Tonglen (Giving and Taking) in the Context of Equalizing and Exchanging One's Attitudes about Self and Others
Munich, Germany, March 2005
Session Two: Review and Questions & Answers
This morning we finished our session with the meditation on developing equanimity, and this was the equanimity which is a state of mind that is directed toward others and free of either attachment, repulsion, or indifference. The end result of that is that our minds are tranquil, and even, and equally open to everyone. If we want to be able to develop positive, constructive attitudes towards everyone, then we need to first clear out the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes that we might have toward them. That’s the purpose of this practice.
Otherwise these disturbing emotions will infect the positive attitudes that we’re trying to develop, sabotage them. It’s like if we want to cook some delicious meal in a pot, we first have to clean the pot; leftover food that’s in it will spoil what we’re trying to cook. Now, of course, we’re not going to become a hundred percent free of these disturbing emotions until we are actually a liberated being, an arhat, so we shouldn’t have our hopes up too high that we’re going to get rid of them so easily in meditation.
That’s actually a very important point to remember. It’s only when we reach the stage of an arhat that we’re going to be free of all these, so we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. And we must expect that these disturbing emotions are still going to be there and not feel guilty when they arise again. The nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. That’s important to remember. That means that sometimes our practice goes well, sometimes it doesn’t go well; sometimes we have less disturbing emotions, other times they come up again later in life or later in the day even.
Sometimes we feel like practicing and sometimes we don’t. That is perfectly normal. So what we try to do, given that situation of samsara, is first of all to remember, “What do I expect from samsara?” An important line, if you want a little bite line of a phrase to put up on your wall, “What do I expect from samsara?” It’s going to be not very nice, to put it in polite language. So what we need to do then in that situation is just go ahead. This is what’s called enthusiastic perseverance, or joyful perseverance, that, “It doesn’t matter if it’s going up and down, I will continue anyway.”
But not being fanatic. One of the points for being able to develop and sustain our enthusiastic perseverance is to know when to take a break. Sometimes we have to take it a little bit more easy. That’s perfectly OK, but still something each day, continue. That’s why a daily practice is very important, but not to make the daily practice the daily ordeal by making it too long. If it’s short, something which is quite doable, then no matter what, we do it anyway, like brush our teeth in the morning. And that gives us a continuity, which is very, very helpful for stability, regardless of how things go up and down.
We didn’t have time for questions at the end of the meditation this morning, so why don’t we begin with a little bit of questions if you have.
Question: Did I understand correctly that tonglen is a practice first to do away with my own neurosis and secondly to help others?
Answer: Yes, in general, but let’s phrase that a little bit more precisely. We need equanimity first. And the equanimity is the one in which we are going to try to quiet down our neurotic attitudes – but what I was saying just now is: don’t expect that it’s going to just go away like that with one meditation practice that we do for a short time – at least to start with that.
And then the second type of equanimity, which we’ll come to next, is the equal attitude of – when we’re actually helping others – not to have a feeling of some being near and some being far from us. Also, although we can use the word “neurosis” or “neurotic,” here, I think that to a certain extent that may be a little bit too strong a word. Because even when we have worked on the dimension that we might think is neurotic, there’s still some attachment to some people and some repulsion from others and ignoring yet others, which we, in our Western way of thinking, would consider normal and not neurotic.
When we think of the word equanimity in this context what is helpful I think is an image – I always find images helpful – of a calm sea, not a rough sea or a tide that’s rushing in to some people and rushing out from other people, but just a calm, tranquil, open – not a zombie dead – just calm, tranquil, open to everyone. It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel anything, but rather we’re calm. There are people that try to help others and they smother them, because they’re just too much, too overbearing – that we certainly want to avoid.
Question: So to say it in a more positive way, would it be possible to say that in the first place it’s myself who profits from this practice and then secondly also others will have the profit from my practice?
Answer: Yes, you certainly would say that. This is why I was explaining in the morning that in almost all likelihood this tonglen practice is not going to affect the other person. But it has the beneficial effect on us, to help to weaken at least, if not overcome this self-cherishing attitude.
In terms of benefiting ourselves, that brings up another point, which is that we also need to develop equanimity toward ourselves. That means that we apply this taking on and accepting our own problems, rather than ignoring them and denying them, and we actually deal with whatever it might be that we have to deal with.
Question: In Hindu philosophy, it is said that all living beings are one. How does this fit with Buddhist ideas?
Answer: Well, there’s quite a difference here between what we find in some of the non-Buddhist Indian philosophies – not all Hindu schools believe this – there are some, which say that it’s all an illusion and we are all actually one, undifferentiated in Brahma. In Buddhism when we speak about one, the concept of one, that means totally identical. Table and table are one and the same thing, but table and Tisch are not one, because those are two different words. They may be referring to the same thing, but they’re not identical.
Like some people call me Alex, some people call me Alexander, some people call me Mr. Berzin. Those are not one; they refer to the same thing, but they’re not one. That’s the Buddhist idea of one. In Buddhism we do say that the manner in which everybody exists is the same manner. This can be (1) on a relative, conventional level that everybody equally wants to be happy; everybody equally doesn’t want to be unhappy. This is the same for everybody, but my wish to be happy isn’t your wish to be happy.
The same thing in terms of voidness; voidness is speaking about an absence of impossible ways of existing. An impossible way of existing, to put it in a very simple example, would be that, “I exist totally isolated from everything else and everybody else in the universe,” and “I’m the only important one,” and “I’m the only one that deserves to be happy and to get my way.” That is an impossible way of existing; nobody exists that way. Like that there are many, many, many, many levels of what’s an impossible way of existing, and we are devoid of that; that is absent; that is not a quality of us; that is not a quality of anything.
That’s what we mean by absence, that’s what voidness is referring to. So, “Just as I don’t exist as the center of the universe and you don’t exist as the center of the universe, nobody exists as the center of the universe,” because that’s impossible. So this is on (2) the deepest level the equality of everyone, but that doesn’t mean that we are all one in some sort of undifferentiated big soup.
Question: Doesn’t voidness also imply that we’re all interrelated and so aren’t we all one under the term “interrelated?”
Answer: We need to go back to the definition of “one.” “One” means, yes my hand is related to my foot, they’re all part of an interconnected system that we can give the name “body,” but that doesn’t mean my hand is my foot. “One” would be totally identical, then the hand would be the foot.
Question: OK, it doesn’t fit the definition of “one” in Buddhism, but isn’t it nevertheless a whole universe, every part of the universe existing in dependence on the other?
Answer: The whole universe is interconnected and interrelated, that’s very true, but that’s not the Hindu concept of “we are all one in Brahma.” That was the question, “Is it the same as this Hindu concept?” And so when we think in terms of unity, we have to be quite clear what that means and not be vague, because it’s quite easy to fall into an illogical assertion.
Question: I have this image of, for example, we have the body, but in the body there are different cells, but of course they all belong together forming this body. Is this picture also possible, similar to that, “We are all living beings and all together we are one organism?”
Answer: Yes, but without making that into a thing of this larger organism. Shantideva uses this example when he says, “Just as the hand would take care of the foot...” If the foot has a thorn in it, the hand doesn’t say, “Sorry, that’s your problem down there, I’m up here, I’m fine.” He says, “Just as the hand would take care of the foot, because they’re part of one body, likewise we need to take care of others, because we are part of life, all of life.” That doesn’t make life into some sort of entity. He uses this in the discussion that suffering doesn’t have an owner, regardless of whether it’s my suffering or your suffering, and then comes this discussion of the hand and the foot.
Question: Is every living being unique, without being able to change this property of being unique?
Answer: Correct. This is the meaning of individual; “individual” means “unique,” and that uniqueness is not going to change. What would it mean for the uniqueness to change? It would mean that I become you. Now, that’s impossible.
Question (cont’d): ...because there are certain concepts of a sort of unity where things which were unique are not unique anymore.
Answer: Right, this is the Hindu thing that I was speaking about, and that’s not the Buddhist concept. Now, one has to be very careful with the concept of uniqueness, because on the one hand we need to differentiate “being unique” from “being special.” This is something that people – school psychologists and so on – in the United States are discovering right now, that this whole way in which the generation of teenagers in the United States and the young adults have been brought up, in which “everybody is special” – “You are unique,” and “an individual,” and “You are special,” and “The way that you’re special may be different from somebody else” – this has produced a tremendous psychological problem. Because then, when they get out of that protected high school and family situation, and they get into university or they get into the work field, they discover that they’re not special at all, and they’re not prepared to be able to deal with that emotionally.
One has to be very careful with this idea of uniqueness. As a Westerner we have to express our individuality and come up with something new, different, which puts a tremendous pressure actually on people. But, of course, first we have to “find ourselves,” whatever that means; Buddhism would say that it’s pointless, it’s hopeless; you’ll never find yourself. But anyway we still try to find ourselves and then express that self, it’s really funny.
The Asian concept of creativity is not to come up with something new, but within a given style, or a medium, to put that in a harmonious situation. Let’s say if you take the architecture of Buddhist temples, the point is not to come up with a new design; the point is to fit it harmoniously with the environment – with where the mountains are, or where the streams are, or things like that. That is being creative, to put the temple in the mountain scenery.
Or with Tibetan art, you don’t make up a different form of the Buddha; there’s a standard form of the Buddha. Creativity comes in fitting it harmoniously into the background and making it very alive-looking. So it’s a very deep, far-reaching topic, this idea of individuality.
Although we can recognize the common features that we share, the similarities – that’s the equalizing awareness – nevertheless to see and respect the individuality of each person or each situation, this understanding of individuality is very much connected with respect. Without that, the tendency is not to really respect each person as a human being; they’re just part of the mass. When we go to help others, we don’t just apply the standard treatment of “what we’re going to do to help everybody,” but it needs to be individualized.
Now, if we want to work further with the equanimity exercise or meditation that we did in the morning, then there are further ways of extending it. What I explained this morning would be the traditional Tibetan Buddhist way of meditating, but there are other ways that, for instance, I’ve developed in this book Developing Balanced Sensitivity, which I think could be quite helpful. And here – although we would start, the first level would be the way that we did this morning, with imagining people from our lives – it’s important, I find, in actual practice, for being able to apply it in life, to work with living people that are actually with us in the room.
And so one could as a group sit in a circle and try to view everybody in the circle with equanimity, because inevitably there’ll be some people in the circle that we know, that we’re friendly with, some that we’re not so friendly with – we don’t have an equal attitude toward everyone – and some that we don’t know at all; somebody that we don’t like in the group. Or it could just be simply some are good-looking, some are not so good-looking from the point of view of our taste, of what we find good-looking, so we’re attracted to one and not so attracted to the other.
For that, by the way, there’s a wonderful line from Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas – this is an Indian master – Aryadeva said that, “If a pig finds its partner so wonderfully beautiful, what makes your partner so special?” It’s totally relative what one being finds attractive and sexy, so there’s nothing inherently so attractive about the one that we find. Anyway, I like that line – helpful.
So we can try it in a group, and then the next step that we can do is apply it to ourselves. And for that sometimes it’s helpful to, first of all, to work with a mirror, just looking at ourselves. Some of us might be very narcissistic and, “Oh, I’m so beautiful, I like myself so much.” Other people might have very negative attitudes towards themselves, and others might look in the mirror and think, “This is a stranger, I don’t even know who this is.”
And then to have a large mirror and look at the whole group including ourselves in that mirror. This is very powerful – many, many of the exercises actually – to see ourselves as part of a group and to see that we’re just another human being like anybody else, to see that we are no different from anybody else, and so to have an attitude of equanimity – or later an attitude of love, or respect, or whatever – to everybody including ourselves. With ourselves it’s nothing special, we’re no one special; we’re “just another sheep in the herd.”
Then another level that we can practice with equanimity is to take a series of photos from representative periods of our life and to try to develop equanimity toward all of them, because certainly there are some periods of our life where we really are very negative to ourselves, we’re ashamed of how we were then, we were having such a terrible time, and other times that were so wonderful and so on. So to have an attitude of equanimity toward ourselves throughout our life is something very helpful for general emotional stability.
So all of these Buddhist exercises and meditation practices can be expanded, so that they help us in far more types of situations that might not be so obvious in just doing the practice in the traditional way alone without doing anything further. It is very important to be able to apply all these Buddhist teachings and trainings to daily life, that’s the whole point. Perfectly tranquil sitting in the protected space of our meditation room on our cushion, but put us at a family dinner and we’re not able to handle it at all. That’s not very helpful if we don’t know how to apply it, if we don’t have some experience in applying it.
Let’s take our tea break and then we’ll continue.
There was one further question during the break, which had to do with emotions, which is an important point. She understands that emotions are an illusion and that they arise from an unstable place within us, and so what are we supposed to do, overcome them, or they arise from a place of obscuration or darkness, because we haven’t seen the nature of mind.
Well, there are many things which are mixed here in your question. First of all, there is no word in either Sanskrit or Tibetan which is the equivalent of “emotion;” and in fact, I think it would be quite challenging for us to define emotion in our Western languages. In the Buddhist analysis of the mind we differentiate different types of mental factors which accompany our seeing and hearing and thinking and so on. Some of them are constructive, some are destructive, some are disturbing, some are not. So what we’re aiming to do is to get rid of the disturbing and destructive ones, but not the constructive ones – the constructive ones being things like love, patience, compassion, and so on.
So when we speak about a disturbing state of mind, this includes certain disturbing emotions, certain disturbing attitudes, certain states of mind that we couldn’t really call either an emotion or an attitude. When we look at the definition of this, some would be disturbing emotions – like anger, or attachment, or envy, pride and so on – some can be a disturbing attitude – like to hold on to the me as being permanent, unchanging, totally independent and so on, this is a disturbing attitude – and some can be... we wouldn’t call it either an emotion or an attitude, like indecisive wavering, indecisiveness, we can’t decide, “Is it this or is it that?” And it totally cripples us, we can’t do anything; we can’t decide what to order at the restaurant and you’re just sitting there forever, or what to wear in the morning, to just use very simple examples. It can be very, very difficult.
So these are the ones we have to work on and we’re trying to get rid of in Buddhism. So what’s the definition of this disturbing state of mind? It’s important to know, so we can recognize them. It is a state of mind, which when it arises... it’s two things. One is that it causes us to lose our peace of mind, to lose our tranquility, so it’s disturbing, and the second aspect is that it makes us lose control. When we are angry then we lose control and we say things that we regret later, or when we’re really attached to somebody also we do things that sometimes seem very foolish. Or we can’t decide what to do and so we lose control, we can’t do anything.
Now, this word “illusion” is very, very important to understand. In Buddhism we don’t say that everything is literally an illusion, but we say it is like an illusion. That’s very different. Shantideva makes quite a clear distinction in his text, Bodhisattvacharyavatara, where he says there’s quite a difference between killing somebody in a dream and killing an actual person when we’re awake. They’re very different. So we say that it’s not that everything is an illusion, but what we’re saying instead is that it’s like an illusion. In other words, things appear to exist in a certain way, let’s say solidly, concretely like this or like that, but they don’t actually exist in the way that they appear, so like that it’s like an illusion. An illusion seems real, a hallucination seems real, but it’s not.
So, for example these disturbing emotions are states of mind, let’s take a depression: it seems as though it’s going to last forever and we’ll never get out – and to think like that of course is a disturbing attitude in addition to the depression being a disturbing attitude – so it appears like that, that’s how it feels. But it doesn’t actually exist that way, so it’s like an illusion. It appears to exist in a certain way, but it actually doesn’t. But that depression is certainly happening and it’s not fun, it hurts. And so we can’t say, “Oh, it’s just an illusion,” and forget about it. We have to understand how it actually exists, and it doesn’t exist in this impossible way that it’s going to be here forever.
So when you talk about these emotions coming from obscurity, it’s these disturbing emotions based on this, it’s often called “ignorance,” that we think that things exist in this impossible way, in which they appear to exist, but they actually don’t. So the problem is to clear away this ignorance, this unawareness, so then the disturbing emotion itself – since it’s totally based on that – will not arise. In that sense, we need to understand the nature of the mind.
If we look at the positive, the constructive emotions like love, it’s quite possible for it to be mixed with a disturbing attitude. Love is defined as the state of mind that wishes others to be happy, to have the cause for happiness, and in its pure form it would be regardless of what the other person does. But it could be mixed with this grasping for a true solid me, and so, “I love you, I want you to be happy,” but “I only love you so long as you love me, and are nice to me, and if you’re not nice to me, I don’t love you anymore.”
Also we get this strong sense of a me behind it, which would be that, “I love you,” which actually means, “I need you. Don’t ever leave me. I can’t live without you.” It’s a very disturbed state of mind. “I can’t live without you.” It’s a song like that, yes, a very sad song actually, with much suffering. So when we get rid of that disturbing emotion underneath, it’s not that we’ve destroyed the love, because the love is simply the wish for the person to be happy.
This is based on “everybody wants to be happy,” and that is, the more that we investigate it, “As I want to be happy, so does everybody else, so may everybody be happy.” So it’s based on actuality as opposed to hatred, “May you be unhappy.” Well, nobody wants to be unhappy, so it’s not based on reason. If we look, is love rationally based? Yes, it is. Is hatred rationally based? No, it isn’t. So when we get rid of the ignorance, we get rid of the hatred, but we don’t get rid of the love.
So here, in this equanimity meditation, we’re trying to get rid of these disturbing emotions. When we are so attached to somebody that we become like the excited puppy dog, then our mind is not clear, it is disturbed, it’s not tranquil, and we lose control. We could act like an absolute rude person, ignoring everybody else and just running over to this one that we like. Same thing when we are so revolted by somebody that we can’t tolerate being with them, it eats away at us, we can’t fall asleep.
Similarly when we are indifferent and ignore someone, then also we lose control in the sense that we lose opportunities. This person may actually turn out to be a wonderful person, a great friend. We close ourselves off and there’s a basic disturbed state of mind underlying it, which is, “Don’t bother me, I’m busy.” “I really don’t have the time to get involved and know you; you’re not important enough.” This is what we’re trying to get rid of here as a basis for then being able to develop the positive emotions, with love and compassion.
So we’re not trying to get rid of all emotions in Buddhist practice, please, just the disturbing, destructive ones, not the positive ones. Also, please try to avoid – this way of thinking comes from this Persian religion, Manichaeism, which then comes into our Biblical religions – “good versus evil,” this dualism that some emotions are good and others are bad and we have to feel guilty about them, and it’s the work of the devil and so on. We try to avoid that fallacy; that just brings more suffering.
Question: Isn’t it still dualistic if you say, “Well, we want to get rid of the disturbing emotions, but we want to keep the not-disturbing emotions?”
Answer: No, no, no. That’s a very good point. Isn’t it still dualistic to think in terms of, “Well, we need to get rid of the disturbing emotions and cultivate the positive ones?” Now, what gives away the way of thinking behind this is the word “should,” and this is a word I really try to totally avoid in all Buddhist discussion, because it implies judgment – that there is some judge, an external judge that is judging, “This is good, this is bad. If you do this you’re going to be punished because you’re bad. If you do this, you’re going to be rewarded, because you’re good.” That can be either from a higher authority, or heavenly authority, that is the judge setting these laws, or from a judicial type of thing of an elected government that makes these laws of what’s good and bad.
Question (cont’d): The question wasn’t the object of authority or whether anybody says, “Well, this is good or bad,” but we had already agreed, I thought, that there are disturbing emotions like anger for example...
Answer: Right. Well, this is my point. When you have this dichotomy of what’s good and what’s bad, then you get this dualistic way of thinking that things are in an absolute category and ethics becomes a matter of obedience, whereas here we’re not talking about the solid dualistic category that, “There is this box and that box and you should do this and you shouldn’t do that.” The issue here is – “dualism” is a huge word and has many, many, many different meanings in both Buddhism and outside of Buddhism, but when I think in the context that you’re asking, in terms of ethics – when we have this dualistic attitude of ethics, it’s implying behind it a very neurotic, disturbed state of mind, and so I’m trying to trace where this comes from and indicate why it doesn’t arise in the Buddhist presentation.
There is light and dark – we’re not saying that light is dark and dark is light – but that doesn’t mean that it has to be a dualistic system. The dualistic system in terms of this ethics comes out of a sense of obedience. Some authority, whether a worldly, judicial authority, or a heavenly authority, has said, “This is good, this is bad. You should do this, you shouldn’t do that,” and reward and punishment is there, and of course guilt. So if you have a disturbing emotion, or you act on a disturbing emotion, you’re basically disobedient, you’re disobeying the laws, therefore you’re bad. And it’s not like that in Buddhism; it isn’t that Buddha said, “Be good, and if you’re not good, then you’re bad, you’re not obeying me.” “You are disobedient, bad children, and so go to your room.”
But rather, when we act destructively, it’s not based on disobedience, it’s based on confusion. We’re confused about what’s going to bring happiness and what’s going to bring unhappiness and more problems. If our friend forgets an appointment that they have with us, we think that if we get angry and yell at them that it’s going to make it better? Or if they say “I don’t love you anymore,” or “I don’t want to be with you,” that if we yell at them and get angry, that somehow they’re going to change their minds? Surely that’s very confused. We’re just driving them further away by getting angry.
So the difference between destructive and constructive emotions and behavior based on them is not a neurotic dualism. Destructive is destructive. Constructive is constructive. Something leads to more happiness and something leads to more unhappiness, and it’s just a matter of not being confused about it. So if we are acting destructively on the basis of confusion, or somebody else is acting destructively on the basis of confusion, then what’s the proper response? The appropriate response is compassion, “I wish that you were free from this confusion,” rather than “You’re bad. I must punish you,” and also compassion for ourselves, rather than guilt and, “I have to punish myself, because I’m so bad.”
Question: But isn’t it the easy way out? Like, for example I got angry with somebody, and I know that I should now be compassionate toward myself and do meditation on compassion, but is that all? Shouldn’t I make an effort to find out why I got angry in the first place? I mean, there’s a reason why I did that. Shouldn’t I investigate? Is it enough to just feel compassion for myself?
Answer: The question is, when we get angry with someone, is it sufficient to just feel compassion for ourselves, “I wish that I weren’t so confused that I didn’t get angry.” Isn’t it helpful to investigate, “Why did I get angry? Why did I act like this?” – to find out the cause.
So, it is helpful to work through this Western psychological level of “why I was upset.” I wouldn’t say it’s useless, it’s not useless at all, but don’t just leave it at that, because you can still be stuck with, “Well, but I’m bad. I’m bad because of this or that reason. I understand why I’m bad, but I’m still bad.” Or we transfer it, “My parents were bad; they treated me not nicely.”
All these questions that you bring up are really very important questions, particularly when we are approaching Buddhism from a Western background. It’s very important to differentiate, disentangle our Western way of thinking from the Buddhist way of thinking, so that we understand really what Buddhism is speaking about.
Question: Within Buddhism is there a collection of positive karma and a collection of negative karma, and if we act in a positive way and build up positive karma, then this is going to influence our next rebirth positively, and if we build up negative karma, then we can be reborn as a dog? Yes, it’s true that there’s no judge, there’s no punisher, but it all works in an almost mechanical type of way. Is cause and effect deterministic?
Answer: No, no, no. Karma is very, very complex. When we speak about a, what’s usually translated as a “collection,” I really don’t like that word, because we’re not talking about a collection of stamps; it’s not like that. OK, you don’t collect stamps, but we can collect points, and if you get a hundred points you win the game and you get a good rebirth. So the word is, I prefer a “network,” rather than “collection,” because there’s a potential, potential force, from all the various things that we’ve done and these network together.
Now, we can speak in terms of these networks which are samsara-building, some which are liberation-building, and some which are enlightenment-building, and it depends very much on the dedication, the motivation and the dedication, behind an act. If we do it with the motivation and dedication that, “May this act as a cause for gaining liberation from samsara,” it goes into the liberation-building folder in our computer and you save it in that; if we dedicate it to enlightenment, it goes into the enlightenment folder; if we don’t dedicate it at all, then the default setting, where it automatically goes, is into the samsara folder.
And it can either go into the folder for improving our samsara, or a folder of making the samsaric situation much worse. It is not so simple that just one little thing is activated for a rebirth; it’s usually quite a combination of factors from both the positive and negative networks. So it’s not so simple. And is it deterministic? No, determinism implies that there’s an external force, like a god, who determines and decides what’s going to happen; there’s nothing like that in Buddhism. But whatever happens is understandable in terms of cause and effect; that’s very different from it being determined.
Question: What about free will?
Answer: Free will implies – these are very good questions – free will is also a Western way of thinking, which means that I could decide to do anything, independent of the causes for it. If I had free will, I could start to speak to you in Zulu, but I don’t, I can’t do that, because I never learned Zulu. So we can only do those things that we’ve built up the causes for. From our point of view we choose what to do, but whatever we choose to do is for a reason, so it can be understood.
Question: Could you give an example for this, please?
Answer: I could decide to eat, have vanilla ice cream or chocolate ice cream. Whichever one I choose, there will be a reason why I choose it. I experience it as, “I have a choice,” but there’s a reason in terms of “I just ate that flavor before,” or “I really like it,” or whatever. But from my point of view, I experience it as, “I have a choice. Of course I have a choice.”
Question: In the end, is it clear in Buddhism what is wrong and what is false? I understand there’s no God, like in Christianity or other religions, but if I do positive deeds, then I get higher, and if I do negative deeds I have negative results. But then, is it clear that there’s nothing in between, that either I do good deeds or I do bad deeds?
Answer: In other words, mechanical.
Question (cont’d): Yes, mechanical?
Question: We want to accumulate good karma so that we can help to free others, and so again it comes to a dualistic thing.
Answer: First of all it’s not so simple, because we can do a positive thing for a negative motivation, “I will help you so that you will love me and never leave me,” so the action has a certain result, the motivation can have quite a different result. The negative motivation will weaken the effect of a positive action, and a positive motivation will weaken the effect of a negative action, so it’s more complex.
And does it work in a mechanical type of way? Yes, you’d have to say that, in the sense that it works in an impersonal type of way.
Now, we want to be able to benefit others and help free others and so on, but just getting a better samsaric rebirth can in some cases... we don’t want to really be reborn in one of the god realms, because then we don’t do anything, we’re boring, and so it’s not just that. We want to get a precious human rebirth so that we have more opportunities to help others, but basically we want to accumulate the causes for achieving liberation and enlightenment, and not achieving a better samsara.
But to really answer your question that opens up a very, very large discussion, which I don’t know that we really want to go into it, which is the discussion of the reality, how do you establish the reality of laws and categories, such as what is correct and what’s incorrect – they don’t just exist somewhere out there by themselves in big boxes like categories – and this has to do with concepts, mental labeling and so on. Buddhism has a great deal to say about that, because categories and laws are things which are mentally labeled, which are imputed, that have to do with concepts. Conventionally, things are correct or incorrect in terms of what can be verified, to help us to understand things, to make sense of things.
Question: The Buddhist teaching is to overcome these categories? To overcome these solid categories and solid laws so that we can then gain liberation?
Answer: Yes, we want to go in that direction, but it’s a middle path; we don’t want to lose the conventional truth. On the one hand there aren’t these solid laws and solid categories existing out there, but on the other hand it’s not that everything is chaos and nothing makes sense whatsoever. We can make sense of things; that is through mental labeling, through concepts and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is to think that things actually correspond to that solidly in reality. Concepts are useful, otherwise we can’t have language; without language you can’t communicate; without communication you can’t help others.
Question: How do we come out of duality?
Answer: By not ascribing impossible ways of existing to things; by not giving and projecting impossible ways of existing to these categories. We think they really exist out there, “There’s a box of good. There’s a box of bad.”
Question: Isn’t this similar to Christianity, where we have this dualism: good karma and bad karma, and going to heaven or going to hell.
Answer: Again, This is mixing in non-Buddhist ideas with Buddhism. If you throw all of that out, both the Buddhist teaching and the Biblical teaching together, and you say, “Well, there’s no good or bad, there’s no positive or negative actions,” then the absurd conclusion follows that it doesn’t matter what we do; we can do anything, it doesn’t make any difference. There are certain types of behavior that produce suffering and others that don’t produce suffering, that produce happiness, and this can be verified by experience.
And, as I said, there’s no good, there’s no bad, there’s no judgment, there’s no reward, there’s no punishment. And when we were speaking about heavens and hells and these other categories, remember, we were talking about what I explained earlier, mind is capable of experiencing far more – further on the spectrum of pain and further on the spectrum of pleasure – than what we can do on the basis of a human apparatus. I don’t think that we really have to take literally various descriptions – although they are a bit helpful to help us to understand – of the hells and the heavens and like that, but just leave it at the level of, “it is possible for a mind to experience an awful lot more suffering and not fall unconscious, an awful lot of pleasure and not destroy it as we can now.”
Leave it at that. Don’t worry about “they have wings,” or “they’re upside down in molten lava,” and so on; that’s in a way to illustrate it – and how do we know what it looks like? We don’t. And then we go back to that whole discussion of dualism, there isn’t fear based on it; it’s just clear: if I act this way, this is what’s going to happen; if I act like that, that’s going happen. It’s not a law that somebody invented; it’s not a law that’s sitting out there in the sky somewhere; this is just experientially what happens. When you are hungry, in order to get rid of the pain and suffering of hunger, you need to eat, and if you eat you won’t feel the pain of hunger anymore, if you don’t eat you will suffer more from hunger. Is that some law that God created or the legislature created?
Question: It’s a natural law.
Answer: It’s a natural law, exactly.
Question: God is nature?
Answer: Now we get into a whole discussion of “what is God.” Let’s not go there. But if we eat and get rid of the pain of hunger, does that make us good? And if we don’t eat we’re bad? Is there a dualism here? No, that’s just the way it is. There are two options here, but that doesn’t make it into a dualism.
Question: Does enlightenment say we go beyond dualism or not?
Answer: Then we have to define dualism in Buddhism and this is a very important point. In Buddhism we have several different definitions, because there are several different systems of Indian Buddhist philosophy. One definition of it, from the Mind-Only school, is that when we are aware of something, the mental appearance and the mind that knows it come from the same source, a seed of karma, they don’t come from different sources. This is that our experience – basically, how we experience the world – comes from the mind.
If I see you as a most attractive person, or I see you as a monster, that mental appearance and the mind that perceives it are both coming from the same source. It’s not dual; it’s not coming from different things. It’s not that you’re actually from your side like that. Or if we all take a picture of you with a Polaroid camera and hold up our pictures, they’re all different, aren’t they? That’s what we see, so it’s coming from our mind, from our point of view of the mind.
Are we seeing different people? That becomes a different question. So nondual in that sense. Also, if we speak in the terminology of mahamudra and so on, we can say the same, that the clear light mind, the deepest level of mind, is producing both the appearance that we perceive as well as the grosser consciousness that perceives it. They’re not coming from different sources. Nondual doesn’t mean one; it doesn’t mean that a mind is identical with the object – remember “one,” table and table – it’s not one, nondual doesn’t mean one. Nondual means that they’re not coming from something different.
Now, if we look in Madhyamaka philosophy, the middle way philosophy, which is what we follow in Tibetan Buddhism, then duality is described as an appearance which is different from the way that things actually exist. Mind produces an appearance of an impossible way of existing, like, “I’m the center of the universe. I’m the most important.” That is dual with the way that I actually exist. And so in fact there is no duality, because that appearance of “being the most important in the world” isn’t referring to anything real; there isn’t the most important person in the world, me, and a me that’s interrelated with everybody; there isn’t that dualism, because this me that’s the center of the world, the most important, doesn’t exist at all.
Although it appears like and it feels like that, but that’s because of our confusion. And the problem is we believe it and then we act on that basis, “I have to get my way,” “I’m always right.” So, this is what we mean by dualism and nondual in Buddhism. One always needs to look at the definitions.
Question: Now we got carried away.
Answer: Well, there are two possible ways of conducting a course, particularly when it’s with a group to whom the teacher is new and with a teacher to whom the group is new, two different ways of conducting a course. One is that, “We have decided on the protocol and the program, and here is step one, two, three, four, and I don’t care what is going on on your side. I will go through the protocol step by step and do the program.”
The other is to get to know each other, and we get to know each other by you asking questions and me responding – so that in this way things that you might have not been clear about before, that have been bothering you, questions, or you haven’t received answers that were completely satisfying – to see if the way I explain it helps to clarify; so it’s a process of getting to know each other. I think that although we have gone quite a bit astray from our theme, that maybe it’s not so bad for a first meeting with a group, and tomorrow we can try to stick a little bit more to the protocol.
So, we have just five minutes left, so why don’t we do the closing dedication prayers, and remember, as I said, it’s so important to have a dedication at the end, and think of the analogy of the computer, I find that very helpful. You have to press the save button and save the positive force into the enlightenment folder. If you don’t press that save button the automatic setting is that it’s going to go into the “improve samsara” folder. And as a result of this discussion we’ll be able to have clever, entertaining discussions over coffee with our friends that they will find amusing and interesting. So it improves samsara a little bit, but it’s not going to contribute to enlightenment. Therefore the dedication is very, very important.
And the motivation beforehand is likewise extremely important. Jhado Rinpoche, the retired abbot of his Holiness the Dalai Lama’s monastery, gave a very clear explanation of this – he was saying this in his explanation of Kalachakra practice – he said that if, before you do the practice, your motivation is very, very clear – that you want whatever positive force that comes from this to contribute to your enlightenment for the benefit of everybody – then it doesn’t matter how terrible your practice goes. If your practice is completely filled with mental wandering and so on, still, whatever positive force comes from that will contribute to enlightenment, will go in the enlightenment folder. But if you have no awareness, no clear state of mind with the motivation, then even if you do a perfect practice, without the motivation of it, “May it contribute to enlightenment,” again, it will just go in the “improving samsara” folder.
So the motivation before and the dedication at the end are absolutely essential, more important than how much we understand a practice or a teaching and how well we pay attention. Obviously, if we have both the motivation and dedication, as well as the understanding and concentration, it’s much better. But this gives us great hope, actually, because often our meditation doesn’t go so well; often we get confused in class, we don’t understand what’s going on; we do these pujas and we have no idea really what’s going on; and we’re not into it at all, we don’t feel anything – of course that’s going to happen, it’s samsara, what do you expect? Nevertheless, if the motivation is there in the beginning and the dedication at the end, it contributes to enlightenment. This is why teachers always put the emphasis on the motivation and the dedication.
We think, whatever positive force has come from all of our discussion today, may this act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (75%)