Introduction to the Mind and Mental Factors
Session Four: The Eleven Constructive Emotions (continued), the Six Root Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes, and the Four Changeable Subsidiary Awarenesses
(4) Lack of longing desire (ma-chags-pa)
The next one is lack of longing desire. Sometimes people translate it as “detachment”; that works in some contexts but not in all contexts. Again, most of these are quite difficult to come up with satisfactory words that fulfill all the definitions. Here it’s defined as a bored disgust, that’s the word, a “bored disgust” with—and thus a lack of longing desire for—compulsive existence and objects of compulsive existence. I’m really disgusted with this, and so I really don’t want it—in terms of getting all the money in the world, or all the attention of everybody, or these sort of things. It doesn’t necessarily imply total freedom from all longing desire; that’s important to realize. Because if you look at this and you think, “Well, total detachment”—we’re not talking about no longing desire at all, but it’s just a degree of freedom from it.
People were objecting to the word “detachment” because somehow that gives the impression that it’s no good to bond with your children—“You should be detached”—so it’s not talking about that. It’s this lack of longing desire, and it serves as a basis for not engaging in faulty behavior. This word “disgust”— yijung (yid-’byung) in Tibetan—it’s bored disgust with these things, and so: “Yuck, I don’t really want it.” Of course it could be for trivial things: “I’m bored and disgusted with the same food every day, so let’s go out and get some other type of cuisine.” But here it’s in a more positive sense that Asanga defines to be lack of longing desire for the compulsive pursuits of this life, or from the compulsive pursuits of any lifetime in general (for future things), or the compulsive pursuit of the serenity of nirvana. He defines it that way.
(5) Lack of hostility (zhe-sdang med-pa)
The next one is lack of hostility; or imperturbability, if we want to put it in another word. It’s not wishing to cause harm in response to sentient beings, in response to our own suffering, or in response to situations entailing suffering that may arise from either of the two, or which may simply be situations in which suffering occurs, like not getting angry over the war. Not getting angry or wishing to cause harm in response to this. “I’m going to go out and overthrow everything!” So imperturbability. Again it doesn’t imply a total freedom from anger, but it’s that mental factor that: “I don’t wish to cause harm. I’m not going to be violent over all these things.” So again it’s difficult—lack of hostility, imperturbability—how do you actually find an English word that covers it? Literally, it’s lack of hostility. Non-hostility, something like that.
I mean, you can see that the different situations—it could be your own suffering: I get so upset by the sickness that I have, or my economic difficulties, or something like that, that I just want to go out and beat somebody up or do something really violent about it. This sort of thing. I mean, it doesn’t have to be dramatically violent. Or I could just scream. That could also be the sense here. Or what somebody else is doing to me at the office. Or the injustice that’s happening—it could be a more general thing.
(6) Lack of naivety (gti-mug med-pa)
Then the next one is a lack of naivety. “Naivety” is how I translate this factor. Sometimes I used to translate it “close-minded ignorance,” but “naivety” is closer to the definition. It’s the discriminating awareness’s lack of naivety, it’s called—the discriminating awareness that’s aware of the individual details concerning behavioral cause and effect or concerning reality. Naivety is when we’re naive about cause and effect—that if I act in this way, it’s going to produce that effect. If I don’t show up or I show up two hours late for something, it’s going to have an effect on you; you’re going to feel hurt. So, being naive, you don’t realize this. Here you do realize—it’s a lack of naivety. So you know the individual details of that. Or about reality, or it could be about voidness, but it can also be the reality that you’re upset—I’m naive about that. Or you didn’t like what I just said—we’re naive. So it’s not just close-mindedness. It’s more in this “not knowing” sense. And here you would know the details of it.
And there are two types. A lack of naivety may arise as something acquired at birth from the ripening of karma. So we may just be somebody who’s not very naive. Or we could be somebody who is just naturally naive, gullible, these sort of things. And, alternatively, it could rise from applying ourselves to listening to the teachings, and thinking about them, and meditating on them, and so on.
So all of these three—a lack of longing desire, lack of hostility, a lack of naivety—it’s not that we’re perfect, but they act as a basis for not engaging in faulty behavior.
(7) Joyful perseverance (brtson-’grus)
Then the next one is joyful perseverance. That’s sometimes called “enthusiasm.” Joyful perseverance; it’s taking joy in doing something constructive with armor-like courage to endure the difficulties that may come in. So it’s applying ourselves to the task without becoming disheartened or shrinking back, without withdrawing, and without becoming complacent. All that is in Asanga’s description. So we’re going to apply ourselves with joy, it’s something constructive, endure all the difficulties, and I’m not going to get disheartened, not going to shrink back when it gets difficult, I’m not going to withdraw, I’m not going to become complacent and say, “Well, enough. I don’t want to do more.” Perseverance, armor-like. So, obviously all of these things are important in meditation.
(8) A sense of fitness (shin-sbyangs, flexibility)
Then the eighth one is a sense of fitness, sometimes called “flexibility.” It’s a sense of suppleness or serviceability of the body and mind—“flexibility” in that sense—that allows the mental activity to remain engaged with a constructive object for as long as we wish. So we have this sense of fitness that you can stay with the object as long as you want. It’s like an athlete being really fit. Or a musician—a sense of fitness that they can play anything. And it’s attained from having cut the continuity of the body and mind from taking detrimental stances, it says, such as mental wandering or fidgeting. Free the mind from all this fidgeting, and mental wandering, and dullness, and so on, and now you really feel fit. And the sense of fitness induces a nondisturbing exhilarating feeling of physical and mental bliss. When you really feel fit, it’s exhilarating, but in a nondisturbing type of way—that’s important—nonupsetting type of way. You just feel really filled with joyous energy, like when you feel fit. That’s why I use the word “fit,” because I think that is quite descriptive.
(9) A caring attitude (bag-yod, carefulness)
The next one, the ninth one, I find is a very important one, and I put a big emphasis on this in the sensitivity training that I worked on and developed. This is—I translate it as “a caring attitude.” Sometimes it’s translated as “carefulness” or “conscientiousness.” Shantideva has a whole chapter on this—Bodhicharyavatara has a whole chapter called this. It’s a mental factor that, while remaining in a state of lack of attachment, lack of hostility, and a lack of naivety, and in joyful perseverance—these four are also very fundamental for a constructive state of mind—so, while staying in that, it causes us to meditate on constructive things and safeguards against leaning toward tainted or negative things. So, because of this, we’re disgusted with and we don’t want things of compulsive existence, and we don’t want to cause harm in response to its suffering, and we’re not naive about the effects of our behavior, and then taking joy in acting constructively, this caring attitude brings us to act constructively and refrain from destructive behavior. So that’s the caring attitude.
We see somebody and we don’t want anything from them, and we’re not hostile toward them, we’re not going to reject them. And, what’s really important, we’re not naive about the effects of our behavior on them. And we want to be constructive. And so then there’s the caring attitude. “I care about the effects of my behavior on you.” It’s the foundation for ethical self-discipline; that’s its function. And that’s where Shantideva discusses it; it’s in his two chapters on ethical self-discipline.
Because you have the caring attitude: “I care about the effect of my actions on you. I care about your situation.” It’s not that I’m coming in and I just want to lay my trip onto you because I’m so attached to my position. Or I come into a situation and I just want to yell at you. Go into the children’s room—“Pick up your toys!” This type of thing. And I’m not naive, because I realize that the way that I’m going to behave will affect the other person, and so then that makes us tend toward the constructive side and refrain from the negative side. So I care. I care about you. And I take it seriously. I care about the effect of my actions on myself and on others. I care about your situation. Care about my own situation. We take them seriously.
So, in the sensitivity training, this and the quiet mind are the basic two legs that the whole training works on. In terms of avoiding the extremes of being insensitive or overreacting, overemotional, oversensitive, exploding. You have to care. How is the other person going to take that? And so on.
So this is the caring attitude. “Conscientiousness” and “carefulness” doesn’t quite get it.
(10) Equilibrium (btang-snyoms)
The tenth one is equilibrium. Equilibrium is, again, while staying in that state of lack of attachment, lack of hostility, lack of naivety, and with joyful perseverance, it allows the mental activity to remain effortlessly undisturbed, without flightiness or dullness, in a natural state of spontaneity and openness. So we’re in equilibrium. This is defined differently in many different systems, this term. But here, according to Asanga, it’s this. That because I don’t want anything from anybody, and I’m not hostile toward anybody, and I’m not naive about what I’m doing, not naive about the situation or the difficulties that might be involved in a certain practice, I don’t have this longing desire, big expectations or big disappointments—getting upset if the meditation doesn’t go well—and this basic perseverance there, joy in what I’m doing, and then this equilibrium allows us effortlessly to be undisturbed, no matter how the meditation goes, without flightiness—like worrying about it—and without being dull, falling asleep, in a natural state of spontaneity and openness. That’s this state of equilibrium.
That’s very important as a basis for compassion. He doesn’t talk about it there, but I emphasize this in the sensitivity training—that in order to really empathize with somebody, to have compassion, to be really willing to deal with their problems, we need this equilibrium. Or to deal with our own problems. I don’t want anything from you. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. I’m not going to become obsessed by it. That’s lack of attachment. I’m not going to reject you because of your problem, or get angry with myself because I have this difficulty. I’m not going to be naive about it. I’m going to persevere at it. And then, on that basis, we can deal, we can empathize, and so on, without becoming upset or disturbed. And we’re spontaneous, we’re open, and so on. So a state of equilibrium, quite important.
(11) Not being cruel (rnam-par mi-’tshe-ba)
And then the last one, the eleventh, is not being cruel. Sometimes translated as “nonviolence.” Not being cruel. It’s not merely this imperturbability of not wishing to cause harm to others who are suffering, or to irritate them or to annoy them. It has, in addition, compassion—so compassion comes in here as a subcategory—the wish for them to be free of their suffering and its causes. So I’m not going to be cruel. It’s not just that I’m not going to hurt you, but I’m not going to be cruel. That’s why I like the word “cruel” here—it’s stronger—because there’s compassion there. Because I would like you to be free of your difficulties. So, again, “nonviolence” doesn’t quite get the flavor here. It’s “non-cruelty” really.
Okay. So those are the eleven, and these are the constructive states of mental factors. This is the extent of the list that Asanga gives. And so patience isn’t there, love isn’t there, compassion isn’t there, generosity isn’t there. But all of these are the basis for them. Because you can start to differentiate thousands of positive states, but these are the fundamentals that are really important to work on if we want to have a constructive state of mind. So we’re really caring about the effects of our actions, not being naive, being disgusted with just trying to get more and more in the world, not going to harm others, this sense of fitness and flexibility—because there’s always a scale of that, some flexibility—and some sense of equilibrium, and not being cruel, and then a sense of moral self-dignity, honor—don’t want my teachers or anybody, for what I do to reflect badly on them—and this belief in a fact to be true, so we know that this is positive, this is the way that I want to go in my life, this is what I want to do, and we have joy in doing that and persevere at it. That type of state of mind. Then you can talk about all the different types of detailed constructive things, like love and compassion and different constructive actions that we can do to with helping others.
There are many more sets here. We can’t go through all of them, but the last group that I would like to go through (and we’ll continue this tomorrow in our discussion of voidness) are the six root disturbing emotions and attitudes. And we’ll discuss only five of them, because the sixth is a set of five, which actually makes ten altogether. But these are called the five that are without an outlook on reality (I used to call them “speculative,” and so this is “nonspeculative”). It doesn’t entail an outlook on reality; it’s not really an attitude. The other ones that we’ll discuss tomorrow are basically attitudes and an outlook on reality.
The definition is very important. (Disturbing emotion or attitude, that’s sometimes translated as “emotional affliction” or “mental affliction” or—how else did I translate it?—“defilements.” There are many different mental defilements; there are many different translation terms. I prefer “disturbing emotion and attitude” because that fits the definition a little bit more closely, because it’s both emotions and attitudes; you can’t just call them emotions.) It’s an emotion or an attitude that, when it arises, it causes us to lose our peace of mind and it incapacitates us so that we lose self-control. This is Asanga’s definition; it’s a very good one—both parts—very good.
So it’s disturbing and you lose your peace of mind—like when you are under strong anger or strong desire, the mind is not peaceful at all—and it incapacitates us: we lose self-control and do stupid things, dumb things, that you regret later. That’s a disturbing emotion or a disturbing attitude. And there are six root ones. They are called “root” in the sense that they act as roots of samsara. There’s a whole list of twenty auxiliary disturbing emotions, so they’re the roots of them as well. So let’s just look at the first five of these six. These are the ones that don’t entail an outlook on reality.
(1) Longing desire (’dod-chags)
First of these is “longing desire,” according to Asanga’s definition. According to Vasubandhu’s definition, it’s “attachment.” But longing desire, it aims at any external or internal tainted object, an object associated with confusion—so we’re not talking about aiming for Buddhahood—and it could be either animate or inanimate, external or internal, and it wishes to acquire it based on regarding this object as attractive by its very nature. Asanga says it quite nicely. Its very nature is that it’s fantastic—best ice cream in the world—the most wonderful thing in the world, by its very nature. And then I’ve got to get it. This is attachment. It functions to bring us suffering, he says. We could also translate this in many contexts as “greed”; that’s there as well.
So longing desire or greed, it can occur with either sensory cognition or mental cognition, but it’s based on a conceptual interpolation beforehand. There are different opinions of this according to different textbooks (following basic commentary, I think, from Jetsunpa’s thing). But these mental factors don’t interpolate. They don’t add something to it, to the object. And so it’s really the interpolation beforehand, the conceptual thing beforehand that would exaggerate the good qualities of the object. Longing desire itself doesn’t exaggerate the good qualities, and so you can have longing desire while just looking at something. But beforehand, one moment or something like that, it would be based on a conceptual exaggeration of the thing.
[For more detail, see: Disturbing Emotions during Nonconceptual Sensory Cognition.]
That interpolation either exaggerates the good qualities of the desired object or it adds good qualities that it lacks, so that conceptual interpolation is actually an incorrect consideration; it pays attention to the desired object in an incorrect manner. For instance, considering something dirty as clean, something impermanent as permanent. Sort of exaggerates things. Longing desire could also be supported by a conceptual repudiation or denial beforehand of the negative qualities of its object.
And, from a Western perspective, I would say that when that longing desire is aimed at another person or group, it could take the form of wishing to possess the person or group as belonging to us, or for us to belong to that person or group. Usually it’s described that “I want to get it,” but from a Western perspective, I think we can also include here, as a subcategory, “I want to be included in that group,” “I want to belong to that group,” “I want to belong to that person.” So that’s sort of a—I don’t know if you call it an inverse type of longing desire, or something like that, but it’s certainly a form.
Vasubandhu defines this as “attachment” or “possessiveness,” not wishing to let go of any of the five types of desirable sense objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations) or of our own compulsive existence. And it’s also based on an exaggeration and an incorrect consideration. So you have to really put the two together, in a sense. Asanga is: wanting to get something that we don’t have; so that’s longing desire. And Vasubandhu is: not let go of what you do have; so attachment. This type of thing. Possessiveness versus greed.
So that’s the first.
(2) Anger (khong-khro)
Anger. This is the next one. Anger. It aims at another sentient being (you can get angry with somebody else) or our own suffering (you get angry that “I’m poor” or “I’m sick”). Or situations entailing suffering that may arise from either of the two—“I’m angry that somebody else got the job and I didn’t,” this type of thing, or “I’m angry with the bad decision that I made.” Or it could be simply aimed at situations in which the suffering occurs—angry with the war, for example. And it’s impatient with them, can’t stand it—this is Asanga’s explanation—and it wishes to get rid of them, rid of this thing, such as by damaging or hurting them, or striking out against them. So “Grrr, I want to get rid of it!” Real anger. And it’s based on regarding its object as unattractive or repulsive by its very nature, and it functions to bring us suffering. So this is anger.
When we talk about the three poisonous attitudes, it’s a different word in Tibetan and it’s the word that I would translate as “hostility” (zhe-sdang). Hostility is a subcategory of anger, and it’s directed primarily, although not exclusively, at sentient beings. You feel hostile toward this person. You don’t really feel hostile toward your car. Well, you can get angry at your car for not working. So I think “hostility” is more the flavor of this poisonous attitude, because it’s dealing with our poisonous attitude towards others.
And from a Western perspective, again, we can add that when anger or hostility is aimed at another person or group, it could take the form of rejecting them. That’s the standard definition. Or, because of fear of being rejected by that group or person, we can redirect the anger at ourselves. I don’t want to be rejected by this group, so we hold in that anger. I don’t want to be rejected by this person, and so I’ll just keep that anger inside and direct it at myself: “Don’t be stupid. Shut up. Don’t say anything,” this type of thing. The Tibetan Buddhists don’t talk about that, but I think that that’s a valid subcategory, from our Western experience.
And, again, it can occur either with sense cognition or mental cognition, but it’s based on a conceptual interpolation beforehand. And the interpolation either exaggerates the negative qualities of the object—remember, longing desire exaggerated the positive qualities; this exaggerates the negative qualities—or it adds negative qualities that it lacks. So, again, that conceptual cognition, that exaggeration, pays attention in an incorrect manner. And it can also be supported by a denial, the conceptual denial, of the good qualities. So you deny the good qualities.
(3) Arrogance (nga-rgyal, pride)
The next one, the third one, is arrogance or pride. It’s a puffed-up mind based on a false view of a transitory network. We’ll talk about that. That’s a specific attitude. In other words, we focus on some aspect of our body or mind and we identify it as a solid “me,” that’s my identity, and then we get all puffed up about it. It functions, interestingly, to make us not appreciate others or not respect the good qualities of others, and it prevents us from learning anything. So we get so puffed up about our good looks, or our money, or our intelligence, our strength, or whatever it is, and it prevents us from appreciating these qualities in others, or respecting them in others, and it prevents us from learning anything from anybody else, because we think we’ve got it all. There are seven subtypes of that, but we don’t really have time to go into that.
(4) Unawareness (ma-rig-pa)
Then the fourth one is unawareness. That is sometimes translated as “ignorance.” I don’t like the word “ignorance” because it implies stupidity. We’re not talking about being stupid. We’re talking about not knowing. Just unaware. Now, according to both Asanga and Vasubandhu, they say it’s the murky-mindedness—that’s the word they use—murky-mindedness of not knowing behavioral cause and effect, or not knowing the true nature of how others and we exist—so it’s unawareness—and the Gelug Prasangika adds that’s also not knowing the true nature of how all phenomena exist.
This murky-mindedness is a heaviness of mind and body. Dharmakirti, another Indian master, adds to this—it’s the murky-mindedness of apprehending something in an inverted way. That’s a very important distinction actually. You’re unaware. Well, you can be unaware simply just because I don’t know how things exist, or it could be I’m unaware because I’m taking things in an inverted way, in a wrong way. When one goes into deeper and deeper detail of things, then it’s… Which one of those two can occur in conceptual cognition? Well, conceptual would have to be not knowing because you’re taking it in an inverted way, because that involves an interpolation (adding something). Whereas in sense cognition, you can have unawareness with just simply not knowing (not adding anything to it). So these two aspects are important.
And what’s really I think very helpful here is: What does it do? Unawareness produces incorrect certainty, indecisive wavering, and complete befuddlement—I translate it as—complete befuddlement. So what does that mean? Unawareness makes incorrect certainty, so we’re stubborn in our certainty about something which is incorrect. So we’re stubborn about it. “Money is the most important thing in the world!” and we’re stubborn about that. And we’re insecure and unsure of ourselves, so that’s indecisive wavering. There’s some insecurity and I’m a little bit unsure about myself. And we’re completely befuddled—that’s stressed—we’re stressed about it. I think this gives a very nice way of identifying this. Stubborn, insecure, and stressed in our unawareness. So you just don’t know what’s going on, or you are getting things incorrectly.
There’s a difference here between this unawareness or ignorance and—what we were talking about before—naivety (gti-mug). Naivety is in the three poisonous attitudes. Unawareness can be about the true nature of reality that would accompany any mental activity, whether it’s destructive, constructive, or unspecified (it’s not specified as one or the other). Whereas naivety is a subcategory of unawareness, and it refers only to the unawareness that accompanies destructive states of mind. So that differentiation is made. Sometimes the texts are just speaking in loose terms when they talk about the three poisonous attitudes, but sometimes it’s more specific. So, when it’s more specific, it’s hostility rather than anger—this is hostility toward beings—and it’s naivety. So it accompanies destructive states. Not just general unawareness; that could accompany any state of mind.
(5) Indecisive wavering (the-tshoms, doubt)
And then the fifth one, the last one that we’ll discuss this evening, is indecisive wavering. It’s entertaining two minds or two opinions about what’s true. In other words, wavering between accepting or rejecting what’s true. What’s true, according to Asanga, is referring specifically to the four noble truths, and indecisive wavering functions as a basis for not engaging with what’s constructive. Vasubandhu would make it much more general. And, as we saw, it’s not focusing on the two objects simultaneously, but that decisiveness factor is very weak. So it goes to one of the two or three possibilities, and it’s indecisive, and so then it would go to the other one, and it’s going back and forth. This type of thing. Or just doubting—doubt is also another. We don’t mean doubt as in Zen—very profound doubting of everything—we don’t mean it in that sense. We mean it here in the sense of really being confused; we can’t decide.
Those are the five disturbing attitudes that are without an outlook on reality. And then, in our discussion of voidness, we’ll talk about the ones that have an outlook on reality. What we haven’t covered are that there’s twenty auxiliary disturbing emotions. These are things like hatred, and resentment, and concealment of having acted improperly, and outrage, and jealously, and miserliness, and pretention, and smugness, and all these sort of things, laziness, forgetfulness, mental wandering. There’s a whole list of twenty of them, and of course there’s lots more. And these are classified in terms of subcategories from the root disturbing emotions they come from.
And then Asanga’s presentation ends with four changeable subsidiary awarenesses or mental factors. “Changeable” means they can be either constructive, destructive, or unspecified, depending on the ethical status of the cognition that it shares five things in common with.
(1) Sleep (gnyid)
So there’s sleep, is the first of these. It’s withdrawal from sense cognition, and that sleep can be either constructive or destructive depending on the state of mind with which one goes to sleep. Sort of the aim. Motivation. Am I aiming to go to sleep to be able to renew my energies so I can continue to work to help others? Or am I going to sleep just because I can’t take it and just want to escape? Or just drop like an animal, type of thing.
(2) Regret (’gyod-pa)
And then regret. Regret. You can either regret a positive thing that we did or a negative thing that we did.
(3) Gross detection (rtog-pa)
And then there’s two next. Gross detection and subtle discernment. Gross detection. This is involved in analytic meditation or—what did I call it?—discerning meditation, in which… Gross detection—you investigate something roughly, like to see if there are any mistakes on a page. And that can be about something constructive or about something destructive. Is this an opportunity where I can go and shoot the enemy? So checking it out in a gross way.
(4) Subtle discernment (dpyod-pa)
And then subtle discernment would scrutinize finely the specific details. And that also can be with something positive or something negative—so those can go either way—or just unspecified. Which cake should I eat? What should I choose from the menu? We’re talking about something neutral. Of course it could be accompanied with greed and attachment, then it’s something else. But we’re talking here about the action, basically. The action is neutral with eating—what to choose for dinner.
So these are the mental factors and, as we saw, they present a system of analysis that is very, very helpful. It’s not exhaustive—there are many more factors—but, in our own daily behavior and in our meditation, by being able to see which factors are involved (which factors are strong, which factors are weak, which factors are deficient or missing), it gives us a clue as to how to correct or get rid of negative states and generate or improve positive states of mind that we might have.
So what questions do you have?
Question: Love, generosity, compassion, and patience were not in the eleven constructive emotions. So are they part of a list you didn’t give us? Or do they fit somewhere else here? Are they composites of all of these?
Alex: So the question is: Love, compassion, patience, generosity—even ethical self-discipline—are not in these lists. Are they from another list? Or do they fit in categories here? Well, they certainly are in other lists in terms of far-reaching attitudes (the perfections). Do they fit here? Probably, but I’ve never seen it worked out in detail. Certainly love and compassion could be in non-cruelty. Patience would also be in a lack of anger. Generosity could be in a lack of attachment. And ethical discipline is probably under the caring attitude. So, yes, you could work it out. I’ve not seen it actually in a text, but you could work it out logically.
Participant: They’re implicit but not explicit.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: Because there’s so many more mental factors that aren’t included in these. Because they aren’t in the list, that doesn’t mean they’re not in…
Participant: The rest of the pie.
Alex: Right. The comment made was that there’s so many more mental factors that aren’t in these lists. As I said, each version of the abhidharma has a slightly different list and defines many of the factors differently. And so, many of these factors either are part of the rest of the pie that wasn’t divided into 51, or they’re parts of some of those 51 pieces.
Question: I had a couple of questions. Where did the study of the mental factors come in, in terms of the history of the Buddha-Dharma’s development?
Alex: The question is: Where do these teachings on the mental factors come from? You find them in the abhidharma texts. The abhidharma, if I can recall correctly, was not recited at the First Council, because there are some objections that some people make about some of the abhidharma literature. But, in the First Council, they basically recited the vinaya (rules of discipline) and the sutras, and the abhidharma was recited outside the council of these first 500 arhats. And then it was passed down orally, basically, like the rest of the teachings. And you get different versions of it, just as you get different versions of vinaya in the 18 different schools of Hinayana that developed. I don’t know that all of them developed their own abhidharmas. And, in that type of abhidharma literature, a lot of it gets written down, basically, around the turn of the—from what we would say “Before the Common Era” to the “Common Era.” It was written down then, and you get elaborations on them in these commentaries by Vasubandhu and Asanga a little bit later—this is sort of like in the second century of the Common Era—and they codified it and put it together into systems.
Oh, and by the way, the Theravada abhidharma—really, the commentaries were written much later. Actually, the main commentary that’s studied is by Anuruddha, and that, I think, is something like the eighth century.
Alex: Buddhaghosa has an earlier version. But the one that was studied in terms of definitions, and things like that, is quite late.
Question: My other question is about mindfulness and alertness. I guess I’m a little bit fuzzy about it. Mindfulness, of course, is the grasp or the glue that keeps one’s attention to the object. And alertness is, then, keeping watch and seeing if glue is still there?
Alex: Right. Mindfulness is the glue. And the alertness is either keeping watch or it’s like the alarm system.
Question: The alarm system says, “Oh, I’ve let go.” Then this discussion doesn’t talk about the awareness of the content of your attention?
Alex: That’s correct. This discussion does not refer to awareness of the content of the object of focus. You see, this is the usage of “mindfulness” in the West. To be mindful of what thoughts are coming up, which means to recognize them, to distinguish them, what they are and what they are not. And then understanding of what they are. And then you have to add discriminating awareness, decisiveness that it’s this and not that. Those are different mental factors. That’s not the mental factor of mindfulness. Mindfulness is just the glue that’s keeping the attention fixed on the object.
Question: There are a couple of other Western terms that have been brought to mind by this discussion. I’d like to know whether there’s a real place for them in Buddhism and if we have an explanation. One is lucid thinking or lucid dreaming, and the other one is precognition.
Alex: So the question is: From the Buddhist perspective, how would we explain lucid dreaming and precognition? Lucid dreaming is when, in a dream, one is able to not only distinguish but discriminate that this is a dream and not reality (not an awake state, I should say). And then one is able to have intention to actually do something in the dream. So we experience it as a “me” that’s directing it. But actually what is arising is based on—together with an urge and so on—there’s the intention to do something in the dream, for something next to happen in the dream, and then that would cause the attention to go in that direction, and then to actually engage with that type of object. And, remember, “engage with the object” means also making that object appear to aspects of mental activity. So I think those are the main factors of lucid dreaming. And it just feels as though there’s a separate “me” that’s doing this, but it’s just a function of these mental factors—distinguishing, discriminating, and intention.
As for precognition, that’s a little bit difficult. There can be intuition; for example, intuition about something that might occur in the future. If you look at the definition of the future, the way that it’s used—at least in Prasangika—the word that’s used is “time not yet come.” So it’s not that the future exists somewhere out there and is happening, and we can sort of cognize it, because that would make the past, present and future occur simultaneously. You know, that the future is actually happening somewhere now so that we can see it, or the past is still happening so we can see the past. It’s not quite like that. But it’s described in Prasangika as “what is not yet come.” So it doesn’t exist yet. So what one is perceiving now is the collection of causes, they say. From that collection of causes—In most cases, it can be a type of inference of what might follow from it, and that could be accurate or inaccurate, and it may or may not happen.
In the case of a Buddha, a Buddha’s able to see this nonconceptually—it’s not with inference—but still a Buddha’s seeing the collection of causes. It’s not that the Buddha is seeing the actual future events, so it doesn’t imply predetermination. But how a Buddha is able to nonconceptually know what has passed—“passed,” that’s what they call the past—that doesn’t exist anymore either. And what has not yet come, nonconceptually—in other words, we’re not inferring the past from the effects now, and not inferring the future effects from the causes now—that’s really quite difficult to fathom, and it really hinges around the whole thing of noninherent existence.
[For a detailed analysis, see: What Does a Buddha Know in Knowing the Past. Present, and Future?]
Participant: I think I’m a little foggy, still, on firm conviction. I wrote down that it’s defined as: It focuses on a fact, that we have validly ascertained an object to be like this and not like that. And the function is to make our belief in the fact to be true, so that others cannot dissuade us.
Alex: It makes the belief so firm that others can’t dissuade us. This is firm conviction.
Question: And how does that fit with sort of the scientific method where you can have faith in something which you’ve discovered, up to a point—that you keep it open—your belief in that fact is open to be disproved or modified based on further discoveries and information? I mean, I thought that Buddhism allowed for people to continually keep their minds open, and learn more, and judge, constantly, not just make one firm judgment and stick with it forever.
Alex: That’s a very good question. The question is about firm conviction: If we’re talking about believing a fact to be true and becoming so firmly convinced of it that others’ arguments cannot dissuade us, doesn’t this discount the possibility that we can get a better understanding or a more accurate description?
I think there’s a difference between hypothesis and a fact. When we talk about a scientific description of atoms, or these sort of things—the way the universe starts—these sorts of things are hypotheses; they can become more accurate. But here, specifically, when we talk about this firm conviction, the main emphasis is on the four noble truths, that these are facts—in terms of cause and effect, that the nature of our experience is filled with problems, and it is possible to get rid of them forever so they never recur, and that there is a correct understanding that can bring that true stopping about. That’s the main emphasis here, on believing a fact to be true; it’s in terms of the four noble truths.
And so this is something that one really investigates very, very carefully, and it’s not in the same category of thing that would have, let’s say… Because Buddhism talks about this interpretable and definitive meanings, and different levels of meaning, and you can get a more refined understanding, and then more refined, and so on. So we’re not talking really about the scientific explanation of the universe. Of course, we can get more refined, but what’s implicit here is that there is a deepest truth. Now the deepest truth is sort of how things actually do exist. And, again, in terms of firm conviction, there’s this deepest fact that things are devoid of true inherent existence. Well, different Indian schools are going to say something different. The different Tibetan schools are going to also say something different, even within the realm of Madhyamaka. So there is an openness here that there can be various versions of the deepest truth.
I mean, it’s a difficult point. I think that you actually do though, in your meditation, in order to make progress, have to come to the point in which, “Well, this is the correct understanding” and then see does it actually work. I mean, there’s always this test—Dharmakirti says this—in terms of the effectiveness of something to produce its result. So, with this understanding, can you actually achieve a true stopping of problems and their causes—suffering and its causes? And if it actually works, then one has firm conviction in that.
There’s also a difference between levels of understanding of something. You could have firm conviction in the four noble truths, that these are correct, but my understanding of it can get more and more refined.
I don’t know. What would you say about that, Venerable? In terms of firm conviction. I mean, eventually you need to reach a conclusion.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: Right. But it’s the whole thing of the light switch—that you develop it gradually. And so you become firmly convinced in part of it, and then slowly that conviction would deepen and you get convinced in another part, and then convinced in another part. Firm conviction isn’t stubbornness, you know?
Alex: That’s an important point. Firm conviction isn’t stubbornness. And one approaches it gradually. But, you see, what is implicit here is that if there were no such thing as firm conviction, then you could never say that you’ve understood something fully.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: And you could never act, because you wouldn’t be convinced of it.
Alex: Yes. You could never act, because you wouldn’t be totally convinced of something. So it becomes important in the spiritual path, as I said, in the context of the four noble truths, to be firmly convinced that I can achieve liberation and enlightenment—it’s possible to achieve a true stopping. If you’re not firmly convinced in that—Well, I mean, that’s sort of a Dharma-lite version. One can certainly proceed and think, “Well, I can get pretty far, and so I might as well go along on the path because I derive benefit from going on it. But do I really, really believe that I can achieve liberation or enlightenment?”—That’s a hard one, because it really depends very much on understanding what liberation and enlightenment are, which are not at all easy to understand.
Participant: I think people often act without firm conviction, and I think that… For example, in the world of science, we may not understand everything about gravity, and yet we go ahead and continue to act as though gravity is going to do what we need it to do. And I think people are the same way. A lot of times, we don’t have all the beliefs lined up with 100% conviction before we act on things. Why do I think this is a good thing to develop, or that this is a good thing?
Alex: Right. So let me repeat: The point is that normally when we act, we can act without total conviction in what we do. Certainly, scientists proceed in terms of their latest theories or hypotheses, and we do that as well—we’re not totally convinced of something, but we act anyway. But here I think that you have to look at it within the context of reaching a goal. And in terms of reaching a goal such as liberation or enlightenment, you have to be totally convinced that you can reach it—that it is possible to reach it, that it exists—otherwise you can take steps towards it, but I don’t think you could reach the goal without conviction that it is possible to reach the goal.
Question: Just a last thing. These five ascertaining awarenesses, subsidiary awarenesses. The way you presented them, I was listening as though this is what you have to have. But isn’t it more like this is what we’re working towards?
Alex: So the question is: The way that the five ascertaining ones were presented, it looks as though: Aren’t these what we would like to have, or try to develop, but we might not necessarily have them? That is only if we specify them in terms of constructive states of mind. If we take it in Vasubandhu’s sense then it would accompany any state of mind. And, remember, all of these factors cover a spectrum—from almost no concentration all the way up to perfect concentration, from almost no mental hold all the way up to really strong mental hold that you can hold for a very long time. So these things can occur on very, very minimal levels.
Question: Would these awarenesses, and the skill that you have in them, transfer from one rebirth to the next?
Alex: That’s a good question. Do these skills that we’ve developed in one rebirth transfer from one to the next? Not in total, but what you would say is that by building up certain beneficial habits—meditating, practicing, and so on—then you will have strong legacies of that. “Seeds” is the technical term, or sometimes the word “habit” is used as well—or “instinct”—these words can be translated in many ways. Perhaps what’s closest in our way of formulating would be “instincts.” So you’re born with great instincts. They always differentiate between those that one is born with—so that would be like instincts—and those that one develops through practice and meditation in this lifetime.
Now it doesn’t necessarily follow, of course, that those instincts or legacies or potentials—or however you want to call them—are going to transform into a manifest form of these in each lifetime. If you’re reborn as a worm, well, they might not be too strong. But there’s the whole discussion that these legacies don’t just grow stale and go away by themselves once you’ve built up a certain habit or legacy. It sort of can be imputed on the mind-stream—I mean, these are abstractions—so long as there is still a possibility of it manifesting. If it can no longer manifest, then it’s finished. That refers specifically to grasping for true existence.
If, as a Buddha, you stay totally absorbed on voidness forever, then you’ve gotten rid of grasping for true existence, because there’s no opportunity for it to ever ripen again. So you can’t impute it as still being there. It’s no longer imputable on that mind-stream, on that mental continuum. I mean, that’s how the understanding of voidness gets rid of it—purifies ultimately—because it gets rid of any circumstance that would allow it to be triggered.
Question: Is there a quality underlying the disturbing factors that render them changeable or transformable?
Alex: The question is: Is there something underlying the disturbing emotions and attitudes that render them possible to be changed and eventually to be removed? Well, you would have to say that because the disturbing emotions do not have true findable existence (or inherent existence) on the mental continuum, therefore they can change—they can get stronger or they can get weaker—and also ultimately they can be removed. If these disturbing emotions have findable existence on the mental continuum by something inherent within the mental continuum or within the disturbing emotions themselves, then they could never be removed and nothing could ever change their strength. But, because they lack this findable existence from their own side, then the disturbing emotions can be affected in their strength by various aspects that affect karma, such as how often we repeat a certain type of action or way of thinking. And also by the presence or absence of the various factors that act as circumstances for the disturbing emotions to arise, such as the influence of friends, the influence of society and the media, the presence or absence of the object that would cause a disturbing emotion to arise—for instance, food that we are very attached to and greedy for; if we never buy it and never have it in our house, then the strength of the disturbing emotion of greed for it will gradually diminish—and so on. And also they can be removed by the various opponent forces, such as regret, and so on. And specifically they can be removed completely, so that they never recur, by means of the understanding of voidness and maintaining that nonconceptual absorption on voidness without any break, forever—as is the case of a Buddha, as I just explained, in terms of getting rid of the habits of grasping for true existence.
So it’s because of the voidness of the disturbing emotions, and the voidness of the mental continuum, and the fact that the mental continuum is not inherently stained by these disturbing emotions, that it is possible to actually remove them. But one crucial point here: This voidness of the disturbing emotions and the voidness of the mental continuum, they themselves are not truly and findably existent on the side of the disturbing emotions or the mental continuum and, by their own power, allow for the disturbing emotions to get stronger or weaker and eventually to be removed. One has to understand the voidness of voidness as well.
So that brings us to the end of this evening. And I think we can appreciate then the importance of these mental factors and having some working knowledge of them—not only to make improvements on our own following of the spiritual path, but also to enable us to be of best help to everyone.
So let’s end with a dedication.
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