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Home > eBooks > Unpublished Manuscripts > A Commentary on Attitude-Training Like the Rays of the Sun > Day Five: Relative Bodhichitta and Deepest Bodhichitta

A Commentary on Attitude-Training Like the Rays of the Sun

(Blo-sbyong nyi-ma’i ‘od)
by Namkapel (Nam-mkha’ dpal)
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
to an audience with many new arrivals from Tibet
translated by Alexander Berzin
Dharamsala, India, May 9 – 15, 1985

Full transcript edited by Pauline Yeats and Alexander Berzin
with clarifications indicated in violet between square brackets

Abridged, edited version by Jeremy Russell published originally as Namkapel. “The Mind-Training Like the Rays of the Sun:
A Commentary by Tenzin Gyatso,
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.”
Chö-Yang (Dharamsala, India), vol. 1, no. 1 (spring 1986)

Day Five: Relative Bodhichitta and Deepest Bodhichitta

Conventional Bodhichitta, Continued

Developing Love and Compassion

Even in the material world, we can’t put all of our efforts into one strong move and expect to get immediate results. Instead, we need to work progressively in stages. This is true in terms of working on our mind and working on our attitudes. To improve our attitudes, we have to work gradually through stages. For instance, if we have a great deal of anger, we first have to learn to recognize our anger and then try to see all the drawbacks of getting angry, realizing that, from whatever point of view we take, anger is disadvantageous.

If we have a great deal of anger and have not trained ourselves properly, then when we try to apply the four opponent forces too strongly, we are not able to handle it. As Western psychologists and psychiatrists say, if we try to suppress our anger, it will cause a great deal of frustrated energy and harm. Instead, they suggest we try to release that anger in a more relaxed fashion to avoid the problems of having pent-up anger inside us.

To a certain extent, I think they have a point, because in certain circumstances we need to vent our anger in a peaceful manner if we are not yet ready to apply the opponents to get rid of it. However, we need to differentiate two distinct cases of feeling anger or arrogance. One situation is simply that if we don’t vent the anger and let out the energy, we end up with a lot of problems. Then there are other situations where venting just builds up the bad habit of indulging ourselves and always allowing ourselves to get angry. I think we have to distinguish the circumstances for each of these, and of course it is always best to control our anger or our arrogance. We need to learn not to have to let it out at all, but to take care of it internally without creating further problems for ourselves.

One of the main methods to use is to think of the opposite feeling to the one that is giving trouble. For instance, if we have anger, the opposite of that is love for others. So if we find ourselves getting angry with someone, we can try to feel loving, sincere concern for him or her. And more and more, we realize the advantages of having a loving attitude and the disadvantages of being angry, and in this way we are able to apply this opponent.

Even if we are unable to apply the opponent feeling in the situation – in this case, love – the more we familiarize ourselves with the disadvantages and drawbacks of anger, we will find that when a situation arises in which we start to get angry, the force of it gradually becomes less and less. In this way, we go through different stages of being able to handle and get rid of anger.

The same is true for developing compassion for others. Before we can have compassion for others and the wish for them to be free of their problems, we need to think about our own problems first, how we don’t want them, and how we would like to get rid of them. Then we’ll be able to develop sympathy and compassion for others based on our own feelings, coming from our own experience. All these positive states of mind are things that we work up to gradually, by stages.

If we say that we wish someone else to be free from problems and sufferings, and we ourselves don’t actually recognize the difficulties of our own problems and sufferings, how can we possibly develop a sincere wish for others to be free of their problems? If we observe somebody who is happy and content, it is rather difficult to develop a feeling of compassion for them, the wish for them to be free from problems. Yet, if we see somebody who is obviously experiencing difficulty, it is much easier to develop sympathy and this wish toward them. This, of course, is based on our own understanding of what a problem is, based on our own experience of them.

Compassion for someone is actually a type of attitude that can be seen in two ways. If it is aimed toward someone else, it is sympathy and compassion; if it is directed toward ourselves, it is what we call “determination to be free from our problems” or “renunciation.” It is the wish to be parted from suffering and problems, directed either toward ourselves, which is renunciation, or toward others, which is compassion.

When we think of suffering, such as being reborn in some of the worse states of rebirth – the joyless realms and so forth – we cannot assume that this is something far removed, something far-fetched that has no relation to us, or that there is no need to deal with it. We need to realize that the causes for being reborn in the worse states – all the various types of negative potentials – are built up and stored in our own mental continuums. Depending on the negative potentials in our own minds, it is very possible that at any point we could fall to one of the worse rebirth states. So it is very important to think in terms of behavioral cause and effect.

We need to reflect upon how fortunate we all are to have a precious human rebirth, a precious human life with abundant freedom and leisure to develop ourselves spiritually. Having this golden opportunity, it is very important not to waste it. So we think first about our precious human life, how difficult it is to attain and how easy it is to lose. This brings us to the thought of death and impermanence, since we can die at any time and don’t know when. We therefore remain strongly aware of the four noble truths: the nature of true sufferings, their true origins, the possibility of gaining a true stopping of these sufferings, and the true pathways of mind that we can develop to achieve that. This is how we take advantages of this precious life, by training in and building up all these states of mind.

Resume

The reason why this text is called Seven-Point Attitude-Training is that we train ourselves to build up attitudes. Its seven points are:

  • first, the preliminaries,
  • second, the method of training in the two bodhichittasconventional and deepest,
  • third, transforming adverse circumstances into a path to enlightenment,
  • fourth, condensation of the practice in one lifetime,
  • fifth, the measure of having trained our attitudes,
  • sixth, the close-bonding practices for attitude-training,
  • seventh, the points to train in for attitude-training.

We’ve covered the preliminaries and now we’re talking about the actual development of bodhichitta. To summarize yesterday’s points, until now we’ve been under the strong influence of selfishness, cherishing only ourselves. This selfish concern, which also involves grasping for a truly established self, has also caused us all the problems that we’ve experienced since beginningless time. All of them have been brought about by our own selfishness. Considering others, if a person is extremely selfish, it doesn’t matter how much time and energy they put into religious activities, they will still be considered a selfish person and they won’t be able to make any spiritual progress. When a person who has been very selfish dies, everybody else will feel relief that this person has left us, because he or she was such a terribly selfish person. So even if we think in terms of this lifetime, if we are a selfish person, then everybody will consider us crass and nobody will care for us, whereas if we are selfless, always caring for others, we will be thought of as a fine person.

If we have fallen to a worse state of rebirth, we can only point the finger at selfish concern that caused such a fall – being reborn as an animal and so forth. Any difficult situation that exists can ultimately always be traced to selfish concern and self-cherishing as the cause, all the way up to highly realized beings who are not able to actually achieve enlightenment due to selfish concern. All beneficial and constructive potential comes from attaining a human or a heavenly type of rebirth – all the way up to gaining liberation and enlightenment. And all of that comes from having concern for others.

Even if we look at this lifetime, all good things can be traced to having a kind and warm heart. If we are a considerate person, who sincerely cares about others, things work out for us in this lifetime as well. So it is important, in any situation we may find ourselves, not to be preoccupied with self-concern, but always to think of everybody. This is mentioned in the text: concern for others is the basis and foundation of all good qualities.

To review the main points: by reflecting on the drawbacks of self-cherishing and selfishness and the advantages of concern for others, we aim to develop the heartwarming love with which we cherish all others and feel deeply for their wellbeing. Based on that, we train in giving away our happiness to others with loving concern that they be happy, and take on the problems and suffering of others with a compassionate heart of sympathy. While it is very difficult to actually take on and remove people’s problems from them, if we develop these attitudes with visualizations combined with the breath, eventually we will build up the potential so that we are actually able to take on and cure other people’s problems. This is the practice called “giving and taking,” “tonglen” – taking other people’s problems and giving them happiness.

Transforming Adverse Circumstances into a Path to Enlightenment

We all have difficult circumstances that arise, both externally and internally. For example, we Tibetans have certainly had many difficult circumstances. This is now particularly true for those of us inside Tibet, as there is always the danger and fear hanging over them that they can be arrested and executed at any moment.

The first point tells us that in situations such as these, when we have attitudes of hostility or attachment, or even when we simply close off and become closed-minded, we need to develop attitudes that will enable us to transform the circumstances into opportunities for spiritual progress. One way is to take on others’ hostility, attachment and closed-minded naivety onto ourselves, deal with it, and get rid of it for everyone. In this way, we turn adverse circumstances into positive ones.

[Namkapel’s explanation here is in commentary only to the line from the line in the Togmey-zangpo edition, “When the environment and its dwellers are full of negative forces, transform adverse conditions into a path to enlightenment.” Namkapel moved the second part of the line in the Togmey-zangpo edition, “By banishing one thing as (bearing) all blame and meditating with great kindness toward everyone,” to the previous section concerning the disadvantages of self-cherishing and advantages of cherishing others. The Pabongka edition follows that of Namkapel.]

No matter what type of trouble we might have, whether physical or mental, it is helpful to try to take on everyone’s trouble in that particular category and think, “May this be enough for everyone; through my sufferings, may no one else have to suffer this again.” We can look upon the difficulties that happen to us as being the result of our own negative potentials that we ourselves have built up in the past, not as coming from some external source. Now that they are ripening, we can be happy because we are getting rid of them, and wish that everyone else’s negative potentials also ripen on us. Thus, everyone will be rid of the possible danger of experiencing that suffering as a result of negative potential.

When we experience happy conditions and circumstances, we can see that these are the result of positive potentials we have built up in the past and rejoice in that, thinking, “I must build up even more positive potentials so that in the future there will be even more conducive circumstances for myself and for others.” It is important not to fall into pride or arrogance, or to boast when things are going well for us. Instead, it can encourage us to build up even more positive potential so that we won’t deplete our store. This is how to change negative conditions to positive ones with our thoughts.

[Namkapel’s text omits the next line from the Togmey-zangpo edition concerning how to transform adverse circumstances with our thoughts concerning our view, “Voidness, from meditating on deceptive appearances as the four Buddha-bodies, is the peerless protector.” Pabongka likewise omits this line. Instead, Namkapel, as well as Pabongka, attach the line, “and instantly apply to meditation whatever I might happen to meet,” to the end of the discussion of “When the environment and its dwellers are full of negative forces, transform adverse conditions into a path to enlightenment.” In the Togmey-zangpo edition, that line, “and instantly apply to meditation whatever I might happen to meet,” follows the next one in the Namkapel and Pabongka editions, “the supreme method entails four actions to use.”]

The second point shows us how to transform adverse circumstances into positive ones with four types of actions to use:

  • The first action is to build up further positive force. No matter what difficult negative circumstances arise, this inspires us to build up more positive potentials so that neither we nor anyone else will have to experience such difficult circumstances. We make offerings upward, toward the Buddhas and the enlightened beings, and downward, toward all limited beings – giving to them to whatever extent we are capable. In this way, we build up further positive force. So this first action for transforming negative circumstances into positive ones is to have them inspire us to do something positive.
  • The second action is to purify ourselves of negative potential. We do this by openly admitting the wrongs that we have done and by applying various opponent forces, primarily feelings of great remorse and regret. Even if we have built up enormous negative potential, as Milarepa had done, if we feel great regret and remorse about this, if we openly admit that what we did was mistaken and apply the appropriate opponents, we are able to purify ourselves from these negative potentials.
  • The third action is to make offerings to the harmful spirits. If harm is coming to us and we think it is coming from harmful spirits, we would give them offerings of love and compassion. Sometimes it is possible that our problems are coming from these harmful spirits. We take all the problems of these harmful spirits onto ourselves, because they are certainly in a very miserable situation. In this way we turn a negative situation into a positive one.
  • The fourth action is to request the enlightening influence of the Dharma protectors. We realize that various problems that arise are just the nature of samsara. So we ask the various protectors for their enlightening influence, to be able to handle those situations and turn them into positive ones for our spiritual growth. We make sincere requests to them from our heart, that they inspire us to be able to increase our efforts in training our attitudes.

In short, no matter what type of negative circumstances we encounter, whether internal or external, if we apply these various methods, we are able to turn them into positive circumstances for our growth.

These points may also be found in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. They come implicitly in the prayer at the end of the text, where we pray, “For as long as space remains and for as long as wandering beings remain, may I too remain for that long, dispelling the sufferings of wandering beings.”

Condensation of the Practice in One Lifetime: The Five Forces

[Next is the line, “In brief, the essence of the quintessence teachings is applying the five forces.” It also appears next in both the Togmey-zangpo and Pabongka editions.]

There are five forces for condensing the practice in one lifetime, namely this lifetime. The first force is the intention that we throw ahead of us. We wish, “May I always be able to develop a bodhichitta aim; may I always be able to practice attitude-training; may I always be able to develop the good qualities that will truly enable me to benefit all others.” Throwing ahead the force of our intention is like making a preparation to fulfill these wishes. So, we throw ahead the intention: “I am going to develop in this good direction. Now that I have this opportunity to practice these vast vehicle Mahayana practices, I am going to apply all my force and all my active energies in this direction.”

To do this every day, in the morning we say as we wake up, “Today it is so fortunate that I’ve woken up. I’m alive! I have a precious human life. I’m not going to waste it, but will use all the energies of this precious life today to develop a bodhichitta aim to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit others as much as is possible. So, I am going to have kind thoughts toward all others. I am not going to be angry or have bad thoughts. As much as I can, I will use all my energies to help others, to be of benefit to others.”

It is very important to have this very practical setting of our intention in the morning. Likewise at night, we can examine our actions: “What have I done today? What type of person have I been today: did I help others or did I just use others for my own selfish purposes? Did I get angry; did I develop attachment?” We need to examine our day honestly as to how we actually behaved and what types of attitudes we developed during the day. If we find that during the day we in fact were a kind and warm person, we can rejoice in that, feeling happy and encouraged. But if we acted in a very disturbing manner, we need to feel regret about that, admit we did wrongly, and set a very strong intention: “Tomorrow, I’m not going to act again in such a negative manner.”

If we do this each day, we will gradually improve and learn to sustain it by resolving to “act well” for the next day, month and year. We can also build ourselves up, for instance, by coming to teachings like these. A strong intention can be set by thinking, “Now I am going to listen to the teachings on attitude-training and I am going to put them into practice as much as I can.”

The second is the force of the white seed, which we create with this prayer: “May I achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.” This reaffirms our dedication to our own enlightenment and to that of all others.

The third is the force of eliminating all at once, which means to give up completely, all at once, what we have set our minds on giving up: our selfishness, our disturbing attitudes, our self-preoccupation, our grasping for a truly established self, and so forth. Deciding that we are not going to let ourselves come under the influence of these attitudes, we say, “I am not going to let myself become proud, arrogant, or selfish; and if the situation arises in which I find myself acting that way, I’m immediately going to apply the opponent forces.”

The fourth is the force of prayer. We pray, “May I always be able to develop a bodhichitta aim and, if I have already developed it, may I expand it ever further.” We know there is a difference between an aspirational prayer and a dedication prayer. An aspirational prayer is when we simply wish for something, which is what is involved here; and a dedication prayer is when we use some material object as the basis and dedicate the positive force from offering that toward achieving the goal.

The fifth is the force of habituation. We need to build up, as much as possible, the habit of always thinking in these positive ways. It is extremely important when we approach any type of spiritual training that we try to build it up as a beneficial habit. Things don’t happen just at once; it is a matter of building up increasing familiarity, so that gradually we find our minds and hearts going in a positive direction. It is important to sustain our effort over extremely long periods of time, not to think in terms of just weeks or months of intensive practice; it doesn’t work like that. Instead, we must think of lifetime after lifetime, to build up these positive habits over a significant period of time and, in this way, gradually improve. Because, since beginningless time, we’ve acted under the influence of disturbing attitudes, and we’ve acted in an unruly manner without any self-control, it is not going to be easy to eliminate these negative habits. It will require long, sustained effort to gradually reverse the tide of how our minds and hearts work and to get them to go in a positive direction. And so it is necessary to be patient, to think in the long term in order to habituate our hearts and minds to positive habits.

If we concentrate our efforts over only one week or one month of intensive practice, when we don’t make progress we’ll get very discouraged. This will be very damaging in the long run to our development from lifetime to lifetime. On the other hand, if we think in a more practical manner of improving from lifetime to lifetime, we won’t get discouraged or have unreasonable expectations, and thus we’ll develop in a more sustainable manner.

As Geshe Chaykawa said, “This mind that is full of faults has one great good quality: however it is trained, it becomes like that.” In other words, it is possible to train our mind so that we can change our habits and become a better person. This is the great quality of the mind.

Applying the Five Forces at the Time of Death

The next point explains how we apply the five forces at the time of death.

[This is in commentary to the lines, “The quintessence teaching for the Mahayana transference of mind is the five forces themselves, while giving importance to my path of deportment.”]

Here the order is slightly different. With the important note that we must relinquish attachment to our body, first is the force of the white seed. This refers to thinking at the time of death, “Now at the time of my death, I purify myself of all the negative things that I’ve done during my lifetime; I admit to all the mistakes and wrong things I have done; and I give away all my possessions.”

The text has a quote from Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior about the horrors of facing death if we must die with a great deal of remorse and regret that we haven’t taken care of our affairs. Since it is possible that we will experience a great deal of fear at the time of death, the first point is the white seed: to try to have mindfulness at the time of death and to apply all the opponent forces to purify the negative potentials we have built up. If we were involved in the practice of tantra, we take self-initiation and renew our vows. We take care of all of our possessions by giving them away, with generosity, and we do this without attachment, in a very clean manner. That is the force of the white seed.

The next force is the force of our intention. As we are dying, we think, “No matter how many moments I might have left, I’m going to make full use of them and prepare myself fully for death, so that it may go better in the future.”

The next is the force of eliminating all at once, which is to give up building up in future lives any more negative karmic force and to resolve that in all future lives we’ll follow only positive ways.

The next force, the force of prayer, is to pray that in the future we’ll be able to continue with this practice of attitude-training.

The force of habituation is to reinforce, as we’re passing away, our habitual thinking with a bodhichitta aim. In addition, concerning how we deport ourselves at the time of our deaths, we need to try to die in the manner of the Buddha. When Buddha passed away in Kushinagar, he did so while lying on his right side, in the posture of the lion. We generate firm conviction and great admiration for bodhichitta as we die, and we think, “In all my lives, may I always develop a bodhichitta aim to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all” and always throw this intention ahead for all our future lives as we die.

Visualizing taking on others’ sufferings and giving away all our happiness in conjunction with our breathing is the best way to pass away. Referring to powa or transference of consciousness, Geshe Chaykawa said, “There are many greatly glorified quintessence teachings for transference of consciousness, but out of all of them, there are none more greatly wondrous than this (practice of taking and giving).”

It is extremely important to die with a constructive and positive state of mind. Some of us may have a great deal of pain at that time and take painkilling drugs, which cause the mind to be unclear. If we can avoid that, it is much better to die with a clear state of mind. If we can’t avoid it, that is another matter, but it is best not to die with a drugged mind.

The Measure of Having Trained Our Attitudes

[In the Namkapel and Pabongka editions, this section appears as, “I gather all Dharma into one intention; from the two witnesses, I take (myself as) the main; and I continually rely on mental happiness alone. But the (actual) measure of being trained is (my attitude) being reversed. There are five great signs of having become trained; so if I’m able, even when distracted, then I’ve become trained.” The first three lines are taken to be signs that we have trained our attitudes. In the earlier Togmey-zangpo edition, the lines, “But the (actual) measure of being trained is (my attitude) being reversed. There are five great signs of having become trained,” do not appear, and the first three lines and last line are all included as the measure of having trained our attitudes. ]

The commentary to the text says that if we have trained our attitudes toward life with thoughts of impermanence, then no matter what we see throughout life, we will see that it is impermanent, that it will pass. Likewise, if we have trained our mind to think about the disadvantages of selfishness, the sign of having done this is that in any text that we read, in any activity that we come upon in which we see the various faults described, we will identify with these faults and feel that they all have arisen due to our selfishness. If we are always able to recognize the negatives we see as arising from our own selfishness, it is a sign that we have been successful in training our mind with these methods.

As the Seven-Point Attitude-Training tells us, we need to take ourselves as the main witness. We are the best witnesses as to how our minds are working, not others who witness and judge what we are doing. If other people must serve as witnesses to attest to the spiritual and religious things we do, there is the great danger that we are just putting on a grand show in order to have others think that we are such a wonderful spiritual practitioner. Rather, the whole point is that we do all these trainings internally; we are the main witness as to whether or not we are becoming a kinder and better person.

We may add here some further quotes, mainly from the Kadam geshes: “When we see any fault, see it as being our own.” “If we see any negative circumstance that we meet with as having arisen from our selfishness, this is a sign that we have successfully trained our attitude.” “The main point is always to be mindful, to think of the advantages of cherishing others and the disadvantages of selfish concern.”

The real measure of having trained our attitude is that, before, we were always ignoring others and thinking only of ourselves; but if now we find that this has been completely reversed, that we always ignore our selfish purposes while thinking of others, this is the real sign that we have been successful.

There are five types of “great being” that we need to witness that we have become:

  • a great hearted being – someone who puts all his or her efforts into always thinking of others and developing bodhichitta,
  • a great being trained in constructive behavior – someone who always puts his or her efforts into the ten far-reaching attitudes and into constructive behavior,
  • a great being able to endure difficulties – someone who is able to endure all difficulties to win the battle against his or her various disturbing attitudes and emotions,
  • a great holder of discipline – someone who keeps all vowed restraints in relation to training his or her attitudes,
  • a great yogi – someone who is yoked to the actual thing: namely, bodhichitta.

[The ten far-reaching attitudes or perfections are: generosity, ethical self-discipline, patience, joyful perseverance, mental stability (concentration), discriminating awareness (wisdom), skill in means, aspirational prayer, strengthening, deep awareness.]

[See: The Ten Far-Reaching Attitudes in Theravada, Mahayana and Bon.]

If we wish to test whether we have actually trained our attitudes, we cannot restrict having great love for others to those times when we are actually sitting and meditating on these points. Rather, during our daily life when someone comes along and criticizes us, or does something that may hurt us and so forth, then if we observe how we react, we can truly test what progress we have actually made.

Close-Bonding Practices for Training Our Attitudes

There are different traditions of how this sixth of the seven points is presented. This version I am using of Namkapel’s text has sixteen close-bonding practices, although some other versions have up to eighteen. 

[In the commentarial tradition of Namkapel’s text that His Holiness is following, if the first close-bonding practice, “train always in the three general points,” is counted as three practices, then this listing also has eighteen practices. This listing, as explained by His Holiness, follows the list of eighteen close-bonding practices found in both the Togmey-zangpo and Pabongka editions of Geshe Chaykawa’s text.

In some other editions of Namkapel’s text listing eighteen practices, however, the following variants occur:

This first practice is counted as only one practice.

One close-bonding practice is omitted from this list, but added to the version explained by His Holiness as points to train in for cleansing our attitudes:

  • Cleanse myself first of whichever disturbing emotion is my greatest. In that list of points to train in, this is called “cleanse myself first of whichever is the coarsest.”

One close-bonding practice is omitted completely:

  • Don’t reverse the amulet.

Two other close-bonding practices are added, which, in this version explained by His Holiness, are listed as points to train in for cleansing our attitudes:

  • Always train regarding those set aside.
  • Don’t be dependent on other conditions.

Two close-bonding practices are added that do not appear in the other versions as either a close-bonding practice or a point to train in:

  • Be forceful in ridding myself (of disturbing attitudes and emotions) and taking on (positive ones) by means of subduing (my disturbing attitudes) with force.
  • Devastate all reasons (for attachment and aversion to arise toward others).]

(1) Train always in the three general points. The first general point is “Don’t contradict what I’ve promised regarding training my attitudes.” We do this by following ethical self-discipline, refraining from the ten destructive actions and so on. Such behavior [namely, not following our ethical self-disciple] would contradict our training of our attitudes. From the beginning of the practice all the way up to the great Guhyasamaja Tantra, we are not going to throw away any of these practices, as that would be contradicting the commitment we have promised.

[The second of the three general points is: “Don’t get into outrageous behavior when training my attitudes,” such as harming the environment. The third is: “Don’t fall to partiality in training my attitudes,” but rather practice equally toward everyone, including animals and insects.]

(2) Transform my intentions, but remain normal. In other words, we remain normal in our appearance and how we act in terms of fitting into society, but change all our attitudes. In other words, we need not have strange ideas about ourselves. For instance, if we are training our attitudes, doing this kind of practice, we don’t go out and just do whatever we want. As it is always said, internally we must follow all the spiritual practices, but on the outside act in a manner consistent and harmonious with the environment and the society in which we live. We cannot act in an outrageous manner. Many people have said this, including the great lamas, Tsongkhapa and Gungtangzang.

(3) Don’t speak of (others’) deficient or deteriorated sides. In other words, we don’t go around criticizing others and being concerned about other people’s levels of attainment. We’re normally unable to see any good qualities in other people, yet if they have a slight fault, we see it like a hawk. That is the point about not speaking about others’ deficiencies.

(4) Don’t think anything about others’ (faults). We need to put aside dwelling in our minds or thinking and reflecting about others’ faults.

In regard to these first points, it is useful to train in them especially with respect to the five types of persons set aside and singled out for being especially careful with:

  • Those who have been most kind to us. It is crucial not to develop anger toward those who have been most kind to us and who are most worthy of respect: the Three Gems, our spiritual mentors, our parents, and so forth, as this would be very grave.
  • Members of our household and those with whom we daily associate. This refers to being particularly careful about our family and those with whom we live. Very often, we say, “May all sentient beings be happy; may I work for the benefit of all limited beings.” Yet we tend to think of these beings as being very distant from us, and when it comes down to those we actually live with – family, close associates – we are unable to apply this altruistic aspiration practically. This is completely wrong. We need to fully apply our energies not only to theoretically vague “sentient beings,” but also to the people with whom we have daily contact, including our neighbors and those we might find rather obnoxious. Our prayers need to be extremely practical, at a down-to-earth level of handling the trying situations around us. “All sentient beings” are not distant concepts; we need to be directly involved.
  • Those who compete with us, whether lay or ordained. We need to put special effort into dealing with those who compete with and are jealous of us, since there is a great danger that we will develop hostility toward them and self-cherishing toward ourselves. So it is important to make special efforts to train our attitudes regarding them.
  • Those who malign us, although we have done nothing toward them to warrant it. This refers to people who, instead of showing any appreciation when we have done something nice for them, malign and say nasty things about us. Normally, we get very annoyed and expect them to act appreciatively toward us. That is when we need to make special efforts not to be angry and to continue with training our attitudes.
  • Those whom, at the mere sight of them or at the mere sound of their names, we dislike or feel antipathy toward. We need to be particularly careful about people toward whom we feel great antipathy and, we may include here as well, great attraction. For example, we occasionally come across those toward whom we immediately feel either strong repulsion or strong attraction. In those situations it is important to be very mindful not to come under the influence of longing desire, hostility or aversion.

[This explanation of the five types of persons set aside is the usual interpretation of the twelfth point to train in for cleansing our attitudes, “always train regarding those set aside,” in the list given in this version of the text that His Holiness is following.]

Some of us, when things are going well, act like religious people. But, when things aren’t going well, we revert to worldly ways. As you know, it is our custom to do circumambulations, carrying a mala rosary or a prayer wheel. Once, someone was circumambulating, carrying a prayer wheel, when another came up and asked, “What are you doing?” The man said, “I’m practicing Dharma.” When asked, “What specifically are you doing?” he replied, “I’m building up the habit of patience.” The other person exclaimed, “Eat shit!” and the one who was supposed to be meditating on patience became furious! He was just putting on a show of being religious, circumambulating. In his heart, he hadn’t made any change.

(5) Cleanse myself first of whichever disturbing emotion is my greatest. We need to deal with our most disturbing attitudes, but not to be partial toward dealing with some and not others. When dealing with our disturbing attitudes, we need to rid ourselves of all emotional obstacles preventing liberation. In order to do that, it means ridding ourselves of all the disturbing attitudes, not just some of them.

As it says in the text, we have to force ourselves to get rid of our disturbing attitudes and bad habits, and always be concerned with others. We do this through hearing, thinking and meditating about these measures, and building up positive habits of the mind. And we have to force ourselves to give up grasping for and cherishing our “self,” and not be discouraged. So we really need to set our minds very strongly: not to allow ourselves to come under the influence of the disturbing attitudes that we have been under in the past and not to let any circumstance draw us away from this intention.

(6) Rid myself of hopes for fruits. We are not training our minds and changing our attitudes so that everyone will love us. Nor are we seeking to gain some sort of fame or reward for being such a great religious spiritual person. Rather, we are going to change our attitudes solely for the purpose of being able to help others. We wish to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of others, not for our own sake.

(7) Give up poisoned food. This means that we easily poison our practice with thoughts of selfishness and self-cherishing. We do various practices, say prayers, do meditations, read and study texts, but although we say we are doing this for the benefit of all limited beings, it is possible to poison this entire practice by doing it, say, to become famous as a great scholar. Using it for gains in this lifetime, freedom from sickness, long life, and so on – things done solely to benefit ourselves, not others – this won’t do. It is like eating poisoned food: it causes us only to increase self-cherishing.

(8) Don’t rely (on my disturbing thoughts) as my excellent mainstay. This has two different interpretations. In some commentaries it means not to allow the major road in our minds to lead in the direction of disturbing attitudes. According to other commentaries, this means that when we see someone, our minds generally go straight to that person, as if on a major thoroughfare. This second interpretation, as explained in these commentaries, is that, for instance, when someone upsets us, we must not let our minds go straight to that person with thoughts of holding a grudge. I think the first interpretation is probably a little bit easier to understand, that we need to avoid letting the main direction of our mind lead toward disturbing attitudes.

(9) Don’t fly off into bad play. This would be to retaliate, call people bad names when they call us names, or strike others back.

(10) Don’t lie in ambush. As bandits might lie in wait on the side of the road to ambush a caravan, likewise we need to not lie in wait for someone to make a mistake or act improperly, in order to pounce on them or accuse them. If we are a good person, it is easy to be good with those who are nice people, but it is the difficult ones that are the real test.

(11) Don’t put (someone) down about a sensitive point. This reminds us not to point out people’s faults in front of others.

(12) Don’t shift the load of a dzo on to an ox. A dzo is a very large animal – a cross between a yak and a cow – so in other words, we must not put the blame on others for things that we might have done ourselves. Rather than place the burden on someone who is less capable of carrying it, we ourselves can take full responsibility.

(13) Don’t make a race. This means that we need not always push ourselves ahead or try to take credit for all the good things that have taken place.

(14) Don’t reverse the amulet. When we hold up an amulet, or talisman, to ward off spirits, we would hold it facing away. Likewise, when we train our minds, it is to cherish others. But if we do it just to get self-importance, it is like holding the amulet backwards.

(15) Don’t make a god fall to a demon. This means to do things just to please our self-cherishing. For instance, sometimes people will criticize each other just to get praise or to get ahead. To do this is particularly going in the wrong direction.

(16) Don’t seek suffering (for others) as an adjunct for (my) happiness. In short, it is very important to have the proper intention before doing anything – to be sure that it is for the benefit of all others. This is why, at the beginning of our recitations and prayers, we always set the intention and at the end we dedicate the positive force.

Points To Train In for Cleansing Our Attitudes

This is the final point of the Seven-Point Attitude-Training.

[In the commentarial tradition of Namkapel’s text that His Holiness is explaining, there are twenty-two points to train in. The same list of twenty-two appears in both the Togmey-zangpo and Pabongka editions of Geshe Chaykawa’s root text.

Some other versions of Namkapel’s text list twenty-four points to train in. There, the following variants occur:

One point to train in is omitted from this list, but included in the version explained by His Holiness as a point to train in:

  • Do all quashing of what is distorted with one.

Two points to train in are omitted from this list, but added to the version explained by His Holiness as close-bonding practices for cleansing our attitudes:

  • Always train regarding those set aside.
  • Don’t be dependent on other conditions.

Five points to train are added that do not appear in the other versions as either a close-bonding practice or a point to train in:

  • Train with easier practices.
  • Transform everything into a Mahayana pathway mind.
  • Practice that which is more effective – such as ethical discipline over generosity, or bodhichitta in all circumstances.
  • If I turn away (from training my attitudes), meditate on that itself as the antidote – in other words, meditate that my turning away is an interference caused by harmful spirits and practice giving and taking (tonglen) toward others similarly affected.
  • In the future, always armor myself (with bodhichitta).

One point, “act purely, without partiality toward objects,” is incorporated as part of another, “cherish (applying) wide and deep training in everything.”]

(1) Do all yogas with one. This point advises us that we need to do all our activities with the intention of benefiting everyone.

(2) Do all the quashing of what is distorted with one. In other words, we need to try to get rid of our disturbing attitudes and emotions with one practice – giving and taking.

(3) At the beginning and the end, have the two actions. This refers to what we have discussed before. It means (a) to create a strong intention at the beginning of each day and (b) to dedicate the positive force at the end.

This is the type of thing that I myself practice daily, setting a strong intention that everything I do might benefit all beings. More specifically, for the Tibetans in Tibet, our country, who are suffering so many difficulties, I dedicate myself fully to them. Then, at the end of the day, I dedicate whatever positive force has been built up by my actions toward the fulfillment of that prayer.

(4) Whichever of the two occurs, act patiently applies to (a) giving our happiness to others when things go well with us and (b) taking on their suffering when things go poorly, without getting discouraged. It is important to have great courage in these practices of giving away our happiness and taking on the problems of others. If we are happy, we can think, “This is the result of positive potentials that I have built up in the past.” We can’t just think, “How wonderful I am!” when experiencing this happiness; but, rather, send out prayers that everybody may attain the happiness that we have; that everybody may enjoy this good situation that we are in.

It is extremely important to put special effort into being able to tolerate difficult situations. As Shantideva says in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, particularly when we are ill or in situations that are extremely difficult or painful, we need to put special effort into being able to tolerate that and transform it into a path. Also, in situations when we are very successful and things are going almost too well, it is especially important to be very careful not to develop pride.

(5) Safeguard the two at the cost of my life. These two are (a) the instructions of Dharma practice in general and, specifically, (b) the close-bonding practices for training our attitudes.

(6) Train in the three difficult things refers to (a) being mindful of what the opponent forces are to counter the disturbing attitudes, (b) being mindful to apply these opponents, and (c) remaining mindful to maintain them. So, as soon as disturbing attitudes or emotions arise, we need to remember what the opponent forces are for reversing them. But we must not only remember what these opponents are, we need to apply them immediately and then remain mindful of applying them so as to cut the continuity of the disturbing attitude.

As explained in the words of Dromtonpa, another way to train when something difficult happens is to feel that we have gotten off lightly and been very lucky – something worse could have happened. If someone calls us a bad name, we feel we’ve gotten off lightly – we have exhausted the karma that a crowd might have criticized us. If we suffer an illness, we’ve been lucky, as we could have had a much more serious accident or disaster. The same goes if we are put in jail or punished in some way – we are getting off easily from having to endure something much worse, such as a fall to a worse rebirth.

We needn’t think of these things as something we do only during meditation sessions when everything is going nicely and we have no irritants. We need to apply all these trainings of our attitudes to more difficult situations. If we put effort into dedicating our heart to others, all beings, through developing a bodhichitta aim, taking on the bodhisattva vows, and so forth, then no matter what we do, whether eating, sleeping or drinking, the positive force of always safeguarding our bodhichitta aim will increase. Training in this way, we are turning everything into causes for making further progress in helping others.

One of the Kadam Geshes, Geshe Chaykawa, became very unhappy as he was about to die and asked his disciples to set up special offerings. The disciples were curious and asked him, “You’ve practiced well all your lifetime, why are you sad now that you are about to die?” He replied, “I’m sad because all my life I’ve made extensive prayers to be reborn in the joyless realms in order to be able to take on all the sufferings of beings, and now at the moment of death I can see the signs that instead of being reborn in a hell as has been my wish and prayer, I’m going to be reborn in a divine pure realm. That is why I am so sad at the time of my death.”

(7) Take the three major causes. These are (a) to meet with a spiritual teacher, (b) to practice his or her teaching, and (c) to obtain the favorable circumstances of being satisfied with modest housing, food and sustenance so we can devote all our energies to the practice. We set up wishes and prayers that we may be able to obtain these three major causes for success in our spiritual practice.

[In some other versions of Namkapel’s text, the three major causes are given slightly differently as: having a precious human body as the inner condition for successful Dharma practice, having a qualified spiritual mentor as the external condition, and having access to food and clothing in moderation.]

(8) Meditate on the three undeclining things. That is to have (a) undeclining confident belief in our spiritual mentor and appreciation of his or her kindness, (b) undeclining willingness to practice what he or she advises, and (3) undeclining commitment to all the different trainings. Our confident trust and appreciation must not be just on our lips; they need to be strong and sincere, and come from our hearts. We need to have great admiration and trust in the spiritual mentor who teaches us, in the actual training of our attitudes, and in the actual points by which we can accomplish that.

[In some other versions of Namkapel’s text, the three undeclining things are explained as (a) undeclining confident belief in our spiritual mentor and appreciation of his or her kindness, (b) undeclining safeguard not to let our attention to ethical training waver, and (c) undeclining safeguard not to let our joy in training our attitudes weaken.]

(9) Possess the three inseparables. These three are to have our (a) body, (b) speech, and (c) mind be inseparable from the practices. We need to be sincere on all levels concerning the way we act, speak, and think. We need to do everything in accordance with the training of the mind.

(10) Act purely, without partiality to objects. It is important to train with all limited beings, not just with our friends, and to avoid the poisons of attraction, repulsion and indifference.

(11) Cherish wide and deep training toward everything. We need to train ourselves extensively and deeply with regard to both animate beings and inanimate objects. In other words, our practice of training our attitudes needs to be far-reaching, all-encompassing, and totally sincere. For instance, when we encounter problems, we can think, “If I didn’t have these problems, I wouldn’t develop renunciation; and if I didn’t have the determination to be free from my own problems, I wouldn’t develop the compassion to free others from theirs. I wouldn’t fully be able to develop a bodhichitta aim.” We can turn around any difficult situation by appreciating the value of having it.

(12) Always meditate toward those set aside. For instance, with a small insect, instead of thinking how superior we are compared to this little bug on the floor, we can think, “How unfortunate this being is, having been born in this form without the ability to benefit and improve itself.” In the same way, any time we feel jealousy toward others, we can think how, if we applied all our efforts, we could also achieve what this other person has accomplished. Thus, we need not let ourselves come under the influence of disturbing attitudes. If we have an illness and don’t want to experience its discomforts, we would immediately take some medicine. Likewise, when disturbing attitudes arise in our minds we need to apply opponents – like taking medicine when we are sick.

[In fuller explanations, those set aside refer to the five types of persons set aside and singled out for being especially careful with, which His Holiness discussed in his presentation of the close-bonding practices for training our attitudes.]

(13) Don’t be dependent on other conditions. It may happen that while we are working to train our attitudes, we might get sick or various things might not go well. We must not become discouraged and say, “I’ve been trying to be a good person and train my attitudes, but all I’m getting are difficulties. If only the conditions for practice were different!” Rather, we need to continue applying all the points and methods explained in the teachings, no matter what conditions arise. We need to see the negative circumstances that arise as situations ripening from the past, so that we don’t get discouraged. When various difficult circumstances and situations arise, we need to feel happy that they are coming to the surface and that now we can be rid of them.

(14) Practice primarily now. We have a precious human body and life, with all its precious opportunities, freedom and leisure to actually train our attitudes to become a better person. If we don’t do it now, when will we? When are we going to have a better opportunity?

(15) Don’t have reversed understandings. There are six types of reversed understandings:

  • Reversed compassion – namely for poor practitioners, but not for rich worldly persons. This is the wrong way round. It is like an example from the biography of Milarepa, who was lying like a beggar by the side of the road when three rich sisters came by and felt sorry for him. Milarepa said, “Don’t feel sorry for me, I’m the one who has actual compassion for you – you’re in a much worse state than I am.”
  • Reversed intention – instead of having the intention to put the preventive measures of Dharma into practice in order to attain enlightenment and benefit all limited beings, we have the strong intention to get ahead in worldly affairs.
  • Reversed interest – instead of causing others to be interested in spiritual matters, we cause them to be interested in worldly affairs. [In other versions of Namkapel’s text, reversed interest is explained as involving ourselves with the property and affairs of the Triple Gem in general and specifically of the Sangha community in order to win friends, rather than in bringing all beings to the state of a Buddha.]
  • Reversed rejoicing – instead of rejoicing in all the good qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, we rejoice when people we don’t like meet difficult circumstances. Or our enemy falls down and we say, “Good, he deserved it!”
  • Reversed patience Rather than for spiritual matters, we have patience for negative activities. We’re willing to put up with difficulties to get ahead in some negative way, but we don’t have the patience to handle the difficulties that come up in spiritual training. [In other versions of Namkapel’s text, reversed interest is explained more specifically as patience for our disturbing attitudes and emotions, rather than for those who become angry toward us.]
  • Reversed taste – instead of wishing for a taste of the Dharma teachings, we want to taste all sorts of worldly things that have a perishable basis and don’t last at all.

(16) Don’t be intermittent. To practice one day, give up the next, and then go back again, not only is something we need to avoid when training our attitudes. Even on a worldly level, if we are intermittent and don’t have sustained effort, we are not going to accomplish anything.

(17) Train resolutely. We need to get straight to the heart of the matter of training our attitudes and not go off on tangents or go half-heartedly into the practice. We have to go straightforwardly into working on our attitudes and improving them. In attitude training, we mustn’t hesitate to go into it fully.

(18) Free myself through both investigation and scrutiny. We free ourselves by applying the major opponents to our disturbing attitudes as they arise. The actual opponent, for instance, if we are very attached to someone or something, is to see the object of our attachment as ugly and not having good qualities. If we are angry, we apply love; if we are naive, we think of dependent arising. And if we have pride – let’s say we are very learned and those next to us aren’t able to understand things – rather than think how wonderful we are, we can think, “These people haven’t been able to apply all their efforts and don’t have the circumstances to be able to use their full potential!” In this way, instead of being subject to our own disturbing attitudes, we free ourselves through compassion for the other.

(19) Don’t meditate with a sense of a loss. This tells us that when difficulties come about or others want something from us, we need not feel a sense of loss.

(20) Don’t restrict myself with hypersensitivity. We must not be oversensitive when things go wrong or get angry at the slightest provocation.

(21) Don’t act for merely a short while tells us we are mistaken to set limits on how far we go in working on our attitudes or in helping others. Rather than putting tremendous effort in at the beginning and not sustaining it, we need to be steady in our effort.

(22) Don’t wish for (any) thanks says we cannot expect anything in return for the help that we give. If we give help or charity and expect to get “merit” from it, it is just the same as a business transaction. We must not do positive acts just to get something in return, whether material or “merit.”

Generating Deepest Bodhichitta: Proper Vessels To Be Taught about Voidness

We have completed the discussion of generating conventional bodhichitta, expanding our heart out to enlightenment and others in terms of their conventional truth. The next point concerns expanding our heart out toward their deepest truth – in other words, generating deepest bodhichitta. Deepest bodhichitta here is just given in a brief verse, to be supplemented by the chapters on vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, from Tsongkhapa’s Great and Small Presentations of the Graded Stages of the Path. It is to be understood from that.

The discussion here is in two parts: who are the proper vessels to be taught about voidness; and what are the actual teachings on it. If we don’t teach to proper vessels, many people will misunderstand. There are some people, for instance, who think that the discussion of voidness in Buddhism is just a discussion of nothingness. They think it is nihilism and that Buddhism does not assert anything. This is dangerous because, based on that, they think nothing matters – it doesn’t matter what you do because everything is nothing. That type of person is an improper vessel. They are not ready to understand voidness.

A proper understanding of voidness would impel us to act in a positive manner. Someone who is able to understand in this way is a proper vessel. Rather than have the teachings of voidness provide them with an excuse to act in any manner whatsoever, because they misunderstand and think that nothing matters, they understand voidness to mean the absence of impossible ways of existing. They see the actual way in which things exist, in terms of cause and effect, and they implement this in their behavior. They are even more confident, acting in a proper way according to the laws of what brings about positive results.

If we understand the teachings on voidness to mean that impossible ways of existing don’t refer to anything real, and so therefore everything functions in terms of dependent arising, this is a correct understanding. A person who is capable of this is a proper vessel.

The Verse Explaining the Actual Training in Deepest Bodhichitta

For some people who are most receptive, it is helpful to train in deepest bodhichitta first. Once they understand reality, it increases their capacity to actually work to achieve enlightenment and help all others. For most people, however, it is the opposite. They train in conventional bodhichitta first and when that is stable, they then train in deepest bodhichitta concerning what is more obscure or hidden, namely voidness.

[Based on this way in which most people train, Namkapel explains the verse, “Ponder that all phenomena are like a dream; discern the basic nature of awareness that has no arising; the opponent itself liberates itself in its own place; the essential nature of the path is to settle within a state of the all-encompassing basis; between sessions, act like an illusory person,” at the end of the other seven points for attitude-training and precedes it with the line, “What is hidden is to be shown after attaining stability (in this).”

Pabongka places this verse, preceded by the line “What is hidden is to be shown after attaining stability (in this)” directly after the verse for developing conventional bodhichitta, which appears in the root text regarding the second of the seven points for attitude training, training in the two bodhichittas. In Togmey-zangpo’s edition, this verse precedes the verse for developing conventional bodhichitta; while the line, “What is hidden is to be shown after attaining stability (in this),” does not appear at all.]

Let us briefly comment on the actual four-line verse in the root text of the Seven-Point Attitude-Training.

Ponder that all phenomena are like a dream. All things are like a dream in the sense that they lack truly established existence – in other words, existence established as true or “true existence” – just as in a dream it is quite obvious that things don’t exist in a true manner.

Discern the basic nature of awareness that has no arising. This speaks of analyzing both consciousness and the object of that consciousness, and discerning that neither one nor the other has truly established existent. This is reminiscent of the Yogachara Svatantrika Madhyamaka approach, which speaks of the refutation of external phenomena. It asserts that external phenomena don’t exist independently of the mind. This seems to be the way it is phrased here, relating to the non-truly established existence of the consciousness as well as the objects of the consciousness.

The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place. This refers to the fact that voidness itself is devoid of truly established existence. That point can be found in the listing of the various types of voidness – the sixteen voidnesses and so forth, which include the “voidness of voidness itself.” In addition, reflexive awareness (rang-rig), which refers here to the awareness of voidness, is also devoid of truly established existence.

The essential nature of the pathway minds is to settle within a state of the all-encompassing basis. [This line can also be translated and understood as: “Settle the essential nature of the pathway minds into a state of the all-encompassing basis” or as “Settle into a state of the all-encompassing basis, the essential nature of the pathway minds.”] Having cut off both extremes of nihilism and eternalism (the assertion of truly established existence), all things we encounter must be placed within the context of the mind that understands voidness. In other words, we apply that mind that understands voidness to every encounter, with all objects and in all situations.

There are two ways of explaining the term all-encompassing basis (kun-gzhi, Skt. alaya; foundation of all) in this line. For both, “pathway minds” refers to the pathway minds of an arya, a highly realized being, and the “all-encompassing basis” refers to an unspecified phenomenon – one that Buddha did not specify as being either constructive or destructive.

  • One way of explaining this line is that an arya mind settles in the state whereby it is completely non-artificial, referring to the state in which the mind is not stained by any of the fleeting stains. So one option of explaining the “all-encompassing basis” being an unspecified phenomenon is that it refers to the uncontrived state of the unstained mind.
  • Another way of explaining it is that “foundation of all” refers to voidness. So we need to settle not only our minds, but all our realizations into the context of the understanding of voidness.

In the tradition of Tibetan commentaries, there are various ways of discussing the deepest truth about everything. One is to take it as an object – the object being voidness, the void nature of all phenomena. Alternatively, from a tantric point of view, deepest truth refers to the mind that takes voidness as an object. This refers to the finest level of consciousness that understands voidness, as explained in terms of tantra. Thus, there’s a deepest truth from the point of view of the object, voidness, or from the point of view of the mind that takes voidness as its object.

In the Sakya tradition, for instance, we find the teaching of “the inseparability of samsara and nirvana.” This refers to the primordial, simultaneously arising mind and how this primordial mind is the foundation or basis for both samsara and nirvana, since the appearances of all phenomena are the play of that mind. Similarly, the Nyingma tradition explains how all things are pure from the top and how their functional nature is that they spontaneously establish all appearances. “Spontaneously established” refers to all appearances being established by the primordial mind of clear light. Similarly, the Kagyu tradition of mahamudra talks about everything being of one taste: “In the sphere of simultaneously arising clear light, everything has one taste.” This is one of the main points we find in the Kagyu mahamudra teachings.

Whether it is in the Nyingma system of the old translation period, which speaks of the primordial mind, pure from the top, that spontaneously establishes all appearances or, in the new translation period, the Sakya tradition of “inseparable voidness and bliss” or the Kagyu tradition of mahamudra – all of them are talking about the deepest truth, the actual nature of everything from the point of view of the consciousness that take voidness as its object. In the Gelug tradition of Tsongkhapa and others, there is a similar presentation, such as in Tsongkhapa’s commentaries on the Guhyasamaja Tantra, in which he speaks about the simultaneously arising state of great blissful awareness that takes voidness as its object. That directly corresponds to the discussion here in the other three Tibetan traditions. When we talk about the actual nature of everything or voidness from the point of view of this verse, it refers to getting to the object, voidness, and how to remove the stains from the consciousness that would understand voidness.

The commentary to the text that I am following refers us to the larger and smaller versions of the section on vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, in the lam-rim graded path texts of Tsongkhapa, which follow the tradition of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva. This implies not taking as the primary point the actual meditative experiences of the Tibetan lamas’ tantric practices; but rather taking as the main source the scriptural texts and the logical discussions that come from the great Indian pandits. The main feature of Tsongkhapa’s tradition is that he goes back to the Indian sources and derives his interpretations from them. But whether we derive our understanding from the Indian sources and their logical discussions, or from the actual experiences of the meditation practitioners, if we examine them both, they both ultimately come to the same intended point.

[In Namkapel’s text, the line, “Ponder that all phenomena are like a dream,” is explained as referring to the voidness of all objects of cognition that are taken by the mind. “Discern the basic nature of awareness that has no arising” refers to the voidness of all minds that cognitively take objects. “The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place” refers to the voidness of the person meditating on voidness. “The essential nature of the pathway minds is to settle within a state of the all-encompassing basis” refers to how to meditate during total absorption on voidness. The last line here, “Between sessions, act like an illusory person,” refers to how to train during subsequent attainment periods following total absorption on voidness. The commentary His Holiness is explaining follows Namkapel in expanding on this last line after the full discussion of voidness.]

Recognizing the Unawareness That Is the Root of Samsara

The presentation of deepest bodhichitta in this text is divided into three parts:

  • recognizing the unawareness that is the root of samsara,
  • the necessity for ascertaining the lack of a truly established identity or “soul” as the way to reverse this unawareness,
  • the actual methods to ascertain this.

Unawareness or ignorance is the exact opposite of awareness or correct knowing of something. Here, we are speaking in terms of being aware of the actual nature of reality or being unaware of it in the sense of being aware of it in a distorted manner. It is because we are unaware of the actual nature of reality that we take things or grasp at things to exist in ways that do not accord with reality. We are obscured about the way in which things actually exist. That is what we mean by unawareness or ignorance.

The result of being obscured about reality and taking it in a wrong way is that we grasp at things as having a truly established identity or “soul,” which means grasping at things as having their existence established from their own side. When we speak about this lack of a truly established identity, we are speaking within the context of everybody wanting happiness and nobody wanting unhappiness. We are examining who actually experiences happiness or unhappiness, and what actually is it that they want to have and that they want to eliminate. In other words, we are analyzing the person who experience things and the actual things that a person experiences. We discover that each of these two has an identity or existence, but not a truly established one. This is because there is no such thing as a truly established identity of anyone or anything.

When we want to eliminate the mind that misapprehends reality and grasps at things to exist in a distorted, impossible way, we need to distinguish and recognize the actual implied object of that mind’s distorted way of knowing. That is what needs to be refuted in order to eliminate the mind that grasps at things to exist in a truly established way. The implied object of this grasping mind would be things actually existing in a truly established manner. In other words, self-established existence is the object to be refuted.

In terms of this discussion, we need to understand the subtleties involved in avoiding the extremes of over-refuting or under-refuting the object to be refuted.

  • If we over-refute it, we say that the object to be refuted is over-pervasive. This means that our refutation is negating not only truly established existence, but is negating all manners of existence. In this case, the object to be refuted is too pervasive – it pervades or includes too much.
  • If we under-refute, making the object to be refuted under-pervasive, we refute too little. Our refutation doesn’t refute existence truly established by the power of something findable on the side of the object. It only refutes some, but not all levels of impossible ways of existing.

These are the dangers in over- or under-refuting the object to be refuted. Tsongkhapa’s emphasis on recognizing these dangers underlines the importance of correctly understanding and identifying the object to be refuted.

Furthermore, it is necessary to have a union of both method and wisdom – in other words, method and discriminating awareness – when we’re engaged in trying to understand reality such that, at every level, we are dealing with both aspects together. For example, if we assume that, as a result of our understanding of voidness, everything is totally non-existent and absurd, then everything is like “rabbits’ horns” and we won’t have any true understanding of the method side, concerning cause and effect. We won’t be able to realize how happiness comes from constructive actions and unhappiness from destructive actions. Due to this misapprehension of reality, we won’t engage in the practices that will benefit others.

Thus it is necessary to have a full comprehension of the harmonious relationship between the deepest and the conventional truths about everything. This means that our understanding of the actual nature of reality needs to reinforce our understanding of dependent arising. An example of the latter would be, for instance, our understanding that based on this cause and from this reasoning, we obtain this result. The correct understanding of reality will then reinforce our constructive actions, which in turn will build up a positive force that will bring happiness to us as well as to all others and, ultimately, our attainment of enlightenment as a result.

If we can gain a correct ascertainment of the two truths about everything and how they fit together, we’ll be able to build up the two bountiful stores or networks of positive force and deep awareness simultaneously, and in that way we’ll be able to achieve a simultaneous attainment of a Dharmakaya and a Rupakaya – in other words, the mind and body of a Buddha together. So on all levels, from the beginning to the end, it is necessary to have the two truths together. If we don’t have a proper understanding, it won’t be complete – and that is a big mistake. Method in connection with the conventional  truth of things and wisdom or discriminating awareness in connection with the deepest truth of things: we need both. We can’t just achieve the mind of a Buddha without also achieving a Buddha’s body.

The text also tells us not to restrict this understanding of the lack of an impossible identity or “soul” to merely persons. We also need to apply it to the phenomena that persons experience. For instance, the Vaibhashika tradition of shravakas only refutes the lack of an impossible identity of a person and, even then, they don’t address its profoundest level of what is impossible. They merely refute that persons exist with a static, monolithic, independently existing identity or “soul.” We cannot leave the refutation of impossible modes of existence merely at that. Nor can we leave it at the Sautrantika level, which in relation to persons refutes as well persons being self-sufficiently knowable.

[See: The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika.]

We also cannot leave the refutation of impossible modes of existence at the Chittamatra level, which in relation to persons also refutes only that persons exist as self-sufficiently knowable entities. Unlike the Hinayana schools of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, however, Chittamatra goes on to assert the lack of an impossible identity or “soul” of all phenomena as well. But the Chittamatra way of asserting this lack is just to say that both consciousness and the objects of that consciousness lack existence established from different natal sources. They take this mode of existence as an impossible mode of existing of phenomena and refute that. All of these are under-refutations.

The Chittamatra school has two ways of presenting ultimate phenomena. It asserts that something is established as an ultimate phenomenon either if it is found by a valid cognition scrutinizing (analyzing) what is ultimate or if it can withstand the force of analysis by a valid cognition scrutinizing what is ultimate. Thus, Chittamatra asserts that if something cannot be found when subjected to ultimate analysis, it doesn’t exist at all. This is the exact opposite of the Prasangika Madhyamaka view [that nothing is findable on the side of an object when analyzed by valid cognition scrutinizing either deepest or conventional truth.] This Chittamatra view, then, is asserting that things have self-established existence, standing in their own place as what can be found upon ultimate analysis. This is the Chittamatra “mind-only” view.

[See: Basic Features of the Gelug-Chittamatra System, part 1.]

In refuting what cannot be found on scrutiny of what is ultimate, this Chittamatra school of tenets is refuting an incorrect object of refutation. They are saying that things that cannot be found on ultimate analysis do not exist at all. That is an incorrect object of refutation. And this seems to be a common assertion from the Svatantrika schools on downward – namely that upon scrutiny of what is ultimate, something can be found on the side of objects that establishes their existence. If we were actually to assert and believe these inverted tenets, then in fact we would be asserting things that exist in a totally imaginary, impossible manner. We would be grasping at something that is totally nonexistent – something findable on the side of objects upon ultimate analysis – and that would be a great state of unawareness.

Our own tradition, the Prasangika Madhyamaka, says that the actual cause of samsara is automatically arising unawareness. If we were to believe merely in accordance with the scope of the definition of unawareness asserted by the other Buddhist schools of tenets, then in refuting merely that scope of unawareness, we would be refuting only doctrinally based unawareness – unawareness that grasps at things to exist in a manner that is based on an incorrect doctrinal foundation. The actual root of samsara, however, is not this doctrinally based unawareness, but a naturally, automatically arising type of unawareness. This is the level of unawareness with which every being, from animals on up, grasps at the existence of things to be established by something findable on the side of those things. We need to refute as the root of samsara a naturally arising occurrence that ordinarily accompanies every beings’ consciousness and not just something that is based on some doctrine that we have been taught and come to believe, and which not everyone has even heard of.

This is part of the discussion of the Prasangika point of view that the existence of everything validly knowable can only be established in terms of mental labeling – in terms of that to which mental labels refer. If the existence of an object were actually to be established from the side of the referent object of the label or from the side of the basis for labeling that object, then that object would be findable. If it were findable, that would prove self-established existence (inherent existence), and that is what is being refuted here by Prasangika. That is the intention of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva.

A quote from Nagarjuna talks about how voidness needs to be understood in terms of dependent arising, and dependent arising needs to be understood in terms of voidness. If things were not devoid of impossible ways of existing, cause and effect could not work. Cause and effect work solely because all things are devoid of impossible ways of existing. This means that self-established existence or existence established from something’s own side, findable upon analysis of the deepest truth about things – as discussed in reference to Chittamatra, above – is invalid. The quote says that to understand voidness in terms of dependent arising – nothing is more marvelous or incredible than that.

How does automatically arising unawareness grasp at things to exist? It imagines that the existence of things is not established merely by their being the referent objects of mental labels. It supposes that their existence is truly established from their own side, independently of mental labeling. This unawareness includes misunderstanding the lack of a truly established identity or “soul” of both persons and all phenomena. There isn’t anything that has its existence established by the power of something findable on its own side, independently of the concepts, names, labels, and so forth for them. The total absence of this impossible mode of establishing the existence of something validly knowable is what is referred to as the voidness of that object.

The way it is presented here seems quite similar to the way it appears in the shorter lam-rim of Tsongkhapa and his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Root Stanzas on the Middle Way, CalledDiscriminating Awareness” (Skt. Prajna-nama-Mulamadhyamakakarika). Chandrakirti also tells us that if there were an object to which no concept can refer, then that object couldn’t possibly exist; whereas, if there is a concept that refers to an object, the existence of that object can be established in terms of that concept. So things can only be established in terms of the concepts that refer to them; they cannot be established by anything from their own side [because they are devoid of anything findable on their own side that could establish their existence].

We may ask, do things just exist as they are in terms of my own individual concepts for them? No, it’s not that way. That is a solipsistic way of looking at things. If a thing is generally accepted by society as white, our insisting that it exists as yellow is not going to make it yellow. So things don’t exist in a solipsistic way merely according to how we label them. This is because if that were the case, it would apply also to constructive and destructive actions. If, by the power of our prejudiced way of thinking, the result of a particular action would be exactly the way that we would like it to be, that would make everything quite chaotic. That is certainly not the case. Rather, things are established by general convention, by how everybody validly cognizes things.

We will now look at a quote from Totally Clarifying the Intentions (dGong-pa rab-gsal), Tsongkhapa’s commentary to Chandrakirti’s Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Stanzas on) the Middle Way” (Skt. Madhyamakavatara). This quote refers to the example of a snake – actually a coil of rope that is labeled as a “snake.” There is no basis for the rope being validly labeled as a snake. That mistaken labeling is similar to regarding the aggregates as a truly existent “me.” Let us not confuse this to mean that to refer to a vase and a pillar as a “vase” and a “pillar” would be incorrect.

Actually there are three ways of cognitively taking things. [We may take a rope to be a snake, a rope to be a truly existent rope, and a rope to be conventionally a rope.] To grasp at the aggregates as being a truly existent “me” would be the same as grasping at a coiled rope to be a snake. That would be an incorrect way of cognitively taking something. This type of unawareness or ignorance, then, is not the same as labeling a rope “a rope” or a vase “a vase.”

Moreover, grasping at the existence of things to be established in an incorrect, impossible manner can be either doctrinally based on some incorrect view or automatically arising. What is referred to here as the main cause of samsara is the automatically arising grasping at the existence of things to be truly established from their own side. An automatically arising grasping at the aggregates to exist as a truly existent “me,” then, would be like grasping at a coiled rope to exist like a snake. Such grasping is not one that is based on belief in some philosophical doctrine that we have learned, but is just an automatically arising grasping that naturally occurs with everyone. Such automatically arising grasping creates all kinds of disturbing emotions and attitudes, which cause us to build up various negative potentials, which in turn cause various impulses of karma to arise, which then perpetuate our immersion in samsara.

There is the “me” who wishes to be happy and the “me” that does not want any suffering, and of course there’s the “me” that gets hungry and wants to drink a cup of tea or eat a piece of bread. That type of “me” is validly knowable as simply what the word “me” refers to, validly labeled on a basis for labeling. That type of “me” does indeed conventionally exist. But things don’t appear to us that way. The “me” that experiences things and make use of things does not appear to us in the manner of just what the word “me” refers to. Instead, it appears to us as something with its existence established from its own side, on the side of the basis for labeling “me.” Grasping that this deceptive mode of appearance refers to something that actually exists creates in us a very strong sense of a “me” that exists independently. Based on grasping for such a “me,” we also grasp for things to exist from their own side as “mine.” From those concepts of “mine,” we then think in terms of “my enemy,” “my friend,” and so forth. Then, on the basis of that, we get attachment and aversion; and on the basis of those, we commit all sorts of destructive acts that build up negative karmic force. Thus, this way of grasping things as having their existence established from their own side – not simply as what the words for them refer to – is what causes all the problems that we have.

We can begin to see how the mind is actually interpolating here, adding to the reality of things something that doesn’t actually exist. This is how we find someone very attractive. The mind interpolates onto that person an appearance that is absolutely beautiful – so attractive and sexually desirable, or whatever. Such interpolation projects a complete unreality on top of the person. On the basis of that, we feel great attachment and attraction. Or, conversely, our minds project onto someone we consider an enemy something extremely ugly or repulsive; and we react to the projection that we have placed on top of this person. On the basis of that, we become hostile, commit all sorts of destructive acts toward the person, and create negative karmic force. As a result of that negative potential and the destructive impulses that arise based on it, we wander uncontrollably in samsara. If we can comprehend the absence of this impossible way of existing that we interpolate and project onto objects, we will be free from all the uncontrollably recurring problems of samsara.

Based on this strong grasping at a truly existent “me,” we divide the world into “me” and “everybody else,” and on that basis we build up all sorts of negative attitudes. Yet, if we became very angry with, say, someone named Tashi, we could actually stop to analyze, “Who is this Tashi that I am getting angry with? Is it his body? Is it his mind? If it is his body, is it his head, or his feet, or his arms, or his nose?” When we start to investigate like this, we are suddenly very surprised. We step back, because we discover that we can’t actually find this Tashi that we’re so angry with! So then we can ask ourselves what actually is it that we are so angry with? This is a very effective method, to investigate just why it is that we are so angry. So if we have the presence of mind to analyze like this in such situation, it can be very helpful.

The Necessity for Ascertaining the Lack of a Truly Established Identity or “Soul” as the Way to Reverse This Unawareness

The text describes how, by being attached to ourselves as a “me,” we are totally immersed in the selfish pursuit of happiness and continue to circle in samsara. The objects of all our attachment and aversion seem to us not to exist merely in terms of what the names or labels for them refer to. Because of that, we react with attachment and aversion to things that, we are convinced, actually are established as existing from their own side in the deceptive manner in which they appear to exist.

We have to identify this grasping at truly established existence very clearly, as it is the source of all our problems. It is imperative to get rid of it, to uproot it from our mental continuum, and to realize that the implied object that we are grasping at doesn’t actually exist at all. The root of samara is the automatically arising unawareness with which we grasp at things to exist in a completely erroneous way. It is critical that we get rid of it and begin to think in exactly the opposite manner.

We grasp at things to have their existence established from their own side, but when we analyze the implied object of our grasping, is there anything really to which this grasping at truly established existence refers? Is there actually a truly existent object out there, with its existence established from its own side? We realize that this grasping at truly established existence is referring to something that doesn’t exist at all; and so we eventually stop thinking in that way, realizing that it doesn’t refer to anything real. In other words, the actual way in which things exist is that they cannot be found on ultimate analysis.

There is no backing support on the side of objects when our minds project and are aimed at things as if there were something on their side establishing their existence. Take the example of sitting here with the terrifying misconception that there is ferocious tiger in the woods behind us. If we just sat back and tried not to think about it, it wouldn’t eliminate the compelling misconception we had of a tiger being there. What we would actually have to do is investigate whether the tiger is there or not. It is only by investigating whether the tiger is there or not that we would be able to rid ourselves of this obsessive thought. We would discover upon analysis that the tiger doesn’t actually exist in the forest back there and, on the basis of that, we would be rid of the paranoid conception. If we did not investigate at all, if we sat back and tried to forget about it, the frightening thought would just sneak back into our consciousness at some time. So it is very important to investigate whether or not there is something on the side of objects as the backing support when our minds are aimed at those objects as if they had self-established existence.

On the other hand, if we have the idea that all conceptual thoughts are totally incorrect, that they all project something impossible and therefore we must rid ourselves of all of them since they are all erroneous, then we fall to the incorrect position of the Chinese monk, Hoshang. The important thing is to recognize what the object of refutation is, and then to refute and get rid of it – not to get rid of all thought whatsoever. Although it is true that we need to have a nonconceptual understanding and cognition of reality; nevertheless, that nonconceptual understanding must be based on what we ascertain through the conceptual process of analysis. We are not going after a general, nonconceptual state, which would be very vague. First we have to look at the object that we are analyzing, and realize through an analytical process that the way we have been grasping it refers to something that doesn’t exist at all. In this way, we refute the actual object that needs to be refuted here. On that basis, we gain a nonconceptual understanding, having first ascertained through a conceptual process.

The Way to Meditate on the Lack of a Truly Established Identity or “Soul”

From the Prasangika point of view, there’s no difference in the level of subtlety of the lack of a truly established identity or “soul” of persons and of phenomena. No differentiation is made about which of the two is more or less profound. But when we actually ascertain the correct outlook on reality, is there an order as to which one we ascertain first? Yes, there is. Although there is no difference in the actual lack of a truly established identity, there is a difference in terms of which is easier and which is more difficult to understand. First, we gain an understanding of the lack of a truly established identity of persons, as it is an easier basis of voidness to examine; then we go on to the lack of a truly established identity of all phenomena.

All this explains how to meditate on deepest bodhichitta, the mind that expands out to the deepest truth about everything. “Deepest” refers to the final or actual state of affairs – the understanding of the actual nature of reality in terms of action, the basis of action, the person doing the action, and so forth. For instance, if we look at a flower and analyze it, of course the flower came from seeds and required water and sunlight and so forth to grow. But if we just suddenly walked into a room and looked at the flower, it would seem that it had just been sitting there on its own, without having gone through all these processes. But when the flower faded and began to fall apart, this would be a clear demonstration that the existence of the flower had not been established from its own side at all, as it seemed, but in fact was the result of a process of causes and so forth upon which it depended to establish its existence. By that nature of its dependently arising, it had grown old, disintegrated and withered.

The flower’s deepest nature is that it cannot be found from its own side as having its existence established in a certain way. In other words, the deepest truth is not the flower’s superficial appearance, but the deepest fact of reality about it. When we speak of the conventional or superficial truth of something, the term is referring to the truth about something that nevertheless conceals something deeper. The conventional truth of things – the appearance of all the various beings and things involved with problems and so forth – is what conceals the deepest truth about them. When our hearts expand out to the conventional truth of all these so-called “conventionally existent things” or objects that conceal something deeper, this is called “conventional bodhichitta.” When our hearts expand out to the ultimate, which refers to the deepest truth of everything, this is called “deepest bodhichitta.”

Likewise, if we expand our mind out to the Dharmakaya, a Corpus Encompassing Everything, which is the actual reality of all phenomena – and if we think of the Dharmakaya in that manner – we can remove all the stains that obscure the true nature of reality. By removing them, we get to the true Dharmakaya. Thus we have a combined practice of extending the mind out to the conventional and to the deepest – a combined practice of conventional and deepest bodhichitta. We have the mind aimed at all beings, and through the power that is built up by that, we remove the various stains and are able to see the actual nature of reality.