Explanation of The Heart Sutra
Session Three: Voidness of Cause and Effect, the Five Aggregates, Twelve Cognitive Stimulators and Eighteen Cognitive Sources
Let’s begin by having some questions if you have any.
Question: I have one. Before you were speaking about – you had this example about stubbing your toe: getting hurt and standing up and going on with your life. What if something very serious happens? What if you break your neck and you can’t just stand up?
Alex: She’s asking what happens – I was speaking about when you stub your toe; you can say, “Well so what, it hurts,” and then get on with your life – and so what happens if something serious happens like breaking your neck?
I think the main point here that I was trying to make is that you just deal with whatever happens. In other words, “I’ve had an accident,” rather than cursing and swearing, or whatever. If it’s something serious which really is not wanting to accept the reality of what has happened, then one has to just immediately, “Okay, you know I had this accident, or my computer has crashed and I’ve lost all my data, and now what?” And deal with it. I think that this is always a very good example or occasion as I’m sure we’ve all experienced it, if we use a computer, that you press the wrong button, the wrong key; and then all of a sudden what you’ve worked on for a period of time, even for the whole day, is lost because you pressed “don’t save” rather than “save,” and then it’s gone. That happened to me a few days ago, and you have to just accept it. If you have a good enough memory, you regenerate and write it again, what you wrote. But there’s no point cursing or getting really upset – that’s not going to bring your data back.
So, of course, learning how to deal with reality goes through stages. There’s an intellectual level in which I – first of all, there could be just considering it the most horrible crisis disaster, “Aargh, I lost my data!” And then you get really upset, so then you’re really making it into a truly existent monster. So this you have to negate. But you get to a point where you understand, “Okay, I lost it. There’s nothing I can do.” So intellectually, in a sense, you understand this; but emotionally, as soon as it happens, you curse really loudly and swear at the computer. And it’s very interesting because there might not be a great deal of emotional energy behind cursing at the computer; but, nevertheless, automatically that cursing comes up.
The term that usually comes up in English, pardon my language, is “Oh shit!” But it’s very interesting if you think of how important the last thought you have when you die is, and if your final thought is “Oh shit!” and then you die, this is not going to activate very good karma. You’ll probably be reborn as a fly, or something like that, around a toilet! So one needs to become mindful of what are these automatic responses that we’re so habituated to, and to try to eliminate that as well. You know, “Oh, the data’s lost” – the data’s lost, now I deal with it. Of course this becomes very tricky when it’s somebody else that you’re with who has lost their data, or whatever, and you don’t even give them any sympathy. You just say, “Well, okay. Now let’s do this, this, this and that.” And really they want some sort of soothing words of “Well, it’s not so bad…” or whatever. So you have to be sensitive to the other person as well when it involves someone else’s loss. Okay. Anyone else?
Question: On a daily basis when you can think about meditation on voidness, how should it be done?
Alex: How it should be done is – again, pardon my language; but, well, we can put it in less strong language – that you try to recognize how things appear in this deceiving way and almost like a mantra you could say, “Garbage!” This is garbage what I’m projecting, how things appear to me. We tend to inflate things into the most wonderful thing in the world, and I have to have it; or the most horrible thing, I have to get rid of it, etc. To try to recognize all these projections and exaggerations and just say, “This is garbage.”
In the sensitivity training that I developed on my website, Developing Balanced Sensitivity, I use the image of popping a balloon. It’s not as though there’s a separate me from reality and I come and I pop the balloon, but just in a sense pop the balloon of this fantasy that we’re projecting. But of course, all of this depends very much on being able to identify what’s called the “object to be refuted.” And often the emphasis on what we need to try to recognize first is this inflation of “me”: that “I” have to have this, that “I” have to have my way, “I”’m the most important one, you have to pay attention to “me,” you have to love “me” – these sort of things. Things should always have to go the way that I want them to go. Why? Why should they? Because I’m so important – well this is ridiculous, so you pop that balloon! So it’s like that. It’s in a very simple way not going so, so deeply, but we need something that’s a little bit easier to apply in daily life.
Participant: So can we use four reliances for meditating on emptiness?
Alex: Four reliances to meditate on voidness? What do you mean by reliances?
Participant: I mean there’s four reliances. Like, do not rely on the individual, rely on Dharma.
Alex: Oh this one: don’t rely on the person, rely on what they say; don’t rely on just the words, but the meaning, etc. I don’t think that relates directly to voidness meditation. That relates more to how we understand the teachings when a teacher gives them, or when we read something. What it suggests, of course, is that we don’t just deal with things on the surface level, but we go deeper and deeper and deeper. So that’s a helpful insight.
Participant: How do we avoid the threat of nihilism? Some people say that when they meditate on voidness they get the sort of feeling that nothing really matters.
Alex: Right, so how do we avoid the extreme of nihilism when we meditate on voidness? Nothing really matters. That the conclusion’s that nothing matters – that ultimately nothing really exists, so why bother?
Participant: Something like that.
Alex: Well, coming to the conclusion of nihilism is an incorrect understanding of voidness as it says here in the sutra: “form – voidness; voidness – form.” It’s not that nothing exists; it’s saying that what is impossible doesn’t exist. Because things don’t exist isolated, encapsulated in plastic by themselves, then things are able to interact with each other and function; cause and effect works. So when we speak about me or you, then there is a conventional “me.” The conventional “me” exists. I’m doing things: I interact with others; I hurt myself; it hurts. But the impossible “me” – this is the projection onto this conventional “me” that it exists as something (the vague word is “solid”), but something that is established by itself, independently of the fact that it is labeled onto all these changing aggregates, and so on – this type of “me” is impossible. That doesn’t exist. So one has to make the very clear distinction between the conventional “me” – this is what I was saying, that there is a referent object to label “me,” but not some sort of solid thing behind that.
But unfortunately, it seems as though there is some solid “me” that is established by its own thought. First of all, it seems as though there’s a “me” that can be known all by itself. Well, this is false. So for instance, we – it feels like this – so we could say, “I see Boris,” or “I know Boris,” or “I like Boris,” or “I dislike Boris.” Well what actually do I see? Do I see Boris? No. I see a body, I see colored shapes – a body – and in terms of that I impute “Boris.” What do I like? I mean, there has to be something, some basis, upon which we are saying “Boris.” I like the way he does things, I like his personality – I mean what is it? But we get this thing of – just him by itself, Boris can be known by himself.
Or with ourselves; the example that I always use is “I want you to love me for me, just for me, not for myself, not for my good looks, not for my money, not for my intelligence, just love me for myself.” What in the world is that? How is there a “me” that is separate from all these things? Or we did something, but “that wasn’t the real me.” “The real me” – what in the world is the real “me”?
“Me” is imputed on each moment of what we do and what we experience. But we have all these dualistic type of things: “I want to find myself, do I know myself” – this type of thing. “I’m not going to allow myself to feel this or to do that, I’m going to hold myself back” – as if there are two “me”s inside. This is crazy. But we get all sorts of disturbing emotions based on that. So that doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t exist, and when we refute these impossible ways in which I exist, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing. Of course I exist: I feel unhappy, I feel happy, I do this, I eat, etc. So it’s just that I don’t exist in the way that I imagine that I exist. So it’s in these ways that one tries to avoid the extreme of nihilism.
Question: Does the insight or understanding of voidness automatically lead to compassion, or do we have to put extra effort into that?
Alex: That’s a very interesting question. Well from one point of view, when we understand that we don’t exist in isolation, that we are interconnected with everyone, that leads, in a sense, to understanding that everybody’s problems and everybody’s difficulties – we share them, we’re all together, we’re all interrelated. It’s not just my problem (things like environmental pollution) but it’s everybody’s problem. We all share this world; we’re interconnected. So, in that sense of understanding the interrelatedness of everybody and everything, that is conducive to compassion.
There’s also a type of compassion which is based on the understanding of voidness, in the sense that we understand that everybody’s suffering is due to their not understanding voidness; and so when we understand voidness, we understand that if they could understand voidness they would be free of their problems. So in this sense, voidness and compassion are connected.
Now there are some forms of Buddhism that assert that compassion, love, these sort of things, are natural qualities of the mind – this is particularly emphasized in certain Chinese Zen (Chan is what it’s called in Chinese traditions). So that if you could just quiet down and see voidness, reality, etc.; if you could quiet down you would see reality, they say, and then this quality of the mind of love and compassion would automatically arise. But not all forms of Buddhism assert that way, because the danger of such a view is that we’re going to have to wait an awful long time before we actually feel any love or compassion if we’re waiting until we get the understanding of voidness when we quiet our mind. And so the various meditation practices for developing compassion – and there are many of these, particularly in the Indian and Tibetan traditions that are emphasized – we do that in conjunction with voidness meditation.
Also, I mean there are many other levels; I mean this is a big question that you ask. It’s not a little question. When one understands voidness, the voidness of the mind, one then understands that enlightenment is possible in terms of the purity of the mind and the ability of the mind to be omniscient, all-loving, and so on. And when you realize that it is possible to achieve enlightenment and to benefit all others, then that helps with compassion.
There’s also with the understanding of voidness of the self, we understand what is it possible that I can do and what is impossible for me to do. In other words, we understand cause and effect. So we have a much more realistic understanding of compassion. It’s not just wishing everybody well but feeling hopeless, helpless I mean; or feeling that I will become an almighty God and I will just snap my fingers and everybody’s suffering goes away.
Okay, so let’s get back to our text. Avalokiteshvara has just explained that the five aggregates are devoid of self-establishing nature, and that form, appearances, and voidness are inseparable – that’s form in general, but then form within the five aggregates also are not separate from voidness – so the two truths here, and it’s the same for all the five aggregates. Then Avalokiteshvara continues:
It’s like that, Shariputra, with all phenomena – voidness: no defining characteristics, no arising, no stopping, no being stained, no being parted from stain, no being deficient, no being additional.
This is a very difficult line. We have eight qualities, eight points which are mentioned here: voidness, no defining characteristics, etc. And, according to one commentary, these are describing the type of points that we would meditate on when we are meditating on what’s called the “three gateways to liberation.” So we have: one gateway is in terms of just general voidness of things; the second is no signs, so that’s no sign of a truly existent cause; and the third is no hope, so no hope for a truly existent result. So we have voidness of phenomenon, voidness of cause, voidness of result.
Now here, and in many of the sentences that follow in the text, when they say “no this, no that,” etc., that is referring to there is no truly existent – truly existent means that it is truly established by its own power, from something on the side of the object independently of everything else – so it’s saying this impossible way of existing, there’s no such thing. So the “no” means “no such thing as that.” It doesn’t mean – it’s not a nihilist statement that these things don’t exist at all.
And it’s also referring to a point about the meditation when we are totally absorbed with full concentration on voidness, we’re totally absorbed on an absence, a total absence. So there is no such thing as these impossible ways of existence. So there is no appearance; nothing appears. So when we are focusing on an appearance of nothing, we don’t understand it as nothing; we understand what is absent. If we look here on the floor and we see that there is no dog there, and we see there’s no cockroach there, and we see there’s no elephant there, what do we see? We see nothing on the floor. So in each of these three cases we see nothing there, but we understand what that nothing means. There’s no dog, no cat, no cockroach, no elephant.
And here we are focusing on something that is impossible to be there. There’s no Godzilla standing here on the floor. There’s no dinosaur, this huge monster – dinosaur. There’s no monster dinosaur here on the floor, and I see that very clearly, don’t I? But what do I see? I see nothing there, but I understand that it’s a total absence of Godzilla, because Godzilla couldn’t possibly stand here. So when it says “no this, no that,” it’s also referring to this point in meditation – that none of these things appear, none of these impossible (these phenomena existing in an impossible way), none of them appear in that meditation where we are totally absorbed on “no such thing.” Okay, so that’s in general how the structure of how so much of this text will be.
So with respect to all phenomena, then, we have the first two characteristics. Voidness: so no truly established existence, or existence established by its own power, self-establishing nature – we have all these terms. And no defining characteristic – it’s not as though there is some special defining characteristic inside me that makes me “me” and not “you.” We might understand that: “Well okay, I can’t know me or know you separately from knowing some sort of basis,” and so on; but still we might think that there’s something special inside, some defining characteristic, that by its own power makes me an individual, different from you.
Now that’s a very interesting question. What makes me an individual? What makes me “me”? What is it about you that makes you such a special individual that I don’t care about anybody else loving me – I want you to love me. If you don’t love me then nobody loves me. This is a little bit weird, isn’t it? You know, I have this image of this movie The March of the Penguins. You have a hundred thousand penguins in Antarctica and I want that one over there to love me. The others don’t count – that one! What makes it an individual? But then, nevertheless, we are individuals aren’t we? So there is nothing on the side of the object, some defining characteristic, that makes it special. This is penguin number 93,472 and that’s the one that I want to love me. But, conventionally, penguins are individual. Not just all the same penguin, are they? So, conventionally, we do have defining characteristics, but the defining characteristic again is mentally labeled. It’s like a definition in a dictionary. What is love? I experience all sorts of emotions, you experience all sorts of emotions, and we come up with some sort of convention that we call it – we group some of them together and we call it “love.” But everything that we experience is different, isn’t it? There’s no defining characteristic that’s sitting there inside the emotion that says “this is love, true love.”
Then the next four here – so those first two: voidness, and no defining characteristics; that’s the gateway of voidness, the gateway to liberation of voidness. The next four – no arising, no stopping, no being stained, no being parted from stain – that is dealing with the voidness of causes, causality. So when we speak of something happening in a causal sequence it’s not as though something exists independently, all by itself, as a cause making something else happen. It’s not as though, inside that cause, well, first of all, that that cause definitely is going to – especially if you think in terms of karma, that you have a certain tendency from a previous type of karmic action – and you have this view that, well, the result already is existing manifest in that cause, so it’s inevitable that this is going to happen as a result of this cause. This is false. You know how we think that, oh I killed that mosquito – now I’m definitely going to hell!
But the arising of a result from a cause doesn’t happen like that, because there are all sorts of conditions, and so on, which are going to affect what type of result is going to come from a specific cause. Nothing comes from just one cause independently, as if that cause is sitting by itself and then it’s going to give rise to a result independently of anything else. So we can understand this in just very general terms, in terms of karma. We can understand this in terms of unawareness or ignorance, acting as a truly existent cause that’s going to give rise to samsara and suffering and so on. There’s many different levels in which we can understand this and it’s not as though a cause is standing off stage over here, and now the cause is going to come on stage, so it’s arising, and now it’s going to do its thing, give its cause and then it’ll go off stage and cease because it stopped working. It’s not like that; so no arising, no stopping. And it’s not that in terms of a causal sequence that the mind is stained, and then there’s this awareness, this understanding, that comes in like this super cleanser, like cleaning the toilet; and now as a result of this causal sequence the mind is not stained any longer; it’s parted from stain.
It’s very interesting how we conceive of the whole causal process as if a cause is sitting there and doing something. It’s sort of like: I have this cavity in my tooth and it’s sitting there inside of my tooth as the cause, the truly existent cause, and by itself it is causing me pain – you know, as if a cause is sitting there and doing something. This whole process of how cause and effect work is very, very difficult. It’s not that the cause is actually just the unmanifest result that’s just waiting to pop out from the cause, and it’s not that things arise from no cause at all, or that cause is completely unconnected with the result.
In fact, this is one of the most difficult things to understand – is how cause and effect are related. Is it that here’s a cause and here’s an effect and there’s some sort of stick that connects the two? Well, how could that be? Does the cause and the effect, like the seed and the sprout, do they exist at the same time? You know, the seed and the flower – are they the same time? I mean what connects the seed with the flower? Is there no connection? If there’s no connection, then the flower could have come from anything. There has to be some connection, but how do they connect?
Well, of course, if we’re a farmer we are very concerned about such issues. But for those of us who are not farmers, how the seed brings about the crop – then, as I was indicating, the issue that is very, very difficult to understand is karma. How a karmic cause can bring about a result. What’s the connection? With respect to the result as well – is the result already existing but not yet happened, but here it is and now it’s happening? But if it already exists, then why does it have to happen? That doesn’t make any sense. But is it truly existently non-existent and then it becomes existent, like a nothing becomes a something? How could a nothing become a something? A truly existent nothing become a truly existent something? And when does it become a something? How is that connection made? So all are these things are discussed here with these terms, and it’s not easy. It’s one of the more difficult lines here.
You know, “not being deficient, not being additional,” this is dealing with the voidness of the result. When we talk about purifying the mind – so, being in the purity of the mind – as a result, well is it really a result? There wasn’t something that was deficient from the mind and then our understanding, as a result, gave something to the mind. Mind is never stained by these – you know, true existence, by impossible ways of existing – and there’s nothing that we have to add with our understanding. Mind was never stained by true existence. So when we’re hoping for some sort of result of this whole purification process, then what is it? Was it that the mind was truly already perfect before? No, it’s not like that. How is it working? So we need to understand that everything comes about based on an unbelievably complex connection of causes and conditions, and none of these are like ping pong balls: none of the factors that are involved are these encapsulated things being established by themselves, by their own power. Here’s a cause, and it’s truly a cause, and here’s a condition, and these two ping pong balls come together and they produce another ping pong ball which is the result! It’s not like that.
But we tend to think like that if you analyze deeply – here I have this problem: I’ve done such negative things in my life, so I must have some horrible karmic tendencies, for example, and so this is a big solid heavy ping pong ball, something like a bowling ball, that’s really heavy that’s sitting there on my mental continuum somewhere. Alright? So this is truly existent cause that’s going to send me to hell. There’s a terrible result that we think is already determined inside this heavy ball of the karmic tendency. And now we have this magic pill which is 100,000 repetitions of the Vajrasattva mantra – and there it is, this is going to purify away this stain! And it has the power within it, established by itself: some magic thing, defining characteristic, inside these magic words. And if I apply it, if I do it, recite it so many times, then truly this negative – this bowling ball – is going to cease and fall off my mental continuum and be swallowed by Yama, the Lord of death, or something like that, giving him indigestion and now – before, there was something wrong with my mental continuum – and now I have cleansed it, and I have added purity to it, and now we will live happily ever after. Not quite like that.
So, although we have very difficult words and terminology here, this is what it’s all talking about. It’s in this whole process of purification, the whole process of how cause and effect works in terms of how our suffering arises, how we can get rid of suffering, how it will cease, how causes for bringing about suffering work, how the ending of suffering works – all of that can only work if things are devoid of existing encapsulated in plastic, being established by themselves. Everything works in relation to each other. Nothing is solid. In terms of results as well: it’s not as though there’s all these possible results, all these possibilities – almost sort of like quantum physics, or something like that – all these possible states are there and then it’s just a matter of which one – you know, like you press a button and this one is going to happen. It’s not like that. So all of this can be understood from this line. And much more, I’m sure.
Now, Avalokiteshvara goes on – by the way, are there any questions about this? I mean obviously there are questions. I can’t imagine that one can just understand the voidness of cause and effect so easily. We shouldn’t think that it is easy to understand. I can’t pretend that I understand it terribly deeply. It’s one of the most difficult things. But, to go back to your question, it’s not that voidness negates cause and effect. Because things are devoid of existing under their own power, that means that they arise dependently and so that means cause and effect. It is because they are void that they are able to – that cause and effect can work. Cause and effect wouldn’t work if things existed isolated: here’s a cause, and here’s an effect. There’s no way that they could be connected with each other. And, as I said, it’s not two solid balls with a stick connecting them either. So any comment or anything you want to ask before we go on?
Question: What does that mean by cause? Is it something that produces something or is something that is a form of something else or is it that it aims at something? Could you give more details?
Alex: What do we mean by cause? That’s a very deep question. In the abhidharma teachings, which are topics of special knowledge – there are different versions of abhidharma: in one version there are six different types of causes; in another version there are twenty different types of causes. If we think in terms of a classic example of a seed giving rise to a sprout, then there’s the seed that’s involved in the causal process, but there’s also the earth and the water and the sunlight – these sorts of things. So we have all these various factors and some of them will no longer exist at the time of the result, like for instance the seed doesn’t exist at the time of the sprout. But others will continue to exist, like the elements that make up the seed – the chemicals, the atoms – will still be in the sprout in a slightly different form, the dirt will still be there that this thing is planted in. So there are many different types of causes that are involved.
So I think we need to understand cause and effect more in terms of what do certain things depend upon. But it’s not a matter of creation either. Creation implies changing a true nothing into a true something. Because if something’s truly nothing, truly non-existent, then how can it change from being truly nothing to truly something? And when does that happen? What’s the connection between: one moment it doesn’t exist, and one moment it does exist? So we’re not talking about – I mean, I keep on using this very simple language – you know, this solid thing; and just poof! There it is! But there are certain factors that for this to happen – we’re not talking about a solid thing coming from off stage and onto stage – for this to happen, then it’s dependent on all these other things happening. So this is a type of causal sequence.
I mean there’s also a causal sequence, of course, of something transforming as in a seed gradually growing and transforming into a sprout. But it’s not something which is very linear: that one cause is always going to produce one result, as if that operates in isolation from everything else. Everything’s interconnected, so there’s all the different conditions and so on that will affect what arises. And it’s not just one thing arises, because if this happens here, then not only is that going to happen there, but many other things are going to happen in consequence of that. So the whole process of cause and effect has to be understood in the larger context of everything, basically. And if I explain something to you and as a result you understand, well that understanding is itself a cause for something else that’s going to happen. And whatever I do as a cause in explaining to you is a result of what I learned and all the circumstances of coming here and being invited. There are so many factors that are involved in all aspects of cause and effect. And because all these things are interdependent and relating with each other, then things happen, life goes on. If they all existed encapsulated in plastic by themselves, as a "thing,” then they wouldn’t interact and so nothing would happen.
Our vision of things, how we experience things – I often use the example – it’s like in a coloring book, that things are with a line around them, a solid line around them. There’s this cause, and there’s this, and I paid my money at the door and I walked in – you know, everything is with a line around it. That’s how it feels, that’s how it appears to us, but that is incorrect. It doesn’t refer to something real. Not at all. You pay your money at the door, you get the ticket, you walk in and you see the movie. Well, is that cause and effect? How did that work? Well, each of these things arose dependently on who printed the ticket, where did that come from? Who invented the idea of tickets? It’s a weird idea, isn’t it? That really is strange: you give a piece of paper to someone, they give you another piece of paper, and then you walk over here and you give that piece of paper to someone else, and then you can walk in. That’s very strange.
So, true, it’s dependent on this exchange of pieces of paper that I’m able to see the movie or listen to the lecture, but understanding that lecture and hearing it has arisen from so many other factors as well. So causality has to do with dependency.
Participant: Sorry for asking so many questions.
Alex: Here, see. Here’s a good example. She said, “I’m sorry for asking stupid questions.”
Translator: So many questions.
Alex: So many questions! Oh, now that’s even a better example. This was inaccurate. I heard “stupid questions,” so that doesn’t correspond to reality, to what she said. It’s contradicted by everybody else who heard it differently. And yet I could take it as: “Ooh she said ‘stupid questions,’ and why does she think that she’s stupid?” And go on a whole mental trip about this that is totally unrelated to reality. This is what we do.
Participant: What I said now is very well linked to the question that I have now. And my question is concerning morality or ethics. How does the question of responsibility fit into this picture of dependent arising? Like, the way I see it, broadly in the society we need such constants like responsibility. We assume that there are agents who do things; and when we do something wrong, proper citizens are responsible when they do.
Alex: Okay. So this is a very good question. She’s asking about responsibility, ethical responsibility. If things arise dependently on so many different factors within society, and I’m not the single agent that is guilty for pollution of the environment, for example – I’m just filling in examples from what you said – then how is it that I’m responsible, and is there any responsibility?
Well, it is true that whatever happens is a result of an unbelievable combination of causes and conditions. For instance, if we take the example of environmental pollution. So, we don’t inflate ourselves to say that I’m responsible for all the pollution in the world; this is absurd. But every little causal factor contributes to the effect that we all experience.
So what does responsibility mean? Responsibility has to do with the factor of experiencing the results of what I do. And so we’re not talking here about guilt; but, rather, simply cause and effect. And when we – if we are born and live in a polluted time then, from a Buddhist point of view, we’ve built up causes in the past to experience this. Now, of course, the pollution itself is created by many, many other factors, but we’ve built up the causes to experience living in that type of environment. And if I add to that pollution by what I do now, then I’m contributing causes for not only other people, other beings, but myself as well, in the future to experience being in that environment.
So we don’t go to the extreme of saying that I’m the only one responsible, and we don’t go to the other extreme of saying that I had nothing to do with it. So if we act in a certain way, we experience the results of that. But it’s not in this, as I said, that the cause – I acted this way is one ball, and the result of what I’ve experienced is another ball connected with a stick. But I act in this way because of so many different causal factors etc., and so many different results and things will happen, and so many other causal factors are involved with that. It’s very, very complex, but it’s not as though we aren’t part of that process and what we do is outside of that process. It is part of that process. A very difficult question.
I make a meal for you, for example, and you choke on it and die. Am I responsible for your death? Well it wasn’t my intention to kill you. If I hadn’t invited you, if I hadn’t cooked, then you wouldn’t have choked to death. Well, then you would have lived or what? Would you have died from something else? Would there have been another condition or circumstance for you to die? Where is responsibility here?
These are very difficult questions, especially when we look at it from an emotional point of view. Obviously, we feel terrible: the other person choked on what we gave them and died. I’m using an extreme example of course. It’s the same thing. You hit somebody by accident with your car. Well, I didn’t intend to hit them; I didn’t see that pedestrian over there and aim my car at them and hit them. But do we experience some karmic result from this? Well, to a certain extent, yes, but not as strongly as if we intended to do something. So this whole idea of responsibility, that’s a difficult concept; but there are, what should we say, “consequences” of certain actions even if they’re unintentional.
This fits into this whole discussion of what’s called the “all-pervasive suffering” of samsara. Just by the fact that we have this type of body, that you walk on the ground, means that you’re going to step on something and kill it. Just because we have this type of body and the other people have that type of body, even with the most wonderful intentions, and so on, they get hurt or we get hurt. This is just part of the whole problem. So even without wanting to, we build up more karma for perpetuating the whole samsaric situation.
So the point is how to get out of that, and it’s not just starve yourself to death and commit suicide. That doesn’t solve anything. It just makes it worse. So we have to, in a sense, take responsibility for our actions and try to make it as free, or at least with the minimal disturbing emotions and disturbing intentions etc. But inevitably we’re going to cause difficulties, create more suffering for others, for ourselves. Are we responsible for that? Well, in a sense that we’re going to experience the results of it, yes. Are we guilty? No. There’s no heavy, you know: “Ooh you’re guilty,” like in a judgmental situation.
Now, the text goes on. Because it’s like that, Shariputra, in voidness, no form, no feeling, no distinction, no affecting variables, no kind of consciousness.
So here Avalokiteshvara is going through a classification system and saying that when we analyze our experience, each moment of our experience, we have this scheme of the five aggregate factors and none of these have self-establishing nature. And the phrase here is “in voidness,” so that is underlining the point that when we are focused on this total absence of these impossible ways of existence, there’s no appearance of any of these aggregate factors as truly existent. Remember what we said the first evening was that unless we are a Buddha, if our mind makes any of these things appear it makes them appear as if they are truly existent. True existence means their existence is truly established from something on the side of the object, independently of everything else. So our mind is going to make things appear that way; but if we’re focused on “no such thing,” then you couldn’t have the mind making an appearance of any of these things, because it would make an appearance of them as truly existent.
Then the next group that is mentioned here are the twelve cognitive stimulators. What are they? What does that mean? This is referring to the various things that literally stimulate our cognitions. I mean the word that I’m translating as stimulator has two syllables: one is that it makes the cognition arise and diffuse out, so sort of take its form. This is referring to the six types of cognitive objects and the six types of cognitive sensors. The cognitive objects are things that can be known by each of our cognitive faculties; so we have sights, we have sounds, we have smells, we have tastes, we have physical sensations which include hot, cold, motion – there’s a lot of different physical sensations – and all phenomena. All phenomena can be objects known by the mind – mind can know anything.
And when the text is saying No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, that is referring to no eye sensors, no ear sensors, etc. These are the – in relation to the senses – these are the cells like the photosensitive cells of the eyes. When this term is usually translated, a lot of people translate it as “sense power.” It’s not referring to a power. Power is a bit of an abstract word, isn’t it? It’s referring to actual physical cells. And it’s not referring to your whole nose, or your whole tongue. It’s referring to the smell sensitive cells within the nose, or the taste sensitive cells within the tongue, or the physical sensation sensitive cells of the body. And we can see in respect to the five sensory types of cognition [no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no physical sensation, no phenomena] that it’s the combination of an object and that type of object sensitive cells that will stimulate and cause a cognition to arise. You have to have the two. So we have to have sights. We can’t just have sights by themselves; there has to be photo-sensitive cells of the eyes. Without photo-sensitive cells, visual data is not really a sight, something that is seen, is it?
And when we speak about the mind here, this line that is referring to the mental sensor or the mind sensor – and in the Buddhist analysis they don’t really bring in the brain, which we might think would be what should fit here. But rather it says that the mind sensor is referring to the immediately preceding moment of primary consciousness. You see, these sensors are terms of causes, different types of causes, and conditions. They are what is known as the “dominating condition.” They dominate in the sense that they will be responsible for what type of cognition it will be. I mean, from one point of view, you could say the type of consciousness will be the condition that determines that, but also you could say from the point of view of what sensory type of apparatus the cognition needs to depend upon in order for it to be visual cognition or the sound cognition. It’s just a technical point. So in a sense we’re talking about, on the one hand, the data and a cognition – the information – and then the coding mechanism. Remember we said primary consciousness is what decodes it, in a sense; and so here with the stimulators we’re talking about the information and what does the coding of it. The sensory cells do the coding of the sight into some sort of information. So, if we’re thinking (a mental cognition), what performs that function would be the immediately preceding moment of primary consciousness. That, in a sense, will provide the coding for a thought in the next moment. So our cognition is going to arise dependently on these twelve things, stimulators. And none of them have existence by themselves, by their own power. They’re all interdependent with each other.
And then we have the list of the eighteen cognitive sources and this adds to the twelve cognitive stimulators, the six types of consciousness, primary consciousness. I’m laughing because half the people in the class are now falling asleep at all these lists, but what can we do? It’s what’s in the sutra.
Blame the sutra. The sutra is responsible! So the sutra will experience suffering in the future as a result of this. Actually Avalokiteshvara will experience the suffering, because he’s responsible for putting all of you to sleep.
Translator: But Buddha...
Alex: But Buddha allowed it. He actually inspired it, right!
So Avalokiteshvara lists these eighteen in brief. He says there’s No cognitive source that’s an eye, – that’s referring to the eye sensors – up to no cognitive source that’s a mind, – that’s the mind sensors, so we have the six cognitive sensors here. And then the Sanskrit adds no cognitive source that’s phenomena. That’s not in the Tibetan for some reason that I don’t know. So that includes the six types of objects, cognitive objects; and then no cognitive source that’s mental consciousness – so that’s the six types of consciousness, primary consciousness. So now we can breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve gotten through the list of the five, twelve, and eighteen. And why are these important? Why are these pointed out here? Because this is the system – I mean each of these are a system – for analyzing what we experience. We can analyze them from the point of view of the aggregates that make up each moment. We can analyze them from the point of view of the things that stimulate our cognition. We can analyze it from the point of view of what are the sources – what are responsible for all our cognitions? It’s referring to each moment of what’s happening. And no matter what type of scheme we use to analyze and understand what we are experiencing in our daily behavior – as, after all, Avalokiteshvara is explaining how we apply this in our daily behavior in conducting our lives – none of the components are existing by themselves. Everything is dependently arising. What we experience is dependently arising around these five, around these twelve, around these eighteen.
Okay so this is a good place to end for the day, to stop for the day, and we’ll conclude with a dedication. We think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has built up, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Again, when we make this dedication we need to have some understanding of cause and effect. Has what we’ve done produced a truly existent cause. And there it is, it’s like a big ball! And now we have to push it toward the result that we want, that it’s going to bring about enlightenment! It’s really funny; it’s sort of like throwing a bowling ball down the aisle and it has to hit enlightenment – and now we have to push it down toward the pins of enlightenment so that it will knock down all the stains and then we are free? Certainly not. Even with the dedication, it’s very important to understand cause and effect. There’s nothing solidly existent here: a cause that I have built up and an effect that I’m trying to achieve, as though the mind is inherently stained and now I have to get rid of something, knock down the pins, and so on. Not like that.
So our understanding of voidness is very helpful in all aspects of the practice, because in spite of everything being devoid of this self-establishing existence, nevertheless we are responsible for what we do and we can add causes. I’ve listened to something, maybe we’ve understood something, and so there’s an intention – so we have this aggregate experience, and now I’ve listened to it and maybe I’ve understood something, and now I want to add something further to it, some further condition that is going to mix into this causal soup, as it were, to try to build up the various causes for a result to happen, while understanding that the result isn’t already existing somewhere waiting to happen and it isn’t going to come from nothing.
So all these teachings on cause and effect, it’s very important to relate it to our Dharma practice – not just our everyday going to the kitchen and making dinner, but also this whole karmic process of our practice. Well, I’m aiming for enlightenment. What is that enlightenment? How does it exist? How is it going to come about? How does my practice now contribute to what I will hopefully experience? Is that enlightenment already somehow inevitable, existing somewhere, and I just have to make it happen, or is it going to come from nothing, just prayer? How’s it going to happen? So voidness, and cause and effect, and karmic responsibility with things happening, and so on – all of these are interrelated and very vital issues to try to understand.
Thank you very much.
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