Understanding Voidness as a Means for Gaining Renunciation
In the traditional presentation of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, when we have an intermediate-level motivation, we have renunciation and then, with that motivation, we practice the three higher trainings: ethical self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness of voidness (emptiness). With that awareness, we discriminate between how things actually exist and how they do not exist. The emphasis in the intermediate-scope practice is on accompanying that discriminating awareness with the motivation, namely renunciation, that we ourselves become free from the problems of uncontrollably recurring existence, samsara. If we just understand voidness without any specific aim of what we’re gaining it for, then like with any positive action, it will build up positive karmic potential, but this potential will be just to improve our samsara. As a result, we could have a nice discussion around the coffee table about voidness, but it’s not going to advance us any further on the spiritual path, and we’re not going to be able to understand voidness very deeply.
The emphasis is placed on having a proper motivation so that we can have a proper dedication of our practice. If we dedicate the karmic potential with renunciation, the determination to be free, we dedicate whatever builds up from our practice toward our attainment of liberation. Or with bodhichitta with an advanced scope, we dedicate it toward our attainment of enlightenment. When we do something constructive, then the default setting on the internal karma computer is that the positive potential goes into the “improve samsara” folder. The proper dedication is absolutely essential and so we have to very consciously choose the folder in which to save the positive potential, either the “for liberation” folder or the “for enlightenment” folder, and then that positive potential will contribute toward our attainment of liberation or enlightenment, otherwise it will go instead just toward an improved version of samsara.
In the lam-rim, then, the emphasis is on the motivation for our practice. Gaining renunciation traditionally comes first in the lam-rim texts and then the practice of the three higher trainings. The texts don’t really explain the methods for gaining the higher training in concentration and discriminating awareness very deeply in the intermediate-scope teachings, where we’re aiming for liberation, but they explain them more fully once we’ve gotten to the parts about bodhichitta, the advanced-level motivation. However, His Holiness the Dalai Lama puts the emphasis the other way around, which is that we really need the understanding of voidness first in order to have a proper motivation of renunciation or bodhichitta. This is the way Nagarjuna presents it in his Commentary on (the Two) Bodhichittas (Byang-chub sems-kyi ’grel-ba, Skt. Bodhichittavivarana).
Further, this is similar to what we find in the Seven Point Mind Training (Blo-sbyong don-bdun-ma). I call lojong the “cleansing of attitudes.” That’s usually translated as “mind training,” but that sounds as though we’re just intellectually training ourselves to have a better memory, so I don’t like that term. It rather means “to cleanse away negative attitudes and transform them into positive attitudes.” In that text, it gives first the presentation of deepest bodhichitta and then the presentation of relative bodhichitta, and it’s only in the Gelug tradition that the order of these two is changed the other way around. The Gelug tradition says that this order of understanding voidness before having correct renunciation and bodhicitta is according to some special oral lineage.
The Need for a Non-Conceptual Cognition of Voidness to Achieve Enlightenment
We can look at the need for a non-conceptual cognition of voidness for the achievement of enlightenment from several points of view. One point of view is: How do we know that the attainment of liberation or enlightenment is possible? If we are not convinced that it’s possible, then how can we sincerely aim to achieve either liberation or enlightenment? To answer this question, we need to examine the nature of the mind and the difference between the natural purity of the clear-light mind and the disturbing emotions and attitudes, which are based on and supported by the unawareness of voidness, usually called ignorance.
When we think about beginningless time, we see that our mental continuums are beginningless. A mental continuum, from the point of view of logic, has no absolute beginning because everything that changes from moment to moment must have a previous moment as its cause; something cannot just arise from nothing. If something arose from nothing, then it would have no cause. Or it could arise from any cause, as His Holiness was saying earlier today, which means that the whole process of causality becomes absurd and chaotic. The mental continuum has beginningless continuity, and so do the unawareness or ignorance and the disturbing emotions on a mental continuum, and, in addition, so do the positive qualities there too: love, compassion, and so on.
Then we have to ask: Which one can be stronger? The correct or the incorrect understanding of voidness? It is said that these positive qualities of love and so on have no beginning and no end, just as the mental continuum has no beginning and no end, whereas although unawareness and the disturbing emotions and distorted attitudes that come from it also have no beginning, but they do have an end, which means we can rid our minds of them. Why? The reason why, His Holiness explained, is in terms of what supports them, and what supports the so-called correct ones and the incorrect ones is quite different.
We can replace the incorrect understanding that supports the negative mental factors with correct understanding. Correct understanding and incorrect understanding are mutually exclusive. We cannot simultaneously correctly understand and incorrectly understand. Then, the question, as I said, is: Which is stronger? Which is going to really bring us the attainment of liberation or enlightenment? What will really do it is the correct understanding – because that’s based on reason. Reason supports the correct understanding – and the more we strengthen that correct understanding with reason, the less suffering we have. That’s the whole point of what Buddhism is talking about: how to get rid of suffering. This is what correct understanding brings us if ridding ourselves of suffering is what our aim is.
Theoretically, we could say our aim was to have more suffering. Then, we would say that unawareness was better because it brings us more suffering. However, if our aim, as part of the basic nature of limited beings, is that we want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy, then the correct understanding is stronger for achieving that goal. It’s based on logic, and it gets rid of suffering. Whereas the more we examine the incorrect understanding, based on logic, we see that it doesn’t hold true. This, of course, is based on the premise that logic is correct. Not everybody agrees that there is such a thing as logic, and that it is correct. However, if we accept that premise, the more that we develop the side of unawareness and confusion, the more suffering we get.
An arya is someone who has gained non-conceptual cognition of voidness. While in non-conceptual total absorption on voidness, they have absolutely no grasping of true existence, and in that state, their mind doesn’t even make an appearance of true existence. In their mind, there is a total absence of any such deceptive appearances and a total absence of believing that such an appearance corresponds to reality. That’s why they’re the Arya Sangha, the Sangha refuge. They’ve had that experience for a little while.
That attainment of non-conceptual cognition of voidness starts the process of achieving enlightenment because it rids their minds of a small portion of the distorted side – the doctrinally-based disturbing emotions, the ones that are based on hearing an incorrect tenet system and believing in it (that is to say, one of the Hindu or Jain systems). If we could have that state of mind, the total absorption on voidness with not even appearance-making of true existence, let alone believing in it, all the time, which is what a Buddha has, and only a Buddha has, then we’ve rid our minds of all the unawareness. We’ve rid it of all the distorted side. That’s why we say that all of these disturbing emotions and attitudes can be eliminated.
If we understand that, and if we understand that in order to get there, we have to build up a tremendous amount of positive potential and dedicate it toward that goal, then we have an understanding of, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, the two truths and an understanding of the four truths, and that leads us to an understanding and conviction in the Three Jewels:
- First, we gain an understanding and conviction that there is such a thing as the Dharma Jewel. This Jewel is the state in which there is the total stopping forever of this distorted side and the full realization of the true path. This realization is not only the opponent to the distorted side but the result of it as well – in other words, this realization is the understanding of voidness and then having that all the time, so both the path and the result. If we gain understanding and confidence in that, we have understood the Dharma Jewel.
- Then, the Sangha Jewel are those who have a little bit of that understanding sometimes.
- The Buddhas are the ones who have it all the time.
If we understand that, then we can be convinced that there is such a thing as liberation. This is because the Arya Sangha have achieved, on the path, some level of liberation, they have made it part of the way to Buddhahood. We can then be convinced that it’s possible to achieve enlightenment because we see their progress. On that basis, we can actually have proper renunciation and bodhichitta because we have confidence that the attainment of liberation and enlightenment is possible.
Then, the whole discussion gets into the fact that it’s possible for us ourselves to achieve that correct understanding, not just the Buddha or these guys in ancient India who achieved it. For that discussion, we need to look at the topic of Buddha-nature or the clear-light mind.
Gaining Confidence in the Tantra Path through the Clear Light Mind
It’s very important for taking an empowerment like Kalachakra, or any other empowerment, to be very confident in the tantra path. We can only really have confidence in the tantra path when it is based on having confidence in the sutra path and confidence that liberation and enlightenment are possible.
Once we have that confidence, it’s necessary to understand that to really be able to achieve enlightenment, we need to have that understanding of voidness non-conceptually, not only with the force of renunciation behind it, not only with the force of bodhichitta behind it, and not only with an enormous build-up of what’s usually called the two collections (the two networks, I call them) of positive force (or positive potential) and deep awareness, or merit and wisdom, behind it, but also with the force of this tremendous amount of further and further experience of the deep awareness of voidness, so that it builds up a habit of having that deep awareness of voidness and the type of deep awareness of conventional truth that goes along with that. In addition to the mind that has all of this, what we need is the clear-light mind, the subtlest level of mind. The reason why we need that is that it is the type of mind that a Buddha has. Everybody has it on a basis level, but everybody also has these other grosser levels that are on layered on top of it. A Buddha has, exclusively, only the clear light level of mind.
As for what is important about the clear-light mind, His Holiness explained that we’re missing the full essence of it if all we say is that it is subtler than the conceptual mind. It is indeed subtler than all levels of rough minds, both conceptual mental cognition and non-conceptual sensory and mental cognition. It underlies both. But there is more to it than that.
The expression “grasping for true existence” has two meanings. It means to cognize appearances of true existence and to believe that such appearances corresponds to reality. Conceptual cognition does both, but non-conceptual sensory and non-conceptual mental cognition other than of voidness, while not believing that these deceptive appearances of true existence correspond to reality, still give rise to these appearances and cognize them.
Not only is clear-light mind free of conceptual minds that give rise to, cognize and believe in these deceptive appearances of true existence, it is also subtler than the non-conceptual, coarse levels of mind that merely give rise to and cognize those appearances. When we see an object, that’s sensory non-conceptual cognition, and when we dream, that’s a semblance of sensory non-conceptual cognition of subtle sights, sounds, and so on, although dreaming is with mental cognition and is conceptual. Dreaming, however, is not the same as imagination because the objects that appear in dreams are more vivid. Clear-light mind is subtler than these coarser non-conceptual and seemingly non-conceptual levels. The clear-light mind doesn’t have mental fabrication (spros-pa), sometimes translated as “elaboration,” which is what makes appearances of true existence.
Because clear-light mind is parted from the mental fabrication of the deceptive appearances of true existence, whereas the grosser levels do have that mental fabrication, and because that clear-light level has unbroken continuity, whereas the grosser levels of mind break their continuity when they cease in the short period of death existence when we only have the clear-light level, we can say that the clear-light level of mind has to be the actual conventional nature of the mind, and therefore that it is unstained.
Clear-light cognition is similar to non-conceptual total absorption on voidness. The only difference is that the clear-light cognition doesn’t understand what it gives rise to. In Kedrub Norzang Gyatso’s commentary on Kalachakra, An Adornment for “The Stainless Light” (Dri-med ’od-kyi rgyan), he explains that with clear-light cognition, we get an appearance like that which arises during a total absorption on voidness (in other words, a deep blue color with no appearance of true existence), but we do not understand what it is the appearance of. This is why we need the understanding of voidness beforehand in order to apply it at that moment. Clear-light mind is called a similar-family cause (rigs-’dra’i rgyu). It’s in a similar class, the same type of animal, as total absorption on voidness.
On the basis of the clear-light mind having unbroken continuity (and it’s the only level of mind that has unbroken continuity), we can say that the nature of the mind is not stained by these other levels. This is what anuttarayoga tantra is all about and is its great advantage. The point is to get to that clear-light level and to be able to sustain that level. If we can sustain that level and add to it the non-conceptual understanding of voidness, which we’re only going to be able to get if we have renunciation and bodhichitta and these two networks, the two collections, then we’ve got it. We’ve achieved Buddhahood.
To really take the empowerment fully with conviction, then, we need the conviction that liberation is possible, enlightenment is possible, that the nature of the mind is not stained by fleeting things, which is not just referring to the conceptual mind, it’s not just referring to the disturbing emotions, but it’s referring to all the grosser levels that make these appearances of true existence, which are the basis for then believing in them, and we need confidence in the tantra method for our actually being able to get to that clear-light level (not having to wait until we die to experience it). Then, on that basis, we would really want to practice tantra. We would have full confidence in it.