Critical Situations and Realization of Emptiness

Verses 18 through 24

Brief Review

We have this incredibly precious human life, on the basis of which we can attain liberation and enlightenment. It’s very rare to have such a rebirth. It passes quickly and can end at any moment, so we need to take full advantage of it. To do so, Togme Zangpo advises us to live in seclusion, far away from our homeland, to make progress on the path.

As we make progress, each of the motivations of the lam-rim builds on the previous one. They need to be secure and sincere, otherwise the advanced level will only be superficial.

First, we aim for better rebirths, specifically precious human rebirths, to be able to continue on the spiritual path we’re on. With death and impermanence in mind, knowing that it’s hard to attain liberation or enlightenment in one lifetime, we aim to achieve another precious human life. To be able to do this, we need to make sure that we have a good influence in our lives. Thus, we rid ourselves of misleading friends, and rely on fully qualified spiritual mentors.

Then, we put a safe direction in our lives, by taking refuge from the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We go toward the true stoppings and true pathway minds that the Buddhas have achieved in full, and the Sangha in part. To ensure that we don’t have worse future rebirths, we refrain from destructive behavior.

Even if we continue to have precious human rebirths, or even celestial rebirths in a god realm, those lives will still entail a huge amount of suffering. It’s still samsara, and whatever pleasures or happiness we happen to experience, are totally fleeting. They’ll never last, and they’ll never satisfy us.

This is an important point, because with the initial level of motivation, it can be easy to become very attached to the precious human life. We could just pray to always have the most wonderful rebirths so that we can be with our friends and spiritual teachers, or to always be able to study the Dharma because it’s so beautiful and lovely. This is still attachment to samsara. Not only do pleasant things have the suffering of change, but the all-pervasive suffering exists in each moment too. We’ll have confusion in each moment, and that will constantly perpetuate the ups and downs of samsara.

As difficult as it is to sincerely, from the depths of our heart, aim for a precious human rebirth, it’s even more difficult to work sincerely for liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, without attachment to human life. We should in no way trivialize renunciation, which means giving up samsara itself. No matter how wonderful our Dharma friends or spiritual mentors are, it is all impermanent. We can’t stay forever with anyone. Milarepa couldn’t stay forever with Marpa. He had to leave, and that’s the difficult part of attachment.

We aim for a precious human rebirth as a stepping-stone to liberation and enlightenment, or as a useful ship, as Togme Zangpo refers to it, to take us across the ocean of samsara without attachment to the ship. When we get to the other shore, we get off the ship and have no qualms about leaving it behind.

The advanced level of motivation is even more difficult. Once we’ve attained liberation, it’s easy to just relax and enjoy the experience of untainted happiness that goes with it. At the advanced level, we think of everybody else, all our mothers, and we aim with bodhichitta to work even more. With voidness and bodhichitta, engaging in the six far-reaching attitudes, we work to reach enlightenment to benefit everyone.

We need to overcome the two extremes of samsara and nirvana. This is actually very difficult, and requires us to recognize that precious human rebirths and liberation are just stops on the way to enlightenment. There’s no way we can gain enlightenment without these stepping-stones.

Nowadays, we can read, hear and learn about the graded stages of the path relatively easily. But just because we’re familiar with the stages, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to internalize or feel the successive levels of motivation sincerely. It could take many years! To really, truly feel them is a great achievement, even the initial level.

It’s repeated over and over again that the only way forward is to first listen to the teachings, then study and think about them until we gain an understanding, and then to meditate on them, to integrate them into our lives. It’s only through this process that we’ll sincerely feel these levels of motivation, and not just know them superficially.

Togme Zangpo then takes us through the two methods for developing bodhichitta, and after this, starts to explain bodhisattva behaviour, first on how to deal with harms. Through various verses we’re told of the importance of having patience and not becoming angry, and the practice of giving and taking. In this practice, we take on the sufferings of others, and we dedicate to them the positive potentials of our own constructive acts. Rather than responding with criticism and negative thoughts to the harm others do us, we instead praise their good qualities. Another method is to regard those who harm us as our teachers, who allow us to recognize and correct our own shortcomings.

Two Critical Situations Requiring Dharma Practice

The next section addresses two critical situations that require careful attention in terms of our Dharma practice – when things are either going very badly or going very well. When things go badly, we can get discouraged, and when things go well, we can become excited and arrogant. This is a reference to overreacting to the eight transitory things in life, the so-called “eight worldly dharmas.” In general, we do get upset at the negative things or excited with the positive.

(18) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if we are destitute in livelihood and always insulted by people, or sick with terrible diseases, or afflicted by ghosts, to accept on ourselves, in return, the negative forces and sufferings of all wandering beings and not be discouraged.

We have another reference here to the practice of tonglen, of taking on the sufferings of others and giving them happiness. If we were very poor, or insulted and put down by others, sick, or harmed by spirits or ghosts, then, if we thought just of ourselves, our scope would be very limited. We would be overwhelmed by thinking “poor me,” and so in addition to these difficult circumstances, we would also experience everything with a tremendous amount of unhappiness. But, if we think in terms of everyone else who has this type of problem and extend our scope beyond just “poor me” to everybody, then our way of experiencing this difficulty would be much different.

Some of us might have experienced something like this, particularly as teenagers with a problem at home. For example, perhaps our parents were alcoholics and we tended to think that we were the only one in the world that had this problem. We felt very isolated, alone, and unbelievably unhappy. But when we learned that there are many others who have the same problem, then our scope becomes much larger. We might go to a support group with many other people who have the similar problem and we start to think in terms of everybody’s problem. We feel that “I’m not alone,” and we think of a solution for everybody. Our way of experiencing our own individual problem really changes a lot!

We expand our scope, thinking in terms of exchanging self with others. To do this, we have concern for eliminating suffering and we think in terms of expanding the basis upon which we are labeling the conventional “me.” If we expand that beyond just this one individual person, “me,” to everybody and accept on ourselves the negative forces and sufferings of all wandering beings, then we will not be discouraged. Rather than becoming discouraged thinking of all beings, we actually get discouraged when we think only of “poor me.”

When we think in terms of everybody as an appropriate basis for “me,” with a concern for eliminating suffering, it’s very important that we have that together with the understanding of the voidness of “me.” It’s not that instead of having a little solid “me” we now have an enormous solid “me” that encompasses everyone. That is not at all what we’re aiming for and that would also be a great fault in this practice. It is not that, “Now I am everybody and now I will take on the world.” If we think like that, we might get even more discouraged.

Nevertheless, we can extend the scope of the basis for labeling the conventional “me.” For example, we can label the conventional “me” on ourselves as an individual. In the case of Patricio here, we can say, and it’s true, that “I am Patricio, therefore I’m working to overcome the sufferings of Patricio.” It’s also equally true to say, “I am an inhabitant of Xalapa,” and further, “I’m an inhabitant of Mexico.” Each is correct as a basis for labeling “me.” It would be appropriate to work for eliminating the suffering of people in this city, or in this country. We can extend this further to “I am a human being” or “I am a sentient being” and on this basis, aim to work to eliminate the type of problems that everyone has.

When we work to improve the environment and to eliminate pollution, for instance, it’s not just our own individual problem. It’s the problem of everybody on the planet, including the animals. Similarly, we can work on exchanging self and others in terms of whom we identify and for whom we work to eliminate suffering and bring happiness. This is certainly the way that His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains it as the validity for expanding our concern to everybody, not just ourselves. “I’m a limited being trapped in samsara” – that’s correct isn’t it? So the appropriate scope for my aim to help all limited beings get out of samsara is because I’m one of them. It’s a helpful way of approaching tonglen, taking on the sufferings of others and giving them our happiness.

Obviously, it’s an enormous task to liberate every single limited being in the universe and bring them to enlightenment, but even with a slightly more limited enormous task, if we were to think in terms of the solid “me,” then we would get very discouraged. “How can I possibly do this?” But, without this misconception of a solid “me” separate from the whole thing, the task and so on, then we just do it. That, I think, is the key here in terms of taking on enormous tasks. One just does it.

I live in Germany, and the image that comes to my mind is the pictures of some of the cities that were totally destroyed during the Second World War. One might wonder how in the world they rebuilt these cities? If we lived in Dresden, which was utterly destroyed by huge firestorms, would we just take care of our own little house? No, as that would be pointless without the infrastructure of the city. We can’t live that way, because we’re totally interconnected with everybody. People just did it, they worked together without being daunted by thinking, “Oh, how can we possibly rebuild this city?” They just did it and gradually it got done.

The other critical situation that might occur is when we become overinflated and conceited when wonderful things happen to us. This is addressed in the next verse:

(19) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if we are sweetly praised, bowed to with their heads by many wandering beings, or have obtained (riches) comparable to the fortune of Vaishravana (the Guardian of Wealth), never to be conceited, by seeing that worldly prosperity has no essence.

We might become very wealthy, or people might praise us and say how incredibly wonderful we are, and how amazing the work we’re doing is, even bowing their heads to us. The way to avoid becoming conceited, Togme Zangpo stresses, is to realize that it has no essence at all. In fact, having lots of praise and fame can be a hindrance. Look at very famous movie stars and singers; they can’t even go outside without being harassed by flocks of aggressive paparazzi wanting to photo them. And fans who see them scream and chase after them, even wanting to rip their clothes off! It’s horrible.

Even if we’re famous in some other area, the more famous we are, the more demands there are on our time. There’s more work, more emails, more obligations and invitations, and it can become overwhelming. We can’t do anything that we want because everyone else wants our time, and we have no time for ourselves. If we’re extremely wealthy, there’ll always be people bothering us, wanting to get money. We feel that nobody really likes us for ourselves, but just wants to be friends with us for our money.

To avoid becoming conceited, we need to recognize all of the disadvantages of praise, fame and money, in addition to the fact that they have no essence. Not only can’t they bring us ultimate happiness, but they don’t last at all. Just as easily as we gain them, we can lose them. It’s like the example in Buddhism of divine beings who are born in wonderful celestial realms, but then have to fall.

To avoid discouragement when things are going poorly, we take on the suffering from others and develop compassion for those who have similar problems. When things are going very well, it’s important not to become conceited, to see that these things have disadvantages and no essence. When we have money, fame, or many things that are favorable, although we recognize that they have disadvantages, they do have certain advantages as well. We can and should use these advantages to benefit others, rather than just being conceited. With money, for example, we can support various spiritual efforts.

Overcoming Hostility and Attachment

Other difficult situations that we need to overcome while following the bodhisattva path are hostility and attachment, and Togme Zangpo devotes verses to each of these.

(20) A bodhisattva’s practice is to tame our mental continuums with the armed forces of love and compassion, because, if we haven’t subdued the enemy, which is our own hostility, then even if we have subdued an external enemy, more will come.

Shantideva also uses the image that the real adversary is the internal enemy of our disturbing emotions, not external enemies, and explains it in relation to patience as a way of overcoming anger and hostility. Togme Zangpo explains it in terms of love and compassion. Love, compassion and patience are all opponent forces to anger. Shantideva says that there’s simply no way we could ever cover the entire earth with leather so we don’t get thorns in our feet. Actually, all we need to do is cover our own feet with leather, and we’ll be able to go anywhere without being harmed. Similarly, we’re never going to be able to get rid of all the external enemies, but if we get rid of the internal enemy of anger, then we’ll be able to go anywhere without being harmed.

The real enemy is these internal hindrances – our own disturbing emotions – and the opponent forces are like the armed forces in a battle. Buddha came from the warrior caste, and so we find a great deal of martial imagery in Buddhism, which often shocks people. Many of the successive Indian masters, like Shantideva, continue to use the imagery of fighting battles. Tibetan masters like Togme Zangpo also follow this precedent, with images like the armed forces of love and compassion.

I think this martial imagery can be particularly helpful when dealing with our own disturbing emotions, because it really is like a battle. It’s an internal battle and we need to fight very hard. It’s dangerous and sometimes we’ll get hurt. For example, if we’re engaging in purification practices, all sorts of unpleasant things can come up, but we need to deal with all of this to overcome the deeply rooted disturbing emotions.

If we’re going to fight a battle, we’ll need to have a great deal of courage. That’s true not only in terms of fighting an external battle, but fighting the internal battle. When we look at the translation in Tibetan of the word “bodhisattva,” they have added a syllable at the end of it, changing the meaning of the word in Tibetan to courageous, or a brave one. That’s not actually there in the Sanskrit. The Tibetan word for “bodhisattva” is jang-chub sem-pa. The first part of the word, jang-chub is Tibetan for bodhi and means enlightenment. The next part of the word, sem-pa would be sattva, if its last syllable were spelt as pa. In that case, it means a being or someone with a mind. But the Tibetans spell that pa at the end of sem-pa, in a different way. They spell it dpa, and this is a different word pronounced exactly the same way as pa, but means a brave one, a courageous one.

I think we know all this from our own experience. We might overcome anger with one person or one situation in our life, but we’ll still get angry with other stuff in the future. It doesn’t solve the issue at all. So we need to be in it for the long battle.

(21) A bodhisattva’s practice is immediately to abandon any objects that cause our clinging and attachment to increase, for objects of desire are like salt water: the more we have indulged (in them, our) thirst (for them) increases (in turn).

We looked at this with the suffering of change. Worldly pleasures, things that we’re very attached to and have great desire for, are never going to satisfy us. We’re never going to have enough. We might have enough of food and sex temporarily, but after a while we’re going to want some again. This refers specifically to objects that cause our clinging and attachment to increase. There is a difference between longing desire and clinging and attachment. Longing desire is for something that we don’t have. Clinging and attachment is for something that we do have and we don’t want to let go of.

We all have stuff that we’re really attached to. I can think of a friend who is unbelievably attached to Dharma books and compulsively buys more and more, even if he never has time to read them. Togme Zangpo says that the remedy for all of this is to abandon the objects. I’ve suggested to my friend that he could give away the books to a larger facility like a Dharma center, where other people could benefit from them. The more he is around the books, the more attached he becomes and the more he buys! Whatever it is that we cling to, whether it’s our clothes or house or whatever, the best remedy is to share them. We could give away some old clothes we never wear anymore, and we could open up our homes for use for Dharma activities and so on.

Togme Zangpo also says that the objects of desire that we’re so attached to are like salt water. The more we accumulate, the thirstier we get. The more of these objects of attachment that we accumulate, the more attached we become. We just want more and more and we never have enough. Who thinks that they ever have enough money in the bank, for example? We always want more and more and more.

Obviously, just giving up the objects is not the deepest solution, because we still might be very desirous to get them all back. But, as an initial way of dealing with it, it can be helpful. In an earlier verse, Togme Zangpo says that if we’re very attached to homelands, where attachment to the side of friends tosses us like water, then it’s best to temporarily leave our homelands. This is reminiscent of this point here in this verse as well.

An example just came to my mind of an application of this. Let’s say that we are very attached to our children. There are many parents who don’t want to let go of their children, and the more they’re with the children, the more attached they become. But of course it’s very important to let go of our children, obviously, initially to let them go to school, let them stay overnight with friends, and let them go away to university in another city. We can’t insist that they stay at home and never leave the house. We also need to let go in terms of them getting married and moving elsewhere. There are a lot of parents who disapprove of their child’s partner, no matter who the partner might be. This is because basically they’re attached to the child and they don’t want them to go.

We could of course ask, does Togme Zangpo really mean that we have to abandon our computer and cell phone? This gives us quite a lot to think about as it’s a growing issue. There are people who are so addicted to their cell phone that they play with it constantly, or who have the computer on all day, connected to the Internet so that they don’t miss any e-mail as soon as it comes. They may be like myself, a bit of a news junkie, and so every once in a while they look at the news either on the Internet or television. A lot of people are addicted to CNN, for example, and watch the same news over and over again. Again, this advice to abandon that is very helpful. Even if we don’t abandon it completely, what I find very difficult to do is to check the e-mail only once a day, look at the news only once a day, and don’t have it on all the time. Just use the cell phone when you need it.

A final example concerning giving up objects of attachment involves dieting. When we’re on a diet, but we’re very attached to chocolate and cookies and so on, when we have them in the house it’s going to be very, very difficult not to eat them. The best, and probably only way to stick to a diet, is simply not to buy any chocolate, cookies, or any cakes. Just don’t have them in the house. When they aren’t there, we won’t eat them. That’s true, isn’t it? I’m sure we all know that from experience, if we’ve ever been on a diet.

Developing Deepest Bodhichitta, the Realization of Voidness

The next section covers developing deepest bodhichitta. We have conventional or relative bodhichitta, which is aimed at enlightenment to benefit all beings. Then we have deepest bodhichitta, which is aimed at voidness (emptiness), specifically the voidness of the mind. This is essential for our bodhisattva practice.

(22) A bodhisattva’s practice is not to take to mind inherent features of objects taken and minds that take them, by realizing just how things are. No matter how things appear, they are from our own minds; and mind-itself is, from the beginning, parted from the extremes of mental fabrication.

When we speak about voidness in Buddhism, we’re referring to an absence of something, something that was never there in the first place. This something is an impossible way of establishing or accounting for the conventional existence of validly knowable objects as what they appear to be. Impossible ways of existing have never existed, have they? The simplest example is to think, “I am the most important person in the universe and what establishes me as that is that I’m the center of the universe. Because of being the most important one, I should always have my way. Everybody should always pay attention to me and love me.” That’s impossible. Even though it might appear like that to us because we feel self-important like that, nobody can be established as the center of the universe; everyone is devoid of existing in that impossible way. It never was the case.

In order to gain this understanding on the deepest level, we need to realize that there are subtler and subtler impossible ways of accounting for the conventional existence of validly knowable objects as what they appear to be. It’s not so easy to recognize the subtlest levels. Therefore, first we need to refute and clear out the grosser levels, in the sense of realizing that they do not correspond to how things actually exist. Then we work on the subtler and subtler levels.

We can look at the verse from the Sakya point of view, where things might appear to us as if some external object is coming from its own source and our mind that sees it is coming from its own completely separate source. For instance, we might think that someone is a horrible person who’s coming from out there, and then we see them as actually having the inherent feature of being the horrible person that they appear to be and that this is how they appear to everyone, not just to my own perception. The text says don’t pay attention to that. We should not take that to mind, but realize just how things are. In other words, no matter how they appear in this dualistic way, those appearances are coming from our own minds. The appearance of this person as a horrible person and the mind that sees them as a horrible person are both coming from the same seed of karma in our own mind and not dualistically from two different sources.

But, importantly, it’s not that the mind is a truly existent projector of these appearances. The mind itself is also devoid of existing as some truly findable entity. The pure nature of the mind is that it doesn’t, by nature, project these mental fabrications, these ridiculous appearances of dualistic existence. That would be the Sakya way of understanding this line, which is undoubtedly what Togme Zangpo meant when he wrote this, since he was an adherent of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. We find a similar way of discussing voidness in the Seven-Point Mind Training for which Togme Zangpo also wrote a commentary. That text also explains voidness from a Sakya point of view.

If we look at the verse with a later Gelugpa interpretation, we can understand it on a different level. To use the above example, it appears as though there is some inherent feature findable in the person that, all by itself, accounts for the fact that they appear to me to exist as a horrible person. We should not take that to mind, since that is not how things actually are. This deceptive appearance is just coming from our own minds – either from the karmic potentials built up on them or from their constant habits of grasping for things to exist in impossible ways. How things actually are is that this person appears to be a horrible person either because of an inherent feature of being horrible plus the mental label of our concept of “horrible” or, on a subtler level, simply because of the mental label of our concept.

Moreover, mind-itself is parted from the extremes of mental fabrication, meaning that the mind is devoid of any mentally fabricated impossible ways of existing. This refers to the voidness of either the conventional nature of mind (the mental activity of giving rise to appearances and cognizing them) or the deepest nature of mind (its voidness).

This verse requires a great deal of study and has a great deal of depth and profundity to it. Even if we don’t understand very much of this explanation, we can still appreciate that the teachings on voidness are very profound and have many levels with which we can understand them. Then we’ll develop respect and interest in trying to go deeper and deeper and understand it.

All of this is very important in terms of trying to help others. If we think that there is a poor suffering being out there, with something findable in them from their own side that makes them a poor suffering being, then no matter what we do to try to help, then they’ll never change. So these types of points are really quite important, aren’t they?

When we work with voidness and try to understand it, then there are two phases of that understanding. The first phase is when our concentration is totally absorbed on the understanding, “There’s no such thing as this impossible way of existing.” In order to be totally absorbed on “there’s no such thing,” our understanding has to be based on a firm conviction coming from investigation and logical reasoning that this impossible way of existing really is impossible.

For instance, if we just say, “There’s no chocolate in our house,” we might not be very convinced of that. But, if we searched everywhere in our house and we couldn’t find any chocolate, then we would be much firmer in our conviction that there is no chocolate. Or, we might think, “There’s nothing interesting on TV.” We can conclude that just by not even looking, or we could search through all the channels. When we search through all the channels and we find nothing interesting, then we’re more convinced that “There’s nothing interesting on TV.”

That’s the first phase, the total absorption on “no such thing,” or on voidness. When we focus on that, it’s like what appears in your mind when you focus on “there’s no chocolate in the house.” What appears? Nothing appears and we understand that there is no chocolate in the house. So, in the total absorption on voidness nothing appears.

Then we have the subsequent attainment phase. That’s sometimes called “post-meditation,” but that’s not an accurate translation because actually you’re still meditating. Now subsequent to our total absorption, we realize that everything is like an illusion. Although it appears as though there must be something interesting on TV, although it feels like that, that really is like an illusion and it’s not that way. Therefore, although something seems to exist solidly from its own side and it appears like that, that is just like an illusion. An illusion appears, but it doesn’t exist in the way that it appears. It appears to be solid but it’s not.

Then, Togme Zangpo has the following two verses that look at everything being like an illusion. First, it’s in relation to objects that are pleasing and then in relation to objects that are not very nice at all. Both of them are like an illusion.

(23) A bodhisattva’s practice is, when meeting with pleasing objects, not to regard them as truly existent, even though they appear beautifully like a summer’s rainbow, and (thus) to rid ourselves of clinging and attachment.

When we meet with beautiful objects, whether they’re beautiful people or beautiful things that we like, the advice here is to see that they don’t exist with some inherent findable feature on their side that makes them beautiful. These things are not inherently wonderful, making us have to have them. There is nothing that makes them beautiful and so attractive by their own power, independently of everything. Although the objects may appear to be inherently beautiful, attractive, and wonderful from their own side, we need to realize that they don’t exist truly like that. That’s impossible; they merely appear like that, similar to an illusion. The analogy here is a summer’s rainbow. A rainbow is beautiful and appears to exist solidly and beautifully from its own side, but there’s nothing solid to it. The closer we examine the rainbow, we don’t find anything from its own side.

Now the important word here is like. Things are like an illusion. It’s not saying that everything is an illusion. There is a big difference between an illusion and something that is like an illusion. Shantideva uses the example of a magician conjuring up an illusion of a horse; to kill that illusion of the horse and to kill an actual horse are quite different in terms of the karmic consequences. The consequences differ based upon whether or not the killing affects somebody else, like the horse. Therefore, everything is like an illusion, like a summer’s rainbow.

In this way we try to rid ourselves of clinging and attachment. This is referring to automatically arising clinging and attachment, that we feel automatically, even if we’ve had our initial experience of non-conceptual cognition of voidness. That experience will rid us of attachment that might be based on having learned some doctrine from some non-Buddhist school; nevertheless, we still have this automatically arising attachment. So we need to keep on working with voidness.

Consequently, we come to understand that the practice mentioned by Togme Zangpo two verses earlier, where we rid ourselves of objects that cause our clinging and attachment to increase, is simply a temporary solution. The deepest solution is to actually understand the voidness of these seemingly beautiful objects, realizing that they don’t exist in the impossible way of being inherently beautiful and pleasing from their own side.

(24) A bodhisattva’s practice is, at the time when meeting with adverse conditions, to see them as deceptive, for various sufferings are like the death of our child in a dream and to take (such) deceptive appearances to be true is a tiresome waste.

This refers to the opposite situation, where we meet with objects that we find unpleasant or adverse conditions. We need to see them like an illusion as well. The appearance of these unpleasant things and adverse conditions to be truly established from their own side as adverse and horrible is deceptive. Deceptive means that the way that they appear doesn’t correspond to the way that they actually exist. It deceives us, because we think that they exist in the way that they appear.

To view the various sufferings that we encounter as being inherently horrible and awful from their own side, and then to feel that we can’t take it, is like the appearance of the death of our child in a dream. When we experience the death of our child in a dream, it certainly seems real and horrible, but then we wake up to see that it was only a dream. That appearance in a dream is deceptive, because it appears to be real and we believe it, whereas it’s not. Similarly, even when we are awake, although it’s not the same as a dream, nevertheless things appear deceptively. This verse specifically refers to adverse conditions and how the difficult things that happen to us appear to be truly existent and so on, but they are not. That’s impossible.

The adverse conditions we encounter seem so horrible and terrible, simply by the power of the mental labels “horrible” or “terrible.” What actually is the terrible situation? The terrible situation is what we’re referring to with the label “terrible.” But there’s nothing on its own side that makes it terrible. After all, we and a group of people in our society have come up with the concept “terrible.” We’ve defined it and we can find it in the dictionary, and so we use that to label various things. But as for the whole concept of “terrible,” it is something which, as indicated two verses earlier, is made up by the mind. It can be valid to call this a difficult situation, a horrible situation, in the sense that everybody would agree on that, and we all use that terminology. Conventionally it could be valid. But it only appears as though there’s something from its own side that makes it horrible. That’s deceptive, as it’s just an appearance that’s like an illusion. So when we consider these deceptive appearances to be true, that’s really, as Togme Zangpo says, a tiresome waste. It is a waste of our time and just makes us very tired and exacerbates our suffering.

For instance, if we bang our foot against a piece of furniture in the dark, it hurts. Sure, it hurts, but it’s a tiresome waste to take it to an extreme of “Oh this is a horrible thing that’s happened to me,” and then jump up and down and make a big deal out of it. It certainly doesn’t make us feel any better and it doesn’t accomplish anything. It just prolongs our suffering. I bang my foot, cause and effect, and it hurts. So what? What else is new? What do I expect from samsara?


Verse 21 speaks of abandoning objects that cause our clinging and attachment to increase. What’s the difference between those two and craving and desire?

There are many technical terms in Buddhism that seem similar, but they have quite specific definitions and usages. Clinging means holding on tightly to something we like. The Sakya tradition points out four major things we need to rid ourselves of clinging to: things of this lifetime, things of future lifetimes, our selfish aims and impossible ways of existing. The term “clinging” is also used in the context of conceptual cognition. When we think of something as a member of a conceptual category, such as our pet as a dog, we say that the object that this conceptual cognition “clings” to is our pet.

Attachment is when we already have something that we consider desirable, we exaggerate its good qualities and don’t want to let go. Desire is when we don’t have something we want, we likewise exaggerate its good qualities and long to get it. Craving is literally the word “thirsting” and is used specifically in relation to feelings of happiness or unhappiness. When we experience a little sip of happiness, we are so thirsty, we do not want not to be parted from it. And when we experience unhappiness, we thirst to be parted from it.

We can see that the analysis in Buddhist psychology of the various states of mind is very sophisticated. There are lots of fine distinctions and unfortunately, we don’t always have specific terms for them in our languages. When we know the original terminology and the definition, we can really understand what the text is talking about.

I find it really difficult to understand voidness, but when I listened to your clear examples, it’s like, “Oh yes, everything is like a dream.” But when I actually face everyday situations, it’s difficult to integrate this understanding. How can we do this?

The only way to integrate it is to meditate on it, which means to practice it over and over again, and to think about it as much as possible. Once we’ve understood something through meditation, then we can distinguish that the situations we face are like illusions. The more we apply this, the more natural it will become, and the less disturbed we will be by the ups and downs of samsara.

For example, recently I was invited to Bogota, Colombia, to visit and teach before this trip to Mexico. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is going there in a few weeks and they said it would help them prepare and get in the right mood. The dates corresponded with Easter and I asked if people would have the time to organize and actually attend such a course, and I was assured that there would be no problem. I thought of it a bit like a dream and didn’t give it a tremendous amount of reality. I bought a plane ticket and made arrangements and that was that.

A few weeks before I was supposed to leave, I received an email saying that it was too difficult to arrange two trips, one for His Holiness and one for myself. They were cancelling, but I didn’t blame them and write back, “I told you so.” I just checked the amount of money that would be lost in cancelling the ticket and the inconvenience to those here in Mexico. Again it was no big deal. I wasn’t happy or unhappy about it.

When I told them about the fees they’d have to pay for the cancelled trip and the increased cost to the Mexican students, they responded telling me to come anyway. Again, I wasn’t really happy or unhappy. Fine, I was going to go, and not give it much more thought.

Then, twelve days before I was supposed to go, I received an email from Colombia saying that they’d actually asked who could come, and nobody, not even the translator, was available. They realized they really did need to cancel. It was like an illusion, and so I wasn’t happy or sad. I cancelled the ticket and bought a different one for Mexico. I didn’t suffer and I didn’t get all excited. No big deal, just like a dream, needing no more thought. If we can apply the teachings on voidness and everything being like an illusion like this, it’s incredibly effective, but of course this takes familiarity with it.