Wheel of Sharp Weapons: Tonglen Done with the Three Poisons

Contrasting Bodhisattvas with Ordinary Beings

The text, Wheel of Sharp Weapons, begins with Dharmarakshita contrasting bodhisattvas with ordinary beings. Bodhisattvas practice tonglen – giving and taking – taking from others the three poisonous disturbing states of mind or emotions and giving them the antidotes. The toxic states of mind refer to longing desire, anger and naivety. Bodhisattvas also take on from others the sufferings that come from acting on the basis on these poisons. The contrast with ordinary beings is that, rather than taking on and transforming the three poisonous emotions, ordinary beings are damaged by them. They cause them to act in destructive ways.

Peacocks and Crows

Bodhisattvas are likened to peacocks that eat poisonous plants and transform them into nutrients to strengthen themselves; while ordinary beings are like crows that would be killed if they tried to do the same. The point is that if we are strong enough and trained well enough as bodhisattvas, we will be able to take on the three poisons of all beings and give to them the antidotes and happiness. To do this we need to rid ourselves of our selfish desires, which come from grasping for a truly established self. We need to overcome our belief in a true self.

Opening Verses

In these initial verses, Dharmarakshita writes:

(1) In the case of peacocks strutting in jungles of poisonous plants, although medicine gardens have been finely decked out, the masses of peacocks don’t find (them) enjoyable. Rather, peacocks thrive on the nutriment of poisonous plants. Similarly,

(2) In the case of brave (bodhisattvas) engaging themselves in the jungles of recurring samsara, although glorious gardens of delights and pleasures have been decked out, the brave ones are never attracted. Rather, the brave-hearted thrive in the jungles of suffering.

(3) Thus, it’s the case that, despite our gladly taking on delights and pleasures, we bring sufferings (onto ourselves) through the power of our cowardice. But those brave-hearted ones take sufferings on gladly, and always are blissful through the power of their bravery.

(4) Now here, longing desire is like the poisonous plant jungles. Brave ones, like peacocks, can take it under their control, whereas to the lives of cowards, it would be deadly, similar to the case of crows. How could those with selfish desires take this poison under their control?

(5) And if they similarly tried to apply (this method) to the other disturbing emotions, it would take the life of their liberation, (also) similar to the case of crows.

(6) Thus, it’s the case that brave-hearted (bodhisattvas), like peacocks, transform into a nutriment the disturbing emotions – which are like the jungles of poison – and (thereby) engage themselves in the jungles of recurring samsara. In having gladly taken it on themselves, they’re able to destroy this poison.

(7) So now, while we’re circling (in samara) without control, we must cast away our selfish desires, our desires for pleasures, our delights – these messengers of the demon of grasping at a “true self” – and gladly take on, for the purposes of others, what’s difficult to do.

(8)  We must pile on top of (this) “true self” that has desires for pleasures the sufferings appropriate to each of the nine kinds of beings, due to the push from their karmic impulses and their habituation to disturbing emotions.

The Emphasis on Taking from Others Their Longing Desire

Although Dharmarakshita mentions the other disturbing emotions in verse 5, he emphasizes taking on from others their ordinary longing desire, particularly sexual lust, similarly emphasized in so many Indian texts. In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-’jug, Skt. Bodhicharyavatara), Shantideva, in particular, points out how lust is the biggest obstacle to gaining the perfection of concentration. It’s the strongest mover of the mind, as in the case of flightiness of the mind, causing our attention to fly off to think about this hormonal-based desire. It’s very deep within us, and within all beings that have a sexual drive. The fact that we need to overcome biology and these biological drives, and not just be driven by our hormones and instincts, is something that many of us don’t feel comfortable about with the Buddhist teachings.

The Practice of Tonglen Hinted at in Peacocks’ Destruction of Poison

Dharmarakshita doesn’t explain how to practice tonglen in these opening verses of the text. He just says that it’s really dangerous and difficult and that we need to overcome the obstacles that prevent us from practicing it successfully. In his other text, Peacock’s Destruction of Poison, however, Dharmarakshita describes what it means to take on the three poisonous emotions, but also does not explain how to transform them or what to give to others. He writes:

(12) In the face of the boiling poisonous potion of (someone’s) impulses of longing desire, if we haven’t imitated the other person with a simulation of longing desire, there’s the danger that the desirous person will have committed ill-conceived acts. But through (our) simulation of longing desire, this poison (of theirs) will be overcome.

(13) In the face of the blaze of the poisonous flower of (someone’s) anger, if we haven’t displayed a forceful manner like Yamantaka, there’s the danger that the angry person will have caused interferences. But through (our) simulation of anger, the enemy’s obstruction will be released.

(14) In the face of the hardening of the poisonous quicksand of (someone’s) closed-minded naivety, if we haven’t generated the patient forbearance like that of a corpse, there’s the danger that the weak character person will have behaved in ways that have built up negative force. But through (our) simulation of naivety, we will have built up the habit of level-headedness.

“Simulation” means pretending to have each of these poisonous emotions. We can only do that without getting disturbed by them if we have already overcome them in ourselves to a great degree and have a high level of compassion for those who suffer from them. Then when we’re with someone lustfully talking about women or men, for example, we can join in and, without getting carried away, discourage the person from engaging in inappropriate sexual acts. When we’re with someone very angry and about to hurt someone or themselves, we can pretend also to get angry with them and, with a show of force, prevent them from acting. Likewise, when we’re with someone behaving naively about the effect of their inconsiderate way of acting or speaking, if we remain calm and quiet and not get upset, as if we were naive and did not notice anything wrong, we can then, with a level head, advise them about what they are doing.

Dharmarakshita’s presentation in Peacocks’ Destruction of Poison is part of bodhisattva conduct and seems to be a precursor to the full practice of tonglen. When we practice tonglen, it’s not that, when we take on the disturbing emotions of others, our act of taking them on, by itself, actually rids them of them. It’s very rare that, with tonglen, we take on a bruise from someone and we’re actually bruised, as happened in the example of Maitriyogi. 

In the case of taking on the poisonous emotions of others, for instance, the stupidity of everybody, it’s not that now we are totally incapacitated because we have become completely stupid. We have already overcome the detrimental effects of being stupid. We want to take on from others, in a conceptual manner, something similar to stupidity and, with compassion, give them the antidote to their disturbed state of mind. This is the advice Dharmarakshita gives in Peacocks’ Destruction of Poison

Here in Wheel of Sharp Weapons, Dharmarakshita explains more clearly how to overcome the detrimental effects of the disturbing emotions we take on from others, but without explicitly explaining the actual tonglen practice.

Two Orders of Developing Conventional and Deepest Bodhichittas

Once we imagine taking on and removing the poisonous emotions from others, as in: “May all beings be free of these causes of suffering and the suffering that they bring on,” the question arises how to destroy them? The method is with bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is a mind aimed at our own enlightenments, which have not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors. It is based on love and compassion and is accompanied by the intentions to attain that enlightenment and to benefit all beings by means of that attainment. Specifically, bodhichitta is aimed at our not-yet-happening Dharmakaya, a Corpus Encompassing Everything. 

Dharmakaya has two aspects: Jnana Dharmakaya, the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, the omniscient mind of a Buddha, and the Svabhavakaya, Essential Nature Corpus, the voidness of that omniscient mind and the true stoppings that are imputations on it. Correspondingly, there are two aspects of bodhichitta: conventional and deepest. Conventional bodhichitta is aimed at our not-yet-attained Jnana Dharmakaya, while deepest bodhichitta is aimed at our not-yet-attained Svabhavakaya.

There are two orders for developing these two aspects of bodhichitta. The easier way for most people is to develop tremendous concern for others and then, through love and compassion, conventional bodhichitta first: “I really have to attain enlightenment in order to benefit everyone. In order to attain it, I need to have discipline, concentration and the discriminating awareness of voidness.” Then after this comes developing deepest bodhichitta. We find this approach in many texts.

The other order for developing the two bodhichittas is as Nagarjuna presents in his text Commentary on (the Two) Bodhichittas (Byang-chub-sems-kyi ’grel-pa; Skt. Bodhichittavivarana). He points out that those of sharper faculties develop deepest bodhichitta first. The reason for that is that if we become convinced that it’s possible to purify the mind of the disturbing emotions and the obscurations – in other words, we understand the voidness of the mind, and so understand how the so-called “defilements” or “afflictions” (ignorance, not knowing, and so on) are not an intrinsic part of the nature of the mind and can be removed forever – we become convinced that enlightenment is possible. 

Only once we have become fully convinced, through the understanding of deepest bodhichitta, that enlightenment is possible, would we have the aim to attain it with conventional bodhichitta. Otherwise, developing conventional bodhichitta is based on faith. For example, it’s like: “I’m going to aim for enlightenment. I don’t really know that it’s possible, but I will try going in that direction anyway, because I have faith that Buddha is a valid source of information that attaining it is the best way to help all limited beings.” 

According to Konchog Gyaltsen (dKon-mchog rgyal-msthan), the Sakya compiler of the anthology Hundreds of Mind Trainings (Blo-sbyong brgya-rtsa), Dharmarakshita taught developing deepest bodhichitta first and then conventional bodhichitta. This is evidenced in Wheel of Sharp Weapons, where Dharmarakshita mentions conventional bodhichitta only in the final verse before the colophon.

Tonglen Applied to the Three Poisons in Seven Point Mind Training

Several centuries after Dharmarakshita, Geshe Chekawa, in the second point of his Seven Point Mind Training, “developing bodhichitta,” also explains deepest bodhichitta first and then developing conventional bodhichitta through tonglen, by taking on the three poisonous attitudes. He wrote: 

In regard to the three objects, take the three poisonous attitudes and give the three roots of what is constructive, while training with words in all paths of behavior. As for the order of taking, start with myself.

The three poisons, as before, are longing desire, anger and naivety; the three constructive roots refer to detachment, imperturbability – meaning we can’t be disturbed by anger – and lack of naivety.

To train with words is used at the point in meditation when we are losing our object of focus. It’s very helpful to remind ourselves with key words, either in our minds or out loud, to bring our attention back to the object of focus. The word might be “compassion” or “love” or “impermanence” or whatever it is that we’re meditating on. This is not a form of mental wandering.

In regard to the order of taking, we start with ourselves. We need to accept our own sufferings and start with them, because it’s only on the basis of renunciation – the determination to be free of our own suffering – that we can then turn the focus to others. “Just as I want to be free from this, everybody is equal, and everybody else wants to be free from this as well.” The basis for compassion is this determination to be free from problems ourselves, expanded to everybody.

For example, we might feel lust for somebody, or it can be any type of longing desire. It can be longing desire for information, longing to see what everybody is doing on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, whatever it is that we’re into. When we’re feeling that, rather than following it out and, like the crow, getting caught up in it, losing our concentration and attention because we’re constantly checking our phone – instead of acting like that, we remind ourselves that everybody else has so much trouble with this addiction too. So, we imagine taking all of that onto ourselves.

Settling into Alaya, the All-Encompassing Basis

We counter it with deepest bodhichitta. We do this by settling into the basic nature of the mind. Geshe Chekawa uses the Sakya terminology, calling it the “state of the all-encompassing basis.” This is also known as the alaya in Sanskrit. He writes:

Ponder that phenomena are like a dream. Discern the basic nature of awareness that has no arising. The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place. The essential nature of the path is to settle within a state of the all-encompassing basis. Between sessions, act like an illusory person.

There are two traditions for explaining the basic nature of the mind as the object of deepest bodhichitta, the deepest truth of our not-yet-attained enlightened mind. In one explanation the all-encompassing basis refers to the nature of the mind as “mere clarity and awareness.” Allowing it to settle and dissolve into this basic nature of the mind is similar to what we find in Concert of Names of Manjushri (Jam-dpal mtshan-brjod, Skt. Manjushri-nama-sangiti). There, we read:

(30) In his great offering festival, great longing desire’s the provider of joy to limited beings; in his great offering festival, great anger’s the great foe of all disturbing emotion.

(31ab) In his great offering festival, great naivety’s the dispeller of the naivety of the naive mind; 

Like at a great offering festival, we offer the disturbing emotions into the festival of the nature of the mind. We let these emotions settle down and dissolve them by seeing them in a mahamudra way as being just “waves on the ocean of this clarity and awareness of the mind.” Geshe Chekawa indicates this method with the line, “The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place.” The mind is like a great ocean, the emotional disturbances are waves, but waves can do nothing except settle back down. We just let them settle into the basic clarity and awareness of the mind, specifically the clear light subtlest mind. That’s one way that we take on these disturbing emotions and so on. We just let them settle into the basic clarity and awareness of the clear light mind. Within Sakya, although some later masters consider the clarity and awareness of the clear light mind to be its conventional nature, Mangto Ludrub Gyatso (Mang-thos Klu-gsrub rgya-mtsho), a master from the Tsar (Tshar) branch of Sakya, considers it the deepest nature. So, according to his interpretation, clarity and awareness would be the focus of deepest bodhichitta. 

A second tradition is that we settle the disturbing emotions into the void nature of that clarity and awareness, and that voidness, as the deepest nature of the mind, is the object of deepest bodhichitta. The fourth part of Wheel of Sharp Weapons suggests that Dharmarakshita prefers this interpretation, because he puts great emphasis on the void nature of mind.

How Longing Desire Creates Suffering

To take on longing desire and lust, we first need to recognize how acting under its influence brings suffering. Even just feeling lust causes suffering. The mind is very much disturbed by that, so Geshe Chekawa teaches in the Seven Point Mind Training, we need to start with ourselves. We need to try to recognize the disturbance of this longing desire and what it actually is: suffering.

To do this, we need to look at the definitions that we find in the abhidharma (topics of knowledge) literature. There, each of these mental factors is defined very clearly. We have different traditions of abhidharma and different texts, so it is helpful to put the information in them together to get a larger picture, from different points of view, of what this state of mind actually is. The main feature that characterizes longing desire is that it exaggerates the good qualities of its object, projects further qualities that are not there, and ignores the shortcomings, the negative qualities of something.

Longing Desire, Attachment and Greed

We can divide this disturbed state of mind into three different variants. First, if we don’t yet have the object, then there’s longing desire to get it. For example, we think, “This is the most beautiful person in the world. If only I could have this person as my girlfriend or boyfriend, everything would be perfect.” We exaggerate the good qualities of the person and transform them into the prince or princess on the white horse. We long to get them. That’s longing desire. 

Then we have attachment: when we get that person as our partner, we don’t want to let go: “Don’t leave me; I can’t live without you.” The third variant is greed. Even if we have them as our partner, no matter how much time they spend with us, it’s never enough. “Why don’t you call me? Why don’t you stay longer? Why do you have to leave now? You haven’t texted me; you didn’t answer instantly.” That’s greed. We always want more, and we’re never satisfied. All of these are part of this one disturbing emotion, depending on whether we don’t have the object yet, we already have it and don’t want to let go, and then, of course, never satisfied, we want more and more. 

There are many different ways to deal with longing desire. We can take our desire to an extreme and see the absurdity of it. Do we really want to have this person glued to us, so that no matter where we go, they are with us, and so on? It’s like when we’re holding somebody’s hand, and after a while our hand starts to sweat and becomes very uncomfortable. Do we want this forever? One starts to think of the disadvantages of having that. We sleep in each others’ arms, our arm falls asleep and it really hurts, but we can’t really move because we’ll wake the other person up. 

If we actually analyze these sorts of things, we see that we exaggerate the good qualities and ignore the shortcomings of the object of our desire. That’s longing desire. We exaggerate conventional qualities like the beauty of somebody, and how wonderful it is to be with them, and we exaggerate the deepest nature qualities of how they exist. For example, the idea that any person is going to stay young, beautiful and attractive forever is obviously a myth and an exaggeration. Based on grasping for ourselves to exist as a false impossible self, which in fact doesn’t exist, we somehow feel we could make that false self secure by having that object of our desire, never letting it go, and having more and more of whatever it might be.

Putting Tonglen into Practice

Let’s try to do this practice of tonglen in terms of longing desire. We need to see what happens when we actually try to put this type of tonglen into practice. What is helpful for understanding the rest of the text is, when we try to do this, to notice how difficult it is to actually be sincere in the practice, and what is it that prevents us from actually wanting to take these disturbances on.

Think of all the sufferings that people have from their addictions, not only in terms of sexual objects, but addiction to their phones, to drugs, whatever it might be, and to this incredible materialism of just want to get more and more objects, more and more things. There is the English expression, “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.” We get more and more objects around us, and then what are we going to do, put them in our pyramid, or what? This creates a tremendous amount of suffering; people are never satisfied. Would we really want to have such an unstable, needy mind and deal with it on a global, universal level, and with the suffering that comes from it? Instead, when we take it on, we want somehow to dissolve it. 

How do we make that transition from thinking how awful it is that everybody has all this suffering, to actually being able to give them happiness through the remedy to all of this? If we’re able to dissolve all of this suffering, these disturbing states of mind, into the natural pure nature of the mind, then it settles down. 

Then, depending how we look at it, the natural positive qualities, the natural joy of the deepest level of the mind, and so on, can radiate out. We can make the transition in that type of way. Also, if we have built up a lot of positive force, this allows us to be able to radiate out to others that positive force as the happiness and joy that can only really be reached if we quiet down to either the nature of the mind being clarity and awareness or voidness, its natural purity. It is then that we are able to make that transition and have joy and happiness radiate out to others. 

It’s a very profound method, and obviously very advanced. But let’s try to get a little bit of a taste of what it is like. As I said, I think it’s helpful to do this before delving into the rest of the text, which explains what makes it so difficult to do this type of practice, and what we have to work on to be able to practice this on a sincere level.

More extensive presentations of tonglen teach that whatever disturbing state of mind we ourselves have, whether it’s desire, anger, pride, envy, arrogance, jealousy or whatever, take that on for everybody. Because everybody is equal, we all have the same problems; nobody is immune. These disturbing emotions bring suffering to anybody who has them.

Shantideva said that suffering has no owner. We don’t try to get rid of it because it’s our suffering or your suffering. Suffering needs to be removed simply because it’s suffering, and it hurts.

This is a very helpful point to keep in mind: suffering has no owner.

Practical Guidance and Meditation on Tonglen

When we do this tonglen practice, we usually follow Geshe Chekawa’s instructions in Seven Point Mind Training and do it in conjunction with the breath, and in conjunction with compassion and love. With compassion as we breathe in, we take in the sufferings of others; and with love, the wish for others to be happy, as we breathe out, we send them whatever will bring about happiness. In this case, we send out the understanding of the true nature of the mind that will help them to overcome and not be damaged by these disturbing emotions. 

Let’s do this for a few minutes.


Possible Obstacles

As Dharmarakshita pointed out in Peacock’s Destruction of Poison, if we don’t practice something like this tonglen, there’s the danger that when we are in the midst of others who are acting under the influence of addictions – desire, anger, or whatever it might be – we will be carried away and drawn into doing what others are doing. We have to be very strong in those types of situations, and this makes a lot of sense. If we think in terms of a teenager who is in a group of people and they’re all smoking, drinking beer, or taking drugs, and so on, there is the pressure of “What? Come on – you’re not drinking with us?” If a teenager isn’t strong, of course they’re going to drink as well because they want to be part of the in-crowd. They want to be cool, and like everybody else.

There’s the same type of danger when we’re in an agitated aggressive crowd and a “kill the enemy” mentality takes over. We get drawn into that mob mentality. In such situations where so many people are addicted to something or incited by something and swept away, we need to be able to take on ourselves their disturbing emotions, deal with them, not be carried away by the force of others, and of course not come under the control of these disturbing emotions ourselves. We need to be like peacocks, not crows.

We need to be able to recognize these disturbing emotions in ourselves, because we are a part of everybody. To think that, “I don’t have them,” and we’re just taking them on from others indicates that we’re not recognizing them within ourselves. If we can recognize them in ourselves and pile on top of them everybody else’s experiences of them, then in taking care of everybody’s suffering and disturbing states of mind, we are dealing with our own as well.

One of the things that is very difficult with this tonglen practice is to actually sincerely feel something. It’s easy to just imagine, “It’s coming in and going out, coming in and going out” – something like that – and not to feel anything. The very strong practices of tonglen involve some really quite horrifying visualizations. We imagine all the suffering and difficulties of others coming into us in what would normally be completely repulsive forms, such as diarrhea, vomit, pus, blood, and so on. It can be really dirty substances such as oil, tar and so on, something that we really don’t want. The strongest visualization is to imagine others’ suffering in the form of whatever it is that we’re most frightened of, whether it’s spiders or whatever it might be. To imagine taking on others’ disturbing states of mind and suffering, obviously we have to be emotionally stable and mature. These are extremely advanced practices.

When we do these horrific visualizations, the intense “me, me, me” comes up so strongly: “I don’t want this. I’m afraid of this. I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to take on vomit and diarrhea of others, of everybody. I don’t want to have to clean all this up.” There are many levels of this tonglen practice, so don’t just think in terms of black light comes in and white light goes out, as if it’s just a sort of a game. It’s not a game. We have to actually feel something, even though we are imagining it. It is the longing desire or the anger others have; nevertheless, we try to feel the pain. This is why, as Geshe Chekawa says, start with yourself. Feel your own pain.

That’s so important in dealing with our problems: we have to actually recognize and acknowledge them. We have to feel them in order to actually deal with them. We do all this with tonglen practice.


Being Forceful

The idea of being forceful or as often called, wrathful, from the perspective of someone inclined toward a more peaceful style – how would I cultivate more force? Maybe it might be like strength training – start with a light weight, but I feel like people will just break if you say something harsh to them. How would a mostly peaceful guy go about getting a bit of force?

We’re not talking necessarily about being very forceful with others, but some situations require that. For instance, if our child is about to run into the street with a lot of traffic, we don’t say, “Oh my dear, please don’t do that.” We have to very strongly grab the child or yell to prevent a tragic accident. In terms of this image of Yamantaka, the main focus is being forceful with ourselves. In other words, when we are acting like a baby, just stop it. Stop acting like a baby!

In this sangha, there are some passionate forceful people who are able to cut through very quickly in their ability to help themselves and others. They are able to just cut through, and not like always have to interact so slowly, forever being very careful, always patching things up. I would love to be a bit more forceful with myself too, now that you mention it.

Skillful Means

Buddha was a master of skillful methods, and so we have to at least try to modify how we behave with others in different ways that suit them. I had the great fortune to be a translator for many great lamas. When translating for them, as they are meeting people, it’s amazing how they can be completely different with different people. With some people they are very gentle and with others quite strong. Like that, we learn to be able to modify our behavior and not just think, “This is the way that I am, and everybody has to accept me the way that I am.” Rather, the way that we behave needs to depend on others. This is dependent arising.

There are diverse ways of training. For example, I was going to a martial arts class that a friend of mine was teaching and I would give a meditation lesson at the end of the class to the students.

This was a ninjutsu class, a very strong fighting tradition of martial arts. To practice such types of martial arts successfully, we need to be strong and forceful on the outside, but totally peaceful and quiet inside. We have this type of image in Buddhism, with forceful and peaceful deity mandalas, and the Buddha-figure Yamantaka externally and Manjushri in his heart. It’s the same kind of structure. I asked the students to practice by making very strong gestures, while trying to keep their energy quiet inside, and next to shout loudly, but still maintain peace and quiet inside. They discovered that they can be very forceful, but also very calm at the same time. It’s just an exercise, but the people seemed to find that helpful.

I think the main thing we need to do is not identify ourselves with any fixed self-image, as in “I’m a peaceful baby deer, like Bambi.” Sometimes we can be different. It’s when we lock ourselves into one stereotype that we become inflexible.

Difficulties in Tonglen Practice

Tonglen has been taught in many different ways and I have found it is a very difficult and advanced practice really. But often it is taught in a light way, where we don’t really take on everything, or it’s taught in other different ways. Sometimes it’s suggested to visualize your Buddha-nature as a white light in your heart and you take everything into that and then breathe out from that. At other times it’s taught in a heavier way, to take everything in and this is supposed to crack your hard heart in order to make the loving kindness stream out from your heart.

In my experience I haven’t practiced tonglen a lot, but I have tried over a number of years to do it. I think one has to go about it quite carefully, because if one starts right away to take everything in, there’s a great danger that one may just end up very depressed and also want to reject dealing with others’ problems rather than take them on. That’s also what I find in real life. When I’m surrounded by suffering and the mental poisons, I want to reject having anything to do with them. I know it’s important, in order to crack this self-centeredness, to actually take them in. Do you have any good advice how to go about doing this in a step-by-step manner?

Dharmarakshita says that this is what we are aiming for: to be able to do tonglen practice. But only if we are like a peacock, a bodhisattva, are we able to actually do it. Otherwise, if we try to do it when we are not sufficiently trained, we are like crows and it’ll kill us.

Similarly, if we try to do this tonglen practice prematurely, then if we think of taking on all the suffering and keep it inside, and we don’t know what to do with it, it completely devastates us. It’s just too much. Dharmarakshita is actually giving step by step instructions as to what are the obstacles that are preventing us from being able to do this. The first is our destructive behavior. We get into these terrible situations and we are compulsively acting like a hypocrite or whatever. We’ll be going through all these different situations in the second part of the text.

But first we have to change our behavior. Once we change our behavior so that we are not so much caught up in our negative habits, then we start to think in terms of destroying this self-grasping. That’s this clump in our heart that says, “I don’t want to be involved.” That’s the self-grasping.

We invoke the image of Yamantaka to smash that. The idea is “I want to smash this.” In order to be able to smash it, we have to become a Yamantaka ourselves. We have to recognize and be able to work with the pure nature of the mind. That pure nature is something we need to become familiar with and convinced of. We need to build up recognizing it as a habit so we can bring it to our attention, our consciousness, and we can apply it as an opponent. Then we can deal with taking on the suffering of others. If we can’t actually dissolve that suffering by using our understanding of voidness to penetrate through and smash what’s preventing us from doing that, and thereby make the transformation to give happiness to others, then we’re not ready to do this practice.

We can start to do it on a very light level, and I think that doing it on that level can help us to develop the aspiration: “I wish I can do it on a real level. I’m doing this now, but I know that this is not very effective at all. I aspire to be able to do it on a real level, a sincere level, so that I can really help others.” It helps to develop this aspiring state of mind. But we need to recognize when we’re practicing at that level that we are basically like a small child playing house. 

As long as we recognize that it’s a light version and don’t call it the real thing, that’s fine. That’s true of everything in Buddhism. There’s a light version and there’s a real thing version. A light version is helpful so long as we realize that it’s a light version, and don’t think that that’s all that Buddhism is. Then it’s okay, and very helpful.

The Term “Voidness”

I have a question about the translation for the word “emptiness.” You explicitly translate it as “voidness” and I was wondering why you choose that.

I don’t think you have the differentiation in all languages, but at least in English, “emptiness” implies perhaps something more like the Svatantrika view or an earlier type of view in which we affirm that there is actually something findable on the conventional level. For example, there actually is a glass, but there’s something absent from it, so it’s empty. It’s an empty glass. 

According to this view, we have this “thing” that, conventionally, is self-established. There actually is something findable there, but on the deepest level it’s not like that. “Emptiness” implies that – something self-established that is empty of something impossible that was never there. There’s something findable there, and we take something away from it – we empty it of that – but there’s still something self-established there.

However, if we look at the Prasangika view, then the term “voidness” really fits. The Sanskrit word for voidness or emptiness is shunyata, which is related to the Sanskrit word meaning “zero” or “nothing.” There is nothing from the side of the object that is establishing it. 

It’s not as though there is something there, and we project onto it something that isn’t there, and then we just have to take that away and we’re left with what was there all the time. There is nothing that you can actually find there, even from the point of view of conventional truth. Nevertheless, everything still functions. Cause and effect are still valid. 

In terms of the example of the whole, for instance, we can’t find the whole. Chandrakirti uses for this the example of a chariot, or we can use a car: We can’t find a car in any pieces of the car. That’s not the car. Even if we put all the pieces together, that’s still not the car. The thing has to function, there has to be interaction between all of these parts. It’s not just a collection of all the parts piled on the floor or even if they are put together. We can’t actually find the whole. It’s not that the whole exists, and we take something away from it that wasn’t there to start with.  

That’s why “voidness” works better, I believe. There’s a total absence of anything that corresponds to what we imagine. It’s not that we are projecting some fantasy onto something concrete and real. That’s the actual meaning, and why I prefer “voidness.” I think that’s far more accurate. “Empty” always implies that there’s something there that’s empty. That’s not the Prasangika view the way that I’ve been taught it and that’s the reason for using the term “voidness” rather than “emptiness.”

In the meditation on voidness, first we need to recognize that things appear in a false way and then that this false way doesn’t correspond to anything. Yet, when we clear away the fallacy that it corresponds to anything, things still appear to exist in that false way. However, when they appear, we understand that they’re only appearing like that and that it’s like an illusion. It’s not that we affirm that something is there and then take something away. Nevertheless, we also affirm that despite this deceptive appearance, everything functions on the basis of cause and effect and dependent arising. That’s how we actually meditate on voidness.

Whatever term we use, I find it confusing. Emptiness means something which is empty, but it is not empty. But when you use voidness, to me void means nothing.


But it is not nothing.

Exactly, it’s not nothing.

Then why do we use void? I started using just the word shunyata to avoid these other terms already having certain connotations for me. But then I started reading about shunyata, to me it seemed to refer to the non-conceptual mind, the wisdom mind. We have no more object, subject, focus, nothing; so, it is the wisdom mind. But it is very difficult to imagine. Is it the nature of mind; could you please explain?

Shunyata means a total absence; something that’s totally absent. It’s not that everything is totally absent, but something specific is absent. What’s absent is that something corresponds to what we imagine. 

The mind – in other words, the imagination – produces an appearance of something that is self-established from its own side. That doesn’t correspond to reality. There is nothing establishing its existence by its own power from the side of the object. The phrase that is used is “something holding up” our object of focus. For instance, if we think in terms of a piece of scenery in a play, there’s something holding it up, a prop that’s holding it up, from the side of the scenery. Like in a movie, there’s something on the side of the appearance, namely the screen, that’s holding up what appears on it. It is not like that; in reality, there’s nothing holding it up from the side of the appearance. It’s all established dependently on the mind. 

It’s like with quantum physics, is the particle here or there? It’s only with the interaction with the observer that it appears in one place. That is what we mean by non-duality. It’s not that the observer and the objects are self-established, separate and then meet and interact; but rather that the observing mind and its observed objects dependently arise with each other. There’s nothing actually findable there on the side of an unobserved particle establishing its location anywhere. Where is it really? Nowhere is it really.

When we talk about an absence, it’s not the extreme of nihilism, that there’s nothing. For instance, think of the example, “There is an absence of an apple on this table.” What do we see when we see there’s no apple on the table? We see nothing on the table; but that nothing is not just nothing, is it? It’s the absence of an apple. There’s no apple there. We know what it is the absence of. It’s not the absence of absolutely everything, although it looks like the absence of everything because it looks like nothing. There’s nothing there.

When we focus on voidness, there’s no appearance, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the nihilist extreme that nothing exists and there isn’t anything. Conventionally things do exist, they function.

I think the closest word is an “absence,” the absence of what’s impossible, what doesn’t exist and that never could be. If it did, then we could find, for example, a whole hand somewhere in this mass of atoms; but we can’t find it. There is no whole hand that’s there. When we look at it, we have the convention of a hand. We all agree that’s a hand. To a tiny microscopic insect, what is it? How do they perceive it? Things are very different for a little bacterium inside a blood vessel of the hand. What is a hand to that little bacterium?

When we talk about non-duality, for instance of the wisdom mind and voidness, it doesn’t mean that they are identical or that they are an undifferentiated soup. That certainly is not what we mean when we say “non-dual.” It means that we don’t have two separate entities that can’t possibly interact. The wisdom mind – the mind that non-conceptually cognizes voidness – and the voidness it cognizes dependently arise with each other and that, of course, can then be understood on many, many different levels.