Mid-retreat discussion

Mid-retreat discussion

Part of a series of teachings given during the Winter Retreat in November 2007 and from January to March 2008 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Death process meditation
  • Clarity and developing concentration
  • Meditation on the body
  • What is a valid cognizer?
  • If I give enough space to things I encounter, can I transform them as the Buddha transformed the arrows of Mara?
  • Purifying karma and ripening karma
  • Subject and object in developing concentration
  • How does the mind get clear?
  • Developing stability and clarity
  • Visualizing the Buddha as a living, three-dimensional image
  • Substantial causes and cooperative conditions
  • Four-point analysis of selflessness

Medicine Buddha retreat 2008: 06 Q&A (download)

We’ve just finished four weeks, so we’re right in the middle of the retreat so we should be settled in, hopefully. How are you doing with your meditation?

Death meditations

Audience: In the part where you dissolve into the dharmakaya process, do you visualize the death process?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): You don’t have to. This is kriya tantra so you don’t have to do the death process. You can if you want to, but it’s not part of kriya tantra.

Audience: So, if I can do it, I’ve been looking for a good description of how to do that. Can you recommend something?

VTC: You have highest class tantra initiation? What I’m saying is the death process with the eight visions, that’s usually something that’s explained in highest yoga tantra. I know Lama [Yeshe] and [Lama Zopa] Rinpoche have people completely new to the Dharma doing that and with their blessing that’s okay, but that’s not standard. Usually other lamas say when you meditate on death you do the nine-point death meditation where you’re imagining your own death. And with the whole meditation of death absorption: that comes when you’re doing highest class tantra and you’re dissolving and taking death as the pathway to the dharmakaya, intermediate state is the pathway to sambhogakaya and rebirth is the path to nirmanakaya. So it comes in that context. So usually in kriya tantra you just meditate on emptiness and stay in that state of emptiness. You usually don’t do the visualization of that eight-point absorption. I don’t think there’s any harm in doing it, but it does come from highest class tantra. That’s a better question to ask [Lama Zopa] Rinpoche or somebody. I remember my first course at Kopan we were doing the whole meditation, imagining the eight steps and the whole death absorption. They also had us doing tummo! Totally baby beginners!

Subject clarity and object clarity in shamatha meditation

[In response to audience] When you’re meditating to develop shamatha or concentration, you have an object of your meditation: the visualized image of the Buddha, the breath, loving kindness. That’s the object of the meditation. When you’re imagining it, you want the object to appear clearly in your mind. Right? You could have a clear image of the Buddha or you could have the Buddha as just some kind of vague blob. You want to try to go through the details of the visualization so you have the objects of meditation. Usually the object is what you’re visualizing and the subject is your mind.

Meditation on the body, emptiness, and deity meditation

Audience: Meditation on the body. It is seriously impeding my capacity to dissolve myself because it’s getting so hard.

VTC: You mean you’re doing the meditation on the body thinking of the inner organs and your body’s getting more solid. So it’s harder to dissolve yourself.

Some of you might not be familiar with meditation on the body, or mindfulness of the body, there are many different kinds of meditations you do. So one is imagining the various parts of the body, 32 parts of the body, and so you go through the different parts of the body and think about each one and ask yourself, “What is so beautiful and attractive about it?” So we were discussing that sometimes when you do this you suddenly become aware that there is something inside your body. Very often our usual body image is that there’s this skin that we’re trying to make beautiful and then some sensations inside you, but we never think about what’s really in inside there, do you? Unless you’re hurt; but then you think about the pain. You don’t sit there and visualize your liver, a dark brown color, a certain shape in there. Or you don’t visualize your stomach and the shape of your stomach, it’s kind of wide and has blood vessels and goo inside of it. You just say it hurts. But we don’t necessarily visualize it and ask ourselves, “What is it?” Or that: “It looks so beautiful in there!?” By doing that meditation you become aware of what is there inside your body.

My experience of that is that it makes dissolution into emptiness more powerful because you realize that what we say is “My body” and all of a sudden it’s the skeleton, and the muscles and tendons, body hair, head hair, nails, teeth, skin all in living color and you’re going “Uuuuuugh.”

Then to hold that and then to ask yourself, “I say ‘my body’, but what about this is my body, where’s the body in this? There are all these different parts, but what of them is a body?” As you investigate what you begin to see is there’s just an assemblage of parts in dependence upon which you label body, but aside from that there’s no body there.

And so when you can do that, then think about the emptiness and lack of inherent existence of the body; it becomes even more powerful because you had something there before that seemed so solid and now that is totally gone. And then within that space you (if you have the initiation) generate yourself as the deity and then when you’re focusing on yourself as the deity: that’s mindfulness of the deity’s body. So it’s a totally different kind of body. One that appears like an illusion that is empty of inherent existence, that’s made of light.

So we’re dealing here with several different images of our body. One is our usual spaced out one and so it’s very easy to just move that spaced out image of the body into the deity’s body, isn’t it? I dissolve into emptiness and then I’m still sitting here only now I kind of visualize myself as the deity but it still feels like me sitting there. And you still think of your body in the same way and you don’t think, “Oh, I’m blue like Medicine Buddha.” Like somehow maybe your face is a little bit blue as if you painted it or something but you don’t really get the feeling, “This is a body that is the manifestation of wisdom realizing emptiness.” It is easy to slide into that nebulous feeling of, “There’s just a body here.” Whereas if you have that one of, “Look! It’s really sitting here [looking at the body for what it is] and you have that feeling like, “Yuck!” And then you start meditating on the emptiness of that body and then you go into parts of that body and you look at the intestines but then you say, “What are intestines?” because on the outside or on the inside of them: “Are they this color or that color?” [Look at] the texture, the smell, the taste. What exactly is an intestine? So you start really examining all that and so that makes your meditation on emptiness more to the point.

And then when you’ve really gotten rid of all that, you see that none of it is really there, then to have the wisdom body generate, you know, you think the wisdom realizing emptiness occurs then. That becomes a much stronger feeling of, “Oh yes! I’m not that body. There are different kinds of bodies here.”

Perceiving phenomena

[In response to audience] When we perceive the “I” as truly existent, that is not a valid cognizer. When we’re grasping at true existence, that is not a valid cognizer. When we’re not grasping at true existence but we still haven’t realized the emptiness of the “I” then there’s just an appearance of an “I” where you have the appearance of a conventional “I” and an inherently existent “I.” They’re kind of mushed together, the appearances are. You can’t differentiate them but from the side of your mind you’re not grasping at it as truly existent. So that’s like during the day while we’re just kind of walking around: a lot of times we’re not actively grasping at true existence.

If somebody said, “What are you doing?” you’d say, “I’m walking.” And you’re not thinking of this inherently existent “I” that’s walking. You’re just saying, “I’m walking.” So what is appearing to the mind at that time it’s said to be a valid cognizer of the “I” in the sense that it is you walking—it’s not an elephant or it’s not a pig, it’s not a deva, it’s not Harry from Missouri. So you know what that “I” refers to. But it’s the way the “I” is appearing that’s false because there’s still some appearance of a truly existent “I” even though you’re not grasping at it as truly existent.

So there are two things: the appearance of true existence and there’s the grasping at true existence. The grasping at true existence is an afflicted obscuration. The appearance of true existence is a cognitive obscuration, so it’s much more subtle.

When we’re looking out at everything right now it’s all appearing truly existent to us. There’s a combination of the conventional object mixed together with the truly existing object. But the true existence appearing to us, but we’re not grasping at it as being truly existent. So the mind that’s perceiving that “I” or that pair of glasses or that cup or whatever it is, that mind is the valid cognizer of the conventional object. But it’s because there’s still the appearance of true existence to that mind: that mind is false, it’s mistaken, because there’s no truly existent object there. So what’s happening is: if I look and I say, “Here’s the package of tissues.” So what’s appearing to me is an inherently existent package of tissues. I’m not grasping at it as inherently existent. I mean, it’s kind of an inherently existent one mixed with a conventional one. I’m not differentiating them; I’m not making a big deal out of it. I say, “This is package of tissues.”

Venerable giving a talk during Medicine Buddha retreat.

What’s appearing to the mind is something mistaken in the sense that it’s appearing as truly existent when it isn’t. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

So what’s appearing to the mind is something mistaken in the sense that it’s appearing as truly existent when it isn’t. But my mind that is apprehending this mind is not grasping it as truly existent at that moment. It’s just saying, “There’s a package of tissues there.” So that mind is correct in discerning a package of tissues. If I said this was a grapefruit that would be an erroneous consciousness, but I’m not. I’m saying it’s a package of tissues. We all agree that that is an appropriate label to call this, so it’s valid with respect to conventionally being able to identify the object. But it’s not valid in respect to the mode of apprehension of the object. It’s not valid with respect to the inherent existence of the object because the inherent existence is appearing to me. There’s a difference in my mind if I say, “It’s a thing of tissues.” I just say, “Tissues”, no big deal. Now, if my nose is dripping and I’m in front of a huge group of people and I’m worried about what people are going to think of me? If I’m sitting here and my nose is dripping in front of you and somebody comes and takes the thing of tissues away from me, all of a sudden it’s, “Wait a minute! Those tissues!” I’m attached to those tissues at that moment. Those tissues aren’t just tissues, there’s something in here that’s really tissues that’s really beautiful, that’s really important, that’s really necessary, that I’ve got to have. So the way I’m apprehending the tissues at that moment is different all of a sudden. I’m apprehending inherently existing tissues.

Audience: What’s valid cognizer for starting to work on the meditation of emptiness?

VTC: Well, we have the wisdom of hearing. When we’re listening to teachings we’re hearing the words. If we’re understanding them correctly, and understanding the meaning correctly, then that is a reliable cognizer. Or you’re hearing the words: your ear can be a reliable cognizer of the sound, then if you understand the meaning of the words, your mental consciousness is a reliable cognizer of the meaning of the words. Now, of course, sometimes we hear the words but we don’t understand them properly so then we have some distorted consciousnesses in there also. And in the beginning we can’t tell the difference between the two when we’re first trying to understand emptiness. But in trying to understand emptiness we have to start out with the consciousness we have. And so we start out by listening to the teachings or reading the teachings, so you have to have reliable auditory consciousnesses and reliable visual consciousnesses, and mental consciousness and then you start that whole process of investigating.

Don’t think of a valid cognizer as one block. In fact I think it’s better to call it reliable cognizer because valid sounds too solid and makes us think it’s valid in all respects whereas it’s mistaken. And calling it a reliable cognizer is better because it’s reliable to do the conventional work that we need it to do. If I’m putting the tissues on the table my visual consciousness is reliable for getting me to aim correctly and get the tissues there instead of there. So it’s reliable, I can use that consciousness. It doesn’t mean that it’s perceiving the tissues or the table or myself as being empty of true existence, because it’s not. When we talk about a reliable cognizer that is a mind; so there’s many minds that can be reliable cognizers. There are different kinds of reliable cognizers: there are sense consciousnesses, the reliable sense cognizers, reliable mental cognizers, reliable yogic cognizers. There are many kinds. So don’t think that there’s one solid reliable cognizer, a valid cognizer, sitting there somewhere in some lobe of your brain because that’s not what’s happening.

Audience: It would be so much easier if it was that way….

VTC: It’d be more difficult because than you’d have an inherently existent consciousness and if it’s inherently existent then it must be correct. And then there’s no way to change it and then we’d really be in trouble.

Audience: So you’re saying that the story of when the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and when evil forces came to attack him with arrows, either physical or mental, they were transformed into flowers and they didn’t disturb him as either physical pain or verbal pain. So you were saying if I give enough space to things that I encounter can that also happen to me.

VTC: If we’re talking about conventional antidotes, then, let’s say insults are being thrown at you. One way of giving space is to say, “Oh, these are a result of my negative karma,” or “This other person is suffering.” But if you’re talking more on the ultimate level then you say, “Who’s the ‘I’ who is being criticized?” and you try to find the “I” that’s being criticized. Or you look at the words that you’re calling criticism and you say, “Where’s the criticism in those sounds? I’m calling this criticism, what is criticism about these sounds?” So there you’re moving more into the analysis of the mode of being of either the object: what you’re contacting, the words; or yourself as the receiver of that object: the self that is getting criticized. And you’re asking what are these things really. And when you do that you’re involved in ultimate analysis because you’re looking at how these things really exist and when you search and investigate then you see that there’s no findable essence in any of those things. And so when you see that there’s no findable essence in that then psychologically there’s a lot of feeling of space. Because when there’s a big “me” that’s sitting here filling the room, then anything that tries to get into the room appears as a threat because there’s no space because I’ve made myself enormous and solid.

When you meditate on the emptiness of the self then there’s no big “I” that’s filling this room, so the things come in and go out. Psychologically they come in and go out and we’re not referencing them all to this big, truly existent “me” so there’s more space in the mind.

Purifying karma and emptiness

Audience: The second part about purifying karma?

VTC: Remember karma means the action. We often use the word karma to mean the result of the action or the seed that’s been planted by the action but actually karma just means action. So it’s physical, verbal, mental action. The action leaves imprints. If we don’t purify those imprints through the four opponent powers, then when circumstances come together those imprints transform into experiences that we encounter: internal experiences, external experiences.

When, if we’re doing purification practice and we meditate on emptiness that becomes a very strong power to purify the negative karmic imprints because if we think of the negative action that we did in the past, we can almost always find some solid sense of me in the middle of that. There’s some me that is craving pleasure or fearing pain that’s in the middle of that whole thing and that led to the arising of different mental afflictions. And under the influence of those afflictions then we did verbal, mental and physical actions that left that karmic seed. So when we’re purifying and if we go back and think of situations in which we created karma and we meditate on the emptiness of the self that created the action, the emptiness of the action, the emptiness that we were in the middle of relating to the object we got angry or attached to; and we see that all those things exist merely by being labelled and they don’t have an inherent essence. When you do that, that becomes very powerful purification of that karmic seed because you’re redoing the whole way you that saw the situation that caused you to act in a harmful way in that situation. That’s one way to use emptiness.

Audience: I can see that becoming kind of dangerous in a way. Because then it’s almost like “Well, none of it really existed anyway.”

VTC: No. It’s not that you’re dismissing it as none of it really existed, because that’s going to the extreme of annihilation. The action still happened. But all of those things had to come together and all those different parts came together in a dependence upon that. The whole thing happened. And that can be very helpful because we might see, even in analyzing the situation: maybe we’re not looking at so much of the mode of existence of the “I” but of the situation. Sometimes there’s a situation in which we created negative karma and we get this sense of, “I created the situation. It’s all my fault.” But then if you start to look at it, you see that there are many, many different things that happened. There was this person and that person and there was the existence of this room and this and that and the other thing. And you see that all you need to do is change one small thing and the whole thing would be different.

It’s like, we’re having a Q&A session right now. We look at it as this very solid Q&A session. But if one person who’s here now wasn’t here, the Q&A session would be very different. So it takes all of us being here. It takes all of the furniture. It takes the furniture being arranged in a special way. It takes it having snowed all day because probably if it had been bright sunshine, you might even be asking different questions. There are so many things that come into a situation happening. So when we meditate on things as dependent arising like that, then it gives us a much more realistic take on the situation and we stop seeing the situation itself as like one big solid block.

Now, if you’re talking about the ripening of karma, when karma ripens: that’s somebody is throwing something at me, somebody’s insulting me, somebody’s … whatever they’re doing that I don’t like. Then, at that time, to prevent ourselves from having more self-grasping ignorance and more affliction and creating more karma, then, at that moment, if we meditate on emptiness, or if we even use one of the conventional means to change how we’re interpreting the situation, then, there’s karma ripening but we’re not creating new negative karma in the situation.

Stability and clarity in shamatha meditation

Audience: [Referring now to the earlier question about subject and object in shamatha meditation] I think my confusion is when he uses the analogy of the television. I’m struggling with the Medicine Buddha. Because if there is something out there?

VTC: They usually talk about the stability and clarity as two factors that we need to develop in our concentration. So stability is keeping the mind on the object and then clarity is having the mind be vivid. So they usually talk about it as the strength of the clarity, meaning the clarity inside of you. Now, he didn’t really describe the subject and the object. He was just saying that if you look at a TV and from the TV’s side the picture isn’t in tune, then there’s haze. If you have a good TV but it’s still apprehended by the mind as unfocused, then it’s the mind that’s lacking in clarity, not the object. I’ve never really heard so much it talked about as the clarity of the object but more the intensity of the clarity of the subject because it’s not like Amithaba is sitting out there. It’s more when our minds are very clear, and that’s what he said at the end, when our minds are clear then the object is very clear. And when our minds are hazy, then the object is hazy when you’re doing meditation.

Audience: But are there actually true things? A mind and an object?

VTC: Yes, but there’s not an object out there. The object is the image that’s in your mind. We can’t say that there’s a mind unless there’s an object because the definition of mind is that which cognizes. So it’s not like there’s a mind sitting out here that’s not cognizing anything, that’s just sitting out here. You’re thinking that there’s some inherently existing mind out here that’s just sitting there cognizing nothing, and then an object comes along and then you have this real object and this real mind and they bump into each other. You know? And that’s the way we usually think. Like there’s this mind that’s completely on its own, independent of an object. But you only can recognize a mind when there’s an object that’s being apprehended. OK? And you can only recognize an object of apprehension if there’s a mind that’s apprehending it.

Audience: And so then, how does the mind get more clear?

VTC: How does the mind get more clear? Aside from tea [laughter], I think part of it is through purification in general and part of it is when you’re doing more of the analysis of the object, remembering all the different parts of the object and going through—”OK, there’s Medicine Buddha, and his right hand is on his right knee and he’s holding the arura plant, and his left hand is in his lap”—you’re going through all the details. And as you look at each detail, the object is getting clearer to you. That’s a kind of analysis to get that. And then as the object is clearer, then you try to hold that, creating stability, but without having the intensity of the clarity fade. Then sometimes it starts out real clear and then sometimes, there’s still Medicine Buddha but he’s kind of more like a blue blob, you know?

Audience: Then you’ve gone all this way because I’m thinking of something else.

VTC: Then you don’t even have stability if your mind’s thinking about something else. Forget the clarity, you don’t even have the stability at that point.

Audience: What you just explained seems to be really helpful for me because I think that my approach to developing stability, I think I’ve been doing it in a reverse order. I think I’ve been trying to establish stability and then clarity and it doesn’t work for me.

VTC: You usually do aim at some kind of stability before you perfect the clarity. You have to stay on the object before the object can be clear.

Visualized objects of meditation

Audience: I’m just wondering, this is where I seem to have a lot of difficulty when I try to meditate on, for example, visualized buddhas. You were explaining about the process of visualizing; I rarely do that because I always thought my mind would become clear once it’s stable but it doesn’t.

VTC: No. That’s how they really recommend when you’re working on a visualized image for your object of concentration: to go though and concentrate on all the different attributes of it. And sometimes what they’ll say is if you’re working on the whole body of the Buddha, if there’s one part of it that appears especially clear, then sometimes, just stay on that part. So that at least you have something that you’re stable and clear with. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there are just two eyes there and a nose and there’s nothing else attached to it. You still somehow have the rest of the Medicine Buddha there but you’re paying more attention to that particular feature. But it’s very helpful to go over the details of it because that reminds you, if you’re using the Medicine Buddha, what the Medicine Buddha really looks like. Then that helps you to remember.

It’s kind of like if you’re meeting somebody and you know you’re going to have to pick that person that’s a stranger out of a line-up of 52 million people afterwards. Then you start looking at that person really carefully, you know? And you start noticing him: “What do they look like? What’s that like, and what’s this and this and this?” So you want to get all of the details so you can pick him out of the line up later, yes? So when you’re focusing like that you’re going to have a much clearer memory of what the person looks like than if you just meet somebody and you’re not thinking “Oh, I’m going to have to identify them later.”

Audience: So then I’m looking at the Buddha like I want to memorize him, and I’m just seeing thangka paintings. Then I try and make it more real by putting His Holiness’ face there or something. I don’t really know what to do.

VTC: We get very good at visualizing a painting and the Buddha’s all of a sudden two dimensional. So then the challenge is to make the Buddha alive.

Audience: How do we do that?

VTC: I think that comes by remembering the qualities of the Buddha. You think of the Buddha’s kindness. You think of the compassion. You think of the wisdom. You think of how Medicine Buddha practiced for all those eons and how he made all those vows because he cared so much for sentient beings. You think of the qualities of body, speech, and mind. And then the Medicine Buddha starts to come alive again. And then try, instead of thinking of the thangka, try thinking of his body as made of light.

Could you do this now even with your eyes open if I said, “Think of a ball of light in the middle of the room.” Could you get some visual image for a ball of blue light in the middle of the room even with your eyes open? And you could make it a round ball, can’t you? And it doesn’t seem like it’s solid. It’s just light. And in your mind it’s light and you realize you could just kind of go there and stick your hand through it. And it’s 3D. So in the same way, just think of that as the Medicine Buddha.

And then the Medicine Buddha’s eyes are alive. He’s not a painting. He’s looking at you. “Hi Ginger. Glad you came to session today. I’ve been sitting here a long time waiting for you to come talk to me.”

Audience: Because I often visualize Medicine Buddha on my crown, I visualize my sight goes up right through his body. My imagination goes through, up and kind of around the back and it’s very, very dimensional and light. Vibrant.

VTC: That’s true. Because if Buddha’s on your head he’s not two-dimensional, is he? There’s a whole Buddha up there.

Substantial cause and the cooperative conditions

Audience: Does every effect have a substantial cause or are there effects that are just lots of cooperative conditions without one substantial component?

VTC: Let’s fill everybody in where your question is coming from. So they often talk about two kinds of causes. One, sometimes they call the substantial cause. Sometimes I think perpetrating cause might be [a] better [translation]. I’ll explain what it means. And the other is called the conditions. If we’re talking about something physical, here is where calling it substantial cause helps, because you say the wood is the substantial cause of the table because the wood is the primary material thing that got turned into the table. And then the cooperative conditions for making the table are the nails and the person who built it and the other tools that were involved and the paint and all this kind of thing. So, in anything, if we’re talking about material things, things have to have that substance. (Substance is such a tricky word in Buddhism because it means many different things. Substantially existent can mean truly existent.) In that case if we’re talking about something physical, you have a substantial cause and then cooperative conditions.

If we’re talking about a mental state, if it’s, let’s say, a moment of mental consciousness, your substantial cause will be a previous moment of mental consciousness.

Let’s take an eye consciousness instead of mental consciousness. So then what’s the substantial cause for the eye consciousness? The clear and knowing qualities of one moment of mind are the substantial or perpetuating cause for a new moment of visual consciousness.

Audience: That’s where I started getting really confused because if something has to turn into something else, then there has to be something substantially creating the other thing.

VTC: See, that’s why substantial is a difficult word.

Audience: But there has to be a substantial cause; there has to be cause enough to create the effect.

VTC: Like when they talk about a cognition, they talk about three conditions for a cognition. You have to have the object, you have to have the sense faculty, and then you have to have the immediately preceding moment of mind to do it. Now, for sure the object is going to be a condition for the consciousness. It’s not going to be a perpetrating cause because the object doesn’t turn into the consciousness. And that sense faculty, the sense organ, that’s going to be a condition also. It’s not going to be the perpetrating cause. So then, you know, the immediately preceding moment of mind—the clarity and clear and knowing nature of that mind—that becomes the substantial cause for that eye consciousness.

Audience: So taking the analogy of the table. You’d say it’s mostly made out of the wood. So it’s easy to say that that’s the substantial cause. But what if half of it was made of metal and the other half was made of wood?

VTC: Or you look at the sofa and what’s the substantial cause of the sofa?

Audience: Yes, there are so many small things. There’s not really one thing that you could say is like 90 percent sofa.

VTC: Then you might pick out the couple of big ones and say those are the substantial cause. Like you would say maybe the stuffing and the covering are the substantial causes for the sofa and the person who made it and the thread are cooperative conditions. It would be something like that. But it’s true, it’s sometimes difficult because it’s a thing of discerning.

Audience: And then if something can exist without a substantial cause, in a way, you just described it, that whatever the bigger causes are considered the substantial cause, and that there’s not an actual difference between substantial cause and a cooperative condition. It’s just kind of a varying degree?

VTC: Except the person is not going to become the table. The person is always going to be a cooperative condition, never a perpetrating cause.

Audience: So wouldn’t the wood always also be that too?

VTC: The wood would always be the perpetrating cause of a wooden table, yes. Unless you’re making a ceramic table and you have a little bit of wood trimming.

Audience: So it’s a matter of degree then.

VTC: Yes. It seems to be a matter of degree.

Audience: So substantial cause is not really substantial cause, it’s just a large cooperative condition because it’s not really the wood that’s turning into the table. It’s just the biggest part of the biggest object that you’re using.

VTC: But it is the wood turning into the table.

Audience: To some degree, but it’s also the nails.

VTC: Yes. But the wood is the main thing. For me, also, it’s not real clear when they talk like that.

Audience: One translation that I thought was kind of helpful was what sometimes they call the indispensable cause. If you were to dispense with this aspect, it would not be the object.

VTC: But that doesn’t work because cooperative conditions are also indispensable because very often, one slight cooperative condition not being there and the whole thing doesn’t arise.

Audience: Actually, yes, because like in the example of the sense consciousness, like you were saying earlier, if you take the object or the faculty away, even though they’re perhaps secondary, they are still indispensable.

VTC: Yes. Whatever happens, whatever is arising, both the causes and the conditions are indispensable, otherwise it’s a little different. I mean, if you’re sewing something, if they were making this sofa and they used bright red thread, or maybe they didn’t have any thread. They were making the sofa but without thread. Then it would be real different wouldn’t it?

Audience: How important is it to identify things like: “This is the substantial cause” when you’re meditating on dependent arising? For example, with causes and conditions, because I feel like I could perhaps get a little bit lost trying to figure out which one is the substantial one.

VTC: Yes. I think it’s helpful in our mind for just kind of sharpening our mind on how we look at things, you know? And it brings up these kinds of questions. What I always come back to, when I see this kind of thing, and I don’t know if this is just because I don’t understand the issue very well, or maybe because I do understand it well. But what I get is that a lot of these things are just labels, and it’s very often difficult to draw a very distinct line between one thing and another when you come down to it. We talk about causes and effect. The seed is the cause of the sprout. But is there one moment in time that you can draw a line and say before this it was a seed, and after that it was a sprout? Can you do that? No. And when you’re putting a border between two countries, can you delineate it and say that atom is in this country and this atom is in the other? You know? Those things become very difficult.

So then we begin to see that at some level we’re talking about labels and giving definitions to labels but that labels are simply labels. There’s not a real thing there with very defined borders. Because we even think of our body, “Oh, my body, with its defined borders.” But, you know, we’re breathing in and out all the time. So isn’t the body changing? Does the body really have such defined borders? Because the air is coming in and becoming part of the body and then part of the body is going out in the form of carbon dioxide and becoming part of the room. So like in the case of the body you would say the sperm and the egg are the substantial causes. And then the broccoli and chicken liver are the cooperating conditions.

Four-point analysis emptiness meditation

Audience: I have a question about four-point analysis. The second part is establishing the pervasion. It says either you yourself are one with the body or the mind or you’re separate. And that’s the pervasion. How come you can’t be both? To me, it just automatically jumps to this assumption without examining how your self could be part body/ part mind. It’s automatically this or that and it’s obviously neither of those.

VTC: OK, so with the second [point] in the four-point analysis. The first point is identifying your object of negation. And then the second point is establishing the pervasion, which means if there is an inherently existent “I” it’s got to be findable either in the body and mind or separate from the body and mind. I think it’s better to word it: it’s findable in the body and mind, or separate from the body and mind instead of saying it’s got to be either the body or the mind. Because you also, when you’re doing the analysis, you also examine the collection of body and mind; and you ask if the person is the collection of the body and mind.

Audience: So I think I was thinking about that for a long time and I think maybe I wasn’t doing the first step right and finding the actually inherently existent self, and I was more having this conventional grey inherently exists, doesn’t really inherently exist, it’s a box of tissues. It doesn’t really have to be outside of the body and the mind or inside.

VTC: That’s the kind of the conventional….

Audience: So I think maybe I just need to come up with a more solid “I.”

VTC: Right. Because they say that identifying the object of negation is the most difficult part and the most important part of the emptiness meditation. That if you just identify the conventional “I,” you say, “Oh, conventional I. There’s no Phil. It’s not the body and mind. I’m not different from the body mind. What else?” But if you have this sense of an “I” that is the most precious thing in your world, that is really hurting or really happy or REAL, then when you start looking for that “I,” then when you don’t find it, it has some impact.

It’s kind of like if you don’t need a needle, looking for the needle in the haystack is not very interesting. But if your life depended on that needle, you’re going to really look in that haystack and if you don’t find that needle it’s going to have some effect on you. So, it’s that: think of this real me, the center of the universe there.

Audience: Isn’t it more difficult to find that needle in the haystack?

VTC: Maybe you can find the needle if it’s there. But you can never find an inherently existing I. It doesn’t exist.

Emptiness meditation in other Buddhist traditions

Audience: I was wondering is this the same type of exercise as in the Zen tradition of one-hand clapping? Just to create a mind blowing exercise? And you can’t construct anything.

VTC: So, in our [Tibetan] tradition doing the four-point analysis, is that like one method among many? And in Zen, one method among many is the sound of one-hand clapping? Probably. Except the one with the Zen thing is trying to get you to use your analytical mind and then just at the end realizing that you can’t isolate something. And, yes, it probably comes to the same thing in doing the four-point analysis too. You’re checking through every part of your body and mind and everything else outside your body and mind looking for me.

Audience: But that’s very much more personal on the Tibetan side than on the Zen side.

VTC: I’m hesitant to compare different methods when I don’t understand either of them fully.

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.