The Second Two Principal Paths: Bodhichitta and Correct View of Emptiness

Generating a Bodhichitta Aim

Earlier, we saw that once genuine, pure renunciation is generated in our mental continuum, that is the point when we are truly on the Dharma path. This is the start of the path. We may have heard about the Mahayana and Hinayana paths and might even be a bit confused. Translated from the original Sanskrit, Mahayana is the greater vehicle, and Hinayana is the lesser vehicle. But we mustn’t think about them as one being small and one being big in terms of belittling one. They are both excellent paths. They differ in terms of the responsibility that practitioners take. Hinayana practitioners aim for their own liberation, while Mahayana practitioners take on the responsibility not only for their own enlightenment, but also that of every other sentient being in the universe. When someone generates bodhichitta, every action of their body, speech and mind is directed for the sake of all sentient beings. This person is on the Mahayana path. 

Verse six looks at the generation of a bodhichitta aim. 

(6) But since even this renunciation, if not held with the development of a pure bodhichitta aim, will not become a cause for the splendors and bliss of a peerless purified state (of enlightenment), those with sense generate a supreme bodhichitta aim.

We might have generated renunciation in our minds, but if we want to continue along the path, this renunciation has to also be infused with bodhichitta. Lama Tsongkhapa mentions that those who generate renunciation in order to attain liberation for themselves are nothing special, because this type of attainment only benefits oneself. It doesn’t help or influence other sentient beings much. Therefore, when we wish for the highest happiness, we should think not only about ourselves, but also about the happiness of all other beings. 

No matter how happy we are ourselves, if others around us are unhappy, can we truly be happy? I think it’s impossible. Not only that, we cannot accomplish the ultimate goal of full enlightenment if we only care about our own happiness. On the other hand, if we are able to generate the wish to accomplish a vast goal rather than just self-liberation, that will bring ultimate happiness, not only for ourselves but for all sentient beings. This path is taken through generating uncontrived bodhichitta.

But let’s put generating bodhichitta aside for moment. First of all, we have to remember to be kind. It’s actually not at all easy to be as kind as we would like to be. But this is the basis of everything. If we aren’t even kind, how could we hope to generate compassion for all beings equally? 

The Sevenfold Practice to Generate Bodhichitta

There are two different ways of generating bodhichitta. One is called the sevenfold practice, and it is supposed to be the easier of the two methods. The second way is using the method of exchanging self and others. This is said to be more complicated. 

Let’s look at the sevenfold practice, which has seven steps. It starts with coming to understand that all sentient beings have been our mothers in past lives and then remembering their kindness. The next stage would be repaying their kindness. We can consider this life’s family at first. Think of how, in general, our mother and father have been so kind to us, and how they took such good care of us. If we do this, it is easy to recognize their kindness. If we believe in reincarnation and understand that time is beginningless, then we will see how it is possible that every single sentient being has been our mother at some point in the past. Acknowledging how our present parents are kind to us, we understand how all other sentient beings have been kind to us too. And there is no difference between the kindness received in this life and in past lives. As I mentioned, the next step is to wish to repay their kindness. But how can we do this? This is actually one of the most difficult points, especially these days. 

Many of us are working hard to help our own parents. It’s not always easy to help them, especially when they get old and have health problems. I often hear people say that in the West, the situation is worse because often you don’t live with your parents nearby. But I think it’s the same in Europe and in Tibetan and Indian society. It’s very difficult to take care of our parents and repay their kindness.

I had an English teacher in Canada, but he wasn’t a Buddhist. He used to say that there are so many problems in the world, and he has enough problems of his own to deal with. He said he can’t think of other people’s problems as he’s already frustrated with his own. If he thinks about how much suffering others go through, he will just become more and more upset. 

It’s true. It is difficult to think about all sentient beings and their problems and sufferings. But we can start off by thinking about our own parents. It’s very precious to contemplate this. We can see how our parents have been kind to us our whole lives, how much they love us and care about us. When almost any sentient being gives birth, it seems that the mother and father automatically feel, “This new sentient being is mine.” They automatically feel that their new baby is very precious. We can argue about whether this is biological or chemical or whatever, but this love is so strong that it moves our parents to take care of us until we are 19 or 20 years old, and even long after that. Even when our parents are very old, they still care for us like they did in our childhood. This is something we have to bring to mind. Thinking about the kindness of our parents is so precious. 

All Sentient Beings Have Been Our Mother

So, we reflect upon the kindness of our parents, and then look at the nature of consciousness. Understanding the nature of consciousness will help us see the kindness that all sentient beings have shown us. The consciousness that enters the mother’s womb at the moment of conception has no beginning and no end. The consciousness we have now is the one that eventually becomes enlightened. In this room, all sentient beings present have a mind that is beginningless and limitless. Definitely, we share connections from previous lives. Of course, each one of you here might have been my mother. Therefore, I consider all of you as being like my real parents. I think, “Who will take care of you? Who will help you make your way out of samsara? I take responsibility to lead you all out of samsara.”

Wishing to Repay Sentient Beings’ Kindness

So, we arrive to a point where we have contemplated how every sentient being has been our mother and we bring to mind their kindness. On top of this, we wish to repay the kindness of our mothers, and take responsibility to do so. But how can we actually help all of our mother sentient beings? We need to think about what kind of methods there are to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. 

Often, we do good things and we have good intentions, but in all honesty the methods we apply are just a temporary relief. When we start off, we might see some insects and think, let’s help them by giving them some food. We can feed them, but they will just become hungry again. There is nothing in our helping them that we can call real happiness. So, we must strive for liberation and enlightenment – seeing that enlightenment is the only real happiness in this world – so that we can help others become enlightened too. This makes us generate an altruistic mind, thinking that we will bring others to liberation, to the state of happiness that never wanes. This is the altruistic intention we have to generate. Through such an altruistic intention, great compassion is born. Having generated great compassion in our mental continuums, we enter the Mahayana path. Earlier, when we spoke about renunciation, we talked about how it has to be uncontrived. It’s the same thing as well with bodhichitta. Uncontrived bodhichitta is conditioned by great compassion.

Just to recap, firstly we need to understand the situation that all sentient beings are in and see how they suffer. Next, we consider how they have all been our mothers before, remember their kindness, and wish to repay their kindness. With this, we generate the altruistic intention of taking the sole responsibility to bring them to a state of liberation from samsara and then bringing them to full enlightenment. 

With this mind, we take the bodhisattva vows and try to keep them purely. With vows, it’s not that we are afraid of breaking them simply because the Buddha or someone else said it’s bad to transgress them. Rather, we have a strong feeling that without taking and keeping vows for the benefit of all sentient beings, life just isn’t meaningful. If we understand how meaningful life is when we work to benefit all sentient beings, then it’s easy to keep the vows. It doesn’t feel like a burden at all.

All Sentient Beings Undergo Terrible Suffering

(7) Carried by the currents of the four violent rivers, tied by the tight fetters of karma, hard to reverse, thrown into an iron-mesh pit of grasping for true identities, completely enshrouded in the heavy gloom of the darkness of unawareness,
(8) Unrelentingly tormented by the three types of suffering, life after life in limitless compulsive existence – having thought about the condition of your mothers who have found themselves in situations like these, develop a supreme bodhichitta aim.

When we train in and generate great compassion, we see how all of the troubles and problems we experience are in the same way experienced by all other beings. And there are so many sentient beings, countless sentient beings. Just in this planet’s oceans alone there are so many sentient beings that we cannot even imagine it. How can we think about all those sentient beings and their sufferings? 

In Tibetan, the word for bodhichitta is “sem-kye.” Sem means mind, and kye means to be born or to generate. So, in Tibetan, the term refers to generating a mind, or to expanding the mind. We go from thinking only about our own problems to trying to think about the problems of other beings, by seeing that we are not alone in this world and that other sentient beings face the same problems as we do. Gradually, as our minds become vaster and vaster, we will naturally feel the urge to help sentient beings. This is when the altruistic intention is born and we automatically think, “I will take care of sentient beings and I will do it myself, even if all alone.” 

There are so many types of suffering we can see ourselves. The sufferings of childhood, the sufferings of old people. It’s not only about people who are 80 or 90 years old, but also those who are 20 or 30 now. The pain of aging and dying is felt not only when we’re at the edge of death. The “ing” of aging and dying in English shows the continuation of the action. To say that we are dying does not necessarily mean we have to be in hospital and close to death. The process of aging and dying carries on every single moment for all of us. All of us are always aging and always dying. This type of suffering is not only relevant to old people but to every single one of us. This is something we should remember. The problems of aging, dying, birth, and illness are common problems for all sentient beings in this world. These problems will continue in the next life too, and the next life after that one, without an end, unless we eliminate the cause of suffering, which is self-grasping. 

The Two Types of Self-Grasping

There are two kinds of self-grasping. Firstly, we have the kind of self-grasping that naturally and automatically arises. This is a self-grasping that naturally feels that the five aggregates are actually “me.” This is the sense of “I” that every single sentient being has. The second type of self-grasping is what we acquire later on, due to conditioning. These two types of self-grasping are presented in Verse 7. Thrown into an iron-mesh pit of grasping for true identities refers to the second type of self-grasping, which we acquire due to conditioning. Completely enshrouded in the heavy gloom of the darkness of unawareness refers to the first type, the automatically arising self-grasping, the sense of “I” that we have innately. 

Now, we have looked at the second principal aspect, bodhichitta, where we aim for enlightenment with the motivation of helping all sentient beings be free of suffering.

Discriminating Awareness is the Key to Liberation

Ultimately, for the first two of the three aspects that we are talking about, renunciation and bodhichitta, to be uncontrived and work at full capacity, they need to be infused with the third aspect, the wisdom or discriminating awareness that realizes voidness. Without discriminating awareness, there is no way to be liberated from samsara and to gain enlightenment. We might have strong renunciation and bodhichitta, but without discriminating awareness we will not be free from our disturbing emotions and obscurations, and thus enlightenment will remain out of reach. We need a thorough understanding and a true realization of voidness. Without that, we can’t help ourselves to attain liberation from samsara, and we won’t be able to help other sentient beings to be liberated and attain enlightenment. Therefore, the qualities we need to generate are not only renunciation and bodhichitta, but most importantly, the discriminating awareness that realizes voidness correctly. 

(9) Even if you have built up as habits renunciation and a bodhichitta aim, still, if you lack the discriminating awareness of realizing the abiding nature of reality, you will be unable to sever the root of your compulsive existence. Therefore, make effort in the methods for realizing dependent arising.

It’s a unique quality of this text, written by Lama Tsongkhapa, that the term “dependent arising” is closely connected with, and is almost a synonym for “voidness.” Verse 9 doesn’t say that we have to “realize voidness.” Lama Tsongkhapa says that we have to make effort in the methods for realizing dependent arising

Misunderstanding Voidness as Nothingness

Generally, it seems that when one hasn’t studied voidness before, it naturally comes to the mind that voidness means nothingness. When we hear that there is no “I” or self at all, such a view can easily turn into a nihilistic view. This is a mistake, or what we call a “wrong view.” In fact, thinking that nothing exists at all is just as much a wrong view as thinking that everything exists solidly and independently, which is how most of us think. These are the two types of views that are to be abandoned: the nihilistic view that there is nothing, and the opposite of that, the absolutist view that the “I” is solid and unchangeable. Therefore, voidness shouldn’t be mistaken as nothingness. 

Ordinarily, as we go about our lives, and especially when problems arise, we feel this strong, innate sense of “I.” Our task is to check what this “I” is. We have to see where this ”I” is, and what exactly it is. When we say, “I’m ill, I’m unhappy,” our task is to find this “I” that experiences sickness and unhappiness and so on. In the Heart Sutra, there is a line that says that there is no eye, no ear, no nose, no feeling, no consciousness, and so on. We shouldn’t understand this to mean that everything is completely non-existent and fall into the extreme of nothingness. Rather, remember that whenever we search for this “I,” we find that there is nothing to pinpoint. We have this feeling of an innate “I,” but there is nothing we can point to as “me.” But we also cannot say that there is nothing, because we certainly do feel ill and unhappy at times. Thus, we can’t say there is nothing, but we also cannot say that there is a solid “I.” The truth lies in between. 

We shouldn’t fall to either of the two extremes. We can start by simply meditating on this fact of not being able to find this “I” within the five aggregates. This is the actual meditation that we should do when we reflect on voidness. When we search through each of the aggregates, we can see we don’t find anything there. We can’t say that there is nothing and we can’t say that there is something. We need to go between these two extremes and simply meditate on the fact of not finding. 

From beginningless time, we have the habits and traces of grasping at an inherently existing self-established “I.” But this “I” does not exist in the way we think it does. So, we have to meditate on not being able to find this “I.” We should try our best to do this meditation and stay in this meditative state of not finding the “I” within the five aggregates for as long as we can. This is the actual practice of meditation on voidness. 

The Two Extreme Views of Nihilism and Absolutism

So, the most important thing to be careful of is to not fall into the extreme views of either nothingness or solidity. We can’t say voidness is nothingness. We can take the example of space. Space is not nothingness. Space is something but we can’t say it’s not a void at the same time. It is something to think about. When we meditate on the voidness of the self, we can see that within the five aggregates of a person, there is nothing solid that we can pinpoint to being the actual “I.” 

It is really good to perform this kind of analysis when we experience intense feelings of happiness or suffering. During these times, the strong feeling of “I” arises and acts as a support for us to check where exactly this “I” that is experiencing the suffering or happiness is. After thoroughly investigating where this “I” might be, we come to conclude that such an “I” is just an illusion. 

Of course, this isn’t easy. It is a bit difficult to check. That’s why we need to analyze our actions again and again, how our actions are produced, and how the things that result from these actions are produced. We can see that phenomena do not exist from their own side. We can see that they arise in dependence on certain actions and conditions and causes. Let’s take the easy example of a car. What is a car? When there is the body of the car, the wheels, the engine and so on, we call this aggregation a “car.” Can a thing be called a car without an engine? This is something to debate. However, it is important to understand that it is in dependence on such an aggregation of details that phenomena arise. Likewise, the self and the “I” arise in dependence on the five aggregates, but they are not found within any of them. Rather, the “I” exists in dependence on them. 

Studying the Teachings on Voidness

We have been speaking about voidness now, but we need to be careful about it. To understand the subject correctly, we need to engage in discussions and study it properly. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has done a lot to present this topic to Westerners. The view of voidness is very important, and one should study the different tenet systems to understand the different views of those four schools. See for yourself what is correct and what is not.

When we discuss voidness in reliance on our own experience it can be difficult because our experience might not necessarily be in accordance with reality. If we take our studies and meditation on voidness seriously, then that means we need to do Buddhist practices. If we don’t have a teacher who has a realization of voidness, and if we don’t rely on the correct Dharma that describes voidness and provides the means and methods to discuss voidness from different angles to reach a single-pointed understanding of what it is, then there is a danger of falling into mistaken views. 

The Buddha was very skillful and had great compassion, and therefore he presented the Dharma in a very wise manner. He talked of the selflessness of person and of phenomena, both on gross and subtle levels. Voidness has two levels, subtle and gross. Of the four tenet systems, the highest one, Madhyamaka, is divided into Svatantrika and Prasangika. Indian scholars such as Buddhapalita put in a great deal of effort and checked thoroughly through debate to see that the views of Madhyamaka Svatantrika are not the ultimate ones. The Madhyamaka Prasangika view is the most accurate one. 

If we do not carry out such a thorough analysis ourselves, there is a danger of falling into wrong views, which can harm us a lot. We should be very careful in our studies. But listening to explanations of voidness and meditating upon it is not enough. Even if we listen very carefully from a teacher who has no doubts about voidness, still, we need our own experience and realization, otherwise there will be no certainty about it. 

A realization of voidness arises through studying with a proper teacher and having a good understanding of the subject. At first, it seems almost unimaginably difficult to even think about how the self and phenomena are devoid of inherent, self-established existence. But it is totally possible to understand voidness. Many people have understood it, so we can too. We should remember the kindness of the Nalanda masters who explained voidness so well and so thoroughly, so that we can study it now. On top of that, think of how fortunate we are to have teachers around us who can explain voidness. 

Putting Voidness into Practice

Here, I’m giving just a brief presentation of voidness. If you are new, it might be a bit difficult to understand and to think of how to put it into practice. Some of you have studied voidness before, and you might have meditated on voidness and recited sutras and prayers and reflected quite a lot. You will know that it usually says that we need to build up a lot of merit, meaning positive potential, to gain a true realization of voidness. 

We don’t build up this positive force when we’re striving to achieve whatever we want in our mundane life, but rather when we meditate on voidness and engage in constructive actions while at the same time meditating on voidness. This is how we can really build up this positive potential, this merit. When we go around doing constructive things, we should simultaneously analyze how all phenomena appear to us yet do not exist in the way they appear. This is the method of thinking about voidness during our daily life. 

When we engage in preliminary practices, like performing prostrations or making 100,000 mandala offerings, the main goal of all these practices is to build up positive potential through the discriminating awareness that realizes voidness. This works together with our actions. If we put effort into such actions, in meditating on their voidness, then we can eliminate all of our suffering and be free from uncontrollably recurring rebirth and achieve Buddhahood. 

Voidness and Dependent Arising Are Indivisible

(10) Anyone who has seen that (the laws of) behavioral cause and effect regarding all phenomena of samsara and nirvana are never fallacious, and who has had fall apart the focal supports of his or her (cognitions) aimed (at self-established existence), whatever they might have been, has entered the path pleasing to the Buddhas.
(11) Appearances are non-fallacious dependent arisings and voidness is parted from any assertions (of impossible ways of existing). So long as you have these two understandings appearing to you separately, you still have not realized the Able Ones’ intention.

This shows one of the special qualities of Lama Tsongkhapa’s text. Firstly, he says that there is nothing to pinpoint – we cannot find a solid, self-established self of persons or phenomena. He also applies the logic of dependent arising to voidness, and the logic of voidness to dependent arising, showing how these two should be seen as inseparable. 

(12) But when, not in alternation, but all together at once, your certitude from the mere sight of non-fallacious dependent arising causes all your ways of taking objects (as being self-established) to fall apart, you have completed discerning the correct view.

These two verses are the most important, because once we are able to see voidness and dependent arising as being one and having the same meaning, then we will be able to understand how all phenomena exist. 

There is a doubt about whether it is possible for these two realizations to happen simultaneously in the same mind. It’s a unique quality of Lama Tsongkhapa’s text to say that, yes, it is possible. Usually, we would say that only a Buddha has the ability to apprehend the two truths, that is, both conventional truth and deepest truth, with one mind. If I’m not mistaken, Lama Tsongkhapa says that it is possible to have those realizations of understanding voidness as dependent arising and dependent arising as voidness, in one mind. We should check ourselves whether it’s true or not. The text to read for this is Tsongkhapa’s Lam-rim Chen-mo, A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path.

(13) Further, when you know how appearance eliminates the extreme of existence and voidness eliminates the extreme of non-existence, and how voidness dawns as cause and effect, you will never be stolen away by views that grasp for extremes.

We talked about this earlier. We shouldn’t think that voidness means nothingness, and at the same time, we should not think that phenomena exist solidly. 

The last verse of this text says: 

(14) When you have understood the points of these three principal aspects of the path, as they are, rely on solitude and, by generating the power of perseverance, quickly realize, my son, your immemorial goal.


Now, having read the whole text and having learned about the qualities we need to generate in our minds, we should meditate on the text. 

Here, Lama Tsongkhapa says that we should rely on solitude. Of course, there are some people who leave their homelands and go into the mountains to do retreats and meditate on voidness. But the emphasis here in relying on solitude is putting aside one’s own disturbing emotions in order to make the mind vaster and more able to meditate on voidness without obstructions. It’s not necessarily talking about physical solitude, but rather a kind of mental solitude away from our disturbing emotions. 

Lama Tsongkhapa says that we should generate the power of perseverance and quickly realize our immemorial goal. It’s like a present that Lama Tsongkhapa has given to his disciples, whom he considers as his own children. This text was written by Lama Tsongkhapa with the thought of benefiting all sentient beings. He says my son or we can say “my child,” and we should think that this also addresses us because we are among the children of Lama Tsongkhapa, since we are the ones who would like to achieve liberation. We can treat this whole text as a direct instruction for us. 

Concluding Words

We’ve come to the end. I’ve offered a brief explanation of the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. I might have been mistaken with some points. There is always a possibility that I’m wrong in my explanations and that is solely my mistake and my responsibility and I’m sorry for that. If there was something useful and beneficial in my words, then it’s definitely due to the merit of my teachers. It is only through their kindness that I was able to teach you a little.

I believe that together we have built up the positive potential by gathering here to listen to the Dharma. We have to dedicate this merit to amazing lamas like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so that they may live long. We should also dedicate for the sake of all sentient beings and for the environment. Thank you.

Read and listen to the original text “The Three Principal Aspects of the Path” by Tsongkhapa.