We’ve been talking about the various mental factors, and we’ve seen that there are ten that function all the time and help mental activity to function. We don’t want to get rid of them. In fact, we can’t get rid of them without destroying mental activity itself. However, there are other mental factors that we do want to try to get rid of, and we want to get rid of them forever so that they never recur. Some of them, like unawareness, occur all the time, and some, like anger, occur only sometimes.
The one that occurs all the time, then, is unawareness. Here we’re talking specifically about the unawareness of how everything exists: persons – ourselves, others – and all phenomena. Either we simply don’t know, or we know in an inverted or opposite way from the way things actually do exist. Correct discriminating awareness of voidness will replace this incorrect understanding, and in this sense, is an opponent to this unawareness, or ignorance. Nevertheless, there has to be more force behind that mental activity in order for that discriminating awareness of voidness to act as an obliterating opponent to achieve a true stopping of this unawareness. Otherwise, a professor – not Buddhist or anything – could get a correct, merely intellectual understanding of voidness and would become enlightened from it, but that’s not the case.
The Context of Understanding the Pure Nature of Mental Activity on the Buddhist Path: The Four Close Placements of Mindfulness
To stop incorrect discriminating awareness and unawareness that it is incorrect from ever arising and appearing again in our mental activity, we need conviction in the natural purity of mental activity. We also need conviction in the possibility to gain a true stopping of unawareness – we have to believe that it’s possible. We need to not just believe this because somebody said so, but really to understand that it’s possible for us to attain.
Correct understanding and conviction in the natural purity of mental activity and that true stoppings of true sufferings and its true causes are possible are essential for successfully engaging in the main meditations that we do in order to attain those true stoppings. We engage in these meditations with the five pathway minds – the so-called five paths: a building-up pathway mind (path of accumulation), an accustoming pathway mind (path of preparation), a seeing pathway mind (path of seeing), an accustoming pathway mind (path of meditation) and pathway mind needing no further training (path of no more learning). These main meditations are on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths.
The first stage is the “four placements of close mindfulness.” The Mahayana practice of this meditation entails focusing on the body, feelings, mental activity or mind, and mental factors, specifically discriminating awareness, in terms of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. In this meditation:
- We focus on our samsaric bodies, subject to the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age and death, as being in the nature of true suffering.
- We focus on our feelings of unhappiness and mundane happiness as being in the nature of the true causes of suffering. This refers to these feelings as being the focus of the true causes of suffering. Thirsting (clinging) to be parted from unhappiness and not to be parted from mundane happiness, plus the deluded attitude of thinking of them in terms of “my” feelings and “I” have to be parted or not parted from them, activate the throwing karma for uncontrollably recurring rebirth with a samsaric body. This mechanism is described with the twelve links of dependent arising. Thus, the true causes for suffering are our disturbing emotions and deluded attitudes toward our feelings. Those disturbing emotions and deluded attitudes are based on the incorrect discriminating awareness involved in the sixteen distorted ways of embracing the four noble truths – such as holding what is unclean (the body) to be clean and holding what is suffering to be happiness – and the unawareness that these ways of considering them are incorrect.
- We focus on our mental activity as being in the nature of true stoppings. In other words, because the innate functional nature of mental activity is untainted by the fleeting stains of disturbing emotions, deluded attitudes and unawareness that arise and appear with that activity, mental activity is the locus for the true stoppings of these stains.
- We focus on phenomena, namely on discriminating awareness, as being in the nature of the true pathway minds that will bring about the true stoppings. This refers to the discriminating awareness of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, the voidness of “me” as the person experiencing the four noble truths, the voidness of the mental activity that experiences the four noble truths, and the voidness of the cause and effect relationships among the four noble truths.
What Is Needed for Becoming Convinced That True Stoppings of the Fleeting Stains Tainting Mental Activity Are Possible to Attain
The four close placements of mindfulness are very complicated, difficult meditations that require a lot of background and previous training. To practice them successfully, we need to be convinced beforehand that the innate functional nature of mental activity that we’ve been talking about is not permanently stained by unawareness. Unawareness is not an indispensable part of it. We also need to be convinced that it’s possible to attain a true stopping of that unawareness through the correct discriminating awareness I’ve just detailed in the context of the close placement of mindfulness on phenomena.
Through logic, we can become convinced that the fleeting stains of unawareness are not indispensable for the functioning of mental activity and that it is possible to have mental activity without unawareness. It is logical that when our mental activity gives rise to a correct, decisive discriminating awareness of voidness, it cannot simultaneously give rise to what is mutually exclusive with it. It cannot give rise to an incorrect discriminating awareness of how we, others and all phenomena exist simultaneously with giving rise to the unawareness of not knowing this is incorrect or the unawareness of taking it to be correct. Because there are situations where unawareness cannot arise in our mental activity, unawareness can be temporarily prevented from arising. These situations refer to when our mental activity has total absorption on non-conceptual cognition of voidness. In such a state of total absorption, our mental activity does not even give rise to an appearance of an impossible way of existing.
More difficult is to gain conviction that it is possible to attain a true stopping of unawareness such that it never arises and appears in our mental activity again. Gaining this conviction depends on three factors:
- Correct understanding of the mechanism whereby the attainment of true stoppings is possible and conviction, through logic, that this mechanism actually works.
- Inspiration gained from firm conviction in the good qualities of our spiritual teachers.
- Inspiration gained from firm conviction in the good qualities of the exceptional deities, so-called Buddha-figures, like Manjushri, who is associated with developing the discriminating awareness of voidness.
The Buddha-Nature Factors That Enable the Attainment of True Stoppings
The attainment of true stoppings, and thus the attainment of liberation and enlightenment, are possible because we all have the Buddha-nature factors that enable us to attain them.
The Buddha-nature factors enabling these attainments are features of mental activity that have no beginning. There are basically of three types:
- The abiding factor of the essential nature of mental activity
- The evolving factors of the two networks that are imputations on our mental activity – the network of positive force and the network of deep awareness
- The fact that the mental continuum can be inspired so that its two networks become stimulated to grow.
The Abiding Buddha-Nature Factor: The Essential Natures of Mental Activity
An abiding Buddha-nature factor is one that always remains the same. The Gelug tradition asserts only the deepest essential nature of mental activity as an abiding Buddha-nature factor. This refers to the voidness of mental activity. This voidness never changes; mental activity is always devoid of impossible ways of existing, no matter what it gives rise to.
Because mental activity is devoid of existing in impossible ways, it is subject to cause and effect. Because of that, through the application of the actual causes for attaining true stoppings, it is possible for the attainment of them to occur. If the attainment of true stoppings can occur through cause and effect, then unawareness and the disturbing emotions, etc., are just fleeting stains that do not taint the deepest essential nature of mental activity. It is just a matter, then, of applying the true pathway minds that will bring about the attainment of those true stoppings.
The non-Gelug traditions assert the conventional essential nature of mental activity also to be an abiding Buddha-nature factor. No matter what mental activity gives rise to, its innate functional nature remains the same.
Because the conventional essential nature of mental activity is the mere giving rise to a mental hologram, which is equivalent to being aware of something, mental activity can also give rise to the attainment of true stoppings. Moreover, as we have seen, unawareness does not prevent mental activity from performing its function and it certainly does not block or negate mental activity’s voidness. So it is not indispensable.
The Evolving Buddha-Nature Factors: The Two Networks
Evolving Buddha-nature factors are those that can grow in strength. They become the obtaining causes (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) that transform into the various Buddha Bodies or Corpuses of a Buddha. These factors are the two networks: “the network of positive force” and “the network of deep awareness,” as I call them. Usually they’re translated as the “collection of merit” and the “collection of wisdom” or “collection of insight.” But “collection” sounds like a collection of stamps, and we’re not talking about something like that. And “merit” isn’t like points – if you get enough points you win. Rather, we’re building up a strong force, and that force is a very positive force. It’s not quite energy, either, but let’s not get into that whole discussion. In any case, positive force or positive potential comes from acting in a constructive way. “Deep awareness” refers to correct and decisive discriminating awareness of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and their voidnesses.
What our networks of positive force and deep awareness build up and give rise to depends on the intention with which we do something constructive or with which we meditate on the four noble truths, as well as on the dedication we make afterwards. When we undertake these activities without any intention or dedication, or with some mundane aim and not specifically for our attainment of liberation or enlightenment, positive force and deep awareness just contribute to improving our samsaric existence. We become happier – but only in terms of mundane happiness that doesn’t last, never satisfies, etc. – have nicer circumstances around us and are more intelligent. These are useful supports for gaining true stoppings, but they are certainly not strong enough to bring about the attainment of those true stoppings.
The only way our samsara-building two networks will become liberation-building and enlightenment-building is if we build them up and dedicate them with the appropriate motivations. To become liberation-builders, they need to have the force of renunciation behind them. “Renunciation” means the determination to be free from the uncontrollably recurring sufferings of samsara. To become enlightenment-builders, they need, in addition, the force of bodhichitta behind them. “Bodhichitta” is the mental activity that gives rise to an appearance of something that represents our own individual enlightenments, which have not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of the Buddha-nature factors. This mental activity is accompanied by the intention both to attain that enlightenment and to benefit all beings by means of that attainment. It is brought on by the mental factors of great love, great compassion and an exceptional resolve. Of course, to have either the determination to be free or a bodhichitta aim requires conviction that the attainments of liberation and enlightenment are possible. This conviction comes from understanding how these liberation- and enlightenment-builders bring about these attainments.
Let’s just speak about the enlightenment-building networks, the ones that require bodhichitta. To build up to generating a bodhichitta aim, we need to rely on a line of reasoning, such as the seven-part cause and effect meditation, starting with distinguishing all beings as have been our mothers, and equalizing and exchanging self with others. Bodhichitta generated in this way is called “labored bodhichitta.” With labored bodhichitta as our motivation, we build up a facsimile enlightenment-building network of positive force, resembling the actual enlightenment-building network. We build it up by engaging in bodhisattva behavior, having taken the bodhisattva vows. When, through great familiarity, we are able to generate a bodhichitta aim without needing to build up to it through a line of reasoning, but can just generate it automatically, we have “unlabored bodhichitta.” With unlabored bodhichitta, we attain a Mahayana building-up pathway of mind (a path of accumulation) and start to build up an actual enlightenment-building network of positive force.
Building up an enlightenment-building network of deep awareness also requires bodhichitta as the motivation. With labored bodhichitta, correct and decisive conceptual cognition of the four noble truths and the voidnesses associated with them builds up a facsimile enlightenment-building network of deep awareness. With unlabored bodhihchitta, such conceptual cognition builds up an actual enlightenment-building network of deep awareness, also with the attainment of a building-up pathway of mind.
These two networks, then, are the evolving Buddha-nature factors. They grow stronger by evolving from being samsara-building to liberation-building to enlightenment-building, and also grow stronger in each of these three phases by committing further constructive acts and meditating further on the voidness of the four noble truths. If we get more technical, only their actual enlightenment-building phases are the evolving Buddha-nature factors, according to Prasangika. We all have the basis phase of these two networks, but they do not become the actual obtaining causes for the Buddha Bodies until they have become actual enlightenment-builders.
The Buddha-Nature Factor That Our Mental Activity Can Be Positively Affected by Inspiration
The third Buddha-nature factor has to do with a property of our mental activity. It can be positively affected by inspiration (byin-gyis rlabs) gained from firm conviction in the good qualities of our spiritual teachers and in the good qualities of Buddha-figures such as Manjushri, who embodies the discriminating awareness of voidness. Conviction in these good qualities, based on deep regard and admiration of them, inspires us to develop these qualities ourselves. In this way, inspiration, in a sense, uplifts our minds and boosts the build-up of our two enlightenment-building networks. “Inspiration” is often translated as “blessings,” but this does not give the right connotation.
Resume of What Are Needed for Attaining True Stoppings
To attain true stoppings, then, requires building up many components, which we can only do because of and on the basis of the two conventional and deepest essential natures of mental activity. First, we need inspiration from conviction in the good qualities of our spiritual teachers and Manjushri to stimulate our two samsara-building networks to grow. Then we need to develop labored bodhichitta and gain the bodhisattva vows on our mental continuums without ever giving them up. Because our mental activity has no beginning, we have developed bodhichitta and given it up countless times. But to gain true stoppings and go on to attain enlightenment, we need to not give up bodhichitta for the first time, which means to not give up our bodhisattva vows for the first time. That’s why we need to pledge, and keep our pledge, not to give them up, even at the cost of our lives.
With labored bodhichitta and bodhisattva vows, we begin building up a facsimile enlightenment-building network of positive force. When, in addition to labored bodhichitta and bodhisattva vows, we develop correct conceptual discriminating awareness of the four noble truths and their associated voidnesses, through meditation on the four close placements of mindfulness that we discussed before, we begin building up a facsimile enlightenment-building network of deep awareness.
Next, we need to develop unlabored bodhichitta and, with that, we develop the first of the five pathway minds, a building-up pathway of mind, and start to build up actual enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness. With a building-up pathway of mind and these two actual enlightenment-building networks, we start now to build up a state of shamatha focused on the four noble truths and their voidnesses, by meditating further on the four close placements of mindfulness. Shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind, with perfect concentration and an exhilarating, blissful sense of physical and mental fitness at being able to concentrate for as long as we wish. It is focused on an object, in this case the body, feelings, mind and discriminating awareness with an understanding of their being in the nature of the four noble truths, and on the voidnesses involved.
Once we achieve this state of shamatha, we need to join it with our attainment of a state of vipashyana, also focused on the same objects. With vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, we attain an additional exhilarating, blissful sense of physical and mental fitness at being able to perceive, with correct understanding, all the details of anything we wish. Vipashyana here focuses with gross detection (rtog) and subtle discernment (dpyod) of all the fine details of the four noble truths and their voidnesses.
With a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana focused conceptually on the four noble truths and their voidnesses, we attain an applying pathway of mind (path of preparation). We now apply our conceptual state of joined shamatha and vipashyana to further meditation on the four noble truths and their associated voidnesses, supported by our continually strengthening actual enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness.
When, through this meditation, we attain a non-conceptual joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana focused on the four noble truths and their voidnesses, as well as the voidness of ourselves experiencing them and the voidness of our mental activity experiencing them, we attain a seeing pathway of mind (path of seeing). We now have “unlabored” cognition of voidness and start building-up an actual enlightenment-building network of deep awareness and attain our first true stoppings, the true stoppings of doctrinally-based unawareness and the doctrinally-based disturbing emotions, which are based on that unawareness.
The Appearance Mental Activity Gives Rise To When Focused on a Voidness
It’s important to understand what the mental hologram is that arises when our mental activity takes as its cognitive object a voidness and what the cognitive engagement with it is. After all, cognition of a voidness, whether conceptual or non-conceptual, is still mental activity.
The mental hologram here is an appearance simply of a voidness, without the basis for the voidness simultaneously appearing. The basis for the voidness appears in the phase of the meditation just before the focus on voidness itself. In the context of our discussion, the basis for voidness could be the body as being in the nature of suffering, or the person that is an imputation on the basis of that body, or the basis for voidness could be the mind that experiences that suffering. The body, mind and person are the items that are devoid of existing in impossible ways.
Basically, then, just the mental hologram of an absence arises and appears – “no such thing.” What does it look like? Kedrub Norzang-gyatso, the tutor of the Second Dalai Lama, wrote that when the clear-light mind is manifest, it gives rise to an appearance similar to that which arises when focused non-conceptually on voidness. Please note, however, that the clear light mind can be manifest without any understanding of voidness, for instance the clear light of death. But in any case, the mental hologram that arises when focused on a voidness is an appearance of the clear sky when there’s no sunlight, no moonlight and no total darkness. So, it is like the deep blue appearance of the clear sky at what is known in English as “false dawn,” just when it starts to get light.
Our cognitive engagement is with correct discriminating awareness that this mental hologram is the appearance of the total absence of the self-established existence of its basis – there is no such thing, there is nothing findable that corresponds to it – and that it is not the appearance of just a nothing. When we focus on this voidness with a joined state of shamatha and vipshyana, our cognitive engagement is also with gross detection of its general details. And when this state of shamatha is joined with a state of vipashyana, the cognitive engagement also contains gross detection and subtle discernment of all its fine details. That means voidness from the point of view of causes, voidness from the point of view of effects, voidness in terms of the person, in terms of the three spheres, and so on. There are many different lines of reasoning to prove the validity of voidness.
When this joined state of shamatha and vipashyana is conceptual, the mental hologram is just a representation of a voidness, not voidness itself. The mental category of “voidness” also arises as part of the mental hologram, but being static, it has no form. It is through this category that the representation of that voidness appears. When the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana is non-conceptual, only a mental hologram of voidness itself arises and appears, without the intermediary of the mental category “voidness.”
The Crucial Role of Unlabored Bodhichitta with Pure Bodhisattva Vows
Purifying our mental activity of giving rise to incorrect discriminating awareness, unawareness and disturbing emotions as part of its mental engagement with objects is a slow and long process. After all, unawareness and disturbing emotions have been arising and appearing in our mental activity with no beginning. The crucial factor for ridding our mental activity of them forever, through the attainment of true stoppings of them, is unlabored bodhichitta, based on taking the bodhisattva vows, keeping them purely and never giving them up. With the force of such bodhichitta and bodhisattva vows, our correct discriminating awareness of the four noble truths and their associated voidnesses gains the strength to become an actual obliterating opponent of unawareness and so on.
We need to build up the actual enlightenment-building networks over a period of three zillion eons in order to attain enlightenment. “Zillion,” literally “countless,” is the largest finite number, ten raised to the sixtieth power. That’s a huge amount of positive force and deep awareness. How long it actually takes to build it up, that’s hard to say, but just think of this as an enormous, unbelievably large amount of positive force and deep awareness built up by all our constructive actions and all our meditation on voidness done with the support of unlabored bodhichitta.
During the course of these three countless eons, the strength of our unlabored bodhichitta becomes stronger as we progress to develop the four pathway minds and the ten so-called “bhumi” level minds up to the attainment of the fifth pathway mind, Buddhahood. These stages of unlabored bodhichitta with increasing strength are described in the presentation of the 22 exemplified bodhichittas in Maitreya’s Filigree of Realizations (Abhisamayalamkara).
It takes the first countless eon to build our enlightenment-building networks strong enough to attain a true stopping of our doctrinally-based unawareness and doctrinally-based disturbing emotions, plus the tendencies of both to repeat. We gain these true stoppings with the attainment of non-conceptual correct discriminating awareness of the four noble truths and their voidnesses with a seeing pathway of mind. “Doctrinally-based” means that we learned an incorrect view about how persons exist, for instance, from a non-Buddhist Indian philosophical system and have been unaware that it was false; instead, we’ve believed it was true. We believed we existed as some sort of static, partless soul, an atman that can exist independently of a body and a mind.
But, that’s not enough! We need a second zillion eon of building up this enlightenment-building positive force and deep awareness to achieve a true stopping of automatically arising unawareness, automatically arising disturbing emotions and the tendencies of both to repeat. So, it takes double that amount of enlightenment-building positive force and deep awareness to achieve those true stoppings. With this achievement, we’ve rid ourselves completely of the emotional obscurations – the obscurations preventing liberation. We’ve become an arhat. We’ve attained liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirths, from samsara. However, we’re not yet enlightened. We’ve only achieved the first seven of the ten bhumi-level minds.
We need go still further, because at this stage our mental activity still gives rise to an appearance, a mental hologram, of some impossible way of existing; it’s just that our mental activity no longer engages with this hologram with incorrect discriminating awareness and unawareness that it doesn’t correspond to anything actual. We don’t believe that it corresponds to reality. Further, we still have the constant habits of unawareness and of the disturbing emotions, and these prevent our mental activity from giving rise to a mental hologram of the two truths simultaneously. To attain a true stopping of these cognitive obscurations, these obscurations preventing omniscience, we need a third zillion eons of building up this positive force and deep awareness. Only then do we attain enlightenment and a true stopping of the arising and appearance of all defects and shortcomings in our mental activity.
In short, it is the growing, evolving force of bodhihchitta and the bodhisattva vows that gives the sufficient amount of strength to our correct discriminating awareness of voidness so that it becomes an obliterating opponent to all the obscurations that prevent liberation and enlightenment. It is this combination of the two enlightenment-building networks that bring about all the true stoppings.
That’s the real challenge – the challenge to try to analyze and figure out how it is possible to attain liberation and enlightenment. Once we know all the ingredients that we need in order to achieve a true stopping of all these troublemakers that we need to rid our mental activity of – and that we can do so and still have our mental activity retain its essential functional nature – then we can understand how it’s possible to attain liberation and enlightenment.
Why would we need all this positive force to strengthen the force of our correct discriminating awareness? It’s because what we’re trying to stop our mental activity from ever again giving rise to has been accompanying our mental activity with no beginning. If our mental activity has no beginning, then we have undoubtedly developed labored bodhichitta and taken the bodhisattva vows countless times. The problem is that we have also given them up countless times. What we need to do, once we’ve developed labored bodhichitta and taken the bodhisattva vows, is for the first time not to give them up.
Now we have the chance in this lifetime, if we have developed labored bodhichitta and taken the bodhisattva vows, not to give them up. With perseverance and all the other far-reaching attitudes – the paramitas, the perfections – we will build up more and more facsimile enlightenment-building positive force so that we eventually attain unlabored bodhichitta and start to build up the actual two enlightenment-building networks. Then, continuing our efforts, we will gradually build three zillion eons worth of enlightenment-building positive force and deep awareness so that we reach our goal.
These are the things we need to think about, then. Are liberation and enlightenment possible and, if they are, then how is it possible to overcome the beginningless emotional obscurations and cognitive obscurations that prevent them? To figure this out and gain confidence, we need to start putting all the pieces of the Dharma puzzle together.
If we think about the teachings on karma, then perhaps we can understand by analogy how positive force is stronger than negative force. Suppose we commit a destructive action like yelling at our child with harsh words. If our motivation was compassion to prevent our child from getting hurt, such as when yelling harshly, “Don’t run into the street” or “Stop play with matches,” then the negative force built up from yelling becomes much weaker than if we yelled with anger. In other words, when our yelling harsh words has the positive force of compassion behind it, the positive force of our motivation has the strength to weaken the negative force of the yelling. This is because positive force and negative force do not exist isolated, as if encapsulated in plastic all by themselves and unable to interact. They can affect each other. By this analogy, we can start to understand a little bit that in order to counter something that has been building up our samsaric existence with no beginning – the negative force built up by our destructive compulsive behavior driven by unawareness and disturbing emotions and the samsaric positive force built up by our constructive compulsive behavior driven by unawareness – we would have to build up an enormous amount of enlightenment-building positive force and deep awareness. We can only do this on the basis of never giving up our bodhisattva vows and developing unlabored bodhichitta.
We all have a network of positive force, but it’s samsaric-building positive force with no beginning. We can demonstrate that to ourselves. What ripens from samsara-building positive force? Mundane happiness. If we’ve ever experienced mundane happiness, it is because we have built up some positive force. We’ve always had ups and downs: sometimes we’ve been happy, sometimes unhappy. So, we all have some positive force and some negative force. If that positive force has built up on the basis of unawareness, with ignorance, it just builds up more samsaric happiness. It’s only when we build up positive force with first labored bodhichitta and then unlabored bodhichitta behind it, that the positive force becomes enlightenment-building.
We can only develop bodhichitta sincerely if we are actually convinced that it’s possible to achieve liberation and enlightenment. This means that we need to be convinced of the natural purity of mental activity. That can only happen if it’s possible that the mental continuum can be stimulated to grow, if it can be uplifted, which comes from inspiration. Inspiration from what? From conviction in the good qualities of the spiritual teachers and of Manjushri. This inspiration helps us to uplift our networks of positive force and deep awareness from their samsara-building state to an enlightenment-building state.
If we can’t concentrate on our correct discriminating awareness, if we can only handle it for a few seconds and then our attention wanders off or becomes dull, that’s not going to help. Also, if we just have a general understanding of the voidness of the four noble truths, that’s not enough. We need to understand it in all the fine details. We need to understand in detail all the reasons why impossible ways of existing don’t correspond to reality, why those ways of existing are not possible. Also, that understanding needs to be non-conceptual. It can’t be, if we put it in simple language, through some idea of what voidness is, even if that idea is correct. We need to cognize the actual thing.
These points are the really important things to meditate on, to try to put together, to try to understand why, for our correct discriminating awareness of voidness to bring us the attainment of true stoppings, it needs to have behind it (1) the force of inspiration from our spiritual teachers and Manjushi, (2) unlabored determination to be free (unlabored renunciation), (3) pure bodhisattva vows, (4) unlabored bodhichitta, (5) the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana, (6) zillions of eons of enlightenment-building positive force, and (7) it needs to be non-conceptual.
Then, although it’s going to take an awful long time and a tremendous amount of effort to attain liberation and enlightenment, we have some realistic idea about it. We’re convinced that it is possible to attain these goals; that “I am capable of attaining it, because I have these Buddha-nature factors,” and “It’s going to require an awful lot of work, but I’m prepared to do that.” Why? “Because my own suffering is unbearable; I’m really determined to get out of it. I’ve had enough. Not only that, but the suffering of everyone else is absolutely unbearable as well.”
So, we need to work with the whole package of good qualities that we need to develop. All of them involve the types of mental engagement that need to arise and appear in our mental activity or what forces need to be behind that activity, strengthening its ability to accomplish our goals. Throughout this entire adventure of working to attain enlightenment, all that’s happening is mental activity – the arising of a mental hologram – in this case, of voidness – and the engagement with that mental hologram with this whole large number of factors that I just described. And, in addition, all five ever-functioning mental factors and all five ascertaining mental factors also will remain as parts of our mental engagement. They’re parts of the whole package. So, rather than getting discouraged because it’s so complicated and difficult, we need to get encouraged because gaining enlightenment is possible. That’s why inspiration is so important.
That was an awful lot that I just explained. So, let’s take a moment to try to digest that. We need conviction. We need inspiration. We need unlabored renunciation and unlabored bodhichitta. We need shamatha. We need vipashyana. We need correct discriminating awareness of the four noble truths and their associated voidnesses and it needs to be non-conceptual. We need to build up an enlightenment-building network of positive force for three zillion eons – a huge amount of time. And we need to build up an enlightenment-building network of deep awareness by continuing to meditate with correct discriminating awareness for these three zillion eons.
The whole package of all these factors network together and work together so that when our correct discriminating awareness has the entire network of factors accompanying it, it can obliterate forever our unawareness, its tendencies and its constant habits. Otherwise, our correct discriminating awareness will just be occasional and too weak to do anything other than temporarily replace our unawareness, but not get rid of it forever.
Even if our understanding is just that “I really need a very powerful state of mind with a correct understanding,” that’s the start of understanding this topic. We can’t expect to understand, from the start, all the details and keep all of it in our mind at once. That’s very difficult to do instantly. First try to get a general idea, and then gradually you’ll be able to fill in more and more detail.
[pause for reflection]
Question about Analytical Meditation
You have been speaking very much about the importance of analysis. In terms of listening, thinking and meditating, where does analytical meditation fit in and can it be done in discussion with others or do we need to actually sit in meditation in order to do it?
There are three types of discriminating awareness: the discriminating awareness that arises from listening, that arises from thinking and that arises from meditating. Remember, the definition of “discriminating awareness” is an “awareness that adds certainty to distinguishing.” For several centuries after the Buddha, none of his teachings were written down. To learn them, you had to listen to someone reciting them or explaining them. To go any further in your spiritual training, you needed to be certain that the words you heard were correct and that you heard them correctly. With the discriminating awareness that arises from listening, you correctly discriminate the correct words, the correct information, the correct explanation that you heard from incorrect ones. Nowadays, we need to develop this discriminating awareness not only in relation to the teachings we hear, but also to the ones we read.
Next, we need to think about what the words of the teachings and of the explanation that we heard or read mean. At the conclusion of this thinking stage, we gain the discriminating awareness that arises from thinking. Relying on lines of reasoning to gain correct understanding of the teachings, we correctly discriminate between what the words of the teaching mean and what they don’t mean. In addition, we need to gain the discriminating awareness that discriminates them as being true, and not false. Like this, we become convinced that these teachings about true suffering and about how it’s possible to get rid of unawareness, for instance, are true. They’re not something crazy that Buddha made up to fool us.
With the next stage, we try to discern what we have understood at the thinking stage and are convinced is true and then stabilize that discernment. This term I’m translating as “discern” (dpyod) is usually translated as “analyze,” but such a translation can be confusing. Take the example of impermanence. Through the thinking process, we have understood correctly what impermanence means – that all phenomena that are affected by causes and conditions change from moment to moment. Now we try to discern that impermanence in relation to some phenomenon, for instance the depressed mood we’re in. We try to, in easy language, “see that.” So, we focus on the depressed mood we’re in and discern it, with as much detail as possible, as being impermanent, as something that changes from moment to moment; it can’t last.
With the discriminating awareness that arises from meditation, we discriminate correctly between discerning the mood as impermanent from discerning it as permanent and will never end. We might need to rely on the lines of reasoning we used during the thinking stage to generate freshly our understanding of why our mood is impermanent, but then we just discern it as being impermanent without relying on that line of reasoning any further – unless we need to refresh our understanding if it has become dull. This is discerning meditation, usually translated as “analytical meditation.”
So-called “fixating meditation,” or “stabilizing meditation,” is where we stabilize that understanding and let it sink in. Stabilizing meditation goes in the direction of shamatha: staying focused on the understanding that our mood is impermanent. Discerning meditation goes in the direction of vipashyana: discerning that our mood is impermanent with gross detection and subtle discernment of as many details as possible. It’s analytical in the sense that it’s trying to discern from this angle, from that angle, all the different ways of understanding something; all the details. Note that the word I’m translating as the “discerning” part of discerning meditation is, in other contexts, the term for subtle discernment.
In our general language, we often also call the thinking process “analytical.” That’s when we’re just trying to understand the object. The difference is between when we’re trying to understand it – that’s the thinking stage – and when we’ve already understood it – that’s the meditating stage. That’s one of the main differences between thinking and meditating. That’s why I don’t like to use the word “analyze,” because our English word “analysis” actually covers both of those areas.
When we’re trying to understand a point in the Dharma in that thinking phase, then debate is very useful. That’s because somebody else is going to challenge our understanding much more persistently and strongly than we would ever challenge it ourselves. The whole aim of debate is that we present a certain position and then we defend it while our opponent tries to make us contradict ourselves. In the process of the dialectic exchange, we overcome any fuzzy understanding, any indecisiveness, and so on we may have.
At the end of a long process of debating, we’re absolutely convinced that “Now I understand it correctly and decisively.” In other words, we develop the strong correct discriminating awareness that arises from thinking. Then we can actually be confident that when we meditate, we’re meditating on the correct understanding. Otherwise, we could be meditating on some Dharma point with an incorrect understanding of it. Also, if we’re not sure that our understanding is correct, our meditation won’t be very stable.
So, just talking or thinking about some point in the Dharma is not as effective debating about it with somebody else; although, sometimes, just trying to put our understanding into words can be very helpful to clarify things – especially if we write it down and then look at it again later to check if it was correct.
Question about Doctrinally-Based and Automatically Arising Disturbing Emotions
You mentioned that with unlabored renunciation and unlabored bodhichitta and correct understanding of voidness, we attain a true stopping of doctrinally-based ignorance and disturbing emotions first. Then, by progressing along the path, we attain a true stopping of the automatically arising versions. What exactly is the difference between these two, and what is the additional factor that allows us to get rid of the first one first and then to get rid of the second one?
Doctrinally-based unawareness is based on having been taught something incorrect and not knowing it to be incorrect or believing it to be correct. So, it is based on something incorrect that we had to have been taught and that we have had to believe was correct. There are different levels of this. Let’s take, for example, the most commonly cited incorrect doctrinally-based view, the non-Buddhist Indian teaching that we exist as an atman, a soul that never changes, is unaffected by anything, is partless, and which can be liberated into a state in which it exists completely independently, with no body and no mind. We wouldn’t naturally think of ourselves as existing like that unless somebody taught us that and we believed it to be true. Somebody would have had to teach us that, either in a previous lifetime or in this lifetime in order for us to believe that.
Based on the unawareness that this view of the self is incorrect and does not correspond to how we actually exist, we would identify ourselves with such an atman and think that it’s “this atman” that’s suffering, it’s “this atman” that has ignorance and disturbing emotions, it’s “this atman” that attains a true stopping of these, and it’s “this atman” that can develop a correct understanding. If we think of ourselves being that kind of a person, that kind of a “me,” that experiences the four noble truths, then we might think, “If I get a correct understanding, then I’ll exist in some sort of transcendent realm as a liberated soul with no body and no mind, and so no problems.”
Thinking of ourselves like that, we can develop anger when, for instance, we, imagined to be this kind of soul, do not get our way. Such anger is doctrinally-based. We need to develop the discriminating awareness that this doctrinally-based belief is incorrect. It’s complete nonsense. The self changes from moment to moment to moment and is always with a body and mind.
Automatically arising unawareness is believing it is correct that the self, “me,” can be known all by itself, without its basis for imputation also simultaneously appearing and being known – and not knowing that this is incorrect. Such a belief that we and all others exist in this way – as self-sufficiently knowable selves is the technical term – automatically arises. No one had to teach us that.
For instance, I look over there and what do I see? It seems to me that I see just Andre. However, actually, what I’m seeing is a body, and a person called “Andre,” whose existence is established as an imputation on that body. However, what am I distinguishing here? Now we get into our mental factors. What am I distinguishing here? I’m only distinguishing “Andre,” I’m not distinguishing “the body.” Therefore, I think that I’m seeing Andre by itself, and I’m unaware that I’m also seeing a body with Andre as an imputation on it as its basis – I’m seeing the combination.
My favorite example that I always use, which I think is easier to understand, is: “I want you to love me for myself. Just for me. Not for my body, not for my money, not for my mind, not for my intellect... just love me for me.” It is as if you could love a “me” without simultaneously loving any basis for its imputation. “Pay attention to me! Me, me, me, here I am!” Not: “Pay attention to the sound of a voice on which ‘me’ is an imputation.” Just: “Pay attention to me.” We believe that such a self-sufficiently knowable “me” is the one experiencing the four noble truths. It’s the one that’s suffering, the one that wants to get liberated – not a “me” that exists as an imputed phenomenon on the basis of a body and mind, but a “me” that can be known just by itself.
The unawareness that this is incorrect and with which we believe it to be true automatically arises all the time. Based on it, we have automatically arising disturbing emotions, like anger that you don’t love such a “me.” This automatically arises; nobody had to teach us that. Why? Because of our faulty distinguishing. We’re only distinguishing “Andre.” We’re not distinguishing also the body onto which “Andre” is an imputation, although we are obviously also seeing a body. We’re only paying attention to what we’re distinguishing, to “Andre”; we’re not paying attention to the body, even though we see it.
So, when we have some understanding of all these mental factors, it helps us to analyze quite clearly what the fault is in our cognition. All these mental factors are functioning. It’s just that they’re not functioning correctly or fully.
As for the additional factor that we need to get rid of to attain a true stopping of the automatically arising disturbing emotions and unawareness, it’s more enlightenment-building positive force and deep awareness, together with unlabored bodhichitta, pure bodhisattva vows, shamatha, vipashyana, etc. So, as I said, it gets down to almost an understanding of physics: that correct understanding has to have even more strength in order to overcome that inertia of beginningless automatically arising unawareness.
So again, whatever education we’ve had – if we’ve studied physics, if we’ve studied geometry and these sorts of things, we need to apply it to try and understand what we’re talking about. Really, it comes down almost to physics: what kind of force will overcome some other kind of force. How do you stop a ball from rolling down a hill? Physics. You don’t just put up something, because when you put up that something, it could fall away and then it continues to roll down. So how to get it so that it will never roll down? Perhaps that example can help us to understand what we’re dealing with here.