Cognizing and Grasping for Truly Established Existence

Positive Emotions Are Compatible with the Innate Essential Nature of Mental Activity

We saw that it’s possible to attain a true stopping of our unawareness of how everything exists, because there’s a state of mind, correct understanding, that is the exact opposite and mutually exclusive with it. If our engagement with that correct understanding is with a tremendous amount of force from all these other factors that we were describing, then it’s possible to overcome and get rid of the inertia that just keeps that unawareness recurring.

Then the question is: What about the disturbing emotions like anger, hatred, greed, attachment, jealousy, arrogance, etc., etc.? They don’t occur all the time, they occur only sometimes, but they also have no beginning. Again, there are states of mind that are mutually exclusive with them. For instance, with anger: wishing harm to someone, there’s love: wishing for the other person to be happy. So, which is stronger: love or hatred? Is the wish for somebody to be happy or the wish for them to be unhappy stronger? How do you analyze? How do you decide? Anybody?

They’re equally strong.

If they are equally strong, then someone could also try to work to get rid of love and just develop hatred. Which would win – love or hatred?

Love is stronger.

Why? What supports the disturbing emotions? The disturbing emotions all arise because of our ignorance, our unawareness. We think that we exist in some solid, impossible way, but because we are insecure about that, we feel that we have to protect and defend our solid existence. We get angry and push things away that we don’t like; and we have greed to get whatever it is we want more of so that we’ll feel more secure.

But, although love will temporarily replace hatred – just as hatred can temporarily replace love – love will not get rid of hatred forever. But, because we can get rid of unawareness forever, the disturbing emotions like anger and hatred will never be able to arise again because we’ve gotten rid of what they depend on.

Love can be accompanied by unawareness, and then it becomes attachment. But, when we get rid of that underlying unawareness, love is still there. But when we get rid of the unawareness underlying hatred, the hatred disappears as well.  Unlike hatred, love doesn’t depend on unawareness to arise. Love can accompany correct understanding, for instance the correct understanding that we are all interconnected and, just as we want to be happy and not to suffer, so does everyone else.

Analyzing like that, we can start to understand that these positive, constructive emotions, like love, patience and compassion, are compatible with the innate essential nature of mental activity. In other words, there isn’t something that can get rid of love and compassion forever. We can get rid of the disturbing emotions, like hatred forever, but we can’t get rid of love forever, despite the fact that it can be blocked temporarily when we have hatred.  Because of that, love and compassion – these positive emotions – not only have no beginning, they also will have no end. We can develop them to the fullest extent as a Buddha by not mixing that love and compassion with unawareness.

So, it’s not that as a Buddha we have infinite hatred. As a Buddha we have infinite love! “Equal hatred for everybody!” ­– that’s not what we want to achieve as a Buddha. I mean, it sounds funny, but we have to analyze: if everybody is equal, and everybody has been nasty to us, then we can develop equal hatred for everybody. Why is that a fault and the opposite not a fault? These are the things we need to analyze, we need to try to figure out. Why is infinite love possible and is okay as part of mental activity, but  infinite hatred is something we can get rid of forever?

Grasping for Truly Established Existence

What we need to discuss next is what’s called “grasping for true existence,” or, more fully, “grasping for truly established existence.” “Grasping for truly established existence” is neither a primary consciousness nor a mental factor. That’s because it interpolates, which means that it projects – makes up and projects an appearance of truly established existence in any cognition in which it arises. Primary consciousness and mental factors don’t do that; they don’t interpolate anything.

Although we can get very complicated here in terms of what this “truly established existence” means, let’s make it a little bit simpler; otherwise, we’ll spend the whole rest of the weekend describing this. That’s because Vaibhashika says everything has truly established existence, Sautrantika and Chittamatra say some things have truly established existence, whereas Svatantrika and Prasangika say nothing has truly established existence, though they define it differently from each other. So, it is confusing.

The first thing to remember is what we’re talking about with true existence and other related terms. We’re not talking so much about how things exist; we’re talking about what establishes or proves that something exists? According to Prasangika, what is impossible is that there’s something findable, a self-establishing nature, on the side of phenomena that by its own power, or in conjunction with mental labeling – but let’s leave it simple, by its own power has – has the ability to establish that the phenomena exist as validly knowable phenomena and as what they conventionally are.

For example: “There’s something findable inside me that establishes me as a person you could know and as ‘me’ and not as ‘you.’” This gets very sophisticated very, very quickly as to what’s impossible. However, to make it very, very simple, it’s as if things are encapsulated in plastic; as if there’s something that makes it a thing all by itself, from the side of the object. There appears to be this plastic coating generated from inside the object that separates it from everything else, and “There it is, and that’s truly there.” “Truly” means “really.” It really, really makes it exist all by itself with this plastic coating around it.

For example: love. “I’m feeling love.” It’s as if there’s plastic around the “love” that I’m feeling. I mean, c’mon, what is it? Every time we experience some emotion it’s slightly different, isn’t it? And what I experience and what you experience are different. Nevertheless: “I’m in love” – with plastic around it – on the side of the love, on the side of the feeling, of the emotion that makes it “love.” It’s as if we have all these emotions sitting findably in our heads, like ping-pong balls. Now we press the button and one comes up; that’s called “love” and now I’m feeling it. It’s a thing. There it is; it’s like a ping-pong ball. And it truly exists, there’s something findable inside my head that sometimes comes up. This is silly, isn’t it? Anyway, I’m not going to go into a big discussion of this. Nevertheless, conventionally we do feel love, we do feel something, but it’s not this truly established ping-pong ball-type of love with truly established existence.

The Constant Habit of Grasping for Truly Established Existence

We all have the constant habits of this grasping for true existence. They’re “constant” in the sense that they give rise to something in every moment. By the way, there’s a difference between “constant habits” and “tendencies.” A “tendency” gives rise to its object sometimes: There’s a tendency to get angry. It doesn’t give rise to anger every single moment of our existence. However, a constant habit gives rise to something every moment, constantly. So, we have a constant habit of grasping for true existence.

What does this word for “grasping” (dzin-pa) mean? This is very important to understand. “Grasping” has two meanings here, and we have to differentiate the two. First of all, it means (1) “to give rise to an appearance of truly established existence” – a mental hologram. What’s our cognitive engagement with it? Our cognitive engagement with it is just to take it as being an appearance of true existence. That’s the most basic form: there’s the appearance arising, and we just take it as “Yes, there’s an appearance of true existence.” We could, of course, discriminate that there’s no such thing; it just looks like it, but we’re not able to do that yet.

Then there’s the second meaning of “grasping,” which is (2) “to cognize it as actually being truly established existence.” So, we have the arising of this hologram and we have these two aspects. One is just cognizing it, in other words: taking it to just be an appearance, nothing else. We’ll call that “cognizing true existence.” The other is to take it to really be truly established existence; not just an appearance of something that looks like it, but the real thing. That’s what we’ll call “grasping.” That’s the actual “grasping for true existence.” Please note that because truly established existence itself doesn’t exist, an appearance of something nonexistent like that can’t arise. Only an appearance of something that represents truly established existence arises.

We rid our metal activity of the two aspects ­– cognizing and grasping for true existence – one at a time. First, we rid ourselves of that second form, grasping: thinking that it really is true existence. That misunderstanding can be either doctrinally based or automatically arising. First, we rid ourselves of the doctrinally-based one and then the automatically arising one. When we have rid ourselves of both forever, we have become an arhat, a liberated being.

Still, though, even as an arhat those constant habits are going to continue to give rise to an appearance of true existence in every moment, except when we are totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness. As an arhat, we know that this deceptive appearance doesn’t correspond to reality – we have rid ourselves forever of unawareness – but it still appears like that. Our mental activity still makes the mental hologram arise, but our cognitive engagement is merely to take it as an object of cognition, nothing more. We know things don’t exist like they appear, as though they’re encapsulated in plastic, but nevertheless that mental activity still makes that type of mental hologram arise.

Then, what’s the problem with that? The problem is that this deceptive appearance prevents us from cognize simultaneously all the causes and effects of everything, that whole interdependent network. We see somebody, and it seems like they’re encapsulated in plastic, just like what we see in front of our eyes. Because of that limitation, that cognitive obscuration, we can’t really understand all the beginningless causes that have contributed to this person, an imputation on an individual mental continuum, now having this form sitting in front of us. Also, we can’t know – we just see this person as encapsulated in plastic – what all the potentials are in this person so that if we teach them something, what the effects will be from then on, forever, and the effects that it will have on everybody else that they interact with, forever! That’s why we have to become enlightened. We have to get our mental activity to stop making this crazy appearance of everything encapsulated in plastic, as if everything existed by themselves and not dependently arising, interrelated with everything else. Then we’ll see the interconnectedness of everything, particularly in terms of cause and effect.

When we have this grasping for truly established existence, it’s always accompanied by incorrect consideration of what is false as being true. Remember, we had “consideration” as one of the mental factors that’s always there. When we have that grasping – when we actually believe that this crazy appearance corresponds to reality – what are the mental factors that support it? What does it mean to actually “grasp”? Remember, the constant habit projects this crazy appearance. Then we have the incorrect consideration I just mentioned of considering something that is false to be true. We also have incorrect discriminating awareness: We’re very decisive, very stubborn. For example, thinking: “Yes! This is true,” but it’s actually false, and we’re unaware – we just don’t know that this is wrong; that this is false. We take it in the opposite way; we take it to be true. All these mental factors are working together. We still have the same basic mental factors, they’re just working incorrectly.

So, when we have non-conceptual total absorption on voidness – which means all these factors that we were talking about: shamata, vispashyana, unlabored bodhichitta, and at least one zillion eons of positive force, all of that accompanying it – our mental activity only gives rise to a mental hologram of a voidness and there is neither cognizing nor grasping for true existence. In other words, at such a time, our mental activity does not simultaneously give rise to a mental hologram of true existence, and so obviously it doesn’t cognize such an appearance either. However, the constant habit is still there. We haven’t gotten rid of it, but it’s now dormant; it’s like it’s asleep. There are two ways of describing what it means for it to be dormant, but that’s too complicated. We won’t go into that. Instead, let’s just take the easier explanation: at that time the habit is still there as an imputation, but it’s not giving rise to the hologram or to the grasping.

Different Aspects of Mental Holograms

There is one further point that we need to add in order to understand what we’re left with once we rid our mental activity of this grasping and cognizing of true existence. Remember, in each moment of mental activity, there is the arising of a mental hologram and a cognitive engagement. Up until now, we have been talking only about the cognitive engagement aspect: the ways of being aware that arise and appear in our cognitions. The cognitive engagement is a network of many ways of being aware of something. There is always a primary consciousness and a blend of mental factors. Some mental factors are always there, although their value can change. There are some mental factors that we can get rid of forever. This includes both some that are there all the time, like unawareness and grasping for true existence – although grasping for true existence is not actually a mental factor – and some that are there just some of the time: the disturbing emotions.

There are some positive mental factors that we have some of the time, but there’s no problem with them; we can still have them as a Buddha, like love and compassion. And there are other ways of knowing that we didn’t get into, the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes lnga), that are there all of the time and which we also continue to have as a Buddha. They’re just how our mental activity works. Things like “mirror-like deep awareness,” just taking in information – that’s always there. 

So, all of these are the ways of being aware of something that arise and appear as the cognitive engagement aspect of our mental activity. Now we need to talk about mental activity from the point of view of the mental hologram that it gives rise to. Both the way of being aware and a hologram arise simultaneously. “Arise” just means that they happen, they’re apparent. It’s not they’re sitting in a box somewhere and they just jump up out of the box like a children’s toy.

The mental hologram has two truths about it:

  • How it appears to the limited minds of sentient beings, which means to the minds of those who are not Buddhas ­– that’s equivalent to its conventional or superficial truth. This refers to both what it appears to be and how it appears to be established as that, in other words how it appears to exist like that. For instance, the mental hologram appears to be a “dog” or “love” and it appears to be truly established as that, as if encapsulated in plastic. Literally, this is the truth about it that conceals something deeper, which is:
  • How it actually exists – its deepest truth, its voidness. The mental hologram is totally devoid of being truly established as “this” or “that” by the power of something findable on its own side. Such type of existence is impossible.

This is extremely significant in Tsongkhapa’s explanations: there are two aspects of the conventional, superficial truth of the mental holograms that arise with our mental activity – what something conventionally appears to be and how it superficially appears to exist. Although how something conventionally and superficially appears to exist is always deceptive, always false, what something conventionally appears to be can be either accurate or inaccurate. We’ll discuss this more in our next session.
So, for our last minutes, perhaps there are some more questions.

Question about Decision-Making

In the discussion of mental activity, does the person have anything to do with the voluntary decision – with the free will – of deciding something? Or, is it all controlled by karmic impulses and, as such, we have nothing to do as individuals in deciding to do something or not to do something?

Great question. This has to do with the issue of free will versus determinism, always a difficult point with the discussion of karma, whether the discussion is in terms of what we decide to do or say or what we decide to think. So, what would “free will” mean? It would mean that there is a separate “me” that could control what’s happening, as if all the choices were there like on a menu, and I’m sitting over here, and I can choose what I want. Of course, it appears like that! This is what’s deceptive. “Should I sit over here, or should I sit over there? Should I eat this, or should I eat that?” This is a false appearance that is arising in our mental activity. There’s no separate “me” that has this free will. “Free will” is based on a complete misconception of how mental activity works.  

Then, what is “determinism”? It is the deceptive appearance of a “me” sitting over here, watching what’s happening, and it’s out of control: “Aaahh! I’m out of control! I can’t control what’s happening!” It’s the view that everything that happens is all dictated by karma, or that some divine being in heaven has decided what’s going to happen today, and I’m sitting over here: the victim of determinism. So, both positions are extremes; both free will and determinism are incorrect. Remember what the word “mere” means in the definition of mental activity – there is no separate “me” controlling or watching the arising of a mental hologram and cognitive engagement.

What we do and what we experience is influenced by many, many factors. There are all the tendencies: some are karmic tendencies, and some are tendencies to get angry, tendencies to feel love and so on. There are so many different kinds of tendencies. Then, as I explained, not only does mental activity cognize things, we’d also have to say that persons cognize things. “I know something.” Iti s not that just mental consciousness feels anger, “I feel anger.” So, it’s not as if there is no person involved with mental activity.

There is an intention to be nice to somebody, or to be nasty to somebody, which accompanies seeing someone or thinking about them. That intention arises because of many, many circumstances: what the person did to us before, the mood that we’re in, our tendency to be nice or to be not-nice – the karmic tendencies, etc. There are so many factors. It’s not just that the mental activity has the intention. You’d also have to say that “I have the intention,” because, the “me” is an imputation on the mental activity. It’s not that nobody has the intention, and it’s not that you have the intention; I have the intention. So, I’m involved, I’m responsible, and it’s neither a case of free will or determinism. However, it requires an awful lot of thought to understand that. Nevertheless, it’s very important to understand that we are in fact responsible for what we do. It’s not that we have total free choice to choose off of a menu, and it’s not that it’s totally out of control, and therefore we’re not responsible.

Dedicating the Positive Force

What do we decide in the end?

What do we decide at the end of this session? We decide to dedicate the positive force! There’s some positive force and some understanding that arose in our mental continuums as a result of listening to these lectures. We came, hopefully, with an intention. We set it at the beginning: something like, “I want to learn something that’s going to help me to be of more help to others.” Then, hopefully, we tried to sustain that motivation throughout the lecture, using mindfulness to not let go of our mental hold on it. Even if our intention and motivation weren’t so conscious, hopefully at least on a subliminal level they were there. There’s some positive force from that.

That positive force, if it isn’t dedicated to enlightenment, would just contribute to being able to talk nicely to other people about our topic. It would just make a nice samsara, a nice coffee table discussion. Then maybe people will think that we’re clever or we’re spiritual, or whatever. It’s samsara. However, if we’ve dedicated it, as in, “May this contribute to the enlightenment of all limited beings,” at least it goes in that direction. We still don’t have that motivation and dedication with unlabored bodhichitta, but if we have at least labored bodhichitta, the positive force will still go in that direction of contributing to everyone’s enlightenment. The same thing goes with whatever understanding has come from this.

Remember, we’re talking about networks; it’s not just a collection of “put another stamp in my book.” What does “network” mean? Remember, it means “connected with everything else that we’ve understood and done before.” Integrate it; try to see how it fits in. So, “May it strengthen these networks of positive force and deep awareness so that eventually they have enough force to overcome the obstacles.” So, there’s some activity of this dedication, isn’t there?

Is there somebody that’s doing that dedication? Yes: me. Not you; me. Not nobody. There’s mental activity, but I’m also making the dedication. Is this coming from my decision? Well, what does “decision” mean? “Decision” doesn’t mean “choosing from a menu,” like “I’m” separate from the whole thing. And there’s decisiveness about this mental activity. It’s not indecisive: “Should I dedicate it? Should I not dedicate it?” It’s decisive: “Do it!”

Where did that decisiveness come from? Well, there are the circumstances that we’re all here together and the teacher said to do it and everybody else is doing it. Those are the circumstances. The words of the dedication we recite arose dependently on circumstances and causes, and they were translated into your language, so that’s another circumstance. “Could I decide to join in or not join in?” Sure, we could decide, but that’s a mental activity, isn’t it, which would arise also from causes and circumstances. It could be because “I think this is stupid,” or whatever the reason is why we don’t join in. However, it’s not a “me” that’s making a choice independently of any causes and circumstances. It could be that our friends and parents said, “This is stupid. Don’t do that.” There are many, many causes and circumstances.

Everything arises dependently on causes and circumstances. Nothing happens for no reason. And it’s not that things come from just one cause that it’s determined by. Mental activity has so many different pieces in it and each one is influenced by many, many, many factors. So, when we talk about “dependent arising,” we’re talking about a huge network of variables that have contributed to our listening to this lecture in this room, including the people who built this building. We couldn’t be here, sitting here, making this dedication if people didn’t build this building. The mind starts to expand when we think like this.

So, we make the dedication: Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everybody, not just me, to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha for the benefit of all. Thank you.