Training in Higher Discriminating Awareness
The discussion of training in higher discriminating awareness starts with the second half of verse forty-one:
(41b) However, if you have failed to apply yourself to far-reaching discriminating awareness, you will be unable to deplete the obscurations.
The concentration, a stilled and settled mind by itself and the advanced awarenesses by themselves are not enough for gaining enlightenment. To gain enlightenment we have to get rid of the two sets of obscurations. The first set is referring to the various disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes that we have and their seeds, karmic seeds or legacies. These obscurations prevent our liberation from samsara. They obscure our ability to see reality clearly.
And then the second set of obscurations are regarding all knowable phenomena. This second set of obscurations was what we were referring to yesterday in terms of our periscope vision. They prevent us from gaining enlightenment in the sense that they prevent us from being able to see all sentient beings and all the karmic connections and all the influences of everything on them and what effects all our teachings will have on various people, and so on. So, we need to get rid of this second set of obscurations in order to achieve enlightenment.
And in order to eliminate each of these sets of obscurations we need this discriminating awareness of voidness.
(42) Therefore, in order to rid yourself of all obscurations, without exception, regarding the disturbing emotions and knowable phenomena, always meditate on the yoga of far-reaching discriminating awareness together with methods.
If we speak of the obscurations preventing liberation as basically our ignorance or unawareness of voidness and the disturbing emotions and attitudes that come from that and the legacies from our previous unawareness that cause this to recur, then the obscurations that prevent omniscience refers to the habits of that unawareness. The habits are what causes things to appear as if they were truly existent or solidly existent – they go with the unawareness itself, where you grasp at it and believe it to exist in the way that it appears.
To get rid of both these sets of obscuration we need this discriminating awareness of voidness to get rid of our unawareness. And we need this in conjunction with the methods. Just sitting and gaining this discriminating awareness by itself is not sufficient.
(43) This is because discriminating awareness lacking methods as well as methods lacking discriminating awareness have been said still to be bondage. Therefore, never abandon having both.
If we have just this discriminating awareness of voidness, but we don’t actually involve ourself with methods of helping others and actually help others, then that just remains intellectual knowledge. We don’t actually apply it in a practical way. And in order for that discriminating awareness to get deeper and deeper, we need some positive force behind it; otherwise we’re not able to really get deeper insights. That discriminating awareness by itself, if we just approach it in a very dry way, without actually doing anything to build up positive energy, it’s not going to get deep enough.
Similarly “methods lacking discriminating awareness.” In other words, if we just try to help others as much as possible, but without that discriminating awareness in terms of what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate, how do they exist, how do we exist, and so on, then we can easily have our help degenerate into a big ego-trip and that also is not going to bring liberation or enlightenment. So, in either case it’s “said still to be bondage.” We need both; it says “never abandon having both.”
Then what actually is this division between discriminating awareness and methods? Atisha elaborates this in the next two verses:
(44) To get rid of doubts concerning what is discriminating awareness and what are methods, I shall clarify the actual division between methods and discriminating awareness.
(45) The Triumphant One has explained that leaving aside far-reaching discriminating awareness, all networks of constructive factors, such as far-reaching generosity and so forth, are the methods.
What’s usually called “method and wisdom” is defined in terms of the six far-reaching attitudes or perfections. So, the sixth of these, discriminating awareness, is obviously the discriminating awareness or wisdom side and the other five are the method side. Those five are far-reaching generosity, ethical discipline, patience, joyous perseverance, and mental stability or concentration.
(46) It is by the power of having meditated on the methods that, through meditating thoroughly on something with discriminating awareness, someone with a (bodhichitta) nature can quickly attain enlightenment. It does not come about by having meditated on the lack of inherent identity alone.
For our meditation on discriminating awareness to be able to cut through our unawareness and its legacies and its habits and so on, it needs to have a strong amount of positive force behind it. So we need a great deal of patience, we need a great deal of discipline, we need a great deal of perseverance, and obviously concentration, and so on, and generosity that we’re going to use this understanding to help others, give it to others.
If we have all of that, a strong positive force from that, then by “meditating on discriminating awareness,” that discriminating awareness will cut through the unawareness and habits. Then, if we have this “bodhichitta nature,” this Buddha-nature to achieve enlightenment, then we can “quickly attain enlightenment,” in other words, if we have this bodhichitta motivation. Just “meditating on the lack of inherent identity” by itself is not going to be sufficient, is not going to bring us enlightenment.
When we talk about inherent identity, this means that there is something inside an object – that’s what “inherent” means, that it’s inside the object – that by its own power makes the object what it is, gives it its identity. An example that I often use is: if we are driving a car or riding a bicycle and there’s somebody in a car on the road trying to pass us and beeping the horn very wildly and so on, then it seems to us, it appears to us that “this person is an idiot,” that there’s something wrong with this person inherently, on the side of the person, that makes them into an idiot.
It doesn’t appear to us at all that being an idiot arises dependently on the concept of “an idiot” and the situation that we’re in and all these sort of things. It seems that inherently there’s something wrong with this person; they really are an idiot, truly. So, that’s what we mean by inherent identity and that’s an impossible way of existing. Nothing exists as what it is by the power of something inside it making it what it is, independent of anything else.
Even if we look at it on a very basic level, the person in the car there is made of atoms, the atoms are made of little particles and energy – what’s inside there that’s making this person an idiot? Nothing. That absence of impossible ways of existing, that’s what voidness means. Voidness means there’s no such thing as this, completely absent, there never was this type of an impossible existence.
(47) Awareness of the voidness of inherent existence that has come to realize that the aggregates, cognitive sources, and cognitive stimulators lack (inherently existing) arising has been fully explained as discriminating awareness.
Now, we have to go a little bit quickly because we don’t have so much time, so I can’t explain absolutely everything here, but “aggregates, cognitive sources, and cognitive stimulators” are referring basically to everything that we experience in terms of body, mind, emotions, various sights, sounds that we hear, and so on.
When we speak about voidness, “voidness of inherent existence,” that there’s no such thing as these impossible ways of existing, then we’re talking about the inherent existence of everything that we experience. Like for example, we were talking about this idiot in the car next to us. Now, that’s an impossible way of existing, that this person inherently exists as an idiot, an inherently existent idiot. Let’s use an image here: it’s an idiot, somebody, with a solid line around them like out of a child’s coloring book, that “there they are,” a solidly existent, inherently existent idiot.
There’s no such thing, so obviously such an idiot couldn’t arise, you can’t have the birth of an inherently existent idiot, because there is no such thing as an inherently existent idiot. How could somebody like in a coloring book be born? Nobody exists that way. That total absence, which is what we mean by voidness – the discriminating awareness of that voidness is what we’re talking about here as far-reaching discriminating awareness.
(48) If things inherently existed (at the time of their causes), it would be illogical for them to have to arise. Further, if they (inherently) did not exist at all (they could not be made to arise), like a flower out of space. Moreover, because there would be the absurd conclusions of both these faults, things do not come about from being both (inherently existent and nonexistent at the time of their causes) either.
That’s filling in a bit from the actual words of the text. If we leave out what’s filled in here, then the verse would just read:
(48) If things inherently existed, it would be illogical for them to have to arise. Further, if they did not exist at all, they would be like a flower out of space. Moreover, because there would be the absurd conclusions of both these faults, things do not come about from being both either.
This is saying that in order to really gain this discriminating awareness of voidness, we need to have certainty about it, certainty that there is no such thing as these impossible ways of existing. We gain that certainty through logical conviction, through a process of inferential understanding, through logic. The logic is what’s called “the exclusion of the middle” in Western logic. It’s like, if something were inherently existent, it would have to be either this, or that, or both, or neither. And if it’s none of those, then there’s no alternative, so it’s impossible.
It’s saying, “If something inherently existed at the time of their cause, then it’s illogical for them to arise.” In other words, we’re looking now in terms of causation. So, if this person inherently existed as an idiot at the time of, for instance, this person’s birth, then there’s no reason for them to actually arise. That’s not a very good way of explaining it. Let me explain it in a different way. This is not really speaking in terms here like that. Here we don’t have to speak just in terms of an inherently existent identity as this or that, we just can speak in terms of inherently exists at all.
We’re talking about, on a more general level, how is it that something exists at all? Inherent existence would be that there’s something inside it that makes it exist in general. So, if things inherently existed – there’s something on its own side that made it exist, independent of anything else – then the question is, how could they ever arise? If something already existed by its own power at the time of its cause, then how could external circumstances and things bring about its existence? Because it would already exist.
The usual example is a sprout and a seed: if the sprout already existed at the time of its cause, at the time of the seed, then how could the sprout ever arise? There would be no need for it to arise, it already existed. And at the time of the seed, if you say that the sprout doesn’t exist at all and that it inherently doesn’t exist at all, that there’s something inside it that makes it inherently not exist by its own power. Then it could never arise at all; it would have to be like that always.
Translator: Could you repeat that point?
Answer: If that sprout inherently did not exist at the time of the seed, in other words, if there was something inside the sprout at the time of the seed that made it inherently by its own power not exist then, then it could never arise.
Nothing could make it arise, because there’s something already there that made it not exist by its own power, so nothing could affect that. So its creation would be like a “flower” magically appearing “out of space,” it couldn’t happen. And you’d have these “absurd conclusions of both these faults,” if you said, “Well, in one way it inherently exists, but from another point of view it really inherently doesn’t exist either.” That’s impossible as well.
Question: How can someone with special powers, like Sai Baba, make things materialize, like a flower out of space, without a cause?
Alex: Well, things arise not on the basis of inherent existence – there’s no such thing as inherent existence. So he’s not making an inherently existent flower appear in space. There’s nothing on the side of the flower that makes it either inherently exist before he’s materialized it, or inherently not exist before he materializes it. Because there’s nothing on the side of that flower that makes it either inherently exist or inherently not exist, then through a combination of various methods, of his concentration and ability to control the elements and so on, then he’s able to materialize something or cause something to appear which does not inherently exist. It relatively exists, but it doesn’t have inherent existence.
So, this first line of reasoning is that things don’t either inherently exist, or inherently not exist, or both, or neither at the time of their cause. So, how do things arise?
(49) Phenomenal things do not arise from themselves, nor from something (inherently) different, nor from both. Neither do they (arise) from no causes at all. Because of this, everything by nature lacks inherent existence.
Let’s say the sprout, does it come from the seed? Well, is the sprout already in the seed and so it’s arising from itself? Well, that’s not possible. If something was already there, then how could it arise? That again doesn’t make any sense, that the cause is the same as the result.
And it can’t arise from something inherently different. If the cause has a big solid line around it and the effect has a big solid line around it and they exist totally by themselves by their own powers, then the effect couldn’t possibly arise from the cause. The cause couldn’t do anything. So it can’t arise from something different than itself.
And things don’t arise from either both themselves and something different, something that’s both itself and yet something different. And things don’t arise from neither, in other words “from no cause at all.” So, because of that, there’s no such thing as inherent existence in terms of things arising from self or from other.
(50) Furthermore, when you analyze all things if they are (inherently) one or many, then since you cannot be aimed at anything that has existence from its own nature, you can become certain of the nonexistence of inherent existence.
This is the argument of “neither one nor many,” and this is saying that if there was such a thing as inherent existence, there would have to be either just one thing or many things that inherently existed.
If we talk about “me” and “my identity,” let’s say as a father – I’m not a father, I don’t have children – but let’s say my identity is a father, and if these had inherent existence, me and father, with solid lines around it, then if there was such a thing as inherent existence, then there’d have to be either only one thing that inherently exists or many things that inherently exist. And so, if there’s only one thing that inherently existed, then me and father would have to be absolutely identical, just one thing, which would mean that I would have to be a father even before I had children, which is absurd.
And if there were many inherently existent things, then me would be one inherently existent thing, father would be another inherently existent thing. They’d have to be able to exist totally separately by their own power. So then who’s the father? It couldn’t be me. This means that that also is an impossible way of existing.
From all these different logical reasonings, we gain conviction: we’re convinced that although things appear to have inherent existence – this person in the car appears to be an idiot inherently, but that’s impossible, that’s not referring to anything real. Although it appears to us as though there’s inherent existence, nevertheless, as Atisha says, our mind is “not aimed at anything that actually does have inherent existence.” It’s like an illusion, it appears to be inherently existent, but it’s not. We’re not actually aimed at something that really has inherent existence, because that’s impossible.
Therefore we “can become certain of the non-existence of inherent existence.” That’s voidness, that there is no such thing as inherent existence. When we focus on that absence, “there’s no such thing,” with conviction that it’s impossible, that’s the understanding of voidness, that’s the discriminating awareness of voidness. And then, when we’re really familiar with that, then we no longer believe that things actually exist in the way that they deceptively appear to us.
So, “Although that person appears to be like an idiot, an inherent idiot, I know that they don’t really exist like that. They are acting this way in terms of my concept of an idiot and all the circumstances and so on.” That understanding helps us to avoid getting angry; we don’t get angry. This is the way you get rid of the disturbing emotions.
And the more familiar we become with not believing in inherent existence, not being fooled by it, eventually our minds will stop making that appearance of inherent existence. Then we’re rid of the obscurations preventing omniscience – we are enlightened, an enlightened being.
But for our conviction, to be totally convinced that this is an impossible way of existing, inherent existence, we need to rely first on valid lines of reasoning, because the ordinary perception is not going to indicate that at all. These lines of reasoning come from texts, so Atisha says:
(51) Furthermore, the lines of reasoning in The 70 Stanzas on Voidness and from The Root Text on the Middle Way and so forth explain as well how the nature of phenomenal things is established as voidness.
So he mentions some of the sources. Then he goes on:
(52) However, because this text would have become too long, I have therefore not elaborated here. What I have explained has been for the purpose of meditation on merely a proven system of philosophical tenets.
So, he just mentions these things in brief, he says that it’s “for the purpose of meditation,” in other words, one has to meditate on this, really think about it, accustom it, and so on. And this is an explanation of reality which has been “proven,” in other words, it has been proven logically, it’s been proven then by experience, by valid experience. Once one is convinced that this is so, that gives us the opportunity to actually perceive this, to perceive things in this way. So, it has been proven; it’s not just an invalid set of philosophical tenets.
(53) Thus, since you cannot be aimed at the inherent existence of any thing, without exception, Meditation on the lack of inherent identity is meditation on discriminating awareness.
No matter what we focus on, nothing has inherent existence, nothing has an inherent identity. Then what about voidness itself? Does that have an inherent existence? And how do we actually go from a conceptual to a non-conceptual cognition of voidness? Those two questions are very much related to each other.
(54) With discriminating awareness, an inherent nature of any phenomenon is never seen; and it is explained that the same is true regarding the actuality of discriminating awareness itself. In this (way) meditate (on voidness) non-conceptually.
When we meditate on voidness, first we would gain a conceptual cognition of it. That conceptual cognition would be to focus on voidness through some idea of voidness. And so we meditate, “Well, there’s no such thing as inherent existence. That’s impossible and so there’s a total absence of it.” How do you focus on an absence? Well, you have some sort of idea of it: it’s sort of like empty space, an absence of everything. One focuses on voidness conceptually through an idea that represents voidness, namely an idea of some sort of empty space. That’s an idea of, “there’s no such thing,” a total absence.
But when we’re focusing conceptually like that, that idea itself of an absence, that can’t either have inherent existence. And when we talk about an absence, an absence can’t have something inside it that by its own power makes it a total absence. So when we focus conceptually on voidness and there’s some idea of an empty space, an absence, an idea of voidness, that as well lacks an inherent existence. We can’t really be aimed at an inherently existent absence of inherent existence; that’s impossible as well.
Shantideva says it very nicely in his text, Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Conduct. He says that when a mind is not focused on inherent existence and it can’t be focused on noninherent existence, so the voidness of inherent existence, either, as solidly existent objects, then mind can’t be aimed at anything like that – that’s non-conceptual cognition of voidness. The mind is not aimed at inherent existence, it’s not aimed at some representation of an absence of inherent existence, it’s not aimed at anything, it says.
But it has – this is absolutely one of the most important points here – it has, nevertheless, the conviction that there’s no such thing as inherent existence. In other words, to just be blank with no conviction, that’s useless. It still has that conviction – that’s left – that there’s no such thing as inherent existence. That’s the non-conceptual cognition of voidness.
When we understand the voidness of a phenomenon, we get a conceptual cognition of voidness. When we go further and get the cognition of the voidness of voidness, of that conceptual cognition of voidness, then we get the non-conceptual cognition of voidness. That’s what really will get rid of our unawareness, the cause of our problems and suffering.
(55) This compulsive existence which comes from conceptual thoughts (of inherent existence) has a true nature (merely fabricated) by these conceptual thoughts. Therefore, the state of being rid of all these conceptual thoughts, without an exception, is the supreme Nirvana State Beyond Sorrow.
When we talk about grasping for true existence, for inherent existence, this is something which occurs in a manifest way only with conceptual cognition. Everybody accepts that. But the habits of that grasping for inherent existence are there while we have just a sense perception. So we’re not rid it by just getting non-conceptual sense cognition.
But we have it in a manifest form conceptually, with conceptual cognition. So, grasping for inherent existence means to grasp at things to exist inherently the way that they appear, so it means believing it. So, our “compulsive existence” in samsara, with all its problems, “comes from these conceptual thoughts,” in other words, the grasping for inherent existence.
And samsara “has a nature that’s merely fabricated by these conceptual thoughts,” in other words, that conceptual thought makes up that things exist in this impossible way in which they appear – and mind you, all conceptual thoughts have this grasping for inherent existence – and the habits of that is what makes the appearances of inherent existence. That also is indicated here, our samsara is “fabricated by these conceptual thoughts.”
So, “the state of being rid of all these conceptual thoughts without an exception, that’s nirvana” – here referring to not just nirvana of liberation, but of enlightenment.
Atisha now supports his explanation with quotations from the Buddha:
(56) Like this as well, the Vanquishing Master Surpassing All has said, “Conceptual thought (of inherent existence) is great unawareness, that which makes you fall into the ocean of uncontrollably recurring existence.
By abiding in single-minded concentration devoid of conceptual thought (of inherent existence), you will make clear (the mind) that is without these conceptions just as is space.”
The “Vanquishing Master Surpassing All,” that’s the meaning of the word bhagavan; vanquished, gotten rid of all the obscurations, mastered all the good qualities, and surpassed even Brahma.
So, Buddha said that when we have this conceptual thought, that this is unawareness. The conceptual thought itself has not only grasping for true existence... well, conceptual thought is not merely, as I say, just thinking verbally, the main point of it is that it has the grasping for inherent existence. That’s what is meant by “conceptual thought is great unawareness.”
It is very important to identify what is the fault of conceptual cognition. The fault of it is not that it focuses on something through an idea of it, which is what conceptual cognition is – if you have no idea of what voidness means, how could you actually focus on it? So that’s not its fault. Its major fault is that it has grasping for inherent existence with it. That’s the troublemaker of it. So, it’s this grasping for inherent existence that comes with conceptual cognition, that conceptual cognition has as part of it, that makes you fall into samsara.
Atisha says to “stay in single-minded concentration devoid of this conceptual thought,” and the only way it can be devoid of this conceptual thought is with the understanding of voidness – not only voidness, but the voidness of voidness. By staying with this non-conceptual cognition of voidness, then that will clear the mind, so that it is “without these conceptions,” in other words, without grasping for inherent existence, “just as space is” free of that.
The second verse that Atisha quotes:
(57) Also, from The Dharani Formula for Engaging in the Non-conceptual, he has said, “If the Offspring of the Triumphant Offspring of the Triumphant
That means bodhisattvas.
involved in this pure Dharma practice were to contemplate this state of no conceptual thoughts (of inherent existence), they would transcend these conceptual thoughts which are difficult to pass through and would gradually attain the state of no such conceptions.”
That means that if you’re on the bodhisattva path, you really have to think about – this is “contemplate” – think about what it means to be non-conceptual, what actually is the point of non-conceptuality. When we really understand what it means to be non-conceptual then, through meditation in accordance with that correct understanding, we’ll be able to break through this level of conceptual cognition and “attain the state of no such conceptions,” in other words, non-conceptual cognition of voidness.
Remember, when we talk about non-conceptual cognition, there are two types. There’s non-conceptual sense cognition – seeing, hearing, etc. – these things are automatically non-conceptual, but they’re still accompanied by unawareness. We’re unaware of how what we’re seeing exists. That’s not what we’re aiming for, to just have non-conceptual sense cognition; we have that anyway. What we’re aiming for is non-conceptual cognition of voidness; that’s what we’re aiming for, and that’s only attained by getting rid of grasping for inherent existence. So, we have to understand very clearly what it means, this “state of no conceptions.”
(58) When you have become certain, by these quotations and lines of reasoning, that all things are devoid of inherent existence and without an (inherently existent) arising, meditate in a state of no conceptual thoughts (of inherent existence).
Question: Isn’t voidness of voidness also a conception?
Alex: We could have a concept of it, that’s true, but what we’re talking about here is not the idea of the voidness of voidness, we’re talking about what you actually experience in meditation. Because when you have no conception of inherent existence and then you get rid of the concept of the absence of inherent existence, then there’s no concept left. Then you get non-conception. He’s talking about the actual process in meditation.
That completes the section on higher discriminating awareness.
Manifesting the Result
(59) When you have meditated on actuality like this
This is referring to voidness
And have gradually attained the heat (stage) and so forth, you will then attain (the stage of) extremely joyous one and so on, and the enlightenment of Buddhahood will not be far.
In the stages to enlightenment one passes through five paths – these are pathway minds, in other words, five different levels of mind, of understanding. You achieve the first of these, a pathway mind of accumulating or building up, when – if you’re following this in a Mahayana way – when you have uncontrived bodhichitta; in other words you don’t have to build up to it with all the meditation lines of reasoning. You’re able to just automatically have it.
And then you’re building up or accumulating, basically, the two enlightenment-building networks more and more and you’re working to gain shamatha, the stilled and settled state of mind, and vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, which has a correct understanding of voidness. So, that’s what you’re working on on this first path.
When we actually gain that shamatha and vipashyana, in other words, when we gain the perfect concentration with the correct understanding of voidness – first it’s going to be a conceptual cognition of voidness – then we achieve the second path, which is the path of application or a path of preparation – we’re applying the skills that we’ve learned in the first path, that we’ve developed in the first path, going deeper and deeper with the understanding of voidness. So, that second state or path has various stages and “heat stage” is the first of these.
So what it’s saying is that “when you’ve meditated on voidness and then gradually you attain the heat stage,” that means the conceptual cognition of voidness, then we achieve nonconceptual cognition of voidness and then we start progressing through the ten bodhisattva stages, the ten bhumis. And the first of these is the “extremely joyous one.” So he says, “and then,” basically after you achieve the conceptual cognition of the heat stage, the conceptual cognition of voidness, “you attain the extremely joyous one,” that’s the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, and then, it says, “the enlightenment of Buddhahood will not be far.”
Then we have to proceed to the fourth path, which is the path of meditation or accustoming ourselves to this non-conceptual cognition of voidness so that we’re going to be able to have it all the time, not just in meditative absorption, and that we are able to cut through everything that’s blocking enlightenment.
“ Buddhahood will not be far” – the fifth path is the path of no more training, when you actually achieve Buddhahood. But although it’s possible to achieve enlightenment in this way, it’s going to take a very, very long time. We have to build up positive force over what’s called “three countless eons,” that’s three zillion eons of time.
The first zillion eons is to get the non-conceptual cognition of voidness. So, when we first get that, then we no longer have grasping for true existence that’s based on conceptual frameworks. But we still have automatically arising grasping for true existence. So the second set of a zillion eons is required to get rid of that. Then, when we’ve gotten rid of that, we are rid of the obscurations preventing liberation, in other words, we’re liberated, we’re an arhat.
But we’re still left with our mind making appearances of inherent existence due to the habits of grasping for true existence. That appearance-making of inherent existence is what prevents enlightenment or omniscience. So it takes the third set of zillion eons of building up more and more positive force so that our non-conceptual cognition of voidness will get rid of those obscurations. Because basically, if we’re able to stay focused non-conceptually on voidness always, absolutely forever, then no more appearance-making of inherent existence, it’s finished.