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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Self-Transformation through the Lam-rim Graded Stages > Session Four: Questions and Generating Concern for Future Lifetimes

Self-Transformation through the Lam-rim Graded Stages

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, October 2008

Session Four: Questions and Generating Concern for Future Lifetimes

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:23 hours)

[Let's begin our afternoon session with questions if any of you have any.] Yes?

Question : When we speak about rebirth are we talking about rebirth after death or rebirth in the sense that we are reborn in each moment?

Alex: We're speaking about after death. Of course, we get into a very important and difficult question which is, “What reincarnates? What goes on from lifetime to lifetime.” But that's not the topic for the moment.

Question: She's confused. If you could clarify a little bit for her about the difference between or relationship between clear light mind and the mental continuum.

Alex: When we look at the mental continuum, we need to specify something that is going to be present in every single moment without an end, without a beginning and without an end. So, if we think in terms of one particular lifetime, then we have many different levels of mental activity and we have many different levels of body in terms of gross body, energy, and so on. If we analyze it in one lifetime, then we find, for instance, that there's nothing which remains unchanged throughout our lifetime in terms of these gross levels. None of the cells of our body are the same as what we had in the past, certainly not what we had as a baby. Our brain is certainly not the same, the cells of the brain, our thoughts are not the same. Understanding is not the same, emotions, etc. Nothing is remaining the same.

If we consider the example of deep sleep and the example of being unconscious or under an anesthesia, then we find that we have gross levels of consciousness, etc., before each of these periods and after each of these periods and they haven't continued during these periods. You know, we didn't see anything while we were under anesthesia, or unconscious, or asleep. Those things didn't continue. So there must be something more subtle underlying our grosser levels of consciousness that provides the continuity, otherwise how could there be any continuity?

And if we extend this analogy to death, then likewise at death it's even more removed from the grosser and even the more subtle aspects of the mind and body. And as we have seen this morning, that there are grosser levels of mind and so on and experience which will follow after that moment or period of death. So there must be a subtlest level of mental activity which provides the continuity from lifetime to lifetime and which is manifest at the moment or period of death. And that's known as the clear light level. This is a type of mental activity which retains its essential nature. It's not like the cells of our body being replaced by something similar but quite different. But rather it's something which remains stable: that's what I mean by retaining its essential nature.

And so when we speak of the mental continuum, we can speak in terms of the continuum of grosser states and subtler states and so on, going on from moment to moment, changing, but also we can speak in terms of a subtlest level which is underlying that whole thing. And the mental continuum we could say is a combination of the two of them, but what really provides the continuity and is there every single moment is this subtlest clear light mind.

That subtlest level of mind isn't always manifest though. Manifest in the sense of active and actively taking objects. When the grosser levels of mind are active then that subtlest level of mind is inactive, but it's present. And then of course there are many different interpretations and explanations of what manifest and unmanifest mean and what exactly is going on here. There's a big discussion about and many different interpretations.

Also when we speak of this continuum, or the clear light mind, then in general when we speak about mind, we're talking about mental activity, we're not talking about the organ that does this, whether it's material or immaterial thing. We're talking about mental activity itself. And this mental activity can be described from two points of view: [1] We can describe it from the point of view of experience – subjective experience. So that's usually the mental side of it. [2] And we can describe it from the point of view of the physical side, which is dealing, speaking on the very subtle level, of the energy. We're not talking about the grosser levels of the chemical interactions and electrical interactions within the brain. We're talking on a much more subtle level. If you speak on the grosser level of the brain you can describe a mental event from a subjective experiential point of view or from the point of view of the chemical and electrical things that are going on in the brain, it's the same. So that subtlest energy which is another way of looking at the clear light mind is also something that has unbroken continuity. So the clear light mind, which is individual in each of us, subjective – we're not talking about some "universal mind", there's no such thing from the Buddhist point of view. So the individual clear light mind and the individual continuum of the subtlest energy, energy wind, this is going to provide the continuity not only within the samsaric situation, which has no beginning, but also it continues through liberation and enlightenment as a Buddha would also. What we will have are these...further continuum of the clear light mind and the subtlest energy.

Any other question?

Question: He has this doubt. You say on one side that when the result is present, the cause has ceased. But still you say there is some aftermath of any karmic action. So how do we match those two things?

Alex: That's a very complex question. There are many, many different types of causes which are specified in the Buddhist analysis. In one list there are twenty different types of causes which are analyzed, for example in the abhidharma text of Asanga. So there are some causes which are present at the time of the result and some that are not. For instance, the elements that make up my body are a cause of my body but they are present at the same time as my body. So when we speak in terms of an obtaining cause, like the seed giving rise to the sprout, then an obtaining cause ceases to exist when it gives the result.

Now, there is a different type of cause which is known as a “natal source.” The example would be, for instance, the womb of a mother giving birth to a baby. That's the source of the birth of the baby. But the womb of the mother continues to exist after the baby has been born and could give rise to more babies. Another example would be an oven and a loaf of bread.

Now, when we speak about karmic tendencies...or rather this is also translated as the word “ seed,” but I would avoid the word seed because it's a little bit confusing – a little too material because these karmic tendencies are not material – the karmic tendencies are both the obtaining cause of the result as well as the natal source of the result. The reason why this is significant, and your question brings this up which is an excellent question, is that a karmic tendency can give rise to more than one result. We have an example that's given in the text, for instance is, somebody called a monk a jackass and was reborn as a jackass five-hundred times... a jackass or a monkey, I mean we don't call people monkeys so much, we mostly call them jackasses, at least in English. So one karmic tendency can give rise to many results and many karmic tendencies together can give rise to one result. This is one of the principles of karma.

So, we talked about a karmic seed, karmic tendency which of course is going on from moment to moment, to moment then when it gives rise to one ripening – if it has the potential to give rise to many – then the aspect of it which is an obtaining cause for that result is finished. However, the aspect of it, the larger aspects of it of being a natal source to give rise to more, that will continue and that will exist at the same time as the ripening of the first result. And when this karmic tendency has finished giving rise to all the results that it has potential to give rise to, then it will cease to exist both as an obtaining cause and as a natal source.

I'm sorry it was a complicated answer but you asked a question that is not very simple. One item can serve as many different types of cause for something else. In fact, it can serve as many different types of causes for many different types of results, so it's quite complex. So the full understanding of cause and effect, particularly in terms of karma, is always explained as being the most complex and most difficult thing to understand in its entirety. Only a Buddha understands it fully. Why? Because when we talk about the causal nexus or connection of things, everything that changes is causally connected, going back beginningless time to endless time. Everything is somehow causally interconnected. So only the omniscient mind of a Buddha can see all connections.

[End of questions.]

We were discussing the demonstration or proof of why mental activity has no beginning and no end. [And we're talking here about each and every mental continuum, not just in general. Here, what is most relevant at this stage of our development, Buddhist development, spiritual development, is the conviction that our own mental continuum has no beginning and no end.] So of course there were past lives and there will be future lives. And the type of life, life form, in each individual rebirth is of course going to be different. This is the gross level of course. But the subtlest level of energy, mental activity, clear light activity, will continue. But the form of the rebirth and the type of ability of the mental activity – you know, the mental activity of a worm is not as strong as the mental activity and abilities of a human brain obviously – and the various types of habits that are associated with various life forms – you know, when we're happy are we going to wag our tail or are we going to express it in a different way – and all of that is going to be influenced by karma. In other words, by what type of behavior we've had and the karmic aftermath that is left after that, after those actions. So there is no permanent identity of me. Identity here being in terms of identifying with a specific lifetime that we have. That's different from individuality. We retain our individuality. I don't become you. But I don't have a permanent identity as a Mexican, as a German, as a human being, as a chicken, as a male, as a female. Therefore, I could experience rebirth in any type of form. It all depends on how I act.

Now I have a precious human rebirth. I'm not a chicken. I'm not starving to death. For most of us, I'm not severely handicapped. I'm not in a situation in which no Buddhist spiritual teachings are available or it's against the law or forbidden. And so on the initial scope, we have the meditations on the precious human rebirth, which only makes sense if we consider that there's an enormous amount of other possibilities of what we could have been in this lifetime. And given all the, what should we say, types of karmic potentials that we have, then, as one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used to say, it's best for us to consider ourself on a brief vacation from the lower realms – and our vacation time is almost over. So while we're on this short vacation, don't just spend your time taking photos of the human realm and that's it. We need to take the full advantage of having a precious human rebirth.

And what is the biggest advantage or benefit of being a human being is having intelligence. Discriminating awareness – to be able to discriminate between what is beneficial to practice and what is detrimental to practice or better to avoid. Only as a human being do we have that discriminating awareness to know that. And death is going to come at any time. So if we don't have firm conviction that there's going to be a next life after death, then okay death is... you know it comes and that's the end. It's finished. So it's not so significant to have death awareness.

So we take very seriously the fact that I have this incredible opportunity and this incredible apparatus of a precious human rebirth and it's going to end for sure and I don't know when, and then I'm going to continue. So the question is: Then what? If we think in terms of beginningless and endless mental continuum, the amount of time in this lifetime is very, very short. Even if we think just in terms of the lifetime of this universe from the time of the big bang until the universe expands to extinction or it contracts to extinction – every few years the scientists change their minds about that – but this human lifetime is nothing. So, so short. Therefore, rationally, reasonably, there's far more time after this precious human rebirth than during, and it makes sense to have a bigger concern about that incredibly longer period of time afterwards than just our attention to this short period of this lifetime. Sure, the rest of this lifetime is part of what has yet to come, so we have to pay a little bit of attention to it as well. But the whole point of this initial scope is to have our major attention and interest be on future lives.

Now I think we start to appreciate real-thing Dharma. We are convinced of rebirth. And if we are convinced of it, now we have to really take it quite seriously. And if we really take it seriously, then the preciousness of this present human life that we have stands out enormously much more. How incredible that I have this opportunity, these freedoms, to actually work on myself to try to... what shall we say... improve my conditions, to put it in the simplest terms. And if I really appreciate this precious human rebirth, what do I want in the future? I want to be able to have more of them.

So we have the teachings on safe direction, that if we go in the safe direction of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, that means the safe direction of the true stoppings on my mental continuum, they haven't happened yet. The true stoppings, and the true pathway minds that will lead there...we haven't developed them yet...but if I go in that direction, then that will protect me from worse rebirth states because I really don't want them, I dread that. To actually go in that direction and achieve these true stoppings and true pathway minds, I'm going to need a precious human rebirth more, and more, and more. Chances are I'm not going to achieve these true stoppings and true pathway minds in this lifetime. So, I better ensure that I continue to have these precious human lives so that I can continue to go in this safe direction.

When we read in the lam-rim that here we're aiming for one of the better rebirth states either as a human or as one of the gods, then we have to understand why that's stated that way if the precious human life is so important. This ties together with a very complex point in a text which is studied called Abhisamayalamkara, A Filigree or Ornament of Realizations by Maitreya. And there, we have one point which is a list of what's called the twenty Sanghas, Sangha meaning the arya Sangha. And there are many levels of mind from which we can attain a true stopping, a true pathway mind – in other words, that we can attain what's usually called “path of seeing” – so seeing path of mind, a mind that has nonconceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. In other words, we can achieve the state of an arya, which means we become Sangha, arya Sangha, with many, many different types of levels of concentrated mind.

So, among these various levels of concentration...these are often discussed in terms of, you may have heard of them, the dhyanas – the various dhyanas, levels of mental stability is how I explain it...and these different levels correspond to different levels of god realms. If we become attached to any of these states of mental stability, then we will be reborn in the god realm that corresponds to it and have strong instincts to achieve that type of mental stability again. Therefore, if we are reborn in one of these god realms, it will be theoretically possible to...again within this god develop this level of mental stability which would enable us...if we'd built up other instincts from a huge amount of other practices...attain a state of an arya, from that level of mind. It's because of that that we speak in terms of aiming for a better rebirth as either a human or as one of these gods – not just because the gods have a wonderful time and a lot of pleasure.

The point is that when we think in terms of safe direction, we're aiming for this arya state and beyond...true stoppings and true pathway minds...then, although it might be theoretically possible to achieve that from a god it's included here...we're really aiming for a precious human rebirth, because that's going to be the easiest for achieving the arya state, the most conducive. So the whole aim for a better rebirth is not at all a non-Buddhist aim for going to a paradise, a heaven, but is an aim that is Buddhist. In other words, we want to be able to continue to have a basis, a working basis, from which we can achieve liberation and enlightenment.

Then the next step is: How do I achieve a precious human rebirth in future lives? This brings us to the whole discussion of karma as topic in the initial scope. And to really do something about precious human rebirths we need to...for achieving it...we need to refrain from acting destructively and act constructively instead. So what do we need to be convinced of for this? I mean I could be, you know, “I'm really interested in getting a precious human rebirth in the future, but, ah, don't ask me to stop acting destructively.” So, we have to be convinced, and this is the difficult one, that destructive behavior leads to unhappiness...ripens in unhappiness...and constructive behavior ripens in happiness.

Do you ever ask yourself why? If we were really convinced that acting destructively resulted in unhappiness and misery and suffering, we wouldn't act destructively – but we're not really convinced. And once we're convinced, then we have to also be convinced of a mechanism that would allow for the ripening of this unhappiness or happiness over an interval of many lifetimes. In other words, there's a big interval between when we act destructively and when it actually ripens. So that again gets into endless mental continuum. So this we'll discuss after the coffee break. But I hope you're appreciating how profound this initial scope is and how profound our understanding needs to be in order to really be someone of initial scope. This is not easy. This is the real-thing Dharma.