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Elaboration of "What Does It Mean to Understand Something?"

Alexander Berzin
Vienna, Austria, March 2012

Session One: Apprehension (rtogs-pa)

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:53 hours)

Introduction to the Topic

This evening we’re going to be exploring the topic “What does it mean to understand something?” And this is obviously a very important topic and one which is not really traditionally dealt with in Dharma presentations. But obviously we need to understand the teachings. We need to understand impermanence, voidness. We need to understand the texts. We need to understand people that we’re trying to help, understand their problems, and we have to understand what they say.

And unfortunately when we use the word understand in all these contexts, actually it has a slightly different feeling to it, slightly different meaning, because we actually have quite a few terms that are used, sometimes interchangeably, sometimes to mean the same thing: We could know something. We could understand something. We could apprehend something (apprehend means to know it accurately and decisively). And obviously the way these words are used in one language, like English, and the way that the so-called equivalent terms in another language, like your German – they’re not going to exactly correspond to each other. So, for instance, when we say in English, “I know French” and “I understand French,” those mean the same thing. But “I apprehend what you said,” “I know what you said,” and “I understand what you said” are different. “I know what I read,” “I understand what I read” – also slightly different, isn’t it?

So it is very important, I think, to have a clear idea of what actually are these stages that we would go through in increasing… Now, we don’t even have a word for it – Do you want to call it knowledge? Do you want to call it understanding? – that would cover all of this. There’s no word. We don’t have the terms. This is the problem. And in order to (pardon me, we have to use the word) “understand” all of this, we need to be precise. Otherwise you can’t identify actually what is my level of knowing or understanding, and we couldn’t really know do I understand something or not. As I said, how do I know that I understood it?

Terms Associated with Cognition and Understanding

In Tibetan we have a number of different terms. Since our translator knows a little bit of Tibetan, I’ll also mention the Tibetan terms.

We have the word sem (sems). That’s usually translated as “mind,” but actually that’s a bit of a misleading translation. It means mental activity. It’s not talking about a thing; it’s talking about an activity, something that occurs moment to moment. This is the most general term. And what does it mean? The definition is “mere clarity and awareness” (gsal-rig tsam). Each of those words have definitions, and they don’t mean what our words mean:

  • “Clarity” (gsal) does not mean things are in focus, but rather it means giving rise to a mental hologram. When we perceive something, when we cognize something – actually, if you think about it, when you see, photons come hit the optic nerve through the various things of the eye, and various electric and chemical impulses go to the brain, and that is somehow translated into… the best word is a “mental hologram.” That’s what we see. The same thing with hearing sounds – just a vibration of some membrane in the ear, so that’s translated into a mental hologram. Thoughts, emotions – all of them are mental holograms. That’s the word “clarity”: giving rise to a mental hologram, making something appear.
  • The second word, “awareness” (rig), means a mental engagement. Actually it could be knowing something, not knowing something, being conscious of it, being unconscious of it – any type of mental engagement.

And these two are not separate processes. They are looking at the same event, the same activity, from two points of view. The arising of a thought is the same as thinking a thought. It’s not that first the thought arises and then you think it. Or that a mental hologram arises and then you see it. How would you even know that it’s there in order to be able to see it? So this is absurd, that they’re separate.

  • And the word “mere” (tsam), which means “only,” is that this is all that’s happening. There’s no separate me from this whole process which is observing it or controlling it, or a separate mind as some sort of thing that’s doing it – like a machine and there’s a me sitting behind it and working the machine, and then it works, this is the activity. It’s not like that.

This is the most basic definition of mental activity. No matter what kind of mental activity we’re talking about, this is what’s occurring. And it’s occurring moment to moment to moment with absolutely no break in continuity, no beginning, no end. And individual – very important – it’s individual. Of course there are many meditation methods – mahamudra, for example – to try to recognize this mental activity that’s going on regardless of what we are seeing or hearing or anything like that. That’s a whole separate topic and a very helpful one actually.

Then we have several other words, like shepa (shes-pa), to cognize an object; rigpa (rig-pa), to be aware of an object; dzinpa (’dzin-pa), to take an object. All of these are synonyms. And what that means – it’s actively holding onto an object in a cognitive manner. And these are important terms because there are many, many different ways to hold onto an object in a cognitive manner: it can be conceptual (rtog-pa), it can be nonconceptual (rtog-med), it can be inference (rjes-dpag), it could be presumption (yid-dpyod), indecision (the-tshoms). There are many, many different ways. It could be conceptual, nonconceptual. It could be perception, sense perception. It could be presumption (you presume something to be true, but you don’t really understand why), indecisive wavering (is it this? is it that?), distorted cognition (log-shes) (you just get it wrong).

This is a big topic that is also studied in Tibetan Buddhism in the monasteries. They study that, in the traditional training, for at least a year. That’s very important for being able to identify just how do I know something. Some ways of knowing something are valid. Some are not valid. Obviously in our topic, understanding, we have to know is it a correct understanding or an incorrect understanding, are we sure of it or not so sure of it.

Then there’s another term, togpa (rtogs-pa) it’s called in Tibetan, and a very difficult term to translate into English. I’ve come up with “to apprehend something,” which is not a common word. But we don’t really have a word in English. And that means to cognize something accurately and decisively.

To translator: An accurate translation. Very good. And decisive; you made up your mind. Very good. Maybe there was a little bit of indecisive wavering there.

You see, that’s a very good example. Did he really understand what I said? Or did he know it [already] and so he could remember it? And then how accurate and how decisive is his way of translating? A very good example. He could be a dictionary machine – he gives the precise translation, but he didn’t understand it at all. That’s also quite possible.

Then we have this word in Tibetan gowa (go-ba), to understand something. And this is not well-defined in Tibetan. I was very surprised to learn that.

Question: How do you spell it?

Alex: Gowa? In Tibetan? Just g-o, if you were to spell it. It’s the same word as in hagosong. Hagosong is the colloquial for that. This is the classical word for it. But it’s there in the classical texts. Tsongkhapa uses it – Lam-rim chen-mo, you find it.

I’ll tell you a story. I’m very close to the young reincarnation of my teacher. I was very close with the old one – Serkong Rinpoche – and I’m very, very close to the young one, who’s now 27. So I called him up and asked him, “What’s the definition of gowa?” And he said, “There is no definition. It’s not defined.” And so I said, “Well, why don’t you ask your teacher what does it mean?” And he said to my surprise that “I don’t think that any Tibetan has ever asked that question. It’s not a question that really you could appropriately ask.” So I said, “Well, you could be the first to ask that.” But I don’t think he pursued that.

So it is up to us to explore and analyze and figure out what does this mean, if this is the word that would correspond to our word “understand.” Because usually this togpa (“to apprehend”) is taken to mean understand, but it’s not really understanding; it’s apprehending. So apprehend and understand are not synonymous. If we understand something, we also apprehend it. But if we apprehend it, we don’t necessarily understand it. If we understand it correctly, I mean – then we apprehend it. Because also of course we have incorrect understanding. We’re not talking about incorrect understanding, which is perhaps what often we have, or imprecise understanding.

You see, this is the problem. We can modify the word “understanding” in our languages and say “incorrect understanding” or “not a very decisive understanding” (we understand it, but we’re not quite sure). That’s the difficulty with the word “understand.” In Tibetan it wouldn’t be like that. So at least for the process of trying to understand what it means to understand something, we should take that in terms of understanding it correctly and decisively, not false understanding or not-quite-sure understanding.

Now we have to start to employ the Tibetan way of – Tibetans didn’t make it up (it comes from India) – the Indian tradition of logic and analysis, a very useful tool. You see, this is what I try to teach when I’m teaching people like you, not just give you information. You can read that anywhere – not anywhere, but you can read it. The point is to learn how to analyze yourself, how to figure things out. This is the whole point of Dharma training, is to learn how to figure things out yourself. We need to learn how to analyze properly. If you can analyze something properly, you’ve understood it.

What Does It Mean to Apprehend Something?

So let’s explore the word apprehend (rtogs-pa). To apprehend something means to cognize it both accurately and decisively.

There are four possibilities. (This is the way you always analyze, and maybe this will make it clearer.) Your cognition – that means knowing something – your cognition can be:

  1. It can be both accurate and decisive. The person said “yes,” you heard “yes,” and you’re sure about it. No indecision. No doubts. That’s what decisive means. You don’t have any doubts about it.
  2. It could be inaccurate and decisive. The person said “yes,” you heard “no,” and you’re sure that they said “no.”
  3. It could be accurate and indecisive. The person said “yes,” you heard “yes,” but you’re not sure (I think I heard “yes”).
  4. Then it could be inaccurate and indecisive. The person said “yes,” you heard “no,” but again you’re not quite sure.

That’s very important to know, that there are these four possibilities when we are communicating with somebody, because each of these four could take place. And even if we apprehend correctly and decisively, we might still not really understand what the person meant by saying “yes.” “What did you mean by that?” I think that’s a very good clear example of the difference between apprehend and understand. Just because you apprehended it – “You said that. I really heard what you said. I’m positive that’s what you said. But I have no idea what you meant.” That shows the difference between the two.

Explicit and Implicit Apprehension

Apprehension can be either explicit (dngos-su rtogs-pa) or implicit (shugs-la rtogs-pa) – now we get a little bit more detail – the difference is whether or not a mental hologram of the involved object arises or not. So let’s take an example:

  • I explicitly apprehend the sound of footsteps on the stairs. That’s what I hear. There’s a mental hologram. I mean there’s just a vibration in my ear, but there’s a mental hologram from that of a sound of footsteps on the stairs. That’s explicit. A mental hologram arises of that sound.
  • Implicitly I apprehend the presence of somebody there. There’s no mental hologram of a person, but I know implicitly, decisively, accurately, somebody’s coming on the stairs when I hear the sound.

Okay? So this is the two types of apprehension that we have: explicit, implicit. It can’t be implicit by itself; you have to have explicit. And explicit can either be with something implicit or not. Like, for instance, explicitly I see these flowers. A mental hologram of the flowers arises. Implicitly I know “no piece of fruit.” It’s not a piece of fruit. Not a piece of fruit – a piece of fruit doesn’t appear, but I know that’s not a piece of fruit, don’t I?

Question: It’s implicitly because a mental hologram doesn’t arise, right?

Alex: A mental hologram of not-an-orange doesn’t arise. A mental hologram of an orange doesn’t arise, and a mental hologram of not-an-orange doesn’t arise either. This is important. We’ll come back to that. That has to do with whether or not something is decisive.

Apprehension Is Accurate

Okay, so now you have to analyze further. How do you analyze? You analyze with definitions. Tibetan Buddhism, coming from the Indian tradition, defines most things. Unfortunately it doesn’t define “to understand,” but it defines most terms. So we have to analyze – try to understand – what does “accurate” mean? How do you know it’s accurate, what I understood? How do you know that anything is accurate? We have to understand what it means to be accurate and what it means to be decisive. That’s the only way to figure things out. Look at the definitions, and in the definitions look at the definitions of the words in the definition, and then see what are the implications and so on.

Let’s take the example of apprehending with audio cognition the sound of our baby crying. How do you know that’s accurate? You hear the sound. How do you know accurately that this is the sound of your baby crying?

“Accurate” means that it fulfills the three criteria of Dharmakirti for a cognition being valid.

  1. It accords with a convention. Babies cry. Okay, so it fulfills that thing. There’s the convention: that sound that I hear – well, babies cry. So okay.
  2. It’s not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes conventional truth. What does that mean? It means that others can also hear the sound of the baby crying. You ask somebody else, you ask a few people, “Did you hear the baby crying?” You put on the recording machine – is there the sound of a baby crying? It conforms. Nobody contradicts that and says, “No, I didn’t hear anything.”
  3. It’s not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes deepest truth. So deepest truth. Aryas – those who nonconceptually cognize deepest truth – aryas do not perceive the sound of a baby crying as arising independently of causes and conditions and independently of what the mental label “crying” refers to.

Do you understand what that means? No. What does that mean? Let’s say I think, “Well, it’s just a sound. Baby’s crying, okay, but it doesn’t mean anything. There’s nothing wrong with the baby.” That would be thinking that the sound is arising independently of a cause. That’s impossible.

Translator: Can you repeat that? I didn’t... It’s too fast. I have to understand to translate.

Alex: You didn’t apprehend it. Look at that! So if somebody says, or if I think, that this sound is arising, the sound of crying – okay, I acknowledge that it’s crying, but I think, “Well, there’s nothing wrong. There’s no cause for it. It’s arising for no cause at all. Babies just sometimes make that sound.” That would be contradicted by what an arya would know.

Or babies making that sound – well, what is it? “Oh, it’s just a sound.” If I think that, that’s incorrect – an arya would contradict that – because that’s what the concept “crying” refers to. That’s what it is. So you have to deal with the crying. It’s not just a sound. It’s what the word “crying” is referring to.

The sound that the baby is making… This is a very good example of what we’re talking about – understanding, apprehending, and so on. Very good. Very helpful. What is crying? What does the word “crying” mean? What is it referring to? It’s referring to the sound that the baby is making. Now if I think that that sound is just a sound – I don’t see it as what the word “crying” refers to – I’m not going to deal with it, am I? “It’s just a sound. Babies make sounds. Thank you very much.” [But] that sound is crying.

What do we hear? We just hear a sound, don’t we? It’s just a vibration of air. But it is what the word “crying” refers to. If we think that it’s just a sound existing by itself, we wouldn’t identify it as the sound of crying, would we? Do you follow that? I mean, it’s just designated as crying. It’s given that word. Well, but there’s a lot of things that go together with crying, isn’t there, a lot of meaning. Because, after all, it’s just a sound.

Think about this. You see, you hear all this stuff about mental labeling and imputation and so on. You have to really think about it. It’s talking about something, something that actually occurs all the time. It’s not something esoteric, really, really obscure and so on. It’s not. It’s totally practical. Everything in the Dharma is meant for practical application to help us to overcome suffering. Therefore you try to figure out what in the world does this actually mean in practical daily life. And taking refuge implies that we actually are convinced that everything does makes sense, what the Buddha taught. It’s not nonsense. And the training is to figure it out ourselves. That is a very, very basic principle of Dharma, that we are all capable of figuring it out ourselves.

Okay, so just because we accurately hear the sound of the baby crying doesn’t mean that we understand what it means. The dog can also accurately hear the sound of the baby crying, can’t it? Okay? So there has to be more.

Now, decisive. What does that mean? “Decisive” means to… Well, why don’t we take a minute to digest what “accurate” means. How do you know that what you heard was accurate? What have we learned from what I explained?

Your friend or your partner says something to you, for example. And it seems really strange to you, what they said, so you’re not quite sure about it. So what does this say, what we just explained? Ask again. “What did you say? I’m not quite sure I understood it. I’m not quite sure I heard it correctly.” Have it confirmed with conventional truth.

Your partner comes home, doesn’t say a word, goes into another room, closes the door. What’s that? Well, I accurately saw that. That’s really what I saw. Now I think, “My partner is angry with me. That’s why they did that.” So does that accord with a convention? Well, yeah. I mean, if they’re angry, they could do that. There’s that convention. They don’t want to talk to me. But also there’s the convention that when they’re really tired that that’s also what they would do. They would go into the other room. They just have to lie down. They’re too exhausted to talk. They had a terrible day at work.

So – second one – does it accord with conventional truth? Ask, “Are you angry with me?” Ask. Don’t just assume. Get other evidence. Look did they lie down and go to sleep. I mean, get other evidence, further evidence. And then deepest truth: Am I the center of the universe that I am the only important thing in this other person’s life, and the reason why any type of behavior they do is totally because of me? This is ridiculous, isn’t it? So it’s contradicted by deepest truth. There are many, many different causes and conditions for why this person acted like that, not just me.

So these three criteria of Dharmakirti – very, very useful, very practical. How do we know what we see, what we understand, is accurate, is correct or not? Well, think about that for a moment.

Apprehension Is Decisive

Okay. The second term in the definition of apprehension is “decisive.” What does that mean? First we have a mental factor called distinguishing (’du-shes). That’s usually translated as “recognition,” but that is a very misleading way of translating it. That’s not an accurate translation. “Distinguish” is the meaning here.

We distinguish a certain characteristic feature (mtshan-nyid) in a sense field, sensory field. How do you distinguish in, for instance, the visual sense field? What am I seeing? I’m seeing a lot of colored shapes. That’s what I’m seeing, isn’t it? Colored shapes. Now, how do I put those colored shapes together into different objects? Well, I distinguish a certain characteristic feature. I distinguish these colored objects, these colored shapes, from the ones in the background. That’s what this mental factor is talking about. It’s not that you know what it is. It’s colored forms. It’s not that colors and shapes are separate things. You see colored shapes.

Translator: [Talks about distinguishing whether a colored shape is near or far away.]

Alex: No. It’s not that. It’s how do you distinguish it from the background. I see colored shapes over here, and I could put together the tan colored shapes with the yellow colored shapes behind it and make that into an object. Well, that’s not an object, is it? So how do I put the brown colored shapes and the tan colored shapes – these shapes – into one object? It’s the most basic, fundamental – one of the most basic, fundamental mental factors. That’s why it’s one of the five aggregates. A worm has that. Everybody has that. So even the worm has that.

You’re in a crowded restaurant. Lots of people are talking. How do you distinguish the sounds of your friend talking from all the other sounds? Obviously there is a characteristic feature of the tone and sound of their voice that you can distinguish from all the other voices that you are hearing. This is how our minds work. Mental activity works like that. It has to.

So this is distinguishing.

And then with discriminating awareness… That’s another mental factor. Discriminating awareness. That’s sherab (shes-rab) in Tibetan. Distinguish is dushey (’du-shes). So what does sherab add? What does discriminating awareness add? I mean, sometimes it’s translated as “wisdom.” This is ridiculous. When super-developed it can be something... But this is a regular mental factor. What does it do? It adds decisiveness to the distinguishing. That’s the definition. You have to have different words. So one is “distinguishing”: I can distinguish this from that. And discriminating awareness: “it adds certainty to the distinguishing” is the definition.

Think of the definition. The definition is “it adds certainty to the distinguishing” so that you have no wavering about it and later you’ll have no doubts about it. So how does that work? This means when we explicitly apprehend the object, such as we’re hearing the sound of the baby crying, we’re distinguishing the defining characteristic of the sound as the characteristic feature of crying. The television is on and somebody else is talking in the room, so we’re hearing all these sounds simultaneously. So we distinguish from all these sounds the distinctive feature of the sound of crying. Otherwise, how do you hear a crying? It has to be that.

A characteristic feature is not a quality. A quality is like loud, soft, and so on. Characteristic feature – it’s quite difficult to understand what that means. Actually think about that. That’s quite difficult. There is a characteristic feature of the sound of crying. You can distinguish that from the sound of the water dripping. It would be hard to describe, wouldn’t it, but we know it. Actually it’s mentally labeled. There’s nothing on the side of the sound that establishes it as the sound of crying. Let’s just say there’s nothing on the side of the sound that establishes it as crying. There’s not a little tag inside that says, “I’m the sound of crying.” It’s just a mental label. We’ve decided. It’s a convention. It’s a convention that we’ve decided, that there’s a characteristic feature of this sound. Right? You can find it in the dictionary. It’s obviously made up by people, the definition – decided what are the definitions of things. People make that up, don’t they? But conventionally there are defining characteristics. That’s what “conventional” means, a convention.

So that’s explicitly what’s going on. Explicitly there’s a mental hologram of the sound, right? But there’s all sorts of other sounds going on. So explicitly we distinguish the defining characteristics of the sound of crying from everything else. That’s explicit, right, the sound of the crying.

Question: Explicit in the sense of that as a mental hologram?

Alex: That’s the mental hologram.

So what does it mean that it’s really decisive? For it to be really decisive, it has to be individuated from everything else. So everything else has to be excluded.

So you hear the sound of the baby crying, explicitly. What do you implicitly apprehend? Implicitly we apprehend that the baby’s not sleeping. It’s not the sound of the baby sleeping. Right? And it’s not anything other than the sound of the baby crying. That’s the Tibetan word dogpa (ldog-pa, sometimes translated as “double negative,” which doesn’t mean anything). Nothing other than the sound of a baby crying. Excludes everything else. And also implicitly we know it’s not anything other than the sound of my baby crying. It’s not somebody else’s baby that I hear.

So think about that. How would you be decisive, decisively know that that is the sound of my baby crying? Right? I hear it, and I’m really decisive when I also apprehend (but implicitly) not-the-sound-of-the-baby-sleeping. I am decisive in knowing that this is the sound of my baby crying. When I hear this sound: Yes, I accurately hear it. Not the sound of my baby sleeping. It’s nothing other than the sound of a baby crying (it’s not the sound of a cat). And it’s nothing other than the sound of my baby crying (it’s not somebody else’s baby that I hear next door). So when all of that is excluded, then we are decisive: “That is the sound of my baby crying.” And all of that is implicitly known – all of these exclusions are implicitly known – and the way that we experience that is quite unconscious. But actually the mind is sorting all of that out, isn’t it? Our mental activity sorting all of it out: It’s not this. It’s not that. It definitely is the sound of my baby crying.

This is a simple example, isn’t it? But when we try to apprehend or understand something more complicated, we need to exclude what is incorrect, what it’s not, in order to be precise and decisive what it is. And that is a process that’s used in what is known as prasanga (thal-’gyur) logic. You look at the absurd conclusions of everything else, and then it can only be this, because we’ve excluded everything else.

So “decisive apprehension” means that it’s not what’s known as a “nondetermining cognition” – that’s nangla ma-ngepa (snang-la ma-nges-pa). “Nondetermining” means we’re not sure that we heard something, or we’re not sure what we heard was the sound of the baby crying or the sound of my baby crying. It’s nondetermining. It doesn’t determine it. Nangla ma-ngepa. It arises, the mental hologram arises, but ma-ngepa – we’re not certain, we’re not certain what it is.

If it’s decisive, it’s not a nondetermining cognition. In other words, what do we not want to have? What we don’t want to have here is: “I’m not sure what that is.” And it’s not indecisive wavering. These are all different ways of cognizing something. It can be nondetermining (I heard it, but I’m not sure what it is). It can be indecisive (Maybe I heard it, maybe I didn’t). “Did I hear it? Did I not hear it?” That’s indecisive wavering.

But even if we’ve decisively heard the sound of our baby crying, it still doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand what it means. I don’t know: The baby could be hungry. The baby could have dirtied its diaper. The baby could be cold. We don’t understand what it means. So just because it’s decisive doesn’t mean you understand it. Just because it’s accurate doesn’t mean you understand it. But all of these are components of a correct understanding. A correct understanding has to be accurate. It has to be decisive. But just to be accurate and decisive is not enough.

Okay, let’s take a moment to digest that.

How to Get an Understanding of Voidness

So if, for instance, I know the definition of voidness (a very simple definition): “Total absence of impossible ways of existing. That impossible ways of existing are not corresponding to anything. Impossible. No such thing. Total absence of that

I can know that definition accurately (I can recite the words perfectly; it’s accurate). I’m totally decisive that this is the definition and it’s not something else (it doesn’t mean nothingness; so I’ve excluded that it means nothingness, that it’s nihilism). That doesn’t mean I understand it at all, does it?

So it’s clear that if we understand it, it has to be accurate and decisive, but just because it’s accurate and decisive… I know the definition. I’m really sure, I’m positive, that’s the definition. I look it up in a book. Yes, that’s the definition. I ask somebody, my teacher, “Is that the definition?” “Yes, that’s the definition.” I still don’t have any idea what it means. So it’s not even an intellectual understanding, because actually we don’t understand anything.

Do you follow that? Because those are the steps. Usually that’s the first thing that we have to come to, is to apprehend correctly and decisively what the teachings are. But to just leave it at that so that we can answer an examination that asks us the definition – we can write the answer – what’s that? How does that help us? It’s a start. You have to have that. But that’s certainly not what’s going to eliminate our problems, our suffering. Do you follow that?

And this process of how you get to an accurate and decisive apprehension is very important to know. [You check:] voidness – is it accurate?

  • Is there a convention in Buddhism “voidness?” Well, yes. The Buddhist texts all talk about it. Is there this convention? Do they talk about voidness in Buddhism? Do they talk about God in Buddhism? What do they talk about in Buddhism? Yeah, hey, they talk about voidness. So it is a valid topic within Buddhism.
  • And then you have the definition – does it check with conventional truth? So you look it up in the texts. Ask your teachers, “What’s the definition?” Of course you have to know are these books and these teachers reliable. Are they valid sources of information? And for that there’s yet another process of how do you know that this is a valid source of information. A lot of sources of information are not valid at all. Just look at what comes up when you google something on the internet. A lot of garbage.
  • And then deepest truth. Is voidness some sort of thing that’s sitting inside the object? Or does it mean ultimately there’s nothing there. Well, an arya would say, “Come on, this is completely wrong. That’s not what voidness means at all.”
  • And have we excluded everything that it’s not? So decisive.

You read a lot of old [Western] books that were written about Madhyamaka and voidness, and they describe it as being nihilism – nothing exists. Well, you have to exclude that.

Not indecision, indecisive wavering: “Maybe it means what the Buddhas say, but maybe it actually means nothing, nothingness, nothing exists.” So you don’t want that type of indecision. “Well, I’m not quite sure. Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that.” You’re never going to get a deeper understanding if you can’t decide what it actually means, what the actual definition is.

Okay, let that sink in. Think about it.

That’s why debate, discussion – either formal debate or just discussion with each other – is very important, very useful. Then you can weed out incorrect understanding. Not understanding – we’re not even talking about understanding yet – just incorrect information. You didn’t get it right. You’re not certain when the other person questions you and so on. Very helpful. The more you exclude incorrect understanding, the more accurate and the more decisive you are about what it is. “I thought it meant that. Oh, no, it doesn’t mean that.” Now you’ve gotten a little bit closer to what it actually means.

What’s the implication of what I just said? The implication is: Don’t be attached to what you think you know and what you think you understand. And don’t have arrogance and pride that “Oh, I’ve gotten it,” because usually you can refine, you can exclude: “Well, it wasn’t precisely that.” Don’t be attached. It’s one of the bodhisattva vows, I think. Never be satisfied with your level of development; you can always go further until you become a Buddha.

How to do that? Look at the definition of mental activity. It’s clear right there in the definition. What is your understanding or your knowledge? It’s just the arising of a mental hologram and an awareness of it, a mental engagement. That’s all it is. There’s no separate me that is thinking it or understanding it that could then look back at this thing that it’s thinking and attach to it and “This is mine” and “I’m so great.” That’s all based on a total myth that there’s a separate me from the whole event of the arising of a mental hologram and a knowing of it that holds it as mine. This separate entity, this sort of creature back there in our head, that has this thought, this understanding or knowledge, and “It’s mine” and “Oh, I’m so great.” It’s absurd. Meine, mine, this sort of thing. I mean, of course who’s thinking it? Me. It’s not somebody else thinking it. But that’s just a convention imputed on it.

So if we have this understanding of how we exist in relation to our knowledge and our understanding, we will be much more open to getting a more and more corrected, more and more refined level. Without that it’s very difficult, the understanding of voidness. Absolutely essential for everything. The understanding of voidness is essential for everything actually, the more deeply you look at it. Well, let that sink in a moment. Who is it that’s knowing?

It’s really funny. So many people are into this trip which is: “Nobody understands me. I want somebody to understand me. I want to find somebody who will really understand me,” as if there was a me separate from everything else that could be understood, right, without understanding the personality and the background and everything, all these other things. They just understand me. Come on! So understand it’s really very funny how we work with that idea.

Discussion about the Next Class

Okay, now we have a decision to make. We have to be decisive. We have covered one page of the six pages of material that I have prepared – which is what I suspected before I came here – and this is only the beginning of the analysis of the topic. There is much, much more that could be analyzed here. I was actually quite naive when I said, “Oh, we’ll do one topic Friday night on what does it mean to understand something, and then we’ll do a whole weekend, Saturday and Sunday, on something else.” But in fact we could speak for a whole month about what does it mean to understand something. We haven’t even approached the topic of what’s an intellectual understanding, what’s an intuitive understanding, and so on.

So what I would suggest is that we forget about the second topic and just continue with this for the rest of the weekend. That is following the philosophy of: if you’re going to do something, do it right, not halfway. And the point is not just to read you what I analyzed and go through it very quickly. The whole point of our being here is for you to actually (pardon the word) understand something, learn something. So this is what I would suggest, that… This isn’t a complete democracy, so I have a larger vote of what we do for this weekend. And the other topic, dealing with the compulsiveness of karma in daily life, will have to wait for another opportunity. So does anybody have a strong objection to this plan?

By the way, that’s how you ask a lama. Don’t ever ask… I mean, this is the wrong way to ask, is: “Can I do this?” That’s not the way you ask a Tibetan lama. “Do you have any objection if I do this?” You suggest what is your idea, and then you ask them do they have any objection. It’s a small child’s way of asking, which is: “What should I do? Tell me what to do.” You never learn that way. “This is what I propose. Do you have any objection?” That is the traditional way of asking a lama. “What should I do? Tell me what to do.” That’s dependency.

And the term giving permission – it’s not giving permission. Gagcha (dgag-cha), “I have no objections.” They release you from objections. You are free to do this because there are no objections.

This is how you grow to become a mature person able to make your own decisions and able to come up with your own analysis of what the objections are to any plan that you have.

Participant: Maybe we should ask this tomorrow morning, because there might be other people who come and they will expect something, and if we immediately do something completely different they might be disappointed.

Alex: Okay. This is very good. This is called purva paksha in Sanskrit. This is a very important method for analysis. Purva paksha means the other side, the opponent’s side. So now, in a debate, you make the objection – this is what you need to do yourself – so you raise the objection from the other point of view, and now you have to answer it. Purva paksha in Sanskrit.

So now we have the objection: “There’s going to be people coming tomorrow morning who maybe weren’t here this evening and they expect the second topic.” Now answer that. Answer it.

Participant: But that’s not the question.

Alex: No, no. Now we’re doing the analysis. The whole point is to learn how to analyze. So how do you reply to that objection? Every Tibetan philosophical text is in this format. Hindu philosophical text as well. This is Indian.

So you have the answer to the objection?

Participant: It’s easy. Give them their money back.

Alex: It’s easy: Give them the money back. What do you do before that?

Participant: Ask them.

Alex: Ask them. You say, “This is what we’re doing. So sorry that we are not giving this thing, the second topic. You are welcome to stay, and there will be a review so you won’t feel lost. But if you really don’t want to stay, here’s your money back.” Fertig. Finished. Easy.

Participant: But they still may be disappointed.

Alex: They will be disappointed, but the other people who are here won’t be disappointed (by getting one sixth of this and they still don’t understand).

What is the line that goes with this? The line is: “If Buddha couldn’t please everybody, how could I expect to possibly please everybody?” Very helpful. “Not everybody liked the Buddha. Why should everybody like me?” Seriously that’s very, very helpful when you get upset that someone doesn’t like you. Well, what do you expect? Of course somebody’s going to be disappointed.

So I would propose that.

Your objection is a valid objection. All these purva pakshas, these objections, are valid. They’re not stupid. But then you have to answer it. It’s very important to learn this when you’re trying to make a plan or something like that. Bring up the objections. What are the objections to this? And then answer those objections. If you can’t answer the objection, then the objection is valid; then you have to change your plan.

“I want to go on holiday.” Then the objection: “Well, I don’t have the money.” Well, then you answer that. Well, can you go on a cheaper holiday? You work with that. Analyze.

Participant: I have an answer to that objection. You could promise to come back to teach about karma another time.

Alex: Right. So that’s an answer. I could promise to come back and teach the second topic at a certain time. So what’s the Indian answer to that? Definitely maybe. Right? That’s a valid answer. “Definitely maybe” means that I definitely will try, but I can’t absolutely promise and guarantee. Who knows what’ll happen? Or maybe I teach it somewhere else and it’ll be on my web site. It’s a topic that I would very much like to teach because I think that this way of explaining karma is much more accurate, much more useful.

The Problem with Translating Karma as “Action”

I’ll just give you a very brief point of this. The Tibetan word for karma is lay (las). Lay is the colloquial Tibetan word for action. Therefore all Tibetans – I can’t say all, but most Tibetans, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, translate it in English as “action,” because it’s the colloquial word for “action.” So fine. They look it up in the dictionary; that’s the word. It’s in the dictionary.

So think about that. Does that make any sense whatsoever? It makes absolutely no sense, even if we don’t know the definitions. If actions are what keep us in samsara and suffering, then to gain liberation, to gain enlightenment, we’d have to stop doing anything. That makes absolutely no sense. Do you see the method here? Very important. The method is look at the consequences of understanding karma to mean actions. And if the consequences, what follows from that, is totally absurd, then we’re not translating it correctly.

Karma. We are under the control of karma. We’re not under our own control. We’re out of control. What does that mean? Let’s not take it literally as a me that’s separate from everything and they’re the controller. When we’re talking about karma, we’re talking about the compulsive aspect of our actions. It’s compulsive. When it comes up, compulsively we lie. Compulsively we have to be good. “I have to be the good one. I have to be perfect.” It’s this compulsiveness that is the thing that keeps us, over and over again, repeating the same type of patterns that cause us suffering and problems. You have to overcome the compulsiveness of your actions, not give up doing anything.

Translator: Can you just repeat that again?

Alex: It’s the compulsive aspect of either our destructive behavior or our constructive behavior that we have to overcome. [Otherwise] you’re not under control. You’re not acting consciously on the basis of compassion or anything like that. Just compulsively, the destructive way you lie all the time. Or constructively – but in a karmic way – compulsively you are a perfectionist. You have to be perfect. You have to be good. Very neurotic, isn’t it? So if we understand that, then we know what the problem is. The troublemaker is the compulsiveness. Which then makes perfect sense, that it comes from habit and so on.

So, anyway, brief. I will try to come back, and if I can’t come back, I’ll give it somewhere else. I’m not going to wait until I come back here, which may be another year, before I ever teach this other topic. I’ll find some other place where I can teach it. But it will all be on my website, so it’s not a problem.

So, anyway, it would be nice also to have time for questions, which obviously we don’t have tonight.

So we think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper, and may it act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all – for everybody to reach enlightenment, not just me.

Thank you very much.