Beginningless and Endless Mind

The Necessity of Dharma-Lite before Real Thing Dharma

When we’re working on the bodhisattva path, we’re trying to overcome our selfish concern, and have concern just for others. However, we’re not going to overcome all of our disturbing emotions until we become an arhat, a liberated being. Until then, we’re definitely going to have some level of selfish concern, no doubt about it. But, there’s no need to feel guilty about it, because at least we’re trying to work on it. We’re trying to diminish it and make our primary concern other beings. So, we need to be realistic about the bodhisattva path.

We are working to transpose the same analysis from being concerned with just this lifetime to being concerned with future lifetimes, liberation and enlightenment. It’s unrealistic to think that we’re not going to have any concern whatsoever for things of this lifetime, so when we talk of Dharma-Lite and Real Thing Dharma, it’s not that they’re contradictory and mutually exclusive. There is a continuum between the two.

For us Westerners at least, concern for this lifetime seems to be stage number zero, and on this basis we can build stages one, two and three of the lam-rim. This is just like how we have stage zero being equanimity, on which we then have the 7-part cause and effect meditation for bodhichitta. Why do we need this stage zero? Well, I’m sure many of us know many people who don’t even try to work on themselves and improve this lifetime. They might desperately need therapy and don’t even consider doing that, let alone turn to Dharma-Lite. So we need this Dharma-Lite step, and as with self-concern versus concern with others, we try to eventually diminish our main concern being with just this lifetime, and increase our concern for future lives. However, there’ll always be some concern for this lifetime, and as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “50/50,” that means, we focus 50% on this life and 50% on future lives and beyond.

Real Thing Dharma: Our Mental Continuums as the Location of the Four Noble Truths

Delving into Real Thing Dharma, again we go back to the four noble truths, which are the true sufferings, the true causes of sufferings, the true stoppings of sufferings and their causes, and the true pathway minds that lead to that. What is the location of the four noble truths? The location is an individual’s mental continuum.

Suffering has to take place on a mental continuum. The third type of true suffering refers to the uncontrollably recurring aggregates, lifetime after lifetime, that constitute our mental continuum. They form the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering, unhappiness and our ordinary happiness, which are experiences on our mental continuum.

When we talk of the five aggregates, we’re talking in general about the body and mind; or more specifically, our sensory and mental types of consciousness, the sensory input we perceive, and all the mental factors, such as emotions, feelings, attitudes, and so on that make up each moment of our experience. They arise out of confusion about reality, are mixed with confusion in each moment and, unless we do something about it, they will perpetuate confusion further and further.

The true causes of suffering are confusion about cause and effect and about how we, and everything else, exist. Confusion obviously occurs as part of a mental continuum. When we’re confused about or just unaware of behavioral cause and effect, we act destructively. When we’re unaware of reality, we act either destructively or constructively, but both mixed with confusion. Even when we act in a neutral way, like scratching our heads, it’s mixed with confusion. This confusion or unawareness brings on disturbing emotions and we compulsively act on them, bringing more suffering as the result. With this mechanism, we see that the true causes of suffering are contained within the aggregates, and each moment of them is what makes up the continuity of our experience.

Here we have the relationship of cause and effect. The causes of suffering are the disturbing emotions and our compulsively acting upon them, and their effect, namely suffering, comes during a subsequent moment. The experience of suffering, namely unhappiness or ordinary unsatisfying short-lived happiness, is part of our aggregate of that moment. Thus both the first and second noble truths, true suffering and their true causes, both occur on a mental continuum and constitute the disturbing side of the four noble truths.

The purifying side of the four noble truths is the second two noble truths. We develop the true pathway mind, or simply put, an understanding of reality. This also occurs on a mental continuum as part of the aggregates that make up each moment of experience. The result is not the actual true stoppings themselves because the mental continuum was never actually stained by these problems. But the result of the true pathway minds is the attainment of the true stoppings, not the true stoppings themselves. It’s a minor technical difference. The point here is that for the liberating side, we also have a causal sequence between the true pathway minds and the attainment of the elimination of the first two noble truths.

In short, the location and basis for the noble truths is an individual mental continuum that has sequences of moments, the contents of which are related by cause and effect relationships. It’s not difficult to relate this to our own experience. For example, if we bang our foot against a table, that’s followed by a moment of experiencing pain. The contents of those two moments are related and occur in a continuum of our individual experience.

Temporal Limits of Cause and Effect Relationships

Now we might ask, what are the limits for cause and effect relationships? How much distance can there be, in time, between a cause and its effect? Well, in our ordinary lives, we can see quite a bit of distance between causal actions and their effect. I invest money in a stock market, for instance, and years later, I make or lose a lot of money. It’s not as though I make or lose money in the very next moment after I’ve invested. It’s not like banging our foot and immediately feeling the pain. So, is there a limit? In fact, this is one of the laws of karma, that there is no limit to the duration between a behavioral cause and its effect. At some point, whatever we do will ripen into an effect, unless we purify it away.

This naturally leads on to the topic of whether the mental continuum is limited to just this lifetime, or whether there is more, both before and after? Of course doubts come to our mind because even scientists can’t clearly define and decide upon the exact moment when the mental continuum of this life begins and ends. The whole question of abortion and contraception revolves around when life actually begins. Regarding death, are we dead when we’re brain dead or when we have heart failure? Scientists can’t agree on any of this. Then, when we’re dead, is there only one future life in heaven or hell? Is that the end, or does it go beyond that? If we look at most religions, there is certainly heaven and hell, and we’re usually parked in one or the other forever without end. Then the question remains, of when the mental continuum begins. Is it created at some point or not?

The Voidness (Emptiness) of Cause and Effect

This brings up the topic of the voidness (emptiness) of cause and effect. Can an effect come about from no cause at all? Does it come about from itself? How does it come about? There is a very detailed examination of the voidness of cause and effect in Buddhism. For instance, if things were to come from nothing, then anything could happen at any time. If there were no sense whatsoever in terms of what happens to us, even the relationship between banging my foot against a table as a cause for experiencing pain wouldn’t necessarily be valid.

Another point of analysis is whether the result already exists at the time of the cause. In other words, if something came out of itself, it would be like everything is predetermined. All things would already be there, and it would just be a matter of them manifesting. If this were true, then it wouldn’t make any sense that things are impermanent and change from moment to moment, and are affected by what came the moment before. Everything would already be there but would just be manifest or unmanifest, as if everything happened all at once. Then there would be no such thing as time. With predetermination, it means that everything past, present and future is happening at the same time.

In addition, we can analyze from the point of view of dependent arising. If we took some phenomenon and looked at it dependently from what came before, we would call it a result. If we looked at it dependently on what follows from it, we would call it a cause. The existence of something as a cause or an effect is dependent on the continuum. My experiencing of today is a result of my experiencing yesterday and it’s the cause of my experiencing tomorrow. Nothing exists from its own side independently as a cause or as an effect, but is only in relation to what comes before or after. Consequently, is it possible to have something like a moment of death, the result of something before, which isn’t the cause of something after? The analysis of the voidness of cause and effect hits this point.

In short, to be a person of the initial scope working to ensure that we continue to have precious human rebirths, with the possibility of continuing on the spiritual path, we need to be convinced of rebirth. For that, we need to have an understanding of the beginningless and endless mental continuum and how it works in terms of cause and effect. In other words, to rid ourselves forever of true sufferings and their causes, we need to see how these true causes have built up over beginningless time, not just in this lifetime. To attain true stoppings and true pathway minds, we need to work with their location, namely our mental continuums; and since attaining liberation and enlightenment will take a great deal of effort over a long period of time, we need to conceive of this process in terms of an enormous number of future lives.


If we don’t believe in future rebirths, then there won’t be much point in us delving into Real Thing Dharma. The lam-rim assumes belief in future lives and the teachings are based around it. In order to understand all of this, it’s imperative for us to study and contemplate the nature of our mind.

When we look at cause and effect, and the way our minds work in normal every day life, we will come to the conclusion that our mental continuum is not only beginningless, but endless too. Conviction in this will force us to think about our future lives, and what we can do for them now.

These topics are very difficult to understand, but they are the pathway through which we can convince ourselves that the three goals of the lam-rim are possible to attain, and that we can attain them ourselves. Once we’re convinced, then we can work on developing the emotional force that would drive us to actually work to achieve these goals.