Advice for Studying Voidness (Emptiness)
Morelia, Mexico, April 2004
edited by Martin Seidensticker and Alexander Berzin
Voidness (emptiness) is one of the most important topics in the Buddha’s teachings and one of the most difficult to understand. But, we mustn’t be afraid of voidness. As Shantideva, the great Indian master, explains in his Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, if we are going to be afraid of anything, it should be our ignorance, our unawareness, which is causing us all our problems. We shouldn’t be afraid of that thing, which, when we understand it, will get rid of the causes of our problems. It is like instead of being afraid of our enemies, such as thieves, bandits and murderers in the street, we are afraid of our bodyguard. And although voidness is not easy to understand, that is only natural. Why should we expect it to be easy to understand? If it were, then everyone would understand voidness and nobody would have any problems anymore.
To understand voidness or reality, we need to build up a tremendous amount of positive force, usually called “merit.” This cannot be stressed enough. Basically, positive force is built up by restraining ourselves from acting destructively. Now you might say, for example, “I don’t hunt and fish anyway,” so how does not engaging in those activities build up any positive force? But the point is, when that mosquito is buzzing around our arm or our face, to restrain ourselves from killing it, to find some other, more peaceful way, a nonviolent way, of dealing with the mosquito. This is obviously much more challenging and it is this refrain from acting destructively when we want to act that way that builds up positive force.
We also build up a great deal of positive force by actually engaging in constructive acts, like going to Dharma teachings, thinking about them, meditating on them and trying to understand them as much as possible. We also accumulate a great deal of positive force by helping others as much as we can, even though at our stage we often do not really know what to do that will be of best help. In addition, we need to try to rid ourselves of as much negative force or negative potential as we can with various purification practices. All of this helps us to be more open and our minds to be clearer and have more understanding. If our minds are closed or obscured with confusion, or we are always acting destructively and not trying to be more constructive, how can we possibly understand something as difficult to comprehend as voidness?
Similarly, when we want to listen to teachings or try to understand them, if we just sit down and start, it may be hard to make the transition from a busy mind to a clearer mind. To avoid that problem, we first recite the Manjushri mantra “OM ARA-PATSANA DHIH” many times and then just repeat as much as possible in one breath Manjushri’s seed syllable “DHIH-DHIH, DHIH-DHIH, DHIH-DHIH. Most Tibetans do this. However, it is essential that we repeat these with the strong intention for our minds to become clearer. On a more advanced level, we can add graphic visualizations to help make our minds clearer. But, if we are not able to visualize easily, there is no point in forcing it at an early stage; just repeating the mantra is quite sufficient.
All these preparations are very necessary to do, but in addition to them we especially need to have developed at least some level of a bodhichitta aim to reach enlightenment to be of best benefit to everyone. If we lack a strong motivation or positive emotion behind “Why do I want to understand this?” and “What do I want to do with this understanding?” then we won’t put much constructive energy into our efforts and there will not be much of a result from them. A strong motivation is absolutely necessary. The more open our hearts are to everybody – not to just every human being, but to every insect as well, everybody – and the more open our hearts are to enlightenment – the omniscience of a Buddha, which is really vast – the more our minds will be open to being able to understand voidness. We need to let go of tight, limited beliefs that we may have been holding up until now, such as: “I’m incapable of understanding, I’m not good enough.” We need to open up our minds to greater possibilities, which we can accomplish through building up this positive force with a bodhichitta aim and the mantra recitation. All of that will enable us eventually to understand voidness. Without all that, it will be extremely difficult.
Positive force works by providing the energy to break through our mental blocks. Our understanding will then grow deeper and deeper and all we’ve learned will network together so that we gradually see how everything fits into a holistic view. An analogy from physics might be helpful for understanding how we make a break-through. When you put more and more heat energy into ice, eventually it will undergo a phase transition and turn into water. If even more energy is added, it will transform into steam. Our practice progresses like that. We may stay at one level for quite some time, but in order to advance to the next level, we need to put in a tremendous amount of additional energy. With the energy of sufficient positive force, our mental continuum and the understanding it contains will undergo a phase transition. All of a sudden we will understand on a much more profound level.
It is also very important never to be satisfied with our present level of understanding. Until we are very advanced along the path – and we can be sure that we are not at that stage yet – we have neither understood fully, nor deeply enough. No matter how old we are or how many years we have been studying the Dharma, we can always revise and improve our understanding to get it even more precise. That, of course, necessitates studying and meditating even more and going even deeper. As our minds become more open and we become less frightened of the implications of voidness, we can comprehend more and more complicated, deeper explanations.
In order to progress in this way we need to be totally convinced of the importance and necessity of understanding voidness. In addition, we need to be convinced that it is something that not only can be known, but can be known fully. Even more importantly, we need to be convinced that “I can understand it fully; I am capable.” If we have low self-esteem, as many of us in the West do, this can be a great obstacle. To overcome low self-esteem, we need to work on the teachings concerning Buddha-nature – those factors that each of us possesses that enable us to attain Buddhahood.
Furthermore, we are never going to be able to understand voidness if we do not have at least some functional level of good concentration. Our concentration does not need to be perfect, but if our minds are constantly wandering or becoming dull and sleepy, there is no way we can even learn about, let alone understand voidness. How can we learn if we cannot even read a page without getting tired or mentally wandering?
We see, then, that if we really want to attain liberation and enlightenment, and help others to attain them as well, we need a great deal of preparation. When we understand that it is going to take a long time and that we have to proceed slowly, step by step, then we will have the patience for this great endeavor. We need to be realistic about the Buddhist path and particularly about trying to develop a sincere bodhichitta aim, which is extremely advanced and difficult to develop. It is important not to trivialize the aspiration to help all limited beings, by thinking it is unimportant or by reducing it to merely repeating words, “I’m practicing for the sake of all sentient beings.” In most cases, such words are devoid of deep feeling and quite meaningless. We must take bodhichitta seriously.
When we hear teachings on bodhichitta or on voidness that sound really easy, please be aware that this indicates that these topics are undoubtedly being simplified. The problem is not that they are being simplified; the problem is our arrogance and smugness about them because we think they are so easy. It is necessary that we first hear simplifications in order to comprehend what we are aiming to understand on a deeper level. Otherwise, we are just aiming for some sort of mysterious thing that we have no idea what it actually is, and so we soon lose interest. Or else we lose our way because we don’t have at least some idea what it is we are aiming for.
When we hear more complex explanations than what we are able to understand now, we need to have a proper attitude toward that as well. A proper, helpful attitude is to acknowledge that “Maybe I can’t understand this teaching now, but there are other people present in the room besides me and maybe they can understand it a little more deeply,” and so we rejoice in that. Everybody is going to understand at a different level. So whatever we understand, that’s fine; there is always something we don’t understand. That is the reality and we accept that. This is being realistic and we don’t have to be discouraged or embarrassed about the present level of our understanding.
It is important not to fall into the trap of convincing ourselves that we are stupid, which serves only to close our minds even further. Instead, we simply understand that “I am not quite at that level yet, as I am still very young in my studies.” By adopting this attitude, hearing more complex explanations can become inspiring, rather than depressing. That there are some people who understand now can also be a source of inspiration. Rather than being envious or jealous of them, we can be inspired and motivated to work harder so that we too can understand a little more.
Unless we have built up an unbelievable amount of positive force in previous lifetimes, we are not going to understand the first time we hear. We are not quite at the stage of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, was one of his teachers and accompanied His Holiness to every class he had with his other teachers. Rinpoche told me that you only had ever to explain something to His Holiness once and he immediately understood it. Not only did he understand it on first hearing, he remembered it on first hearing and never in the future would you have to repeat it to him. He retained everything he heard and studied perfectly. To have a mind capable of that requires a tremendous amount of positive force.
But we are not quite at that level yet, are we? Nevertheless, if he could build up enough positive force, we can do the same. Mental activity is just mental activity, no matter whose mental activity it is. And there is nothing special about any individual mental continuum. The only thing that makes any difference is the amount of positive and negative force built up on that mental continuum and affecting the quality of its mental activity. So, if we build up our positive force by training ourselves now, it will become easier and easier, not only in this life, but in future lives too, to make spiritual progress. But we will only train ourselves if we have the strong positive motivation to want to do that, based on understanding the great necessity to do so.
If we take future lives seriously, then even if we don’t fully understand how rebirth works or what exactly the Buddhist teachings about it are; nevertheless as we approach being a senior citizen, we will have an even stronger motivation and reason not to stop our study and practice. We will want to continue to train our minds so that we build up even more positive force. We will train even more strongly in building up good habits because we realize that strong positive habits are going to affect our future lives in a positive way.
Unless we have Alzheimer’s disease or something like that, we are always able to learn more and make a little more progress. I have a student in Berlin who is over eighty years old, but she doesn’t give up. She keeps coming to classes, even though she walks with canes and it is difficult for her to travel. But she puts in the effort and comes, and she tries to understand. This is very inspiring to everyone there.
So, especially if we are young, don’t give up: there is potential for a lot of work ahead. Life is complicated, so we shouldn’t imagine that the Buddhist path is not going to be complicated. Often teachers say that if we are attracted to a path that is easy, in that it doesn’t demand too much work and is speedy, that is an indication of our laziness.
Before we get down to the subject-matter, voidness, let me point out a few general things concerning the study of voidness that might serve as a basis for reviewing this seminar in the future, working with it and going more deeply into the points I want to raise.
The main purpose of visiting teachers is to offer a dose of new material, or to explain what you have already studied, but perhaps in a more advanced way or from another angle. Visiting teachers are only with you for a short time. There is no possibility of going into each point slowly so that everyone understands it. There is no time for that. Rather, a visiting teacher can only present a synopsis. This is true even when His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches to large gatherings. For most of us, the main thing we can do is to gather the material and then work on it later to add the details and discover the implications. So be patient. What you can understand on the first hearing – very good. What you don’t understand is also very good as you can work on it later with your teachers and among yourselves and thus go further and deeper. To understand voidness takes time. In Berlin, for example, I have been teaching the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, which is on voidness, for two and a half years once a week and we are only one third of the way through!
We also need to appreciate the language problem. The original Sanskrit, like the Tibetan, is incredibly precise in defining terms for all the different aspects of voidness. It’s not easy to find equivalents in our Western languages. It becomes even more difficult when we have misleading translations based on translation terms made up fifty or a hundred years ago. In those days, translators didn’t have much material available to them to help them make better choices of terminology. The difficulty is further compounded when we are translating from English, which itself lacks the precise terms, into Spanish or any other second language.
If we are serious and really want to understand, then at this point in the history of the spread of Buddhism, we need to learn the original Asian languages. Unless we are very gifted, it is not necessary as students and practitioners to learn the entire language and become a translator. Rather, what is essential is learning the technical terms in their original forms. Most translators, if they are kind, will at least give a glossary of the terms they are translating, or like me, put the Tibetan and Sanskrit originals into every article. That helps the reader to know what the article is talking about.
The biggest problem with Dharma studies in the West and in modern Asia, and particularly regarding voidness, is that every book you read translates the words differently so you don’t know how to put different presentations together. The only way out of this difficulty is to learn the original terms. Then, when you have visiting teachers with sufficient training and you are confused as to what they are talking about, you can ask them which term they are discussing. This is a big problem we face nowadays and although it means a lot of work, I don’t see any other way out of it. We are never going to get all the translators to agree on terms.
It is always helpful to put the teachings into perspective and, in this instance, we can approach voidness from the perspective of the four noble truths.
The first noble truth speaks of true suffering, most importantly all-pervasive suffering, the fact that our tainted aggregates – body, mind, emotions, etc. – come from and are accompanied by unawareness of reality. Because they are like that, our tainted aggregates continue to perpetuate themselves with uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara). If we do nothing to stop it, the cycle will go on forever.
The cause of the cycle of rebirths going on and on like that, coming from unawareness, accompanied by unawareness, and perpetuating even more unawareness, is obvious. The cause for that is the unawareness of reality; in other words, unawareness of voidness. That is the second noble truth, the true cause that brings about this basic all-pervasive suffering.
The third noble truth concerns true stoppings. What do we want a true stopping of? We want a true stopping of this unawareness of reality, the unawareness of voidness.
What will get rid of our unawareness so that it never recurs? A true pathway mind that understands voidness nonconceptually and thus rids us of this unawareness forever. In so doing, such a pathway mind also rids us forever of true suffering. That is the fourth noble truth, a true pathway mind that understands voidness.
So we can see how the four noble truths are all about voidness. They outline what happens when we don’t understand it and what happens when we do.
What, then, is this unawareness? To understand this, we need to go back to the question: what is mental activity? We can describe mental activity as the making of a mental hologram of something. This making of a mental hologram of something is equivalent to knowing that object, either seeing it, hearing it, thinking it, and so on. After all, the only thing that is happening when we see something is that light from an object hits the photosensitive cells of our eyes; this gets translated into electrical impulses and chemical processes; and the individual subjective experience occurs of awareness of a mental hologram that represents the object.
This is all that mental activity is. There is no separate “me,” separate from this whole process, which is making it happen and is using a machine called “mind” to make it happen. Nor is there a “me” sitting somewhere in our heads, separate from the mental activity, and observing it happening. Individual, subjective mental activity is just happening. However, because of our habits of unawareness of reality, our mental activity produces mental holograms of things that do not exist, for instance that there is a “me” existing independently from this mental activity, who is seeing or thinking something. And what is so horrible about it is that it also feels like that: It feels as if there is a separately existing “me.”
Unawareness is a disturbing mental factor; it is one of the mental factors included in the aggregates that accompany the making of a mental hologram. More precisely, unawareness accompanies our cognition of the mental hologram and is a certain way of cognitively taking this hologram – a certain way of knowing it.
We can understand the way unawareness cognitively takes an object on two levels. The first level is that unawareness simply doesn’t know that what appears to it does not correspond to anything real. It just doesn’t know that what appears is something impossible. The deeper, Prasangika level of understanding is that unawareness knows its object inversely, in other words it takes its object to correspond to something real, which is the inverse of what is correct. It’s not just that it doesn’t know that what appears is impossible; unawareness really takes it to be possible.
When we know that what appears does not correspond to what is real, it’s just not possible – which is what we need to know when we know voidness – we are dealing with a negation phenomenon. In the discussion of what exists and what doesn’t exist, what exists is anything that can be validly known. What doesn’t exist can be known, for instance something impossible such as invaders from the fifth dimension, but it can’t be validly known.
What exists – what can be validly known – can be divided in several ways. One way is the division into things that are static and things that are nonstatic, but there is another way of dividing this pie. Our pie of what exists, what can be validly known, can also be divided into affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa) and negation phenomena (dgag-pa): phenomena that are affirmations and phenomena that are negations. Think of static and nonstatic dividing the pie horizontally and affirmation and negation dividing it vertically.
We have to be careful here. We are not talking about positive and negative such as something that is constructive or destructive. An example of an affirmation phenomenon is “a glass” and a negation phenomenon is “not a glass.” When we see an object, we can validly know “this is a glass” and we can also validly know “this is not a glass.” When we know an affirmation phenomenon, we are just affirming “this is a glass.” We do not have to know anything else in order to know “glass”; whereas to validly know “not a glass,” we had to know “glass” first before we could know “not a glass.”
This is a fascinating discussion that we could spend a very long time on, because we could get into the whole question about how does a baby learn? A baby first thinks that everything is food and puts everything into its mouth, but then it has to learn “not food,” doesn’t it?
There are two types of negation phenomenon. One is “this is not an apple.” The second type is “there are no apples.” In technical terminology, I like to call them implicative negations (ma-yin dgag) and non-implicative negations (med-dgag). Some other translators call them affirming and non-affirming negations.
It’s not necessary to go into the technical details at this point. “This is not an apple” and “there are no apples” are both negation phenomena, but they are different, aren’t they? The first one, “this is not an apple,” after negating “apple,” leaves behind “this.” In other words, we are left with a “this,” despite this “this” not being an apple. It is something else, other than an apple. Whereas “there are no apples” doesn’t leave anything behind after negating “apples.” There simply are no apples. That is the difference.
The second kind of negation phenomenon also has two types: “there are no apples” and “there are no invaders from the fifth dimension.” The first is “there are no something that could be there, but isn’t”; the second one is “there are no something that is impossible and could never be there.” Voidness is the second type of negation phenomenon. There is no such thing as a referent object of this mental hologram of something impossible. Another way of saying it is that voidness is a total absence: a total absence of a referent object that corresponds to the mental hologram.
For instance, a child has a mental hologram of a monster under the bed and is frightened by it. But there is no such thing as a monster; the mental hologram does not correspond to anything real. The child’s fright is not based on seeing or hearing an actual monster under the bed and then the mind making a mental hologram of it. There is a total absence of a monster under the bed. The mental hologram of one arises simply from the child’s fright. This is an example of a nonimplicative negation of an object that doesn’t correspond to reality.
Voidness, however, is a nonimplicative negation of a mode of existence that doesn’t correspond to reality – for instance that a cat exists as a monster. When a child imagines that the cat under the bed is a monster, the mental hologram does not come from an actual monster under the bed. It comes from projecting an impossible mode of existence onto the cat that is actually there. Voidness, then, is a total absence of a referent mode of existence that corresponds to the mode of existence that appears in the mental hologram. Nothing exists as a monster; that’s an impossible mode of existence because there is no such thing as a monster.
Our mental holograms of impossible things and impossible ways of existing are just the creations of the habits of our unawareness. They don’t come from valid cognition of what actually exists, like when we validly see something, hear something and so on through an accurate mental hologram of it. But, because of the habits of paranoia, for instance, the mind projects mental holograms of everybody being against us. But that’s impossible. Maybe one or two people are against us, but not everybody that ever existed hates us. Yet the person with paranoia feels it and believes that everyone is against him or her. To this person, it is real; but in fact it is not real. Perceiving this mental hologram of something impossible really upsets the person; yet it does not correspond to anything real.
Again, to know “this is not an apple,” we need to know “apple.” Therefore to know that “there is no such thing as this impossible thing” we need to know “this impossible thing.” However, we cannot validly know something that is impossible, because it is nonexistent. So how do we validly know something that is impossible in order to know that there is no such thing? The solution is that we can validly know the appearance of something impossible, although we cannot validly know the impossible thing itself. Because we can validly know in this indirect way what is impossible, Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition, emphasizes “knowing the object to be refuted.” We need to know what is being negated in order to know that there is no such thing. If we cannot correctly identify what it is that’s impossible in the mental holograms that our mental activity makes appear to us, we are never going to be able to refute and be rid of believing in it.
In terms of the appearances of what is impossible, we have projections of many different levels of impossible modes of existence; it is not just the projection of one impossible mode. The different Indian Buddhist philosophical positions, the so-called “tenet” systems, are extremely helpful to study because they help us to understand in a graded order what’s impossible.
We begin with the grossest level first, and once we have refuted it and rid ourselves of our belief in it, we go on to refuting subtler levels of projection of something impossible. By going through these schools in their graded order, we come to recognize ever subtler projections until eventually we rid ourselves of the subtlest projection of impossible modes of existence. However, only when we have rid ourselves of the first level of projection, does it become clear to us what deeper impossible modes are left over. Only then is it possible to rid ourselves of the next level. Without going through that process, it is really very difficult.
If we immediately go to the subtlest level of projection and negate that, the impossible mode of existence we refute may sound trivial. For instance, we ask ourselves, “Where is the self? Is it up our nose, under our arm pit, in our legs, in our stomach?” When we search, we can’t find the self – so what! Put in this way, the question of the self has become trivial. It’s trivialized because we have not gone through all the prior steps to realize what the question really means.
For example, when we come in out of the cold in winter and we want to get completely undressed, first we need to take off our coat; then we need to take off our sweater; then our shirt and finally our underwear. We can’t just take off our underwear without going through the other steps. I think that is a helpful image to remind us of the importance to go through each of these systems and really understand what they are talking about, although that takes patience and a long time. Each of the systems is complex and profound.
Nowadays, many books are available that are translations of Sanskrit and Tibetan texts that explain voidness on the deepest level. We have to ask, for whom were these texts originally intended? They were intended for monks that had been studying for a very long time. These books were never intended as beginners’ introductions to voidness! Tibetans training in the monasteries do not study these first; they need to study logic, debate and the various tenet systems for many years before they ever get to this material. So, although it is a long process, it is helpful to start with the so-called “simple” explanation of the first school of philosophical tenets and try to digest the implications of it before we go on to subtler, more advanced explanations.
As Shantideva says, if we can understand a basic principle on a simple level, then with this understanding as an analogy, we can go deeper and deeper. Let me give an example. The first school of Indian Buddhist tenet systems that we study is called Vaibhashika. This school points out that there are two types of true phenomena. There are things that seem to be solid and there are the atoms that they are made of. Both solid objects and their constituent atoms are correct descriptions of what appears to us. But because they are what appear from two different viewpoints, they are called the two truths.
If we think about it deeply, the level at which everything appears to be solid is the superficial level, also called the appearance level; while the deepest true phenomena are the atoms that constitute matter. Both phenomena – solid objects and atoms – are equally true, but one is a deeper truth. Think about it. This chair and my body are both collections of atoms. This means they are energy fields and mostly empty space. Nevertheless, I don’t fall through the chair to the floor. The implications of those two facts are extraordinary.
We can now understand the simile of everything being like an illusion. It’s like an illusion that the chair and my body are solid; they appear to be solid, but actually they’re both collections of atoms. Therefore, their solidity is like an illusion. But now we need to add the most important phrase after that, which is “Nevertheless, they still function: I don’t fall through the chair.” If we can really take in, think about and digest that things are like an illusion, because they appear to be solid yet they are not, and nevertheless they function – if we can accept that and deal with life in the light of this understanding without freaking out, then we are ready to go to the next level of a more subtle illusion.
The next level of illusion is that my mood, for example, appears to be solid, but is in fact a collection of tiny little moments, all of which are different. So the solidity of my mood is also like an illusion; yet nevertheless, this bad mood has functioned to make my day miserable.
Language is even more miraculous in how it functions, because all that ever happens at one moment, all we ever hear at one moment, is one tiny part of a sound of a letter of a word. In the next moment, that tiny sound doesn’t exist anymore; nevertheless, doesn’t it appear that the words and sentences that we and others say are solid and real? Their solidity is like an illusion; nevertheless we can communicate with each other.
Do not underestimate the Vaibhashika School and think it to be so simple that you can just skip over it with an “Ah, that’s just kid’s stuff.” It offers an incredibly profound insight into the world, which is true and takes a long time to digest and to be able to integrate into our lives. We can easily understand this insight intellectually as part of the tenet system, but it is only when we have digested it that we are emotionally ready to move on to the next level of projection. So the understanding that “everything is like an illusion, but nevertheless everything functions” is like a ladder. If we can understand it on the first rung of the ladder in terms of objects made of atoms and mental events made of moments, then we are ready to move on to the next rung of the ladder. We are ready to understand a subtler level of what is like an illusion, yet nevertheless functions. We need to start climbing this ladder by stepping on to the first rung first. The other rungs are too high and difficult to reach from the ground.
In the end, we will understand voidness on the deepest level: the mental holograms of persons, objects and events that appear to us are like an illusion. The way that they appear to exist does not correspond to how things actually exist. There is a total absence (a voidness) of that impossible mode of existence. Nevertheless, despite being like an illusion, everything functions.
Question: Is the child’s projection of the monster under the bed the same kind of phenomenon as our adults’ neurotic projections about, for example, loving or hating particular people? Does the fact that we adults have been conditioned for a long time, while children have not, make a difference?
Alex: The projections of adults and children are basically the same kind of phenomenon: they both are disturbing occurrences that automatically arise. We don’t have to teach the child to project a monster under the bed, and we don’t have to teach an adult to love or hate someone. On a simple level, we can say that we all exaggerate, both children and adults. We add things that are not there or exaggerate what is there. Anger, for example, exaggerates the negative qualities of someone. We exaggerate the importance of “you said that to me...!” to the exclusion of everything else in our relationship with the person, and then we get angry.
We can also exaggerate positive qualities and, for example, become attracted to another person based on a certain look that he or she gave us. With unawareness, we either don’t know that this inflated mental hologram does not correspond to the actual person, or we take it in the opposite way: “Yes! This person is the most fantastic one in the world.” In fact, it is just a person who looked at us in a certain way.
The influence of our society and culture can reinforce our automatic tendency to exaggerate the positive and negative aspects of persons, events and objects. But even without that influence, we will still get angry or become attached to things by exaggerating something about them. Likewise, children may be taught about monsters by their society, yet they will still automatically become frightened by noises that they hear in the night.
Question: Going back to the person undressing. Is it that the different tenet systems have the aim to give us graded stages through which we can rid ourselves of the different levels of our own projections?
Alex: Yes, this is the way the Tibetans understand it. Historically, the tenet systems developed individually in India at different times and often in different places. Originally, there were people and schools that just followed one or another of these systems, and it was in this form that Buddhism went to China. So some Chinese Buddhist schools follow just one Indian tenet system. However, in later times, these systems were studied together as a whole in the curriculum of the Indian monastic universities such as Nalanda, and so the Tibetans who visited these monasteries understand them as a graded path.
It is also important to remember that the deepest and most profound tenet system may not be suitable for a particular person, for instance ourselves. Eventually it may suit us, but for now maybe we need to realize that this particular school and explanation is enough for me, because it works for me now, and is all that I can presently handle. That’s fine, particularly if we are aware that there are deeper levels.
We need to remember that all the levels are beneficial and we can make great progress at each of them. It is also important not to push too hard when studying and try to go beyond what we are intellectually and emotionally ready for. In conjunction with that, even though we might read the Prasangika texts before we are ready for them and they point out the absurd conclusions that follow from the beliefs of the less sophisticated tenet systems, don’t for a moment think that these other schools are stupid. As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche used to say, to think like that is a sign of our arrogance. Buddha taught all of them to help people.
Question: When we are under pressure and projecting at a very high rate, what can we do to stop the torrent of projections?
Alex: There are provisional measures we can take and ultimate measures. Understanding voidness and applying it is an ultimate measure. As I explained earlier, we need a tremendous amount of preparation, positive force, concentration, and so on to be able to apply a correct understanding of voidness. Earlier, we apply provisional measures, the simplest of which is to focus on the breath. Why? Because it brings us back to our body and is fairly regular and constant. The breath grounds us and brings us back from getting lost in mental fabrications. This is recommended as a basic provisional measure. It will not solve the problem forever, but it helps us to calm down, which is very necessary.
Let’s end here with a dedication: Whatever understanding we’ve gained and whatever positive force we’ve built up, may they go deeper and deeper and get stronger and stronger, and act as causes for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all. Thank you.
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