We’ve been speaking about the different levels of renunciation, and we have extended the traditional way of explaining it just in terms of the intermediate level of motivation in lam-rim to a much broader spectrum, as indicated by the Sakya teaching of Parting from the Four Clingings.
We want to overcome our clinging to this lifetime, to future lifetimes, to our own selfish aims, and to self-established existence, and turn our main interest to future lives, to liberation, to cherishing others, and to voidness, the absence of self-established existence.
We’ve added a step before and a step after these four. Before them is being determined to rid ourselves of clinging to short-term benefits in this lifetime and have our main interest be instead in long-term benefits, all within the context of this lifetime. Then beyond the traditional parting from the four types of clinging, we want to have a determination to be free from our ordinary appearances and ordinary clinging, and turn our attention to appearances of pure Buddha-figures and mandalas, and no longer clinging to the self-established existence of any type of appearance. This is in the context of tantra.
We’ve covered the first two of these types of renunciation regarding short-term benefits of this lifetime and regarding clinging to just this lifetime itself.
Renunciation of Clinging to Pleasurable Things of Future Lives
Now we’re ready to deal with renunciation of clinging to pleasurable things of future lives, which basically means renouncing samsara, and having our main interest be in liberation instead. This is the standard place within the lam-rim structure of the three scopes of motivation where renunciation occurs. It’s on the intermediate scope of motivation.
We’ve been using a scheme for analyzing each of these levels of determination to be free, so we’ll continue with that scheme, just very roughly. The more precisely we’re able to define the state of mind that we want to generate – in this case, determination to be free from samsara – the easier it will be for us to generate the actual correct state of mind that is intended. It will be much easier for us to actually meditate with that, to focus on it, and to integrate it as part of our lives. If we are indecisive about the state of mind we wish to develop, imprecise about that, our meditation will be indecisive and imprecise, and not very effective.
Atisha points that out in his Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems. Referring to how to meditate on bodhichitta, he says, “Let me rid my mind of indecisive wavering.” That means being indecisive and not really knowing what we are doing; not having a precise idea of the state of mind that we’re trying to generate.
Correct Identification of the Object of Refutation
What are we aiming to be free of? We need to identify correctly the object of refutation, what we want to get out of, and this is having our main interest being in uncontrollably recurring rebirth.
It’s very important to identify what we are talking about here because it’s referring to something quite common; we don’t usually think on a very profound level about this. Many people, when they think of working to improve future lives, they think, “I want to continue having precious human rebirths, basically because I want to continue being with my friends and my teachers, and having everything good of this lifetime continue into future lives.”
That’s the type of attachment that we most commonly have in terms of being attached to recurring rebirth. It’s not simply that we are attached to our friends and loved ones and possessions and teachers and so on in this lifetime; we’re attached to having them in all future lifetimes as well, because that’s what we expect. That’s what we’re aiming for in future rebirths, isn’t it? That’s a slight distortion of the initial scope, which then becomes a big obstacle on the intermediate scope of motivation. Remember, for attaining liberation, we need to have equanimity toward all beings. Nobody’s special. We can’t be attached to our friends, so we need to recognize correctly what we mean by the object to be free of: this uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and what, on an emotional level, is actually our clinging.
Over-Refuting or Under-Refuting the Object to be Refuted
Over-refutation of that would be that, with liberation from samsaric rebirth, we will no longer continue to exist; we are extinguished, go out like a candle. A great Theravadin master, whom I discussed this with in Thailand, explained that this doesn’t mean literally that the mental continuum ends. It means that the samsaric type of mental continuum goes out like a candle. It’s not a nihilist position in Theravada, as some people might think.
Under-refutation would be that we have not developed ourselves as far as we can and that going further to enlightenment is not possible. In other words, liberation as an arhat is a dead end. Although there are some Buddhist sutras that explain that arhatship is a dead end, that some people can’t go beyond that to enlightenment; nevertheless, the way that it’s understood in many other sutras, which are considered definitive, is that there is no dead end there. Everybody can attain enlightenment. Arhats can go on to become Buddhas.
The Causes for Clinging to Future Lives
The causes for clinging to future lives is clinging to precious human rebirths with our friends, etc., as I was saying. In other words, we are attached to happiness, the type of happiness that we have with various types of precious human rebirth. And so, we look more closely at the cause of clinging, which is our disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior – both constructive and destructive – brought on through the mechanism of the twelve links of dependent arising, which describes the mechanism of samsaric rebirth.
All of this arises from unawareness of how we exist and how others exist. In other words, we think of ourselves in terms of being a solid findable thing, “me,” and our friends and loved ones also like that. We want to be happy, so we thirst for that happiness, not to be parted from it. Then, “Me, me, me, I don’t want to be parted from it.” This activates the throwing karma that brings on uncontrollably recurring rebirth.
The twelve links of dependent arising are very important to understand. Do you get the idea? Thinking “solid “me”, I want to be happy, I’m going to get this happiness from always being with my friends, and I want to continue having them and continue being with them.” That type of clinging throws us into yet another samsaric rebirth. That’s what’s driving the whole mechanism, if we try to simplify how it works.
The Disadvantages of Clinging to Rebirths Under the Influence of Disturbing Emotions and Compulsive Behavior
The disadvantage of clinging to rebirths under the influence of disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior is repeatedly experiencing the ups and downs of life. Sometimes we’re happy; sometimes we’re unhappy. Whatever happiness we have never satisfies and we never know what’s coming next. And then there are the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age and death; not getting what we want, having things happen to us that we don’t want, and so on. This is the classic list of all the disadvantages of samsaric rebirth.
If you think about it, it really is boring. You work so hard in this lifetime to educate yourself, to practice the Dharma, and then you get old and your short-term memory starts to go – I can tell you all about that, that’s really horrible – then your long-term memory starts to fade. Then you don’t have energy to practice, and then you lose it all when you die and have to start all over again in your next life, if you’re fortunate enough to have a precious human rebirth once more.
Maybe your instincts are a little bit better in your next life, but still you need to go through the whole education trip, etc., etc. – boring, isn’t it? All of that prevents us from gaining peace of mind and limits our ability to help others. Now, after 70 years, I’m doing something a little bit helpful for others, but soon – hopefully, if I’m not a cockroach – if I get a human rebirth, I’m going to be a tiny baby and won’t even be able to control going to the toilet. How much help am I going to be at that point? Horrible, when you think about it.
Correctly Establishing Our Aim
So, it’s very important to take seriously what we need to go through in each lifetime as a human, let alone as a cockroach. So, what are we aiming for? We’re aiming for liberation. Well, we need to know what liberation means – what’s it going to be like? There are two possibilities: either we are in some sort of pure land and we don’t have this type of body that is coming from unawareness, so that it’s subject to all these problems that we were talking about: birth, sickness, old age, etc. It’s known as a mental body, which is visible to the eyes only of ourselves and other arhats and the Buddhas. Others can’t see it, so it’s a little bit like a dream body, but not exactly the same. It’s a very subtle body, made of very subtle energy.
If we stay in a pure land as an arhat, we can spend our time either totally focused on voidness and can go into these higher dhyana states of absorbed concentration, where we don’t have any feeling whatsoever. Or we could be in a subsequent attainment period in which basically everything appears like an illusion. At those times, we’ll be happy, never unhappy. That’s the situation of being an arhat staying in a pure land.
Or we could develop bodhichitta as an arhat, and then we would want to either stay in a pure land and continue working toward enlightenment, or we could manifest in this ordinary world and work there to try to benefit others while on the path to enlightenment. We still wouldn’t have any unhappiness; we wouldn’t have any type of suffering in those lifetimes. And unless we are totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, at all other times our minds will still make an appearance of self-established existence. In other words, it’ll make things appear encapsulated in plastic – independent, isolated from everything else, putting it in very simple terms.
Over-Estimation and Under-Estimation of Arhatship
Over-estimating what the attainment of arhatship means would be to think that the mind is free from making appearances of self-established existence in that state. As an arhat, our mind still projects these deceptive appearances, but we’re not fooled by them; we don’t believe or grasp for them to correspond to actual reality. We know that they are like an illusion. Over-estimation would be that our minds don’t even project these illusion-like appearances.
Another over-estimation of arhatship is to think that we’re already enlightened, we have an enlightening body, speech and mind, and that we’re totally absorbed on voidness all the time and experience bliss all the time. That’s not the case, that’s over-estimating arhatship.
Under-estimating arhatship would be that we still have suffering and unhappiness when we take birth in an ordinary body to continue on the path to enlightenment. In that situation, there’s no unhappiness, no suffering. Arhats can experience pain, that’s just a physical sensation – but the mental factor of unhappiness does not accompany their experience.
The Benefits and Method of Achieving Liberation
The benefits of attaining liberation are that we don’t believe that the illusion-like appearances of self-established existence that our minds project correspond to reality. Because of that, we don’t have disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior, and the suffering that comes from them.
Also, when we have this renunciation to be free of all the suffering of samsara, we have the basis for developing the compassion needed for attaining not only liberation, but also attaining enlightenment. This is because great compassion is simply the mind of renunciation aimed at our own suffering transferred to the suffering of others. Also, as an arhat, when we develop bodhichitta, we’ll already be on the eighth bhumi of the ten bhumis; this is the Prasangika view within Gelugpa.
What are we going to do once we attain arhatship? We’re going to work further toward enlightenment, not just hang out in a pure land.
The method for attaining liberation is to recognize the suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, with all its disadvantages. We need to understand the twelve links of dependent arising, in other words how samsara works, and then develop the three higher trainings: ethical self-discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness. We need to discriminate correctly how the self exists and how it doesn’t exist, so that we refute how it doesn’t exist. We need to have concentration to stay focused on that, and the ethical self-discipline to be able to discipline our minds to be able to stay focused.
Don’t think that, for attaining liberation, only that is enough. In all the Theravada teachings, there is always the practice of the four immeasurables: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. So, there is definitely a building up of positive force, so-called “merit,” and that has to go along with these three higher trainings. Don’t underestimate the Theravada path; it’s one of the bodhisattva vows not to put down the so-called Hinayana teachings, which covers not only Theravada but many other Hinayana traditions as well.
The last point that we look at is confidence that we can attain liberation, and this we gain because we’re convinced of the natural purity of the mind and that true stoppings – the third noble truth – are possible to attain based on Buddha nature.