Wheel of Sharp Weapons: Destroying Self-Grasping

Concluding Verses of the Third Section of the Text

Having pointed out the trouble that our self-grasping and self-cherishing causes, and identifying that self-cherishing and self-grasping lie underneath the various problems and suffering that we have, Dharmarakshita finishes the third section with the verses starting at verse 91:

(91) (O Yamantaka), endowed with a Blissfully Gone (Buddha’s) Dharmakaya, destroyer of the demon, the view of a “true self” – oh, wow – (o you,) with strength and force, and possessing a skull-headed bludgeon – the sharp weapon of your actions of no “true self” – circle it three times round your head, with no indecision.

The skull-headed bludgeon represents the discriminating awareness of voidness, or emptiness. Here, circle it three times is to destroy grasping for a self, the self-cherishing attitude that comes from that, and the samsaric body with five aggregates that come from that, including the poisonous emotions.

Because of our ingrained habits of grasping for truly established existence, our minds produce an appearance resembling self-established existence. With unawareness, we don’t know and don’t understand that this appearance does not correspond to reality. Therefore, we grasp at it to actually correspond to reality. Believing like that causes our disturbing emotions to arise, which brings us to act destructively, and as a result, our actions build up karmic aftermath. That karmic aftermath gets activated with more disturbing emotions and, when it ripens, it produces, among many other things, our five aggregates – our body and mind – and what we experience.

We experience having a limited body and a limited mind. We continue to have the various tendencies, not only for compulsive karmic behavior, but also for the disturbing emotions, including the three poisons, and we continue to have, as well, the habit of grasping for truly established existence. We then compulsively repeat actions that are similar to what we have done in the past. First, we feel like doing them and that leads to more compulsive behavior and compulsively entering into situations where things similar to what we have done to others happen back to us, and we continue to have the five aggregates. This is samsara, uncontrollably recurring existence.

Dharmarakshita goes on to complete this section with the next three verses:

(92) We beseech you, free us from this enemy, with your great ferocious force! We beseech you, smash this bad thought, with your great discriminating awareness! We beseech you, protect us from karma, with your great compassion! We beseech you, demolish (this) “true self,” once and for all!

(93) As much suffering that there is in samsaric beings, heap it, definitely, I beseech you, on my grasping for a “true self!” As much of the five poisonous disturbing emotions that there are in anyone, heap it, definitely, I beseech you, on this one, who’s the same class!

In other words, we want to practice tonglen. We each have these poisonous emotions, and we are the same class as everybody else. Everybody is equal. The verse entreats Yamantaka, “Throw it on me, all of it. Let me take it on myself to deal with and dissolve. Like a peacock, I can change that poison into something that will help on the path to enlightenment.”

He concludes this section with the following:

(94) Although we’ve identified, through reason, beyond any doubt, the root of our faults, like this, barring none, if you can expose (any part of us that’s) still taking its side, we beseech you, demolish that very one who’s taking it!

To have the initial non-conceptual cognition of voidness is not enough; that’s only the beginning. We have to accustom ourselves more and more with that through the so-called “path of meditation,” or “path of accustoming.” The more that we’re able to focus non-conceptually on voidness, the more it breaks the momentum of this appearance-making of truly established existence. Eventually our minds will first stop believing in truly established existence, and then eventually it will stop making it appear.

Dedicating the Roots of Our Positive Actions to Others

The fourth part of the text begins the discussion of what can be given to others once we’ve destroyed the obstacles that prevent us from taking on these sufferings and their causes: these poisonous emotions and so on. At this point, we’ve built up a network of positive force and deep awareness from refraining from destructive behavior and acting in a positive way instead. Now we have something that we can give to others in this giving and taking process of tonglen. This section begins:

(95) Now, having placed all the blame on one thing, let’s meditate strongly on kindness toward all beings. Having taken on our own mind-streams what others never wished for, let’s dedicate to every wandering being the roots from our constructive acts. 

May others be anchored with these roots of our positive constructive behavior and understanding, so that more positive potential will grow in them.

Dharmarakshita resumes the image of the peacock:

(96) By having taken on ourselves, like that, (the negative consequences) of what others have done over the three times through their three gateways (of action), may the disturbing emotions be transformed into aids for enlightenment, like peacocks having radiant color through (feeding on) poisonous plants.

(97) And by having given to wandering beings the roots from our constructive acts, and, like curing with medicine crows who have eaten poisonous plants, having saved (then) the life of liberation for all beings, may they quickly attain Blissfully Gone Buddhahood.

With our tonglen practice, we not only dedicate to others the roots of all our positive potential for them to gain freedom from the worse states of rebirth, the attainment of higher states of rebirth, and then liberation and enlightenment, we also imagine actually giving all of that to them. Nevertheless, because, to attain these goals, others need to understand that none of what we give them has truly established existence, we want to give to others the correct understanding of voidness, the ultimate antidote to their own self-grasping and self-cherishing, which cause them to wander in samsaric rebirth. 

Therefore, again, we reaffirm this understanding of voidness.

Rest in the Alaya, the All-Encompassing Basis

In the further elaboration of the practice of tonglen that we find in the Seven Point Mind Training, Geshe Chekawa says:

The essential nature of the path is to settle within a state of the alaya, the all-encompassing basis.

This needs to be understood properly. Although we have discussed this in an earlier session, let’s look at this in more detail. According to various commentaries, there are two interpretations of what this alaya means. It’s not the same as what we have in Chittamatra, the Mind Only school. Alaya does not refer to the alayavijnana, the so-called “storehouse consciousness” or “all-encompassing foundation consciousness.” According to the Chittamatra assertions, foundation consciousness is truly established from its own side, lacks clarity of its object, is unspecified as either destructive or constructive – it can go one way or the other – and is the level of mind or mental activity that goes from one lifetime to another as the foundation on which the various karmic tendencies, potentials and habits are imputations. That’s not what Dharmarakshita is talking about here.

Alaya as One of the Buddha-Nature Factors

What we want to rest in is just the alaya, meaning the “all-encompassing basis.” It refers to one aspect of Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature refers to the various factors that everyone has, as part of their individual mental continuums, that will enable them to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha, specifically to attain the enlightening bodies of a Buddha. 

There are three different aspects of Buddha nature, as presented in Uttaratantra, The Furthest Everlasting Stream Gyulama in Tibetan – a great text by Maitreya. The three are the evolving traits, the abiding traits and the fact that the mental continuum can be stimulated by the enlightening influence of a Buddha. The evolving traits are often referred to as the “two collections.” I prefer to use the term “networks,” because they are made of many different aspects that network together. They are the network of positive force and the network of deep awareness.

The Evolving Networks of Positive Force and Deep Awareness

The network of positive force is sometimes called the “collection of merit.” We could think of a network of negative potential as well; but, only a network of positive potential is ever discussed in the traditional literature. It normally gives rise to rebirth in one of the three better samsaric rebirth states – human, asura (a would-be divine antigod) or divine being (a god) – with a body and aggregates appropriate to such states. It also gives rise to instinctive constructive behavior, positive situations that we encounter and ordinary happiness. When positive force is built up and dedicated with bodhichitta, then rather than giving rise to an ordinary, more fortunate samsaric body, it can give rise instead to the Form Body of a Buddha. Instead of the samsaric type of constructive behavior mixed with confusion, we have the enlightening activity of a Buddha; instead of our ordinary happiness, we have the ever-blissful mind of a Buddha; and instead of an impure favorable environment, we have a pure environment. Such attainments are the result of the purification and growth, with bodhichitta, of this aspect of Buddha nature. It’s an evolving network of positive force. 

There is also a network of deep awareness, sometimes called “collection of wisdom,” which is built up more and more with our continued non-conceptual cognition of voidness. We can also speak of this network in terms of the five types of deep awareness, such as mirror-like and equalizing. Dedicated with bodhichitta, this will give rise to the omniscient mind of a Buddha that knows all things and has equal love and compassion for everyone. This is the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, the Jnana Dharmakaya. We need both these networks and, as we build up more and more positive potential and deep awareness, dedicated with bodhichitta to our attainment of enlightenment, they evolve to the point where they give rise to Buddha bodies.

The Abiding Buddha-Nature

The abiding factors of Buddha-nature refer to the conventional and deepest natures of the mind. This is what we’re talking about when we talk about alaya. They abide in the sense that they are the case both in samsara and nirvana. They stay the same and never change. 

The conventional nature of the mind – our individual moment-to-moment subjective mental activity of experiencing things – refers to its defining characteristics: mere clarity and awareness. “Clarity” means the mental activity gives rise in each moment to an appearance of something which, to use an analogy, is like mental hologram. Giving rise to a mental hologram of something is what it means to cognize something or to know something. That’s the second term in the definition, “awareness,” some type of cognitive engagement. To give rise doesn’t mean that first a thought arises and then we think it. Clarity and awareness are the same mental activity, just described from two points of view. “Mere,” the third word in the definition, means that there’s only that. There’s no separate “me” that is observing the mental activity or trying to control it or anything like that. In this sense, the mind, mental activity, is non-dual by nature.

This conventional nature of the mind is the case even when our mental activity is under the influence of unawareness, self-grasping, self-cherishing and so on. Regardless of the content of our mental activity, it is still a mere arising of a mental hologram, which is a cognitive engagement. Even as an omniscient Buddha, our mental activity still retains the same conventional nature, only it’s no longer tainted by the fleeting stains of these disturbing emotions, and so on. 

The deepest nature of mind is that it’s devoid of existing in an impossible way. It’s not self-established. The fact that our mental activity is not self-established as being either samsaric or nirvanic, but arises dependently on other factors, means that the transformation to Buddhahood can take place. 

The evolving Buddha-nature factors, when fully purified, give rise to the bodies and mind of a Buddha. The abiding natures continue into Buddhahood as an Essential Nature Body, a Svabhavakaya.

The Buddha-Nature Factor of Responding to Enlightening Influence

The third Buddha-nature factor is that the mind can be inspired by the enlightening influence and enlightening activity of a Buddha. It can be stimulated to grow. The evolving factors can be stimulated or “given a boost” by the “rays of the sun,” to use a classical metaphor. This is the way in which it’s described in the texts.

Rest in the Nature of the Mind

What we want to do in our tonglen practice, after taking on the disturbing emotions and sufferings of all others, is to rest in alaya, the nature of our mind, referring to the abiding Buddha-nature factors. There are two interpretations of how to do that in meditation. Both of them are equally effective. We can meditate in terms of resting either in the conventional nature of the mind or in the deepest nature of the mind. Different philosophical positions will call both of them the deepest nature or some will make the differentiation. The point is to understand what it is actually talking about.

If we meditate in terms of resting in the mere arising of a mental hologram and awareness, then any occurrence of mental activity is like waves on the ocean of the mind. The waves are in the same nature as the ocean. When we experience these poisonous emotions, we focus on them as being just like waves on the ocean; naturally, they will settle down. 

If we meditate in terms of resting in the deepest nature of the mind, we focus on the fact that whether we experience a wave or a calm ocean, whatever we experience is devoid of self-established existence. Remember, when we speak about voidness or emptiness, it means the total absence of self-established existence, which never existed at all, since it is impossible. Voidness doesn’t mean that nothing exists. Everything, including the poisonous disturbing emotions, arise dependently on other factors.

Dependent Arising

Dependent arising has three levels of meaning. First, impermanent things, non-static phenomena that are subject to change, arise dependently upon causes and conditions. For example, a samsaric body arises dependently on causes and conditions, such as a mother and a father, the mental continuum of some previously existing sentient being containing unawareness of reality – these sorts of things.

A second level of dependent arising is that all things, whether static or non-static – meaning whether they change or don’t change – arise dependently on parts. The third level is dependent arising in terms of mental labeling with concepts and designation with words. It is not that conceptual thought creates things; it doesn’t create things. Whether or not we have a concept of pain, we still feel something. Things still function; but whatever phenomena conventionally exist, they can only be established as conventionally existing dependently on what the conventionally accepted concept and name for them refer to. This is the third level of what dependent arising means.

Although things appear to be self-established – meaning established from something on their own side, independent of dependent arising – that is like an illusion. It’s deceptive. It appears like that, but it doesn’t really correspond to reality. The actuality is that things dependently arise. We can only establish their conventional existence in terms of their dependence on causes and conditions, parts, and what the names and concepts for them refer to.

Thus, Dharmarakshita states:

(104) Hey, those like me! All of those are things that dependently arise, and what relies on dependently arising cannot be self-supporting. Changing into that over there and changing into this over here, their false appearances are an illusion. They are reflections that (merely) appear, like a whirling firebrand.

(105) Like a plantain tree, our life force has no core. Like a bubble, our life span (too) has no core. Like a fog, having descended, they’re things that disperse. Like a mirage, they’re things that are beautiful (just) from afar.

(106) Like reflections in a mirror, they seem so real, so real. Like a cloud or a mist on a mountain, they seem to stay and to stay.

These verses are a poetic way of expressing what we’ve been discussing. Things appear to have a core, something inside them that establishes their existence, but this is what voidness is refuting. There is no such thing, from the side of an object, that like a core makes it stand up.

Things are also not like blank cassettes, with our minds projecting different things on them. That’s another wrong view. It’s not like that. It’s not that there is something there – that the thing itself is there, established from its own side ­– but what it is, its qualities, and the name that we call it are projected onto it from the mind. Nothing is like that either. It appears like that and one level of understanding would lead us to think like that. We might imagine and believe that there’s just “me” – some sort of neutral, solidly established entity – in this lifetime that “me” has this name and in that lifetime has that name, and so on. But, it’s not like that either, although it appears like that.

Even if we think from a scientific point of view, we have atoms, subatomic particles, waves, energy fields, and so on, and there are no solid boundaries around anything, are there? Things aren’t encapsulated in plastic or like in a child’s coloring book with lines around things that make them into things to color, separate from what’s around them. That’s another level of dependent arising, in that things arise dependently on a context.

If we think about it, a wonderful example is how we differentiate the various emotions and mental factors that we simultaneously feel at any one time. We could have anger or desire, but at the same time there’s some level of concentration, some level of attention, although it might not be very strong, some level of interest, and some level of unawareness or ignorance. There’s also some level of grasping. It could be mixed with a level of love, when we love someone, but are very much attached to them. In this case, there’s some exaggeration going on, and we’re only distinguishing certain aspects of the person.

How do we differentiate in all of that the individual factors that make up this moment of experience? It’s not as though they are each separate and encapsulated in plastic, with a big line around each of them, is it? All these factors are interactive; they are interdependent. Yet, conceptually, we can isolate each of them. The technical term for the conceptual tool we use to do that is a “conceptual isolate” (ldog-pa), which literally means “nothing other than what it is.” Conceptually we can isolate something and give it a name; but in actuality, all the components making up any moment of our experience are all interdependent, aren’t they? However, the appearance is that the entire mixture of mental factors is self-established as some sort of solid thing, something like “my bad mood.” But it’s made up of all these pieces and they’re all changing all the time. In the text, various images are used to depict all these points such as a plantain tree, which has concentric rings of bark, but no middle in it; or a bubble, a fog, a mirage, reflections in a mirror, and so on.

The False Self Never Had Truly Established Existence

We need to be careful here. The impossible self, the truly established one, never existed at all. There was only an appearance of something that resembled it. It is the conventional self that dependently arises.

(107) This butcher, a “true self,” the enemy, is like that. Seeming like it exists and exists, it never has existed at all. Seeming like it is true and true, it’s never been experienced as true anywhere. Seeming like it appears and appears, it’s beyond being an object that can be added or taken away.

If something doesn’t exist at all – like this false “me” – we can’t add it on or take it away from something. It was never there. We just imagined that it was there. Our minds produced some sort of appearance that represented it and that seemed like it. It’s not that our minds generate truly established existence and project it onto something. Our limited minds produce an appearance of something that is like true, self-established existence; but it can’t create something that doesn’t exist. We can create an image of Father Christmas or of Santa Claus, but we can’t actually create Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or Mickey Mouse. What our minds are producing is an appearance that represents something that is nonsense and doesn’t exist.

No Phenomenon Has Ever Had Truly Established Existence

This total absence of true, self-established existence is also the case with all phenomenon. This next verse demonstrates clearly that this text is not just a Hinayana or Vaibhashika text that only accepts the lack of an impossible self of persons, despite Dharmarakshita being a specialist in explaining Vaibhashika. This is quite clear because the text also presents the voidness of karma, of the disturbing emotions, and so on as well.

(108) Whatever sharp weapons of karma that that (butcher) possesses, although they, too, lack self-establishing natures, like this (enemy) does, they dawn like the reflection of the moon in a full cup of water. These karmic causes and effects are assorted displays that are false, yet, while being mere appearances, hey, I tell you, “We must accept and reject (the appropriate actions).”

Whatever sharp weapons of karma that that (butcher) possesses, although they, too, lack self-establishing natures, like this (enemy) does means that all phenomena are devoid of truly established existence, not just the self. Nevertheless, they dawn like the reflection of the moon in a full cup of water. These karmic causes and effects are assorted displays that are false, yet while being mere appearances, hey, I tell you, “We must accept and reject the appropriate actions.” This is very important, this “nevertheless” clause. Although things appear to be truly established, they are not; they are devoid of existing in that way. There is no such thing as a reality that corresponds to things wrapped in plastic generating themselves independently of everything else. Nevertheless, things function and, because of that fact, we need to accept and reject the appropriate actions. We need to reject destructive behavior based on the three poisonous emotions and accept the behavior that is based on the opposite of them and do this with understanding.

It’s important not to fall into the nihilist extreme of thinking that, just because the conventional or superficial truth of things is the fact that they appear to exist with a deceptive appearance of being self-established, this doesn’t mean that conventional objects don’t exist at all. If they didn’t exist, then cause and effect wouldn’t operate. 

If it were true that our suffering didn’t exist and that we don’t exist, then all of us would be free of all our problems. But clearly, we’re not free, and this isn’t the case because we continue to create problems for ourselves. Nihilism is an incorrect understanding. Instead, realizing that everything is merely like an illusion, we need to reject destructive behavior and wrong views and accept constructive behavior and right views. Cause and effect still operate, although they are like an illusion.

Three Types of Discriminating Awareness

Dharmarakshita continues:

(109) When, in the dream world, there blazes an eon-ending fire, though it lacks a self-establishing nature, yet we’re still terrified. Likewise, though what occurs in the joyless hell realms and the like lack self-establishing natures, yet because of fear of being boiled, burned, and so forth, we need to abandon (their karmic cause).

(110) When we’re delirious with a fever, even though there’s no darkness, (we feel like) we’re passing into a deep, long cavern and suffocating. Likewise, although unawareness and so on lack self-establishing natures, we must clear away their delirium with the three types of discriminating awareness. 

As for the three types of discriminating awareness, there is the discriminating awareness that comes from listening to the teachings, or reading them, so that we discriminate between what are the correct words and what are the incorrect words. This was especially important when listening to the teachings was the way they were memorized. The words of the Buddha were passed on by memory in the early centuries, so one had to be sure that what was heard was correct, and that what the person was reciting was correct. There is this discriminating awareness. Very often, somebody says something, but we hear something different, and we don’t remember it correctly. To actually get the correct teaching and be certain that this is what the teaching says is the discriminating awareness from listening.

Then, we have the discriminating awareness from thinking, with which we correctly understand what the teaching means and we are convinced of its validity. We get this by thinking it over and analyzing it.

Lastly, we have the discriminating awareness from meditating, which means that we’ve actually accustomed ourselves to a teaching so that we actually apply it properly in our lives. Discriminating in that sense means that we really internalize it. Those are the three types of discriminating awareness.

Happiness and Suffering Dependently Arise

(114) When we experience any happiness or suffering as a karmic result, it isn’t by means of the first instance of its cause, and it isn’t by means of the last instance and so forth. We experience happiness and suffering through a dependently arisen accumulation. Yet, while being mere appearances, hey, I tell you, “We must accept and reject (the appropriate actions.)”

Things arise dependently on causes and conditions, one after the other. This is from the basic teachings on karma. A result doesn’t just come from one cause, but from a network of many causes and conditions. One cause doesn’t necessarily give rise to one result. It gives rise to a whole network of consequences that follow from some action. 

Things are also dependent on parts. As Buddha said, a bucket is not filled by the first drop or the last drop, it’s filled by the accumulation of drops. We’ve built up many causes over many lifetimes, and what we experience is the ripening of a whole accumulation of causes. 

There are so many things ripening at the same time. For example, we have a karmic tendency, so we feel like doing something. But, there’s also a tendency of a disturbing emotion, so some aspect of that is going to arise at the same time. In addition, there is some level of attention or concentration that is going to ripen. All the mental factors have tendencies, and they all have different strengths and different aspects, and different conditions are going to affect the outcomes.

Something could be annoying us, but we could be very sleepy at the same time. That’s another condition that affects how we respond. All these are parts; nothing is solid. What we experience is a big network of many things.

The Necessity for Meditating on Conventional and Deepest Bodhichittas

(115) Wow! These appearances of pleasant things which, unexamined (seem to exist as if) all alone, have no core, and yet these things (still) appear as if truly existing! That’s profound! But, it’s difficult for the lesser-minded to see.

Dependent arising is not so obvious. Nothing is easy. Therefore, we need to meditate on both conventional and deepest bodhichittas and, in that way, obtain enlightenment. Dharmarakshita concludes with this point with the final verse:

(118) By practicing conventional bodhichitta and deepest bodhichitta like that, and bringing to completion, without interruption, our buildup of the two enlightening networks, may we attain the splendor (of enlightenment), fulfilling the two aims.

The two aims are, first, the attainment of a Svabhavakaya, an Essential Nature Body – the true stopping of all obscurations, equivalent to the voidness of the mind. This is the aim of deepest bodhichitta, and its attainment fulfills our own purposes to be able to help others. To fulfill the purposes of others, we aim for a Jnana Dharmakaya, a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya – an omniscient, all-loving mind. This is the aim of conventional bodhichitta. The omniscient, all-loving mind of a Buddha gives rise to various appearances, Form Bodies, with which we will actually help others, by teaching them and so on. Although such forms will appear to be self-established to the limited minds of sentient beings, that doesn’t matter. Even though their minds will give rise to deceptive appearances of the Form Bodies, nevertheless, in these forms, we can help others and inspire and uplift their Buddha-nature factors, their positive potentials and so on, to ripen. Through this enhancement, others will begin to act in more positive ways, gain more understanding, and so on.

Giving a Correct Understanding of the Two Truths

This concludes our discussion of the text, The Wheel of Sharp Weapons. In the end, with tonglen practice, we want to give others a correct understanding of the two truths.

On a superficial, conventional level, things appear to be self-established as if they have something inside them that makes them what they are, from their own side, independently of everything else.

That’s just a deceptive appearance; nevertheless, conventional objects function. And so, when interacting with conventional things, if we act in destructive ways, it brings suffering. If we act in positive ways, it brings our ordinary happiness. If we act in positives ways together with bodhichitta and dedicate the positive force from our acts properly, that positive force can contribute to our attainment of enlightenment.

We want to give that understanding of karmic cause and effect to others, and we want to give them the understanding of the deepest truth as well. So, with conventional bodhichitta, we are dedicated to benefiting others, “I’m going to help them.” We do this through conventional appearances. In addition, “I’m also going to help them with deepest bodhichitta so that they then have the understanding of voidness as well.”

With tonglen, we take on the poisonous emotions of others and dissolve them into the all-encompassing basis or foundation, alaya. Within that state, we can give to others the basic qualities of this basis, such as compassion, bliss, understanding, and so on. We can also give to others the five types of deep awareness – mirror-like, equalizing and so on – as further aspects of the nature of the mind. We can also give others the potentials we’ve built up for attaining all these aspects. There are many ways of explaining what we can give to others with tonglen

It is only when we settle down to that very basic foundational level of the nature of the mind that we are able to make the transition from the sadness of feeling the pain and difficulties that everybody has from their disturbing emotions to emanating happiness to them. It’s not that we become furiously angry or that we become stupid when we take on their anger or ignorance. We need to let their disturbing emotions settle down so that we can access the qualities of the all-encompassing basis and give all these positive things to others.

Three Types of Compassion

When we are practicing tonglen, taking on the three poisonous emotions from others, we of course need to accompany our practice with compassion: “May they be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.” This reminds me of the three types of compassion that Chandrakirti speaks of. 

First of all, we have compassion for others because they are suffering from the three poisonous emotions, and they don’t even realize that they’re suffering. With tonglen, we take on from them these three poisons and the unhappiness they bring them and give them the understanding that these disturbing emotions are true causes of their suffering and unhappiness. When we’re lustful, angry or naive, these really are not very happy states of mind, are they? 

The second level of compassion is in terms of impermanence. When others experience these disturbing emotions, they don’t recognize or understand that these emotions are impermanent, and that they themselves are impermanent and changing all the time. Because they don’t understand such things, they suffer. With compassion, we want to take on from them that suffering of not knowing impermanence and give them a correct understanding of it.

Then, there is compassion in terms of voidness. Others don’t understand the voidness of what they are experiencing and that they themselves are devoid of truly established existence. It’s really sad that they don’t understand that. Therefore, we want to take that on and remove this cause of their suffering from them and give them the correct understanding of voidness.

These three types of compassion, mixed with so-called compassionate wisdom, are very helpful in our practice of tonglen.

To repeat, we want to give them the understanding that they themselves are suffering, they themselves are impermanent, and they themselves are devoid of truly existing. Of course, it’s not as though a truly existent “me” is going to non-dualistically help those poor suffering creatures over there. We need to have this understanding of suffering, impermanence and voidness on all levels and that both the objects of our compassion and we ourselves have these three characteristics. We want to give the antidotes of correct understanding to everyone, including ourselves.

Let’s take a few minutes to settle down and think about these points. Then we have plenty of time for questions and discussion.


Questions, Comments and Discussion

What to Give Others Who Are Depressed          

I have occasions where I meet people who are rather depressed, and even if I think this has to do with their belief in a truly existent self, I cannot say that. What do we ask them to try to help them differentiate their feelings? “What are you sad about?” or “Why are you angry?” and all of that?

The main focus in this tonglen practice is to use it to help overcome the hesitation that we have on our side to help others. We don’t want to help them because we’re thinking too much about “me, me, me.” “I’m busy, I have other things to do, I don’t feel like it, it’s too difficult, it’s too messy,” etc.

What we want to do is work on the hindrances that come from our side. As for what to give others to help them, it doesn’t mean that we necessarily start to teach them about voidness – certainly not. It’s one of the bodhisattva vows that we don’t teach voidness to those who are unprepared, because they would misunderstand it. When we see somebody who is depressed and discouraged about life, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, we need to remember that hope is the best antidote to depression. We need to point out something that is at least going okay in their life. We need to put more emphasis on the positive rather than on the negative side of what’s going on in their life.

Shantideva’s general advice is if it’s something that we can change, why feel badly about it, just change it. If there’s nothing we can do, why feel badly about it, because it’s not going to help. That’s a very profound teaching. For example, our plane is delayed. There’s absolutely nothing we can do about that, so why get upset? All it’s going to do is make us miserable and unhappy. That’s not so easy to implement; nevertheless, that’s the way to deal with it. “There’s nothing I can do, so I have to accept it.” We try to make the best of the situation, such as by using the delay as an opportunity to read, to talk to somebody – something.

With suggestions like that, we can help others to change their negative circumstance into a positive one. This is a more general mind-training teaching.

Our Mental Continuums and Buddha-Nature Factors Have No Core

Verse 105 is about our life force, which has no core, and all the other things that have no core. That is, I understand, because of their appearances and so on, but it also says our “lifespan has no core.” How should we see our mental continuum and its Buddha-nature? I know it isn’t our core, but how should we look at this?

Remember, Buddha-nature is not one thing. There are various factors that will allow us to attain the bodies of a Buddha. When we talk about the evolving factors, these two networks, they are imputations on our mental continuums in terms of cause and effect. We have done various positive actions such as practicing many different types of meditations and we’ve had various sessions with deep understanding of the four noble truths, the two truths, etc. These are causes and they will have effects in the future. Both these causes and their results are experiences on our mental continuums.

But now on our mental continuums, when the causes are no longer happening and their effects or results are not yet happening, we have presently happening tendencies and potentials from these causes that can ripen into their effects. These tendencies and potentials are imputations on our mental continuum as their basis for imputation, and the network of positive potentials is an imputation on all these positive potentials. But, as in the case of other imputations, the defining characteristics of that potential and its network are not found in the basis of imputation, the mental continuum. A poetical way of saying that is that what is imputed has no core. 

It’s like the example of self. Is there some defining characteristic of “me” that has the power to establish me as “me?” If so, where is it? Is it in my hand? Is it in my emotions? Is it in my personality? Where is it? Even if we say it’s in the DNA, if we just have a piece of DNA, is that “me?” 

Chittamatra, the Mind Only School, says that the defining characteristic of the self is in the alayavijnana. The Svatantrika branch of Madhyamaka says it’s found in the mental consciousness. But according to the Prasangika branch of Madhyamaka, the defining characteristics of the self and of the networks of positive potential and deep awareness are not findable on the side of the mental continuum. Even the defining characteristic of the mental continuum itself is not findable in the mental continuum. After all, a mental continuum is just individual, subjective moment-to-moment-to-moment-to-moment experiencing of things, and there’s only one moment of it happening at any one time. The defining characteristic of what’s imputed is not found in the basis; it is established merely by mental labeling.

A mental continuum or mind, like all other validly knowable objects, does, of course, have its conventional nature and conventional defining characteristic: otherwise we would be unable to distinguish it from anything else. But there is nothing on the side of the mind that establishes that it has that conventional nature and defining characteristic. The same is the case in terms of the deepest nature of mind, its voidness. There is nothing findable on the side of the mind that establishes its voidness. Voidness is not something like a black hole inside of an object; and the defining characteristic of mind – mere clarity and awareness – isn’t some sort of “thing” sitting inside each moment and making it mental activity, like announcing, “I am mere clarity and awareness.” That’s not there. We can only establish the conventional existence of “mind” in terms of what the concept and word “mind” refer to and we can only establish the conventional existence of voidness in terms of what the concept and word “voidness” refer to. 

Things having no core means there is nothing deep inside anything – nothing from the side of any object – that is findable upon analysis and holds it up or backs it up. Something findable that has such a power to back up what is imputed on a basis is called a “self-establishing nature,” rangzhin (rang-bzhin) in Tibetan, sometimes called an “inherent nature.” Voidness is the negation, the total absence of a self-establishing nature. There isn’t anything whose existence can be established by a self-establishing nature, because there is no such thing as a self-establishing nature.

Even the essential nature of things – ngowo (ngo-bo) in Tibetan – their conventional defining characteristic, doesn’t establish them as what they conventionally are by its own power. This word “establish” – drub (grub) in Tibetan – is related to the word to “affirm” (sgrub) that something is what it is. 

With voidness, we’re not talking so much about the refutation and absence of impossible ways in which things exist, but about impossible ways to establish that something exists. How do we establish or how do we know that something exists? The initial understanding would be that it does something, it functions and therefore it exists. For instance, “It hurts, therefore there is pain; pain exists.” There is a certain truth to that; however, it deceptively appears as though this is a truly established wound that is hurting. Our understanding of the situation is not so deep.

So, what establishes that something exists? Is it that we perceive it? Well, we also perceive nonsense; so that doesn’t necessarily establish or prove that something exists. Another variation of the same word “to establish,” “to affirm,” is “to prove” that it exists. What proves that something exists? What establishes that it exists?

The only thing that proves or establishes that something exists is that we have a concept and a word for it, which a group of people agree with – including the defining characteristic or definition of the word – and the concept and word refer to something that we can validly experience and which is not contradicted by valid cognition of either its conventional or its deepest truth. But it is not that there is something concrete and findable sitting out there, like a blank screen, and we are projecting our concepts and words onto it. It’s not like that.

All of this requires a great deal of reflection and digestion, and not just from a theoretical point of view. We need to try to see what it means in our lives. In the beginning, we should focus our efforts on understanding the voidness of persons, “me” and “you.” For example, we tend to think, “I’m really annoyed with you because you did this and you did that.” When we start to work with voidness, we analyze and contemplate, “Who is it that is angry?” “Who is it that I’m angry with?” and then we can go on to analyzing, “What is it that I’m angry with?”

What’s going on at this moment when anger arises? We analyze by thinking of the five aggregates. There’s the seeing of certain actions, the hearing of sounds and words, the physical sensation of being hit, or whatever it is. We are distinguishing that physical sensation from the temperature of the room. There’s attention: I’m paying a lot of attention to this. There’s concentration: I’m very awake. There are many pieces or parts, and “me” as a person is an imputation on all of that. 

But where is this “me?” There is no “me” that is separate from all these factors and that is experiencing them. If the “me” were encapsulated in plastic and all these things that are going on over here are also encapsulated in plastic, that would be classic duality. How can there be any connection between them? Is there a cable between them in which the information gets transmitted? That’s silly. But also, I’m not identical with any one of these pieces of my experience, so where is the “me?” Where is the defining characteristic of “me” in any of this?

And as for “you,” the person I’m angry with, someone said a whole string of words and acted in a certain way. Their action was made up of a string of moments in which their hand was here, and then there, and then there. The person, “you,” and the action are both imputations on all of those moments. But as we analyzed with “me,” where can we find the object of our anger – the person, “you” – and where in all those moments can we find the action? What is it that we are angry with and who is it that we are angry with? It’s important to deconstruct not just the object of our anger, but first and most importantly, we need to deconstruct the “me” who is feeling this anger. If we only deconstruct the object of our anger and neglect deconstructing “me” who is angry, we will undoubtedly fell angry again, later on, about some other person or thing. 

We start to analyze our experience like that. It’s only when we start to work with this type of deconstruction, and experience some effect from it, that we start to really become convinced. First, we work with voidness logically and then experientially. Logic first, so that we’re convinced that the analysis is reasonable and not crazy. We don’t want to start applying something that we think is crazy. First, we use logic and it takes time. Our negative neural pathways are very deeply embedded, even if we think in terms of only this lifetime. Our thinking along these pathways has been going on since we were infants, let alone since previous lives. These so-called “tainted aggregates” are almost biologically wired into us. The instinct for self-preservation is very strong; it’s “me, me, me!”

It is always said that the easiest moments to recognize that false “me” are moments of very strong emotion. The classic example is when someone accuses us of something that we haven’t done. “You’re a thief, you stole something!” and then we reply “What? Me? I didn’t do that!” Then, the sense of a “me” separate from everything else becomes really strong: “How dare you say that to me!” At a really advanced level, we need to be able to do tonglen at times when others are similarly thinking so strongly “me, me, me” and with such emotion.

How to Choose Who to Help

Can I ask some advice about helping others? There are people who tell you to go away and get lost. They say they need help, but they don’t want to talk. They are lonely and they don’t want to interact, perhaps like many homeless people living on the streets. How do we help and who do we help?

Let me share with you the advice that His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave me when I mentioned that there are so many areas in which I can work to help others and asked what I should focus on. He said, “Do what you are most qualified to do and there aren’t many other people doing it; and that there are others that are receptive to your help.” Then, when I discussed this later with Ringu Tulku, he added, “Something that you enjoy as well is okay.” We can add that on top of it.

So, see where you can be the most effective and what is it that you’re the most qualified to give. Let’s say if you’re a doctor, you can give medical help, and that’s much more effective than helping somebody put up a tent. Although they might need help putting up the tent, but if you could help them medically, better to do that. If there are a ton of doctors around or there is none else there to help put up the tent, that’s something else. But helping them in any way is only possible if they’re receptive. If they’re not receptive, even Buddha couldn’t help them. There is a Buddhist saying: “The sun shines equally to everybody, but to be warmed by the sun, you have to come out into the sunshine.”

How Best to Help

I was volunteering for the Red Cross for some time, helping people get to normal life when they come out from prison. I was a bit frustrated about giving this kind of help, if it really made a difference. Also, I am an electrician in daily life, and I was a little bit tired about fixing wires. I didn’t really feel that that was helpful for most people, because they need spiritual help.

If we look at the teachings on the so-called “lower realms” – the states of worse situations of suffering – first, we want to alleviate them of their gross suffering. If somebody is starving, we don’t start teaching them a prayer. We give them food. If their electricity doesn’t work in their homes and they can’t cook or heat their homes, we fix their wires. We have to start on a material level. If physical suffering is too intense, they’re not receptive to spiritual help at all.

A great deal of the skill in helping others is taking in the information. Try to get as much information, see what their situation is, what is available. Find out all the information and see what really is troubling them.

To do this, we need to employ the five types of deep awareness:

  • With mirror-like deep awareness, we take in the information about the person.
  • With equalizing deep awareness, we fit that information together with what is similar so as to understand the patterns.
  • With individualizing deep awareness, we view the specific person as an individual; it’s not just one size fits all.
  • With accomplishing awareness, we are willing to actually do something, to see what to apply that will help.
  • With sphere of reality, dharmadhatu deep awareness, we view the situation for what it is and how it exists; we don’t freak out, “Oh, it’s such a horrible problem.”

These teachings on the five types of so-called Buddha wisdom, the five types of deep awareness, indicate the states of mind and types of awareness we need for actually helping others. If we haven’t taken in all the information, we don’t understand what the problem is. We ask, look, observe, see. We have to have some basis from our own experience, so that we can fit what we observe into some pattern in order to have some idea of what to do. But we need to customize the pattern and how we will handle it to this individual person. We don’t just take our instructions out of a textbook that says this is what we must always do. In addition, we need to be willing to actually do something, and don’t freak out.

Rebirth and the Six Realms

I have a question about what Buddhism professes compared to our current philosophy which is very much materialistic and reductionist. Basically, we only know that there is this life, and what goes beyond that is just a matter of speculation and is considered, basically, a waste of time. Sometimes Buddhists seem to adjust to that philosophy by being very non-assertive in terms of stating viewpoints about other states of beings, previous lifetimes, future lifetimes, and also the transcendental state of Buddhahood. First, you can just take all these things as a matter of faith. If you want to believe in it, you do, and if you don’t feel like it, you don’t. You can even just take Buddhism as a matter of relaxation and being a nice person. Or you can also be like the scholars in India in the old days who would explain something with proofs or evidence suggesting there are such things as rebirth, karma. Things like this seem to make the Buddhist enterprise meaningful. Maybe we shouldn’t only look at this planet and people here in our own life; there’s much more than that. Now it seems to be a rather challenging topic, because if you stress the intellectual part of Buddhism, then traditional Buddhism might be considered at a high level dogmatic or something worse. What would your comments on this issue be?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama differentiates three areas within Buddhism. There’s Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist religion. Buddhist science deals with the analysis of the mind, the emotions, perception, logic, and these sorts of things. Buddhist philosophy deals with the view of reality, which is quite close to that of quantum physics. Buddhist religion deals with karma, rebirth, different realms and so on.

He says that Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy are subjects that anybody can benefit from learning, and that it’s not necessary at all to delve into Buddhist religion – that’s for Buddhists. But the teachings of Buddhism in science and philosophy are things which can be of benefit to everyone. He has sponsored a project to collect the texts that deal with science and philosophy in the Buddhist scriptures and Indian commentaries and to have them translated into various languages. I think this is a very appropriate and helpful way of looking at your concern. 

The scheme that I came up with and have been using differentiates “Dharma-Lite” from “Real Thing Dharma.” Dharma-Lite is a light version of the Dharma without rebirth, without the hell realms and these sorts of things. This version includes the general teachings on the Buddhist analysis of the mind, on reality and so on. This is fine as long as we don’t call the Dharma-Lite version the Real Thing and claim that this is all that Buddhism teaches and deny that Buddha spoke about such topics as rebirth, the six realms and so on. Those topics are there in Buddhism, and that’s the Real Thing.

There are many reasons why it’s necessary to make this distinction that Dharma-Lite is not Real Thing Dharma, especially in order to understand the Buddhist presentation of behavioral cause and effect. Unless individual minds are beginningless, there are many illogical consequences that follow concerning how cause and effect work. For instance, how can things come into existence and start from nothing and end with nothing? How can a nothing become a something? There are a lot of problems with that. A nothing can’t become a something, nor can a something become a nothing. This point is very important when we consider the consequences of our behavior in terms of behavioral cause and effect. A nihilist position of asserting that our behavior has no consequences if its effects on us do not appear in this lifetime is one of the important shortcomings that arise from beginningless mind not being included in the Dharma-Lite version of Buddhism. Karma is not going to make much sense. 

As for the Dharma teaching about other realms, the spectrum of happy and unhappy, or pleasure and pain if we take it on a sensory level, is not just limited to what the hardware of a human body can experience. The spectrum is much larger. The human body goes unconscious when the pain and suffering is too much. But we could imagine a body that doesn’t shut down. Such a body could experience much further on the scale of horrible pain and unhappiness. Analyzing like this opens us up to not just thinking of the limitations of human hardware, but also to developing more compassion for those who suffer.

But don’t confuse things. Don’t be unfair to the Buddhist teachings by saying that it’s only meditation and mindfulness; it’s only about being a nice person, and so on. There are certain basic factors that make something a Buddhist teaching, and we can’t just drop them in asserting Dharma-Lite. The four hallmarks of the Dharma: suffering, impermanence, selflessness, nirvana is peace. These are the basic things that identify a teaching as being Buddhist, so those must be there.

[See: The Four Hallmarks of the Dharma]

Concluding Advice

I think that the conclusion from all these questions is that it’s very important to think about and analyze these points that Dharmarakshita presents about karma and so on. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes that analysis and correct understanding are the most important factors for correctly practicing the Dharma. What he spends the most effort on is analytical meditation to fit all the different teachings together and understand how to apply them. 

Like His Holiness, we need to try to make sense of everything in the teachings. We then need to familiarize ourselves fully with them in repeated analytical meditation so that we automatically apply them in our daily lives. This is very important. The more we learn the teachings, the more pieces of the Dharma puzzle we’re able to put together. That’s the whole adventure and excitement of the Dharma: we get pieces of the puzzle here and there, and the more pieces that we get, the more we can fit together. And they fit together in many different ways, not just one. Have fun with it. Thank you.

Read and listen to the original text “Wheel of Sharp Weapons” by Dharmarakshita.