Deepest Bodhichitta in “37 Bodhisattva Practices” – The Dalai Lama

In three of his 37 verses, Togme Zangpo presents the bodhisattva practice of applying the correct understanding of voidness (emptiness) to all situations in life. In this lecture, the Dalai Lama explains how to gain this correct understanding through meditation of space-like and illusion-like voidness.
(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.

The Chittamatrins assert that everything that appears and exists, all phenomena, are of the nature of mind. Chandrakirti of the Madhyamaka school, however, asserts that everything that appears and exists is not inherently established as something by its own power. It is established as something merely by the power of how our conventional minds cognitively take it. This is conventional or superficial existence, which is therefore not ultimately true.

If phenomena had an ultimate way of existing as something, inherently established in themselves, then the more we searched for this manner of existing with a mind analyzing deepest truth, the clearer it would become. But, in fact, the manner in which things appear to exist as something, inherently established in themselves, slowly fades away until no basis or foundation is found. This is not because phenomena do not exist at all, since then we would not derive any harm or benefit from them. As we do derive benefit and harm, phenomena do exist. However, we fail to find their apparent way of existing as something as a mode of existence inherently established from their own sides. Thus, it follows that phenomena do not exist as something in themselves, inherently established by their own power, but only established as something through the power of how the conventional mind cognitively takes them, which is through mental labeling.

Therefore, although phenomena appear to truly and inherently exist as something, this mode of existence does not stand up to analysis. This proves that our usual way of cognizing things is deceptive and a delusion. As the Seventh Dalai Lama has said, 

The objects passing through the mind of a sleeping person are but a dream. They are only appearances; there are no objects at their bases. They are merely mental appearances.

If, at this moment, we were dreaming about being in Tibet, we know when we wake up that we were not actually in Tibet. Underlying our dream cognition of an appearance of Tibet, there was no actual Tibet standing at the basis, established as the place where we actually were. Similarly, ourselves, others, samsara, nirvana, all existence is only established by names and concepts. Its inherent existence, established at a basis from its own side, never existed, not even an atom of it.

When phenomena appear, they seem to exist inherently established as something at a basis from where they are appearing. In fact, however, they do not exist inherently established as something at some place we can point to. And yet, regarding sensory objects, everything that appears to beings like ourselves, drugged with the sleep of unawareness, seems to truly exist as something, inherently established on a basis. As the Seventh Dalai Lama continued, 

Look at your drugged minds; see how they work.

Yet, despite its being a deceptive appearance, this is the way in which phenomena seem to exist to beings like ourselves, deluded with the veil of unawareness over our six cognitive faculties. Whatever appears, whether large or small, whether one thing or many, seems to exist objectively, inherently established as something from its own side, and not just by the power of the names and concepts for it. Everything seems to exist inherently established as something outside us: “Look, there it is! Over there!”

Nothing actually exists in that way. It is an impossible mode of existence and yet this is how it appears to us. As the Seventh Dalai Lama went on, 

Thus, concerning ‘me’ or anything else, this manner of existence as something, established inherently in itself, which appears to the deceived mind, is the subtle object of nullification. To nullify it and eliminate it from our minds is most precious and rare.

Therefore, everything that appears, pure or impure, exists conventionally established as something because of the mind. And, even mind itself, included in all existent phenomena, is not found as something, if we search examining its deepest truth. Mind exists as a continuum of moments of awareness. Awareness is always functioning, vividly. Yet, if we divide the continuum into its parts (its moments), and search, we cannot find the mind as something.

The whole does not exist as something established separately from its parts, and a part cannot be the whole. The parts and the whole are something different. After breaking it down, and taking away the parts, the whole cannot survive as something. The whole exists as something seemingly in the parts, yet when we search, we cannot find it. We cannot say confidently, “Here it is.”

Therefore, the mind has been, without beginning, beyond the extremes of existing inherently established as something and totally not existing as anything existing independently on its own as a blank nothing or totally not existing at all. It is non-inherently existent; it is not existing inherently established as anything. Thus, the Seventh Dalai Lama continued, 

A basis (of samsaric and nirvanic existence) is always just an interpolation projected by our minds. Mind also, if analyzed, is without a true arising and without a true perishing. The nature of the how things actually exist is amazing.

Therefore, everything that appears and exists, samsara and nirvana, is of the nature of mind and mind itself lacks a true arising and a true perishing. Moreover, the person possessing a mind also lacks a true arising and a true perishing.

As one great master said, 

I am a yogi of space, lacking an arising. Nothing truly exists. I am a great dealer in falsehoods, who sees all appearances, hears all sounds as a grand illusion. What is amazing is the unified pair of appearance and voidness (emptiness). I have found the certainty of undeceiving dependent arising. 

To this yogi dealer in falsehoods, all appearances and sounds seem to exist inherently established as something and yet, at the same time, nothing exists inherently established as anything. If everything truly existed inherently established as something, there could never be any contradictions. But, for example, a tree in spring has beautiful foliage and blossoms, yet in the winter it is bare and ugly. If beauty existed inherently established in the tree, it should always remain there and never transform into ugliness. It is the same with people who sometimes seem beautiful and sometimes ugly. If their beauty existed inherently established in them, it could never change into ugliness. In addition, if our defiled minds existed inherently established as defiled, they could never be transformed one day into the completely purified, omniscient minds of Buddhas.

However, what is defiled can become undefiled; what is ugly can become beautiful. This shows that nothing exists inherently established as what it appears to be. For a basis existing inherently established as something, changes based on cause and effect would be impossible. Yet, there is cause and effect, and there is good and bad. Therefore, these categories and qualities can only be applied based on non-inherently established existence. These categories and qualities can never be applied to bases inherently existing as something. The fact that contradictory categories and qualities can be applied to one and the same phenomenon proves that the phenomenon does not exist inherently established as something.

Therefore, “what is amazing is the unified pair of appearance and voidness.” Things manifestly appear in various ways, but their actual natures are that they are devoid of existing inherently established as what they appear to be. Therefore, they change according to circumstances. They appear in various ways to different minds and at different times, which means that their voidness of inherent existence does not negate their appearance and their appearance does not negate their voidness. Because the nature of phenomena is that they are devoid of inherent existence, they appear in various ways, and because they appear in various ways, they are devoid of inherent existence.

My understanding of these points is not very good, but I am trying to improve. These are very difficult issues and we have to accustom our minds to them. Sometimes we need to meditate on voidness, sometimes on appearance, and do so in a balanced way. Hopefully, one day voidness and appearance will arise in our minds as supporting each other. “What is amazing is the unified pair,” as the master called it whose name I cannot remember at the moment.

What I want to convey is that if all phenomena existed inherently established as something by themselves, independently of anything else, they would always exist permanently as that. But, when we analyze matters correctly, we find that things do not exist at all in that impossible way. If definite certainty about that conclusion dawns in our minds, the deceptive appearance of their previously vivid way of seeming to exist suddenly collapses without support; it falls away. Previously, seeming to have strong support, it suddenly dissolves with nothing behind it.

If we keep our minds gently dwelling on the collapse of this deceptive appearance, we will gradually be able to swear, from the depths of our hearts, to our certainty of an absolute absence of this impossible way of existing. If our power of concentration is not too strong, we cannot stay focused for long on this absence and our certainty about it, but even if only for a short moment, it is extremely beneficial. In that short moment, the previously vivid appearance of this deceptive way of existing collapses and just the non-implicative nullification, the absolute absence of inherent existence is left. At that time, there is no chance for other appearances to dawn in our minds.

Ceasing to conceive of any appearance of a consciousness taking an object and an object taken, and having no other appearances manifest, abide in this absence (voidness).

As has been said, “Not seeing is the supreme seeing.“ Therefore, to keep our minds absorbed in this bare nullification, this absolute absence or voidness, is called space-like deep awareness.

Illusion-like deep awareness is for dealing with conventional phenomena during subsequent attainment (post-meditation) periods, after we arise from voidness meditation.

(23) A bodhisattva’s practice is through, 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.

The purpose of realizing voidness is to know the proper way of coping with existence. When we realize voidness, we see the actual abiding nature of all phenomena, their actual way of existing. We then understand that our usual way of cognizing all phenomena has been false and deluded. When we realize that their appearance is deceptive, we know how to respond accordingly. If we know how to deal with something that appears to be other than it is, we won’t be deceived.

When we realize voidness, this does not mean that we reject all appearances and mentally deny them. The aim of gaining the realization of voidness is to stop the interpolation of inherent existence that our grasping for inherent existence projects onto objects when our minds make objects appear. We need to stop projecting this interpolation of things existing inherently established as something, in order to stop strong attachment or hatred for things. I believe that must be the aim or purpose of voidness meditation, and such meditation certainly is very beneficial. With space-like deep awareness, we meditate on voidness. Afterwards, the point is not to reject everything, but to see everything without interpolation or exaggeration, and thereby to stop strong desire and attachment.

When we see something attractive, but understand its actual abiding nature, this does not stop us from seeing the conventional or relative attractiveness. But, it does stop too strong an attachment to it. Attachment is always backed by unawareness and grasping for inherent existence. So, if we have realized the actual nature of something first, it makes a great difference to our way of dealing with it.

Thus, when we encounter an attractive object, it becomes for us like a rainbow in summer. It appears to be beautiful – and, conventionally and relatively, it may be beautiful – but we don’t see it as inherently beautiful. Consequently, clinging to it as inherently beautiful will not arise. If we slowly lose this grasping of the object as inherently beautiful, attachment to it due to unawareness will not arise. “Any attachment or aversion is accompanied by disturbing unawareness.” As Aryadeva has said in his Four Hundred Verse Treatise

(VI.10) Just as the cognitive power of the body (pervades the whole) body, naivety abides in all (disturbing emotions). Therefore, by destroying naivety, all disturbing emotions will be destroyed.

Therefore, although an object appears to be beautiful, as we see that it lacks inherent existence as beautiful and is impermanent, this destroys our attachment. This is a new way of ridding ourselves of attachment. In previous verses of these 37 bodhisattva practices, we got rid of attachment by realizing that the object of our attachment is impure. Here, we get rid of it by realizing that the object lacks existence inherently established, for instance, as beautiful.

If we practice both methods, it has a great effect. The first method is a temporary solution. It suppresses our attachment, but does not eradicate it. If we realize the deceptive false nature of the object of our attachment, and if we can have strong certainty about and see clearly the actual nature of the object, this will greatly help to stop our attachment to it altogether.

(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.

Hatred can arise from unpleasant circumstances or suffering. Therefore, if we realize that such suffering lacks inherent existence, and see it as though it were only illusion, this helps us to stop our hatred. To approach an unpleasant circumstance in this way is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Read and listen to the original text “37 Bodhisattva Practices” by Togme Zangpo.