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What Needs to Be Understood in Order to Have a Bodhichitta Aim

Alexander Berzin
Riga, Latvia, July 2004

Session Two: Becoming Convinced of Enlightenment

Alexander Berzin
Riga, Latvia, July 2004

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (22:45)

Review: The Importance of Having an Accurate Idea of Enlightenment

With bodhichitta – relative bodhichitta is what we are talking about here – it's very important to have an accurate mental representation of enlightenment, an accurate idea of what enlightenment is. Otherwise it's like we're aiming to get somewhere else – it's like if we're aiming to go to Lithuania and we imagine Estonia, we'd be going on the wrong road, going in the wrong direction. And so unless we have an accurate picture of what enlightenment is, we're aiming for some sort of fantasy thing which is impossible to achieve. I mean obviously in the example of going to Lithuania or Estonia from Latvia, we could arrive in either place, but usually when we have an inaccurate perception of enlightenment, it can either be something that's possible or something that's impossible. If it's possible, we're not going to be enlightened, so we fool ourselves if we achieve it; and if it’s impossible, then we can never achieve that. It's very important to have it accurate. That requires study – hearing the description, understanding it, and so on.

Becoming Convinced of Our Own Personal Enlightenment (continued)

In order to achieve enlightenment – that future enlightenment which has not yet happened – we need to have the strong intention to achieve it. And as I said, to have that strong intention to achieve it, for that to be really sincere and well-founded, it has to be based on being convinced that it actually is possible to achieve it, and not just because we could be convinced that it is possible to achieve something impossible. So it has to be being convinced that it's something that actually is valid. This is not easy, to become convinced that my personal enlightenment is possible. This requires really a great deal of investigation, and study, and thought. So we shouldn't trivialize this point. If we are aiming for liberation or enlightenment, then as I said, if we're not convinced that we can achieve it, then our whole spiritual path is very unstable.

So how can we become convinced? Well, my teacher said that it was possible; Buddha said that it was possible; and so I believe them because they are valid sources of information. There's no reason why they would lie, particularly not Buddha. And so on that basis we could accept it and believe it is true. Certainly, believing it on that basis – "Well, I relied on a valid source of information: Buddha" – can get us started on the path of working toward liberation and enlightenment, without thinking that it is completely crazy. But when our belief is challenged by friends and relatives who are not Buddhists, who say, “Oh come on, this is just propaganda, you are brainwashed into believing this,” then we start to become a little bit unstable because, well, how do we answer that? “I believe in Buddha, and he wouldn't lie to me” – that's not so stable, is it?

But if we're following the spiritual path of Buddhism just to learn how to be a nice person, and to get along better with other people in this life, and to have less difficulties in dealing with our life situation – you don’t have to be Buddhist to do that. Many, many religions and philosophies teach us that. Maybe the Buddhist way of doing it is appealing, but that's not really Buddhism. Buddhism is all about achieving liberation and enlightenment. That's what is specifically Buddhist.

Even liberation, what is that? Liberation is liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth – samsara. Well, if we don’t believe in rebirth, how can we aim for getting liberated from it? And how can we aim for enlightenment in which we're going to be able to help everybody else get free from rebirth? Almost all Indian religions and philosophies – Hinduism, Jainism and so on – all of those are aiming for liberation from samsara, so that in itself is not particularly Buddhist. What's Buddhist is understanding what are the causes of samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and what does liberation from it actually mean. So if we just aim for liberation, it has to be accurate, what Buddha taught about it, and conviction that that's possible – otherwise we're aiming for a different type of liberation.

This is why His Holiness the Dalai Lama and so many of the great masters emphasize the need to study, to learn, and to understand the various teachings. Otherwise our following the spiritual path merely on the level of emotion and devotion is not going to be stable. On the other hand, if you just have learning without the emotional or devotional side, it also doesn't work because we don't have the energy. We need a balance of all of these; you can't leave out any of them.

So, to develop bodhichitta, relative bodhichitta, we need to be convinced that it's possible to gain not only liberation, but also enlightenment. So we have to have a clear idea of what liberation is, what enlightenment is, and that it's possible to achieve it and that I'm capable of achieving it. So, as I said, there's many things that we need to understand and be convinced that are true, based not just on believing somebody else telling us this, but also that it makes sense to us by reason, by logic. We cannot know it through bare perception until we actually experience it.

The Continuity of Mental Activity

So, one of the first things that we need to understand and be convinced of is that individual mental continuums, what we call “mind”, has no beginning and no end, which of course then implies rebirth. That's not an easy one, not at all. Because the achievement of enlightenment, although it is said it can be done in one lifetime, that almost never, never, never, never, never happens. There's one final lifetime in which it occurs, but unless we have built up a tremendous amount of causes from previous lifetimes, it's not going to happen in this lifetime. So we need to be able to aim for the achievement of something that is going to happen quite far in the future. So we have to really understand and become convinced that there is going to be continuity, otherwise it's hopeless – I cannot really be able to do it in this lifetime, I am too busy and I have to work and I have all these other responsibilities, so why even bother? But if we're convinced of beginningless and endless mind, then as is said in general Indian philosophy – actually it comes from one of the Upanishads, an early pre-Hindu scripture – there's no loss of a beginning once made. Even if we're very old, if you start – just study, start to practice – the habits, the instincts of that will carry on to future lives.

So this is not the place, the time or occasion to go into a detailed discussion of beginningless and endless mind, but the basic argument that we need to investigate is to understand what is a continuity of something. And here we're talking about a continuity of what we were explaining before, this subjective individual mental activity, and to understanding that it makes absolutely no sense in terms of cause and effect: how it can start from just absolutely nothing or just some all-powerful being saying, “Let it be.” This is completely illogical. And if there's a continuity that is not degenerating, not getting weaker and weaker each moment, but it's continuing with an even level… So that requires of course understanding what we mean by mental activity. It's not like the body wearing out, but it [the mental continuum] doesn't wear out. And so if there's a continuity of something that does not wear out, it's absolutely illogical that it will come to an end, because it's always being affected by things. And so how can all of a sudden something affects it that would cause it to end? So this requires quite a lot of work to understand this. What we are talking about is a continuity of this mental activity, so we need to really understand what that mental activity is as we've described it, and look at the qualities of it and what accompanies it.

Unawareness of Reality

What is preventing our liberation? In other words, what's causing all our disturbing emotions is the unawareness of reality, basically. Depending on the text that we look at, the Indian text, either that means I just don’t know or I know incorrectly. What prevents omniscience, what prevents enlightenment – one of the main characteristics of that is omniscience, being able to know everything simultaneously – what prevents that are the habits of this unawareness. What those habits do is they cause the arising of appearances of things existing in impossible ways. The impossible way that it makes things appear is as if they were, from their own sides, validly, knowable things. It's sort of something from the side of the object, like a big solid line around it, or if we think three-dimensionally, a solid plastic encapsulation, that separates it from everything else and makes it an individual, validly knowable item. And so, because of that appearance-making, it's like we perceive things through a periscope, from a submarine. You just look through a little thing and we only see what is in front of our noses. We're not able to see the interconnectedness of absolutely everything because we are encapsulating everything and seeing everything as this knowable item and that knowable item just by itself, isolated and very limited in the scope.

And even if we know that things don’t really exist the way that the mind makes it appear – the limited mind makes it appear – nevertheless that type of limited appearance is arising; and because of that, that prevents us from seeing the interconnectedness of all the karma, of absolutely everybody, of everything. And so because of that we can't really help everybody fully. Why? Because we don’t know all the possible causes from beginningless time of everybody that has interacted to [explain] why a person is the way they are now. And we don’t know if I teach this person this, what the effects of that are going to be in terms of every future life of this being, and on everybody else that this person ever contacts and interrelates with, influenced by what I taught. That's what a Buddha knows. But because we are seeing things encapsulated and through the periscope, we're very limited, we can't see all that.

And so it's these habits of this confusion, this unawareness, that is causing this limitation. So we need to become convinced that the unawareness, which causes all the disturbing emotions, and the habits of unawareness, are something which even though they might not have any beginning, can have an end. It's possible to remove them – that's what we need to become convinced of in order to become convinced that it's possible to achieve liberation and enlightenment.

Getting Rid of Unawareness

We talk about the unawareness – if we get rid of that, we get rid of the disturbing emotions. If we talk about that, unawareness cannot occur at the same time as awareness. Either you understand or you don’t understand. If we can develop awareness and understanding and have that all the time, there wouldn't be unawareness any more.

So the question is, which is stronger, awareness and understanding or not understanding? And we'd have to say that awareness is stronger. It can override the unawareness because it's based on reason and can be corroborated and so on, and also with awareness we produce more happiness; unawareness produces suffering. And unawareness, the more we investigate, the more we see that this is just not true. There's nothing backing it up. This unawareness is not part of the nature of mental activity. Although we can stop and get rid of that unawareness because there's something which is the exact opposite, mutually exclusive with it, there's nothing which is mutually exclusive, opposite of this mental activity, because we've already gone through the argument in terms of beginningless and endless mind, that you can't have a moment in the continuity in which that mental activity is not existing anymore. And so you can't oppose mental activity with no mental activity and get rid of it that way. You can't stop the mental activity, it's going to go on forever – but you can stop the unawareness.

So the negative qualities, the disturbing qualities and so on – that we can get rid of. The positive qualities, like love and compassion and so on – that's not something which can be opposed with the opposite. Love is the wish for others to be happy and so on. Well, the opposite of that would be hatred, wishing somebody to suffer. Well, that's based on unawareness, not really understanding the nature of people, and how we're interrelated, and everybody wants to be happy, and so on. So the positive qualities – the more we investigate them, they're supported by awareness; and the negative qualities – there's just unawareness behind it, which doesn't have any firm basis. So the positive qualities are something that can be increased more and more and more and more, whereas the negative qualities are something that can be eliminated. This is something we have to really work with and try to understand. So, it is possible then to achieve liberation now if I can stay focused on this awareness, the understanding of voidness.

Now, what about the habits of unawareness? The habits which are causing this deceptive appearance of things having what's called “true existence,” with lines around them? That is working through the fact that at this moment I have limited apparatus, like limited hardware. The level of mind is gross, or what's called subtle but that is still not the subtlest level, and so that's limited. And the level of the body is limited – I have to depend on these eyes and the brain and so on. It’s limited. But if we look just at the nature of that mental activity itself that's giving rise to appearances and knowing – well, that doesn't need to be limited by the hardware. This is where we get into the highest class of tantra – there's this clear light level of mental activity, and that's actually what goes on from lifetime to lifetime, what has no break of continuity. The rough body, the rough consciousness of a human, or a fly, or whatever – that ceases at the time of death. But this underlying subtlest level, which is this pure mental activity – that goes on and that's not necessarily limited. It doesn't have to be limited. And if it's not limited, well, that subtlest mental activity, that subtlest level of mental activity – that doesn't make appearances that are encapsulated with lines around it. It's more subtle than that.

What we want to do is to get to that level and maintain it all the time; not have the grosser levels operating. So, if we could get to that clear light level, and maintain it without the gross levels happening, then we can't say that there is any longer a habit of unawareness – this habit of giving rise to these deceptive appearances. We can only say that there's still a habit if it's possible for there to be a future occurrence of it. If it's not possible for there to be a future occurrence of a result of this habit – this deceptive appearance-making – then that was a past habit. You can't say that it's a present habit because a habit means that it can generate another instance of what it's a habit of. And so from that point of view, thinking in that way, we can become convinced that it's possible to get rid of the habits of this unawareness as well.

And so, because that clear light activity, mental activity, doesn't have to be associated with a limited body or a limited grosser mind, then it can be the basis for all the different aspects of a Buddha. It will have what we call the three Bodies, the three Corpuses of a Buddha. There will be Dharmakaya, which is the Corpus that Encompasses Everything, in other words the omniscient mind. Because we're talking about appearance-making and knowing, so there's no limit in terms of this apparatus – the body and so on – if there's nothing that would prevent it from making an appearance of everything. So it makes an appearance of everything, it'sall-knowing. And the quality of compassion and love, all that – that's equal to absolutely everybody. There's no limitation – it's not only with this one or only with that one.

And it's also one of the features, defining character features, it's giving rise to appearances – so it's giving rise to appearances of not only what it knows, but giving rise to appearances of itself. And so we have it giving rise to subtle appearances and grosser appearances – that's called Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya from the sutra point of view. Or we can talk about Sambhogakaya from a highest tantra point of view, that it's giving rise to communication, to subtle vibrations that communicate. And because it's not associated with a limited body or a limited anything, it can communicate to everybody in a way that they can understand, and can appear in millions of forms simultaneously. So we have Sambhogakaya and we have Nirmanakaya. Everybody has individual continuity of clear light awareness, clear light consciousness, clear light mind.

Conclusion

So on this basis we can have very stable bodhichitta because we're convinced that it's possible to achieve liberation and enlightenment, that it's possible for me to do that as well. Well, but it's only possible if I put in the effort, so we have to also know what the path is that's going to lead to it, and the various steps are that will lead to it. And then we need to know the benefits of achieving this – why would I want to achieve this? And what am I going to do with it? Then we can develop bodhichitta through the stages of how do I work myself up to actually aiming to do it? So, these are the steps that we need to take if we're going to do it very, very thoroughly, and on a stable level of having bodhichitta, this relative bodhichitta.

So it's possible to achieve enlightenment; method for doing it; benefits of doing it; and then, how do I actually motivate myself to do it. Those are the steps. That's I think all for this morning. I've explained this at a little bit deeper level, but I think that that can be also very helpful. There's the teachings on the actual methods for achieving it – these are very, very widely known, so what we need to have is the foundation for being able to really apply them.

So we end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding we've gained, may it go deeper and deeper, and act as cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.