. What are we talking about? We’re talking about the fourth noble truth, Dharmakaya, namely the omniscient mind of a Buddha, and making appearances, Rupakaya, namely the Form Body of a Buddha.

We have to think about all of these things, which are very deep and quite complex. But with a little bit more firm understanding of this, then we can develop bodhichitta, sincerely. “I know what I’m focusing on and that what I am focusing on exists and that it is possible to achieve. And I want to help everybody else reach this state because I’m confident that it is possible for everybody else as well.” If we can have that, then we can develop bodhichitta sincerely. Without it, we’re just playing around.

As I said, in the beginning, we can work with these bodhichitta teachings on a feel-good Dharma level of “love everybody,” and “everybody’s been so kind to me,” and “may they be happy; may they be free of suffering” – which I don’t mean to belittle; it is very beneficial – but that level of love and compassion is not the profound level of love and compassion that Buddhism is talking about.

The advanced level is a very profound level. “It’s awful that you have this up and down of samsara and that you continue to perpetuate that for yourself. May you be free of the mechanism that perpetuates your up and down, uncontrollably recurring existence.” That’s really what we want others to be free of. And the happiness that we want them to have is not just the happiness they would get from having full stomachs. That’s not going to last. Sure, they need full stomachs, but that’s temporary. It’s not that we ignore giving temporary help to others; of course we help others. But giving them temporary help is not our deepest aim. What we are aiming to achieve is for them to have the type of happiness that is free from all this garbage and that is a lasting happiness, a true happiness.

And we’re aiming for everybody to have that happiness. We’re not thinking of others in terms of the samsaric situations they’re in now – that due to various karmic reasons, the mental continuum of this one has manifested the body of a cockroach, and this one has manifested the body of my mother, and this one the body of Adolf Hitler. We’re thinking in much greater terms, much larger terms. We’re thinking in terms of the Buddha-nature of everybody. That’s how, in tantra, we see everybody as Buddhas: it’s on the basis of their Buddha-natures.

When we think in terms of bodhichitta, we have to come down to this: “Everybody’s been my mother.” We’ll discuss that over the weekend. It’s not an easy one. It’s not just, “Everybody’s been my mother, and they’ve all been kind,” because we could also meditate on “everybody has been my murderer” as well. Using the same logic, we could say that if everybody has been my mother at one time or another, everybody has also killed me at one time or another. That’s a sobering thought, and we’ll explore the benefits and disadvantages of each of those. But when we use the other method of developing bodhichitta, which is to see the equality of everybody, it’s not on the basis of thinking that everybody has been my mother or my murderer; instead, it’s on the basis of thinking that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. So, the “me” is less involved.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that the equalizing and exchanging self with others method – thinking of the equality of everybody in terms of everybody equally wanting to be happy and not to be unhappy – is less risky than the one of recognizing everybody as having been our mothers because recognizing everybody as having been our mothers and that they’ve been kind to us tends to have a little bit more emphasis on me. So, one has to watch out for that in that type of meditation. But that doesn’t diminish the benefits of that meditation; it’s just that one has to be a little bit careful and to supplement it with these other meditations.

This is a little bit of background for our discussion of bodhichitta. I suppose it’s not really an introduction. An introduction is supposed to be easy, and then the main presentation is supposed to be more difficult. What I explained was not terribly easy. However, I feel very strongly that it’s important not to trivialize these teachings. They are very precious and very profound. Why are they precious and profound? Because what they are based on is very, very deep. We may use them and apply them in a Dharma-Lite fashion and gain benefit from doing so, but the real intention behind them is to help us achieve enlightenment.

The whole first chapter of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Bodhicharyavatara) is devoted to how utterly incredible it is to actually develop bodhichitta. The bodhichitta he’s referring to, by the way, is “unlabored” bodhichitta. “Labored” means that we have to go through the seven-part cause and effect meditation and build ourselves up to it. Then it’s labored; we have to put in effort to actually get to that state of mind. We only become bodhisattvas when we are able to have that bodhichitta in an unlabored fashion. In other words, we don’t have to build it up; we just have it. At that point, we actually have bodhichitta and are bodhisattvas. Shantideva praises how unbelievably extraordinary that is.

Bodhichitta is not a trivial level of just reciting words in a meaningless way: “May I achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings,” and “Now I have bodhichitta, and now I’m a bodhisattva.” It involves understanding all the points that I’ve been discussing this evening. If our bodhichitta is based on understanding all of that, having confidence in it and sincerely having the scope of all beings – it’s incredible. That’s truly incredible. Therefore, Shantideva praises it so strongly. Otherwise, that first chapter is a bit strange – “What’s the big deal? I can recite the verses just like anybody else.”

Bodhichitta not just reciting verses. It’s not just reciting and thinking, “I’d like to be a nice person and to help everybody.” It’s much deeper than that, much, much deeper. As a stepping-stone, yes, I’d like to be a nice person. Yes, I’d like to be kinder. Yes, I’d like to be more considerate and helpful and to be less neurotic. Of course I would. But those are just stepping-stones. Bodhichitta is the real thing. And the real thing is, to use the modern colloquial, awesome.

Let us stop here for this evening. Perhaps you have a few questions.


Would it be a little bit easier for me to have conviction in things like liberation or even nonconceptual cognition of voidness, if I knew that somebody had accomplished that, especially somebody who’s alive today? On the other hand, I know it’s not considered proper to tell people about one’s accomplishments – which makes it difficult for others to confirm. There’s also a possibility to be fooled by charlatans. I wonder if you could say anything about that, maybe from your own experience?

That’s a very good question, a very serious question. Of course, the tradition is that, even if one has, one doesn’t say so. So, how would we recognize somebody as having bodhichitta, for example, if we ourselves don’t have it? How would we know it exists? Well, there are logical demonstrations of it. That’s one way to know. But it certainly would be helpful to know that somebody else has attained these things.

This topic of having confidence in the teacher gets very tricky because it means we have to – gingerly – step into the topic of the relation with the spiritual teacher and seeing the teacher as a Buddha. That is very dangerous ground because the topic is one that can be very easily misunderstood.

The teaching on seeing the guru as a Buddha was never meant to be taken literally. If it were literally true, your teacher would know the telephone number of everybody in the universe. If they were really Buddhas, they would be omniscient and therefore would know everybody’s telephone number. Interesting point.

What we want to do is to focus on the good qualities of the teacher, without denying the shortcomings of the teacher. We just focus on the positive qualities of the teacher and see them as Buddha-qualities. What that does is to help us with our bodhichitta training. How? Because what we are focusing on with bodhichitta are all the good qualities of a Buddha, qualities of the Buddha that we will become. It’s the same thing with bodhichitta: “I realize that I’m not a Buddha. I’m not denying my shortcomings, but I’m focusing on these positive things.” If we can do that with the teacher – and obviously, we’re going to choose a teacher who has more good qualities than we have – then we can have the inspiration to achieve the state of a Buddha. That’s one of the benefits of seeing the teacher as a Buddha. It fits in very well with bodhichitta meditation – focusing on something positive.

Does the teacher have to have real bodhichitta and real nonconceptual cognition of voidness to be able to do this? As you said, they’re not going to claim that they do. Even if they do have it, they’re not going to say that they do. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that he doesn’t have it, although he says, “I’ve had a little bit of a glimpse.” Sometimes he will acknowledge that. But if he doesn’t have it, who does?

We are very fortunate to have the example of His Holiness, whether or not he acknowledges having bodhichitta and nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Now I’m talking from my own personal experience – if I could become like that, I would be very happy. That would be enough. One can see the unbelievable dedication that he has and the unbelievable equanimity. Could you imagine being public enemy number one of all of China with everybody thinking that you’re the devil and not being discouraged by that? It’s incredible, utterly incredible. Could you imagine taking on the responsibility of leading six million people who look to you as the one who sustains them and their hopes and having to shoulder that at the age of sixteen or whenever it was? It is extraordinary. Looking at the qualities he has, I’d say that what he’s got is good enough for me. I’ve had the good fortune of having had very close contact with His Holiness’s late teachers, who were also extraordinary.

To me it’s not really important to measure the amount of bodhichitta that someone has and to know if their understanding is really nonconceptual or not. I think a more relevant question is, is it logically possible to achieve these things? OK, it’s logically possible, and here are people who have certainly gone far in that direction. So, it doesn’t worry me. The thing is, what we really have to take as our refuge, our safe direction – but here, perhaps, “refuge” is an appropriate word – is the Dharma itself. Don’t rely on people because people can let us down.

There are some people who have teachers and who, after a while, find out about some sort of scandal, some sort of abuse that the teacher was involved with. This has happened to so many people. Then they get really discouraged and think that Dharma is garbage: “How could it produce somebody like that?” The fault is not in the Dharma. This is very important to examine: What is the fault? They were human; they weren’t Buddhas. If I look at their good qualities as Buddha-qualities, I can see that they taught some methods that were helpful – but people make mistakes.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a very good example of this. He refers to one of the teachers that he had early in his life, Reting Rinpoche, who was involved with all sorts of naughty things and who was very much disgraced. His Holiness says, “Well, when I think back to when he was on the throne and to the teachings he gave, I think of him as a Buddha. In terms of his worldly conduct, he’s not.” So, he differentiates these two and says he has no problem with that. That, I think, is a very good example. It’s not an easy one, of course, but I think we need to differentiate between our relation to the teacher as a teacher and our relation to that person as an ordinary human being.

The question is how do we become convinced of anything? That’s really the issue, isn’t it? How do we overcome indecisive wavering, doubt? Is it so, is it not so? The truth of something could be right in front of our eyes, and we could still be unable to accept it. What does it take to be convinced? That’s a very, very interesting question. How much ego is behind it? That also is an interesting question. “I want somebody to prove to me that this is so.” I find this quite frequently: “I’m not going to practice this until I understand what I’m doing.” We don’t just shut up and just do it.

Often what prevents us from being convinced – in addition to not understanding, which is, of course, the main reason for not being convinced – are some disturbing emotions, some emotional blocks. That also can prevent us from becoming convinced of anything, from having conviction. We’ve been let down so often that “Therefore, I don’t want to have to trust anything in order to actually believe it” – to use a common example – in which case, nothing anyone said would ever convince us. In any case, I think gaining conviction is a very long, slow process. It’s not “Hallelujah, now I believe.”

His Holiness always says that conviction should be based on reason rather than compassion because compassion – if it’s based on emotion – is unstable. If it’s based on reason, it’s stable. “I have compassion for everybody because, just as I want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy, everybody wants to be happy and doesn’t want to be unhappy. So, we’re all equal.” That’s more stable than simply feeling, “Oh, you poor thing!”

Then there’s the issue of emotion, thinking, “Compassion isn’t real unless I really am emotionally moved.” Do we have to be emotionally moved to feel love and compassion? That’s an interesting question. What does it mean to be emotionally moved? I think it has something to do with the energies of the body – that the energies are moving in a more excited way. It is like the difference between falling strongly in love with someone we haven’t known very long and having a more stable love that’s based on being with a person for thirty years. It’s no longer exciting, but it’s very stable because we really understand the person.

That quality of emotional excitement isn’t necessarily a helpful thing. Even more significantly, it doesn’t make the emotion more real. This is our grasping for impossible existence. We think, “If I really feel it strongly – that makes it real,” “If my heart isn’t moved and I don’t cry, it’s not real.” Now we get back to voidness: “What establishes that I actually have compassion? Is it established by the fact that I cry whenever I see somebody suffering, and my heart moves, and I feel upset? Does that prove that I actually have compassion? What proves that I have compassion?” That’s an interesting question, and one to think about. I won’t give an answer. But think about that.

You talked about knowing the past and future and also about the boxes, the red and orange boxes. Something that I think about frequently when I get to the topic of voidness is death. I think about the fact that what’s in those boxes continues. I have some specific examples, like people I know or like walking where I’ve walked or like when I die, people will still be here; so it continues. But to me there’s void. All I can see in my mind is void. For example, you say that the year 2008 exists, that it’s the future. But does it exist for me if I’m not alive at that time? I just experience a void in my mind, and I don’t know how to grasp it.

Well, if I can summarize what you said – it’s not so clear in my mind, I must say – you seem to be saying that voidness implies nothingness. So, the year 2008 might be happening for other people, but if you’re not alive at that time, it’s not happening for you.


Well, that’s a very complex question if you’re thinking of it in terms of the year 2008. I don’t know that that’s the focus of your question. Time is relative. If you were traveling in a spaceship near the speed of light, and you had a calendar that you could check, you’d see that the year 2008 is not happening for you at the same time that it is happening for those on Earth. So, there’s the issue of the relativity of time. But that aside, what you seem to be saying is that something exists because you experience it – that that demonstrates that it exists. And if you don’t experience it, it doesn’t exist. If so, how would you know it exists?

Actually, I think it will exist. But I won’t be there with it, so I don’t know in what way I relate to it. It’s like it exists for you, but not for me.

It exists for you and not for me? No. This is a misconception. I’m sorry, but you’re discussing time. It’s not that there is a fixed space-time grid or axis and that there is a moving index on it called “now,” as if “now” existed objectively “out there.” It’s not like that. And it’s not that when you die, you’re somehow off the grid in the bardo and that later you come back on the grid. It’s not like that.

When we speak of past and future, we have to speak in terms of our own mental continuums and in terms of what’s no-longer-happening and what’s not-yet-happening. They don’t use the words “past” and “future.” It has to do with karma, namely with the no-longer-happening of the various karmic causes and the not-yet-happening of the results. Those are there even when you’re in the bardo. The no-longer-happening and the not-yet-happening are imputed in terms of the karmic seeds, the tendencies. They’re aspects of those tendencies.

The fact that there is a karmic tendency, or seed – the word literally is “seed”; however, it’s not a physical thing, so “tendency,” I think, is a better word – indicates that there is a passing, a no-longer-happening, of the cause. So, it indicates the past. A karmic tendency has to have come from somewhere, so the no-longer-happening of the cause is indicated by the presence of the tendency. And the factor, or aspect, or part of this tendency that is not yet giving rise to the result on the basis of its ability to give rise to its result when all the conditions are complete is the future, the not-yet-happening. It’s not happening yet because the tendency is not yet giving rise to its result, but it has the ability to give rise to a result.

Of course, we can purify it away so that the conditions are never complete. That’s how we get rid of karma – by never providing the conditions. If the conditions are not complete, a tendency can never ripen. We need the ignorance, the unawareness, as a condition for the thing to ripen. That’s how we purify. So, it’s the understanding of voidness that purifies karma. It’s not just reciting a mantra.

So, all that’s there as part of a mental continuum – bardo, death, tendencies, karmic forces, and so on.

Categories, like “table,” seem to be spatial categories. Is there such a thing as a temporal category?

Yes, sure. “Table,” as a category, seems to be a spatial type of thing. Are there temporal categories? Sure – for instance, a continuum, like a year.

When is a year happening? Is a year happening today? Is it happening right now? We don’t experience a year in one moment. That’s a category. We think things like, “Those were good years,” “Those were bad years,” “Those were the middle age years.” Those are categories. So, we have categories of time intervals. “Tomorrow” is a category, and it can be applied to many, many different days; there are many examples of “tomorrow.”

What about when we start talking about the past or future?

“Past” and “future” are categories, sure. What’s a category? Everything that happened before now can be referred to as “the past.” I can use that category, “the past,” to refer to when I was four years old and to speak about what came before then, and I can use it as a category to refer to what came before now, when I’m in my sixties.

When you or other Dharma teachers talk about how unawareness, or ignorance functions – about how we put things in boxes, into categories, etc. – it always seems to me that the type of unawareness that’s being talked about is one that’s based on how human cognition works. I’ve got doubts that that actually applies to how a gnat or an ant is aware of things.

He’s bringing up a very good question – you didn’t say this, but implicit in what you said was that I needed to be more precise in what I said about categories implying the use of words. Does a gnat or a cow think in categories?

They certainly do. Categories do not have to be associated with words, although we could associate a category with a word. A gnat certainly has the category of “food.” It can differentiate between something that’s food and something that’s a rock or something like that. A dog certainly has a category of “my master,” based on a smell or a sight or something else. They have categories.

Now we have to get into cognition theory a bit, which is very complicated. What represents a category when we are thinking in terms of one? It could be represented by a mental picture. It could be represented by a smell. It could be represented by a word. It could be represented by some sort of feeling. It could be represented by a lot of things.

OK, let’s end here for this evening with a dedication. We think, “Whatever positive force has come from this, whatever understanding, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.”