Week 7: Applying the view - Enlightenment & Meditation
Alex Trisoglio, 19 July 2017
Introduction: Review of Week 6 and summary of Week 7 [Audio/Video timing: t = 0:00:04]
Hello. I'm Alex Trisoglio, and I'd like to welcome you to Week 7 of "Introduction to the Middle Way". I'd like to begin with a brief review of what we covered last week:
- We established the Mahayana view of emptiness of emptiness. As we saw, it's not just the refutation of true existence as in the Shravakayana, but a refutation of all four extremes of existence, non-existence, both and neither. Beyond all extremes, true non-duality.
- We also touched on what non-duality might look like in practice, and we contrasted what might be a dualistic approach to emptiness meditation as compared to a true nondual practice. We saw that dualism was focussed on deconstructing the object, whereas non-duality was where both subject and object dissolved.
This week we're going to talk about the remaining chapters in the Madhyamakavatara, from Chapter 7 to Chapter 11, which will include a discussion about the qualities of enlightenment and also how we perceive the manifestation of the Buddha. This is important for practice, because for many of us, our ideas of practice depend on our idea of the goal - the way we think of Buddha, the way we think of enlightenment. It's very important to make sure we don't have an incorrect view, especially a dualistic view. And now that we have established the view, we're going to talk about how we might apply this view in our practice. That's what we're going to do in the second half of the teaching this evening.
Reaching the Source [t = 0:01:54]
As usual, we'll start with the 10 Bulls. This time the 9th Bull:
9. Reaching the Source
Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without -
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.
Comment: From the beginning, truth is clear. Poised in silence, I observe the forms of integration and disintegration. One who is not attached to “form” need not be “reformed.” The water is emerald, the mountain is indigo, and I see that which is creating and that which is destroying.
So as you can see, we're coming back into the world. We're returning to naturalistic imagery, and indeed back to the mountain. The mountain is once again mountain. But this time, we see it completely differently, even though it's still indigo as before. Whereas before we saw forms, now as the verse says, we see "the forms of integration and disintegration". We see it completely differently.
In terms of the Hero's Journey, last week was the apotheosis - we reached non-duality. We can't go any deeper, there's no further place to go into non-duality. We've reached 'no words, no concepts'. We've found our gift, the boon that the Hero finds on the journey. Now we're ready to bring it back to our ordinary world. In our case the gift is the view of non-duality, the view of emptiness, and we're going to bring it back in two ways:
- Practice ('meditation'): This week we're going to offer it as a gift to ourselves, and we're going to see how it can benefit us in our practice. This is benefit for self.
- In the world ('post-meditation'): Next week we're going to look at how we can share this gift more broadly in the world, which is the benefit for others. That is also practice, but it's much more about everyday life. And as many of you have commented, in everyday life practice, the path is everywhere; there's no need to restrict it to our cushion. And indeed the best practice is when we take it beyond our cushion and into the rest of our lives. So next week we're going to be talking about that.
The other big shift we're going to see this week is the shift from object to subject. In most of the previous weeks, we have been speaking analytically and objectively about truth, and even when we were analyzing the self, we were largely analyzing the self as an object. We were looking at it in terms of phenomena, aggregates, things like that. This week as we turn to practice, we're going to shift to transforming the subject. The direction of our gaze is going to change.
Not confusing view and path [t = 0:05:16]
I'd like to say a few more words about not getting caught in the confusion between view language and path language. I know we've touched on this before, but I have noticed that especially in some of the online discussions in the Forum, there's a lot of this kind of confusion. This is completely normal, as Rinpoche says.
I'm going to quote a few words from a teaching Rinpoche gave on view and path in 2011. He was responding to a question, 'If everything is emptiness, why do we need to practice?' He said:
This question is very similar to the question 'If everything is emptiness, then my headache is also emptiness. So why do I need to take a paracetamol?'. Yes, everything is emptiness, but until you have realized this, you still need to apply the antidote. Indeed if you are feeling or experiencing that you have a headache, that somehow shows you have not realized emptiness yet. You only know it intellectually. So you have to deal with your habit, which means you have to apply the remedy. For us practice is the same. Dharma students always ask these kinds of questions, they bring theory and the view of emptiness but they ask practice questions. If you're having an hallucination, then in theory the hallucination is an hallucination, it does not exist. But because of our habits and our ignorance, most of us don't even know it's an hallucination. And even if we know intellectually, it does not mean that we won't be bothered by it.
We're going to see this general theme a lot this week, this idea that we tend to over-intellectualize non-duality. Even though we know that non-duality is beyond words and beyond concepts, we still have a deep-seated habit of trying to cling to it and grasp on to it through intellectual means, with our intellectual minds. That's an obstacle we're going to have to overcome.
Another question Rinpoche responded to was, 'If samsara is emptiness, why abandon it?'. He said:
Yes, of course, theoretically there is no need to abandon samsara. Nagarjuna said, "there is no samsara to abandon, there is no nirvana to be attained." These statements are good, but you have to realize their meaning. And realization is not mere intellectual understanding, or even experience. You have to actually realize. The masters of the past have said that understanding is like a patch on a piece of cloth - it will sooner or later fall off; experience is like mist in the morning - it will soon disappear. You can never trust them. So the only way is to practice until you have realization.
As Rinpoche said, 'I guess it's kind of understandable that people get mixed up'. So what might we do? Here are some suggestions:
- Don't apply ultimate analysis to the relative: As we know, as soon as we analyze relative truth, it is going to fall apart. That's why Jigme Lingpa said:
"As soon as we talk it's all contradiction;
As soon as we think it's all confusion."
As Rinpoche says, 'practice, especially in the vajrayana, does not make logical sense.' If we try to analyze our practice, it's going to fall apart. We won't find rational answers.
- Remember that all conventional truths are ultimately untrue: They are at best approximations and shared narratives among limited groups of people. So don't get too caught up in trying to fine-tune conventional truth. It's never going to be perfect, it's never going to be precise.
- Remember Rinpoche's advice about view and path:
"Ultimately refute all views.
Relatively accept everything without analysis.
Conventionally, do your practice."
Bayeux Tapestry: King Harold shot by an arrow
Overcoming blocks to our practice [t = 0:09:05]
This advice "Conventionally, do your practice" is very simple, and yet it's not so easy to put into practice. If we could just trust it, and if we could just actually do our practice, all our other doubts, all our other problems, would take care of themselves. If we really did 10,000 hours of hearing, contemplation and meditation, the teachings would soak into us. They'd become part of our narrative, our map of the world. They'd correct the problems in our existing maps. Likewise, if we really seek to go beyond mere understanding, and even beyond flashes of experience, to genuine realization - as we put in the time, our progress won’t merely be intellectual. Our Theory-in-Use will become different. It will shift. And once we're strong practitioners, the teachings are described as reaching a state ‘like a thief entering an empty room’. At that point, even if there are doubts, or thoughts, or distractions, whatever may come up during our practice or during our daily life, none of that is going to knock us off our path of practice, it's not going to distract us.
Really the important point here is to do our practice. We're not trying to become scholars. You can have the most sophisticated intellectual understanding, but your practice is only as good as your Theory-in-Use - what's driving your actual perception and action. Unless you change that, mere intellectual understanding is useless to you. So we know we need to practice, but we don't do our practice. It's like a patient who has a sickness and the doctor has given them the medicine and they won't take it. Remember from Week 1, the story of the man who'd been shot with a poisoned arrow, and he refused to let the doctor treat him and remove the arrow, until he knew everything about where the arrow had come from. So that's the kind of mindset we don't want to fall into.
And it applies both to beginners - many beginners never actually start practice, because they're so busy debating and doubting and being skeptical - and also to many people who have been around the Dharma a long time who can also become ‘Dharma stubborn’, as Rinpoche calls it. They're like old leather, which is really hard. The Dharma cannot penetrate them any longer. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this spiritual materialism. Or there’s a version of this with seasoned Dharma students who just want to debate all day long, and never get around to practice. Whatever our version is of avoiding, or procrastinating, or just generally not doing our practice, we need to deal with it.
Now as beginners, maybe it's just a lack of discipline or being too easily distracted, but it's relatively easy to fix. We just have to deal with our own laziness. As Rinpoche says, 'The best way to develop discipline is just to practice being disciplined'. You start in small ways, even just committing to five minutes of practice at a time, and just by making it a habit where you don't break your commitment, you will slowly become more disciplined. But there's a bigger problem if what's holding us back is doubt about the practice. We might wonder will these exotic practices actually help, or does this view of non-duality have anything useful to say in our lives?
Doubt & hesitation
The Three Fetters and doubt [t = 0:12:37]
You may recall right at the beginning of the text, in Chapter 1 verse 6, we talked about the ‘Three Fetters’. This term comes from some Pali suttas, including the Sangiti Sutta and the Dhammasangani, and it refers to three things that get in the way of our practice:
- Belief in a self.
- Attachment to rites and rituals, attachment to practice.
If we have either of the first two - belief in a self and attachment to rituals - then obviously we'll be practicing wrongly. Hopefully by now we have enough of an understanding of non-duality that at least we can catch ourselves if we start falling into either of those.
But doubt is different, because if we have doubt then we may not even start to practice. As Rinpoche said, this is really one of the biggest problems for practitioners, in terms of not being able to decide what is the right path, and not trusting the path. The Sanskrit word that we’re translating as ‘doubt’ is vicikitsa (Sanskrit: vicikitsā, विचिकित्सा, Pali: vicikicchā; Wylie: the tshom, Tibetan: ཐེ་ཚོམ་), which is defined as ‘being of two minds about the meaning of the Four Noble Truths’. Basically it means we don't end up getting involved with wholesome activities, such as accumulating merit or doing as our practice. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, 'It means you don't trust any possible alternatives. You don't want advice. You don't want a way out. You doubt the teachings, the teacher, the Dharma, even the norms of everyday existence.'
Now of course there are some people who have good karma, who don't get caught in doubt. When we talked about the three kinds of students, that’s the first kind. But among Westerners, especially educated Westerners, especially those with skeptical or critical minds, it's very easy for us to get very caught in our own views, our own justifications, our own questions. We can't even see that we have a biased view.
So I just want to encourage you, if for whatever reason you're not practicing, I hope the last six weeks have been enough to at least dissolve some of your resistance, to at least give it a try. And if you are practicing, then I hope that now you at least have a better sense of the difference between right and wrong practice. I hope you are better able to avoiding getting caught in either nihilism, loss of inspiration, hopelessness and denial of self; or eternalism, which is possibly a bigger problem for many on the Vajrayana path, especially attachment to the path, experiences, the guru, Buddha-nature, and so on.
Rinpoche says we need to find whatever ways we can to inspire ourselves for our practice. That's why, going back to our discussion of rangtong/shentong in previous weeks, even though the strict emptiness-orientation of the rangtong view is so important while establishing the view; the more Buddha-nature-oriented shentong view is essential for practice. We need to inspire ourselves with beauty, inspiration, song, dance, music, ideas of Buddha-nature, enlightenment, art and grand visions. Yes ultimately all this is going to dissolve, but we need it now. We need it to practice. Rinpoche often quotes Shantideva who points out that yes, of course we want to purify all our ignorance, all our defilements, but ‘the last ignorance we want to purify is the idea that there is enlightenment'. So we might know intellectually that enlightenment does not truly exist, but if we dissolve that too soon, too early in our path, we'll lose all inspiration. We'll lose forward motion and momentum.
The paradox of the second mountain [t = 0:16:13]
Let's go back to the mountain / no mountain / mountain. Now as we've said, we started with the mountain in Act I. In Act II we came to ‘no mountain’, we were in the realm of analysis, breaking everything apart. Now in Act III we're back in the realm of ‘mountain’. Interestingly we're seeing the mountain as mountain, it's not some magical golden realm which looks different. And yet nevertheless we see it in a completely different way from how we saw it before. So if we were just to say to someone, ‘well you start with mountain, and you end with mountain’, the average person would ask ‘so then what's the point in this so-called practice?’. So that's why we say, ‘you start with the mountain and you end up with these incredible Buddha realms’. Now the average person is more interested when we use language like this. We're being skilful, we're working with conventional habits of wanting desirable things, and this is the magic of the path. The more we practice, yes - we do actually see the mountain differently, and we realize this was what was meant by the journey towards enlightenment in the first place. And that very realization means that we don't need any longer to see it as something magical or golden, because seeing it in its non-dual nature is the magic.
We saw last week that the Middle Way is a path beyond extremes. We spoke of the equality or evenness of samsara and nirvana. We don't seek to remain in nirvana, nor do we despise samsara. We realize they're not two separate things. It's just a conventional designation. Rinpoche said, 'Nirvana is not the purification of samsara, it's realizing that there is no samsara'. So they are not separate. We're not journeying to some different place. We are changing our subject, our awareness, not the surroundings, not the place. This is already a Buddha realm; we just don't realize it. As Rinpoche said, ‘All the Buddha needed to say was, You are all Buddhas, but none of us would understand what he meant’. We would not get it. And that's why he had to teach the 84,000 paths. He gave us complexity because we cannot understand simplicity. And then of course with the complexity comes all these problems of doubt, resistance, and not wanting to practice. And then we need further elaborations about the amazing qualities of the Buddha, all these relative teachings, as ways of inspiring us.
Now if we had more merit, none of this would be necessary. We could hear the truth directly. But as Rinpoche said, we should never look down on these provisional teachings, because that's all we can understand. That's why these teachings are very much what we need. By the way, when I say ‘understand’, I don't mean intellectually. I'm sure many of us, if not most of us, we can understand the view, we can probably even gain some intellectual satisfaction as we read Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti alongside Wittgenstein and Heidegger and all the rest, but this isn't what's meant here. When we speak of understanding here, we are talking about the awareness that our perceptions and behaviours are not aligned with the view of non-duality. We are talking about self-awareness and understanding the need to practice. We realize that understanding actually means going beyond intellectual understanding to realization. As we have said many times we want enlightenment, not a PhD in Buddhism. Rinpoche will often chide his own khenpos, saying that yes, you have to study to establish the view, but that's only 2% of the journey. The other 98% is practice. You have to move from establishing the view, the Espoused Theory, to the Theory-in-Use. And no much how much you study and debate, none of that will do this.
Having the best intellectual understanding just isn't going to be of benefit to ourselves and others. We need to overcome our ego, our self clinging, our habits, our defilements. We need to examine and overcome whatever our habitual explanations might be of how smart, or stupid, or diligent or lazy we might think we are. We need to overcome our precious self-narratives of being wonderful practitioners, or being awful practitioners, or great debaters or unable to understand the teachings, or being important in the sangha or being complete nobodies. Whatever our particular ego trip is, we need to get over ourselves. And the only way to get over ourselves is to practice.
Okay, just a recap. Why do we need the view?
- Choosing the right path: we need the view in order to choose the right path in the first place. We need to differentiate right paths from wrong paths, and to make sure we don't follow guides or paths with extreme views. And we need a path which is based on the realization of both of the Two Truths. We've seen this many times over the past weeks.
- Practicing the path: Once we've chosen the right path, then we need to practice the path we have chosen. So we need to use our view to counter and eliminate the Three Fetters:
- Belief in a self: we must learn not to get too attached to our self-narratives as practitioners, or to our experiences in practice.
- Attachment to rites and rituals: of course, we must not get attached to the path.
- Doubt: we need the view to answer all these questions like - 'If all is emptiness why do I have a headache', or confusing the Buddha that we meditate on in our deity practice with an Atman or a soul. Or thinking that a non-truly existing self means nihilism. Or getting lost and confused when we get a lack of inspiration. Or when we encounter the problems of the horse and donkey practice we talked about last week.
So to repeat: ultimately refute all views, relatively accept everything without analysis, conventionally do your practice.
Practice is not something 'additional' [t = 0:22:28]
We might think, ‘okay, the worst case scenario is I didn't do my practice today. That's okay, I can do it tomorrow, maybe I can do it on the weekend’. We see practice as something additional to our lives, but that view is wrong. We are always already practicing something 24 hours a day even now - the question is what? And are we aware of our habits of perception and action? Are we intentional, are we deliberate, are we mindful? Or is this just samsara, the wheels of habit and ignorance just clunking round and round? Without awareness, without choice, and without a deliberate practice, we're just going to keep reinforcing our existing habits. That's what we're practicing - as in, that's what we're repeating every day. And as we saw in Week 5, we know from cognitive science that this kind of repetition and practice makes our habits stronger.
So every day that we continue to practice ignorance and lack of awareness, we are just further deepening those characteristics. If we're honest, most of us are completely caught in the practice of self – self-cherishing, self-promotion, self-narration. Just spend some time online - look at Facebook, look at newspapers, look the web. Selfishness is everywhere, and we know it leads to unhappiness, conflicts, and samsara. And yet most sentient beings don’t know that there is an alternative. But we do. We have met the Dharma, so we know better. Let's not waste this precious moment, this precious opportunity. Let's not just continue to reinforce all our samsaric habits. Let's establish new habits, based on the view of non-duality.
How the view is introduced in different vehicles [t = 0:24:12]
I said a few moments ago that if we had more merit, we could hear the truth directly. I’d like to say a few words on the three different ways the truth is introduced.
- Shravakayana and Mahayana: In the causal path, the Mahayana and the Shravakayana, the view is introduced in two different ways. Firstly, through the Buddha’s words, although of course that only works if you're a Buddhist. Secondly with logic and reasoning. And as we've done in these last few weeks, once we have established the view and gained confidence in the view, that leads us to say, 'Okay I'm ready, I shall practice this view now, I shall get used to the idea of emptiness'. The path is causal, because the cause is different from the experience of the result, which is Buddha-nature. But once we start to practice, we know that as soon as we see ourselves grasping onto anything as truly existing or real, we can bring back the logic of emptiness to deconstruct that. And as soon as we find ourselves falling into nihilism, we can remind ourselves that the Middle Way is beyond all extremes. So that's the causal path.
- Vajrayana: In the result path, the Vajrayana, we introduce the result rather than the cause. We introduce what is to be realized through our practice of the view, and now we are beyond language and concepts, beyond rationality, and this indeed is something Western philosophy does not have. We've already seen that Western philosophy doesn't have a path of practice that leads to the realization of emptiness, even in the causal way, but there's definitely nothing in Western philosophy that corresponds to the result vehicle. How is this done in the Vajrayana? Well, the master will introduce the view by showing you an example of the result, of Buddha-nature. He'll talk about it, paint it, show you the example. And indeed that's the whole point for those of you who are doing kyerim (or development meditation, including practices such as deity visualization etc.) – it’s creating an example to identify the view, so you can recognize right view in your own experience, through this example. Now, of course it does help to have established the Mahayana view first, because otherwise you might end up practicing Vajrayana for decades and getting nowhere, because you're not actually practicing right view. There are too many Vajrayana practitioners that end up practicing extreme views without even realizing it. We cling to experiences, we think of Buddha-nature or rigpa as truly existing. We might fall into the horse and donkey problem as we discussed in Week 5. So having the right view at times like that will really help.
- Dzogchen: The third way, the highest way, is mahamudra or mahasandhi (dzogchen). Here there is no logic. We use no examples. There is no method or object. In mahasandhi the view is established by introducing the view in itself - not with words, not with concepts, not with examples. I can't say anything more about this now, but I want to emphasize that the view in the mahasandhi is no different from what you would realize if you practiced the view of emptiness that we have established here. The only difference is that it is introduced directly.
I say all this for a couple of reasons. Firstly I really want to emphasize the qualities of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view. Other paths, even the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka, offer a lot of theory about conventional truth, as we've seen in the debates about mind and consciousness and all the rest. But once you get to the result vehicle, in the Vajrayana and especially in the mahasandhi, none of that is going to be relevant, because you are completely beyond any kind of concepts and theories. By contrast, because of the pristine simplicity and clarity of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka, it can be your trusted companion until the end of the journey. If you invest in the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view, you will not need to upgrade it at a later stage.
I also hope to inspire you to do your practice and to practice aspiration so that - if you don't already have one - you might encounter a genuine teacher, with a genuine lineage who can connect you to these practices.
The 7th Bhumi [t = 0:28:25]
Let's turn to the text. We start with the 7th bhumi. I’d like to remind you that on the 7th bhumi, finally the bodhisattva realizes the dignity or the superior understanding of 'knowing one's own object' and therefore he now outshines the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas with his wisdom, not just his merit. So we've seen this before in Chapter 1.
[7:1] On [the bhumi of] Far Gone,
[The bodhisattva] enters cessation at any instant,
Brilliantly mastering the paramita of Upaya.
There's an interesting discussion here in the text about how Nagarjuna and Maitreya interpret the Prajñaparamita differently, in particular how they have different views on whether or not the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas understand the selflessness of phenomena. At first sight, it seems that Nagarjuna and Maitreya disagree, which would indeed be a big problem because they're both realized beings. But as we discovered during the discussion, it actually turns out they are using two different definitions of the selflessness of phenomena:
- Nagarjuna: When Nagarjuna talks about clinging to the self of phenomena, he means grasping to the five aggregates. We know the shravakas have gone beyond this, because they have to realize the emptiness of the five aggregates in order to realize emptiness of the self of the person. Maitreya accepts this too.
- Maitreya: Whereas Maitreya means something different by clinging to the self of phenomena. He considers that a person still has clinging to the self of phenomena as long as they still have subject, object and action – in other words, tsendzin. And yes, the shravakas still have this, which is why Maitreya does not say they have purified their clinging to the self of phenomena.
Given that they're both commenting on the Prajñaparamita, why is there this difference? Well, it's because they are teaching for different audiences. Nagarjuna is teaching for all the yanas, and he wants to inspire everyone to study and practice the Prajñaparamita. Whereas Maitreya is giving exclusive Mahayana teachings in texts like the Abhisamayalankara (The Ornament of Clear Realization), so he sees no need to adapt his teachings for the shravakas, and he also wants to praise the greatness of the Mahayana path.
On page 345, again we repeat that shunyata is only the negation of existence, only the first extreme. Whereas the non-dual emptiness is the negation of all four extremes - existence, non-existence, both and neither. Everything that we covered until Week 6, in other words all the verses in Chapter 6 before verse 6:178 are establishing emptiness as it is taught for all the yanas. In those verses, the only thing we are establishing is the lack of true existence. We do not establish emptiness beyond all four extremes until verse 6:179. On page 348, it’s also important to note that Chandrakirti doesn't actually teach freedom from the other three extremes in the Madhyamakavatara. So when we look at the twenty emptinesses in verses 6:179-6:226 it is just a list. We need to go to other texts to actually establish these twenty emptinesses.
On page 347, there's a discussion about two ways of talking about the Third Turning teachings on Buddha-nature and enlightenment. For the schools that talk about the Third Turning of the wheel of Dharma being definitive, they are referring to the teachings on dharmadatu, ultimate reality and the union of clarity and emptiness. By contrast, even these schools would say that when we talk about Buddha-nature in the mindstreams of sentient beings, that is not definitive. That's always a provisional teaching. So the question arises, why did the Buddha teach an eternal blissful Buddha-nature in the mind stream of ordinary beings? As Rinpoche said, it was taught to inspire people such as Hindus and other non-Buddhists who believe in an eternal self to the Dharma. It is a skilful means or, as Rinpoche said, a 'trick' to attract them to the correct Dharma.
The 8th Bhumi [t = 0:32:30]
The 8th bhumi, the bodhisattva accomplishes the quality of fearlessness. We came across this in Week 6 because it was one of the important qualities of the disciple of superior faculties mi chéwé chöla zöpa töpa (Wylie: mi skye ba'i chos la bzod pa thob pa, Tibetan: མི་སྐྱེ་བའི་ཆོས་ལ་བཟོད་པ ཐོབ་པ་), which means 'attaining the acceptance of the truth of non-arising'. The contrast here is that shravakas and pratyekabuddhas cannot cope with this nature of the unborn, the non-arising. We'll talk about this more when we come to practice.
[8:1] In order to attain further increase of virtue,
The great lord enters The Immovable,
So that [virtue] becomes irreversible –
Here [the paramita of] aspiration is exceedingly pure,
And he is roused from cessation by the Victorious Ones.
[8:2] Because a mind free from attachment cannot have any faults.
Defilements and their roots are fully pacified on the eighth bhumi.
While his afflictions are exhausted and he is the supreme of the three worlds,
Still [the bodhisattva] is unable to procure the limitless sky-like wealth of the buddhas.
[8:3] Samsara has been stopped and as he attains the ten powers,
He will manifest in a variety of ways to sentient beings.
Then we talked about the Ten Powers. I'm not going to talk about them in detail, because they are fairly self explanatory. But I’d to say a little about the 5th power, the power of rebirth, as an illustration of the inconceivable power and ability of the 8th bhumi bodhisattva. In introducing the idea of rebirth, Rinpoche talked a little about different kinds of tulkus or manifestations:
- Kyéwa tulku (Wylie: skye ba sprul sku, Tibetan: སྐྱེ་བ་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་) is a reincarnation, for example of a master or teacher.
- Chinchilapé tulku (Wylie: byin gyis bslabs pa’i sprul sku, Tibetan: བྱིན་གྱིས་བསླབས་པའི་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་) is a blessed manifestation.
- Zowé tulku (Wylie: bzo ba’i sprul sku, Tibetan: བཟོ་བའི་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་) is a form manifestation. On the 8th bhumi, the bodhisattva is able to notice when people need things like a bridge or a boat to cross a river and he can manifest as any of these material phenomena: a bridge, a boat, a cool breeze on a hot summer's day, and so on.
Rinpoche gave a very lovely example of a Casablanca coffee shop. He said, imagine that an 8th bhumi bodhisattva sees that there is a specific coffee shop somewhere in Casablanca and that in the year 2022 someone is going to visit this coffee shop for just a half and hour to get a cup of coffee, but at that moment they will become a perfect vessel for receiving the teachings and connecting to the Dharma. So the 8th bhumi bodhisattva will wait, and then maybe in January of that year, he'll manifest or maybe bless a waiter or waitress or barista in the coffee shop and then eventually the man walks in and orders a coffee and maybe the barista only exchanges a couple of sentences with him, that's all. And that's it, it's over. The bodhisattva has done his job, he has planted the seed of the Dharma. This example hopefully makes it clear that we have to think in a very vast way about what might be a manifestation of the Buddha's or bodhisattva's activities. And when it comes to the notion of 'benefiting sentient beings', most of us have no idea what this means. We don't know the workings of karma, we don't know which chance encounter is going to benefit someone or bring them to the Dharma. But the 8th bhumi bodhisattva knows this.
On pages 356 and 357 there is a conversation about the Sakya and the Gelug understanding of emptiness, I won't go through it's now, as the commentary is self-explanatory.
The 9th Bhumi [t = 0:35:20]
[9:1] On the ninth [bhumi] [the bodhisattva’s] various strengths become perfectly purified,
And he attains the perfect purity of the qualities of [validly] cognizing phenomena.
The 9th bhumi is straightforward, just a reiteration that on the pure bhumis on the 8th through the 10th, the only remaining defilement is nyinang, mere duality. There is no more tzendzin, there's no more of the subject, object, action. And yet there's still a sort of pre-conscious, pre-verbal sense of subjectivity and objectivity that the bodhisattva needs to purify.
The 10th Bhumi [t = 0:35:50]
[10:1] On the tenth bhumi [the bodhisattva] is empowered by all the buddhas,
Receiving holiness, his wisdom becomes even more supreme.
As from rain clouds, for the sake of sentient beings,
The sons of the victorious ones spontaneously rain down Dharma upon the crops of virtue.
The 10th bhumi is also straightforward, and a couple of points came up during the questions and answers. On page 361, Rinpoche was asked whether we can apply emptiness in real time, and he said, ‘No, you can't'. When there's some kind of emotion that's got hold of you, you don't have time to go through the Seven-Fold Analysis of the Chariot and so forth. You need to have done your practice, as we've said many times. It needs to have become incorporated and embodied in your Theory-in-Use, because that's all you’re going to have accessible to you in the moment.
On page 363, Rinpoche was asked ‘Please speak about compassion’. He gave a beautiful short answer. He said, 'Compassion is a mind that understands emptiness'.
Chapter 11: Enlightenment [t = 0:36:37]
So we now transition to Chapter 11. The first four verses describe the qualities of the 1st bhumi, the 1,200 qualities of the Path of Seeing. You can read the list, it's straightforward, it's poetic, but it's also already beyond us. We can't really make sense of it, and the numbers just keep increasing in subsequent bhumis until they are truly uncountable.
[11:1] At this time [of the first bhumi], seeing one-hundred buddhas,
And understands he is blessed by them.
He remains for a hundred kalpas on this [bhumi],
Even the end of the last and the beginning of the next [kalpa] is perfectly perceived.
[11:2] This Wise One enters and arises from a hundred samadhis;
He is capable of moving and illuminating a hundred worlds;
Likewise, he is miraculously able to bring a hundred beings to maturation,
And he is able to travel to as many buddha fields.
[11:3] The Muni prince perfectly opens the doors of the Dharma,
Displaying within his single body one-hundred bodies,
And just as every body is endowed with its own entourage
Each of the one hundred has an equal display.
[11:4] Such qualities of the Wise One dwelling on the pramudita bhumi,
Are perfectly achieved in exactly the same way, but thousand-fold
When he dwells on the [bhumi] of Stainless.
[In the following] five bhumis the bodhisattva achieves one hundred thousand [qualities],
[11:5] Then one billion, and then ten billion;
After that, he achieves one trillion followed by
Ten million trillions which again are
Multiplied thousand-fold, all of which he obtains completely.
[11:6] Dwelling on the eighth bhumi, the Immovable [the bodhisattva] has no discursive thoughts.
If one gathered a hundred thousand of the billion fold universe,
All the dust motes these contain
Would equal the amount of qualities he here achieves.
[11:7] Dwelling on the [ninth] bhumi of Excellent Intelligence,
The bodhisattva achieves the previously mentioned [twelve] qualities
[Multiplied] by as many as ten times the dust motes
In a hundred thousand of the infinite [universe].
[11:8] To say the least, qualities on the tenth [bhumi],
Exceed the reach of words.
Were one to describe the indescribable,
They are as many as there are motes of dust.
[11:9] The bodhisattva is able to manifest at any moment,
In every pore of his body, bodhisattvas
Together with perfect buddhas, infinite in numbers,
As well as devas, asuras and humans.
[11:10] As the moon shines brightly in a clear sky,
You strove repeatedly for the bhumi that develops the ten powers.
In the Akanishta buddhafield, you accomplished the aim of all efforts - the level of supreme peace –
With its ultimate and incomparable qualities.
[11:11] As the divisions of a container does not create different space,
Likewise, the various categories of phenomena do not divide suchness.
Therefore when perfectly comprehending one taste,
You excellent Wise One comprehended [everything] knowable in a single instant.
In verse 11, Rinpoche said the bodhisattva understands all phenomena even though there are no phenomena to understand. And he understands in a way that is beyond understanding and what is to be understood. In other words, it is truly non-dual. As Rinpoche said, these qualities are not only difficult, they are beyond us. He gave a lovely example of inconceivability: Imagine you have been in the dark your entire life, and never experienced so-called daytime or sunlight. Then imagine that the so-called sun comes, and everything is bright and shining for the first time. In that moment it will be like a fairytale, because you have never experienced daylight before.
Nightfall (Original book cover)
Inconceivability [t = 0:37:45]
That example made me think of a lovely story about inconceivability, which some of you may know. It's the 1941 story “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction writer, which is about the first time somebody experiences night. It's about what happens when darkness comes to a planet that's ordinarily illuminated by sunlight at all times. In 1968, it was voted the best science fiction short story written prior to the establishment of the Nebula awards in 1965. It's a true classic. According to Asimov's autobiography, John Campbell (editor of Astounding Science Fiction) asked Asimov to write the story after discussing with him a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!"
Campbell thought the opposite:
"I think men would go mad."
Here’s the outline of the story:
The fictional planet Lagash is located in a stellar system containing six suns, which keep the whole planet continuously illuminated; total darkness is unknown, and as a result, so are all the stars outside the planet's stellar system. The story begins when an archaeologist finds evidence of multiple cyclical collapses of the planet's civilization, which have occurred regularly about every 2000 years.
At the same time, a reporter learns about group known as the Cult ("Apostles of Flame"), which believes the world will be destroyed in a darkness that unleashes a torrent of fire.
An astronomer calculates that once every 2049 years, due to planetary alignment, only one sun is visible in the sky. This single sun is eclipsed by another orbiting body in the solar system, resulting in a brief "night.” His theory is that this "night" was so horrifying to the people who experienced it, that they desperately sought out any light source to try to drive it away: particularly, by frantically starting fires which burned down and destroyed their successive civilizations. He also postulates that the "Apostles of the Flame" started out as vague surviving legends after the last eclipse: small children too young to understand what was happening did not go insane but grew up half-feral in the ruins. As they grew older, the only clues they had to what had happened were the insane ramblings of adults who had lived through the eclipse. Over the centuries, these vague stories became legend, and then a cult of religious devotion.
The scientists realize that another of these eclipses will happen soon. Since the current population of Lagash has never experienced general darkness, the scientists conclude that the darkness will traumatize the people and that they need to prepare for it.
When nightfall occurs, the scientists (who had prepared themselves only for darkness) and the rest of the planet are stunned by the sight of the hitherto invisible stars outside the six-star system, filling the sky. Never having seen other stars, the inhabitants of Lagash had come to believe that their six-star system contained the entirety of the universe. In one horrifying instant, anyone gazing at the night sky – the first night sky which they have ever known – is suddenly faced with the reality that the universe contains many millions upon billions of stars: the awesome realization of just how vast the universe truly is drives them insane. This night sky is filled with stars - it is very different from that of Earth's, because Lagash and its stars reside in a globular cluster, where hundreds of thousands of stars are visible in the now-darkened sky.
The short story concludes with the arrival of the night and a crimson glow that was "not the glow of a sun.” Civil disorder breaks out; cities are destroyed in massive fires and civilization collapses.
It's a wonderful story, I really encourage you to read it. It reminds me of the story of when the 500 arhats they first heard the teachings on the Prajñaparamita. I really love "Nightfall" as an exercise of imagination. It is very easy to say that ‘Buddha qualities are inconceivable’. But the word ‘inconceivable’ is almost too simplistic, too throwaway. It doesn't touch our hearts. We don't know what it actually means. So a story like this can remind us, wow, if we were to experience something truly inconceivable like this, it would have an emotional shock that we just can't imagine. It's always worth bearing that in mind, because as we said already, most of us end up limiting emptiness, nonduality and enlightenment to some kind of narrow intellectual understanding, rather than the infinite vastness of nonduality. This kind of inconceivability is the complete opposite of our limited ideas of emptiness. I want to leave you with that as an example of what the experience of inconceivability might be like.
In his introduction to the Vimalakirti Sutra, Rinpoche also speaks about inconceivability (page 61):
As philosophers, we must learn to interpret accurately and to mean what we say. For example, what do you mean when you say, ‘incredible’ or ‘unthinkable’? Whatever it is, it’s too vague. The only way to understand something fully is to be able to think the unthinkable and, at the same time, let the unthinkable remain unthinkable. If you can do that, you are improving. Right now most of us cannot think the unthinkable. The few who can, quickly discover that being able to think the unthinkable means that the unthinkable is no longer unthinkable, it’s a ‘thinkable unthinkable’. So, bodhisattvas must be able to think the unthinkable while allowing the quality and the taste of ‘unthinkable’ to remain.
An objection [t = 0:42:57]
[11:12] If peace is suchness, there is no engaging intellect.
With no engaging intellect, an apprehender of objects certainly makes no sense.
The absence of apprehender contradicts any cognition,
And without any cognition who can teach others, saying, "It is so"?
There's a doubt raised here in the commentaries about whether the Buddha actually has any activities or manifestations. We know from the previous example of how water is perceived in the six realms, that there is no base for our imputations and projections of phenomena. Many philosophers say that the Buddha qualities and activities are similarly baseless. They’re just the projections of others. Here we are talking about the jñanas and the kayas:
- Jñanas refer to wisdom or non-dual awareness.
- Kayas refer to bodies. In the Mahayana we talk about two bodies or kayas: the dharmakaya and the rupakaya. The dharmakaya is the truth body, which is non-duality beyond all extremes. The rupakaya is the form body, which is all form and manifestation. These two correspond to 'emptiness' and 'form' in the Heart Sutra. When we speak of the 'Three Kayas' in the Vajrayana, the rupakaya is subdivided into the samboghakaya and the nirmanakaya. The samboghakaya is the body of mutual enjoyment, the body of bliss or clear light manifestation. The nirmanakaya is the created body, which manifests in time and in space.
Now the problem raised in verse 11:12 is with the vajra-like antidote that we met previously in Week 2. As you may recall, this is the final antidote that removes the last defilement of the 10th bhumi bodhisattva before s/he finally attains enlightenment. But if this vajra-like antidote is yet another defiled phenomenon, then what could refute it? If it is a defilement, then it also needs an antidote. But if the Buddha has no jñanas and kayas of his own, he would be unable to refute it. So some of our opponents say, well it just exhausts. But that explanation doesn't really work either, because then our supposedly toughest defilement becomes the easiest to remove, as you can just sit and wait until it exhausts itself. So there is a big debate about how does the vajra-like antidote function. And this debate isn't really resolved in the Madhyamakavatara. If you want to learn more, please refer to other texts such as the Uttaratantra.
The Buddha knows everything, even though there is nothing to know [t = 0:45:28]
When we talk about the Buddha, the commentator Gorampa says, yes, we have proved that he doesn't have dualistic mind - we have proved he's nondual - but that doesn't mean he is a vegetable. Beyond the fact that he has no dualism, we do not know anything else. Remember the Heart Sutra: "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form", so we also know that emptiness is all the aggregates, including consciousness. We know emptiness is not nothing. But what it is, we don't know. So in verse 11:13:
[11:13] If the uncreated is suchness, [perceiving] mind too is uncreated
Therefore, realization of suchness is realizing that nature.
As a mind that fully perceives an object
Knows it in conventional dependence.
So when we say 'Buddha knows everything' or 'the Buddha is omniscient', these statements are only conventionally true, because all these objects of knowledge are unborn and the self is unborn. And on page 374 we remind ourselves that with any kind of representational theory of knowledge, which includes all the Buddhist schools from the Sautrantika onwards, we don't say that we perceive an object like a blue object directly. We only perceive its reconstruction, its representation. It's a virtual reality, not something truly existing. And similarly, we can say the Buddha knows everything, even though there is nothing to know.
The kaya similar to the cause [t = 0:46:11]
Verse 11:14 introduces the 'kaya similar to the cause', gyutun gyi ku (Wylie: rgyu mthun gyi sku, Tibetan: རྒྱུ་མཐུན་གྱི་སྐུ་), which we'll talk about a fair amount over the coming verses. This kaya is not part of the nirmanakaya, but it's rather the manifestations that arise as the reflection of the infinite merit of the sambhogakaya Buddhas.
[11:14] Sambhogakaya is attained through [the Buddha’s] merit,
And through emanations in the sky and other [locations]
He teaches the Dharma of suchness,
So even the world perceives suchness.
This can manifest all kinds of phenomena - teachers, teachings, trees, water, bridges, sound, all kinds of ordinary phenomena, and some would even say treasure teachings. And the reason we introduce this is to answer the question: if the Buddha has no conception, how does he teach? How does he benefit beings? Because we know that already on the 7th bhumi the Buddha has abandoned conceptions. He has abandoned the notions of subject, object, and action.
If the Buddha has no conceptions, how does he benefit beings? [t = 0:46:45]
The analogy here is given of a potter, who spins his potter's wheel, and (as you may know if you've worked with a potter's wheel) you spin it so it has a lot of momentum, and then you don't have to keep spinning it. You can use the momentum of the wheel to work and make a pot, without needing to continue spinning the wheel. So similarly, while the Buddha was on the bhumis, he was collecting merit and making aspirations, and that created the so-called ‘momentum’ which continues into Buddhahood. And so we say in the last two lines of verse 11:16 that Buddha-activity is caused by the merit of sentient beings, but the condition is the aspiration of the Buddha while he's on the path.
[11:15] Just as when a strong potter
Spins his wheel for a long time to set it turning,
Later with no exertion of effort,
The turning is seen to cause a pot.
[11:16] Likewise, without any effort at present
[The Buddha] resides as the embodied Lord of Dharma,
Through the virtues of ordinary beings, and his own extraordinary prayers,
His greatness being inconceivable.
Here the idea is that the Buddha has internalized something, and now it operates through its own momentum. We'll see this again next week when we talk about spontaneous action. This is the idea of action without dualistic intention, and even in the conventional world, we can see versions of this with any kind of mastery. So for example, a tennis player can respond to a serve which leaves the racquet at 130 miles an hour. Now, if you actually time it, you have significantly less than 500 milliseconds to respond, to return the serve. And this requires years of training – of the optometric system, the perceptual system, the cognitive reactions - until the return of serve is completely unconscious, completely non-conceptual. I think this is actually a good example of how if we practice, we can internalize our practice to a state where it no longer needs to be accessed conceptually, in the same way that a tennis player doesn't need to resort to conceptual thinking in order to return to a serve.
There is a doubt here. What is the origin of the merit of sentient beings? Because this merit supposedly comes from the Buddha's blessings in the first place, and so we seem to have a circular reasoning problem, where merit is both received from the Buddha's blessings and also the source of Buddha's blessings. Rinpoche said, "these two verses have always bugged me; I've asked many khenpos and never got a satisfactory answer". He didn't go into what, exactly, bugs him but perhaps we can bear this in mind, and maybe ask him next time we see him.
The dharmakaya [t = 0:49:37]
The next set of verses describes the three kayas. Verse 17 describes the dharmakaya. It’s a very popular verse. All extremes are like the firewood burned by wisdom, by the vajra-like antidote. When the unborn is realized, that is peace; that is freedom from extremes. That is dharmakaya.
[11:17] When the dry firewood of everything knowable,
Is [consumed by the fire of wisdom], the peace of the victorious one's dharmakaya [is all there remains]
At that moment, there is no creation and no cessation;
When mind ceases, its [enjoyment]-body manifests in actuality.
We say that mind has stopped. Conceptual thinking has stopped, but the nature of mind, which is clarity and knowing, continues. Rinpoche reminded us that once again - like everything in this chapter - this verse is beyond us, because we have no idea what it is to have a mind with clarity and knowing, but without dualism. We are so stuck, not only in our tsendzin, but we're still stuck within dendzin, the clinging to true existence. So again I’d like reiterate: almost every verse is telling us that this is beyond our rational conceptual minds. So don't try to grasp or interpret these nondual practices or the Three Kayas intellectually. You can't. They are beyond concepts. So anything that you're talking about, explaining to yourself, theorizing about - that is not it. I say this because I can see already there's a tendency for some of us to want to try and verbalize and conceptualize these nondual practices. That just isn't going to work. And as we said, in the Vajrayana, and especially in the mahasandhi – when it comes to these examples of nonduality, and especially if we introduce the nonduality directly – that view cannot be introduced with words or language or concepts.
The sambhogakaya [t = 0:51:22]
[11:18] Motionless, yet this [enjoyment]-body illuminates as the wish-granting tree;
Non-conceptual as the wish-fulfilling jewel;
Permanent, furnishing comforts until [all] beings are liberated,
It manifests within simplicity.
Here the Buddha appears like a wish-fulfilling jewel. So this kaya similar to the cause appears to the 10th bhumi bodhisattva – although not to any of the lower bodhisattvas - and then, in turn, the 10th bhumi bodhisattva can teach the 9th, and all the way on down.
The kaya that is similar to the cause - manifesting as an illusory display [t = 0:51:41]
Verses 19-27 describe how the Buddha appears as a display. They’re pretty straightforward. And as you read through the verses, you will see that he can display everything - his conduct in samsara, the bodhisattva bodies and activities, Buddha realms, disciples, retinues, teachings. All sentient beings from the first moment they became bodhisattvas, even ordinary beings. All of the three worlds, basically.
[11:19] Accordingly, the Muni Lord may in an instant
And in a single body manifest his previous births,
Although already ceased, and without effort,
He may display every possible detail.
[11:20] The buddhafields; the buddha;
His actions and powers;
The number of shravaka sangha and their nature;
The bodhisattvas and their forms;
[11:21] Which Dharma, how he himself was,
Which conduct he practised [as a result of] hearing the teaching;
Which offerings he made and how much were offered –
Without omissions, he can display all these.
[11:22] Likewise, his [practice of] discipline, patience, diligence, samadhi
And wisdom, as he practised them
Flawlessly – all these actions,
He also displays within every pore of his body.
[11:23] Also [he can display how] the buddhas of the past, those to come,
And those of the present will as long as the sky lasts,
With a penetrating voice show the truth so the afflicted
Beings may be liberated, and [how they themselves] remain in this world,
[11:24] And from the first developing of bodhicitta until enlightenment,
How all their actions have a magical display's nature.
Knowing this and that we are likewise, in their pores
They will display all this clearly in a single instant.
[11:25] Likewise the actions of the three times' bodhisattvas,
The pratyekabuddhas and all noble shravakas.
Beside those of ordinary individuals,
He can display simultaneously in every pore.
[11:26] This Pure One, according to his will,
May display a single mote of dust as the entire universe,
And the infinite universe as a mote of dust,
Without the dust mote becoming any bigger or the universe any smaller.
[11:27] Without thoughts, until the end of [cyclic] existence,
You can display as many actions as there are instants,
As infinite as there are worlds,
And dust motes within in these worlds.
Let's take just one example: verse 11:26. He can put all the universes that exist within a single atom, and he can make one atom as large as all the universes. Yet the atom will not become bigger, and the universes will not become smaller. These things are beyond us.
Enlightenment is not the same as nirvana [t = 0:52:33]
On page 383 there's an additional discussion on Buddha qualities, making the point that the Mahayana understanding of nirvana is quite different from the Shravakayana understanding. In the Shravakayana, nirvana is seen as something like the extinction of fire or the evaporation of water. These are good analogies for how the extreme of true existence is stopped. For the shravakas, since they're only eliminating the extreme of true existence, then it makes sense that their analogy is that the experience of nirvana is like the extinction of fire or the drying up of water. Nirvana literally means ‘blowing out’ or ‘quenching’, and it usually refers to the three fires or the three poisons of passion, aggression and ignorance. And when they're extinguished, we’re released from the cycle of rebirth. And actually there's a distinction made in the Shravakayana between extinguishing the fires during life, and the final blowing-out at the moment of death - these are called nirvana with and without residue. What happens after one reaches nirvana, and after death, is unanswerable. That's one of the ten questions Buddha didn't answer.
But for us in the Mahayana, we go beyond all four extremes. ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form’. So we don't end up with just this one extreme like the extinction of fire. So our idea of enlightenment in the Mahayana is very different from the Shravakayana idea of nirvana. It is important to remember that the Shravakayana and the Mahayana have very different views.
Make your mind abundant and open [t = 0:54:18]
Rinpoche then said a few words on openness. We'll talk more about openness later, and we talked about it last week as well - this quality on the 8th bhumi of being able to have fearlessness and confidence to imagine the unimaginable, to have a truly open mind. Openness is about going beyond rational thinking. We realize that although we use words like ‘dependent arising’ and ‘emptiness’ and ‘unborn’, this is purely for the sake of communication, because we lack better words. And as Rinpoche says, even when we use the word 'emptiness' or 'shunyata', we should remember that although it may perhaps be the best single word we could come up with to describe the so-called ‘truth’, it’s really important not to limit or deprive our minds. Don't fall into thinking of it as a mere absence; certainly don't fall into thinking of it in a Shravakayana way as just the absence of true existence. It's really important to remember the abundance and openness of nonduality, of 'emptiness is form'. For example, in verse 11:26 which we just talked about, we have the whole universe fitting into one atom, and Buddha making this one atom as big as the entire universe. Here Chandrakirti is introducing this concept of ronyam (Wylie: ro mnyam, Tibetan: རོ་མཉམ་) or ‘equal taste’. He’s basically saying that as long as we have rational thinking, we will never understand the Buddha. So again, this is yet another reminder for those of us who love to study that if we stay in the realm of logic or reason, we're never going to understand the Buddha. So don't get caught up in trying to intellectualize.
The Ten Powers [t = 0:55:55]
Next we come to the Ten Powers. They are summarized in verses 11:28 to 11:30, and the subsequent verses go through them in more detail. And again, they are infinite and beyond our rational understanding. So please remember inconceivability and the story of Nightfall.
[11:28] The power of knowing what is and what is not origin; (1)
Likewise knowing the maturation of actions; (2)
Comprehension of various aspirations; (3)
The power of realizing various propensities; (4)
[11:29] Likewise supreme and non-supreme faculties; (5)
The [paths of] knowledge and ordinariness; (6)
Concentrations, liberation, samadhis,
Absorptions – such mental powers; (7)
[11:30] Knowledge of remembering the past; (8)
Knowledge of passing and birth; (9)
Knowledge of exhausting defilements; (10)
Such are the ten powers.
One of them I find quite interesting is the second power, the understanding of karma, which is described in verse 11:32. This power includes the understanding of every aspect of karma and all of its results - all the details of cause and effect down to the most microscopic level.
[11:31] A cause that has created a certain thing,
The Knowing One has taught as the thing's basis,
Likewise, there are infinite objects that are not its basis.
This knowledge removes obstructions and is [the first] power.
[11:32] Wanted and unwanted [karma], the opposite— the reality of exhaustion,
And the myriad of karmic ripening,
The capacity of unobstructedly knowing each of these objects,
Throughout the three times is [the second] power.
We have previously talked about how dependent arising is literally infinite. When we think about how we explain the things happen in everyday life, we know there is no ultimate set of causes. There is no final explanation. For every set of reasons or causes that we can think of, there are more causes that cause those causes. So it's literally impossible for us to describe what's going on. There can be no end to our description or explanation. In thinking about this, I find it helpful to remember the difference between ➜the map and the territory:
- Territory: The territory is the reality of what's going on. The reality of the entire interlinked network of causes and effects.
- Map: Our narratives, our explanations, our rationality - these make up our map. And no map is ever going to be the territory.
We all know that the map is not the territory. And verse 11:32 is interesting because we're saying that this is not the case for the Buddha. For him, his map is the territory. For him, it is totality. There is no reduced description. And that makes sense because as we have said, emptiness, dependent arising, Buddha nature, and the Three Kayas - all of these words are referring to the same thing - the nondual nature.
This reminds me of a lovely short story by Jorge Luis Borges from 1946, called "On Exactitude in Science ...", which is about the relationship between the map and the territory:
On Exactitude in Science . . .
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
I love this story. It's such a wonderful reminder of nonduality - learning to let go of this futile attempt to reduce everything to these limited descriptions, which is all that our minds can handle. Our limited rationality, our limited narratives, are just like these futile attempts to build a complete map of the empire.
I'm not going to go through the other Ten Powers. You can read them. The verses are poetic, inspirational, and I would say completely beyond us.
[11:33] The intentions arisen from the strength of desire and so forth;
The vast multitude of lower, middling and supreme aspirations;
And other hidden aspirations – this knowledge
Covers every being of the three times, is [the third] power.
[11:34] The buddhas, knowledgeable about the divisions of constituents,
Called the nature of the eyes and so forth constituents.
The infinite knowledge of the perfect buddhas,
Penetrates all aspects of phenomena. This is [the fourth] power.
[11:35] Discursive thought and so forth may be supreme for the very sharp,
Yet not so for the middling and inferior, it was taught.
Comprehending how the eyes and so forth are established in mutuality,
Such is [the fifth] power of the desirelessness of omniscience.
[11:36] The paths of buddhas, of pratyekabuddhas,
Of shravakas and of bodhisattvas; [the paths of] pretas,
Animals, gods, humans and the denizens of hell –
Unlimited and unobstructed knowledge of these is [the sixth] power.
[11:37] The world's various yogin's different meditations
And eight liberations of shamatha,
And the single and eightfold absorptions –
Unobstructed knowledge of these is [the seventh] power.
[11:38] When he himself was deluded and dwelling in samsara,
The cyclic existence of other sentient beings,
As infinite many as they are, their origins and countries,
Such knowledge and capacity is [the eighth] power.
[11:39] The transmigration of every sentient being,
Their lives and their worlds, to the very limits of space –
Knowing the details and perceiving the time
Such unobstructed perfectly pure, infinite [knowledge] is [the ninth] power.
[11:40] Through the power of omniscience, swiftly the buddha's
Kleshas are purified, destroyed together with their habitual patterns, and,
The afflictions of the disciples cease through intelligence,
Such infinite unobstructed knowledge, [the tenth] power.
The Buddha's qualities are indescribable [t = 0:59:31]
Verse 11:41 really makes this point. It’s a beautiful verse. It says it's not because there is no sky that birds turn back, they turn back because their strength exhausts. Likewise together with their disciples even the bodhisattvas must relinquish describing the sky-like qualities of the Buddhas. This is just like the map. We cannot describe the whole territory. It's too vast. We're just going to get exhausted like the birds, and that does not mean we've reached the limit of the sky. Yet again, reiterating, this nonduality is beyond our rational understanding.
[11:41] It is not because there is no sky that birds turn back –
They turn back as their strength exhausts.
Likewise, together with their disciples, even the bodhisattvas,
Must relinquish describing the sky-like qualities of the buddhas.
[11:42] Therefore, how can someone like me know of your qualities?
Or be able to describe them?
Yet, as noble Nagarjuna has explained these,
I have set aside hesitation to speak briefly on these.
[11:43] The profound being emptiness,
The vast are the other qualities.
Through knowing the ways of the profound and vast,
These qualities will be accomplished.
There was a discussion on page 394 about when we talk about the qualities of the Buddhas, the rangtong and the shentong traditions have different views, even though they are all followers of the Madhyamaka. Because for the shentongpas in particular, when they talk about ultimate reality, or yongdrup (Wylie: yongs grub, Tibetan: ཡོངས་གྲུབ་), they embellish it with words like "permanent", "primordially accomplished", and things like that. And obviously the rangtong school would not agree with words like this, because they would say that words like "permanent" imply true existence. And the shentongpas would also say that even the qualities of the Buddha, like the 32 Major Marks, things like his copper-coloured fingernails, even these cannot be produced; they have always been there. That probably doesn’t make much sense to us right now, and indeed it's not explained in the Madhymakavatara. But if you go on to study the Uttaratantra, you will see that these words like "permanent" and "self" are actually being used to refer to the nondual. So when shentongpas use the word "permanent", it's being used to mean ‘beyond permanent and impermanent’, both of which are dualistic. We don't have a word for ‘beyond permanent and impermanent’ in English, and so through lack of words, we end up using the word "permanent". We could equally call it something different; it’s just that we don't have a word for it. But we should not misunderstand how these words are being used.
Just a reminder: all of this is completely beyond our words and concepts. So, much of this really is just praise and inspiration and aspiration. And actually the source here, as we discuss on page 390, intriguingly all of this comes from Nagarjuna's Collection of Praises. We tend to think of him as the ultimate philosopher, the ultimate rationalist; but he wrote a whole series of other works which are series of praises: Praise to the dharmadhatu, Praise to the beyond-worldly, Praise to the inconceivable, Praise to the ultimate, and so on. These are very poetic, very beyond-rational kinds of teachings. It’s helpful to remember that even when it comes to our hero Nagarjuna, we shouldn't have too narrow a view. There's much more to him than we might think.
Dependent arising isn't the same as emptiness [t = 1:02:26]
On page 395 Rinpoche made an important point that we need to be careful when we talk about dependent arising. Even though we tend to use the word interchangeably with emptiness, they're not actually the same. For example, in Week 3 we came across Thich Nhat Hanh's example of how he can see the cloud in the piece of paper, but Rinpoche cautioned us to be very careful when we use these examples not to develop a wrong understanding. He said:
We hear confused talk from small time buddhists like us. They say, as if they really understand dependent arising, “Yes, I can see why buddhists talk about dependent arising. Because we human beings we eat and then we shit and then it goes to the earth, then the tree grows: everything is dependent”. That’s a very sweet way of thinking about dependent arising, but there’s something very big missing here, and that’s the selflessness aspect. As long as you leave out selflessness, there is no dependent arising. That’s very important to remember, so make a big multi-coloured highlight in your notebook.
The nirmanakaya [t = 1:03:32]
Now we turn to the nirmanakaya. And in verse 11:45, Chandrakirti emphasizes that the Buddha taught "an undivided single vehicle". We've heard this before in verse 6:79, and actually last week as well with Mipham's commentary on verse 6:179. Ultimately the Buddha taught only one vehicle. Rinpoche's comment here is important. We talk a lot about love, compassion meditation, and methods like that, but on their own, they will not contradict ignorance. They cannot defeat it entirely. The only way is selflessness, emptiness. Only these teachings are a complete antidote to ignorance. And so even when His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "my religion is kindness", we have to realize that it's a very provisional teaching. Unfortunately, it has misled so many people in the West who think that because they are cultivating and practicing kindness through their religion or their approach to psychology or self-help or whatever they're doing, they think it's the same as Buddhism. Far from it. As Rinpoche said, unless the path has selflessness, unless the path has emptiness, it's not going to be an antidote to ignorance. The other verses here are quite straightforward.
[11:44] After achieving the immutable kaya, you returned once again to the three worlds with emanations,
Descending, taking birth and showing the Dharma of attaining peaceful enlightenment.
Thus for all those subscribing to the deceits of the world,
Who are bound by those chains, through your compassion, you lead these beyond suffering.
[11:45] Therefore, apart from knowing suchness, for removing the various stains
There is no other method, as phenomena know no divisions of suchness.
The mind that perceives suchness is also not divided.
Therefore, you taught sentient beings an undivided single vehicle.
[11:46] Because sentient beings have the impurities that make them err,
They do not perceive the profound scope of the buddhas.
Tathagata, because you possess wisdom together with the means of compassion,
You vowed: "I shall liberate sentient beings."
[11:47] Just as a wise [captain] will [miraculously] manifest a beautiful city,
To relieve his crew when voyaging to an island of jewels,
Likewise, you connected your [shravaka and pratyekabuddha] disciples with the [lower] vehicles to give them peace,
[While] you spoke otherwise to those with trained minds, free [from emotions].
We cannot talk of the time of Buddha's enlightenment [t = 1:04:40]
Verse 11:48 is another inconceivable verse. When we talk about the time the Buddha became enlightened, we can talk about combining all the dust particles in all the Buddha realms and then counting as many years and life spans as all these endless dust particles in the buddhafields, and it sounds like we're talking about something a very long time ago. But actually, as Rinpoche said, we are talking about an all-pervasive quality that pervades the Buddhas of the three times - past, present, and future. Similarly, millions upon millions of 10th bhumi bodhisattvas are achieving enlightenment at this very moment. So enlightenment is everywhere, all the time; it's all-pervasive.
[11:48] Sugatas in the buddhafields of all the directions,
Numerous as the particles and atoms in these –
For as many aeons will you enter holy supreme enlightenment.
Yet, this secret of yours should not be told.
And yes of course conventionally, we say "the Buddha attained enlightenment", but it's a very relative way of speaking. Rinpoche gave a lovely example, also taken from the Uttaratantra, of a poor family that inherits a plot of land from some ancient ancestors. The family is very poor; but then one day, they find there is a gold mine on their land. And maybe you could say they have "discovered" this gold mine and have "become" rich, but that's just a conventional way of describing things, because they've always had it.
The Buddha remains forever out of wisdom and compassion [t = 1:06:07]
So until now in Chapter 11 we've been talking about how the qualities of the Buddha and his enlightenment are completely beyond us. But now Chandrakirti changes direction completely. In verses 11:49-11:51 he says that actually the Buddha remains forever out of his compassion and does not enter the supreme peace of nirvana, because samsara is endless, and there are endless suffering sentient beings, so the goal is never exhausted. And so Chandrakirti closes his entire text by saying that the Buddha has no enlightenment.
[11:49] Victor, as long as the worlds have not attained supreme peace,
As long as the sky has not disintegrated,
You, born from the Mother of Wisdom and nursed by her loving kindness,
How could you enter supreme peace?
[11:50] As they ignorantly eat the poisonous food of ordinary experience,
Your care for your family of ordinary individuals,
[Is greater than] the sufferings of the mother of a poisoned child,
Thus you, protector, will not enter supreme peace.
[11:51] Because they are ignorant, fixating on [things as] real or unreal,
Because they suffer from birth and death, from not achieving the wanted, and being struck by the unwanted,
Because of the destination of the evil, you are moved by tenderness for the world,
Bhagawan, through compassion you have shunned peace and not chosen nirvana.
Rinpoche gave a lovely commentary here. He said that for many of us, we think of enlightenment as heaven: some sort of peaceful, perfect resting place where we will all live "happily ever after", in the way that all the fairy tales end. But as Maitreya said, we don't dwell in samsara out of wisdom, and we don't dwell in nirvana out of compassion. This is nonduality. And this destroys our concept of enlightenment. And of course, it has to, because enlightenment is nondual, so no concept can contain it. Enlightenment is beyond concept, beyond rational. So when in these verses Chandrakirti says the Buddha can't have enlightenment, Rinpoche says that actually Chandrakirti is giving the perfect description of what nondual enlightenment looks like.
But, as he says on page 400, if you're talking to a non-Buddhist who asks you ‘if you don't believe in heaven, what do you Buddhists believe in?’, then we can't just say ‘we're aiming for something that is not samsara, not nirvana, but sort of beyond them both’. That’s very confusing. So for the sake of communication we say ‘we're aiming for enlightenment’. But what this word 'enlightenment' really refers to is 'nonduality that is beyond samsara and beyond nirvana'. As we've said before, it's the same as when the Uttaratantra describes Buddha-nature as "pure", as "self", as "bliss", as "permanent" - these words are actually just labels for something that is nondual. It's beyond permanent and impermanent and so forth. And this is important, especially for those of you listening in East Asia, because in a lot of East Asian Buddhism, for example in China and Japan, the interpretation of Buddha-nature has in some cases become distorted. It is being wrongly understood by some Buddhists as being something truly existing, something much like the Hindu concept of Atman, because what is supposed to be nondual language is being interpreted dualistically. So even though East Asian Buddhism celebrates the nondual wisdom of the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and all the Prajñaparamita Sutras there's still a real danger of misinterpreting Buddha-nature as something truly existing.
Rinpoche and Matthieu Ricard talk about science and rebirth [t = 1:08:41]
In the following pages there is an interesting conversation on topics like science and rebirth between Rinpoche and the wonderful scientist-scholar-practitioner Matthieu Ricard. If you don't know him, he is a very close student of Rinpoche's teacher, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche; he's the French translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama; and he's also an amazing photographer. If you haven't seen his book, ➜Journey to Enlightenment, I strongly recommend it, it's really beautiful. You can see his work on his ➜website, and I've included some images below:
(The following images are © Matthieu Ricard. Please click on the images for larger versions)
- Scientists don't believe in truly existent particles. What we call a particle is just a phenomenon; it doesn't have intrinsic properties. And as we now know, from quantum physics, in some conditions it can appear like a wave, which is everywhere; in other conditions, it appears like a particle, at a certain point. These two things couldn't be more opposite to each other. So scientists very much agree with Buddhists on this.
- Scientists are ignorant sentient beings, just like us: There is no conflict between Madhyamaka and science, and yet, as Rinpoche and Matthieu both said, scientists are of course still ignorant sentient beings, just like us. The problem isn't so much our disagreement with science. As we have said before, that's not a problem for us. The problem is that scientists are just ordinary ignorant sentient beings who need to practice the path.
- Buddhism, science and rebirth: There was an interesting conversation about science and rebirth, because as you may know, the Buddhist argument tends to be based on the idea of a continuum, which somehow reminds me of ➜Saint Anselm's ontological proof of God. But the idea of continuum is not a problem for science, and there's a very interesting conversation between Matthieu and Rinpoche which I think shows some of the challenges the two traditions have in understanding each other. Let's just read them both. First on page 403:
[Matthieu]: Matter can transform into energy and energy into matter, but it cannot altogether disappear into nothingness.
[Rinpoche]: Then what's the problem?
[Matthieu]: Well, for consciousness that’s the problem. Because scientists say that when the brain stops, consciousness stops.
[Rinpoche]: But that contradicts about what you have just said, about things not disappearing into nothingness.
[Matthieu]: No, the continuum continues. The energy of consciousness dissolves into earth, and it serves to contribute to global warming or something else, but it’s not conscious anymore! It’s just like when you turn off the light; it goes somewhere else.
This is an important example, because the most common Buddhist argument in favour of rebirth is in terms of the continuity of the continuum. And as you can see, science has a very different way of talking about the continuity or conservation of matter and energy. They also have an interesting exchange on consciousness, on page 404:
[Matthieu]: The brain, and hence the mind, is made up of the neural connections in the brain, and your interactions with your environment. When you are born, you start with a certain “wiring”, which is modified throughout your life as you interact with your environment. And then when you die, that’s all – it stops.
[Rinpoche]: Somehow, I can’t help thinking that there is a subject. Perhaps it’s my brainwashing. But who knows these things?
[Matthieu]: There is nothing separate that “knows” things; the very knowing is the functioning of the brain. It’s like how a lamp lights up when you pass electricity through it. Consciousness is like the light – it lights up phenomena, but you can’t ask who is lighting. The luminous faculty of the consciousness is the functioning of the brain.
- Should we study the views of contemporary science and philosophy? Rinpoche said that the masters warn about sherab chal (Wylie: shes rab 'chal, Tibetan: ཤེས་རབ་འཆལ་), which means your 'wisdom is scattered everywhere', in which case it gets wasted. So you don't want to get carried away with too much of that. Chandrakirti would not want that. But having said that, if your aim is to find the truth, then yes, you should study; understanding these modern views is very important. So, as ever, it's the Middle Way. Don't get scattered and distracted from your practice; but also, study, understand, so that you gain confidence in the view that is the foundation of practice.
Devotion, faith, and the view as insurance [t = 1:12:50]
As we come to the close, there are a couple of important closing sections. Firstly, Rinpoche talked about the difference between "devotion" and "faith". He said that to see the truth we need the discipline to listen to the teachings and to practice the path, and we need devotion and inspiration to sustain us on our path. But in the modern world, most of the time our inspiration is very emotionally-oriented. We think devotion is something like faith, especially if we were brought up as Christians or in some other theistic environment. We think that we are supposed to believe in things without much reasoning, and so our devotion ends up becoming irrational devotion. But as Rinpoche has so often taught, our devotion needs to progress from being irrational to rational and eventually to beyond-rational. And although we may not yet understand beyond-rational devotion, at least we can lessen our irrational and emotional devotion.
Rinpoche quoted the famous definition of devotion from Saraha, where in one of his Dohas, he said devotion means ‘trusting in cause, condition, and effect’. That's not emotional. So until we have a more stable confidence in our path and our practice, it's important to have the view as insurance. The section on page 407 is very important, and I’d like to read it. Rinpoche said:
If you have merit and genuine devotion, of course, we don’t have to talk about this. But for most of us beginners, although we might have some fleeting temporary devotion, it’s good for us to have a good ground of understanding the teachings through hearing and contemplation, because it will always be like insurance. Emotionally oriented devotion can easily fall apart: we are such weak beings that conditions can easily defeat us. Today we may think that our master or the Buddha is wonderful. Tomorrow, a ridiculous or trivial circumstance could arise, such as your guru not liking onion on his pizza, and just because you like onion so much, you might think, what kind of guru is this? That’s so pathetic, but that’s what I mean by emotionally oriented devotion. As in the beginning of this text, we discussed that we should not rely on the teacher, but on his teachings. We should not rely on conception, but on wisdom. We should not rely on expedient teachings, but on absolute teachings. Until we manage to transform the master into the path, we should always have the insurance of having a good ground of understanding the teachings.
Closing Sections [t = 1:14:48]
The last couple of verses - the dedication and the closing - are self-explanatory.
[11:52] According to this tradition, the bhikshu Chandrakirti,
Here condensed the treatises of Madhyamika.
I have based this on the agramas,
And according to the [oral] instructions.
[11:53] There are other teachings,
But they are unlike this.
Thus, there is nothing comparable to this tradition.
This has been confirmed by the wise.
[11:54] Frightened by the hue of the great waters of Nagarjuna’s mind,
Individuals remain removed from this good tradition.
By this arrangement of [Nagarjuna’s] words, which are like dew that opens the water lily,
The wishes of Chandrakirti have now been completely fulfilled.
[11:55] Through previous habituation, individuals will realize the terrifying profundity of the suchness explained,
Yet, others will not understand such realization even though they may have studied greatly.
Therefore, seeing [the teachings of] other traditions as merely applying to themselves,
Give up the way of studying the treatises of all traditions, and be content with just this.
[11:56] May the merit of relating the excellent tradition of Acharya Nagarjuna pervade the limits of space;
May this morning star light up that dark sky of the afflicted mind;
And, by acquiring this jewel from the cobra-head of the mind,
May the entire world through realizing suchness, reach the level of the Sugata.
Don't mix paths [t = 1:14:52]
On page 411 Rinpoche touched on a topic that he really emphasizes - don't mix paths. I think it's very relevant to us in the West, because I think that in some Western paths, in some British Buddhism and American Buddhism, there's an awful lot of mixing of Dharma with things like psychology and self-help. And then all of a sudden, we end up with something that isn't really Buddhism anymore. As Rinpoche said, he has nothing against other paths:
But it’s like this. If you have a headache, there’s no point having pills for stomach-ache, ear-ache, nose-ache and intestine-ache all together. There’s no point, no necessity. If you have a headache, you just take headache pills. Similarly, Buddhism is for those who are inclined to practice Buddhism, and it should be left like that. Buddhism is totally and absolutely different from Hinduism and all the others. It’s good; it’s unique. Otherwise, buddhism will become degenerated, like when you go to America and buy these CDs of Beethoven’s music mixed with birds singing and the sounds of water. If you mix everything, it’s going to degenerate.
Practice is very individual [t = 1:15:52]
Finally, on page 412 he emphasized the importance of the view in ensuring the authentic transmission of Dharma to the West:
The introduction of Buddhism to the West is almost over now, and now Buddhism is growing. We talk about dharmapalas, the Dharma protectors, and in a way, all of you are also dharmapalas. Although the spiritual quest is growing rapidly in the West, the genuine authentic Dharma seems to be rare, even though there are still so many wonderful teachers coming to the West. So, it’s very important that at least some of us should study these texts, so that at least some of us will know what is authentic and what is not.
But although we can and should ensure that our path is authentic in the sense that it is based on right view, things become very individual in the realm of practice, and we can't really judge:
If we are talking about practice, that’s very individual. We can never judge and say that somebody is not a good teacher, or that somebody’s practice is wrong. We never know. For example, Zen masters ask their students, 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?', and the students get something, a satori. Yet there is no sutra that teaches about the sound of one hand clapping: that is just a method, and it's very individual. When we talk about practice, we cannot analyze so much. But when we are establishing the view, we can use our intellect, reasoning, powers of debate and so on. And it is important for some of us to study these texts and understand what authentic dharma is.
With that, we come to the end of Rinpoche's teachings on the Madhyamakavatara in France from 1996 to 2000. Rinpoche ended on the subject of practice, and I'd now like to transition to talk a little bit about practice.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
How to practice emptiness? [t = 1:17:12]
Let’s begin with the question of how to practice emptiness. Already that's a misleading question, because it's not as if there's one specific path which ‘does’ emptiness, and all the other Buddhist paths do something different. No. Emptiness is the nature of all phenomena, and all aspects of the path - we saw that in verses 6:202-6:215. All the 84,000 paths can lead you to emptiness, if you practice in the right way. Indeed, even non-Buddhist paths can lead you to emptiness eventually. In some Vajrayana traditions, even Hinduism is considered a preliminary path which will then lead you to the Buddhist paths.
And as Rinpoche just said, the path is very individual, personal, irrational. It's all about creating merit. And merit is all about dismantling our stubborn habitual patterns and ways of going into extremes. And if we can't actually dismantle them, at least creating conditions to dismantle them. And as he said on page 385, to do that, you need to perform all kinds of seemingly theistic or religious-looking practices like prostrations, like making butterlamp offerings, or maybe your master will ask you to build a nine-story building, or will push you from a building, like Naropa, or ask you to steal some soup. Rinpoche said, ‘these things happen; they are beyond me. It's not my job here, to give you a personal path’. And so for that, that's really why you need a spiritual companion, an instructor, a master. Someone who can give you the path that is right for you.
Now, you may not have such a person in your life, so what do you do? Well, in that case, follow the gradual path:
- Meditation: we can start with sitting, with shamatha and vipassana, with renunciation mind. We don't even need to call ourselves Buddhists. Perhaps we just practice mindfulness.
- Refuge and the Shravakayana path: if we wish to continue, we can take Refuge in the Three Jewels, and we can practice the Shravakayana. We can learn to tame our wild minds and reactive emotions.
- Bodhicitta and the Mahayana path: if we wish to continue further, we can take the bodhisattva vow, and engage in Mahayana practices such as lojong or bodhicitta. We can cultivate the four immeasurables and six paramitas. We can learn to familiarize ourselves with the nondual view. Perhaps we might chant the Heart Sutra, or choose to practice Zen.
- Ngöndro and the Vajrayana path: maybe we wish to continue further still, in which case maybe we decide to find a Vajrayana master and then we practice ngöndro and then eventually sadhanas and other Vajrayana practices.
There are lots of resources available on all of these different paths, and I'm not going to go into them in more detail now. It's beyond the scope of what we can talk about here, although I will talk a little bit about how if you are following any of these various paths, what might it mean to bring the view of emptiness to your path?
When we think about all these different paths, some are fast, some are slow; some are more direct, more challenging, some are less so. It really depends on your preferences, on your capacities. Some people like a country walk. Some like a strenuous hike. Some like to climb Everest. And as ignorant sentient beings, we have strong preferences at the beginning. Some of us really like certain kinds of practices and really dislike others. That's okay. That's why there are 84,000 methods. Some are very simple and minimal, like Zen. Some are very rich and complex, like Vajrayana. There are many ways we can practice. We can sit. We can walk. We can chant. We can engage in acts of service in the world. We can copy out texts in calligraphy. We can dance. Rinpoche has even given people practices of watching a movie, or drinking a cup of coffee. Everything can be a practice, if you bring the view to it. Rinpoche tells a story about His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, his teacher, and how he could teach anything. Given his realization, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche could teach even a seemingly extreme text filled with wrong views, and it would become a path to enlightenment. Whereas if a teacher with extreme views were to teach even the most sublime Dharma, it would become a path of nihilism or extremism.
So yes, we may start with very strong preferences, but as we have previously, just starting to do our practice is the key. If we practice, we will get to a state of preferencelessness. We will learn to equalize the Eight Worldly Dharmas. One of the nice things about contemporary mindfulness teachings is how they emphasize that you can be mindful doing almost anything. And likewise you can practice emptiness doing almost anything. You can learn to see anything as illusory. You can notice your attachment, and let go. You can notice the way you try to solidify and grasp, and let go. You can obviously do this with meditation experiences, but it’s the same in your daily life, which we'll talk about more next week. You can notice all the ways in which your ego solidifies things. And this is important, because we don't want this view of nonduality to become just an intellectual exercise that doesn't touch our habits. And I think in particular, one of the wonderful things about the path is the idea that bodhicitta contains both ultimate bodhicitta, which is nonduality or emptiness; and relative bodhicitta, which includes the compassion practices and the paramitas. Together, they are a wonderful insurance on our path. We'll talk about this later.
Practice is the transformation of our 'subject' [t = 1:22:57]
For most of Chapter 6, we've focused on analyzing phenomena as if they are ‘out there’. We used very logical, analytical, rational language. We had a very clear separation of the subject and the object. This is very good for establishing the view, but really not much use for practice. Now if we really want to practice this view, we're going to have to focus on the subject. Our practice is transforming the subject. It's changing our habits. So it's not any longer about ‘is there a single truth?’. As Rinpoche said, you know, there are 84,000 methods. What is useful for you may not be useful for me, and vice versa. There are no absolutes any longer. And that's why it's a completely different approach. We have to think much more in terms of ‘is my practice helping me transform my subject?’ It's all about the realm of psychology, emotion, and habits. Our approach to the view is rational, or at least our approach to establishing the view is rational, even though the view itself is nondual and beyond rational. But once you get to the path, the approach is no longer rational. It's all about breaking habits.
I'd like to briefly introduce a couple of things I find helpful. First is an insight from Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner, on the two different aspects of self. These two aspects are already contained within the Buddhist definitions of self, but I think breaking them up in this new and different way is actually quite helpful for our practice. Kahneman is a very famous researcher on behavioural economics, decision making and happiness, among other things, and in the 1990s when he started his research into happiness, most happiness research was relying on polls about life satisfaction. But Kahneman proposed an alternative way of understanding happiness using moment-by-moment assessments or ‘experience sampling’, where people were asked to rate on a scale of 1-10 how happy/sad or how much pleasure/pain they were experiencing in that moment. He called this "experienced well-being", rather than the kind of life satisfaction that researchers had been measuring up to that point, which he called "remembered well-being”. And interestingly, these two measures completely diverge.
For example, Kahneman discovered that the remembering self does not care about the duration of a pleasant or unpleasant experience. Rather, it retrospectively rates an experience by (1) the peak or the valley of the experience, and by (2) the way it ends. He calls this the 'peak-end rule'. And, also interestingly, the remembering self dominates a person's ultimate conclusion. So as Kahneman writes, "Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me."
I find that it can be very helpful to examine how we are establishing emptiness and nonduality for each of these two versions of self.
- Experiencing Self: The first self is the Experiencing Self, which refers to our moment-to-moment experience. What happens in the moment? Do we get emotional? Do we get reactive? How do we experience the world? Do we experience the world as gentle and beautiful, or threatening and ugly? Do we experience people as friends or enemies? And we might seek to transform this Experiencing Self with practices of shamatha, vipassana, and various forms of yoga. How might we change our experience from dualistic to nondual? And how might we change our in-the-moment action from selfish to compassionate, for example with the practice of the six paramitas, to finally transcending all subject, object, and action? How might we accomplish the spontaneous action of the yogi?
- Narrative Self: The second self is the Remembering Self, or the Narrative Self. This includes all of the stories that we tell, all our imputations about self, other, and the world. It includes all our explanations, justifications, excuses and blame for the things we have done and all the things that others have done to us. It includes the way we like to present ourselves to the world, our carefully crafted personal brand and social identity. We might seek to transform this Narrative Self through practices such as lojong, Madhyamaka of course, and all the ways that we look at and deconstruct our stories. We can confront them and change them. So for example, we can change our story from being an ordinary samsaric being, to being a practitioner, to being a bodhisattva, and maybe we're go on to engage in a deity practice, and ultimately we transcend all narratives.
So for yourself, just notice. When you apply emptiness to the refutation of your ‘self’, how are you applying it to your Experiencing Self? In your moment-to-moment experience, are you dealing with your emotional reactivity? Are you transforming the three poisons? Are you falling prey to the Eight Worldly Dharmas? Are you transcending dualistic extremes?
And then, how are you applying emptiness to your Narrative Self? How attached are you to the stories that you tell? Where are you taking accountability for your life, and where are you defining yourself as a victim? Where are you able to transform your stories and author new narratives? Where are you able to see the wisdom in different views/perspectives, and when do you become strongly attached to your own views and opinions?
Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh
Changing habits [t = 1:27:37]
So I also want to talk a little bit about the Three Jewels, as a support for us in changing habits. If practice is all about changing our subject, changing our habits, we know that the self is a baseless imputation as we saw in Week 5. So we know we can change the story. I was thinking of one of my favourite scenes - the famous ‘coin toss’ scene - from the wonderful movie No Country for Old Men. The antihero, Anton Chigurh, goes up to the cashier in a gas station and asks him about how his life choices have brought him to this point. Unimpressed with his answers, Chigurh says ‘if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?’ I really love that question. It’s a deep reminder that we tend to relate to our lives quite habitually - we do this with everything that's happening in our lives, all the results that we're experiencing in the world, our success, our failure, our happiness, our sadness. We might like to think that we're the heroes in our own life narrative, or we might seek to blame everything on all kinds of external conditions and circumstances. But it all comes down to Chigurh's question: What is the rule that we have followed? What are our habits? What are our practices?
We know that Dharma practice is all about changing our habits. We know that our habits are the root of samsara, but as we've said many times, changing habits is hard. So as we think about the Three Jewels, and what support we have for our practice, there’s a lot of work from social and organizational psychology that might be useful here. There has been a lot of research on what it takes to actually change habits, and it turns out that a few things really make a difference:
- Understanding and conviction: Are you clear about what you're doing and why you're doing it? What is the ground, path and fruit? Our willingness to embark on journey of personal transformation depends on both intellectual understanding and emotional conviction. It also helps to know what kinds of challenges might lie ahead, and how we might deal with them. Establishing the view, as we have been doing these past weeks, is really important for that.
- Role models and social network: Who are your role models? Your tribe? Who are the people that you spend the most time with? Sometimes it's said that we are the average of five people we spend the most time with. Who are these people for you? Who are the most important influences in your life? When you think about your friends, family, loved ones, and work colleagues - are they inclining you toward the view of nonduality and the practice of bodhicitta, or something else? Once you understand the importance of social influence, you can immediately see why Sangha becomes so important on the path.
- Incentives and rewards: What are the incentives and rewards? We talked about behaviourism in Week 5, and there's no question that we do end up strengthening habits that are rewarded. So what are the rewards and incentives in our environment? And this isn't just about physical rewards. It might also be emotional incentives and rewards, for example encouragement from our spiritual friend to meditate every day.
- Skills and capabilities: Do we have the necessary skills and capabilities? Our habits will only change if we have the skills and capabilities that the new habits require. You're not going to want to play a complicated piece like a late Beethoven Piano Sonata if you can't even play the scales. So you need to build up the basic skills and capabilities you will need on the path. The same is true on the Dharma path, which is why shamatha is taught before vipassana, and that refuge is taught before bodhicitta. If we haven't established a foundation in the basics, we're not going to want to do our practice - or else if we try to do something advanced, we'll simply make a mess of it - like someone trying to play a late Beethoven Sonata without being able to play their scales.
Now that we live the age of online social networks, you may know there’s some very interesting research about social influence even over three degrees of separation. For example, on Facebook three degrees of separation means the friends of friends of your friends, people you don't even know. But if they're in your social network they will still influence you in ways you don't understand. For example, if they have a tendency towards being overweight, then so will you. If they have a tendency towards voting a certain way, so will you. The influence of our social networks is incredibly pervasive. Yes of course, the opposite is also true. If we are strong in our practice, our influence can radiate outwards to people we don't even know. But as beginners, it's quite likely that we will be impressionable, and influence from others is going to radiate inwards.
So it's very important for us to think about these elements that will support (or hinder) our practice: our narrative, our tribe, our incentives, and our capabilities. It’s important to design a supportive practice situation. We talk about the five perfections - the perfect teacher, teaching, place, disciples and time - and ideally they're there in place, but we can also try to be mindful about constructing a supportive environment for practice – both for meditation and for post-meditation and in our everyday lives.
Triratna (3 Jewels), Bamiyan
The Three Jewels as a support for changing habits [t = 1:32:03]
And this is where the Three Jewels are so helpful: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha:
- Dharma: Obviously, we have the Dharma, and in a way that's the easiest to get access to, because there is so much that has been translated and so there are so many teachings available in all kinds of media. However, just because we can download a text or watch a video doesn't mean that we're actually listening to authentic Dharma. So it's still very important to ensure that we are reading and listening to authentic Dharma, and as Rinpoche has been reminding us, this is an important reason for us to establish the view.
- Buddha: We may not have been alive while the historical Buddha was teaching, but we have the good fortune to be connected to the living lineage. We have access to a teacher. And why do we need a teacher? Well, as we already said, a teacher can help us choose the right path and apply the right medicine. The teacher can inspire, support and encourage us. The teacher can also play a critical role in pointing out our blind spots. In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Patrul Rinpoche says “The best teacher is the one that points out your hidden flaws”. If we don't have a teacher who's doing that for us on a regular basis, many of us all will just end up strengthening our samsaric habits, our clinging, our ego, and our self-narrative. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche warned, it's all too easy for the path to be captured by our ego and then to degenerate into mere spiritual materialism. If you think about other practitioners you know, maybe your friends in the sangha, you'll know that it's very easy for all of us to fall back on our habitual and well-grooved self-narratives. We love telling our story about ourselves, whether it's a story of how wonderful our life is, or a story of how difficult our life is.
And yes, a good teacher will also play these four roles we just talked about:
- Understanding : Does s/he help you to build understanding and conviction? Yes, s/he gives you the teachings, explains their relevance, and makes the Dharma come alive for you. S/he inspires you to study and practice the Dharma as a path to realizing the view.
- Role model : Is s/he a role model? Assuming you have chosen your teacher wisely, yes.
- Incentives : Does s/he create the right incentives? Assuming that your master knows you, s/he will act as an accountability partner for you, as an externalized conscience. You'll want to make sure you're not lying to your master, even if you might lie to yourself.
- Capabilities : Does s/he help you to build capabilities? Yes, s/he teaches you how to practice, and guides you to ensure that your practice is progressing properly.
So the teacher is hugely important. If you'd like to learn more about the importance of the teacher and how to find the right teacher, I encourage you to read "How to follow a spiritual friend", which is Chapter 6 of Patrul Rinpoche's The Words of My Perfect Teacher, and also Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche's latest book, The Guru Drinks Bourbon?
- Sangha: As we've already said the Sangha is critical to make sure you have the right influences in your social network.
So in summary, if you're the kind of person that is attracted to the idea of the Dharma, but just approaches it intellectually through reading books and listening to teachings, then change is going to be hard for you. Perhaps you're going to end up with the right Espoused Theory, but you're very unlikely to change your habits. And as we can all attest, change is hard - we can all do with as much support as possible on our journey of personal transformation. So I'd really encourage everyone to see how you might be able to strengthen these elements in your life so as to support your practice. But bear in mind, it has to be genuinely supportive of your practice. For example, just because you've got Dharma friends isn't necessarily going to help you practice if all they like to do is engage in intellectual debate and they don't practice or work on their attachment to their personal narratives.
And likewise, as aspiring bodhisattvas, we shouldn't just be thinking about what others can do for us, but more importantly - what can we do for others? How are we showing up in the Sangha, and with our friends and family and colleagues at work? Are we an inspiring example of kindness, mindfulness, wisdom and compassion? Are we good ambassadors of the Dharma? Are we bringing the view to life through our practice? Are we benefiting others through our thoughts, words and actions? We have the opportunity to use everyday life as the path - let's not waste this precious opportunity. We'll come back to this in Week 8.
Laurence Olivier as Hamlet (1948)
Merit and projections [t = 1:34:52]
Now I'd like to talk a little bit about merit. Because if we're saying 'change the subject' a lot of the subject is about our projections. And the quality of our projections has a lot to do with merit. So a lot of the time we'll use the language we'll say 'practice is about accumulating merit: good karma, skilful means. Now we know ultimately our aim is not good karma but transcending all karma, nevertheless in the meantime we do need to change our view. Yes, ultimately go beyond all views, but in the meantime purify our wrong views and have right views. The Western tradition has this idea of mental habits, inner resources, and cultivating our strengths. We told the Native American story before about do we feed the good wolf or feed the bad wolf. Aristotle famously said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” So with all these things, changing our habits is key.
So returning to the text and the display of the Buddha’s activities: we ask in Chapter 11 where does this display come from? If we see good things as the Buddha's manifestation, the same applies to bad things – just like beings in the six realms each see water differently, all these different perceptions are qualities of your subject. That is another way of talking about merit. Remember, in the Madhyamaka the Two Truths are defined by the subject, not by the object. So it's your view, as in the examples of the coloured sunglasses or dirt on your window. Practice is therefore all about changing your view, changing your sunglasses, learning to see differently. Even in the Ten Bulls, in the version I've used in these teachings the pictures of the bull don't change colour, they stay black. But there are different versions where, as the we progress through the images of the Ten Bulls, steadily the bull changes from black to white in colour, indicating purification. It's not some kind of whitewashing or positive thinking, where you think things are really bad but try and pretend otherwise. No, it's based on a view of emptiness.
As we said before, my assessment of reality is mine alone. That's what it means for me to take accountability for my own view and my own perceptions. I get to choose, so I can transform them. This was beautifully expressed by Shakespeare in a famous scene from Hamlet, Act II, Scene II, where Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, some courtiers who are also his friends:
[Hamlet]: Denmark’s a prison.
[Rozencrantz]: Then is the world one.
[Hamlet]: A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o' th' worst.
[Rozencrantz]: We think not so, my lord.
[Hamlet]: Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
These are famous words, and I think Shakespeare was onto exactly the point these teachings are making: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. It's all about how can we transform that thinking. And we've talked about this before. Last week we talked about how Patrul Rinpoche asked Nyoshul Lungtok "Can you see the stars"? and how different that was from a romantic couple saying, "Can you see the stars"? Likewise, some of have the merit to see a falling leaf as a Dharma teaching. We see impermanence. Whereas for many people, they simply see a falling leaf and it means nothing to them. A lot of merit is about cultivating this capacity and actually learning to see everything as a teaching, rather than just ignoring it or reacting negatively to it.
I'd like to share a personal story here. Spending time with Rinpoche over the years has very much been a training in learning to see everything as a teaching, because Rinpoche is not someone who is going to pound the table and say, "Hey, here is a teaching"! He doesn't advertise it to your face. Most of the time he'll say something so subtly that you'll barely be paying attention. And in my case there were a couple of times when it was only later, in some cases years later, where I'd realize that something he’d said to me was actually a teaching. It was actually an instruction and I'd completely missed it. But what's wonderful is that because he teaches this way, he doesn't make you lazy as his student. It's the exact opposite. Instead he makes you very attentive, because now you're thinking: ‘What is he saying that could be a teaching?’ He's training you to learn to see everything as a teaching, and that is incredible as a way of collecting merit. I encourage you in your own life, as you think about the various experiences that you go through from day to day, how often when something happens do you pause and attempt to see it as a Dharma teaching? I really encourage that.
Emptiness and reframing [t = 1:40:21]
Still on this notion of reframing and accumulating merit so that we can see the display of the Buddha, a lot of the emptiness practices are about these reframings. For example, we've talked about how visualization practice, kyerim - which is the essence of the Mahayoga - is to recognize 'all appearances as deity, all sounds as mantra, and all thoughts as the dharmakaya'. Clearly this attitude of mind is enormously open, abundant, and beyond rational. There's nothing rational that tells us that all appearances are the deity. And by 'deity', as Rinpoche reminds us, we don't mean the kind of painted image of a deity on a thangka that you might buy in Kathmandu. We mean deity as referring to this nondual form. When we say 'all sounds are mantra', we’re referring to nondual sound. And when we say 'all thoughts are dharmakaya', we mean nondual awareness. Our Mahayoga practice is the practice of changing our view and our perception so that we can experience phenomena in this nondual way.
The idea of reframing can be found in all the yanas. Let’s take a moment to first consider our typical samsaric reaction, and then how can we apply that kind of emptiness practice in the different yanas:
- Samsara: If somebody says something offensive, we might react, we might take offence, we might get upset, maybe we'll start a fight. We see the threat as real.
- Shravakayana: we practice mindfulness and non-reactivity, and we learn to respond to a perceived threat with patience and calm. We don't react, we don't pick a fight. If someone says something unkind we don't see it as real. We practice patience, we don't see our threats or enemies as real. We don't react with the classic amygdala reaction. It's not fight or flight all the time. We learn to visualize others as friends. In the words of modern psychology, we learn to 'assume positive intent'. And likewise we don't see ourselves as real, we don't fall into 'me' and 'mine', attraction and aversion.
- Mahayana: In lojong (mind-training) practices, we explicitly train in changing our view. As the teaching says, we practice “turning happiness and suffering into enlightenment”. We turn threats into opportunities and possibilities, and then we go completely beyond all labels and concepts. Instead of focusing on ourselves we focus on others, we focus on compassion, until we go completely beyond any idea of subject/object/action.
To illustrate this, I’d like to read a couple of verses from Shantideva's wonderful text the Bodhicharyavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva). These verses are from Chapter 6 on Patience, which is one of the most famous chapters. Patience is all about what can we do when we're confronted with something/someone that makes us angry.
In verse 6:19, Shantideva starts with a very Shravakayana-oriented practice:
[6:19] When sorrows fall upon the wise,
Their minds should be serene and undisturbed.
For in their war against defiled emotion,
Many are the hardships, as in every battle.
So that's very much cultivating serene mind and non-reaction. He offers a different way to practice patience in verse 6:25:
[6:25] All defilements of whatever kind,
The whole variety of evil deeds
Are brought about by circumstances:
None is independent, none autonomous.
This is a lovely verse, and it's very different. Now, instead of just trying to purify our reactions, we're starting to ask, ‘Well what's my part in this? If it's all created by circumstances, nothing is independent. So clearly I have in some way done something that is contributing to or bringing about this situation. Maybe I did something that upset someone else? Maybe I didn't do something that someone was expecting from me? How have I created this causal chain?’ This is a wonderful practice. And it is an emptiness practice, because we're starting to deconstruct our fixed view, our habitual view of how we interpret the situation. And in particular, we starting to deconstruct our habitual narrative that we're the 'victim' of things that 'happen to us', and now we're starting to take accountability and assume authorship for our life situations.
Shantideva offers yet another different method to practice patience in verse 6:40:
[6:40] And if their faults are fleeting and contingent,
If living beings are by nature mild,
It’s likewise senseless to resent them—
As well be angry at the sky when it is full of smoke!
This is another lovely verse. I would say this is now a real compassion practice. We're not just trying to take account of our own emotional reactions and narratives, but we're actively thinking about the other person. We're now asking, ‘Why am I getting angry with this person if they are just as prone to defilements, ignorance, and reactivity as me? Isn't this what I was just about to display? What makes them any different from me?’ So when we see someone else getting caught up in negativity, then rather than taking it personally, which is what we usually do, how can we find a way of practicing compassion instead? How can we not make it about us, but understand that it's about them? How can we understand that they're caught up in their own ignorance in this moment? So yes, we can practice compassion.
And in one of the most remarkable series of verses, from 6:46 to 6:49, Shantideva completely turns the story around. Now it's not even about us being the victims. Instead, we become the aggressors. We see ourselves as the one who is tormenting the other person. These are amazing verses. Let me read them:
[6:46] And who indeed should I be angry with?
This pain is all my own contriving—
Likewise all the janitors of hell
And all the groves of razor trees!
[6:47] Those who harm me rise against me—
It’s my karma that has summoned them.
And if through this these beings go to hell,
Is it not I who bring their ruin?
[6:48] Because of them, and through my patience,
All my many sins are cleansed and purified.
But they will be the ones who, thanks to me,
Will have the long-drawn agonies of hell.
[6:49] Therefore I am their tormentor!
Therefore it is they who bring me benefit!
Thus with what perversity, pernicious mind,
Will you be angry with your enemies?
I really love these verses. They are very beautiful, and a wonderful example of how to bring the view of emptiness into practice. These are practices of reframing, of changing our view. They shows us how we can really turn around our simplistic narrative, our simplistic way of responding to a situation that we find irritating and unpleasant, and which makes us angry. These are excellent practices, and I encourage you to read the Bodhicharyavatara and cultivate these kinds of practices. The four different examples that we have just seen are very helpful ways to practice emptiness in a very practical way in everyday situations.
Compassion and nonduality [t = 1:47:19]
Compassion in general is a very practical way to practice emptiness because, as we've said many times, nonduality is beyond concept. Emptiness is beyond words and concepts, it is beyond our rational understanding. So anytime we try and talk about emptiness and nonduality, it's just intellectualization. If we think we’re talking about nonduality, we're actually talking about something different. And as we saw in Week 6, it's very easy for us to fool ourselves that we're practicing emptiness when we're just practicing shamatha. And yet, the amazing thing about the Dharma path is that all the supposedly lower paths are leading us towards this selflessness, this emptiness and nonduality. So let's start with the Shravakayana path. We’ve come across the Eight Worldly Dharmas many times:
• hope for happiness / fear of suffering,
• hope for fame / fear of insignificance,
• hope for praise / fear of blame,
• hope for gain / fear of loss.
This is a Shravakayana practice, and you might not think it has anything to do with emptiness. But would you like to know how good your practice of emptiness is, your nondual realization? As Rinpoche says, ask yourself: To what extent have I equalized these Eight Worldly Dharmas? It's a really simple readout. You can be as sophisticated as you want in talking about emptiness, but if you still have a big difference between happiness/suffering, gain/loss, praise/blame, you know that your emptiness practice has not progressed very far.
Likewise, compassion and bodhicitta are the core of the Mahayana. We have already seen that ultimate bodhicitta is the view, and relative bodhicitta is the approach to the ultimate through the practice of the paramitas, starting with the worldly paramitas such as generosity, patience, discipline, and the very famous bodhicitta practice of tonglen, the practice of ‘exchanging self and others’ (which is explained in The Words of My Perfect Teacher, pp. 222-228). This is another really great way of testing your practice of emptiness. Because the way that tonglen practice works is you start with yourself, and with friends, family, and people you love. You then extend the practice to people who are neutral. You then extend it yet further to people who are your enemies. And then eventually you extend it to the whole world, all sentient beings. And so there’s a great question: Can you really feel compassion for your enemies? There was a discussion in the Forum about what do people feel politically in the US right now. There's a huge divide in the country, a polarization that we've never seen before, where Democrats and Republicans despise each other, and Democrats despise their president. Can we practice compassion with our political opponents? Can we practice tonglen? Because if we can’t, again this is a sign that our emptiness practice is very weak, very fragile.
There’s another example Rinpoche often gives. He says you know we talk with this very grandiose language like 'liberating all sentient beings' or 'nonduality'. It all sounds wonderful but it’s way too big. The real test is how do you treat the people that are closest to you? Even just one person. That family member, that friend, that sangha member that irritates you. If you can't treat them with kindness and compassion, where is your emptiness practice? Are we really willing to treat our friends and our enemies equally? Indeed, are we willing to treat anyone the same way we treat ourselves?
If we go back to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s words "My religion is kindness", we can now understand what he is saying in a different way. If we understand it to mean practicing kindness with equanimity, and truly attempting to cultivate the four immeasurables of love, compassion, joy, equanimity for all beings – then kindness is truly a nondual practice. So again, you might ask yourself, ‘when I'm practicing love, compassion, kindness, joy, and equanimity - am I really practicing them without bias? Am I practicing them equally or not?’ And it's a very simple test. Once again, to what extent have you internalized emptiness? If you can’t even practice love and compassion without bias, then don't get caught up with these sophisticated ideas of nondual practice, because as Rinpoche says the Vajrayana is very clear about how our practice should progress. First we have the Shravakayana as a foundation, then we have the Mahayana, and only then the Vajrayana. Rinpoche said the ideal practice would be 20 years of Shravakayana, 10 years of Mahayana, and only then Vajrayana practice. Because if you think you're practicing nonduality, but you haven't yet equalized the Eight Worldly Dharmas, or you are unable to cultivate love and compassion with equanimity, you are fooling yourself. Whatever you might think you are practicing in terms of nonduality, unless you have these basics in place, it's just an ego trip.
So again, there is very practical advice here: Yes, we should of course continue to try and practice nonduality, but it's no substitute for practicing our basic practices: renunciation, lojong, bodhicitta, tonglen, aspiration practices, really equalizing the way we treat people. These are really important daily practices. And, if you actually engage in those seriously, they will transform your habits much more quickly than any intellectual understanding of the Madhyamaka. There’s no comparison.
Openness and acceptance [t = 1:53:07]
so just a little bit more on this notion of openness and acceptance. We talked about it already, this quality we realize in the eighth bhumi, the student of superior faculties. There's a famous quote from Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, Chapter 24 verse 14:
(MMK 24:14): For those who accept emptiness, everything is acceptable.
That's a wonderful definition of the openness and broad-mindedness that characterize superior faculties. Here are a couple of other translations of that verse. First, Padmakara's translation:
Where emptiness is granted, everything is likewise granted.
Where emptiness is unacceptable, all is likewise unacceptable.
And then Mark Siderits’ translation:
All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.
Nagarjuna teaches this in the Mulamadhyamakakarika when he presents the Two Truths, and he explains that emptiness or dependent arising is precisely what allows conventional truth to arise. Rinpoche talked about how the arhats don't have the courage to really see the non-dual view of non-arising, and this is related to why we define the student of superior faculties in terms of being 'able to accept everything'. There's a lovely related concept from the Western mindfulness tradition called 'turning towards'. It’s a very similar idea: To what extent can you bear to look at the truth directly? If someone wants to give you feedback, if there's bad news, if a loved one is sick or dying, can you look at this directly? If we want to practice compassion, can we turn towards our enemy and practice love and compassion directly? This is what is meant by 'turning towards', and it also refers to the ability to accept reality. I love this practice of observing the extent to which we're truly open.
Rinpoche also says that Dharma practice is anything that goes against your ego or your habit. And, by definition, you're not going to like that. It's going to be uncomfortable. But if we make it too uncomfortable, you're not going to do your practice. So there's always this balance between what Rinpoche calls “what you want and what you need”. And again, back to merit, some people who have cultivated a lot of merit can handle a lot of discomfort, a lot of stress, and a lot of unfamiliarity. Some people with a lot of merit can equalize the Eight Worldly Dharmas without much difficulty, and likewise they can treat enemies as they would treat friends. These are things that we should aspire to as practitioners of the Middle Way. All this is great practice of the view of openness.
And even in the Vajrayana, as Rinpoche says, most of the deities that we visualize still have human form. We want them to be similar enough to us that we can relate to them, but different enough that it forces us to expand our view. And so you'll see the peaceful deities have one head, two arms, two legs, sitting very peacefully. And by the time you get to wrathful deities you might have three heads, six arms, fire and flames, craziness everywhere. But even then, there's still a more-or-less human form, although the deities can get increasingly wrathful and further beyond our ordinary form. But for us as practitioners, the way to increase our merit, and to broaden what is possible for us, is always to stay at the edge of our comfort zone.
There’s always a balance of “what we want and what we need”, but because practice is going against your ego and your habit, and because that's uncomfortable, it's tempting to focus on "what we want" rather than "what we need". It's all too easy to make your practice into something comfortable and habitual rather than true practice that disrupts your habits. Or maybe you just love studying, so maybe that's your comfort zone. But if that's all you do, you are not going to progress. You'll just get stuck on your path.
If we have a teacher, we're lucky, because our teacher will do this for us, they'll always keep us off-balance, they'll always keep us in an uncomfortable place. But we can also do this for ourselves. We can always challenge ourselves. Try and push yourself beyond what's comfortable. Try and change your habits, always take on more. Rinpoche said we should even break small habits, and try to do everyday things differently, such as walking to work a different way. He even suggested trying things like putting your shirt on backwards. Things like that. It may seem crazy, but it's good just to start to notice and break those little habits. It can all help.
Another way to assess our ability to see the truth is our ability to 'be with' reality rather than react to it. Old military officers used to say that the test of a young soldier's mettle is how they behave in battle under stress. That's the test of their character. And likewise, we can notice what happens to us under stress. Where do we get emotional? Where do we get defensive? Where do we argue, where do we start blaming, where do we get angry? Where can we accept things, including views or ideas that we might not agree with? Where do we feel we need to fix or impose our own ideas? This is the true meaning of acceptance - accepting all phenomena without reacting, without needing to impose our own way.
The elephant and the rider [t = 1:59:15]
I'd like to say a few more things on practice. There's another practical idea that's found in modern psychology (e.g. Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis), which comes from the very old Buddhist analogy of the elephant and the rider. In contemporary psychology we have this notion that we have a conscious mind and we also have all kinds of unconscious, automatic, implicit processes. We gave the example earlier that once a tennis player is in the court trying to return a serve coming towards them at 130 miles an hour, the conscious mind cannot move quickly enough. We have to rely on our trained unconscious mind. So we use the conscious mind during training, but then once our training is internalized, the new skills are now part of the unconscious mind. So the analogy is: There's a rider on the back of an elephant. The conscious mind is the rider, the unconscious mind is the elephant. And the rider cannot control the elephant by force, as the elephant is stronger. We say we have weak will, we talk about the many problems we have in changing habits. The secret of changing habits is learning how to train our elephant. And this example appears in a couple of places. The ➜Dantabhumi-sutta talks about the four foundations of mindfulness as a means to train the elephant:
As, Aggivessana, an elephant tamer, driving a great post into the ground, ties a forest elephant to it by his neck so as to subdue his forest ways, so as to subdue his forest aspirations, and so as to subdue his distress, his fretting and fever for the forest, so as to make him pleased with villages and accustom him to human ways — even so, Aggivessana, these four applications of mindfulness are ties of the mind so as to subdue the ways of householders and to subdue the aspirations of householders and to subdue the distress, the fretting and fever of householders; they are for leading to the right path, for realizing nibbana.
There's an even older teaching that features the example of training the elephant, called the Therigatha which is often translated as the ‘Verses of the Elder Nuns’. It contains poems from women who were elder nuns, those who have experienced at least 10 Vassa or monsoon periods, and it is in the Pali Canon. Actually, it’s probably the earliest known collection of women's literature. It contains many passages reaffirming that women are equal to men in terms of spiritual attainment, so you could say it is possibly the first feminist text. It also includes verses that address issues of particular interest to women in South Asian society. There is one particular set of verses called ➜Dantika’s Verses (verses 48-50) which again go back to the elephant:
Coming out from my day's abiding on Vulture Peak Mountain, I saw on the bank of a river an elephant emerged from its plunge. A man holding a hook requested: "Give me your foot." The elephant extended its foot. The man got up on the elephant. Seeing what was untrained now tamed [and] brought under human control, with that I centred my mind — why I'd gone to the woods in the first place.
This is the same analogy. And if we return to Daniel Kahneman, it turns out that another famous piece of research he has done is on these two different systems of 'rider' and 'elephant'. In his important book Thinking Fast and Slow, he explains that we have two systems in our mind:
- System 1 ("thinking fast", which corresponds to "elephant"): The first system is fast, automatic, emotional, and subconscious. It can do things like: display disgust when we see a gruesome image; solve "2 + 2 = ?"; read text on a billboard; drive a car on an empty road; come up with a good chess move if you're a chess master and so on. It can do all all kinds of things that are deeply trained - the unconscious mastery of the tennis player returning a serve at 130 miles per hour - as well as all the social/emotional responses Buddhists would associate with the 'innate self'.
- System 2 ("thinking slow", which corresponds to "rider"): The second system is effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious. It corresponds to our prefrontal cortex and a lot of the brain structures that we acquired most recently in our evolutionary history. System 2 can do things like: brace yourself before the start of a sprint; direct your attention towards the clowns at the circus; direct your attention towards someone at a loud party; look out for a woman with grey hair; dig into your memory to recognize a sound; sustain a higher than normal walking rate; determine the appropriateness of behaviour in a given social setting; count the number of letter 'A's in a text; give someone your phone number; park in a tight parking space; determine the validity of a complex logical reasoning and so on. As you can see, these are very different kinds of things from System 1.
And it turns out that these two systems operate very differently, at very different speeds. They even arrive at different results given the same inputs. When Kahneman first discovered this, he found it truly amazing. I feel the same way about it, especially in the context of Madhyamaka. We are so used to thinking of our 'self' as something singular and unified that it is paradigm-shifting to learn that we don't have a single 'self', and indeed we have multiple different 'selves' that function in remarkably different ways, and often don't even acknowledge each other's existence.
Now the point is that all deliberate practice, as the name suggests, is in the domain of System 2. It's conscious, it's mindful, it's hard work. Which means that all our Dharma practice - where we're always consciously holding ourselves at the edge of our comfort zone, and cultivating mindfulness and awareness - all this is very hard, at least in the early days where mindfulness and awareness are not yet resources that we can draw upon easily.
It might help us to know that psychologists have found there's something called 'ego depletion'. It turns out that self-control and deliberate mind-training are forms of mental work. There's a wonderful experiment that shows how this is difficult for us: Somebody asks you to keep a list of seven digits in your mind, which occupies the attention and energy of your System 2, and then you're offered a choice between a chocolate cake and a fruit salad. It turns out that you're far more likely to go for the sugary snack if your System 2 is overloaded. When people are more cognitively busy, they're more likely to be selfish, to use sexist language, and to make superficial judgments in social situations.
If you have exhausted your System 2, you are less able to do complex problem solving, or indeed complex mind-training on the path. So one piece of practice advice that Rinpoche will always give is that practice should be short but frequent. It's so important to maintain our freshness. And it's very much because of this phenomenon of ego-depletion. Because if we have tired out our ‘Thinking Slow’, the part of our brain that is actually attending to our practice, then essentially our practice becomes useless. So bear that in mind when you do your practice. Short, but frequent. Keep it fresh.
Everyday life as the path [t = 2:06:49]
Now we are transitioning to the close. Next week we're going to talk much more about practice in everyday life. And as we said earlier, in the same way that 24/7 you're actually doing some kind of practice, whether or not you realize it, the question here is: How can we use the time when we're not on our meditation cushions more intentionally? I've always loved the Zen tradition for this, because in Zen you have practices not just on your meditation cushion, but also martial arts (budō), flower arranging (ikebana), archery (kyūdō), and all kinds of other ways of engaging in the world that can become part of your practice. So if flower arranging is a path, why not everything in our everyday life? We'll talk about that next week.
As Rinpoche says, if we want to build an enlightened society, we'll need Buddhist CEOs and Buddhist presidents and Buddhist scientists. We can't separate Dharma practice from all these activities of worldly life. And as Rinpoche also says, the Buddha has no longer got a separation between meditation and post-meditation. As we saw last week, the progress along the bhumis, the progress along the path, is about reducing that gap, that separation between meditation and post-meditation. So we want to use our post-meditation and our everyday life as much as we can to also be a ground for our practice - our relationships, our work, our everyday life. We'll talk more about that next week.
Ashes to ashes [t = 2:08:32]
I'd like to close by moving a little bit further beyond rational into the world of poetry. My first inspiration was some conversations on the Forum about the difference between a child on the beach building a sandcastle and then becoming unhappy when it's washed away, compared to monks building a sand mandala and then pouring it into the river, all with joy and contentment. Ashes to ashes. The phrase 'ashes to ashes' appears in the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer, which indicates the manner and text of the burial service:
Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the Body by some standing by, the Priest shall say, Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
We can't talk about ashes to ashes without talking about David Bowie. In Bowie's song Ashes to Ashes (1980) he talks about Major Tom, a fictional astronaut that he introduced in some of his first songs, including Space Oddity (1969) which is about an astronaut who slips the bonds of the world to journey to the stars. It sounds a little bit like Dharma practice, and actually at that time Bowie was very interested in Buddhism. Here's the classic dialogue between Ground Control and Major Tom:
[Verse 2]: This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You've really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear
Now it's time to leave the capsule if you dare
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
I love this. There's so much symbolism here: stepping through the door and the stars looking very different - the journey from 'mountain' to 'no mountain', and eventually back to 'mountain' once again. And by Ashes to Ashes (1980), David Bowie's Major Tom has become an autobiographical symbol for himself, now revealed as a drug addict. Bowie had a bad cocaine addiction problem, and he had also become quite nihilistic and atheistic. In 1975 he said "I feel totally absolutely alone. I probably was alone, because I had pretty much abandoned God". The lyrics here, from Ashes to Ashes (1980), reflect his hopelessness:
[Chorus]: Ashes to ashes, fun to funky
We know Major Tom's a junkie
Strung out in heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low
And this leads to some really good advice for us as we practice. Yes, we know inspiration is important, but we also know that after the high will come the low. So we need the head and the heart. We've seen the danger of too much head, when there's intellectual engagement but no practice or realization. But too much heart is also a problem. We'll get caught in hope and fear, we'll fall back to samsara, our inspiration will fade. We'll be doing our donkey practice, then suddenly a glimpse of emptiness and nonduality will emerge - and our devotion will collapse. Then we won't want to do our nondual horse practice any more, and we want to go back to the familiar dualistic space of devotion. For all these times, we need the view as our insurance. If we're experienced practitioners, all of this will be like a thief entering the empty house. But as beginners, we're not there yet. At those times we need the view to ground us. So this is something we should always remember in our practice.
Looking with new eyes [t = 2:12:48]
I'd like to share some poetry to close, to paint a picture of the road we've traveled - from mountain, to no mountain, and back to mountain. First, Marcel Proust's "La Prisonnière" from Volume 5 of À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) (1913):
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes
This is exactly the Dharma journey of transforming the subject. Here's a longer quote from the original source, which is rather lovely:
A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of the Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we do, with great artists; with artists like these we do really fly from star to star.
There's lots of beauty here that can help us connect to what emptiness means in practice. It's also a reminder, as Rinpoche often says, to use these nondual resources that are available to us – art, music, literature, poetry. Immerse yourself in them as well. Use them as your practice.
e.e. cummings “seeker of truth” (posthumous):
seeker of truth
follow no path
all paths lead where
truth is here.
Finally I'd like to close on one of my very favourite poems by T.S. Eliot. This is from "Little Gidding" which is part of the Four Quartets (1942):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
And with that I leave you. I wish you a good evening and an excellent week. And I look forward to seeing you for our last session next week.
© Alex Trisoglio 2017
Edited by Alex Trisoglio
With gratitude to Valerie Neal, Rick Scott and John West for help with transcription
Last updated 28 July 2017