Other-Voidness: Clear-Light Mind or Rigpa


We have been speaking about self-voidness and other-voidness and, so far, we are restricting our discussion to the Gelug assertions, although Gelug does not use the terms self-voidness and other-voidness for its own assertions. Some non-Gelug masters, however, do use those terms in reference to the Gelug assertions and refute them as being false. 

For simplicity’s sake, let’s use the term self-voidness to include both the conceptual and non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of impossible ways of existing, although different Tibetan systems and authors may use the term differently. We saw that it is very important to understand self-voidness fully and non-conceptually. This is because the habits of our grasping for impossible existence cause our mind to give rise to appearances of everything that we experience as if it were existing in an impossible way, and then we believe that that’s true. We believe that this impossible way of existing is true because we don’t know any better, and it feels like that. We are unaware that this was of existing is false. This appearance of an impossible way of existing is actually an illusion. It does not correspond to anything real, but we don’t know that, and so when we perceive it, we grasp at it as if it corresponded to reality. Based on that, we develop all sorts of disturbing emotions – anger, greed, attachment, and so on – and moved by these disturbing emotions, we act in all sorts of compulsive karmic ways that bring suffering upon us and everybody else. 

Seeing the Interdependent Nature of Things 

What we need to realize, then, with self-voidness is that there is no implied object (zhen-yul) for these impossible ways of existing that our mind projects an appearance of; it is totally absent, there is no such thing. It doesn’t correspond to anything. It’s only an appearance that our mind projects; it can’t actually project the impossible way of existing because that doesn’t exist at all. Once we realize that these so-called deceptive appearances are complete garbage, then, with enough familiarity, first, we’ll stop believing that they are true, and eventually, with enough familiarity and a strong enough buildup of positive force, our mind will stop projecting them. Without these false, deceptive appearances arising and without believing them and developing disturbing emotions based on them, we no longer generate suffering and no longer experience it. 

When our mind is projecting these deceptive appearances, it seems as though things exist encapsulated in plastic as solid things. As a result, our awareness is limited; we’re not able to see the interconnectedness of everything, how everything arises dependently on each other. In this situation, we are a limited being (sems-can). This is the word that’s usually translated as “sentient being.” It means someone with a limited mind; a Buddha is not a sentient being. 

If we really want to be able to help everybody as a Buddha, then we need to be able to see the interconnectedness of everything. In other words, what all the causes are – going back to no beginning – for why each individual is experiencing the type of suffering and the type of karmic ripenings that they have, and to see all the effects that will follow from anything that we teach them. For that, we have to get our minds to stop encapsulating things in plastic, as it were, as separate, unrelated things. Seeing the interdependence of everything, especially cause and effect, then we are, as a Buddha, able to know how best to help everybody. This is the whole purpose of becoming a Buddha. And please don’t think that when we see the interdependence and interrelation of everything, that then there is a huge plastic bubble around everything; don’t make that into existing in an impossible way, either. 

Getting Rid of Emotional and Cognitive Obscurations 

As we said, on the basis of these appearances of impossible ways of existing, we grasp at them and actually believe in them and that causes all the disturbing emotions to arise. That grasping, our unawareness that these appearances are false, and all the disturbing emotions that come with that are called the “emotional obscurations” (nyon-sgrib). In order to achieve liberation from suffering – in other words, so that we experience no more suffering – we have to get rid of these emotional obscurations. The understanding and non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of impossible ways of existing will do that when it has renunciation as its motivation, the determination to be free from that suffering, based on understanding and confidence that we can get rid of it forever. Let’s simplify our discussion and refer to the voidness of impossible ways of existing just as “voidness.”

When we have achieved the true stopping of this grasping for impossible ways of existing, then through that non-conceptual cognition of voidness, we achieve what’s called “liberation,” and we become a liberated being, an arhat. Although we no longer experience any suffering – so we’re no longer a samsaric being – nevertheless, our mind as an arhat is still limited. That’s because our mind still has the habits of that grasping and of unawareness, and so the mind still projects these deceptive appearances of impossible ways of existing. It’s just that now, as an arhat, we don’t believe that they correspond to anything real anymore. 

We have to work further and further and further with this non-conceptual cognition of voidness, building up more and more positive force and deep awareness of voidness, so that we reach the point at which we are forever absorbed in this non-conceptual cognition of voidness. At that point, our mind has attained a true stopping of making these false appearances. These constant habits of grasping that produce these false appearances are called the “cognitive obscurations” (shes-sgrib), and when we get rid of those forever, then we become a Buddha. 

This is the way that the two obscurations are explained according to Gelug Prasangika. The other tenet systems and Tibetan traditions have slightly different ways of explaining them, but that’s far too complicated to go into here. 

Levels of Mind 

Now, mind has many different levels of subtlety. By mind, we’re talking about mental activity. It’s not a thing that does it; we’re not talking about something like a movie projector that does something. When we talk about mind in Buddhism, we’re talking about the mental activity of making a cognitive appearance of something, like a mental hologram, while being aware of something, Being aware of something means cognitively engaging with an object. There are many levels of subtlety of this – non-conceptual, conceptual, and so on. And even regarding the yogic non-conceptual cognition of voidness, we can have that with two different levels of mental activity, a grosser level and a more subtle level. The grosser level is the same level as sensory non-conceptual cognition, which relies, as its physical basis, on the elements of the gross body, while the more subtle level is with the subtlest level of mind, the clear-light mind, which relies, as its physical basis, on the subtlest energy-wind. The grosser level is the one we attain in the practice of sutra or the first three classes of tantra. The subtler level is the exclusive domain of anuttarayoga tantra.  

With both levels, when we’re totally absorbed on voidness non-conceptually with the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana, there is no appearance-making of impossible existence and no grasping at it; temporarily, our cognition is free of all of that. There is not only no appearance-making or appearance of impossible existence, but there is also no appearance-making or appearance of conventional objects, either existing in an impossible way or just as mere conventionalities. The grosser level is attained by cutting off, with our understanding, this false appearance of impossible existence and our belief in it. We know that there is no such thing. This is garbage. It’s not referring or corresponding to anything real. We cut it off and then are totally absorbed on “no such thing,” but without the category of “no such thing.” The subtlest level of mind, by nature, has no appearance-making of impossible existence and no grasping for it. Nevertheless, it needs to be harnessed as the mind that cognizes voidness with a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana. 

If we go back to our example from yesterday, when we focus on “there’s no chocolate in the house,” what appears in our mind? Nothing. Nothing appears. First, we thought “chocolate,” and then “there is no chocolate,” and then nothing appears. This is what we’re talking about here, but it’s not just a general “nothing” that appears – it’s an absence of chocolate. We understand that. That’s the type of meditation we do with self-voidness meditation. It’s important to understand, just to have a general idea of what we’re talking about when we talk about self-voidness meditation. 

Total Absorption on Voidness and Subsequent Attainment 

When we are focusing in meditation non-conceptually on voidness with this grosser level of mind and this total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) phase of our meditation ends, we continue the meditation with a subsequent attainment (rjes-thob) phase. Now, subsequent to that total absorption, as our habits of grasping once more give rise to appearances of impossible ways of existing and conventional objects appearing to exist in that false way, what we attain is non-conceptual focus, still with a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana, on these appearances while implicitly cognizing their voidness. We understand that they are like an illusion. We might sustain this realization conceptually immediately after this phase, both while still in meditation and perhaps even immediately upon arising, but it will no longer be with yogic non-conceptual cognition.

The usual translation of this term subsequent attainment is “post-meditation,” but this can be misleading. The word “post,” which means “after,” is referring to after this total absorption. It only occurs right after total absorption. We cannot generate this subsequent attainment state of mind just by itself; it has to be immediately preceded by a phase of non-conceptual total absorption on voidness with a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana. Of course, even before we have ever attained this total absorption, we may focus on appearances of impossible existence as being like an illusion. But such focus cannot be validly called “subsequent attainment.”   

With this subsequent attainment, or subsequent realization, we realize that although these impossible ways of existing and the appearances of them don’t refer to anything real, nevertheless, despite that – and, actually, because of that – cause and effect functions. The way in which phenomena appear to exist – that’s an illusion, because it doesn’t correspond to anything real. But Gelug asserts that conventional phenomena themselves are merely like an illusion. Despite phenomena being like an illusion, cause and effect still function. The non-Gelug systems assert that conventional phenomena are themselves an illusion, but despite that and because of that, cause and effect still function.

Although we might on some level go around and think, “Well, everything is like an illusion, and this false appearance is an illusion,” and so on, that’s not really deep enough at all. That view could be quite superficial and based on a very strange understanding. After all, in many forms of Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy, we have a similar idea, that everything is maya, everything is illusion, and actually we’re all one with Brahma. 

Just to think that everything is an illusion, or like an illusion, is not necessarily the Buddhist understanding. For the Buddhist understanding, it has to be with the understanding that, nevertheless, dependent arising and cause and effect still function. Please, do not confuse the teachings about illusion in Vedanta with the teachings about illusion in Buddhism; they are not at all the same. This is a common mistake that many people make, primarily because they don’t know the definitions of the terms. According to Buddhism, we are not all a big undifferentiated soup; even in terms of what a Buddha understands at enlightenment, everything retains its individuality, but not encapsulated in plastic. 

Do you know what the big objection is to the assertion that we’re all one big undifferentiated soup? The objection is that if that were the case, then we would no longer have individual responsibility for our karmic actions because it wouldn’t matter, we’re all one; that’s very dangerous. 

Other-Voidness: Focusing with a Clear-Light Mind 

This non-conceptual total absorption on voidness with the grosser state of mind, as I said, doesn’t make an appearance of impossible existence or an appearance of conventional objects existing in an impossible way. It doesn’t believe in them, doesn’t grasp at them, and doesn’t have any disturbing emotions. But since its physical basis are the elements of our gross body, which do not continue when we die and do not continue when we become a Buddha, this total absorption with the grosser level of mind cannot be the immediately preceding cause for the mind of a Buddha.  

Then the question is: Is there a more subtle level of mind that could have this total absorption and that has unbroken continuity in each lifetime and continues even into Buddhahood? There is. This is the subtlest clear-light mind. This has unbroken continuity, with no beginning and no end. In every lifetime, it’s underlying every moment of experience; it’s manifest at the time of death, and it is the type of mind, the level of mind, that we have as a Buddha. 

When we hear some of the Buddhist systems speaking about the unborn, primordial mind, they’re talking about this clear-light level of mind. Like mind in general, it has no beginning and no end; nobody created it. It does change from moment to moment, in the sense that it’s aware of different things from moment to moment, but its conventional and deepest natures never change. 

So, what are the unique characteristics of this clear-light mind, whether or not it has total absorption on voidness. 

  • It is non-conceptual – it has no grosser levels of mind, whether conceptual or non-conceptual, such as sensory non-conceptual cognition based on gross eye-sensors.
  • It does not make appearances of impossible ways of existing and thus has no grasping for impossible existence, no unawareness or ignorance, and no disturbing emotions.
  • It does not give rise to or cognize the impure appearances of conventional objects existing in impossible ways.
  • It gives rise to and cognizes pure appearances – appearances of phenomena that do not exist in impossible ways – and can do this even when in total absorption on voidness.
  • It can have great blissful awareness (bde-ba chen-po) of voidness. 
  • It can cognize the two truths simultaneously – which, for Gelug, means it cognizes the voidness of the two truths simultaneously – and can be omniscient.
  • It does not require three zillion eons of building up the positive force needed for attaining enlightenment. Once made manifest, it can build up sufficient positive force even in one lifetime.

These are quite extraordinary characteristics, aren’t they? There are all sorts of adjectives for this clear-light level of mind: it’s unstained, untainted, pure, etc. However, according to the Gelug presentation, this clear-light mind does not necessarily have an understanding or cognition of voidness. It doesn’t necessarily understand its own void nature. If it did, then we would never have rebirth if all we needed to do was to die, because it becomes manifest at what’s called the “clear light of death.” It also isn’t, by nature, a blissful awareness; otherwise, again, the clear light of death would be blissful. The omniscient mind of a Buddha is blissful, not neutral in feeling. 

Gelug asserts that although the clear-light mind does not by nature have a cognition of voidness with a blissful awareness of it, when the meditation practices for making the clear-light mind manifest are done with a blissful awareness of voidness, it can arise as a great blissful awareness of voidness. Some other Tibetan traditions, however, such as Jonang, assert that, by nature, the clear-light mind has blissful awareness of voidness, and that this nature only becomes unveiled through these meditation methods. It was there all along on the basis level of daily life as Buddha-nature. It is not unveiled, however, during the clear light of death.

The dzogchen tradition, which we find in the Nyingma and many of the Kagyu systems, speaks of rigpa, pure awareness. Rigpa refers to the basic nature of the clear-light mind, which is unstained by the habits of grasping for what is impossible. That’s the difference between clear-light mind and rigpa. Rigpa, then, is a subclass of the clear-light mind. Nevertheless, meditation practices are required to remove the fleeting stains of dumbfoundedness (rmongs-pa) that obscure rigpa. These fleeting stains prevent rigpa’s nature of reflexive deep awareness (rang-rig ye-shes) – the deep awareness that “recognizes its own face” – from being manifest.

When we speak about other-voidness, we are speaking about the clear-light mind or rigpa. It can be applied to either of these, but let’s just leave it to a more general discussion of clear-light mind, so we don’t have to repeat “clear-light mind and rigpa” every time we say this. 

As I mentioned, the clear-light level of mind is automatically manifest at the time of death, but we can also make it manifest in meditation following very special methods. We won’t go through in detail all the different methods that are used. In Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug, these methods are taught in the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, and Nyingma they are found with the dzogchen system found in atiyoga, which is the most advanced level within the general category of tantra. 

When we speak of other-voidness, referring to the clear-light mind, “voidness” here refers to the fact that, regardless of many other things it may be devoid of in many systems, it is devoid of the other grosser levels of mind in all the systems. Gelug, for example, despite not using the term “other-voidness” for this, speaks of the clear-light mind as the fourth of the four voids, with the other three being the three subtle appearance-making conceptual minds, often referred to as the white appearance, red appearance and black appearance. 

Because the clear-light mind is devoid of these grosser levels of mind, it is devoid of the levels and types of minds on which disturbing emotions occur. It is also devoid of the levels of mind on which appearances of impossible existence and grasping at it occur. And it’s devoid of the level of mind that cognizes things conceptually through categories. It is devoid of all these minds; it’s an absence of all these other things, whether or not it is called “other-voidness.” 

The Usage of the Terms Other-Voidness and Self-Voidness

One important point to note, then, is that, although all the Tibetan traditions speak of this clear-light level of mind and teach methods for making it manifest in meditation, not all of them call this clear-light mind “other-voidness.” 

  • Many, but not all, Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma masters call it that,
  • Jonang and Rime masters all do,
  • Gelug does not.  

Likewise, all Tibetan traditions teach the Madhyamaka view of the voidness of what is impossible and that conventional truth, which always appears to exist in an impossible way, is false and that, despite conventional truth being unable to withstand conventional or ultimate analysis, nevertheless cause and effect still function. They vary, however, concerning the reality of conventional objects. For instance:

  • Gelug asserts that when not analyzing conventional or deepest truth, conventional objects function as mere conventionalities.
  • Non-Gelug assert that actually there are no conventional objects, they are merely conceptual fabrications (spros-pa). 

All Tibetan traditions assert a conceptual cognition of voidness and a non-conceptual one. 

  • Gelug assert that the voidness cognized conceptually and non-conceptually are the same. Since it does not call the clear-light mind “other-voidness,” it does not call this voidness of impossible existence “self-voidness.” 
  • Many assert that the voidness cognized conceptually and non-conceptually are the not the same. If they assert other-voidness, they restrict the term “self-voidness” to only the conceptually cognized voidness of impossible ways of existing.
  • From among those that assert that voidness cognized conceptually and non-conceptually are different, several, such as Nyingma, call the voidness of impossible existence cognized non-conceptually as being “beyond words and concepts.” Jonang, for instance, calls it “neither existent nor non-existent.”   
  • Nyingma accepts that the voidness of impossible existence cognized non-conceptually by rigpa and by the yogic non-conceptual cognition of a grosser level of mind are both the same. They are both voidness beyond words and concepts. 
  • Jonang and Sakya assert that the voidness that is neither existent nor nonexistent, being equivalent to other-voidness, cannot be cognized by grosser levels of mind. 

So, we can see there is tremendous variety in assertions of self-voidness and other-voidness and how the two terms are used.

Methods for Cognizing Voidness with the Clear-Light Mind 

As we saw, the clear-light mind does not necessarily have the understanding of the voidness; otherwise, we would have that at the time of the clear light of death. The question is, How do we get non-conceptual cognition of the voidness with this clear-light mind and how do we get it with a blissful awareness? There are several methods, but all of them require a background of sutra study and meditation on voidness based on the treatises of the great Nalanda masters such as Nagarjuna, and sophisticated complete stage anuttarayoga practices or anuyoga practices with the subtle energy systems of the subtle body – the chakras and channels. It is not necessary, however, to attain yogic non-conceptual cognition first before going on to anuttarayoga tantric methods or dzogchen methods. It is not even necessary to have attained joined shamatha and vipashyana focused conceptually on voidness. Only valid conceptual cognition of voidness is sufficient.  

There are two methods in anuttarayoga tantra, one in father tantra and one in mother tantra. In father tantra, we work on dissolving the grosser levels of energy-winds and consciousness through very difficult, sophisticated yoga practices. Once we manifest the clear-light mind by also generating a great blissful mind with other yogic methods, we apply the blissful clear-light mind to the understanding of voidness that we gained beforehand. Alternatively, in mother tantra, we start with an understanding of voidness in our meditation, and then while maintaining that awareness of voidness, we again use very difficult, sophisticated yogic methods to generate more and more intense levels of blissful awareness with the mind so that it gets more and more subtle till we manifest a clear-light level of mind having great blissful awareness of voidness. 

In the dzogchen systems, we first need to have studied and meditated on voidness and practiced the anuyoga methods of working with the subtle energy system. As a result, our energy system is, in a sense, “greased,” so that when we’re actually doing the dzogchen meditations, we don’t need to consciously work to get the grosser levels of mind and energy to dissolve and to generate a blissful awareness. They will dissolve automatically, and our state of mind will be blissful as we manifest rigpa

The method that we use to manifest rigpa is usually translated as “recognize the mind itself,” “recognize rigpa.” However, as we saw yesterday, the Western word “recognize” implies that we knew it before, and now we remember it and cognize it again. That’s not the connotation. The term used is ngoshe (ngo-shes), “to know the face,” literally, so to know it for what it is. It’s not that we’re remembering it and recognize it. The question is, of course, how do we come to know the face of rigpa for what it is? 

Please don’t confuse Buddhism with the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s not that, originally, we were in the Garden of Eden, and we had rigpa with the pure blissful awareness of voidness, and then we fell from grace, and now we have to recognize again what we had at the beginning. That is not Buddhism, please. Many people make that mistake unconsciously. When we have these terms “pure from the beginning,” it doesn’t mean literally, there was a beginning when we were pure. “Beginning” here means the basis, the foundation. So even the Jonang assertion that other-voidness, as Buddha-nature, is identical on the basis and resultant levels, though at present the basis level is veiled, that still does not mean temporally at the beginning it was pure and then it became veiled.

Now, how do we attain a state of rigpa knowing its own face? Well, this is on the basis of – the usual terminology is “being introduced” to it by our spiritual teacher. “So, Sasha, here’s your pure mind. Pure mind, here’s Sasha.” No, not like that. “Introduced,” ngotrö (ngo-sprod) in Tibetan, literally means to help someone “to meet their own face.” 

Now, we go back to what we were discussing in our first lecture, which is that through the influence of a teacher, of a properly qualified spiritual teacher, and our healthy relation with that spiritual teacher, we gain a tremendous amount of inspiration. This is based on being sufficiently open-minded so as to be able to actually see the nature of pure awareness. As we discussed, how do we become receptive and open-minded? It is by building up the two enlightenment-building networks – the two collections – positive force and deep awareness. 

All the dzogchen systems place a big emphasis on doing ngondro (sngon-’gro), preliminary practices. This entails doing the common ones – meditating on the precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, etc. – the basic lam-rim topics – and the special uncommon preliminaries, prostration, and so on, and doing them on the basis of taking refuge and developing bodhichitta. Doing all that builds up a tremendous amount of positive force. For building up a tremendous network of deep awareness of voidness, we do a lot of meditation based on the Indian Madhyamaka texts. There is no way to avoid that. 

The way that it is described is that, through the inspiration of our spiritual teacher and with a foundation of a previous huge buildup of positive force and deep awareness, we come to meet and know the face of rigpa. When we have made rigpa manifest like this, then, automatically, rigpa has deep awareness of its own nature, its voidness, its purity from the top, kadag (ka-dag) in Tibetan.

With the anuttarayoga methods, then, we need to make an effort to make the clear-light mind have the blissful cognition of voidness. With dzogchen, although this happens at the end without effort, but nevertheless it is based on our previous efforts. In the end, we attain the same thing; it’s just a matter of how we approach it in meditation and how we explain it.