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Introductory Survey of Lam-rim

Alexander Berzin
Bucharest, Romania, June 2009

Session Three: Questions and Answers

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:35 hours)

We have seen that there are graded levels of motivation and the way that we develop ourselves spiritually is from one stage to the next and each of these stages builds on the previous one. On the initial level, we appreciate the precious human life that we have and we realize that it is not going to last forever. Death will come for sure and we have no idea when. The only thing that will be of help at the time of death are the various positive imprints or instincts that we have built up on our mental continuum. After we die, then our mental continuum will continue with rebirth and either we have a worse state of rebirth or one of the better states of rebirth. So we really dread being in a worse situation in which we have no opportunity to continue our spiritual development. When we look at the direction that the Buddha’s teachings and his attainment offers us, we have confidence that going in that direction will help us avoid worse rebirths. Eventually it can lead us to liberation and also, moved by compassion, we see that this safe direction can lead us to the enlightened state of a Buddha, in which we are best able to help others.

So, we put that safe direction in our lives of working to attaining a true stopping of all the destructive, negative, disturbing aspects of our mental continuum, all our shortcomings, and all the true types of mind that we call the true paths, the true pathway minds that will enable us to realize our full potential and which are those realized states. In other words, we are speaking in terms of the third and fourth noble truths as exist in full on the mental continuum of a Buddha. Some of them exist on the mental continuum of highly realized beings, the Sangha, the so-called Aryas. We also understand that we have the full potential, Buddha-nature, to be able to achieve this ourselves.

The first thing that we learn in order to be able to go in this safe direction is about behavioral cause and effect, it has to do with karma, the teachings of karma. And in order to avoid the grossest types of suffering, the worse rebirths, we need to understand that they are the result of destructive behavior. So, we try to avoid destructive behavior – acting, speaking or thinking under the influence of disturbing emotions – and try as much as possible to act in constructive ways, since they will result in better rebirth states, specifically those of a precious human rebirth.

It is important to understand what we mean by a constructive action in Buddhism. Let us speak about the destructive action of killing, of taking the life of another being. One way of doing that is hunting. Well, I never hunt anyway. I have never hunted and I have no interest in hunting. The fact that I don’t hunt, that itself is not what we are talking about here. That is very good, but still that is not really the constructive behavior that is explained here. Rather, what it is referring to is when the impulse or urge comes to my mind to swat that mosquito and kill it, I stop. I understand that if I do that, that’s acting out of anger thinking just of me, me, me and that will result in making a strong habit that anything that I don’t like, the way I deal with it is to kill it, rather than trying to find some peaceful way of dealing with it, like catching the mosquito with a cup with paper beneath it and taking it outside. So the constructive action here is to refrain from killing it when we wanted to kill it, because we understand cause and effect. That is constructive action; that is what builds up strong potentials in our mind.

Of course, there are even stronger levels of constructive action which would be not only to not kill that mosquito, but to feed it. Let it have a little drop of blood; after all, we have a lot. There are a few people – I have actually met them – who are able to do that. I’ve seen that. Just the fact that I don’t hunt that is not so strong a positive action.

Now what questions do you have?

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: So let me summarize the question. The question is basically how do we distinguish an authentic teacher from a fraudulent one, Since there have been many examples of teachers who perhaps are not authentic, which have given a bad reputation to either Buddhism or yoga or whatever.

Well, we need to first of all examine that teacher for a long time before accepting them as our own spiritual teacher. Actually the texts say we need to examine them for up to twelve years. The teacher also needs to examine us, similarly, to see whether or not we are a qualified student. Usually we don’t have the patience to wait twelve years. But we need to see, “Is this teacher a living example of what they teach.” Particularly, we need to look at their ethics. “Are they an ethical person or do they try to cheat people. Or are they trying to exploit people just for money or power or sex? Is their motivation simply and purely to benefit the students?” Then we look to see what their attitude is toward their teachers, how the greater community of spiritual teachers regards them – their own teachers, their colleagues and other teachers.

We can also look at the effect that they have on their students, although that is not an easy thing to evaluate, because some students might be extremely disturbed when they come to their teacher, so not much can be done. Or they might be completely brainwashed as part of a cult, but usually we can tell that. These are the main things that we look for. Don’t rely just on the charisma of a teacher. Hitler had a lot of charisma. Don’t look at just that they might be very powerful and have many followers. Again, Hitler had those. But see what type of a person they are.

Just because someone might be an authentic teacher, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily the proper teacher for us. Even if the teacher is fully qualified, we need to feel something with the teacher; we need to feel inspiration. The function of a teacher is not just to give us information. We can get information from a book, or the Internet. A teacher can answer questions and correct us if we make mistakes; but even more important than that, a teacher needs to inspire us by his or her living example. It is that inspiration that we feel that gives us a lot of the energy to continue on the spiritual path. As they say, “It is helpful to start, it is helpful to keep us on the path, and it is helpful to go all the way to achieve a result.”

We need to find a teacher like that, which is not that simple. We shouldn’t just wait and expect someone to just land in our room, like fall out of the sky. We need to make an effort to look, to examine.

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: She is asking that in Buddhism we speak about overcoming passion, compulsion and indifference. She would like to ask about indifference, coming from a communist state. As a background, that people have often developed a different attitude to just take care of themselves and not worry or involve ourselves in other issues of others and so on. What is recommended in Buddhism when we find somebody that is in trouble or hurt? Do we just remain indifferent or do we get involved? How involved do we get? Do we think of others or just ourselves? How does it affect our balance, etc.?

Now what is interesting in the way that you formulated the question was that you used the word “interfere.” “Interfere” gives the impression that we shouldn’t do it and it’s none of our business. So, helping others is quite different from interfering. Our aim in becoming a Buddha is to be able to benefit everybody equally. So our hearts have to be open equally to everybody. So the most fundamental thing that we have to work on first – level-minded is not where we start, thinking of everybody – but once we get to that level where we can, then the first thing that we have to work on is overcoming favoritism, which means the attitude that “I am only going to help those whom I like, and I’m not going to help those that I dislike, and strangers? Well forget about them, I don’t know them.” That of course can be based on all sorts of prejudices, “I am only going to help the pretty ones; I’m only going to help the ones that can pay me,” – there are all sorts of further degenerations of that attitude.

We try to even out our attitude toward everybody – everybody same, same. From that basis we can develop a loving attitude towards everyone. Now, of course we can only help those that are receptive and whom we have the capacity to help. So I can’t multiply myself into a million forms and help everybody all at the same time and I don’t know how to help everybody. Very simple things: if somebody’s car breaks down, I have no idea how to fix a car, so how can I help?

Well, I could call somebody who does know how to help, so there is something that we could do. But if they don’t want any help and I force myself on them, then that is interfering. They can be open to our help and want help.

So, how much do we get involved with strangers’ problems: somebody getting robbed on the street or something like that. We have to see, “Am I capable or not? What can I do?” That is very difficult to really know and sometimes it’s not so easy to distinguish. I’m thinking of an example of when I was on the underground or the metro, the subway in Berlin. There was a man and a woman, and the man was screaming and yelling at the woman. People around thought he was going to hit her, so they tried to calm him down and the woman got very angry because this was her husband and they were having a fight and this was part of their usual relationship and it was none of anybody else’s business.

It is very difficult to really help, isn’t it? So, we try to use our common sense and see what am I able to do and what am I not able to do? – not to go to the extreme, that I am God and I can save everybody in the world. Then we feel guilty and beat ourselves when we are not able to it. We are the martyr while we do it, “Oh, I will suffer.” That is one extreme and the other extreme is not to help anybody but just me. We have to use our judgment in situations; it is hard to generalize. If we can help, then we help.

Shantideva the great Buddhist master had a wonderful line. He wrote, “Suffering should be eliminated not because it is your suffering or my suffering. Suffering has no owner. Suffering should be eliminated simply because it hurts.”

I’ll give a simple example. I live in an apartment building with ten families living in it. I go down into the entrance hall and there is trash on the floor. I pick it up and put it in the bin. Does it matter who dropped this trash? No, not at all. Should I wait for once a week when someone comes and cleans the hall? No. I pick it up simply because it has to be picked up and I put it in the bin. I don’t congratulate myself because of it and say how wonderful I am and put a little sign that says, “Alex put this in the bin.” The example Shantideva says is that if you have a thorn in your foot and your hand takes the thorn out, well, the foot doesn’t have to thank the hand and the hand doesn’t have to say, “Oh, I’m so wonderful.”’ You take it out because of course you take it out; you’re connected.

We try to help others in that way when we are able to. It is important to not overestimate ourselves. It is perfectly acceptable and very positive to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you but I think this other person could help you.” Or, “I don’t know who could help you, but maybe you could find such a person by doing this and that.”

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: OK. There are two questions: one at a time. The first is about brain death. Does the mental continuum wait until the body is dead before going onto the next life? The other has to do with schizophrenia and is there any way of overcoming that?

I have been with His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he has met with various doctors and scientists. What the doctors and scientists have said is that it is a very, very difficult question and that they don’t have the answer of exactly when does death occur and when does life begin. This is something that, of course, is a very important point in terms of medical ethics. It is not an easy question. From the Buddhist point of view, even when we have stopped breathing, the mental continuum has not completely disassociated from the body. There are deeper steps of disassociation. But what exactly brain death corresponds to in the Buddhist analysis, this is very difficult, what step it corresponds to. As for schizophrenia, there are various physical bases for that, neurologists say. I am not a neurologist; I’m certainly not an expert. Can someone overcome that? I don’t see theoretically why not.

Participant: [inaudible]

Alex: OK, can a schizophrenic, by becoming more aware of the situation and developing themselves to whatever degree they can in that lifetime of schizophrenia, have a more fortunate rebirth?

Then why not? However we need to understand that the process here of rebirth is not linear. We have countless number of karmic potentials for countless numbers of rebirths. So, just what we have done in this lifetime is not necessarily going to bring about what happens in the next lifetime, the immediately following lifetime. Cluster of karmic tendencies and there are many that go into shaping rebirths could be from many, many other lifetimes, some more recent, some of them more distant. A lot depends on the state of mind in which we die or the state of mind that we have most frequently during the period before we die. There are many factors that affect what actually will ripen at the time of death. If someone has done many positive things during the lifetime as a schizophrenic, then certainly that will have some fruits in the future.

Things will be affected by everything else the person does. It can ether have a strong effect or a weak effect depending on what it is balanced with. But that is what I mean when I say that it is not just a simple linear thing. That you do this and the result follows immediately after. It is much more complex than that.


Question: [inaudible]

Alex: She is asking in this process of mental continuum and rebirth, what is the function of the soul, what is the place of the soul.

In terms of answering your question, everything depends on how we define “soul.” After all, “soul” is just a word, so it could be referring to all sorts of things that maybe we give a different name. There is something called in Indian philosophy “atman.” This is sometimes translated as a “soul,” sometimes as “self.” It is defined differently in different Indian philosophies and religions. They do not all agree. But they agree in general about certain characteristics, let us call it a “soul.” They all agree that this soul or atman is static and never changes, with no beginning and no end, eternal. The point is it never changes; it is not affected by anything.

The second characteristic is that it is partless. “Partless” means that either it is the size of a tiny atom, like a spark of light, or it’s the size of the universe: atman as Brahman.

The third characteristic is that it can exist separately from a body and mind. So it goes on from one to another. It lives inside a body and mind and like an occupant inside a house and owns it and uses it like a machine. Then Indian philosophies will differ. Some will say that that soul or atman is conscious; some will say that it is not conscious, that it uses a separate mind to know things. So there are different interpretations, but the general idea is this. That, Buddhist philosophy says, that there is no such thing.

So, what Buddhism is saying is that there is what we call a “self” – conventional “me,” the technical term. But whether you want to call it a “soul” or not, it doesn’t really matter; it is just a word. This is something which is changing from moment to moment. We agree it has no beginning and no end, but now we are doing this and now that, and so it is changing. It has many parts, so it is not something findable like a tiny spark or the size of the universe. It cannot exist separately from some sort of basis of a body or mind, whether gross like our body and mind now or very subtle. And we have mental activity moment to moment to moment and that “me,” that conventional “me,” is just an imputation. It is like something abstract, like what we were discussing about a habit. It is not something that you can find solidly inside each moment, but the way of putting together all these moments, you can say “me.” It is not just the word “me,” but is what the word refers to on the basis of this continuum of moments of mental activity.

The example that we used of “Star Wars” the movie: the movie “Star Wars” is not the title. The title is just the name of the movie. And “Star Wars” is not any one moment of the film. But the name “Star Wars” refers to the movie “Star Wars” on the basis of all these moments. Is there a movie “Star Wars”? Yes, of course there is a movie “Star Wars.” Is it this moment or that moment? No. Does it follow a plot line? Yes.

It is the same with “me.” These other views of a soul that doesn’t change and so on are a projection of something impossible on top of this basis of the conventional “me” that actually does exist. That projection, we call the false “me.” But it’s because we believe, we identify with this false “me,” with this projection that we identify with something and I have “I’m always young,” or “I always have to have my way,” or “I’m always this or I’m always that.” But we change moment to moment. We analyze deeper and deeper, we find that underlying our disturbing emotions is a belief that I am this false “me.”

If we put this into psychological terms in the West, the belief that I am this false “me,” this exaggerated “me,” this impossible “me” – that belief we would call an “inflated ego” and the belief that I am just this conventional “me,” that we would call a “healthy ego.” It is very important to make this difference in Buddhism and not think in terms of the general misconception that so many people have about Buddhism: that Buddhism says that there is no self, no ego and that we think that there is nothing.

We must be careful not to accept the misconception that so many people have about Buddhism. That misconception is that Buddhism says that there is no self and there is no “me” at all. Because if I don’t exist and you don’t exist, it doesn’t matter what I do, does it? And no one is responsible for anything. Buddhism doesn’t say that and identifies that as nihilism, denying everything. Buddhism says, of course I exist and of course you exist, but not in some impossible, exaggerated way. If you want to call this conventional “me” which is going to continue from lifetime to lifetime – in other words the movie goes on from one life to another – if you want to call that a “soul,” then fine. It doesn’t matter; it’s just a name.

Yes, please?

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: Well, can we only improve our mental activity? That is the question.

This is the basis. Based on our mind, on our mental activity, then what follows from that is how we act, how we speak, how we relate to others. What we want to do is to purify away, in other words get rid of, as part of that mental activity confusion, selfishness, disturbing emotions and realize all these potentials which is it’s ability to love everyone equally, understand everything and so on.

In doing that, do we improve ourselves? Then yes, because “me” is referring to the continuum of this mental activity. But to say, “I am going to improve myself,” what does that mean? Does it mean that I am going to work on my attitude, to work on my body, to work on something? You can’t just work on “me” as if “me” existed separately from all of that.

It is very important to understand how we all have this confusion about ourselves. The example that I love is this attitude that so many of us have, which is, “I want you to love me for myself not for my money or not for my good looks or not for my intellect, but just love me for me.” Is there a “me” separate from all that? Where is it? Automatically we think in terms of all that: “I have to find myself” What are you trying to do? Interesting.

You also have a question?

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: The question is what is the relationship between karmic aftermath and free will?

When we speak about the Buddhist presentation of karma, we are not speaking about either of two extremes, being determinism and free will. Both of them are incorrect ways of understanding according to Buddhism. “Determinism” means that the result is already decided and determined: it’s already existing in the karmic aftermath, tendencies, habits and so on, and is sitting there waiting to come out. And as soon as the conditions are there, it will pop out of the box and nothing can change that. Buddhism says that that is incorrect.

A subcategory of that would be that someone else decided, an almighty being decided, what’s going to happen and put it in the box. That is a predetermination: someone beforehand decided what’s going to happen. Buddhism also says that that is not the case. They use many examples from logic and joking and so on to disprove this. There is no need to go into all these arguments.

On the other hand, free will implies that anything can follow from anything without any cause, as if there were a separate “me” from this whole causal process that is looking at life like looking at a menu in a restaurant and deciding what to choose. There is no separate “me” from the mental continuum and karmic aftermath and so on. So, various conditions and various things will affect what result will come from the karmic aftermath – both what we do and what circumstances we encounter – and so it is not free will nor determinism. We have a choice, but that choice is based on… if we choose “x” or if we choose “y,” there is a cause for that. It is not that I can choose to do anything. I can only choose what is possible. A choice or a decision occurs, that’s all you can say, on the basis of all sorts of mental factors: certainty, discrimination, understanding. There are so many mental factors that are involved in a decision happening.

Is there a “me” separate from all of this making the decision? No. But who made the decision? We have to say, “I made the decision.” You didn’t make the decision. That is how we understand the conventional “me.” I made the decision, but it is not some solid “me” existing somewhere else that will fly out of my body and go into another body.

OK? Last question then we will take our tea break.

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: Is being enlightened a state of mind?

It is not just a state of mind but a state of body and speech and energy. Mental continuum contains all of that. It is not just being aware of things, but perceiving things, doing things, communicating, all of that. It’s not outside the state of mind. It’s part of the mental continuum and it continues.

Question: Does it have qualities?

Alex: Does it have qualities? Yes, many qualities, you can read them. I have them on my website for example.

Buddha’s mind encompasses everything. Our mind is capable of encompassing everything. When we get rid of limitations, the mind is naturally capable of understanding everything. Everything is interconnected, interdependent; nothing exists isolated, wrapped in plastic all by itself. So, a Buddha has equal love for absolutely everybody and, because everything is interconnected, Buddha understands everything simultaneously. A Buddha is able to communicate perfectly with everyone and appear in whatever way is helpful to anyone.

But the other person has to be receptive. A Buddha is not an almighty, powerful God. Being all powerful and omnipotent from a Buddhist point of view is impossible. Whatever happens has to be under the influence of causes and conditions. If something is under the influence of causes and conditions, then it is not all powerful, it is not omnipotent. In this way, it is similar to science.

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: So, then he says that this ability, this enlightenment could be lost.

That is why we really need to understand and examine the third noble truth: true stopping. The third noble truth, the true stopping, which means that we can get rid of the limitations forever, such that they never come back again. So these limitations etc. are similar to, it says, a cloud in the sky: the sky is not inherently stained by them. Clouds are not an inherent part of the sky. The sky by nature is pure but the clouds are something that are fleeting, they pass. So if one can stay on that pure level of mind – it was always the case – and not go to a situation in which these fleeting stains could come back, then they aren’t going to come back. It gets much more complicated than that.

We have the more subtle level of mind; this subtlest level is known as “clear light mind.” A mind which is like a Buddha – this is what goes on from lifetime to lifetime, what continues into Buddhahood. It is more subtle than any of the levels at which these so-called stains occur. It is what provides the continuity and it is possible in mediation to actually be in this state of mind and one sees that it doesn’t have these stains. It also occurs at the time of death. But it has the habits and tendencies to generate again the grosser states where these stains will return. But, for that grosser level to return, there has to be some sort of condition that will make it return. It doesn’t happen without a cause.

That is described by the twelve links of dependent arising. Correct, “links of dependent arising” is a technical term. It’s a mechanism to describe how rebirth works. If we eliminate what is driving this sequence, then it won’t be generated again.

Question: We cannot separate it physically or in any way from the rest of the chain. We said that everything is dependently originated.

Alex: So he says that we cannot take anything out of the link, out of these twelve links and say that [the twelve links] is inherently pure.

There is nothing pure in the twelve links, so your question doesn’t actually pertain to the twelve links.

Question: By pure I mean separate and outside of the twelve links.

Alex: Is there something pure outside of the twelve links? Or separate, he is asking? Well no, because what we are speaking about when we are speaking about the pure nature of the mind is that we are speaking about what underlies the twelve links.

Does it exist separately from it? I think that one has to now understand the word “separately.” There are two kinds of separate. There are certain things that are inseparable and certain things that are separable. For instance, right and left are inseparable because you can’t have right without there being a left. But a glass of water: you can’t have a glass of water without there being a glass and water. However, you could have the glass. The glass without the water would not be dependent on the glass of water.

Now we are getting into refined areas of logic. The point to understand is that there are certain characteristics of the mental continuum that are part of its fundamental nature and is going to be there whether it is stained or not stained. Whether the mind is stained or not stained, it’s always there.

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: These characteristics would not be dependently originated, he says. Everything depends now on how we understand dependent origination in this context. Are they created anew? The ability of mental activity to know things, that is part of the essential nature of mental activity whether we are a limited being or a Buddha. It is the same. Does it arise newly? Is it created like a flower coming from a seed? Does it arise dependently in this sense? Then no, it has always been the nature of the mind, the mental activity.

Some Tibetan Buddhist systems they speak of this as not arising dependently; in other systems of Tibetan Buddhism describing exactly the same thing, they would say that although the fundamental nature of knowing things is not created and that nature stays the same; nevertheless from moment to moment we know different things. Therefore, in terms of its content, it’s affected by things and so it is dependently arising.

So, everything depends here in our discussion on the definition of the terms that we use. There are certain characteristics that are always the case with mental activity and certain characteristics which are not part of the fundamental nature. It can be complicated because some of those might have no beginning, like confusion, limitations. Then one has to examine with logic whether or not it is possible for something with no beginning to have an end.

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: So you are saying that there is something that both stays the same, but at the same time changes?

No, we are not saying that there is something that always stays the same and sometimes changes. We are saying that there is mental activity and some of its characteristics always remain the same and some of … well, the ability to know, if you look at it from the point of view of ability, it stays the same. If you look at it in terms of what it knows, it is different.

Question: So if we are saying something that stays the same, then something that stays the same is nothing else but atman that we are rejecting?

Alex: He is saying that something that stays the same is nothing other than the atman which we are rejecting. No. there are many things that don’t change, it doesn’t make them all into an atman.

Question: Everything changes.

Alex: No, everything doesn’t change. What is one plus one? It is two. It is a fact. Certain facts don’t change. The fact that impossible ways of existing don’t refer to anything real doesn’t change. It is not affected by anything. Is that the atman? No, so one has to get a little bit more refined.

These questions are very good. This is the process by which we work with Buddhism, to make questions until we clarify our imprecision. It has to be very precise to understand so this is excellent.

Tea break.