The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Main Points of Self-Voidness and Other-Voidness

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, June 2007

Session Four: Other-Voidness: Clear Light Mind

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:31 hours)

Review

We have been speaking about self- and other-voidness. We saw that self-voidness is a voidness or a total absence of impossible ways of existing, and we’ve seen that it’s very important to understand that fully, nonconceptually, because the habits of our unawareness of this cause our mind to project or make appearances of everything that we experience – make an appearance as if it was existing in an impossible way – and then we believe that that’s true. We believe that this impossible way of existing is true because we don’t know any better and it feels like that, but this appearance of an impossible way of existing is actually an illusion. It is not corresponding to anything real. But we don’t know that, and so we perceive it and then we grasp at it as if it corresponded to reality and, on that basis, we develop all sorts of disturbing emotions – anger, greed, attachment, and so on – and moved by these disturbing emotions, we act in all sorts of compulsive karmic ways that bring suffering upon us and everybody else.

Seeing the Interdependent Nature of Things

What we need to realize, then, with self-voidness is that these impossible ways of existing that our mind projects appearances of – it’s only an appearance that it projects; it can’t actually project the impossible way of existing because that doesn’t exist at all. We have to realize that a referent object for it is totally absent; there is no such thing. Once we realize that this is complete garbage – these so-called deceptive appearances – then, with enough familiarity, first we’ll stop believing that they are true, and eventually, with enough familiarity, our mind will stop projecting them. And without these false appearances, these deceptive appearances, and without believing them and developing disturbing emotions based on them, we no longer generate suffering and no longer experience it.

When our mind is projecting these deceptive appearances, it seems as though things exist encapsulated in plastic, as some solid thing. As a result, our minds, our awarenesses, are limited; we’re not able to see the interconnection of everything, how everything arises dependently on each other. In this situation we are a limited being (sems-can). This is the word that’s usually translated as “sentient being.” It means someone with a limited mind: a Buddha is not a sentient being. So if we really want to be able to help everybody as a Buddha, then we need to be able to see the interconnectedness of everything. In other words, what all the causes are – going back with no beginning – for why each individual person is experiencing the type of suffering and the type of karma that they have, and to see all the effects that will follow from anything that we teach. For that, we have to get our minds to stop encapsulating things in plastic, as it were, as separate, unrelated things. Seeing the interdependence of everything, especially cause and effect, then we are – as a Buddha – able to know how best to help everybody. This is the whole purpose of becoming a Buddha. And please don’t think that when we see the interdependence and interrelation of everything, that then there is a huge plastic bubble around everything – don’t make that into existing in an impossible way, either.

Getting Rid of Emotional and Cognitive Obscurations

When, on the basis of these appearances of impossible ways of existing, we grasp and actually believe in it and that causes all the disturbing emotions, that grasping and all the disturbing emotions that come with it, these are called the emotional obscurations. In order to achieve liberation from suffering – in other words, no more suffering – you have to get rid of those, and the understanding of voidness will do that when it has as its motivation what’s called renunciation – the determination to be free from that suffering, based on understanding and confidence that you can get rid of it.

When we have achieved the true stopping of this grasping for impossible ways of existing, then through that nonconceptual cognition of voidness we achieve what’s called liberation. A liberated being; an arhat. And although we no longer experience any suffering – so we’re no longer a samsaric being – nevertheless, our mind as an arhat is still limited. That’s because the mind still has the habits of that grasping and unawareness, and so the mind still projects these deceptive appearances of impossible ways of existing; it’s just that we don’t believe that they correspond to anything real anymore. So we have to work further and further and further with this nonconceptual cognition of voidness and get to the point at which we are forever absorbed in this nonconceptual cognition of voidness, so that the mind will achieve a true stopping of making these false appearances. These false appearances and the habits – actually it’s the habits, constant habits, that produce these false appearances – these are called the cognitive obscurations, and when we get rid of those forever then we become a Buddha.

This is the way that it’s explained according to Gelug Prasangika. The other traditions have slightly different ways of explaining it, but that’s far too complicated to go into. If you’re interested in all the detail about all the schools and all the possible assertions of this, you can find it on my website in the extensive article on the five pathway minds – “pathway mind” being what’s usually called the path of accumulation, [preparation, seeing, meditation and no more learning.].

[See: The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths): Advanced Presentation.]

This word, by the way – don’t be deceived. We always hear about the five paths, and the path to enlightenment, and so on. We’re not talking about a road. That’s talking about a mind, an understanding – a mind with a certain level of understanding – that will act as a pathway to bring you to a goal. It’s not a road. So one has to be quite clear about definitions, otherwise you mix everything up, and you might even think that “path” is the same as the Chinese concept of the Dao (that’s the path or the way); so that’s completely different.

Levels of Mind

Now mind has many different levels of subtlety. Mind – we’re talking about mental activity. It’s not a thing that does it; we’re not talking about – like a movie projector that does something. When we talk about mind in Buddhism, we’re talking about an activity of making an appearance of something and being aware of it. There are many levels of subtlety of this. And we can focus on voidness nonconceptually – in other words, not through a category – with two different levels of mind; of mental activity.

With a grosser level of mind, which is what we would ordinarily be familiar with in our regular lives – although not so frequently, but in any case, what we have in our ordinary lives – with that level of mind, then, we can have what’s called total absorption on voidness nonconceptually. And when we’re totally absorbed on voidness nonconceptually, there is no appearance-making of impossible ways of existing and no grasping at it – totally free of all of that. And it is attained by cutting off – with understanding – this false appearance and the belief in it. Cut it off. We know no such thing. This is garbage. It’s not referring to anything real. You cut it off and then are totally absorbed on “no such thing,” but without the category of “no such thing.”

If we go back to our example from yesterday: When you focus on “there’s no chocolate in the house,” and you really focus on that – “there’s no chocolate” – what appears in your mind? Nothing. Nothing appears. First you thought “chocolate,” and then “there is no chocolate,” and then nothing appears. This is what we’re talking about here. But it’s not just a general “nothing”; it’s an absence of chocolate. We understand that. That’s the type of meditation we do with self-voidness meditation. It’s important to understand, just to have a general idea of what we’re talking about when we talk about self-voidness meditation.

Now the problem here – Well, first of all, when we’re talking about focusing – total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) on voidness – nonconceptually, with a grosser level of mind, this is what we do when we’re practicing sutra and when we’re practicing the first three classes of tantra. The problem with focusing on voidness in this way, with a grosser level of mind, is that we cannot sustain this forever. Even this level of mind goes away at the time of death. And while we are alive, eventually this total absorption ends, and as we continue the meditation we get what is called the subsequent attainment (rjes-thob): what you attain subsequently to that (or understand subsequently to that) is that when, again, the mind makes these appearances of impossible ways of existing, it’s not true.

This term that’s usually translated as “post-meditation” is extremely misleading. It’s not that we’re no longer meditating. The word “post” (which means “after”) is referring to after this total absorption. It only occurs right after total absorption; and, most of the time, you are continuing your meditation: you’re still with (if we’re doing it on the level of an arya) combined shamatha and vipashyana. So it could continue to when we get up at the end of our meditation session – so, in that sense, it could be after we are formally meditating – but in fact we are really still meditating. You cannot generate this subsequent attainment state of mind just by itself; it has to be preceded by a phase of total absorption on voidness.

So, with this subsequent realization or subsequent attainment, really the emphasis is on the word “despite,” which means that although these impossible ways of existing (and appearances of it) don’t refer to anything real – despite that, nevertheless there is the appearance of things. How it appears to exist, that’s an illusion, because it doesn’t refer to anything real. And the basis for it – conventional appearance – that is like an illusion, because it appears to exist in a way in which it doesn’t. So “despite” is the main thing. Despite voidness, nevertheless conventional truth of things. So, although we might on some level go around and think, “Well, everything is like an illusion, and this false appearance is an illusion,” and so on, that’s not really deep enough at all, because that could be quite superficial and based on a very strange understanding. After all, in many forms of Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy, we have a similar idea – that everything is maya, everything is illusion, and actually we’re all one with Brahma.

So just to think that everything is an illusion, or like an illusion, that’s not necessarily the Buddhist understanding. For the Buddhist understanding, it has to be subsequent – immediately subsequent – to the understanding of voidness (total absence of impossible ways of existing). So please do not confuse the teachings about illusion in Vedanta with the teachings about illusion in Buddhism; they are not at all the same. This is a common mistake that many people make, primarily because they don’t know the definitions of the terms. So, please – according to Buddhism, we are not all a big undifferentiated soup; even in terms of what a Buddha understands at enlightenment, everything retains its individuality, but not encapsulated in plastic.

You know what the big objection is to the assertion that we’re all one big undifferentiated soup? The objection is that if that were the case, then we no longer have individual responsibility for our karmic actions – because it doesn’t matter, we’re all one – that’s very dangerous.

This total absorption on voidness with the grosser state of mind, as I said, doesn’t make an appearance of impossible existence, and doesn’t believe in it, doesn’t grasp at it, doesn’t have any disturbing emotions, but it cannot be sustained.

Other-Voidness: Focusing with Clear Light Mind

And so then the question is: Is there a more subtle level of mind that could have this, and that can be sustained forever? And there is. This is the subtlest clear light mind. This has unbroken continuity, with no beginning and no end. In every lifetime, it’s underlying every moment of experience; it’s manifest at the time of death; and it is the type of mind – the level of mind – that we have as a Buddha. These grosser levels of mind – even total absorption on voidness with a grosser level of mind – you can’t have that grosser level of mind at the time of death, because that level of mind stops: it’s on the basis of a physical body. When we hear in some of the Buddhist systems and it speaks about the unborn, the uncreated mind, it’s talking about this clear light level of mind. That has no beginning and no end; nobody created it. It does change from moment to moment, in the sense that it’s aware of different things from moment to moment, but its nature never changes.

Now what are the characteristics of this clear light mind? The three most outstanding characteristics of it is that, by nature, (1) it has no disturbing emotions; (2) it is nonconceptual – it has no conceptual levels of mind, that grosser level of mind – and (3) it does not make appearances of impossible ways of existing. These are quite extraordinary characteristics, aren’t they? So, in many systems, we have all sorts of adjectives for this clear light level of mind: it’s unstained, untainted, pure, etc. But that clear light mind does not necessarily have an understanding of voidness. It doesn’t necessarily understand its own nature. If it did, then you would never have rebirth – if all you needed to do was to die – because it becomes manifest at what’s called the clear light of death. But, on this continuity of the clear light mind, we can impute the habits of grasping for impossible existence, the habits of disturbing emotions, the habits of karma. They’re not something solid there, but you can impute it on that, because you have these habits and so on producing manifest results beforehand and, again, afterwards when you’re reborn. So that clear light mind still has these habits. It doesn’t necessarily have the understanding of voidness. Now that clear light mind has the potential to be able to understand voidness – this is part of what’s called Buddha-nature – but it doesn’t manifestly understand voidness. So it has to understand voidness, and when it does – and if it can sustain that forever, which it is capable of doing – then there’s no longer any of these habits of grasping for impossible existence, etc., because they cannot produce a result.

Now in the dzogchen tradition, which we find in Nyingma (and in many of the Kagyu systems, borrowed from Nyingma), we have a discussion of what’s called rigpa (pure awareness). Rigpa is referring to the clear light mind when it has this manifest understanding of voidness. So there’s a difference: rigpa itself is not stained by these habits of grasping for impossible existence and so on, because it has that full understanding of voidness. So there’s a difference between clear light mind and rigpa; rigpa is a subcategory of clear light mind.

When we speak about other-voidness, we are speaking about clear light mind or rigpa. It can be applied to either of these, but let’s just leave it to a more general discussion of clear light mind, so we don’t have to repeat “clear light mind and rigpa” every time we say this. And of course we can achieve that level of mind, that clear light level of mind (or rigpa), not only at the time of death, but we could also achieve it in meditation following very special methods. We won’t go through all the different methods that are used. These methods are taught in the highest class of tantra: it’s called anuttarayoga tantra in the New Tantra traditions; and if we are looking at the dzogchen system, it’s taught in atiyoga, which is the most advanced level within the general category of tantra.

When we speak of other-voidness, then what that’s referring to is – as I said, to just make the discussion a little bit simple – the clear light mind, which is devoid of other levels of mind. Here the absence (or voidness) is of other levels of mind. It is devoid of the levels of mind and the type of minds that are involved with disturbing emotions; and devoid of the level of mind at which we have making appearances of false existence – of impossible existence – and grasping at it, believing it’s true; and it’s devoid of the level of mind that cognizes things (or knows things) conceptually through categories. It is devoid of that level. So it is an absence of these other things.

Methods for Cognizing Voidness with the Clear Light Mind

But, as we saw, the clear light mind does not necessarily have the understanding of voidness; otherwise, you would have that at the clear light of death. So the question is: How do we get nonconceptual cognition of self-voidness with this clear light mind? And although the process is quite similar in all cases, it can be described differently. So, for instance, one way of doing it would be to meditate very, very hard on self-voidness, and when you get to a clear light mind in meditation – through dissolving the energy-winds, or whatever method we’re using – then apply the familiarity that we have with the understanding of voidness to focus on that with the clear light level of mind. In other words, through meditation we have to make that clear light mind have an understanding of self-voidness.

In anuttarayoga tantra, the level of tantra that has this type of practice, we have two approaches here; father tantra and mother tantra, it’s called. With father tantra, we work on dissolving the grosser levels of energy-wind and consciousness through very difficult, sophisticated yoga practices; and, once we get to the clear light mind, then we apply the understanding of self-voidness that we have practiced for eons beforehand. Or, in mother tantra, we start with an understanding of self-voidness in our meditation, and then work on getting that mind more and more subtle, so that when we actually get to the clear light mind, it has this understanding of voidness – because the whole process is done with focus on voidness. Don’t think, though, that in the father tantra method you don’t have any understanding of voidness. Any tantra practice is done within the context of the understanding of voidness; it’s a matter of what your focus is and how you actually practice the meditation. So this is how we actually make the clear light mind have this understanding of self-voidness. And, within that context, we actually manifest the clear light mind through efforts of dissolving the grosser levels of mind and energy.

Now in the dzogchen systems, although we have done a lot of practice beforehand of working with the energies, and so on, the subtle energies, and dissolving them, so that our energy system is, in a sense, “greased” – it will work very easily to get to more subtle levels – nevertheless, when we’re actually doing the dzogchen meditation, we don’t work on consciously trying to get the grosser levels of mind and energy to dissolve. In the dzogchen practice, we’re not trying to manifest the clear light mind; we’re trying to manifest rigpa. I have to say that a little bit more precisely: not just general clear light mind with the not understanding of voidness and so on, but rigpa. Rigpa by nature is free of all these habits of grasping for impossible existence, etc., and it has as its characteristic this full understanding of voidness; that’s called “primal purity” (ka-dag) in the jargon of dzogchen.

In dzogchen, then, the method that we use is usually translated as “recognize the mind itself”; “ recognize rigpa.” But, as we saw yesterday, the Western word “recognize” implies that you knew it before, and you remember it, and then you recognize it again. So it’s not that connotation, but ngoshey (ngo-shes), – “to know the face,” literally; so to know it for what it is. It’s not that you’r e remembering it and recognize it. That’s how we manifest this rigpa, this pure awareness – is by just knowing it for what it is. Now the question is, of course: How do you do that?

Please don’t confuse Buddhism with the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s not that originally we were in the Garden of Eden and we had rigpa with the pure understanding of voidness, and then we fell from grace, and now we have to recognize again what we had at the beginning. That is not Buddhism, please. Many people make that mistake unconsciously. When we have these terms “pure from the beginning,” it doesn’t mean literally there was a beginning when we were pure. “Beginning” here means the basis; the foundation.

Now how do we come to know – for rigpa – to know its own face? That’s the terminology that’s used: “ to know its own face.” Well, this is on the basis of – the usual terminology is being “introduced” to it by your spiritual teacher. So, Sasha, here’s your pure mind. Pure mind, here’s Sasha.

Sasha: Nice to meet you.

Introduced. “Introduced” means – now, again, terminology: ngotro (ngo-sprod); it is “to help the person to meet their own face.” That’s literally the term.

So now we go back to what we were discussing in the very first lecture here, which is that through the influence of a teacher, of a properly qualified spiritual teacher, and our healthy relation with the spiritual teacher, we have a tremendous amount of inspiration. This is based on being very, very open-minded to being able to actually see our nature, the nature of pure awareness. And, as we discussed, how do we become receptive and open-minded? It is by building up the two enlightenment-building networks – the two collections – so, positive force and deep awareness.

All the dzogchen systems – there is big emphasis on doing ngondro (sngon-’gro, preliminary practices). Doing the common ones – so, thinking in terms of precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, etc. (the basic lam-rim topics) – and the special uncommon preliminaries – prostration and so on – all that builds up a tremendous amount of positive force. And for building up a tremendous network of deep awareness of voidness, self-voidness, doing a lot of meditation based on the Indian Madhyamaka texts. There is no way to avoid that. The way that it is described is that you just come to meet the face of rigpa – to know the face of rigpa – and automatically it has this deep awareness of its own nature; its self-voidness. But actually what is happening is the understanding of self-voidness, that’s this network of deep awareness and the network of positive force – and this is how they describe it – that is what causes the obscurations to go away, so that you are left with the rigpa with the full understanding of self-voidness of its own nature.

So – this is how it’s explained – you have to make effort to make the clear light mind have the understanding of self-voidness. That’s New Tantra. Or do all those practices. Actually, rather than explaining that it makes the clear light mind have the understanding of voidness, it makes the obscurations go away, so that what you are left with, of course, as a result of the understanding of voidness beforehand, is rig-pa (that’s a subcategory of clear light mind that does have the understanding of voidness). So, in the end, it’s the same thing; it’s just a matter of how you approach it in meditation and how you explain it. In the end, what we need is the clear light mind with the full understanding of voidness, regardless of what method of meditation and what conceptualization system we use to explain what’s going on. That’s what we need in the end – clear light mind with the full understanding of self-voidness (clear light mind being other-voidness).

Now please don’t get confused here and think that self-voidness is a type of meditation that you do in the New Tantra systems and other-voidness is the type of meditation that you do in dzogchen. Because we can use either the self-voidness or the other-voidness approach, both of them, in the New Tantra tradition of working with the energies and levels of mind to dissolve them. Or also there is a self-voidness and other-voidness approach to dzogchen, in terms of working with this pure awareness without having to – with effort, at the time of manifesting rigpa – cause the grosser levels to dissolve. But we will get into a further discussion of that in this afternoon’s session.

So let’s end with a short dedication. Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.