Training in Deepest Bodhichitta

Yesterday we began the Seven Point Mind Training by the Kadampa Geshe Chekawa, and we covered the first of the seven points: the preliminary teachings to rely upon. And the second point that we’ll begin today is the actual training in bodhichitta.

The text deals first with deepest bodhichitta. As we spoke last night there is deepest bodhichitta – the understanding of voidness – and relative or superficial bodhichitta, the one that deals primarily with appearances. We are aiming to achieve both the understanding of the voidness of the omniscient mind and having this with an omniscient mind, as well as appearing in all different types of forms simultaneously to benefit everyone. In order to be able to help others, we have to get rid of our own problems and limitations, and the understanding of voidness does that. And we need to be able to understand everything that is causing somebody to act the way that they are, and what the consequences would be of anything that we teach them, so we have to be omniscient: we have to know fully cause and effect.

In general, with bodhichitta we could say that when we’re aiming for enlightenment to be able to benefit everyone. If we divide it into two aspects, we have deepest bodhichitta, which is aiming for the understanding of the voidness of the omniscient mind; and we have the relative, or superficial bodhichitta with which we primarily aim to actually manifest various forms to help others, and actually do things to help them, for which of course we also need an omniscient mind. 

And as I mentioned there’re several editions or versions of this text. In the oldest version, from Togme Zangpo (the one that I’m following here), the deepest bodhichitta is explained first and then the relative bodhichitta. And in the version that we get in the Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun, which was written by Namkapel, a disciple of Tsongkhapa, he puts it the opposite way – and so first you have the verse about relative bodhichitta, then immediately following you have the one on deepest bodhichitta. And in the edition made in the first half of the last century by Pabongka Rinpoche, he puts the verse on deepest bodhichitta at the very, very end of the whole text.

There are various reasons why we would have deepest bodhichitta either before relative or after relative bodhichitta, but here we’ll follow Serkong Rinpoche’s commentary on the older version, Togme Zangpo’s version, that explains it first, deepest bodhichitta first. There’s a great importance to having it first. In general, as His Holiness explains, the Dalai Lama, one of the main reasons for having it first is that if you understand the voidness of all phenomena, particularly the voidness of the mind, and the natural purity of the mind in terms of voidness, clear light mind, and so on, then you are convinced that it is possible not only to attain liberation to get rid of all the disturbing emotions and attitudes of the unawareness, but you are convinced that it’s possible to achieve omniscience. Unless you’re really convinced of that, you can’t really put your full heart into the relative bodhichitta to actually work to achieve it. And so this is what His Holiness emphasizes as when the understanding voidness comes first, why that would be so. Also if we are convinced, through the understanding of voidness, that everybody can gain liberation and achieve enlightenment, that also gives us the confidence that when we achieve enlightenment we can help to bring everybody else to enlightenment as well.

And also it follows the order actually in the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, because the understanding of voidness is common to Hinayana, as well, through the intermediate scope – that in the intermediate scope you have the three higher trainings: higher ethical discipline, concentration, and the understanding of voidness. So that’s where it actually comes in, although the way that it is explained is that it’s also discussed in the six far-reaching attitudes in the advanced scope. So that’s where the full explanation comes, but actually in the order, if you look at it, you would have the understanding of voidness first.

And it’s only according to the Gelugpa version of Prasangika, actually, that the understanding of voidness to achieve liberation and the understanding of voidness to achieve the omniscience of Buddhahood is the same understanding. Not only in the other Indian tenet systems, but the other Tibetan traditions, it’s said that the understanding of voidness is different. So that was one of Tsongkhapa’s revolutionary contributions. So in terms of the other Tibetan traditions, what I just said is a very general statement. Obviously it can be looked at far more precisely, but obviously this is not the time for that.

What Tsongkhapa emphasized as the difference between the understanding of voidness for achieving liberation and for enlightenment is the mind, the strength of the mind that understands voidness. And if the strength of the mind is only with the force of renunciation, then that understanding of voidness is only strong enough to get rid of the obscurations that prevent liberation. But if it’s with bodhichitta, then it has the strength to be able to cut through the obscurations preventing omniscience as well. And so in order to have enough strength behind the understanding of voidness then Tsongkhapa always emphasizes, the Gelugpa tradition always emphasizes, we can see here in the reordering of this text – that we put relative bodhichitta first, then the understanding of voidness, deepest bodhichitta.

So when we have two quite different traditions in Buddhism, then it’s important to not be arrogant and sectarian and just say my position is correct and the other one is wrong. One can understand that there are very, very sound reasons behind each alternative: both of them make excellent sense.

So as many of the great masters, for instance the Fourth Panchen Lama, explained in terms of mahamudra, “Which comes first: shamatha or vipashyana?” Now is this the voidness of the mind or the conventional nature? The conventional nature of the mind (shamatha), and vipashyana (the void nature of the mind) – which comes first? He says that depends on the level of intelligence of the disciple. So the same thing here, you know, for disciples who are very intelligent and can understand quite easily, that would make sense to have the deepest bodhichitta first; but those who are very, very emotional and so on, then perhaps the relative bodhichitta would be easier to develop first.

For different purposes, different types of disciples, the order of many things can be reversed. Someone who is more intelligent and a very thinking person, it really matters to such a person whether or not it’s possible to achieve enlightenment. And so for that reason the understanding of voidness, as His Holiness explained, convinces such a person that it is possible to achieve it. Then they can work to achieve it and can be more relaxed – the heart can open much more; otherwise it will be very tight. Whereas somebody who is more emotional and might not be very analytical at all or disciplined in that type of thinking, then they don’t really care: it’s not an issue to them whether or not enlightenment is really possible, because they’re really moved by the suffering of others and want to do as much as they can – now. And so they work now, as much as possible, and in the process of doing so, build up enough positive force so that their mind becomes clear enough so that then they would be able to understand voidness, which they might not be able to do so easily before.

I think that helps us a little bit to understand that both ways are correct, depending on the individual. But here for specifically our cleansing of attitudes and specifically for the tonglen practice of giving and taking, which is what is specified in the relative bodhichitta teachings, the understanding of voidness beforehand is very crucial, actually. Because in tonglen, this is extraordinarily advanced teachings, and to actually be willing to take on the sufferings of others and give them happiness, our own happiness, what is the biggest obstacle of that is fear: fear of suffering, and fear of suffering of course is based on self-cherishing, grasping to “me” who doesn’t want to get my hands dirty; “I don’t want to get hurt; I don’t want to get involved.” And especially when we actually imagine taking on the sufferings of others, if we think in terms of a solid “me” now and, you know, “Oh my God! What’s happening to me?” and so on, we’ll freak out and not be willing to do it. And so it’s only really with any good understanding of voidness, particularly voidness of the self (of the person), that we can know how to deal with this whole tonglen practice. Otherwise it’s very, very difficult.

And so if we really sincerely want to practice tonglen, not just some trivialized over-simplified version of it, we really need to prepare for that. And to prepare for that we have to at least have some level of understanding of the voidness of the self; otherwise we’re just attacking our self-cherishing with very strong methods, very strong visualizations, that are very, very frightening. And we have to be prepared for that. Otherwise, without that understanding of voidness, it can be a real fight, a real struggle. So that understanding of voidness, at least some level of it, will hopefully give us the emotional maturity to deal with the real tonglen. That’s what we need: emotional maturity to do it. So if you have really strong emotional problems, tonglen is not something that you’re ready for.

Now the lines here on the deepest bodhichitta – there are four lines, and we can understand them in several ways. If we look at the older version, the Togme Zangpo version – Togme Zangpo was from the Sakya tradition, and these lines are really very, very much in the vocabulary style of Sakya/Nyingma type of terminology. Sakya, Nyingma, Kagyu, but particularly Sakya in terms of mahamudra. So first let’s look at the Sakya way of understanding this. The Sakya method of meditating on voidness is in graded steps. Each time you meditate on voidness, first you remind yourself of the Chittamatra (mind-only) position, and then you refine that with Madhyamaka understanding.

So the first line is:

Ponder that phenomena are like a dream.

This is speaking in terms of all phenomena that – remember we’re speaking in terms of imputation. When we have for instance “me,” “person,” “self,” we have the basis of imputation (the aggregates) and we have the “self” that is imputed on that, or the “person” that is imputed on that. Particularly in terms of what we experience, the aggregates – I mean it’s clear that the self is, in a sense, imputed on the aggregates, but all these appearances within our experience – all of that is like a dream. Because actually, as we were discussing, what we perceive is a mental hologram. We might think that the source of the mental hologram is coming externally, but how could we possibly know that the source of what appears to us, this mental hologram, exists before we actually have the mental hologram? You’d have to know it. You’d have to perceive it. So somebody would have to perceive it. So you can’t really know the existence of something external without perceiving it. And what we perceive is appearance, which is a mental hologram created by the mind, by mental activity.

And so all these appearances of all phenomena, including the self, is imputed on it. Just like a dream, it’s coming from the mind. It appears to be external existence, separate from the mind, making an appearance, but it’s not. So in this mental hologram, what’s being perceived and the feeling of a “person” that’s perceiving it, that’s cognizing it, both of them are like a dream coming from the appearances of the mind. They’re both part of the same mental hologram. Non-dual. It’s within the same mental hologram and they are both coming from karmic tendencies, basically due to our unawareness. “Non-dual” doesn’t mean that “me” and what I perceive are identical, it certainly doesn’t mean that. “Non-dual” means that they are not coming from different sources: the object coming from out there, and the mind as the perceiver (as “me”) coming from in here – you know, two different holograms.

So, of the persons that cognize things and phenomena that are cognized, subject and object are appearances of the mind, of the automatic, spontaneous play of the nature of the mind as clarity. Remember “clarity” means giving rise to appearances. Mind gives rise to appearances, and appearances are in the nature of the mind. This is a realization in common with Chittamatra.

This is actually an extremely difficult thing to digest, because now you have to apply this to tonglen. We’re looking at the suffering of others and taking it on ourselves, so what are we taking on? Who is experiencing the suffering? Are you experiencing it? Am I experiencing it? What’s going on? Are you just in my head, are you just a dream? How do I know that you exist? The Zen solution would be that the other person punches you in the face, then you know that the other person exists. That’s why it’s like a dream, it’s not the same as a dream.

But it’s very important to realize that any suffering that we will take on from others – they do exist and they do suffer – but any suffering that they experience is an appearance of their minds. Something that arises like the play of the mind. And the same thing – if I were to take it on and experience that suffering, that would also be a play of the mind, a mental hologram. Of course it would hurt, do not deny that it will hurt, because we’ll experience it, but it is an appearance of the mind. And so likewise there’s no “me” that is experiencing this that’s separate from this – either in terms of your experience or my experience. It’s a part of a hologram. So obviously that is quiet difficult to understand. So that obviously requires a great amount of thinking about, that phenomena are like a dream.

The next line is:

Discern the fundamental nature of awareness that has no arising.

So “discern” is the same word as “analytical” meditation. Investigation is just a preliminary to that: having investigated it, then we actually discern it. It’s an exceptionally perceptive state of mind; it’s vipashyana. And the fundamental nature of awareness is the fundamental void nature of awareness, of the mind. We have to watch out with this word “nature.” There are about three or four technical terms that are dumped together in our Western languages with one word, “nature,” and that completely loses the technical differences of these different words. And calling so many things “wisdom.” So that’s what it means.

This is now adding the Madhyamaka understanding to Chittamatra, because in Chittamatra it says that the mind is the source of these mental holograms, well that has true unimputed existence. The existence of the mind can be established, or proven, independently of it being imputed on phenomena. Just the fact that it functions and produces mental holograms establishes that it exists.

So, the Madhyamaka says: No, no, no, that’s not so. That’s impossible. The mind, that’s referring here – in Sakya they always emphasize the appearance-making (clarity) – so that appearance-making can’t be found. There’s no true arising, no true abiding, no true ceasing. Not like it’s waiting somewhere off stage, and now it comes onto the stage, does the scene, it makes an appearance, and then it goes off on the other side of the stage and takes a rest. That mind, that mental activity giving rise to appearances, is not sitting inside the karmic tendency, inside the karmic seed, waiting to come out. And then given the proper circumstances it comes out, does its thing (in terms of manifest, makes the appearance), and then goes back in some sort of aftermath into the tendency, waiting for the next set of circumstances that will cause something similar to arise: another incident of being disappointed or getting angry or not showing up – these sort of things.

So this fundamental nature of giving rise to appearances is actually void of this type of true existence. It has no arising, it says in the text, which is short for: no arising, no abiding, no ceasing. Remember in our definition of mind, of mental activity, it was only making up that mental hologram by perceiving something, by means of that, so that’s referring to the same type of thing. It’s not that there is a machine mind that is doing it, separate from all of this. The mental activity is just happening. The arising of the appearances of the mental holograms just happen.

This is also very important in terms of tonglen practice. You have to discern and actually perceive it, with an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, that this is the way that mental activity is. Otherwise, what happens is we take on the suffering and then we hold on to it. We hold on to it. Any moment of experiencing is just happening, and that’s it. It’s not something that you can find and: “Oh, my God. Now there’s this suffering that has come inside me!” And you freak out, as if it’s going to stay there and sit there. And it’s not that this suffering has come from “you,” truly arising from “you,” and now I have “your” suffering inside “me” and now the big “me” is experiencing “your” suffering. Nothing like that. It’s just the arising of an appearance; it’s just experiencing, and doesn’t have true findable existence.

The third line:

The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place.

Now we get into the Sakya Prasangika understanding. And this refers to the opponent, that’s the understanding of voidness, the absence of unimputed existence. Now when we think there’s no such thing as this mental activity, there’s no such thing as unimputed existence, that itself, that voidness, is something that we’re imputing on the mind – merely imputed by words and concepts on phenomena. And so we have to go beyond the four extremes: unimputed existence, not unimputed existence, both, or neither. And usually that says: true existence, not true existence, both, or neither. But actually, to be more precise, it’s unimputed, not unimputed, both, or neither. And all of them are imputations. So the actual non-conceptual cognition of voidness is beyond words and concepts, because all four extremes are conceptual. It’s a big issue where the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism have different opinions and it’s the most difficult point in terms of meditation. How in the world do you go from a conceptual cognition of voidness to a non-conceptual one? That’s the real tough issue, and so it’s explained differently in different Tibetan traditions.

So we apply this to tonglen meditation. We’re taking on the suffering of others, and we have to stop thinking that: “Oh, we have this horrible suffering that I’m now experiencing, because, well, it’s just an appearance of the mind, like a dream…” So we have to stop this grasping, that it’s unimputed, it’s just sitting there, horribly even though it’s like a dream. But then, equally, we have to stop thinking that it’s imputed, and it lacks – that it’s void, this is void of unimputed existence, “This is void of unimputed existence, nothing to freak out about. Calm down! It has no true existence. Stop that!” So this is the point here to go beyond words and concepts, because the opponent liberates itself in its own place. “Liberates itself” means that it dissolves: it has no true arising, abiding or ceasing, it comes and goes. And the same thing with your understanding of voidness. That also, let it go. Because you keep on understanding voidness, but you have to do it in a non-conceptual way.

So, the fourth line:

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

This is describing what this non-conceptual meditation on voidness actually is. And according to the Sakya presentation it is to settle within the clear light nature of the mind, the subtlest level of the mind. Because according to Sakya, whether you follow sutra or tantra Mahayana methods, you get to the clear light nature of the mind anyway. It’s really non-conceptual, the difference in sutra and tantra is the methods to get there.

And this all-encompassing basis – that’s the word “alaya” – that’s as in alayavijnana – the foundation of all. And so in Sakya this is called the “causal alaya.” It’s the foundation mind, the clear light mind that is all-encompassing, because it’s the cause of all appearances. That’s the deepest ultimate cause of all appearances, both pure and impure. So both the appearances that are based on unawareness and karma, and the appearances that are not based on that – appearances that a Buddha sends out, emanates. In Sakya this view, in terms of what we just said, is called the “inseparability of samsara and nirvana” – that both pure and impure appearances come from the clear light mind, basically.

This is totally essential for tonglen practice, to the real tonglen practice, because it’s only with this understanding of voidness that we settle down to the clear light level, or at least something we imagine is similar to this clear light level, which is totally pure. And rather than have that the source of disturbing appearances, of confusion and suffering, and all of that, it’s from that which everything has settled that then we can give forth the mental activity of the clear light mind – it can produce the appearances, the pure appearances of happiness and whatever it is that will help the other person. And that is what we give to others. That’s how it’s done.

These pure appearances, they are not tainted, they are not mixed with our own confusion or with any confusion (like our grasping to it and our being stingy about it). There’s nothing confusing about what we want to give to others. That’s very important. Without any of this: “I hope you’re going to like it, or I hope it’s going to work, and I hope you’re going to like me as a result of it.” To do that properly, it doesn’t mean that it’s completely devoid of still having emotion and feeling; it’s not that it’s just happening totally impersonally, because this love and compassion – and this is very, very difficult, very delicate: when you get rid of the negative emotions, to not get rid of the positive ones at the same time. That’s why you have to go down to the source, fresh from the source, and give rise to the positive emotions. The confusion and the appearances all automatically dissolve because they are not going anywhere, I mean they are not coming from anywhere and sitting then going away. The opponent, as well, does that – it’s all void and stuff like that – that as well. Then we’re able to come to this clear light state, this foundation of all. Then within that a few appearances arise for giving to others.

So you can see this Sakya understanding and explanation is not only incredibly profound, but incredibly useful, and fits I think extremely, extremely well in this seven-point training. With this foundation then we can do tonglen. Without it, very dangerous.

Now the Gelug interpretation of this – we come across it quite frequently – very briefly to show how these lines can be interpreted differently, which is also useful, obviously. So, “Ponder that phenomena are like a dream” refers to all phenomena that are cognized by the mind, that all phenomena lack true findable existence. Then, “Discern the fundamental nature of awareness that has no arising” that refers to the voidness of the mind that cognizes all phenomena. So the objects of mind, then the mind itself, both of them lack true existence.

This now encompasses all the five aggregates: all the aspects of our experience, all the factors that make up our experience, moment to moment. So the basis for labeling the “me,” the “self,” lacks true findable existence. Remember we had this in our discussion of Svatantrika, that what establishes it exists is, well, it’s involved in imputation, but there’s something on the side that you can find that allows the imputation, so that’s not the case with the basis for imputation. We have three things, as we explained, that are involved in mental labeling. There’s the basis, and then there’s the label (which is just the word or concept “me”), then there’s what is referred to by that word, in other words what it means, what it refers to. That’s the actual, conventional “me.” It actually does exist.

So Svatantrika is saying that all three can’t exist independently; everything is in terms of this combination – how you establish that something exists; it’s in terms of well, through this process. So if the basis within this process can’t be found, then how can what is designated on it be found? That’s impossible.

If we put this in another way, from another point of view, we’re dealing now with another technical term. If within this process of imputation and mental labeling, on the side of the basis, nothing in the basis has a solid line around it making it a knowable object – there are no solid lines around any of the basis – then how can what is imputed on it have a solid line around it? So if you understand the voidness of the aggregates, it automatically follows that – not automatically, because you have to understand and think – and then what follows from that is the voidness of the person itself.

So, “The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place.” The third line. The opponent is understood here in the Gelugpa as the “me” that’s applying this meditation to this. And if you’ve understood that the aggregates, the basis, the contents of the appearances of the mind itself are void, then the self itself (the “me”) liberates itself in its own place. Once again it’s the voidness of the “me,” of the person.

So, in tonglen, the suffering that I take on and experience, and experiences – the five aggregates – you can’t find it, it has no findable existence, and the mind that’s experiencing this doesn’t have true existence, and none of the aspects of the experience has true findable existence. And so, then, the “me” who is experiencing all of this, that doesn’t have true findable existence.

All of this is in terms of the discerning meditation, what sometimes is translated as analytical meditation. You don’t have to go through the huge line of reasoning every time you do tonglen, only in the beginning, but discerning – you just state it with full understanding certainty and accuracy. And that’s what the analytical investigating does – you’re going through the lines of reasoning. So we take on the suffering, the suffering doesn’t have true existence, the mind experiencing this doesn’t have true existence, I don’t have true existence. We discern all this.

And then the final line is, “The essential nature of the path is to settle within a state of the all-encompassing basis.” And this is to stabilize it. The meditation on the all-encompassing basis is the understanding of voidness, and now just settle in a stabilizing meditation on voidness. The voidness of the three spheres (the person who is meditating, what one is meditating on, and the meditation itself). And then – within that sphere of that understanding of voidness, stabilized in, doing analytical discerning meditation within that stable sphere – then, as in a tantra generation, then the arising of what you’re going to give to others, then of course staying within the understanding of voidness. So both explanations are very applicable to tonglen. Right? Different styles of doing it.

I wanted to go into some detail about this because without this it’s very difficult to do tonglen. It’s very difficult.

So let’s end here, and then we’ll discuss relative bodhichitta.

There was one question during the break that I just want to answer a little bit briefly before we go on, which was this thing about mental holograms having no arising, abiding or ceasing. These words here that they liberate themselves, this is standard terminology used in particularly dzogchen meditation, but you also find it in some mahamudra texts as well. Sometimes it’s translated “self-liberation.” Well, I mean it’s not a wrong translation; it’s just that one needs an explanation for that. “Automatically” I think is better. Automatically liberates itself, in the sense that thoughts simultaneously arise, abide and disappear.

Simultaneously… If you think about it, how do we think? Is it that the thought arises, then we think it, and then the thought goes away? And if that happens in a three step process, that’s only if we think in terms of the thought having a solid line around it. Maybe puffed up like a bubble, then we think it, and then with a solid line around it, it goes away. But nothing has a solid line around it.

And also if we think of time, there’s no smallest unit of time. It can always be divided smaller and smaller. So, can we point to a specific time, a specific microsecond – three different microseconds where it arose, we thought it, and then it goes away? We can’t. That can only be like that in terms of, you know, if microseconds have solid lines around them.

So, if we understand voidness, then we can understand that thoughts, mental holograms, appearances, simultaneously arise, abide and cease. And so in this sense, it automatically disappears; it automatically liberates itself. It can’t last; the next moment is going to happen. You don’t have to make that moment go away. By itself, it goes away. “Time marches on,” as we say. And it’s only if we grasp on to it and hold it, if we want it to last, that it seems as though: “Oh, this mood is going on forever.” It’s its own opponent, you know, it automatically arises, abides and disappears, by itself. So if we can recognize this, which is rather subtle, and if we can stay mindful of it, which means your mental glue staying with that understanding, then, we can do practices with it – tong-len, I mean it facilities it further and obviously it facilitates a whole life.

So, when in dzogchen and mahamudra meditation it says, you know, just be natural and relax and like that, it didn’t mean do that literally. It’s talking about this process that I just explained. You don’t have to do anything, because the thoughts and the disturbing emotions, they’re in each moment simultaneously arising, abiding and ceasing. So if you can just get to the clear light foundation, out of which it is doing all of this and stay there with the understanding of voidness, then, you don’t have this problem. So although it sounds very easy, it’s not. It’s unbelievably difficult.

So… and also it’s not to grasp at any moment. And, a very, very important word: nevertheless thoughts arise, emotions arise, appearances arise, like an illusion it’s not that there is nothing happening. So, that’s like the last line of this verse, the section “between session, act like an illusory person.”

Serkong Rinpoche put it very nicely, very cryptically, summarizing this verse, these five lines. He said: “If there’s a wall you can’t walk through it; but if there’s no wall you can.” Like, if things had a true findable existence like if there’s a wall, they wouldn’t function; they couldn’t function. Right? If each moment, microsecond, had a solid line around it, how could you ever go from one microsecond to the next? How would they connect? Well, if the cause has a big circle around it, a big line around it and the effect a big line around it as if it’s a findable entity, how could they possibly connect, how could they have things function? But if there’s no line around them, there’s no wall, then everything functions. Cryptic way of Tibetan lamas – they put things in very simple examples, but very profound.