Renunciation of Ordinary Appearance-Making & Clinging

The last topic that we will speak about is renunciation of our minds giving rise to ordinary appearances and of our clinging to these ordinary appearances, and having our main interest be instead in having our minds giving rise to pure appearances of Buddha-figures and mandalas, with no clinging to them at all.

A Buddha-figure is a form that Buddhas appear in that often has multiple faces, arms and legs, each of which represents a different positive quality to develop on the path to enlightenment. A mandala is the palace and environment in which these Buddha-figures are standing or seated. Each architectural feature also represents a different part of the path. Advanced disciples visualize themselves in these forms and environments as a holistic method for developing all these qualities in a holistic, integrated manner for attaining enlightenment.

The Omniscient Mind of a Buddha

Remember our description of the omniscient mind of a Buddha. A Buddha’s omniscient mind gives rise to the appearance of the entire quantum universe and is fully aware of its entirety and its lack of self-established existence. From the side of a Buddha, a Buddha’s omniscient mind does not collapse that field into any particular appearance of self-established existence. This is because a Buddha doesn’t have limited hardware. But a Buddha knows that others with limited hardware – even with the limited subtle hardware of an arhat – do collapse that quantum universe into appearances of self-established existence, like websites on a computer screen.

How a Buddha Emanates Information and How Limited Beings Perceive It

The omniscient mind of a Buddha emanates out information; it radiates it forth in all directions. And that information can be understood on many different levels of course, but according to the apparatus with which different beings receive that information, it’s going to collapse into a certain language and be expressed in terms of certain concepts and conventions.

A Buddha emanates out information in the forms of both enlightening speech and the appearances of enlightening bodies. Because of sentient beings’ limited hardware, everybody understands enlightening speech in their own language. And as for the information of what a Buddha looks like, similarly, according to the hardware of the receiver, a Buddha will appear in many different forms simultaneously to different beings everywhere. To someone who is not receptive to a Buddha, however, their hardware doesn’t receive the Buddha words or the Buddha image.

I think this analogy is quite helpful – at least it’s helpful for me to understand how a Buddha can speak and everybody understands it in their own language, and a Buddha can emanate bodies and people everywhere sees a Buddha differently. I think this makes sense.

Now the question is, with our ordinary apparatus, our ordinary hardware, our limited bodies and minds, are we going to collapse the quantum universe into our ordinary appearances or are we going to collapse it into the structure and form of Buddha-figures and mandalas? We can collapse that information in either of those two ways, so both could be valid. It’s just how we perceive the universe. And which of these two will be more beneficial for working to attain enlightenment?

The Determination to Be Free from Ordinary Appearance-Making

What we are determined to be free of, here, is having our main interest be in the ordinary appearances that our minds give rise to of our usual bodies and environment, and clinging to our minds giving rise to them and projecting self-established existence to them. What we want instead, as a skillful method for helping us to attain enlightenment, is to have our minds collapse the field into mandalas and Buddha-figures, while knowing that neither the URL of ordinary appearances, or the URL of the mandalas, are established inside the computer of our internal hardware. They are both equally devoid of self-established existence. There’s no difference, it’s just that viewing things in terms of mandalas and Buddha-figures has many advantages.

Over-Refuting or Under-Refuting Ordinary Appearance-Making

Over-refuting would be to refute the conventional existence of the ordinary appearances our limited minds give rise to – to say that they don’t appear at all. Or to believe that the appearance of a mandala or a Buddha-figure doesn’t exist at all, it’s complete garbage – that’s over-refuting.

Under-refuting would be to refute the self-established existence of only our ordinary appearances, but to think that well, really, things are a mandala and Buddha-figures – so we agree to the self-established existence to these so-called pure appearances, and just refute it for the impure ones. That’s under-refuting. We think that being an ordinary being was a complete delusion, and actually we’re really Buddhas, literally – that’s also under-refuting.

The Cause for Our Minds to Give Rise to Ordinary Appearances

What is the cause of our mind giving rise to ordinary appearances of our usual bodies and usual environment around us? It’s the karmic tendencies which, when activated, bring about, via the mechanism of the twelve links of dependent arising, our uncontrollably recurring rebirth. In each rebirth, we have tainted aggregates – “tainted” means that there’s something distorted about them. In Gelug Prasangika, the definition of tainted is “mixed with an appearance of self-established existence.” So our hardware automatically is limited; it automatically is going to make things appear like they’re sitting and established by their own power inside the computer screen. That’s tainted.

Because of samsaric rebirth with this type of limited, tainted aggregates, tainted hardware, our minds give rise to these ordinary appearances, based on all our karmic tendencies and so on. And due to that constant habit of grasping for a self-established existence, we believe that what appears corresponds to how things actually do exist. We cling to their self-established existence.

The Disadvantages of Clinging to Ordinary Appearances, and the Advantages of Having Our Minds Give Rise to Pure Appearances

The disadvantages of our minds giving rise to these ordinary appearances and clinging to them is that we have strong disturbing associations with our ordinary appearances – “I’m too fat, I’m ugly, I’m getting old” – all sorts of disturbing associations with our ordinary appearances. It’s very difficult to stop these disturbing associations that we have with the ordinary appearances our limited minds give rise to.

We see things around us and we are very critical – for instance, “This wall looks terrible, it needs painting.” We don’t think of what we see in terms of “the mandala needs fresh paint,” we think in terms of “the room needs fresh paint.” Do you see there’s quite a difference?

If we’re imagining the space we’re in is a mandala, we don’t think of that mandala as needing fresh paint. Obviously, we could imagine a mandala that needs fresh paint, but let’s not be silly. Normally, a mandala is perfect. But as for our ordinary appearances, we’re very critical of them.

Also, our ordinary bodies change every moment, so when we’re sitting, trying to develop concentration on our bodies, for instance, we have a pain in our knee, our face itches, and so on. So, it’s very difficult to gain shamatha focused on the voidness of our ordinary body, or focused on the impurity of our ordinary body. That’s because the appearance of the basis for focus that our mind is giving rise to is changing all the time. But if we focus on the voidness of ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure, that form that our mind is giving rise to doesn’t change. It’s always the same, so that helps our minds to become stable.

What do we aim for? We aim for our minds giving rise to appearances of ourselves and others as Buddha-figures, and our environment as a mandala. And then we focus on the voidness of them.

Over-Refuting or Under-Refuting Pure Appearances and Clinging to Them

Over-refuting is to think that there are no such things as the pure appearances of Buddha-figures and mandalas. They are all nonsense, just the figments of our imagination.

Under-refuting is to think that a particular Buddha-figure is really what a Buddha looks like and Buddha has self-established existence as this figure, with all these arms and legs and in a mandala. Remember, a Buddha emanates and everyone collapses it in a different appearance. Collapsing it in the form of a mandala is a skillful method to help people to get an easier understanding of voidness, to attain enlightenment.

A Buddha can appear in any form, whatever form is useful. There’s no inherent form of a Buddha that a Buddha looks like. Even the classic form of a Buddha with the 32 signs and 80 features, they are called indicative signs: they indicate the causes for attaining enlightenment. So, appearing in this form is a skillful method to teach others the causes for enlightenment. It’s not that that’s really what a Buddha looks like from his own side. The way a Buddha appears is purely to be able to help others to attain liberation and enlightenment.

The Advantages of Our Minds Giving Rise to the Appearances of Everything as the Pure Forms of Buddha-Figures and Mandalas

The purpose for having our minds collapse everything around us into the forms of mandalas and Buddha-figures, rather than having it automatically collapse it into our ordinary appearances, is to be able to focus more easily on the voidness of these appearances. The pure appearances seem to be self-established, but it is easier to understand that they are like an illusion. Also, it’s easier to focus on the voidness of these Buddha-figures, because we don’t have disturbing associations with them as we do toward our bodies and environments.

Another benefit is that it’s much easier to attain shamatha focused on these figures. They are what’s called “static non-static phenomena” – each moment is changing, because there’s the next moment and the next moment of cognition of them, but the figure itself, the form is not changing. For example, Tara doesn’t grow old, Tara doesn’t have an itch on her arm; she stays the same. In that way, it’s much easier to attain shamatha on the form of ourselves as Tara, because our minds are giving rise to an object that always is the same.

Also, focusing in this way acts as a close cause for attaining the enlightening bodies of a Buddha; our ordinary types of bodies that grow old and so on are not similar at all to a Buddha’s Form Bodies. Our ordinary bodies don’t grow organically into an enlightening body of a Buddha. These visualized forms are already facsimiles of what we are aiming to attain. They’re forms designed to help others to gain all the insights on the path, which our ordinary bodies are not.

And remember, all the arms and legs and faces of these figures represent different aspects of our understanding; different aspects of the path. That’s very skillful for helping us to stay mindful of what they represent.

Over-Estimating or Under-Estimating Pure Appearances

We want to be careful not to over-estimate having our minds give rise to these pure appearances. To over-estimate it would be to think that we just need to visualize and see everything as a Buddha-figure and as mandalas, and that’s enough for attaining enlightenment. That’s over-estimating this type of visualization.

Under-estimating would be to think that imputing the conventional “me” on these visualizations is false, and therefore visualizing them are just self-delusion and escapes from reality. But that’s not so. Our Buddha-nature factors have an aspect that can give rise to resultant level Buddhahood, when all the conditions and circumstances are complete. Once we attain that enlightened state, then we too can emanate in forms that other people would collapse into these Buddha-figures. So, it’s valid to label the conventional “me” on the whole continuum of our mind-streams up to enlightenment. It’s not self-delusion to do so, but it is self-delusion to think that we’re actually there already at the resultant stage now.

If we think of the continuum of our life, from when we were a baby until now, we can label “me” on all of that, can’t we, on each moment of that? Of course, the “me” is changing as the basis for its labeling has changed – the baby, the child, the teenager, etc. Similarly, just as we can validly label “me” on that continuum up until now, we can also validly label “me” on when we will be an old man or an old woman. It still can be a valid basis for “me,” can’t it?

That doesn’t mean that we’re an old man or an old woman now, but it will be a valid imputation if we live long enough to become an old man or an old woman. Likewise, we are not a Buddha now, but if we build up all the causes, we can become a Buddha, and then we can emanate in all these forms like you do in sadhanas, and benefit everybody in every possible form. And then when we speak, everybody will understand it in their own language and on their own level, like with a Buddha. We imagine that now when we recite mantras and emanate lights and tiny figures, knowing full well that we are not there yet, and we focus on the voidness of all of that.

It’s very important to stay mindful that we and everyone around us as Buddha-figures and our surroundings as a mandala – all that is like an illusion. They appear to be self-established, but they’re not. It’s a skillful means that Buddha has taught to enable us to gain an understanding of the voidness of the appearances of self-established existence more easily, because we don’t have all these negative associations with them. That’s also one of its benefits.

What do we do, once our minds give rise to these pure appearances of Buddha-figures and mandalas? We impute our conventional “me” on them. That’s called “holding the pride of the deity.” Then we focus on their voidness and, while visualizing ourselves in these forms, we do all the practices to build up positive force, like imagining that we’re helping all beings, that we’re teaching all beings, and so on. It’s much easier to combine so-called method and wisdom together this way.

The Method for Getting Rid of Ordinary Appearance-Making and Having Our Minds Give Rise to Pure Appearances

What is the method for getting rid of our ordinary appearance-making and having our minds give rise to pure appearances? First, we focus on the ordinary appearances our minds give rise to and refute the self-established natures that they appear to have. Then we focus on the voidness of their self-established natures. When we focus on voidness, our minds do not give rise to ordinary appearances at the same time. An absence of self-established existence and the presence of an appearance of self-established existence are mutually exclusive. If we’re focusing on “there is no such thing as little people sitting inside my cell-phone, self-established there and appearing,” then when we focus on “there is no such thing as that,” little people are not appearing simultaneously on the screen. We’re just focusing on “there is no such thing.”

Then we visualize the pure appearance of the Buddha-figures and the mandala; and although sometimes it’s translated as “out of a state of voidness, I arise as this or that deity,” that’s a misleading translation. Although the Tibetan text itself seems to read like that, the original phrasing in Sanskrit that the Tibetans translated means “within the taste of voidness” – so, keeping the taste of voidness, our minds give rise to these appearances. It’s not as though the appearance of a deity is sitting inside voidness and popping out. The pure appearances of these figures retain the taste of voidness: in other words, implicitly, without voidness appearing, our minds give rise to them as having the taste of voidness. That’s what the words actually mean, if we go back to the original Sanskrit. This is called illusion-like voidness. Because our minds are still limited, they give rise to these pure appearances as seeming to have self-established existence, but they still have this taste of voidness that our minds were giving rise to and understanding immediately preceding this. Thus, we implicitly know that they are like an illusion.

Gaining Confidence That We Can Have Our Main Interest Be in Having Our Minds Give Rise to the Pure Appearances of Buddha-Figures and Their Voidness

We can be confident that we can have our main interest be in having our minds give rise to the pure appearances of Buddha-figures and mandalas, because the Buddha-nature factors imputed on our mental continuums have an aspect of our not-yet-happening enlightenment – the not-yet-happening result in the form of these Buddha figures that these Buddha-nature factors can give rise to when all the causes and conditions are complete. And it’s valid to impute our conventional “me” on these aspects, while realizing the not-yet-happening of them.

Take the example of a flower seed. A flower seed has an aspect to it that it can give rise to the not-yet-happening flower when all the causes and conditions are complete: when it’s planted in soil, given water and sunlight. That flower, the result, is not-yet-happening at the time of the seed, but we can impute that it can happen, and we can call it a flower seed while fully realizing that the flower of the flower seed is not yet happening now. But it’s still a flower seed – it’s valid to call it a flower seed.

It’s the same in terms of our Buddha-nature factors – these factors refer primarily to our networks of positive force and deep awareness. Those two together, with the voidness of the mind, allow for enlightenment to happen as their result. The two networks can give rise to their result, namely the enlightening bodies and mind of a Buddha, because of the voidness of the mind, the voidness of the two networks and the voidness of cause and effect. We understand the voidness of self-established existence to mean dependent arising. We can then be confident that having our minds give rise to the appearances of these Buddha-figures and doing the proper meditations with them will be a much more efficient method for attaining enlightenment than just having our minds give rise to the appearances of our ordinary forms.


To summarize what we’ve been discussing, we’ve been talking about the determination to be free, where we turn our main attention away from certain things that are producing problems or limitations, and have our main interest be instead in something else that will be far more beneficial:

  • We turn from thinking just of short-term benefit in this lifetime to long-term benefit in this lifetime.
  • We turn from thinking just of the pleasurable things of this lifetime to thinking of improving future lives.
  • We turn from focusing just on continuing to have wonderful nice future lives – attaining samsaric lives – to attaining liberation.
  • We turn from selfishly cherishing only ourselves to cherishing others.
  • We turn from grasping for self-established existence to actually exist, to voidness, there’s no such thing.
  • We turn from our ordinary appearance-making and clinging to both them and their appearance of self-established existence to having our minds give rise to pure appearances, while understanding their voidness.

For each of these levels, we have analyzed it according to a set of variables:

  • We have identified correctly what is the object that we are determined to be free of, without over-refuting or under-refuting it, so we’ve identified what an over-refutation or an under-refutation would be.
  • We have identified the cause of clinging to it and the disadvantages of this clinging.
  • We have clearly and correctly identified what we are aiming for instead, without over-estimating it or under-estimating it.
  • We have affirmed the benefits of attaining this.
  • We have clarified what we are going to do with it once we’ve attained it.
  • We have correctly identified and understood the method for getting rid of what we were clinging to, and for gaining what we are aiming for, in other words, the method for attaining this freedom.
  • We have gained confidence that the method will work, and that we can succeed in achieving the goal by applying it.

This gives us a very useful format for working on the various stages of the path to liberation and enlightenment.

Now we have time for some final questions.


If I have very comfortable conditions now in this life, it might prevent me from having renunciation from comfortable conditions in the next lives as well. So maybe if I put myself in uncomfortable conditions in this life, it will be easier for me to have renunciation in my next lives as well and to have renunciation from samsara in general. So, in a way, the worse, the better?

If we have a very comfortable situation we can of course be very complacent about that, and think, “Oh this is great, I’ll just sit back and enjoy it” or we could take advantage of the fact that we have excellent conditions to be able to use that as a foundation for helping others more. We’re not renouncing our comfort, but what we are renouncing is our clinging to it. It’s not that we need to purposely cause ourselves suffering in order to be able to renounce suffering. If we are sensitive enough, we will detect suffering in any case: the suffering of growing old, the suffering of getting sick, and many other types of suffering besides just being poor, not having a nice television set, etc.

However, it is important to be aware of others’ suffering. Whether we do that in terms of people in situations in this lifetime that are around us, or we think of the suffering of the hells and so on, we need to do that to open up our hearts. We don’t have to experience a hell in order to think of the sufferings of the hells, and to develop compassion for those who experience them. But it’s very difficult to do that sincerely, to really imagine burning in a hell, or even being burned alive as a human being, to imagine what that would be like. Nevertheless, we try.

In short, we need to watch out for feeling guilty that we are comfortable, but rather use our comfortable situation if we have it in order to help others more.

Are there new mental continuums that are born or appear?

Each mental continuum has no beginning, and so there are no more new ones being created. The number of mental continuums is countless, but that doesn’t mean that they are infinite in number – it’s finite. If there were new mental continuums, we would have to ask the question where are the new ones coming from, and what are the circumstances and causes and conditions that would give rise to new ones. There are many contradictions here.

Usually the texts divide love and compassion into two different things, but when you speak about love, when we wish others happiness, which kind of happiness should we wish for? If we wish them just ordinary happiness, then ordinary happiness is a kind of suffering. In this case, what is the reason to differentiate love and compassion?

When we give love to others, the wish for them to be happy, then of course there are stages of the happiness that we wish them. Of course, if they are unhappy, it’s better to be happy, even if it’s ordinary happiness. “May all beings have all the happiness that will provide the conducive conditions for their attaining enlightenment.” That’s immeasurable love. Then there is immeasurable joy, in the Mahayana sense, “May they have the happiness of enlightenment that never declines.”

So, there are stages of the happiness that we wish them. And compassion is “may they have freedom from suffering.” That’s taking away something, being free of something, and love is attaining something, happiness. We don’t want others only to have ordinary happiness, however; that’s not the final goal. But with that ordinary happiness, we want them to be able to work further and attain the non-declining happiness of Buddhahood – immeasurable joy.

When I hear the word “merit” in the teachings, they say that if we accumulate enough merit then we will have some good circumstances, and everything will be very smoothly for us. But when I’m working to help others, I can’t help but feel, “I am on the boat now and I am gaining more good circumstances, more good opportunities, because I am creating merit by doing all these practices. And yet others are still drowning in the ocean of samsara.”

If the problem is feeling guilty about having built up some positive force, well, you have to analyze what is wrong with building up positive force? And underlying that, what is the view of your self that perhaps you think that you don’t deserve to have this positive force? In other words, low self-esteem.

We need to realize that there’s no basis for low self-esteem. We all have these Buddha-nature factors, so some sort of buildup of positive force; otherwise, we would never have felt happy even in one moment of our lifetime. So, there is some positive force. There is also some deep awareness. We’re able to understand something, we’re able to understand language, so we do have the factors that would allow us to become enlightened. So, there’s no reason to have low confidence in ourselves; there’s no reason to have low self-esteem. By building up more positive force, all we’re doing is fortifying what we already have. Maybe we’ve been indoctrinated that “I don’t deserve to be happy” or “nobody deserves to be happy,” but then we need to analyze is this reasonable? Purely from a Buddhist point of view, that’s not reasonable.

This is a basic Buddhist principle, everybody equally deserves to be happy, so there’s no reason to feel bad about building up the causes to have happiness.

Is it possible to develop these six levels of renunciation at the same time, or should they be sequential and follow either sequentially in this life or in different lifetimes?

When we initially work with these six, we develop them sequentially, because one builds on the foundation of the ones before it, like we have with lam-rim: first the initial level, then the intermediate level, then the advanced level, each one resting on and including the level before it. But then with long-term familiarity with it, we need to be able to have all six types of renunciation at once.

My teacher Serkong Rinpoche used to say, “You should be able to have all the points of lam-rim simultaneously at once in the time that it takes from putting one foot in the stirrup of the saddle until you put the other foot over the other side of the horse.” So, we need a great deal of familiarity to be able to do that. We need repetition, and that means meditation.

I think that’s a good point to end then, on meditation.


We think that whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from all this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha for the benefit of us all. Thank you.