Elaboration of "If Rebirth is Beginningless, Why Haven't We All Become Enlightened Already?"
Hamburg, Germany, November 2011
Session Two: Why Have Some Beings Developed Bodhichitta for the First Time and Others Have Not?
We have beginningless unawareness, these two obscurations, and beginningless Buddha-nature, these two networks. On the basis level, because we’re building up positive force with unawareness, naivety, and so on, it just becomes a samsara-building network. In order for these to become pure-building networks, a limited being needs to develop renunciation, or renunciation and bodhichitta, for the first time and then develop them further. Now unlike becoming my mother, developing renunciation and bodhichitta cannot occur naturally without the inspiration and teachings from a Buddha and without individual effort.
Part of our Buddha-nature, another aspect of it, is the ability of our mental continuums to be inspired. It’s referring to a whole set of factors that will transform into the various Bodies of the Buddha or allow for such a transformation to occur. You know the Bodies of a Buddha? The Form Bodies, the Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, Dharmakaya, etc. So one of the factors that will allow [that transformation] is the fact that, unlike a rock, we can be inspired, uplifted. That word inspiration (byin-gyis rlabs) a lot of people translate as blessing. I think that’s a totally misleading way of translating it. It has nothing to do with being blessed from on high and so on. Inspired through inspiration of a Buddha or a teacher or, in our Western terms, by the sunset – you can be inspired, uplifted.
So we have this as part of our Buddha-nature, and we also have the beginningless mental factors that will allow for effort. We have concentration – we have all these mental factors that are part of the aggregates, but they are again clouded and limited by beginningless unawareness and grasping for truly established existence. So we have the factors that will allow us to become a Buddha, and then we have other factors that prevent them from functioning fully. This is the dynamic that we are faced with that describes samsara, the ups and downs of samsara. It’s the dialectic between these two. So samsara.
The Implications of Time Being Beginningless in Terms of the Development of the Buddha-Nature Factors
Now, again one starts to analyze this and think about it. The important factor, which is quite difficult for us as Westerners to deal with, is no beginning, beginninglessness. If there were a beginning and at the beginning all limited beings were equal in having the same strengths of unawareness and grasping for true existence, then it would be difficult to account for the differences in how this finite number of limited beings develop spiritually. Do you follow that? If we all started out at the same point and we had infinite time, how do you account for the differences? That’s the problem with a beginning, one of the many, many problems with a beginning. And as I said, don’t trivialize the strength of our habitual way of thinking in terms of a beginning. We have that with science with the big bang. We have it with our Western religions with creation. So it’s very deeply embedded in our way of thinking.
If there were a beginning and everybody started out [as equal] the same, why should some limited beings have developed renunciation and bodhichitta for the first time and gone on to attain liberation and enlightenment while others have not? Unawareness or ignorance is preventing liberation and enlightenment. The opposing force is correct discriminating awareness of voidness. But that by itself is not enough. With a correct conceptual cognition of voidness but without either the force of renunciation or bodhichitta behind it, all that will do will be that it will make us very clever and maybe intelligent within samsara. Without renunciation and bodhichitta behind it, it’s impossible to have a nonconceptual cognition of voidness. You can get a conceptual one.
Do you know what a conceptual cognition and nonconceptual means? That’s not so easy to understand. Again a footnote: Conceptual means that you are thinking in terms of a category, voidness, and we have something that represents that when we focus on it or think about it. Think of a dog. Now everybody has undoubtedly a different picture in their mind – so-called in their mind, the Western way of talking – of what a dog looks like, don’t they? When we think of a dog, either there’s the sound of the word “dog” or we have a mental picture of a dog, but we’re thinking in terms of the category dog. Conceptual doesn’t have to be verbal, you know, and it doesn’t have to be a line of thinking. So when we’re conceptually focusing on voidness, we have the category voidness, we know what it means, and we have something that represents it, like empty space. And so we can be focusing on actual voidness but it’s through the veil, through the category, a mental picture, and then voidness itself. That’s conceptual.
Nonconceptual: without the category and the mental picture. We could give it a name though, and we know what it is. That’s the difficult thing to be able to understand with nonconceptual: it still has understanding. But we won’t go into that. It’s very important to – I mean, we’re always talking about conceptual and nonconceptual – to really understand what that’s referring to. To see a dog, know it’s a dog, without thinking “dog.” And of course we can see it without saying “dog” in our mind; we’re not talking about that simplistic level. Anyway, enough.
So the correct understanding of voidness needs to be held by the force of bodhichitta in order for it to oppose these factors that are preventing liberation and enlightenment. OK, so here’s the difficult situation, and it’s difficult to really, I think, appreciate the ramifications of this next point. Since there’s no beginning and each limited being is an individual with different strengths of unawareness, grasping for true existence, it’s been different forever. No beginning – it’s always been different, different strengths of these two networks, these samsara-building networks, different strengths of karmic aftermath and the tendencies of disturbing emotions and so on. Right? The aftermath of karma, the karmic tendencies, etc., and the different tendencies of disturbing emotions, the tendency to get angry, the tendency to have attachment. That’s been different forever in everybody. And different strengths of the mental factors enabling spiritual growth; it’s always been different levels in everybody – of concentration, discriminating awareness, intelligence, etc. It’s hard to conceive that it’s always been different. There’s no beginning when it started out at zero or started out at level one or whatever. But because of these differences, occasionally some limited beings may develop renunciation and bodhichitta.
Limited being (sems-can) – that’s usually translated as sentient being. Remember, Buddha is not a sentient being. Limited means a limited hardware, limited mind – not in terms of crippled, but limited in that it’s not omniscient – and limited body. Just think about it. If you had the brain of an earthworm, what would you be able to do? Your hardware is limited. Very little that you can do if you have a chicken brain as your hardware and you don’t even have hands. It’s very interesting to think in terms of hardware as in computer hardware. A Buddha’s not a sentient being, so that that’s why sentient, in English at least, is a little bit misleading. And we’re not talking about plants either. It has to be a being that has intention and will experience the consequences of what it does based on intention, so not a plant, not a rock.
There’s no beginning, so all these factors have always been different. Think about that. That really is not easy to digest. And whenever the doubt comes up about that, it’s because we’re still accustomed to thinking of a beginning, a starting point. OK.
So because of these differences, only some of us have developed – let’s just talk about bodhichitta – some of us have developed bodhichitta. But for this to happen it requires a large buildup of samsara-building positive force before that network of positive force, samsara-building positive force, is strong enough so that it ripens into us meeting a Buddha, and receiving teachings, and following them, and developing renunciation and bodhichitta for the first time. All right? And then the three zillion countless eons of more positive force.
Shantideva says it very nicely. He says even developing a positive thought not under the influence of a disturbing emotion is extremely rare. So Shantideva says (just two verses):
(5) Just as a flash of lightning on a dark,
For an instant, brightly illuminates all;
So, in this world, through the might of the Buddhas,
A positive attitude rarely and briefly appears.
(6) Thus, constructive (behavior) is constantly weak,
While negative forces are extremely strong,
and most unbearable.
Except for a full bodhichitta aim,
Can anything else constructive outshine it?
It’s exactly what we’ve been talking about. There’s a lot behind Shantideva’s verse.
Now a doubt arises. Maybe everybody’s already attained enlightenment, but we just don’t recognize it, just as we don’t recognize everyone as having been our mothers despite the fact that they’ve all been our mothers. Isn’t it the same? What’s the difference?
Participant: I recognize very clearly that I have disturbing emotions, so there is a difference between not recognizing the mothers and not recognizing enlightenment.
Alex: Because of our disturbing emotions? Well, I don’t think that that would explain it. Anyway, we don’t really have time for everybody to give answers, so let me give the answer to this. There may be other answers. Your answer may be correct, but again I have doubts about that. To oversimplify – maybe this isn’t what you mean – but to oversimplify, what you say is just that we’re too stupid to recognize it, but I don’t think that actually is going to answer our question. But as I say, maybe that’s not what you meant.
So there has to be a difference. In the case of all limited beings having been my mother, except for my mother in this lifetime while she is still alive, the state of being my mother of all other limited beings is no longer happening now. Right? But in the case of someone being enlightened, their state of being enlightened continues to be presently happening once it’s attained. Therefore, if for the reason of beginningless time, everybody should have already attained enlightenment, then everybody’s state of being enlightened would still be presently happening, including my own. But this is contradicted by valid cognition of at least my own way of acting, speaking, and thinking: I’m not enlightened.
So it’s not like the case of everybody having been my mother but I don’t recognize them because they’re not my mother in this lifetime. It’s not that everyone has attained enlightenment already but I don’t recognize them as such because they’re not enlightened in this lifetime. Do you follow that? The reason I don’t recognize everybody has been my mother is because they’re not my mother in this lifetime. Whereas in the case of somebody becoming enlightened, they’re still enlightened in this lifetime. So whether I can see it or not, having disturbing emotions is secondary. The point is that they’re still enlightened in this lifetime, so it should be possible to see.
You see, your answer of being disturbed – as I say, it’s oversimplified. Being too stupid would be a reason why we wouldn’t recognize either of these two, somebody having been my mother or somebody being enlightened. So it doesn’t account for the difference. That’s why logic, Buddhist logic – it’s very, very important, very helpful for getting clear our understanding. The whole point of debate is to clear away all doubts so that when you meditate you’re able to focus with single-pointed concentration without doubts or uncertainty coming in. That’s the whole point of the debate. And the point within the debate is not to come up with the right answer. That’s not the point. The exercise is having a position and then being able to defend it and the other person pointing out contradictions or weaknesses in your thinking, because in your own analytical meditation you would never be as critical of your thinking as somebody else will be. So please understand the importance and aim of debate. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s all intended to help us with meditation.
So now we can ask the question: How is it that some but not all limited beings have built up sufficient samsaric positive force to have met a Buddha, received teachings, followed them, and developed renunciation and bodhichitta for the first time? How did they do it? How did some people do it? How did it happen? What role did choice and decision-making play in this?
Now we have to analyze. In the case of becoming my mother, positive force was not required for this to happen, and no decision or choice was involved either, was there? It just happens that someone becomes our mother because, over infinite time, everybody will have interacted with each other. This is because all beings are equal in the sense that all beings engage in samsaric activity and all beings undergo rebirth. It’s not that everybody’s just sort of standing still in one position forever. Everything is changing all the time.
Then Buddhist logic: you have to give an example. It’s like the example that all dust particles in a room over infinite time will collide with each other because all of them are equally in motion. So that’s an analogy for why everybody, if there’s no beginning to rebirth, has at some point been our mother. That’s another demonstration of it. With no beginning and the fact that everybody has been reborn all the time, like dust particles colliding, everybody will have met each other, everybody will have been my mother, everybody will have been my father, everybody will have been my child, my enemy, and so on, like dust particles colliding in a room.
So now another doubt arises: But what about meeting my gurus in all my lifetimes? What’s the difference? In order to meet the Dharma and meet and study with spiritual teachers in all our lifetimes, we have to have offered prayers for that and dedicated our positive force for that to happen. See? We’re putting together another piece of the puzzle. No one would ordinarily offer prayers and dedicate positive force to be born as the child of a specific person in all his or her lifetimes. That’s the difference, isn’t it?
OK, so now our scientific background. We want to apply the laws of probability here. So the laws of probability lead to the conclusion that everyone’s been my mother at some time, like the laws of probability predict that all the particles of dust in a room will eventually collide with each other if given enough time. But the laws of probability do not lead to the conclusion that everyone has met a Buddha at some time. Why? So you see how important it is to ask questions. Is it just a matter of probability that at some point we will meet a Buddha? And if it is, then it should have happened already. Why [didn’t it happen already]? Because a buildup of positive force is required for meeting a Buddha, receiving teachings, and so on. We didn’t have to build up positive force for someone to be our mother. And again if there were a beginning at which point everyone’s network of positive force was equal, then the same line of reasoning as proved everybody has been our mother would prove that everybody has developed bodhichitta and become a Buddha.
So we apply the prasanga argument here by looking at the opposite. If one person had met a Buddha and so on, everyone would have met a Buddha; otherwise, if one person had not met a Buddha, no one would have ever met a Buddha, including Shakyamuni’s personal disciples. So laws of probability don’t apply. That’s a difficult one to accept. And you have to continually come up with doubts, to say, “Well, but…”
Someone over there has a doubt.
Question: What blocks or prevents meeting with a Buddha?
Alex: What prevents the meeting with a Buddha is that we haven’t built up enough positive force. And this is what – I hope that we’ll get to it – my whole presentation is leading to. In order to build up positive force, we have to be able to make a choice. When we feel like acting destructively, let’s say yelling at you, and when the feeling is there to not yell at you, to refrain from that, how does the decision occur to choose one and not the other? That’s what it all comes down to. This is where everything is leading to in this discussion. How do you make the decision between yelling at somebody and not yelling? Do you have a choice? Everything comes from that. As I said in the beginning, this is material for you to analyze, to work with, to debate with each other afterwards. This is a big long analysis because this is a very difficult question.
So since there was no beginning, everybody’s network of positive force has always been of different strengths. Always. So the positive force has been always different in everybody, the value of it, the level of it. Because of that, only some limited beings have built up sufficient strength of positive force to have met a Buddha. Not everybody. We need to have attained a precious human rebirth in order to build up more positive force. However, you need the positive force in order to attain a precious human rebirth, so it’s difficult. And as the lam-rim texts all explain, if we’ve built up enough strength of positive force to have attained a fully endowed precious human rebirth, then we have the working basis for developing renunciation and bodhichitta for the first time and going on to become enlightened. So precious human rebirth. It comes down to that. How do we get that?
So, in summary, what is it that we’re all equal in? What we have are two sets of opposing factors, and there’s always the dynamic between the two. We have the beginningless Buddha-nature factors that will allow us to become a Buddha, but we have beginningless unawareness of reality and grasping for true existence that prevent it. And we have all the other mental factors that are included in the five aggregates of each lifetime. These are going to be our working materials. They’ll be different strengths all the time, but these are our working materials.
So you have to know the fifty-one mental factors, don’t you? Bring that in. So we have neutral ones – urge, intention, concentration, discriminating awareness, interest, all these sorts of things – that can be used in either direction, positive or negative. And we do have positive ones, constructive ones – we do have those – like a caring attitude that accounts for taking care of the young; survival instinct, taking care of ourselves (so toward self and toward others). That’s instinctive, so that’s part of the hardware. Then we also have disturbing emotions and attitudes, like anger, greed, attachment. You can see that in a dog. So again very important. It’s not that all of these started at “value equals zero” at the beginning. There’s been no beginning, so the strength of each of these has always been different in each being. So we have factors that will let us become a Buddha, we have the factors that hinder it, and we have all the tools and working materials that could work in either direction, and they’re all always at different levels (of strength).
So now the real question is how to overcome all of these factors just working to keep us in endless samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, as the basis for more and more suffering, more and more problems, uncontrollably recurring problems. What are the problems, the main ones? The first two types of suffering. From negative force we’re unhappy. From positive force we’re happy, but that happiness is the usual happiness that never lasts, never satisfies, etc., and if we have too much, like eating too much of our favorite food, it turns to unhappiness. That is samsara, my friends. Up and down – sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy – you never know what’s going to come next, and it’s totally insecure. That’s what we want to overcome. And having the mechanism, the type of rebirth, that will support the up and down – happy, unhappy, happy, unhappy – regardless of what else is happening to us. It’s important to understand that; otherwise it’s very difficult to develop renunciation. Don’t trivialize renunciation – you know, give up chocolate. We’re not talking about that.
So the question is: When faced with the choice of striving to develop bodhichitta or not for the first time – so we have a choice here – how does the decision-making occur if it’s neither free will nor determinism?
Now we use scientific method to analyze. In my early, earliest things that I studied, I studied organic chemistry. And in that there’s the compound that you want to make. So what comes before that, that you have to make, that it could come from? What comes before that? What comes before that, before that, before that – to get to the most basic building blocks. So you apply the same method of analysis here.
To even be in the position to decide whether or not to aim for enlightenment in order to best benefit all beings, what do we need? The thing that comes immediately before that is confident belief in the existence of the qualities of a Buddha, our ability to achieve them, and an aspiration to attain them ourselves, and that we can attain it. Why aim for something that’s impossible or that doesn’t even exist? You have to be confident that it actually exists, that it is possible.
Unfortunately most people never even think like that who are following Buddhism. They never even really seriously consider is enlightenment possible. And of course you have to know what enlightenment is in order to be able to even ask the question seriously: Is it possible? So often we’re just working for… I don’t know what we’re working for. Basically to improve samsara in this lifetime, to have less problems in this lifetime, if you’re honest with yourself. Which is OK. The Buddhist teachings can help us to improve this lifetime, but don’t reduce Buddhism to only that. Then it just becomes another form of psychology. Buddhism is much, much more than that.
So to develop this – that we actually believe that the qualities of a Buddha are possible, they exist, and so on – to develop that, what comes before that? You have to encounter the teachings of a Buddha. If you’ve never heard of Buddhism, of Buddha, of the Dharma, and so on, how would you ever be able to think and ask the question: Is enlightenment possible? You’ve never even heard of it. You have to have interest in the teachings of a Buddha, and you have to encounter a teacher who teaches them. And in meeting the teachings and in meeting a teacher – when we meet them, that means not to have an antagonistic distorted attitude toward them. We need to have an open mind. And interest. (There’s all these Buddhist centers available now. A lot of people have no interest whatsoever. So it’s not just that the teachings are available.) And we need to have love and compassion to help others too and not just be totally selfish.
So what do we need in order to have that (one step back)? To develop this, we need at minimum a precious human rebirth, so that the teachings and teachers are available, they are supported (like you have this magnificent center here), we’re a human being not a dog or a fly, and we encounter, we actually meet, the teachers and teachings, and we’re receptive to them, and so on – the whole list of the qualities of a precious human rebirth – [and we] take them seriously. So you need that.
Then what comes before that? What are the causes for a precious human rebirth? See, we’re putting together all these pieces of the puzzle from lam-rim. What do you need? You need ethical discipline – the main cause – ethical discipline and prayer. You have to pray and dedicate positive force, etc. “May I always have a precious human rebirth in all my lifetimes up to liberation and enlightenment.” And these have to be helped by the other five far-reaching attitudes (or perfections, paramitas, however you want to call them). So generosity, patience. We already had ethical discipline. So patience, joyful perseverance. Mental stability. Sometimes it’s translated as concentration. We’re not just talking about concentration; we’re talking about stability, so not emotional up and down and so on, or just mental wandering, or dull up and down – stable. And discriminating awareness. Sometimes people use for this the word wisdom, but that’s too vague.
There are various kinds of ethical discipline, but the main one here is refraining from destructive behavior, based on discriminating awareness of the disadvantages of destructive behavior and the benefits of refraining from it. That’s what we’re discriminating, one from the other. It’s not just refraining from acting terribly because you want to please your teacher or whatever. Well, in a sense it’s to avoid getting in trouble, but not just stiff, mechanically. There has to be understanding behind it.
This is a very interesting question. I spend a lot of time with this with my students. Why don’t you steal or lie? Why personally? And if it comes down to “Because I want to be good. I don’t want to be bad,” where’s that coming from? That’s like – well, your parents are going to say “Bad girl,” “Bad boy,” “Be good.”
Participant: I don’t want to go to prison.
Alex: You don’t want to go to prison. But usually for most Dharma people it comes down to that it just doesn’t feel right. It’s very interesting to analyze. Why don’t you steal? It just doesn’t feel right to do that. But in the actual Buddhist sense, it should be with full understanding that if I lie, if I steal, these are the karmic consequences (it leads to unhappiness and so on), and if I refrain it leads to happiness, and be convinced of that.
And what is discriminating awareness? Vasubandhu defines it in Abhidharmakosha very nicely. It means intelligent awareness, and that’s defined as the mental factor that decisively discriminates that something is correct or incorrect, constructive or destructive, harmful or beneficial. So it adds decisiveness. It’s a very important factor that we’ll be looking at. Decisiveness to distinguishing an object – distinguish helpful, not helpful – and it could be either correct or incorrect. But we can only develop such discriminating awareness in a precious human rebirth. Everything comes down to the precious human rebirth.
So let’s leave that here, and we’ll continue after lunch.
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