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Basic Buddhist topics

Mind, rebirth, cyclic existence, and enlightenment

Part of a series of teachings based on the The Gradual Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim) given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington, from 1991-1994.

Purpose of this teaching1
  • Lamrim assumes some prior knowledge
  • The six recognitions

LR 003: Purpose (download)

What is mind? How is the mind different from the body?

  • The mind (consciousness)
  • Mind and body connection

LR 003: Mind (download)

Rebirth: what happens to the body and mind at death?

  • Death and rebirth
  • Continuity of mindstream
  • Is there a “beginning”?
  • Is there a creator?
  • Infinity

LR 003: Death (download)

Buddha nature, ignorance, karma and cyclic existence

  • Buddha’s practical approach
  • Comparing the mindstream to a river
  • Ignorance

LR 003: Samsara (download)

The different realms of existence

  • How karma ripens at the time of death
  • How the mindstream can be born into different life forms

LR 003: Realms of existence (download)

Liberation and enlightenment

  • Three higher trainings and four noble truths
  • Liberation through ethics, concentration & wisdom
  • The four noble truths
  • What is liberation and enlightenment?

LR 003: Liberation (download)


LR 003: Review (download)

Questions and answers, part 1

  • Living under obscurations and handicaps
  • Superimposing our Christian background onto Buddhism

LR 003: Q&A Part 1 (download)

Questions and answers, part 2

  • Ignorance perpetuates samsara
  • Trust and faith
  • Interrelatedness
  • Karma

LR 003: Q&A Part 2 (download)

Before embarking on the actual path, let’s take a little detour. The lamrim assumes a lot of prior knowledge. Even though it is said to be the perfect path for beginners from A to Z, in fact, as someone said, if you look at the teaching on the six recognitions, baby beginners don’t recognize Dharma as the medicine. Baby beginners don’t recognize Buddha as the undeceptive guide, who gives undeceptive medicine.

There are a lot of assumptions being made that:

  • we have some underlying faith in the whole path that Buddha has presented
  • we have some underlying faith that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha exist
  • we have a possibility to attain enlightenment

So, before we go into the actual subject matter, we should really go over some of the pre-supposed material.

What is consciousness?

The first point is to establish the existence of consciousness.

Let’s talk about what consciousness is and what your body (or form) is, and how they are the same and how they are different. We really have to understand what is this mind or consciousness that is the whole foundation of the gradual path. If consciousness doesn’t exist, if there is no mindstream, then what are we practicing gradual path to transform our mind for?

When we say “us,” when we say “I,” we usually associate it with body and mind.

Our body is something physical, made of atoms. You can see it, taste it, touch it and hear it. It’s something that can be detected by our five senses, something that can be put under a microscope and examined atomically. And it has its own continuity. The principal cause of our body, or what we call the perpetuating cause of the body is the sperm and egg from our parents. The corporative condition of our body is all the food that we’ve eaten. And the continuation of this body after we die is going to be the breakfast, lunch and dinner of the worms. So, it has a physical continuity: coming from the past, into the present, going into the future. And it’s impermanent. It’s changing.

Every moment, the body is changing, isn’t it? We always feel that our body is very solid but even the scientists tell you the electrons don’t stay in the same place at any two split seconds. On the atomic level, it’s changing. Even on a cellular level, how many cells are getting laid off every day? What’s happening with the cells? Even on the gross level, our body is always changing. Now, that’s one part of us—the body.

The mind (consciousness)

The other part of us is what we call mind. The mind is not a really good English word for what we mean. We usually tend to think that mind means brain. Mind is not brain, because brain is the gray stuff in here, whereas mind is not something physical.

Or, we think mind means intellect. But here, mind is not limited to intellect. So, whenever we use the word “mind,” we are talking not only about the intellect, because that is just a small part, but anything that is conscious experience within us.

For example, we have the visual consciousness that sees colors and shapes. The auditory consciousness hears sound. The olfactory consciousness smells smells, etc. We have our five sense consciousnesses. We also have our mental consciousness that thinks and can perceive some things directly as in clairvoyant powers. These six types of consciousness perceive the basic nature of an object.

In addition to these primary consciousness (five sense consciousnesses and mental consciousness) we also have a lot of mental factors that shape our whole cognition. Mental factors such as feeling (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings). Mental factors such as discrimination—being able to tell or distinguish one object from another. Mental factors, such as the ability to contact an object, or concentration, intention, attention and wisdom.

We have all sorts of good mental factors, like confidence or energy, compassion, a balanced mind, a patient mind and a mind that isn’t ignorant. All sorts of very positive mental factors that arise—not with every cognition, but from time to time.

And we have other mental factors that sometimes contradict the very positive ones. They can be skepticism, anger, belligerence, greed, laziness, lack of self-respect, lack of consideration for others, etc.

So, when we talk about mind, even mind isn’t one solid fixed thing. It’s these six types of primary consciousness (the five sense consciousnesses plus our mental consciousness) and all these varying mental factors that can pop up, in a wide variety of combinations from time to time.

So, even mind has parts. Just as the body is a “continuity” even though it has parts, the mindstream or mind or consciousness is also a “continuity,” although it has parts.

Now, the mindstream is not atomic. It’s not made of atoms and molecules. Now, this is the part that is difficult for Westerners to understand. Because of the scientific development in this part of the world, sometimes we feel that the only things that exist are things that can be measured by scientific instruments. We have this preconception that it doesn’t exist unless you can measure it, unless the scientists can prove it.

But, if we just look at our life, there are a whole lot of things that we know exist, that are not the object of investigation of science because they are not molecular atomic entities. For example, love. We all know love exists, we all know anger exists, but we all know that you can’t put anger under a microscope. And you can’t cultivate it in a petri dish.

It is the same with love. These are the mental things. They are “consciousnesses.” They exist but they are not made of color and shape. They don’t have sound or smell or taste because they are not molecular substances. Other things like freedom, or beauty, or democracy, or communism, all these things exist, but they are not made of atoms and molecules. So, our preconception that something only exists if science can measure it is actually quite incorrect.

Scientific tools talk about measuring things that are form in nature. But there are a lot of other things that go beyond the scope of physics or chemistry or biology and so on. So, if we accept mind as a consciousness, we have to rely on experience to prove it.

When you sit there and you feel what it feels like to be alive, there is some conscious experiential element, isn’t there? It is not just plain atoms and molecules that feel alive. If atoms and molecules were all that was necessary, then a corpse should be alive. Then the rug should be alive. So, it isn’t just atoms and molecules that make something alive, it’s this consciousness, this formless entity that has the ability to experience objects.

The clear and knowing mind

The mind is defined as that which is clear and knowing. “Clear” in the sense of being formless, but also in the sense of having a reflective ability. In other words, the mind is something that allows other objects to dawn in it, allows other objects to be reflected in it.

The second quality of mind is “knowing” or awareness. This is the ability to experience or engage in objects.

So, the reflectibility, the arising of objects, the engagement with them, this is what is meant by consciousness. Again, it is not made of atoms.

Now, when we are alive, our mind and our body are together. On top of that, we label “I.” Now, here is where Science gets a little bit fuzzy and it’s very interesting. I have been to some of these Science conferences. Some of them say that mind just doesn’t exist. There is no conscious experience. It’s just all atoms and molecules. Others say that mind exists, but it’s a function of the brain. But when you ask them what mind is, they really can’t tell you. Science doesn’t have a clear definition of mind.

Some of them are really “reductionist,” saying that there are only atoms and molecules, that’s all human experience is about. But it seems so discordant with real life experience. I remember at one Science conference, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was talking a little bit about rebirth and these kinds of things, and one scientist kept saying, “What’s the proof? What’s the proof? What’s the proof?” They want some scientific measurable evidence for everything. And yet, when he went home and said to his wife: “I love you, dear,” she didn’t say, “What’s the proof? I want to see your heart. I want to see your EEG. I want to see your EKG. I don’t believe you love me unless I see some statistics on it.” I am sure he didn’t relate to his family that way. And yet, his professional view is that only material things exist.

And so, they don’t fit well together. The way we actually live our lives, we don’t really think of ourselves as just atoms and molecules, do we? If all we were, were atoms and molecules, we might as well all die. Because if there is no future lives, there is no consciousness, there are only atoms and molecules, then, what is the use of all the headaches we have in our lives?

But, we don’t feel that way, do we? We feel like there is a person there, that there is consciousness, there is experience, and there is something valuable. When we talk about human life and taking care of human life, it’s not because human life is just atoms and molecules. If we wanted to take care of carbon and nitrogen, we don’t need to take care of just human beings. So, somehow, just in our automatic way of living, I think we have a feeling that there is consciousness. There are living beings that experience things.

Mind and body connection

The body and the mind are inter-related. What happens in our mind, in the conscious part of us, influences the body. Similarly, what happens in the body also influences our mind. So they are inter- related. But that doesn’t mean that they are exactly the same. This is, I think, where science gets confused.

For example, when we perceive things, when our visual consciousness perceives things, there is a physical base. You have the light rays. You have the retina in the eye. You have the nerves going in and going back into the brain and all the different areas of the brain. And all of that is working. But all of that alone is not conscious experience. That’s just chemical and electrical energy. But that is a physical base upon which we have conscious experience.

So, the brain acts like the organ for the mind, the nervous system is the organ enabling our gross levels of mind to function and operate. And so they mutually influence each other. We can see that. When we are in bad health, our mind “goes down.” When we are in a bad mood, we easily get sick. It goes hand in hand. They influence each other.

Death and rebirth

But although on the gross levels of mind, with this body, there is a lot of this mutual influence, the mind is not just the gross level. The mind has many different levels. By gross mind, I am referring to the five sense consciousnesses and our gross mental consciousness that thinks and develops conceptions and things like that. Now, what is happening at the time of death, is that these gross levels of consciousness are losing their power, because the body that is their base, is also losing its power. It can’t sustain these gross levels of consciousnesses, so they kind of dissolve into a more subtle form of consciousness. And that subtle consciousness dissolves yet into the subtlest, or what we call the extremely subtle consciousness.

So, while somebody is dying, the mind is going from being gross, where all the senses are intact, to being subtle, when they’ve lost control of the senses. You can see this when somebody is dying. They are separating from the physical world. They can’t see and hear and so on. Then, the subtle mind dissolves into an extremely subtle mind that by nature, is non-conceptual. And it is this extremely subtle mind that goes from one life to the next life.

Now, this extremely subtle mind that goes from life to life is not a soul. It is not a concrete personality. It is not something you can draw a line around and say: “This is it! This is me!” Why not? Because this extremely subtle mind is changing moment by moment by moment. You can’t pin it down and tack it and say: “This is it! This is me!”

It’s changing, changing, changing. So, what happens during the death process is, the mind goes from gross mind to subtle to subtlest mind—changing, changing, changing … at each moment. This subtlest consciousness leaves one body, goes into the intermediate stage, and then goes into the next body. In the next body, let’s say as a human being, when the consciousness enters into the union of the sperm and egg, then the gross consciousnesses slowly again start to develop.

So when the consciousness first enters the sperm and egg, you first have some mental consciousness and the tactile consciousness. You obviously don’t yet have eye consciousness because the embryo doesn’t have eyes. But as the organs develop inside the womb, and the baby gets the eye organ, the ear organ, the nose organ, and so forth, then the respective gross consciousnesses also come into existence.

This is just a simple outline of rebirth. So, we have the body and the mind. When they are together, we call it alive. When we die, the body has its continuity, the mindstream has its continuity. The body becomes chocolate cake for the worms and the mind goes on into the next life.

Let’s look at this life. We have this moment of consciousness. Whatever moment of consciousness is happening right now, it had a cause, didn’t it? Everything had a cause. This moment of body had a cause—the previous moment of body—didn’t it? Our body now depended on our body last year, our body when we were two years old, our body in the sperm and egg as the fertilized egg, and a physical continuity that went back to before this body, didn’t it? There was the continuity of this body before this body actually existed, because the sperm and egg of our parents were there. And that had a physical continuity—all the nitrogen and oxygen and carbon and things that went into the sperm and egg. So there is always a physical cause going back, back, back, back.

Continuity of mindstream

Every moment of the mind also has a cause, doesn’t it? It’s changing. It’s something that changes, that arises and ceases each moment, so it depends on other factors, it depends on previous moments of cause. So, our mindstream right now depends on the previous moment of mindstream, doesn’t it? You can think right now because you were able to think last moment—because you had consciousness in that last moment.

That moment of mind depended on your mind from yesterday and the day before, and the day before that. And it depended on the continuity of our mindstream last year. And when we were ten years old and when we were five years old. And when we were babies. Now, we can’t remember when we were a babies. Most of us can’t anyway. But, we know we had consciousness when we were babies. Would you agree?

You can’t remember it, but you know you had feelings as a baby. We look at babies now and they obviously have feelings. So, we also had feelings, conscious experience as a baby. So that baby that just came out of a womb, where did its consciousness come from? Well, the continuity, the previous moment of consciousness, the consciousness of the mind of the baby in the womb. And that consciousness can get traced back and back, and back to the moment of conception when the sperm and the egg and the consciousness came together. Now, just as the sperm and egg had their previous continuities before the moment of conception, also that moment of mind also had previous continuity. It couldn’t have appeared out of nowhere. It couldn’t appear without a cause. Something like a mind can’t arise out of nothing.

So, that moment of mind had to have a previous cause, and a previous cause that was similar to it. So, what do we have? A previous moment of mind. A moment of mind before it entered into that fertilized egg. A mindstream that existed before this lifetime. And that moment of mind had a cause—its previous moment, previous moment, previous moment, back and back and back and back and back—infinite regression of moments of consciousness.

Is there a “beginning?”

According to Buddhism, there was no beginning. It would be impossible for a beginning. There are many, many logical fallacies if you assert a beginning. Like, if there were a beginning, then because there was a beginning, nothing existed before the beginning. If nothing existed, how could something arise out of nothing? What was the cause for this, if there was nothing before?

If you assert there is a fixed moment of beginning, then what existed before the beginning? And what made the beginning come at that moment and not at any other moment? As soon as you assert a beginning, you also have to assert that causes existed before it. And as soon as you assert that causes existed before it, your beginning is not the beginning anymore, because there were causes prior to it.

Is there a creator?

And if you assert some kind of creator deity, you run into a lot of logical fallacies too. Like where did the creator deity come from? Where did God come from? And then you have questions like: “Why did God create?” And if you say, “Well, God created to give human beings the chance to develop and be happy”, then somebody could ask: “Well, why didn’t God create them happy to start with if God is all powerful?” Or if you say God created human beings because he or she wanted company, then it sounds like God has some problems. [laughter] So, you run into a lot of logical fallacies if you adhere to the idea of a creator. This is not said to criticize other religions. It’s merely said as a way of getting us to look logically at things, to discern what is possible to exist and what is impossible to exist.


So, from a Buddhist point of view, there is just this infinite continuity on a physical level and also on a conscious level—there is no beginning. Now that’s hard for our mind that likes nice, neat, little boxes. We don’t like the idea of infinity. We get scared by infinity. When you study Math, and you come to the square root of two, we get a little shaky. When we come to pi, we get a little shaky, we round it off to 3.14, making it nice and concrete. But in actual fact, you can’t isolate it. There is no end to pi, is there?

Computers have done how many millions of digits, no end to it. No square root of two. No beginning or end on a number line, is there? Either way you go on a number line, positive numbers, negative numbers, there’s always more. Just the whole idea of space, when you look out into space, are we going to come to a brick wall at the end of our universe? And if there is the edge of space, what is on the other side of it?

This whole idea of infinity is really beyond our nice, compartmentalized, categorical mind. But, as we can see from Math and Science, infinity is a definite reality. And likewise in Buddhism, it is very much existent. So, when we talk about the mindstream, we’re talking about an infinite regression.

Now, what has the experience of our mindstream been in this whole infinite regression? Well, we have first of all the pure nature of our mind, which we call the buddha potential or buddha nature—just the raw clear knowing of the mind—”empty of inherent existence.” That’s like the clear sky. And on top of that, we have ignorance, anger, attachment and so on. They are like the clouds in the sky. So they are “running together.”

Like today, you go outside, the sky is there, the clouds are there. You can’t see the sky, because the clouds are obscuring it. Now, let’s imagine that the clouds have always been there. This is very similar to the state of our mind. We have a pure buddha nature that from beginningless time has been obscured by the clouds of ignorance. But, the two things, like the sky and the clouds, are not inseparably meshed.

They are not the same things. They are two separate things.

Just as the clouds can eventually go away and leave the pure sky, so all the defilements of our mindstream can eventually be shed, leaving the pure nature of the mind. Since beginningless time, all these clouds have been with the mind, obscuring it. And that’s why we have so many problems. Because we’ve never been wise. We’ve never been completely patient. We’ve never been completely balanced.

We’ve always been under the influence of ignorance, anger and attachment. So, somebody might say: “Well, where did ignorance, anger and attachment come from? All you can say is that they come from the previous moment, previous moment, previous moment. Nobody created it. It was just always there. Why was it always there? I don’t know. Why do apples fall down? I don’t know. That is just the way it is. In other words, nobody created an ignorant mind. Nobody created ignorance. That’s just the way things have been.

Buddha’s practical approach

“But I want to find out how the ignorance got there to start with!”

From a Buddhist point of view, the Buddha says that worrying about that kind of thing is just going to give you ulcers and headaches and not really produce any kind of fruitful result. Buddha was very, very practical. He didn’t believe in getting stuck on questions that were impossible to answer such as: Where did the first moment of ignorance come from? Or why are we ignorant to start with?

Buddha said: “Look, it’s silly to fret about that. What’s more important is to recognize that our mind is under the control of ignorance, anger and attachment now, and do something about it.” Buddha used the example of an arrow. You got shot by an arrow. It was right there, sticking out, and you are oozing blood. But before you pulled the arrow out, you are sitting there saying: “Now, how many inches long is this arrow? Who made it? Let’s see, it’s made in Japan. Who shot the arrow? What was his name? How many inches deep is it and what was the arrow tip made of?” And you wanted this whole analysis of what was going on with the arrow sorted out before you went to the doctor to pull it out.

People would say you are a little bit nuts. Look, who cares where it came from? It’s in there now! And it is going to kill you, so go and get it out! So, Buddha says likewise that worrying and fretting about what was the first moment of ignorance and where it came from isn’t really relevant.

What’s important is that right now we are under the influence of our ignorance, anger and attachment. And if we don’t do something about it, it’s going to continue to permeate our experience and produce more and more problems for us. So, let’s do something about it now. It’s a very practical approach.

Comparing the mindstream to a river

I like to compare the mindstream to a river. When you look at a river you have the rocks and the mud on the side and you have all these different molecules of water. When you start to analyze, can you find anything that is the river? All you find is rocks, and mud, and water, isn’t it?

If you look at the whole continuity of the river—upstream when it’s trickling, and then when it goes over a waterfall, when it goes into a wide valley, and then when it goes into the sea—can you say that any particular moment is the river? You can’t, can you? River is something that is merely labeled on top of the parts, such as the water, the banks, the mud and the rocks. River is something that is merely labeled on top of this sequence of water that is flowing downwards—this sequence which in and of itself, is constantly changing. Every moment, it is different, different, different, different….

You can’t find something there and say: “THAT IS THE RIVER, I’ve got it!” You can’t pull it out, can you? The river exists but it’s something that’s merely labeled on all of those different parts. That’s all.

So, likewise with our mindstream. It has many different parts, many different kinds of consciousness—visual, mental and so forth. It has many mind moments, one after the other, changing, changing, changing. And we label “consciousness’, or “mind’, on top of that. It’s not a soul. It’s not something solid and concrete. So, when we talk about the mindstream, going from life to life, think more of the analogy of a river, something that is constantly changing. Don’t think of the mindstream like you are playing checkers and it goes from one square to the next square. It’s not like that.

It’s not the same personality or mind that is in one body that then goes to the next body, and then goes to the next one. Because the mind is always changing, isn’t it? Never remains the same. So, thinking of it as a solid entity is not the correct way to think of it. It’s more the idea of a river, something changing, changing, changing. Always dependent on what it was before. But each moment is something different from what it was before. Likewise, with our mind. Who we are now depends upon who we were before, what….

[Teachings lost due to change of tape.]


When you go around with sun glasses all the time, everything looks dark. If you have been wearing sun- glasses since the time you were born, you think everything is dark but everything isn’t dark. Your sun- glasses are making it look dark. Similarly, because of the ignorance on the mindstream, things appear to us to exist in and of themselves. And we grasp at that appearance as true. But this whole appearance is a complete hallucination. So, we’re grasping at a mode of existence that is completely non-existent. The guy with the sun-glasses grasps at the appearance of a dark world thinking it is reality. He thinks that all these phenomena are dark from their own side and independent of him.

Similarly, we think that everything has in it some essence, some independent existence, that is separate from causes and conditions, separate from parts, separate from the consciousness that perceives and labels it. Things appear that way to us. And on top of that appearance, we grasp at that as true and we say: “Yes, in fact, that’s how everything exists.”

So we concretize everything. We give it a mode of existence that it does not have. And because of that, we get terribly, terribly confused. Because we grasp at everything as existing in and of itself—independent from us—we overreact to everything. So, the things that seem pleasurable, we grasp on to, we want more, more, more. And the things that interfere with our happiness, we completely reject. So, out of this ignorance, you get the attachment. And you get the aversion, or anger. And from those, you get all the other myriad of different defilements. So, they all come out of the ignorance.

So, this is the root cause of the problem. Recognize how much we project onto reality. For instance, when we see a person that we label “obnoxious”, that person appears to us to be obnoxious from their own side and independent of us. But if that were the case, if that obnoxiousness existed in that person, if that evilness existed in that person objectively, then everybody who saw him should see the exact same thing. That is not the way it is, is it? Everybody who looks at that person sees him differently. Some people see their best friend. We see a complete idiot. Now, that goes to show that qualities do not exist inside the things themselves, that they exist dependent upon the perceiving mind.

But we are so unaware of that. We think that everything that appears to our mind actually exists the way it appears to us. So we’re hallucinating, and then we think our hallucination is reality. That’s our problem. This is the root cause of all the problems.

It is this ignorance that propels us to take one body after another. Why? It’s because we have the wrong idea of ourselves as some concrete entity. We think: “Here I am, and to preserve “I’, to preserve this entity that is ME, I need a body.”

We identify so much with this body. That’s why death is very frightening to us. Because we feel that if we separate from this body, we might not exist anymore. And yet at the same time as we’re fearing that, we’re grasping very strongly onto I, I, I, I.

So, there’s this incredible confusion of grasping. And so, because of that, mind is always looking: “I want a body. I want a body.” So, at the time of death, when it becomes obvious that we have to separate from our body, instead of relaxing about it and saying, “Why do I need this body for anyway, it only gets old and sick and die. It’s not so wonderful after all,” or saying: “What’s so precious about this? It’s just nitrogen, potassium, oxygen. That’s all there is, nothing so precious about it,” we see it as something so precious that we are being separated from.

And so, to continue our identity, foremost thing is we’ve got to have another body. So that grasping mind pushes us to seek another body and that grasping mind makes some of the karmic imprints—the imprints of the actions that we’ve created previously—ripen, and depending upon which imprints are ripening, those imprints propel us into the next body.

The different realms of existence

If we’re in a situation under the influence of our ignorance where some of our good imprints are ripening—for example, being kind and considerate—and those ripen at death time, then we’re grasping for a body but we are also being pushed by the ripening of the kind imprints. Then, we’re going to take rebirth as a human being, or as a god, as a celestial being.

If on the other hand, at the time of death, this grasping makes a harmful or destructive imprint ripen, then that’s going to push our mind to take rebirth as an animal, or what we call a hungry ghost or a hellish kind of being.

Here, we have the existence of different life forms. Now the question always comes: “Are these different life forms real existent life forms? Are there different places? Are there real beings there or are they just mental states?” Well, my personal opinion on that is well, how about our human life? Is it a place? Is it real? Or is it just a mental state? It seems to me that as real as this one seems to us now, that’s how real the other ones seem to us when we are born there. Whether it is a mental state or whether it is a place, it seems real, doesn’t it? We have contact with the animals. I am sure they feel that being an animal is quite a real thing. It’s a mental state but it’s an animal body, isn’t it? So, similarly, I think, with the other ones as well.

Now, it might help us to be able to understand how our mindstream could be born in those other life forms. Think again about impermanence. Because one of the obstacles that prevent us from understanding these different life forms is that we think that we have always been who we are now, don’t we? You sit here and you think: “ME, this body, this mind, this character, ME.” But even looking at this life, has our body always been the same? One time, our body was a fetus. Do you associate “I” with that little thing that you see drawn in the science book? But that was what we were one time, wasn’t it?

How about the old and decrepit man or woman? Do we associate “I” with that? Look at the changes that our body goes through in one lifetime. Look at the changes our consciousness goes through in one lifetime. Imagine what it was like to be a new-born baby, to have that kind of perspective on the world. Very different from our present consciousness, isn’t it? Completely different! And yet that’s just within one life, isn’t it? And see how much our body has changed. Look at how much our mind has changed. We haven’t always been who we are right now, have we? Always changing. Always changing.

So, if you begin just by thinking about that, it loosens some of this grasping that “I am who I am right now.” Because we see that within one life, we go through very different mental states. So, it gives us a little space to consider that the mind could also have other different mental states when our mindstream is associated with another body. Why not?

Another way that helps us to understand the existence of different life forms is to look even at some characteristics that our human mind can share with the minds of those other life forms. For example, you take a celestial realm—glorious Disneyland all day, except you don’t have to pay, you don’t have to wait in line, and your ice cream doesn’t melt all over you. It’s like Disneyland with all the perfections. That’s what the god realm is like. Now, we can imagine that, can’t we? And there have been times in our life where it has almost seemed, at least for a short period, that our mind was just completely saturated with pleasure.

Of course, in our human existence, that doesn’t last so long. We have this complete pleasure explosion but then it ends fairly quickly. But in the god realm, it’s like a pleasure explosion that just lasts for a long, long, long time. Why? Because the karmic imprint that ripened into that life was able to perpetuate that life for that long. So, we can see a certain similarity that our human mind has with the mind of a being that’s born in a super duper sense pleasure deluxe celestial realm, can’t we?

Now, take our mind when we are incredibly obsessed about something. Where your mind is just completely on: “I’ve got to have this, I’ve got to have this, I’ve got to have this.” Completely obsessed, craving, longing and grasping. Frustrated because you can’t get what you want. Dissatisfied because what you want evades you. We’ve all had times like that, haven’t we?

Imagine that mind state being born in a body—that’s the realm of a hungry ghost. The hungry ghosts have the mental state of perpetual craving and dissatisfaction because they can’t fulfill what they want. So, you can see, there is some connection between that mind-state and the environment that it manifests.

You take a dissatisfied mind and imagine it manifesting as an environment to become a hungry ghost environment.

You take an angry mind (completely overwhelmed by anger, enraged and out of control, belligerent, when we won’t listen to anybody and we just want to strike out at the world) and make it manifest as a body, make it manifest as an environment, and that is the hellish realm.

Our mind has a lot of different potential in it, doesn’t it? It has the potential to have the sense pleasure deluxe, super-duper pleasure of a god realm. It also has the potential to have the incredibly painful paranoid existence of a hellish being.

The clear light nature, the clear and knowing nature of that mindstream is all the same. But, when it is overcast, overwhelmed by some clouds, it becomes born in one body. When other shapes of clouds overwhelm it, it’s born as another body. And all along there is the general pollution of the ignorance covering it.

So, our mindstream as it goes from body to body, can experience many different things. Sometimes, we can be born in incredibly happy places and sometimes in incredibly awful places. They are all propelled by the imprints of our actions that we’ve created. And all these actions that we created are not some mystical magic thing. Karma isn’t mystic and magic. We are creating karma right now. We’re creating intentional action right now, aren’t we? We are acting right now. We have intention right now. What we are doing right now happens to be a very positive action because we’ve come together for a good reason, so, we are putting a lot of good karma on our mind. We are creating karma right now.

On the other hand, when we get really belligerent and we start gossiping about people and criticizing them left, right, and center, our mind is acting, we are using our speech, and sometimes we get so angry that we physically act. So, all these actions leave imprints on the mindstream and then depending upon which imprints ripen at the time of death, the mindstream then gets propelled into one body or another.

And each body we take doesn’t last forever because that karmic imprint is an ever-changing phenomenon. It’s a limited phenomenon. It only endures for a certain amount of time. So, the resultant life form that we get born in, as a result of that karma, also exists only for a limited amount of time.

When that karmic energy runs out, then our rebirth in that life form runs out, and we die and then we get reborn in another body. So, we can go up and down a lot. Let’s face it. Look at our mindstreams right now. We have a lot of different imprints, don’t we? Just take today. You did some kind things today? Did anybody get angry or annoyed today? Anybody didn’t get attached to something today? So, you see, just within one day, so many different imprints are getting left on the mindstream. So our mindstreams are just like computer records; there’re so many different things. We have the potential to go up or down or around or whatever, depending upon what ripens. We are not necessarily guaranteed some kind of upward mobile path. The GNP isn’t always increasing at a certain annual rate. It’s like the economy—it goes up and down. It’s similar with our rebirth—not at all consistent. Up and down, up and down. And it’s all done under the impetus of ignorance.

We have this buddha nature that is obscured by the clouds of ignorance. This ignorance makes us create actions that then propel us to get into this Ferris wheel of existence of one body after the next in all these different life forms.

But it doesn’t need to be like this. There is another way to live. Ignorance is a complete misconception. A mind of ignorance does not look at things realistically. If we can see how things do exist, we will be able to eliminate the ignorance, and along with it, the branches of attachment and aversion, as well as the results of all these karmic actions. So, it’s possible for us to attain a state free of the ignorance and of the karma. How? By generating the wisdom that clearly shows that the ignorant view is incorrect.

Liberation through ethics, concentration and wisdom

How do we generate that wisdom? Well, we have to have some concentration in our mind, to be able to hold the reality steadfast in the mind, and we have to have a firm foundation of ethics. So, the path to liberation is what’s called the three higher trainings: ethics, concentration and wisdom. Liberation is the cessation of the ignorance, anger and attachment and all the karma that causes rebirth. In other words, liberation is the cessation of the causes of all the sufferings and problems. Liberation is also the cessation of all those problems and difficulties.

The four noble truths

The first truth is the truth of suffering. It doesn’t mean suffering as in “Oh, my tummy hurts.” It means something is not right in life. What’s not right in life is that we aren’t in control, and we take one body after another. And experience so many problems in each rebirth.

The second truth is the truth of the cause of that problematic condition of suffering: the ignorance, anger and attachment and all the karmic actions we’ve done.

But, because ignorance is a wrong conception, it’s possible to remove it, and by removing it, you get a cessation of the suffering or the problems and their causes, which is the third noble truth: the noble truth of cessation.

And there is the fourth truth—that there is a definite path to get to that cessation, there is a method to follow i.e. the three higher trainings of ethics, concentration and wisdom.

Now, on the basis of that, if you also generate the altruistic intention: “I want liberation, not just for my own benefit, but I want to attain full enlightenment to gain all the capabilities to help others. I seek not only my liberation but the liberation of the infinite number of sentient beings,” then, what you have is the altruistic intention to attain highest enlightenment and you could attain the result of a buddha.

So, liberation from the cycle of existence is not the same thing as buddhahood.

What is liberation and enlightenment?

Liberation means you’ve freed your own mindstream from the ignorance and the karma.

Enlightenment means that you’ve also generated the altruistic intention. You have not only freed your mindstream from the ignorance and the karma, but you have also freed it from a very subtle kind of stain left after the ignorance and the karma have been removed.

We have what’s called two levels of obscuration:

  1. the afflicted2 obscurations, which is the ignorance and the karma, the afflictions3 and the karma; and
  2. the subtle obscurations or cognitive obscurations.4

The afflicted* obscurations are what keep us bound in cyclic existence. When we remove them through practicing ethics, concentration and wisdom, we attain the state of an arhat, or a liberated being. The afflicted* obscurations are like the onions. When you take the onions out of the pot, there is still the smell of the onions. The smell of the onions is like the subtle obscurations on the mindstream. So, with an altruistic intention to benefit all, you want to remove even these subtle obscurations from the mindstream. You still practice the three higher trainings. But in addition, you practice the altruistic intention and all the bodhisattva’s actions. And you meditate on emptiness in a very, very deep way until you get to the point where you can actually remove even these subtle stains from the mind. It is like getting rid of not only the onions, but also their smell. And at that point, you attain full enlightenment or buddhahood.

Somebody who has generated the altruistic intention to attain buddhahood is a bodhisattva. There are different levels of bodhisattvas; it’s a progressive path. Some bodhisattvas are baby bodhisattvas and they are still bound by their own ignorance. Higher level bodhisattvas are no longer bound by their ignorance. They’ve been able to attain liberation from cyclic existence.


To review, we’ve talked about the mind. And the difference between body and mind, the fact that they both have continuity, that the mind’s continuity is without form and that both the physical continuity and the mental continuity existed prior to this birth, and they both will exist after this birth.

When we die, our mindstream dissolves into a subtle form and goes into a next body propelled by ignorance, propelled by whatever karma is ripening. And we can be reborn as a variety of different things according to whatever karma happens to ripen because we have many different imprints on our mindstream.

When we get fed up with the situation and we see that actually the nature of our mind is pure and that it’s only all these clouded garbage that makes the whole mess come about, then, we get some interest in practicing the path. We want to eliminate the clouds and let the sky remain, eliminate the ignorance and let the pure nature of the mind remain. So, the principal tool that we need here, besides ethics and concentration, is wisdom. Because the wisdom will definitely eliminate the ignorance—they can’t both exist at the same time.

By eliminating ignorance, the Ferris wheel of one rebirth after another comes to a halt. And one can attain liberation or arhatship.


To attain highest buddhahood, highest enlightenment, one has to generate the altruistic intention and remove not only the ignorance and karma that make the afflicted* obscurations, but also the stains, the subtle imprints or subtle tendencies left on the mind.

Then, through deep meditation on emptiness and a great accumulation of positive potential by practicing the bodhisattva path, then, we can attain highest buddhahood. A buddha is somebody who has eliminated all the defilements in their mind (such as the anger, attachment, ignorance and all those karma) and also eliminated all the subtle stains on the mind, so they’ve eliminated all the garbage.

A buddha has also developed all the good qualities to their full perfection. So, the patience, the concentration, the loving kindness, the open heartedness—all of the good qualities—are fully developed.

So, there is continuity between a buddha and us. We aren’t completely separated by this huge chasm in the middle. The same clear light nature of the mind goes through all these different states. It’s a continuum. By gradually purifying our mind and gradually developing its qualities, then this same mindstream can go on and become the mindstream of a buddha.

Questions and answers

Audience: [inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): You are saying that it seems like people live under a lot of obscuration and a lot of handicaps and so, then, only a few people seem to really have the capability, at least in this lifetime to attain liberation. And that is kind of disturbing.

I wish I could say something else. But it’s true. We can say, however, that all beings have the potential to attain full awakening, full enlightenment.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Let’s take any example of a human life. Let’s say these people have a human life in the previous lifetime, and in that human life, they created some good actions. They also did some not so good ones. So, just like us, in the previous human life, they had a whole composite of many different kinds of imprints.

We, as Westerners, very often bring our whole Christian background and super-impose it onto Buddhism. Firstly, it’s important to understand that Buddha is not like God. From the Christian point of view, there is a judgment. God says, this, this, this, this. From a Buddhist point of view, Buddha does not judge and discriminate and condemn. Buddha did not create this whole scene. Buddha didn’t create anything. Our mind, our actions, previous things influence future things. If you plant an apple seed, you get an apple tree. You plant peaches and you get peaches. Buddha didn’t create the peaches. He didn’t create the peach seeds. Buddha only described that if you plant peach seeds, you get peaches. So, Buddha isn’t “zapping” anybody. Buddha just described that when we act harmfully, we could get painful results as a result of our actions. When we act kindly, we get pleasurable effects as a result of our own actions. But Buddha didn’t create that whole system.

Secondly, it’s not a case of somebody screwing up, and somebody being evil. Because again, that’s our whole Christian framework that we have learned since we were young. And we tow it along like a knapsack on our back that we don’t want to put down, simply because we’ve heard it our whole life. But, I think this is the time when we really have to say, “Hey, I don’t need to carry this around.”

Buddhism is simply saying that when certain causes are created, certain effects come. If you get harmful effects, they come from a harmful cause. If you get nice effects, they come from a nice cause. If you’ve created a harmful cause, it doesn’t mean you are a bad person.

The person and the person’s actions are two different things. People are good. People have buddha nature. Sometimes, under the influence of our greed, anger and ignorance, we can create harmful actions. Those harmful actions become like the clouds that are set in the sky. So, it doesn’t mean that whenever we suffer, it means we are horrible, sinful, evil and condemned people.

In other words, it doesn’t mean that when we experience painful things now, it means we are completely horrible because we must have done something so evil in the past. And similarly when we mess up now, it doesn’t mean that we’re horrible, evil, condemned people. It simply means that we made a mistake and we are going to experience the result of our mistake. So, it’s a Christian super-imposition to say that because the action was harmful, the person is evil.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Now, that’s true. Their actions will create the future. Causes do bring effects. But it doesn’t mean that the people who create negative causes are evil people. It just means that they are under the influence of their ignorance.

We say that at a basic level, people always have a choice. But, whether or not we take our choice is another matter. Very often, we are on automatic mode. We’re so strongly propelled by the things of the past, that we don’t take our choice. We just let the past propel us. So, for example, when somebody comes up and insults you, at that moment you have a choice whether to get angry or not. But we’re so well habituated with anger, that automatically the anger comes without our mindstream even considering that: “Oh I don’t have to get angry.” We still have that choice at that moment not to get angry. But because the past habit is so strong, it’s like we are on automatic. So, the process of Dharma is going from automatic to manual. It’s taking the choice.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: So, you are saying, for example, take all these people in Bangladesh who are suffering from the flood. We could say: “We’re sorry folks. This is your karma. Why do we need to send you aid?”

Now, if somebody has that view, and uses that politically, they have not correctly understood Buddha’s teachings. That is an incorrect understanding of Buddha’s teachings. Why? Because, just because you messed up, that doesn’t mean you deserve to suffer. See, this whole thing of “You DESERVE TO SUFFER, you’ve got to suffer, you’ve got to be punished!”—that’s our Christian super-imposition. Buddhism teaches that suffering is suffering, it doesn’t matter whose is it, our suffering or other’s. If we see it, we should help. So, people who misuse karma for political reasons don’t have a correct understanding of Buddha’s teachings.

Then, you brought up another point about whether people, let’s say who are insane, or people who are mentally impaired, actually have free choice….

[Teachings lost due to change of tape.]

…And I think this is where we get really hung up. The person who doesn’t choose to be sane, we blame them, “YOU choose to be insane, IT”S YOUR FAULT!” That is our garbage. There’s no blame in the situation. It’s again a complete perversion of Buddhist teachings, to use it as a justification to point fingers and blame.
If we want to put down other people, and to criticize other people, and say some people are inferior, we don’t need to use Buddhism to do that. We don’t need to make up another philosophy to do that. There are already plenty of philosophies in our world that like to put down other people.

But our big problem is that we grew up in a Calvinistic environment. We grew up in a society that talks about blame, evilness, original sin, fault and “misusing free choice so you separated yourself from God, so therefore you are a sinner and you are condemned forever.” We grew up with that. We have that baggage with us. And then, we come to Buddhism and we take our Christian filter and put it between Buddhism and us. And we say: “Oh that looks just like what I grew up with.” But we are not seeing Buddhism. Instead, we are just seeing our filter. So this is the time I think when we have to recognize that filter as a filter, throw it away and then try and understand what Buddha is really talking about here.

I think this is a real challenge to Westerners because we come right up against all these cultural preconceptions we grew up with since we were two years old. They all come up and we project them all over the place. And this is the time for us to begin to recognize how much we project outside. And to, then, throw away a lot of that mental garbage because we really don’t need it.

And to understand what Buddha is really talking about and how the basic philosophy of Buddhism is incredible respect for the individual, incredible confidence in the pure nature of human beings.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always saying that basic human nature is good. Basic human nature is pure. So, we have to remember that. And not superimpose original sin on it. Buddhism isn’t talking about that.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Christianity goes on the assumption that you HAVE to suffer, doesn’t it? If you suffer, it’s because you are evil. You’ve got to suffer to approach God.

Buddhism says suffering is useless. Who needs it? Let’s get rid of it. However, when we suffer, the suffering does come about because of causes. Some of the causes have to do with the external environment. The social, political and cultural ambience we live in. Some causes of suffering are our internal mental mind state. How we interpret the environment around us. Some of the causes of suffering happened to be connected with actions we’ve done previously. In other words, why we find ourselves in that particular situation and not in another situation.

So, any experience of suffering has many different causes. It has a karmic cause created previously that resulted in our being in that situation. It has an environmental, social and political cause. It has a psychological cause—our main mental state now. But that doesn’t mean that suffering is good. And that doesn’t mean you DESERVE to suffer. It just means that things grow out of causes. And so when your causes are ripening, it’s good if you can accept that situation.

One of the things that increase our problem is that we don’t like to accept the situations we are in. And we battle and we say: “This can’t be. I don’t want it to be. My best friend died, it can’t be!” We refuse to accept the reality of somebody’s death. So, we just get incredibly overwhelmed by the grief of it. That’s our refusal to accept the reality of the situation that causes the pain.

So, when these people said that they were wearing off previous karma when they were tortured, they’re merely accepting the fact that results come from causes. And that part of the causes of our present suffering is harmful actions that we did in the past. That’s all it’s saying.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Sometimes in the church, like prior to “65, you beat yourself. And if that was the best way you remove all your obstacles to God, you torture yourself and you put on the nettle things and you go on the ice in the Artic Ocean naked at midnight. You do all these things to make your body suffer as a way of purification. Buddhism says: “Look, we suffer already without trying. We don’t need to cause ourselves suffering. That’s really dumb!”

The Buddha, for six years, lived as an ascetic eating one grain of rice a day and got so thin that when he touched his belly button, he felt his backbone. And then he realized that this is stupid, that it doesn’t lead to purification. So he went out and had a good meal. And then he went under the bodhi tree and being well nourished, he was able to concentrate and he attained enlightenment.

So, deliberately causing yourself suffering is not part of Dharma.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: That every thought perpetuates samsara? I would think it would probably be every ignorant thought perpetuates samsara.

It’s not: “I am ignorant therefore I can’t get pure.” We are under the influence of ignorance right now. So what we are trying to do, the first step is at least don’t fall under the influence of aversion, attachment, jealousy and pride as well. First step is to get rid of those really harmful attitudes. Even if you are ignorant, you can still act kindly. You can still create good karma. Then, all that positive potential you build up on your mindstream by the creation of good karma sets a good ambience—it’s like fertilizer on your mindstream—so then, as you hear teachings, especially teachings on emptiness, you can contemplate them and begin to understand them. And then, the more and more you understand the teachings on emptiness, the more and more you are able to eliminate the layers of ignorance. So, there is a way out.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: You are saying that in approaching these things, we can approach it from the idea of proving it and trying to get some rational hold on it. But you feel that somehow, up until now, you haven’t been able to get sufficient proof. However, there is part of you that trusts and has faith that it generally makes sense. And there seems to be a whole lineage of people who have somehow gotten somewhere believing this. So, you’re willing to kind of follow along and see what happens.
Check it out and see what happens.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: This is the kind of subject that really requires a lot of thought. And I suspect that there might be some way to logically prove it. It’s a question of coming up with the logical proof. It’s a question of making our minds capable of understanding it. So, it’s two things. I am not saying that I’ve presented a coherent case, because of my own limitations. Also, whether or not we are capable of understanding a coherent case if it was presented, that is another question as well.

But, I do feel that it’s perfectly all right if the thing in general makes sense to us now as it is. And it’s one of those things that we say it makes general sense, so I am going to start to engage in it and practice it, knowing that as I practice it, I’ll understand it better so I will be able to prove it or disprove it. In addition, I’ll purify my mind so my capability to understand it better will improve. And then we will see what happens. And I think that’s perfectly all right.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: So, your basic criterion is: “Is it useful or not useful, rather than is it true or not true.” That is a very useful approach for you. However, not all people think like you. So, there are logical explanations given to the people who don’t think like you. Because for those people, they need another kind of approach. We all think differently. So, different presentations are given because different people hold on to different criteria. So, the logical part may not be our “baby” but it might be somebody else’s. That’s okay, isn’t it?

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: All things are inter-related but they aren’t all one. So, the object and the subject are interdependent but the object is not the subject, and the subject isn’t the object. But they do inter-relate. They are dependent on each other.

But you can’t say that you and I are exactly the same thing. If I moved into your house and said that this is my house because we are one, I don’t think you’d be too happy. [laughter]

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: You can become enlightened, that doesn’t mean I become enlightened at the same time, because if I have not created the cause for it, it’s not going to happen. However, your mindstream and my mindstream definitely influence each other. And they both have very similar natures, in the sense that they both have buddha potential.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: You mean can you do an action and I experience the result? No.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: You don’t take a computer file with you, and put all your karma nicely on it that you can take in your hand. When a person creates the actions, the one who is the continuity of that person will experience the result. Otherwise, it would be like I kill somebody and you get thrown in prison, or you generate loving kindness and I become a buddha. It doesn’t work that way. Cause and effect, it works in appropriate ways. If you plant a seed in one field, it doesn’t grow in the other field.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Well, it does help other beings. Because we inter-relate, don’t we? Let’s say that Cindy is a bodhisattva. She can’t create good karma for you. She can’t create it and then transfer it to your account. Karma is not like having a bank account. However, Cindy is a bodhisattva, she can do a lot of things that influence you in a very beneficial way so that you become a better person and so that you will become a bodhisattva. Because she can teach you, she can be a good example. She can inspire you and guide you. She can do all sorts of things that influence you.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Buddhism doesn’t talk too much about the brain. There isn’t really talk about the brain, and the role of the brain and perception and memory. They would say all these are stored in the mindstream. The scientists would say they’re stored in the brain cells. They can both be right.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Well, memory is a mental factor. The ability to remember is a mental factor. They say the imprints get placed on the mindstream. A subtle memory is there. As your mental factor of memory gets better, these things can surface. Or as you develop clairvoyant powers, you remember more and more clearly. Buddhism doesn’t talk too much about the brain’s role, but that doesn’t mean the brain doesn’t play a role.

  1. Since the lamrim presupposes an understanding of mind, rebirth, cyclic existence and enlightenment, concepts which students in the West may not be familiar or have difficulty with, Venerable Thubten Chodron clarified these topics before starting the teachings on Part 4 of the Lamrim: “How to guide students to enlightenment.”

    Also refer to Section III of Open Heart, Clear Mind on “Rebirth, Karma and Cyclic Existence.” 

  2. “Afflicted” is the new translation that Venerable Chodron now uses in place of “deluded.” 

  3. “Afflictions” is the new translation that Venerable Chodron now uses in place of “disturbing attitudes.” 

  4. “Cognitive obscurations” is the new translation that Venerable Chodron now uses in place of “obscurations to omniscience.” 

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.