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; shentong). This is a very advanced, very complicated and very important topic. Therefore, it requires a great deal of patience and a great deal of time to be able to even get access to these types of teachings. 

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. However, we 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 the challenge of understanding this material and is really indispensable for understanding it is building up enough positive force so that our minds are open enough, and we are receptive enough 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 misleading translation because it’s not that we have to somehow earn, like in a business deal, or get enough points so that then we’ll be able to understand voidness as a reward; this is not at all the idea here. 

The problem is that this type of material, as I said, is very difficult to understand. For many of us, our minds are quite closed; we have a lot of mental and emotional 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 we 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 we feel very frustrated that we can’t understand, and then we get emotionally upset about all of this. 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 (emptiness) 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. Particularly with this topic of self-voidness and other-voidness, which indicates that there are several ways to understand and work with voidness, if we don’t understand that this is the case, we could 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 that are equally valid. 

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, they could prevent us from understanding anything. Building up some positive force to open our minds and becoming more receptive is really quite essential. 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 we could do at a fitness club as an exercise or as a method to lose weight. Since making prostrations is a Buddhist practice as well, we get two for the price of one – losing weight and building up positive force!

Building Up Positive Force through Helping Other People 

The most effective way of building up positive force is to actually meditate on compassion, love, and bodhichitta, and not just that, but also to actually go out and physically help others. We need to think very seriously about our own lives and the sufferings and various difficulties that we have in life, and through actually working with other people, recognize that they have the same problems, the same suffering, and realize that their suffering and their problems hurt them just as much as our sufferings and problems hurt us. Then, we need to realize that if we have anger, greed, selfishness, laziness, and all such things, how can we possibly help anybody else? This we learn especially in the process of helping others, because we 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 as well – open up to our own suffering and the suffering of others and we acknowledge them and actually feel them, 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, as in 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 necessity of understanding voidness. With the positive force that’s built up through this process we become more and more receptive to understanding voidness, because we realize that we have to understand voidness in order to be able to overcome our laziness and selfishness, and all this other garbage that’s preventing us from helping others. 

With our minds and hearts 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, and not just because it’s intellectually interesting, but because of appreciating the absolute necessity and importance of realizing voidness.

I think we can understand this. If we don’t love what we’re doing, we get tired of it. We don’t want to continue with it, we get frustrated, we get annoyed. 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, and we become closed, right? 

This whole discussion that we’ve had now about building up positive force is often summarized with just the phrase: “Reaffirm and strengthen your motivation.” However, just putting it in those simple words, sometimes we lose the significance of what that really means. All of this discussion, however, is 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 the methods for overcoming mental and emotional blocks and being closed, then how do we overcome the mental and emotional blocks and being closed about hearing about how to overcome the mental and emotional blocks and being closed? Well, in general, what is usually pointed out as the most helpful is a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher. “Healthy” means that it is not based on some sort of neurotic dependency or hero worship. The main purpose of the relation with a spiritual teacher is not only to gain guidance but also to 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 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, a more causative connotation, which means what causes us to rely on somebody, and that is basically trust and confidence. 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, and they’re not going to hurt us – then we can trust them, and so 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 being inspired by them. 

We think about how they became like this. Again, we look at the texts of the great Indian masters, and they say – Aryadeva said this – 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, so compare the two. 

How did Buddha and the great spiritual masters come to realize and understand voidness? It came about because they spent a tremendous amount of time, lifetime after lifetime, building up positive force by not only listening to the teachings, thinking about them, and meditating on them, but also by actually helping others. 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 types of spiritual things – through that support (the support of the teacher and community of others), we start to become more open to building up the causes for being able to understand voidness the way that our teacher has done. This means building up positive force through actually helping others by being concerned about their well-being. 

If we look at the biography of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition, we find an enumeration of his four great deeds. These four don’t include all the teachings he gave, the treatises that he wrote, and all the retreats that he did. They don’t include any of those, so what do they include? 

  • The fact that he taught vinaya (the monks’ vows of discipline), emphasizing the importance of keeping them purely. 
  • 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 merely 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. 

What does it indicate calling these the great deeds of Tsongkhapa, and not that he did 3.5 million prostrations and so on? What it indicates is the importance of building up positive force, of keeping ethical discipline, of furthering the teachings like Maitreya will do in the future and Sambhogakaya will do by living forever, and of having an annual prayer festival so that there would be an institutionalized period of time devoted just to building up positive force. 

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 read all the texts of the great Nalanda masters of India, had studied with all the great masters from all the Tibetan Buddhist traditions of his time, had repeatedly received teachings from them on voidness and had done many retreats concerning this. He wasn’t satisfied with his understanding, and he knew that he didn’t yet  have non-conceptual cognition 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. What he did was he took a group of his disciples and went into a long retreat. I forget exactly how long it was; it was a couple years, I believe, and in that retreat, they made prostrations. They made 100,000 prostrations to each of the 35 confession Buddhas, that’s 3.5 million prostrations, and they made 1,800,000 mandala offerings. Why? Obviously, to build up more and more positive force. He had been working tremendously to help others already, but he saw that doing these preliminary practices was necessary in order 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 a rather long, complicated practice. Why do we perform a self-initiation? It is because it is a method for restoring and purifying our broken bodhisattva and tantric vows. 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 and emotional blocks, obscurations, and so on, that would prevent us from understanding voidness, for example. Why do we want to keep pure ethical discipline as when doing a meditational retreat? Well, ethical self-discipline means to refrain from acting in a destructive manner. When we act destructively, it builds up negative karmic force. We refrain from acting destructively and act constructively instead, as it builds up positive force. We come back to the same point, the necessity to build up positive force to break through mental and emotional obstacles and blocks.

Even if we don’t have so much access to living spiritual teachers who are actually highly qualified and who can inspire us, we can always 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 build up more positive force, but 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 asked for teachings on the six yogas of Naropa, Serkong Rinpoche took him very seriously. Rather than chasing him away, saying, “Don’t be ridiculous. This is far too advanced,” what he said was, “This is so wonderful that you have an interest in learning this. If you really want to study and practice the six yogas, 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 of Naropa. 

Now, of course, we’re not a group of stoned hippies, and some of you – or many of you – may already be 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 to do the same thing, myself included. Therefore, as an introduction to this weekend, I have been explaining that if we really want to understand self-voidness and other-voidness – which is, as I said, very advanced, very complicated, and very difficult to understand – this is where we need to begin, We need to be open to being inspired by a spiritual teacher or by the examples of spiritual teachers from the past, to keep ethical self-discipline and to build up more and more positive force, especially by thinking of or meditating on love, compassion, and actually going out and helping others. 

Overcoming Suffering through Understanding Voidness 

Earlier, I mentioned very briefly 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, are selfish, don’t feel like helping, and so on – I mentioned that this leads us to think in terms of the four noble truths with respect to our own personal experience and what others experience. 

Now, we may be able to list the four noble truths but is that enough? Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a quiz on that. But, just as a self-examination, why don’t you see if you can list the four noble truths in your minds? I’ll give you a few moments to do that. 


Were you able to list them? In any case, even if we can list them, what is important is not just being able to list them like when answering a quiz, but more importantly, how deeply do we actually understand them. The reason for my mentioning this is because voidness and the understanding of voidness are 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, the teachings on voidness and the attempts that we might make to understand them just become an intellectual exercise that, at best, is interesting. However, as Aryadeva said, Buddha taught voidness to help us overcome suffering. That’s the only reason for Buddha to teach about it and the only reason for us to try to understand it. 

Therefore, we need to understand what we are really talking about here in terms of suffering, and how the understanding of voidness rids us of it. We have to be convinced that the understanding of voidness will actually remove all our sufferings so that they never arise again. Only then can we go further with our motivation by being convinced that by helping us to overcome our own suffering, the understanding of voidness enables us to better help others overcome their suffering. 

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

Perhaps we’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 with a stamp collection. It’s not something trivial like in a game where we need to collect points in order to win. Rather, I prefer to translate the term here as two networks. It is an interactive, very dynamic, twofold system that we’re talking about here of building up positive force and deep awareness. All the aspects of the two networks interface with each other, which fortifies and strengthens both. Right? We’re not just collecting points of merit and insights that we paste into a little book. It’s not like that. It’s much more sophisticated than that. 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 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 used here 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. More specifically, they’ve had non-conceptual cognition of the 16 aspects of the four noble truths: four for each truth. 

When we talk about non-conceptual cognition here, we’re not talking about sensory cognition, like with seeing, which is also non-conceptual. Rather, we’re talking about non-conceptual yogic cognition. This term means that the non-conceptual cognition is with a mental consciousness that has the 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, 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 we want. 
  • Vipashyana” is literally “an exceptionally perceptive state of mind.” It is a state of mind attained on top of shamatha. We already have shamatha and then, in addition, we have 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 it is also able to understand and comprehend deeply and fully all the details of what we are focusing on 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, for aryas, it’s focused on these 16 aspects of the four noble truths, and it’s focused non-conceptually, which means not through the medium of a category. 

It is important to understand what we mean here by a category (spyi). It’s the key for being able to understand the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual cognition. A category is a conceptual classification into which similar items sharing common characteristic features fit, such as the category apple in which many varieties of a specific kind of fruit and individual pieces of fruit can be fit – they are all apples. A category is like the concept or idea we have of what an apple is. 

When we think of a specific apple, we think of it in terms of a category apple, “This is an apple.” In order to think of an apple, however, we need to represent it with something that appears in our minds. It could be a mental picture of what an apple looks like, or it could be a mental picture of what an apple tastes like. It could be many different types of mental pictures. By “picture,” I don’t necessarily mean visual, but a mental hologram of some sensory attribute. We could also designate the category apple with the word apple and think of an apple with merely the mental sound apple arising as if spoken by a voice in our heads. With conceptual cognition, we are always thinking of things through categories. 

Non-conceptual cognition is without a category. It is not so difficult to understand sensory cognition as being non-conceptual. When we see an apple, a mental hologram of an apple arises in our cognition, but no category. But it’s quite difficult to understand how non-conceptual cognition works when it is with mental consciousness. How do we think of an apple without the category apple? Maybe the confusion comes from the connotation of the word think

When we think of an object, an individual specific object, we know what it is – it’s not that we don’t know what it is; it’s not that “Duhhhh,” we’re in a daze – we know what it is. But when we think of something non-conceptually, it’s not mixed with a general category or a word, so how do we know what it is? That’s very difficult to even imagine what that would be like, because “imagine,” of course, implies categories and concepts. 

Please, when we are talking about the non-conceptual cognition of an arya, don’t think of it in terms of our ordinary thinking of something or in terms of some mystical experience. A “mystical experience”– that’s a category, and what it actually means is pretty vague. We’re talking about something very, very specific when we speak about the non-conceptual yogic cognition of an arya. 

What is it that the aryas understand when they focus on these 16 aspects of these four facts? What they cognize and understand, with shamatha and vipashyana, is not only what these 16 aspects are but also that they are true and correct. Ordinary people or practitioners of other non-Buddhist Indian traditions would not think that they were true, but aryas focusing on them understand they are true. That is what a noble truth is. 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, it’s really quite difficult to imagine what that really is like. 

The First Noble Truth 

The first noble truth is true sufferings. There are three types of sufferings. The first two types of sufferings are things that many other religious systems recognize as sufferings; they’re not really the deepest suffering, the true suffering that is spoken about here. 

What are these first two types of suffering? There’s first of all the suffering of suffering. That’s referring to the suffering of 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 with unhappiness. Even animals can recognize that type of suffering and strive 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 is 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. For example, the happiness that we experience with eating our favorite food – for instance, ice cream – the more that we eat it, the happier we should become. 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. 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 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, we 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. 

Although the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change are truly sufferings, they’re not the main thing that Buddha was talking about as the true suffering and that aryas non-conceptually realize is true. The suffering that only Buddha and aryas realize and non-conceptually focus on as being true is the third type of suffering, which is literally called the all-pervasive affecting type of suffering in the Tibetan commentaries, but merely the affecting type of suffering in the earlier Indian texts. This is exclusively asserted in Buddhism.

There are two explanations of this third type of suffering. The first, as found in the Indian texts, is more common – it refers to our usual aggregates – our body and mind, if we put it simply. It’s all-pervasive because our aggregates pervade every moment of our experience, whether that moment includes ordinary happiness or unhappiness. It’s affecting because it 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 the all-pervasive affecting type of suffering: kyab-par duche-gyi dug-ngel (khyab-pa ’du-byed-kyi sdug-bsngal). 

This true suffering, then, refers to the fact that we have uncontrollably recurring tainted aggregates. That’s a little bit of technical jargon. “Tainted” (zag-pa) – sometimes translated as “contaminated” – means tainted by ignorance. We are born over and again with a body, a mind and emotions and so on that we obtain because of our unawareness of reality (our ignorance) and confusion. Because of that, our aggregates are mixed with this unawareness and confusion, and because of that, they are also called “obtainer aggregates” (nyer-len-gyi phung-po) since they obtain for us more aggregates that are also mixed with unawareness and confusion. They uncontrollably recur – that’s samsara – they continue on and on and on, not under our control, whether or not we want them to continue. Obtaining that that type of body and mind, with all this confusion, in every rebirth goes on and on and on, and this is the basis for experiencing the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of ordinary happiness. That’s the true problem, the true suffering.

The second explanation of all-pervasive affecting suffering, found in the Tibetan commentaries, is that it refers to the neutral feeling of equanimity, devoid of unhappiness or happiness, that we experience on the basis of shamatha when absorbed even more deeply in the fourth level of mental constancy (the fourth dhyana) and beyond in the four deeper formless absorptions. This neutral feeling is “affecting” because when it is mistaken as being a state of liberation, it brings about a fall to rebirth in one of the worse rebirth states. It’s “all-pervasive” because it is then the root of repeatedly experiencing the first two types of suffering – unhappiness and ordinary suffering –with tainted aggregates in all subsequent rebirths. 

This second explanation is very pertinent, since practitioners of many of the non-Buddhist Indian traditions consider the experience of this neutral feeling of equanimity attained in these deep dhyana states as being the experience of liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara, and that this is what the liberated atman experiences. Buddha and the aryas are the only ones who realize that this neutral feeling in these dhyanas is true suffering and not liberation. Others are unaware and ignorant of this fact. 

We can easily understand the four aspects of the first noble truth when this noble truth is specified as this neutral feeling of equanimity. It is:

  • Non-static – not static as the non-Buddhists would believe
  • A type of suffering – not a state devoid of suffering as they would also believe 
  • Devoid of a static, partless atman existing independently of a body or mind – not what such an atman experiences when it is liberated
  • Lacking an atman that can be self-sufficiently known independently of a body or mind – also not what such an atman experiences when liberated.  

The Second Noble Truth 

In terms of this first explanation of true suffering, what is the cause, the true cause, of having these uncontrollably recurring tainted aggregates that pervade every moment of our experience and that affect and “obtain” for us our recurring up-and-down experience of unhappiness and ordinary happiness? What’s the cause of them? That brings us to the second noble truth: the true cause of this true suffering. 

To understand this point, we need to understand that both happiness and unhappiness are feelings, feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. When we talk about the aggregate of feelings, we’re talking about this. A feeling is defined as how we experience the ripening of our karma. Happiness is how we experience the ripening of our positive karma or constructive karma, and unhappiness is how we experience the ripening of our negative or destructive karma. 

To be more specific, we experience unhappiness as the ripening of the negative karmic aftermath built up by thinking, doing or saying something destructive. This negative karmic aftermath consists of negative karmic force (sdig-pa, Skt. papa) and unspecified karmic tendencies (sa-bon). Unspecified means that Buddha did not specify them as being either constructive or destructive. I won’t go in more detail into the differences between these two types of karmic aftermath. Happiness, ordinary happiness, is how we experience the ripening of positive karmic force (bsod-nams, Skt. punya) and unhappiness is how we experience the ripening of negative karmic force. Although it’s a little more complicated than this, let’s simplify and just say that the karmic forces and karmic tendencies continue with the mental continuum after the karmic actions have reached their intended outcomes. 

For these karmic forces and karmic tendencies to ripen and give rise to our experience of unhappiness or ordinary happiness, they have to be activated. The mechanism for this is described with the twelve links of dependent arising. 

In brief, what activate them is, first of all, craving (sred-pa, Skt. tṛṣṇā). What does craving mean? When we are experiencing ordinary happiness, we crave to not be separated from it. When we are experiencing unhappiness, we crave to be parted from it. Craving is a very strong desire, a disturbing emotion. We crave not to be parted from happiness and crave to be parted from unhappiness. The Sanskrit word usually translated as “craving,” by the way, literally means “thirsting.” We’re incredibly thirsty for something. We have to satisfy our thirst. It’s almost a physical compulsion. We don’t want to be parted from this happiness and really want to get rid of this unhappiness. 

The second factor that activates this karmic aftermath is called an obtainer (nyer-len, Skt. upadana). It’s an attitude or disturbing emotion that will obtain for us, basically, the aggregates of a future rebirth that are neither destructive nor constructive, like the body, the types of consciousness, and mental factors such as attention, and so on. There are five different types of obtainer emotions and attitudes, but the most prominent one 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.” 

This disturbing emotion of craving and this obtainer attitude together activate the karmic force and karmic tendencies. They are activated in the form of a karmic impulse, a throwing karmic impulse, that propels the mental continuum to connect with the aggregates (body and mind) of the next rebirth, 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 with a body and mind that are the basis for experiencing the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change? That means, “Can we get rid of the disturbing emotions and obtainer attitudes that activate this karmic aftermath?” 

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. 

In terms of the second explanation of true suffering – the neutral feeling of equanimity experienced in the higher states of dhyana – the true origin or cause of this true suffering is, when experiencing it, the craving or thirst for it never to decline and for “me” to experience it never declining in a state of liberation where I exist independently of a body and a mind. 

The Third Noble Truth 

Now, the question then is, are these disturbing emotions and attitudes and this karmic aftermath intrinsic parts of the nature of the mental continuum or of the nature of the mind that could never be removed because they’re part of its nature – they’re there every moment – or can they be removed such that they never recur? This is the question that’s answered with the third noble truth, the true stoppings of suffering and its origins or causes. 

When we speak about the mental obscurations of the mind, we speak of two kinds: the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) and the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib). According to the Gelug Prasangike explanation, the emotional ones are all these disturbing emotions and attitudes plus their tendencies and also the karmic forces and karmic tendencies. All of that is on this side of the emotional obscurations. If we summarize them, the main emotional obscuration is the unawareness, or ignorance, of how we, others, and all things exist, and which accompanies 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. 

The cognitive obscurations are the constant karmic habits and the constant habits of the disturbing emotions and attitudes. They cause the mind to give rise in every moment to appearances of impossible ways of existing. Based on the constant arising of these deceptive appearances, we grasp for those appearances to correspond to how things actually exist – we believe that these deceptive appearances are true. So, this is what we are examining here. Are the disturbing emotions and attitudes, these appearances of impossible ways of existing, unawareness that these appearances are false, and grasping for them to be true – are they intrinsic parts of the nature of the mind or not? 

If these obscurations were part of the intrinsic nature of the mind, the mental continuum, then they should be present in every moment, and we should all experience them in every moment. However, the valid experience of these aryas proves otherwise, because when these aryas are non-conceptually totally absorbed with perfect shamatha and vipashyana focused on voidness – voidness meaning no such thing as this impossible way of existing –  there’s no appearance-making of impossible ways of existing and therefore no unawareness that they are false, and so no grasping for and believing them to be true, and no disturbing emotions or attitudes based on that false belief. If they were intrinsic parts of the nature of the mind, they should be present in this situation for the aryas, but they’re not. That demonstrates that they are not intrinsic parts of the nature of the mind. 

There’s another situation in which the mind doesn’t produce an appearance of 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 what’s called the “death existence” doesn’t make an appearance of an impossible way of existing and therefore cannot grasp at it with any unawareness or disturbing emotion or attitude as if it were true. The aryas, even while they are alive, can experience and 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 an arya experiencing the clear-light mind in meditation focuses that non-conceptual on voidness, whereas for ordinary persons like us, the clear-light of death doesn’t have this non-conceptual cognition of voidness. Tantric yogis are able to harness even this clear-light mind of death into having that full understanding of voidness, but ordinary people can’t. 

In any case, after death comes the bardo in-between period and then a next lifetime, and then, during both periods, the appearance-making of impossible ways of existing and the grasping for it recurs. The same thing happens when an arya comes out of this total absorption on voidness or clear-light meditation on voidness. Again, there’s the appearance-making of impossible ways of existing and still some level of grasping for them to be true. Different systems will define the stages of getting rid of this grasping differently, but let’s not get into that. The mind’s making of these impossible appearances and the grasping for them to correspond to reality and to be true recur. The appearance-making recurs because of the cognitive obscurations (the constant karmic habits and constant habits of the disturbing emotions) and our grasping for them recurs because of the emotional obscurations (the disturbing emotions and attitudes, and their tendencies) that are still left. The question is: Can we get rid of all of these? 

If we could stay focused in these two situations in which there is no appearance-making of impossible ways of existing and no grasping for it to correspond to reality – meaning if we can stay focused non-conceptually on voidness and, specifically, if we can do that with a clear-light mind, the subtlest mind – 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. That would be a true stopping of the true sufferings and their true causes.

The Fourth Noble Truth 

We can only say that there is a tendency and a habit if they can produce a future ripening. If they can’t produce a future ripening, all we can say is that there were a past tendency and habit, but there aren’t presently-existing ones. If there are presently-existing ones, they should be able to produce a result. But if there are no longer any present, we would achieve a true stopping of suffering and its origins or causes – that’s the third noble truth. We achieve this through the fourth noble truth, which is a true pathway of mind. We’re not talking about a path that we walk on; we’re talking about a mind that acts as a pathway for reaching this state, which would be the sustained non-conceptual cognition of voidness and, more specifically, with the subtlest clear-light mind. That’s the fourth noble truth. 

With this sustained clear-light non-conceptual cognition of voidness we completely remove all the factors that would ripen the tendencies and the habits – namely, craving and obtainer attitudes that arise based on unawareness and grasping. And when there’s nothing that will ripen the tendencies and habits, we don’t have these tendencies and habits anymore, to put it very simply. We can stay focused on this understanding of voidness and with the clear-light level of mind if we have built up a sufficient amount of positive force. Now, we’re not talking about karmic positive force, but enlightenment-building positive force and enlightenment-building deep awareness built up with the aryas’ meditation on voidness dedicated with bodhichitta to everyone’s attainment of enlightenment.

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 the buildup of these two networks, we attain a true pathway mind that’s there forever, and therefore a true stopping of suffering and its causes. Those are the four noble truths. 

Self-Voidness and Other-Voidness 

In most general terms, when we speak about the voidness of what is impossible, that is self-voidness. When we speak about the clear light mind, the subtlest level of mind, that is devoid of certain other phenomena, that’s other-voidness. Within those definitions, however, there is a wide range of more specific definitions for each found in the different Tibetan traditions and even among different masters within each tradition. Depending on how they are more specifically defined, these two types of voidness are either each or together true pathway minds (the 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). 

It is not so simple to understand how this works, it requires really a great deal of thinking and focusing in meditation. In fact, this is what aryas do, they focus on these four noble truths and actually cognize them non-conceptually with full understanding. If we understand self-voidness and other-voidness in this context of the four noble truths, then we realize the importance of really not only studying but also internalizing self-voidness and other-voidness in order to, basically, overcome suffering, and not only for ourselves, but for everybody. We’ll be able to comprehend and understand all of this on the basis of a buildup of more and more positive force and 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. 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 becomes merely intellectual material, which at best is interesting; but understanding it on only the basis of it being interesting material 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 true causes, the more we will put effort into studying and understanding them. But if we don’t understand the importance of understanding these two voidnesses in the context of the four noble truths, 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 us or anybody else. The more we understand them 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 will have the motivation to actually try to understand it. 


Now, having been here and having 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. Depending on how receptive each of us was, and how much background each of us has, 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 what dedication means. We 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. 

The dedication like this is a little bit like the intention that we set at 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 empty words in our mind, “I dedicate this for my enlightenment.” Let’s not make the dedication meaningless like that. I’ll just repeat the very simple words, but don’t just think the words, try to give the positive force some sort of mental push in the direction of enlightenment. 

“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.”