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Refuge, bodhicitta, the four noble truths

Refuge, bodhicitta, the four noble truths

Part of a series of teachings on the Manjushri practice given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington.

  • The importance of refuge and bodhicitta
  • The four noble truths from the Mahayana perspective
  • The two, three, four, and five bodies of a Buddha
  • Questions and answers
    • What is the difference between viewing the guru as a representative, an emanation, and the Buddha himself?
    • When a true cessation is generated, how does the mind continue on?
    • How can a virtuous thought be contaminated with ignorance?
    • How can an impermanent mind have karmic imprints?

Manjushri sadhana and commentary 04 (download)

The meditation on Red-Yellow Manjushri starts out with refuge and bodhicitta, as do all of our practices. Sometimes people think, “We do refuge and bodhicitta all the time, so we can skip over this part because we know it already.” Actually, I think refuge and bodhicitta are the basic essential thing in the whole path. If you look closely, almost everything can be fit into it in one way or another.

Refuge teaches how to be content within ourselves and bodhicitta teaches us how to be with others. It’s an interesting process. Refuge is an internal process of understanding the Three Jewels and taking refuge in both the causal and resultant refuge. It is an internal process of gaining conviction. Bodhicitta helps us learn how to be together and peaceful with others.

I’ll explain refuge and bodhicitta from a Mahayana viewpoint; just know that within Buddhism there are a variety of interpretations, which I will not go into now. You might be interested in exploring those at another time.

We begin with the four noble truths, which is the basic format for all of the Buddhist traditions and all of the Buddha’s teachings. First you start with dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, suffering, misery, whatever you call it—we have this. Second we see there is a cause of dukkha. What is the cause from a Buddhist viewpoint? The cause is our own ignorance, anger, and attachment. Now what are ignorance, anger, and attachment? Are they some kind of external thing? No, they are internal. They are consciousnesses.

To understand how ignorance, anger, and attachment function, you have to understand what mind is. The definition of mind is “clear and knowing.” “Clear” has two meanings—one is that the mind is formless and two is that the mind is able to reflect objects. And the mind is “knowing” or aware because it is able to engage with objects.

Within this category of mind there are many different kinds of mind. Mind is not one solid lump; there are many different kinds of consciousness. We have our sense consciousnesses and our mental consciousnesses. We have gross and subtle and extremely subtle levels of mind. We have mental factors that perform different functions within any conception and so on. If you want to study this in more depth, you can study lorig: mind and awareness.

The basic nature of mind, from a Mahayana viewpoint, is that it is something clear and pure. Within that, some consciousnesses—like ignorance, anger, and attachment—are deluded. They misperceive objects. But the basic foundation of the mind, the basic nature of the primary minds—sense consciousnesses and mental consciousnesses, the basic nature of the clear light mind, the extremely subtle mind that goes from one life to the other—is pure. For that reason all the defilements can be removed from the mind.

The defilements all arise from grasping at inherent existence. If the mind itself is not inherently existent—and if the ignorance that grasps at inherent existence is not an inherent part of the mind—then ignorance can be removed, and thus attachment, anger, jealousy, pride, laziness, and the whole rest of the afflicted mental states can be removed also.

Buddha nature is the pure nature of the mind. It can be talked about in two ways. One way is the natural Buddha nature; this is the emptiness of inherent existence of the mind. It is a permanent phenomenon; it is the lack of true existence of the mind. Then, together with that, you have the evolutionary Buddha nature, which just means the clear and knowing nature of the regular conventionally existent mind. (Open Heart, Clear Mind has a chapter on Buddha nature. You might want to review it.)

We have both kinds of Buddha nature, and we need both of them. These two kinds of Buddha nature show that the mind, on a conventional level, is not inherently tainted; and that the mind, on the ultimate level, is not inherently existent. Therefore the ignorance, anger, and attachment in the mind can be removed.

When you remove the afflcitions from the mind, you get the third noble truth—true cessation. The path that gets you to true cessation is the fourth noble truth. Basically, it’s the wisdom realizing emptinesses—all those different kinds of consciousness that are wisdom consciousnesses that help you remove all the defilements. That is a rough view. There is much more to be said about this.

If everyone has Buddha potential—these two kinds of Buddha nature—then it is possible for everyone to become a Buddha. And there is no chasm between sentient beings and Buddhas because both of our minds are empty of inherent existence and both of our minds conventionally are clear and knowing. The difference is that we sentient beings have the clouds in the sky that are obscuring all of this—the clouds of ignorance, anger, and attachment.

Everyone has the potential to become a fully enlightened being. This is revolutionary actually, and is not a tenet that is held in all the different Buddhist systems. It is certainly not a tenet held in other religions where there is a gap between sentient beings and the divine beings. In Buddhism the gap is not a rigid gap. It is not a chasm that is insurmountable. It is just a question of whether the defilements have been removed or not. And it is possible to remove those defilements.

When you remove the defilements—and everyone has the potential to do this—then what you get is the Buddha.

What is the Buddha? We can talk about the Buddha in terms of two kayas, or you can divide it into three kayas, or four kayas, or even five kayas. They all come down to the same thing; it is just different ways of categorizing.

If we start out with two kayas, we start out with the dharmakaya and the rupakaya. Dharmakaya means “truth body,” and rupakaya means “form body.” When we say “body” it doesn’t mean blood and guts body; it means body as in a corpus or in a collection or a group; as in a body of people, or a body of texts.

The dharmakaya (truth body) refers to the aspects of the Buddha’s mind. The rupakaya (the form body) refers to the different manifestations that the Buddha appears in to communicate with sentient beings. Why does the Buddha appear in different manifestations? Because we are pretty dull, aren’t we? We cannot tune in to the Buddha’s omniscient mind; we do not have that frequency within us. It is blocked out by too much radio, too much interference from the TV and the VCR. The Buddha, out of compassion, manifests in different physical forms because we are very physically form-based people. We relate to sights and sounds and tastes and touches and things like that. So the Buddha, out of compassion, appears in these various forms in order to communicate with us.

If we take the rupakaya (form body) and divide it into two types, you have the sambhogakaya and the nirmanakaya. Sambhogakaya means “enjoyment body.” This is the body of light that the Buddha manifests in a pure land to teach the arya bodhisattvas. This body is for very high-level beings that can tune into the Buddha appearing in a body of light and giving Mahayana and subtle Vajrayana teachings.

The nirmanakaya is the “emanation body,” a grosser form that the Buddha appears in to communicate with the rest of us dull types. The nirmanakaya is Shakyamuni Buddha, for example—a Buddha who appears on this earth in a dark age when there is no teaching of the Buddha, when there is no talk of the three higher trainings, no talk of the four noble truths, and no path being taught. There are other kinds of nirmanakaya buddhas besides Shakyamuni Buddha. You could say any emanation on this earth that appears in order to communicate with us could be a nirmanakaya Buddha.

We can weave guru yoga into this explanation. Guru yoga is a tantric practice. In tantra you are trying to see your tantric master as a buddha. This is possible because of these types of form bodies. One kind is a nirmanakaya (emanation body), which could be someone appearing on this earth. So you start from the viewpoint of the Buddha’s omniscient mind and then think that the Buddha can appear as your teacher in order to guide you. Why not? It is completely possible, isn’t it? If you think about it, the buddhas went to all that trouble to get enlightened and then, afterwards, they are just going to say forget it and let someone who is unenlightened lead you to enlightenment? I do not think the Buddha is going to do that.

When we think in this way we get some feeling that our teachers could be buddhas. Now I am not talking about people like me. I am talking about people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama and your tantric masters. This view of seeing the guru as the Buddha is not common to all of Buddhism. It is only important in your Vajrayana practice. It is not even introduced in general Mahayana teachings. In general Mahayana you see your teacher as an emanation of the Buddha. In your refuge practices you see your teacher as a representative of the Buddha. We don’t want to get into some weird thing like, “Oh, my guru is a Buddha. I can see him with a body made of light and everything he does is perfect. I’m going to worship this holy being.” Do not get into that! I’m trying to talk to you as mature practitioners.

You can think someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama could be a nirmanakaya Buddha appearing on this earth in order to guide and teach us. Why not? When you examine what he teaches us, how he teaches us, and the perfect guidance he provides, you can at least entertain the possibility.

Even if Buddha came here especially for us, is Buddha going to teach us anything different from what His Holiness teaches? If we think in this way it helps us take the teachings seriously. It also gives a deeper dimension to our spiritual practice, drawing us into something that is a little more mystical. In other words, it is making us begin to see that maybe everything we see with our eyes does not exist in the way it appears to us.

This is part of the value of seeing our teacher as a Buddha: it makes us begin to doubt our ordinary perception. When we doubt our ordinary perception we are drawn into thinking about emptiness.

What is emptiness about? It is about the fact that what our senses tell us, what our senses perceive, is wrong. Even the way we conceptualize things is wrong. In terms of our senses, things are appearing inherently existent to us. In terms of our conceptual mental consciousness, we are generally grasping those things as inherently existent.

When we speak of the two obscurations, this is it: the grasping at inherent existence—the deluded obscuration that prevents us from becoming an arhat, and the appearance of true existence to our senses as well as to our mental consciousness—the cognitive obscurations that prevent us from becoming a Buddha.

When we begin to have this kind of doubt about ordinary perception, it draws us into thinking about emptiness and what things are empty of. Emptiness does not mean things are nonexistent. It means that things are empty of inherent existence. But they are full of dependent arising, because that is how they exist. It is an interesting interplay, isn’t it? When you start thinking about this and you get into the four kayas you begin to understand how this teaching of seeing the guru as the Buddha plays an important part in Vajrayana practice. And you see how that draws you into thinking about emptiness. And that draws you into thinking how Vajrayana is essentially a meditation on the union of emptiness and dependent arising.

Let’s return to the four Buddha bodies. We have the dharmakaya (truth body) and the rupakaya (form body). The rupakaya can be divided into two bodies—the nirmanakaya and the sambhogakaya. The dharmakaya which is the Buddha’s mind, can be subdivided into two—the jhana-dharmakaya (wisdom truth body) and the svabhavikakaya (nature truth body). The wisdom truth body, jhana-dharmakaya, is the omniscient mind of a Buddha. This is an impermanent phenomena that is eternal. Impermanent simply means it changes moment by moment. Anything which functions changes moment by moment. It does not mean that it is contaminated or deluded.

The Buddha’s mind—and even an arya’s mind perceiving emptiness—are pure minds. Yet they change moment to moment. Why? Because they are consciousnesses. Any consciousness that perceives an object, doesn’t perceive the same thing one moment to the next; the mind changes. But the Buddha’s wisdom mind is eternal because once it has purified all the obscurations, then there is no cause for the obscurations to come back again. That is why it is eternal.

The Buddha’s mind does not end. It does not matter whether the Buddha is in a physical body as a nirmanakaya or as a sambhogakaya Buddha in a pure land, the Buddha’s consciousness does not end because its basic nature is clear and knowing. One moment of clear and knowing produces the next moment of clear and knowing, which produces the next moment of clear and knowing. This is the same in our consciousness—one moment of clear and knowing produces the next. That is how we can meditate and trace back and get a feeling of how we also have beginningless consciousness. In terms of this flow of clear and knowing consciousness, there is no beginning and there is no end.

However, there is an end to the samsaric mind. There is an end to the contaminated four mental aggregates: feeling, discrimination, conditioning factors, and the primary minds or consciousness. There is an end to those contaminated four mental aggregates just as there is an end to our form aggregate; this body dies. But because there is an extremely subtle mind—which is just the nature of clear and knowing, and it is uncontaminated by its nature—it’s not inherently existent and not inherently contaminated. Therefore, one moment of consciousness can produce the next one. When we become enlightened, our enlightenment has a beginning, but enlightenment does not have an end because one moment of wisdom produces the next moment of wisdom. Thus you have the Buddha’s mind going on throughout infinite time. So that is the wisdom truth body.

Then you have the nature truth body, the svabhavikakaya. This is a permanent phenomenon. In other words it is something that is unconditioned; it does not change moment by moment. This too can be divided into two kinds. If you divide it into two kinds, one is just the emptiness of inherent existence of the Buddha’s mind, and the second is the true cessation of a Buddha’s mind, meaning the elimination, the removal, the exhaustion of any defilement in such a way that it no longer returns.

If you follow certain commentaries of certain Gelugpa monasteries, they will tell you that true cessations are also emptinesses but this is a big topic of debate. I will not get into it at this point, but it is a very interesting topic that draws you into an incredible way of thinking about emptiness that takes your mind completely somewhere else.

Now, you might say, “All these Buddha bodies and all this Sanskrit! I can’t keep it straight.” But it is very interesting if you start to think a little bit about what the Buddha is from this point of view. You get this incredible, expansive feeling, don’t you? There are all these different beings who have become Buddhas already. There is not just Shakyamuni Buddha; there are not just the thousand Buddhas of this fortunate eon. There are all these beings that have become Buddhas even since Shakyamuni lived on this earth, even before he lived on this earth. There are all these Buddhas who have omniscient mind, that perceive all phenomena all the time, without any effort.

You can do some pretty wonderful things if you are a Buddha, because if you have the ability to know all phenomena, that means you know all sentient beings’ karma. It means you know all the different techniques of all the different paths on how to guide someone, slowly, gradually, according to their interests and disposition at this particular moment. You will know how to guide them from where they are now to full enlightenment. Even if it takes fifty hundred million eons to do it, you will know how to do it. You know their nature and their disposition; you know the teachings they need to hear; you know how to say the right thing at the right time so that you do not blow it all the time like most of us do. Right now we try to help and instead we create more problems. Buddhas don’t do that because they know everything.

Therefore the Buddha becomes a truly reliable guide on the path to enlightenment. This is why we take refuge in the Buddha and we do not take refuge in spirits. Spirits are not enlightened beings; they are sentient beings like us.

If you think about the Buddha in terms of the four kayas, it gives you an incredible feeling about what a Buddha can do. The reason that any person has the four kayas is out of bodhicitta. In other words bodhicitta is the principle cause for enlightenment. If you do not have the bodhicitta motivation, it is impossible to be enlightened. If you leave even one sentient being out of your compassion, it is impossible to get enlightened. That indicates to us how valuable each sentient being is and why we should be kind to them: our enlightenment depends on them.

Bodhicitta is the impetus to become a Buddha. If you do not have bodhicitta, there is no reason to do so many hard practices to try and become a Buddha. The purpose of becoming a Buddha is so that you can have the four bodies, so that you know what sentient beings need, and so that from your own side you have the capacity to manifest that. So a Buddha, with the wisdom truth body, knows all these things and can manifest different form bodies. Either as nirmanakayas or sambhogakayas, they can manifest whatever anyone needs at any particular time.

When Buddhas manifest these different bodies they do so completely spontaneously, effortlessly. A Buddha does not have to think, “Sam is out there in Nigeria today. I wonder what I can do to benefit him and lead him to enlightenment? Shall I do this? Or should I do that? Sam could really use a doctor to help him get better so that he could practice the Dharma, but I am too lazy to manifest as a doctor today. It is just too much effort. I want to sleep because I have been working all these eons for sentient beings already.” Buddha does not have this problem. Buddha sees Sam in Nigeria and right away there is an emanation there—if Sam has the karma for it. If Sam does not have the karma there is nothing the Buddha can do.

This is why it is so important for us to create good karma. If we create good karma, and make prayers and aspirations, it is like a hook drawing the Buddha to us. Buddhas do not have a choice. They are totally controlled by compassion. So if a sentient being has the karma to be able to be benefited, then instantly, without effort, spontaneously, the Buddha manifests whatever is needed. The manifestation could be a telephone, a friend, a teacher—it can be anything. The Buddha does this and he does not make this big pronouncement about it. They say the Buddha can even manifest as a bridge.

We benefit directly from buddhas who have the four buddha bodies. If we can become a buddha, imagine how much good we can do. It is not just the good we can do in just this one life with just this one body. It is not just giving people bread or giving them medicine. It is wonderful to do social service and social engagement practices; the Buddhist community definitely needs to be involved in that. However, the real way to help sentient beings is to help them abandon negative actions and practice positive actions, and to teach them the Dharma so that they can eventually achieve enlightenment. If we have the ability of a fully enlightened buddha—whether we are helping them in socially engaged Buddhism or helping them in terms of leading them to enlightenment—we are going to have much more ability to do this.

These are the advantages of attaining enlightenment. You do not want enlightenment for your own benefit. As I said, you do not need to work so hard to accumulate so much merit for three countless great eons if you don’t want to benefit sentient beings. Just get yourself out of samsara. Be an arhat and that is good enough. But if you want to benefit sentient beings, then you need some extra inner reserve and you need to do this extra work. We do not want to become enlightened because enlightenment is the best, like, “I want the highest and the best and I want offerings.” That is not why you want to become a buddha. You want to become a buddha because you are 100 percent committed to helping sentient beings. That is the only reason.

If you have this view of what Buddhahood is, with the four kayas, and you see that it lasts eternally throughout infinite time, throughout infinite space, then generating bodhicitta makes sense, doesn’t it? If you can obtain the four kayas and have that kind of qualification to benefit sentient beings, there is a definite purpose for generating bodhicitta. If there is no possibility to obtain the four kayas, why generate bodhicitta?

Do you see why refuge and bodhicitta come first? And do you see why they are related to each other? And do you see why having this view of refuge and bodhicitta sets the whole stage for the tantric practice that you are going to do? Because when you are meditating on Manjushri, you are seeing Manjushri like a sambhogakaya form. When you do the self generation1 as Manjushri you are seeing your body as a rupakaya and you are seeing your mind as the dharmakaya. You are trying to create the causes to obtain these two. The way you create those causes is through this tantric yoga meditation where you dissolve into emptiness and then generate your wisdom mind and all your potential as the two Buddha bodies.

Without this view of enlightenment, doing the Manjushri practice—or Vajrasattva or Chenrezig or Tara or any of the deity practices—does not make sense. You need to have this view of the four kayas. You can still do the practice and, of course, it feels very wonderful. You visualize Manjushri and the light comes and you gain wisdom, or you visualize Chenrezig and you emanate light and your compassion increases. You can still do the practice and it helps you and it is still beneficial. But do you see that if you have this understanding of the four kayas, your comprehension of what this practice is about is totally different? It’s very different than if you are just doing the practice because it makes you feel good.

Many people come to Buddhism because they want to do something that makes them feel good, and that is great. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you want to sustain a long term Dharma practice, and you really have high spiritual aspirations, then your motivation has to deepen. It deepens because you get a different understanding of what your potential is. You begin to understand Buddha nature. You understand the four noble truths. You understand refuge, and you want to help sentient beings. So you do this kind of practice because it helps you to create the causes for a buddha’s form body and a buddha’s truth body.

In this practice you are dissolving into emptiness, and then you generate yourself as Manjushri, which is the rupakaya. And you are thinking of your mind as the dharmakaya. You start to think of yourself as the Buddha. You develop that self-image, and that begins to change the way you relate to yourself and the way you relate to the environment. This changes the way you act, which influences the karma you create—the causes you create.

Whether you are doing the collection of merit and the collection of wisdom, or whether you are doing the collection of how to get reborn in the hells without really trying—this depends on your motivation and your understanding of the meaning of your life. What is the direction you want to go in? When you understand what your potential is, and you understand what a buddha can do, you’ll want to do that.

When you take refuge, the buddhas, as I just explained, are the four kayas. The Dharma are the true cessations and the true paths. The true paths are all those consciousnesses that enable us to remove the various defilements in such a way so that they never reappear. The true cessations are a cessation of each defilement or affliction, which you gain gradually as you progress along the path. There is a gradual process of eliminating different afflictions at different levels of the path. When you cease those completely, you get that different true cessation. When you become a buddha you have all the true cessations. That is the Dharma refuge, what you are aiming for.

The Sangha refuge are the aryas, those who have direct realization into emptiness. In other words, their minds that realize emptiness directly are the true paths. They have some true cessations in their mindstreams because they have begun to eliminate different defilements from the root so that they never reappear. Therefore they are reliable guides.

When we think of the Three Jewels that we take refuge in, this is what we are thinking of. To understand this refuge we have to understand the four noble truths, and we have to understand emptiness. We have to understand Buddha nature, and we have to see that all these things are interwoven.

Do not think that refuge is something you do at the very beginning of your practice. “I took refuge. Now what can I do that is higher?” Actually refuge is an incredibly complicated practice, because we are trying to make ourselves into the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We take refuge in the causal Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—those that already exist external to us. We take refuge in their guidance so that we can become the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha ourselves. When we become that—when our mind is completely liberated from all the defilements—then we can emanate all these bodies throughout infinite space to benefit sentient beings. Refuge is actually quite a profound practice.

Do you see how that idea of the Buddha fits in with the bodhicitta and why bodhicitta is so important? Bodhicitta is not just love and compassion. Bodhicitta is having that aspiration to become a buddha for the benefit of sentient beings; having that continuously in our mind. Therefore we have to cultivate that a lot. It takes a lot of effort.

At a certain point, after long and deliberate cultivation, our bodhicitta will become spontaneous. And, after a while of developing bodhicitta, it is going to become irreversible, and we are never going to be able to lose it. That bodhicitta becomes very powerful because it is this incredible engine pushing you forward. You want to attain Buddhahood because you realize all sentient beings are counting on you to do it.

Sometimes we hang back and think, “There are already all these infinite Buddhas. Why do I need to become Buddha? They can help the sentient beings. I’ll just take my time.” Well, that does not work.

While we are sentient beings, we make different karmic connections with different sentient beings. When you become a buddha, you are going to be in prime position to help those specific people with whom you have close karmic connections. Somebody who is born five million universes away, who does not have that close karmic connection, is not going to be able to help them the same way you can. Each of us individually needs to become a Buddha because of the particular karmic connections we have with sentient beings that enable us to benefit them.

It’s not that we’re better able to benefit them from our side; it is from their side. Due to their karmic connection with us, they are going to be more open, more receptive to receiving the Dharma from us. We have to do something to help them. We cannot flake out and leave it to the rest of the buddhas.

This is a really good thing to think about when our mind just wants to throw everything away and say, “It is too much.” Think about the people you really love and the people you are really close to and ask yourself, “Can I throw them away?” Often that pulls out something quite beautiful in us. Sometimes we are willing to be lazy even though it harms us, but are we willing to be lazy when it harms the people we love?


Audience: I don’t understand the subtle distinction between guru as Buddha and guru as an emanation of Buddha.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): His Holiness talks a lot about the different ways that we can see the guru. I will explain the three different ways and how they correspond with the three different levels of practice.

In your basic vinaya practice—refuge and five lay precepts—there you see your preceptor as a representative of the Buddha. He or she represents the Buddha in that they have the lineage and they give the precepts and they give you the refuge and they enable you to connect with the whole lineage of practitioners that is coming from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha down to today. You see your preceptor as a representative of the Buddha in that way.

In the Mahayana practice, where you are striving to become a Buddha for the benefit of all beings, then you see your guru as an emanation of the Buddha. That gives this feeling that there is a little bit of space. Our mind tends to think, “There is a Buddha out there. This person is not the real Buddha; they are just like a light beam coming off the Buddha. Buddha emanated this person to teach me.” Somehow in our mind we respect that person more than if we just see them as a representative of the Buddha, but there is still a gap between them and the Buddha because they are an emanation of the Buddha. All the same, seeing our teachers in that way is very helpful because it helps us take the teachings more seriously.

If you are doing the Vajrayana practice, which is a branch of the Mahayana, then you want to train your mind to see that your tantric master as a Buddha—especially if you’re practicing highest yoga tantra This does not mean that anyone who has the name teacher is the Buddha. It does not mean anyone who is your teacher is a Buddha, because someone can be your vinaya teacher or Mahayana teacher. It is specifically emphasizing here the people who give you the tantric initiations, because when you are doing the initiation, the teacher is visualizing himself as the deity. You want to be able to think that you are taking the initiation directly from the actual deity. In fact, there is a way in which the Buddha really comes and is there in the form of the deity. At that time our teacher happens to be the conduit—it enables us to make that kind of connection. We are trying to train our mind to be able to see our teacher as the actual Buddha.

Sometimes people think, “Oh, my teacher is the Buddha. But everyone else, I don’t care for. I’ll wash my teacher’s bowl, I’ll cook for my teacher, I’ll drive my teacher, but I don’t want to help some sentient being.” Actually, if we have that view, then we have missed the point of Vajrayana.

In Vajrayana, you are dissolving everything into emptiness and generating everything as the deity and the mandala. So it is not just your teacher you are seeing as the Buddha. You are trying to see all sentient beings as the Buddha too. In that context it makes sense to see your teacher as the Buddha. What else are you going to do? “All these other people around me are Buddhas, but my teacher is a sentient being?!” That does not make any sense. In Vajrayana you are trying constantly to dissolve things into emptiness and generate them in pure forms as pure nirmanakayas, sambhogakayas, and dharmakayas. That makes us feel like the Buddha is more eminent.

When we are trying to see all the people around us as the Buddha, it does not mean that from their side they necessarily become Buddha. It’s not like we see John beating up Joe and we say, “Well, these two buddhas are just putting on a play.” This whole technique—seeing sentient beings and your environment as a pure land—is not so that you can get into that weird kind of mind state. The purpose is to help us avoid the critical, judgmental mind, the complaining mind. If we see others as buddhas then instead of getting angry at them we’ll think, “Oh, this is happening because there is something for me to learn in the situation. Maybe what I need to learn is to offer help.” Do not get into this weird attitude that everything is perfect, therefore anything goes.

Audience: I don’t get the light beam part. It seems to make the guru less important.

VTC: That is interesting. I’ve never heard that example used in the teachings but it is possible. But do not get too stuck. The whole point of seeing your teachers this way is so that you listen closely to the teachings. The thing is, if we see our teacher as ordinary, we then think, “Why should I listen to them teach the Dharma?” If we have that kind of attitude when we are listening to teachings, not much is going to go in, is it? Our mind is full of doubt and skepticism; we are too busy picking faults than we are listening to the meaning of the teaching. If we have that kind of view, it only harms us.

The advice about having a good view of our teacher is not because our teachers need respect and honor. If a teacher needs respect and honor, then he or she is not a genuine teacher. It is from our side; we need to have that view of our teachers. Our having that view does not benefit the teacher at all. We give offerings to the teacher and we create the merit. Our merit leads us to enlightenment. The teacher gets a packet of incense. What good does that do? This thing of seeing our teacher in a respectful manner does not benefit the teacher. It benefits us because it makes us listen closely to the meaning of the teachings and take them seriously and put them into practice. If we have that attitude, then our practice is going to take off.

The attitude toward our teacher is not to create an idolization; it is not to create a groupie club. That is for rock stars. If a “rock star teacher” does one thing the student does not like, then that person’s faith is going to disappear. That kind of “faith” is based on a groupie mentality that wants to worship someone external so the student doesn’t have to take responsibility for changing her own mind. People think, “If my teacher is a Buddha and he gives me blessed water and a blessing string and a refuge name, then I am closer to enlightenment. If I hang around this person, he is going to enlighten me because he is the Buddha.” If we have that kind of idea, we are not going to get anywhere on the path. Why? Because no one can do the path for us; we have to practice ourselves.

Whereas if we have the proper understanding of what seeing a teacher is—even if we do not want to see our teacher as the Buddha—even just having respect for this person as someone who knows more than we do on the path—we are going to take the teachings seriously, we are going to use our investigative wisdom, we are going to develop our discriminating wisdom, and we are going to put the teachings into practice. And that is going to take us somewhere on the path.

Audience: I have a question about true cessations. I thought it meant that all defilement stops. So if that defilement stops, how does that mind go on?

VTC: There are different levels of ignorance and anger. And different levels are removed at the path of seeing, different levels are removed at the path of meditation, and at the path of no more learning. These defilements are our mental factors. You still have the clear and knowing nature of the mental consciousness. When you have any mental consciousness, you have the primary mind and then you have different mental factors that accompany it. When we have anger, we have our primary mental consciousness, and we have the mental factor of anger. Then feeling and the other five omnipresent mental factors appear with that. That anger contaminates the whole thing. But still the potential exists for one moment of clear and knowing to give rise to the next moment of clear and knowing. You can remove the part of it that is defiled, which just leaves the clear and knowing nature.

That clear and knowing nature is part of the evolutionary Buddha potential, as are all the virtuous mental factors such as concentration, mindfulness, wisdom, compassion, and love—all these mental factors that we have right now that are somewhat polluted. They are somewhat polluted because right now they arise at the same time as the ignorance arises. But, it is possible for these wholesome mental factors to be nurtured ad infinitum because they are not necessarily grasping at things the way that ignorance does. Because they rest on the solid foundation of emptiness, those mental factors can continue on to Buddhahood. Emptiness is a solid foundation because emptiness is reality. It is possible for the mind and the positive mental factors to continue while the deluded mental factors are stopped. The deluded mental factors misconceive reality. If we develop wisdom that apprehends reality correctly, then those things get overpowered and eventually they get chipped away until they are completely absent. The continuity of mind continues on, going through the five paths and especially the paths of seeing, meditation, and no more learning.

The true cessation is the absence of whatever defilements have been removed permanently. True cessation is a negative phenomena. But a true cessation is not impermanent. It is unconditioned; it is a permanent phenomena. Negative phenomena are an absence. An absence is not produced by a cause; it is just the non-being of that defilement. At the path of seeing, when you realize emptiness directly for the first time in meditative equipoise on emptiness, your mind is true paths. Those true paths seeing reality directly (on the path of seeing) eliminate the acquired afflictions, the acquired disturbing attitudes, so that they do not appear again. You get that level of true cessation.

When you start on the path of meditation and all the ten bodhisattva bhumis which are spread out between the path of seeing and the path of meditation, then you are eliminating—slowly, slowly—more and more defilements. You still have this wisdom realizing emptiness, but because it is becoming more habitual in the mind and making a deeper impression on the mind, this wisdom consciousness, the true path, has the force to eliminate more and more defilements. So those eliminations of those defilements are the new true cessations that come into existence as you progress along the path.

Audience: So it is a moment of cessation?

VTC: Cessation is the removal, the absence, the exhaustion. It is a negative.

Audience: So it gives rise to another moment removed, which then adds…?

VTC: But the true cessation is a permanent phenomena, so once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. For example, the emptiness of inherent existence does not mean the absence of existent phenomena. It is the absence of inherent existence.

Audience: So there is mind that is the impermanent phenomena and there is true cessation, which is a permanent state that accompanies?

VTC: Yes, they are existing together. What you have is an uninterrupted path and a liberated path. Uninterrupted path—your first moment of direct perception of emptiness on the path of seeing—gives rise to the liberated path, which is the mind that has, along with it, that true cessation, which is the absence of that particular defilement. We say the mind and the emptiness of the mind both exist simultaneously and together. Likewise, once you are on the higher stages of the path, the mind and the true cessations exist simultaneously.

Audience: So you are saying that a virtuous thought can be contaminated by ignorance? How can these both be happening at the same time?

VTC: How do you have ignorance and love at the same time? Let’s say I am meditating on love and I am doing a good job of it, and I have this real feeling of love in my heart for sentient beings. But the way I am seeing sentient beings, I am still conceiving them as inherently existent. It is virtuous and it is going to lead to enlightenment, but it is contaminated by this grasping at their true existence. The more and more we realize emptiness, the purer our love becomes. And that is why Chandrakirti, at the beginning of Madhyamakavatara, talks of the three kinds of compassion. There is the compassion that sees sentient beings as suffering, the compassion that sees them as impermanent, and the compassion that sees sentient beings as empty of inherent existence. The more we can develop that understanding of emptiness, the purer our compassion will be. That is the objectless compassion.

In our ordinary state we see the sentient beings as inherently existent. My love and compassion are inherently existent. The enlightenment I am going to attain is inherently existent. I am inherently existent. We have all the pieces but we do not really have it because we are seeing everything as inherently existent. That is why in our dedication we always try to see things as empty.

Audience: How can the impermanent mind have karmic imprints?

VTC: Because if the mind were permanent, it would not change moment by moment. The karmic imprints also change moment by moment. If they were permanent, they could not bring results. Anything that is permanent cannot bring a result. To be impermanent, (which simply means it changes moment by moment, to bring a result, or to exist as a result of a cause), means that you change moment by moment.

Audience: So even if you do nothing, it still changes moment by moment?

VTC: Yes, that is why I tell people to look at our mindstream. Since it is changing moment by moment anyway, we might as well try to make it change in a good way.

  1. The sadhana used in this retreat is a kriya tantra practice. To do the self-generation, you must have received the jenang of this deity. (A jenang is often called initiation. It is a short ceremony conferred by a tantric lama). You must also have received a wong (This is a two-day empowerment, initiation into a performance tantra, yoga tantra, or highest yoga tantra practice). Otherwise, please do the front-generation sadhana

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.