The Advanced Scope and Questions about Buddhas and Mental Labeling

A Person of Advanced Spiritual Scope

Atisha continues:

(5) Anyone who fully wishes to eliminate completely all the sufferings of others as (he or she would) the sufferings included in his or her own mental continuum is someone of supreme motivation.

This introduces the topic of someone of the advanced or great level of motivation. The mind that wishes all beings to be liberated from suffering is what is defined as “compassion.” The mind with which we wish everybody to have happiness is defined as “love.” The attitude with which we say, “I myself am going to free everybody from suffering and bring them to a state of happiness,” is known as the “exceptional resolve.”  

We may have this exceptional resolve to do this extraordinary thing ourselves; nevertheless, we don’t have the ability to actually do it. Even the arhats of the shravaka and pratyekabuddha classes don’t have the ability to free everybody from their sufferings. If we ask, “Who does have this ability?” it’s no one except the Buddhas. Therefore, we should feel that we must attain this enlightened state of a Buddha. We aren’t wishing to do this for our own pleasure or happiness; we are wishing to be able to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha in order to be able to help free everybody from suffering. This is known as the “enlightening motive of bodhichitta.”  

The Ritual Ceremony for Generating Bodhichitta

Next, Atisha states his intention to explain the methods used by previous great masters for guiding their disciples through the ritual ceremony for generating an enlightening motive and aim of bodhichitta:  

(6) For these hallowed beings who have come to wish for supreme enlightenment, I shall explain the perfect methods that the gurus have shown.

An enlightening motive of bodhichitta has two stages: 

  • The aspiring state of bodhichitta 
  • The engaged state, with which we actually engage ourselves in the practices that will bring us to enlightenment. 

Generating the aspiring stage of bodhichitta involves two things: 

  • First, generating the wish itself to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings  
  • Certain actions to facilitate generating that wish. 

Atisha mentions the actions needed where he says:

(7) Before paintings, statues, and so on of fully enlightened Buddhas, as well as stupas and hallowed (Dharma texts), offer flowers, incense, and whatever material things you may have.
(8) Also with the seven-limb offering mentioned in (The Prayer of) Excellent Conduct, with the mind never to turn back until the ultimate (realization) of your Buddha-essence,
(9) With supreme belief in the Three Supreme Gems, with bent knee touching the ground and palms pressed together, firstly, take safe direction three times.

We can put up actual figures or visualize before us either simply a Buddha, who represents all the objects of refuge incorporated into one, or a very extensive tree of merit with all the various figures of refuge. It doesn’t matter whether we do it extensively or simply. Next, we offer the Seven-Limb Prayer.  

The Seven-Limb Prayer

What are the seven limbs of this prayer? 

  • Making prostrations
  • Making offerings  
  • Admitting that there have been times that we have committed negative actions. This is sometimes translated as “confession,” but it’s better to translate it as “admitting our past wrongs or mistakes.” 
  • Rejoicing
  • Requesting the turning of the wheel of Dharma or requesting the teachings
  • Requesting that the gurus live long lives and not pass away 
  • Dedication.  


The first of these, prostration, is something that we should do properly by placing our folded hands in these three positions: 

  • On the top of our heads for setting the instinct and ability to achieve the vajra body of a Buddha  
  • At the throat to achieve the vajra speech of a Buddha
  • At the heart to achieve the vajra mind of a Buddha. 

We then go down on the floor. 

The proper way in which we should do prostration is that, when our hands are down on the floor, not to have them clenched into a fist. Our palms should be flat on the ground. Except if we’re very old and can’t get up very quickly, we should try to get up as quickly as possible. 

When making prostrations, we imagine streams of nectar and light coming to us from the visualized objects of refuge in front – the Buddhas or whatever we’re visualizing. We imagine that these enter us and purify us of all negative karmic potentials. Likewise, we visualize a replica image of whatever it is we are visualizing in front of us coming toward us and then merging into us.  

The connotation of this word “prostration,” which comes from the Sanskrit word pranama, is to bend in humility. Even if we just bend our heads and press our palms together, this is considered prostration. In addition, there’s also the full-length prostration in which we completely extend ourselves on the ground. This is called the “outstretched method of prostration.” This is the method of prostrating practiced by the great gurus of the past, such as Tilopa and Naropa. The type of prostration that’s described in the Vinaya texts of discipline is known as the “bent type of prostration,” in which we go down with our knees being bent. A synonym for this is the “karma type of prostration.” All of these are examples of physical prostration, or prostration of the body.  

As we actually recite the refuge prayer or various praises of the good qualities of the Three Jewels, our speech is known as the prostration of speech or verbal prostration. For mental prostration, for instance, we can visualize a lotus flower in front of us and seated on its petals and in its center are all the Buddhas. When we prostrate to this, we should imagine that we are emanating countless numbers of replica bodies of ourselves, all making prostrations with us. Likewise, we should imagine being completely surrounded by all living beings and all of them are likewise making prostrations. To visualize such an enormous magnitude of figures is an example of mental prostration.

We’ll stop here for now.

Further Comment about the Human Population

Yesterday, there was a question about the human population and I have some further comments on that. In Tibet, there was one lama who was speaking about the rarity of a precious human rebirth. There was a Mongolian attending the discourse, who commented, “Obviously, this lama has never been to China!” 

There are a lot of people in China, right? But this is an example of not really paying attention to what is the most important and crucial point. The point is not in terms of looking at the external world and considering the human population, but rather the point is to look within our own mental continuums in terms of what types of actions we’ve done in the past and what types of karmic potential we’ve built up from committing them. It is about how much karmic potential we have to be reborn as a human being at all and how much positive karmic potential to be reborn as a fully endowed human being. It is also about examining how much negative karmic potential we have from destructive actions we’ve done to be reborn in one of the lower states, and to compare these two within our mental continuums to understand and appreciate the rarity of attaining a precious human rebirth. It is about this rather than about looking at the external world.   

Question about the Buddhas

Are the Buddhas in our world and, if not, where are they?

Even if they were to come to this world, no one would be able to see them, and they wouldn’t have the ability to help anybody. But they could, for instance, have miraculous emanations and so, through emanations, they could manifest in this world, and these would be visible.

What Is the “Me” That Becomes a Buddha?

If we refute the false “me,” and there is no person, then who becomes a Buddha? What becomes a Buddha?

Your question is semantically extremely difficult because we can’t say that a “who” is a mind, because a mind is a conscious phenomenon. The mind is not a “who.” The question of “who” can only relate to a person. When you ask “what,” are you asking what type of phenomenon is it? Is it a conscious phenomenon or a physical phenomenon? You can’t answer that a person is either a mind or something physical. We can answer the question, though, of, “What experiences the mind?” What experiences the mind is us, we, you, me, or whoever is meditating. That is who is experiencing. You as a person experience that. 

Is it that you think that when you refute the false “me,” then there’s no conventional “me” left? If that is the case, there’s nobody there to be able to have the insight of voidness, and you’re asking, “Is there anybody left there to be able to have this?” Are you thinking in terms of this?

Yes. Also, what happens to individuality if we refute the “I?”

You are asking, “If we refute the ‘me’ that is to be refuted, is there anything left?” Let’s examine that. 

In your mental continuum, do you have a sense of “me?” Do you think in terms of “me?” Do you have a sense of a “me” or not? Are you a “me?”   

I don’t know if there is really a “me” or not.

Do you have a head or not?


If you have a head, if you can say, “I have a head,” if you can think in terms of “my head,” then you must have a “me” who has that head. I mean, you do have a head; you can say, “my head,” or “I am walking, I am eating, I am sitting down.” “I am…” isn’t that about “me?” Therefore, you have a “me.” You think in terms of “I am doing something.” There’s nobody who would deny that there’s a “me.” Everybody here is a “me,” aren’t they? Is there anybody here who’s not a “me?” There’s nobody who would say that. 

Now, the real question is what is this “me?”   

It is a collection of many things, the body and such.

The collection is the “me?” Are each of these parts individually the “me” or is it just the collection that’s the “me?” 

I think it’s the collection.

Does this mean that when you go into a future rebirth, that whole collection is going to go with you? If you know that the “me” goes on to the future, well what actually is this “me” that goes on to the future? 

If you have a car and you disassemble all the parts and you lay them out on the ground, would you say that the car is equivalent to this collection of its parts? If the car is not the collection of all the parts of the car, then how can the “me” be the collection of all these parts as you say? 

Let’s think; let’s put aside the “me.” What about the car? What’s the car? Is the car the way in which the parts have been put together and assembled? Is the food the way in which its ingredients have been put together and cooked? The food is the result of the way in which its ingredients have been put together and cooked, and not the action of putting them together and cooking them. 

All of this is to make a point. This is how we’re supposed to analyze.

Existence Established by Mental Labeling Alone

Perhaps we can make it a little easier to understand in terms of a table. What’s the table? This is a table and I have these books placed on top of it. In fact, however, this object is established as existing as something only in terms of what it’s mentally labeled as. In other words, we mentally label this as a table and then it serves as a table. If we mentally label it as a chair, it serves as a chair. However, it appears to us as though it exists independently as a table by itself, self-established as a table independently of mental labeling. The example of a table proves that, in fact, it is established as existing as a table only by the power of mental labeling. It is only established as being a table dependently on the mental label “table.” 

It can get very confusing if we think in terms of no-longer-happening lifetimes and this presently-happening lifetime, so let’s just think in terms of something simpler. Are you going home this evening? Did you come here? Is there someone who came from your home here tonight? 

There are three “me’s” in this example: the “me” who is here now, the “me” who is going home later this evening, and the “me” who came here this evening. You can say that the “me” who is here now will be going home this evening; however, you can’t say that the “me” who is going home this evening is the “me” who is here now. You can’t say that it is the “me” who is going home this evening, but you can say that “me” will be going home this evening. However, it’s not the presently-happening “me” that is actually going home. 

The “me” of a not-yet-happening lifetime, likewise, is not the presently-happening “me” of now. Likewise, also you can say that the presently-happening “me” came from a no-longer-happening lifetime; but, you can’t say that the presently-happening “me” is the same “me” who came. It came, but it isn’t the actual one that came. In the future, we should engage in really serious analysis of these issues. 

Similarly, we can understand that we have this room here and, if we suddenly were to install a stove and some tables and chairs and things like that in it, we could then call it a “restaurant.” But it would be only be established as existing as a restaurant dependently on the label “restaurant” applied to it. It couldn’t be established as existing as a restaurant on its own beforehand. It is simply a room with tables, chairs and a stove in it. It is only established now as existing as a restaurant by the fact that now we label it as a restaurant and call it a restaurant.  

Likewise, in terms of a person, if a person is elected to a government position, let’s say an official in a law court, then it’s only after he’s been given the title “judge” that he thinks of himself in terms of being the judge. It is only after being given the title that other people now think of him as being a “judge.” He is only established as existing as a judge dependently on the label “judge” that is applied to him; however, he doesn’t exist inherently from his own side, from beginningless time, self-established as being a judge. He only is established as existing as a judge by virtue of his title, the label, “judge.”

Likewise, all things exist, established as being this or that, dependently only on their mental labels as being this or that. However, it appears as though their existence as this or that is self-established from their own sides, independently of the mental labels applied to them as being this or that.

From the beginning, we imagine that they’re established as this or that on their own, but in fact that’s false. That’s not the way they are established as existing as this or that. Things are established as existing as this or that dependently only on the mental labels applied to the basis for labeling them as such – the network of all their parts, causes and so on. They are mentally labeled as this or that on the basis of that network. This is also the case even in terms of the mental label “validly knowable, existent phenomenon.” 

Does this mean we can label anything whatever we like, and it becomes that?

You’re confusing two things. It’s not that because someone labels you something in the past that you would automatically become that. It’s not like that. Just because someone says that you have a bad temper, doesn’t automatically make you have a bad temper. You might have a bad temper, or you might not. If somebody says that you have a bad temper, either it’s a name that applies to you or it doesn’t apply to you. If I say that this book has a bad temper, that’s absurd. That doesn’t make the book angry all the time or have a bad temper. There’s no pervasion there. 

Just because someone gives you a mental label, it doesn’t mean that you’re established as what that label says. If you are mentally labeled on the basis of your bad temper as someone who has a bad temper, then you exist validly as someone who has a bad temper inasmuch as you are correctly labeled. This would be a correct mental labeling of someone having a bad temper on the basis of having a bad temper.  

The existence of “me” is established dependently on the label “me” mentally labeled on the basis of an individual continuum of aggregates. The “me” is established as existing as what the label “me” refers to on the basis of these aggregates. However, it’s not that the “me” is either the label “me” or the aggregates that are its basis for labeling. The “me” is what the label “me” refers to on the basis of the aggregates. Likewise, when we said that the car is the resultant product from the assemblage of all the parts, we can’t say that the car is the result itself. The car is what the label “car” refers to on the basis of the result of what has been assembled from all its parts. It’s not the result itself.  

So, we have the basis of the mental labeling and that which the mental label refers to. What the mental label “car” refers to is the car; and the basis for this mental labeling is this product from this assemblage. We shouldn’t confuse what a mental label refers to with the basis on which the mental label is applied.

The basis doesn’t have to be labeled, then?

To clarify, the basis for the mental labeling and that which the mental labeling refers to are two different things, although they are integrally related. There can’t be a basis for mental labeling independently of that which is mentally labeled on it, because the two dependently arise with each other. We can’t say either that the two can exist completely independently of each other; nor can we say that they are identical with each other.  

Take two different motor cars as an example for two people. The two motor cars stop. They’ve died and we’re just left with this heap of parts and none of them is any longer a motor car. Still, we can recognize they were parts of motor cars. But with people, how do they know who they are after they live and die? Is it that they hang around as ghosts where they were, but their memory of who they were fades as time passes? With more and more time, does their memory of what their body was like gradually disappear? Do all the attributes of the personality fade with the fading memory of the body, so that eventually there’s nothing left?   

Are you saying that as the ghosts forget their previous bodies, this causes them to no longer exist?

Perhaps the “me,” in that case, is attached to the previous body, the memory of which is fading.  

The person may lose the sense of “me” as having been this previous person, this previous human being, but they still have a sense of “me” being a ghost. The identity of the “me” as a human being was on the basis of the label “me” applied to the aggregates of a human being. However, a ghost obviously has its own aggregates and labels itself as “I am this ghost” on the basis of the ghost’s aggregates.

Doesn’t he begin by saying, “I am the ghost of so and so?”

It’s very difficult to say. In general, ghosts are of the hungry ghost category, pretas. There are lots of different types of ghosts and some of them may have a memory that they were a particular person in a previous lifetime. However, most of them don’t have that type of memory.

Aren’t all hungry ghosts what we mean when, in the West, we refer to ghosts?

No, not all ghosts are hungry ghosts. Are all human beings thieves? No.