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Developing the Mind Based on Buddha-Nature

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, June 2010

Session One: Introduction

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:55 hours)

Spiritual Aims

This evening we’re going to begin a weekend course on how to develop our mind on the basis of Buddha-nature. And when we speak about developing our minds, we shouldn’t think just in terms of the rational mind, but rather, when we speak about mind in Buddhism, we’re talking about rational side, the emotions, the perceptions, and so on – it’s a much larger term. And so we want to develop all of these. And not just our minds, and feelings, emotions, but also our abilities to act, our abilities to communicate, and so on. And if we want to develop ourselves, then we need to have an aim of what do we want to develop to.

In the Buddhist sphere, if we speak about spiritual aims then we speak in terms of three of them – well, actually, let’s say two of them; let’s divide it in a different way. One goal would be to have better and better rebirths so that we can continue on the spiritual path. From the Buddhist point of view, there is continuing rebirth. Or we can speak of the second goal, which is known as the superlative state, the highest states of purification. And these are states which are liberated from rebirth, and they can be in three classes: One is those who have just achieved liberation on the basis of having actually listened to the teachings of the Buddha. These are known as (in Sanskrit) shravakas, the listeners. And there are those who can achieve liberation during the periods when the Buddha’s teachings are not available. These are known in Sanskrit as pratyekabuddhas. That means the self-evolved beings who have evolved on the basis of their instincts from having heard teachings long, long ago when they were available, in previous lives. And then there are those who achieve the full enlightenment of a Buddha. These are the bodhisattvas, those that are aiming to not just get liberation but to overcome all the obscurations, so that they know how best to help everybody, so they achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha, the omniscient state of a Buddha.

So we can develop our abilities, all the various factors that we have (and there are certain ones) that will enable us to achieve any of these goals. Now we have a precious human rebirth, it’s possible for us to continue to have that in the future and get even better circumstances for continuing on the path. And it’s possible for us to gain liberation from all suffering, all shortcomings – either when the Buddha’s teachings are available and we can listen to them and learn them, or during dark ages when they’re not available. And it’s also possible for us to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha. That’s very encouraging.

If we’re going to work for a spiritual goal then it’s necessary to, first of all, understand what that goal actually is, and then to be convinced that it’s possible to actually attain it. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, how can you possibly reach it? Just to follow spiritual methods and have no idea what the result is going to be, or what you’re aiming for, doesn’t get us very far at all. Because, whatever methods we follow, everything depends on the motivation, the aim that we are working with. It all depends on that, in terms of what it’s going to achieve.

For example, you could work with the energies of the body. And you could work with that with specific methods that will help us to reach enlightenment. But you can also work with that with a different aim, for instance to obtain the type of liberation that’s described in Hindu texts. Or following the exact same methods, if you don’t have any clear idea of what you’re aiming for but are being motivated by disturbing emotions and confusion, then the same methods will just bring you sickness, basically – disturbance of the energies in the body. Or if you’re using it just to work to gain special powers, well, you might use that for destructive purposes. So it’s very important on the spiritual path to know what we’re aiming for, is it possible to actually achieve it, and then follow the methods.

Causal Factors for Attaining Buddhahood

Often it’s described, when we talk about Buddha-nature, these are the causes that will enable us to reach – if we speak in terms of all these goals that I mentioned, let’s just limit ourselves to becoming a Buddha. So it’s important to recognize that we have all these causes within us that will enable us to achieve the goal of enlightenment. So, of course, first we have to know, as I said, what is enlightenment. So, in a sense, when we talk about these Buddha-natures, often it’s spoken in terms of these are the seeds that will grow into enlightenment.

Actually there isn’t a term in Sanskrit or Tibetan that I know of that actually means Buddha-nature. That was, I think, just made up by the translators. The terms that we find (there are a few of them): They are the family-traits, so the features or the traits of the family of everybody who could become a Buddha (sangs-rgyas-kyi rigs, Skt. buddhagotra). Another term for it is the source ( khams, Skt. dhatu) of becoming a Buddha. Another term for it is the womb that gives birth to our becoming a Buddha (de-shegs snying-po, Skt. tathagatagarbha). So, anyway, these are the causal factors.

Then often we speak about the spiritual teacher as the root of the path. The root is not the cause; that’s not where you begin. The root is what you receive nourishment from, all along the path. So, on the basis of the Buddha-nature, with the inspiration from the spiritual teacher – and guidance – then Buddhahood can grow.

And then we have the methods, the path to follow.

What we’ll be discussing, then, is what are these various family-traits or features that will act as the causes or allow us to become a Buddha. We find these features in connection with our – what’s known as the mental continuum, which is the moment-to-moment sequence or continuum of our moments of mind, moments of cognition. So with each moment we’re seeing, or we’re hearing, or we’re thinking, and we have various emotions and various other factors that come along with this continuum: body, ability to communicate, etc. So we’ll look at features of this, that we all have, that can somehow be responsible for, in some way or another – in some causal way or another – for becoming a Buddha.

The Four Buddha-Bodies

When we talk about becoming a Buddha, then, a Buddha has various aspects. We often call them the four Buddha-bodies. There are systems of two Buddha-bodies, three, four, five – there are many different systems of this. We’ll use the system of four here. And when we say “body,” we shouldn’t think of that in the physical sense of the word “body.” It’s more like a – or at least in English you say, “a body of knowledge.” In English we have this word “corpus.” So it is a network or system of many, many different things that form a body or corpus. So the term is a little bit confusing. Like a corpus, a body of literature.

So we can speak in terms of physical bodies. We can have what’s known as Sambhoghakaya. These are various forms that a Buddha can manifest in, which are very subtle and which make full use of the highest teachings, the Mahayana teachings. So they teach only very special, very highly developed bodhisattvas. And it’s a network of many, many different forms; it’s not just one body. A Buddha can manifest in countless number of forms simultaneously and help countless beings simultaneously. So some of these forms are these very subtle ones that help very special highly developed beings. So Sambhoghakaya means the Corpus of Full Use, the Bodies of Full Use – they make full use of the full teachings, Mahayana teachings.

And then there are emanations of that, in grosser forms, that can teach us ordinary beings. So these are called Nirmanakaya in Sanskrit. They mean a Body of Emanations – a whole collection or network of many, many emanations, not just one. So, as a Buddha, we’ll be able to manifest in all sorts of forms simultaneously – both subtle, for the very high practitioners, and more ordinary forms, for the more ordinary practitioners. These are known collectively as the Body of Forms, of physical appearances.

From the highest tantra point of view, this Sambhoghakaya, this one of subtle forms, is referring to the speech of a Buddha. So we can communicate simultaneously in all languages, in all different ways – the energy will go out in a manner that communicates perfectly with others. So, as a Buddha, we’ll be able to do that. So all of these Bodies or Corpuses of Form are ways of benefiting others.

In terms of what is fulfilling our own purposes – our own purpose, here, means our ability to help others – what fulfills that are the factors on the side of the mind of a Buddha. So what’s the mind of a Buddha like? We have the term “Dharmakaya.” Kaya, which is “body,” is a corpus, a big network of many, many things. And dharma in this context refers to “all things.” So a Buddha has a mind that encompasses everything. This is called the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya. So this is referring to a Buddha’s understanding of absolutely everything; so, omniscience. But we’re not only talking about the rational side when we talk about a mind, but on the emotional side a Buddha’s mind has compassion and love which extends equally to absolutely everybody. And a Buddha’s mind has abilities. “Abilities” refers to knowing the way in which to be able to help everybody to their spiritual goals; so, the ability to teach. And, as the Dharmakaya, it extends to everything, to everybody equally. So it’s pretty wonderful, isn’t it?

Then there is a Corpus of Essential Nature, it’s called – Svabhavakaya – and that’s understood in several ways. One way is to understand it as the reality of the mind of a Buddha; so, how it exists. And that refers to its voidness (emptiness). Voidness in Buddhism means an absence of impossible ways of existing. So we might imagine that all these attainments of a Buddha, and so on, are something which are impossible to attain, for instance – but that’s not true; that’s impossible. It’s impossible that it’s impossible. Or that it exists independent of any causes. Or it exists all by itself, unrelated to anything, like some transcendent realm. So none of these refer to anything real. So voidness is the absence of any real referent to these things, to these impossible ways of existing. So, in a sense, the mental continuum is pure of these things. It’s not stained by these things. Because they’re impossible; they don’t exist at all.

So here we can also speak of this Essential Nature Body as the purity of the mind. Because of the purity of the mind, because the mind doesn’t exist in any impossible ways, it’s possible to achieve enlightenment. So these are things that we really need to study deeply, and think deeply about, and meditate about, in order to really become convinced that this is so – the basic purity of the mind. Another way of understanding this Essential Nature Body is the inseparability of the other three bodies, which is just referring to the fact that you always have mind together with appearances, body – some physical side as well.

So this is the goal that we are aiming for. This is what a Buddha would be like. It has many extraordinary features, obviously. We could appear in all sorts of forms, subtle and gross, everywhere, to help everybody – in any form whatsoever that’s going to be of help. And we’ll be able to communicate perfectly, whether with words or in other means, to everybody, in a way that they’ll be able to understand. And we will understand and know everything. And we will have love and compassion equally for absolutely everybody. And we will know the methods that will enable everybody to achieve these spiritual goals. So we have this ability equally for everybody. And all of this comes inseparably together in one package, and it doesn’t exist in any sort of impossible way, and it’s all on the basis of the natural purity of the mental continuum. Pretty wonderful. It would be wonderful to achieve that, wouldn’t it?

Buddha-Nature

Once we have an idea of what this goal is, then we need to see, well, do we have the factors that will enable us to achieve all of this? This is the topic of – as I said, the Western term for it is Buddha-nature, these family-traits. In some systems they speak about the various traits that will enable us to achieve the liberation of a shravaka, the liberation of a pratyekabuddha, or enlightenment of a Buddha. So they speak of these three different types of family traits, and there’s a lot that can be said about that. We don’t really need to go into that in detail. But let’s focus on the traits that will enable us to become a Buddha.

Now, as many of you perhaps know, when we look at Tibetan Buddhism there are many, many systems and schools, and of course each of them says something slightly different. So we have a sutra discussion of this and a tantra discussion of these – I’ll use the term “Buddha-nature” since it’s easier to use, people are more familiar with it. And within sutra this topic is only discussed in the Mahayana teachings, teachings that are aimed to achieve enlightenment. And we have three Indian systems for this: what’s known as Chittamatra, Svatantrika Madhyamaka, and Prasangika Madhyamaka. And each of the Tibetan schools – and even within Tibetan schools, some authors will be different – they’ll all have different interpretations of this, of these three. And in tantra – we have four classes of tantra or, in some systems, six classes of tantra – and again the four Tibetan lineages have different views. So, when we look at the whole picture, it sometimes becomes quite bewildering because there are so many different opinions. But I think that we can sort of derive the essence of what they’re talking about if we look in a more general way. In general, we have three types of these family-traits:

We have naturally abiding ones (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs). These are things that everybody has had, with no beginning; so they are naturally there, abiding all the time, in everybody – no beginning. And, in most systems, these are things which don’t really change. They are just facts about the mental continuum, like its voidness.

Then there are evolving traits (rgyas-’gyur-gyi rigs). Evolving traits are things that can grow. And some of them have also been present in the mental continuum with no beginning, and some can be attained for the first time at some point.

And then you have a third type of family-trait, which is the fact or feature of our mental continuums that allows a Buddha’s enlightening influence to enter and affect that mental continuum so that it can be inspired, uplifted, to achieve the various spiritual goals that we spoke about: better rebirth, liberation, enlightenment. That’s a very important point, by the way. You can’t stimulate a rock to become a Buddha. Right? No matter how much a Buddha teaches the rock, it’s not going to help that rock to achieve a better rebirth, or liberation, or enlightenment. But we have a mental continuum – and we’ll discuss what that actually means in more depth a little bit later – we can be influenced, we can be stimulated to grow further and further. But, of course, we need to be receptive, we need to be open to that enlightening influence of a Buddha.

This enlightening influence (’phrin-las, Skt. samudacara) – sometimes called Buddha-activity, but that’s a little bit too strong a word because the Buddha doesn’t have to actually do anything. It’s described like the shining of the sun. The sun doesn’t have to do anything; it just automatically shines. Or it’s like the force of a magnet to draw things toward it. Again, the magnet doesn’t have to do anything; it’s part of the way that it is. This quality is part of its nature, it’s said. But we can only be warmed by the sun if we come outside. If we stay in a cave we won’t be warmed by the sun; and we can only be influenced by the magnet if we are iron. So, if we are open and receptive, we can be stimulated, we can be inspired.

I think “inspiration” is the best way of translating this word (byin-gyis rlabs, Skt. adhishthana), which is usually translated as “blessing” – “you can receive the blessings of the Buddha” – but that is really such a vague term, I think it really is quite misleading. There’s nothing mystical about it. And when we talk about this enlightening influence of the Buddhas, it can come through the medium of the fully qualified spiritual teachers. So that’s, in a way, how the spiritual teacher acts as the root for growth. The teacher provides the inspiration, not just the information about the path, but the inspiration – this enlightening influence for us to be able to grow, for the seeds to grow.

Naturally Abiding Family-Traits

We’ll go now into a little bit more detail. We speak in terms of the naturally abiding factors, and we limit ourselves to the Prasangika Madhyamaka view of this. This is referring to the voidness of our stained mind, the mind that still has limitations. This mind doesn’t exist in – the mental continuum with all its various features – doesn’t exist in any impossible way, despite all its limitations and confusion and disturbing emotions. It doesn’t exist as something which is stained by these things, by its very nature, so it can never be purified; that’s impossible. So this factor, the voidness of the mind, this mental activity – when we talk about mind, we’re talking about a mental activity – that doesn’t exist in any impossible way.

Just in brief, when we talk about mental activity – which is what we mean by mind – it can be described in several ways. One way is the arising of a mental hologram. So whenever we see things, actually the light hits the eyes, it’s translated into electric impulses, chemical things in the neurons, and then in the brain – if we talk about the Western description of it – you see something; so there’s like a mental hologram. It’s the same with all the senses: hearing, smelling, etc. All of those are mental holograms, what we perceive. And the same thing with thinking. And even nonconceptual functioning of the mind, which we’ll discuss tomorrow, it’s also a mental hologram. The emotions are mental holograms. All of these are the arising of some mental hologram, and usually it’s quite a complex one made of many things.

And if we describe the arising of a mental hologram from another point of view, actually it is what we mean by seeing, or hearing, or thinking, or feeling something. It’s a way of engaging cognitively with an object. And we can also even describe this whole mental activity from an energy side. So there’s some physical side to it as well. And this mental activity just is going on moment to moment to moment. It’s individual – Buddhism says that – even as a Buddha, we retain our individuality; we don’t all merge into one undifferentiated thing. Buddhism does not assert a universal mind. That’s not Buddhism. So this moment to moment mental activity, that’s all that’s occurring. There’s no separate “me” from this which is either observing it, or controlling it, or making it happen. Each individual continuity, of course, can be labeled the individual “me” – we’re all individual me’s – but that “me” isn’t something which is a separate entity watching it or controlling it.

So this mental activity is going on moment to moment to moment, and it doesn’t exist in some impossible way. That’s the naturally abiding trait. It’s affected by various things, it changes, and so on. That is its voidness that’s responsible for the voidness of a mind of a Buddha, the Essential Nature Body. Because our mind now, as a limited being, doesn’t exist in any impossible way, some crazy way – for example, as some sort of solid thing with a solid line around it sitting inside us – because that’s true in terms of our limited mind, it’s also true in terms of the mind of a Buddha. It will always be true. So this is a trait, a feature of our mental continuum that abides forever. It didn’t have a beginning, and it’s going to continue into Buddhahood as well.

Evolving Family-Traits

Then we have the evolving traits. These are the ones that can grow. How do they grow? They can be influenced, stimulated, inspired by a Buddha’s enlightening influence – or a teacher’s enlightening influence – but that’s certainly not enough. We also have to work quite hard on the spiritual path. Listening to teachings – which means learning them, studying them – and then thinking about them, contemplating. I mean, as a result of hearing, listening, then we are certain about what the teachings are. You have to be certain what it is, whether we hear it explained by a teacher or we read it in a book. You need correct information. Then we have to think about it in order to understand it and be convinced that it’s true. And then we meditate on it, which means to integrate it, to familiarize ourselves over and over and over with it, so that this understanding or quality – like love – becomes an automatic quality of ours. And through this process, then, these things will grow and grow and grow. What we are able to build up through our spiritual listening, thinking, and meditating, together with the influence, the stimulation of a teacher and the Buddha, so that they give rise to the other Buddha-bodies, the ones with form and the deep awareness Dharmakaya, the mind of a Buddha.

So what are we referring to here? What we are referring to are known as the – usually translated as the “two collections,” but I don’t particularly like the word “collection” because it can give the impression that it’s just like a stamp collection. But, rather, what it is, is a network or a system of many things that interact with each other and grow in this networking type of way. And we have two of these systems or networks. They’re usually translated as “collection of merit” (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, Skt. punyasambhara) and “collection of wisdom” or “insight” ( ye-shes-kyi tshogs, Skt. jnanasambhara), but I find these fairly imprecise translations.

By “merit,” what we mean is positive force built up by doing constructive types of actions, not under the influence of anger or greed or attachment. Then we have a network of deep awareness; that’s what’s usually called “wisdom.” So that’s fairly specific in the sutra systems. What it’s referring to is our understanding of either any or all of the four noble truths. It’s the basic teachings of the Buddha: what are true sufferings, what are their true causes, and what is the true stopping of all of that, and what is the true pathway of mind or understanding that will bring that about. So we get deep awareness by hearing about that, thinking about it, then meditating on it and understanding it. So that builds up a certain amount of deep awareness. It can also be our understanding of what’s called the four placements of close mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-bzhag bzhi, Skt. smrtyupasthana). So observing, and being aware of, and mindful, and holding onto what is the nature of our body sensations, our changing levels of happy or unhappy, the changing states of mind that we have, the emotions that are changing all the time, and the changing of all phenomena that we think about or observe. And these are correlated with the four noble truths. You can read about that on my website.

[See: The Four Close Placements of Mindfulness According to Mahayana.]

In any case, by meditating on any of these four and correlating it to the four noble truths – understanding it in terms of the body sensations as suffering, grasping at the feelings as the cause of suffering, etc. – then one also gains a certain amount of deep awareness. Or it can also be hearing about, thinking about, and then meditating on voidness itself. So the absorption that we have on that – we’re really focused on that – builds up a network of deep awareness.

The Importance of Motivation

Everything depends on the motivation. What is our intention for doing positive things? What is our intention for doing this type of meditation and gaining this understanding? What are we aiming for with it? And, at the end, to what do we dedicate whatever has come from it: the understanding and the positive force? What are we dedicated towards?

So these networks are going to build up something, an attainment, a goal. They can build up to a pure goal or they can build up to an impure, samsaric goal. That all depends on the motivation and the dedication. If we’re aiming for liberation and we’re motivated by what’s called renunciation, the determination to be free, then when we do positive things and we do this meditation on deep awareness, the networks that build up from that will build up to liberation. And if we do these with aiming for enlightenment and with the bodhichitta motivation to achieve enlightenment to benefit everybody, then these will build up to enlightenment.

And if we don’t do it with any particular motivation and don’t dedicate it, but we just do positive, constructive things, or we intellectually think about the four noble truths, etc., then it will merely build up nicer samsaric existence for us: From the positive force, we’ll be happier. From the deep awareness, we’ll be more intelligent, know more things. But still we’re stuck in uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

So when we talk about these networks as Buddha-nature factors, we’re talking about the pure ones, the ones that are actually built up with either renunciation and aiming for liberation or with bodhichitta and aiming for enlightenment. In terms of Buddha-nature factors, the ones aiming for liberation would work for achieving the goal of a shravaka or a pratyekabuddha; the one with bodhichitta will be for achieving Buddhahood.

And in terms of these pure ones, there’s two levels of it. What’s known as the actual pure ones and the facsimile pure ones. “Facsimile” means the ones that are similar, but not the actual ones. So it all depends on how we’re able to develop this renunciation or bodhichitta motive. If we’re able to develop it just like that, unlabored (rtsol-med) – just automatically we have it as our central motivation all the time – then it’s the actual. And then we build up positive force and gain this deep awareness, then it’s the actual enlightenment-building networks. That’s when we’ve actually started what’s known as the five pathway minds (lam-lnga), the five paths leading to enlightenment – no need to go into the detail of that.

Before that, when we actually have to work at it (rtsol-bcas, labored) – go through a line of reasoning to develop renunciation or go through a line of reasoning to develop bodhichitta, like everybody’s been my mother, they’ve been so kind, etc. – when we have to work up to it, then that’s the facsimile. The networks that build up from that are known as the facsimile ones. It’s similar to the actual ones, but it’s not the actual ones yet. And of course there’s a difference of opinion as to whether what really is the Buddha-nature – these factors – whether it is only the actual one, or both the facsimile and actual one. And you have both opinions. Different Buddhist textbooks and authors assert one position or the other. But it doesn’t really matter which position we hold.

[See: The Two Enlightenment-Building Networks (The Two Collections).]

What’s the important thing that we learn from this? The important thing is the motivation. To have these pure-building networks, you don’t have to have – let’s say for the deep awareness one – you do not need to have perfect absorbed concentration (ting-nge-’dzin, Skt. samadhi), you don’t have to have nonconceptual cognition (rtog-med shes-pa) of voidness, or anything like that. We can start building these things up much, much earlier at our own level. What we need though is renunciation and bodhichitta for our motivation.

“I am determined to get rid of my uncontrollably recurring rebirth.” That’s renunciation. “How horrible it is that, no matter how much progress I make in each lifetime, that I’m going to be reborn and I’m going to have to go to school again, and I’m going to have to learn all the languages again. Or I’m going to have to grow up and find a way to finance my studies, and so on. I mean, what a horrible drag that is. No matter how much progress I’ve made, if I’m going to have a precious human rebirth again, it’s going to be another twenty or thirty years before I can really make more progress again, because I have to relearn all this stuff. Horrible. Really boring. So I have to get rid of the confusion, and the disturbing emotions, and the karma, and all of this stuff that’s causing this – this uncontrollably recurring rebirth. I have to get a pure body of a liberated being.” That’s renunciation, determination to be free. We’re renouncing samsaric rebirth and its causes.

And bodhichitta: “I have so much love and compassion for everybody because I see how interconnected we are, and how dependent we are, and how kind everybody is in enabling me to sit on a chair, to eat something. To do anything comes from the work of others. I have to achieve this state of a Buddha in order to be able to know how best to help them.” That’s bodhichitta. And even if it’s something that we have to work ourselves up to, it doesn’t come naturally, it’s artificial – these motivations – it doesn’t matter. That’s how you start.

These [the two networks] are factors that we haven’t had with no beginning. These [renunciation and bodhichitta] are things that we have to develop for the first time and then evolve them more and more. But with the stimulation, the inspiration from the Buddhas and the teachers, they can grow. But when we speak of positive force, the network of positive force, the so-called collection of merit, that we’ve had from no beginning because we’ve undoubtedly done some sort of constructive things with no beginning, but it would be samsara-building.

This network of positive force, pure one, this is going to be what’s called the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu, Skt. upadanahetu) for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. It’s the cause from which we obtain the result. It’s called an obtaining cause. And when we attain the result, it no longer exists. Like a seed is the obtaining cause for the plant. When you have the plant, you no longer have the seed, but the plant comes from the seed. It’s from the seed that you obtain the plant. But it requires this network of deep awareness as what’s called the simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen, Skt. sahakaripratyaya). In other words, you need it together with this obtaining cause for the result to come about.

So, think about it. This positive force that I’m building up from doing constructive things and helping others, and so on, that’s going to result in having a whole network of bodies with which I can really help others in the fullest way. And, the other way around, that network of deep awareness is the obtaining cause for the omniscient mind of a Buddha – the deep awareness Dharmakaya of a Buddha – that knows everything, understands everything, equal love for everybody, etc. And the pure network of positive force is going to be the simultaneously acting cause for the mind of a Buddha, the deep awareness Dharmakaya. So it’s very simple. From a positive force you obtain the physical bodies of a Buddha to help others, but it has to be helped by the deep awareness. And from the deep awareness you get the mind of a Buddha, but it has to be helped by the positive force. The technical term is the simultaneously acting condition. It acts together to bring about the cause simultaneously with the obtaining cause.

This is basically the sutra level of Buddha-nature. We can also speak of a basis level of these factors, which would be these factors on the samsara-building side. So, then, it’s unpurified; it’s not yet purified away from the various stains that are there: stains of the disturbing emotions, etc. And there’s the pathway level, when it’s partially purified, partially unpurified – when we’ve actually achieved some true stopping of some of these stains. And a resultant level, when it’s fully purified. What does that indicate to us? That indicates that the process of getting these traits to evolve, to grow, has two sides to it. One side is building up more and more and more, by more and more meditation, more and more positive actions, constructive actions, with the proper motivation. And the other side is purifying ourselves. Purifying away these – what’s called obscurations: so the unawareness, the confusion, the disturbing emotions, etc. So the process is one of both building up and purifying.

So what have we learned so far? What we’ve learned is that if we want to achieve the state of a Buddha, then we have the factors that will allow that to happen: We have some positive force. We have some understanding. And our mind doesn’t exist in some crazy impossible way. And if I’m receptive and open enough, I can be inspired to go on the spiritual path, and inspired to continue it all the way to the end, by the Buddhas and the fully qualified gurus – not charlatans, but fully qualified gurus. And the method that I need to follow is one of building up more and more positive force and deep awareness by listening to the teachings, thinking about them, meditating on it, being absorbed on them, helping others, developing more and more patience, being more generous, etc. And, at the same time, doing purification practices to purify away, to get rid of the confusion and what’s known as these stains: the confusion and the disturbing emotions. And on the basis of that we can become a Buddha.

The Conventional and Deepest Nature of Mind

When we look in tantra, we have a whole different dimension which is added on top of this. It’s not alternative; it’s on top of this – in addition. Already in sutra we have the statement that the nature of the mind is clear light. In tantra this can be understood – well, even in sutra – but it can be understood in two ways: Clear light as an object – so that’s referring to voidness: the nature of the mind is devoid of existing in impossible ways. Or the nature of the mind is clear light in the sense of a type of awareness. Remember we spoke in terms of mental activity. Mental activity is the arising of a mental hologram and some sort of engagement in it. Knowing anything, seeing anything, feeling anything is – together – the same one process, the arising of a mental hologram, and that is what it means to see or to know something. I mean, there’s some cognitive engagement with it. It’s not just the arising of an image on a mirror. There’s some knowing there.

Both of these, what we call the conventional nature of the mind – this arising of holograms and some sort of awareness, some engagement – the conventional nature of the mind and the deepest nature of the mind (that’s voidness), these naturally abide. They go on forever. No beginning. And we can speak about this in the sutra level – these two aspects – just in terms of our gross, ordinary level of mind or, in the highest class of tantra, we can speak about it with the subtlest level of mind. We’ll speak about these levels of mind tomorrow.

We all have this. We have the ability to know things. The ability to make holograms. It doesn’t exist in some crazy way. And then we can look more closely, differentiate more, in terms of this pair, particularly in terms of the conventional side of it. So we have a mental aspect of different ways in which we know things. There is a speech aspect to it. So there’s an energy that’s associated with this, and that energy goes out and communicates. And there’s a body aspect to it: it makes appearances, it appears in different forms, whether we’re talking about the hologram or we’re talking about our bodies, the bodies that are the basis for this mental activity. And it has enlightening influence. It can influence various things. It’s a type of activity, what it does.

Question: We’re speaking about Buddha’s mind?

Alex: We’re talking about any mind. The nature of this conventional mind.

And it has good qualities, like compassion, etc. So these five aspects. Each of these five aspects can have, as I just said, basis level, when it’s unpurified. Pathway level, when it’s partially purified, partially unpurified. And a resultant level, when it’s purified (as a Buddha) fully. So even on our samsaric level, the fact that we have ability to know things, ability to communicate, ability to appear in different forms, ability to act to influence others, and we have certain good qualities – because of that, we can have all of that. And because the mind is basically, by nature, pure of all the obscurations, we can have the resultant level of all of this as a Buddha.

And there are even more factors that are involved, because each of these five can be divided into five. We have the five Buddha-families. You might have heard of that in terms of the five dhyani Buddhas. It’s the same term. It’s family traits. Talking about Buddha-nature. So for the mental activity, and communicating, and appearing, and acting, and qualities – each of them can be in five different types of modes. Five different styles, if you want to say. And we have these on a basis level, path level, resultant level.

If we speak in terms of the mental activity, the five types of what’s called deep awareness: One is like a mirror, just taking in information (me-long lta-bu’i ye-shes). One is equalizing, so it’s putting information together into patterns in order to make sense of it (mnyam-nyid ye-shes). One is individualizing, so even within patterns it can distinguish individual things (sor-rtog ye-shes). One is accomplishing awareness (bya-grub ye-shes), so what you do with it, how you would relate to it – like food, you would put it in your mouth in order to eat it. And what’s called a sphere of reality (or dharmadhatu) deep awareness (chos-dbyings ye-shes), which is basically what things are. We know what things are. You might not have a name for it, but you know this is food, or whatever. A worm knows this is food, that you would eat it. What it is and how it exists on a deeper level. And there are parallel five modes for these other dimensions: for how you communicate, how you appear, how you act, what type of qualities you have.

So, if we look at this presentation in tantra, we find that we actually have a tremendous amount of factors that will allow us to become a Buddha, in addition to these networks that we were talking about from sutra level. Our mental activity works in such a way that it can do everything that a Buddha does. Our body can appear in all sorts of forms, different styles, to suit others. It can communicate in rough ways, smooth ways, direct ways, etc. These styles. We can act in strong ways, gentle ways. It has qualities which are very strong, qualities which are very gentle, etc., etc. So, as we saw from sutra, that what we need to do is to build these up, develop them more and more, and purify away the obscurations, the obstacles, because the abiding factor of the mind is naturally pure of impossible ways of existing and naturally pure of these other types of fleeting stains (glo-bur-gyi dri-ma), they’re called – the disturbing emotions. It’s not part of the essential nature of the mind. There’s a whole big discussion of how we would understand that.

So because of that basic purity and the fact of just what mental activity is, what it does – the arising of holograms and the knowing and engaging – and no solid “me” separate from it making it happen or watching it. And we all have all these various features. Some of them with no beginning. Some of them we can develop new. Like bodhichitta, you can develop for the first time. Then as long as we have proper motivation, even if it’s labored, and even if we don’t have perfect concentration, and even if everything we do is on a conceptual level – nevertheless, with the inspiration of a teacher and the Buddhas, these factors can be stimulated to grow. And they grow by means of our practicing over and over again, building up more and more, and doing other practices to purify the obstacles.

Now we’ve heard about it – but very quickly, of course. So you listen to it again and again, and you really think about it and understand it. And the more you sort of meditate on it, once you’re convinced of it, to really let it sink in, then we can be fully convinced that I can achieve enlightenment and everybody can achieve enlightenment. We know what we’re aiming for. We know why we’re aiming for it. We’re convinced that it’s possible to attain. We’re convinced that the method is going to bring us there. We understand how the method will work. And then it’s just a matter of doing it, overcoming obstacles – like laziness, indecisiveness, etc. And, as I said, what is really very, very important here is the fact that these factors can be stimulated to grow by the enlightening influence of the Buddhas and the fully qualified teachers. So, very important to open ourselves up to that, but on the basis of really trusting them, being confident in their qualities, because there are a lot of charlatans around, so you have to be careful.

So that’s our first session about Buddha-nature and the nature of the mind itself. We’ll continue in the next days to discuss these factors from various other points of view. But again we need to emphasize that the main thing that we’re – the purpose of all of this is to gain conviction that I can actually achieve the goal. If you don’t have any conviction that you can achieve it, why are you following a spiritual practice? If you don’t know where your spiritual practice is heading for, what your goal is; if you’re not confident that you can achieve it; if you don’t really understand how the method is going to bring you there, so you don’t have confidence in the method – it’s very hard to make any progress. So in Buddhism we certainly are not suggesting that people just have blind faith in the practices, in the teachings, because on the basis of blind faith you can be led very much astray. You can have blind faith in some dictator. But in Buddhism we are always emphasizing understanding, being convinced logically that what is valid, what is correct. So that’s another aspect that we’ll speak about: valid cognition.

Questions and Answers

What questions might you have?

Question: Who, then, is aware of all these mental holograms? Are these mental holograms aware of themselves?

Alex: We are aware of them. But that “me” that’s aware of them is not something which is separate from the hologram. It’s part of the whole picture. There’s no “me” separate from it. That doesn’t mean that there’s no “me.” Not very easy to understand.

The “me” can be – and what’s said is that the “me” can be labeled onto this mental activity, onto the hologram and the knowing. We can impute, we can infer that that’s a “me.” It’s a subjective, individual aspect of it. The problem is that we have confusion about how that “me” exists and we think that it’s some entity separate from this whole thing, sitting somewhere in our head, at a desk, and information comes in on the screen from our eyes, and on the sound system from the ears, and we are in control, and we press the buttons that cause the mouth to say something or the body to move. That is impossible. That’s not the way we exist. The “me” is void, devoid of existing that way.

Those are some of the most profound points in Buddhism, so obviously that requires a great deal of contemplation and meditation to understand it. But it can be understood because the mind is capable of understanding things. That’s the whole point of Buddha-nature. We are capable of understanding things; that’s the sphere of reality type of deep awareness. We are capable of knowing what things are and how they exist. And what to do with things. And we can see patterns, and we can see individual things. And we can take in information. We can communicate. We can act. We can appear in different ways, do different things. So we have all the working materials. And we have basic good qualities, like basic compassion to take care, whether taking care of somebody else or taking care of us. That’s the survival extinct, the instinct of the preservation of the species. Everybody has that.

These things that we’re talking about here in Buddhism, we might give them Buddhist names – like compassion, and so on – but when you think about it, it does correspond to what we would say in science in terms of, as I say, the survival instinct. So that is to take care of ourselves. The instinct to preserve the species, to take care of the young, that’s compassion to others, to take care of others. So we call that, in Buddhism, compassion. But of course it can be stained with selfishness – so the unpurified level – or it could be pure.

Anything else?

Question: I have maybe two questions, but it is about one thing. My first question is, is it possible to do this at the same time – or by the same action – is it possible to create positive merit and removing the obstacles and negative karma? This is the first question.

Alex: The first question is: can we build up these evolving networks (positive force, specifically) and at the same time, in the same action, purify them?

Now, there are two levels of purification. So there are two levels of purification: There’s the actual purification, which is attaining true stoppings of the various obscurations, and that is actually achieved in nonconceptual total absorption on voidness. So that is part of this network of deep awareness. Positive force is built up during the subsequent attainment period, when you’re viewing everything like an illusion. So either we’re totally absorbed nonconceptually on voidness, and that’s going to do the actual real purification, or subsequent to that, when you’re not totally absorbed on voidness – when you’re either not meditating, or meditating on something else – you can build up positive force. You can’t do the two simultaneously, according to Gelugpa. But you can have (I can’t think of the proper word) temporary [provisional] purifications. Not full purifications, but just sort of partial purification. Like doing Vajrasattva meditation or something like that: with regret, and promise not to repeat it, and reaffirm bodhichitta, and refuge, etc. If you’re doing that type of purification – which doesn’t actually achieve the true stopping; it just gives you a temporary cleansing, as it were – then you can build up that positive force from that meditation and the deep awareness at the same time.

Question: And another question is maybe connected. How can we know how it works? How the factors, like inspiration from Buddhas, affect our factors that can evolve. And how they could actually evolve from the state they are now to the state where they could cause liberation and enlightenment.

Alex: And then the second question was: how is it that the enlightening influence of a Buddha (or through the medium of a qualified teacher) can actually influence these factors to grow, the evolving factors to grow?

It’s like a shot of energy, or like sunlight for giving the energy for a plant to grow. It adds energy into the system. You might not find it described that way in the texts, but it seems to me that that is how it would work. It’s usually just not described.

Question: How we can know? Or what makes all these evolving factors evolve? Is it our attempt, or it is just some energy that evolves? So what is it that actually evolves in all the factors of our activity?

Alex: What is it that actually makes the evolving factors grow? Well, as I said, for them to evolve as a pure form, not just to create more samsara, it has to have the proper motivation. And actually doing constructive things – either physically, verbally, or mentally – for the positive force. And actually listening, thinking, and meditating on these various four noble truths, etc. for the deep awareness. Together with the guidance of inspiration of the teacher. Can you do it without a teacher? All the texts would say no, except in the case of pratyekabuddhas – those who are evolving by themselves in some dark age where there are no teachings available – and they’re relying on the instincts from past lives of having been inspired by the teachers and the Buddhas. Can we be pratyekabuddhas now and not rely on teachers, or books, or anything, and just sort of achieve all of this on the basis of instincts? It would be very, very, very, very rare. Usually it’s mixed with a tremendous amount of confusion and self-delusion. So: teacher, practice, motivation. You need all of these.

Okay. So let’s end here.

The dedication: Think whatever positive force has come from this and whatever understanding has come from this – the two networks – may they grow stronger and stronger and act as causes to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all: for everybody to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.