Understanding Emptiness with the Force of Bodhichitta


We’ve been discussing the three principal pathways of mind. The first is renunciation, with an added preliminary step helpful for us Westerners, which is turning away from the obsession with immediate gratification to taking interest in what’s going to happen to us later in this lifetime and in future generations. 

Then comes turning away from our obsession with this lifetime and, instead, having our main interest be in future lives and ensuring that we will continue to have precious human lives and the opportunities to continue the spiritual path. Next, we turn away from our obsession with future lives and, instead, have our main interest be in complete liberation from samsara, from uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

To take care of what’s going to happen later in our lifetime, we need to refrain from destructive behavior, act constructively and put a positive direction and meaning into our life, and that is the safe direction of refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We need the same in terms of turning away from our obsession with this lifetime and taking interest in future lives. This makes a little bit more sense, because the ripenings of our behavior in this lifetime don’t usually occur in this lifetime, but in future lives.

To achieve liberation completely from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, we need to not just get rid of this unawareness of behavioral cause and effect, but we need to get rid of our unawareness of reality – how we exist, how others exist, and, according to the most sophisticated Buddhist school, our unawareness of the reality of everything. With that understanding of voidness, we are able to rid ourselves forever of what’s called the obscurations preventing liberation. These obscurations are technically called the “obscurations that are disturbing emotions and attitudes,” they are the emotional obscurations.

True Stoppings of the Obscurations Preventing Liberation

When we look at this state of being rid of these obscurations − referring, out of the four noble truths that Buddha taught, to the third noble truth, the true stoppings of these obscurations − they are achieved by true pathways of mind, the fourth noble truth. That entails many different types of understanding and ways of communicating and behaving that follow from them. But primarily, the most important true pathway of mind is non-conceptual cognition of voidness – and not just the first time we have that cognition. We need to become completely familiar with it so that it rids us of these obscurations, which occurs in stages.

These two noble truths, the true stoppings achieved by the true pathways of mind, constitute the Dharma refuge. In other words, these are the Dharma Jewel that we’re aiming to achieve. With taking refuge, we put that direction in our lives of going toward achieving them. 

Now, these true stoppings and true pathways of mind don’t just exist somewhere in the sky; their location is on a mental continuum. The mental continuums in which they exist in full are those of the Buddhas, so we have the Jewel of the Buddhas, the Buddha refuge. The Buddhas indicate to us how to achieve these true pathways of mind and true stoppings ourselves, by their teachings and also by their examples.

Those who are partway there, who have already achieved some true stoppings, but not the complete set, are the arya beings. They’ve had non-conceptual cognition of voidness, but they haven’t familiarized themselves fully with it; they’ve just achieved initial true stoppings and initial true pathways, and only some of them, not the complete set. They constitute the Sangha Jewel, the Sangha refuge. These Three Precious and Rare Things, which is what the Tibetan word for “jewel” actually means, are what indicate to us the safe direction to take in our lives: to become like them.

To achieve liberation, it is essential to follow the instructions and teachings along the way, as in refraining from destructive behavior. When we refrain from destructive behavior, it’s not because we don’t want to break the law − divine law or civil law − but because we have some understanding of cause and effect and of a deeper level of reality. We want to restrain ourselves from destructive behavior to be able to gain, as a result, favorable circumstances so that we can go all the way to achieving the Three Jewels ourselves.

When we achieve liberation, we’ve gotten rid of just this first set of obscurations, those that are the disturbing emotions and attitudes and their tendencies. We attain that state, that true stopping, out of the three pathways of mind, through renunciation and the correct understanding of voidness. Of course, as the basis for being able to apply them, we have the higher trainings in ethical self-discipline and in concentration.

The Understanding of Voidness in Terms of Mental Labeling

That mind that understands voidness, here, is a mind that has behind it the force of renunciation. As the force behind that understanding, renunciation is the motivation in the sense of both the motivating emotion: we’re disgusted and bored with our suffering, and the motivating aim: to achieve liberation.

When we spoke about voidness, we noted that, because of the habits of this unawareness, our mind projects appearances of impossible ways of existing. It appears and feels as though everything – me, you, and everything that we encounter – to put it in the simplest terms, has a line around it that, from its own side, makes it into a solid thing. Even if we understand that everything is related to each other and dependent on each other, we still tend to think that things that are dependent on each other have solid lines around them, that they are separate, independent things.

We have to understand a little bit more deeply what that means, of course, but for the moment, let’s just leave it at this simple level. Our mind projects what is called the “appearance of true existence.” Our minds, then, out of unawareness and confusion, take that projection or appearance of true existence to correspond to the way that things actually exist, and that’s called “grasping for true existence.” With liberation, we get rid of this grasping for true existence and the unawareness that supports it, so that we no longer believe this garbage that our mind projects, this deceptive appearance; we’re not fooled by it anymore.

However, even as a liberated being, an arhat, our mind still projects these deceptive appearances; it still projects lines around things. Don’t just think of this in terms of the concept of “table,” with a line around “table.” Think in terms of friend, enemy, love, anger and the like. They seem like things, don’t they, with lines around them, with definitions that come from their own side. However, if we think about it, this is, of course, a deceptive appearance; this is impossible. There’s a total absence of this, a total absence of this corresponding to anything real.

We can understand this by way of this model. If we think about emotions, there’s a huge spectrum of experience. It’s not just human experience; animals have emotions, too. If we think of the cave people, when they started to formulate language, they came together in some group, a committee of sorts, and they made up words out of just meaningless sounds, what we could call “acoustic patterns.” These are just arbitrary sounds that they were able to make, and it’s as if they took a knife and cut up that whole spectrum of feelings and put lines around one type of emotion from this boundary to that boundary and gave it a definition and assigned to it an acoustic pattern as a word.

They decided that these meaningless sounds mean what is defined by this definition. They refer to this part of our common human experience. This is not necessarily only parts of human experience, because dogs clearly have emotions too that these words referred to. Since different people have different voices when they articulate these sounds, they postulated audio categories for each word so that when anyone uttered these sounds in their own voice, people could understand that they were saying the same word. Also, since different people experience similar things having the same characteristic features, they formulated meaning categories into which they fit them as what the audio category was referring to. In this way, they formulated audio and meaning categories as conceptual conventions.

These things called “conventions” are pure mental fabrications made up for the convenience of communication, totally invented by the conceptual mind for the purpose of communication. They’re very useful, as they function, they work, they do communicate, but each group of caves divided the spectrum of human experience into different pieces and assigned to them different acoustic patterns and defined those little portions differently. They looked for some characteristic feature that they could use to define them; they made that up and chose that. In this way, we got different languages, different words, different concepts, different conventions. 

These conventions, of course, don’t correspond to each other from one group of caves to another. Everybody divided the spectrum at different points, made different boundaries between word categories. For example, we get “jealousy” and “envy,” which, of course, in English have very different meanings from what the words in Spanish mean. Furthermore, both of them have different meanings, different boundaries from what the corresponding words in German mean. These don’t correspond at all to the Tibetan term, which is usually translated as “jealousy.” It’s confusing. The definitions are slightly different in different languages.

It’s very interesting that, in addition to these audio categories and meaning categories, there are “object categories.” Any person who has a certain experience, then they are experiencing a thing, jealousy. It seems, of course, that jealousy is from its own side a thing that we experience, doesn’t it? That’s what I’m referring to with the phrase, “as if it had a line around it,” but there’s nothing on the side of this jealousy that is establishing it from its own side. There’s just the huge spectrum of mental feelings and emotions.

Jealousy is something that arises dependently only on words and concepts. The word and concept “jealousy” was invented as a convention by some cave people. That audio category and object category do refer to something; they don’t refer to nothing. What do they refer to? They refer to jealousy, but that referent object, jealousy, isn’t some thing that we can find that anywhere, because nothing exists with lines around it as a thing. It is like an illusion that jealousy appears to be a thing with a line around it, but it’s not really a findable thing. This is especially true if we think of every time we feel jealousy, or every time anybody feels jealousy, including the dog. Where is it? What is it? Even though it’s like an illusion, nevertheless – this is a very important word – it functions; we experience it, the dog experiences it and it makes both of us unhappy.

The only thing that establishes that there is such a thing as jealousy is the fact that there’s a word for it and a concept for it, and they refer to something. We can’t find some sort of thing that corresponds to them and establish that jealousy exists by pointing to it, “There it is with a line around it.” For it to exist like that, and to be able to establish its existence like that from its own side, is impossible. There’s a total absence of that. That’s what voidness is talking about; voidness, more commonly called “emptiness,” is that total absence. Obviously, if this is new to you, you need to chew on that for a long time to understand it.

True Stoppings of the Obscurations Preventing Omniscience

Now, if we’ve achieved liberation, even though our mind is making this appearance of everything as things with lines around them, we don’t believe that that’s really the way that things are. We understand that nothing could function if it had a line around it. To have a line around it would be like, for instance, it being encased in solid plastic, making it a thing. For instance, if two things were encased and frozen in solid plastic, how could they interact with each other? How could one be a cause and the other be an effect from it? They’re just frozen there, like items drawn on the page of a coloring book. Nothing could function. As a liberated being, an arhat, we understand that, so we don’t believe in this garbage that our mind is projecting; nevertheless, we can’t stop our minds yet from projecting it.

What’s the problem with this type of projection? The problem with this is that now our minds become very limited in what they can understand, what they can encompass. The example that I often use is that with this type of projection, our perception of the universe is like seeing through a periscope. It’s very limited. We just see things. Our field of vision is very small, and our field of comprehension is very small. We say that in colloquial language, “You can only see what’s in front of your nose.”

This prevents us from being of the best help to everybody, because if we think in terms of no beginning and a countless − but finite, though extremely large − number of beings, if we want to know how to benefit even just one particular being, we need to understand where they’re at, what their level of problem is and so on. We have to understand everything that ever happened before in the whole universe, how it affected this particular mental continuum, all the causes for why they are the way they are now. If we wanted to teach them something and benefit and help them to achieve liberation and enlightenment, to decide what would be most effective to teach, we really need to know the consequences of teaching this person this particular piece of Dharma.

Of course, this person that we teach is not going to exist with a solid line around him or her, never interacting with anybody else in the future. This being is going to interact with everybody else from now until the attainment of enlightenment and even after that as well, affected by what we teach, and that’s going to have an effect on everybody that this person meets. To be able to benefit anybody as fully as is possible, we have to gain the type of mind that knows all this, an omniscient mind, the mind of a Buddha.

We have to gain this type of mind so that we really know how to help others. Otherwise, we’re just looking through the periscope; we just see what’s in front of our noses. We need to get our minds to stop projecting lines around things; otherwise, we’re never going to see the full scope of cause and effect and the interrelatedness of everything that ever has or will exist. This is the limitation that comes from the projection of these lines, which comes from the habits of grasping for true existence, the habits of believing that these lines are true.

Those are the obscurations preventing enlightenment, preventing omniscience. They’re called the “obscurations regarding all knowable things,” the cognitive obscurations. What we want to do is to achieve a true stopping of this second set of obscurations as well. If we can achieve that true stopping, then we become Buddhas. Together with this omniscient state of mind that we will achieve comes an unlimited body. In terms of our energy, we can manifest in any form and communicate in any language. We attain the enlightening body, speech and mind of a Buddha.

In more detail, with that unlimited mind will come the unlimited energy of that mind, which can then manifest in any form, so we get unlimited bodies or manifestations. That energy vibrates, it’s called subtle sound, and that’s communication, that’s speech. The vibrations of the energy become unlimited as well. The energy can manifest in any form and the vibration of that energy, that’s communication, the speech can communicate in any form.

What is the true pathway of mind that will bring about this second set of true stoppings? That is, again, the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, which is now held with the force of bodhichitta.

One thing I should add is that that state of enlightenment is not an omnipotent state. It has unbelievable capabilities, but one of them is not omnipotence. Omnipotence would be something that does not obey the laws of cause and effect, such that an all-powerful being could do anything without any causes. Tsongkhapa says very clearly in our text, “the laws of behavioral cause and effect are never fallacious,” can never be violated; things only come about by causes.

A Buddha can teach, a Buddha can inspire, a Buddha can explain, but a Buddha can’t understand for us. We have to understand for ourselves, and, for that, we need to be receptive and build up the causes. We can only get rid of our unawareness and, based on that, get rid of our suffering by understanding for ourselves.

What will get rid of this second set of obscurations is the same understanding as what will get rid of the first set. The only difference is in terms of the motivating mind providing the force behind it – renunciation for the obscurations preventing liberation and bodhichitta for the obscurations preventing omniscience. This is according to the most sophisticated set of theories, Prasangika. There are many different levels of theories and explanations, which I will not go into, but the one that’s the most sophisticated is called Prasangika-Madhyamaka. In other words, this understanding that gets rid of both sets of obscuration is the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, the cognition that all of this projecting of encapsulated things doesn’t correspond to anything real.

When we focus on, “This doesn’t correspond to anything real,” non-conceptually, we’re focusing on a total absence. In that total absence, that projection is not there. Not only is the belief not there, but also the projection is not there. We’re just totally focused, non-conceptually, which means not through some category, like the word “voidness” or some mental picture, but just focused non-conceptually on, “There’s no such thing,” an absence of it in this sense. 

When we achieve that, that’s the arya state. “Arya” is “noble being,” but that’s a little bit of a silly term; I translate it as “a highly realized being.” It doesn’t have to do with aristocracy. An arya can’t stay in that “state of total absorption,” as it’s called, all the time, but has to come out of that, has to eat, has to go the toilet, and engage in many activities to benefit others. But, while doing all that, an arya still has that habit of projecting an appearance of true existence because that’s what the mind automatically does when it’s not totally absorbed on this absence.

If we are able to stay in that total absorption on this total absence all the time, forever, never coming out of that, and at the same time, go about helping others and doing all sorts of things to be of benefit to others, not just stay sitting in meditation, if we’re able to do that, then we have gotten rid of the habit of projecting true existence, because it can’t come again. We’re never out of that total absorption. That is the state of Buddhahood.

What is a habit? All we can say is that there are instances of similar events, like drinking cups of coffee. How could we put that together to refer to that recurring sequence in order to communicate it, in order to think of it, and so on? We would mentally connect the dots of each event, we would make a mental abstraction, and that would be a habit. Of course, there’s no line around a habit. It’s a convention to help us to refer to a series of similar events.

So, as long as it’s possible for a future recurrence of a similar event, so long as that’s possible, then we could say that there’s still a habit as an imputation phenomenon on the mental continuum. An imputation phenomenon is one that is tied to a basis – in this case, a mental continuum – and cannot exist or be known separately from that basis. As long as there’s a possibility for another recurrence of that similar event, we still have the habit, and it can produce a future recurrence of the similar event.

If it’s impossible for there ever to be a future recurrence of a similar event, then all we could speak about would be a past habit, “I don’t have the habit anymore.” That’s how we get rid of habits. I won’t go into it, but that’s how we purify karma. We remove the habit of projecting true existence and of producing karma with the understanding of voidness.

Bodhichitta: Aiming for Our Not-Yet-Happening Enlightenment

Remember, we spoke about renunciation as a motivating force behind the understanding of voidness, which gives it sufficient strength or force to be able to cut through the first set of obscurations, getting rid of the disturbing emotions: anger, greed, naivety, and so on, and attaining liberation. However, this is not enough energy; it’s not enough force for that non-conceptual understanding of voidness to be able to cut through the second set of obscurations and stay focused forever on this total absence of true, independently established existence and still be benefiting everybody. It doesn’t have sufficient energy behind it to stay in that state. The only way that it can do that is with bodhichitta. 

Bodhichitta is a mind that is aimed at enlightenment. It’s not aimed at the category “enlightenment,” a general thing as a category, and it’s certainly not aimed at it as a thing. It’s not aimed at the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni; it’s aimed at our own future enlightenment, called – and we have to be very careful with the grammar and get it correct – our individual “not-yet-happening” enlightenment that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of our mental continuum.

We need to understand “not-yet-happening” things, for instance the not-yet happening Christmas of this year. We can conceptualize the not-yet-happening Christmas, can’t we? It’s a concept, and we don’t really know it vividly in detail. That not-yet-happening Christmas is not happening now, is it? It’s not happening off some place in another dimension and is getting closer and then it’s going to happen here, is it? Nonetheless, we can think of the not-yet-happening Christmas, and we can go shopping and prepare all sorts of things for when that not-yet-happening Christmas will transform into a presently-happening Christmas.

It’s not as if there’s a Christmas that exists with a big line around it, and then it can be described as either “not-yet-happening,” or “presently-happening,” or “no-longer-happening.” Don’t use the Western words, “future” and “past,” as they’re very misleading. The not-yet-happened, presently-happening and no-longer-happening Christmases are not the same solidly-existing Christmas moving through time. It’s not that they’re one solid thing. 

What is bodhichitta focused on? It’s focused on that not-yet-happening enlightenment that can validly happen later, on our mental continuum. However, it’s not just going to happen by itself; it’s not like our death that, every moment, regardless of anything that we do, is going to happen automatically. That not-yet-happening enlightenment is not going to automatically happen. We have to put in a lot of work, and train to remove these obscurations. The working basis is there, and the factors that we need are there. They constitute our so-called called “Buddha-nature” factors. Based on our mental continuum in this present moment, which is the only thing that is happening now, and all the Buddha-nature factors that are part of it, the not-yet-happened enlightenment that can be attained is a validly knowable imputation phenomenon.

Bodhichitta is accompanied by two intentions. First, is the wish and intention to achieve it. We are motivated by love and compassion, and we want to be able to benefit everybody to help them out of suffering, and because of that, we realize that the only way to do that most fully is to become enlightened, or in other words, get rid of this stupid periscope vision; so, we aim to achieve that. The second intention is the answer arising from asking ourselves, “What are we going to do once we have achieved that state?” We will help everybody as much as is possible.

We are aimed at or focused on that state of enlightenment that has not yet happened, the state in which there’s this total absence of not only grasping for true existence, but also an absence of the appearance of true existence to our minds, and the state when we have that all the time. To get there, we have to understand and be convinced that it is possible to attain that state in terms of our own mental continuum, in terms of what we usually just call “mind.”

What Is Mind?

What do we mean by mind? That’s not an easy topic. Without taking hours to explain it, we’re talking about mental activity. It could be described in terms of all the electrical and chemical things that are going on, but we’re talking about the activity itself from the point of view of it being a subjective, individual experiencing of things. It’s an activity. We’re experiencing; it’s not the noun, “experience.”

It’s not like, “I collect a lot of experiences,” and, “This person has a lot of experience.” We are experiencing, the verb. We’re not talking about a thing; we’re talking about something that is happening every moment to moment. We’re not talking about experiences that we collect in a box. That’s very important to understand and we need to be careful to avoid getting the wrong idea based on this exact point.

This activity is going on all the time. What is that activity? It could be described from two points of view. One is the arising of an appearance. An appearance isn’t just visual. This appearance is like a mental hologram. If we think about it, it’s quite clear. In vision, there are all these pixels of light hitting different cells of the retina, and they send electric information, and we see a mental hologram; we don’t just see pixels of light or electric discharges. It’s a mental hologram.

It’s the same thing with hearing or any of the other senses. In any millisecond of listening to speech, all we hear is the sound of a vowel or a consonant. That’s all that we hear at a time, and yet we make a mental hologram not only of a whole word but out of a whole sentence and understand its meaning. That happens through a mental hologram. We don’t hear a whole sentence in one millisecond at the same time. That’s how we understand language, through making a complete mental hologram, even though only one sound occurs at a time, and we only hear one sound at a time. It’s freaky, isn’t it?

In any case, that is one aspect of mental activity. It could also be described in terms of a cognitive engagement with an object. That is what seeing is, that is what hearing is, that is what thinking is. It’s not that a thought as a thing arises, and then we think it. This mental activity or arising of a mental hologram is equivalent to cognizing something, and that’s all that is happening. There’s no separate me with a line around it separate from this thought, making it happen by using a mind, like a machine with a line around it, pressing the buttons and, “Now I’m going to think this thought,” although it seems like that, it feels like that. That way of thought happening is impossible.

Mental activity is going on all the time, with this appearance-making of mental holograms. Ordinarily, it is an appearance-making of true existence, of things with lines around them, and our knowing it is that we see it or hear it or think it. However, it’s with unawareness; we don’t know that it’s not corresponding to anything real. 

Now, is that unawareness what we would call part of the nature of mental activity? In other words, is that something that always has to be there? Well, no. Why? Because it can be replaced by something that is totally the mutually exclusive opposite of it; in other words, a mental activity in which there is no appearing of true existence and no believing it to correspond to reality, one that does not have any unawareness or grasping for true existence. This is an arya’s total absorption on voidness. 

Which is stronger? Our confused state or that arya’s total absorption? The mental activity with the junk or the mental activity without the junk? So, we examine: Which has the support of valid understanding, valid reasoning? Which holds up to investigation? Which has the basis of logic and reason? Which produces suffering and which is free of suffering? Which allows us to not help people very well, because we make mistakes and we’re lazy and all these other things, and which one allows us to benefit others as fully as is possible if they’re receptive?

The force of the habit of projecting and believing in junk is much stronger than the force of the habit of not doing that, having built up the habit throughout our beginningless samsaric existence. However, the force of bodhichitta backing up our understanding of voidness is even stronger than that, if we can have continual and spontaneous bodhichitta – not just what’s called “labored bodhichitta.” 

Labored bodhichitta is where we have to build it up by relying on lines of reasoning like thinking, “Everybody’s been my mother and they’ve been kind to me” – that’s labored, and we have to build it up in steps. We don’t have it all the time. If, through familiarity, we can get to the point where it’s unlabored, where without going through the line of reasoning, without working ourselves up to feeling it, we just feel it, just like that, then we have what’s called the first pathway mind – it’s usually translated as the “path of accumulation,” or the “path of building up” – then we’ve actually entered the path. Now we have an effective pathway mind.

At that point, that bodhichitta is there all the time, day and night. Whether we’re sleeping or awake, no matter what, it is there. This is because even if we’re not thinking of it, even if we’re not conscious, we never lose the bodhichitta aim and intention as the absolute, secure aim of what we’re doing. We don’t have to be conscious of it, and we don’t have to be meditating on it. It is established on what we call the subliminal level.

That type of mind, that type of aim, what’s it aimed at? It’s aimed at this state in which there’s no projection of junk and no belief in junk, and where we think, “I want to attain that enlightenment, because all the suffering of everybody else is unbearable.” That bodhichitta then gives the understanding of voidness, which is what’s going to bring us to that enlightened state, much more force. It has so much strength that it can overpower even the habit of projecting the junk, so that eventually it will never happen again.

This is valid because everything that supports this process – reason, logic, the ability to benefit others, and so on – supports the side of no junk. Because of that, liberation and enlightenment are possible. And because the nature of the mind is pure of these “fleeting stains” of junk, these obscurations can be removed and not just temporarily but forever. All the negative and destructive mental states and disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes and so on are based on that mental activity with junk, the unawareness. So, they can be removed. There’s nothing supporting them.

All the positive, constructive qualities like love, compassion, patience and so on, although of course they could be mixed with junk, but what supports them is that mental activity without junk. In other words, the more we get rid of the junk, the stronger these positive qualities are, and the weaker the negative qualities are. For that reason, the negative qualities can be purified out and eliminated, but not the positive qualities. The positive qualities, as we approach enlightenment, get stronger and stronger until they become the great qualities of a Buddha.

Please don’t forget that bodhichitta is something that is developed on the basis of already having renunciation. We need to turn away from samsara and aim toward achieving true stoppings, so this bodhichitta is just a further extension of that. We turn away from still being a limited being like an arhat, and instead aim to achieve enlightenment. This is a combination of renunciation and bodhichitta with the understanding of voidness, or the three principal pathways of mind.

What Tantra Adds

This is our general presentation of the three principal pathways of mind, and we can see that these are very deep topics, and they give us the context within which we can understand the Hinayana path to liberation and the Mahayana path to enlightenment. Within Mahayana, we can understand the sutra and tantra paths also within the context of these three.

What tantra adds is imagining that we have the various types of forms of a Buddha now and that we’re able to do things the way that a Buddha does now, although we know full well that this is not yet happening, that it’s not yet really the case. Nevertheless, by rehearsing and practicing and imagining now, it acts as more force, it adds more cause to achieve that state more quickly. That’s tantra, imagining that we have the enlightening forms of a Buddha now − these Buddha-figures, Tara, Chenrezig, and so on − and we imagine actually helping everybody, sending out infinite lights and infinite emanations, helping beings. However, we know full well that we’re not there yet.

It’s very clear that it’s impossible to practice tantra without these three principal pathways of mind; or at least it’s a disaster to practice it without really having renunciation of the ordinary appearances that our mind makes, our ordinary form, so that we can turn to imagining ourselves in these forms as representing what we want to achieve, and by developing bodhichitta, we’re aimed at enlightenment to benefit others.

That’s what we’re doing with these Buddha-figures; it’s not just a crazy person imagining they’re Cleopatra or Napoleon. We have to have the understanding of voidness to differentiate this visualization in terms of what’s actually happening now and to understand that the nature of the mind is pure and that it is possible through the understanding of voidness to actually achieve this mind free of junk.

Those are the three principal pathways of mind, the essence of the lam-rim graded path.


When we have an art class, we’re taught, when we’re drawing a chair, for instance, to get rid of the concept of “chair,” preconceptions and so on, and just draw what is hitting our eyes. Is that getting us in the direction of the understanding of voidness?

That’s hard to say, because in every moment of our existence, except when we are totally absorbed on voidness, our mind projects this garbage, the line around things. Anything that we see, we see as a thing. We have to analyze it carefully. 

Let me explain. What do we see? We see pixels of light. Or we could also say that we see colored shapes.  A third theory is that we see a table. What exists is not just pixels or colored forms, but tables, chairs, etc.

We could eliminate a preconception that we might have of what a chair should look like, and that would be a big step. We’re not denying that that’s quite a big step, but that’s not enough, because actually, what do we perceive? We perceive a boundary between one colored shape and another colored shape. As we paint, we’re going to have to paint boundaries between one particular colored shape and the next colored shape, and unless we’re just painting something totally abstract, a certain collection of those colored shapes is going to represent a chair. It looks as though there’s a line around it separating it from the background, although we might not have a black line around it.

We have to go deeper and deeper here. It’s only the first step to get rid of our preconception of what a good chair or a pretty chair should look like. That’s the first step; it’s not the final step. The point is that we do see a chair, and unless we’re a Buddha, it’s going to appear to us with a line around it separating it from the background.

The question really is, how separated from the background is it? Could we erase the background and there’s still the chair? Then, we get into the whole issue of interdependence. If everything did have lines around them, we could erase the other stuff, and we’d still have the chair in our painting. But in reality, it’s not like that. We have to analyze deeper.

Also, when we talk about mental labeling, I should mention, as I didn’t say it earlier, but this is an important point that we need to not be confused about: the mental labeling doesn’t create the chair. Regardless of whether we think “chair” when we see this wooden item, that doesn’t create the chair. If we’re not thinking “chair,” does that mean that there’s no chair? Can just anything be validly labeled as a chair just because it performs the function of supporting someone that sits on it? We start getting more and more subtle in our analysis.

First of all, yesterday and today I heard that it’s very important to be convinced completely that we can achieve enlightenment and liberation. But we, as Occidental people, are not familiar with rebirth, which is very difficult for us; we have to work a lot on it. Second, I’ve been hearing for many years that to achieve this goal, we’re going to have to work eons and eons and lives and lives to get it. Is it not a bit disappointing, this problem for us? How to work with it?

Yes, the teachings say that it’s going to take eons and eons and eons, a very incredibly large number of eons to actually reach this goal of enlightenment. Why? Because we need to build up a tremendous amount of positive force, a tremendous amount of positive energy to cut through all this junk. We need to take that seriously. Don’t think of it in terms of “merit,” getting a number of points, and then we win, but a tremendous amount of force, positive energy that has to build up stronger and stronger and stronger. That takes a tremendous amount of time, but there’s no need to feel discouraged by that.

That’s why we need these far-reaching attitudes and so on: patience and perseverance. Remember, the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. It’s going to go up and down all the way until we achieve liberation. If we are told, like a parent telling children on a journey, “It’s just down the road,” and if we’re told that it’s going to be easy and it’s going to be quick, just sort of, “Sit here, say the magic word, do a hundred thousand prostrations and you’ve got it,” then what happens is that we’re even more discouraged, because then at the end of it, we see that we haven’t attained anything. Even if we feel a little bit high, as it were, at the end of all of this, it goes down again. That’s the nature of samsara, so then we get even more discouraged.

It’s much better to have a realistic attitude that it’s not going to be easy, that it’s going to take a tremendous amount of time, so we don’t expect dramatic results, and we’re not disappointed. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that when he realistically thinks that it’s going to take a tremendous amount of time, that gives him much more encouragement and hope than thinking that it’s going to be easy, “Just go into retreat and recite mumbo jumbo for three years and then you’ve got it, you’re enlightened.”

What is driving us? Think renunciation, “If I don’t do anything, it’s just going to go on and on and on and on with all these problems,” and “How horrible, how boring!” Even stronger, we think that everybody else is in this situation and how terrible it is for everybody. Like a mother thinking of her hungry children, it gives her much more energy to get food than if only she’s hungry. So, the mother says, “I don’t care how much work it takes, I’m going to get food for my children. I don’t care how long it takes, how difficult it is, I’m going to do it.” Similarly, our working toward enlightenment, nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

So, there is the false me and the conventional “me.” The false me doesn’t exist, but the conventional “me” does exist. Is it all about deconstructing this conventional “me,” all these conventions that have created this conventional “me?”

No, what we’re deconstructing is the false me. There’s nothing wrong with convention. You have a name, “Mickey,” it’s very useful, so we can refer to you. In a previous lifetime, you had another name. There are many conventions that are validly applicable to you: “human being,” “male,” “Mexican.” They’re useful. What we have to deconstruct is the false me, that there’s something on your side that makes you a human being. “Human being” is just a mental construct, but it’s a useful one.

Look at the paleontologists, the ones that are trying to figure out, “Where in the evolution, when we look at all these bones, do we draw the line and say that this one is a human being and that one isn’t?” It’s just a mental construct where the line is, somebody making up a definition of what would constitute a human being – a certain shaped bone of the head, or whatever. We have to deconstruct the inflation of the convention, but not get rid of the convention, so we’re deconstructing the false me, not the conventional one.

Society makes us rigid with all its conventions. Wouldn’t it be that if we could get rid of all those social conventions, we would be more flexible and free-er?

No. It’s unawareness, our ignorance, that makes us rigid, not these conventions. Conventions are useful. If we didn’t have the convention of “parents” and “children” and so on, our society wouldn’t function at all. It’s only when we say, “I have a preconception, a concept, a solid inflation of this convention of what a father should be, what a good father should be and a mother, a real mother, a good mother should be,” and then, “You’re not living up to that solid construct!” We get angry and resent our parents, and then we get trouble. The problem is not the convention of “parent”; otherwise, nobody would take care of the little ones.

So, the problem is not conventions; the problem is not mental labeling; the problem is our understanding of the things we are labeling using those conventions. Don’t make them into solid things. Be flexible that there can be many, many conventions. OK? Some are valid; some are not valid. That gets into a whole other discussion. We can’t just label anything. We can’t label that thing that most of us would label “a chair,” we can’t label it “a dog,” and that makes it into a dog. That’s not valid labeling. Just because we mentally label it something doesn’t mean that it’s valid, making it that thing.

When we see, hear, smell and so on, what is it that sees, hears and smells?

Well, we can conventionally say that “I’m seeing,” “I’m hearing,” but that “me” doesn’t exist as a separate entity from the whole process with a big line around it, either observing it or making it happen. It’s like what we explained, that “There’s a body sitting on this chair,” and we can say, “I’m sitting on the chair,” but those aren’t two different, separate things sitting on the chair. The “me” is a convention to connect the dots of every moment of experience in a mental continuum.

Part of the mental activity, of course, can be intention, like when we turn our head to look at something, but it’s not as though there’s a separate entity, me, that pressed the button and then turned the head. How could the me intend to do it? Intention is mental activity, so how can a me, separate from mental activity, intend to turn the head and press the button? The whole thing is absurd. Intention is mental activity, as is making a decision – all these things.

When we speak in terms of a Buddha and how a Buddha knows things, does a Buddha just take in raw experience and knows these conventions and mental labels, but puts them aside and is not working with them and just works with the raw experience?

First of all, it’s very difficult to really know or describe the omniscient mind of a Buddha. All we can have is a concept of it because we don’t know it non-conceptually, unless we’ve attained it. Actually, there’s a big debate here in the various Buddhist schools on this point. A Buddha doesn’t have conceptual cognition. An omniscient mind is not conceptual; it’s totally non-conceptual. It’s a much, much more subtle level of mental activity than what we discuss in sutra. It’s called the “clear light mental activity.” A Buddha-mind does not work with concepts or mental labels. Then the question is: does a Buddha know mental labels?

One opinion is that a Buddha doesn’t know mental labels because they are categories and categories are only known by a conceptual mind. A conceptual mind and mental labeling are the activity of a limited mind, and because a Buddha doesn’t have a limited mind, then a Buddha doesn’t have that. The problem with this is that then a Buddha would not be omniscient because a Buddha doesn’t know concepts and labels. The other opinion is that a Buddha knows mental labeling in others’ minds, but the omniscient mind knows everything without them. 

The explanation I heard is that a Buddha knows, non-conceptually, all the conventional designations with words and what the words refer to in all languages. But a Buddha does not mentally label categories and cognize words and their meanings conceptually through these categories, which is how limited beings know and use language. 

Your question is an excellent question and a difficult one to answer and one that the various Tibetan masters have debated back and forth for centuries. Actually, debating back and forth with each other about all these topics we’ve discussed is the best way to get a better understanding. 

Let’s end, then, here, with a dedication. Whatever positive force we’ve built up from our discussions, may it act as a cause for all beings to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha, for the benefit of us all. Thank you.