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Mahamudra and the Four Noble Truths: Realizing the Conventional and Deepest Natures of the Mind

Alexander Berzin
Seattle, Washington, April 16, 2003

2 Purification of Mental Activity

edited transcript

Stages of True Stoppings

What is relevant here in our discussion of mahamudra is that in both the impure and pure situations, the nature of the mental activity is the same. The conventional nature of both impure and pure mental activity is always mere clarity and awareness. The deepest nature of both impure and pure mental activity is always voidness.

When we achieve a true stopping of the impure side, we achieve a true stopping of the first two noble truths. We achieve a true stopping of the appearance-making of the aggregate factors of our experience as truly existent (the first noble truth) and the grasping at them to be truly existent (the second noble truth). Actually, first we get rid of the grasping and then the appearance-making. When we rid our mental activity of those two such that they never recur, we have achieved a true stopping of them.

We do not achieve a true stopping of all true causes and true sufferings with the first nonconceptual cognition of voidness and our becoming aryas. Karma Kagyu and Nyingma assert that a true stopping of all of them at once does occasionally happen, but only for very special practitioners. They are called those for whom it happens all at once. Gelug and Sakya, however, do not discuss such types of practitioners. They assert only those who progress in stages, which refers to the vast majority of practitioners according to the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma traditions as well.

For those who progress in stages, the first nonconceptual cognition of voidness gets rid of only one portion of true suffering and true causes. How large a portion depends on whether we are practicing with the sutra or the anuttarayoga tantra methods. In other words, it depends of the level of mental activity we are using for the nonconceptual cognition of voidness and the motivation that accompanies that level.

Let us speak only of the case of bodhisattvas, those with the motivation of bodhichitta. Using subtle mental activity for the nonconceptual cognition of voidness, as in sutra, we get rid of only doctrinally based grasping for true existence and doctrinally based disturbing emotions and attitudes when we first become aryas. We are still left with the automatically arising ones, as well as with the appearance-making of true existence. Using clear-light mental activity for the nonconceptual cognition of voidness, as in anuttarayoga tantra, we get rid of both the doctrinally based and the automatically arising grasping for true existence and disturbing emotions and attitudes all simultaneously. We are still left, however, with the appearance-making of true existence.

Doctrinally based grasping for true existence is the grasping that arises from our having been taught a view of true existence, for instance by one of the non-Buddhist Indian schools of philosophy. Doctrinally based disturbing emotions are those that arise based on that grasping, such as attachment to that philosophical view and hatred of those who disagree with it.

Then there are the automatically arising grasping for true existence and automatically arising disturbing emotions that everyone has. When we fall, for example, fear automatically arises. Animals have this as well.

The point is that during nonconceptual total absorption on voidness, whether with yogic straightforward cognition by mental consciousness or with clear-light mental activity, we have no grasping for true existence, no disturbing emotions or attitudes, and no appearance-making of true existence. However, this absence of them doesn't last. Only a certain portion of them stops forever, while the rest recur during the subsequent attainment phase. We have only achieved a true stopping of a certain portion of the first and second noble truths.

Such practitioners constitute the arya sangha (the noble sangha). Of the Three Jewels of Refuge, they are the Sangha Gem. This is because they have achieved only partial third and fourth noble truths by ridding themselves forever of only a portion of the first and second noble truths. Only a Buddha has achieved the third and fourth noble truths in full and rid himself of the first and second noble truths in full. In other words, the more we stay in the nonconceptual cognition of voidness, the less we activate the impure variety of mental activity. Eventually, we can achieve a true stopping of the entire impure side.

[See: Identifying the Objects for Safe Direction (Refuge).]

What is significant here for our discussion of mahamudra? In terms of the nature of our mental activity, it makes no difference whether we have achieved a true stopping of just a portion of the first two noble truths, a true stopping of all of them, or no true stopping at all. The nature of the mental activity that is characterized by any degree of true stopping remains the same. Still there is appearance-making and the cognizing of appearances with no truly existing "me" or truly existing mind making them happen. It makes no difference whether it is impure mental activity or pure mental activity. It makes no difference whether we look from the point of view of the first two noble truths or from the point of view of the second two noble truths; it is the same.

Pure Mental Activity Can Replace Impure Mental Activity

The question then arises, if impure and pure mental activities are the same in nature, which is more stable, impure mental activity or pure mental activity? Which are more stable: the appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence, or the appearance-making of an absence of true existence and nonconceptual cognition of voidness? Appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence, or appearance-making of dependent arising and cognition of dependent arising? In each case, the two possibilities are mutually exclusive. One moment of mental activity cannot do both simultaneously. So, which one is more stable?

We would have to say that the impure side is less stable. It is less stable because it can be undermined by the pure side. Or, put in more simple words, confusion can be undermined by correct understanding.

We must be careful not to make this statement in a blasé manner. We could likewise argue that understanding can be replaced by confusion. If understanding and confusion are mutually exclusive, then when we are experiencing one, we are not experiencing the other, and vice versa. Even after we have the nonconceptual cognition of voidness, we still have some confusion left, so what is going on here?

Consider once more the example of the appearance-making of the driver in the car next to me as truly an idiot and believing that he is truly an idiot because something is inherently wrong with him, making him truly an idiot from his own side. The more we examine this impure mental activity, the more we discover that it can be undermined by the understanding that this way of existing is impossible. If he were truly an idiot inherently, then everyone would have to find him an idiot from the moment of his birth onward, in all situations. This is because there is something wrong with him, from his own side, that makes him inherently an idiot. The more we investigate this impure appearance-making and the impure cognition of it – our belief in the appearance corresponding to reality – the more we find that it just does not hold up to analysis.

As for pure mental activity regarding this person, the more we investigate what pure mental activity would cognize, the more we realize it actually is true. We would understand that this person is maybe conventionally acting like an idiot and "idiotic" may be a valid label for his conduct at the moment. Nevertheless, it is impossible that he is inherently an idiot. He is acting like an idiot dependently arising on everything, primarily on the concept and mental label idiot, but also on may other things. For example, the fact that someone invented cars, that people built cars and roads, created driving rules, and all sorts of things, even the evolution of human beings from amoebas. His acting like an idiot is dependently arising from the interconnectedness of everything.

That is why only a Buddha can cognize this. When we talk about an appearance-making of dependent arising, it is the interconnectedness of everything, the totality of cause and effect, all the causes of everything. We are talking about zillions and zillions of causes, and all the effects that are going to come from everything that is happening in any moment. Only a Buddha can cognize that in full.

We should not think of an appearance of dependent arising as some sort of simple thing. It is beyond our limited minds. We do not have the apparatus to be able to cognize it. The analogy that I often use is that our cognition is as if through a periscope. Everyone is going around as if in submarines. Our cognition, our mental activity, is a periscope activity: it is very limited. We can only see what is in front of our noses. We cannot see what is behind us; we cannot see all the causes of what we perceive. We maybe can see one or two causes. And we certainly do not see all the effects. What we cognize is limited and what our mental activity makes appear seems to exist independently from everything else. It is only when we get rid of the aggregates (our limited bodies and limited minds) that we finally get rid of the periscope and are able to cognize the totality of everything, in all its interconnectedness. It is only through words and concepts that we can parse out different portions of the totality of everything into "table," or "idiot," or "car." But, they do not exist independently on their own. Everything is interconnected in a giant network of cause and effect.

Understanding this undermines and thus can replace confusion. The more we examine the situation with reasoning and logic – for instance the situation of the person trying to pass us on the road who appears to be an absolute idiot – the more we understand that our analysis of dependent arising is true. The deceptive appearance produced by our mental activity is incorrect. It does not correspond to reality and cannot withstand analysis.

Not only does this logical conclusion support the position that the pure side of mental activity is stronger than the impure side and can remove it, our experience also corroborates this. The more we focus with impure mental activity, the stronger our anger and unhappiness become. The more we focus with pure mental activity, the weaker our anger and unhappiness become and, even if our happiness doesn't increase, at least we remain in a peaceful state of mind.

On a deeper level and at a more advanced stage, while we stay focused on voidness nonconceptually, there is no appearance-making of true existence and no grasping for true existence. Without the appearance-making of true existence and without the grasping for true existence, there is no activation of karma, because these two are the factors that activate karma. Not only do we not activate any old karma during that time, but we also do not build up any new karma either.

Stages of the Purification of Karma

The longer that we are able to stay focused nonconceptually on voidness, the weaker the appearance-making of true existence and the grasping for it become when we arise from our absorption in meditation. First, the grasping becomes weaker and weaker, until it stops altogether. Then the appearance-making of true existence starts to wane. This is according to the Prasangika presentation in the Gelug and Karma Kagyu traditions. There are slight variations in the presentations of the other Tibetan traditions and other Indian Mahayana tenet systems. Some of them assert that the grasping and appearance-making weaken simultaneously.

In either case, the more that we stay focused nonconceptually on voidness, the weaker these two become. We are not activating old karma and not building up new karma during our nonconceptual total absorption on voidness. When we arise from our absorption, we have weakened or depleted a certain portion of our karma. The Kalachakra teachings explain this most fully, in terms of what is called "the winds of karma." This is a bit complicated to understand and perhaps this is not the occasion to go into it in depth.

Even if we have weakened or depleted some of our old karma, we still build up new karma during our subsequent attainment periods and in between meditation periods. This is because, if we are following the sutra path, we still have automatically arising grasping for true existence during these periods, up until we become an eighth level bodhisattva. We can build up new karma even as an arya, though not the strong type of karma, known as throwing karma, that would throw us into another samsaric rebirth.

What we try to do now is to extend the amount of time that we stay focused nonconceptually on voidness as we proceed through the bhumis, the arya bodhisattva levels of mind. We also work on alternating increasingly more quickly total absorption on voidness and the subsequent attainment of realization that appearances of true existence are like an illusion. We also have periods in between meditation when we are cooking dinner, eating and sleeping, and helping others as much as possible. During such times as well, we try to realize that all appearances of true existence – in other words, everything that we cognize – are like an illusion. We try to alternate and enter increasingly more quickly and more frequently into nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Eventually, we are able to stay in that forever. That is when we become Buddhas and when the entire impure side of mental activity is stopped forever. It will never return, because our never-ending pure mental activity is mutually exclusive with an appearance-making of true existence and a grasping for true existence. They cannot occur at the same time.

The longer that we stay focused on voidness and the more frequently we are able to do that, the more we weaken karma because we are not activating anything. We are not building up anything new. This is the process involved with the fourth noble truth – true pathways of mind. Even though the impure side and the pure side are both contents of mental activity and both share the same nature as mental activity – merely giving rise to appearances and cognizing them – mental activity with pure contents can replace mental activity with impure contents. In other words, pure mental activity can stop impure mental activity forever and replace it. Throughout the entire process of all this happening, our mental activity remains individual and subjective. I'm experiencing it; not anybody else.

How Purification of Karma Works

Question: During an arya's nonconceptual total absorption on voidness, an arya is not activating old karma and is not building up new karma. So what is happening to this old karma? What does it actually mean to say that it is purified?

Alex: One has to get into a more complex analysis here. What we have at this point are the karmic legacies (sometimes translated as the karmic seeds) and the habits of karma. Both of these are nonstatic phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something. The technical term for them is noncongruent affecting variables. If we put this in simple language, Gelug style – this would not work for the non-Gelug explanation – we could call them nonstatic abstractions.

[See: Congruent and Noncongruent Affecting Variables.]

Sometimes, the terms legacies and habits are used interchangeably. But, when we differentiate the two, legacies give rise to intermittent phenomena: sometimes we do this, sometimes we do that, sometimes we feel happy, sometimes we do not feel happy. A habit gives rise to something continuously. Both are abstractions.

What is an abstraction? An abstraction is an imputation. There is a sequence of similar events and, based of that sequence, we say there is a legacy or a habit. A simple example is drinking a cup of coffee yesterday, the day before, this morning, this afternoon, and so on. Based on this sequence of similar events, we say there is a habit of drinking coffee. The legacy of each of the acts of drinking coffee is that we are probably going to drink coffee again, but not every moment of our lives, only sometimes.

The legacy exists only so long as there is the possibility for future recurrences in the sequence, no matter how long the interval may be before the next occurrence. We can only say that we still have a legacy or a habit if it is possible for there to be further moments of what would ripen from it. If it is impossible for there ever to be further moments of it, we cannot say there is a legacy or a habit anymore. It does not exist anymore. That is how we purify karma. The understanding of voidness purifies karma because it eliminates that which activates karma – namely, grasping for true existence based on appearance-making of true existence.

If we look in more detail, the habit of grasping for true existence ripens into not only grasping for true existence every moment, but also into the appearance-making of true existence every moment. The habits of karma ripen into not only karmic ripenings, such as some sort of true suffering every moment, but also into our experiencing limited awareness every moment. When we rid our mental activity of grasping for true existence, then we stop ripening old karma and stop building up any new karma. This eliminates the aspect of the habits of grasping for true existence that would ripen into grasping for true existence and the aspect of the habits of karma that would ripen into karmic ripenings of true suffering.

Now, we are only left with the aspect of the habits of grasping for true existence that give rise to appearance-making of true existence and the aspect of the habits of karma that give rise to limited awareness. When we are able to stay in nonconceptual total absorption on voidness forever more, we no longer experience appearance-making of true existence and the limited awareness that is synonymous with it. Thus, we can no longer say that we have any habits of grasping for true existence or habits of karma anymore. This is how we purify karma.

[See: The Mechanism of Karma: The Mahayana Presentation, Except for Gelug Prasangika.]

Fleeting Stains

Now we can understand a little better what the word fleeting means in the expression fleeting stains. The confused side, the impure side of our mental activity, has no beginning. Everyone's individual subjective appearance-making of true existence and individual subjective grasping for true existence have no beginning. They are always part of our mental activity, whether it is seeing, hearing, thinking, and so on, and it is constant. But, it can have a true stopping such that it never recurs. That is what the word fleeting means when we talk about a fleeting stain. Something is fleeting if we can have a true stopping of it such that it never returns – even in the case of mental activities that, like appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence, are beginningless and constant.

On the other hand, when we consider the pure side of mental activity – correct understanding, and, specifically, nonconceptual cognition of voidness – it has a beginning, when we experience it for the first time. It is intermittent at first: we experience it only sometimes, not all the time. But, it has no end. It has no end because it cannot be undermined. Eventually, we are able to have it all the time. We cannot say that correct understanding is a fleeting stain of mental activity. It is an aspect of Buddha-nature in the sense that it can be transformed into the Dharmakaya of a Buddha.

Buddha-Nature

Buddha-nature refers to those factors that can be transformed into or which are responsible for the various Buddha-bodies. There is much debate about whether they refer to these factors only while they are still accompanied by appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence, or whether they also include them in their totally purified state in a Buddha.

Regardless of which position we assert, mental activity has two natures: conventional and deepest. These are the two truths about mental activity: what it is and how it exists. The deepest nature of mental activity, its voidness, is one aspect of Buddha-nature. It is a naturally abiding Buddha-nature factor because it is responsible for the Svabhavakaya – the Nature Body, the voidness of the omniscient awareness of a Buddha. As an unaffected phenomenon, the voidness of limited mental activity does not transform into the voidness of omniscient mental activity. The voidness of mental activity remains the same.

The conventional nature of mental activity is also a Buddha-nature factor. There is much debate about whether it is also a naturally abiding factor or an evolving factor. Most of the scholars of the non-Gelug schools say it is also a naturally abiding Buddha-nature factor. Although they all agree with Gelug that it takes a different object each moment, some assert it to be an affected (nonstatic phenomenon) and a conventional truth as Gelug does, and some assert it is as unaffected and a deepest truth. It is unaffected in the sense that it is not created anew by causes and conditions.

Most of the non-Gelug scholars then set the conventional nature of mental activity also as a naturally abiding Buddha-nature factor, whether they assert it as an unaffected or as an affected phenomenon. It remains the same when totally unpurified, when partially purified and partially unpurified as an arya, and when fully purified as a Buddha. Gelug asserts it as an evolving Buddha-nature factor, which evolves into a Jnana-Dharmakaya (Deep Awareness Dharmakaya), the omniscient awareness of a Buddha. Everyone agrees, however, that correct understanding, as built up in a network of deep awareness (a collection of wisdom), is also an evolving Buddha-nature factor, because it also evolves into a Jnana-Dharmakaya of a Buddha. The discussion of Buddha-nature is very complicated.

[See: Buddha-Nature: First Day of a Discourse on Uttaratantra, 2 The First Three Verses of Chapter One.]

The point is that fleeting stains can be truly stopped and, although a correct understanding may be intermittent, it cannot be truly stopped; it can have no end. Correct understanding, like the conventional and deepest natures of mental activity, are Buddha-nature factors and present with the omniscient mental activity of a Buddha. Fleeting stains are not present with omniscient awareness; they have been removed forever.

Thus, we need to be careful not to understand "fleeting" as meaning temporary. Except for the times when we are in nonconceptual total absorption on voidness, grasping for true existence and unawareness (ignorance) are constant, until we get rid of them forever. The same is true for appearance-making of true existence.