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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Overview of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising > Session Three: Unawareness, Karma, Rebirth, and Development in a Womb

Overview of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising

Alexander Berzin
Riga, Latvia, July 2008

Session Three: Unawareness, Karma, Rebirth, and Development in a Womb

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:02 hours)

We were talking about the first link in this chain of dependent arising and we saw that this is the link of unawareness and it has to do with unawareness of how persons exist, both ourselves and others. And the main emphasis that we need to put first is in terms of ourselves. And we saw that there are two levels of this unawareness: there is the doctrinally based level and the automatically arising level. And we’ve discussed the doctrinally based unawareness and the disturbing emotions that derive from that.

Automatically Arising Unawareness

The automatically arising unawareness or confusion or ignorance, or however we want to translate it, is something that nobody has to teach us. We all have that in every lifetime. Animals have it as well – or I should say, we have it as well when we are in an animal rebirth. And this is the misconception that we exist as persons that are self-sufficiently knowable is the technical word, in other words, can be known all by itself, without simultaneously knowing anything else.

So we have this [automatically arising unawareness]. If we have as well the doctrinally based unawareness, so we think that there is an independently existing, unaffected, monolithic me that can be known all by itself – or even if we realize that this is not referring to anything real, and even if we realize that the “me” is just something which is labeled or imputable on an ever-changing stream of continuity of aggregates – still we can misconceive that it can be known all by itself.

So what does this actually mean? It would mean, for instance, that when we look at ourselves in the mirror we think, “That’s me.” It’s not that we think, “There is a body and on the basis of that body I’m seeing ‘me.’” We think we’re just seeing me, by itself. Or – it becomes very funny – we see ourselves in the mirror, we think we see our selves in the mirror, and then we say, “Well, that’s not me,” like if we are looking older or too heavy or something like that, “Well, that’s not me!” We think of a me that is knowable separate from that image in the mirror or the number on the bathroom scale.

This belief in a self-sufficiently knowable me manifests in so many different situations. One of the most common is, “I want you to love me for me – not for my body, not for my intellect, not for my wealth, not for my possessions – just love me,” as if there was a me that could be loved separate from these things. Is there a me that can be loved separately from all these other things? Just by itself alone? Or, “I want you to respect me,” or, “I want you to pay attention to me.” We don’t think, “I want you to pay attention to my voice, to a voice, or what I’m doing, and on the basis of that you’re paying attention to ‘me.’”

We don’t think that, do we? Automatically it feels like, “Pay attention to me” – self-sufficiently knowable. And this leads to all sorts of strange views, like, “I need to go to India to find myself.” What is that? Or, “I’m a creative artist, I need to express myself.” Or we were drunk last night and we said all sorts of strange things and did all sorts of odd things and then we say, “Well, I wasn’t myself last night.” Who were we? And then we get all sorts of dualistic thoughts as well, “I will treat myself to an ice cream today,” “I will force myself to get up,” as if there were two people in there.

Of course, we have the same false view about other people as well. We think, “I know Helmuts.” What do I know? Can I know Helmuts separate from knowing what he looks like or the sound of his voice? Or, “I see Helmuts.” What am I seeing? I can’t see Helmuts separate from seeing a body. Or, “I’m speaking to Helmuts on the telephone.” What is that? That’s really weird, if you think about it, “That’s Helmuts on the phone.” Well, it’s a voice – it’s not even a voice; it’s a vibration of some membrane being stimulated by some electric current and we label that “Helmuts,” but no, we don’t think that – “I’m talking to Helmuts.”

How in the world that gets to your mobile phone is incredible, but in any case, “There’s Helmuts on the phone.” What?

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: The question is: is the Tibetan language different in this way?

No, not really. I mean, there are many expressions that are absolutely impossible to translate into Tibetan and if you do it literally, it would make no sense, like, “I want to get to know myself, so I’m going to go into retreat or find myself,” “This person is out of touch, out of contact with themselves, out of contact with their bodies.” These sort of things are absolutely impossible to explain in Tibetan or say in Tibetan. But in Tibetan you would say, “I see Boris.” Also I can’t imagine how to say in Tibetan, “I want to express myself in this piece of art, or express myself in this piece of literature.” I don’t know how you would say that. That’s very weird.

In any case, we think like this and, as I say, I think one of the most common examples for us as Westerners is this one of, “I want you to love me for myself. Just love me.” “I want somebody to love me, someone to pay attention to me.” And of course, based on that misconception of a me that could be loved all by itself, then we get all sorts of disturbing emotions, “You don’t love me,” and we get angry – and attached, greed, desire, jealous, all these sort of things. That automatically arises; nobody had to teach us that.

Even when we act constructively, like helping others, doing nice things for others, it could be based on this misconception of the self-sufficiently knowable me, that “I’m doing this, so that you will love me,” or “ that I will feel useful,” as though there is a separately knowable me that could be useful. I mean, what’s useful? The body is useful, the hands are useful, the mind is useful – on the basis of that there’s a “me,” but certainly we don’t think that.

This is something that we have to understand, that this type of me, the false me, doesn’t exist at all, is not referring to anything real. We exist, as we discussed this morning, conventionally as “me,” “I’m talking,” “I’m sitting,” and so on. It’s not that it’s somebody else, but the “me” is merely what the word “me” refers to on the basis of this ever-changing stream of continuity of body, mind, etc. – the aggregates.

Now, even if we understand that the person, or “me,” or the individual, the self, whatever you want to call it, can’t be known by itself, has to be known while also cognizing the basis of imputation of it, like a body or a mind or a personality or whatever – even if we realize that “me” has to be known that way, there is a further, subtle misconception that’s asserted by only the most sophisticated schools of theories in Buddhism.

This is the misconception that even though “me” is only what can be labeled, what can be imputed on the basis of these aggregates, nevertheless there must be some characteristic feature or mark, individual defining characteristic on the side of the basis, in other words, on the side of the aggregates that allows for a correct labeling. In other words, “There has to be something here inside that makes ‘me’ me and not you, something special that makes ‘me’ me and makes me an individual.”

It’s sort of like almost a bar code or some genetic code that’s inside there that when you label it with a scanner or something like that – boom! – there comes the price, or something like that. “There’s some individual thing inside me that makes me special, and me an individual.” So that’s more subtle and that’s also false. This is very interesting. How is it that when I look at this body... am I scanning a bar code on its side? And then the answer pops up in my head, “Helmuts,” and that’s how I know that it’s Helmuts? How does that work?

Buddhism, on the most sophisticated level, says, “There’s nothing findable on the side of the object that makes it what it is; it’s purely in terms of convention.” We can’t establish that this is Helmuts by anything findable on the side of the basis, this body or mind or anything. We can only establish that it’s Helmuts by the fact that there is this name “Helmuts” and it’s labeled on this and other people agree.

What even makes an object a knowable object? Is there some sort of line around it that separates it from the air and things like that, and then on the inside of this line, that’s the body and that’s Helmuts? The outside of the line is not? No, there’s no line there. If you really look in an electron microscope, it’s very hard to find a boundary between the atoms of the body and the atoms of the air, the energy fields and so on. It’s established by the mind. Yet is there a body here? Is there a person here? Well, yes, conventionally there is. Everybody would agree.

Based on not being aware of this, because it doesn’t seem like that, it doesn’t feel like that, it feels as though there’s something special about me and there’s something special about you that makes you either so wonderful or so horrible. Then again so many disturbing emotions come up on the basis of that, “I want this one. I want you to love me, not that one. It doesn’t matter if the other ones do; I want you to love me.” “I am special. There’s something special about me,” and “This work is so oppressive, I can’t be me in this work.” These type of things. And then we get angry and frustrated.

Link Two: Affecting Variables

On the basis of this unawareness, we get disturbing emotions; and motivated by these disturbing emotions, we get all sorts of impulses – these are karma, the next link, what’s called “affecting variables.” Karma is referring to the impulses that come up to do something, either destructive or constructive, based on this unawareness.

If you analyze a little bit more carefully, what first arises is a feeling. Based on greed, let’s say, “I feel like having some chocolate,” based on a wish, basically. That’s not karma. But just because we feel like having some chocolate, that doesn’t have to go anywhere, does it? It doesn’t have to lead to any further action, necessarily. But then the karma is what comes after this, which is the impulse. It’s the beginning of the movement of energy to actually go to the refrigerator; it’s what actually is leading us to the refrigerator. So it’s more than just feeling like having some chocolate. And then we actually go and we stuff ourself with chocolate, even though we’re on a diet and so on.

There are several descriptions, several schemes for analyzing karma. I’m just giving the simplest one here, but the same thing is descriptive of, “I feel like yelling at somebody because they’re ignoring me. Why aren’t you paying attention to me?” And then there’s that impulse that leads us to actually yell. They have this expression in English, which is really weird: “I could kill you! I feel like killing you!” Well, that doesn’t mean that there’s the actual impulse to go get the gun and actually shoot you.

So there’s a big difference between feeling like doing something and actually that impulse with which you go to do it. And it’s the same thing like, “I feel like kissing you.” That doesn’t actually mean an impulse of energy that “I’m going to go over and kiss you.” We walk in the street; we see a lot of beautiful people, whatever it is that we’re attracted to. I might feel like going over and embracing this person and further, but that doesn’t mean that that energy comes up and I actually go and do it, does it?

In any case, this is involved with constructive behavior, destructive behavior, all karmic behavior. And after the action is finished, it is going to leave a tendency to repeat the action and a tendency to get into situations where somebody does something back like that to us. Or more relevant actually to this whole discussion here in the twelve links is a tendency to feel unhappy from destructive karmic behavior or to feel this ordinary worldly happy from constructive karmic behavior. So there’s a tendency for that that can ripen at any time. These are affecting variables.

These “tendencies” is the word that’s usually translated as “karmic seeds,” but we shouldn’t think of that in terms of some physical object. It’s not a physical object, like a seed. It’s a tendency; it’s more abstract. After all, what is a tendency? There are many instances of a similar type of experience, like being unhappy today, tomorrow, this time, that time, being depressed. On the basis of that you’d say, “Well, this person has a tendency to get depressed, to be unhappy.” That’s a tendency. It’s like what we were speaking of before: something that is labeled onto a continuity of similar things.

That’s the second link, affecting variables – it affects how we’re going to experience things and it’s a variable, it changes.

Link Three: Causal and Resultant Loaded Consciousness

If a tendency is something which is merely labeled on different similar experiences, what is the basis for it? The basis for it is of course the mind, consciousness. Consciousness is the instrument through which we experience things. As the instrument through which we experience things, it’s underlying all our moments of our life. And we can speak of it in terms of – depending on the philosophical system within Buddhism – the mental consciousness, the storehouse consciousness, you can even speak of this in terms of clear light mind.

It doesn’t matter; some level of mind is going to be the basis on which these [tendencies] are imputed. And it’s not just “projected.” “Projected,” as I said, implies that it’s completely false. Conventionally there are these tendencies. It’s not something which is made up and invented. It’s only through labeling and so on that we can recognize patterns; we can see how things fit together, and so on. It’s very necessary. It’s how the mind works.

It’s like if you have a tendency to drink a lot of alcohol, then if you can recognize that tendency, then it helps you to identify what type of problem you might have and what to work on. So there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s helpful. The problem, of course, is when we make something solid out of these patterns or these labels and identify with it and think that it’s unchangeable, not affected by anything, forever, solid. And then, of course, it becomes very difficult to change: “I am a depressed person,” “I am an angersome person, so you better watch out.” “You have to learn to live with me, because that’s the way I am.” We’re like that, aren’t we? We think like that, “I’m someone who needs a lot of affection,” and so. “In our relationship you’re not showing me enough affection. Don’t you realize that that’s the kind of person I am? I need that.” So there may be a tendency to act like that, but that’s not our true identity forever, fixed, unaffected by anything. But when we believe that, then obviously we get a lot of disturbing emotions.

So, we have this third link, the link of consciousness, which is the basis for carrying these karmic tendencies. And this consciousness is a continuity; and we would call this the “loaded consciousness,” because it’s loaded with these tendencies. And there are two phases to it: there’s the causal phase and the resultant phase. The causal phase is in one lifetime and has the various karmic tendencies imputed on it or labeled on it. And there’s the resultant loaded consciousness, which is in a next rebirth. And these tendencies etc. can be labeled or imputed on both phases of the consciousness.

We can see in examples of someone in two lifetimes that there are certain tendencies etc. that repeat, that you find in one lifetime and also in another lifetime. For most of us that’s quite difficult to actually get any evidence about, but there are some Tibetan tulkus, these reincarnate lamas, like my own teacher [Serkong Rinpoche]. I knew him very well in his last lifetime; I know him very, very well in this lifetime, the rebirth after that; and there are many tendencies that one can see are continuities of his previous life.

And we see in small children, even infants, that they have certain tendencies. There are some that cry all the time and are very angry and others that are very quiet and placid. You see that even among chickens, among animals: they have different personalities. These are tendencies that are carrying over from previous lives.

Link Four: Nameable Mental Faculties with or without Gross Form

When we’re speaking about a next lifetime, so this third link in its resultant phase, loaded consciousness, then after that, the next links are the sequence of how a fetus develops within – if we’re going to be born as a human or an animal, from a womb, how it develops in the womb. And first we have the fourth link, nameable mental faculties with or without gross form.

This is referring now to the development of the aggregates. There’s five aggregates and I won’t give them in their traditional order, but there’s consciousness, this is what is aware of the essential nature of things. But now it’s not yet differentiated into the different sense types of consciousness, it’s just in more general – mental consciousness, basically.

Then there’s the various objects, the aggregate of form includes not just the body, but also the various sense objects that one is aware of. Well, the first moment in the next lifetime we’re not aware of various objects yet, you don’t have the apparatus for that, but it says “with or without gross form,” that’s referring to a physical basis for the consciousness.

And there’s the aggregate of distinguishing, that’s sometimes called “recognition” – it’s just the ability to distinguish one thing from something else, like light from dark. It’s not necessarily associated with words or names or concepts or anything like that. But the fetus or embryo or whatever you want to call it at this stage is not developed sufficiently yet to be able to do that.

And there’s the aggregate of feeling, this is referring to only one thing: feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness, somewhere on that spectrum. That’s all it’s referring to. And again, we’re not at a stage yet that is sufficiently developed to be able to experience happy or unhappy.

And then there’s the aggregate of other affecting variables, which is everything else that changes, so all the emotions and concentration and attention and all these things. That’s not yet really developed here.

So in the beginning it’s called nameable mental faculties – we can give the name, there’s the potential for all of this, but they’re not quite operating yet.

Now, it says with or without gross form – this is referring to the three planes of existence described in the Buddhist teachings: the plane of desirable sense objects, the plane of ethereal forms, and the plane of formless beings. So gross form would be a gross elements type of body, this plane of desirable sensory objects, or it could also be subtle ethereal forms, like in the plane of ethereal forms. “With gross form” is either with the gross elements or with subtle elements and “without form” is the plane of formless beings, in which the body is just the subtlest energy that supports the clear light mind. That’s all; it’s not associated with any of the gross or subtle elements.

This becomes a very interesting problem here and a place where we could have a lot of confusion, it’s not so easy, and that is: “Well, what is the relationship between the mind and the body here?” Let’s say if we’re going to be born as a human, we have the elements of the sperm and egg of the parents – and is it that consciousness goes inside? Then we have this whole atman idea that it’s living inside the house of these elements and then using it. So it’s not that. So what’s the relationship? What’s happening here?

Or is it somehow contacting it and possessing it now, like buying a cow? Or one of these cranes – that’s like this big metal mouth that goes down and then picks up earth and moves it somewhere. Is it that the consciousness is something like that? With a big pincers or a big mouth and grabs and now it hooks on to a sperm and an egg and it’s going to ride on this? Or what? And the sperm and egg. Is it only coming out of our mind? Well, I don’t think our parents think that, do they? So this is not a very easy problem here of how to understand this.

If we look at the teachings, it says that what is consciousness, what is mind? Mind is mental activity. It’s not talking about a thing. It’s not talking about an object that does thinking or does seeing. It’s the activity itself and it’s individual and subjective. It’s not that there’s some grand “one mind” that we’re plugged into. And if we’re talking about mental activity, there has to be some sort of physical basis for it. If we look just on the subtlest level, the level of the clear light mind, we would say that’s the subtlest mind and there’s the subtlest energy or subtlest wind, which we say “supports” it. But what does that really mean?

The simple explanation of it is that the subtlest wind is like the blind horse and the consciousness is like the person with no legs that’s sitting on the horse, but has eyes and so can direct it. But that’s a rather simple-minded way of explaining it, as a first level of introduction to this idea. It’s not two totally separate things glued to each other. We’re looking at one thing, one phenomenon, one package, and it could be described in two different ways.

So you could describe it from the point of view of mental activity, you could describe it from the point of view of the energy of the mental activity. But they don’t exist separately. The activity doesn’t exist separately from the energy of the activity. The energy of the activity doesn’t exist separately from the activity. So, in the formless realm, all you have in terms of the body is this subtlest energy. So it’s a physical basis for this – it’s really the mental activity from a physical point of view.

Now the question is: what happens in terms of a grosser physical basis for this energy? And as I said, this becomes quite difficult, because it looks as though this package of the subtlest mind and the subtlest energy, labeled the conventional “me,” with all the various karmic tendencies and so on labeled on it, in a sense activates or sits on top of the grosser elements, say of a sperm and an egg and it affects it and so on. But is it manipulating the elements of the body?

That gets into this whole issue of, “Is it separate?” and “What is separable here?” Well, what’s identified here as the incorrect view? The incorrect view is that there’s a me all by itself that activates all of this. Buddhism says there’s no such thing as a me all by itself. There’s a basis for it being labeled, so the “me” is labeled on the continuity of this subtlest mind and subtlest energy. And that “me” can also be labeled on the combination, because after all it’s labeled not just on consciousness, but on the five aggregates, so the other mental faculties: distinguishing and feeling and so on.

So likewise it is labeled on the continuity of the grosser elements that subtlest energy is associated with. In other words, you get a larger basis of labeling “me.” All the cells of the body, all the elements are changing all the time. We don’t have any cells in our body that are the same now when we’re an adult that we had when we were a baby. It’s all changed. But there’s a continuity and the “me” is labeled on that. And there’s no bar code on the side of that body that has provided the continuity that would allow it always to be the same me, it just has followed cause and effect.

You see, the problem here, and this is difficult to express, the problem here, the confusion lies in what I was mentioning before, which is to mistake the clear light mind or the package of the clear light mind and subtlest energy with the Hindu atman. If we call that me, which is basically identifying what’s being labeled with the basis for labeling it, if you make that mistake, then you fall to the Hindu extreme that this is what is activating or relying on the grosser elements.

Let me off the top of my head try to find an analogy for this. Maybe it’s not such a precise analogy, but maybe it’s a little bit helpful. I often use the example of a movie: we have a film, a movie, like Gone with the Wind. “Gone with the Wind” is a name, it’s a title and it is labeled on a sequence of scenes and the scenes also can be on a film or a digital thing, so there’s a physical basis as well, but it’s labeled onto that whole continuity, the whole sequence of the film.

OK, so we have the movie, we have some physical basis of the movie, and we have the title. It’s not that on each scene of the movie there’s a little bar code that says, “Gone with the Wind,” or a little stamp. So what is Gone with the Wind? It’s not the basis – you can’t see all the moments of the film simultaneously, can you? We can’t, obviously. And it’s not the whole pile of the film on the floor. So what’s being labeled, here “Gone with the Wind,” is not the basis; it is what that title refers to in terms of this basis.

In our analogy here, the movie that is visible and the digital information of that or film information of that, that would be like the clear light mind and the subtlest energy. And “me” would be like “Gone with the Wind,” what’s labeled on that. But the movie has to play out on something and so it could be played out on a movie screen in a theater, it could be on a television set, it could be on a computer; it can play on many grosser physical bases. That would be like the gross form of a body, the elements.

Maybe this digital information is more analogous here to the tendencies, I don’t know. It’s just an analogy, so it’s not exact. But what you see, the actual content of the movie, and some sort of subtle physical basis of it, let’s say light or stuff like that, is the subtle level. There’s always what is labeled “Gone with the Wind,” regardless of what it’s playing on. And then this could play out on any physical screen. In a sense, what you would see and some sort of physical carrier of it, the light or information or however, that’s the subtlest thing, that’s always there, that’s continuity, and “me” is labeled on that.

But that’s not the “me.” So what is playing on the screen? We think that’s “Gone with the Wind,” but actually it’s the information with some physical thing that’s playing on the screen, labeled “Gone with the Wind.” Do you follow the analogy here, roughly? This is just off the top of my head now, I haven’t actually thought of this before. So now the movie “me” is playing on the basis of this body and next lifetime the movie “me” will be showing again on the basis of another body, just like “Gone with the Wind” is being shown now on this screen and on this computer and in this movie house and so on.

But it’s not a me all by itself that’s playing on the basis of this body. That’s the Hindu fallacy, that there’s a solid me like that. It’s not. It’s the “me” which is labeled onto subtlest mind and wind and a movie, which is then associated with the grosser aggregates, in this case coming from the sperm and egg of the parents, like the movie screen in the theater.

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: The question was: “Is it the same content [every time]?”

It’s a continuity. We’re talking about a “Gone with the Wind” that has no beginning and no end, like a soap opera that has a countless number of episodes, that goes on forever, and it’s one episode at a time on a different screen – that’s more analogous – “The Bold and the Beautiful” or whatever it is, the soap opera that you are familiar with, its endless episodes, beginningless, endless episodes of “me.”

But not, “Ah, ME! “ME,” starring: ME! And there I am.” Let me control myself not to get silly – but that’s not so silly: this is the conventional “me,” but we think this is the movie “ME,” starring the special me, “I’m the great star and everybody should watch me,” and then we get the ratings, “How many people watched me today?”

Translator: ...and gave positive critique.

Alex: Right, and gave positive critique. It says, if we think there is this solid me, that’s there all the time. And it’s not that. It’s just what can be labeled in terms of the continuity.

So that’s link four, the nameable mental faculties with or without gross form – the very beginning of the fetus.

Link Five: Stimulators of Cognition

Then the next link is number five, the stimulators of cognition. This is referring to when as a fetus, there’s enough development in the form aggregate – so in the elements here – that you start to differentiate out the different cognitive sensors, in other words, the cells that will be able to perceive sights and the ones that’ll be able to perceive sounds and the ones that’ll be able to perceive physical sensations and so on. Originally they’re not differentiated out from each other, it’s not developed enough; but at this stage they’re differentiated out from each other and there is the information of the different senses as well. These are what’s called “stimulators of cognition.” So that’s happening now.

Link Six: Contacting Awareness

Then the next link, the next step in the development of the fetus, is called “contacting awareness.” This is often translated just as “contact” and then you think incorrectly that it’s referring to a physical act of contact. It’s not. This is a mental factor; it’s a way of being aware of something.

So in the step before, the physical bases for the various senses are differentiated from each other, even if it’s just in a very primitive form. And now, when there’s the different types of sensory consciousness, let’s say in the womb, if we’re talking about a human, then there is the awareness of certain types of sensory objects as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral – so it involves, in a sense, a way of considering.

This is a very difficult mental factor to really know what it’s talking about, very difficult, actually. But thinking about it – at least this is my understanding of it at the moment – if we talk about it not in the womb, but as it functions now as well out of the womb: you see somebody and the seeing of the person, the awareness when it’s contacting, “I see a certain type of person looking in a certain type of way; and the awareness that is contacting that is pleasant.” We’re talking about this experience of pleasant or unpleasant.

Literally, the words for it in Tibetan are that it “comes to mind” or it “doesn’t come to mind,” so it comes to mind very easily, very pleasantly, or it doesn’t come to mind. It’s very pleasant to see somebody that looks this shape and it’s not very pleasant to see somebody that looks that shape, basically from habit, isn’t it? It’s a way of – not literally, because they use the word “experience something else,” but it’s a way of perceiving something as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. That’s the contacting awareness.

Link Seven: Feeling a Level of Happiness

The next link, feeling a level of happiness, is the response to the contacting awareness. As I said, the contacting awareness seems to have to be associated together with how you consider, “I consider this pleasant,” “I consider this unpleasant.” Feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness is, “In response to that, I feel happy or I feel unhappy.” It’s not so easy to really distinguish the difference here.

So again, as Serkong Rinpoche always said, “Go back to the words,” the actual words here, and the expression he used was, “You can milk,” like milking a cow, “milk the meaning out of the words.” OK: “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” literally, “comes to mind,” or “doesn’t come to mind.” So the object, let’s say what we consider a pretty face – well, that’s mental labeling, of course, based on habit and so on, personal likes, dislikes, etc. from previous habits, so we consider that this is pleasant.

You see, you want to use here the word “experience” and “feel.” An experience is actually with the feeling thing. The feeling, they say, is how you experience the ripening of your karma – Ah, that’s the difference. There’s a difference between experiencing the object and experiencing the ripening of your karma. At least this is what I think now. So, you’re experiencing the object as pleasant; it comes to the mind easily, and now, how do you experience the ripening of your karma? In response to this is that, “I feel happy at experiencing this pleasant thing.” Or we could feel unhappy.

Usually they say it has to correspond: if it’s pleasant you feel happy, if it’s unpleasant you feel unhappy. There’s nothing deluded about pleasant or unpleasant. The question of course is: does a Buddha experience things as pleasant and unpleasant? I don’t think so. A Buddha would experience everything as pleasant. A Buddha would certainly not have contacting awareness, that’s part of the twelve links; it’s part of the tainted aggregates. A Buddha is aware of everything simultaneously, omniscient. And a Buddha is experiencing the untainted bliss of being free from all obscurations and not experiencing happiness or unhappiness that’s the ripening of karma.

It’s a very interesting question. This is a little bit aside, but it is completing what we were speaking about just before, of the body. Buddha does not have tainted aggregates. Buddha has what’s called “untainted aggregates,” they are not received from unawareness. What a Buddha experiences is generated by compassion, not by karma. So what about the elements of a Buddha’s body, the gross elements of the Nirmanakaya? This is the interesting question.

The elements by themselves, I don’t think you can say are tainted or untainted. It becomes tainted or untainted in terms of the mind, the mental continuum, that is associated with the physical elements of the body. So if the elements of a gross body are associated with a tainted consciousness, tainted with unawareness, then the elements of the body will be a physical basis for experiencing the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of change, of our ordinary happiness. If the elements are associated with an untainted consciousness of a Buddha, they’re not the basis of experience of the suffering of suffering or the suffering of ordinary happiness.

Sometimes they say that Buddha has no consciousness, but that means the gross levels of consciousness. A Buddha has only subtlest mind, clear light mind. But in any case, the question is: are the elements of a Buddha’s body subject to physical laws of impermanence? And I think you’d have to say “yes,” that there’s a difference between “whatever gathers together will inevitably fall apart because of having relied on causes and circumstances, the basic laws of impermanence” and “is a Buddha inevitably going to get sick?” That’s something else.

Well, Buddhas do have control over the elements. If a Buddha wanted the elements of the body to live a very, very long life, a Buddha could do that. But if a Buddha is not doing that, then the elements will just naturally – whatever gathers together falls apart. Aryadeva says that very clearly. Like that, Buddha has untainted aggregates.

[See: Text of Four Hundred Verse Treatise, chapters 1-4.]

Does a Buddha have contacting awareness based on habits, seeing some things as pleasant and some as unpleasant? You’d have to say “no,” that that is mixed with confusion, based on habit, custom, information from society, all sorts of things. A Buddha is not subject to that. A Buddha would experience everything simultaneously with, as I said, an untainted blissful awareness not coming from karma, but coming from being free of all obscuration.

But here, in terms of our twelve links samsaric situation, now the fetus is fully developed and experiencing the results of karma as a level of happiness, the aggregate of feeling, so either unhappiness, this is the first type of suffering, as the result of the negative tendencies from destructive behavior, or our ordinary happiness, which is the suffering of change, as the ripening of positive karmic tendencies coming from constructive behavior.

This is a good place to stop for today, because the next links describe how we activate these karmic tendencies. We activate them in our response to these feelings of happy and unhappy. That’s actually a very important point, that really the problem here is not so much that, “I find chocolate a pleasant taste and I feel happy when I’m tasting it,” that’s not really the real problem. The real problem is all the attachment and other things that come on top of that.

The reason why that’s important is to know what to work on. The problem isn’t that, “I like chocolate.” I like chocolate; you like strawberry; you like this, you like that. So what? They’re all various things that we have pleasant contacting awareness of and that we feel happy when we experience it. The problem is attachment and so on that is involved in response. That’s what we have to work on, not feel bad that “I like this” or “I like that.” Some fanatic practitioners think, “I shouldn’t like anything. I should only like sitting here in perfect meditation, like a statue.” This is a fanatic extreme.

All the great lamas have certain things that they like. Are they attached to it? No. His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes papayas. He likes papayas, so what? That’s very nice. You can get him a papaya when he’s traveling and he likes that; he enjoys that, will feel happy eating the papaya. If he doesn’t get the papaya – no problem. So that’s not the problem, that you like this kind of food or that kind of food.

Are there any questions about what we’ve discussed today?

Question: What use in this situation then is liberation or enlightenment, if there is no atman, no soul, or no “me,” no nothing basically. Why do we then do all these practices and all this?

Alex: This is the confusion that many people have about these teachings, which is that “It’s a completely nihilist position that is denying and refuting everything.”

We still exist, conventionally there is a “me.” It’s just not something that exists in impossible ways. It doesn’t exist as something all by itself, totally independent of anything, not affected by anything, or that can be known all by itself, or that has something on its own side that makes it special. That kind of me doesn’t exist. But conventionally “me” – that exists.

There is the subjective, individual experiencing of things and on the basis of that we label “me,” “I’m experiencing.” What establishes the “me?” Well, nothing on the side of the mind or the experience. The only thing that establishes that there’s a “me” is the word “me,” it can be labeled. So that kind of “me” exists.

Question: But that’s only the name, the label. Right?

Alex: Well, the label refers to something. Gone with the Wind is not just the title. Gone with the Wind is an actual movie that the title refers to. So the same thing with the word “me.”

Question: So what exactly is imputed or labeled by the name “sentient beings,” then?

Alex: A sentient being is, as I was explaining, a person with a limited mind. And it’s a category, because there are many individual sentient beings and they’re all individual, but not existing totally isolated from each other. We all have a nose – my nose isn’t your nose though. So what is a nose? It’s not that we all share in the Great Nose in the sky. It’s not like that either. But you could say, well, the defining characteristics of a nose. What are these defining characteristics of a nose?

“It sticks out from between the eyes and you can use it for breathing.” Does a chicken have a nose? Does a worm have a nose? Does a worm breathe? So, what is a nose? This is very interesting. And where does the nose begin on your face? Is there a line that separates the nose from the cheek? People made up a definition and wrote it in the dictionary and that’s what a nose is, but you can’t actually find that on the side of somebody’s face. But conventionally we all have noses and they’re individual.

So the same thing with “nose,” the same thing with “sentient being,” the same thing with “me.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama loves to use the nose as an example, because it’s silly and when people tend to laugh when you use the example of the nose, it makes things a little bit lighter. Otherwise, sometimes they get very tense trying to understand something difficult. So, it’s a good example.

But this is a very, very difficult point. How is it that there is a conventional “me,” even though we’re talking so much about voidness, the absence of an impossible me. And this is a central point of all the philosophical discussion: how do you establish the “me” that actually does exist? The Zen solution to somebody who asks that question, “Well, nothing exists, I don’t exist, etc.” is to hit them with a stick! And then, “Who felt that? Did you feel that? There’s no ‘you?’”

Any other question?

Question: You said that there is no one kind of big Mind we are all plugged into...

Alex: Like no big one Nose?

Question (cont’d): Yes, like no big one Nose. But then the question is whether this one mind is the same size or as big as all the other minds together?

Alex: Well, are all the minds the same size? That is an interesting question. Because we’re speaking here about mental activity, so size is irrelevant – size is a quality of something physical. Do they all have the same capacity? Yes, but the capacity can be limited by the hardware in which it’s functioning. What the mind can understand on the basis of a human brain is quite different from what it can understand on the basis of a worm brain.

Now you get into really weird stuff, if you start analyzing this further. I don’t know if we really want to get weird here. But the clear light mind has a certain energy which is associated with it, the subtlest energy. That is going to then become associated with the gross elements of the body. Based on that, you can feel sensations all over your body, different parts of your body. So, I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of all of this, but then the question is: how is it that you’re aware of something outside of your body? Does the energy go out to that? Does the energy from that object come into the body?

As a Buddha is omniscient, that means that the subtlest energy of a Buddha is on the basis of everything. And if it’s on the basis of everything, then that’s the explanation of how it is that a Buddha can manifest simultaneously everywhere. That starts to become very weird, because then you have to be very careful that you’re not falling to the atman extreme that the atman is the size of the universe. So, we get into very, very weird subtle stuff here. You see the problem: the clear light mind of a Buddha is omniscient, it takes everything as its object, so the energy pervades everywhere. If you can label “me” of a Buddha onto that, are you labeling the “me” of a Buddha onto the universe? Do you have an atman/Brahman thing?

Well, you don’t. You don’t. And it’s the same issue as what I was saying in terms of the connection of the clear light mind and subtlest mind with the gross elements of the body. So one has to be very, very careful here. Also you have to appreciate that this whole discussion is within the context of Indian philosophy and basically they’re all talking about the same issues and just solving them in a different way. To really appreciate Indian Buddhism, you have to understand it in the context of Hinduism and Jainism and all these other philosophies.

Buddhism and all the other Indian systems say that the energy goes out to perceive objects, so it’s like my attention goes out to the object. The Western systems say that the information comes in, so it’s very, very different. And how that actually works, I must say, I don’t recall. I heard once an explanation of it, but I don’t recall that. I have to look that up. It’s a difficult point; it’s a very difficult point.

There’s lots of discussions of: could that consciousness or that energy be a truly existent, solid thing that’s going out? So how does it go out? First it noticed that there was something and then it goes out to look at it? That doesn’t make any sense. Or it didn’t notice anything and it goes out blind and then all of a sudden it sees something? This starts to become very weird and these are the arguments that are used to refute that it’s some solid, findable thing, this consciousness or cognitive sensors or powers and so on.

Question (translated): She is talking from a kind of meditative experience and it’s quite difficult to maybe express it in words. But it seems that more it’s this mind or consciousness they are just expanding and not maybe just coming in, and it’s this sucking in that...

Alex: One has to be very careful here in terms of a meditative experience of the mind expanding. That happens not only in meditation, but on drugs as well, and often that is a deceptive appearance based on a disturbance of the energies within the body, that it feels as though, “My mind is going to burst out of my head,” this type of thing or, “Uuuh, now I’m aware of all sorts of things.” It could be frightening; it could be not frightening. It could be exhilarating; it could be... there are many, many different ways of experiencing that, but usually that type of experience is on the basis of some disturbance of the winds. It’s not really referring to an actual thing that’s happening.

It can be very exhilarating and very blissful and very uplifting and very energetic, but I think one has to understand that more in terms of an increasing intensity of the mind and an increasing experience of, let’s say bliss or something like that, as opposed to physically your mind popping out of your head and going to the end of the room or to the end of the street. It’s not like that. It’s an experience of a quality of the mind, rather than something physically actually happening that can’t really happen.

This gets into a complex topic of extraphysical experiences. Can the consciousness leave the body, and astral body, and all this sort of stuff. In some cases, such things are possible, but not in terms of a tube of blue light from the navel and that sort of stuff. But there are experiences and practices that are involved with such things. But a great deal of the time it’s from a disturbance of the energy winds and it’s like a hallucination, so one has to be able to distinguish.

[See: Extra-bodily States in Buddhism.]

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