The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 3: Lojong (Mind Training) Material > Explanation of Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices > Session Four: Critical Situations and Realization of Voidness

Explanation of Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices

Alexander Berzin
Xalapa, Mexico, May 2006

Session Four: Critical Situations and Realization of Voidness

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:13 hours)

Review

Today is our final day on this text by Togmey-zangpo, Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices. We’ve seen that Togmey-zangpo, after the prostration and the promise to compose, structures his teachings according to the three scopes of motivation of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, and – as Tsongkhapa himself begins this graded stages of the path – the foundation for that is the precious human rebirth, precious human life. It’s only on that basis that we’ll be able to gain liberation and enlightenment, and it’s very rare and difficult to have such a rebirth. Therefore we need to take full advantage of it, and to do that, Togmey-zangpo explains that if we’re completely tossed by all the disturbing emotions in our homeland, then it’s best to leave our homeland and rely on seclusion in order to be able to make some progress on the path.

As we make spiritual progress, we develop progressive levels of motivation, or aim, what is it that we’re aiming for, and each of these builds on the previous one. In other words, without having the initial level of motivation, the intermediate and advanced one will not be secure or sincere. Similarly, without having both the initial and intermediate levels of motivation, the advanced one won’t be stable at all. It would be only superficial.

The initial aim or motivation is to ensure that we have better states of rebirth in the future, and specifically that we continue to have a precious human life. Therefore we need to remind ourselves of death and impermanence: that this opportunity that we have now is not going to last forever. So we need to take advantage of it to ensure that we continue to have this type of precious human life, because it’s fairly unlikely that we’re going to gain liberation and enlightenment in this lifetime – although theoretically it’s possible – so we need to be able to continue working on it for lifetime after lifetime.

Now, when we’re very weak in our practice and not at all stable, we need to make sure that we have the proper influence in our lives, and so Togmey-zangpo explains that we need “to rid ourselves of bad friends,” misleading friends who are bad influences on us, and rely on spiritual friends and fully qualified spiritual mentors.

Then we need to put a safe direction in our life, in other words take refuge from Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In other words, what we’re aiming for here is liberation and enlightenment, these true stoppings and true pathway minds, as the Buddhas have in full, the Sangha have in part. Then, to avoid having a worse rebirth state, we refrain from destructive behavior. But even if we have a precious human rebirth, over and again we need to realize that that, or a celestial rebirth in some sort of god realm, even that is going to entail a great deal of suffering – it’s still samsara – because whatever pleasures that we might experience, whatever happiness we might experience, this is fleeting. It’s not going to last, and it never satisfies.

This is quite an important point, because when we have this initial level of motivation, it’s quite easy to be very attached to the precious human life. Let’s say we believe in rebirth, we are confident that there is such a thing as rebirth, and so with this initial level we could very easily just want, “Always I want to have the most wonderful rebirth, and always be with my friends, and always be with my spiritual teachers, and always be able to study the Dharma, because it’s so beautiful, so lovely.” And still, that’s attachment to samsara, because we’re not really aiming to get out of samsara. We haven’t really recognized what samsara is all talking about. It’s talking about this all-pervasive suffering, not only that pleasant things have the suffering of change, but this all-pervasive suffering, that in each moment we have confusion and that’s just perpetuating the up and down situation of samsara.

As difficult as it is to sincerely – I mean sincerely from the depth of our hearts – aim for a better rebirth with a precious human life, to really, really believe that and work consciously for that; it’s much more difficult to sincerely, from the depth of our hearts, want to achieve liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth and to work for that without the attachment to the precious human life. One has to really be careful not to trivialize this intermediate level of aiming for liberation and to sincerely have renunciation, renunciation of samsara itself, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Because no matter how wonderful our Dharma friends are, no matter how wonderful our spiritual mentors are, impermanence is there. We’re not going to be able to stay forever with them. Milarepa didn’t stay forever with his teacher Marpa. He also had to leave, and that’s where the really difficult part of attachment is – there.

Therefore, when we aim for a precious human rebirth, we need to aim for it as a stepping stone on the way to liberation and enlightenment, as a useful ship, as Togmey-zangpo refers to it, to take us across the ocean of samsara, without attachment to the ship, because when we get to the other shore we get off the ship. Even more difficult is the advanced level of motivation, that once we have attained liberation, not to just relax and take it easy in the state of liberation and experience this untainted happiness that we would have then, but to think of everybody else, all our mothers, and to aim with bodhichitta to work even more with voidness, with bodhichitta, and with the far-reaching attitudes, or perfections, to really reach enlightenment to benefit everyone.

Therefore we need to overcome the two extremes, the extreme of samsara – the attachment to samsara, including attachment to the precious human rebirth – and the extreme of nirvana, which is the complacency of just enjoying liberation ourselves. That’s very, very difficult. We need to see that the precious human rebirth and all our lifetimes up to liberation, and liberation itself, are both stepping stones on the way to enlightenment and there’s no way that we can gain enlightenment without those stepping stones.

These days we can learn about these graded stages of the path: we can read about them; there are many texts that have been translated; we can hear many teachings on them. But just because we are familiar with them, it’s very difficult to actually internalize that and really feel these successive levels of motivation sincerely. And it could take a very large number of years to actually reach one of these stages of spiritual motivation, even though we know about them, but to really feel them that’s a big achievement, even that initial level.

The only way is – as is repeated over and over again here, and in other texts – to first listen to the teachings – study them, then think about them till we understand them, and then, when we’re convinced that this is something which is worthwhile to develop, and that “I am capable of developing it,” then meditate, which means to integrate it into our lives. Only through that process will we actually sincerely feel these levels of motivation, not just know them.

Togmey-zangpo then explains the two methods, or refers to the two methods, for developing bodhichitta. First is the seven-part cause and effect meditation, thinking how everybody has been our mothers in the past, and then equalizing and exchanging self with others.

Then Togmey-zangpo explains bodhisattva behavior and the first section is dealing with harms. He explains in various verses different situations in which harm comes to us from others and the importance to not get angry, to have patience, and to practice the giving and taking, taking on these sufferings of others, whether we’re talking about the other person’s unhappiness itself, or the negative karmic consequences of the harm that they do to us, and to give them happiness – whether that’s in the form of dedicating to them the positive potentials of our own constructive acts and so on, or giving them praise, rejoicing, and so on – praise in terms of acknowledging their good qualities, rather than returning harm with criticism and negative thoughts.

Togmey-zangpo also explains other methods for dealing with harm from others – to regard others as our sick child, who is just acting crazy because they’re sick, and also to regard others who are causing us harm, let’s say criticizing us, pointing out our faults and so on, as our teachers, because they’re helping us to recognize our shortcomings and to correct them.

Two Critical Situations Requiring Dharma Practice

The next section is the discussion of two critical situations that require careful attention in terms of our Dharma practice. This is when things are going badly, or when things are going very well; because when things are going badly we can get discouraged, and when things are going well we can get all excited and arrogant. Note that this a reference to the eight worldly Dharmas, the so-called eight transitory things in life, and overreacting to each of them, the negative things – getting all upset and the positive things – getting all excited.

(18) A bodhisattva’s practice is,
Even if we are destitute in livelihood and always insulted by people,
Or sick with terrible diseases, or afflicted by ghosts,
To accept on ourselves, in return, the negative forces and sufferings
of all wandering beings and not be discouraged.

This is again referring to the practice of tonglen, of taking on the sufferings of others and giving them happiness. If, as is mentioned in the verse, we’re very poor, or we’re insulted, put down by others, or sick, or harmed by spirits, ghosts, then, if we’re thinking just of ourselves, then our scope is very limited, and we think “poor me,” and in addition to these difficult circumstances that are happening to us, we experience them with a tremendous amount of unhappiness. But if we think in terms of everybody who has this type of problem and extend our scope beyond just “poor me” to everybody, then our way of experiencing this difficulty is much, much different.

If you think about that, we – many of us at least – have experienced something similar to this, particularly when we’re teenagers and we have some sort of problem at home, say our parents are alcoholics or whatever. We tend to think, “I’m the only one in the world that has this problem,” and we feel very isolated, alone, and unbelievably unhappy. But when we learn that there are many others who have the same problem – we go to a support group for example, with many, many other people who have the similar problem – then our scope is much larger. We start to think in terms of everybody’s problem, “I’m not alone,” and we start to think of a solution for everybody. Our way of experiencing our own individual problem is very, very changed, isn’t it?

If we expand our scope and, as we were discussing yesterday, think in terms of the exchange of self with others, in terms of what is the basis upon which we are labeling the conventional “me,” and having concern for eliminating suffering, if we expand that beyond just this one individual person, “me,” to everybody and, as it says here, “accept on ourselves the negative forces and sufferings of all wandering beings,” then we will “not be discouraged.” You get discouraged when you think in terms of only, “Oh, me, I can’t possibly deal with this.” When we think in terms of everybody and that this is an appropriate basis for “me,” and my concern for eliminating suffering, it’s very important that we have that together with the understanding of the voidness of the “me.” It’s not that instead of having a little solid me, now we have an enormous solid me – that is not at all what we’re aiming for here and that would also be a great fault in this practice, “Now I am everybody and now I will take on the world,” then we can be even more discouraged.

In other words, we need to just take – when we have an enormous task, the most enormous obviously would be to liberate everybody, every single limited being in the universe and bring them to enlightenment – but even if we think in terms of a slightly more limited enormous task, if we think in terms of the solid me, then obviously we get very discouraged, “How can I possibly do this?” But if we don’t think in terms of the solid me separate from the whole thing, from the task and so on, then you just do it, and that, I think, is the key here in terms of taking on enormous tasks – one just does it.

The image that comes to my mind – I live in Germany – when you see the pictures of some of the cities that were just totally destroyed in the Second World War and then you think in terms of, “How in the world did they rebuild these cities?” You live in a city and it’s completely destroyed into rubble with these huge firestorms in Dresden, do you take care of just your own little house? No, just taking care of your own little house – without the infrastructure of the city you can’t live anyway – you’re totally interconnected with everybody, so you just do it, without thinking, “Oh, how can we possibly rebuild this city?” You just do it and gradually it gets done. To review then:

(18) A bodhisattva’s practice is,
Even if we are destitute in livelihood and always insulted by people,
Or sick with terrible diseases, or afflicted by ghosts,
To accept on ourselves, in return, the negative forces and sufferings
of all wandering beings and not be discouraged.

The other critical situation requiring special Dharma practice – in addition to when we get discouraged with terrible things happening – is when we get overinflated and conceited when wonderful things happen.

(19) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if we are sweetly praised,
Bowed to with their heads by many wandering beings,
Or have obtained (riches) comparable to the fortune
of Vaishravana (the Guardian of Wealth),
Never to be conceited, by seeing that worldly prosperity has no essence.

We may be in situations in which people praise us and say how wonderful we are, what wonderful work we’re doing, and they respectfully bow their heads to us, and we’re very wealthy and so on. But the way to avoid becoming conceited by that is to realize that this has no essence at all: this is what Togmey-zangpo says. In fact it can be a hindrance, having all this praise and fame. If we think about it, very, very famous people, movie stars and so on, they can’t even go outside, they can’t go to a club, they can’t do anything without a flock of paparazzi, these really aggressive photographers, running after them, people seeing them screaming, wanting to tear off their clothes and so on. It’s horrible.

Even if we are not a famous movie star, if we’re famous in some other area, then the more famous we are, the more demands there are on our time, the more e-mails we receive, the more invitations we receive, and it just becomes overwhelming. We can’t do anything that we want to do. Everybody wants our time and we have no time for ourselves. If we’re very wealthy, then there are so many people who are constantly bothering us, wanting to have money from us. We feel that “Nobody really likes me for myself” – although that’s a weird statement from a Buddhist point of view – “but they love me just for my money.”

To avoid conceit, we need to see the disadvantages of all this praise and fame and money, and in addition to realize that they have no essence, in the sense that not only can they not bring us ultimate happiness, but they don’t last. And just as easily as we may gain these things, we can just as easily lose them, like the examples in Buddhism of the celestial realms – the divine beings that are born in these wonderful states, but then fall.

To avoid discouragement when things are going poorly with us, we take on the suffering from others and develop compassion for others who have a similar type of problem. When things are going very well with us, then it’s important not to become conceited, to see that these things have disadvantages and no essence. If we have money, if we have fame, if we have many things that are favorable, in a sense – although we just said that they have disadvantages, but they do have certain advantages as well – to use them to benefit others, rather than just being conceited about them. With money, for example, we can support various spiritual efforts. The verse was:

(19) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if we are sweetly praised,
Bowed to with their heads by many wandering beings,
Or have obtained (riches) comparable to the fortune
of Vaishravana (the Guardian of Wealth),
Never to be conceited, by seeing that worldly prosperity has no essence.

Overcoming Hostility and Attachment

Other difficult situations that we need to overcome while following the bodhisattva path are hostility and attachment, and so Togmey-zangpo devotes verses to each of these.

(20) A bodhisattva’s practice is to tame our mental continuums
With the armed forces of love and compassion,
Because, if we haven’t subdued the enemy which is our own hostility,
Then even if we have subdued an external enemy, more will come.

Shantideva uses this image as well, that the real enemy are the internal enemies of our disturbing emotions, not the external enemies. Shantideva explains this point in relation to patience as a way for overcoming anger and hostility, whereas Togmey-zangpo explains it in terms of love and compassion. But love and compassion, and, on the other hand, patience are both the opponent forces for anger. Shantideva uses the image of leather. He says we can’t cover the entire surface of the earth with leather so that we don’t get thorns in our foot. But if we simply cover our own feet with leather, then we can go anywhere without being harmed. Similarly, we’re not going to be able to get rid of all external enemies, but if we get rid of our internal enemy – anger – then we can go anywhere without being harmed.

Because the real enemy are these internal hindrances, our internal disturbing emotions, then the opponent forces for those are like the “armed forces” in a battle. Remember, Buddha came from a warrior caste, and so it’s not surprising that a great deal of the imagery that we find in Buddhism is martial imagery, imagery from the military. Sometimes that shocks people, but we have to remember what caste Buddha came from. Most of the followers, the successive Indian masters, like Shantideva for example, continue this use of military imagery, of fighting battles, and the “armed forces” here “of love and compassion,” and the Tibetan masters – like Togmey-zangpo is following this precedent.

I think that there is a certain point that is helpful in using this military imagery, which is that the dealing with our disturbing emotions really is like a battle. It is an internal battle and we really have to fight very hard. And it’s dangerous, sometimes we’re going to get hurt, like we’re doing a purification practice and all sorts of very unpleasant things come up. But we need to deal with that in order to overcome the deeply rooted disturbing emotions.

If we’re going to fight a battle, we need to have a great deal of courage. We need to be very brave and not be afraid. That’s true not only in terms of fighting an external battle, but fighting the internal battle. When we look at the translation in Tibetan of the word bodhisattva, they have added a syllable at the end of it, which in Tibetan means “courageous,” or “a brave one,” that’s not actually there in the Sanskrit. The Tibetan word for bodhisattva is jang-chub sem-pa. Sem-pa would be sattva, if it were spelt in one way, which is just a being, someone with a mind, that jang-chub (bodhi) – is aimed at enlightenment, but that pa at the end of sem-pa, the Tibetans spell it in a different way – dpa’ – which is another word pronounced exactly the same way as pa, which means a brave one, a courageous one. Therefore, in review:

(20) A bodhisattva’s practice is to tame our mental continuums
With the armed forces of love and compassion,
Because, if we haven’t subdued the enemy which is our own hostility,
Then even if we have subdued an external enemy, more will come.

We know that from our experience. If you get over anger with one person, or one incident in our life, still we’re going to get angry with more and more things in the future. It doesn’t solve the issue at all.

(21) A bodhisattva’s practice is immediately to abandon
Any objects that cause our clinging and attachment to increase,
For objects of desire are like salt water:
The more we have indulged (in them,
our) thirst (for them) increases (in turn).

This is referring to the fact that, as is discussed with the suffering of change, that worldly pleasures, things that make us happy, and that we’re very attached to, and have great desire for, are never going to satisfy. We’re never going to have enough. We might have enough for the moment, in terms of good food, or sex, but after a while we want it again. Just having it one time is not sufficient for us, is it? This is referring here specifically to “objects that cause our clinging and attachment to increase.” There is a difference between longing desire and clinging and attachment. Longing desire is for something that we don’t have. Clinging and attachment is for something that we do have and we don’t want to let go.

If there are objects that we possess that we’re very, very attached to – I’m thinking of a friend who is unbelievably attached to his books, to Dharma books; he compulsively buys more and more and more of them and of course never has the time to read them – the remedy for that, Togmey-zangpo is saying, is to abandon these. What I’ve suggested to him is to give them away to a Dharma center, give them away to some sort of larger facility like a Dharma center library, where other people can use them, because the more that he has them around, the more attachment and clinging he has to buy even more. Whatever it is that we might have, and that we cling to, and we’re so attached to, the initial remedy for that is to give it away, whether it’s our clothes, whether it is – whatever, our house, to open it up to other people to use, like sometimes people with a large house open it up as a meeting place for Dharma activities, these sort of things.

Togmey-zangpo says, and this image comes much earlier as well in the Buddhist literature, that these “objects of desire” that we’re so attached to “are like salt water.” The more we accumulate, the more thirsty we get. The more of these objects of attachment that we accumulate, the more attached we become. We just want more and more and we never have enough. Who ever thinks that they have enough money in the bank, for example? They always want more and more and more.

Obviously just to give up these objects that we’re so attached to is not the deepest solution to the problem, because still we could be very desirous to get them back. But as an initial way of dealing with it, it can be very helpful. The earlier verse, in which Togmey-zangpo says, if we’re very attached to “homelands, where attachment to friends and loved ones tosses us like water,” then it’s best to temporarily “leave our homelands.” This is reminiscent of this point here in this verse as well.

An example just came to my mind here of an application of this. Let’s say we are very, very attached to our children. There are many parents who don’t want to let go of their children, and the more that they are with the children, the more attached they become. But what is very important is to let go of our children, initially let them go to school, obviously, let them stay overnight with friends; let them go away to university in another city. Don’t insist that they stay at home, and let go in terms of them getting married and moving elsewhere. There are a lot of parents that, no matter what partner their children have, they always disapprove, because basically they’re attached to the child and they don’t want them to go. Or people who keep animals, for example, let’s say you have dogs or cats, and they have puppies or kittens. If you’re very attached, then you just keep them and then you have more puppies and more kittens and it just gets worse and worse and worse. So, again, one needs to give away the puppies and kittens. Togmey-zangpo says:

(21) A bodhisattva’s practice is immediately to abandon
Any objects that cause our clinging and attachment to increase,
For objects of desire are like salt water:
The more we have indulged (in them,
our) thirst (for them) increases (in turn).

We could of course ask the question, does he really mean that we have to abandon our computer, our cell phone? Actually that gives us quite a lot to think about. There are people who are – and this is growing more and more and more – who are so addicted to the cell phone that they play with it constantly, or who have the computer on all day, connected to the Internet so that they don’t miss any e-mail as soon as it comes. They’re constantly checking their e-mail. And they’re also, like myself, a bit of a news junkie and so every once in a while they look at the news, either on the Internet or a lot of people are addicted to CNN and watch the same news over and over and over again. So again, this advice is very helpful, to abandon that. And even if we don’t abandon it completely, to do – what I find very difficult to do – to check the e-mail only once a day. Look at the news only once a day, don’t have it on all the time. Just use the cell phone when you need it; don’t at every opportunity play with it, like you’re playing with yourself.

One last example concerning the point that we were discussing in the previous verse concerning giving up objects of attachment. If we want to go on a diet, but we’re very attached to chocolate and cookies and things like that, if we have them in the house it’s going to be very, very difficult not to eat them. What is the best, and probably only way to keep to a diet, is to not buy any chocolate, not buy any cookies, not buy any cakes. Just don’t have them in the house. If they’re not there, we won’t eat them. That’s true isn’t it? I’m sure we all know that from experience, if we’ve ever gone on a diet.

Developing Deepest Bodhicitta, the Realization of Voidness

The next section is concerning developing deepest bodhichitta. There is conventional, or relative bodhichitta, which is aimed at enlightenment to benefit all beings and then there’s deepest bodhichitta, which is aimed at voidness. So it’s the realization of voidness and this is essential for the bodhisattva practice.

(22) A bodhisattva’s practice is not to take to mind
Inherent features of objects taken and minds that take them,
by realizing just how things are.
No matter how things appear, they are from our own minds;
And mind-itself is, from the beginning,
parted from the extremes of mental fabrication.

This verse can be understood in many, many different ways. We can understand it from a Yogachara-Svatantrika point of view; we can understand it from a Prasangika point of view. We can understand it, and in both of those, from the point of view of the Gelugpa explanation of it, we can understand it from the Sakya point of view, which after all is where Togmey-zangpo is coming from.

I don’t want to go into great detail about the different ways of interpreting that; we could spend a whole weekend on that. But to just give a little bit of indication of how to understand this, first the point is, as Togmey-zangpo says, “not to take to mind inherent features of objects taken and minds that take them, by realizing just how things are.”

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama pointed out, if we look at this from a Svatantrika point of view, we can say that… the Svatantrikas say that conventionally things have inherent findable characteristics that make them what they are. That’s on a conventional level, but on the deepest level these things don’t have true existence. So we can understand this to say “not to take to mind,” in other words, don’t pay attention to this conventional level of where things have these inherent findable characteristics, but realize just how things are – think in terms of the deepest level of voidness. In other words, conventionally there is something on the side of a king that, by its own power, makes that person a king in connection with the label “king”; otherwise anybody could be labeled a king. But on the deepest level, nothing exists independently of mental labeling of what a label refers to.

On a Prasangika level, Gelugpa Prasangika, we would say that there are no inherent findable features at all – even conventionally – on the side of an object that make it what it is. And so we don’t “take to mind,” in other words, don’t pay attention to what we would imagine are truly findable characteristic features, but just realize the voidness, that there is no such thing.

From a Sakya point of view, we start out with a Chittamatra understanding that there are no features on the side of objects and the minds that take them – that’s often translated as “subject and object” – that inherently makes them coming from different sources, like they are external objects out there and mind is in here, and realize that they both come from a same seed of karma. And then, no matter how things appear, they’re from our own minds.

So we can understand this in a Svatantrika or Prasangika point of view that how they appear is in terms of the mind making appearances in terms of mental labeling, or we can understand it the way the Sakyas do, which is first you get a Chittamatra understanding and then a Madhyamaka understanding, so we understand that these appearances of objects and the minds that cognize them – both of them – come from the mind, the seed of karma, the mind. Then “mind-itself is, from the beginning, parted from the extremes of mental fabrication.” This is the understanding of the voidness of the mind. Even though the mind projects appearances, even though the mind might project false appearances of a duality, nevertheless that mind itself doesn’t have true existence. That mind itself is void of true existence, it’s not a truly existent mind that’s doing this. So the mind is “parted from the extremes of mental fabrication,” that it itself doesn’t have true existence and by its nature it doesn’t have to be projecting appearances of either true existence, or dual existence or external existence, depending on what level we understand this verse.

Now, of course, what I just explained is very, very difficult to understand and perhaps I didn’t explain it in the most skilful way of giving the different interpretations of each line. But what I’m trying to indicate here is that when we come across a verse like this, this is something that we have to go very, very deeply into and realize that there are many ways of understanding it. Each way of understanding it can be very, very helpful for leading us to the understanding of voidness. The lines that Togmey-zangpo writes here show progressive stages in getting to the understanding of voidness.

When we speak about voidness in Buddhism, what voidness is referring to is an absence of something – something that was never there – and this is impossible ways of existing. Impossible ways of existing never existed, did they? The most simple example, “I exist as the center of the universe, the most important one, and I should always have my way, and everybody should always pay attention to me, and love me.” That’s impossible, nobody exists like that, and so everyone is devoid of existing in that impossible way. That’s totally absent, this impossible way. It’s totally absent from anybody, or anything, and it never was there, it’s not that it just went out of the room and can come back.

In order to really gain this understanding on the deepest level, we need to realize that there are subtler and subtler levels of what’s impossible in terms of an impossible way of existing. And it’s not so easy to recognize the subtlest levels. And so first we have to refute, or get rid of – get rid of in the sense of realize that this is impossible – the grosser levels, and then we work on the subtler and subtler levels.

So we can look at the verse from that point of view, like from the Sakya point of view, that things might appear to us as if some object is out there coming from its own source and my mind that sees it is coming from its own source, completely separate – like you are a horrible person that’s coming from out there and then I see you as a horrible person. And so it says, don’t pay attention to that. Don’t take that to mind, but realize how things actually are. In other words, no matter how they appear in this dualistic way, that appearances, they are coming from our own minds. The appearance of this person as a horrible, horrible person and the mind that sees them as a horrible person, both are coming from a seed of karma in my mind. But it’s not that the mind is a truly existent projector of these appearances. The mind itself is devoid of existing as some truly findable entity. The pure nature of the mind is that it doesn’t by nature project these mental fabrications, these ridiculous appearances of dualistic existence.

That would be the Sakya way of understanding this line, which is undoubtedly what Togmey-zangpo had in mind when he wrote this – after all he does come from a Sakya tradition. We find a similar way of discussing voidness in the Seven-Point Attitude-Training – which Togmey-zangpo also wrote a commentary to – it also explains voidness from a Sakya point of view. Mind you, this is written centuries before Gelugpa ever developed, centuries before Tsongkhapa lived.

But if we look at it with a Gelugpa interpretation – that would have come later – then we can understand it either in a Svatantrika or in a Prasangika point of view. We can look at it as saying that, “Don’t pay attention to what conventionally exists,” which would be these inherent findable features on the side of objects and the mind that takes them, “but think in terms of the deepest level,” that everything is devoid of that. Everything exists just in terms of mental labeling. And so no matter how they appear, it’s from our own minds, in other words, it’s in terms of mental labeling, “and realize that the mind itself doesn’t have true existence.”

We can also understand it in a Prasangika point of view, that even conventionally, things don’t have inherent findable defining characteristics. Everything exists in terms of mental labeling, which after all is done by the mind. And this word “mind-itself,” we can understand it like in a Sakya point of view as referring to the deepest level of the mind, the clear light mind, or we can understand it as the nature of the mind. And if we understand it as the nature of the mind, then we can understand it either as the relative nature of the mind, the conventional nature of making appearances and cognizing them, and that doesn’t have true existence and doesn’t necessarily by nature make these false appearances. Or we can understand “mind-itself” to mean the voidness of the mind, and then this last line would refer to that voidness itself doesn’t have true existence.

So this verse requires a great deal of study and has a great deal of depth and profundity to it. Even if we don’t understand very much of this explanation, nevertheless if we can appreciate that the teachings on voidness are very, very profound and have many levels with which we can understand them, then we develop respect and interest in trying to go deeper and deeper with it and understand it.

All of this is very, very important in terms of trying to help others. If we think that this poor suffering being out there, there is something in them from its own side that makes them a poor suffering being, then no matter what we do to try to help them, that they’ll never change. So these types of points are really quite important, aren’t they? To review the verse:

(22) A bodhisattva’s practice is not to take to mind
Inherent features of objects taken and minds that take them,
by realizing just how things are.
No matter how things appear, they are from our own minds;
And mind-itself is, from the beginning,
parted from the extremes of mental fabrication.

When we work with voidness and try to understand it, then there are two phases of that understanding. The first phase is when we are totally absorbed, in other words our concentration is totally absorbed on the understanding “There’s no such thing” as this impossible way of existing. In order to be totally absorbed on “There’s no such thing,” it has to be based on firm conviction, coming from logical reasoning that this impossible way of existing really is impossible.

For instance, if we just say, “There’s no chocolate in our house,” we might not be very convinced of that. But if we search everywhere in our house and we can’t find any chocolate, then we are much more firm in our conviction that there is no chocolate. Or, “There’s nothing interesting on TV.” We can conclude that just by not even looking, or we could search through all the channels. And when we search through all the channels and we find nothing interesting, then we’re more convinced that “There’s nothing interesting on TV.”

That’s the first phase, the total absorption on “no such thing,” on voidness. When we focus on that – like what appears in your mind when you focus on, “There’s no chocolate in the house?” What appears? Nothing, and we understand that there is no chocolate in the house. So, in the total absorption on voidness nothing appears.

Then we have the subsequent attainment phase. That’s sometimes called “post-meditation,” but that’s not an accurate translation, because you’re still meditating. And now subsequent to that, we realize that everything is like an illusion. Although it appears as though there must be something interesting on TV, although it feels like that, that really is like an illusion, it’s not that way. So although something seems to exist solidly from its own side, it appears like that, but that’s just like an illusion. An illusion appears, but it doesn’t exist the way that it appears. It appears to be solid, it’s not.

Togmey-zangpo has two verses here concerning this subsequent realization that everything is like an illusion. First in relation to objects that are very pleasing and pleasant, and then in relation to objects that are not very nice at all. Both of them are like an illusion.

(23) A bodhisattva’s practice is,
When meeting with pleasing objects,
not to regard them as truly existent,
Even though they appear beautifully, like a summer’s rainbow,
And (thus) to rid ourselves of clinging and attachment.

When we meet with beautiful objects, whether they’re beautiful people or beautiful things that we like, then the advice here is to see that they don’t exist with some inherent findable features on their side that makes them beautiful and, “So wonderful and therefore I have to have them,” that make them beautiful and so attractive by their own power. Although the objects may appear to be inherently beautiful, and attractive, and wonderful from their own side, we need to realize that they don’t exist truly like that. That’s impossible, but they just appear like that, similar to an illusion. The analogy here is a summer’s rainbow. A rainbow is beautiful and it appears to exist solidly and beautifully from its own side, but there’s nothing solid to it. The closer and closer we examine the rainbow, we don’t find anything from its own side.

Now the important word here is “like.” “Like” an illusion. It’s not saying that everything “is” an illusion. There is a big difference between an illusion and something which is like an illusion. Shantideva uses the example of the illusion of a horse, that if a magician conjures up an illusion of a horse, to kill that illusion of the horse and to kill an actual horse is quite different in terms of the karmic consequences, in terms of does it affect somebody else, like the horse. Therefore everything is like an illusion, “like a summer’s rainbow.”

In this way we try “to rid ourselves of clinging and attachment.” Here, this is referring to automatically arising clinging and attachment, that automatically we feel that, even if we’ve had nonconceptual cognition of voidness and we get rid of attachment that might be based on having learned some doctrine from some non-Buddhist school, nevertheless we still have this automatically arising attachment. So we need to keep on working with voidness. Therefore:

(23) A bodhisattva’s practice is,
When meeting with pleasing objects,
not to regard them as truly existent,
Even though they appear beautifully, like a summer’s rainbow,
And (thus) to rid ourselves of clinging and attachment.

Therefore the bodhisattva practice that Togmey-zangpo mentioned two verses earlier, which is to abandon objects that cause our clinging and attachment to increase, that is a temporary solution. But the deepest solution is to understand the voidness of these beautiful – seemingly beautiful – objects, to realize that they don’t exist in this impossible way of being truly existently beautiful and pleasing. That appearance is like an illusion.

(24) A bodhisattva’s practice is,
At the time when meeting with adverse conditions,
to see them as deceptive,
For various sufferings are like the death of our child in a dream
And to take (such) deceptive appearances to be true is a tiresome waste.

This is referring, as I said, to the other situation, when we meet with unpleasant objects, or objects that we find unpleasant, or “adverse conditions,” also to see them like an illusion. The appearance of these unpleasant things, like adverse conditions, the appearance of them to be truly established from their own side as adverse and horrible is “deceptive.” Deceptive means that the way that they appear doesn’t correspond to the way that they exist. So it deceives us, because we think that they exist in the way that they appear.

So the various sufferings that we have, to view them as inherently from their own side being “So horrible,” and “Awful,” and “I can’t take it,” and so on – that appearance is like the appearance of “the death of our child in a dream.” When we experience the death of our child in a dream, it certainly seems real and horrible, but then we realize that that was only a dream. That appearance in a dream is deceptive, because it appears to be real and we believe it, whereas it’s not. Similarly, even when we are awake, although it’s not the same as a dream, nevertheless things appear – and here specifically “adverse conditions,” difficult things that happen to us – they appear to be truly existent and so on, but they are not. That’s impossible.

They appear to be horrible, these adverse conditions, terrible and so on, simply by the power of the mental label “horrible,” “terrible.” Now, what’s the terrible situation? The terrible situation is what we’re referring to with the label “terrible.” But there’s nothing on its own side that makes it terrible, because after all, we and a group of people in our society have come up with the concept “terrible.” We’ve defined it, you can find it in the dictionary, and so we use that to label various things. But that definition, that whole concept of “terrible,” is something which is – as was indicated two verses earlier – made up by the mind. Now, it can be valid to call this a difficult situation, a horrible situation, in the sense that everybody would agree on that, and we all use that terminology, so conventionally it could be valid. But it only appears as though there’s something from its own side that makes it horrible. That’s deceptive; that’s only an appearance; that’s like an illusion. So that “deceptive appearance, if we take it as true,” if we consider it to be true, that’s really, as Togmey-zangpo says, “a tiresome waste,” a waste of our time, which just makes us very tired and having suffering.

It’s like, for instance, if we bang our foot against a piece of furniture in the dark, it hurts. Sure, it hurts, but it’s a tiresome waste to take it, “Oh this is a horrible thing that’s happened to me,” and then jump up and down and make a big deal out of it. That’s a tiresome waste. It certainly doesn’t make us feel any better and it doesn’t accomplish anything. It just prolongs our suffering. This type of thing is a tiresome waste, to take the deceptive appearance – that this appears as though, “Ah, this is the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to me!” – to really take that as true is a tiresome waste of time. I bang my foot, cause and effect, it hurts – so what? What else is new? What do I expect from samsara?

(24) A bodhisattva’s practice is,
At the time when meeting with adverse conditions,
to see them as deceptive,
For various sufferings are like the death of our child in a dream And to take (such) deceptive appearances to be true is a tiresome waste.

Perhaps this is a good place to pause, not for the whole rest of this session, but to pause for a short while, if you have any questions about this.

Question: Talking about evolution, because you talked about different levels of motivation and different scopes – what is the idea of Buddhism in terms of our evolution as human beings, because I heard you mention that there is devolution, we can go backwards and be reborn as a cockroach depending on our actions?

Answer: We need to differentiate evolution in terms of us as an individual mental continuum and evolution of a species as an available life-form in which anybody could be reborn. From the point of view of an individual being, then depending on what we do – the karmic tendencies and potentials that we build up – then we can either have more suffering or less suffering. Remember, the condition of samsara is that it goes up and down, so we can either have a better situation or a worse situation.

It’s only when we get to a certain level of realization that our realization is so stable that we won’t go back in terms of devolving into a lower rebirth and losing our realizations. But that’s very advanced. And we have to remember that in Buddhism progress is never linear, it’s never that it always gets better and better and better. Progress is always nonlinear, up and down, up and down.

This is not inconsistent with the theory of evolution of Darwin in terms of the species that inhabit this planet. There we have adaptation, the survival of the fittest and so on; that’s something quite different. That’s only referring to the type of life-forms that are available for rebirth. But we need to always keep in mind that Buddhism doesn’t say that life is exclusive to this planet. There are innumerable worlds that can support life. So hundreds of millions of years ago, when the human life-form was not available on this planet, it would have been available on another planet, and we could have been born as a human there. Likewise, if we have the karma to be reborn as a dinosaur, or something similar that’s no longer an available life-form on this planet, it could be available on another planet, no big deal. Each world would go through its own process of evolution in terms of the life-forms that are available.

Whereas as individuals, depending on our karma, our experiences go up and down. As we make progress, until we become completely free of samsara as an arhat, even as we make progress from day to day it’s going to go up and down. Over the long-term there can be progress, but some days our meditation goes well, some days it doesn’t. Some days we feel like meditating, some days we don’t. That’s just what samsara is all about. What do you expect?

Question: I would like to know if science at this stage has been able to prove through quantum physics and quantum mechanics that things don’t exist as they appear, and in this way validate from a scientific point of view the view of emptiness? Is there something similar in science that could validate rebirth?

Answer: Those are two different questions. From the point of quantum mechanics, certainly this seems to be totally consistent with voidness and mental labeling. In the sense that a particle, a photon is how it’s usually described, a photon has equal probability of being a particle or a wave, and a photon has equal probability of being in two places at the same time. So in a sense you can say that it’s in both places at the same time, but you can’t say from its own side, because you can never speak in terms of what it is from its own side. It’s only when an observer observes it, or measures it, that then it’s in one state or it’s in one position. So that indicates very clearly that the appearance of things in any specific situation or state is totally dependent on the mind and there’s nothing from the side of the object that makes it this or that by its own power. The real issue is to understand not only the metaphysical consequences of that, but the psychological consequences of that and the emotional consequences of that, in terms of dealing with life’s situations.

Now in terms of rebirth, that’s very difficult to prove, and so the approach that His Holiness the Dalai Lama always takes is, if you can’t disprove it, then it is the obligation of science to investigate it. The whole issue involves the issue of, “Is there such a thing as mind?” or is everything reducible to matter and energy? For that we need to understand what we mean by mind. If we understand that in terms of experience, subjective experience, then it’s hard to say that subjective experience is matter or energy. It has a basis in matter and energy, but it’s not the same. And if we can accept that there is such a thing as subjective experience, then we need to apply the laws of conservation of matter and energy, in terms of continuity, and can there be an absolute beginning, an absolute end and so on.

Question: In verse twenty-one you were talking about clinging attachment. I would like to know the difference between clinging and attachment and craving and desiring.

Answer: We have many technical terms in Buddhism. “Attachment” is, when we have something that we consider desirable, to exaggerate its good qualities and not let go. “Clinging” is, specifically it’s used for clinging to something desirable, and so we can cling to things of this lifetime, we can cling to ourselves, we can cling to being preoccupied with future lives – it’s used in that connotation – or we could cling with our concepts to that the things actually correspond exactly to our concepts, in other words things exist in some sort of box, that “There it is, it’s just that thing, like in the dictionary, it says it’s this category, this thing.” That’s the technical term clinging. “Desire,” that technical term, is to exaggerate the good qualities of something that we don’t have and to want to get it. “Craving” as a technical term is referring to when we experience happiness, to crave not to be separated from it, and when we experience unhappiness or suffering, to crave to be parted from it. Crave there means “to want.”

I think that we can see with this example that the analysis that we have in Buddhist psychology of these various states of mind, these disturbing states of mind, is very, very sophisticated, and they make lots and lots of very fine distinctions and have technical terms for them, for which unfortunately sometimes we don’t have exact corresponding terms in our languages. Therefore it’s necessary to look at the definitions, look at the context within which the terms are used. When we come across terms in a text, if we don’t know the original terminology, that’s very difficult. If we do know the original terminology, then we would have to know the definition of it, in order to really understand what the verse or text is talking about.

Question: For me, understanding this concept of emptiness is very difficult, but when I hear your explanation and examples, it’s like, “Oh yes, it’s clear and everything is like a dream.” But when we face everyday situations, it’s very difficult to apply this understanding that everything is like a dream or like an illusion. How can we integrate this understanding in our lives?

Answer: The only way to integrate it is to meditate on it, which means to practice it over and over and over again, to think more about it. And in meditation, once we’ve understood it, to think of different situations that we’re facing and try to recognize, to distinguish – go back to our word “distinguish” – the characteristic feature of it being like an illusion, or a dream, that it appears to be solid and real, but it’s not. Then in everyday situations try to apply it, and the more we apply it, then the more natural it will become and the less disturbed we will be by the ups and downs of samsara.

Let me give an example from my own recent experience. I was invited to Bogota, Columbia, to visit there and teach there before coming to Mexico on this trip. They wanted me to come a few weeks before His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited there and they said that this would be very helpful for them to prepare, get into the right mood etc. And even though I said to them, “Well, are people really going to have any time to come to such a course? It’s Easter as well,” and “Are you going to have any time to organize it? Maybe this isn’t the best time for the visit.” They said “No, no, it doesn’t matter. Come, it’ll be great.” So I took it to be like a dream. I didn’t give it a tremendous amount of reality, but I went out and bought the plane ticket, made the arrangements, and I didn’t give it any more thought.

Then a few weeks before I was supposed to leave, I get an e-mail from them saying that, “It’s too much to organize and it’s too difficult to organize both trips,” His Holiness and myself, “and so we’re canceling.” And so I didn’t blame them; I didn’t write back, “I told you so.” I went out and I investigated what would be involved with canceling, the amount of money that they would lose actually in canceling the ticket and the inconvenience that people here in Mexico would have in terms of the organization. So again, “OK, no big deal, it’s canceled,” and I wrote them back what would be the consequences of canceling. I wasn’t happy or I wasn’t unhappy about it, but I also took the cancellation like a dream and didn’t actually cancel my plane ticket until I informed them what the consequences were.

So like a dream, so I wrote back to them and said, “You’re going to have to pay so much money for the cancellation and the Mexicans are going to have to pay so much money more for the more expensive plane ticket now,” and they wrote back saying, “Ah, we don’t want to cause so much trouble, come anyway.” So again I saw that like a dream, an illusion, neither happy nor unhappy, so, “Fine, now I’m going,” and didn’t give it any more thought. Then, twelve days before I was supposed to go, I get another e-mail from Columbia saying that, “Well, we actually asked the students, will anybody be here for your teachings during the Easter holiday, and actually almost nobody will be there including the translator, and so we need to cancel.”

Fine, like an illusion, I wasn’t happy or unhappy. I went and cancelled the ticket and bought another ticket for Mexico and – finished. I didn’t give it any more thought, so I didn’t suffer, I wasn’t all excited. No big deal, like a dream, and now I don’t give it any more thought. That’s how we apply this teaching and, believe me, it’s incredibly effective. It’s the only way of dealing with that type of situation, and the ability to apply that solution only comes from familiarity with it and working with it, thinking about it over and over again, meditating and so on. I don’t blame them. I’m not angry with them. I’m not disappointed. It doesn’t matter. OK?

Let’s end here for our lunch break and we’ll continue in two hours.