Introductory Survey of Lam-rim
Session Four: Intermediate and Advanced Levels of Motivation
We have been speaking about the graded stages of the spiritual path. Actually, as we saw, we are not talking about a path itself, but we are talking about the graded stages of how we develop our minds, ourselves, however we want to phrase it. What we are doing is basically expanding our motivation starting from a smaller scope and broadening and expanding our scope until it becomes full. So each stage builds on the previous one.
We also saw that there are two ways of going through this development. We can follow a Dharma lite version, like Coca Cola lite, with which we are concerned with improving this lifetime, making our lives a bit better. For most of us, this is where we need to begin. However the traditional presentation of this does not even consider this level, because it assumes belief in rebirth no beginning and no end. So the real thing Dharma, like the real thing Coca Cola, is speaking of this development within the context of rebirth.
We saw that the initial level motivation, as with all levels of motivation, has an aim, a reason for attaining that aim and an emotion behind what drives us to achieve that goal. Here we are aiming for improving our future lives, ensuring that we continue to have a precious human rebirth so that we can continue developing ourselves to the greater goals, because it is difficult to achieve the ultimate goals in just this lifetime. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work. So the reason to try and continue to having better rebirths is so we can continue on the path.
That is what we plan to do when we achieve this goal. We are not talking about going to heaven in our next lifetime and just having a good time. But the emotion that drives us to seek this better rebirth is dread of having a worse rebirth where we have no opportunities to work on ourselves and improve, and confidence that there is a way to avoid this. And we discuss this in terms of safe direction, refuge, which is basically to try to stop completely forever all the limitations and negative aspects that accompany our mental activity, especially in terms of our behavior, and act in constructive ways. We do this within the context of appreciating the precious human life that we have, the opportunities and understanding that we will definitely lose this at the time of death, and we have no idea when this will come.
Now, intermediate scope. We now think about, well even if we have these so called better rebirths precious human life, nevertheless to just continue like that is unsatisfactory. Life goes on; and we have described several times that its nature is that it goes up and down and no certainty how we are going to feel in the next moment. We may be happy now and in the next minute we all of a sudden feel sad or depressed. The littlest things will upset us and of course we have the recurring problems of in each lifetime having to be born, be a baby, not have any control over our bodily functions, learn how to walk and talk, and this is really boring. Go to school, and who wants to do that? Find a partner and find a job and all of these things and face sickness and old age and death, not only in ourselves but our loved ones as well.
So there are many unsatisfactory things about this and our emotional problems are still going to be there with this precious human life. We get angry, we get upset, we are greedy, we have attachments to people and to things, objects. We are naive about cause and effect, we are naive about reality and so we act in very naive ways, very stupid ways, like thinking that the way I act and speak to you has no effect on you, as if you did not really exist and didn’t have feelings. That is complete naivety isn’t it?
These emotional problems are going to continue and we will continue to have up and down experiences in any fortunate rebirth and also go from fortunate to unfortunate, better to worse rebirths and situations. And it just goes on and on and on and on. This is what we call “ uncontrollably recurring existence or rebirth.” The Sanskrit word for that is “ samsara.”
The goal, I should say, that we would like to achieve on this intermediate scope is liberation from this. In other words, have our mental continuum go on – because it is going to go on, as we said it has no beginning and no end – but not to continue in this never-ending cycle, or what seems to be never ending, of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. We have to put an end to it. When I say “ never ending,” that means if we don’t do anything about it, it’s going to go on forever. And we want to make a stop, a true stopping, an ending of this samsara. The reason for that is because we want to stop the suffering, the problems that come even if it isn’t the gross, gross problems, the subtle problems, we want to stop it. That is the reason for wanting to achieve liberation.
Liberation by the way is called “ nirvana” in Sanskrit. The emotion that drives us to that is called “renunciation” usually. We need to understand what this word actually means.” “ Renunciation” is not a terribly good translation. The word itself actually means a strong determination; and that determination is the determination to be free: to decide that I have had enough of this, I am fed up with it and on a deeper level I am profoundly bored with this and enough already, I have to get free.
The understanding that we have with that is that, in order to be free, we have to get rid of the causes of the problem, the causes of the suffering. So, we are totally willing then to give up not only the suffering, but the causes of the suffering. I am determined to be free of my anger, of my greed, of attachment for all these things. So, we are not talking about, you know, I have to give up ice cream or chocolate, or anything like that. That is a very trivial understanding. What we want to get rid of is our attachment to it, which is based on an exaggeration of its good qualities: “This is the most wonderful thing and is going to make me happy, ultimately happy.” As we saw before that if chocolate was capable of doing that then the more we ate the happier we would be. That is not the case, it will make us sick.
Now, to sincerely be willing to give up our attachments, our anger, this type of thing, that is very profound and very difficult. We should not trivialize that. It is like, for instance, this joke of someone banging their head against the wall, but they are afraid to stop because, they don’t know, “maybe if I stop banging my head against the wall, it will be worse. And this is what I am used to,” so they keep on banging their head against the wall. That is an extreme example. A more common example is being in an unhealthy relationship with somebody, but we are afraid to break off that relationship because we are afraid of being alone. So, we keep up this unhealthy relationship and we are miserable.
This is very common, isn’t it? “I don’t want to say anything to my partner because maybe they will abandon me.” So, we are not talking about strange experiences, we are talking about what we all experience all the time.
[What is the] aim, the reason for achieving it and emotion behind it? In order to then achieve this goal, we have to know first of all that it is possible and how to do it. This is true of each of these spiritual goals: rebirth, liberation and enlightenment. These are quite complicated topics to demonstrate to ourselves that it is possible to achieve these goals and I am capable. Many people skip that and that is a big mistake because, if we are not convinced that I can achieve this goal, then why are we bothering to work toward it? What are we doing? We are just playing a game and eventually we reach a point where we say this is ridiculous what am I doing?
So, we have to really examine deeply, this gets us into the whole topic of what we call “ Buddha-nature,” the natural purity of the mind etc. Are these disturbing emotions, is this confusion part of the fundamental nature of the mind? – which means it has to always been there every moment – or is it something which is temporary and can be removed so that it never returns?
We saw from the debate that we had before the tea break that this is a very complex topic. To debate about it and question it and so on is absolutely necessary. It is not something that we just accept on blind faith. The more we question it, the better. We need to clear up our doubts and have confidence in what we are doing. Now do we have to wait until I am 100% convinced? This gets into a difficult question of, what does it mean to be convinced of something? What does it feel like? That is not an easy question, is it? What does it feel like to be totally convinced of rebirth? Well, that takes a very long time.
If we at least are going more in the direction of, “well, maybe it is possible,” then we can proceed. If we think that “this is garbage,” then obviously we can’t work with it. But thinking “ maybe it is true” would be based on some sort of reason, not just blind faith or “my teacher said it was true, so I believe it.” Buddha himself said, “Don’t believe anything I said just out of faith in me, but test it as if you were buying gold,” to see if it is really true.
And, as I said, it is a long process, that we take the belief in rebirth, that this is actually a fact… If I look at my own example and share that with you: I have worked with this for many years. I have been studying Buddhism now for forty-five years, a long time, and I certainly reached an intellectual understanding based on reason as to why it makes sense that there is rebirth. But I must say what really threw me over the line really on an emotional gut level of believing it was knowing my teacher – his name was Serkong Rinpoche, he was one of the teachers of His Holiness Dalai Lama – knowing him in two lifetimes. I was his very close disciple. I was with him for nine years: I translated for him; I was like his secretary; I arranged all his travels; I worked very closely with him. He died, was reborn and found again in the Tibetan system of tulkus. Now he is twenty-five years old and I have an extremely close relationship with him similar to what I had with the previous one; different of course because of the age difference.
When I first met him when he was four years old, the people in the household said to him when I walked in the room, “Do you know who this is?” He said, “Don’t be stupid, of course I know who this is.” From the very beginning, from his side as a four-year-old he was extremely close and affectionate with me, much more than with other people, and it has remained like that as he has grown up.
At various times that I can remember, we were looking at a video of his previous life and he would say to me – and he doesn’t just say garbage to me – he said, “Oh, I remember saying that.” In addition to all the logic and reasoning, it is this experience that really has helped me to go beyond that line of, “well maybe, probably, and so on,” to say, “OK, yes.”
These things are not so easy. Is it really possible to gain liberation? Is the nature of the mind really pure when it ends? Even if we understand it rationally, to understand it on an emotional level is much deeper. But we work with it.
On this intermediate level of motivation in lam-rim, we have a very detailed explanation of the mechanism of rebirth, so it explains the mechanism. This is explained in what was referred to before, these “twelve links of dependent arising.” It is just the name of a very complicated mechanism. This deals with this whole issue that we have been discussing these days about karma, karmic aftermath, etc. We need to understand very well the various types of disturbing emotions that we have: anger, greed, etc. – how they arise; what underlies them, which is what I called “ confusion” in a very simple way. We are confused about the effect of our behavior on others and on ourselves and, more deeply, we are confused about how I exist, how you exist, how everything exists.
In very simple terms, we think of things as existing independently, by their own power, separate from everything else, wrapped in plastic by itself. Even if we think of everything being interrelated, we still think of things wrapped in plastic but connected with sticks. There are many levels of subtlety that we need to understand of impossible ways of existing – what is impossible, but nevertheless what our confusion projects onto everyone.
We need to understand what we call “voidness” [emptiness]. “Voidness” means an absence, a total absence; something is absent, not there. And what is not there is a real referent of these projections of what is impossible.
Let us use a stupid example; it is not such a stupid example. Do you have Santa Claus, Father Christmas here? OK, we see somebody that’s dressed in a red suit with a white beard. And they look like, what do you call it here Santa Claus or Father Christmas? So we think that this is Father Christmas. Why? Because he looks like Father Christmas. But that appearance of Father Christmas is not referring to anything real; there is no actual Father Christmas. So, that is what voidness is talking about, an absence of a real Father Christmas that corresponds to his appearance. Now to understand, that doesn’t deny that there is a man there that looks like Father Christmas. We are not denying that there is a man there; we are just clarifying that the way that that man appears to us is deceptive. It looks like it’s really Father Christmas, but it’s not really Father Christmas because there is no such thing.
That is the way that our minds work all the time. We project all sorts of nonsense: that you exist as the most beautiful person, or you exist as the most horrible person, or I am God’s gift to the world, or I am no good – as if we or they exist like that independently of everything else and it never changes; this is truly who we are.
Nobody exists like that. That is impossible. Everything exists relative to other things. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always uses the example of our fingers. The fourth finger, is it big or small? Well, it’s big compared to the fifth finger, but it’s small compared to the middle finger. So from its own side, by its own power, is it big or small? No. It is only big or small relative to other things; it’s dependent on other things. And dependent on our concept of what big or small is. So, any way you get the idea. So, what we are working on in this intermediate level is to get rid of this misunderstanding. To understand voidness, on gaining the understanding of voidness in order to get rid of this confusion, because this confusion is what is causing this uncontrollably recurring rebirth as explained in this very complicated mechanism of these twelve links, having to do with karma and karmic aftermath and activating it and so on.
To gain this understanding of voidness, we need to have concentration; and to have concentration we need to have discipline, ethical discipline. The example that is used is like cutting down a tree. The understanding is like the axe, the sharp axe; but in order to use that sharp axe, we have to always hit the tree in the same place and that is like the concentration. In order to be able to pick up the axe and swing the axe and in order to hit always in the same place, we need strength and that strength comes from ethical discipline, restraining ourselves from acting destructively and so on.
We have the presentation here of taking the various sets of vows. So, either the full or novice level of vows of a monk or nun. Or the vows of a householder, male or female, somebody that’s not leading the celibate life in a monastery and has not necessarily a family: they could be single. But in India, that was ancient India, that was quite rare; you usually had a family. Vows are called “vows for individual liberation.” So, they are aimed for our liberation. So we are avoiding basically different types of behavior that would be motivated by some sort of disturbing emotion or activity which would interfere with our meditation practice or things like that, or living in a community with other monks and nuns.
Taking a vow is very important, very strong. Why? Because a vow taken for life frees us from indecision. Say we are trying to give up alcohol or cigarettes. Every time that the people we are with have a drink or have a beer or something like that, we have this indecision, “Well, should I really have it or should I not have it? I’m trying to give it up,” etc. That is an uncomfortable state of mind actually, having to make the decision every time that we are challenged. If we make a vow, that is final. We have made a decision: “That’s it, I am not going to drink, I am not going to smoke” – whatever the vow might be.
Then is doesn’t matter if everyone around is drinking a beer, we have already made up our minds. So actually, rather than being a restriction or punishment, these vows actually give us a lot of strength and it liberates us from indecision, especially concerning things that would be detrimental to our achieving final liberation.
There is no obligation to take the vows. We have to understand that. Nobody is saying you have to take a vow and nobody is saying you have to become a monk or a nun and live in a monastery. However, if you are really serious about obtaining liberation from samsara and really are serious about getting rid of anger and attachment and greed and so on, taking these vows will make it easier. Maybe we are not ready for that and so that is fine. We need to evaluate ourselves honestly.
That is the intermediate scope and although concentration and gaining this understanding of voidness or reality is part of this intermediate scope, nevertheless they are not discussed in full at that stage, because they are also are in the advanced scope teachings.
For the advanced scope we don’t have too much time, sorry. Hopefully it is OK if we go a little bit past our scheduled time. At the advanced scope, we think in terms of “I am not the only one in the universe. There is everybody else and everybody else is in the same situation as I am in; everybody else has suffering and uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Just as I don’t want to have suffering and I want stable happiness, so does everybody else. We are all equal in that way. Not just me and others, but all others, everybody and we are all interconnected and interdependent on each other. We don’t exist independently all by ourselves we could not survive that way.”
There are many methods which are used, quite some sophisticated methods, to expand our hearts out to everybody equally. We hinted at some of them before, at the beginning of this lecture this morning, by recognizing that everybody has been our mother in some previous lifetime, has been kind to us, and so on. We saw that there can be a Dharma lite version of this as well, that everyone could act like a mother toward us by taking care of us. But there are some limitations with that because it’s difficult to apply that to our friend the mosquito.
What we develop then is what we call “love.” First of all I should start, we start with equanimity, what we were speaking about before, of not attracted to some, not repelled from others, and not indifferent to yet others, but open to everybody. Then, on that basis, recognize our interconnectedness with everybody either on the basis of everybody has been our mother and been kind to us, or just recognizing how everything that we enjoy and makes use of comes from the work of others: this floor, this building, where did the water come from? How did it get here, etc.? This is from the work of others. We are all equal and so it is illogical for me to just work for my own benefit because actually to gain my benefit we have to benefit everybody.
Then we develop love, equally for everybody, which is the wish that everybody be happy and have the causes for happiness. So we are not talking about romantic love which often is mixed with a great deal of attachment. When we say “I love you,” it usually means, “I need you; don’t ever leave me. I can’t live without you,” etc. If the other person doesn’t pay attention to us or says something nasty, “I don’t love you anymore.” The type of love we are speaking about in Buddhism has nothing to do with how the other person acts, what they do toward us – it’s just the wish, may you be happy. It is like we are all part of a body. “I would like all my toes to be happy, not just some of them. It doesn’t matter what my toe does to me.”
Then we develop what is called “compassion.” Compassion is the wish for others to be free of their suffering and the causes of suffering – not just the superficial level of suffering, the up and down of life, but to be free of the deeper type of suffering, this uncontrollably recurring rebirth. It is not looking down on them and feeling sorry for them, “Oh, you poor thing.” It is based on respect and an understanding that it is possible for them to be free of their suffering and the causes. It is not just a nice wish. Part of this compassion is taking some responsibility to actually bring this about. There is a great deal of courage there.
The next step is to develop what is called the “exceptional resolve.” Resolve is like a strong decision which is that “I am going to take responsibility not just to help others in a more superficial way or even in a little deeper way, but I am going to take responsibility to try to help everybody reach the enlightened state of a Buddha.” This is based of course on an understanding of what a Buddha is and what is possible and what is not possible in terms of helping others. Remember, a Buddha is not an all-powerful God that can just snap his fingers and everybody’s suffering goes away. A Buddha can show the way; a Buddha can inspire us, but we have to do the work ourselves. Nobody can understand reality for us; we have to understand it ourselves.
Then the final stage in this sequence is to develop what is called “bodhichitta.” The basis for it is love and compassion and exceptional resolve. But now we realize that the only way that I will be best able to help everybody is if I attain the enlightened state of the Buddha myself. So driven by love and compassion, bodhichitta is focused on our own future enlightenment – individual, not focused on Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. I’m not focused on enlightenment in general; I am focused on my own individual enlightenment, which has not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of all the Buddha-nature factors of my mental continuum – its basic unstained nature, potentials and possibilities, etc. We are focused on that not-yet-attained enlightenment, not-yet-happened enlightenment, with the intention to attain it and to benefit others as much as possible with that attainment, and to benefit others as much as we can all along the way.
So, this is bodhichitta. It is a very vast state of mind and some people mistakenly think that just meditating on love and compassion, that’s bodhichitta, it is not. Love and compassion is the basis, bodhichitta is much, much more.
So, our aim here with the advanced scope is to attain the state of a Buddha. The reason for attaining it is to help others as much as is possible. Driving us to that is love, compassion and this exceptional resolve, bodhichitta. How do we achieve enlightenment? Then we have the presentation of what is known as the six, I like to call them “far reaching attitudes.” They go very far. They go all the way to the enlightened state of a Buddha. Usually they are called “ perfections,” but that is not a very nice translation. It sounds as though I have to be perfect. I am not perfect, so I’m not good enough. This is in Sanskrit the paramitas, the six paramitas.
So we need to develop generosity, to give to others not just material things but advice, teachings, give them what’s called the state in which we develop equanimity. But what it means is that there’s nothing to be afraid of from us. “I am not going to get angry with you and I am not going to cling to you and want to get something from you. I am not going to ignore you, but I am just going to sincerely try to help you.” That is an unbelievable gift that we can give someone. “I am not going to ignore you. I’m not going to reject you because you did not come to class this week. I’m not going to get angry with you,” etc. That is a tremendous gift. So, generosity.
Then again, ethical self-discipline – not to act destructively, to act as constructively as possible – the discipline to study and to meditate – and the discipline to actually help others and not say, “Oh, I am too tired and I don’t feel like it.”
Then we have patience. Patience is the ability to endure suffering, difficulties and not to get angry or upset. Working on ourselves and trying to help others is not easy. People aren’t easy to help: they give us a hard time and we need patience not to get angry and so we have many methods. Each of these has how to develop generosity, how to develop discipline, how to develop patience.
Then the next one is joyful perseverance. Perseverance means we don’t give up, that no matter how hard it is, I am going to do it and not give up. And I am going to take joy in helping others; I am happy to have the opportunity to help you. Of course there are many teachings and instructions on how to do that, which include knowing when to relax and take a break, otherwise we push ourselves too hard and we can’t help anybody. We have many different methods for overcoming all the different types of laziness that would prevent us from continuing to work.
Then we have all the practices for developing mental stability. So this includes concentration, but is a little bit more than just concentration. What we want to have is a stable state of mind that is not going to come under the influence of mental wandering, flying off to objects that are attractive to us, that is not going to get dull and fall asleep, that’s going to stay focused on whatever we want to be focused on. Like, for instance, someone else when they are talking to us and not have our mind wander off about other things. And stable in the sense that we do not have upsetting emotions that will disturb the stability. We have to be emotionally stable. So this means neither oversensitive nor insensitive, but balanced, stable.
Then the sixth one is what I call “discriminating awareness,” which is often translated as “ wisdom” or the “perfection of wisdom,” prajnaparamita in Sanskrit. But what is it referring to is the ability to discriminate between how things exist and what is impossible – very specific. The word “wisdom” is too vague, it could refer to anything. This is specifically what we are talking about, that this is impossible. I discriminate that this is ridiculous, impossible; it doesn’t refer to anything. This brings in the understanding of voidness, what we were speaking about just shortly ago.
We work with these practices, this aim, this motivation, bodhichitta etc. this is the advanced scope of motivation.
In brief those are the three stages of lam-rim, the graded stages on the path to enlightenment and, as I said at the beginning, it is a vast topic. Here in English we have three volumes of translation of Tsongkhapa’s big presentation of this topic. A lot of things in here, a lot of detail, lots of methods, many centuries of experience that are in here. We don’t have to invent this again by ourselves. As I mentioned, on my website berzinarchives.com, you can find a lot of material that deals with each of the individual topics here.
Now just one or two questions
Alex : Very good question. When we differentiate Dharma lite from the real thing Dharma, can lay persons, those who are not monks and nuns follow the real thing Dharma?
Yes, definitely. There is no problem. However, it is easier if you don’t have the responsibilities of a family and having to earn enough money to maintain them and so on. It is just easier. But that doesn’t mean that it is impossible while having a family, just more difficult.
Alex : Is it OK if we just choose the easier version?
Absolutely I have said that from the very, very start. We need to be honest with ourselves and, for the vast majority, our interest in Buddhism and any spiritual practice is simply to try to improve the quality of this life, and that is perfectly fine. Not only is it appropriate and fine, but it is necessary as a start. Just thinking, “I am doing this for future lives” and be a terrible cruel person in this life – this is absurd.
The thing that I added here was to not reduce Buddhism only to that. To accept the fact that Buddhism really does talk about rebirth and these other things. The lite version is a step in that direction. Buddhism is not just an Asian form of therapy; it is much more than that. So just, proper respect for the actual tradition.
Question : [inaudible]
Alex : She is saying to take a vow for one’s entire life, isn’t that in contradiction to the middle way. There are many people who, having become a monk or a nun, give up their vows for one reason or another.
First of all I should say that when we talk about vows, there are other sets of vows. There are bodhisattva vows, tantric vows. Those you take for all your lifetimes, all the way to enlightenment, not just this lifetime. So there are more.
So, what do we mean by “middle path.” That is not going to an extreme. An extreme with regard to vows would be being totally inflexible. So, for instance a monk has a vow not to touch a woman and a nun has a vow not to touch a man. But if you see somebody drowning, if a nun sees a man drowning, it would be ridiculous for the nun to say, “I cannot give you a hand, because I am not allowed to touch a man.” This is being inflexible. So, certain situations call for being flexible with the vows. On the other hand, the other extreme is to say that the vow does not matter; there’s no purpose to the vow. So, in keeping the vow, we do follow the middle way. To take a vow for this lifetime or for all lifetimes means that we are really serious about achieving the goal of liberation or enlightenment.
In Thailand, and it has been adopted in Burma as well, you have the possibility to take the vows of a monk or a nun provisionally, just for a short period of time. It is sort of like either you go into the army or you go into the monastery for a short period of time; and it is nice to have that choice, isn’t it? But the Tibetans don’t follow that custom and that wasn’t originally the custom in India.
There are varying social reasons why it developed in Thailand and so on. In Thailand and South East Asian countries, the monasteries are very closely connected to villages. The villages support the monasteries in the sense of providing food. If your own children will at some point be in the monastery for a few months, or a year, and you yourself have been for a few months or a year, then you are much more involved with the monastery and you would be much more willing to make a little extra food every time you cook and give it to the monks and to the nuns.
This custom developed for social reasons actually. Now what about giving up our vows? As you said a monk or nun falling in love and giving up their vows, that happens. So, as long as one gives up the vows in a respectful way without just saying, “Oh, this was stupid and I made a terrible mistake,” but respectfully, that “Ok I cannot keep them.” Then, OK, that happens. What is important is not to have a negative mind about what we had done in taking the vows and not to feel guilty about having given them up and not to have terrible regrets. If we have given them up in the proper respectful way, we can actually take them again.
But in the Tibetan tradition, if we take these vows as a monk or a nun, the intention is to keep it for the rest of our life. That is why it is very important to check it out and to try to keep some of them before we take the vows, to see, am I really able to do this? Is this really what I want?
Especially when we think in terms of ourselves, we are not like the Tibetans that for various social reasons parents put their children in a monastery when they are seven or eight years old. So, let us not take that as a model here in the West, because it really doesn’t apply.
Any more questions?
Question : Is this happening only on earth or throughout all the universe?
Alex : Very good. Is all of what we have been discussing happening only on earth or is it happening elsewhere in the universe? Definitely. Buddhism certainly asserts that life is not only found on this planet, but in many, many places throughout the universe.
As I was joking, if we have the karma to be reborn as a dinosaur and there are no dinosaur rebirths available now on this planet, well we could be born as a dinosaur somewhere else. There is no logical reason why life should be restricted to this planet.
Question : [inaudible]
Alex : She asked that, not a very simple question, about the nature of time, is time linear, with a beginning and at what point can we be reborn at?
OK. Well certainly you can’t say that time has a beginning, as beginning is a measurement of time. So it is illogical to say that beginning marks between no time and time, but beginning itself is a time word. So, it is actually illogical to think that time could have a beginning, because then of course what is before that? Beginning implies something before.
So, how Buddhism defines time is as a measurement of change and as a measurement of change it becomes very complicated and very sophisticated. It is not that there is some sort of line and time exists as a measuring stick and we are independent of that and marching along this axis of time. Rather it is, as I say, simply part of the process of change, a way of organizing change. So you say something is happening now, something already happened and something has not yet happened.
So in Buddhism we don’t speak of time with the concepts that we speak of in the West. It is conceptualized very differently. In the West, we think of past, present and future. Well, that is not the way that Buddhism looks at it. If you think in terms of past, present and future, then somehow you might think that the future is happening somewhere over there. We could travel to the future or travel to the past and be reborn in the past, as if the past were existing and happening somewhere. So Buddhism says that that is impossible; that’s not what’s going on. Rather, we conceptualize in terms of already happened, happening now and not yet happened. So, we can only speak in terms of what has occurred and what is happening. We cannot say that past, present and future are all happening at the same time.
It is similar to what we were speaking of in terms of a mental continuum or the movie “Star Wars.” It is not all happening now in one moment. Only one moment is happening at a time. Whether we are talking about a movie or whether we are talking about a mental continuum or we are talking about time in general, only one moment happens and when we talk about the rest, it’s either already happened or not yet happened.
After it has happened is it sort of sitting off stage relaxing and not yet happened is waiting to come on the stage in order to happen? No. It just happens. Does it come from nowhere? No. If you take what happens now comes from nowhere and so a nothing becomes a something and a something becomes a nothing, that also doesn’t make sense. It becomes very interesting and very complicated. And we know what has already happened, and we know what has not yet happened, and we do what we actually know. I have a very complicated article on my website about this: the nature of time and what does a Buddha know? A Buddha knows the past, present and future.
Let us end here with a dedication. We think whatever understanding we might have gained, whatever positive energy has developed, then what we want to do is like save it in the folder in our internal computer and not just turn off the machine and leave here and it’s not been saved anywhere. If it is something positive, then it will automatically be saved in the folder of “ improve our ordinary samsaric life.” A little bit more understanding and we can make interesting conversation over tea or coffee. So, very nice, but not terribly profound.
The dedication is a conscious saving of this in the folder of helping us to reach enlightenment; the folder which is the folder to reach enlightenment and not just to improve this life. So, that is the real thing dharma. So we think whatever understanding and whatever positive forces come, may it contribute toward reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all. This gives a little push to that understanding, that positive force to go in that direction. Or, if we use the analogy of the computer, it is to be saved and stored and built up with more positive energy and understating in this folder of reaching enlightenment, and to do this with our thought.
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