The Two Bodhichittas in The Seven-Point Attitude-Training
Morelia, Mexico, April 2004
Session Three: Analysis of Everyone Having Been Our Mothers
OK. We have spoken about how to develop deepest bodhichitta, and we’ve seen that it is very important and helpful for being able to do the practice of tonglen, giving and taking. Now we are ready to discuss the development of relative, conventional, superficial, surface type of bodhichitta, and it’s within that context that tonglen is practiced as part of the training for developing relative bodhichitta.
Now there are two major traditions for how to develop and then strengthen over and again this bodhichitta aim. One is the seven-part cause and effect meditation, in other words six steps that build us up to a seventh one, which is the result, which is the development of bodhichitta, which starts with recognizing everybody as having been our mothers and remembering the kindness of mothers, and so on. And the other method is the method of equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that there’s a little bit of danger in the first method, and the second method is a little bit more stable. The danger with the first method is that if we haven’t gained a good understanding of voidness, particularly the voidness of ourselves as persons, then our basis for being kind to others, wishing to help others, and so on, it’s on the basis of everybody having been my mother and been kind to me, it could be a little bit self-centered. Because they’ve been kind to “me,” well, I need to help them and I want to help them. It’s a little bit of an emphasis on “me.” And because there’s that emphasis on “me,” if we don’t have a good understanding of voidness there’s a little bit of danger there. Whereas the other method, equalizing and exchanging the attitude about self and others, doesn’t have that type of danger because it is based on seeing that we’re all equal. Ourselves, others, everybody, in that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy and so on. So it doesn’t really have involved with it any issue of “me.”
But if we have a good understanding of voidness – I mean it doesn’t have to be perfect, obviously – but if we have a good understanding of voidness, we don’t have this danger in these types of bodhichitta meditation and we can follow either method, or what is often recommended (at least in Serkong Rinpoche’s commentary here) is the eleven rounds, eleven stages of developing bodhichitta which combines the two methods.
We saw the importance of the understanding of voidness for tonglen, so let’s look a little bit here before we present these eleven rounds which are the eleven steps, which I won’t go into in great detail. But let’s see how the understanding of voidness is essential really – how it works – for being able to develop bodhichitta without this danger of “me,” grasping for “me” – or grasping for “you,” for that matter.
The issue that I want to discuss here is the difference between each living being, each mental continuum, being individual, and each one having an inherent identity. If we don’t understand clearly the distinction between those two… It’s a little bit confusing, a little bit difficult. And that’s not a very easy distinction to appreciate.
In our dealing with others, we want to avoid two extremes. We don’t want to make the whole realm of living beings, or the whole universe for that matter, into one big “soup” in which there’s no differences among anything – it’s all one big undifferentiated oneness, a big soup. Or that, okay, there are living beings, there’s mental continuums, but they’re totally anonymous. The other extreme, of course, is the extreme that everybody has an inherent identity that they identify themselves with, you know, that’s their permanent stamped identity. Whether it’s the static identity that we give to them in terms of what they are in this particular lifetime (human, woman or male, cockroach, or whatever), or we don’t want to give everybody the static identity of our mother either.
So the whole issue here concerns defining characteristics. Defining characteristics are merely imputable. That means – we bring it back to our distinction between Svatantrika and Prasangika – that it isn’t that there are within this, we mentally label defining the characteristic of being individual, or a knowable phenomenon, or male or female, anything like that. It isn’t that the defining characteristic is on the side of the object. Svatantrika says that within the context, connected with mental labeling, there’s something on the side of the object – the defining characteristic is there. Prasangika says, no, there’s nothing there.
The most basic defining characteristic is the one that makes it an individual knowable phenomenon. And if that were on the side of the object, that would be like when I’ve been describing a solid line around it that defines this particular mental continuum, this line around it that makes it distinct and individual. That’s merely imputable on it, this defining characteristic of it being an individual mental continuum. Because the experiences that follow in sequence, the contents of that mental continuum, follow an order. It’s an order according to karma, according to cause and effect. It’s not random. It’s not that any moment of any mental continuum could be put together into one thing. It’s like when we look at things in the room, it’s not just arbitrary that you could put colored shapes, all the different colored shapes that we see, and draw lines around it in any old way to form objects. There are objects, knowable objects, but that’s merely imputable – there are no lines connecting different colored shapes. Within my mind I connect, let’s say, the colored form of this person’s hair with the colored shape of the pink wall behind it and the colored shape of the little piece of white on the bottom of the picture above it, and I draw a line around it, in my head, and make that into one object – that doesn’t make it into an object, does it? Why? Because it can’t function, it can’t do anything.
So this is a very interesting question in terms of perception. We perceive patterns of colored shapes, I mean in terms of what we see. That’s the information you get from the eyes, so how in the world do you divide that into objects that function and are [validly] knowable. And it’s not that there are actually lines around them, around these specific objects from their own side making them into objects. But that is imputable from the side of the mind based on conventions and functions – an agreed upon set of defining definitions of what’s a person, what’s a wall, these type of things. It’s all created by the mind at the level of words, which of course are just arbitrary patterns of sound; and it’s also based on valid cognition: you have to have your glasses on to see clearly, for example, and not just imagine that things exist in impossible ways. That’s not correct.
So conventionally we can say that there are defining characteristics, and we are talking just about the most basic ones, the basis of an individual item, and there are defining characteristics for each individual item, for each individual mental continuum. Mental continuum has a defining characteristic: it’s a sequence of mental activity which is based on experiencing the results of one’s behavior according to karma, according to cause and effect. It’s not just like putting any color and shape together; it’s not just putting any moments of experience together. It’s the individual defining characteristic that makes it an individual mental continuum. But that’s totally in terms of – there’s no line around it on the side of the object that makes it individual. So we have the category “mental continuums,” the category “persons,” then there are individual items that fulfill the defining characteristics of these categories without it being from the side of the object. It’s profound, isn’t it?
Now with Chittamatra, this tenet system adds something really very nice here, which is also helpful. There are no hooks on the side of the object that are hooks for each of the individual names and categories (so, individual identities) that a mental continuum has had or could have. These hooks for names and categories, those are another type of defining characteristic. So there’s no little hook on the side of the object for the identity “masculine,” for the identity “feminine,” for the identity “human,” for the identity “cockroach,” for the identity “mother,” “my mother,” which by its own power (because the hook is there) makes it into having the identity of a masculine mental continuum, feminine, human, cockroach, my mother, – continuum. Although all of these names or categories could be conventionally labeled based on the history of the sequence of experiences that make up this individual mental continuum.
So all mental continuums: conventionally they are individual, conventionally they have different identities in different lifetimes, but they don’t have any – what’s usually called “inherent individuality” – inherent identities established from their own side. How do I know this is my mother? There’s nothing on the side of the object that establishes the existence of this mental continuum as having been my mother. That doesn’t establish it or prove it. So what establishes that this particular mental continuum was my mother, what proves it? Well, we have the word “mother” and it can be applied to this mental continuum and it is a valid labeling. Because it fits the convention, fits the defining characteristic, it functioned at some time, and so on. So it’s only established, it’s only proven, by the fact that there is this term or concept that applies. So, who is my mother is what that word or concept refers to, it’s the referent object of this word or concept. But it can’t be found at the basis for labeling, can’t be found in that mental continuum, by some hook – a defining characteristic that was there, a lasting identity.
I don’t expect, and you shouldn’t expect, that you can really understand all of this. This is the first time you’ve heard this type of explanation, so don’t get discouraged.
This distinction between an inherent identity and still being individual, and not just anonymous: mental continuum #12379, like stars or something like that (you know, that each one has an individual number) …. There needs to be a basis for having some positive emotional feeling. It’s very delicate, one’s understanding of this. And if we’re all one big soup, that’s no basis for having any emotional feeling, positive emotional feeling toward any individual. And if everybody was anonymous, just a number, then also there’s no basis for having an emotional connection, love and compassion toward anyone. On the other hand, if you go to the other extreme and give them an inherent identity, from their own side, then that’s the basis for a disturbing emotion – of attachment and grasping and all of that. So you need this new path, the understanding of voidness, to avoid those two extremes. It’s very important and very delicate.
So when we’re working with relative bodhichitta (love, compassion, all these positive emotions), one has to be very careful. Emotions are not easy to work with. Like in my sensitivity training, you have to avoid the two extremes of being insensitive or overemotional. Only on that basis can we really develop properly bodhichitta and love and compassion. “I love you! You’re so wonderful!” – like that, it’s a disaster to approach bodhichitta with that type of emotion. It is always more stable to work on these things on an earlier level. Before really going very, very deeply into these bodhichitta practices, you need emotional maturity. The advanced level is advanced. Should we call it that? It’s an invalid label. It’s an invalid label – it’s valid, but without a hook on the side to mean, “Oh, it’s advanced. I can’t possibly do that!”
We can see then that this level of explanation, although not terribly easy to understand, this is something that you can work with, with other teachers, to go more deeply into it and work gradually to understand this. Because then it will make the bodhichitta practice far more stable, far more emotionally mature. If we are an overemotional type, then often we’re attracted to this bodhichitta type of compassion because, “Oh, it’s so beautiful! Love for everybody! Compassion. Isn’t it nice!” and you could really indulge your over-emotionality, and there’s great danger in doing that of really losing the path and just making it into a self-indulgent exercise of your own emotional excess. So I’m throwing this out hopefully to be of benefit and not just to make you confused. It’s material that you really have to chew on and work with, and this is really the only way to gain that emotional stability and maturity.
If we’re really serious about the Buddhist path and really serious about achieving enlightenment, then it’s very important to do it right, not just the way that I like it. And the way to do it correctly has been said over and over and over and over again: a combination of method and wisdom – compassion and understanding, compassion and understanding of voidness. You have to put the two together; you can’t just do one because that’s what you like and it’s nice, it comes easily to me. Whether it’s the emotion side or whether it’s the understanding side doesn’t make any difference. These are the two extremes of over-emotionality or insensitivity (super-intellectual).
As I often point out, in sensitivity training being overemotional often is just a show. It’s a big show and actually inside, deeply, it’s not so sincere. It’s just coming automatically because of habit and because the culture supports it, but do you really feel it? If you come on to somebody with this super-emotional, “Oh, I love you so much! I want to help you. Let me help you!” you frighten them away. They get overwhelmed and scared that you’re going to swallow them. So that’s not the way really to help somebody. Like a huge mother spider, “Oh, let me help you, I love you!” So this absurd method, to take it to an absurd dimension, often these images from the animal world that are absurd are very, very helpful – if we can remember them – to check ourselves if we are going to that extreme. And Shantideva says, “Remain like a block of wood.” Just don’t do it. Collect yourself more and then respond in a more emotionally mature and stable way. It’s not that you become totally like a block of wood and just sit there and nothing. More stable, more mature.
Let’s take our coffee break now, and then we’ll continue.
So we have seen the importance of understanding voidness, to a certain extent, not only in terms of the practice of tonglen – being able to deal with taking on the suffering of others without completely freaking out – and we also saw the importance of voidness to help us to avoid the two extremes in terms of emotionality: either not feeling anything, or being overemotional. In connection with that, we understand the difference between how conventionally we can say that we are all individuals – every mental continuum is individual – and has had conventional identities in terms of our mother, our friend, and so on, but it’s nothing inherent on the side of any mental continuum that makes it this, by its own power.
We can add one further little point, it’s not such a little point: the fact that we are all able to perceive things in the same way, or approximately the same way. That we all see and label this wooden object above as a “beam” or that we’re all able to see and label a particular mental continuum as an individual. The same individual? This is again purely due to convention. We all follow the same convention in terms of, not just specifically language, the words that we use for these things, but the convention of certain objects, conventional objects. It’s not that we’re all throwing the same imputation and label onto the hook on the side of the object. This is why the Chittamatra understanding is very helpful, although the Chittamatra is not so precise. It has to be qualified in many, many ways by the two Madhyamaka schools, but it’s very helpful for getting us into a level of understanding in which we see how, what there [in Chittamatra] is discussed in terms of “collective karma” allows us to perceive what seems to be the same thing without there being the same thing existing out there, from the side of the object. And appearance is always individual: there are differences in the angle, the distance, and so on, at which we’re looking at anything.
The mental hologram happens like if we took Polaroid pictures of the room. Obviously everybody’s Polaroid picture would be quite different, although conventionally we have to say we’re in the same room. How do you know you’re in the same room? I don’t want to backtrack, but that’s the real problem. How can you prove to our mother or to our friend that we were all in the same room? If we each took a picture and we show that to our mother – well, all of these are different pictures; you’re not in the same room! How can you prove that we were in the same room? It’s a very difficult question. You can reach and touch the floor to make sure we’re still here, but don’t think that Chittamatra is for simple-minded idiots.
Voidness, you have to love it – only if you love it and find it fun, not over-love it. Only that type of disciple is the proper disciple for teachings on voidness. Someone who doesn’t love it is not the proper disciple for studying voidness.
Well if we can understand (it’s not so easy) collective karma, on the basis of that we have shared experiences, then we can go on to trying to understand on the basis of shared conventions, that we can perceive things, mentally label things, the same.
Did you have a question?
Alex: Let me just repeat. It’s because we tend to see all the same thing, that we tend to think that there is something on the side of the object. But then the real question is: do we all see the same thing? And what does it mean when we use the word “same”? Are we all here in the “same” room?
Obviously some conventions we learn as a baby with language. Other conventions, such as things are knowable objects, that seems to be something that comes along with habit or our previous lives, but nobody actually teaches us that.
Question: Does it have any importance that those so-called conventions exist?
Alex: This is a very delicate question. Because we have to really understand what does it mean that they exist? And how do we know that they exist? How do you prove – what establishes, what proves that they exist? The fact that it works, that it functions to communicate. So it can be labeled, these conventions can be labeled, they’re imputable (they refer to something, or you can find what they refer to) and they communicate. And we understand each other. Based on word conventions, that’s what we’re talking about – these categories: word categories, meaning categories, object categories. So they’re merely imputedly existent. In other words, what establishes that they exist is that they are validly imputable, and it works – it functions.
Question: Does a mental continuum, apart from generating suffering, does it also generate karma?
Alex: Yes. Happiness and suffering are defined in the way in which we experience the ripening of our karma.
Question: Is it in the same ways that a child generates karma or an old person generates karma? Because according to it the suffering of old age is greater than a suffering of a child.
Alex: The mechanism is exactly the same. Now the strength and the type of karmic force of course is going to be dependent very much in strength on the intention, motivation, and so on. So a baby might have incredible self-centeredness and greed: “Me, me, me! Food, food, food! If I don’t get my way, I’m going to cry.” But it’s slightly different from an adult going out and shooting somebody. And obviously babies differ in the intensity of greed or anger when they don’t get their way.
Question: And the third question is, does there exist a cessation of a mental continuum?
Alex: No, there is no cessation. Mental continuums have no beginning and no end. This is true for every individual, and this is a very crucial point to understand in order to actually successfully practice the bodhichitta meditations, because everybody having been our mothers is based on beginningless mental continuums. And for that, that really requires an understanding of the voidness of cause and effect. How it is impossible for a cause and effect sequence to have an absolute beginning or an absolute end? Can there be something without a cause that’s changing, and something that has been changing not to produce an effect, but just end, when we’re talking about something so basic as mental activity? If, as in Hinayana, they say that after you’ve achieved Buddhahood, then when you die the mental continuum ceases, how can we actually help everybody, all sentient beings? If our time is very limited and when we die that’s the end. So that doesn’t fit in with Mahayana at all.
But unawareness and the disturbing emotions that are based on unawareness, although that has no beginning – there’s no original sin: “in the beginning we understood and then we fell” – but it can have a true stopping so it never continues anymore, because it can be replaced by understanding. Not-understanding or incorrectly understanding can be replaced by correct understanding, and that has more backing to it than the not-understanding. So if you can have correct understanding uninterruptedly, forever, then you’re never going to get unawareness again. It’s a true stopping of it.
The mental activity doesn’t have something which is its exact opponent that can overpower it and be more supported. Like understanding can overpower… this is the exact opposite way of taking things and not understanding or incorrectly understanding. But to understand that, we really need to understand voidness, because this gets into the whole issue of how can you have continuity at all? When you stop thinking something, how can you think it again? If you have stopped, just because you’re not thinking of it, does that make it a true stopping and you can never – you can never get angry again? You can only get angry once? So voidness here is very crucial for understanding this whole discussion. In other words, how can we remember the first words of a sentence and put them together with the end of the sentence and get meaning out of it? These are very deep questions.
Question: As you explained, we have conventions for communicating and that’s what we have conventions for. But we, as Buddhist practitioners, how should we treat conventions? Do we have to deconstruct them or understand they’re empty? Or how should we relate with or deal with conventions as Buddhist practitioners? I’m a little confused.
Alex: Absolutely. We need to understand the voidness of conventions, and yet they function – like an illusion. They are not found anywhere with a line around them, like some great dictionary in the sky that exists by itself with all these conventions of words having inherent meanings to them. As I keep on telling you, it’s an acoustic pattern – you know, “Umm arrr ahhh rrrr” – and somebody says, “Oh, we’ll call that a word.” And then, “Ah, we’ll give it a meaning.” And then there’s this group of people in a meeting, and they put together all sorts of objects, and they say, “Hey, we’ll call that ‘table’ and it will refer to all these different things.” I mean that’s really quite extraordinary that language and conventions ever developed, even. It’s totally made by the mind. Nothing on the side of objects.
So yes, deconstruct everything.
Question: How do conventions actually work? Because it’s not just that we have a different camera or a different angle for a picture, but we actually have different cameras with different lenses, etc., and some people are good photographers and some are not, etc. How do we know we are thinking the same way everyone else is?
Alex: That’s why it’s like an illusion. It’s incredible. This is what Tsongkhapa says, it’s created as a dependent arising. He says it’s incredible that things dependently arise in terms of mental labeling on the basis of voidness. It’s incredible (he keeps on using this word), it’s amazing. And yet everything functions.
So for the question: well, how does it work? We have to go back to what I mentioned earlier today – Serkong Rinpoche’s cryptic comment: “If there were solid walls, we couldn’t walk through them. But because there are no solid walls, then we can walk.” So there is nothing preventing things from functioning. That’s the way that it is explained and approached from the Buddhist point of view. It’s like space. Voidness is like space. There is nothing preventing something from occupying three dimensions.
If I was inside a cage of solid walls, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t go anywhere. But because there are no solid walls caging me in, like a solid line, I can walk. I can do things. If we were encapsulated with some solid inflexible plastic coating around us, this solid line, the “me, me, me,” a knowable object, we would be frozen, we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t relate to anything; cause and effect can’t connect to each other; nothing could work. So voidness is the total absence of that.
But in our minds we are always encapsulating something in solid plastic, “You just said that to me.” Or how about, “You said that twenty years ago, and you hurt my feeling so badly.” We still hold a grudge. This is what guilt is all about. “I made this mistake before. I was so stupid!” Encapsulated in solid – enshrine it in this solid plastic and just put it there. And now I’m stuck. I’m not going to let go of this, this is my prize trophy! And then that’s guilt, “I’m terrible!
Just two more questions, otherwise the end of this evening.
Question: Are the five aggregates a valid basis of labeling the “I”?
Alex: Are the five aggregates a valid basis of labeling the “I”? Yes. That is the basis for labeling the “I,” “me.” We don’t label it on, you know, different parts of the wall.
Question: But why?
Alex: Why? Because they make up each moment of experience. That’s what the aggregates are all about. They are the ever-changing factors that make up each moment of an individual mental continuum’s experience. And on the basis of that, if you wanted to connect the dots of each moment of experience in a continuum, the way to connect those dots would be with the label “me.”
Question: In the same way that you were talking about conventions and agreement, is suffering a conventional agreement?
Alex: Yes, of course. We have moments of experience and it fits a certain convention, certain defining characteristics of a convention which is separate. And so when we label our experiencing, a certain type of experiencing, as suffering, what establishes that it’s suffering? Suffering is what this concept refers to. However, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. We do experience it, and it hurts. But it’s like an illusion. The problem is when we go, “Oh, I’m suffering,” and, “I’m so bad!” We encapsulate it in a big, solid, inflexible plastic. Then, “Ohhhhh, I’m suffering!”
If we just speak about suffering in terms of unhappiness versus happiness, or pleasure versus pain. The defining characteristic is that feeling which, when it arises or we experience it, we would like for it not to continue, not to repeat. And happiness is that which, when we experience it, we would like for it to continue. Unless there’s anybody – you know, a complete masochist – but there’s certain sensations that that person wants to continue, and other ones that they don’t want to continue. If I eat a certain food that I like, I experience it with happiness. You can eat the same food, and you hate that food, so you experience it with incredible suffering. So we’ve agreed upon the defining characteristics, it’s a convention.
Now, so we’ve seen that the understanding of voidness is very essential here for development of bodhichitta, so let’s see how it applies to these eleven rounds, or eleven steps of developing bodhichitta in the context in which tonglen comes.
Now, the first step is developing equanimity toward everyone. This is the equanimity which is developed in common with the Hinayana practices, and it is the state of mind in which we have neither attachment to some beings, and repulsion from others, or indifference to yet others. It’s being free of these disturbing emotions. That’s this type of equanimity. That doesn’t mean that we’re being indifferent, because it’s one of the three disturbing emotions. Another way of saying this is that we don’t consider anybody as friend, enemy, or stranger.
So understanding of voidness is very necessary here. Sure, sometimes some beings have been our friends, sometimes they have been our enemies, sometimes they have been strangers. That’s in terms of circumstances, but if we think in terms of beginningless mental continuums, then they’re all individual. Then, at different times, everybody has been a friend, everybody has been an enemy, and everybody has been a stranger. There is no difference; it’s just a matter of when. There are no hooks on the side of the object: “friend,” “enemy,” or “stranger.”
Then the next step is – we sort of clear the ground, without attraction, there’s no inherent hook with anybody (of friend, enemy or stranger) that’s their inherent identity. So we have equanimity toward everyone. There’s no attachment, repulsion, or indifference. Then what we want to see is recognize that everybody at some point has been our mothers. Without of course a “mother” hook on their side either, as if they’re inherently our mother.
This is a difficult point and one that recently with my class on the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s text, which deals with voidness, that we were working on. How do you prove that everybody has been your mother at one point, at one time? You have to be convinced logically that this is correct. Because don’t the laws of probability and quantum physics and all of that lead us to the conclusion that it could be the case that some person has always been our mother, or some have never been our mothers – isn’t that within the realm of the probability. So we want a mathematical proof for all beings have been our mothers, not just have it based on blind faith. So this is: if you have infinite time but a finite number of sentient beings, how do you prove that everyone at one point has been our mother? Very, very interesting and difficult question. Any mathematician here who can prove it?
How do you prove it? Finite number of beings in infinite lifetimes. Do you have the proof? We wanted to come up with the proof, so we came up with the proof. We have really expert mathematicians to check our proofs, so I want to throw the proof out to you in case there’s somebody here who might be able to find a fault in the thinking. Do you have the proof?
Question: You say that it cannot be proven.
Alex: Because my students said that if there were infinite life times and infinite sentient beings, you couldn’t prove it. But because it’s infinite lifetimes and finite sentient beings, it could be proved.
Question: And I agree with that. The real problem is how can you prove that there is a finite number of sentient beings?
Alex: That’s not the issue here. This is a given value. The given value is that the number of sentient beings is N. We’re just talking about a mathematical problem. Because you see this is an interesting issue. Not just to jump into these type of practices and meditations when, after a while, you start thinking about it and you say at a point, “Well, this is ridiculous! How could everybody have been my mother? This is a fantasy. That’s not right that everyone has been my mother; this is a bunch of baloney!” So, you can come up with something?
Translator: It would take some board and paper, but the basic idea is this. Imagine that we have a pot, very big pot filled with marbles. In this pot, each marble represents one sentient being. So every time anybody is reborn…
Alex: Right, “every time anybody is reborn” as our mother…
Translator: You take one marble. And then when this particular life is finished, you throw back the marble into the same pot. Okay? So we have to check what is the probability that you have not taken one particular marble in that pot – one particular marble in infinite attempts, in infinite lifetimes. If that probability is zero then, without doubt, every sentient being has been our mother.
Participant: But I need to do the mathematical calculation on paper.
Alex: Great. Let me give you our Prasangika proof of this. It came up from one of my students, then I just formulated it properly. But it’s a Prasangika proof, it’s wonderful.
If all mental continuums are equal and one has been my mother, the mother in this lifetime, then everybody has equally been my mother – because they are all equal. There’s no reason why this one wouldn’t be my mother. And now here comes the Prasangika part. If this were not true, if there was one sentient being who was never my mother, then because all sentient beings are equal, then no sentient being could ever have been my mother. And the absurd conclusion follows, that I didn’t have a mother in this lifetime. I’d like to see if that logic can be attacked.
Translator: He’s not refuting that.
Alex: That’s a very simple non-mathematical proof. Very profound, actually. It’s quite good.
Translator: He says that even the sketch of the proof that he has in mind is an oversimplification of reality, because to start with the assumption that every single mental continuum has the same probability of having ever been my mother goes against the probabilistics study of tendencies, because there are tendencies in probability, also. It’s an oversimplification.
Alex: Right. Now we get to this thing that we discussed. That from the Prasangika point of view, of course there are no inherent tendencies in any of these mental continuums. So all you can say is that when somebody has been our mother, then there’s a close connection which has been established. And so then you could say that, you know, there’s a beginning of a tendency to be our mother again. But still that doesn’t negate that everybody has the equal probability to be our mother. Because there’s infinite time, so it doesn’t matter.
There’s a similar problem too, the thing that the universe begins with a Big Bang, and expands uniformly from that first micro, micro, micro second, why is it that the heavens aren’t totally uniform? That you have different stars in different formations? It’s the same issue – I don’t know if it’s exactly the same, but it’s similar. And all these different things that expand interact with each other, and so that effects how they further extend. So the same thing in terms of mental continuums, except that here there’s no beginning.
Participant: It’s not really a comment about the problem of having everyone being my mother, it’s a problem I have about infinite time. Because for me I can equally prove that if in infinite times and not infinite sentient beings, everyone should be illuminated. Because I would have had an infinite number of times encountering the Dharma and I would be illuminated.
Alex: That’s a very difficult question. It’s an interesting question and a good one to think about. My initial thought, without analyzing it very deeply, is that unawareness also has no beginning. So I think that’s a different type of variable, for everybody to then get rid of that unawareness. It’s a different type of variable than the variable of having been my mother.
In other words, the unawareness is not going to go away by itself. You have to put in a great deal of effort in order for it to go away. But it’s not that there’s a major obstacle preventing somebody from being our mother, and has to be overcome through effort in order to become our mother. So I think that’s the difference. Something has to be opposed in order to get rid of unawareness. There’s nothing that has to be opposed that would prevent somebody from being our mother.
Furthermore, only one sentient being can be my mother at a time. But it isn’t the same case in terms of only one sentient being can be enlightened at a time. So that’s another difference. And when somebody has been our mother, they don’t continue to currently be my mother. Whereas if somebody becomes enlightened, that goes on forever. As so, if what you said were true, that everybody should already be enlightened, then we should observe that. But our observation contradicts that, because I’m certainly not enlightened. So being my mother is something that only one being can be, and that’s only now, then they’re not anymore. Whereas being enlightened would be forever and it’s not just one that can be like that. So they are very different – to be my mother or to be enlightened. So we get to absurd conclusion.
The proof that we came up with in my class, that everybody has been our mother, is a wonderful proof that we can also use, which is very, very important to be able to become convinced of, which is that everybody can become enlightened. If we don’t have that, then what are we aiming for? If I’m not convinced that I can achieve enlightenment and that I can actually help everybody else. And so if one person has become enlightened, Buddha Shakyamuni, and everybody is equal, then everybody can eventually become enlightened. And then the point is that they’re not already enlightened because you have to put in the effort. The tendency has to be reinforced and built stronger and stronger. Because then, if that were not the case, if one person couldn’t become enlightened, then nobody could have become enlightened – because we are all equal. So then Buddha Shakyamuni wasn’t enlightened. Then we have to get into the whole discussion: was there ever a Buddha? And that’s a very interesting question. That brings about other points.
So, in summary, why I pursued this and what I wanted to demonstrate with this to you is the development of bodhichitta, and working with all of these things, it’s not something which is independent and cannot really be pursued independent of gaining the understanding of reality. And that we have to question everything and try to understand why, because, otherwise, doubts come up in our meditation: “What in the world am I doing? This doesn’t make any sense!”
And so don’t be afraid of thinking. We all have minds, the ability to understand and reason, that’s what makes us human beings – defining characteristics, although not a hook inside us. And so this is why debate is so important. This is what I wanted to give you a little bit of taste of with that. Because if you sit in analytical meditation and try to figure it out yourself, you’re never going to challenge yourself the way that other people are going to challenge you and challenge your understanding and say, “Hey, wait a minute!” Like what’s just been asked, “Shouldn’t everybody already have been enlightened by the same line of reasoning?” “Oh, I never thought of that.” And so then you think about it and then you try to come up with an answer to that.
And we don’t have to debate back and forth, although that’s better because then everybody has to answer, and everybody has to think; nobody can be just an observer. So just break up into pairs. But at least to do it together in a class, like that. But as I say, better that before class opens up or maybe after you’ve had a general teaching, then you break into pairs and say, “Well, what do you think?” Then you bring up doubts to the class and stuff like that. That this is the process by which we actually understand the teachings and become convinced of them, overcome our doubts. So it’s only on that basis that we can ever have concentration on something in meditation, without questioning, “What am I doing? Do I really understand this?” And that goes for even bodhichitta, for love and compassion.
And I think that what you can see is that it can be really fun and exciting. And this process of questioning and asking and working with each other, as you can see, it can be fun. It’s not so dry, intellectual and boring. And if you notice, the level of energy is much, much higher than it would ever be sitting by yourself in meditation trying to analyze this. Your whole concentration is better. As the young Serkong Rinpoche pointed out to me, all this process, this training in debating, it’s all preparation for meditation. It’s about concentration, it’s about enthusiasm, it’s about energy, getting rid of your doubts and so on, and then you can meditate properly. So I wanted to give you a little bit of a taste of that.
So you can start to appreciate the importance of working with Dharma: it’s not just training of our hearts, training our feelings – also training our minds to understand. You train both, cleanse both, cleanse the negative habits and train the positive habits to support each other. Because, otherwise, trying to work and develop positive emotions, if you haven’t taken care of eliminating doubts beforehand, well, the doubts conflict with the positive emotions and so that becomes a real obstacle.
What you want to do is not get conflicting emotions. “I feel love, but hmmm, I don’t really know;” or, “Do I really have a connection with you?” and, “Can I really achieve enlightenment. It’s what I’m aiming for, but can I really do that?” and so on. So you can’t put your heart fully into it. So the doubt generates negative emotions, and what we’re trying to do with the bodhichitta meditations is all positive emotions. So really to be able to do it properly, you have to get rid of the negative side of both areas – what we call the mind and the heart.
So, we can also then understand a little bit better why Asanga, the great Mahayana master, wrote the Abhidharma-samuccaya it’s An Anthology of Abhidharma, which is the Mahayana abhidharma (abhidharma is “topics of knowledge”). Why is it the Mahayana version? He specifies that there are six root disturbing emotions and attitudes. There’s attachment, there’s anger, there’s naivety, there’s pride, and then there’s indecisive wavering – doubt. Indecisive – you don’t know. Is it correct? Is it incorrect? Is this the teaching, is that the teaching? It’s a very disturbing state of mind, whether we call it emotion or attitude (it’s difficult to find a word that incorporates it). And then the sixth one is disturbing attitudes, this is the outlook on life, if you – well, I don’t want to go into that. There’s another whole list of five attitudes. It’s rather complicated.
These disturbing emotions and attitudes, the word is “klesha” in Sanskrit, are described as sickness. So you need a doctor (the Buddha) and the Dharma is the medicine, and so on. So in that sense you can call them afflictions. But that’s not the definition – it’s just an analogy. The definition is that these are states of mind that when they arise cause two things: they cause us to lose our peace of mind and to lose self-control. That’s disturbing. That’s why they call it disturbing emotions and attitudes. And it’s much better to choose the terminology not according to analogy, but according to definition.
So, we’re not getting terribly far in this text, obviously, but that’s okay. That’s cool, as we would say – that’s okay. Because what is far more important is to get a foundation for being able to then really do this type of practice, and you can see that it’s not something to be trivialized or to be oversimplified.
If you’re really going to do it, it’s incredibly profound, incredibly difficult, that requires a great deal of preparation. But if properly prepared, then we can do it. If somebody did it, achieved Buddhahood through this – we have this line in the Lama Chopa (The Guru Puja), The Honoring Ceremony for the Gurus, that the Buddha always cherished others, but I always cherish myself (this self-cherishing) and look what both of us have accomplished. Look what the Buddha accomplished, and look what I have accomplished. So it’s the same thing. If Buddha could do it, if somebody could do it, through really doing this properly, then so can I.
The great masters and the Buddhas, how did they reach this state? So like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, how did he become like that? Practicing this, these type of teachings, these lojong teachings – cleansing of attitudes. So then, for it to really sink in, in terms of helping us to really take it seriously, and to appreciate its value – it’s quite difficult for us to relate to Buddha and his example, and we don’t see Buddha – but many of us do have the opportunity to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And if you think, “Wow. It would be fantastic to become like His Holiness.” Well, this is what His Holiness practices. That’s how His Holiness became the way that he is, practicing this. As he always says, his favorite thing that he thinks is the most important is Shantideva – Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. So if we want to become like that, that’s what we need to do. And if you do it, you have to do it right.
One day, a hippy, a young hippy – he was probably stoned – came to Serkong Rinpoche (my teacher, and I was his translator) and he said, “I’d like to practice the Six Yogas of Naropa. Can you teach me the Six Yogas of Naropa?” His attitude was, “This is so far out! Teach me, I’d like to practice it. Teach me it!” And what was really always extraordinary about Serkong Rinpoche, the old one, was that he took everybody absolutely seriously. And he took this hippy, this young stoned hippy, very, very seriously. And he said, “That’s marvelous, that’s wonderful that you would like to practice this. And so if you really want to practice it, this is how you begin: this is the first stage of preparation, and for that it would be good for you to go to the Tibetan library and study this and that, and when you’ve reached the proper level of preparation then come back.” And so this helped this young man very much because somebody took him seriously.
And so it’s very important to take ourselves seriously. If we’re going to follow the Buddhist path – we’re all here because obviously we like to think of ourselves as following the Buddhist path, and practicing the Dharma. Well, it’s very important to take ourselves seriously and do it correctly.
So let’s end with the dedication: We think that whatever understanding we’ve gained and positive force that has come from this, may this go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
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