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Explanation of the Seven-Part Cause and Effect Quintessence Teaching for Developing Bodhicitta

Alexander Berzin
Seattle, Washington, USA, November 2007

Session One: What Is Necessary to Understand in order to Develop Bodhicitta

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:49 hours)

Dharma-Lite vs. The Real Thing Dharma

I’m very happy to be back here once more in Seattle and to have the opportunity to speak to you about the meditations for developing bodhichitta, and I suppose that it would be appropriate to give an introduction.

Bodhicitta is something which is very, very advanced, and very difficult, actually, to really even imagine what it’s talking about. Why is that? Because it is aimed at – we speak in terms of relative or conventional bodhichitta – our own individual future enlightenments, which we have not yet attained, but which it is possible for us to attain on the basis of our Buddha-natures. That obviously means that we have to have some understanding of what enlightenment is, and that it is something which is not happening now. So how do you focus on something that is not happening now, or not yet happening?

And we need to have some understanding of Buddha-nature, and we have to have some understanding that enlightenment is possible on the basis of Buddha-nature, and not only theoretically possible, but that we ourselves are able to achieve that enlightenment. Otherwise, it’s not at all sincere. And we need to have an intention of why we want to achieve that enlightenment, in other words, how do we, our minds, take this not-yet-happened enlightenment, our own individual not-yet-happened enlightenment, how does it take it as an object of mind? It takes it as an object of mind in terms of something to attain, “I want to attain this,” and with the intention, “I want to benefit all beings by means of this.” That implies, underneath it, obviously taking some responsibility to do that. And it also implies, underneath it, underlying it, what we call love and compassion – the wish for others to be happy and not to be unhappy, to have the causes of happiness and to be free of the causes of suffering – and for this to be the case for everybody, equally.

“Everybody” is a very large number of beings, and it includes all those who at present are reborn as ants and cockroaches and so on, and we want that for everybody, and we want that equally for everybody. So we have no favorites, which means that I am as concerned about that cockroach or that ant as I am about my best friend. We’re certainly not talking about something very easy to achieve, and we are not talking about helping others be free of hunger and poverty and these sort of things – of course we want others to be free of that – but we want them to be free of something far, far deeper than that. We want them to be free of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which means that we need to understand uncontrollably recurring rebirth, or samsara. And we certainly have to believe that there is such a thing as rebirth, otherwise how could we possibly have any sort of sincere wish to free others from rebirth? And we ourselves have to free ourselves from uncontrollably recurring rebirth as well.

So we’re not talking about, “Just love everybody,” and “May everybody be happy,” and this type of love and compassion. That type of love and compassion is wonderful, very, very helpful, but you don’t have to be Buddhist to develop that. You can develop that with many other religions. You can develop that with many secular philosophies, humanism etc. You don’t have to be Buddhist for that. If we come to Buddhism to learn methods to be able to develop humanistic love and compassion, or Christian love and compassion – fine, OK, there’s no problem with that. Buddhism has a lot of very helpful methods, which can be borrowed and used within many other contexts, and that’s what I call “Dharma-Lite” in my own jargon, like Coca-Cola-Lite. But if we want “The Real Thing Dharma” like Real Thing Coca-Cola, then we have to consider all these points that I just mentioned starting with rebirth on up.

That’s a rather formidable task and requires a tremendous amount of preparation. So I didn’t think that it would be so useful to just teach about love and compassion and these sort of things in a Dharma-Lite fashion – I’m not terribly good at teaching what I sometimes call “feel-good Dharma” – but rather to speak a little bit more deeply about some of these issues that are fundamental to actually developing bodhichitta in the true Buddhist way.

Once we have looked at some of these issues, then we can speak about this seven-part cause and effect meditation for developing bodhichitta. We could speak about that seven-part cause and effect in terms of just this lifetime, and being nice to everybody, and helping everybody – and that’s fine, but I’m sure you’ve heard that from many others, perhaps. So let’s use this opportunity to look a little bit more deeply at what actually is involved here with bodhichitta.

Graded Levels of Pathway Minds

Now, where to begin? That’s a good question, where to begin? We have the “graded stages of the path.” I’m a translator, so I make great reservations about many of the more standard translation terms. We’re not talking about the stages of a “path.” “Path” here is referring to a mind, so it’s a “pathway mind,” I call it. It’s a state of mind, a level of mind, an understanding and dealing with the world, which will act as a pathway for reaching enlightenment. And there are stages of that as we develop our minds, develop our attitudes, develop our understandings, motivations and so on. So we’re talking about “graded levels” of a mind, a pathway mind.

The Initial Scope

The initial level of that is probably one that, for most of us, is very difficult to actually feel sincerely. It is the level of wishing to benefit our future rebirths and to continue having a precious human rebirth. That initial level is not particularly Buddhist. Many other religions talk about turning away our major concern from this lifetime and wanting to get a higher rebirth in heaven, this type of thing; that’s not Buddhist. What makes it Buddhist is the further step, which is that, “I want to gain a precious human rebirth in lifetime after lifetime and I’m serious about that, because it could get an awful lot worse and I wouldn’t have these opportunities that I have now.”

Why do I want that? Not because “I want to be with my friends and my teachers, because I really like them,” and so on, but “Because I want to continue on the path to liberation and enlightenment, because I have taken refuge.” Refuge is not something which is passive, as the English word “refuge” might imply. It’s something very active, and so I translate the term as “a safe direction.” We’re putting a safe direction in our life – the direction indicated by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – and by actively putting that direction in our life, we protect ourselves.

That’s really where the idea of protection comes from. We protect ourselves from suffering. And we can gain inspiration from the examples of others, but nobody can save us; we have to basically save ourselves. Nobody can understand reality for us. We have to understand it ourselves – so that’s clear.

What is that direction? This is a very, very important point in terms of bodhichitta. That direction is indicated by Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – specifically by the Dharma. The Buddha is the one who teaches it, but what really we’re aiming for is the Dharma Jewel, which is the third and fourth noble truths. Well what is that? That is a true stopping of suffering and its causes. “True cessation” it’s usually translated as, but “stopping,” I think, is an easier word. And the true pathway mind that will lead to that and which results from that stopping.

That’s what we’re aiming for, that’s the direction. It’s indicated by that state of mind, which is free of suffering and the causes of suffering, and which has the understanding that eliminates all that suffering and its causes, and is there at the end as well. It doesn’t go away; we continue to have that understanding. Buddhas are those who have achieved this in full on their mental continuum. The Arya Sangha are those who’ve achieved it in part, they’ve gotten rid of some of the junk forever, but not all of it yet.

That’s the direction, and if we are speaking in terms of bodhichitta, then we’re talking in terms of, “I want to actually achieve that myself, in order to be able to benefit everybody else, to bring them to that state as well.” That indicates the importance of understanding that it actually is possible to achieve this stopping of suffering and its causes, and that there is an opponent that will actually get rid of it. That means, going backwards, that we have to understand what is the suffering that we’re talking about that we want to get rid of?

What is the “true suffering?” That’s exactly the words of the noble truths: what is the true suffering “that aryas see as true” – that’s what it means, “the noble truths.” Nobles are the aryas, those who have had nonconceptual cognition of these four things, basically, and they see that this is true. Ordinary people don’t see this as true suffering, but aryas see this as true suffering. It’s true, and they see what the true causes are.

What we want in this initial scope is not just to improve our ordinary everyday lives, which is fine, that’s a legitimate goal… I feel very strongly that as Dharma practitioners we need to be very honest with ourselves, what actually are we aiming for? Are you really, really, deep in your heart, aiming for a good rebirth? Or what you’re looking for is to make this life a little bit better, to be able to deal better with the everyday problems of life? If that is our goal, that’s what I call Dharma-Lite. If you like to drink Dharma-Lite, wonderful, it’s a great drink. But be clear that that’s Dharma-Lite, that’s not The Real Thing, and have respect for The Real Thing, and perhaps aspiration that, “Eventually I’ll be able to follow The Real Thing,” with the understanding that, “I really have to understand a great deal before that can be sincere.”

This is the initial scope. It could take decades before we really, sincerely feel it. We’re not talking just about intellectually understanding it, but facing your own death, what do you actually feel in your gut in terms of future lives? Do you really, really believe with full confidence that it’s going to go on? Of course, in order to understand that, we need to understand the whole Buddhist teaching on a self, “me,” the person that goes on from lifetime to lifetime. We’re certainly not talking about a Hindu soul or a Christian soul going on from one lifetime to another.

So really, even just for this initial scope – it’s not presented this way in the lam-rim teachings – I think for this initial scope itself we would need to understand voidness... No, perhaps you don’t really need a Buddhist understanding of the voidness of a person in order to achieve a better rebirth, probably not, let’s not present it that way. But personally I feel, from my own experience, that it certainly becomes more Buddhist, in a sense, if, when we think in terms of rebirth, we’re not thinking in terms of a solid permanent me that now is going to be in a next body.

The Three Types of Suffering

What are the types of suffering that we’re talking about getting rid of when we talk about the true suffering? We have three types of suffering; you might be familiar with these. We have what’s called the “suffering of suffering,” this is (1) “unhappiness,” a feeling of unhappiness, basically, which could be either physical or mental, and it could accompany any sort of sight: seeing a sight, or sound, or a physical sensation, smell, taste, thinking something in terms of mental happiness or unhappiness – so it’s unhappiness.

I think it’s important to differentiate here, we’re not talking about physical pain; we’re not talking about physical hunger. Some people might be very happy to be hungry if they’re on a diet, and, “Ah, I’m losing weight,” or whatever. We’re talking about the level of happiness or unhappiness that accompanies these things, that’s what is significant here, and – for most people, if you’re hungry, you may be quite unhappy – in any case, we want to first get rid of unhappiness, and that unhappiness can be on many levels of intensity.

That’s the suffering of suffering, and that’s something that we are all familiar with. Unhappiness is defined as that state of mind, which when we have it, we would like to be parted from it. A simple enough definition, and it doesn’t mean a desperate wanting, just sort of naturally you would want to be parted from it. For most of us there is a certain desperation about it that comes into the category of clinging – “we cling to be free of it” – but that’s another mental factor.

As a person with an initial scope, what we are really focusing on is getting rid of this first kind of suffering, the suffering of unhappiness, the suffering of suffering, which of course we can’t get rid of completely. But also, when we look at the definition of unhappiness, another way of defining it is the way in which we experience the ripening of negative karma, destructive karma, so it indicates the cause that we want to get rid of. It is hard to get rid of it completely without the understanding of voidness, obviously. So just not acting destructively, refraining from it, acting in a constructive manner, will sort of get rid of unhappiness temporarily, or at least gross unhappiness.

Then we have (2) the suffering of our ordinary happiness, the suffering of change. What’s wrong with that, our ordinary happiness? The problem with that is that it doesn’t last, and it never satisfies, and you never know what is going to come next. If our ordinary happiness were true happiness, the more we had of it, the happier we would become. A simple example: you eat your favorite food – let’s say it is ice cream, or chocolate, or whatever it might be – the more you ate of it at one time, the happier you should become. But obviously, after we have eaten five gallons of ice cream, after continuing to eat more ice cream, it will change in terms of our experience and we will experience unhappiness.

So that is not a reliable type of happiness, not at all. Therefore, we would like to get rid of that as well. Just to be rid of that is not particularly Buddhist, because we have in Hindu systems as well going into very deep types of meditative trances, in which you no longer experience that either and would have just a neutral feeling, neither happy nor unhappy. And that’s not Buddhist, that’s more generic, certainly in Indian systems of meditation. That’s not what we’re aiming for, but we want to get rid of that too.

That gets us into the realm of the intermediate scope of motivation and that’s a hard one, because even if we get to the point where “I really seriously am thinking of my next rebirth and I’m really actively doing something to benefit it, not just praying.” And there could be many things that we might do to help with our future rebirths, in addition to prayer, and in addition to taking a look at the causes: acting constructively, doing some discipline of refraining from destructive behavior, prayer, and the other far-reaching attitudes, patience, perseverance, etc., generosity.

But not only that, but I think in addition it’s important to really do something, seriously, like for instance, help train young people, because we’re going to need to depend on them. If we come around again as a precious human rebirth, we want teachers, for example. We want material available for future generations, not just for other people’s kids, not just for my kids, but for me, for my next rebirth. That, for many of us, puts a little bit more urgency, if you really think in terms of that. “I really am preparing; I would like Dharma centers and various institutions to be available when I come around next time.” That’s what I personally think in terms of actually doing something in preparation for future rebirths, in addition to the meditational prayers and so on.

What’s difficult is that usually when we’re at this initial scope, there is this attachment to a precious human rebirth, “I really would like that, and I would really love for all my Dharma friends to be with me as well, and my teachers, and all these other things,” all the things that we like: good friends, a comfortable situation and so on. So this is attachment there; this is our worldly happiness that we’re involved with – for many of us, perhaps, the aim is not to go to some higher trance of a neutral feeling – So there we are, wanting actually a better samsara, maybe not in this lifetime, but in the next lifetime – a good samsara.

So we look at the third type of suffering, which is the real one that Buddhism is talking about getting rid of, what is specific to… Well, I wouldn’t say it’s specific to Buddhism, because also, when we look at other Indian systems, the Hindu and Jain are also looking for liberation from samsara, the way that they define it. What’s distinctive in Buddhism is what the cause of it is, the cause of samsara. But here what is it that we want to get rid of? What is the so-called “all-pervasive affecting type of suffering?” In other words, what is the all-pervasive thing that affects the first two types of suffering? This is samsaric rebirth. It’s rebirth driven by unawareness, ignorance – unawareness of how we exist, reality and so on – and mixed with that confusion, that unawareness, and therefore it is the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering.

The first two types of suffering is our everyday up-and-down, isn’t it? And we never know what’s going to come next: now I’m in a good mood and then, all of a sudden, I’m in a bad mood. Now I’m happy – and usually it’s not dramatic, things are OK – and the next minute some worry comes into my head, or some feeling of nervousness, or a pain here or there, and we’re unhappy. Again, don’t think of it necessarily in dramatic terms, but it goes up and down, up and down, up and down. And what do we want to get rid of? We want to get rid of the basis for that up and down, because whether it is up with worldly happiness or down with unhappiness – it’s a drag, to put it in our colloquial terms. It’s boring and not fun, and it’s going to go on like that forever if we don’t do something about it. So we want to get rid of that basis, uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

Obviously, we have to believe and be confident that there is such a thing, as that’s what we’re aiming for, to get rid of that by getting rid of its cause. So as I say, the other Indian systems believe in this as well. The cause is what’s unique here in Buddhism, and what is identified as the cause? There’s many different Buddhist tenet systems, but if we speak very generically, we’re talking about what’s translated as “ignorance.”

I don’t like the word “ignorance,” because it implies being stupid, and it’s not that we’re stupid. Literally, the word is we’re “unaware”: we just don’t know. Or the negative prefix can be understood as “we know in an incorrect way.” That would be in terms of cause and effect, and more specifically in terms of reality – how I exist and you exist and, more in general, how everything exists – either we just don’t know, so we’re naive, we get this disturbing emotion of naivety, or we know it in an incorrect way.

Unawareness: the Root of Samsara

Now why does that cause uncontrollably recurring rebirth? You have to understand that. If you don’t understand that, then it’s too vague. So what do we have here? We have unhappiness, that’s the first type of suffering. That is a feeling that when you have it you’d like to be rid of it, but it is, more specifically, the way we experience the ripening of negative potential from destructive behavior.

Our changing type of suffering, this ordinary happiness, that’s the way that we experience the ripening of positive potential, positive force from constructive behavior – I’m not using these words “merit” and “sin,” they’re absurd in a Buddhist context, that’s in Christian terms – “positive force,” “negative force,” “constructive,” “destructive behavior,” there’s no value judgment here – and that happiness is defined as that feeling, which when we experience it, we would like not to be parted from it.

On the basis of this unawareness of how we exist, then we get all sorts of disturbing emotions, “I want to be happy, I want to have more happiness,” and so we act out of attachment, desire, greed. “I want to be free of unhappiness,” so anything that we think or we imagine is giving us unhappiness, we have aversion, anger, hatred, violence against it, these type of things. And in general, we’re naive, “What’s going on?” And this brings on impulsive behavior, impulses. How does that bring on impulses? Impulses is what karma is talking about. Karma is an impulse to do something; you want to do something is what it’s talking about… Well no, not actually, it’s the impulse to do something; karma ripens into wanting to do it. I feel like yelling at you, and then there’s the impulse that brings you into the action – the impulse that brings you into the action, that’s the karma.

So how does that come about? It gets complicated – you have to understand this. Basically what’s happening is that we have these feelings of happiness and unhappiness – this goes back to the teachings of the twelve links – so you have happiness and unhappiness, and basically we get clinging to that. It’s not just happiness – the feeling that you want not to be parted from – and unhappiness – the feeling you want to be parted from – you cling, you’re desperate. That word “clinging” in the twelve links is actually the Sanskrit word that means “thirst,” so you are just thirsting, you’re literally thirsting, “I’ve got to get rid of this,” sort of desperate.

That activates the karmic force together with a whole configuration of other attitudes, poorly translated as “grasping” – which is confusing, because there are other terms for that. The word “grasping” is used, like “grasping for true existence” is not the same word. It’s an “obtainer attitude,” it’s an attitude that will obtain for us an activated karmic force that will give its result. So there’s a little cluster of things that are here, but it’s basically speaking about this unawareness.

We identify with what’s going on, “Oh, it’s horrible,” and with this clinging, “I’ve got to get rid of this,” and we’re sort of desperate – it doesn’t have to be so dramatic, but you get the general flavor of it –   or “Oh, I’m so happy, aren’t we having a good time,” “Don’t ever leave me, I can’t live without you,” “I have to have it my way,” these sort of type of things, “I have to be first in line.” And that activates this karmic force and we experience more happiness and unhappiness.

On the basis of that “more happiness and unhappiness,” we have greed, and attachment, and anger, and so that brings more karmic impulses to repeat it, and it just goes over and over, on and on and on and on. So it’s this unawareness that is the root of having a continuing basis for experiencing the up and downs of samsara, the happiness and unhappiness. And it’s also the root that gives us that happiness and unhappiness, which is samsaric.

Intermediate Scope

What I just explained is rather complex and requires a great deal of thinking, but that’s what we have compassion for in others, that’s what we want them to be free of. I just said we want to help them out of being hungry and give them a meal, it’s much, much deeper, much deeper – it’s Mahayana – it’s great, it’s vast, very deep.

So, on this intermediate level of motivation we want to achieve – for ourselves – liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. That’s a tough one, a very tough one, because then, of course, the question comes up: we gain liberation, and then what? Because for most of us, “Well, but I would still like to be with my friends and I would still like to be with my teachers,” and all these sorts of things. And if we hear teachings about having a light body and living in a Buddha-field and like that, well, that very quickly degenerates into going to a paradise, which is not quite Buddhist either. We have to understand that the individual mental continuum is something that goes on forever and ever, and it’s just a matter now of what will be the force behind it that drives it.

Is it going to be unawareness, confusion, and karma and disturbing emotions and all these things – karma being impulsive behavior, driven by unawareness – so that compulsively we get into difficulties? Or is it going to be more a state of equanimity that drives it, a state of wishing for peace from all of this? Or is it going to go further in terms of bodhichitta, wanting to reach enlightenment to go further in order to benefit others? Would it be enough for it to just be driven by compassion and love? If you look at any of the Theravada practices, they meditate on love and compassion. So is that enough? Is that what we would like to have a mental continuum driven by?

It’s not an easy thing to be convinced that there is such a thing as liberation, that it is possible to get rid of unawareness, these disturbing emotions, these karmic impulses. You have to be convinced that this is not part of, what would be called, “the essential nature of the mind,” the mental continuum. When we talk about mind, you have to understand what mind is. What’s mind? Mind, from a Buddhist point of view, is not a thing; we’re not talking about some sort of tool in our heads or our hearts that a separate me uses in order to understand things. There is that type of explanation in some of the non-Buddhist Indian systems, but that’s not the Buddhist explanation of it. What are we talking about? We’re talking about mental activity; it’s activity, it’s not a thing that’s doing it.

Of course, nobody would deny the physical basis, but that’s not what we’re talking about. And it’s not a non-corporeal immaterial thing either. We’re talking about mental activity, moment to moment. There’s only one moment happening at a time. So that one moment, next moment, next moment, next moment of mental activity and then there’s a continuum of it, and it’s individual – for most of us it’s driven by the cause and effect sequence of our behavior – our own personal movies, produced and directed by Ignorance and given the title, “Me.” “Me” is playing now. Well, not quite like that but you get the idea, only one moment of the movie is playing at a time.

That actually is a very good example to understand the nature of the “me,” of the self. But in any case, we have a moment of mental activity, and is it part of that essential nature of moments of mental activity that there is confusion there, unawareness? This is really the question. Are these disturbing emotions, anger and so on, are they what we would call “fleeting stains,” or are they always part of the essential nature, they’re always there? Well, you start to think about that, “I’m not angry all the time; I’m not angry when I’m sleeping,” for example, “but it comes back,” doesn’t it? So although we can temporarily be free of some of these disturbing emotions and we are, in fact, temporarily free of them, that doesn’t demonstrate that they are not part of the essential nature of the mind, does it?

And then there’s all sorts of explanations of “Where does it go when I’m not angry? Is it in some little box inside my head and ready to pop out?” No, it’s not. Is it unmanifest? Then you get into a whole big philosophical discussion of what happens when we’re not actually experiencing the anger. But in any case, it comes back, somehow. It’s very complicated, actually, how it comes back, but anyway it comes back. That doesn’t prove that we can get rid of anger, does it? What we want when we talk about a true stopping, this third noble truth, is we want to get rid of these things forever, so that they don’t come back ever again. Is that possible? How can we become convinced that that’s possible?

Why Unawareness Is a Fleeting Stain, But Compassion Is Not

It’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? How would you become convinced? It gets complex, very complex. Why? Because there are certain things, which are fleeting stains, that you can get rid of, and then there are other mental factors, like compassion, which you don’t get rid of, which are part of the essential nature of the mind, in a sense, depending on what system we use to explain the nature of our mental activity.

Because you see, the thing is that when you have nonconceptual cognition of voidness – we have to explain a little bit what that means – when we’re focused nonconceptually on voidness, there is no unawareness, that unawareness is gone. Some of it comes back, initially – it’s a long process of focusing nonconceptually on voidness, that’s just the third of five stages, the so-called path of seeing, the seeing pathway of mind, that you get rid of some, that you start to get some true stoppings. Some types of unawareness go away forever, and then you have to work on it more and more.

When we talk about unawareness, unawareness is based on what’s called “grasping for true existence” – and I don’t want to get into what that literally means, because each of the tenet systems defines it differently and it’s very complicated, but let’s say “grasping for impossible ways of existence” – this is an impossible way of existence. When we talk about voidness, “voidness,” I prefer to the word “emptiness,” I take objection to the word “emptiness,” I think it’s misleading. Emptiness implies something is empty, there is something there and it is empty of something else and that’s wrong. That’s not what the term means, and it misleads us in how to meditate on voidness.

Voidness is a total absence; there is simply “no such thing,” period. No such thing as this impossible way of existing. When you meditate on voidness, you just cut off any belief in this impossible junk – that’s voidness. So it is a vacuum, in a sense, no such thing. Of course it’s talking about an impossible way of existing of something, but it’s not that that something somehow appears while you’re thinking of voidness. There’s no such thing, finished.

When we focus on that nonconceptually, which means not through a category, the category of voidness, but focus on it nonconceptually – and that of course is very difficult to understand, what in the world is nonconceptual? Anyway, it means not through a category. It doesn’t have to be verbalized in our head, it’s just a general category, like when I look at this object, I see a table. “Table” is a category through which I observe this object. I don’t have to say “table” when I look at this object and see it is a table, but I see it conceptually as a table, that’s a category. So conceptual cognition of voidness would be through that category of “voidness,” so nonconceptual – without the category.

When we are focusing on “no such thing” as this impossible way of existing, what happens is that – see, actually our mind produces this appearance of an impossible way of existence, and then we believe in it. So when we talk about grasping for true existence, for this impossible way of existence, there are two phases of it, two things are included in the term “grasping.” That’s why “grasping” is a very difficult term to translate correctly, actually, because it doesn’t mean grasping, it doesn’t mean that. It means “to take something as an object,” and so there are two components here. One is just perceiving impossible existence, because the mind produces that appearance, and then there’s believing in it, believing that it corresponds to reality.

So we have to get rid of believing that it corresponds to reality – that’s our unawareness. We think that it actually does, that things exist in this impossible way. When we focus on “no such thing,” then not only do we stop believing in this junk that our mind produces – the mind doesn’t produce it at that time. There’s no such thing, so no appearance of this impossible way of existing and certainly no belief in it, because we understand that this is garbage. It never was, it never could be something that was there – the more we focus on that and the more we stay in that state, it breaks the momentum – this you have to experience – it breaks the momentum of the mind producing that junk and breaks the momentum of believing it.

So it’s not quite the same as we’re angry and you go to sleep and that sort of breaks the momentum of being angry. You’re not so angry when you get up in the morning, not so upset, but that comes back very quickly. Here it’s different. Why is it different? It’s different because we have stopped that appearance of impossible existence and belief in it through understanding – we haven’t stopped it simply by going to sleep – and that understanding remains.

Even though we might not have manifest compassion – there’s difference of opinion according to different textbooks in the Buddhist schools, but everybody would at least say that we don’t have manifest compassion at that time when we’re nonconceptually focused on voidness – our understanding doesn’t eliminate compassion. So you don’t get rid of compassion by focusing on voidness, but you do get rid of unawareness, of ignorance. The more and more we stick with that understanding, the weaker becomes the making of this garbage appearance and believing in it, and eventually it’s gone. That demonstrates that it’s not part of the essential nature of the mind, from a sutra point of view.

If you want to go to an anuttarayoga tantra point of view, the clear light mind that we experience at the moment of death also doesn’t make this impossible appearance, it doesn’t have this unawareness. That also demonstrates that it’s not an essential part of the mind, but for most of us it’s not so easy to experience with any sort of awareness of what’s going on. But that also is an example that this junk is not part of the essential nature of the mind, whereas compassion can be. These are things that you have to think about.

Because it’s not part of the essential nature of the mind, you can actually get rid of it, you can achieve the third noble truth with the fourth noble truth and understanding of voidness – here’s our refuge, that’s the safe direction. That’s the direction we want to go in, not just so that we’ll never be hungry again, but because if we’re rid of that false appearance – that, “Oh, my worldly happiness, having my TV, and my music, and all that stuff was so great,” this appearance of something which is absolutely impossible, that this can give us ultimate happiness etc, and our clinging to it and all that stuff – that won’t appear like that. We’re not going to want that. That’s impossible.

It’s like looking for – the example I always love to use is – Prince or Princess Charming on the white horse, that there will be the perfect partner and we will live happily ever after. Come on! It’s a fairy tale. It’s not going to happen. Nobody exists that way as the prince or princess on the white horse. Likewise, “Oh, everything is going to be so wonderful,” and clinging to these things. That’s not going to happen at the time of death, if we are familiar with voidness meditation and so on. So we’re not going to activate “throwing karma,” karma that will bring about another rebirth – then you get liberation. This type of thing, the mind won’t make it appear as the most wonderful thing in the world and we certainly won’t believe it. Thinking like this you start to become a little bit convinced that liberation is possible.

Advanced Scope

We talk about two types of obscuration: the emotional obscuration and the cognitive obscuration. It’s not obscuration of the mental activity. It’s obscuration, on the basis of the mental activity, which obscures how things actually exist. Mental activity goes on even if you are confused; it’s the same mental activity. It doesn’t obscure the mental activity. It’s on the basis of the mental continuum, whereas this obscuration obscures how things exist, both the appearance of it and our understanding of it.

The emotional obscuration is obscuring our understanding, and then you have all the disturbing emotions, so you have to get rid of that to get liberation. The cognitive one is obscuring the appearance of everything, so everything appears like it’s in little boxes corresponding to words in the dictionary – “good,” “bad,” “this” or “that” – whereas in fact everything is interrelated. Things don’t exist in boxes like words and categories imply, but our mind makes things appear that way, “friend,” “enemy,” these sort of boxes of things. That false appearance-making, or deceptive appearance-making, is this cognitive obscuration that is preventing us from seeing the interconnectedness of everything.

If we start to think about enlightenment, even if we think, “Well, maybe liberation is possible,” that we could get rid of all the belief in this junk that the mind produces and so “I can get liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth,” that’s intermediate level. To become advanced level, where our whole topic of bodhichitta comes in, we need to be convinced that it’s possible to get rid of these cognitive obscurations; it’s possible to become an omniscient Buddha. Do you really believe that your mental activity is capable of knowing – and not just knowing, but understanding – everything in, to use the jargon, the ten directions and the three times, whatever in the world that means?

That’s a tough one. The other things that we’ve been discussing are less tough; this is a real tough one. “Do I really think that enlightenment is possible? It’s meaningless to aim to achieve enlightenment if I don’t think it’s possible, if I don’t think it exists; then this is just a game.” What is it? “I’m wishing to become the Easter Bunny,” or something like that, the Tooth Fairy. What are we aiming to achieve? Do you really think you could become a Buddha, or is it something like the Tooth Fairy? I think it’s very helpful to give ridiculous examples, because it shows us a little bit of a wake-up call of, “Am I just being naive here, and being fooled by some sort of Buddhist propaganda, or do I think that this goal that we’re aiming to achieve with bodhichitta is something realistic?”

This is not something to trivialize. It’s quite silly, in a sense, all these words that we repeat, “May I become a Buddha to liberate all sentient beings.” Come on, come off it! Is that really what you feel? “I want to liberate every mosquito in the universe.” I’m certainly not there yet, certainly not. I think we need to be unpretentious about our goals, and even just to want to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit all beings – even though I find that hard to imagine that I would like to reach that level at which I could even sincerely wish for that – implies understanding, conceptually, what is enlightenment, and being confident that there is such a thing, and that I can achieve it.

So we look at omniscience; that’s a tough one. Is mental activity capable of understanding everything? How would you even go about analyzing that? You go about analyzing that by looking what obscures it, what prevents it, and what prevents it are these cognitive obscurations. What are the cognitive obscurations? According to Gelug Prasangika, it is the deceptive appearance-making of the mind, of mental activity.

There are some other things included here – the inability to have the two truths appear simultaneously, and there’s other things in there too – but let’s leave that aside for the moment, for our discussion here this weekend, and look just at this false appearance-making. What is it doing; what’s our mind doing? As I mentioned briefly already, our mind makes things appear in categories, as if things actually existed in boxes out there, from their own side.

The example that I always use, since I think it is an easy one, is the colors red and orange. We have the words “red” and “orange,” and they refer to something. We have agreed on a convention that these arbitrary, meaningless sounds of “rr-ead” and “or-unge” – these are just meaningless sounds. Some cave people or whoever decided, “Let’s put this meaningless sound together and we will assign it a meaning, and we’ll agree – Hey, dig this color, what shall we call it?” – get a vote or something like that, and we’ll put that in the box of ‘red,’ and this one we’ll put in the box of ‘orange’ and obviously people will disagree, but OK.” So we have these conventions, and they’re useful for communicating. But if we look at the light spectrum, there’s nothing on the side of the light spectrum with a wall that on one side it’s red, on the other side it is orange. Not at all. Light doesn’t exist in these boxes of this color or that color.

The same thing with emotions – that’s the example that hits home a little bit more. Love, jealousy, what in the world is that? Is it something in a box? “And now I am going to feel love, and the love that I feel is going to be the same love that you feel,” or “The love that I feel now for my dog is the same as I feel for my lover, or for my country.” What’s love? “I love everybody, peace,” and all this sort of stuff? They don’t exist in a box. We have a word, and there’s this vast spectrum of emotions that everybody feels. They don’t exist in boxes from their side, which our words would imply that they do, do they?

But that’s the false appearance: it’s not just conventions, it’s not just mental labeling. The mental label doesn’t create love, whether you call it “love,” or you call it anything, or you don’t call it anything, it doesn’t matter. We have emotions. We can communicate with words and concepts, and they refer to something, but things don’t exist corresponding to words in boxes. That’s what you can’t find when you look, and you can’t find when you do the Madhyamaka analysis. That’s what you can’t find. You can’t find things existing in boxes by themselves, these categories.

We can demonstrate to ourselves that when we are focused on “no such thing as these boxes” that they don’t appear. Our mind doesn’t make them appear. Things don’t exist [like that]. This is impossible, this is ridiculous, and you focus on “no such thing.” That’s the important point, how do you focus on “no such thing?” I use a very simple example to demonstrate this, just in terms of not so much “no such thing,” but “there is no” of something. What happens when you have lost your keys, and you look everywhere where it could possibly be, and you can’t find it. It’s not there, and you don’t want to believe it, and so you look again, and you look again, and finally, there are no keys. When you focus on “there are no keys,” what appears to your mind? What appears?

Nothing, nothing appears. You might be looking at the wall – the wall appears, but that’s not what your mind is actually focusing on. Your mind is focusing on nothing, there is no such thing. But we understand that it’s not just nothing, it’s the absence of the keys. So like that, we focus on “no such thing as things existing in boxes.” At that time, nothing appears. So the mind is not making an appearance of things in these boxes, encapsulated in plastic or something like that.

Then the question becomes – if we’re trying to become convinced that omniscience is possible – “if my mind is not making” – let’s make it very simple – “these solid lines around things as if they existed in boxes. I understand that there’s no such thing, so now, if I could keep that…” – this is the significance of the other cognitive obscuration, that we have problems keeping that “no such thing” together with seeing everything, there’s another obscuration. But if you can get rid of that – and the clear light mind is capable of doing that, so that’s why we need tantra – if we can focus without these lines around things, what would appear?

Everything. Would it, though? So, now you start to think, “Hmmm. Well, I can only see the things out of these holes in my skull, in the front of it. So even if I didn’t see things with lines around them, would I know what’s behind me? Would I know what has not yet happened, what is no longer happening, the so-called past and the future?” That’s an interesting question. That’s why when we speak about liberation and enlightenment, we’re not speaking in terms of this kind of body with these type of limitations. This is a limited hardware. It can only see out of these two holes in the front of your head, and we have to go to sleep as well, so that’s not so cool in terms of being omniscient. You don’t want to go to sleep if you want to be omniscient all the time, obviously.

So we’re talking about a different type of body – mental activity and it exists just on pure energy, this type of thing. So then we have these types of Buddha-bodies. If it existed in terms of pure energy and was not limited by hardware deficiency of this type of samsaric body, and if it’s not making any lines, then it would be that you see the interconnectedness of everything that would appear. And the interconnectedness of everything is not just in terms of spatially, now, but also the interconnectedness of everything in terms of cause and effect, which then brings in the past and the future.

The whole topic of what does a Buddha know when a Buddha knows the past and the future is a very difficult one. That’s actually what I’m in the middle of writing about at the moment. But take my word for it, it is very complex in the Buddhist description, but it has to do with karmic tendencies and all this sort of stuff. But if we can understand that what’s not yet happened, it’s the future. Does a Buddha know the year 2008? A Buddha knows the year 2008, but it’s not happening now, so something can exist without happening now.

[See: What Does a Buddha Know in Knowing the Past, Present, and Future?]

Is there such a thing as the year 2008? Yes. Does it exist? Yes. Can we make plans for it? Yes. Is it happening now? No. The year 2006, is it happening now? No. Can you know it? Yes, I remember, I know what happened in the year 2006, but it’s not happening now. In order to start to understand this whole Buddhist teaching on how a Buddha knows the past and the future, you have to get into this whole thing of things that are happening now and things that are not happening now. Just because it’s not happening now doesn’t mean you can’t know it. I know tomorrow will be a tomorrow; I know there is a yesterday.

My point is that to have bodhichitta sincerely, to aim for my future enlightenment which is not yet happening – it’s not yet happening, it’s not happening now, but it could happen – it’s not that I’m focusing on something impossible. I’m not focusing on something that doesn’t exist, but it’s not happening now. Then how would I know it? I would know it on the basis of its causes now, which are the Buddha-nature factors.

Then you have to get into the whole thing of Buddha-nature, but that gets into the nature of the mind, that’s why this topic is relevant. Does the mind have natural purity and the ability to understand? That’s what we’re talking about, its natural purity of these stains, and not only the fleeting stains, but pure of stains of impossible ways of existing – that’s what’s known as the nature body, Svabhavakaya, when you become a Buddha; directly related to the third noble truth.

Mind has the ability to understand, to cognize, to make appearances of things without the lines around them and understand, which means that it could encompass everything, including past and future, if we understand that in terms of cause and effect and the interconnectedness of everything. That’s part of the Buddha-nature now, that the mind is naturally capable of that, mental activity is naturally capable of that – don’t think of it in terms of a mind as a thing – mental activity is capable of that. That’s another aspect of Buddha-nature.

What are we talking about? We’re talking about the fourth noble truth, Dharmakaya, the mind of a Buddha, and making appearances, so Form Body of a Buddha. Think about all of these things, which are very deep and quite complex, but with a little bit more firm understanding of this, then, “Can I actually develop bodhichitta, sincerely?” “Do I know what I’m focusing on?” “Am I focusing on something which exists and is possible?” And “Do I want to help everybody else reach this state, because I’m confident that it is possible for everybody else as well?” If we can have that, then we can develop bodhichitta sincerely. Without it we’re just playing around.

These bodhichitta teachings, as I said in the beginning, we can do it on a feel-good Dharma level of “Love everybody,” and “Everybody’s been so kind to us, and we remember their kindness,” and “May they be happy, and may they be free of suffering” – I don’t mean to belittle that, so I apologize for that; perhaps it did sound a little bit belittling – that is very beneficial, but it is not the profound level of love and compassion that Buddhism is talking about.

This is a very profound level, “It’s awful that you have this up and down of samsara, and it’s awful that you continue to perpetuate that for yourself. So may you be free of that mechanism of perpetuating your up and down uncontrollably recurring existence.” That’s really what we want others to be free of. And the happiness that we want them to have is not just a full stomach, because that’s not going to last. Sure, they need a full stomach, but that’s temporary. We don’t ignore temporary helping others, of course we help others. But that’s not our deepest aim.

“May they have the type of happiness which is free from all this garbage, and that’s a lasting happiness, a true happiness.” And everybody, because I’m not thinking of others in terms of their samsaric situation now, that this mental continuum at the moment, because of various karmic reasons, has manifested the body of a cockroach, and this one has manifested the body of my mother, and this one the body of Adolf Hitler. I’m thinking in much greater terms, much larger terms, in terms of Buddha-nature of everybody. That’s how we have in tantra seeing everybody as a Buddha, on the basis of Buddha-nature.

When we think in terms of bodhichitta, we have to come down to this: “Everybody’s been my mother.” Very nice – we’ll discuss that on the weekend – but it’s not an easy one. It’s not just, “Everybody’s been my mother and kind,” because you can also meditate on “Everybody has been my murderer as well,” by the same logic. “If everybody has been my mother, everybody has also killed me at one time or another.” That’s a sobering thought, and we’ll explore the difference, the benefits and disadvantages of each of those. But when we equalize everybody in this other method of developing bodhichitta, seeing the equality of everybody, it’s not on the basis that everybody’s been my mother, or everybody has been my murderer, but everybody is equal in that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, so there is less “me” involved.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that this equalizing and exchanging self with others method, where you think of the equality of everybody in terms of just that everybody wants to be happy and not to be unhappy, has less danger than the one of recognizing everybody as your mother, because recognizing everybody as your mother and they’ve been kind to me tends to have a little bit more emphasis on me. So, one has to watch out for that in that type of meditation. But that doesn’t diminish the benefits of that meditation; it’s just that one has to be a little bit careful and supplement it with these other meditations.

This is a little bit of background stuff for our discussion of bodhichitta. I suppose it’s not really an introduction. Introduction is supposed to be easy, and then the main presentation is supposed to be a little bit difficult, or more difficult. And this was not terribly easy what I explained. But I feel very strongly that it’s important not to trivialize these teachings. They are very precious, very profound. And why are they precious and profound? Because they are very, very deep, what they are based on. We may use them and apply them in a Dharma-Lite fashion and gain benefit from it, but the real intention behind them is to help us really achieve enlightenment.

We have these verses of Shantideva – I don’t know if you’ve studied that, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Bodhicharyavatara in Sanskrit – his whole first chapter is devoted to how utterly incredible it is to actually develop bodhichitta. That’s referring, by the way, to when it is “unlabored bodhichitta.” “Labored” means that you have to actually go through the seven-part cause and effect meditation and build yourself up to it. Then it’s labored, you have to put in effort to actually get to that state of mind. You only become a bodhisattva when you are able to have that bodhichitta in an unlabored fashion. In other words, you don’t have to build it up, you just have it. At that point you actually have bodhichitta and are a bodhisattva, and so Shantideva praises how unbelievably extraordinary that is.

It’s not a trivial level of just reciting meaningless words of, “May I achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings,” and now I have bodhichitta, and now I’m a bodhisattva. Behind it is all these points that I’ve been discussing this evening. And if you really have all of that, and your bodhichitta is based on all of that understanding and confidence, and that scope of “all beings,” and really sincere – it’s incredible, that’s truly incredible. Therefore Shantideva praises it so strongly, otherwise that first chapter is a bit strange, “What’s the big deal? I can recite the verses just like anybody else.”

It’s not just reciting verses, it’s not just reciting and thinking, “Oh, I’d like to be a nice person and help everybody.” It’s much deeper than that, much, much deeper. As a stepping stone – yes, “I’d like to be a nice person,” yes, “I’d like to be kinder,” yes, “I’d like to be more considerate and helpful and less neurotic,” of course. But that’s a stepping stone, and then bodhichitta is The Real Thing, and The Real Thing is, to use the modern colloquial, awesome.

Let us stop here for this evening and perhaps you have a few questions.

Questions and Answers

Question: Would it be a little bit easier to have conviction in, let’s say, things like liberation or even nonconceptual cognition of voidness, if I knew that this person had accomplished that, somebody who’s especially alive today? On the other hand, I know it’s not considered proper to tell people about that, and how could you confirm it, so there’s a possibility for charlatans. I wonder if you could say anything about that, maybe from your own experience?

Alex: That’s a very good question, a very serious question. I’ll just repeat for the recording devices that it would be very helpful to gain confidence in such things as nonconceptual cognition of voidness and bodhichitta and all these sort of things if we actually had a living example of this, and of course the tradition is, even if you have it, you don’t say you have attained this. And how would we even recognize it ourselves if we ourselves don’t have it? So how do we know it exists?

Well, there are logical demonstrations of it. That’s one way. But it certainly would be helpful to know that somebody else has done it. We can gain inspiration from somebody – that’s true. This gets very tricky, because now we have to gingerly step into the topic of the relation with the spiritual teacher and seeing the teacher as a Buddha, and that is very dangerous ground, because it can be very easily misunderstood. But if we can focus on Buddhahood in the teacher based on the teacher’s Buddha-nature, and based on them demonstrating some qualities in that direction...

This teaching on the guru as a Buddha was never meant to be taken literally, otherwise your teacher should know the telephone number of everybody in the universe, and they obviously don’t. If they were really a Buddha, they should be omniscient and know everybody’s telephone number. Interesting point. But if we can focus on the good qualities of the teacher without denying the shortcomings of the teacher, but just focus on the positive qualities of the teacher and see them as Buddha-qualities, what that does is it helps us with our bodhichitta training. Because what are we focusing on with bodhichitta? We’re focusing on all the good qualities of a Buddha, the Buddha that we will become. So if we can train ourselves to focus on good qualities – because it’s the same thing with bodhichitta, “I realize that I’m not a Buddha. I’m not denying my shortcomings, but I’m focusing on these positive things.” So if we can do that with the teacher, because we’re going to choose a teacher who has more qualities than we have, then that gives us the inspiration to achieve this state of a Buddha. That’s one of the benefits of seeing the teacher as a Buddha. It fits in very well with bodhichitta meditation of focusing on something positive.

Does the teacher have to have real bodhichitta and real nonconceptual cognition of voidness to be able to do this? As you said, they’re not going to claim that they do. Even if they do have it, they’re going to say that they don’t have it. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that he doesn’t have it, although he says, “I’ve had a little bit of a glimpse.” Sometimes he will acknowledge that. But if he doesn’t have it, who does have it?

We are very fortunate with His Holiness that whether he says it or he doesn’t say it, whether he acknowledges or doesn’t acknowledge – now I’m talking about it from my own personal experience – if I could become like that, I would be very happy. That would be enough. You can see with him the unbelievable dedication that he has and the unbelievable equanimity. Could you imagine being public enemy number one of all of China, and everybody thinking that you’re the devil, and not to be discouraged by that? It’s incredible, isn’t it? Utterly incredible. And to have the responsibility of six million people looking to you and you’re the one that sustains them, for their hope, and having to shoulder that at the age of sixteen or whenever it was? It is extraordinary. And his load of understanding and all these other things, if you look at these qualities, then that’s good enough for me. And I’ve had the good fortune of having very close contact with His Holiness’ late teachers, who were also extraordinary.

To me it’s not really important to get out and measure the amount of bodhichitta that they have, and was it really nonconceptual or not. So you think more in terms of “Is it logically possible?” OK, it’s logically possible. Here are people who are certainly far in that direction, and so, “Fine,” it doesn’t worry me. The thing is that you have to really take as your refuge, safe direction – but here perhaps refuge is an appropriate word – the Dharma itself. Don’t rely on people, because people can let you down.

Some people have teachers and after a while they find out some sort of scandal, some sort of abuse that the teacher was involved with. This has happened to so many people, and they get really discouraged, and they think Dharma is garbage. How could it produce somebody like that? The fault is not in the Dharma. This is very important to examine: what is the fault? They were human, they weren’t Buddhas. There was a helpful method if I was looking at their good qualities as Buddha-qualities. That’s helpful, but they make mistakes.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a very good example of this. He refers to one of his teachers that he had in his early life, Reting Rinpoche, who was involved with all sorts of naughty things and was very much disgraced. And His Holiness says, “Well, when he was on the throne and teaching me and I think back on those teachings, he’s a Buddha. In terms of his worldly conduct, he’s not.” So he differentiates these two and he says he has no conflict with that. That, I think, is a very good example; not an easy one of course, but I think we need to differentiate in terms of our relation to the teacher as a teacher, and then that person as an ordinary human being.

The problem is how do you become convinced of anything? That’s really the issue, isn’t it? How do we overcome indecisive wavering, doubt? Is it so, is it not so? It could be right in front of your eyes and you don’t want to accept it. What does it take to be convinced? That’s a very, very interesting question, and how much ego is behind it? That also is an interesting question. “I want somebody to prove to me that this is so,” I find this quite frequent. “I’m not going to practice this until I understand what I’m doing.” We don’t like “Just shut up and practice it, just do it.”

This whole issue of how we become convinced with something and what prevents us from being convinced – in addition to not understanding, which of course is the main reason for not being convinced –   often are some disturbing emotions, some emotional blocks that also prevent us from becoming convinced of anything, having conviction. We’ve been let down so often that therefore “I don’t want to trust anything to actually believe it,” to use a common example.

But I can’t give any answers of what actually convinces you, but I think it’s a very long, slow process, and not a “Hallelujah, now I believe.” His Holiness always says that it should be based on reason; that compassion, if it’s based on emotion, is unstable; if it’s based on reason, then it’s stable. “I have compassion for everybody, because everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, and we’re all equal, just as I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy.” That’s more stable than, “Oh, you poor thing!”

Then it gets into the whole topic – I give much too long answers, I’m sorry – then it gets into the whole issue of emotion: you have to feel something. “Compassion isn’t real,” it seems to us, “unless I really am emotionally moved.” Do you have to be emotionally moved to feel love and compassion? That’s an interesting question, and what does it mean to be emotionally moved? What does it mean? I think it has something to do with the energies of the body, that the energies are moving in a more excited way. And so it is like the difference of being strongly, emotionally in love and a more stable love that’s based on being with a person for thirty years. It’s no longer exciting, but it’s very stable, because you really understand the person.

So that quality of emotional excitement isn’t necessarily a helpful thing, and even more significant, it doesn’t make the emotion more real. This is our grasping for impossible existence, “If I really feel it strongly, then that makes it real,” “If my heart isn’t moved and I don’t cry, it’s not real.” Now you get the whole voidness thing, “What establishes that I actually have compassion? Is it established by the fact that I cry whenever I see somebody suffering, and my heart moves, and I feel upset? Does that prove that I actually have compassion? What proves that I have compassion?” That’s an interesting question, and one to think about. I won’t give an answer, but think about that.

Question: I hope I can phrase this, but you were talking about knowing the past and future, and you also talked about the boxes, the red and the white. Something that I think about frequently when I get to voidness, that is death, and I think about the fact that what’s here in those boxes continues. I have some specific examples that people I know, like walking where I’ve walked or like when I die people will still be here; so it continues. To me there’s void, all I can see in my mind is void, that I don’t know where the continuum – like when you say 2008 exists, it’s the future, but does it exist for me if I’m not alive, if I happen to be dying before then? I just say, I think spirits are void in my mind and I don’t know how to grasp it.

Alex: Well, the question – if I can summarize it, it’s not so clear in my mind, I must say – but it seems to be, the direction, that you’re saying is that voidness seems to imply a nothingness, that when I die then the year 2008 might be happening for other people, but it’s not happening for me?

Participant: Right.

Alex: This type of thing. Well, that’s a very complex question if you’re going to speak in terms of the year 2008, and I don’t know that that’s the focus of your question. But time is relative. If you were traveling in a spaceship near the speed of light and you had a calendar on the wall, the year 2008 would happen to you not at the same time as it happens to someone on Earth, so there’s relativity of time. But that aside, what you seem to be saying is that something exists if I experience it, that demonstrates that it exists. And if I don’t experience it, then it doesn’t exist. How do I know it exists?

Participant: Actually I think it will exist, except I’m not with it, and so I don’t know where I relate to. It’s like it exists for you, but not for me.

Alex: Well, no – it exists for you and not for me – no. This is the misconception. I’m sorry, but you’re discussing time, and it’s not that there is a fixed space-time grid, or axis, and there is a moving index on it called “now,” that’s sort of out there objectively. It’s not like that. And it’s not that when you die then you’re somehow off the grid in bardo, and then you come back on the grid, it’s not like that.

But when we speak of past and future, we have to speak in terms of our own mental continuum and in terms of – past is called “no-longer-happening,” they don’t use the word “past” – no-longer-happening and not-yet-happening. And that has to do with karma: no-longer-happening of the various karmic causes and the not-yet-happened of the results. That’s still the case even when you’re in bardo. The no-longer-happening and the not-yet-happening are imputed in terms of the karmic seeds, the tendencies, and they’re aspects of that.

The fact that there is a karmic tendency, or seed – the word literally is “seed,” but it’s not some physical thing, so “tendency” I think is better – indicates the passing of the cause. So it indicates to us the past. The fact that there is a karmic tendency has to have come from somewhere, so there is the no-longer-happening of the cause is indicated by that. And the factor, or aspect, or part of this tendency that is not yet giving rise to the result on the basis of the ability to give rise to the result when all the conditions are complete – that’s the future.

It’s not yet happening, because the tendency is not yet giving rise to its result, but it has the power, the ability to give rise to a result. Of course, you can purify it away, so that the conditions are never complete. That’s how we get rid of karma: you never provide the conditions. If the conditions are not complete, it could never ripen. You need the ignorance, the unawareness, as a condition for the thing to ripen; that’s how you purify. So the understanding of voidness purifies karma, not just reciting a mantra. So that’s there as part of a mental continuum – bardo, and death, and so on, these tendencies, these karmic forces; it’s like that.

Question: I was thinking of categories, a table, that seems like a spatial category. Is there such a thing as a temporal category? A time category?

Alex: Yes, sure. When we talk about “table” as a category it seems to be a spatial type of thing and are there temporal categories?

Sure, a continuum, a year. When is a year happening, is a year happening today, is it happening right now? You don’t experience a year in one moment; that’s a category. You think of, “Those were good years,” “Those were bad years,” “Those were the middle age years.” Those are categories, “medieval years.” So we have categories of time intervals. “Tomorrow,” that’s a category; it applies to many, many different days as examples of tomorrows. These are categories. Categories are usually connected with words.

Question: When we start talking about the past or future…?

Alex: “Past” and “future” are categories, sure. What’s a category? Everything that happened before now is the past. I can use that as a category to refer to when I was four years old, to speak about what came before then, and I can use it as a category to refer to what came before now, when I’m in my sixties; that’s a category.

Question: When you talk about how unawareness or how ignorance functions, we talk about drawing boxes, distinctions, and categories – it always seems to me – or any other description in how it’s described in Dharma teachings, that it’s based on human cognition. I’ve got doubts that that actually applies to how a gnat or an ant…?

Alex: He’s asking a very good question, that categories – you didn’t say this, but implicit in what you said was a call for being more precise in what I said – that categories are involved with implied words, and so does the gnat or the cow think in categories?

They certainly do. The categories do not have to be associated with a word. We could associate with a word, but the gnat certainly has the category of “food,” and so it can differentiate between something that’s food and something that’s a rock or something like that. A dog certainly has a category of “my master” based on a smell, or sight, or something like that – they have categories. The point is – now we get into cognition theory, this is very complicated – what represents the category when you think in terms of it? If we represent it by a picture, a mental picture – it could be represented by a smell for a dog, a mental smell, it could be represented by a word, it could be represented by some sort of feeling, it could be represented by a lot of things.

OK, let’s end here for this evening with a dedication. We think, whatever positive force has come from this, whatever understanding, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment, for the benefit of all.