The Need for Understanding Emptiness for Tonglen

Key Elements of Deepest Bodhichitta

We have spoken about how to develop deepest bodhichitta, and we’ve seen that it is very important and helpful for being able to do the practice of tonglen, giving and taking. Now, we are ready to discuss the development of relative, conventional, surface-type bodhichitta. It’s within that context that tonglen is practiced as part of the training for developing relative bodhichitta. 

There are two major traditions for how to develop and then strengthen this bodhichitta aim. One is the seven-part cause and effect meditation; in other words, six steps or causes that build up to a seventh one, which is the result or effect, the development of bodhichitta. After developing the equanimity that is free of attachment, repulsion and indifference toward anyone, it starts with recognizing everybody as having been our mothers and remembering the kindness of mothers, and so on. The other method is equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that there’s a bit of danger in the first method, and that the second method is a bit more stable. The danger with the first method is that if we haven’t gained a good understanding of voidness, particularly the voidness of ourselves as persons, then our basis for being kind to others, wishing to help others, and so on, on the basis of everybody having been our mother and having been kind to “me,” could be a little bit self-centered. Because they’ve been kind to “me,” well, we need to help them, and we want to help them. It’s a little bit of an emphasis on “me.” Whereas the other method, equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others, doesn’t have that type of danger because it is based on seeing that we’re all equal – ourselves, others, everybody – in that everybody wants to be happy, and nobody wants to be unhappy, and so on. It doesn’t really involve any issue of “me.” 

However, if we have a good understanding of voidness – it doesn’t have to be perfect, obviously – we don’t have this danger in these types of bodhichitta meditations, and we can follow either method, or what is often recommended − at least in Serkong Rinpoche’s commentary here − is the eleven stages of developing bodhichitta, which combines the two methods. 

We saw the importance of the understanding of voidness for tonglen, so let’s look a little bit at it again before we present these eleven rounds or steps, but I won’t go into great detail. Let’s see how the understanding of voidness is really essential – how it works – for being able to develop bodhichitta without this danger of grasping for “me” or grasping for “you.”

The issue that I want to discuss here is the difference between each living being, each mental continuum, being individual, and each one having a self-established, inherent identity. If we don’t understand clearly the distinction between those two, it’s a little bit confusing and difficult. That’s not a very easy distinction to appreciate. 

In dealing with others, we want to avoid two extremes. We don’t want to make the whole realm of living beings, or the whole universe for that matter, into one big “soup” in which there are no differences among anything as if it’s all one big undifferentiated oneness, a big soup. Or to think that there are living beings, there are mental continuums, but they’re totally anonymous. The other extreme is thinking that everybody has a self-established, inherent identity that we identify them with, as though that’s their permanent stamped identity. Whether it’s the static identity that we give to them in terms of what they are in this particular lifetime − human, woman, man, cockroach, or whatever − or that of our mother. We don’t want to give everybody the static, inherent identity of being our mother. 

Defining Characteristics

The whole issue here concerns defining characteristics. All validly knowable phenomena conventionally have a defining characteristic mark that allows us, for instance when looking at a group of people, to distinguish one individual from another. We are able to do that with the aggregate of distinguishing. Based on these defining characteristic marks, we mentally label, conceptually, that these things we see fit in the categories of validly knowable individual items, persons, male or female, and Mary or John.

What are these defining characteristic marks? They are imputation phenomena that cannot exist or be known independently from something characterized by them. However, defining characteristic marks are not some self-established, inherent “things” findable within the items characterized by them. Their existence can only be established as what the category or concept “defining characteristic marks” and the words “defining characteristic marks” refer to when mentally labeled and designated on the basis of items characterized by them.

Now here is where Prasangika and Svatantrika differ. Suppose we mentally label some object we see as a person, Mary. In other words, we fit the object into the categories or concepts of a “person” and “Mary.” 

  • Prasangika asserts that the existence of this object as a person and as Mary is established merely as what the concepts and words “person” and “Mary” refer to on the basis of the object we see. There is nothing self-established and inherent, findable on the side of the object that establishes its existence as a person or as Mary.
  • Svatantrika asserts that, in the context of mental labeling, there is something findable on the side of this object – its defining characteristic marks as a person and as Mary – and valid mental labeling works in conjunction with them.  
  • Prasangika says, yes, conventionally, this object does have the defining characteristic marks of a person and of Mary; they are what allow us to distinguish her correctly as a person, not a dummy, and as Mary, not John. But the existence of these defining characteristic marks is also established merely as what the concepts and words “defining characteristic marks” refer to on the basis of what are characterized by them. Their existence cannot be established by defining characteristic marks that are inherent and findable on the side of the items characterized by them.       

The most basic defining characteristic mark of anything is the one that allows us, when cognizing it, to distinguish it as an individual, validly knowable item. If, as Svatantrika asserts, that characteristic was findable on the side of an object, such as a mental continuum of everchanging five aggregates, it would be like a barcode somewhere inside it. If it had the power, even if only in conjunction with mental labeling, to establish the existence of that mental continuum as an individual validly knowable item, it would be as if that barcode was generating a solid line around that continuum, which established its existence as a distinct, individual validly knowable item separate from everything else. 

Prasangika says it is not like that. Instead, the existence of this defining characteristic mark that allows this mental continuum to be distinguished as an individual item can only be established merely in terms of what the concept and words “defining characteristic mark” refer to on the basis of a sequence of everchanging five aggregates that constitute the basis for the mental labeling, and which follow in order according to karmic cause and effect. It’s not random. It’s not that any moment of any mental continuum could be put together into one thing. 

It’s like when we look at things in a room, it’s not just arbitrary that we could conceptually draw lines around all the different colored shapes that we see and put them together in any random way to constitute objects. There are objects in the room, validly knowable objects, but, as wholes, they can only be established imputably on the basis of their constituent parts; there are no lines connecting different colored shapes. Within my mind I could connect, let’s say, the colored form of this person’s hair with the colored shape of the pink wall behind it and the colored shape of the little piece of white on the bottom of the picture above it, and I draw a line around it, in my head, and make that into one object, but that doesn’t make it into an object, does it? Why? Because it can’t function as that object, it can’t do anything. 

This is a very interesting question in terms of perception. We perceive patterns of colored shapes in terms of what we see. That’s the information we get from the eyes, so how in the world do we divide that experience into objects that function and are validly knowable? It’s not that there are actual lines around a cluster of colored shapes, establishing it as an individual, specific object. Which constituent colored shape could we find the distinguishing characteristic mark of the whole object in? However, based on agreed-upon conventions that are based on objects performing specific functions, there is a set of defining characteristic marks of what’s a person, what’s a wall, and so on. The existence of these items as these kinds of objects – a person, a wall, and so on – can only be established in terms of the conceptual frameworks with which they are mentally labeled and designated with words. And words, after all, are just arbitrary patterns of sound that are assigned meanings by agreed-upon conventions. Our mental labeling of individual items is valid if it is with agreed-upon conventions and if our cognition is not contradicted by valid cognition of the conventional truth of the object – like when we put our glasses on, it contradicts the validity of an object existing as a blur that we saw without our glasses. Our mental labeling also needs to not be contradicted by valid cognition of deepest truth, which contradicts that things exist in impossible ways. 

To repeat, conventionally, we can say that there are defining characteristics, and we are talking here just about the most basic ones, the defining characteristic marks of something as a validly knowable object and the defining characteristic marks of which individual validly knowable object it is, what kind of object it is, and so on. This applies to each individual mental continuum, with a person as an imputation phenomenon on it as its basis. 

“Mental continuum” has a defining characteristic: it’s an individual sequence of mental activity, comprised of five everchanging aggregates. The sequence is based on the experience of the results of one’s behavior according to karma, according to cause and effect. An individual mental continuum, then, is not just a random sequence of moments of experience. It does have an individual defining characteristic mark so that our aggregate of distinguishing can correctly differentiate it from others. But there’s no line around an individual mental continuum, generated by a self-establishing defining characteristic mark findable on the side of each moment of the continuum that establishes the existence of the continuum as an individual one. There are the conceptual categories “individual items,” “mental continuums,” “persons,” and so on, and words for them in every language, and there are individual items that fulfill the defining characteristics of these categories, but without the defining characteristic marks being findable on the side of either the categories or the particle items that fit in these categories. It’s profound, isn’t it? 

Now, the Chittamatra tenet system explicitly specifies something helpful here. There are no “hooks” – meaning findable characteristic marks – on the side of an object that, when the object is conceptually cognized, function like a hook on which could be hung, meaning mentally labeled, each of the individual names and categories − so, individual identities − that a mental continuum has had or could have. There’s no little hook on the side of the object for the identity “masculine,” for the identity “feminine,” for the identity “human,” for the identity “cockroach,” for the identity “mother,” or “my mother in a previous life,” that, by its own power − because the hook is there − makes it into having the identity of a continuum that is masculine, feminine, human, cockroach, or “my mother.” This is the case even though all of these names or categories could be conventionally labeled, validly, based on the history of the sequence of experiences that make up this individual mental continuum. 

All mental continuums, conventionally, are individual, and conventionally they have different identities in different lifetimes, but they don’t have inherent, self-established individuality on which, like on a hook findable inside them, can be labeled or hung inherent, self-established identities in each lifetime. How do we know this person, as an imputation of an individual mental continuum, has been “my mother?” There’s nothing findable on the side of that mental continuum that establishes the existence of it as having been “my mother.” Then what establishes that this particular mental continuum was “my mother,” what proves it? 

Well, there are the concept and word “mother” as agreed-upon conventions and they can be labeled and designated on this mental continuum. The labeling is not contradicted by valid inferential cognition based on logic – we’ll go into that logic later. It is also not contradicted by valid cognition of deepest truth – this person, on the basis of this mental continuum, is devoid of any findable, inherent self-establishing characteristic mark that establishes her as having been my mother, even in conjunction with mentally labeling her as such. So, mentally labeling the person that is an imputation on this mental continuum as “my mother” is valid and it is established merely as what that concept and word refer to on the basis of that person and mental continuum. Nevertheless, the defining characteristic mark that allows us to distinguish the person as having been my mother can’t be found in the basis for labeling, self-established there as a hook on which this concept and word “mother” is affixed as an inherent identity. 

I don’t expect, and you shouldn’t expect, that you can fully understand all of this and its implications. If this is the first time you’ve heard this type of explanation, please don’t get discouraged. But understanding the issue involved is important for distinguishing and responding to everyone as equally having been our mother. The issue is how to resolve the fact that everyone is an individual and lacks an inherent self-established identity, and yet is not anonymous, as in mental continuum #12379, like stars or something like that, where each person is just an impersonal number. How to develop a positive, emotional feeling of love and compassion toward everyone that is not based on grasping for them to inherently have been our mother and just our mother based on mental labeling. It’s a very delicate issue. 

If we’re all one big soup, there’s no basis for having any positive emotional feeling toward any individual. If everybody were anonymous, just a number, then there’s also no basis for having an emotional connection of love and compassion toward anyone. On the other hand, if we go to the other extreme and give them an inherent identity as having been our mother, established from their own side, then that’s the basis for the disturbing emotions of attachment and so on. We need the understanding of voidness and mental labeling to avoid those two extremes. It’s very important and very delicate. That’s why His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out that there are dangers with the method of developing bodhichitta based on recognizing everyone as having been our mother.

Dealing with Emotions

When we’re working with relative bodhichitta − love, compassion, and all other positive emotions − we need to be very careful. Emotions are not easy to work with. As in the sensitivity training that I developed, we have to avoid the two extremes of being insensitive or over-emotional. Only on that basis can we properly develop bodhichitta and love and compassion. “I love you! You’re so wonderful!” It’s a disaster to approach bodhichitta with that type of emotion. It is always more stable to work on these issues at an earlier level. Before really going very deeply into these bodhichitta practices, we need emotional maturity. The advanced level is advanced, but without a hook on its side to imply, “Oh, it’s advanced. I can’t possibly do that!” 

We can see then that this level of explanation, although not terribly easy to understand, is something that we can work with, with other teachers, to go more deeply into it and gradually work to understand this. Because then it will make the bodhichitta practice far more stable, far more emotionally mature. If we are an over-emotional type, then often we’re attracted to this bodhichitta type of compassion because, “Oh, it’s so beautiful! Love for everybody! Compassion, isn’t it nice!” We could really indulge our over-emotionality, and there’s great danger in doing that, really losing the path and just making it into a self-indulgent exercise of our own emotional excess. I’m throwing this out hopefully to be of benefit and not just to make you confused. It’s material that we really have to chew on and work with, and this is really the only way to gain that emotional stability and maturity. 

If we’re really serious about the Buddhist path and really serious about achieving enlightenment, then it’s very important to do it right, not just the way that we like it. The way to do it correctly has been said over and over and over again: it’s a combination of method and wisdom – compassion and the understanding of voidness. We have to put the two together; we can’t just do one because that’s what we like, thinking, “It’s nice, it comes easily to me.” Whether it’s the emotional side or the understanding side that we gravitate toward doesn’t make any difference. These are the two extremes of over-emotionality and insensitivity, such as in someone who is super-intellectual to the point of excluding emotion. 

As I often point out in sensitivity training, being over-emotional is often just a show. It’s a big show and, actually inside, deeply, it’s not so sincere. It’s just coming automatically because of habit and because the culture supports it, but do we really feel it? If we come on to somebody with this super-emotional, “Oh, I love you so much! I want to help you. Let me help you,” we frighten them away. They get overwhelmed and scared that we’re going to swallow them. That’s not the way to really help somebody. We’re acting like a huge mother spider, “Oh, let me help you, I love you!” This absurd method of imagining the spider, taking it to an absurd dimension − often images from the animal world that are absurd are very, very helpful, if we can remember them – allows us to check ourselves to see if we are going to that extreme. Shantideva says, “Remain like a block of wood.” Just don’t go to that extreme. Collect yourself more and then respond in a more emotionally mature and stable way. It’s not that we become totally like a block of wood and just sit there and do nothing. 

Understanding voidness is important not only in terms of the practice of tonglen – being able to deal with taking on the suffering of others without completely freaking out – but it is also important to help us to avoid the two extremes in terms of emotionality: either not feeling anything or being over-emotional. In connection with that, we understand the difference between how, conventionally, we can say that we are all individuals in that every mental continuum is individual and has had conventional identities in terms of being our mother, our friend, and so on, but there’s nothing inherent that is findable on the side of any mental continuum that makes it any of these, by its own power. 

How Do We All Perceive the Same Thing?

We can add one further point concerning the fact that we are all able to perceive things in approximately the same way. We all see and label this wooden object above us as a “beam” or we’re all able to see and label a particular mental continuum as having been our mother. But are we all seeing and labeling the same individual object? Again, we must analyze in terms of convention. 

We all follow the same convention, in terms of not just specifically language − the words that we use for these things, like “mother” − but the conventions we use in terms of what are conventional objects – what is a mother? It’s not that there is some object out there that we are all seeing, self-established as having been all our mothers, and that we are all throwing the same mental label and word onto a hook findable on the side of this object. 

Here, the Chittamatra understanding is very helpful, although the Chittamatra view is not so precise. It has to be qualified in many, many ways by the two Madhyamaka schools, but it’s very helpful for starting to understand how we are all able to see what seems to be the same object, without that object being self-established out there. Chittamatra explains that we each see what seems to be the same object because of collective karma. Further, appearances are always individual. Because there are differences in the angle, the distance, and so on, when we look at something, what we each see is slightly different.  

For example, if we each took a photo of the room, everybody’s picture would be quite different, although conventionally, we have to say we’re in the same room. How do we know we’re in the same room? I don’t want to backtrack, but that’s the real problem. How can we prove to anyone that we were all in the same room? If we each took a picture and we showed that to someone, well, all of these are different pictures; we’re not in the same room! How can we prove that we were in the same room? It’s a very difficult question. We can reach and touch the floor to make sure we’re still here, but don’t think that the Chittamatra position concerning this is for simple-minded idiots. 

Voidness is something that we have to love to study properly. Only if we love it and find it fun – but not over-love it – should we undertake a thorough study of it. Only that type of disciple is the proper disciple for teachings on voidness. Someone who doesn’t love it is not the proper disciple for studying voidness. 

In terms of voidness, if we can understand the Chittamatra explanation that we all see the same object on the basis of collective karma, despite this object being devoid of existing separately from a mind that perceives it, then we can go on to try to understand the Prasangika explanation that we all can mentally label the same object with the same mental label and word, despite this object being devoid of having its existence established as this or that by a findable defining characteristic mark in it.  


Did you have a question? 

It’s because we tend to see what appears to be the same object that we tend to think that there is something on the side of the object establishing its objective existence. But then the real question is: do we actually all see the same thing or not? And what does it mean when we use the word “same?” Are we all here in the “same” room? 

The issue involves the conventions and words we use to refer to the same or similar objects. Obviously, some conventions we learn as a baby with language – “this is a table, this is a chair.” Everyone who speaks the same language learns these same words. Other conventions, such as “this is an object,” do not require language and seem to be automatically arising. Nobody actually needs to teach us that. But although we all know the same word, “table,” my knowing of it is not your knowing of it. Furthermore, this object and that object are both tables, but they are not the same table. Think about that.

Does it have any importance that those so-called conventions exist? 

This is a very delicate question, because we have to really understand: what does it mean that the conventions exist? How do we know that they exist? What establishes or proves that they exist is the fact that the conventions work, they function to communicate. We call all sorts of similar objects by the convention of “tables.” We fit them all into the conceptual category of tables and designate the category and the items that fit into it with the word “table.” In conversation with others who share the same conventions and words, we label and designate some object as a “table,” and they understand what we mean. In that way, these conventions and words function to communicate. 

Conventions and words are imputation phenomena that cannot exist or be known independently of a meaning and referring to something. We understand each other and the world around us based on these conventions or categories and words. 

Does a mental continuum, apart from generating suffering, also generate karma? 

Yes. Happiness and suffering are defined as the way in which we experience the ripening of our karmic potentials.

Is a mental continuum generating karma in the same ways that a child generates karma, or in the same ways that an old person generates karma? Because according to the mental continuum, the suffering of old age is greater than the suffering of a child. 

The mechanism for both children and old persons is exactly the same. Now, the strength and the type of karmic force, of course, is going to depend very much on the strength of the intention, the motivation, and so on. A baby might have incredible self-centeredness and greed: “Me, me, me! Food, food, food! If I don’t get my way, I’m going to cry.” However, it’s slightly different from an adult going out and shooting somebody. Obviously, various babies differ in the intensity of greed or anger when they don’t get their way. 

And the third question is, does there exist a cessation of a mental continuum? 

No, there is no cessation of that. Mental continuums have no beginning and no end. This is true for every individual, and this is a very crucial point to understand in order to successfully practice the bodhichitta meditations. This is because everybody having been our mothers is based on beginningless mental continuums. For that, it really requires an understanding of the voidness of cause and effect. 

How is it impossible for a cause-and-effect sequence to have an absolute beginning or an absolute end? Can there be something that arises without a cause and yet is changing, and can there be something that has been changing that would not produce an effect, but just end, when we’re talking about something so basic as mental activity? If, as in Hinayana, they say that after we’ve achieved Buddhahood, then when we die, the mental continuum ceases, how can we actually help everybody, all sentient beings, if our time is very limited and when we die that’s the end? That doesn’t fit in with Mahayana at all. 

However, for unawareness and the disturbing emotions that are based on unawareness, although they have no beginning – there’s no original sin in Buddhism, such as “in the beginning we understood and then we fell” – unawareness can have a true stopping so that it never continues anymore. This is because correct understanding is the exact opposite that can not merely replace not understanding or incorrectly understanding but can also oppose and destroy them because it has the backing of logic and valid cognition. If we can have correct understanding uninterruptedly, forever, then we’re never going to experience unawareness arising again. We have attained a true stopping of unawareness. 

Mental activity is the arising of a mental hologram of some object simultaneous with some cognitive engagement with that object. It doesn’t have something that is its exact opposite, which can destroy it. Death, for instance, which is the loss of a gross physical basis for this activity, is not an exact opposite of it, especially in light of the Buddhist view that there is still some subtle energy as its physical basis even with death. 

To understand how mental activity has no cessation, we really need to understand voidness, because this gets into the whole issue of asking how we can have a continuity at all. When we stop thinking something, how can we think it again? If we have stopped thinking something or being angry, then just because we’re not thinking of it and are no longer angry, does that make it a true stopping, and we can never think it again or get angry again? Can we only get angry once? Voidness here is very crucial for understanding this whole discussion. 

As you explained, we have conventions for communicating, and that’s what conventions are for. But how should we, as Buddhist practitioners, treat conventions? Do we have to deconstruct them or understand that they’re empty? How should we relate to or deal with conventions as Buddhist practitioners? I’m a little confused. 

Yes, deconstruct everything. We need to understand the voidness of conventions, and yet they function like an illusion. They are not found anywhere with a line around them, like some great dictionary in the sky that exists by itself with all these conventions of words having inherent meanings to them. Words are just an acoustic pattern that a group of people assign a meaning to. They might put together all sorts of objects and then say, “Hey, we’ll call them ‘tables,’ and that word will refer to all these different things.” It’s really quite extraordinary that language and conventions ever even developed. It’s totally made by the mind. There is nothing on the side of these objects that makes them inherently associated with an acoustic pattern of sounds assigned a meaning. 

How do conventions actually work? Because it’s not just that we have a different camera or a different angle for a picture, but we actually have different cameras with different lenses, etc., and some people are good photographers, and some are not, etc. How do we know we are thinking the same way everyone else is? 

That’s why it’s like an illusion. It’s incredible. This is what Tsongkhapa says: the illusion is created as a dependent arising. He says it’s incredible that illusion-like things dependently arise in terms of mental labeling on the basis of voidness. It’s incredible − he keeps on using this word − it’s amazing, and yet everything functions. 

For the question “Well, how does it work?” we have to go back to what I mentioned earlier today, Serkong Rinpoche’s cryptic comment, “If there were solid walls, we couldn’t walk through them. Because there are no solid walls, then we can walk.” There is nothing preventing things from functioning. That’s the way that it is explained and approached from the Buddhist point of view. It’s like space. Voidness is like space. Space is the absence of anything tangible or obstructive preventing something from occupying three dimensions. 

If we were inside a cage of solid walls, we couldn’t walk out of it. We couldn’t go anywhere. Because there are no solid walls caging us in, like a solid line, we can walk out; we can do things. If we were encapsulated with some solid, inflexible plastic coating around us, we would be frozen and isolated from everything, and so we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t relate to anything; cause and effect couldn’t connect to each other, and nothing could work. Voidness is the total absence of that. 

Nonetheless, in our minds, we are always encapsulating something in solid plastic, “You just said that to me.” Or how about, “You said that 20 years ago, and you hurt my feelings so badly.” We still hold a grudge. This is what guilt is all about. “I made this mistake before. I was so stupid!” It’s encapsulated in a solid form; we enshrined it in this solid plastic and just put it there, and now we’re stuck. “I’m not going to let go of this; this is my prize trophy!” That’s guilt, “I’m terrible!” 

Just two more questions on this topic. 

Are the five aggregates a valid basis of labeling the “I”? 

Yes. The five aggregates are the basis for labeling the “I,” “me.” We don’t label it on, you know, different parts of the wall. 

But why? 

Why? Because they make up each moment of experience. That’s what the aggregates are all about. They are the ever-changing factors that make up each moment of an individual mental continuum’s experience. On the basis of that, if we wanted to connect the dots of each moment of experience in a continuum, the way to connect those dots would be with the label “me.” 

In the same way that you were talking about conventions and agreement, is suffering a conventional agreement? 

Yes, of course. We have moments of experience, and they fit a certain convention, certain defining characteristics of a specific convention. When we label a certain type of experiencing something as suffering, what establishes that it’s suffering? Suffering is what the concept of suffering refers to. However, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. We do experience it, and it hurts. But it’s like an illusion. The problem is when we go, “Oh, I’m suffering, poor me!” we encapsulate it in a big, solid, inflexible plastic. Then we think, “Ohhhhh, I’m suffering!” 

If we just speak about suffering in terms of unhappiness versus happiness, the defining characteristic is that feeling which, when it arises or we experience it, we would like for it not to continue, not to repeat. Happiness is that which, when we experience it, we would like for it to continue and not go away. If we eat a certain food that we like, for instance, we experience it with happiness; we want to eat more. But someone can eat the same food and hate it, so they experience it with incredible suffering and want never to take another bite. We’ve all agreed upon the defining characteristic mark of suffering and unhappiness; it’s a convention. 

Developing the Equanimity That Is Free of Attachment, Repulsion and Indifference

Now we’ve seen that the understanding of voidness is very essential here for the development of bodhichitta, so let’s see how it applies to these eleven rounds or eleven steps of developing bodhichitta – the context in which tonglen comes. 

The first step is developing equanimity toward everyone. This is the equanimity that is developed in common with the Hinayana practices, and it is developed by going from the state of mind in which we have attachment to some beings, repulsion from others, and indifference to yet others, to one where we don’t consider anybody as a friend, enemy, or stranger. This type of equanimity is a state of mind of being free of the disturbing emotions of attachment, indifference, and repulsion toward all beings. 

The understanding of voidness is very necessary here. Sure, sometimes some beings have been our friends, sometimes they have been our enemies, sometimes they have been strangers. That’s in terms of circumstances, but if we think in terms of beginningless mental continuums, then at different times, everybody has been a friend, an enemy, and a stranger. There is no difference; it’s just a matter of when. There are no hooks on the side of anyone on which to hang the concept “friend,” “enemy,” or “stranger” and thus to grasp at that as their true, inherent identity. No one is self-established as one or the other.

Without attraction, repulsion, or indifference, we have leveled the ground so that we have equanimity toward everyone. Although sometimes they have been our friend, enemy or stranger, there is no hook on their side to hang that as their inherent identity. On the basis of this level ground of equanimity, we can then go on to recognize that everybody, at some point, has been our mother. This is because there is no hook on their side on which to hang the inherent identity of “mother” either.  

Proving That Everyone Has Been Our Mother

This is a difficult point and one that recently, with my class on the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s text, which deals with voidness, we were working on. How do we prove that everybody has been our mother at one time or another? We have to be convinced logically that this is correct. Afterall, the laws of probability and quantum physics lead us to the conclusion that it could be the case that some person has always been our mother, or some have never been our mothers. Isn’t that within the realm of probability? So, instead of those conclusions, we want a mathematical proof that all beings have been our mothers, not just to have it based on blind faith or probability. For example, if we have infinite time but a finite number of sentient beings, how do we prove that everyone at one point has been our mother? Very, very interesting and difficult question. Any mathematician here who can prove it? 

How do we prove that everyone has at one time been our mother when there is a finite number of beings, each having infinite lifetimes, and all are equal? We came up with a proof and Geshes who are expert in logic have confirmed that it proves it. I want to throw the proof out to you in case there’s somebody here who might be able to find a fault in the thinking. Do you have the proof?

You say that it cannot be proven. 

My students pointed out that if there were infinite lifetimes and infinite sentient beings, we couldn’t prove it. However, because there are infinite lifetimes and finite sentient beings, it could be proved. 

I agree with that. The real problem is, how can you prove that there is a finite number of sentient beings? 

That’s not the issue here. This is a given value. The given value is that the number of sentient beings is “n.” We’re just talking about a mathematical problem, because, you see, this problem highlights an interesting issue, which is that it’s important to not just jump into these types of practices and meditations when then, after a while, we start thinking about it and we say to ourselves at a certain point, “Well, this is ridiculous! How could everybody have been my mother? This is a fantasy. That’s not right that everyone has been my mother; this is a bunch of baloney!” So, can we come up with something? 

It would take a board and some paper, but the basic idea is this: Imagine that we have a pot, a very big pot filled with marbles. In this pot, each marble represents one sentient being. So, every time anybody is reborn… 

Right, “every time anybody is reborn” as our mother… 

you take one marble out of the pot, and then when this particular life is finished, you throw the marble back into the same pot. So, we then have to check what is the probability that you have not taken out one particular marble in that pot – one particular marble in infinite attempts, in infinite lifetimes. If that probability is zero, then without a doubt, every sentient being has been our mother. But I need to do the mathematical calculation on paper. 

Great. Let me give you our Prasangika proof of this. It came up from one of my students, then I just formulated it properly, but it’s a Prasangika proof, and it’s wonderful. 

If all mental continuums are equal, and one of them has been my mother, the mother in this lifetime, then everybody has equally been my mother because they are all equal. There’s no reason why this other one wouldn’t also have been my mother. Now, here comes the Prasangika part. If this were not true, if there were one sentient being who was never my mother, then because all sentient beings are equal, no sentient being could ever have been my mother. Then, the absurd conclusion follows that we didn’t have a mother in this lifetime. I’d like to see if that logic can be attacked. 

I’m not refuting that. 

That’s a very simple non-mathematical proof. Very profound, actually. It’s quite good. 

Even the sketch of the proof that I have in mind is an oversimplification of reality because to start with the assumption that every single mental continuum has the same probability of having ever been my mother goes against the probability study of tendencies, because there are tendencies in probability, also. It’s an oversimplification. 

Right. Now, we get to this thing that we discussed, that, from the Prasangika point of view, of course, there are no inherent tendencies in any of these mental continuums. All we can say is that when somebody has been our mother, there’s a close connection. Then, we could say that there’s a stronger tendency to be our mother again. However, that still doesn’t negate that everybody has the equal probability to be our mother. Because there’s infinite time, so it doesn’t matter. 

The problem I have is not regarding everyone having been my mother; it’s a problem I have about infinite time. Because for me, I can equally prove that if in infinite time and not infinite sentient beings, everyone should be enlightened. Because I would have had an infinite number of times encountering the Dharma, and I should be enlightened by now. 

That’s a very difficult question. It’s an interesting question and a good one to think about. My initial thought, without analyzing it very deeply, is that unawareness also has no beginning. I think that’s a different type of variable, for everybody to then get rid of that unawareness. It’s a different type of variable than the variable of having been our mother. 

In other words, the unawareness is not going to go away by itself. We have to put in a great deal of effort in order for it to go away. For unawareness and the habits of unawareness to go away, we need to never give up bodhichitta so that we continue to build up the necessary positive force, over three zillion eons, to get rid of them forever. So, there are major obstacles that we need to overcome in order to attain enlightenment, and the habits of unawareness have no beginning, whereas the discriminating awareness of voidness that will get rid of it is not something we have had with no beginning.  

However, there’s no major obstacle preventing somebody from being our mother, and which has to be overcome through effort in order to become our mother. I think that’s the difference. Something has to be opposed in order to get rid of unawareness. There’s nothing that has to be opposed that would prevent somebody from being our mother. 

Furthermore, only one sentient being can be our mother at a time, but it isn’t the same case in terms of only one sentient being can be enlightened at a time. So, that’s another difference. When somebody has been our mother, they don’t continue to currently be our mother. Whereas if somebody becomes enlightened, that goes on forever. If what you said were true, that everybody should already be enlightened, then we should observe that. However, our observation contradicts that because we’re certainly not enlightened. Being our mother is something that only one being can be at a time, and that’s only now, then they’re not currently our mother anymore. Whereas being enlightened would be forever, and it’s not just that only one person can be like that at a time. They are very different – to be our mother or to be enlightened. 

The proof that we came up with in my class, that everybody has been our mother, is a wonderful proof that we can also use to prove that everybody can become enlightened, which is very, very important to be able to become convinced of. If we don’t have conviction in that, then what are we aiming for if we’re not convinced that we can achieve enlightenment and can actually help everybody else? 

The proof goes like this. If one person, Buddha Shakyamuni, has become enlightened, and everybody is equal in having all the Buddha-nature factors that enable us to become enlightened, then, given infinite time, everybody can eventually become enlightened, although there is no guarantee that that will happen. The point is that we’re not already enlightened because we have to put in the effort to gain the discriminating awareness of voidness and, for that, we have to build up positive force over three countless eons, without a break, and, for that, we need to not give up bodhichitta. But then, if one person couldn’t become enlightened, then nobody could ever have become enlightened, because we are all equal. Then, Buddha Shakyamuni wasn’t enlightened. That then leads to the whole discussion, was there ever a Buddha? That’s a very interesting question, and that brings up many other points. 

The Importance of Discussion and Debate

In summary, why I pursued this, and what I wanted to demonstrate with this reasoning is that the development of bodhichitta and working with all of these things, like everyone having been our mother, cannot really be pursued independently of gaining the understanding of reality. We have to question everything and try to understand why things are as they are, because, otherwise, doubts come up in our meditation: “What in the world am I doing? This doesn’t make any sense!” 

Don’t be afraid of thinking. We all have minds with the ability to understand and reason; that’s what makes us human beings – these are our defining characteristics as human beings, although they are not findable inside us, and we do not have a hook inside us to hang them on. This is why debate is so important. This is what I wanted to give you a little bit of a taste of. If we sit in analytical meditation and try to figure things out for ourselves, we’re never going to challenge ourselves the way that other people are going to challenge us and our understanding. Like what’s just been asked, “Shouldn’t everybody already have been enlightened by the same line of reasoning?” “Oh, I never thought of that.” Then, we think about it and try to come up with an answer. 

We don’t have to debate back and forth, although that’s better because then everybody has to answer, and everybody has to think; nobody can be just an observer. For example, after we’ve had a general teaching, we could break into pairs and say to each other, “Well, what do you understand?” Then, we could bring up doubts to the class and discuss that. This is the process by which we actually understand the teachings, and become convinced of them, overcoming our doubts. It’s only on that basis that we can ever have concentration on something in meditation without questioning, “What am I doing? Do I really understand this?” That goes for even bodhichitta, as well as for love and compassion. 

This process of questioning and asking and working with each other can be fun and exciting. It’s not so dry, intellectual and boring. If you notice, the level of energy is much, much higher than it would ever be sitting by yourself in meditation trying to analyze this. Our whole concentration is better. As the young Serkong Rinpoche pointed out to me, all this process, this training in debating, it’s all preparation for meditation. It’s about concentration, it’s about enthusiasm, it’s about energy, getting rid of our doubts and so on, and then we can meditate properly. I wanted to give you a little bit of a taste of that. 

We can start to appreciate the importance of working with Dharma: it’s not just training our hearts, training our feelings, but also training our minds to understand. We train both, cleanse both, cleanse the negative habits, and train the positive habits to support each other. Because, otherwise, trying to work and develop positive emotions, if we haven’t taken care of eliminating doubts beforehand, the doubts will conflict with the positive emotions and that becomes a real obstacle. 

What we want to do is not to get conflicting emotions, “I feel love, but hmmm, I don’t really know;” or, “Do I really have a connection with you?” “Can I really achieve enlightenment? It’s what I’m aiming for, but can I really do that?” and so on. We can’t put our heart fully into it that way. Doubt generates negative emotions, and what we’re trying to do with the bodhichitta meditations is develop all positive emotions. To really be able to do that properly, we have to get rid of the negative side of both areas that we call the mind and the heart. 

We can then, perhaps, understand a little bit better why the abhidharma texts – the texts on topics of knowledge – include indecisive wavering or doubt among the disturbing emotions along with anger, attachment and so on. “Indecisive” means that we remain unsure and uncommitted to our stance. Is it correct? Is it incorrect? Is this the teaching? Is that the teaching? It’s a very disturbing state of mind, whether we call it an emotion or an attitude; it’s difficult to find a word that incorporates it. 

The Sanskrit word for disturbing emotions and attitudes is “klesha” and they are described as being like sicknesses. To cure us from them, we need a doctor, the Buddha, and the Dharma is the medicine, and so on. In that sense, some translators call them “afflictions.” However, that’s not the definition; it’s just an analogy. The definition is that these are states of mind that, when they arise, cause two things: they cause us to lose our peace of mind and to lose self-control. That’s why I call them “disturbing emotions and attitudes.”  

Concluding Words

We’re not getting terribly far in this text, obviously, but that’s okay, because what is far more important is to get a foundation for being able to then really do these lojong, these cleansing of attitudes practices properly. We can see that they are not something to be trivialized or oversimplified. 

If we’re really going to do it properly, we need to appreciate that these teachings are incredibly profound, incredibly difficult, and they require a great deal of preparation. However, if properly prepared, then we can do it. If somebody did it and achieved Buddhahood through these practices, then it’s possible for us to do the same. We have this line in the Lama Chopa, The Guru Puja, that the Buddha always cherished others, but we always cherish ourselves, and look at what both of us have accomplished. If Buddha could do it, if somebody could do it, through really doing this properly, then, so can we. 

The great masters and the Buddhas, how did they reach this state? Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, how did he become like that? By practicing these types of teachings, these lojong teachings – cleansing of attitudes. To help us to really take these teachings seriously and to appreciate their value, it’s quite difficult for us to relate to Buddha and his example. We don’t see the Buddha, but many of us do have the opportunity to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We can think, “Wow. It would be fantastic to become like His Holiness.” Well, this is what His Holiness practices. That’s how His Holiness became the way that he is, by practicing these lojong teachings. As he always says, his favorite thing that he thinks is the most important is Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, where these teachings are discussed extensively. If we want to become like him, that’s what we need to do, and if we do it, we have to do it right. 

One day, a young hippy, who was probably stoned, came to Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher. I was Rinpoche’s translator. He said, “I’d like to practice the Six Yogas of Naropa. Can you teach me the Six Yogas of Naropa?” His attitude was, “This is so far out! Teach me; I’d like to practice it.” What was always extraordinary about Serkong Rinpoche, the previous one, was that he took everybody absolutely seriously. He took this hippy, this young, stoned hippy, very, very seriously. He said, “That’s marvelous, that’s wonderful that you would like to practice this. If you really want to practice it, this is how you begin: this is the first stage of preparation, and for that, it would be good for you to go to the Tibetan library and study this and that, and when you’ve reached the proper level of preparation then come back.” This helped this young man very much because somebody took him seriously. 

It’s very important to take ourselves seriously if we’re going to follow the Buddhist path. We’re all here because, obviously, we like to think of ourselves as following the Buddhist path and practicing the Dharma. Well, for that, it’s very important to take ourselves seriously and do it correctly.