Self-Voidness & Other-Voidness in the Four Noble Truths

This weekend I’ve been asked to speak about self-voidness and other-voidness, what is called in Tibetan rangtong (rang-stong) and zhentong (gzhan-stong). This is a very advanced topic, and very complicated, and also a very important topic. Therefore, it requires a great deal of patience and a great deal of time to be able to even just get access into these types of teachings.

So, what I plan to do is to give you some of the working materials that are necessary and hopefully helpful for being able to go deeper into the topic. But you need to realize that it will take a great deal of time and effort in order to be able to really start to understand what all of this is talking about; but we all have to start somewhere, and one way of starting is to get an overview of what’s involved.

Mental and Emotional Blocks Preventing Understanding

Something that goes with that and is really indispensable is building up enough positive force, so that our minds are open enough, so that we are receptive to try to understand it. This word that I’m translating as positive force (bsod-nams, Skt. punya) is usually translated as merit, but I think that’s a very misleading term, because it’s not that we have to somehow earn, like in a business deal, or get enough points so that then we’d be able to understand voidness as a reward; this is not at all the idea here.

But the problem is that this type of material, as I said, is very difficult to understand. And for many of us, our minds are quite closed; we have a lot of mental blocks that prevent us from understanding it. The mental blocks can take the form of just very simple things, like feeling “I can’t understand this. This is much too difficult. Why is it so complicated? Why did they have to make it so complicated? Why can’t it be easier?” Or it could be, after you understand a little bit, to say, “That’s enough. I don’t really want to go any further. This is too intellectual. This is too boring,” or whatever. Or we feel very frustrated that we can’t understand, and then we get emotionally upset about all of this. And we can get angry if anybody tries to convince us that this would be very helpful to understand. We could have some confused understanding of voidness and then become very attached to that and, again, be very close-minded to anyone who tries to correct our understanding, and very angry; hostile. And particularly with this topic of self-voidness and other-voidness, which is indicating that there are several ways to understand and work with voidness, if we don’t understand that, we become very attached and sectarian about our own particular understanding or what we have studied, and then become very hostile toward any of the other views – which would be equally valid views.

These are very serious mental and emotional blocks that will prevent us from understanding not only voidness, but anything in the Buddhist teachings. And not just in the Buddhist teachings, it could prevent us from understanding anything. So building up some positive force to open our minds and become more receptive is really quite essential. And it’s important not to trivialize that aspect of the teachings, and not to limit this type of endeavor merely to doing things like 100,000 prostrations, which one could do at a fitness club as an exercise or as a method to lose weight – and in addition, well, it’s a Buddhist practice as well, so we get two for the price of one.

Building Up Positive Force through Helping Other People

What is the most effective way of building up positive force is to actually meditate on compassion, on love, on bodhichitta, and actually go out and physically help other people. And thinking very seriously about our own lives, and the sufferings, the various difficulties that we have in life, and recognizing – through actually working with other people – that they have the same problems, the same suffering. And realizing that their suffering and their problems hurt them just as much as our sufferings and problems hurt us. And realizing that if we have anger and greed and selfishness and laziness, and all these things, how can we possibly help anybody else? This you learn especially in the process of helping others, because you have to overcome not wanting to help them and not feeling like helping them.

When our minds – and not just our minds, but our hearts – open up to our own suffering, and we actually feel it and the suffering of others, that opening of our minds and hearts helps us to then look at what are the causes, is it possible to stop them, and how do we go about stopping them. The four noble truths. As we think and work more and more deeply with these four noble truths, based on our experience in helping others, then we start to understand the importance and the necessity of understanding voidness. With the positive force that’s built up through this process then we become more and more receptive to understanding, because we understand that I have to understand this in order to be able to overcome my laziness, and selfishness, and all this other garbage that’s preventing me from helping others.

With our minds and hearts being open in this way, what will eventually arise is that we absolutely love this topic of voidness in all its intricacies and complexities. This is what the great Indian masters have all said, that the most receptive vessel – in other words, the mind that is the most receptive for understanding voidness – is the one that absolutely loves voidness: loves to hear about it, loves to think about it, loves to meditate on it, not just because it’s intellectually interesting, but because that person understands the absolute necessity and importance of it. I think we can understand this. If you don’t love what you’re doing, then you get tired of it; you don’t want to continue with it, you get frustrated, you get annoyed; and this is what we were calling mental and emotional blocks. Especially if we don’t see the necessity and importance of what we’re doing – if it just seems pointless, meaningless and trivial – then again, it’s very hard to put any energy into it. We become closed, don’t we?

This whole discussion that we’ve had now about building up positive force is often summarized with just the phrase: “Well, strengthen your motivation.” But just putting it in those simple words, sometimes we lose the significance of what that really means. All of this is very, very crucial for being able to understand voidness and to understand anything in the teachings.

Inspiration from a Spiritual Teacher

Now an interesting question, of course, is if these are methods for overcoming mental blocks and being closed, then how do you overcome the mental blocks and being closed about hearing about how to overcome the mental blocks and being closed? Well, in general, what usually is pointed out as the most helpful is a healthy relationship with the spiritual teacher. Healthy means that it is not based on some sort of neurotic dependency or hero worship. But the importance of the relation with a spiritual teacher is that we gain inspiration.

This word that is usually translated as devotion (bsten-pa), as in the phrase guru-devotion, is actually a word that is used not only in relation to a spiritual teacher, but is used also to characterize the proper relationship with a doctor. It is related to the Tibetan word meaning to rely on someone (brten-pa) but it has, in addition to that, a more causative connotation, which means what causes us to rely on somebody, and that is basically trust and confidence. So, because we have examined the person, either the doctor or the spiritual teacher, and we’ve seen that they are qualified, and we’ve seen their kindness, we’ve witnessed their kindness – so we’re convinced that they just want to help us, they’re not going to hurt us – then we can trust them, and we entrust ourselves to them. Entrusting ourselves to them means that we are open and receptive to them, particularly to what’s called their influence, their positive influence, which means that we are open to inspiration from them.

We think about how did they become like this. Again, we look at the texts of the great Indian masters, and they say – Aryadeva said this – that how do they become a Buddha? They became a Buddha (if we’re talking about Buddha) or they became a great master (even if they’re not a Buddha, but a great spiritual master) by understanding voidness. Those who just were completely confused about reality and just imagined that things existed in impossible ways, what have they accomplished? They’ve accomplished just more and more suffering and problems.

How did they come to realize and understand voidness? Because they were spending a tremendous amount of time, lifetime after lifetime, building up positive force of helping others; and listening to the teachings, thinking about them, and meditating on them. So through the influence and inspiration of a qualified – not an unqualified, but a qualified – spiritual teacher and the supporting circumstances of others who are similarly interested, other students who are pursuing or at least interested in investigating these type of spiritual things – so through that support (the teacher and community of others) then we start to become more open to building up the causes for being able to understand voidness the way that the teacher has done. In other words, by building up positive force through actually helping others; developing concern.

If we look at the biography of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug tradition, there is an enumeration of his four great deeds. Among those four, that doesn’t include all the things that he wrote, and all the retreats that he did, and all the teachings and writings that he produced – it doesn’t include all of that. But what does it include?

  • The fact that he taught vinaya (the monks’ vows of discipline), emphasizing the importance of that, the importance of keeping them pure.
  • He repaired and restored a huge statue of Maitreya, the next Buddha.
  • He put a crown on top of the Jowo – the most holy statue of Buddha – in Lhasa, signifying that it wasn’t just a Nirmanakaya but it was a Sambhogakaya Buddha, which means that it’s going to stay and teach forever, till everybody is liberated from samsara.
  • And he started the Monlam festival, the great prayer festival in Lhasa where all the monks came together from all the various monasteries and traditions and recited all sorts of prayers and did a lot of positive practices together.

So what does that indicate, that these are called the great deeds of Tsongkhapa, not that he did three-and-a-half million prostrations and so on? What it indicates is the importance of building up positive force: of keeping ethical discipline, and furthering the teachings (like Maitreya, for the future), and Sambhogakaya living forever, and a prayer festival so that there was almost like an institutionalized period of time devoted just to building up positive force.

And what did Tsongkhapa himself do in order to gain non-conceptual cognition of voidness? He was the most learned person of his day. He had studied with all the great masters from all the other Tibetan Buddhist traditions of his time, and had repeated and repeated teachings on voidness and done retreats concerning this. And he wasn’t satisfied with his understanding, and he certainly did not have a non-conceptual correct understanding of voidness. So what did he do? He was already a very, very advanced practitioner – he’d done so many tantric retreats as well – way, way beyond any level that we could even imagine. He took a group of his disciples and he went into a long retreat – I forget exactly how long it was; it was a couple years, I believe – and they did prostrations. They made 100,000 prostrations to each of the 35 confession Buddhas, that’s three-and-a-half million prostrations, and they made 1,800,000 mandala offerings. Why? Obviously, to build up more and more positive force. Now he had been working tremendously to help others already, but this he saw was necessary to go further.

Plus every evening of this retreat they all did the self-initiation of Yamantaka, which is no small thing to do; it’s rather a long, complicated practice. Why do you do self-initiation? It is because it is a method for restoring and purifying your broken bodhisattva and tantric vows. And doing this in conjunction with Yamantaka is significant. Yamantaka is the forceful form of Manjushri – the embodiment of the wisdom or discriminating awareness of all the Buddhas – and so he represents very forceful energy to cut through mental blocks, obscurations, and so on, that would prevent us from understanding voidness, for example. And why do you want to keep pure ethical discipline? Well, ethical discipline means to refrain from acting in a destructive manner. You act destructively and it builds up negative karmic force. You refrain from acting destructively and act constructively instead, it builds up positive force. So we come back to the same point – the necessity to build up positive force to break through mental and emotional obstacles.

So even if we don’t have so much access to actual living spiritual teachers who are highly qualified and can inspire us, you can also look at the examples of the great masters of the past, such as Tsongkhapa, in order to gain inspiration from their examples – what they did – to convince us what we have to do. What makes us so special that we don’t need to do this and Tsongkhapa needed to do this?

When my own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, was approached by a young hippie – this was back in the hippie days – who was probably stoned on some drug when he came to see him, and he asked Serkong Rinpoche to teach him the six yogas of Naropa, Serkong Rinpoche took him very seriously. Rather than chasing him away and saying “Don’t be ridiculous. This is far too advanced,” what he said was “This is very wonderful that you have an interest in learning this. If you really want to learn this and practice this, this is how you begin…” Then he indicated to him the very first steps to take in order to build up all the necessary background and positive force to be able to actually practice these six yogas.

Now of course you’re not a group of stoned hippies, and some of you – or many of you – may be already very advanced practitioners; I don’t know each person here individually. But if Tsongkhapa at his level of attainment needed to build up more positive force to really understand voidness, I’m sure all of us need the same thing, including myself. So, therefore, as an introduction to this weekend, I have been explaining to you if we really want to understand self-voidness and other-voidness – which is, as I said, very advanced, very complicated, very difficult to understand – this is where we need to begin: being open to being inspired by a spiritual teacher (or the examples of spiritual teachers from the past), keeping ethical discipline, and building up some sort of positive force – especially by thinking of or meditating on love, compassion, and actually going out and helping others.

Overcoming Suffering through Understanding Emptiness

Now what I mentioned very briefly was that in the process of actually helping others and seeing how we’re not really able to help them so effectively – particularly because we get upset, and are selfish, and don’t want to, and so on – I mentioned that this leads us to thinking in terms of the four noble truths with respect to our own experience and with respect to what we experience with others (as what they experience). Now we may be able to list the four noble truths. And don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a quiz on that. But, as just a self-examination, I would suggest, in your minds, can you in fact list the four noble truths? I’ll give you a few moments for that. In any case, even if you can list them, what is important is to not just simply be able to list them like answering a quiz, but how deeply do we actually understand them.

The reason for my mentioning this is because voidness (emptiness) and the understanding of voidness are very, very much encapsulated within the understanding and explanation of the four noble truths. That’s its context. Without a context, and without the proper context, then the teachings on voidness and the attempts that we might make to understand them just become an intellectual exercise that, at best, is interesting. But, as Aryadeva said, Buddha taught voidness to help us to overcome suffering. That’s the only reason for Buddha to teach about it and the only reason for us to try to understand it. We need, therefore, to understand what really are we talking about here in terms of suffering, and how does the understanding of voidness get rid of it. And we have to be convinced that the understanding of voidness will actually remove all our suffering so that it never comes again. Then we’re really convinced that I really have to understand this to overcome my own suffering and to help others overcome their suffering. That brings you your motivation.

It really is very interesting, because it is a circle here: you need the motivation in order to understand, and you need some understanding in order to develop the motivation. The more you understand, the more you realize that you really need to understand voidness; so it increases your motivation. The two feed on each other in this way.

Perhaps you’ve heard this point explained in different words, particularly in terms of the discussion of what’s usually called building up the two collections. I don’t particularly like the word collections, because that implies just gathering things, like a stamp collection. It’s not something trivial that is a bit like a game of collecting points. But, rather, I prefer to translate the term here as two networks. It is an interactive, very dynamic system that we’re talking about here – or dual system – of building up positive force and building up deep awareness, that all the aspects of it feed on and increase each other, and the two interface with each other and fortify and strengthen both. Right? So we’re not just collecting, in a little book that we paste them, points of merit and insights. It’s not like that. It’s much more sophisticated than that. And, as I said, the motivation that comes in terms of this network of positive force and the understanding that comes in terms of this network of deep awareness – they reinforce each other.

Conceptual and Non-conceptual Cognition

Let’s look a little bit more deeply at the four noble truths, also as a way of introduction. These four points that Buddha taught are usually translated as the noble truths. This word noble that is being used is the usual translation for an arya. An arya is a highly realized being who has had non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths. So they’ve had non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths and, more specifically, they’ve had this non-conceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths: four for each.

[See: The Sixteen Aspects of the Four Noble Truths]

When we talk about non-conceptual cognition here, we’re not talking about – like seeing, that’s non-conceptual; we’re not talking about that kind of non-conceptual sensory cognition. But, rather, it is non-conceptual yogic cognition. This is the term, which means that it is based on having perfect attainment of shamatha and vipashyana – those are the Sanskrit words – or in Tibetan zhiney (zhi-gnas, calm abiding) and lhagtong (lhag mthong, special insight).

Shamatha means a stilled and settled state of mind. It is completely stilled of all mental dullness and flightiness of mind and mental wandering; and it’s settled on an object with perfect concentration; plus a sense of fitness, which is an exhilarating sense of body and mind, of being able to concentrate on anything for as long as you want. Vipashyana is literally an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. It is a state of mind attained on top of shamatha. So you already have shamatha and then, in addition, you have this sense of fitness, a second sense of fitness – that the mind is able to not only stay fixed perfectly on any object for as long as it wants, but to be able to understand and comprehend deeply and fully what anything is or how it exists.

This yogic cognition, on the basis of shamatha and vipashyana, could be either conceptual or non-conceptual, and it could be focused on almost anything. Here it’s focused on – for the aryas – these sixteen aspects of four general facts. And it’s focused non-conceptually; that means not through the medium of a category. Category. This is important to understand, what we mean here by category. It’s the clue – or the key, I should say – for being able to understand the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual cognition.

A category can be (but does not have to be) specified in terms of a word. It could also be in terms of a mental image, for example. Like, for instance, apple. Right? That’s a word; it’s a category, and many individual items, individual fruits, would fit into that category. So when we think of an apple – and here we’re talking about always mental cognition, not a sense cognition – we might think of a specific apple, but we think of it in terms of a category apple – “This is an apple.” Or it could just be a picture that we have in our minds of what an apple looks like. It doesn’t have to be the actual word. It could be a mental picture of a taste. It could be many different types of mental pictures. By picture I don’t mean necessarily visual, but a mental hologram. So we’re always, with conceptual cognition, thinking of things through categories.

Non-conceptual cognition is without a category. Now I must say that this is quite difficult to understand. How do you think of an apple without the category apple? You think of an object, an individual specific object, you know what it is – it’s not that you don’t know what it is; it’s not that “Duhhhh,” you’re in a daze – you know what it is, but not mixed with a general category. That’s very, very difficult to even imagine what that would be like, because imagine of course implies categories and concepts. So, please, when we are talking about non-conceptual cognition of an arya, don’t think of it in terms of some mystical experience. Mystical experience, that’s a category which actually is pretty vague what that actually means. We’re talking about something very, very specific here.

And what is it that the aryas understand when they focus on these sixteen aspects of these four facts? What they understand – it’s vipashyana now, the shamatha and vipashyana – is that these are true; correct. Ordinary people would not think that they were true, but aryas focusing on them understand they are true. That is what a noble truth is. So although we can – for instance, in terms of the first noble truth – focus on all sorts of different examples of suffering, and we could actually put them all together under the category suffering or true sufferings, aryas would focus on any individual example of suffering and understand it for what it is, without having to mix it with some category. As I say, that’s really quite difficult to imagine – what that really is like.

The First Noble Truth

True sufferings. There’s three types of sufferings. The first two types of sufferings – many, many other religious systems recognize them as sufferings; they’re not really the deepest suffering that is spoken about here.

There’s first of all the suffering of suffering, it’s called. That’s referring to the suffering of, basically, unhappiness. Unhappiness can be on many different levels of intensity, and it can accompany either sense cognition of something – seeing something with unhappiness, or feeling pain with unhappiness – or it can accompany mental cognition – like thinking of something, or the unhappiness that would accompany an emotion. So even animals can recognize that and work to avoid it.

Then there’s the suffering of change. This is basically referring to our ordinary happiness. This ordinary happiness is something that doesn’t last, and it’s never satisfying – we always want more – and when it ends we never know what’s going to come next. So it’s insecure. Also, if ordinary happiness were true happiness – ultimate happiness – then the more we had of it, the happier we would become. So, for example, the happiness that we experience with eating our favorite food – for instance, ice cream – the more that we ate it, the happier we should become. So if we ate two liters of ice cream, five liters of ice cream, ten liters of ice cream – the more we ate, the happier we would become. But obviously after a certain point that happiness changes into great unhappiness and discomfort, doesn’t it? Obviously we’re talking about eating ten liters of ice cream all in one sitting. That’s very funny, because on the one hand we can never have enough – because the next day we’re going to want more – but at one sitting you can in fact have enough. Wanting to overcome that is not exclusively Buddhist; there are many religions that talk about giving up worldly, ephemeral happiness and achieving the eternal happiness of heaven, for example.

So although the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change are true sufferings, that’s not the main thing that Buddha was talking about and that aryas see are really suffering – what’s the true suffering – it’s not the deepest one. But there’s the third form of suffering, and this is quite exclusive to what Buddhism is asserting, and this is called literally the all-pervasive affecting type of suffering. First of all, it’s referring to our usual aggregates – body and mind, if we put it simply – and it’s all-pervasive because it pervades every moment of our experience, whether it’s happiness or unhappiness. And it affects it; it’s what is the basis that affects the fact that we’re going to experience the first two types of suffering. That’s why it’s called all-pervasive affecting suffering: kyab-par duche-gyi dug-ngel (khyab-par ’du-byed-kyi sdug-bsngal).

So the fact that we have uncontrollably recurring tainted aggregates… That’s a little bit technical jargon here. Tainted – sometimes translated as contaminated – but tainted aggregates; in other words, we have a body and mind that is received – we get it – because of confusion, unawareness of reality, and it’s mixed with this confusion and unawareness, and it generates more. So we have a body and mind that’s mixed with all this confusion, if we want to put it very simply. Tainted. And it’s uncontrollably recurring – that’s the concept of samsara – it continues on and on and on, not under our control, whether we want it or not. And that type of body and mind – with all this confusion, goes on and on and on and on – is the basis, then, for experiencing the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of ordinary happiness that changes all the time. That’s the real problem.

The Second Noble Truth

What is the cause – true cause – of having these uncontrollably recurring tainted aggregates that pervade every moment of our experience and affect (bring about) our experience of unhappiness and ordinary happiness? What’s the cause of it? That brings us to the second noble truth: the true cause of it.

To understand this point, we need to understand that both happiness and unhappiness are feelings; feeling a level of happiness, this is. When we talk about the aggregate of feelings, it’s talking about this. And happiness and feeling is defined as that which is how we experience the ripening of our karma. So happiness is how one experiences the ripening of positive karma or constructive karma, and unhappiness is how we experience the ripening of negative or destructive karma.

Now, to be more specific, we experience unhappiness as the ripening of karmic aftermath, what’s left over after we do something – something destructive. And here we’re talking about unhappiness being what ripens – and how we experience what ripens – from negative karmic force (sdig-pa, Skt. papa) and negative karmic tendencies (sa-bon). We talk about karmic force and karmic tendencies, and I won’t go into the differences between them. And happiness is – ordinary happiness – is how we experience the ripening of positive karmic force (bsod-nams, Skt. punya) and positive karmic tendencies. Karmic aftermath is what’s left over on the mental continuum after the completion – to put it very, very simply – of a karmic action. It may, according to some theories, start during the action, but let’s not get into the different opinions here.

Now for these karmic forces and karmic tendencies – which are part of our mental continuum – to ripen, to produce the experience of unhappiness or ordinary happiness, they have to be activated. They are – if we put it in very simple terms – like potentials, and this mechanism is what is described with the twelve links of dependent arising.

In brief, what will activate it is, first of all, craving (sred-pa, Skt. trshna). So what does craving mean? We experience ordinary happiness and we crave to not be separated from it. And we experience unhappiness and we crave to be parted from it. We crave. That’s a very strong desire; a disturbing emotion. We crave not to be parted from the happiness and we crave to be parted from the unhappiness. The word craving, by the way, literally from Sanskrit is thirsting (trshna). You’re incredibly thirsting for something. You have to satisfy your thirst. It’s almost a physical compulsion. I don’t want to be parted from this happiness and I really want to get rid of this unhappiness.

The other factor is called an obtainer (nyer-len, Skt. upadana). It’s an attitude or disturbing emotion that will obtain for us, basically, a future rebirth. To put it very simply – because there is a long list of these – it is identifying with what’s going on here. Me, solid me – I have to not be parted from this happiness. Me, solid me – I have to be parted from this unhappiness.

So this craving and this obtainer attitude, these are disturbing emotions that will activate the karma – the karmic force and karmic tendencies. And then that combination – disturbing emotions and activated karma – will then bring about or ripen into the first two forms of suffering: unhappiness or ordinary happiness. So this is the true cause here. It’s the true cause of rebirth. This is called throwing karma. It will bring about the aggregates (body and mind) of the next rebirth – and the body and mind of the next moment, even – which will be the basis for experiencing unhappiness or ordinary happiness. That’s the true cause or true origin of suffering. That’s what we want to get rid of. And that’s the big question: Can we get rid of uncontrollably recurring tainted aggregates, a body and mind that is the basis for the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change? Which means: Can we get rid of this karmic force and what activates the karmic force – the disturbing emotions?

Now what is the foundation for the true suffering and the true origins of suffering? It is the mental continuum. It’s the mental continuum that contains the experiences of happiness and unhappiness, and it’s the mental continuum that has the disturbing emotions, and it’s on the basis of the mental continuum that we have karmic force and karmic tendencies.

The Third Noble Truth

Now the question then is: These disturbing emotions and this karmic aftermath, are they part of the nature of the mental continuum – or the nature of the mind, if you want to say it simply – that could never be removed (because it’s part of the nature; it’s there every moment), or can they be removed, and can they be removed such that they never come again? This is the question that’s involved with the third noble truth – true stoppings of suffering and its origins or causes.

Now when we speak about the obscurations – the mental obscurations – of the mind, we speak of two kinds: the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) and the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib). The emotional ones are all these disturbing emotions, and the karmic tendencies, and the tendencies of these disturbing emotions as well, and the karmic force – all of that’s on this side of the emotional obscurations. And if we summarize that in short, this is our grasping for impossible ways of existing. That’s what the unawareness or confusion is all about – grasping for things to exist in some impossible way. And the cognitive obscurations are coming from the habits of karma and the habits of the disturbing emotions, and they cause an appearance – the mind makes an appearance – of an impossible way of existing. Based on that then, with grasping for that impossible way of existing, we actually believe that it’s true. So these are the two things that we are examining here. Are they part of the intrinsic nature of the mind or not?

The cognitive obscurations, to repeat, are the habits of karma and the habits of the disturbing emotions, and they cause the mind to make an appearance of an impossible way of existing. Then, with the emotional obscurations, you grasp at that, which means that you believe that – you perceive it and you believe that it’s true. So if these were part of the intrinsic nature of the mind, with the mental continuum every single moment of experience, then they should be experienced every moment, shouldn’t they? However, the valid experience of these aryas proves otherwise, because when these aryas are non-conceptually totally absorbed on voidness – voidness meaning no such thing as this impossible way of existing; there’s no such thing – on that absence, when they are totally absorbed, with perfect shamatha and vipashyana, non-conceptually – during that period of time, there are no disturbing emotions, no grasping for true existence, and the mind does not make an appearance of an impossible way of existence. There’s no grasping for an impossible way of existence, and there’s no appearance-making of impossible existence. If this was part of the innate nature of the mind, they should be present in this situation, but they’re not. That demonstrates that they are not part of the nature of the mind.

There’s another situation in which the mind doesn’t produce an appearance of an impossible way of existing and doesn’t grasp at it to be true, and that’s during the experience of the clear light mind (‘od-gsal); specifically the clear light mind that manifests at the time of death, before the bardo of the next lifetime begins. This clear light level of mind, this subtlest level of mind that everybody experiences during the death existence, it’s called, doesn’t make an appearance of an impossible way of existing and doesn’t grasp at it with any unawareness or disturbing emotion to be as if it were true. And the aryas, even while they are alive, before they die, can experience and can make manifest this clear light level of mind as well – with full non-conceptual cognition of voidness if they are following anuttarayoga (the highest class of tantra) practices in the New Tantra classification system, or if they’re practicing dzogchen in the Old (or Nyingma) system. The difference is: for an arya, the experience of clear light mind in meditations is with the non-conceptual cognition and understanding of voidness; and the clear light of death, it doesn’t necessarily have it, although yogis are able to transform even that to have that full understanding, but ordinary people don’t have it.

But after death comes bardo and a next lifetime, and then again the appearance-making of impossible ways of existing and the grasping for it recurs. And the same thing happens when an arya comes out of this total absorption on voidness (or clear light mind with the understanding of voidness): again there’s the appearance-making of true existence and grasping for it. I mean, different systems will define the stages of this differently, but let’s not get into that. So they recur, these impossible appearances and the making of the impossible appearances by the mind, and the grasping for them to be true, to correspond to reality. They come about because of what we were speaking about before: these tendencies and habits of karma and disturbing emotions. So the question is: Can you get rid of them?

If we could stay focused on these two situations in which there is no appearance-making of impossible ways of existing and no grasping for it, if we could stay focused on that – meaning if we can stay focused on voidness non-conceptually and if we can do that with a clear light mind, the subtlest mind – and if we could stay like that forever, then there would be no more appearance-making of impossible ways of existing and no more grasping at it.

The Fourth Noble Truth

We can only designate, or say that there is a tendency and a habit, if it can produce a future ripening. If it can’t produce a future ripening, all you can say is that there was a past tendency and habit, but there isn’t a presently-existing one: if there’s a presently existing one, it should be able to produce a result. So then we would really achieve a true stopping of suffering and its origins or causes – that’s the third noble truth – through the fourth noble truth, which is a true pathway of mind. We’re not talking about a path that you walk on; we’re talking about a mind that acts as a pathway for reaching this state, which would be a non-conceptual cognition of voidness and, more specifically, with the subtlest clear light mind. That’s the fourth noble truth.

We completely remove all the factors that would ripen the tendencies and the habits; and when there’s nothing that will ripen the tendencies and habits, you don’t have any more tendencies and habits anymore, to put it very simply. And we can stay focused on this understanding of voidness and with the clear light level of mind, if we have built up sufficient amount of positive force. Now we’re not talking about karmic positive force, but enlightenment-building positive force done with this aryas’ meditation on voidness.

So this brings us back to the beginning of the story with building up positive force and more and more deep awareness – in other words, more and more experience of focusing on voidness – and as a result of that buildup of these two networks then we have a true pathway mind that’s there forever, and therefore a true stopping of suffering and its causes. That’s the four noble truths.

Self-Voidness and Other-Voidness

When we speak about the voidness of impossible ways of existing, that is self-voidness. When we speak about the clear light mind, the subtlest level of mind, that’s other-voidness. And so the topic of self-voidness and other-voidness is talking about two aspects of voidness that are the true pathway minds (fourth noble truth) that bring about the third noble truth (a true stopping, forever) of the first two noble truths (true suffering and their true origins or true causes).

To repeat: Self-voidness is the voidness of impossible ways of existing. Other-voidness is talking about this subtlest clear light level of mind which is devoid of other levels of mind; grosser levels of mind. The combination of them constitutes the true pathway mind (the fourth noble truth) which will bring about the third noble truth (true stopping) of the first two noble truths (true suffering and their true origins).

If we understand this – which is not so simple to understand and it requires really a great deal of thinking and focusing; in fact, this is what aryas do, is to focus on these four things and try to understand them and actually perceive them non-conceptually or cognize them non-conceptually – if we understand this context, then we realize the importance of really, really, not only studying but internalizing self-voidness and other-voidness in order to, basically, overcome suffering. And not only for ourselves, but for everybody. And we’ll be able to comprehend and understand all of this on the basis of a buildup of positive force and more and more deep awareness from hearing the teachings, thinking about them, and meditating on them.


That concludes the introduction for the weekend topic on self-voidness and other-voidness. Obviously the introduction is not so simple, even just in itself, but we cannot really hope to understand voidness – and, more deeply, self-voidness and other-voidness – outside of this context of the four noble truths. And, as I said at the very beginning of this lecture, if we don’t understand this topic of voidness within the context of the four noble truths, then it very easily just becomes intellectual material, which at best is interesting, and even to understand it on that basis is not going to get us very far on our spiritual path. The more deeply we understand how focusing on self-voidness and other-voidness really does bring about a true stopping of what is truly suffering and its causes – I forget how I started that sentence, but if we don’t get that, we’re not going to be convinced of the necessity of understanding voidness, and we won’t be convinced of how it can really help anybody; help us or anybody else. So the more we understand this in terms of the four noble truths, the more confident we become that voidness is correct, and it really will eliminate suffering and its causes, and eliminate them so that they never ever arise again – then we have the motivation to actually try to understand it.


Now having been here and listened to this introduction, this has built up in each of us a little bit of positive force; a little bit of understanding, hopefully, unless you were asleep. And depending on how receptive each of us was, and how much background each of us had, the amount of understanding that we built up and the amount of positive force from our open-minded attitude and motivation will be different. That’s okay, but we want to dedicate that, which means that we want to integrate that positive force with the network of all the other positive force that we’ve built up in the past, and integrate that understanding with the rest of the network of our understanding and deep awareness that we’ve built up in the past. That’s dedication. You want to integrate it, put it as part of this network, so that it gets stronger and stronger and will actually bring about our attainment of liberation and enlightenment for the benefit of all.

This dedication is a little bit like the intention that you do in the beginning. It’s a little bit of a push of this positive force and this understanding to, in a sense, let it sink in and integrate with all that we’ve understood and all the positive force we’ve built up in the past. That’s the dedication. We usually say it in very simple words. “May it act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all,” but don’t just leave that in terms of reciting words; in your mind, you sort of “Yeah! May it integrate, may it sink in, and help to contribute toward this aim.” So let’s make the dedication like that. I’ll just repeat the very simple words, but don’t just think the words, but try to give it some sort of mental push.

Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has been built up by all of this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.