Developing the Mind Based on Buddha-Nature
Session Five: The Seven Ways of Knowing
Okay. Up to our fifth session about Buddha-nature.
We were speaking, this morning, about conceptual and nonconceptual cognition in order to gain some background for being able to understand how we develop our Buddha-nature factors. As we saw we need to develop further and further this network of deep awareness, the so-called collection of wisdom. And it’s not enough to just continue to meditate, meditate, meditate because we need to build up at the same time, and strengthen, this network of positive force, the so-called collection of merit. And that’s done by actually working to help others, and developing and meditating more and more on love and compassion, and so on.
And so when we’re having difficulty understanding something, it’s very, very important and very helpful to then not just push and push and push, but to try to involve ourselves in more action of helping others, working more on love and compassion side. You’ll find from experience that if you do that, build up a little bit more positive force, that it often helps to cut through the obstacle that we’re having for understanding something. And building up positive force can also include doing things like Manjushri mantra with the proper motivation. And so we always need to follow a two-fold approach. You always hear this with the common expression “compassion and wisdom.” They need to be combined. And that’s very, very true. So we saw to build up this network of deep awareness, we need to have deeper and deeper understanding or cognition of four noble truths, in general, and voidness, more specifically. And that brings us to the topic of the seven ways of knowing.
We have discussed, a bit, the conventional nature of mental activity. We’ve mentioned that quite a few times. And we have the process described from two different angles. One is giving rise to mental holograms, often just called appearances. And another way of describing it is that is what the cognitive engagement is with an object, without a separate “me” observing or controlling this.
Now the mental hologram that arises could either be accurate or inaccurate. And our way of engaging with it can be either accurately or not. And there can be different degrees of certainty about it. There’s a presentation of these ways of knowing in the various Indian Buddhist tenet systems or schools of philosophy. And when this topic is studied among the Tibetans, it’s studied in terms of the Sautrantika system. That’s one system. And then it can be later refined to what the Prasangika Madhyamaka system says about it. And so, in the Sautrantika system, there is another variable besides accuracy and certainty, which is the variable of being fresh—generated freshly in each moment—or it can be stale, like stale bread, old bread.
So we have different ways of knowing which are going to be differentiated according to these variables: accuracy, decisiveness, freshness. And a fourth one, in some cases, which is whether or not it depends on a line of reasoning. So let’s go through these because it’s actually quite important to be able to recognize, to analyze, when we are perceiving something: is it accurate, is there certainty, we’re not certain about it, is it valid, etc.
Now we have different categories—pardon the word because that was involved with conceptual thought, but it is a conceptual scheme—we have different categories of how we classify these ways of knowing. So I should warn you beforehand that these logical categories are going to overlap, and so a lot of the study of this is to try to understand which categories these various ways of knowing fall into. But there’s usefulness to this.
We shouldn’t think this is just some dry academic exercise. The point is we want to gain this nonconceptual cognition of voidness and deepen it, get it more and more ingrained, so that it eliminates forever our unawareness of the reality of how things exist—of voidness—so that we overcome suffering and, on the deepest level, overcome the causes that perpetuate our samsaric rebirth. On an even deeper level, to overcome the obscurations that are making us—the mental activity—produce these appearances that don’t accord with how things exist: the appearances of things just existing independently, encapsulated in plastic, by themselves. So we need to be able to evaluate our understanding of voidness—our understanding of anything—to know is this valid, is it not valid? Is it accurate, is it not accurate? How certain am I of it? Or uncertain? Is it fresh or stale? So it’s very useful for being able to evaluate what is our level of understanding. Otherwise, it’s very hard to have confidence in our practice because, in fact, we may be sitting there with an understanding which is really not correct, or really vague, or we’re really not certain about.
And what this is describing is how this mental activity is engaging with an object and how is it making the appearance. So let’s go through these seven briefly, just to give us an idea, because, in fact, in the monasteries they study this for one or two years, depending on the monastery. So this is difficult to condense in a half hour. But so many of the great Indian Buddhist masters have said, no matter what our activity might be, always examine the state of your mind. Meaning not only the motivation, not only are there disturbing emotions, and so on, but also in terms of how valid is it—what you’re perceiving, what you’re understanding. Always examine: Am I confused? Am I filled with all sorts of crazy ideas? Or am I actually viewing things and acting in a way which is accurate and proper, correct? So although the scheme is perhaps, when we learn it, is conceptual and we’ll think in terms of these categories, it’s useful, it’s helpful.
So, first of all, we have what’s known as bare cognition (mngon-sum, Skt. pratyaksha). And “bare” here—this is the Sautrantika way of describing it—“bare” means without the filter of categories. So, nonconceptual. Remember I told you the way that it’s the filter is described in the original languages is like a veil, a piece of cloth over the eyes. So this is bare: it’s taken off, not there. So we have four kinds:
(1) Sensory cognition. That’s relying on the sensors, these tiny little cells, photosensitive cells of the eyes, or sound sensitive of the ears, etc. And that occurs normally just for a tiny nanosecond, because it will very quickly go to a tiny nanosecond of mental bare cognition. That’s not so unreasonable if you think in terms of even the Western description: that first there’s some level that’s occurring based on the eyes, and then based on the brain. So it’s a very fast sequence, isn’t it?
(2) And, immediately after that, it’s going to be followed by some conceptual cognition in which we somehow understand what we’re perceiving in terms of categories. It’s a very fast sequence [first a moment of bare nonconceptual sensory cognition, then a moment of bare nonconceptual mental cognition, and then conceptual cognition]. It’s very interesting if you try to sit and analyze and observe, as we look around the room and we see various people, bodies, clothing, floor, mat, wall, etc.—can you differentiate the steps between seeing it and we would describe it as seeing it and knowing what it is? I don’t have to say “human being” in my head in order to see you as a human being. And I don’t have to go through: “Well, is it a dog? Is it a cat? No, it’s a human being.” I don’t have to go through that whole process, do I, to figure out what it is that I’m seeing. And I don’t think in terms of what is the genome of a human being—or what other defining characteristics there will be of a human being—in order to, almost instantly as I see you, I see you as a human being, with understanding that this is a human being.
So let’s take a moment to just look around the room and see, can we in fact recognize these steps of the bare, nonconceptual sense cognition—that moment where the bare mental cognition, and then the conceptual. Or is it happening so quickly that we couldn’t possibly distinguish each of these nanoseconds? Just take a moment to observe.
Okay. So, pretty difficult to distinguish, isn’t it? We look over there and I see a wall. I mean, I know that’s a wall. Of course there are some situations in which there’s a certain way of knowing, which is that I’m going to have to get a better look in order to know what it is. If I take my glasses off and look at my watch to try to see what time it is, I know very well that I’m going to have to put on my glasses in order to really see what time it is, but I also know that what I’m seeing is a blur.
So, anyway, this bare mental cognition also occurs—also for just a nanosecond—in our dreams when for that first instant we mentally see an image, a dream image, or mentally hear a dream sound. But we usually know what that is—what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing, so-called seeing and hearing in our mind.
(3) Then we have a third kind, which is just mentioned in this particular Sautrantika system and a few other systems, but not in the Prasangika system—found in many other systems, but not in the Prasangika system. Mind you, we’re talking about the Gelugpa version of all of this. This is called reflexive awareness (rang-rig). It’s one little aspect of the mental activity which is focused, sort of reflexively, back on the primary consciousness and mental factors in that cognition.
Question: In the past?
Alex: At the same moment, simultaneously.
And it is responsible for how we can remember something, according to this system. In Prasangika, they don’t accept this; there are a lot of logical inconsistencies in terms of asserting this, and they describe a different mechanism for how you remember something. It’s quite a difficult topic, to know: how do I know that I’m knowing anything? And how do I remember it? How do I know that I saw you yesterday? So, as you can see, if you think about it, how you would explain that is not so simple. So there are different ways of explaining it.
(4) Then there’s something called yogic bare cognition. And this is arising on the power of combined shamatha and vipashyana. So we’re talking about the perfected state of these two. Full state.
Shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind able to stay focused on an object, whatever it is, for four hours with absolutely no mental dullness, absolutely no mental wandering or flightiness of mind, effortlessly, accompanied by an exhilarating sense of physical and mental fitness. There’s a sense of fitness, of being able to feel fit, like an athlete is fit. So we have this exhilarating feeling that the mind is fit, to be able to stay focused on anything for as long as we want. It’s not very easy to attain at all, but our mental activity is perfectly capable of that.
And vipashyana means an exceptionally perceptive state of mind which is—in addition to perfect shamatha, it has a second sense of fitness. It is the exhilarating fitness, physical and mental, that the mental activity is able to understand, to deeply perceive and understand anything.
So we mentioned before that there are methods to achieve both of these, and combine them, that we find in many Indian traditions; that’s not exclusively Buddhist. What would make it Buddhist is if we’re focusing it on voidness and we’re doing it with a motivation of renunciation and bodhichitta.
Question: Vipashyana is also in other Indian traditions?
Alex: Vipashyana is found in other Indian traditions.
So, here, yogic bare cognition, there’s three types of objects that it can be focused on which you wouldn’t find in the non-Buddhist traditions.
Now we get into some technical terms, which I suppose I have to explain a little bit. When we talk about voidness, that’s an absence of impossible ways of existing. So that can also be described with a term that’s sometimes called “selflessness,” or “identitylessness” (bdag-med), the Indian term anatma. Atman (bdag) is like a soul, and this is the absence of some impossible “soul.” So we can talk about a soul of a person, we can talk about a soul of just things. A very figurative way of speaking, but basically it’s just another way of talking about voidness, so let’s not complicate it with the actual term.
So there’s impossible ways in which persons (gang-zag, Skt. pudgala) exist, and impossible ways in which everything exists (including persons). “Person” refers to all limited beings (sentient beings). An animal is a person, by this way of using the word. And there are different impossible ways that we imagine this person exists; there are grosser levels and more subtle levels. Without going into what they are, one object that this bare yogic perception would focus on is that absence of a grosser impossible way of existing; and the second one would be a more subtle impossible way of existing. Because, as we go into the other Indian Buddhist philosophical systems, they’re going to define something even more subtle than what was in the other systems. It’s basically focused on the absence of various levels of something impossible. And in the more sophisticated Indian Buddhist systems, it’s not only the different levels of voidness of persons, but also of all things.
So the first two of these three are these two levels—gross and subtle—of impossible ways of existing that don’t refer to anything. Or, to make it more accurate, the voidness; they’re the absence of a real referent of any of these two levels—gross and subtle—of impossible ways of existing. And the third thing that it can be focused on is what’s called subtle impermanence. Gross impermanence would be: the computer breaks; it breaks, so then it’s impermanent. Subtle impermanence is that from its moment of production, every moment it’s getting closer and closer to its final end. And the actual reason why it broke was because it was made in the first place. If it was made, it’s going to definitely break at some point. So, if we understand this, then we understand that the cause of our death is our birth. If we weren’t born, we wouldn’t die, would we? So whatever sickness, or old age, or whatever—that’s just the circumstance. The actual cause is the birth. So, moment to moment, the subtle impermanence is getting closer to its end.
So yogic bare cognition is focused on one of these three. And it is (in this system) nonconceptual. And it’s fresh in each moment. But it can be followed by a sequence (according to this system) of what’s called subsequent cognition (rjes-shes). So that moment of bare sense cognition, for instance, could be followed by a sequence of subsequent sense cognition before we get our moment of mental bare cognition. So subsequent cognition is not fresh, which means it doesn’t have as much force—it’s like stale bread—but, nevertheless, it can be accurate.
In the Prasangika system, they don’t accept that there is such a thing as subsequent cognition because, if you analyze it, every moment is actually fresh. But, in any case, with this formulation of subsequent cognition, it makes an emphasis—or it helps us to check—to see how fresh my understanding or my perception of something is. If it has gotten stale. I mean, this happens all the time when you do, for instance, a sadhana—one of these tantric rituals. You might generate a motivation to start with, but it starts to get very stale very quickly because it’s not fresh in your mind. And so it becomes weak, although it might still be there. Described from another point of view, what has entered into that mental activity is what’s called subtle mental dullness that’s making it not fresh. That subtle mental dullness is considered the biggest obstacle to gaining single-minded absorbed concentration because you don’t recognize it and you’re just focusing. There is no mental wandering, but your mind isn’t fresh; it’s stale, slightly dull.
And then there is inferential cognition (rjes-dpag, Skt. anumana). This is a way of knowing something that relies on some sort of line of reasoning. It relies on something that is similar to a line of reasoning. It can be either a line of reasoning or something similar to it. There’s a few ways of understanding it. But there are three kinds. If we look at the three kinds, then I think we can understand what we’re talking about here.
One is based on the force of an actual line of reasoning. So, logic. We see smoke coming out of the windows of a house on the other side of the valley. There’s a line of reasoning: where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Over there, there’s smoke; therefore over there, there must be fire. So how do we know that there’s a fire over there? It’s inference, inferential cognition, based on a line of reasoning. We use this all the time. Think about it. If you have a certain physical sensation in your stomach, how do you know that eating is going to make it go away? When there is this physical sensation, there is hunger. When there is hunger, to get rid of the hunger, you eat. I have this physical sensation; therefore, if I want to get rid of it, I have to eat. It’s a line of reasoning. That’s inference. We don’t have to be a great intellectual logician to figure out when we have this physical sensation that we need to eat something—that we’re hungry.
The second kind is based on renown. Renown is what is well known, what is well known by convention. That’s how we understand language. You hear a sound; and if it’s this sound, it means this. And so, therefore, I’m hearing the sound, therefore it means this. It’s a type of line of reasoning, isn’t it? Otherwise, how in the world do you get any understanding from just a sound of language? It’s just sound.
And then the third kind is based on conviction. This is by relying on a valid source of information for knowing something that is obscure to you, that you couldn’t possibly know obviously. For example, when is my birthday? When was I born? How could you possibly know that yourself? You have to rely on a valid source of information. My mother was there. She knows when my birthday was, when I was born. Therefore, if my mother tells me my birthday was on such-and-such a day, it is correct. That’s inference. So we have this inferential understanding.
And these three ways of knowing—bare (which is nonconceptual) cognition, and subsequent cognition, subsequent cognition and inferential understanding—they are valid ways of knowing. I should mention that inferential understanding is always conceptual because it’s always through these categories of lines of reasoning. And subsequent cognition of bare cognition—subsequent bare cognition—is nonconceptual. And subsequent inferential cognition is conceptual. We’re just talking about a sequence of moments of knowing something inferentially or knowing something nonconceptually. I don’t know if I said that correctly, so maybe I have to correct what I said. The bare cognition and the inferential cognition—those nanoseconds—those are valid ways of knowing.
Question: Inferential cognition is also for a nanosecond?
Alex: Inferential cognition is also for a nanosecond. Because the second moment of it, you’re going to have subsequent inferential cognition. Those first two moments are valid ways of knowing. The first moment of each of these two—bare cognition, inferential understanding—that is valid. “Valid” (tshad-ma, Skt. pramana) is defined in this system as fresh and nonfallacious. In other words, correct, not incorrect. Accurate. Subsequent cognition is not a valid way of knowing because it’s not fresh, even though it’s accurate. So, ultimately, what we want is to have valid ways of knowing, fresh in each moment—that is, accurate. However, all three of these—the bare cognition, inferential cognition, and subsequent cognition of both—they’re all decisive (nges-pa). Right? There’s no doubt. Decisive: this is what it is, not anything else; it’s this.
So we have this term “apprehension” (rtogs-pa). Apprehension (which is a funny term, but I can’t think of any better way of translating it) is the same word that is translated as understanding. So maybe for our purposes we can use the word “understanding.” I think it’s a little bit easier to work with. So with bare cognition, with inferential cognition, and the subsequent forms of both of them, we understand the object. It’s an understanding. It’s correct understanding. But the subsequent cognition is not valid, because it’s not fresh.
Now this requires a lot of analysis, a lot of thought. What does it mean to understand something? That’s the real question, isn’t it? That’s hard to say, isn’t it? So, here, the way that it’s being defined is that it is a cognition which is accurate and decisive. Then you’ve understood something. That’s why a Buddha can nonconceptually understand voidness without having to bring in a category to understand it. How do I know that I’ve understood something? That’s a very difficult question, isn’t it? And have I understood it correctly? And am I sure about it? So it has to be correct and we have to be sure about it. Because we have something called presumption (yid-dpyod)—another way of knowing something—in which I presume something is true, but I don’t really know why. There’s no decisiveness. I mean, there are various forms of it, I should say. Basically it’s a guess. So we could either guess correctly or incorrectly; but when we guess something here, either we’ve guessed correctly, but it’s not decisive.
So we’ve used a line of reasoning (this is always conceptual): all phenomena that arise dependent on causes and conditions are nonstatic, are impermanent. So I see, well, this computer was made from causes and circumstances, so it is going to break, inevitably. So it’s correct, but I’m not really convinced of that because I really don’t understand this reasoning. So this is presumption. It’s the correct guess. There’s no certainty. We haven’t really understood it. But it could be presumption based on no reason: It’s going to break just for no reason, no reason at all. Just because that happened. Bad luck. Or we could think that it breaks for some contradictory reason: With our example of a computer, that would be—I can’t think of an example, what a contradictory reason would be here. The food got cooked. Why did the food get cooked? Because I put it in the refrigerator. That’s a contradictory reason. Put the food on the stove, put the food in heat, it gets cooked. Put it in cold, it doesn’t. So to think that it got cooked because I put it in cold is a contradictory reason; it’s clearly stupid. Or we can come to a conclusion based on an irrelevant reason: The computer broke because I bought it at a certain store. Or the computer broke because I got a black one rather than a silver one. All these are presumption. So it’s important to have certainty. This certainty factor is very essential.
So we can have what’s called nondetermining cognition (snang-la ma-nges-pa), which is a similar type of phenomenon as presumption but it’s in terms of nonconceptual cognition. Presumption is conceptual, with lines of reasoning.
When we are looking at something, first you have bare sensory cognition. Then you’re going to have some subsequent bare sensory cognition. Then a little moment of bare mental cognition of it—like I’m looking at this person in front of me. And then we would have conceptual cognition, which is also known as seemingly bare cognition—it seems to be like that, but it’s not really. Then that last moment, right before I look away at somebody else, that’s nondetermining. In other words, it’s no longer decisive. My attention isn’t there anymore, basically. The last moment in the sequence before I turn my head to stop looking at you and look at somebody else.
Then we have indecisive wavering (the-tshoms). Is it like this, or is it like that? So there’s really no certainty here. Even less certainty, because we can’t decide. “I think it’s like this, but maybe it’s a different way.” So we can either tend more toward the correct answer, more toward the incorrect answer, or in-between. Is sound permanent? Is it impermanent? It could be involved with some inferential understanding: Does this prove it? Does it not prove it? Could be conceptual, this indecisive wavering. Sound is impermanent because of this or because of that? I’m not sure which one, what the reason is. So we’re wavering. Or it could be in terms of our sensory cognition. I see somebody in the distance and I’m not sure who it is. Is it Zhenya, is it Boris? We’re wavering back and forth. Not decisive. Who is it?
And then we have distorted cognition (log-shes). “Distorted” is deceived with respect to what exists. If it’s distorted, it is deceived (or wrong) in terms of what exists. It’s not just deceived in terms of the appearance, alright? Something that’s deceptive in terms of an appearance would be like in conceptual cognition. Conceptual cognition is deceptive about the appearance: I see this individual, and it’s deceptive because it appears like the category “dog.” Right? Distorted cognition is just completely wrong. I mean, it could be nonconceptual, like seeing a blur because of some defect in my eyes. It doesn’t correspond to what exists; there isn’t a blur sitting out in front of me. Or it can be distorted in terms of some inferential type of thing, something more abstract. Like thinking that—in English we say, for children, the moon is made out of green cheese. To think that and to believe that, that’s completely distorted; that doesn’t correspond to any reality.
Okay. So let’s wind this up. What’s the point of all of this, besides having to introduce you to what these seven are? What are the stages of our meditation on voidness? First we start off with a distorted cognition. We think that things actually exist the way they appear. Right? I think that everything exists just sort of isolated the way it is. You look to me like a horrible person. You look to me like the most wonderful person in the universe. And I believe that you exist that way. That’s distorted. Nobody exists like that. So I think that things exist just establishing themselves. Just there—there it is.
Give you a good example. You look at my website on the computer and it seems as though there it is, just there, establishing itself, making itself. Finished. There it is. Just, as it were, encapsulated in plastic on the screen. Totally unaware—and it doesn’t even appear this way—that this arose dependent on tens of thousands of hours of work by over eighty people over a period of nine years. It doesn’t appear like that at all. It appears as though: Bam! There it is! Instantly. And then, like that, then we criticize, “Oh, it’s not like this. And there’s this little mistake…” and so on. We don’t really consider all the various things that it depended on in order to be like that. And of course there might be little mistakes. So that’s an impossible way of existing. Nothing just instantly is there in this finished form, establishing itself there and not being established from all the causes and conditions and the people who worked on it, etc. Just by itself it’s come.
If you think about it, everything appears in this deceptive way to us. This building—who ever thinks of how many people were involved in building this building, and in getting the materials that the building is made of, and so on? You just use the building. You just see it as: Pop! There it is, by itself. You see a person, and we think: Pop! There they are. Like that. We never think of, well, they were a baby, and then grew up, and then all the influences from their family and their education, and so on. Never think of that. It doesn’t appear like that. They just appear exactly what comes in front of our eyes, isolated, by itself, just establishing itself independently of anything else, its history.
So now we can be quite convinced of that, that it exists just the way that it appears to me. That’s distorted: distorted cognition. Then, the next step, we have indecisive wavering: “Maybe it’s not like that.” And that goes from, well, probably it’s only—we just have a little bit of doubt here, a little bit indecisive, but we still think more on the side of it just is establishing itself. And slowly—we still can’t decide, back and forth—but slowly we’re heading toward: “Well, maybe it’s not like that.” So we’re heading more toward the correct decision; it’s the correct answer.
So then we hear lines of reasoning—we learn lines of reasoning—logical reasons why it’s impossible, that’s an impossible way of existing: that it just pops up by itself, by its own power, finished product, just like that. So we hear a line of reasoning that this is impossible for this and that reason. But I don’t really understand the reason, but I will presume that it’s true. It seems reasonable. I don’t understand it. I’m not completely convinced. Or maybe I am convinced, but I really don’t understand it. So I’m just presuming it to be true.
But then we can have inferential cognition of it, then relying on the line of reasoning, and I understand it. So I have accuracy and decisiveness, but only one moment of that is fresh, and the rest of it I’m slightly dull with subsequent cognition of that. But if we can somehow sustain that fresh inferential cognition, then our understanding would be valid, okay, but still conceptual.
Now, the Prasangika Madhyamaka system differentiates, here, this category of bare cognition differently and it defines it differently. And that’s very helpful in terms of our meditation, because what it defines, then, as now—rather than translating it as “bare cognition,” it’s “straightforward cognition.” And this has to do with whether or not it relies on a line of reasoning. So this can be either conceptual or nonconceptual.
We’re going through the line of reasoning. I understand it, but I need to rely on the line of reasoning in order to generate—just focusing conceptually on—voidness. We’re talking about straightforwardly cognizing voidness. Straightforwardly—not relying on a line of reasoning. To get to this straightforward cognition, I am relying on a line of reasoning to work up to it. And now I focus on voidness, but it’s conceptual. So that would be inferential cognition.
Now I reach a point where I’m so familiar with voidness that I don’t have to rely on the line of reasoning. I can just instantly, without having to work through the logic, just cognize voidness—straightforwardly—but that’s still conceptual through the category “voidness.” But eventually it could become nonconceptual.
What we’re differentiating here are further steps that happen in the meditation process as we progress along the path. First we have completely wrong understanding. Then we start to doubt that—so, we’re indecisive. Then I hear the logic, but I’m not really sure. I’m not decisive about it. I presume that it’s true, but I really don’t understand it. But then I work through the line of reasoning. And on one level it could be because my teacher told me that it was true: I believe my teacher, so it must be true. But how much do we understand it? That’s a question.
But the next step, I go through the logic, the line of reasoning, and through inferential cognition I can focus on voidness through the category “voidness”—conceptual. So I have to work through the line of reasoning. The first moment I come to the conclusion, it’s fresh, but then it gets subsequent, it gets a little bit stale, as I continue to focus on it. So the real thing is to keep it fresh each moment. And then, eventually, I’m so familiar with this line of reasoning that I can just immediately focus on voidness without having to work through all the steps of the logic. And I understand it. It’s accurate and decisive, but it’s still conceptual—through the category. Each time, each different meditation experience, I understand it in the category of “this is voidness meditation,” so it’s still mixed with the category. It’s conceptual. But eventually it can be nonconceptual, so we’re able to get to it immediately without relying on a line of reasoning, and we are understanding completely, but not in terms of the category of voidness, not mixing it with just general what is meditation on voidness.
These steps are there regardless of whether we are meditating on voidness, we’re doing dzogchen meditation on rigpa (pure awareness), we’re doing meditation on compassion—whatever it is, we’ll go through these stages. So it’s important to be able to recognize them as we are practicing meditation. Otherwise it’s very hard to correct what’s going on, and to make progress, and to know what it is that we have to correct. To just sit there and hope that it’s going to happen—that we get nonconceptual cognition of voidness or rigpa—is like an example that we find in one of the ancient Chinese classics, which I like so much:
There was a very foolish farmer in a certain part of China, and in his field there was a tree stump. He cut down the tree, but the stump of the tree was sitting there, maybe just a meter high. And one day he went out to his field and he saw that a rabbit had run into this stump in the middle of the night and got killed. So there it was, lying dead in front of the tree stump. It just smacked into the tree. This foolish farmer then gave up farming and spent the rest of his days just sitting next to the tree stump. And the people asked him, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m catching rabbits.”
So it’s like that. We are just sitting there and hoping that another rabbit is going to smack into the tree stump. Or that we’re going to get, all of a sudden, the insight and understanding of voidness or rigpa. It is hardly likely that it will happen. So we have to go through these various stages. And everybody goes through them, pretty much. It might be faster, it might be slower—everything depends on how much positive force we’ve built up in previous lives, as we’ve discussed, and in this life.
So in this way we’ve been talking about how we develop this network of deep awareness through this process of meditation—these various ways of knowing—supplemented with building up the network of positive force, these two networks as sort of the main type of what’s called evolving Buddha-traits, evolving Buddha-nature traits, by using all these various mental factors and other things that we have as part of our mental activity, these other features, together with inspiration from the teacher. And then, because the mental activity is making mental holograms and being aware of them, and because that is happening and not existing in some impossible ways, then all the temporary obscurations can be removed, all the potentials can grow to become the full operating good qualities and become a Buddha.
That is our discussion and presentation of Buddha-nature and how to develop our minds on the basis of Buddha-nature. An enormous, enormous topic as I think you have understood. But if we have understood at least the general idea and we have seen that, if I want to understand it deeper, these are the various areas that I’m going to need to learn about: the nature of the mind; the mental factors; the ways of knowing; conceptual, nonconceptual work—all of these sort of things. Then, if we really have a strong motivation and are able to make the time and put in the effort, we can go deeper and deeper. So it’s a little bit of a look—a peek, we say—at what is involved with this very, very important topic.
So what questions do you have?
Question: In many traditions—in the first place, in theistic traditions—it is said that we can achieve love and compassion because of God’s blessing or grace. And in Buddhism we’re more speaking about: do we need to go through the long spiritual path of working on ourselves in order to achieve it. Could you please say something about it?
Alex: Receiving the grace of God. In Buddhism, what the analogous thing would be is gaining inspiration from the Buddhas and the great spiritual masters. It’s an uplifting. But Buddhism says that you have to do something as well. So if we speak in terms of the theistic religion, you can have the grace of God, but also you have to follow God’s will—you have the ten commandments, these sort of things—there is something that you have to do. Just a different way of describing what we need to do on a spiritual path. Different words.
Question: It is said that in order to achieve better understanding of voidness, we need to accumulate merit. What is the mechanism for how accumulation of merit can influence our understanding of voidness?
Alex: Well, we’ve spoken about this in great detail. The collection of merit is what I’m translating as the network of positive force. And that positive force can help us to overcome the confusion—the mental blocks—that we might have, in terms of our understanding of voidness or of anything. How that actually happens is not so simple.
When we speak about cause and effect, now we start to get very, very complex. A result arises as dependent on many, many causes and conditions. So not just from one cause, not from an irrelevant cause, etc. And so each result that we want to achieve arises from a different cluster, or network, of causes and conditions. So you remember, earlier in our discussion, I said that our network of deep awareness is the obtaining cause for the omniscient mind of a Buddha, the deep awareness Dharmakaya. But the simultaneously acting condition is this network of positive force. How do we build up the network of deep awareness? From valid cognition of voidness. So that’s why we looked at these seven ways of knowing. So, correct inferential understanding, that inferential understanding—valid, straightforward cognition of voidness—but with the proper motivation and dedication. So from that we talked about cause, then that meditation—that those moments of valid cognition of voidness are going to be the cause for having the potential from that, this network of deep awareness. But the simultaneously acting condition that we need with that is some positive force from doing some positive things.
So if we talk about bodhichitta as our motivation for doing that meditation, that’s going to influence that this becomes a network of deep awareness that’s going to build up to enlightenment. But also our meditation on bodhichitta—and having, on some level, a bodhichitta motivation while meditating—is also building up a lot of positive force. Now can you build up positive force and deep awareness in the same moment, etc.? That’s a very complex question. I have a very long, complicated article about that on the website, so let’s not go into that. But the positive force from that bodhichitta motivation and meditation, it’s a contributing condition, the simultaneously acting condition.
[See: The Union of Method and Wisdom in Sutra and Tantra: Gelug and Non-Gelug Presentations.]
In other words, like water for the plant to grow. You need it. The plant doesn’t grow from the water, but you need the water in order for it to grow from the seed. So, similarly, you need the positive force for the deep awareness to grow from the valid cognition. Why do you need water for the seed to grow? How does the water help the seed to grow? I’m not a botanist. I’m sure you can give a chemical, biological analysis. So, similarly, why do you need the positive force? I don’t really know the very, very complex mechanism of why. But it works. Positive force, by definition, is something that ripens into happiness. So, by analogy, you could say it also ripens into success in what we’re doing. That’s the first explanation that comes to my mind.
Any more questions? Last question.
Question: In Theravada tradition it is said about anicca—impermanence. In Mahayana, they make more emphasis on voidness, which is interdependent arising. If we cognize these things—sunnata and anicca—nonconceptually, will we achieve the same result? Because for me it is easier to understand anicca (impermanence) than sunnata.
Alex: Remember we spoke about bare yogic cognition, and it took as its object either one of two levels of voidness, to put it into simple language, or subtle impermanence—not the gross impermanence—subtle impermanence. This comes from the Sautrantika system, which is a Hinayana system. Theravada is also a Hinayana system. Theravada also speaks of not only anicca (impermanence), but also anatta—no impossible self. So you have the equivalent of voidness, but it’s not in terms of all phenomena, just in terms of the self. And in Theravada system, through understanding this subtle impermanence—moment-to-moment change—then one can understand that there is no solid “soul” or “me” that is behind all of this.
So the ultimate thing that you need to understand in the Theravada system, as well, is what would be the equivalent of voidness of the self. So in Mahayana, also, it’s important to understand subtle impermanence, which is part of the whole meditations of overcoming the—it’s called the four incorrect types of consideration. So there’s one which is to consider impermanent things to be permanent. But a great deal of emphasis on voidness, naturally. But in both systems, whether Hinayana systems like Theravada, or Mahayana systems, ultimately you’re going to need some understanding of voidness—a lack of impossible self, or voidness of all phenomena, whatever it is—to achieve the liberation according to that system.
So I think we need to end here. Final dedication: whatever positive force, whatever deep awareness, whatever understanding has come from this, may it grow more and more, get deeper and deeper, stronger and stronger, and act as a cause for enlightenment for all beings including myself.
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