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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Self-Transformation through the Lam-rim Graded Stages

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, October 2008

Session Three: Beginningless and Endless Mind

Unedited Transcript
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There is one more point that needs to be added in our discussion of Dharma-lite and real-thing Dharma. When we are working on the bodhisattva path, we are trying to overcome our selfish concern and have concern just for others. However, we're not going to overcome our disturbing emotions and attitudes until we become an arhat, a liberated being. Therefore, while practicing on the bodhisattva path before becoming an arhat, we're definitely going to still have selfish concern. So there is no question about it. We will have selfish concern. No need to feel guilty about that. But the point is that we are working on that selfish concern. We're trying to diminish it and trying to have our primary concern be with others. Therefore, we need to be realistic about this bodhisattva path.

So, now we transpose the same analysis to being concerned just with this lifetime or being concerned with future lifetimes, liberation and enlightenment. In other words, to Dharma-lite – being concerned with just this lifetime – or real-thing Dharma – being concerned about the aims of the three scopes. So it's unrealistic to think that we are not going to have any concern whatsoever for things of this lifetime. So when we talk about Dharma-lite and real-thing Dharma, it's not that they are contradictory with each other and mutually exclusive. There is a continuum between the two. And concern for this lifetime, at least for us Westerners, seems to be stage number zero that we need to have, on the basis of which we have stage one, two and three of the lam-rim. Just as we have stage zero being equanimity on which you have the seven-part cause and effect meditation for bodhichitta. We need a stage zero. Why? Because there are many people, and I'm sure we all know examples of this, who don't even think of trying to work on themselves and improve themselves in this lifetime. They desperately need therapy and they don't even consider doing something like that, let alone turn to Dharma-lite. And so we need the Dharma-lite step, and as with self-concern versus concern for others, we try to eventually diminish our main concern being with just this lifetime and increase our concern for future lives. But there's always going to be some concern for this lifetime. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "50/50" – 50% this lifetime, 50% future lifetimes and beyond.

Now, we delve into real-thing Dharma. Again we go back to the four noble truths. And the four noble truths are the sufferings, the causes of sufferings, the stoppings of sufferings and their causes, and the true pathway minds that lead to that. So what is the location of the four noble truths? The location of the four is an individual person's mental continuum. And so if we look in terms of these four facts, four true things, in terms of a mental continuum, then that suffering has to take place on a mental continuum and the third type of true suffering is that uncontrollably recurring basis of aggregates – lifetimes and lifetimes, that form the basis for the first two types of suffering, unhappiness and our ordinary happiness.

Aggregates: we're talking just in general about the body and mind. They come with the disturbing emotions and karma that generates the suffering: it comes from that. They're mixed with these in each moment and they – unless we do something about it – they will perpetuate more. And when we talk about five aggregates, we're talking about what makes up each moment of our experience from moment to moment to moment. We're not talking about a "thing" like our mind, as if it were a thing. The true causes would be unawareness, unawareness of cause and effect and unawareness of how we exist and everything exists. When we're unaware of cause and effect, behavioral cause and effect, then we act destructively. And when we're unaware of reality, then we act destructively or constructively mixed with confusion. Or we act in a neutral way, like scratching our head, but mixed with confusion: "This horrible itch...a monster that's going to get me – I have to get rid of it." It's mixed with confusion even though it's just a neutral act of scratching our head. So this unawareness brings on disturbing emotions, we act on them, things like karma, etc.. And on that whole mechanism, these true causes are contained within the aggregates, each moment of...contained within...what makes up each moment of our experience. And what we have here is a relationship of cause and effect. Cause in disturbing emotions and acting upon them and the effect during a subsequent moment of suffering. The experience of suffering is part of our aggregate of that moment. So we have a mechanism of cause and effect occurring where? On the mental continuum in terms of our experience. So this is the disturbing side of the four noble truths, the first two.

The purifying side of the four noble truths are the second two noble truths. We develop the true pathway mind so the understanding of reality, to put it very simply. So that occurs on a mental continuum as part of the aggregates that make up each moment of experience so that we have that understanding. And the result is not the actual true stoppings themselves, because – that gets complicated but the mental continuum was never stained by these problems to start with – "to start with" is not a good expression – anyway, never stained by this, by them. But we'll come back to that, that is a very extensive, deep topic that we will discuss perhaps this afternoon. But the result of these true pathway minds is the attainment of the true stoppings, not the true stoppings themselves. It's a technical difference. The point being that for the liberating side we also have a causal sequence, a causal relationship between the true pathway minds and the attainment of the removal or elimination or stopping or ridding ourselves of the first two noble truths.

So what do we have so far? We have the location and basis for the four noble truths is an individual mental continuum that has sequences of moments, the contents of which are related by cause and effect relationships. It's not so difficult to understand or relate to our experience – if we think on a very simplistic level, then if I bang my foot against the table, that is followed by a moment of experiencing pain. Those, the contents of those two moments are related causally.

So now the question is: “What are the limits for the cause and effect relationships?” Limit is not the precise word; I'm trying to think of the precise word. How much distance can there be, in time, between the cause and an effect? We see quite a bit of distance in our ordinary life between causal actions and the effect. I invest money in some stock and years later I make a lot of money or I lose a lot of money. It's not as though the next moment I make a lot of money or lose a lot of money. It's not like banging our foot against the table and the next, immediate next moment, we have pain. So that's the question: “Is there a limit to the duration that is possible between the cause and effect?” In fact, that's one of the laws of karma, that there is no limit to the duration between the cause and effect. That sometime it's know, whatever we've done it's going to ripen into an effect, unless we purify it away.

So, this brings us to the topic of: “Is the mental continuum limited to just this lifetime or is there more, both before and after?” And already doubts come into our mind about this because the medical scientists can't even really clearly define and decide what is the exact moment when the mental continuum of this lifetime begins and when is the exact moment when death occurs and it ends. The whole question of abortion, contraception, etc. – when does life begin and are you dead when you're brain-dead; when you have heart failure? When are you actually dead? Scientists can't agree on that. And of course the extension of this question is: “Is there only one future life in heaven or hell or, is that the end, or does it go on beyond that?” Although if we look at most religions, there is certainly a heaven and hell. It's usually, ah, you're there forever! It goes on forever. So there, the real question is: “When does the mental continuum begin?” Is it created at some point or not?

So we have now the question of a beginning and an end to causal relationships. So that of course brings up the whole topic of the voidness of cause and effect. Can an effect come about from no cause at all? Does it come about from itself? How does it come about? There is a very detailed analysis and examination of the voidness of cause and effect in Buddhism. So if things come from nothing, then anything can happen at any time. So if there's no sense whatsoever in terms of what happens to us, even the relation between banging my foot against the table as a cause for experiencing pain, the next moment wouldn't necessarily be valid. And if the result already exists at the time of the cause, in other words, things come out of itself, like for instance everything is predetermined, so it's already there, it's just a matter of it manifesting, then it doesn't make any sense that things are impermanent and change from moment to moment and are affected by what comes the moment before, because it's just a matter of everything is there already; it's just manifest or unmanifest. It's as if all of time happened all at once. If everything was predetermined then it all...I mean, there's no such thing as time then. You know, that's pretty weird actually. If you think of predetermination, it means that everything past, present, and future is happening at the same time.

So to be a person of initial scope to work in terms of improving future lifetimes, making sure – I mean improving future lifetimes, actually what that's referring to is making sure that we continue to have a precious human rebirth so that we can continue on the spiritual path. But to be convinced of that, we need to be convinced of rebirth. A beginningless and endless mental continuum and how it works in terms of... and to be convinced of that we need to be convinced of how cause and effect actually exists and works. Also from the point of view of dependent arising, if we take some phenomenon, if we look at it dependently from what came before, we would call it a result. If we look at it dependently from what follows from it, we would call it a cause. So the existence of something as a cause or as an effect is dependent on the continuum. My experiencing of today is a result of my experiencing yesterday and is the cause of my experiencing tomorrow. So nothing exists from it's own side independently as a cause or as an effect. It's only a cause or an effect in relation to what comes before and what comes after. So can we have something like a moment of death, which is the result of something before, that is not also the cause of something coming after? This is...I mean our analysis of voidness of cause and effect hits this point.

Now let me try to explain the way that His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains this – which you better believe is not simple. And, perhaps surprisingly to some of us, the argument is based on experience which is supported by reason. Which, after all, is the Buddhist method – that we look to both sides, experiential and reason side. These two need to go together.

Okay, now we're ready: If we think in terms of external phenomenon, we have what's called an obtaining cause and simultaneously acting conditions. An obtaining cause is that from which we obtain the result. That's why it's called an obtaining cause. And when we obtain the result, that cause no longer exists. And in a sense, the obtaining cause transforms – although one could analyze that more in detail – into the result. Like for instance, a seed is the obtaining cause for a plant. When we get the plant, a ripened sprout for example, then that seed no longer exists. The seed transformed into the sprout. Now that's often translated as material cause. That's very misleading. We're not talking about the elements of the seed and the elements of the plant. We're not talking about the elements. So we have the obtaining cause, the seed.

But then there are simultaneously acting and functioning conditions; you need water and sunlight, etc.. That's the external phenomena. So we have one moment the obtaining cause, the next moment the result – though obviously it's not just instantaneous. It's not that... the seed doesn'tinstantaneously turn into the sprout. I mean that's why this whole question of transformation is a little bit awkward. But we get the idea that we have two moments – cause and effect. Whereas the simultaneously acting conditions, the soil is still there, for example. The water is still there.

Now we turn to our topic here which is the mental continuum. When we speak in terms of a mental continuum, we can speak in terms of what's known as the primary consciousness and the mental factors. Now, in general regarding both, then we have for instance – oh, I should mention the difference: Primary consciousness is just what is aware of the essential nature of something. So being aware of something as a sight, or a sound, or a smell, or a taste, or a physical sensation, or some sort of mental phenomenon. So we're talking here about visual consciousness, audio consciousness, etc.. And the mental factors accompany this and is – with them we speak in terms of a different nature – it's called functional nature. Tibetan, these are two different words. Tibetan for the first one, essential nature is “ngo-bo.” Tibetan for the second one is “rang-bzhin.” So functional nature in terms of having some sort of emotional relation to the object; angry with it, attached to it, happy about it, unhappy about it, interested in it, bored with it, concentrated on it, not concentrated on it, etc., so it has some sort of function which know, it has a nature of dealing with a function of how it relates to the object.

Now, in general for both of these, when we look at the conditions for it arising, we have to add a little bit more. So we have a focal condition. In other words, the mental phenomenon needs to be focused on some object: a sight, a sound, a thought, whatever. Then we need a dominating condition, which would dominate what type of cognition it is. So that would be the sensorial cells: the sensors of an eye, the sensors of the ear and so on. By relying on that, that condition, of this sensorial apparatus, then that dominates what type of, or controls, what type of cognition it will be. It will be a visual one, it will be an audio one, it will be a mental one. We are not at all talking about the organ, the sensory organ....or the gross organ like the eye or the eyeball or something like that. We are talking about the cells, the rods and cones, you know, the cells, the sensors, we would call them – certainly not sense powers either. It's a physical thing, like neurons or whatever that is able to deal with a certain type of information. And this is not so unusual, really, from a Western point of view. There has to be some sort of distinction in these neurons that are able to, in a sense, transform visual information into the electric impulses that go to the brain or audio impulses into electric impulses that go to the brain. So that will dominate what type of cognition it is. Is it hearing or is it seeing?

Now, the third condition that a cognition requires is what's called an immediately preceding condition. This is only for mental phenomena, for cognitions [ways of being aware of an object. And this is not just within sensorial cognitions, this is within mental ones as well.] External phenomena [as objects of cognition, such as a table] don't have this. And it's this immediately preceding condition, which refers to the immediately preceding moment of cognition, that allows for the continuity of the essential nature of cognition. I'll explain that.

It's like, for instance – maybe this isn't an exact analogy but – the electron of the electricity a little bit earlier in the wire allows for the continuity of it continuing to the electricity that's going along the wire. It allows it to continue to the cognition. In a sense, although this isn't exact, we could say it is what allows for a continuity of being alive, a moment before of being alive, to continue the force in the next moment of also being alive. It's not exactly this, but I think this is analogous.

So when we talk about essential nature here, we're talking about the essential nature in terms of just being a cognition. Not in terms of being a visual one or an audio one. Then, in a sense the immediately preceding condition is somewhat like, it seems as though it could be the obtainer cause of the next moment of cognition. It is not specified in the text and His Holiness speculated and said it probably could be considered the obtaining cause. In other words, what brings about the next moment and ends when it brings about the next moment. So it transforms into the next moment, like the seed into the sprout.

So if we look at our normal cognition, then one moment of sense cognition, let's say for example seeing the visual form of this object in my hand, which is nonconceptual, then that would be the obtaining cause for the next moment, which would be a nonconceptual mental cognition of this object and that would be the obtaining cause for the next moment, which would be a conceptual, mental cognition of this object. “Conceptual” means that I cognize it or perceive it through a category. That's what conceptual means. It doesn't mean necessarily with some mental sound of a word, just a category and here the category would be "paper" – "a piece of paper."

Conceptual cognition is necessary. In other words, it allows me to perceive this white rectangle in my hand and that white rectangle on the table both as pieces of paper. And I know then what to do with them, how to use them. Otherwise it's...what is it? It's a white rectangle – thank you very much. Right. We don't just say, "Please give me a white rectangle, I want to write something down." OK, so we have a sequence here of obtaining causes and the result, a sequence of different types of cognition.

Now, we turn to the analysis of anuttarayoga tantra and in anuttarayoga tantra we speak of the different levels of subtlety of cognition or mind, and [they occur] as the consciousness relies less and less on the physical basis of the body. And we have either eight stages of subtlety or ten stages of subtlety depending on the tantra system, doesn't make any difference. The subtlest level is called the clear light mind, clear light cognition. When we die, then the mental continuum withdraws from it's reliance on the body, gross body, in stages until it is no longer relying on this physical body. Then we have the clear light mind in its full form. A similar process of going down to the subtlest level occurs when we fall asleep or when we become unconscious and also we can achieve this kind of withdrawal – or dissolution sometimes it's called – of the mental continuum, of the mind, of cognition, in meditation. In fact, in meditation we could even go to the full subtlest level of the clear light mind and not just close to that, an approximation to that, as in sleep and being unconscious.

Now, we have the entering sequence of these eight stages in which we get subtler and subtler and enter into the clear light state. And then we have the reversal sequence in which, after being at the subtlest level, then we come out of that, getting back to our usual level. It's the reversal sequence of the eight.

So, if

  • in our experience of sleep and unconsciousness, and especially in our experience of meditation, we discover that each of these mental cognitions in the entering sequence is the obtaining cause of the next one, the obtaining cause for the entering sequence: each moment is the obtaining cause that transforms into the next moment.
  • And we discover likewise that after that clear light state, that the clear light state and each of the subsequent states in the reversal sequence also have the same relationship – that it's the obtaining cause for the next moment. And so the clear light mind itself – now we go back to our voidness analysis – is a result dependently on what came before, but is also a cause, obtaining cause, for what comes afterwards in the reversal sequence.
  • And we experience this in our ordinary life in terms of the fact that we wake up from being asleep and we wake up from being unconscious.
  • And if we experience this in meditation when we're really an advanced meditator in terms of actually going down to the definitive clear light level – not just close to it – and that we come out of it,

Then it follows that

  • the clear light mind of death is the result of the last moment in that entering sequence, which served as the obtaining cause for that clear light mind of death, and the clear light of mind of death is the obtaining cause for the first moment of the reversal sequence in what we would call the bardo.

That's the proof of future lives in Buddhism. Unbelievably profound. I've only heard that from His Holiness. I've never heard anybody else give that demonstration. It combines both experiential proof and logical proof. So let us digest that for a moment.

[Pause for contemplation.]

Now, let me add a few more points here. Maybe it makes it a little bit more complex. But just to add completeness here. What I've explained so far is just the demonstration of the continuity of cognition, of the mental continuum. Right? From the basis of the immediately preceding condition, which acts as an obtaining cause for maintaining the essential nature of a phenomenon as being a cognition, mental activity, we have to look at the causal mechanism for what maintains the functional nature, not the essential nature, in terms of the mind. In other words, now we're talking about the content of the cognition.

Now we go to, again, the obtaining causes on a different level. We have our analysis of karma and karmic aftermath we call it: what is left over after we have done an action. Because, there is an interval between the action and the result in terms of the discussion of karma. We need somehow to have continuity here. How do you connect the moment of the cause with the moment of the result, which is...could be many lifetimes afterwards. So we talk, first of all, about tendencies, karmic tendencies that...they're sometimes translated with the word “seed.” The karmic tendency is the obtaining cause for the experience of happiness or unhappiness. So, from a destructive action, the karmic tendency from it will produce unhappiness. From a constructive action, the karmic tendency from that will produce happiness.

But here we have to differentiate between the obtaining cause and the immediately preceding condition. Once the obtaining cause, here being the tendency or the seed, has ripened, then it's finished. It's not going to continue to generate unhappiness or ordinary happiness forever, like an immediately preceding condition is going to produce an endless continuum of just mental activity. It's different.

We also have tendencies of disturbing emotions. And the tendency of a disturbing emotion is going to ripen into, again, experiencing anger, or experiencing attachment, etc., as part of that moment of cognition, so the tendency is present as the obtaining cause of the disturbing emotion. Now, karmic tendencies are neutral phenomena, completely neutral; neither constructive or destructive. But, various moments of our experience are going to be either constructive or destructive. So we have another aspect of karmic aftermath, which I translate as "karmic force" or "potential." So we have positive force and negative force, positive potential and negative potential. That's usually translated unfortunately as "merit" and "sin." And these are either constructive or destructive and that is the obtaining cause for our moment of cognition to be either constructive or destructive.

In addition, according to the – now we have to go into the Indian tenet systems – the Vaibhashika system and the Prasangika system according to Gelug – I must confess I don't know whether the other Tibetan traditions also include this in the Prasangika presentation – but we also have a nonrevealing form as part of the karmic aftermath of either physical or verbal karmic actions, which starts when we begin the action and end, and continues after we finish the action, and will continue so long as we have the intention to repeat that type of action. If we vow, "I'm never going to do that again," then we lose that nonrevealing form. It's a very, very subtle form, not made of atoms. It's called nonrevealing because it doesn't reveal the initial motivation with which it was practiced.

Now, although I have not read this or heard this, in any text or from any of my teachers, my own analysis, from my own contemplation, it would seem to me that the nonrevealing form is the obtaining cause for the form of the action. In other words, the form of the physical action or the form of the sound of a verbal action. That would make sense in terms of if you no longer...if you promise that I'm never going to repeat the action again, then the subtle form of it would no longer be part of your mental continuum. But that's my own analysis. I mean, what is the form of hitting somebody? It's the form of moving, putting your hand in a certain position and moving it with force, touching somebody else, or of yelling at somebody, it is producing a loud voice; we're not talking about specifics of how to do it but just the general form of it. There has to be some reason why Tsongkhapa accepted this and asserts this and Vaibhashika asserts this. There has to be some special function of it. So that makes sense to me. These are obtaining causes for what will result from them, but they're not immediately preceding causes, they're not going to continue forever. Once it's ripened – then finished. And they do not give their result continuously, it's only sometimes. Sometimes you get angry, sometimes you don't get angry.

Then we have another type of aftermath, which is called a "habit." There are habits – both karmic habits and habits of disturbing emotions. This is a different type of karmic aftermath because it gives it's result continuously, every moment, and that's the difference. It's result is that it causes the mind to make an appearance of truly established existence – so, an impossible form or way of existing. We will come back to this because in our discussion of understanding the mental continuum, in order to have an initial scope, to be an initial scope person, we need to be convinced that the mental continuum has endless continuity based on this whole mechanism of the obtaining cause for each moment of cognition in general, the same as the immediately preceding condition is a prior moment of cognition that will again produce another moment of cognition. And to be an intermediate scope person we have to be convinced that karmic tendencies, tendencies of disturbing emotions, karmic force, nonrevealing forms, all of these are not part of the essential nature of the mind. Therefore they can be removed. Therefore liberation is possible. And to be a person of advanced scope, we have to be convinced that the habits of disturbing emotions and the habits of karma are also not part of the essential nature of the mental continuum. They can also be removed and therefore omniscience is possible and enlightenment.

These are the areas, although they are very difficult to understand. But these are the ways to convince ourselves that the three goals of lam-rim are possible to attain, and that I can attain them, and therefore we can then work on developing the emotional force that would drive us to actually work to achieve these goals – that we are convinced it's possible. But we'll need to go a little bit more deeply into analyzing what kind of phenomena actually are tendencies, what are habits, can they be removed, etc..