Mental Labeling and Purification

Gaining Liberation

To gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara, we need to reverse the mechanism of the twelve links. We do this by ridding ourselves of the first link, unawareness or ignorance about how the self – me and all others exist. When we have rid ourselves of unawareness, we no longer develop disturbing emotions and attitudes that lead to the second link, affecting impulses. Because of that, we no longer plant further karmic aftermath on our consciousness and so we no longer generate the first phase of the third link, causal loaded consciousness. 

When we no longer have disturbing emotions and attitudes, we also no longer have the eighth and ninth links, thirsting and obtainers, the links that activate previously planted karmic aftermath and bring about the tenth link, further existence. The tenth link, further existence, refers to throwing karma and, without any throwing karma, we no longer experience the eleventh and twelfth links, conception and aging and dying. That means we no longer have the second phase of the third link, resultant consciousness and the sequence of the fourth through the seventh links, which describe the development of the foetus. That seventh link, feelings of levels of happiness, are ripenings of karmic aftermath and were the focus of the eighth link, thirsting, which helped to ripen yet other clusters of karmic aftermath. But because we no longer experience any tainted feelings of levels of happiness and no longer have any thirsting after them or obtainers, then from this point of view as well, we are liberated from samsaric rebirth. 

There are several, successively subtler levels of grasping for an impossible self and so there are successively subtler levels of unawareness. We are either unaware that these impossible “me’s” do not correspond to reality or we are unaware that our belief that they do correspond is false. In either case, to rid ourselves of each level of grasping and unawareness, we need to have non-conceptual cognition, with combined shamatha and vipashyana, on the voidness of that level of impossible “me” and a certain amount of build-up of positive force. We always need to build up the two networks: positive force and deep awareness, often translated as the “collection of merit” and “collection of wisdom or insight.” In this way, we deconstruct the impossible “me” in steps.

Each step of the deconstruction of what’s impossible is beneficial and alleviates us of a certain amount of disturbing emotions and a certain degree of suffering. Deconstructing in steps is the most stable way to gain liberation and further, enlightenment. In doing this, it’s important that we don’t under-refute the impossible “me,” to use Tsongkhapa’s term for not going deeply enough in our deconstruction, and we don’t over-refute by deconstructing so much that we’ve refuted even the conventional “me.”

We can only establish the existence of the conventional “me” in terms of mental labeling with categories and designation with words. That means that the conventional “me” is merely what the object category (don-spyi) “me” refers to as a mental label labeled on the basis of the five aggregates as its basis for labeling. And it is merely what the word “me” refers to as a designation designated on the basis of the meaning category (don-spyi) “me” labeled on the five aggregates. There is nothing findable on the side of the basis for labeling or basis for designation that, by its own power, or in conjunction with labeling and designation, establishes that it exists.

Categories and Mental Labeling

When we speak about mental labeling with categories, such as the object category “me” or the object category “love,” these object categories are like mental boxes. It seems as if all the items that we conceptually fit in these boxes – like all the “me’s” labeled onto pictures of ourselves spanning our lives – are truly established as existing in these boxes. “Fit into boxes” is just a simpler way of explaining cognizing something through the medium of a category into which it fits. 

It seems as though there is something findable on the side of people that allows for them to be validly fit into this box “me” and not that box “you.” Remember, we discussed the example of not labeling a beggar as a king and the three criteria Chandrakirti explained for establishing valid labeling? There’s no need to repeat that now. The conclusion, however, is that nothing is established from its own side as existing in a box; things are only fit into mental boxes and designated with words by the power of conceptual cognition alone. It is only through the conceptual mechanism of mentally fitting things in boxes that we establish conventions and language and are able to communicate with each other. 

We used the example of the full spectrum of emotions. There are no boxes on the side of the emotions that divide them into this emotion and that emotion: loving someone or just liking them. There are no findable dividing lines and on this side of the line we like someone and on the other side we love them. It’s merely by the power of mental categories and words that there are these conventional divisions and that we can speak of the conventional existence of loving and liking someone.

Conventions and Communication

A convention is something agreed upon by a group of people having valid cognition. For instance, a group of people agreed on certain defining characteristics for loving and other characteristics for liking. They assigned an arbitrary set of sounds as a word to signify each and, eventually, even put these words and definitions in dictionaries. Having learned these words and their definitions, people then conceived of objects in terms of object categories and words having these defining characteristics. Through conceptualization with categories and words, people were then better able to understand their experience and communicate it to others. 

Communication with words, by the way, works with audio categories (sgra-spyi) and meaning categories (don-spyi). Conceptually, we fit into the audio category “love” the sound “love,” no matter what voice, what accent and what volume we hear it in. Otherwise, how could we possibly understand what word they are saying when two people say the same word. In addition, we use the word “love” to designate a feeling we can have toward our partner, our parents, our children, our pets, our favorite food, favorite music, our country and so on. There are so many different meanings, but we conceptually fit them all into the same box, the meaning category of “love.” Sometimes, we even get into trouble, because when our partner says she or he loves us, they might mean something quite different from what we understand by the word.

Do words and categories create the emotions of loving and liking? No. Did no one experience loving or liking someone before they had these concepts or words? No. Even without these categories and words, people still felt emotions. They felt what we conventionally call “loving someone” and “liking someone.” Dogs, after all, feel emotions – dogs love their masters – but dogs don’t have a word for it. Each time they see their master, they see him or her through the category “my master” despite not having a word for it. But we humans have a conventional word for it, “love.”

So, loving and liking conventionally exist. They are not non-existent objects, like turtle-hair or chicken-lips, that cannot be validly know. People experience them. But their existence can only be established in terms of conventions as what the categories and words for them refer to. Although categories labeled on the spectrum of emotions and words designated on them are like cookie-cutters on a piece of dough, there is nothing on the side of the spectrum of emotions and nothing on the side of the dough that establishes the existence of individual emotions or individual cookies.

Two Aspects of Mental Labeling

There is one more important point we need to understand. As we’ve explained, conceptualization with categories and words establish the conventional existence of validly knowable objects. Conventionally existent validly knowable objects are the referent objects (btags-chos) of the categories and words for them. But, although conceptualization makes things appear as truly existing in mental boxes, it doesn’t establish that their defining characteristics are findable on their side and have the power to fit them into these boxes. In simpler terms, mental labeling establishes the conventional existence of validly knowable objects, but it does not establish their true, self-established existence. Their truly self-established existence is impossible.

The Imputation “Me” and the Category “Me”

What about “me?” As we’ve discussed at length, the person “me” is an imputation on an individual continuum of five aggregates. But how can we establish that there is such a thing as a person, or that it is “me?” Like “love,” a conventionally existent person is merely what the category “person” refers to as a mental label labeled onto an individual continuum of five aggregates. The same is the case regarding “me.” My conventional existence as “me” is established merely as the referent object of the category and word “me” labeled and designated on all those photos spanning my life from when I was an infant till now. There is no findable uncommon characteristic feature on the side of the each of these photos that establishes that it’s me, either by its own power alone or by its own power when I identify all of them as “me.” 

The referent objects of the category “me” and the word “me” are both the conventionally existent “me.” That conventionally existent “me,” in turn, is an imputation on the five aggregates. Although mental labeling establishes the conventional existence of “me” as its referent object, it doesn’t establish the true existence of “me.”

Referent Objects and Referent Things

In conjunction with mental labeling, there are two different words in Tibetan – referent object (btags-chos) and referent thing (btags-don). The referent object is what a mental label refers to as a mental label labeled on a basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi). In this case, the referent object is the conventional “me.” The referent thing would be a truly existent, findable “me” with findable characteristic features as a focal support (dmigs-rten), backing up or propping up the referent object, the conventional “me,” like holding up a piece of scenery in a theater. That referent thing is what we have been calling the impossible “me.” There is no such thing as a referent thing corresponding to the mental label “me,” but that doesn’t negate the conventional existence of the referent object of the mental label, namely the conventional “me.” 

To understand and appreciate the difference between the impossible “me” that is the object of refutation and the conventional “me,” which is not to be refuted, requires a lot of thought and analytical meditation.

Mental Labelling and Conceptual Cognition

How does mental labeling with categories work, for instance the category “me?” First, we look at a series of photos spanning our lifetime. The visual forms we see non-conceptually are the basis for imputation of the conventional “me.” We see both the pictures and me simultaneously. Following that phase of seeing, we think, “That’s me in all these photos.” What we are actually doing is conceptually cognizing all of them through the category “me.” We’re fitting them all into the mental box “me.” 

The conventional “me” is also an imputation on the five aggregates involved in both looking at the photos and thinking they’re “me.” There’s no separately existing “me” that is doing the looking or thinking. When we think, “I’m looking at these photos of me,” we’re also conceptually cognizing the “me” that is looking and also thinking that through the category “me.” Again, we’re fitting all these conventional “me’s” into the mental box “me.”

Categories are static phenomena, which means they’re not created by causes and conditions and aren’t affected by causes and conditions either. The category “me” can’t do anything. But the conventional “me,” as the referent object of that category and which is an imputation on the photos and on the aggregates involved in the experience of looking at it, can do things. For instance, it can look at the photos and label them all as “me.” But labeling them all with the category “me” doesn’t make them me. Whether we label them or not, in fact they are all photos of me. Anyone who knew me over the period the photos were taken and has a good memory would not contradict the fact that they’re all photos of me. Mental labeling doesn’t create anything.  

Together with the category “me” is a static conceptual isolate (ldog-pa), which is sort of a specifier. For easier understanding, I sometimes call it “nothing other than (ldog-pa).” It’s the conceptual exclusion of everything and everyone other than me, so “nothing other than me.” The category and conceptual isolate are static phenomena, so they have no form. So along with conceptual cognition, there’s also a mental image that represents “me” when I think “me.” That mental image could be a visual form with color and shape, or it could be the mental sound of a voice talking “in my head,” as it were, and saying, “me.” 

Through the mentally labeled category “me,” the conceptual isolate and the mental representation – for instance the mental sound of the word “me” – our mental consciousness focuses on the body and person in each of the photos as its basis for labeling. In a sense, our conceptual consciousness projects onto this basis the combination of the category, conceptual isolate and representation. 

The conventional “me” is the referent object of the mentally labeled category. A truly existent “me,” with an uncommon defining characteristic feature that is findable in the basis for labeling and has the power to establish the existence of that conventional “me,” would be the referent thing in this example. But there is no such thing. There is no such thing as this referent thing functioning as a focal support backing up the referent object, the conventional “me.” The conventional “me” is devoid of existing as a truly existent, self-established “me.”

But please don’t misunderstand. The conventional “me” does has an uncommon characteristic feature, otherwise our aggregate of distinguishing would be unable to distinguish my “self” from someone else. But we can’t locate that feature on the side of the conventional “me” or on the side of any basis for validly labeling “me.” We can only establish the conventional existence of the uncommon defining characteristic feature of “me” in terms of it being what the mental label for it refers to. The mechanism is the same as with establishing the conventional existence of “me.” In short, the conventional existence of all validly knowable things can only be established merely in terms of mental labeling. 

[For further detail, see: Objects of Cognition: Advanced Presentation]

So, to rid ourselves of our unawareness of all this – in other words, to rid ourselves of the first link of dependent arising and have the whole mechanism of samsara fall apart and end – we need non-conceptual cognition of voidness, both explicitly in total absorption and implicitly with subsequent attainment.

Arising within a State of Voidness

In tantric sadhanas, after total absorption on voidness we often find the translation, “out of voidness” or “out of the sphere of voidness,” I arise as this or that Buddha-figure. This refers to the subsequent attainment period of our meditation where we explicitly imagine our body to be that of a Buddha-figure, like an illusion, and implicitly understand or apprehend its voidness and the voidness of “me” as an imputation on the Buddha-figure. It doesn’t mean that there was a “me” sitting inside of voidness, like in a room, and now I come out of the room of voidness and stand onstage and forget all about the voidness room I came out of. It means, literally, “after a taste of voidness,” I arise as the Buddha-figure.

The Tibetan word “ngang” translates the Sanskrit word “rasa,” taste, and the Tibetan postposition after it, “las,” indicates that taste is in the ablative case, which in Sanskrit can mean “from,” but also “after.” So, after we have had the explicit taste of voidness during total absorption, then subsequent to that, with subsequent attainment we arise as the Buddha-figure with an “aftertaste,” as it were, of voidness, which we now implicitly apprehend. In this sense, our minds remain focused on the sphere of voidness in both phases of the meditation, first explicitly and then implicitly.

Purification: Tendencies and the Results

As for how that understanding of voidness actually purifies away the karmic tendencies – that process is not so simple.

From the first and second links, we have the first phase of the third link, causal loaded consciousness – it is loaded with karmic tendencies as imputations on it as its basis for imputation. These karmic tendencies can give rise to many different types of results. There’s the ripened result, which refers to more aggregates – a body, various types of consciousness, cognitive sensors and so on. These develop from the second phase of the third link through the sixth link. The aggregate of feeling some level of happiness, as a ripened result, is link number seven. 

There are also results that are similar to their cause in terms of our experience. There are two types of this. There are results similar to the cause in terms of our conduct: we experience feeling like repeating our previous actions. And there are also results similar to their cause in terms of our experiencing others doing similar things to us. There also are comprehensive results of experiencing something more general in terms of the environment or the society and so on in which we’re born or live in.

There are all these different types of results from karmic tendencies. Some tendencies will give stronger results, some will give weaker results, some will give results only one time, and some will give results many times. There are many factors that affect the ripening.

Provisional Purification of Karmic Tendencies

We need to apply opponent forces to our negative or destructive tendencies. We start by applying provisional forces. This means applying the so-called “four opponent forces.” As a prelude before the four, we need to acknowledge that what we did was mistaken. It isn’t that we are bad, but how we acted was mistaken. It was based on unawareness or ignorance. 

The first opponent is regretting what we did. “Regret” is not the same as guilt. Guilt is identifying an impossible “me” with what we did and holding on to both “me” and what we did as being bad, and not letting go. Holding on to that feeling that we’re bad and what we did was so bad, we feel horrible. That’s guilt. Regret is just, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” For example, when we eat bad food, food that makes us sick, we regret it and think, “I wish I hadn’t done that. I regret that.” It’s not that we think we’re bad because we ate it. 

The next is that we decide that we’re going to try our best not to repeat the behavior. Third, we reaffirm the positive direction that we’re going in life, namely refuge, a safe and sound direction. We’re working toward a true stopping and true pathway mind, the deepest Dharma Gem. We are going in the direction of a true understanding that will bring about the true stopping of true suffering and its true cause; that’s the direction we’re going in.  On top of that, we can reaffirm our bodhichitta aim: “I’m working toward enlightenment to be able to best benefit everybody.” Then we apply some counteracting opponent force, for example, Vajrasattva practice where we graphically imagine that all the negativity leaves us, while reciting the 100-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva a hundred thousand times..

[See: How to Practice Vajrasattva.]

It’s very important for the purification process, as my teacher Serkong Rinpoche pointed out, to imagine that we have done every possible negative thing whatsoever and purify all of that. If we’ve had beginningless rebirth, no beginning, then at some time we’ve done every possible destructive action. We want to have a full purification, not just a purification of a few incidents when we said something cruel to this or that person. It’s important to go through as much as possible the mistaken destructive things we can remember we’ve done, and then expand the list.

The Result of the Provisional Purification

Successfully applying the four opponents so that they actually bring about a provisional purification means applying them with total concentration and total sincerity, and always being mindful of the four opponents. That’s pretty difficult. It’s not just going, “Blah, blah, blah” – say the magic words of the Vajrasattva mantra a hundred thousand times and we’re purified. That’s really very difficult to do properly; but, if we do it properly, then those tendencies on our mental continuum will not ripen into the various types of suffering. 

If we haven’t applied the four opponents perfectly, then even by applying them imperfectly, we still will weaken the tendencies, so that they’ll ripen into less severe results. Karmic tendencies, after all, are non-static phenomena and are affected by causes and conditions. Through our practices and conduct, we can either strengthen or weaken them.

Even if our previously built-up karmic tendencies can no longer ripen, that doesn’t mean that we won’t develop more destructive behavior. It just means that those tendencies we’ve already built up won’t ripen into the type of results that they could. Still, we could very easily develop more destructive behavior in the future, because we haven’t rid ourselves of our unawareness and the disturbing emotions and attitudes that come from it. We still have the first link, unawareness, and it could still bring on the second link, affecting impulses, and again causal loaded consciousness, the third link. So, more karmic tendencies. With the four opponent forces, we’re just provisionally wiping the slate clean of the karmic tendencies already there.

Actual Purification through Attaining True Stoppings

To stop building up any further karmic tendencies, we need to gain non-conceptual understanding of voidness and the true stoppings that we attain through it. That rids us of the unawareness that brings on the disturbing emotions and attitudes that lead to more karmic impulses and the disturbing emotions and attitudes – namely thirsting and the obtainers – that activate any further remaining karmic tendencies we build up. If those tendencies can no longer give a result, because with the understanding of voidness we’ve gotten rid of what could activate them, they no longer can function as a cause of anything. Cause and result are relative to each other. If something can’t give a result, it can’t be a cause anymore. 

With non-conceptual cognition of voidness and the first zillion eons of building up positive force or “merit,” we gain a true stopping first of doctrinally-based unawareness and doctrinally-based disturbing emotions. We become an arya, a highly realized being. But we have not rid ourselves completely yet of the first link and rebirth. We still have automatically-arising unawareness. Because of that, we can still build up more karmic tendencies. 

When through further non-conceptual cognition of voidness and a second countless eon of positive force we gain a true stopping of automatically-arising unawareness and automatically-arising disturbing emotions, we attain liberation. We become arhats, liberated beings. We completely rid ourselves of the link of unawareness and all disturbing emotions and so no more samsaric rebirth. 

Remember, according to Prasangika, both grasping for a self-sufficiently knowable “me” and a self-established “me” have doctrinally-based and automatically-arising forms. So, to become either an arya or a liberated arhat, we need to have non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of true, self-established existence.   

Constant Karmic Habits

Once the karmic tendencies have been deactivated through successfully applying the four opponent forces, they become “burnt seeds.” The word I translate for tendency is literally “seed.” 

According to Tsongkhapa, these burnt karmic seeds are still imputations on our mental continuum. They undergo a transition, however, and now become constant karmic habits. Tendencies give rise to their results only intermittently, not all the time. We don’t repeat our destructive behavior every moment, just sometimes. Constant habits give their results every moment. 

Constant karmic habits, as so-called “obscurations of karma,” give rise to appearances of self-established existence. We don’t rid our mental continuums of these until, with a third zillion eons of positive force, we attain enlightenment and are able to sustain our non-conceptual total absorption on voidness all the time and while simultaneously cognizing all conventional objects with our omniscient awareness.

Concluding Remarks

How cognition of voidness liberates us from uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth is not a simple or speedy process. That’s because purifying our minds of unawareness, ignorance, is not a simple or speedy process. Although it’s complicated, life is also complicated. What can we expect?
Although it’s complicated, when we understand how liberation works, we can follow the path that leads to that with more confidence. We can be confident that, if we practice correctly and hard enough, liberation is possible, enlightenment is possible. Then it’s just a matter of getting on with the challenge and putting in the time and effort. Thank you.