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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Exercises For Integrating One's Life > Session Five: The Relation of This Practice with Voidness, Bodhicitta, and Tantra Practice

Exercises For Integrating One's Life

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, November 2008

Session Five: The Relation of This Practice with Voidness, Bodhicitta, and Tantra Practice

Unedited Transcript
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We have been speaking about methods for integrating the various aspects of our lives. And we have seen that in order to deal with the various things in our lives and in order to follow in a more whole-hearted way the spiritual path, it’s very important to have a clear idea of all the factors that are the basis for labeling “me.”

When we speak about the true origins, or true sources, or causes of our problems, the second noble truth, then we always speaks in terms of unawareness – that’s usually translated as ignorance – and this unawareness is about both our persons and about all phenomena in general. Those are the divisions in terms of unawareness about reality and then also we have unawareness about cause and effect, specifically behavioral cause and effect in terms of karma. When we speak about the unawareness of persons, then that includes both ourselves and others. And we’ve seen that a person is something which is imputed on a continuum of aggregate factors – it’s usually called the five aggregates – so body, mind, various emotions, levels of happiness, unhappiness, etc. Based on the unawareness of how we exist, then we have all sorts of disturbing emotions that arise. If we speak in very general terms, we regard ourselves as some sort of solid thing, and because that is not really corresponding to reality, we feel insecure about that.

It’s very interesting to try to investigate what is the emotional equivalent, or tone, of unawareness. When we talk about unawareness, that's sort of a cognitive thing: either we don’t know reality or we know it in an incorrect way. So that’s cognitive. But, obviously, we can look at the same phenomena from an emotional point of view. There’s the emotional component of it, and I think – just from my own contemplation about it – that it would be both confusion and insecurity. And also naivety, although that’s a little bit tricky to say whether or not we would call the phenomenon of our experience of naivety a disturbing emotion or disturbing attitude. Where does it actually fall? But, being confused about how we exist, imagining that there’s some sort of solid entity, feeling insecure about that, then we try make that “me” secure, and we have various disturbing emotions that arise in that attempt.

I didn't say whether that naivety was a disturbing emotion or not disturbing; it is disturbing, it's a matter of whether it’s an emotion or an attitude. We could spend the next half hour discussing the classification schemes here, which, of course, I must exercise a great deal of self control not to do. The problem is that there are very fine divisions which are made in the classification scheme in Tibetan Buddhism, and the different Tibetan lineages have different opinions about that. And then the difficulty is that we have no similar classification scheme in our Western terminology, so it's not clear in our Western terminology whether we are talking about emotions or attitudes, so the two classification schemes don’t mix very nicely.

But, in any case, what we have is either longing desire, which is to get things to us, or not let go of what we have, that’s attachment, in order to try to make that “me” secure; or repulsion, just hostility and anger, just to get things away from that “me,” again with the hope that it will make that “me” secure. Or, we remain naive about things because, again, if we don’t consider something or we deny the existence of something, somehow we think that that will make everything okay, we’re secure. In other words, it's too threatening to really look more deeply into reality. And of course all of these are futile attempts, because when we act them out, they don’t make us more secure at all.

And so, when we analyze this unawareness about how we exist, then we find many levels of subtlety. We may have unawareness based on having been taught certain doctrines of non-Buddhist Indian religions or philosophies and we believe them. And so, this doctrinally based unawareness imagines that the “me” is an atman – that’s the Indian term. And these systems accept rebirth, but this atman goes on and on, and what it experiences is under the influence of karma. A very Indian system. But, this atman, or soul – perhaps that’s the closest that we have in our Western terminology – this soul is something that is static; it never changes; it’s not affected by anything. Second characteristic is that it is partless, which means that it’s a monolith – either, according to some schools, the size of the universe, so we just have to recognize our identify with all the universe partlessly; or, some tiny little partless spark of life. And the third one is that this atman exists or can exist totally independently of a body and a mind. And the different Indian philosophical schools will differ according to whether or not they ascribe to this soul a quality of consciousness or not. So, that's doctrinally-based unawareness. And we, as Westerners, may have learned from our education, religious education, concerning the soul that we may believe in a soul that has one or another of the components of this description. But that would be classified as something else: a type of incorrect consideration, not the whole package. The whole package is what is being discussed here as doctrinally-based unawareness.

Now, what you have to be aware of is that assertions such as the fact that there is an eternal soul, Buddhism accepts that as well. I mean, we have a whole debate here. The question is what are the characteristics of the self, the “me,” or the soul, whatever you want to call it. Buddhism uses the same word, atman. When we speak in Buddhism of what’s often translated as “no self,” selfless, or selflessness – that’s an awkward word – or identitylessness, what really it is saying is there’s no such thing as an impossible soul. It doesn’t mean there is no such thing as a soul whatsoever. Buddhism does accept a conventionally existent “me” or self or person or soul. Because if we fully believe that we have no self, there is no “me” whatsoever, then we know from our Western psychology that such a person can’t deal with life at all. If you have no concept of “me,” then why would you get up out of bed? Why would you take care of yourself? Why would you do anything? So, our work in integrating one’s life is focusing on the basis for the conventional “me.”

A deeper level of confusion – and this automatically arises – is that the “me,” or soul, is self-sufficiently knowable, which means that it can be known by itself, not simultaneously with some aspect of its basis. We would say, “I see Gabi,” as if I’m just seeing Gabi, or “I know Gabi.” How can I see Gabi separately from seeing a body that we named Gabi? How can I know Gabi without knowing something about her? If not at least the name, let alone the mental picture or something about her personality or something like that. But, it seems to us, it automatically arises that I know Gabi, I know myself, whatever. So, we have all these expressions and the emotional and psychological syndromes that derive from it or are based on it, such as, “I want you to love me for myself, not for my body, my mind, my money, but I want somebody to love me just for me,” as if there was a “me” that could be known and loved separate from the basis. So, perhaps we can all recognize that is arises automatically. Somebody would have to teach us that there is a “me” that is the size of the universe. I think that wouldn't just automatically come to our heads. But, certainly, this feeling of “I want somebody to love me for myself,” or “I want to know you,” that comes automatically.

Then, on an even more subtle level, we imagine, even when we understand that the “me” is just what is labeled on to… Well, let me explain “labeling.” “Labeling” is that there’s a basis – so we have the ever changing factors that make up each moment of our experience – and on the basis of that, we can refer to whole thing as “me.” “Me” is not the word “me.” It’s what the word refers to on the basis of all these things that are changing. The deeper confusion about that is that there’s something on the side of each moment, some findable defining characteristic, that makes me “me.” Either it makes me “me” by its own power, by itself, or it makes me “me” in connection with labeling that as the basis for “me.” Thinking that there is something in each moment that makes me “me” or makes you “you,” then again, we could have – and this automatically arises – that “I have to find “myself”; I have to know “myself” Well, what are we knowing in terms of “knowing myself” or “finding myself?” It’s some sort of special characteristic that makes me “me.” Well, if you analyze that, you know, “why do I love you? Well, there’s something special about you, that makes you special, the object of my love and I have to have it.” But, actually, the more that you think about that, and you say, “Well, what is it that I really love that makes you special?” And so, there is this automatic arising misconception that there is something special on the side of this person that makes them special, and that’s why I like them or I dislike them. So, that’s considered the most subtle form of confusion.

Another way of expressing it is that there is something backing the basis here; some backing support that when we focus on the person, that’s what is holding it up. Like the example of something behind the screen that’s casting a shadow.

But we can understand this on a very simple level just in terms of the table, or our body. If we look at it under an electron microscope, it’s made of atoms, and they’re made of electrons and force fields and so on. And there’s nothing solid there that is making it what it is, on its own side, by its own power. What has to go with that – we just stay on the level of the analysis of atoms, which is a beginner step in our understanding of reality – then, what’s most important is the “nevertheless.” So, even though my body is made of atoms and force fields and electrons and all these things and there’s nothing solid about it, and the same thing is true of the chair; nevertheless, I don’t fall through the chair. Somehow the chair supports me. So, that “nevertheless” is very important and that is the key to understanding reality; it’s the “nevertheless.” Nothing is findable: nevertheless, things function.

So, Shantideva says this very nicely. To just paraphrase what he is saying, is that only when we can understand this “nevertheless” on the simplest level – that everything is made of atoms and nevertheless you don't fall through the floor – if you understand that, without contradiction, that without these two aspects being contradictory, then you are ready to go onto the next more subtle level of understanding. If you don’t have that, you’re going to be in deep trouble trying to go deeper. If we can’t understand that, then the deeper that we go, the more we’ll fall into nihilism. I think we can understand just on this level of atoms that it’s not so simple to really understand the “nevertheless.”

This is a long exposition on voidness, which I didn’t really quite intend; but nevertheless perhaps it’s helpful. And the reason why I raised this in the first place was that usually our focus is on the unawareness about the self. And so in the order in which we understand to get to our first understanding of voidness – voidness means an absence of impossible ways of existing – then first we understand that in terms of a person, or self, because it’s easier to understand, and then in terms of all phenomena. When we talk about all phenomena, we’re talking about things that are static and nonstatic – that’s referring to whether or not they change, whether or not they’re affected by anything. Now, when we talk about the aggregate factors of our experience, these include everything that changes, that’s nonstatic. And so in other words, every component of our experience in this particular scheme is something that is affected by something else; it’s brought about by causes and conditions. Although static phenomena are also involved in our experience, they’re not included in the scheme of five aggregates.

Now, when we have a basic understanding of voidness, then the order in which we focus on voidness in our meditation is the reverse. So, first we think primarily in terms the five aggregates – in other words, the things that are changing; in other words, the voidness of the basis of labeling “me.” So, when we see that in our experience, each moment of our experience, everything is changing, everything is affected by other things and changing at different rates, and there’s nothing solid there that remains moment to moment in terms of the basis, then, it follows quite naturally that you couldn’t have some sort of solid findable thing that is labeled on it. So, everything is changing, everything is affected by a million other things, and made up of parts, etc. etc., and so there’s no solid “me” riding on top of this. This always has to be changing from moment to moment.

And we saw that this basis of labeling “me,” our continuum of experiences, there’s the past – what’s already happened – there’s the present – what’s presently happening, and what’s not yet happened. We don't call it “past,” “present” and “future,” those are very different conceptualizations of time. So, in a sense, the conceptual framework is in the reverse because first you have “not yet happened,” then you have “presently happening,” and then you have “no longer happening.” And that’s a huge, huge discussion about the Buddhist concept of time, a very important one. And it’s extremely crucial for being able to understand and meditate on bodhichitta. Remember, Tsongkhapa explains how to specify a state that you’re trying to generate in meditation, then you have to know what it's focused on and how the mind relates to it.

So, bodhichitta has two moments to it – when we say “moment” in Buddhist analysis, that means a phase, it doesn’t last just one instant – but, the first phase is focused on all limited beings, that means absolutely everybody, with love and compassion, the wish for them to be happy and to be free from their suffering. And the exceptional resolve, which is that I’m going to do something about it, which means to lead them all the way to liberation and enlightenment, not just help them superficially. But then, the main focus of bodhichitta is on our individual, not-yet-happened enlightenment, which can happen on the basis of Buddha-nature, etc., way further down on our mental continuum. And the way that the mind takes that is with the intention to attain it, so that we have a presently-happening enlightenment, and the intention to help everybody by means of that. So, of course we have to understand exactly what in the world are we focusing on when we’re talking about a not-yet-happening enlightenment. And for sure it's not some package that’s sitting further down the line, the temporal line of our mental continuum, and coming closer and closer to us on a conveyor belt of time, so that eventually it becomes a presently-happening enlightenment. Not that. This is just to indicate the importance of understanding the Buddhist presentation of the three times. It’s very, very significant. Otherwise, our bodhichitta meditation for most of us is very, very vague. And in fact, for most people, they really don’t understand what bodhichitta is focused on, and they call mediation on compassion “bodhichitta meditation,” and it’s not. Actually, it’s a stepping stone to bodhichitta, but it’s not equivalent to bodhichitta. It’s a basis of bodhichitta, not bodhichitta itself.

OK, so, as I was saying, that we understand the voidness of the basis for labeling “me,” in mediation, and then it becomes easier, the next step in the meditation itself, that of the voidness of the “me” labeled on it. So, we need to have a proper basis for labeling “me.” And what we were describing before is that we can speak about all the problematic aspects that are part of each moment of our mental continuum, each moment of our experience. So, disturbing emotions, our confusion, these sort of things. And we can analyze all the causal factors which have influenced that and reinforced it, etc., all the karmic factors, etc. That is certainly part of the basis for labeling “me.” And so often we just focus on that in our Buddhist practice, because we always analyze in terms of true problems and their true causes. However, also part of that basis for labeling “me” are all the more positive aspects that can be utilized, in a sense, or harnessed, for achieving a not-yet-happening enlightenment. All of these positive aspects have also arisen by causes, conditions, influence of other people, influence of where we live and various things in our life.

Now – as if I’m tying in all the different pieces of what I’ve been discussing for the last hour – if we’re talking about a basis, remember we were saying that we think in terms of an impossible “me,” so there’s no such thing as an impossible “me.” But we need to have, nevertheless, a conventional “me” that functions. Then, what would be the healthiest basis for labeling that “me?” Obviously, we need to label “me” on the totality of the basis, both the problematic aspects and the aspects that can increase and help us to reach enlightenment – the not yet-happening enlightenment that can be attained later on, on our mental continuum. How will the attainment of the not-yet-happening enlightenment come about, so that we have a presently happening enlightenment? The process for that, as we mentioned yesterday, is getting rid of the negative aspects and increasing the positive ones. In other words, we want to eliminate all the problematic aspects for the basis of labeling “me,” and just have the positive ones. So, what do we do? We apply the understanding of voidness. No such things. These impossible things are impossible. No such thing, they don’t correspond to reality.

Now, we get back to our “nevertheless.” Although that understanding of voidness, as long as we stay in that, all these problematic aspects can’t arise anymore. When we don’t understand voidness, then of course they will continue to function. But if we understand voidness, then we realize that there is no supporting basis for it, like some object casting a shadow on a screen, there’s nothing supporting it, it will not arise again. But our “nevertheless” is that it doesn’t destroy positive qualities, because the positive qualities are based on correct understanding of reality.

So, for those who are engaged in tantra meditation, this is the whole basis for what we do in tantra meditation, which is, you know, we have all these different conflicting, problematic aspects. We think in terms of voidness, it’s a total absence of all of that, and then we imagine ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure, which is basically labeling me on all positive aspects rather then on negative aspects. This is part of the theory behind the tantra transformation; but, with the realization of this as just a similitude of the not-yet-happening enlightenment; it’s certainly isn't a presently-happening-enlightenment. I’m not just presently enlightened because I think I am. If we are focusing on compassion, “me” labeled on compassion and correct clear understanding, that is not contradicted or eliminated by the understanding of voidness, that things don’t exist in impossible ways. Whereas if we are thinking in terms of “me” on the basis of anger, well, when you are focusing also on the understanding of no such thing as these impossible ways of existing, that eliminates that anger. You can’t have anger and the understanding of voidness at the same time. I mean, you can understand voidness and anger, but I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about in terms of what is consciously happening, what you’re experiencing. So the understanding of voidness reinforces and doesn’t eliminate the positive qualities, but it’s mutually exclusive with having the negative qualities. They are incompatible. So, this tantra method is not just the power of positive thinking, but it is based firmly on the understanding of voidness.

Now, tantra practice, dealing with these Buddha-figures – Chenrezig representing compassion and Manjushri representing clear understanding, etc. – that's quite difficult to relate to, because they’re very idealized perfect form of compassion and understanding etc., and here is where our practice of integrating the positive aspects of our life can be helpful. These Buddha-figures are more related to the different Buddha-nature aspects. When I’m speaking about Buddha-nature, I’m talking about those factors that are part of our mental continuum that will allow or transform into the various bodies of a Buddha, the various aspects of a Buddha. So, when we talk about these Buddha-nature aspects, we’re talking about the very same aspects with which the mind works. So, the mind works in terms of many, many different aspects: The mind is capable of understanding things; the mind is capable of taking care of something, so compassion, etc. So, this is what we call the “basis level.” On that basis, it’s possible to achieve the resultant level, which is represented by the Buddha-figure.

Now, in Buddhist analysis we speak of the basis, the path or the pathway mind that is leading to the resultant level. So, we always speak in terms of these three aspects: basis, path and result. Now, we speak in terms of the path. We have all these various Buddhist meditations on compassion and analysis of voidness, gaining understanding – all these various things, very very elaborate, which will help us to attain that not-yet-happening enlightenment, the aspects of which are represented by these different Buddha-figures. However, in the present moment, especially for those of us who are not terribly advanced on the path, we have various good qualities that we have gained through the influence of – now we go to our exercise – various members of the family, from the country that we lived in, from the various occupations that we've had, from our friends, etc. etc.

So, the basis for labeling “me,” of course, is every moment of experience of all the problematic and the positive aspects – and it’s the whole thing. And if we look in terms of a mental continuum from another point of view, then also the basis for labeling “me” is the basis, pathway and resultant phases of the mental continuum. That’s not a temporal line, because basis isn’t like “at the beginning there was the basis and then pathway.” Pathway is beginningless. But that pathway is going to entail getting rid of negative aspects, the problematic aspects, and strengthening the positive ones. It’s difficult to relate to the basis, the Buddha-nature aspects, and it’s difficult to relate to the resultant aspects, these idealized forms of these qualities. So just as in the process of cleansing ourselves of the disturbing sides, we need to work on what are the prominent disturbing emotions and attitudes that we have now, in this lifetime, similarly, it’s difficult to relate to all positive qualities. But what would be far easier to do is to relate to the positive qualities that we have now.

So, if we could recognize all these positive things that we have gained from all these different aspects of our life, and integrate them so that it becomes a harmonious basis for labeling “me,” then we are in a much better position to be able to pursue the Buddhist path. What I’m saying is that this is one step, probably a preliminary step – a “Dharma Lite” step – but a preliminary step for being able to follow the Buddhist pathway, to have a positive basis for labeling “me.” It gives us the strength, then, to engage in the various Buddhist practices in “Real Thing” Dharma , to achieve the resultant level. And as a side benefit, we have a much healthier sense of “me,” the conventional “me,” for dealing with things in this lifetime. And that more healthy sense of a positive “me” is very important for further on in tantra practice, that we don’t get into some sort of weird ego inflation or trip into total fantasy.

Although in our first session today we have not taken the time to do further practice, I wanted to present a much wider extensive scope of where this type of practice can fit into the general Dharma path, and the theory behind it of how it works and how it would be beneficial both on a “Dharma Lite” level and a “Real Thing” Dharma level.

And perhaps this analysis also illustrates a point that I made a the beginning of this visit, which is that as we study and practice Dharma more and more and more, and learn all sorts of different aspects of the Dharma, what we need to try to do is to – again to use this word – “integrate” it, put it all together, see how everything connects to everything else. And when we start to put more and more things together, in many many different ways, then we reap more and more treasures form the Dharma.