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. The second point, which we’ll explain today, is the actual training in bodhichitta. 

The text deals first with deepest bodhichitta. As was introduced briefly last night, there is deepest bodhichitta, the understanding of voidness, and relative or conventional or superficial bodhichitta, the one that deals primarily with appearances. We are aiming to achieve three things: (1) an understanding of the voidness of the omniscient mind, (2) having this understanding be with an omniscient mind and (3) simultaneously with this, appearing in all different types of forms to benefit everyone. To best be able to help others, we have to rid ourselves of all our own problems and limitations, and what will do that is correct understanding and non-conceptual cognition of voidness. We also need to understand everything that is causing everyone to act in the ways that they are, and what the consequences would be of anything that we would teach any of them, so we have to be omniscient: we have to know, fully, cause and effect. 

In general, with bodhichitta, we could say that we’re aiming for our not-yet-happening enlightenment to be able to benefit everyone. If we divide that bodhichitta into two aspects, there are deepest bodhichitta, with which we aim for non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of the omniscient mind, and relative, conventional or superficial bodhichitta, with which we aim to manifest in various forms that actually do what we know will be of help to them. This requires having an omniscient mind, which we also aim for attaining with relative bodhichitta.

As I mentioned, there are several editions or versions of this text. In the oldest version, from Togme Zangpo – the one that we’re following – deepest bodhichitta is explained first, and then relative bodhichitta. In the version that we find in the Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun, which was written by Namkapel, a disciple of Tsongkhapa, it is the opposite way: first is the verse about relative bodhichitta, then immediately following that is the one on deepest bodhichitta. Further, in the edition prepared in the first half of the last century by Pabongka Rinpoche, the verse on deepest bodhichitta is put at the very end of the whole text.

Starting with Deepest Bodhichitta 

Here we’ll follow Serkong Rinpoche’s oral commentary on the older version, Togme Zangpo’s version, which explains deepest bodhichitta first. There’s an important reason and purpose to having the presentation of deepest bodhichitta first. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains, if we understand the voidness of all phenomena, particularly the voidness of the mind, especially of the clear-light mind, and we understand the natural purity of the mind in terms of its voidness, then we are convinced that it is possible not only to attain liberation so that we are rid forever of all unawareness and disturbing emotions and attitudes, but also that it’s possible to achieve omniscience. Unless we’re really convinced of both of those points, we can’t really put our full heart into the relative bodhichitta we might develop to actually work to achieve them. This is the order in which Nagarjuna presents them in his Commentary on (the Two) Bodhichittas. Also, if we are convinced, through the understanding of the purity of the mind and the voidness of cause and effect, that everybody can gain liberation and achieve enlightenment, that also gives us the confidence that, when we achieve enlightenment, we can help to lead everybody else to enlightenment as well. 

Also, having deepest bodhichitta first follows the order in the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, because the understanding of voidness that is common to both Hinayana and Mahayana is presented first in the intermediate scope teachings as part of the three higher trainings: higher ethical self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness. This is the case, although the full discussion of voidness only comes with the advanced scope teachings on the six far-reaching attitudes, which occurs after the presentation of relative bodhichitta. 

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 and, so, it’s an understanding that’s common to both Hinayana and Mahayana. Not only in the other Indian Buddhist tenet systems, but also in the other Tibetan traditions as well, it’s said that the understandings of voidness for attaining liberation and enlightenment are different. This was one of Tsongkhapa’s revolutionary realizations and contributions. 

What Tsongkhapa emphasized as the difference between the understanding of voidness for achieving liberation and for enlightenment is the strength of the mind that understands voidness. If the strength of the mind is only with the force of renunciation, the determination for only us to be free of suffering, then that understanding of voidness is only strong enough to get rid of the emotional obscurations that prevent liberation. However, if the mind that understands voidness has relative bodhichitta, then it has the added strength to be able to cut through the cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience as well. To highlight the necessity of having enough strength behind the understanding of voidness in order to attain enlightenment, the order of the two bodhichittas is reversed in several versions of the text made by Gelugpa masters. In them, the verse on relative bodhichitta comes first, then afterwards, the verse on deepest bodhichitta. 

When there are two quite different traditions in Buddhism concerning a certain point, it’s important to not be arrogant and sectarian and just say our position is correct and the other one is wrong. There are sound reasons behind each alternative; both of them make excellent sense and both are beneficial. 

Similarly, the Fourth Panchen Lama, regarding mahamudra meditation, posited the question, “Which comes first: shamatha focused on the conventional nature of the mind or vipashyana focused on the deepest nature of the mind, its voidness?” He writes that it depends on the level of intelligence of the disciple. It’s the same criterion here in the case of bodhichitta meditation. For disciples who are very intelligent and can understand complex things quite easily, it would make sense to meditate on deepest bodhichitta first; however, for those who are more emotionally oriented, relative bodhichitta would be easier to develop first. 

The order of many points in the Dharma can be reversed, depending on different types of disciples and different purposes. For someone who is more intelligent and a very thinking type of person, it really matters whether or not it’s possible to achieve enlightenment. For that reason, the understanding of voidness, as His Holiness explained, convinces such a person that it is possible to achieve. Then, they can work to achieve it and can be more relaxed about doing so. Their mind and heart will be much more open; otherwise, they will be very tight. On the other hand, somebody who is more emotional and might not be very analytical at all, or disciplined in that type of thinking, doesn’t really care. It’s not an issue for 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 to help them now. They work now to help others, as much as they can, and in the process of doing so, build up enough positive force so that their mind becomes clear enough to understand voidness, which they might not have been able to do easily before. 

I think that helps us a little bit to understand that both ways are correct, depending on the individual. However, specifically for 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. This is because, in this extraordinarily advanced teaching of tonglen, the biggest obstacle to being willing to actually take on and experience the sufferings of others and give them happiness, our own happiness, is fear: fear of suffering. And fear of suffering, of course, is based on self-cherishing, grasping to a “me” who doesn’t want to get its hands dirty, thinking, “I don’t want to get hurt; I don’t want to get involved.” This is especially so when we actually imagine taking on the sufferings of others. If we think in terms of a solid “me” and, “Oh my God! What’s happening to me?” and so on; we’ll freak out and not be willing to do it. It’s only really with any good understanding of voidness, particularly the voidness of the self of persons, you and me, that we can know how to deal with this whole tonglen practice. Otherwise, it’s very difficult. 

Let me emphasize this once more, since it is crucial for practicing tonglen. If we sincerely want to practice tonglen, not just some trivialized over-simplified version of it, we really need to prepare for that; and to prepare, we need at least to 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 frightening. We have to be prepared for that. Otherwise, without that understanding of voidness, it can be a real fight, a real struggle. 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. If we have strong emotional problems, tonglen is not something that we’re ready for. 

Deepest Bodhichitta: Understanding the Voidness of All Phenomena

The four lines in the text on deepest bodhichitta can be understood 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 very much in the vocabulary style of Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma, but particularly that of Sakya. Let’s first look, then, at the Sakya way of understanding this verse. 

The Sakya Interpretation

The Sakya method of meditating on voidness is in graded steps. Each time we meditate on voidness, we first remind ourselves of the Chittamatra (mind-only) position, and then we refine that with Madhyamaka understanding and then go to the level of the clear-light mind.

The first line is: 

Ponder that phenomena are like a dream. 

This refers to all conventional phenomena. Remember, we were speaking about imputation phenomena? According to Sakya, all commonsense conventional forms of physical phenomena, such as our own body, someone else’s body, or even a cell phone, are imputation phenomena on the basis of sequential moments of different types of sensory information. Likewise, all commonsense types of awareness of something, such as eye consciousness or compassion, are imputation phenomena on the basis of sequential moments of cognition. Both types of commonsense phenomena are objects only known by conceptual cognition. The “self,” a “person,” “me,” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the five aggregates composed of these two types of imputation phenomena, and it, too, is only known by conceptual cognition. This is the Sakya position.

All these appearances of commonsense conventional objects that we experience merely as objects of our conceptual cognition are mental holograms, like those that appear in a dream. We cannot see, smell or touch a commonsense object, like a body. We can only cognize visual sensory information, sights, with eye consciousness, olfactory sensory information, smells, with nose consciousness, and tactile sensory information, physical sensations, with body consciousness – and only one moment of each at a time. It is only mental consciousness that can conceptually synthesize and impute a mental hologram representing a whole commonsense body that pervades all these different types of sensory information and an entire sequence of moments of them. And it is also only mental consciousness that can conceptually synthesize and impute a mental hologram representing a person that pervades all five aggregates – a body, the various types of consciousness, feelings of suffering, other mental factors, and so on – and an entire sequence of moments of them. None of these commonsense objects can be established as existing externally, since any type of sensory cognition can only cognize one type of sensory information and only one moment of it at a time.

It is in this sense that, similar to the Chittamatra assertion, Sakya asserts that the mental hologram of a commonsense body, a commonsense person, a commonsense problem or commonsense suffering that arises in conceptual cognition and the conceptual mental consciousness cognizing it come from the same natal source. They all arise as the “play” of the clarity aspect of the nature of the mind. The nature of the mind is clarity and awareness. “Clarity” refers to the aspect of the mind’s mental activity of giving rise to appearances of a mental hologram; and “awareness” is its aspect of cognitively engaging in some way with the appearance. These two aspects of mental activity occur simultaneously; they are inseparable and, thus, arise from the same source, the conventional nature of the mind. Although distinct functions, they are “non-dual.”

Based on this point, the appearances of all commonsense phenomena are like a dream, since dreams, too, clearly arise from the mind. All appearances of phenomena, then, are mental holograms that arise as what the appearance-making aspect of the mind makes appear. Nevertheless, there are such things as appearances and the mind; it is not that they don’t exist. But they exist only as imputation phenomena and can only be known conceptually. And it is not that our conceptual cognition creates them and that if we didn’t conceptually cognize them, they wouldn’t exist. It is just that we can only cognize them conceptually.

This is an extremely subtle and difficult point to digest emotionally, especially in the context of tonglen. With tonglen practice, we’re looking at the suffering of others and taking it on ourselves, so what are we taking on if suffering and the person experiencing it are both mental holograms like a dream? Who is experiencing the suffering? Are you experiencing it? Am I going to now experience it? What’s going on? Are you just in my head? Are you just a dream? How do I know that you actually exist? The Zen solution would be that the other person slaps us in the face, and then we know that the other person exists. That’s why it’s like a dream, but it’s not the same as a dream. 

It’s very important to realize that any suffering that we will take on from others, who do exist and who do suffer, is suffering that they experience in the form of an appearance from their minds, in the form of a mental hologram arising as the play of the mind. It’s the same thing for us, in that if we were to take on and experience that suffering, that would also be a play of the mind, a mental hologram. Of course, it would hurt − we do not deny that it will hurt, because we’ll experience it − but it is an appearance from the mind. Likewise, there’s no “me” that is experiencing this that is separate from the play of the mind – either in terms of your experience or my experience. The “me” of anyone’s experience of suffering is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of that suffering and, as an imputation phenomenon, it cannot exist and cannot be known separately from its basis. Therefore, the person experiencing the suffering is an inseparable part of the hologram that appears of the suffering. Obviously, this is quite difficult to understand and requires a great amount of thinking about this line that all phenomena are like a dream. 

The next line is: 

Discern the basic nature of awareness that has no arising. 

“Discern” is the same word as is used for “analytical” meditation. Investigation is just a preliminary to that and, having investigated something, such as the nature of awareness, then we actually discern it. Discerning it is with an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, vipashyana. The basic or fundamental nature of awareness is the fundamental void nature of awareness, or the mind. We have to be careful with this word “nature.” There are about three or four technical terms that are fused in our Western languages into one word, “nature,” and that completely loses the technical differences of these different words. Here, the term I translate as basic nature, gshis, has the connotation of the fundamental personality of something, which here refers to its voidness.

This phrase, fundamental void nature, now adds the Madhyamaka understanding to the Chittamatra one, which we need because Chittamatra asserts that the mind, as the source of these mental holograms, has truly established, unimputed self-established existence. In other words, the unimputed self-established existence of the mind can be established or proven independently of it being an imputation phenomenon on a basis. Just the fact that it functions and produces mental holograms establishes that it unimputedly exists. Madhyamaka objects and says: “No, no, no, that’s not so. The fact that something functions doesn’t prove that it unimputedly exists, because if things existed unimputedly and self-established, they couldn’t function.” 

The Sakya presentation always emphasizes the appearance-making – the clarity aspect – of the mind, so this line is saying that this appearance-making can’t be found existing independently by itself on the basis of some self-establishing nature findable inside it and responsible for its being able to perform the function of giving rise to appearances. Because there is no such thing as a self-establishing nature, there’s no true arising, no true abiding, and no true ceasing of a mind having a self-establishing nature. 

It’s not like there’s a self-established mind waiting somewhere off stage, and now it comes onto the stage, does the scene by performing its function of giving rise to an appearance, and then goes off on the other side of the stage and takes a rest. To put this in terms of the refutation of the standard Chittamatra assertion, the mind, that mental activity giving rise to appearances, is not sitting inside a karmic tendency, a so-called “karmic seed,” already determined as to what appearance it will give rise to and just waiting to come out. Then, when given the proper circumstances, it comes out, performs its function, and then goes back into the tendency, waiting for the next set of circumstances that will cause it to come out again and give rise to something similar: another incident of being disappointed or getting angry or not showing up – these sorts of things. 

This fundamental nature of the mind that gives rise to appearances that are like a dream is that it is devoid of a self-establishing nature that gives it truly established, unimputed existence. The mind, or awareness, then, has no arising, as it says in the text, which is short for “no arising, no abiding, and no ceasing” based on such a self-establishing nature. This is in addition to the fact that, like appearances, the mind is also like a dream, since “mind” is a conceptual synthesis that is an imputation on a sequence of moments of mental activity. Also, it’s not that there is a machine, called “mind,” that is doing this mental activity, separate from the activity and the appearances it gives rise to. The mental activity is just happening. The arising of the appearances of the mental holograms just happens, affected by circumstances.

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

The third line: 

The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place. 

Now, we get into the Sakya Prasangika understanding. The opponent to grasping for unimputed, self-established existence, which is the cause of all suffering, is the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, often translated as “emptiness.” Voidness refers to the absence of unimputed, self-established existence, because such existence is impossible; there is no such thing. 

Voidness, like everything else, is an imputation phenomenon on a basis; it must be the voidness of an impossible way of existing of something – or, more precisely, an impossible way of establishing the existence of something. Here, we are talking specifically about the voidness of the mind and of the appearances it gives rise to. But, as an imputation phenomenon, voidness is known conceptually and, as with all conceptual appearances, voidness too appears to have true, unimputed, self-established existence. To attain enlightenment, we need to go beyond a conceptual cognition of voidness to a non-conceptual one.  

There are four extremes that we need to go beyond, and all of them are conceptual syntheses that appear to be truly, unimputedly, self-established. These are (1) true, unimputed, self-established existence itself, (2) the lack of unimputed, self-established existence – in other words, voidness, (3) both and (4) neither. As conceptual syntheses, each of these four extremes are what we would call “concepts” and can be designated with words. The actual non-conceptual cognition of voidness, then, is one that is beyond words and concepts; it is beyond all four extremes because all four are conceptual. 

Progressing from a conceptual to a non-conceptual cognition of voidness is the most difficult thing to accomplish in meditation, and each of the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism offer a different method. Although Sakya, as well as Kagyu and Nyingma, have their own styles of meditating, each formulates non-conceptually cognized voidness as a voidness that is beyond words and concepts.   

Whichever method we use, we need to apply going beyond words and concepts to our tonglen meditation. We’re not talking here about the advice in our text of practicing tonglen “while training with words in all paths of behavior.” This is referring to reciting the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM to help us keep mindful of compassion while doing the practice. We’re talking here, instead, about, when taking on the suffering of others, stopping such verbal thoughts as, “This horrible suffering of others that I’ve taken on and am now experiencing is just an appearance of the mind, like a dream.” We have to stop verbally thinking – and even not actually mentally putting it in words, but just conceptually feeling and thinking – that this suffering is something truly and unimputedly established, just sitting there horribly inside me now, even though it’s like a dream. However, equally, we have to stop thinking, either verbally or just through a concept, “This suffering is devoid of unimputed existence; there’s nothing to freak out about. Calm down! It has no true existence. Stop that!” 

This is the point that this third line of the verse is addressing. The method to go beyond words and concepts is to let go of these conceptual thoughts, because the opponent – the conceptual cognition of voidness – liberates itself in its own place. “Liberates itself” means that it automatically dissolves. Having no true arising, abiding, or ceasing, all thoughts and all appearances in thoughts arise and cease simultaneously, even the conceptual thought of voidness and the dream-like appearance of voidness in the thought. But importantly, when we let go of grasping at this conceptual thought of voidness, we need to maintain an understanding of voidness. If we are successful in this, our cognition of voidness is non-conceptual.  

The fourth line reads:

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

This describes what we are doing in this non-conceptual meditation on voidness. According to the Sakya presentation, we are settling down to the clear-light mind, which is the subtlest level of the mind. This is because one of the unique Sakya assertions is that, whether we follow Mahayana sutra or tantra methods, any non-conceptual cognition of voidness we attain is with the clear-light mind. The difference between sutra and tantra is in the methods used to get to that subtlest level of mind. 

In Sakya, the clear-light mind is called the “all-encompassing basis” – that’s the word “alaya,” as in alayavijnana. It is the foundation of all. In Sakya, this is more fully called the “causal alaya continuum.” It’s the foundation mind, the clear-light mind, that is all-encompassing because it’s the cause of all appearances. It’s the deepest ultimate cause of all appearances, both impure and pure – in other words, all impure appearances that are based on unawareness and karma and all pure appearances that are not based on that – the appearances that a Buddha emanates. In Sakya, this view is called the “inseparability of samsara and nirvana,” in the sense that both pure and impure appearances come from the clear-light mind. 

This view is extremely helpful for the real tonglen practice. When we take in others’ suffering and we focus on its voidness, if we are able to focus on voidness non-conceptually, we will have settled down to the clear-light level of mind. Even if we are only able to focus on voidness conceptually, we can at least imagine that we have reached this clear-light level, which is totally pure. Rather than have that clear-light level of mind be the source of disturbing appearances, of confusion and suffering, it’s from that level that we can emanate pure appearances of happiness and whatever it is that will help other persons, and that is what we give to others. That’s how it’s done. 

These pure appearances are untainted, which means that they are not mixed with any confusion, like our grasping to them as being truly existent and therefore being stingy about them. There’s nothing confusing about what we want to give to others. That’s very important, that our giving be without any thoughts of, “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 the practice properly doesn’t mean that it’s completely devoid of any emotion and feeling; it’s not that our practice of tonglen is just happening totally impersonally. Doing it correctly is very delicate, because when we get rid of negative emotions and grasping for the true, unimputed existence of all emotions, both negative and positive, then, when we emanate happiness, etc., we need to do that with the positive emotions of love and compassion, but of course without grasping at them to be truly and unimputedly self-established. That’s why, to get rid of our clear-light mind making appearances of truly established existence, we need to go down to the source of all appearances, impure and pure, and then it will be possible to emanate pure appearances and positive emotions. 

The confusion and all appearances automatically dissolve – they “liberate themselves” – because they are not truly established phenomena coming from somewhere, not even from the clear-light mind, and then going away. The opponent, as well, voidness, also liberates itself. With the voidness of the suffering that we have taken on from others, and any negative emotions, such as fear, we might feel about it, liberating themselves, then within this all-encompassing foundation that is the cause of all appearances, we can emanate pure appearances to give to others. 

We can see that this Sakya explanation are not only incredibly profound, but incredibly useful, and fits extremely well with this seven-point training. With this understanding of deepest bodhichitta as our foundation, we can do tonglen practice and develop relative bodhichitta. Without such a foundation, tonglen practice can be psychologically very dangerous. 

The Gelug Interpretation

Now, the Gelug interpretation of deepest bodhichitta, but only very briefly, to show how these lines can be interpreted differently, which is also useful, obviously. Ponder that phenomena are like a dream refers to all phenomena that are cognized by the mind and indicates that all phenomena lack self-established existence. Then, Discern the fundamental nature of awareness that has no arising, refers to the voidness of the mind that cognizes all phenomena. The objects of mind and then the mind itself both lack self-established existence. 

This now encompasses all the five aggregates, all the aspects of our experience, and all the factors that make up our experience, moment to moment, and are the basis for the self, “me,” which is an imputation phenomenon on them as its basis. The self of a person, “me,” also lacks self-established existence. 

We need to understand this sequence of understanding the voidness of the aggregates, and especially of the mind, and then the voidness of the self of a person, as being a Prasangika refutation of the Svatantrika position. According to the Gelug assertions, imputation phenomena, such as the self and even whole commonsense objects, are not conceptual constructs but can be cognized non-conceptually as well. However, what establishes that they exist is that they are what the words or concepts for them refer to on the basis of their bases for imputation – in the case of “me,” an individual continuum of the five aggregates. That means that although we can cognize the self of a person non-conceptually, we can only establish that it exists in terms of the conceptual cognition of it through words and concepts. Such conceptual cognition is referred to as “mental labeling.”

There are three things involved with mental labeling, for instance of “me”: the word or concept or mental label “me,” an individual continuum of five aggregates as the basis for labeling, and what the mental label refers to – the referent object, the conventionally existent “me.” The “me” can only be established as existing as that referent object, because the conceptual thought refers to something. That does not mean that mental labeling creates it. It just means that we can only establish the existence of “me” dependently on it being what a mental label for it refers to. 

Prasangika asserts that it is only in terms of mental labeling that the existence of the “me” – or of anything validly knowable – can be established, dependently arising merely on mental labeling. Svatantrika, however, asserts that, in addition to mental labeling, there must be some defining characteristic mark of what the concept or word refers to that is findable on the side of the basis for mental labeling that allows for a correct mental labeling of anything. This assertion amounts to saying that this defining characteristic mark is like a self-establishing nature, for instance of the “me,” findable on the side of its basis for mental labeling. Svatantrika says the existence of the “me” and of all other phenomena is established by mental labeling in conjunction with this findable defining characteristic mark. Further, Svatantrika asserts that the defining characteristic mark of “me” is findable specifically on the side of an individual continuum of mental consciousness – in more general terms, an individual continuum of a mind – as the basis.

The sequence indicated here in this verse is that first we need to cognize the absence of defining characteristic marks findable on the side of all appearances, and then especially a defining characteristic mark findable on the side of a sequence of moments of mind that, in conjunction with mentally labeling it “mind,” establishes that it is a mind. Then, since the mind does not have a defining characteristic mark of “mind” findable on its side, how can the mind have a defining characteristic mark of “me” findable on its side? That doesn’t make any sense.  

This understanding of the voidness of the self of a person, “me,” is the Gelug interpretation of the third line of the verse, The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place. The opponent is understood here as the “me” that’s doing this meditation. If we’ve understood that the aggregates, as the contents of the appearances of the mind, and the mind as well, are devoid of self-established existence and of existence established by a defining characteristic mark, then as I just explained, we automatically understand the voidness of the “me.” And, so, a self-established “me,” which doesn’t exist at all, “liberates itself in its own place.” All appearances of such an impossible “me” disappear.   

Thus, in tonglen practice, we need to understand that the suffering of others that we take on ourselves has no self-established existence; neither their mind nor our own mind experiencing it has self-established existence; and neither they nor we, as persons experiencing this suffering, have self-established existence. 

These first three lines of the verse refer to the discerning meditation, sometimes translated as “analytical meditation,” that we need to do with tonglen practice. Once we have familiarized ourselves with the lines of reasoning to prove the voidness of all phenomena, we need to remind ourselves of them before the meditation and then try to stay mindful to discern the voidness of the suffering, the mind, and the self throughout the meditation. When we take on the suffering, we discern that the suffering and the mind and person experiencing it – in terms of both the other person and us – are devoid of self-established existence. We discern all this. 

The fourth line, The essential nature of the path is to settle within a state of the all-encompassing basis, refers to the stabilizing meditation that we do once we have taken on the suffering of others. The “all-encompassing basis” refers to voidness, and now we 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, maintaining the “taste,” it’s called, the taste of voidness, we imagine emanating happiness and whatever else we are giving to others, realizing that they are like an illusion. This is the Gelugpa style of applying deepest bodhichitta to tonglen meditation. 

So, both explanations, Sakya and Gelug, are very applicable to tonglen, and both are extremely helpful. I wanted to go into some detail about this because without deepest bodhichitta first, it’s very difficult to do tonglen properly.

Let’s end here, and then we’ll discuss relative bodhichitta in our next session.

Question on Mental Holograms

There was one question, however, during the break that I just want to answer briefly before we go on. It was about this statement that mental holograms having no arising, abiding or ceasing, and therefore they “liberate themselves.” Could I explain it a bit further?

The expression “liberate themselves” is standard terminology used also in dzogchen and mahamudra texts. Sometimes it’s translated as “self-liberation.” The meaning is that thoughts automatically dissolve; we don’t have to make them go away. Thoughts automatically liberate themselves and dissolve because they simultaneously arise, abide and disappear. The image sometimes used to illustrate this point is that thoughts are like writing on water.

If we analyze, how do we think? Is it that a thought arises, then we think it, and then the thought goes away? That three-step process could only happen if a thought is some findable self-established entity that, like I explained before, comes on stage, performs its function, and then exits. However, thoughts don’t exist in that way, and, in fact, nothing else exists in that way. 

Also, if we think of time, there’s no smallest unit of time. Time can always be divided smaller and smaller. Can we point to three different specific microseconds where the thought arose, we thought it, and then it went away? We can’t. Thinking could only occur like that if microseconds existed as self-established, findable entities.

If we understand voidness, then we can understand that thoughts, mental holograms and appearances, simultaneously arise, abide and cease. In this sense, they automatically vanish by themselves; they automatically liberate themselves. Thoughts can’t last. “Time marches on,” as we say. It’s only if we grasp onto a thought, as if it had self-established existence, that we then feel, for instance, “Oh, this foul mood I’m in is going on forever.” The fact that a thought automatically arises, abides, and disappears by itself is the evidence that, when we understand it, acts as an opponent to our grasping. If we can recognize this fact, which is rather subtle, and if we can stay mindful of it, which means our mental glue staying with that understanding, it will greatly help our tonglen practice. In fact, it will greatly help with everything in life. 

When dzogchen and mahamudra texts say to just be natural and relax, it doesn’t mean we should do that literally. It’s talking about this process that I just explained. Our thoughts and disturbing emotions are simultaneously arising, abiding, and ceasing. We don’t need to make any effort into making these thoughts and disturbing emotions go away. If we can stay with this realization, which actually is the realization of the voidness of thought and of the mind, then we won’t have any problems with our thoughts. So, just relax and don’t grasp at any thought – although it sounds very easy, it’s not. It’s extraordinarily difficult. 

Although thoughts, emotions and so on simultaneously arise, abide and cease, that doesn’t mean that they don’t arise. Thoughts, emotions and appearances do arise, but they are like an illusion, like a dream. It’s not that there is nothing happening. The last line of this verse indicates that:

Between sessions, 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.” For instance, if things had true findable self-established existence, they would be solid like a wall. They would be frozen, in a sense, as self-established, independent entities and so would be unable to function, since functioning implies doing something, which implies change. 

Similarly, if each moment, each microsecond, were a self-established, independent entity, how could one microsecond lead to the next? How could microseconds connect with each other? If a cause is self-established, existing as a cause all on its own, how could it possibly lead to an effect? How could anything function, how could anything happen? However, since there’s no such thing as self-established existence, then, in a sense, there’s no wall. Then everything functions. 

So, as Serkong Rinpoche stated, “If there’s a wall, you can’t walk through it, but if there’s no wall, you can.” This is an example of the cryptic way in which Tibetan lamas often teach. They express complex things with very simple examples – simple, perhaps, but very profound.