What I have been asked to speak about is the four noble truths in the Vajrayana tradition. We can look at the Vajrayana tradition in two ways, either specifically the way that the four noble truths are approached in tantra, or we can look at Vajrayana as being a way of referring to the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism that combines the study of both sutra and tantra.
The Buddhist Path as the Context for the Four Noble Truths
First, I’d like to speak in terms of this common aspect – the sutra/tantra aspect – of the four noble truths, since there really isn’t a separate tantra explanation of them. This is the way that it is studied in the Tibetan tradition. It is based on the Indian Mahayana tradition, which is based here on a particular text by Maitreya, who is a future Buddha; and he wrote many texts, and one of them is a great commentary on the Prajnaparamita Sutras. These are the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and in this there is a great deal of detail about everything concerning the path and all the realizations that one gains along the path to liberation and enlightenment. The title of the text translates as “Filigree of Realizations,” so it’s lots and lots of realizations.
The four noble truths have sixteen aspects, four to each of the truths, and this is a topic which is the main focus of meditation on the path that leads to both liberation and enlightenment. When we speak about liberation and enlightenment, what we are referring to is that liberation is overcoming one set of obscurations which cloud the mind. These are the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes like anger and longing desire, naivety, ignorance, confusion – all of these things plus their tendencies. And when we overcome that and the karmic impulses – this acting under the influence of these disturbing emotions – then we gain liberation. And we can gain liberation as either a shravaka, a listener to the teachings who is basically following what is called the “Hinayana” path. Hinayana has eighteen schools and one of them is Theravada. But Hinayana, although is not a very nice name, we don’t really have a name for all eighteen, but we need to realize that Theravada is only one of them. And then we can also practice toward liberation as a pratyekabuddha. These are the ones that practiced during the dark ages between when Buddhas are around to teach us, and they just work basically on the basis of their instincts without any teacher.
So we can follow the path in one of these two ways toward liberation or we can follow the path as a bodhisattva. As a bodhisattva, we would gain liberation and then go beyond. We have to go beyond to gain enlightenment. And to gain enlightenment, we have to overcome not only these emotional obscurations that prevent liberation, but we also have to overcome a deeper set of obscurations; and, of course, these are described in many different ways by the different philosophical schools, but we can call them the cognitive obscurations – the obscurations that prevent us from really understanding everything. This has to do with what is behind these disturbing emotions.
Disturbing emotions are based on confusion about reality: how we exist, how everything exists. The problem is that our mind makes things appear to exist in a false way, in a confusing way. The mind makes things appear as though everything is solid, concrete, as if it had a big coating in plastic, or a big line around it – individual, separated from everything else. We think that we exist like that, and we also think I am the center of the universe and that everything else is “out there” with these big lines around it. That is confusing. Based on that, we act in all sorts of inappropriate ways, unfortunate ways. And so what we need in order to gain enlightenment is to overcome this aspect of the mind that makes things appear in this confusing way. When the mind makes things appear in this confusing way, then we don’t see that everything is interrelated. And if we can’t see that everything is interrelated, we can’t really understand, “How can I really help everybody?”
To be able to help everybody, we need to be able to understand every little thing that has affected this person from beginningless time: all the different factors of what they have done in previous lives, what’s happened to them, all the historical factors that have affected them – everything, because everything is interrelated. And we also have to know, “If I teach this person something, what will be the effect of that? How will that affect not only this person, but everybody that this person meets from now until their liberation.” So that’s not very easy to understand. And if our mind makes things appear in these little plastic packages, then we don’t see the relation of everything; we can’t really understand all the causes for why something is happening with somebody now, and all the effects of how we interact with them.
So that’s what you have to overcome to become a Buddha. These are these cognitive obscurations – and what they obscure is Buddha-nature, which is the nature of the mind, which is capable of understanding everything and seeing how everything is interconnected. As a bodhisattva, we have to overcome all these disturbing emotions and confusion, but we also have to overcome the fact that the mind makes these confusing appearances. By making these confusing appearances, then you believe in them, and then you act it out as if things existed that way. If you are liberated as an arhat, the mind still makes all these confusing appearances but you don’t believe it. You say this is garbage; this is not true. And then of course you don’t get upset, and you don’t act it out, and so on; but that’s not enough – you are not able to know how to help everybody in the best way. So you follow a certain development of mind – development of understanding, development of your character – in order to reach this liberation and enlightenment, and that is described by the five paths. These are actually pathway minds: it’s a level of mind that acts as a path for reaching liberation and enlightenment. And you start on that once you develop, first of all, renunciation.
Renunciation is when you have this strong determination that “I have got to get free.” This is terrible, all the suffering is horrible; I have had enough of it and I want out. And I want to get out not just in terms of the suffering of this lifetime, but constant repeating rebirth with all the same problems over and over again. And I am willing to give that up. That’s the two aspects: I want to get out; and it’s not that I just want to get out and not having to give up anything, I want to give up all the confusion and all the disturbing emotions, and so on. And when you get this with an unlabored way – in other words, there is no effort that is required of having to go through why I want to get out, and so on; but is just part of our whole aim in life, whether we are thinking about it or not – then you start these pathway minds. That is when you start. Before that, we’re just struggling to catch on to the train, but we actually get on the train when we develop this renunciation in an unlabored way – it’s just there all the time.
And when, in addition, we have bodhichitta in the same way – bodhichitta is when your mind is aimed at your own future enlightenment, not enlightenment in general, not the enlightenment of the Buddha, but my own enlightenment that I understand that I can attain because of Buddha-nature, and all these things; and you focus on that, and I realize that I haven’t gotten there yet, but that is what I want to get, that is what I am aiming for, and I am aiming for that because I want to be able to help everybody as fully as possible, and the only way I can do that is if I get that enlightenment; then you have bodhichitta. And if you have that in an unlabored way – it is just there all the time; you don’t have to think of why and all the reasons, it is just there – then you start the Mahayana five paths. Now with these five paths, these are pathway minds, these are a level of mind, a level of understanding, that are going to bring you to the goal and you progress through these.
So first, on the first one, you are gathering together. It’s called the pathway mind of … usually translated “accumulation,” but actually what it means is “building up,” so you are building up all the tools now. And the tools that you build up are what maybe many of you have heard of: “shamatha” and “vipashyana.” Shamatha is a mind that is stilled and settled, that is without any wandering, without any flying off to things of desire, without any dullness or sleepiness or anything like that, perfectly concentrated with a sense of fitness, an exhilarating sense that I can concentrate on anything. Then you add to that vipashyana which is that, in addition to that, there is a sense of fitness that the mind can understand anything. When you have those, then you have completed that first level of pathway mind. Then you have to apply this. You apply this more and more and more, so that you now have the conceptual understanding. Now, what are we trying to get this concentration on? It is the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. That’s what you are focusing on. So we build up the tools by focusing on these sixteen, and then you apply it. You apply all of this – the real tools that we have – to really understanding it.
We understand it conceptually – that means through some idea of it. And when you gain non-conceptual understanding of the sixteen, then you become what is known as an “arya.” An arya is a highly realized being. Non-conceptual means to understand these not through some general idea, but just directly, in a sense. Then you are an arya. Then you start to get rid of some of these obscurations. When you become an arya, it’s called the path of seeing; it’s the seeing pathway mind.
Then you have to accustom yourself to that more and more and more – that’s the accustoming pathway of mind, or the path of meditation – so that you get rid of more and more levels of this obscuration. And then you achieve the goal – the pathway mind of needing no more training – as either an arhat (a liberated being) or a Buddha.
So throughout this, what you are focusing on are the four noble truths. “Noble” is referring to the arya, the one who has this non-conceptual understanding. That is what they see. It’s called the noble truths, the arya truths, because ordinary people don’t understand them. They are completely different from the way that ordinary people understand life. Whereas aryas, once they have this non-conceptual understanding of this, see that ordinary people are wrong. This is the true way in which things are in life.
And so as we work to try to really understand these four noble truths and these sixteen aspects, then we overcome sixteen distorted ways of understanding them, sixteen wrong views about them. And this is what really is studied from the Tibetan perspective when we study the four noble truths, because that is going to be the main topic of meditation. So you want to get the understanding of the sixteen aspects to get rid of the sixteen wrong understandings. And these wrong understandings and the correct understandings actually are very, very helpful, not only when we are on these very advanced levels – which is what they are talking about – with a strong motivation of renunciation or bodhichitta, but also to think about well before that as well.
So when we focus on these sixteen, we focus on two aspects of them. One is just the actual details of these sixteen: what they are, and the truth of what they are. And then you have to also understand that there’s no true “me,” or no true self, or no true existence. “True existence” here is actually false existence. In other words, none of these sixteen exist in some impossible way: coated in plastic, by itself, isolated from everything else, some “fact” up there that I have to learn in order to pass a test, or something like that. So you have to understand not only the details of the sixteen, but you have to understand how they exist, and how I exist, and everybody exists in relation to these sixteen. That’s actually what the meditation is all about on the spiritual path: on the basis of renunciation, bodhichitta, these things which are based on love and compassion and all of that.
The Four Aspects of True Suffering
So what are these sixteen? To understand the sixteen it is necessary to understand the four noble truths with a little bit of detail, a little bit deeper, of what it’s really referring to. And true sufferings, the first of these, is referring to the five tainted aggregates – that’s jargon, of course, and we have to understand what that means. In every moment of our experience, each moment is made up of one or more things that are in five categories. Let me say that in another way: it is like everything that changes – the aggregates are referring to everything that changes – everything that changes that makes up our experience could be understood as in one of five different bags … they are just a mental construct of how to help us understand … in five different categories. In every moment, one or more things from each of these bags is going to be present.
So what do we have in each moment? I’ll do it in an order that makes it easier to understand. We have some form of consciousness, whether it is seeing consciousness, or hearing, or smelling, or tasting, or feeling some physical sensation, or the mental one, thinking. So in every moment, we are on one of these channels, like a channel on the television.
Then in every moment there is some physical object which is involved, so it could be a sight, could be a sound, a smell, a taste, could be a physical sensation, or we could be thinking about anything. And of course our body is there too. So there is always something physical as well.
And then there is a feeling of a level of happiness. That’s only what feeling is referring to: How do you feel? You feel happy or unhappy? Seeing somebody, do you feel happy seeing them or unhappy? Happy means that you want to continue; unhappy means that you want to look away. So that is there every single moment. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, but that is there every moment. Actually, feeling is defined as how we experience the ripening of our karma. One person eats a cheese and feels very happy; the next person eats the same cheese and hates it and feels unhappy. That’s the result of our karma.
Then we also have in every moment distinguishing. You have to able to distinguish – let’s say when I am looking – the colored shapes of your face from the colored shapes of the wall. If I can’t distinguish that, I can’t actually see the person, can I? What are we looking at? We are looking at dots of colored pixels, aren’t we? We’re seeing colored shapes. You have to be able to put them together to distinguish one thing from another thing. So that’s there all the time. That’s sometimes called “recognition,” but that is not a good translation.
Then the fifth one is everything else: all our emotions, concentration, sleepiness – everything else.
So these are the five aggregates. Every moment, we have one or more things from that making up our experience, and it is all changing all the time, and everything in it is changing at a different rate. We are seeing different things, our level of happiness and unhappiness goes up and down, we are distinguishing a nose from the rest of the face, we are distinguishing all sorts of things. And, of course, our emotions change all the time, and our concentration changes, our interest changes. All these things are changing all the time. And we call them “tainted,” sometimes translated as “contaminated” which is not a very nice word, but tainted means that… How do these arise? They arise because of our disturbing emotions, so they are tainted by them, sort of dirtied by the disturbing emotions; whether it is attachment, whether it is anger, whether it is just naivety, pride, jealousy – all these things. It’s tainted by that. That is true suffering. Every moment of our experience is made up of these five aggregates, which are under the influence of these disturbing emotions: anger, attachment, naivety, and so on. That is what true suffering is talking about.
Then what are the four aspects of it? The four aspects are, first of all, nonstatic phenomena. Nonstatic means that they are not standing still, they are changing; they are changing moment to moment to moment; and in one lifetime it’s going to come to an end. Of course we have a next lifetime, but this body and my memories and whatever we have, that’s going to come to an end. So it’s impermanent; and in each moment it changes and gets closer and closer to that end. That is what we mean by nonstatic or impermanent. Of course it will continue, there will be another lifetime, but we are not talking about that. What we’re talking about is within one lifetime it will come to an end, and every moment it changes, changes, changes, changes, changes…
The second aspect of it is that it is miserable. Sometimes we just use the word “suffering,” but I think we need another word here. So the aggregates are miserable. Why are they miserable? That’s because there are three types of suffering that are explained in Buddhism. One is the suffering of unhappiness. We’re unhappy and we suffer because of that. It could be unhappiness based on pain; it could be unhappiness based on what we don’t like; it could be unhappiness for many, many different reasons. We shouldn’t think of this just in terms of physical pain, but mental as well. Pain is just a sensation. We are talking about the feeling: you feel unhappy about it, you suffer.
Then there is the suffering of change. And that’s referring to our ordinary happiness. Our ordinary happiness is a big problem. Why is it a problem? Because it doesn’t last. We never know when it’s going to end. You never know what is going to come next. And it is never enough, it never satisfies. So it’s frustrating. Our ordinary happiness, although we may enjoy it for a little while, there’s no security there. And it is never enough. So that’s the second kind of suffering.
The third kind of suffering is the real suffering. This is what really we are talking about in Buddhism: it’s the all-pervasive suffering. The all-pervasive suffering is the fact that we have these tainted aggregates. We have this body, and mind, and feelings, and emotions, and all of that, which are affected by anger, and desire, and attachment, and so on. And they are the basis for being unhappy or this ordinary type of happiness. That is the real problem. The real problem is having the basis, as is said sometimes: if you didn’t have a head, you wouldn’t have a headache. So the problem is not the headache; the problem is always having the type of head that is going to get a headache. We are always having the type of very delicate disposition that is always going to get upset. That is what we have to get rid of. That’s this aspect of miserable. These aggregates are “miserable,” because they are the basis for the other types of suffering.
Then the next one is that they are void phenomena. Void means that they are missing something; there’s something which is absent. Sometimes that’s called “empty.” So what are these five aggregates – the body, mind and feelings – what are they missing? What don’t they have? And what they don’t have is a type of what we would call an impossible “soul.” In Buddhism, we’re always speaking here about… sometimes it’s called “self,” sometimes it’s called “ego,” these sort of things. But if you really look at it, at what they are talking about, they are talking about the Hindu concept of atman. A “soul,” I think, is the closest that we would say in our Western thinking. And they say in Buddhism that the type of soul which is believed in in these other Indian philosophies is impossible – that’s not who we are, because we tend to identify with the soul and say that’s “me.” So what it’s missing here, what it’s devoid of, is a soul, which is defined the way that it’s defined in the Hindu philosophies. Now we have things that are similar in our Western thought, but it is specifically that Buddha was talking about what everybody believed at his time.
Now this is a soul which is unchanging. Buddhism says that “me,” that “I,” continues forever. That’s not a problem. So it’s not the fact that the soul goes on forever: the mind in Buddhism goes on forever; the “me” goes on forever. But to think that it doesn’t change, it’s not affected by anything. “Here I am. I went to sleep last night. I got up this morning, and here I am again – the same ‘me.’ I haven’t changed, it is still ‘me.’” Thinking that you can hurt my body, but you can’t hurt “me.” This type of thing: that the “me” is something which doesn’t change, unaffected by anything.
The second aspect of this impossible “soul” or “me” is that it is a monolithic partless thing. What does that mean? That means either, as some Indian philosophies believe, I am one with the Universe; so I am this partless whole of all of life, we are all One, we are just the whole Universe – which is absolutely not Buddhism; that is in the Hindu beliefs. And the other possibility is that: what is the soul? It is a tiny partless spark of life that goes from one lifetime to another. It always stays the same. That is impossible from the Buddhist point of view.
And the third aspect is that this type of “soul” or “me” is completely separate from the aggregates, from the body and mind. In other words, it comes into a body and mind at conception and then it inhabits – like living in a house – it lives inside the body, and it uses it and controls it, like somebody sitting at a computer and pressing all the buttons, sitting in our head and speaking. Because it feels like that. The one that’s talking inside our head, that’s this little “me,” this little spark of life that never changes, it’s still “me.” “Here I am, now look at this! I did that!” And so on. And that’s completely separate, and controlling and using the body and mind to do things, and then it leaves it and goes to another house, into another body and another brain, and uses that. That is impossible. So these five aggregates, which are affected by all these disturbing emotions – this third aspect: they are devoid of that kind of impossible “me.”
The fourth aspect is that they lack an impossible “soul.” That’s referring to a more subtle level of impossible “soul.” This is an impossible “soul” that can be known all by itself. We all believe in this – automatically it feels like that. Like, for instance, when I think of Renata my friend here, what do I think? “I know Renata. I see Renata.” What does that mean? I actually see a body. How can you possibly know Renata, or see Renata, without seeing her body? How could I know Renata without knowing something about her, either the name – I can’t think about just Renata: I have to think of the name “Renata,” or I have to think of her personality, or I have to think of what she looks like, or the sound of her voice on the telephone. That’s Renata. But, that’s not Renata on the telephone, that’s the voice. And on the basis of the voice, I say that’s Renata. So that is impossible, that there is a “me” – a person, Renata – that I can know all by itself without also knowing any of the aggregates.
We always think that way. “You did that to me” – “you,”as if I could know “you” independent of a body, independent of things “you” said, independent of anything. “You, you are a terrible person!” What is that? There is no “you” that we can know or think about, or accuse of anything, or get angry about, separate from the mind and the feelings and the body, which is affected by a million different other things. It is the same thing with “me.” These aggregate factors – body, mind, and so on – they don’t have this gross impossible “soul” or “me,” or this subtle one.
This is true suffering: these types of aggregates. We don’t understand really these four aspects of them: that they change all the time, that they are miserable, that they don’t have these two types of impossible “me.” But if we understood that, then we would understand what the real problem is. We don’t understand this; that’s the real problem, the suffering.
The Four Aspects of the True Causes of Suffering
Okay. Those are the four aspects of true suffering. Then the true origins, true causes, of this. Now, this is interesting and it is very deep. True causes for it are, if we speak in general, the disturbing emotions and karma, karmic impulses. Now that’s referring to something very specific. In Buddhism, how does rebirth work? Remember, the true problem, the true suffering are these aggregates that we get over and over again – that’s samsara – with all the suffering that is involved with them. That these aggregates – the body, mind, etc. – are just the basis for having everything else, all the other sufferings. So the real cause that we are talking about is: what is the cause, or the origin, for continuing rebirth with this type of mind and body, and so on, in whatever life form that might be – in animal or ghost, whatever. And that, we have to understand in terms of karma; and that is described with what’s called the “twelve links of dependent arising.”
There is no need to go through all twelve; that is another topic that is very basic in the Buddhist teachings. Now, what happens? What are we doing all the time? What we are doing is we are acting either destructively or constructively, but based on thinking that I exist as this impossible “me.” And then all the attachment: Here I am, all by myself. I know “me.” I am going to find “me.” I am going to express “me,” as if this “me” could be known separate from a body or mind or whatever. And then I don’t like that, so I have to get rid of this as anger. Or I have to get this, so we have attachment or desire. These type of things. Or I can act, and there no effect from it: it’s naivety. So we act on the basis of that: either we act in a destructive way: “I don’t like this; I am going to hurt it, kill it,” or in a desirous way: “I am going to steal this because I want it.” These can be destructive ways or it can even be a constructive way: “I am going to be kind to you so that you will like me.” So that really is a selfish way of acting in a nice way: we are nice to somebody else, we help them, but our reason for being nice is basically a big ego reason: to prove how wonderful I am, and all that sort of stuff so that you’ll love me.
When we act in this way, these are karmic actions and they leave as a result a certain impression on our mind, certain tendencies, certain habits to repeat that type of action and to get the type of body that is going to be the basis for repeating it. And being happy, being unhappy, having all sorts of things happen to us, and so on – that is what ripens from this karmic “aftermath” I call it, what is left over afterwards.
Now something has to activate that at the time of death so that you are going to be thrown into another rebirth. So what activates it? This is what the twelve links are talking about and this is the true origin of suffering. What activates it is called “craving.” Craving is when we are experiencing happiness, we crave – it is a strong desire – not to be parted from that. “I am with my friends, I am with my body, with all the nice things around me and I don’t want to lose that, I don’t want to be parted from that.” We have that strong feeling, don’t we, especially when we are about to die. We don’t want to go; we don’t want to let go.
And then we also have craving to be parted from suffering, from pain. Let’s say you are dying from cancer and you have a lot of pain, and you want to be free from that: “I want to be happy.” We all have that all the time. Then there’s craving just to continue existing: “I want to continue existing; I don’t want to stop.” So these are disturbing emotions, this is what we are talking about – the true origin.
And because of that and because of a further attitude, which is thinking in terms of a solid “me,” that activates the karmic aftermath. And it activates it in such a way that then it throws our mental continuum into the next rebirth with more tainted aggregates and another body and mind that is going to be upset, and it is going to get sick, and that is going to get old, and it’s going to have a problem finding work, and it is going to have all the problems that we have in life. That is the true origin; that is what we want to get rid of. To get rid of the true suffering, which is this type of body, and this type of mind, and this type of feelings, and so on – we want to get rid of that so that we can become an arhat or a Buddha with a body made of light and a mind that is not affected by any of this garbage, the disturbing emotions.
To get rid of that, we have to get rid of where it is coming from. And where it’s coming from is this karmic aftermath based on our previous actions and these disturbing emotions that activate it. That’s the origin; that is what we want to get rid of. If there is nothing to activate the karma, it is finished – there’s not going to be any further rebirths with this type of body and mind. That aftermath becomes ineffective; it is not going to do anything. That is what we are really working for.
So what are the four aspects of true origins?
First of all is that it is a cause. Cause means that it is what activates the throwing karma, what activates this karmic aftermath – the tendencies, and so on. In that sense it is a cause.
It is an origin: this is the next point. It is an origin in the sense that the aggregates – the body and mind and things – are going to arise again and again and again. Like a field: the crops are going to grow on the field season after season after season.
And then it is a strong producer – it means that no matter what else you are trying to do, you activate this throwing karma. Forget it! It is going to throw you into another rebirth, and it is going to strongly produce this – you know: here’s another body, here is another type of brain, and here is another continuum of feelings, and all these things, with anger and with desire and with naivety, etc.
And then the fourth aspect is that it is a condition. These are the conditions that are necessary – this craving, and the karmic aftermaths, and all those – those are the conditions that are necessary for our suffering to arise. It is like water and fertilizer and all these things that are necessary for a plant to grow.
The Four Aspects of the True Cessations
So those are the four aspects. Then we have true stoppings or true cessation. What does that mean? This occurs only on the level (on the mental continuum) of an arya. An arya is somebody who has non-conceptual understanding of these sixteen. That is where it starts. And a stopping is like a removal of something. Let’s say, do you remember when we had these televisions and radios that have different tubes in them that were necessary for them to work – and a true stopping is like pulling out one of these tubes and smashing it, throwing it away; that’s finished! It is removed. And then what we are left with is what’s called the true stopping – an absence of this. That is what we are talking about here. True stopping is a true absence, a true stopping of some level of these disturbing emotions, some level of these karmic tendencies and habits, which is achieved by the power of applying some opponent – it is not that it just naturally ended because the karma was finished, but has to come about by some method: the true pathway minds. And it is a stopping in a way in which it’s never going to happen again. And we build up more and more of these as we go through these three higher paths as an arya – pathway minds – so that eventually we pull out all the tubes; and when you pull out all the tubes of the emotional obscurations, you are a liberated being, you are an arhat, you’ve achieved liberation. And when you pull out the rest of the tubes then you are a Buddha – there are no more tubes, no more obscurations. Those are the true stoppings. These true stoppings are forever, they are not going to change. It is static: it doesn’t change and it is not affected by anything else. Nothing is going to change it. We can see how this is related to the discussion that we had before of Buddha – nature. It’s forever. This is just like clouds over the sky – these tubes that we have to pull out, these obscurations.
Now, what are the four aspects of it?
It is a stopping in the sense that it is a stopping of a portion of the true sufferings and their origins – a portion of that is stopped – which is done by an opponent force in such a way that it is never going to come again, so it is a stopping.
Then it’s a pacification. Pacification means that it’s a quieting down, a sense of peace. A sense of peace in the sense that it is totally rid forever of this portion of suffering and its origin, so that it is a state of everlasting peace – you don’t have this problem anymore.
And then it’s a superior state. It is superior because it is parted from this part of the problem forever. And it is superior in the sense that it is blissful. It is blissful because you are free from suffering. It is like when you take off your tight shoes at the end of the day: Ah, what a relief that I am free from this restriction – just like that – naturally blissful because it is free of these things.
And then it is a definite emergence. You are definitely out of the suffering, in the sense that it is forever. That’s the true stoppings.
The Four Aspects of the True Paths
Then we have the true paths. The true paths are pathway minds – it’s a level of understanding. It is a mind with a certain understanding. We are not talking about a road like outside that you walk on. We are talking about the mind that acts as a path to reach this goal. And this is referring specifically to – remember we have these five pathway minds: the seeing pathway mind that has this non-conceptual understanding of the sixteen; and the accustoming, that’s the process whereby you start to take out all the rest of the tubes; and then the one with no more learning, in which you got rid of all the tubes that are there. That’s what the true path is; it’s referring to that non-conceptual understanding of the sixteen on all these levels. So when we have the presentation of the eightfold path in the way that it is presented in this text, this commentary to the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the way the Tibetans understand it – it is what the aryas actually practice. We don’t actually practice this. We practice something similar to this, but we don’t practice the real thing. The real thing is when you have this non-conceptual understanding – that is why it is called the noble (the arya): the eightfold arya pathway. It is called that because that is what the aryas do, what they have, what they’re understanding.
What are the aspects of the true pathway minds (the true non-conceptual understanding of all these sixteen aspects)?
It is a pathway mind in the sense that it serves as a pathway to leave being an ordinary being and become an arya, and then it serves as a pathway – a way of thinking, a way of understanding, non-conceptual understanding – which will lead to becoming liberated or enlightened.
And then the second one is that it is an appropriate means, which means that it is appropriate, proper, it is fitting for being able to get rid of the disturbing emotions. That is very important to understand – how it works – that this correct understanding can get rid of all this garbage. So it is an appropriate method for that and there’s a big long discussion of why it works.
The third one: it’s a means for actualization. It is a way of actualizing (in other words, to make it actually happen) these various attainments of the arya: liberation and enlightenment. Also in the Mahayana context, that actualization means that it is a real actualization of the understanding of how the mind exists, this Buddha – nature.
The fourth one is that it is a means for definite removals. It is a method for definitely removing forever the true sufferings and their origins.
So these are the sixteen aspects, and that is what you actually focus on in your meditation – both the details of it, and to understand that yes, this is the way it is; and the understanding of how all of this exists. And we do that with renunciation: I’ve got to get out of this suffering and its origin, and I am willing to give it up. We are doing this as a Mahayana practitioner with bodhichitta: that I am aiming for my own enlightenment. That is where all these true stoppings – that situation – and I am aiming for all the understanding of a Buddha that brings that about, in order to be able to help everybody. On the basis of that and discipline and perfect concentration, and all these things, then one works with these sixteen over and over again, deeper and deeper. We can see it all the time.
Understanding the details of this, of what’s the real problem, what’s the real origin – I want to get rid of basically the misunderstanding about me and the misunderstanding of about how everything exists. And I want to get rid of that, because it’s on that basis that I have this craving: I want to not be parted from happiness; I want to be parted from my unhappiness; I want to continue existing as if there is some solid me that’s behind that – that I have to have this because I want it, because it feels good. That, we have to get rid of. And you focus on: There is no such thing! There is no such thing in relation to this true solid “me” that is suffering, this true solid “me” that has this origin, this true solid “me” that will be free forever and live happily ever after, this true solid “me” that will get this understanding – that, you have to get rid of. There’s no true solid “me” that’s involved here. You just do it.
Now in understanding all of this, what you work to get rid of are the distorted ways of understanding it – the wrong ways. Now that’s very interesting when teaching children; it’s very interesting to discuss: what do we think, what is our normal way of looking at life?
The Four Distorted Ways of Embracing True Sufferings
First of all, what we have a problem with here is that we think that what is unclean is clean. In other words, these aggregates that we have. We think about it, the body is filled with all sorts of – you peel off the skin; you look what is inside your stomach, what’s inside your intestines; what you see is not very nice. But we only think on a very superficial level: the body beautiful, and so on; or the mind is so wonderful, but we have all sorts of not very nice thoughts that are going on. And so this is the first incorrect way of looking at our aggregates – that they are clean, that they’re wonderful. They’re not clean. Shantideva, the great Indian master, put it very nicely. He said that if you take some food, even the most wonderful beautiful delicious food, and you put it into somebody’s mouth – your own mouth or anybody’s mouth – and they chew it a few times and then spit it out, nobody would consider that clean anymore. So how can you consider the body that made it that way as something which is clean? And if you think what happens after it’s gone through all your digestive system and comes out the other side then, again, what is this body except a very wonderful factory for making waste? That is what is does. You throw things into it and it changes it into waste that comes out the other end. So it is not clean. Don’t beautify the body and think that it is so wonderful. Tibetans use very colorful expressions. They say that (how shall we call it nicely) a turd, a piece of shit – that no matter how much you clean it, it’s not going to become clean. Shit is shit; we can’t clean it and make it not – shit. So that’s about the body.
And then the second one is holding what is suffering to be happiness. We think that our ordinary worldly happiness is happiness. But actually if you think about it, we don’t want to just eat once in our life; we don’t want somebody to just say “I love you” once and then that’s enough, we’ve had it; we want more. It is an interesting question, I always ask my students this: think of the food that you like the most, that is the most delicious to you – how much of it do you have to eat in order to enjoy it? It is an interesting question because just a single taste of it we don’t think is enough, do we? We want more, and a second helping of it as well. And then of course it makes you sick if you eat too much. And even if we have eaten it, we want to eat it again. And so, this is considering what is suffering to be happiness – because it is frustrating; it’s never going to satisfy.
Then the third one is holding what is nonstatic to be static. We think that we are going to be eternally young, and we are going to live happily ever after with our partners, and we want everything to stay the same. I went to sleep last night; I’m up again in the morning – here I am again, the same me! So we think that we’re static whereas, in fact, nothing is static.
And then, holding what is not established as an impossible “soul” to be an impossible “soul.” We identify this body – that’s me! – this youthful thin body, that’s me! And then we look in the mirror when we are an older person and a little bit fatter with grey hair – that’s not me! I don’t really look like that. That can’t be me. I still feel like the young and attractive me. We all think like that. That’s this wrong view. So the correct understanding gets rid of these wrong views.
The Four Distorted Ways of Embracing True Causes
Then for true origins, this is very interesting. The first has two aspects to it: it is holding that suffering has no cause at all. My problems – well, that is just the way it is in life. There’s no cause, or we can think in terms of “bad luck” or some sort of weird thing, or that suffering comes from a discordant cause (in other words, a cause that doesn’t fit it) – like thinking that all my suffering comes from physical matter: if I had a beautiful house and I had all the money then I would be happy, and all my unhappiness comes from physical reasons. So that’s a wrong view.
Then the next one is thinking that suffering comes from a single cause. We do this all the time. Suffering and problems come from a combination of many, many causes and conditions but we think: I didn’t do enough to help my child and my child killed themselves, so it is my fault. The only reason why things happen in the world is because of me. I am the single cause. I wasn’t good enough. I made a mistake and that is why everything failed. We think like that, don’t we? That is where guilt comes in. But that’s false. Things happen because of a million different causes and conditions that all come together, no one single cause.
Then the third one is that suffering is created from having been sent ahead by the mind of some other being, such as Ishvara (the creator god in some of the Hindu philosophies). This is seeing that suffering is coming from some creator being up in the sky who feels like sending you suffering sometimes, and sometimes doesn’t feel like it. And either it’s because we are a good boy and girl, or we’re a bad boy and girl (we did not obey them), or just because God felt like it for no reason at all. That is a false view.
Then the fourth one is referring to something specifically in the Jain philosophy, which is another school of philosophy in India. That regarding the cause of suffering, there is something permanent by nature but which changes temporarily according to the occasion. This is to think that our soul – we have a permanent soul which is blissful, which is a sort of staying there all the time, and it is because of our association with worldly things and matter and physical things that we have suffering and problems. If we could just remove ourselves completely, detach ourselves completely – don’t do anything, basically, to gain liberation. They think that you have to starve yourself to death; just sit and don’t move, because if you walk you are going to step on something; don’t do anything; don’t eat, because you are going to swallow some little animal – that’s liberation. So if you could remove yourself from all these material things then the temporary suffering that happens won’t happen anymore. And you come to the basic nature of the soul, which is blissful. That is a false view. Buddha rejected that. That’s fanatic, that’s extremist. We have these type of aggregates that no matter what you do, if you walk on the ground you are going to kill something. That is the problem of having these type of aggregates. If you eat, if you drink, if you breathe, you are going to kill something. So the way out of that is not to sit and do nothing. The way out of that is to stop the mechanism that throws you into continuing to be reborn with that kind of body so, instead, you have a light body – whatever that refers to. That’s another question.
The Four Distorted Ways of Embracing True Cessations
Then regarding true stoppings. First of all, the wrong view is that there’s no such thing as liberation. A lot of people think that. There’s no way out, so just shut up and accept that there’s suffering and live with it. And that’s an interesting view. Do we think like that? I don’t know. A lot of people do. Well you try to minimize your suffering, but basically you have to learn to live with it. That’s not the Buddhist view – that’s a wrong view. There definitely is liberation. There’s a definite stopping, true stopping – you can stop it forever.
Then the second one is holding that certain specific tainted phenomena are liberation. That is referring to these higher states of meditation, what we call in Sanskrit the dhyanas. These are once you have achieved perfect concentration, then you can go deeper and deeper and deeper into levels of absorption. Even the Hindus do this – it is not necessarily Buddhist – in which temporarily certain things are stopped. So temporarily you don’t have any physical suffering; temporarily you don’t have mental suffering, unhappiness – you just have happiness, and temporarily you don’t even have that, just a neutral state. In each of these different levels, we temporarily achieve a stopping of these other levels – it just becomes finer and finer, and we just sit there and don’t do anything. This is the false view, to think that those are liberation. They are not liberation because what happens is you come out of meditation and there you are again with all the same types of problems.
The third one is holding that some specific suffering states are liberation. This refers to one of the higher states of the divine beings, the gods. The god realms are divided into three planes, and the highest of them is the plane of formless beings (or the formless realm) where the gods there lack gross bodies. Their bodies are made of only very subtle energy. The distorted view here to think that if we reach that level, either through rebirth or our minds reach that level of formless meditative absorption, that’s true liberation. But it’s not, because even that kind of rebirth or meditative absorption ends.
The fourth one is holding that although there may be a depletion of suffering, it’s something that will recur. In other words – you can get rid of it, but you can only get rid of it for a little time because it’s going to come back again. There is no forever being rid of suffering (and the aggregates and all the junk in our minds that makes it happen).
So these are the wrong views. This becomes very interesting, to think about this and to really understand what do we mean by liberation, what do we mean by getting rid of the origins. It’s very, very important in the Buddhist studies, if we’re going to aim for liberation and enlightenment, to be convinced that is actually possible. If you don’t think it is possible and if you don’t think that I can do it – well, some of those Buddhas in some ancient time in Asia could do it, but I can’t do it. If you think you can’t do it, you are never going to aim for it. It is very, very important to understand these and to be convinced that this is true, and to be convinced that these wrong views are false.
The Four Distorted Ways of Embracing True Paths
Then with respect to the true pathway minds: The first one, the wrong view – holding that there is no such thing as a pathway mind that leads to liberation. In other words, there is no way out. It doesn’t matter what I understand, there is no way out that can get rid of this samsara – this uncontrollably recurring problems and rebirth.
The second one is to hold that a pathway mind of meditation on the lack of an impossible “soul” is an inappropriate means. In other words, if I meditate on there is no such thing as this “soul” that is unchanging, the spark of life, or it’s the size of the Universe, things like that – if I meditated on that (that there’s no such thing) that is not going to help; that is not what is going to lead to liberation; that is not the appropriate method. So that’s the second wrong view.
The third one is to hold that certain specific states of mental stability (these are the dhyanas), that they by themselves are pathway minds leading to liberation. That if I can get just these deep, deep meditative absorptions, that is enough – that in itself will lead to liberation. And that’s not true. Those are only tools that help us, but that is not the actual method.
And then the fourth one is that there is no such thing as a pathway mind that can bring about the non-recurrence of suffering. In other words, there is nothing that you can do that could get rid of these problems and their origins forever so that they don’t come back.
These are the sixteen wrong views. And this type of study, this type of meditation, is the foundation for the Buddhist path according to this presentation. I think it is pretty much true in other forms of Buddhism, also, that the four noble truths – I mean, that’s basically what Buddha taught. And here in Maitreya’s text it goes into it in much more detail.
Application of the Sixteen Aspects of the Four Noble Truths in Tantra
Now, I have a few minutes left to speak about this in Vajrayana, in other words in tantra. Tantra, first of all, is a very, very complex and complicated topic. But what we are dealing with here is – first of all, it is a Mahayana path, so we’re aiming for enlightenment. And remember what prevents enlightenment is the fact that the mind makes appearances of things existing solidly, encapsulated in plastic all by themselves, unrelated to anything else, as if there were lines around everything. That is what we really have to get rid of. Because on the basis of that, then you believe it and then you act it out – as if things existed that way.
And so what makes that appearance? This has to do with very subtle levels of the mind. We speak in tantra of the subtlest level of mind, which is known as the clear light level of mind. It is very much related to Buddha–nature. This clear light nature of the mind is what gives the continuity – that’s what actually goes on from moment to moment, through death into the next life into enlightenment; it continues in nirvana and enlightenment as well. It’s just what provides the continuity – I often describe that in terms of a radio: the radio can be on different channels, it can be with different volumes (louder or softer), but this clear light mind is just the level of the radio being on. The radio being on – it doesn’t matter what rebirth state, what station we are on; loud, soft, how much suffering we have – the radio is always on. That is the clear light level of mind.
Now that clear light level of mind by itself, in its natural state, is very much speaking about Buddha – nature. It doesn’t give rise to these appearances of solid existence; it doesn’t make things appear that way and, of course, it doesn’t believe in it. It doesn’t have any concepts, it’s not conceptual, it is just like a pure awareness – it is called in the dzogchen tradition “pure awareness” (rig-pa). But it doesn’t necessarily understand that these crazy appearances don’t refer to anything real – it doesn’t necessarily have any understanding of that. But by itself, in its nature, it doesn’t make these crazy appearances.
So what we want to do in tantra is the same thing, it’s to overcome true suffering and true origins. What is the origin here? The true origin is – remember we were talking about the twelve links of dependent arising, that we have this karmic aftermath, these tendencies and so on, and they get activated, and because they are activated what happens is we die. At the time of death, in the period of death, all you have is a clear light level of mind. Now when another rebirth is going to happen, what happens is that with this clear light level of mind there is a very subtle level of energy (like the electricity that is keeping the radio on); and this subtle level of energy when karma is activated – then to get another rebirth, what happens is that that very subtle level starts to become more gross. I mean that subtle level, that underlying level stays, but now the radio goes on again and what happens is with this subtle energy it gets grosser and grosser, and the mind starts making these crazy appearances again. Obviously what we want to do is to – the same as what I was presenting here – we want to not activate karma. We want to have this understanding: no true “me”, no impossible “soul” etc. But what we are aiming for then is to be able to get that clear light mind – not just in death, but in meditation – and get it so that the clear light mind – you don’t leave it; that the mind doesn’t start to make all these crazy appearances and then you believe in it. But that you stay with that clear light mind, and with that clear light mind you have the understanding of these sixteen aspects of the noble truths: the understanding of no solid “me”, etc.
So we think more in Vajrayana about this whole process of how the mind makes these crazy appearances. And you want to stop it from making these crazy appearances, and the way to stop it which is the most efficient is to stop these grosser levels through the power of meditation. Now what happens ordinarily is that our energies are going crazy through our body, and we experience this by feeling nervous, feeling insecure, feeling upset, and so on; and what you are aiming for in the advanced tantra practices – I am simplifying things here – is to centralize all that energy and dissolve it, basically. And when you do that, these grosser levels of mind also dissolve. It is like when you are so worried and nervous etc., if you could calm down that energy then the mind that is worrying and thinking about all these things will stop as well. So we have very advanced yoga methods for centralizing, calming down, dissolving that energy – we are talking about the pathways here – to stop (true stopping) these energies coming out, getting grosser from the clear light mind level; and with that clear light mind level, to have all these understandings that we have been talking about because then it is the most effective means for getting rid of all these obscurations, all these obstacles.
In a very, very short way that really is the essence of what we are trying to do in tantra, and it is all based on what I was explaining – the sutra understanding of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, getting rid of the sixteen wrong views – and not just understanding the details of all of this, but to understand how it all exists. It is very important to understand how cause and effect exists, how it works. Cause isn’t like some ping pong ball, a piece of solid plastic over here, and the effect is another ping pong ball over here. Well, if they were like that, how can one bring about the other? What is connecting cause and effect? Is it like one of the Indian schools of philosophy that say well, there is like a stick, a connector that connects them? Buddhism says that’s impossible – the only way that they can possibly connect with each other is if they are not these solid ping pong balls. Cause is a combination of a million things that are changing all the time, and the effect is also something that is made of million different parts that are changing all the time, and because of that they can interact – all these things can affect, and a cause can bring about an effect. And if we think of the true origins: “This is the problem! This is the cause!” and make a big solid thing out of it, how could you ever get rid of it? How could a true pathway mind help you to get rid of it? And if we think of the pathway mind: “This is the antidote! Cessation! This is the result that I want to achieve!” and you make it into something solid, a ping pong ball, sitting by itself. You’ll never bring it about.
So that is really what we want to understand – what are these factors, how do they exist, how do I exist in relation to it. And in tantra, to do that – of course we start with our ordinary level of mind – but you want to do that with that subtlest level of mind, that clear light mind which you achieve in meditation with all these complicated yoga methods in order to be able to really get it strongly, non-conceptually, most efficiently. That is what tantra is about.