Introduction to the Mind and Mental Factors
Session Three: The Five Ascertaining Subsidiary Awarenesses and the Eleven Constructive Emotions
Last time, Venerable Thubten Chodron and I were having a little bit of a debate, and I wanted to just conclude that since we didn’t really come to the final resolution of the issue while in the class. What you were witnessing was a process which is one of trying to gain clarification of a difficult point, and the whole aim of the debate was not to defeat each other, and it’s not carried out in an aggressive type of way, but in an interchange between two people one tries to gain more clarity on an issue which is perhaps a little bit fuzzy in the debaters’ minds.
We were debating an issue regarding karma. The question concerned a situation in which we get into a car, and we drive, and are hit by another car. We get into an accident. What role does that urge to get in the car and drive have in the actual ripening of the karmic legacy that we are going to be hit by another car in an accident. The two sides were that the urge was not just simply the urge to drive the car, but was an urge to drive the car such that one would be in a car accident. And the other position, the other extreme, is that the urge was just to drive the car, and it acts as a circumstance but there’s nothing specific in it. The absurd position of the urge being an urge to get in the car when you would actually be hit by driving it; the absurd conclusion was predetermination—that there’s nothing that could be done about it. And then that’s overlaid with ego grasping, and so on, and there’s guilt, and a lot of psychological problems might arise. And the absurd conclusion of the other position was that everything happened by random, that anything could be a circumstance for the ripening of anything, that there was no connection between the circumstance and the result.
And the resolution to that is to recognize that both extremes are extremes which are based on a postulation of true inherent existence. Because it’s the same thing in terms of cause and effect. Here we’re just speaking about circumstance and an effect that depends on it. So, in terms of true inherent existence, it would be that if that whole process occurred on the basis of true inherent existence, then either the effect exists inherently not here in the cause, but in the condition, so that there was something inherent in getting into the car and driving that would cause that driving to be the circumstance for the ripening—so something from the side of that urge itself. And the other extreme would be that the urge to drive the car had true inherent existence by itself, and the ripening of being hit was something totally separate, having true inherent existence on its own, and so there would be no relation between the two; and, therefore, anything could be a circumstance for anything. The solution to the contradictions here is that the whole process does not occur on the basis of true inherent existence; it occurs on the basis of what’s usually described as dependent arising, which we’ll leave until tomorrow to get into a more detailed discussion of what that actually means.
But the whole causal process—in terms of causes and conditions, and effects, and so on—is very, very complex, and they arise based on a tremendous number of causes and conditions. I mean, you have to go back into the people who made the car, and made the road, and invented the car, and the dinosaurs (in terms of decomposing to make the gasoline for the car). And it gets very full, in terms of the whole network of causes and conditions. And there’s nothing inherent in any one item within that process that’s going to make the result happen. And so the whole thing just sort of occurs and, in that sense, it’s like an illusion. Because it appears as though there are truly existent components that are involved, because we are very limited in our scope of how much we can see, and so on. And of course from our samsaric point of view, our disturbed point of view, we might think, “Oh, it was my fault,” in terms of “If I only hadn’t gotten into that car at that time. I was so stupid.” Like that. So we blame it on ourselves that we get into a lot of suffering, unnecessary suffering, because of that.
So you’d have to say that the urge to drive the car, and driving the car as the result of that urge, did act as a circumstance for getting hit by the car, but there was nothing predetermined or inherently existent in that that made that happen; it just sort of was the circumstance. And when we look at it in that open way then we can also see that because there’s nothing inherently existent in that condition, then a process of purification can take place—if one applies the proper opponent—so that many other factors are now interacting on the situation. So that driving the car will no longer act as a circumstance—will not act, I should say, rather than will no longer act—but it will not act, because it wasn’t that it was predestined to act that way, but it will not act as a circumstance for being hit by the car, and that karmic legacy to be hit by the car will not ripen. Maybe not at that time; it depends on how deeply the purification process happens. Either it won’t ripen in that particular time but maybe will still ripen some time later, or if it’s done on the deepest level it won’t ripen at all. So that was where that debate was eventually leading and how it would be resolved. So, by working in the absurd conclusions of each of our positions, then you get to the understanding of the voidness of the whole process of cause and effect.
So that’s just to complete what we were doing, and I think it’s a nice illustration of what the whole debate process is about. What it’s about is to help the debaters gain a clear understanding, so that their meditation on causality and the voidness of causality will be free of fuzzy thinking and free of indecisiveness. When you’ve really understood it and explored all the nooks and crannies of the whole process, then you’re able to meditate in a much more effective type of way.
What was quite interesting here is that, in the study of the Madhyamaka philosophy (that’s the teachings concerning voidness), that although one usually explores and learns in terms of cause and effect—that the effect doesn’t exist in the cause, and so on—usually it’s not extended to the discussion of circumstance and the effect. And so that was the link that needed to be added, and that’s something that one works out on the debate ground when somebody brings up an example. And that’s sort of the way that it works. You sort of get the general principles, the general ideas, and then you have to work it out. And that’s actually how one learns the Dharma, and proceeds, and actually gains understanding. You don’t gain such a profound understanding by just listening to a lecture or reading a book and memorizing it and remembering it. But you gain the understanding by actually working out examples. It is the same like math. You don’t learn how to solve a certain type of math problem by just reading in the book how to do it once, or the teacher doing it on the blackboard once. The way that you learn it is by being given many different problems as your homework and you work it out yourself. So it’s the same thing in terms of the Buddhist training, and it’s a very effective method.
Let’s get back to the main topic. The main topic here is the mental factors or subsidiary types of awareness. And what we saw, as a very brief review, is that in Buddhism when we talk about mind we’re talking about mental activity. It’s an activity which is individual, subjective, and it’s happening every moment. It’s not the thing which is doing it, but the activity itself. And one can get of course into the voidness of the three spheres involved—of the activity, the thing that’s doing it, and the result, and all of that. And so you’d have to say that it is dependently arising on that. But I think for the sake of certainly mahamudra meditation, and certainly for the sake of being able to identify and focus on what’s called mind, that if we look at it as an activity, it is a little bit more fruitful.
So we’re talking about ways of being aware of things, as a general category, and there are many different ways of being aware of things. And we saw that in each moment we have a primary consciousness, which is what is cognizing the essential nature of the object; in other words, in what category of thing it is. And, with this mental activity, what’s happening is there’s the appearance-making, and the cognizing which is simultaneous with that, which is just describing the same thing. It is not that the thought arises and then you think it, but the two are describing the same activity or the same event. Maybe “event” is a better word here than “activity,” because “activity” I suppose begs the question of who’s doing it. And, in the definition [“a mere making of appearances and cognizing them”], the word “mere” implies that it’s just an event which is happening and there’s nobody separate from it that’s making it happen or observing it, although conventionally we would say, “I’m thinking,” “I’m seeing,” “I’m hearing.”
So we have primary consciousness, which is just the awareness of the basic essential nature of what it is that we’re cognizing—is it a sight, is it a sound, is it a thought, and so on. And then there are the subsidiary awarenesses or mental factors, which go together with it and which somehow qualify the awareness of that object, or help to maintain that awareness, somehow involved in the mechanism of being directed toward it, or whatever. And we saw that there were various categories of these.
There are five ever-functioning ones. And here we were talking about the system that Asanga presents in his text Abhidharmasamuccaya (A Compendium, I think, or Anthology, something like that, of Special Topics of Knowledge). And in this system, he speaks about five that are always present in each moment. One was feeling a level of happiness. That was how we experience the ripening of karma in terms of happy, unhappy, or pleasure, pain, this type of thing; that’s just one aspect of what ripens from karma. But it’s how we actually experience things, as opposed to a computer just taking in data. And then there’s the distinguishing, which allows us, within a sense field, to distinguish something from the background so that we can actually deal with it. And then there’s the urge. In this particular system, that’s the equivalent for karma, and it’s what causes that activity to go in the direction of a particular object—why this and not that. And contacting awareness is either a pleasant or unpleasant or neutral contacting with the object that is going to be the basis—it’s a foundation—for experiencing it with happiness or unhappiness or neutral.
And the last one we spoke about was paying attention or taking to mind, which is what engages the mental activity with the object, and there are several varieties of how that can be—either very painstakingly (very tightly), or how it engages with the object in terms of bringing it back if the attention has wandered, these type of things. And also how you pay attention to the object in terms of paying attention to it in a correct way (in terms of what it is) or in an incorrect way (in which it is not), like regarding something which is impermanent, changing, like our youth, to be something static—that it’s going to remain forever. That’s another variable that’s involved with paying attention.
This is what we discussed last time.
Now the next set of subsidiary awarenesses is called the five ascertaining ones. They help the mental activity to ascertain its object (“ascertain” means to take it with certainty). They’re defined slightly differently in the two main systems that the Tibetans study. In Vasubandhu, which is the Vaibhashika system (Vasubandhu is the author), he explains them in a very general way, so that, according to him, they also occur in every moment. But Asanga is always putting the emphasis on meditation, actually, and because of that emphasis, he describes them really only in the context of a constructive state of mind, not in a more general fashion; so there it’s more specific.
All these, by the way, are very important in the meditation process. In the original list that we were talking about, particularly important are the distinguishing (you have to be able to distinguish the object of meditation, the object of focus); and you need to be able to pay attention to it, which means fixing, engaging actually in it, with the object, in some sort of cognitive manner; and paying attention to it in the correct way in terms of what it actually is; and if that attention is lost, bring your attention back. So it’s a very, very key factor in the whole meditation process.
(1) Positive intention (’dun-pa)
So let’s look at these five ascertaining ones. The first of them—I call it “positive intention,” in order to be able to fit it to Asanga’s definition in terms of it being in a constructive state of mind. If we take it in a more general way then it’s just simply “intention.” Motivation is usually part of this. And it is not merely motivation to obtain any object, or achieve any goal, or to do something with it; that would be a more general definition of it. When we talk about motivation, motivation in our Western sense is usually referring to the emotional state that moves us to do something. “Your motivation is compassion,” we say, for example. But that’s not actually the meaning of the word “motivation” in Buddhism. That’s why sometimes I really make a point in differentiating the two.
The motivation is like your aim; it’s the intention. What are you aiming for? That aim is, like in lam-rim, to achieve a better rebirth or to achieve liberation or to achieve enlightenment. And then there will be another type of mental factor which will accompany it—whether it’s renunciation, whether it’s compassion—but those aren’t the motivations, although in our Western usage of the word “motivation” they are the motivation. I find that that’s quite helpful, to make a difference between the two, because both are very important in terms of what we would say: “setting the motivation.” But it’s not just the compassion, or these sort of things, but really: “What am I aiming for?” So, like when you sit down to meditate, what am I trying to accomplish with this meditation? That’s the motivation. And then the question is “Why?”—that would be our Western sense of “motivation.” So the two are important, because it’s quite easy to leave one or the other out.
Here “intention” is what Vasubandhu explains with the word that’s translated as “motivation.” So Vasubandhu, in the most general sense, says that it’s to obtain an object, or to achieve any goal, or to do something with an object—what are you going to do with it? And here, in Asanga, he takes it more specifically, which is the wish to have or to do something with a desired constructive object, or to achieve a desired constructive goal. So it’s dealing with something constructive. And what’s your intention? The intention can be the wish to meet with a constructive object that you previously cognized. So the intention to go meet your friend whom you had seen before, or the wish to meditate again. So it’s the intention to do something like what you did before. And then it could be, in terms of the present, the wish not to be parted from a constructive object presently cognized. So you’re meditating on something and then the intention is to stay with it, to not be parted from it. And then, in terms of the future, what’s not yet come, the word that’s used is “interest.” It’s keen interest in a constructive object to be attained in the future. That’s our intention. So, although there’s no separate mental factor that would correspond to interest, that also is included here. So we can see that there are many different other types of mental factors that are subsumed or included in “intention.” So it’s an important one. Your aim; interest. You can see that these things are related to each other.
And here Asanga makes it only with constructive objects, and he says that positive intention leads to joyful perseverance in obtaining the desired object or attaining the desired goal. The way that Asanga in this text always defines these—not always, but in almost all cases—defines these mental factors is: What is its function? What he usually means by that is: What is it that this mental factor will act as a foundation for? And that again tells us very much, in terms of how to develop ourselves. What are the factors to work on in order to develop enthusiasm and perseverance? Well, it’s taking interest. If it’s clear what the aims are, what the goal (that’s the motivation) and what the benefits of that are, then we’ll be able to persevere with it and will be enthusiastic about it. And so when you study these mental factors like this, if you start to go into all the little pieces, all the little details that are given in the text, then you find that it really indicates some very helpful advice in our own daily practice, in our own lives.
So that’s the first of these five ascertaining mental factors.
(2) Firm conviction (mos-pa)
The next one, I translate as “firm conviction.” It’s the word mopa (mos-pa), which is a very difficult term. Firm conviction. And if you look at Asanga’s definition, he says it focuses on a fact that we have validly ascertained to be like this and not like that, and its function is to make our belief so firm that others’ arguments or opinions will not dissuade us. That’s why I call it firm conviction. In other words, you really ascertain (that means you become certain) that the object is this and not that—let’s say in terms of voidness or impermanence or something like that. “Okay, it’s like this. This is what it means.” It’s not some fuzzy understanding or some wrong understanding. And its function is to make our… We’ll see this in the list of constructive mental attitudes; it’s the word that I translate as “belief.” You believe a fact to be true. Sometimes that’s translated as “faith,” which is not really so accurate a translation.
So first you would believe a fact to be true, having really investigated it. And its function is to make that belief so firm that others can’t dissuade you. In other words, you can hold your ground in the debate; you’re convinced. So this is firm conviction. And therefore when we speak in terms of the spiritual teacher and a healthy attitude towards the spiritual teacher, then when it talks about believing a fact to be true, in terms of the teacher’s qualities, one has to really check. It’s not imagining that the teacher has qualities, and projecting it onto the teacher, when the teacher doesn’t actually have those qualities. But you’ve really checked, and the teacher does have these qualities to a certain degree, whatever it might be—it might not be perfect Buddha, but whatever—and then you believe that fact to be true; so it is a fact. And then this firm conviction is that it makes that belief firm—that you’re not going to dissuaded by doubts, or by other people’s gossip, or these sort of things—so it really is a foundation for great respect, and stability, and trust. I think trust is the main aspect that comes in the relation with the spiritual teacher because of this particular mental factor.
In Vasubandhu, he explains it quite differently, and so you’d translate it differently. And unfortunately in Tibetan texts, sometimes they use it in Asanga’s meaning and sometimes they use it in Vasubandhu’s meaning. And so you have to be a little bit clear. Vasubandhu’s meaning, I would translate it as “regard.” What it does is it merely takes its object to have some level of good qualities on a spectrum—these mental factors are always working on a spectrum—so, from no good qualities, all the way up to all good qualities. And it could be either accurate or distorted. So he makes it really very, very general. And that also could be applied to the relation with a spiritual teacher. It means to have a very high regard for the teacher. I used to translate that sometimes as “admiration,” in terms of focusing on the good qualities of the object.
So it has both these meanings. It’s also interesting sometimes to go to the Theravada presentation of abhidharma because there, for many of these, it gives yet another definition. And so there we can fill out our understanding of the various mental factors. It’s not so much an issue of: “Well, does it really mean this, or does it really mean that?” But it’s just teaching us more and more about the various types of mental factors which are very helpful for cultivating. Like this, to regard the object as having good qualities, is so important in the relation with a spiritual teacher because, as is always pointed out, you’re never going to find a teacher—I mean hardly ever—that is going to have all the good qualities. The teacher is going to have some shortcomings as well as good qualities, and this is true in a relationship with other people as well. And then if one focuses on the negative qualities and then just complains about it and criticizes, the only result of that usually is that we get really—we can use the colloquial word—“bummed out” by it. We really get depressed and upset. That’s not productive at all.
On the other hand, one doesn’t want to go to the extreme of denying the shortcomings of someone else. And in fact the Fifth Dalai Lama, in his lam-rim (graded stages of the path), points out that it’s very good to first acknowledge what are the shortcomings, either of the teacher or of… I mean, he doesn’t go into it in terms of a relationship, but I think that that’s a friend or a parent or a teacher in school, or something like that. But I think it applies; we can extend it to that. Then, okay, these are the shortcomings. I’m not naive about it. I’m not going to deny it. But to focus on it is not at all going to be helpful. And then one can look at the positive qualities. And that’s much more helpful, because from even the dog, and the positive qualities of the dog, we can gain inspiration. It doesn’t matter where you tell the dog to sit down, the dog will sit—if it’s cold, if it’s wet, whatever. So a dog’s very flexible in that way, and that can be very inspiring—to learn from the dog to make do with an uncomfortable situation. I had a dog in India. One can look at the good qualities and be inspired by them and learn something.
Participant: If we are working with a spiritual teacher, if we look at the teacher as the representative of the lineage then the shortcomings balance out.
Alex: Well, this is what I was saying. It’s not so much that they balance out, because I think that it’s important not to be in a state of denial. That often is what happens in unhealthy relations with a spiritual teacher; there’s great denial of certain negative aspects and that can be quite unhealthy. But, in focusing on the good qualities of the teacher, that would be one of them. That this teacher is a representative of the lineage, and through the teacher one can gain inspiration of the lineage by—not by magic, but by being aware that the teacher had a teacher, and that teacher had a teacher, and it goes all the way back. In that sense, one gains what’s usually translated as the “blessings of the lineage.” But I don’t care for that word “blessings”; that’s the word that I translate as “inspiration.” If you look at the etymology of the word, the Sanskrit is like an “uplifting.” It’s uplifting. It’s inspiring. This type of thing.
And that’s what we need is inspiration on the path. I mean, that’s why the healthy relation with a spiritual teacher is the root of the path. It’s not the seed of the path. The plant begins with the seed; the plant doesn’t begin with the root. So that’s a common mistake that people make in the understanding of its place, even though it comes first in many of the lam-rims. It comes first in many of the lam-rims because everybody has a spiritual teacher already. I mean, it’s a review of the path. But it’s a root, because the root of a plant is where the plant draws its sustenance from. And so, likewise, it’s from the inspiration from the teacher that we gain sustenance to help us grow along the spiritual path. That’s the connotation of it being the root of the path, not the seed.
So we have firm conviction.
(3) Recollecting mindfulness (dran-pa)
The next factor is usually translated as “mindfulness.” If you want to be a little bit more full, you can say “recollecting mindfulness,” because it’s the same word that is used for “remembering,” the same word that’s used for “memory.” And, again, it’s an activity. So it’s recollecting; it’s recalling something. It’s not talking about storing things in a memory; it’s talking about recollecting things similar to what we experienced in the past. But here it’s defined in a more specific way. The general way is: holding onto any cognized object without losing it as an object of focus. Often we use “mindfulness” in the West to mean “watching”—the meditation of watching what are various feelings that are coming up, or the breath, or these type of things. It’s not so much watching; it’s holding on. This is how, I think, that one gets a better idea. Hold on to the object; don’t let go. That’s mindfulness. It’s remembering it; it’s recalling it. When we remember something, we’re holding on to a semblance, a mental semblance, similar to what we experienced in the past. So you’re holding on to it again.
Vasubandhu takes it in a general way, and here Asanga makes it more specific—he says it prevents mental activity from forgetting or losing a constructive object with which it’s familiar. But it’s talking about when you are focusing on an object. It is not that, well, I’m still remembering it, but I’m not thinking about it now. It’s not that there are memories stored someplace, like in a box or something like that; it’s much more subtle than that, the way that we remember things. And it has three characteristics, Asanga says. (1) The object has to be something constructive with which we are familiar. It’s not done newly. It’s something that we’re already familiar with. (2) And then the aspect, he says—the aspect of what is it actually doing—is it’s focused on this object and it doesn’t forget it or lose it. Forgetting is basically to lose the object. (3) And then the third aspect: the function must be that it prevents mental wandering.
So mindfulness is equivalent to a type of mental glue that holds us to the object of focus without letting go. And of course its spectrum spans from weak to strong—always these mental factors span a big spectrum—so you can increase the strength of it, the intensity of it. But when it’s taken in a general sense, it’s for however long you hold on to the object, until you let go. And then of course in meditation one looks at the quality of that mental hold. That’s what it’s all about, really, in terms of gaining concentration, is the quality of that mental glue—you’re holding it too tightly, you’re holding it too loosely. Or have you let go? And then the attention would be to engage with it, so you have to pay attention to it again. And when you pay attention to it again (which means to engage in it), then put that lock, the mental hold. That’s mindfulness.
We’ll get it later, but let’s bring it up here. Alertness (shes-bzhin) is, in a sense, keeping a watch. It’s sort of like a detector factor which detects when there’s something wrong with that mental hold, and it’s like an alarm system—it triggers then the attention to come back, for it to somehow correct the mental hold. And what His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes when he teaches meditation is that we have to be careful not to become too dualistic in the meditation and regard alertness as something really quite separate, because then your attention is divided. Part of your attention is on the object, but then another part of your attention is on watching what’s going on, and you can become too much of a policeman and too much paranoid in the meditation, and your main focus is no longer on the object. So the way that he explains it is that alertness is, in a sense, almost automatic with mindfulness. And the main thing always to try to emphasize in the meditation is just hold on. Hold on to the object and don’t let go. And if you’re holding on, that means automatically there is alertness, the alarm system to trigger off the attention to correct that hold. And sometimes, because there’s subdivisions of alertness, you can use one that makes a spot check—sort of, as they say, from the corner of the mind, figuratively speaking, it sort of makes a spot check—but from moment to moment, the main thing to focus on is hanging on.
I often use an example for this. Like if we’re on a diet and you want to be mindful of the diet. So what does that mean? How do you actually do that when you walk past the bakery and you see these delicious cakes, or fudge, or whatever it is that you like? And the main thing to do as your activity is to just hold on to the diet. That’s mindfulness—you know, the glue—“I’m going to stick to the diet.” If your focus is on holding on to it then you can walk past, usually.
So if, as I say, if you are able to conceive of it as actually a mental grip, or a glue, that’s very helpful. And that’s the main task when trying to gain concentration. Concentration itself is just staying there. The attention is staying there. The main activity is not to just make the attention stay there, but is this aspect of mindfulness—grab and hold on; don’t let go. Then of course eventually you’re able to do that in a more and more relaxed way. Because if you’re hanging on too tightly, that can produce problems in terms of nervousness and all sorts of things.
So that’s recollecting mindfulness.
(4) Mentally fixating (ting-nge-’dzin, concentration)
Mentally fixating is the next one; that’s usually translated as “concentration.” And this is not merely keeping fixed on any object of cognition taken by any type of cognition, including sensory cognition. That would be the way that Vasubandhu defines it. It’s keeping fixed; so, in other words, staying. The mindfulness was holding on and the concentration—or I call it mentally fixating—is just sort of staying with the object. Vasubandhu would say that it’s to do with anything—sense consciousness, anything. Because obviously that can be weak or strong, how long you’re staying on it.
But here, the way that Asanga defines it—he says it makes the mental activity stay single-pointedly engaged, with continuity, focused on a labeled constructive object. A labeled constructive object, which means that it is with mental cognition not sense cognition. And of course it needs to be constructive. So it’s being taken with mental consciousness because mental consciousness is what does labeling. This has an implication in meditation to develop this single-minded concentration.
In the Gelug tradition they take that quite seriously, in terms of using a mental object. And the usual mental object that’s used for gaining concentration would be visualization of a Buddha. The way that that is explained is that we want to gain concentration with mental consciousness because the main qualities that we want to develop are things that are mental—love, compassion, understanding of voidness, understanding of impermanence, all these sort of things—so that would be done with mental consciousness. And so we want here to train concentration with mental consciousness.
So then we come across non-Gelug texts, and the non-Gelug texts say that, well, you can gain concentration focusing on the breath—the Theravadins do that, as do some of the non-Gelug traditions within Tibetan Buddhism—but that’s sense consciousness. It’s the body consciousness, tactile consciousness, the sensation of the breath coming in and out the nose. So you might think, “Well, what’s going on here? Aren’t these non-Gelugs following Asanga? They say they’re following Asanga.” It indicates the importance of understanding the cognition theory of a particular school. Because, if you recall, in the non-Gelug systems they say that sense consciousness is only aware of what we were calling sensibilia—colored shapes, that’s all that you see, or the sound of individual consonants or vowels, or individual tiny moments of sensation. And if you’re focusing on a commonsense object, well, that’s mental—that’s conceptual—to infer a commonsense object. And so if you have, in some of these other systems, focus on a Buddha statue, looking at it—well, that is conceptual cognition if you’re looking at it as a Buddha statue, and not just looking at it as colored shapes. And so in their system the Gelugs would say, “Well, hey! You’re just focusing on staring at the thing and trying to gain concentration with sense consciousness.” From the non-Gelug point of view it’s not focusing with sense consciousness, because you’re focusing on the conventional object and that’s always conceptual in their systems. So it’s important to keep things within the perspective of the teachings of a particular school, the full scope of the school, otherwise things get very confusing.
Then the purpose of mental fixating, the function that it plays, is that it serves as a basis for discriminating awareness (the next one). In other words, if the attention can stay on the object, then we’re able to discriminate correctly between what it is, what it isn’t, and so on.
(5) Discriminating awareness (shes-rab)
That leads to the fifth ascertaining mental factor, which is discriminating awareness. Here Asanga defines it as: it focuses on an object for analysis, and it differentiates its strong points from its weaknesses, or its good qualities from its faults. So it’s not just distinguishing it from the background—that it’s light as opposed to dark in the background—but it’s differentiating strong points of something from weak points, good qualities from negative things, and it can also be in terms of what is correct and incorrect. Anyway, it differentiates these things. And its function is to turn away indecisive wavering about the object. So here, as I said, “its strong points from weaknesses, good qualities from faults,” is specifically what Asanga says.
Vasubandhu gives a different name for this. He calls it the word that I like to translate as “intelligence.” Vasubandhu defines it as the subsidiary awareness or mental factor that decisively discriminates that something is correct or incorrect, or constructive or destructive. And that is the general word that is used for “intelligence.” And so it adds some level of decisiveness to distinguishing an object, even if that level is extremely weak. There’s some decisiveness—it’s correct or incorrect—it’s not just distinguishing the thing as this and not that, but more decisive about it. It’s correct or incorrect. And of course it could be either accurate or inaccurate.
So there are degrees in terms of several spectrums that the thing is encompassing. That’s why, when we talk about, for instance, this discriminating awareness—that’s the word sherab (shes-rab)—that Asanga is using here, then this is something that you need to cultivate. It’s usually called perfecting it. The perfection (paramita) of wisdom. Well, “perfecting” works in some connotations. I like to call it a far-reaching attitude, because it takes this more literally—the Sanskrit and the Tibetan—it’s what takes you to the other shore. “Perfection” puts off some people because it gives a connotation that “I have to be perfect. And I’m not perfect, so I’m no good. I’m not good enough.” This type of low self-esteem.
So we have these five. And if we define them in a more general way, as Vasubandhu does, then we can see that we also have this in all our moments. Intention: what are you going to do with the object? The way Vasubandhu takes it. Regard: find that the object has some good qualities or no good qualities. And then mental hold, the mindfulness. Mental placement; that’s the mentally fixating. And some certainty, this intelligence—it’s discriminating awareness—some certainty about what it is, and what it isn’t, is it correct, is it incorrect, is it positive, is it negative, this type of thing. Mind you, none of these things are giving names to anything. That’s conceptual. That’s another whole process. Quite different.
Now the next group that we have that we can look at are the eleven constructive emotions or attitudes. I mean, it’s hard to really find a word that’s going to cover these factors. Some are emotions, some are attitudes, in our Western way of dividing it.
(1) Believing a fact to be true (dad-pa)
First one is a very important one. This is what I translate as believing a fact to be true. So you often translate it as “faith,” but it is quite clear from the definition it focuses on something existent and validly knowable, something with good qualities or an actual potential—so it’s a fact—and it considers it either existent or true, or considers a fact about it as true. So it’s, in a sense, like accepting reality. So it is not talking about: “I believe that the stock market’s going to rise,” or “I believe that tomorrow it’s going to rain,” or “I believe in some unknowable higher power.” It has to be something knowable. It has to be something that is a fact. Or “I believe in the Easter Bunny.” It has to be something that actually exists. And then it’s to take it as true. So we accept it. Accepting reality—that somebody has left us, that somebody has died, or that now we have grown up and we’re an adult, or these sort of things. We have to extend that meaning in a more broad way.
And there are three types. The first type is clearheadedly believing a fact about something. Clearheadedly believing. How is that usually translated? “Pure faith” or “lucid faith,” something like that. This is believing a fact about something—so it’s clear about that fact—and like a water purifier, it clears the mind. That’s the point of it being clearheaded. Clearheadedly believing a fact. So it clears the mind. Vasubandhu explains it nicely. He says it clears the mind of disturbing emotions and attitudes about the object.
This is quite important when we talk about the good qualities of the spiritual master. It’s not blind faith that the teacher has it. It’s based on fact—you’ve really examined; it’s not projecting—and believing it to be true. And so the first form of it would be clearheadedly believing this fact to be true, which means that by thinking of it, if it’s done in a healthy way, it would clear the mind of jealousy, it would clear the mind of arrogance—“I’m so much better than the teacher”—this type of clearheaded. It’s a state that believes this fact to be true in such a way that it clears the mind of any disturbing emotions about that fact, even if that disturbing emotion is simply indecisiveness about it. Also, this indicates that, in a really healthy relationship, it would clear the mind of clinging and attachment to the teacher as well. Because I know that the teacher has many, many students and has many other responsibilities. I’m not the sole student. I’m not the individual one and the teacher is only here for me. And if the teacher doesn’t pay attention to me or smile at me today then he or she doesn’t love me anymore. If we have clearheaded belief that the teacher has equal regard for everybody, then that would clear our minds of any feeling of being hurt, or left out, or clinging, or these sort of insecurities. So that’s a very important factor of the healthy relation with a spiritual teacher.
As I say, you have to delve into the definitions. See what did Vasubandhu actually say, what did Asanga actually say. What did he actually say in his commentary about it? These sort of things. I mean, it’s a little bit difficult when these things aren’t translated yet, but sometimes it’s possible to actually study these commentaries and see what it’s talking about. Get the detail.
Then the next form of “believing a fact to be true” is believing a fact based on reason. So it considers a fact about something to be true, based on thinking about reasons that prove it. My teacher has these qualities, based on having seen how the teacher reacts toward others, how the teacher treats others, taking into consideration the other type of study and practice that the teacher has done, and so on. So one is convinced based on reason.
And then the third type is believing a fact with an aspiration concerning it; an aspiration or a wish concerning it. It considers true both a fact about something and an aspiration we consequently hold about the object. In other words, it’s like you believe that it is possible to achieve enlightenment—that’s believing a fact to be true—but with an aspiration, which is: “I therefore also believe that I’m capable of reaching it, and I will reach it if I put in enough work, enough effort.” So there’s a belief in that fact, which is somehow associated with an aspiration.
So, seeing that the spiritual teacher has these qualities in terms of Buddha-nature, I have Buddha-nature as well. And so, seeing these qualities of the teacher, I am also convinced that I can develop them myself if I work hard enough. These are the dynamics that are involved when we start talking about faith in the teacher. This type of thing. It’s quite sober if we look at it in much more detail. And then this mopa (mos-pa), this firm conviction, comes on top of that. Firm conviction and respect.
(2) Moral self-dignity (ngo-tsha, a sense of saving face)
The next one, the second one, is defined differently in Asanga and Vasubandhu. For Asanga, it’s a sense of moral self-dignity, is the latest translation I am using. (Every few years I come up with new translations for these terms.) It’s the sense to refrain from negative behavior because of caring how our actions reflect on ourselves. “I have moral self-dignity, so I’m not going to act like an idiot.” Self-dignity, in myself, that I’m not going to be cruel, not going to hurt you, and so on.
According to Vasubandhu, he defines it as (you have to translate it differently here) having a sense of values. It’s defined as “respect for positive qualities or persons possessing them.” So it’s a sense of values. This and the next one have to be present for a constructive state of mind. So a sense of self-dignity. It’s nice to actually combine these—a sense of self-dignity, a sense of values. You value positive action; you value what’s constructive.
(3) A sense of family honor (khrel-yod)
And then the second of these two—this is the third factor here—it’s a difficult term to translate. I’m starting to translate it as “a sense of family honor,” “a sense of honor.” “Consideration,” which is how many people translate it, I don’t think is—that’s like being considerate of others, and that’s something else. We’re not talking about being considerate of others here. So it’s a sense of family honor. The way that Asanga defines it is it’s to refrain from negative behavior because of caring how our actions reflect on those we respect, such as our family, our teachers, our social group, our ethnic group, our religious order, our nation. I mean, “family” doesn’t cover all of these, but it’s this sense.
When I travel abroad I’m not going to act in a terrible way, because I care about what other people think of Americans. I don’t want them to think “ugly American,” for example. That’s the sense of country honor here, national honor. Or I don’t want people to think badly of my family. This is a very, very important thing in Indian society; in any Asian society, for that matter. I’m not going to act badly, because it reflects badly on my family. And, in a religious context, it reflects badly on my teacher, reflects badly on Buddhism, it’s going to give people a bad idea—a wrong idea—about the religion that I follow, my beliefs, and so on. And so that is a very important basis for ethical behavior; being constructive. So, as I say, it’s a difficult word to translate. So now I’m using “a sense of family honor,” in a more broad way.
And for Vasubandhu, he defines this in a way that “having scruples” would fit better. It’s “restraint from being brazenly negative,” are the words he uses to define it. So you have scruples. You’re not going to cheat everybody, because that’s just brazenly negative. So you have a sense of scruples. So for him it’s a sense of values. You value being positive and you have a sense of scruples. You’re not going to really cheat everybody.
We can see, if you put these together—there’s four different factors—it really gives a good idea of what one needs to have in order to have a constructive state of mind. These always need to be present. A sense of self-dignity. How my actions reflect on larger groups. It’s not consideration: “I’m not going to play the radio loudly, because I’m considerate of my neighbors.” That’s the problem with translating it as “consideration.” That of course is a positive mental factor, but that’s not this word.
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