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Self-Transformation through the Lam-rim Graded Stages

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, October 2008

Session Two: Conviction in the Dharma

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:39 hours)

Yesterday we began our discussion of lam-rim and we saw that the Tibetan term “lam-rim” means the graded pathways of mind. Specifically the states of mind that act as a pathway for enabling us to reach enlightenment. And this is divided into three scopes of three types of persons. The initial, intermediate, and advanced scope. That structure was first formulated by a great Indian master called Atisha who was instrumental in the second bringing of the Dharma to Tibet from India. He wrote this in, or presented this, in the text called Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. And from Atisha we then trace the Kadam tradition, which then had fragmented and was put back together and reformed by Tsongkhapa. It became the Gelug tradition. But this Kadam tradition influenced many of the other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact I think we could say all of them, since the lojong primarily comes through the Kadam lineages. “Lojong” means attitude training, mind training. I don't like the word “mind-training” because that sounds as though we're just training in concentration. But it's not referring to just that. It's a much broader training dealing with the emotions as well. So, for instance, in the Kagyu tradition if we look at Gampopa, very instrumental for whom so many of the Kagyu traditions evolved or derived, then he's known as the great master who combined the streams of Kadam and mahamudra. And Atisha derived the idea of this scheme from a line in Shantideva's Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. There Shantideva wrote, "This precious human body with leisure and enrichments so hard to find can fulfill the aims of every person." So every person then, Atisha elaborates as the three levels of persons, so persons of the three scopes. So this is the origin of this way of formulating the material.  

We went through very quickly a survey of the material that's contained in this presentation of lam-rim. And we saw that it covers the topics of a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher, a precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, the sufferings of the three worse realms in the rebirth states, refuge or safe direction, which includes all the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and a whole discussion of karma and avoiding destructive behavior. All that material is in the initial scope teachings.

On the intermediate scope we have the sufferings of the three better or higher realms of rebirth; the sufferings of samsara or uncontrollable recurring rebirth altogether, in general; the presentation of the disturbing emotions and the mental factors within the context of the four noble truths, the true cause of suffering; then a more specific detailed explanation of how these disturbing emotions, the true cause of suffering, actually generates the first noble truth, true sufferings. So that's the twelve links of dependent arising. Then the three higher trainings in ethical self discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness or wisdom as the means of getting out of samsara, attaining liberation – with the whole mental framework of renunciation. That constitutes the intermediate scope of motivation. And there's a bit of a discussion of monastic vows which comes in this discussion as well in terms of higher ethical self discipline.

Then for the advanced scope we have the teachings on the various methods for developing of bodhichitta aim. So we have the seven part cause and effect meditation which begins on the basis of equanimity but actually number one of the seven is recognizing everyone as having been our mothers in a previous lifetime; then the presentation of the second method which is equalizing and exchanging the attitude toward self and others, which includes the practice of tonglen, giving and taking. Tsongkhapa presented an eleven-part meditation procedure for combining these two ways of developing a bodhichitta aim. Then there is the presentation of taking the bodhisattva vows and what are the bodhisattva vows. Then the practice of the six far-reaching attitudes or perfections and the four ways of gathering disciples. And as part of the elaboration of the six far-reaching attitudes a very, very extensive presentation of far-reaching mental stability or concentration that's elaborated in terms of the teachings on how to develop shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind. The elaboration of far-reaching discriminating awareness in terms of the teachings on how to develop vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind and within the many different ways of developing such a state of vipashyana, particularly having it focused on voidness, so all the teachings on voidness. So all of this is within the advanced scope teachings.

So we can see from this survey that the lam-rim teachings encompass a huge amount of material, all of which would fall within the sphere of the sutra teachings if we divide in terms of sutra and tantra. And proficiency, some level of proficiency, in all of these is an absolute prerequisite for tantra practice. Tantra practice is on the basis of this and everybody in all Tibetan traditions agree on this point.

And obviously a weekend like this is impossible to go into detail on all the different points of the content of the lam-rim as I just enumerated them. There are many texts which present this material in various lengths and they will have different amounts of scriptural quotations from Indian sources supporting the teachings and instructions on all these points. And we find these texts in the Kadam tradition and also in the Gelug tradition in many, many variants and each of them will have certain special individual features and other parts which are strict repetitions of what came before in previous texts. For instance the Fifth Dalai Lama's version gives a great deal of personal guidelines on the meditations. The largest version was written by Tsongkhapa, Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages or Lam-rim chen-mo in Tibetan. He gives an extreme, extreme amount of precise detail concerning shamatha and vipashyana.

Now, it's very important, I think, to realize that all of this material which is covered in the content of the lam-rim is found in all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The only thing that differs is the outline with which the presentation of the material is structured. So for instance in Gampopa, a great Kagyu, early Kagyu master, he has two ways of presenting this material. In his Jewel Ornament of Liberation, he divides this in terms of the cause, which is the discussion of Buddha-nature and this is, although not discussed explicitly in the Kadam or Gelug versions, this is something which is certainly appropriate in the material. Then based on this cause, Gampopa says the supporting basis, that's the precious human rebirth, and then he calls relying on the spiritual teacher the condition. And then he calls the guru's instructions the means or method – all of this for achieving exactly the same thing that we have in lam-rim: the three goals – improved rebirth, liberation and enlightenment. Then he structures the means or the methods in terms of overcoming the four hindrances. This is reminiscent of the Sakya presentation of the same material in terms of overcoming the four types of clinging. Then the other presentation that Gampopa gives is the presentation of the...what's called the “four dharmas of Gampopa.”

Then we have also presentations that organize the material in terms of basis, path and result, for instance in the Drigung Kagyu presentation. So we find in the Sakya tradition a similar version of that, called the impure vision, vision of experience, and the pure vision. We have some presentations that combine the four dharmas of Gampopa with the three scopes, others that combine the four themes or dharmas of Gampopa with parting from the four clingings, so a mixed presentation in the outlines. And then in other presentations we have this organized according to the four common preliminaries. Or in Patrul's lam-rim, or text, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, he speaks in terms of the outer preliminaries, the inner preliminaries, the six inner preliminaries, etc.. It all covers exactly the same material, the only difference is the outline. So it's very important not to have any type of sectarian view concerning this material or to think that the version that I'm studying is the only version of it and, of course, the best. Some of the quotations from Indian sources might be slightly different; some of the personal instructions concerning meditation methods might be slightly different; some of the details might be a bit, on the very minute level, might be slightly different. But primarily we'd have to say that it all is the same.

We also saw yesterday that it's possible to understand the structure of the lam-rim also within the context of the four noble truths. And I mentioned that what is very important is to – for really developing ourselves to be a person fully integrated with these levels of motivation – that it is utterly essential to be convinced of the validity of these goals. In other words, it is possible to achieve these goals and it is possible for me to achieve these goals. This is what we derive from two things. This type of approach, the emphasis of what I just said, comes from two points. One is the three types of, what's usually translated as, faith. I find that not a good translation of “belief in what is true,” “belief in fact.” We're not talking about "I have faith that the stock market will get better tomorrow" – I don't really know. Or I have faith in Santa Claus – it doesn't exist. We're talking about belief in something which is true. And not just faith in something that I can't possibly understand, but I believe.

Now, I don't know that I can remember the exact translation terms that I used for these, but there is a purifying type of belief. In other words, a belief in something that, in believing it, it purifies the mind or settles the mind of any disturbing attitudes toward it. So it calms the mind down of, for instance, indecision, doubt, fear that's out of being afraid of liberation and enlightenment. You know, it's "Who can do this?" Or attachment, "Oh, wow! This is so fantastic!" and you exaggerate it and you know, "I've got to get it for ME, ME, ME!" And so it calms that down. And this is gaining on the basis of the second type of belief, which is confidence based on reason. In other words, the goal – that of achieving liberation and enlightenment, etc. – is reasonable. It makes sense. It's logical. It's not something which is irrational. And the third type of belief is belief with an aspiration. In other words, "I believe that this is possible and I believe that I am capable of doing it and therefore I aspire to achieve it.” So we can see from these three types of belief in something which is true, is a fact, that it is very essential to be convinced that this, these goals are reasonable and it is possible to actually attain them and I'm able to attain it. And in gaining that confidence, our minds become calm or purified of being afraid, of being in doubt, of being over-exaggerated and so on – being jealous of others who have achieved this, being arrogant that "Oh, I have achieved this!"

The other aspect of the teachings which underlines the importance of being convinced that it's possible to achieve these goals of better rebirth, liberation and enlightenment is the study of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. When we speak of an arya, a so-called “noble being,” somebody who has nonconceptual cognition of not just voidness, but the way that it is defined is nonconceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths – that's the definition. So of course voidness is included among these sixteen. But the other aspects of it, and I won't go into listing the sixteen but it's a very important topic to study, indicate confidence in the fact that it is possible to achieve a true stopping; that there is such a thing; and that the causes really are the causes – true causes of suffering; and that the pathway minds really will get out, get rid of the causes for suffering. And so these different aspects explain that.

So I mention these details just to illustrate what I was saying yesterday concerning the importance and benefit of trying to integrate more and more aspects of the Dharma teachings that reinforces and deepens our understanding of any individual point within the Dharma. Because if we really take refuge, if we really put a safe direction in our lives, which is indicated by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, then we really want to do it, to go in that direction. What is the direction of the Dharma jewel? It's the third and fourth noble truths – the true stoppings and the true pathway of minds on the mental continuum of an arya. That is the definition and you have to know that. The third and fourth noble truths don't exist by themselves up in the sky. They are on the basis of the mental continuum. It is the stopping, the permanent removal of suffering and its causes from a mental continuum – hopefully ours. And the pathway minds, the understandings that will bring this about and that will result from that stopping – and that, of course, is on a mental continuum. And the Buddhas are those who have achieved these true stoppings of true pathway minds in full, and the arya Sangha have achieved them in part – some of them, not the whole set.

So, how seriously do I take refuge? This is the question. Is it just blah, blah, blah and cut a piece of hair and get a Tibetan name? Big deal. Or am I taking refuge in the Easter Bunny? And refuge, as I said, is a safe direction. So I'm going in the direction of this. So I have to be going in a direction of something that I believe exists. You have to have belief in this. And so we believe in something which is a fact. I have to be confident that there is such a thing as true stoppings and true pathway minds and there are those who have actually achieved it and I can achieve it and there's graded stages of how to achieve it, that Buddha actually taught that. And I am going to go in that direction because I am confident that it is something that actually exists; it is true. And if we talk about bodhichitta, then we are aiming to go all the way on this direction to becoming Buddhas ourselves to benefit everybody.

So safe direction is really initially within the context of liberation. So when we repeat a Tibetan verse, for instance, of motivation, in which first we take refuge or safe direction of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha all the way to enlightenment and then by the positive force of giving and so on achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all, that first part, the refuge part, that has to do with aiming for liberation and the second part, the bodhichitta part, is aiming for enlightenment. So we want to go through those stages.

So to summarize what I'm saying here is that the whole basis for becoming a person of the initial then intermediate then advanced scope is based on a very confident belief that these goals are possible to achieve, that they do exist in terms of refuge, there are others who have achieved it in terms of Buddha-nature and I could achieve it as well. And here is the path that will lead to gaining confidence in that. Everything within the lam-rim has to be understood within this context of aiming for liberation and enlightenment. This is what makes any practice a Buddhist practice within the context of safe direction, refuge. That's what distinguishes Buddhism from non-Buddhism is refuge. If we leave that out, then the initial scope becomes something that would be in common with almost every religion. I want to get a better rebirth, I want to go to heaven. That's not Buddhist specifically, is it?

There's so many practices in this realm of not only lam-rim in sutra, but in tantra as well which are shared in common with non-Buddhist traditions. We have certainly renunciation in so many different traditions. We have complete instructions for achieving shamatha and vipashyana in many of the Indian non-Buddhist traditions – not to be focused on voidness, but certainly the methods for achieving that state of mind are there. They're shared in common. And we certainly have Hindu versions of tantra working with the chakras, the channels and the energies. So what makes any of these practices a Buddhist practice? Love and compassion? No. We find that in almost every religion. Relying on a spiritual teacher? No. You find this in so many other traditions. Following ethical discipline? No. Becoming a monk or a nun? No. We find this in so many other traditions. Doing rituals, doing pujas? No. You find this in every religion.

So what makes it Buddhist? You read it in every text – refuge. And that is not a trivial statement. It's not my daddy is stronger than your daddy, so my Buddha is better than your god. Refuge. Safe direction. It's talking about the third and fourth noble truths. Talking about a true stopping of suffering based on getting rid of its causes forever and true pathway minds that will lead to it. In other words, true liberation. Other Indian religions speak about liberation but this is not a complete liberation from the Buddhist point of view. There are still some disturbing emotions. There are still some problems. And it's not just my liberation is better than your liberation, just because it's mine. Just because my daddy, my Buddha said it's so. It must be based on confidence that it is a noble truth. That this is a true liberation. That this is a true stopping and, to understand that, be convinced of that based on reason in such a way that our minds are purified of disturbing emotions and attitudes concerning this. We're not arrogant about it. We're not attached to it. We don't have doubts about it, but not in terms of being stubborn and closed-minded. And we are not going to be sectarian and jealous of anybody else and we want to compete with others in this sort of disturbing emotional way. Okay? I'm confident that this is so, this is true and I'm going to do it. So it's the third type of belief with an aspiration that it's possible and I'm going to do it. Then everything within the lam-rim starts to make sense.

Before I go into the more detailed analysis of why it's possible to improve future lives, why it's possible to achieve liberation, why it's possible to attain enlightenment, perhaps there's some questions about what we've covered so far.

[Silence while awaiting questions.]

Perhaps since we have covered a tremendous amount of material, perhaps, and so questions aren't so immediately forthcoming, it might be a nice idea to just sit for a couple minutes and digest a little bit, if we can, of what we have been discussing and then see if you have some questions. I think the primary question that we need to ask ourselves is, "Is my approach to the Buddha Dharma a "Dharma-lite" approach – that basically I want to improve my samsaric existence in this lifetime through the Dharma methods?" or "Am I actually trying to follow the real thing Dharma?" Which means, "How much do I really believe in terms of future lives, do I really believe that, am I confident of that, and do I pay any attention to trying to ensure that they are good ones?" In other words, "How seriously do I take future lives? And do I have any idea of what liberation really means or what enlightenment really means?" and "Do I think it really is possible and do I think I really am capable of achieving it?"

Please keep in mind, if Dharma-lite is our drink, that there's no guilt about that. There's no judgmental projection in terms of that. This is fine. This is where, in fact, if we're honest with ourselves, I think the vast majority of Westerners start with and have to start with coming from our backgrounds. The only really important point here is that we acknowledge that these are two separate drinks, Dharma-lite and real-thing Dharma, we don't confuse the two. And that we have – if we are working with Dharma-lite ourselves – that we have respect for the real-thing Dharma; we acknowledge that that is the real-thing Dharma and we hope that in the future we will be able to deal with it. Because, if we go back to our analysis of motivation; we need to know what is the goal; we need to be convinced that it exists and that we can achieve it.

However, a further step is that we have some emotional feeling that draws us to actually wanting to achieve that. I could believe that liberation is possible and understand it, but I have an awful lot of resistance to actually working for it. So after being convinced that it exists and that it's possible for it to be achieved, then we really have to work on the whole emotional driving force that will really make us get off our behinds and actually work for it. So in order to transform from Dharma-lite to real-thing Dharma we're going to have to work on two dimensions. One is understanding and the other is the emotional aspect, and neither of the two can be ignored. Both of them are equally important. When I speak here of Dharma-lite and real-thing Dharma, we're also speaking of, of course, lam-rim-lite and real-thing lam-rim.

So let's take a few minutes to reflect honestly on our own states of mind and our own way of approaching this type of material, and Buddhism in general.

[A brief pause before continuing.]

As you see, my main point here in terms of how I'm approaching this material – and as I said in the beginning, I'm speaking also in terms of my own experience of it – is that the most essential thing is actually developing these three scopes of motivation. How you do it and the practices that you do, it comes secondarily. The first thing is to have that aim. Without that aim then the practices are just...what should we say, interesting exercises and helpful in this life, but not quite the real thing. This is why the terminology that is used here in lam-rim is significant. It is talking about "person." What kind of person am I? Am I a person who is just concerned about wealth and love and so on in this lifetime? Am I a person who is really thinking in terms of future lives and ensuring that they're not going to be worse so I can have continuing opportunities for spiritual development? Am I a person who's working to overcome all suffering and gain liberation – and liberation, please keep in mind, is liberation from rebirth, liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Dharma-lite is liberation from problems. The real thing is liberation from the problem of rebirth, samsara. Am I really a person who's aiming for enlightenment to benefit absolutely every, every individual being in the universe? All insects. Everything. Equally! That is vast. That's called “Mahayana,” a vast vehicle of mind. So, these aims, these scopes define what kind of person I am. That is a very significant statement. That sure shapes my life much more, much more fully, much more all encompassingly than my nationality, than my occupation, than my gender – than anything! So, that's what lam-rim is dealing with. What kind of person are we.

Okay. So, let us examine: What kind of person am I? What really is the most important thing that shapes my life, in terms of what am I doing with my life? Unless we ask ourselves these types of questions seriously, then our study of Dharma is like our study of anything. It's just, you know, something interesting. Maybe a little bit useful. But, you know, it's like learning how to fix my car. It's interesting; it's useful; but doesn't shape my whole life...

Okay. Working to become these three types of persons in a graduated order – that's talking about shaping my life! So let's contemplate that for a while. Let's say five minutes.

[five minute pause]

We are reminded of a line from the Seven-Point Attitude-Training or lojong, where Geshe Chekawa says, "Take the main of the two types of witness." Take the main one. This means that of those who can evaluate as a witness our level of motivation, our level of spiritual attainment, namely others or ourselves, the one who really knows where we're at, the level we're at, is ourselves. We know, we're honest with ourselves and who am I kidding? Am I really working to liberate every insect in the universe or not? We recite sooooo easily, "May I attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings." Does anyone actually mean that? Do we ever even think what does that really mean? So we are the ones who are best able to evaluate ourselves. But without guilt and without judgment on the one hand, but without complacency on the other hand. Complacency means, "Okay, that's where I am...and that's it!" Not being...without having the attitude, "Well, this is where I am, but I would like to try to go further." And certainly not with the arrogance with which we think, "This is the way I am. I'm an angry person and have a bad temper, so everybody had better get used to it."

So, do you have any questions, now that we have two minutes left before the tea break.

Question: Could you please tell me about these two kinds of witness?

Alex : Can I speak a little bit further about the witness, two types of witness? Witness means if we, let's say we have a question, "Am I ready to do this type of practice or that type of practice?" Well, we could either go ask our teacher, "Am I ready?" or we can evaluate ourselves, "Am I really ready for this?" Now, of course we can ask the advice of our teacher. No one is saying that we shouldn't consult our teacher. But, "Have I overcome my selfishness?" Do we ask somebody else or do we evaluate that ourselves?

Now this becomes a little more complex. It's a very good question. Because sometimes we really aren't very aware of how we're interacting with others and we need feedback. But it's hard to find somebody to be objective in giving us feedback, "Have I been acting selfishly in our relationship?" Well, the other person has their own emotional agenda there. So, it is good to seek feedback from others, but ultimately we're the best judge of have I been acting selfishly or not. So, based on their report, then we evaluate it ourselves, "Is it true? Is it not true?" etc.. Because I think ultimately it's easier for us to be objective about ourselves than others. Because we know ourselves better. We have more information about ourselves.

You had a question?

Translated question : So, she has two questions. One: "I'm very busy. I don't have enough time for immersing myself in all of this so I have this doubt. I'm very confused. If I work trying to be helpful to those closely around me, maybe with the intention of later on helping more people, but right now in  this lifetime I don't have the time. Wouldn't that build enough merit for attaining a better rebirth." That's question number one.

Alex: In general, yes. The main cause for better rebirths, happiness and better rebirths, is avoiding or refraining from destructive behavior. So it doesn't specify with absolutely everybody, but as much as we can. In addition, practicing as much as possible the six far-reaching attitudes of being generous with your family, patient, persevering, etc., discipline get up every morning and dress the baby or whatever...and also prayers. You have to really want further wonderful rebirths, which means that you have to think that...belief that it's possible – that they exist. Those are specified as the three causes for better rebirths. So practicing that in your family and friends is perfect.

Translated question : And the second question is: "It seems for me like contradictory. If I aim and at some point I obtain liberation, then when I obtain liberation, I cannot help anybody any more because I am liberated.

Alex : Well, as a liberated being there are – arhat is a liberated being – there are two modes of achieving arhatship. One is as a Mahayanist: That I'm achieving liberation on the way to becoming a Buddha. So I see it just as a stepping stone. And the other is: I am aiming for liberation as an end goal. But from a Mahayana point of view, even if we have been aiming for liberation as an end goal and we achieve it with that state of mind, still it's possible for us to be, the term is "awakened" or stimulated from our complacency to work for other beings. In other words, the way that it's technically stated is we can develop bodhichitta either before becoming an arhat or after becoming an arhat.

Your question underlines a very important point here, which is that it's very easy to get attached to liberation because it feels so nice to be free from suffering. The same thing in terms of being very deeply absorbed in meditation. It feels great. So if we're aware beforehand of the potential dangers, then psychologically we're prepared to not become distracted or attached to the benefits of achieving liberation and we'll forge ahead. If we're a real bodhisattva, we won't even want a two-week vacation in liberation before continuing on the bodhisattva path...

Translator : What don't we want?

Alex : A two week vacation enjoy a pure land before we get up again and work to help others.

Alex : Last question before tea.

Translated question : So, she's making a comment more than a question. You talked about emotional resistance. So she said she was working toward being a better human being and she has always been working in that direction and using the Dharma, etc., and recently she knew of some bad news about some illness and she lost interest in everything and interest in the Dharma: "Does this really work? It will really help me? – I doubt it. So there is this very strong resistance and that makes me think of 'what is it?' Does it mean that I have to work more on myself or do I have to dig more into the teachings or, what is happening?"

Alex : Well, when we find that there's emotional resistance, then we need to delve more deeply in our analysis of what is the confusion here, what's causing it. And if we leave it on a general level here, which is in common with all the Indian schools of Buddhism, it's belief in a self-sufficiently knowable “me.” Confusion is about me that is offering resistance. Self-sufficiently knowable. This is where we start according to various schools in deconstructing that. Self-sufficiently knowable me. That's a “me” that can be known all by itself, as in, "I don't want to achieve enlightenment; I don't want to help others; I don't want to work for others." As if there were a "me" all by itself that doesn't want to practice.

Is it a mind that doesn't want to practice? Is it laziness that doesn't want to practice? What is it that doesn't want to practice? Well, we think in terms of "me" – "I" don't want to practice. But "me", "I" is just what is labeled onto or imputed onto a mind and laziness and fear and insecurity and all these various mental factors. And so if we want to, what should we say, refer to this whole complex of a mind and all the mental factors and emotions and insecurities and etc., we can refer to it in terms of "me." I don't want to practice.

But that “me” isn't all by itself; it can't be known by itself. It can only be known in the context of these other things. So, if we are...if we think in terms of, "Well, what can I do to change the situation?"...if we are thinking in terms of a self-sufficiently knowable “me,” then somehow we want to oppose or stop that me. As if I could yell at myself, "Come on, stop acting like that," or punish myself or force myself, then I could get myself to practice. That doesn't work. That's based on a misconception of “me.”

So it's important to aim our antidotes to this state – not at a self-sufficiently knowable “me,” because that doesn't exist, but to aim it at the various mental factors on – the disturbing mental factors – on which the “me” is being labeled. So, what you need to work on, and now there are perfect methods for this, is to work on fear, to work on laziness, to work on insecurity, to work on all these sort of things which is the basis for labeling “me,” that I don't want to practice. Then we will have a basis of a state of mind with enthusiasm, etc. upon which to label a “me” that wants to practice. This is how we apply voidness analysis. It's not so intellectual. It's not so difficult. It's just a matter of understanding how you apply it in a practical manner, what they're talking about. They're not talking about some weird abstract philosophical concept. Talking about something very practical.

So, we will take a break and then continue.