Wheel of Sharp Weapons: Identifying the True Enemy

Brief Review of the History of Mind Training Texts

We have been discussing the Wheel of Sharp Weapons, by Dharmarakshita, which is included in the collection of mind training texts and seems to be the forerunner of them. Dharmarakshita was one of Atisha’s teachers and Atisha studied this text with him. Atisha later transmitted it to Tibet and passed it on to Dromtonpa. From him, its transmission and study continued in the lineage of the Kadampa tradition and, from there, to all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. 

The text speaks about the practice of giving and taking, tonglen, in which we take on the sufferings of others and giving them happiness, freedom from these sufferings, and eventually the enlightened state of a Buddha.

The main focus, as we also find later in the mind training tradition, for instance in the Seven Part Mind Training text by Geshe Chekawa, is doing tonglen with the three poisonous attitudes, which are the causes for suffering, deriving from grasping for an impossibly existent self. These three poisons are longing desire, attachment, or greed – the three come together as one package – anger and naivety. They bring on our compulsive behavior of karma, which produces, as its ripening, our suffering. 

As is usually mentioned in the various meditation texts, the greatest obstacle to concentration and deeper meditation is longing desire. The biologically driven one for sexual pleasure is its strongest form. The main parts of the text then go into the discussion of the obstacles that prevent us from being able to do tonglen practice and to be of help to others, namely the suffering that we experience as a result of our compulsive destructive behavior.

What happens is that we feel like doing something, and without discrimination, being naive and without even knowing what the consequences will be, we compulsively enter into situations in which we either repeat previous patterns of behavior, or we get into situations in which others act toward us in ways similar to those in which we previously had acted destructively toward others.

Dharmarakshita points out that when we experience others acting toward us in unpleasant ways, we need to recognize that this is the ripening of our previous pattern of acting in similar destructive ways toward others. Therefore, we need to stop repeating those old patterns and start to act in an opposite way. This gives us a very helpful indication of what to look for in our own destructive behavior and how to modify how we speak and act, and also to notice that these circumstances not only are painful for us, but they also prevent us from helping others.

All of this discussion of karma that we have in the text is aimed at us being able to overcome these negative, detrimental effects of our previous karmic behavior, so that we can be of best help to others and practice tonglen to help them.

Grasping for a Truly Established Self

The underlying cause behind our destructive behavior, behind these three poisonous or toxic emotions that bring on our destructive behavior, is our grasping for a true self. “True” here is used in the sense that for those who do not have the deepest insight and realization of voidness or emptiness, it seems as though what we experience as the self is the true self, truly established; but that is not the case. Such a so-called “truly established self” doesn’t exist at all. It doesn’t correspond to reality.

When we believe that we exist in the matter of a truly established self, we develop self-cherishing. Self-cherishing is the attitude of considering ourselves as this impossible, solidly existent entity, as being the most important one, the only one that we want to take care of. That brings on selfishness, self-preoccupation, and so many further aspects that we describe in our Western psychology. In addition, we ignore others.

In the tradition of equalizing and exchanging self with others, where we find the tonglen practices, there’s a great emphasis on seeing the disadvantages of self-cherishing, such as those emphasized in this text, and the advantages of cherishing others. Pointing this out helps us to become motivated to practice tonglen and to really want to take on the sufferings and difficulties of others.

Two Aspects of Grasping for a Truly Established Self

Let’s begin part three in this text in which Dharmarakshita identifies the true enemy that is causing us to bring so much harm to ourselves. The true enemy is our grasping for a truly established self. How that grasping arises is that our minds automatically make and emanate an appearance of a truly established self. Then we have what is usually called “ignorance.” I prefer to call it “unawareness,” because ignorance sounds like we’re stupid, and it’s not that we’re stupid. Ignorance or this unawareness is defined in two different ways. One is that we don’t know how things exist, we don’t know that this appearance doesn’t correspond to how we actually exist; and the other is that we believe it does correspond and take ourselves to exist in this way, which is actually the opposite from the way that we do exist. 

This grasping for a truly established self also has two aspects, because the word that is translated as “grasping” also means to take something as a cognitive object. The first aspect is our minds make this false, deceptive appearance of a truly established self that we take as an object of cognition. This automatically happens all the time, because our minds are limited and under the control of the continuous habit of giving rise to this sort of appearance. This deceptive appearance arises and we perceive it. Then the second aspect is that we take it to correspond to reality, and so we believe it is true. 

This second step is usually what is called “grasping,” at least in the connotation of the English verb “to grasp.” We believe that this is really how we exist. This misbelief is what we need to overcome to start with. The more that we perceive the absence of any actuality that corresponds to the nonsense that our minds make appear, in other words, the more we focus on its voidness – that absence, that total absence – the more we break the inertia of our minds giving rise to this deceptive appearance. The more we are able to focus non-conceptually on this lack of a truly established self, the sooner our minds will stop making these deceptive appearances of what resemble such an impossible self.

Conceptual Cognition with Categories

To clarify and understand what we mean by non-conceptual cognition, we need first to define and understand conceptual cognition. Conceptual cognition means cognition of something through a category. “Cognize” is the most general word to be aware of something. The term for “category” is sometimes translated as “universal” or “generality,” but I don’t find these terms terribly useful. 

A category is like a mental box in which we fit things. For instance, we have the mental category “apple.” When we encounter many similar pieces of fruit in the store, we look at them through the category “apple” and know that they all fit into the same object category. They are all the same types of object. In addition, there are names that are designated onto this category in various languages, for instance “apple” in English. Through the category, these names are also designated onto the items that we fit into the category. 

When it comes to the category “apple,” “dog” or “cat,” it’s fairly easy to see how many similar items all fit into these categories. But what about the category “me?” The example I usually give to help understand this is a series of photographs of ourselves over the span of our life. Looking at them, we’re able to fit them all into the mental box “me” and to call them all by the name “me.” They are all photos of “me,” and in this lifetime, that “me” also has an individual name, like “Alex.” 

The mental boxes start to become a little more complicated when we talk about emotions. We have a mental box called “love” and a mental box called “like,” as in, “I love you,” or “I like you.” Everybody has different feelings and they experience different emotions; so which box do we put the feeling we have toward someone in? This becomes very interesting. When does what we feel toward somebody fit into the box of “I like you” and when does it move into the box of “I love you?” Whether or not something fits into this or that box depends of course on the defining characteristics or, in other words, the definition that we give to each box.

The problem with conceptual thinking is that we always think in terms of these categories, always putting things into boxes. Definitions are either personal definitions or definitions from the dictionary. We can have words associated with these categories, but we don’t necessarily have to have words. Animals, for example, also perceive things through categories. The cow perceives “my barn” and the dog, “my master” or “food.” They have these categories, but they don’t necessarily have words associated with them.

The problem with perceiving things through categories – or if we speak of them in terms of mental boxes – is that things don’t exist in boxes. Categories and words are just conventions enabling us to understand our experiences and communicate them to others. There are the conventions “love” and “like,” but we experience a whole spectrum of emotions. Everybody experiences something different and each time that we experience anything, we experience something different. Categories and words help us to make sense of what we experience.

Distinguishing and Mental Labeling

The problem with conceptual cognition is that the appearance conceptual cognition gives rise to is that things actually exist in these boxes – they truly fit in this or that box – and there is something on the side of the object that establishes them as fitting into this or that box. This is usually a findable defining characteristic. 

If we think of the five aggregates, one of the aggregates is what is often called “recognition.” I prefer the term “distinguishing.” When we perceive things in a sense field, vision for instance, we put colored shapes together and perceive conventional objects. We also distinguish the objects from one another, like distinguishing a person from the wall, or from the cushion, and from other people around them. The aggregate of “distinguishing” functions all the time to do this; otherwise we’re just seeing a field of colored shapes or pixels, not conventional objects. But we’re not just seeing pixels. We distinguish something from everything else around it. 

To differentiate something from other things, we distinguish its individual defining characteristic – something, for example, in this photo that enables us to say that it’s “me.” Every validly knowable object has a conventional defining characteristic; otherwise, there would be no individuality. So, we distinguish some conventional defining characteristic of “me” in the photo that allows us to identify it correctly as “me” and not anybody else.

But, as I said, when we imagine things to exist in boxes, and as being truly established as being in that box, then it seems as though the defining characteristic is truly established and findable on the side of the object. It’s not. In fact, the defining characteristic is part of the mental box through which we conceptually cognize the object. In other words, just as the mental box is a convention, so too is the defining characteristic. 

What the defining characteristic of “me” is is difficult to recognize. Let’s take a simpler example. We have a mental box “love” and a mental box “like,” and we have defined, or the dictionary has defined, what each is – so, they’re conventions – and then we perceive our emotions in terms of them.

How do we conventionally establish what something is? It’s in terms of mental labeling alone. What something is is merely what the concepts and words for them refer to. There is nothing on the side of an object that can establish that it exists, even conventionally exists, as this emotion or that emotion, or as “me” or as “you.”

This is not very easy to understand. It’s something that we need to digest with a great deal of thought and analysis.

A Non-Conceptual State

Please don’t think that non-conceptual cognition means simply to stop the voice in our heads, and that if it’s quiet in our heads, without the “blah, blah, blah,” we have achieved a non-conceptual state. To be within a non-conceptual state is to cognize something not through the medium of a category or a box. Quieting the mind of verbal thought, then, is just the very first step in getting toward a non-conceptual state. We also have so many non-verbal concepts: our prejudices, our likes, and so on. All these sorts of things are non-verbal and yet we cognize things through their filter all the time.

All that is still conceptual, for example, cognizing someone through the filter of the mental box “foreigner.” In addition, we have all sorts of associations with these mental boxes, such as their defining characteristics and the qualities we ascribe to them. That’s another insight we need to get: qualities, whether good or bad, are also conventions established by conceptualization. Their existence cannot be established on the side of the object. 

In simple language, we would say that conceptual cognition is to have some idea of something, and to cognize things in terms of our ideas of what they are or should be. For example, “I have an idea of what love is,” or “I have an idea of you.” Therefore, when we see you, we fit the person we see into this idea. 

Ideas are like preconceptions. For example, we have a preconception of how someone is going to behave. We have an idea of how that person has behaved before, and it’s our preconception that the person is going to fit into that box again, because we believe their way of behaving is established on that person’s side. “You’re that kind of person.” “I’m this kind of person.” We have these sorts of preconceptions about ourselves as well. They’re part of our self-image.

Analyzing Conventional Reality

Conventionally, of course, there are patterns. We don’t want to deny or dismiss entirely the conventional truth. But, another way of translating “conventional truth” more literally in terms of the Tibetan and Sanskrit is “superficial truth.” It hides something deeper; it’s on the surface.

For example, on the surface it appears that I am truly established, solidly existent person, sitting here before you; but the deepest truth is that I am not established as a person from my own side. I’m just established like that in terms of what the concepts “me” and “person” refer to. However, I’m not merely a concept. “Me,” “I,” or a “person” is not just a concept. It is not that if we became non-conceptual, there would be no “me” or that “I” wouldn’t exist anymore as a person. That’s absurd. A Zen master would smack us with a stick if we said that. Of course, I’m a person sitting here and speaking with you. It’s not that nobody is here, or that it’s not me, it’s somebody else.

How do we establish that it’s “me” and that I’m a person? The less sophisticated schools of Buddhist philosophy, or tenet systems, such as Sautrantika, say that things are truly established because they function. They are objectively real because they are subject to cause and effect. Categories are not truly established, because they don’t do anything. They are what Sautrantika calls “metaphysical entities.” 

Dharmarakshita specialized in teaching the Vaibhashika view, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that it was his own personal, final view. The Vaibashikas say that even these categories are truly existent, because they function as objects of cognition. But the higher schools say no; they don’t do anything. A category doesn’t do anything; however, according to Sautrantika, non-static objects, such as the self, are truly established because they function. They produce effects that we can perceive.

But what does it mean when Madhyamaka says that things are not truly established? It means that just because it appears to us that something functions, that doesn’t mean that the appearance corresponds to reality. This is because the appearances seem to be of truly established existence. For instance, it appears to me that you are a really annoying person, and that appearance functions to make me really angry with you. That doesn’t establish that you truly exist as an annoying person, does it? But it functions because it appears like that in my experience. This is what Madhyamaka refutes. 

When we say, “no true self,” we are saying that what appears to us to be truly established from the side of the object – in this case “me” – is not truly established. There is nothing findable on the side of the object that can establish its existence as a “me” or a “you,” or as “this” or “that.” It’s only in terms of mental labeling with concepts and designation with words that we can establish that something is conventionally “this” or “that.” 

For example, we mentally label “me” onto all these photographs. The photographs are the basis for labeling the category “me.” Then the word “me” designated on that category refers to something. It refers to “me”; it doesn’t refer to “you” and it doesn’t refer to nobody. It refers to “me”; but it doesn’t correspond – this is what is absent – to something that we can actually pinpoint or point to on the side of the photographs and say, “There it is, ‘me.’” Remember, conceptual cognition gives the impression that things truly exist in mental boxes. The concept “me,” then, refers to the conventionally existent “me,” but doesn’t correspond to a truly existent “me.” 

There is another word in Tibetan, “mig-ten” (dmigs-rten), meaning a “backstop,” something that is holding something else up as if from the side of the object. There is nothing there on the side of the conventional “me,” like a truly existent “me,” holding it up or backing it up, that corresponds to the category or the word “me.” But, the category and the word “me” refer to something. We need to make this distinction between what categories and words conventionally refer to and something that would actually correspond to a truly existent object, as is implied by items seeming to truly fit into mental boxes.

In addition, mental labeling can be accurate or inaccurate, depending on generally accepted conventions and valid cognition. If I put everything in the category of a blur, because I’ve taken my glasses off and that’s all that I see, other people wouldn’t agree that you and I are blurs. There are various criteria on the side of the mind that establish whether the conventional truth of what things are is conventionally accurate or inaccurate. There needs to be some sort of agreement, in terms of convention.

Voidness, then, is the absence of something findable on the side of an object that establishes or proves that it conventionally exists as what it conventionally is. Take a moment to think about that. This topic is quite profound.

Guided Meditation

An easy example might be our emotions and the mental boxes that we put them in, and how they really are conventions, such as the difference between liking someone and loving someone. Is there really a solid line established on the side of our feelings separating the two, and now what we feel has crossed that line and now what we’re feeling is in a different box? Or are these boxes and the boundary between them just mentally created?


There’s a general convention about what love is – there are all these songs about “I love you,” and all of that. But although true love doesn’t exist somewhere in the sky, nevertheless, we feel something. That’s the point. Nevertheless, we do feel something – love. It’s not that we feel nothing.


How to Identify the Target

Identifying the object to be refuted is very essential, especially as the text says that we’ve recognized our true enemy. In order to refute something, or as it’s said, in order to shoot an arrow into a target, we have to see the target. In order to refute this false “me,” we need to be able to recognize and identify it in our own experience. 

How do we recognize it? How do we identify it? We start by studying and working through the so-called lower tenet systems of the different Buddhist philosophical positions. These Buddhist systems refute that what we feel is this “me” – a “self” that is permanent in the sense of being static, unaffected by anything and never changes. They refute that the “self” is some sort of solid, partless, unchanging thing that can exist independently of a body and mind. They refute specifically that, in liberation or moksha, it can be free of rebirth and still solidly exist somewhere independently of a body or a mind. The self is in fact an ever-changing imputation on an ever-changing basis of a body, mind, emotions, and so on.

A Whole and Its Parts

I think the type of phenomenon the “self” belongs to – an imputation on a basis – will be easier to understand if we go back to the example of a whole and its parts. A whole is an imputation on parts. If we distinguish between what in these lower systems are called “objective entities” and “metaphysical entities,” a whole and its parts are objectively real from this point of view. They are not nonfunctional metaphysical entities, like categories. Both a whole and its parts function.

In the case of the “self,” the parts are the body, the emotions, what we perceive, our understanding, the attention we pay to things – all of them are parts of the “self” as a whole, and both the parts and the self as the whole are objectively real and function. We can use Chandrakirti’s example of the chariot or, in modern times, a car, as a clearer example of something that changes all the time and functions. The whole car is an imputation on the parts as its basis of imputation; and just as the parts function and move, so does the car. The same is true of the “self” and the parts on which it is an imputation.

Our body is changing all the time; nothing stays the same throughout our life. If the parts are changing, how can the whole self or “me” be something that is static and doesn’t change? That makes no sense. If the whole is on the basis of the parts, then we can’t say that the whole has no parts or is partless, because it’s dependent on the parts. Likewise, we can’t say that the whole can exist separately from the parts.

In addition, the self, “me,” is changing all the time, because it’s an imputation on the body that’s changing all the time, feelings that are changing all the time, emotions and perceptions – everything, all of these parts are changing all the time. Even conventionally, we say my family life, my work life, and my sport or recreational life, and all of that. There are parts to our personality, we say that as well. It’s not that we are some solid entity that never changes – “me.” ­All of these years of photographs of “me” show that we are not solid.

Doctrinally Based Grasping for an Impossible Self

That’s the first level that we need to refute about the self. The first level is the doctrinally based belief in a soul as it is defined in the non-Buddhist Indian schools. They assert a soul, an atman that is “me,” that never changes, is partless and, with liberation, will go to moksha, liberation, free of a body and a mind. Such an assertion is doctrinally based. We have to be taught that and believe it. A dog or a baby would not think that way. Based on believing it to be how we truly exist, we would imagine that it’s this kind of “me” experiencing suffering and the causes of suffering, this kind of “me” that can be liberated and would be the one that has to gain understanding. From believing that such a self or soul is “me” and that’s how I exist, we develop disturbing emotions to try to protect or assert such a “me.” In this way, we develop what are known as “doctrinally based emotions” and problems. Believing that we exist in this doctrinally-based way is the first misbelief that we need to get rid of.

Automatically Arising Grasping for an Impossible Self

There are also automatically arising disturbing emotions and attitudes. We develop them because our minds automatically give rise to the deceptive appearance of a self, “me,” that can be known separately from its parts, separately from its basis of imputation. That automatically arises and we believe it corresponds to how we actually exist. No one had to teach us that. For example, we try to know ourselves. Know our “self?” How? We can only know ourselves by knowing something about the self. We can’t just know the self, by itself. 

The example I use is the thought, “I want people to love me for myself, not for my body, not for my mind, not for my money, not for anything like that. Just love me for ‘me.’” It’s as if that “me” could be loved separately from everything else. This belief automatically arises – that’s how we appear to ourselves. It seems to be a solid “me” that can be known all by itself. Based on this automatically arising unawareness or ignorance that there is no such thing, we have automatically arising longing desire, and based on that, we also act in destructive ways. This has to be refuted as well.

Working with Voidness: Peeling the Onion

When we work with voidness, we want to peel the onion to subtler and subtler levels of deceptive appearance that we exist in these false ways, or more precisely, that our existence is established in these impossible ways. Because the mind doesn’t know any better ­– and that’s ignorance ­– then because of our beginningless habits of our grasping for ourselves to exist in impossible ways, our minds make us appear to exist in these false ways.

When we speak of “mind,” in Buddhism, we are speaking about mental activity. Mental activity is the simultaneous arising of mental holograms and the cognition of them. Even from a Western point of view it’s like that. Light rays enter the eye, they’re transmitted as electric and chemical impulses to various parts of the brain, and then it’s basically a mental hologram that we perceive. That’s what it means to see something, or to know something. The mental hologram that arises is not just of what something conventionally or superficially appears to be, it is also of what establishes it as being that, as existing like that.

When we think of ourselves, it’s not that there is some permanent, never-changing, partless, independently existing “me” and that it can be known all by itself as a mental hologram of just “me.” Think of yourself. Think of “me.” How do you think of yourself?

Even if we just think “me,” there’s the mental sound of the word me.” We can’t think “me” without some basis like this mental sound, can we? We either have our body, our personality, something. A mental picture of our body doesn’t have to actually appear, but the mental sound of the word “me” will appear or some sort of feeling, if we don’t think of ourselves verbally. There is some feeling of “me.” 

On the grossest level, we think there is a sold “me,” to put it in very simple words, that exists independently of a body and mind, and which is not just an imputation on them. On a deeper level, we think that “me” can be known all by itself. On an even deeper level, we imagine the “me” is “self-established,” which means that there is some self-establishing nature or defining characteristic on the side of that “me” that holds it up and makes it “me.” We develop different levels of disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior based on our belief in each of these levels of impossible “me.”

The Example of a Cell Phone Ringing

[A cellphone rings.]

We just had an interruption of music from someone’s cellphone ringing, and it’s a nice example. What box do we conventionally put what we heard in? We can put it in the mental box of “annoyance,” “obstacle” or “hindrance,” and we would get an emotion that’s based on that. We have a concept of what a hindrance is, and we develop an emotion based on that. But we could also put it in the box of just “music,” and that’s all that it is, with no judgment whatsoever, or just “sound.” Or it’s an “illustration” and we put it in the box of “illustration” as an example of what we’re talking about. 

We can change a potentially negative circumstance into a positive one by putting it in a different box. That’s mind training, attitude training, in that we change our attitude of how we perceive things, while knowing that things don’t inherently fit in a box and truly exist in a box. Depending on the definition we give to the box, we develop all sorts of emotional overlay on top of it. “How wonderful it is that a phone rang,” or, “How horrible and annoying it is that a phone rang,” all depend on what box we put the sound in, and how we define the box or the category – doesn’t it?

It’s the same thing in terms of “me.” What kind of box do we put “me” in and how do we define that? What qualities do we ascribe to that, as in, “I’m always that way, it doesn’t matter what happens, I’m like that.” It’s not that there are different parts to me, it’s solid: “Everything about me is no good,” or “Everything about me is wonderful.” That’s “me,” “I’m trying to find myself, to be myself, and you are preventing me from doing that. That’s why I get angry with you.” Or, “If only I have you around all the time, that’ll make me secure and establish that I exist.” From all this, we act in destructive ways and get into situations in which others act destructively toward us. All of that prevents us from being able to help others. 

This is what we’re talking about, when we’re trying to identify the “enemy” that’s causing us all our problems. It’s this belief that we exist in the manner of this impossible self, that this is truly the self, truly “me” – truly a “me” that is never changing, has no parts, it’s solid, monolithic, can exist independently, can be known all by itself and is self-established from its own side independently of what the concept “me” refers to. 

For instance, from my side, you are so nasty; or with romantic love, you’re so beautiful, so wonderful. “If I marry you, all my problems will go away. I’ll be the happiest person in the world, if you’ll just say that you’ll marry me.”

There are these subtler and subtler levels of what’s impossible.

Catching the Enemy

Dharmarakshita continues:

(49) That really is the way that it is! So, I’ve caught the enemy! I’ve caught the thieving bandit, who laid in ambush and deceived me, the fraud who, disguised as “me,” then cheated me! Aha! This is grasping at a “true self!” There is no doubt!

In a sense, Dharmarakshita is saying it is this phantom that appears as though this is truly “me,” and when we try to assert, secure, and defend this fraud – that is what is causing our problems in life. It doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything in life; we do. We have a nice term in English, “self-conscious,” and perhaps it is in Norwegian as well. Don’t be so self-conscious about anything; just act without the “me, me,” without worry about what other people will think, and all of that. We need to be considerate, but not obsessed about “me” and what others are going to think about “me.” 

“Everybody is looking at me,” for instance, the teenager with acne thinks, who imagines that everybody is looking at their face and disgusted by their pimples. People don’t care. They’re obsessed about themselves and not some other person’s acne! Why do we think that we’re so important that everybody is looking at us? We’re not so important, but we think we’re important, because of this fraud, this “me”: “I’m important, and I should be the center of attention. People should listen to ‘me’ and do what ‘I’ tell them to do.” We need to apply opponents in order to destroy this enemy.

Destroying the Enemy

(50) Now, (Yamantaka,) raise over your head the sharp weapon of your actions! Circle it three times round your head in a forceful way! Plant your two feet wide apart for the two truths! Glare with your eyes wide open for method and wisdom! Bare your fangs for the four forces and pierce the foe!

This verse is filled with all sorts of terms for which we need to fill in the references:

Circle it three times is with the correct understanding of conventional truth, deepest truth and the two truths simultaneously. This is not easy to understand.

  • First, the conventional truth of something is how it appears. It appears in a deceptive way, as if it were truly established. Conventional truth is deceptive; however, it can also be accurate or inaccurate. It doesn’t mean that everything is inaccurate.
  • Next, deepest truth is that it doesn’t exist in the way that it appears to exist.
  • When we focus on the absence of an actual findable “thing” corresponding to the deceptive appearance, we can’t have that object also simultaneously appearing deceptively. We can’t have something both appearing deceptively like this and an absence of it appearing deceptively like this, both at the same time. It can’t both appear and not appear simultaneously. When a Buddha sees the two truths simultaneously, he sees non-conceptually and explicitly the voidness of the two truths simultaneously. A Buddha does not cognize the deceptive appearances of conventional truth, but rather, while cognizing the voidnesses of the two truths, a Buddha simultaneously cognizes what in the Gelug tradition are called “mere conventionalities.” This refers to the omniscience of a Buddha, with which a Buddha cognizes the interdependence and dependent arising of all phenomena simultaneously.

What does this mean, that the Buddha is omniscient? What follows is just my own understanding and it might not be correct. We have a couple of analogies that may be helpful in understanding omniscience. The simpler example, as Richard Feynman said, is to consider that in this room there are present the electromagnetic frequencies of every single radio station, every website, telephone call and message that have ever been. All of that is here, present in this room and, depending on the device that we have – our limited minds and so on – we can get one of them to appear on our screen. We could have appear any message, any website, any TV program, any radio program, etc. on our screen. When it appears, it will appear as though that’s the only thing that’s going on and that it’s truly established there, not dependent on parts or on all the people who made the website, or anything like that. Just – “bam!” – there it is, self-established. That’s our limited perception or limited awareness. With it, we perceive conventionally true deceptive appearance. A Buddha has unlimited hardware and perceives all the electromagnetic frequencies simultaneously.

The other analogy or image is that our limited minds collapse a quantum field into one seemingly concrete thing, but a Buddha’s omniscience doesn’t collapse the field. A Buddha is aware of the whole thing – all quantum states – simultaneously, and it is devoid of being collapsed because that’s not the actuality of things. It isn’t that there is only one website, or one message, or one telephone call, or one quantum state that’s going on at this moment. 

Whether or not these two analogies accurately describe a Buddha’s omniscient mind and a limited mind, I don’t know. But at least for myself, I find them to be helpful images. 

When we enter into a situation, then, don’t collapse it into my preconception of what’s going on. Try to get all the information. It’s like in family therapy, how the child perceives the family problem, how the mother perceives it, and how the father perceives it are all valid. We have to take all of that into consideration. It’s not only the father’s point of view, even though to the father it appears like that, and to the mother it appears like something completely different. Of course, to the child how it appears is completely different again. 

Is there a problem in the family? Yes, there’s a problem in the family. Where is the problem? Is it in any of the parts? Is it in the child? Is it in the mother? Is it in the interaction? Where is the interaction? Is it in every moment of the interaction or are there parts? We can’t locate the defining characteristic of the problem. Then, what is the problem? But, there is a problem; it’s not that there isn’t a problem. We try to see what factors affect the situation, and what we can do within the cause and effect relationships to change the factors. There is nothing solid. There is nothing on the side of the family that establishes that this is a problematic family.

We have a category such as “problem.” How do we define that? Does that defining characteristic exist on the side of the family situation? The situation must have that defining characteristic, otherwise it would fit in the category “not a problem.” We distinguish which box we put it in, “problem” or “not a problem,” based on mental labeling. We have the category of “problem” with a definition from either the dictionary or some textbook. Every culture will make a different definition and every psychologist will make a different definition. So, the category doesn’t have a set definition, but even the definition is a convention.

Can we find the defining characteristic of a “problem” on the side of the object? If so, where? Nevertheless, when we can look at the situation, then based on some defining characteristic, we distinguish it from other situations, despite the fact that we can’t locate that defining characteristic in any specific spot. The aggregate of distinguishing is functioning here, but what we distinguish as the defining characteristic is again established by convention. It is not sitting on the side of the family, having the power all by itself to establish the family as having a problem.

Circle it three times, to review, stands for the correct understanding of conventional truth – that things appear to be what conventionally they are accepted as being, but the fact that they appear to be truly established as that from their own side is deceptive. The correct understanding of deepest truth is that there is a total absence, a voidness, of something actually corresponding to the way that the existence of conventionally true objects appears to be established. Then the correct understanding of conventional truth and deepest truth simultaneously is that despite the fact that conventionally true objects appear to exist in an impossible way and although that appearance doesn’t correspond to their actuality, nevertheless everything arises dependently on cause and effect, parts and mental labeling, and functions. 

The problem is that when we focus on voidness, an absence appears. For example, we might have the absence of the apple on the table. Nothing appears, but we know what it is. It’s the absence of the apple. In the same way, when we focus on the absence of truly established existence, nothing appears, but we know that it is the absence of truly established existence. Nothing appears, and so when focused non-conceptually on voidness, there is no appearance at all of an apple or of “me” or of its basis – its parts, or my body, or my name.

Our subsequent realization, when we come out of our non-conceptual meditative absorption on this voidness, is that although conventional things continue to appear to be truly established, we implicitly know that they don’t exist in that way. During this subsequent realization phase of our meditation, our cognition of voidness is only implicit, which means that an absence doesn’t appear at the same time as truly established, conventionally true objects appear. This is the problem. We want to be able to have simultaneously some appearance of conventional objects and the absence of their impossible ways of existing; but for that to happen, it can’t be an appearance of conventionally true objects, since they appear to be truly established. We have to have the appearance of mere conventionalities that are merely dependently arising. 

For example, everything in this room is not encircled in plastic. It’s not that each website, each telephone call is encircled in plastic and separated from everything else. It’s not like that; they are all present, without that appearance of being encapsulated in plastic. This is our correct understanding of the two truths simultaneously, or something like that.

Eyes wide open for method and wisdom. For method, we have conventional bodhichitta, which is associated with conventional truth or appearance. There is the appearance of all beings, and everybody appears to be truly established. We want to be able to attain enlightenment in order to help them, so we need conventional bodhichitta. Deepest bodhichitta is associated with deepest truth, that everybody is devoid of being established as existing in the way they appear to exist. Our eyes need to be wide open for this wisdom. Two feet refer to the two truths.

The four fangs are usually explained in the mind training texts as the four forces for purification. We have this in Vajrasattva practice. We have regret, where we openly admit that what we’ve done was a mistake. It’s important to admit that it’s a mistake, but not solidly that, “It was bad,” and, “I’m bad!” We regret that we did it out of not knowing, or from having been overwhelmed by our habits – “I wasn’t thinking.” Then, we regret that we acted that way, rather than feeling guilty. We really wish that we hadn’t acted that way and hadn’t spoken like that. We then promise to try our best not to repeat it, and then reaffirm our safe direction and bodhichitta. What we’re trying to do with our life is to go in a meaningful direction, indicated by Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We’re trying to attain enlightenment and help everybody. We reaffirm that and then apply an opponent force, the deepest one being the understanding of voidness.

The Four Maras 

In the Yamantaka teaching itself, the four fangs of Yamantaka are to pierce through the four maras, often referred to as demonic forces. The Sanskrit word “mara” comes from the word for death. The four are death, disturbing emotions, the aggregates, and the son of the gods – which refers to incorrect views. These are four things that really make hindrances. Maras, when personified as demons, are the ones that make these hindrances.

If you think about it, death is horrible. We spend all our life practicing, and finally get a little bit of understanding, and then we die and have to start all over again once we are reborn with a precious human life. Maybe there’s some instinct that’ll make it a little bit easier; but we have to be a baby again, have to be toilet trained, have to go to school again, all these sort of things ­– what a drag! That is the big hindrance of death. 

Then, there are disturbing emotions, which we have discussed. How can we help someone if we just want to get them into bed with us, or we’re angry because they didn’t listen to what we said, or we ignore them because we’re too busy? These sorts of things are disturbing emotions.

The next mara is the aggregates: I’m sick, I’m old, I have a cold, I can’t help you now. It’s this sort of thing that is the hindrance.

The son of the gods refers to wrong views; gods refer to the non-Buddhist deities that represent the non-Buddhist views. It’s not that these views are totally useless, but they don’t lead to actual liberation and enlightenment. This is pointed out very strongly in the teachings on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. For example, there is possible danger if we put too much emphasis on shamatha, which is practiced in the non-Buddhist teachings as well, and not satisfied with attaining simply shamatha, we want to go further in this direction and attain the even deeper states of mental stability, the dhyanas. We could then mistake these higher and higher states of concentration for liberation because, while absorbed in them, we progressively have less and less samsaric feelings. But such states are only temporary. The samsaric feelings return when out of these states. Further, we can become very attached to these states. Concentration alone cannot bring the true stoppings of liberation. To believe that it does is a major hindrance. Only non-conceptual cognition of voidness can bring about the attainment of true stoppings.

With non-conceptual cognition of voidness, we rid ourselves of all the disturbing emotions – both doctrinally based and automatically arising – and attain a true stopping of them. Both types contain two sets of disturbing emotions.

  • The first set are those associated with the plane of sensory desires, where we are attached to others, to money, to our phone, and where we are annoyed with traffic, and all these other things. Together with these, there are also the disturbing emotions associated with the “me” that is experiencing all of these disturbing emotions regarding these sensory objects.
  • The second set are the disturbing emotions associated with the higher planes of samsaric existence, where our minds are absorbed in these dhyanas and beyond. While in these states of deep concentration, we can become overly fascinated with them. We get very attached to those states and don’t want to leave them. Then focusing on the “me” experiencing these states, we develop disturbing emotions like “don’t interrupt me,” these types of things. We grasp onto that “me” absorbed in these trance-like states as being liberated, where “now I don’t feel anything,” or “now I just feel bliss,” or “my mind is so sharp; it’s wow – fantastic.”

The mistaken view is to think that these states of higher concentration are liberation. They can be useful; no one is saying that they’re useless. But watch out, and don’t become obsessed with gaining perfect concentration and think that’s the final aim.

The Power of Mantra

Dharmarakshita continues:

(51) O King of Pure Awareness Mantras that torment the enemy, draw out the spoiler of our spiritual bonds, who brings to ruin ourselves and others – that vicious savage, called “The Demon of Grasping at a ‘True Self’” – who, causing us to get struck by the sharp weapons of karma, has been making us run through the jungle of samsara, without any control.

Pure awareness mantras, according to definition, are those that keep us mindful of discriminating awareness, or wisdom, like the prajnaparamita mantra, “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.” The old Serkong Rinpoche, my former teacher, used to say that there are three most powerful things in the universe: the power of medicine, the power of technology and the power of mantras.

Medicine can get rid of diseases, technology can help us to get rid of ordinary types of suffering, but I never really understood why he included mantras. I thought maybe it had something to do with working with your subtle energies, something like that. But the tulku, the reincarnation of Serkong Rinpoche, explained it to me. He said to look at the lines in the Heart Sutra that state,

Because it’s like that, far-reaching discriminating awareness is the (great) mind-protecting mantra, the mind-protecting mantra of great knowledge, the mind-protecting mantra that’s unsurpassed, the mind-protecting mantra equal to the unequaled, the mind-protecting mantra completely stilling all suffering. Because of its being not deceitful, it’s to be known as the truth. In far-reaching discriminating awareness, the mind-protecting mantra has been proclaimed, ‘Tadyatha, (om) gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. The actual nature: gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far-beyond, purified state, so be it.’ O Shariputra, a bodhisattva great-minded mahasattva needs to train like that (for behavior that’s) in profound and far-reaching discriminating awareness.

This prajnaparamita mantra is for the stages of the understanding of voidness as we go through the five paths all the way to liberation and enlightenment. That is the reference for mantra being one of the three most powerful things in the universe. This mantra refers to deeper and deeper understanding and familiarity with voidness. That is what is the most powerful thing. The pure awareness mantra keeps us mindful of that, this pure awareness or discriminating awareness.

Using Forceful Forms of Discriminating Awareness

 Dharmarakshita continues:

(52) Draw him out! Draw him out! Forceful Yamantaka! Batter him! Batter him! Pierce the enemy, a “true self,” right in the heart! Crash, really crash down, right on the head of (this) ruinous concept! Deal the death blow to the heart of this butcher, a “true self,” our foe.

What we want is to be forceful in our application of the discriminating awareness of voidness. We need to be forceful when we feel selfish, thinking for example, “I want this for myself; I don’t want to share it with you.” “I want to go ahead in the line and be first.” We act so selfishly, and it’s so deeply ingrained in us. It’s a very strong neural pathway. In all our lifetimes we’ve been doing that; therefore, we have to be forceful with ourselves.

(53) Hum! Hum! Produce miraculous emanations, O great Buddha-figure! Dzah! Dzah! Bind this enemy up tightly! Phat! Phat! Free us, I beseech you, from all our fetters! Slash! Slash! I beseech you, cut the knot of our grasping!

These doubled syllables, “hum hum” “dzah dzah” and so on are a forceful Tibetan style of writing to express emphasis. We want Yamantaka to appear in various forms. Yamantaka is the forceful form of discriminating awareness. However, it’s not as though Yamantaka is some solid thing, frozen into one form, but there are different emanations in different situations. This means we want our understanding to manifest in different ways in different circumstances, so that we apply the teachings, understanding and methods to various problems that come up and deal with them in a flexible, skillful manner.

(54) Come here, fierce Yamantaka, you Buddha-figure! Pray burst, right now – pow! pow! – this bag of karma and five disturbing emotions of poison, which keeps us stuck in the swamp of samsaric acts.

I think these forceful lines help us to get our energy up. There are many verses enumerating all the troubles that our self-grasping and self-cherishing have caused us, and evoking Yamantaka, the understanding of voidness, to smash it. Once again, we need to try in these verses to view them as topics of meditation. What we want to try to identify, by working with these verses, is how our grasping for a truly established self causes these problems. In other words, we need to examine how we think that we exist as this solid, self-established entity, and identify the self-cherishing that comes from that: “I’m so important – this ‘me’ is so important that it should always have its way.” “Everybody should like ‘me,’” and so on. See how that causes these problems.

Utilizing Verses to Meditate on the Disadvantages of Self-Grasping

Let’s try to meditate on one or two of these verses. This is a meditation on the disadvantages of grasping for a true self and the disadvantages of self-grasping.

(56) Our wish for happiness is enormous, yet we fail to build up a network of its causes. Our tolerance for unhappiness is little, yet our ambitious desires and greed are great. Crash, really crash down, right on the head of (this) ruinous concept! Deal the death blow to the heart of this butcher, a “true self,” our foe.

Think about this: “I want to be happy!” It’s an enormously motivating thing. We want to be happy, but we don’t want to put the work into the causes for it. Why? It’s because we’re thinking of “me, me, me” and acting in all sorts of ways that are not going to bring about happiness, because of selfishness. In fact, we’re blocking our own happiness. The problem is that grasping for “me” and the self-cherishing it brings.

 Our tolerance for unhappiness is little – we don’t want to put in the work – yet our ambitious desires and greed are great. We want so much, but are not willing to put in the hard work. It’s “me, me, me”: “I’m so special, I want things easy. I want things cheaply.” That’s self-grasping, self-cherishing. 

This is what is really helpful. As Dharmarakshita says, and as Geshe Chekawa repeats, “Put all the blame on one thing, self-cherishing. This advice is very helpful when we are unhappy. Any time that we’re unhappy, think, “So what if I’m unhappy?” We just get on with whatever we have to do anyway. “I don’t feel like going to work,” but just go anyway. Know that it’s because of self-cherishing, self-grasping that we are feeling unhappy.

I don’t want to go to work” – me – “I want to stay in bed.” “I want to look at my phone, because I might miss something.” “I don’t want to sit here at the desk and work.” Even at just the level of “poor me” – that’s a classic cause of unhappiness, isn’t it? “Poor me, I’m lonely, I’m unhappy.” “Poor me, I don’t feel like doing anything.” 

“Me, me, me” ­– that’s the true enemy. Stop being so obsessed about “me” and what “I” feel. In terms of cause and effect, just do what needs to be done, and don’t make a big deal out of anything. Let’s contemplate this verse:

(56) Our wish for happiness is enormous, yet we fail to build up a network of its causes. Our tolerance for unhappiness is little, yet our ambitious desires and greed are great. Crash, really crash down, right on the head of (this) ruinous concept! Deal the death blow to the heart of this butcher, a “true self,” our foe.

Crash, really crash down, right on the head of this ruinous concept. This refers to the concept, the category of “me, me, me.” Deal the death blow to the heart of this butcher, a true self, our foe.


Questions and Comments

What questions or comments do you have?


You use the word “naivety” instead of ignorance. I wonder if you could comment on that a bit.

I use the word “naivety” because I think it conveys the flavor a little bit more. There are two terms in Tibetan. There’s one – “ma rigpa” (ma-rig-pa) in Tibetan or “avidya” in Sanskrit – that is usually translated as “ignorance” and for that I use “unawareness.” We just don’t know, we’re unaware; “Unwissenheit” in German works much better. We either don’t know or we know in some incorrect or inverted way. That’s the definition. I’m usually taking words and definitions from the abhidharma literature. Naivety is a sub-category of this unawareness. This word is “timug” (gti-mug) in Tibetan or “moha” in Sanskrit. For that I use the word “naivety.” One definition of it is the ignorance or unawareness in connection with destructive behavior. Another definition is the type of unawareness that is directed specifically toward people. 

I find using the word “naivety” to be very useful. I use it in sensitivity training. There are two topics that we have unawareness about: we are naive about behavioral cause and effect and about how we and others exist. For example, I can be naive about how my behavior affects me, and in a destructive way I am naive about how my behavior affects you. I am working and never take a break, and so on, that’s going to be destructive to me. If I come late, that’s harmful to you.

In regard to how we exist, I’m also naive in the sense that I don’t realize that you might be busy, for example. I think a classic case is that we come home from work, or we’re at home all the time and our partner comes home from work and it seems as though they just popped up out of nowhere. “Where’s my supper?” We’re naive of the fact that the person has had so many things to do with the children during the day, it’s as if it didn’t exist, as if it didn’t happen. On the other hand, the person comes home from work and it seems like it didn’t exist that they had their whole day in the office and it could have been a terrible day. In this case we’re naive about that, and we’re naive about the fact that we’re overtired – these sort of things.

I think that “naivety” fits more, in the sense of being insensitive and so on. It fits more in terms of being unaware in a situation that’s destructive, that’s harmful. It’s not knowing; we just don’t know. “I didn’t know that you were busy.” “I didn’t know that you would take offense at what I said. I didn’t know that.” So, it’s not that I’m stupid, I just didn’t know. In English, “ignorance” has this strong flavor that we’re ignorant or stupid. It’s not that. We don’t know, or we know incorrectly. “I thought you would have time for me, but you didn’t.” “I thought you would be home when I came to visit, but you weren’t.” We knew something in an incorrect or an opposite way.

Speaking Skillfully

I wonder in your private life, if you talk to a kid or a relative, not as a professional translator, do you use what the dictionary translation is or whatever words you think will give them the correct association? It seems so much more important to use whatever word others will connect with. Does this make sense?

Certainly, when I speak with people I try to be skillful and speak in the type of terminology and so on that they will understand. But that doesn’t mean that we need to be imprecise or sloppy in our terminology. There’s a difference in the way that you speak to a child, to an adult, to a teenager, to a professor or to an uneducated person. These can be quite different. I certainly don’t try to correct people. I’m not a “grammar Nazi”; I learned that. I used to be, I’m recovering from that. 

We need to be skillful in how we communicate. Communication is extremely important. Buddha is praised for the skillful words with which he taught. In Praise of Dependent Arising, Tsongkhapa says,

(19) “Because of the line of reasoning, dependent arising, one does not become founded in an extreme view.” This excellent statement (of yours) is the cause for your speech, O Guardian, being peerless.

What makes Buddha so fantastic is his speech, his words of dependent arising. So, we have to communicate in the best ways possible.

Putting Down Others

I found verse 81 difficult to understand and I was wondering if you could discuss that a bit.

This is the verse:

(81) Our put-down of high ones is heavy; we hold holy beings to be our foes. Since our lust is enormous, we eagerly take on young people (as partners). Crash, really crash down, right on the head of (this) ruinous concept! Deal the death blow to the heart of this butcher, a “true self,” our foe.

Our put-down of high ones is heavy. “Put down” is a colloquial term in English meaning to criticize them, to put them down into a place of lower respect. For instance, somebody is a holy being, a great lama or a great spiritual master, and we criticize them. We say they’re not so good and this and that about them, and we think of them as a threat to us. Therefore, they seem to be our foe, because they’ll correct us, or these sorts of things. That’s because we’re worried about “me,” “my” reputation, and things like that. Competition is like that as well. 

The line doesn’t just have to refer to holy beings. We can see this when somebody is doing better than we are and we feel threatened. There is this tendency to want to put them down, to find their weaknesses and always talk about their weak points, rather than praising, admiring, and feeling inspired by their strong points. In that sense, we regard them as an enemy, a threat to us.

Since our lust is enormous, we eagerly take on young people as partners. We’re so attached to the body and sex, that even as an older person we try to seduce young people, as if we were still young, and they would find “me” attractive as an old person. Again, there is this concept of a solid “me” that is never changing. 

Speaking personally as an older person, our self-concept is not at all associated with what we look like in the mirror. As an older person it’s very hard to imagine – and the older people here must experience this too – from the point of view of other people looking at us, what they see. We don’t think they see an old grey-haired or white-haired person. We still imagine that we look like a younger person. With that type of attitude, we might try to seduce somebody in their twenties, when we’re in our sixties or seventies – it’s absurd. That’s what this line in the verse is discussing, this fixed idea of “me” that is not associated at all with how others perceive us and what we actually look like in the mirror.

It’s only when you’re tired that you feel your age; but other than that, we imagine we’re just the same no matter how old we are. That’s the deceptive appearance: “It’s just me,” and we don’t think in terms of age. Personally, I can’t believe that I’m going to be seventy-three. My sister just turned eighty and she says, “I can’t believe that I’m eighty. Can you imagine me eighty?” she asks. But it’s like that, this deceptive appearance as if there could be a “me” that could be known independently of the basis, an old, aging body.

Overcoming Self-Grasping Based on Different Views

Verse 49 seems quite straightforward. It seems more like it is dealing with an ethical issue, rather than indicating the view of the Vaibhashika school, which is a little bit odd since he talks about Yamantaka. I think that the inspiring part is how this term “self-grasping” is exemplified in the verses and how they introduce this concept of self-grasping. The philosophical reflections of different schools are there, but not necessarily decisive or the actual teachings. Can you comment on this a bit?

Let’s repeat the verse you are referring to:

(49) That really is the way that it is! So, I’ve caught the enemy! I’ve caught the thieving bandit, who laid in ambush and deceived me, the fraud who, disguised as “me,” then cheated me! Aha! This is grasping at a “true self!” There is no doubt!

If we look at the Buddhist teachings, the different philosophical positions, the so-called tenet systems, explain self-grasping in terms of selflessness, “anatta” on many progressively subtler levels. Likewise, I think there can be an explanation of it on a non-philosophical level as well. On that level, self-grasping is just selfishness. A “me-first” attitude – that “I’m the most important one; I’m more important than you and I should get my way” – doesn’t need to have a deep philosophical basis. Selfishness arises automatically with self-interest, and so on. Survival of the individual and survival of the species are sort of instinctive; they’re just there. I think we can understand these verses on many different levels.

When we read that Dharmarakshita upheld the Vaibhashika view, Maitriyogi upheld the Sautrantika view and Serlingpa upheld even a non-Buddhist view, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that these were their deepest understandings or their own philosophies. In the case of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, Dharmarakshita and Maitriyogi were specialists in teaching those systems and explaining the texts that teach those views. With Serlingpa, it was the case that he taught conventional bodhichitta first, not deepest bodhichitta. Serlingpa was saying that we can practice these teachings even while we think as a non-Buddhist. If we have conventional bodhichitta first, we can have that while having all the false views of the self. Still, we can want to attain enlightenment in order to be able to benefit everyone. But in order to do that, we’re going to need deepest bodhichitta and we’re going to need to understand reality. We can still practice lojong, mind training, on the basis of still holding these non-Buddhist views. Similarly, we could practice mind training just holding the Vaibhashika view, or holding the Sautrantika view, or we can practice it in a Madhyamaka way.