Purity of the Mental Continuum and the Advanced Scope

Unawareness, Disturbing Emotions and Karmic Aftermath Have No Beginning

We have already established that each of us has an individual mental continuum that has no beginning or end, and that we’ll continue to take rebirth. Without beginning, our mental continuum has also been mixed with unawareness, or in simple language, confusion. This refers to unawareness of behavioral cause and effect: we’re unaware that unhappiness comes from destructive behavior and happiness comes from constructive behavior. It also refers to our basic unawareness of reality: we’re unaware of how we, everyone else, and everything else exists. Based on our unawareness, we develop disturbing emotions and attitudes, and then we act in destructive or constructive compulsive ways mixed with confusion. This leaves karmic aftermath on our mental continuum, which includes karmic tendencies and positive and negative karmic force. Thus, our mental continuum and that of all others has been mixed with unawareness, disturbing emotions and karmic aftermath with no beginning.

How Karmic Aftermath Is Carried on the Mental Continuum

Karmic tendencies and potentials are neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. They are simply imputed on our mental continuum. For example, if we drink coffee today, and we drank it yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, then as a way to organize this we say there is a tendency to drink coffee. This tendency is not something physical and it’s not a way of being aware of something. It’s just an imputation of something on a sequence of similar events.

Our unawareness and disturbing emotions and attitudes also have tendencies that account for their continuity. After all, just as we don’t drink coffee every minute of the day, we’re also not angry every minute either. But there is continuity and that is explained in terms of tendencies. It is through tendencies imputed on our mental continuum that our unawareness, disturbing emotions and karmic aftermath has been carried on our mental continuums and will continue to be carried unless we do something to stop it.

Grasping for Truly Established Existence

The unawareness of reality that underlies our disturbing emotions, as well as our compulsive karmic behavior, is based on the fact that our mind makes an appearance of things existing in an impossible way. In fact, our minds do this every moment. With grasping for truly established existence, we perceive these deceptive appearances and believe that they correspond to reality. With unawareness, we don’t know that this is not true.

Grasping for truly established existence, and the unawareness, disturbing emotions and attitudes, and karmic tendencies and potentials dependent on it, constitute the emotional obscurations. They prevent liberation. The habits of this grasping not only give rise to the grasping, but they also give rise to the deceptive appearance of truly established existence, an impossible way of existing. They do this continually and so are “constant habits.” They constitute the cognitive obscurations that prevent omniscient enlightenment. Before liberation, these habits give rise to both the deceptive appearance-making as well as the grasping of both perceiving and believing these appearances. After liberation, but before enlightenment, they continue to give rise to the appearance-making, but only to grasping in the sense of perceiving these appearances. They no longer give rise to believing that these appearances correspond to reality.

The non-conceptual cognition of voidness (emptiness), that there is no such thing as a way of existing that corresponds to what appears, rids us of each of these obscurations, depending on the motivating force behind this understanding: renunciation or both renunciation and bodhichitta.

The Meaning of Truly Established Existence

There are many levels of subtlety to the impossible ways of existing that our minds make appear. On the deepest, most subtle level, it’s an appearance of what we call “truly established existence.” In the different Indian Buddhist tenet systems, truly established existence is defined in various ways, but we’ll look mainly at the Prasangika definition as understood by the Gelug tradition.

The term “ways of existing” refers to what establishes the existence of something. It’s not actually talking about the way in which something exists, although the difference is very subtle. This word “establish” refers to what proves or accounts for the fact that something exists. A very simplistic point to demonstrate that something exists, from the earlier tenet systems, is that it performs a function. Because it does something, the performing of that something proves or demonstrates that it exists. This is in the lower tenet systems.

When the Prasangika system speaks about truly established existence, it means that there is something on the side of the object that establishes that it exists. This it would do either by its own power alone or in conjunction with other factors of conceptual mental labeling.

When we understand voidness, we see that there is an absence of an actual referent to these impossible ways of existing; there is no such thing. To understand this, let’s use an example. We might say, “I have a strong body,” because our mind makes it appear that there is something on the side of the body that makes it strong, without depending on anything else. All of the causes for “I am strong and healthy,” like good health, good diet, exercise, and so on, don’t appear to us. The strong body doesn’t seem to arise from that, but seems to be a real strong body from its own side when we look in the mirror.

If being a strong body were established on the side of the body, then it should be strong in any situation, even in comparison to other things. Relative to the body of a baby, an adult body is strong, but in relation to the body of an adult male gorilla it’s not strong, it’s weak. Strength arises dependently on many factors. It’s not just dependent on diet and exercise, but also on being relative to other things that we’re comparing it to. Not only this, but it’s also dependent on the word and concept of “strong.”

Somehow we point to the things we do every day and on this basis, we have this word and concept of “strong.” In prehistoric times, “strong” was just a meaningless sound to people who started language, and then it came to designate a concept, a category, as well as all items that people fit into this category. What establishes a body as strong? The only thing that establishes it as strong is merely what we call “designation” and “mental labeling,” nothing else. All we can say is that being strong is merely what the word “strong” refers to when designated on something as its basis and when that something is mentally labeled with a category: the concept of “strong.” There is nothing on the side of the basis that establishes that someone is strong. There is nothing findable.

We could ask, “But aren’t there defining characteristics of being strong?” Someone might be able to lift 100 kilos, and isn’t that a defining characteristic of strong, on the side of the object? No, and that’s because that defining characteristic of lifting heavy objects was also made up by people, and a mind that thought up the concept of “strong.” They made up a definition, put it in a dictionary, and there we have “strong,” but it’s still totally mentally constructed. However, our mind makes an appearance of just the body and its strength. “I just did 100 push-ups, I’m so strong!” It’s as if our body’s strength existed all by itself as strong.

Based on this appearance and believing that it refers to something real, we then exaggerate the quality of the body and generate attachment, pride, and arrogance. We look at somebody else whom we consider stronger, and get jealous. Or we can only do 50 push-ups, not 100, and we get angry and frustrated. Like this, we get all the disturbing emotions based on believing in this appearance of what is actually impossible.

This doesn’t mean that conventionally there is no such thing as strong. Conventionally, in terms of our words and concepts, we are strong. That’s not a problem; we’re not saying that absolutely nothing exists. Conventionally, our body does have strength, and dependent on the word and the concept, we could say it’s strong in comparison to a baby, and so on. But nothing on the side of the strength of our body establishes that we are strong. Nothing is on the side of the basis for mental labeling and designation, either conventionally or ultimately.

This is a brief explanation. But we need to think about it. If there were something on the side of the object, our strength that made us strong all by itself, by its own power, then we should be strong regardless of sickness, old age or anything else. When we use logic, we see that this is ridiculous.

Voidness (Emptiness)

When we focus on voidness (emptiness), we’re focusing on “no such thing.” It’s a total absence of an actual referent object of this appearance of a truly established existence. The mode of appearance does not correspond to anything real. It was never there in the first place. Another term for this is “backing support.” There’s no such thing as a backing support of this appearance of something impossible. When there’s a shadow of someone on a window shade, there’s a backing support of an actual person behind it that is casting the shadow. Here, even though there’s an appearance of a truly established existence like the shadow, there is nothing behind it supporting it from its own side.

When we’re focused on voidness and are totally absorbed on it, which means we have perfect concentration, then at that time the mind is not making an appearance of truly established existence, and not believing in it. We’re talking about this occurring non-conceptually. If it were conceptual, it would be mixed with the category, the concept of voidness. This is very complex.

Emotional and Cognitive Obscurations Are Not Parts of the Essential Nature of the Mind

The emotional obscurations, as mentioned, refer to unawareness and disturbing emotions and attitudes, as well as their tendencies, plus the karmic tendencies and potentials. These cause samsaric rebirth as described in the 12 links. They come from grasping for truly established existence and prevent liberation. The cognitive obscurations refer to the appearance-making of truly established existence and that comes from the constant habits of this grasping. When our minds make appearances of truly established existence, they make things appear totally independently and unrelated to each other. When we perceive these appearances, we’re unable to see the interconnectedness of everything, particularly in terms of behavioral cause and effect. They prevent our omniscience and so we don’t know how to best help everyone. We can’t see all the beginningless causes for their problems or what would be the endless results of anything we teach.

Our mental continuum has been “tainted” by these emotional and cognitive obscurations with no beginning. That’s why we’re neither liberated from samsara nor enlightened. But can the stains of these emotional and cognitive obscurations be removed? Are they part of the essential nature of the mind, or are they what we would call “fleeting stains?” If they were a defining characteristic of the nature of the mind, they would be present every single moment. However, they are not. There are occasions, like when we’re totally absorbed on voidness, when they are not present. This demonstrates that they are not part of the nature of the mind.

Emotional and Cognitive Obscurations Can Be Removed Forever

The next question is: if these are fleeting stains and not part of the essential nature of the mind, then can they be removed forever? Forever would mean a true stopping of them, which is the third noble truth. Because the various tendencies of unawareness, disturbing emotions and karma, as well as the constant habit of grasping for true existence can nevertheless still be imputed on the mind that is totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, then after we arise from this state, the grasping and so forth recur. How can we get rid of them so that they never recur?

Tendencies and habits are imputed on a sequence of similar events. We can only say that there is a presently occurring tendency on our mental continuum if there could be future recurrences of what is being repeated. If there could be no future recurrences, then all we can say is that there was a previous or past tendency or habit. But this does not exist presently. For instance, I have a habit to write with my right hand, which is a presently occurring habit, because I can still write with my right hand in the future. But if I lose my right hand in an accident, will I still presently have this habit? No. I previously had the habit of writing with my right hand, but I can’t do so anymore because I don’t have one. It’s only a past habit, not a present one. If we could prevent any future recurrence of appearance-making of truly established existence and prevent both perceiving and believing in these appearances, then the habit would be finished forever. It would not come back.

Non-Conceptual Absorption on Voidness Eliminates Grasping for Truly Established Existence

The more we can stay absorbed on voidness non-conceptually, with no appearance of truly established existence and no grasping for it, the weaker the tendencies and habits become. Unawareness is based on believing that the appearances correspond to something real, but with absorbed concentration on voidness, we experience more and more moments during which we focus on there being no such thing as something corresponding to them in reality. So, the more we stay absorbed on voidness, eventually we’ll stop believing that the deceptive appearances we perceive outside of our total absorption correspond to something real. In other words, the habit of grasping for truly established existence will get weaker and weaker until it stops giving rise to the belief.

At this point, we’ll have removed the emotional obscurations and attained liberation. This is because we have removed forever the unawareness and its tendencies, with which we didn’t know that these appearances did not correspond to reality. It is this unawareness that initially brings about our disturbing emotions and compulsive karmic actions leading to karmic aftermath, and it is these disturbing emotions that activate this karmic aftermath to bring about future, samsaric rebirths. When there is no more unawareness, then there is nothing to activate the karmic aftermath and nothing planting more karmic aftermath, and so uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth ends forever.

If we could stay focused on voidness forever, like we would do as a Buddha, then there would be no more appearance-making of truly established existence. Our mind would not produce that nonsense and we would be omniscient, because we’d be able to perceive the interconnectedness of everything. This is how we establish the existence and possibility of attaining liberation and enlightenment.

Unlabored Renunciation as the Force behind the Understanding of Voidness for Attaining Liberation

The mind that understands voidness needs to have a certain strength to it. We could understand voidness just as an intellectual exercise in our class at university, but that wouldn’t have very much force to it. In fact, this kind of understanding could lead to a lot of arrogance. If that understanding has the force of unlabored renunciation behind it – automatically arising renunciation without need to build up to it – then it has enough energy to be able to get rid of the tendencies of unawareness and disturbing emotions, as well as the unawareness and disturbing emotions themselves.

Why? This is because what we’re renouncing is in fact the result of the disturbing emotions and tendencies. We are renouncing samsaric rebirth. It’s what we’re determined to be free of and are willing to give up the causes of. We’re renouncing the all-pervasive suffering of these aggregates. Anyone can renounce pain, because no one wants to have more pain. That’s no big accomplishment. Even animals have this. In addition, other religions renounce worldly happiness in order to go to some sort of paradise, so that’s not specifically Buddhist. What we’re renouncing is the third type of suffering, which is the basis of samsara. This point is very important.

Renouncing Samsara: The Determination to Be Free

What characterizes samsara? It goes up and down. Sometimes we feel good and are happy, and sometimes we feel bad and are unhappy. We have no way of predicting how we’ll feel in the next moment. Even when we feel good, we have to be parted from it, or then we’re not satisfied enough, as in, “I don’t feel good enough.” This is the samsaric situation that we’re renouncing. We’re not renouncing existing or life. Of course, mental blocks may appear, where we think that if we don’t have the “exciting” ups and downs, then our lives will be empty and boring. But if we analyze deeply, we’ll see that when we attain liberation, we will still have aggregates that make up each moment of our experience, and we’ll still have feelings, but they won’t be disturbing. We’ll have non-disturbing happiness and equanimity. We’ll have love, compassion, patience, generosity, affection and so on, without any disturbing emotions.

Briefly, these are the things we work with to really become someone of the intermediate scope. We’re confident that our mental continuum goes on forever and is not stained in its nature by emotional obscurations, and so they can be stopped forever. We also have a correct identification of what we’re renouncing. When all of this is clear, we’re on the road to actually being someone of the intermediate scope.

Unlabored Bodhichitta as the Force behind the Understanding of Voidness for Attaining Enlightenment

On the advanced scope, when we have the force of an unlabored bodhichitta aim as the force of mind that understands voidness, then it’s able to stay focused on voidness forever and also get rid of the cognitive obscurations.

Why? We have this mental continuum without beginning or end, unstained by the two obscurations. So does everybody else. This is the first thing we have to realize and, on the basis of this, we have equanimity toward everyone. For instance, when we see a mental continuum that, because of its karma, is now connected with the body of an insect, it doesn’t mean that this mental continuum from its own side is established as an insect mental continuum, although our minds make it appear as such. There is no such thing as an insect mental continuum, or a male or a female, or a human, or a Mexican, or whatever. The point is that our mental continuums are also devoid of existing in impossible ways, existing all by themselves with big walls around them, independently. All of our mental continuums have interacted with each other and been influenced by each other in terms of what we experience, with no beginning.

When we factor in beginningless time, we see that we have not only all helped each other before, but that we have all been each other’s mother and father and so on. On top of this, everyone wants to be happy, with no one wanting to be unhappy. This is the basic principle for every mental continuum, and we’re all equal on this basis. We’re all interconnected with each other and we all have what we call “Buddha-nature,” which is the basic purity of the mental continuum that allows us all to become enlightened. In fact, we are convinced that everyone can achieve liberation and enlightenment. When we understand the voidness of the mental continuum, then we understand that it is possible to influence and help others. This causal relationship is possible between mental continuums, without exaggerating what’s possible or denying what’s possible, based on actually understanding cause and effect.

From understanding that all people can achieve liberation and enlightenment equally, we have great compassion aimed at absolutely everybody. We can see the interconnection of everything, maybe not very clearly, but we at least understand the principle. Now we start to see how the force of this bodhichitta aim is so vast that it can act as a cause for actually achieving the omniscient mind of a Buddha on that level of vastness.

The bodhichitta aim is based on this compassion and taking responsibility to bring everyone to enlightenment. We call this “exceptional resolve.” We see that only if we ourselves become a Buddha, will we be able to fully help others; so we have to get rid of both the emotional and cognitive obscurations. At this point, we focus on our not-yet-happening individual enlightenment, referring to the third and fourth noble truths. These are the true stoppings of the two obscurations and the true pathway minds that have not yet occurred on our mental continuum, but which can happen.

Focusing on Our Individual Not-Yet-Happening Enlightenment

When we talk about the “future” in a Western context, it sounds as thought it’s something happening somewhere out there, as though if we went faster than the speed of light, we could travel to the future. This is not the Buddhist understanding. In Buddhism we talk of no-longer-happening, presently-happening, and not-yet-happening events. Only if something is possible, can we talk of it as not-yet-happening. Our enlightenment is not happening now, but it can happen on the basis of the purity of the mental continuum and the causes that are built up like the networks of positive force and deep awareness imputed on it, or the so-called “collections of merit and wisdom.” The not-yet-happening enlightenment is imputed on its causes and on the basis of the purity of the mind.

We’re aiming then, with bodhichitta, to have an incredibly enormous, vast scope of mind. This is the Mahayana, the vast vehicle of mind. We’re not talking about a car here, but about an understanding that will bring us to enlightenment. It’s enormous, because we think in terms of all beings, and the interconnectedness of them all. We also think in terms of the total purity of our own individual mental continuum and of everyone else’s. This gives the force for the understanding of voidness to be able to cut through the habits of grasping for truly established existence as well. In other words, we’re able to then stay in total absorption on voidness forever.

Renunciation Does Not Invalidate Enjoyment of Ordinary Life

This is what we have with the intermediate and advanced scopes. We want to transform ourselves into persons that have each of these scopes in an unlabored fashion all of the time. As someone of the intermediate scope, no matter what we encounter in our samsaric existence, we’re supposed to see it as a form of suffering. Does this mean that we don’t enjoy it anymore and that we’re really grim all the time? No, not at all! It’s simply that we’re not fooled by what we see. Even if it’s just on a superficial level, we see that everything has arisen based on causes and conditions, that it’s going to change, and that it won’t last. We just enjoy whatever’s happening without exaggerating it. Yes, we need to eat, so we can enjoy our meals, but without thinking, “Oh, this is so wonderful and marvelous, I want to eat more and more and more.” We stay calm, and enjoy things as they are.

Having a Realistic Attitude about the Bodies of People We’re Attracted To

In our interactions with people, there’ll be those we’re angry with, those we don’t care about, and of course those we are very attracted to. Even if we can’t apply an understanding of voidness, we can apply more temporary, provisional antidotes, like visualization. We can imagine that we have x-ray vision and we’re looking at the skeleton of someone we’re very attracted to, or even more effective, do as Shantideva suggests and peel off his or her skin. We imagine the person in terms of their muscles, intestines, stomach, lungs and so on, and see that no matter how attractive or repulsive we think they are, they’re under the influence of disturbing emotions and the ravages of age, and they’re going to have back pains and this and that. This helps to diffuse the attraction or repulsion and anger, because a lot of this is based on superficial appearances. It’s really helpful to try and visualize like this all the time.

We renounce, in that we don’t want to have this kind of attraction or repulsion, because it causes us problems, unhappiness and suffering. We’re determined to be free of it, which means we need to apply some opponent to get rid of it. It’s not that we have this nice wish and do nothing about it, “Maybe my disturbing emotions will go away if I pray hard enough.”

When we visualize the insides of someone, what we’re seeing is truly there. It’s not a fantasy. However, their surface appearance is likewise there. We’re not denying the outer appearance. Eventually we’ll get to a point where we’re not so much under the influence of desire and so on. Then we can simply enjoy the beauty of someone, or of a flower, or of a meal, without being disturbed by it, because we understand the deeper level. As a result, we actually start to see the beauty in far more things than we did before.

To recount briefly, the intermediate scope focus is on renouncing the disturbing emotions and the whole samsaric situation that’s brought on by them. The Dharma-Lite version is to think of this lifetime. Real Thing Dharma is to think in terms of how, if we don’t rid ourselves of the disturbing emotions, they perpetuate themselves forever with uncontrollably recurring rebirths. We certainly don’t want this!

Thinking Always of Others

When we become someone of the advanced scope, we focus on not just overcoming our own disturbing emotions toward everybody and everything, but also on extending compassion to everyone else by seeing that we’re all in the same situation. We’re all under the influence of karma and disturbing emotions, and have the up-and-down suffering of samsara. How terrible is it that everyone is in as awful a state as we are?!

Focusing on their no-longer-happening being my mother, their presently-happening being an insect, and their not-yet-happening being a Buddha, we relate to them on all three levels on the basis of understanding the purity of the mind, or Buddha-nature. This is no easy feat. We’re not talking just of those who currently have a human form. Imagine if we were able to have this with everybody, and actually have it with everybody simultaneously!


Our mental continuum has no beginning or end, and we’ll certainly have rebirths. We don’t just focus on what’s happening now, but think in terms of what’s not yet happening. If we don’t do anything about it, our presently happening samsaric situation will continue on forever. Even though, with no beginning, our mental continuum has been mixed with emotional obscurations, we can remove them forever. There is a not-yet-happening liberation that we can impute on our mental continuums. Exactly the same thing applies in terms of our nature not being stained by cognitive obscurations. We can look ahead to the not-yet-happening enlightenment on the basis of our mental continuums. We also understand that a countless number of other mental continuums is in the same situation as we are, and we see the interconnectedness of us all.

With this in mind, we turn our focus away from just this lifetime, and think in terms of the future. Then, we actually turn away our focus from the future within the boundaries of samsara, and look ahead to the state of liberation. After this, we even turn away our focus from liberation and turn our full attention to our not-yet-happening enlightenment. Each of these stages has a renunciation, where we turn away from something. Here, on the advanced stage, we also have bodhichitta. All of this is possible because we understand the voidness of our mental continuum.

These are the three principle aspects of the pathway minds, as emphasized by Tsongkhapa. We have renunciation, bodhichitta, and the understanding of voidness. If we follow the steps in the lam-rim, sincerely aiming to gradually become the individuals of the three scopes, although it is no easy task, undoubtedly we can make progress on the path to becoming a Buddha and benefiting all limited beings.