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Teachings on emptiness

Teachings on emptiness

A series of commentaries on Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun by Nam-kha Pel, a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa, given between September 2008 and July 2010.

  • Beginning of the section of the text on ultimate bodhicitta, emptiness
  • The type of person who is suitable to receive teachings on emptiness
  • How someone may misinterpret the teachings

MTRS 55: Who is suitable to receive teachings on emptiness (download)


Let’s cultivate our motivation and really think about what taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha means. It means that we’ve thought about our life and the situation that we’re in. We know what duḥkha is. We understand that the chief causes come from our own mind as afflictions and karma. We know that it is possible to eliminate those so that a state of peace exists, and then we come to the fourth noble truth where we want to follow the path to that state of peace.

So, our refuge is in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This conviction in the four noble truths is part of our refuge in the Dharma. Then, when we are able to actualize the last two truths—true cessations and true paths—those become the actual Dharma refuge in our mindstream. While right now we’re taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha that we view as external to us, our purpose is to become the three objects of refuge ourselves by actualizing true cessations and true paths.

 Our purpose is to become an arya, perfect that realization, and then to become a buddha. And the whole reason we’re doing that is because we want to cease not only our own suffering but the misery and duḥkha of all living beings. We seek full enlightenment in order to be able to do that. Let’s take refuge now and generate our motivation.

Ultimate bodhicitta

We’re starting on a new section. We finished the conventional bodhicitta and now we’re starting on the ultimate bodhicitta, meaning the wisdom that directly realizes emptiness. Last week we talked somewhat about degrees of bodhicitta, and one question came up about the three places where it’s said that bodhisattvas can attain a state of irreversibility. This doesn’t just mean that they won’t lose their bodhicitta, but that some special quality of their bodhicitta is not going to be reversible.

It seems that at these different times when they can receive signs of irreversibility, that’s when they might find themselves in the presence of a buddha who makes a prophesy about the time they’re going to get enlightened. In the Mahayana sutras there’s all these sutras where Buddha will prophesize the time when a certain bodhisattva will get enlightened. It’s usually at one of these three times when they have a sign of irreversibility. For very sharp faculty bodhisattvas, they attain that sign as they enter into the path of preparation. At that time, on the first path—the path of accumulation—they have spontaneous bodhicitta that can still diminish until partway through the path of accumulation.

But when they reach the second path—the path of preparation—at that time they have a unity of serenity and insight on the object of emptiness. That is a conceptual realization of Dharma—if these are new bodhisattvas who are entering the path, not ones who have become hearers and solitary realizer arhats before. At that time they have this strong realization of emptiness. It’s still conceptual and inferential, but it’s very powerful, so that combined with the conventional bodhicitta, in a bodhisattva of high faculties, is going to be pretty significant, isn’t it?

Because when you really see the emptiness of sentient beings it’s so much easier to cultivate compassion for them. You also understand that the cause of their duḥkha can be eliminated, and you have full faith in the possibility of attaining enlightenment. That’s going to completely revolutionize your conventional bodhicitta, isn’t it?

The next place where they can often have a stage of irreversibility—and this is for the medium faculty bodhisattvas—is when they have the path of seeing. At the path of seeing, which is the third bodhisattva path, that’s when they have direct insight into emptiness. They still have that unity of serenity and insight, and now it becomes a direct realization of emptiness, not an inferential one like on the path of preparation.

Again, when you have that direct realization of emptiness, that’s going to really change your conventional bodhicitta, isn’t it? Because that’s just going to make your faith in the possibility of enlightenment so much more intense. Also, you yourself are approaching enlightenment—you can feel that, and you’re entering into the practice of the ten bodhisattva bhumis at that point, too.

For the dull-faculty bodhisattvas, they have the signs of irreversibility at the eighth bhumi or the eight ground, which is on the path of meditation. The path of meditation is the fourth path, when you’re habituating yourself with the realization of emptiness, and when you attain the eighth ground, in the middle of that you have eliminated all the afflictive obscurations.

You become comparable, in terms of your realization of emptiness, to an arhat. Again, that’s going to really change your conventional bodhicitta, isn’t it? When you’ve eliminated all the afflictions and all the ignorance, how you perceive sentient beings is going to change. How you perceive enlightenment is going to change. Everything is going to really change. That’s for the low-faculty. And then, on the fifth path—that’s the path of no more learning—that’s when you attain buddhahood, and that’s when you become the three jewels, fully and completely.

If you have dull faculties, you have to work a little bit harder. Actually, how they define dull faculties and sharp faculties is that sharp-faculty people are on the wisdom side, and they don’t just take things because somebody said something, but they really want to understand it. They probe, ask questions, inquire, push, debate and everything like that until they really get it and it makes sense to them.

The dull-faculty people—or maybe modest-faculty is more polite—are people who are more inclined to faith and devotion. So, instead of inquiring so much, if their teacher says something or they read a quotation from a scripture, they just believe it out of faith and devotion. They progress in that way. That’s considered more modest in comparison to the sharp-faculty ones who really question and use their wisdom.

We’ll start here:

In training in cultivating the awakening mind, there are three factors.

This is starting the outline here.

The type of person to whom the instruction should be given, the time for imparting the instructions and the actual instructions on cultivating the ultimate awakening mind.

Those are the three major outlines.

The danger of falling into nihilism

Now we’re going to start on the first one of those—the type of person to whom the instructions should be given. Because it isn’t that you just give instructions about emptiness to anybody who walks in the door. That’s not necessarily helpful for them or helpful for you. Our author says,

First of all, these teachings should be given to someone who possesses the quality of a suitable recipient. To do so otherwise would be the cause of a transgression for both the teacher and the disciple.

The eleventh of the root bodhisattva vows, is “not to teach emptiness to the unprepared.”

The reason for this is—and we’ll see it coming up here in the text—is that if somebody is not prepared, then when they hear about emptiness they’ll think it’s nothingness, and they’ll fall to the extreme of nihilism. When you negate the ethical dimension of our actions and deny that the actions we do have effects, when you’re negating the law of karma and its effects, that’s extremely dangerous because then you say, “Well, it doesn’t matter what I do. It’s not going to have an effect, so I can do whatever I want.” A person with that kind of wrong view does whatever they want, and in the process of doing that they create so much negative karma.

That’s why when they talk about the ten nonvirtues, in one way wrong views is said to actually be the most serious. Because if you have that kind of wrong view, you do the other nine. You think, “It doesn’t matter; I can do whatever I want.” That’s what I thought when I was young. I didn’t know anything about past and future lives, and I thought, “As long as you don’t get caught”—because I didn’t want to wind up in jail—“as long as you don’t get caught, do whatever you want because it’s not going to have any kind of lasting effect.”

Maybe sometimes there was some sense of internal integrity—“I’m not going to do that because that’s not a good thing to do”—but there was a certain period in my youth where I just put that out the window and said, “Well, let’s just try doing it another way and see how far I can push it.” Did you go through that? “Let’s see how far I can push it without getting caught, without getting into trouble.” Then you wind up creating a whole lot of negative karma. This is the disadvantage of not thinking that our actions have an ethical dimension and bring results that we ourselves experience.

Of course, some people have an innate sense of integrity in that they may not know anything about past and future lives, but they say, “That doesn’t fit in my ethical repertoire. I’m not going to do that. It’s just not good to do that.” They’re thinking about the welfare of the other person, or maybe they have a theistic world view, and they’re going to say, “That’s going to displease God.” For whatever reason, they’ll abandon negative actions, and that’s quite good. But if you go to the extreme of thinking, “Oh, there’s nothing,” then you’re really in big ethical trouble. That’s why there’s this precept not to teach emptiness to Joe Blow who walks in off the street.

If you wonder how you can tell who has the qualities of a suitable vessel, Chandrakirti’s Supplement to Nagarjuna’s “Treatise on the Middle Way” says—and these are verses that are quite often quoted—

Just from seeing smoke, you know there’s fire and from seeing water fowl, you know there’s a lake, so from observing the characteristics,  you will know the lineage of one having the mind of a bodhisattva.

If there’s smoke, you know there’s fire; if there’s water fowl you know there’s a lake. So, if there are certain characteristics you know it’s somebody who is in the bodhisattva lineage, who is at a point where they’re a suitable vessel to receive these teachings.

Now it’s going to go on and tell you what those signs are. Everybody gets excited at this point.

You will be able to gauge suitably from external physical and verbal signs. But what would these signs be like? If, when hearing instructions on emptiness for the first time, you feel a pleasure, joy and rapture that gives rise to such physical symptoms as the bristling of your hair and tears welling up in your eyes, these are unmistakable signs.

So, when you go to hear teachings about emptiness, you have this feeling of bliss and rapture and joy that’s so intense that the hairs on your body stand up straight, and your eyes fill with tears, and you’re really moved. Most of us go to our first teaching on emptiness and think, “What in the world is he talking about anyway?” Or we think, “This teaching is so long; I want to stretch my legs,” or we have some other reaction. Now, I must also say that just because your hair stands on end and your eyes fill with tears, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a high bodhisattva. My hair stands on end when it’s cold, and my eyes fill with tears when I hear sad stories, so we shouldn’t get too excited here.

There’s also something about if you have these kind of signs it means you’ve met your root teacher. I remember years ago, there was one person who came up after Geshe Sonam Richen gave a teaching, and she said, “Oh, my hair stood up; I was so emotional. He’s my root guru, and I want to ordain.” She knew nothing about the Dharma, and I was trying to say, “Geshe-la is a wonderful teacher. Yes, you should definitely follow him. He will benefit you completely, but maybe wait a while until you ordain.” She got quite upset with me. Years later she came to a retreat, and she thanked me for what I said.

The Supplement by Chandrakirti says,

When an ordinary being, on hearing about emptiness,

—an ordinary being is somebody who hasn’t realized emptiness—

feels great joy arising repeatedly within him and due to so much joy, tears moisten his eyes and the hair on his body stands up, he has in his mind the seed of complete enlightenment and is a fit vessel for intimate teachings on emptiness.

That’s how Chandrakirti is talking about this person. That doesn’t mean that the rest of us aren’t suitable vessels and shouldn’t be taught emptiness, because as we’ll go on to see here, if we have some stability in the four preliminaries we can start to learn about emptiness.

Many years ago, in 1981 or ‘82, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was in Dharamsala, and I went to ask him a question about emptiness. Rinpoche was very, very stern sometimes. His eyes were incredible. When you looked at them, you knew he had realization—there was like nobody there. I asked him my question about emptiness, and he looked at me and said something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t understand the answer if I told you.”  It was something like that. I said, “Okay,” and then he proceeded to give me a small talk about emptiness, even though he knew I wouldn’t understand the answer to the question. It was quite remarkable; he was very frank.

Why emptiness is not taught to those who aren’t prepared

Now we’re going to get into why you don’t teach emptiness to people who aren’t suitable vessels.

If emptiness is taught to unsuitable recipients, some, fearful and without faith, will turn away from it and if they abandon it, they reject the essence of the transcendent subduer’s teachings and due to their spurning the truth of that doctrine, they will wander endlessly through the realms of ongoing existence.

Some people are fearful. They don’t have much faith. They hear teachings about emptiness and they think, “That’s wrong. That’s nothingness. That’s ridiculous; I don’t want to become nothing.” There’s a lot of fear; they think, “If emptiness is true, it means nothingness. I’m going to disappear into nothingness. Nothing exists, and this can’t be right. This can’t be true. This teaching is all baloney.” So, then they push it away.

Because that person hasn’t been prepared enough by learning about karma, about conventional truths, that emptiness doesn’t mean nothingness—because they don’t have that kind of preparation, when they hear about it they jump to the wrong conclusion, and they push it away. In that way they’re abandoning the Dharma; they’re rejecting the Buddha’s teachings.

They can get really scared, and say, “I’m out of here, and I’m never going to listen to any of the Buddha’s teaching again. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s ridiculous.” That mind state of rejecting the Dharma creates the cause for them not to meet the Buddha’s teachings or not to understand the teachings even if they do meet them. Thus they wander endlessly in samsara. That’s one thing that happens; that’s one kind of person.

Then there’s another kind of person—

Some who have superficial faith will mistake the meaning of emptiness and assume it means non-existence. Due to such distorted thinking they will plummet over the precipice by ignoring the specific consequences of positive and negative actions.

This is somebody who has a very superficial faith. They hear these teachings on emptiness and like the first person, also think that emptiness means nothingness. But whereas the first person pushed it away and said, “That’s not true,” this person is saying, “Oh, yes, there is nothingness.” Then they ignore the consequences of positive and negative actions—in other words, they reject the law of karma and its effects, what I was talking about before.

Both people are thinking in a distorted way that emptiness means nothingness, but they’re reacting in two different ways. One is reacting by rejecting that interpretation and saying, “The Buddha’s teachings are wrong.” The other one is accepting their wrong interpretation and saying, “I don’t need to keep good ethical conduct because it’s all nothing.” This is the big danger.

However, if these teachings are given to those characterized as explained above as suitable recipients, due to their faultless understanding of emptiness as conveying the meaning of dependent arising, their realization of emptiness will become a totally pure path to liberation.

Those people whose hair is standing on end and their eyes are filling, they clearly have had some connection with the Dharma in previous lives, and because of that when they hear this, it makes the seeds in their minds start to ripen. Those seeds were imprinted in previous lives when they studied, thought about emptiness, tried to understand it and so on. So, even though they haven’t realized it in a previous life, they have great faith in it because they did do some study and reflection on it. Then they have those kinds of signs this life, and they become suitable recipients.

Those are the people who are the 100 percent, A-okay suitable recipients. It doesn’t mean nobody else can hear teachings on emptiness, but they’re the superb ones. As a result of that, as they understand emptiness—as they reflect on it, as they meditate on it—their realization will become a totally pure path to liberation. They’ll start out with an inferential realization of emptiness, and then when they have the direct perception of emptiness—the path of seeing—that becomes a true path. Then those true paths lead to the true cessations, which are the cessations of different levels of afflictions, as you go on the bodhisattva bhumis.

Why are some suitable for teachings on emptiness?

This is because they will maintain all the aspects of the method side of the path, such as purely safeguarding their ethical conduct, which is what qualifies them as suitable recipients, for taking the practice of hearing, contemplating, and meditating on emptiness to heart.

What has qualified them as suitable recipients is that they have learned the method aspect of the path quite well. That’s why we start out talking so much about precious human life, death, refuge, karma, the four noble truths, bodhicitta and all these things to do with conventional existence and how different things work together—what causes what, what’s the result of what. So much of these earlier lamrim meditations are talking about that, aren’t they?

When you study precious human life, you’re learning what are the causes of precious human life. You already know it exists, and it’s produced by causes. Then, if you think about death and future rebirths, it exists; it’s produced by causes. The objects of refuge exist; they’re produced by causes. True cessations are permanent—we won’t count that but the other ones are. Then we study karma. As you’re doing the bodhicitta meditations, you can see how each of the initial meditations is a cause to understand the subsequent meditations.

 That’s the whole method side of the path. As you study that and you start doing those meditations, you get a better view of conventional reality, how different causes and effects work, and you’re taught that things exist. They may not exist in the way they appear to us, but they do exist because they’re produced by causes and conditions. If you have that kind of basis there’s less of a chance of falling into nihilism when you hear teachings on emptiness—because you’ve already studied all this other stuff about cause and effect and conventional existence. So, you’re not going to fall into nihilism.

Also, by practicing the method aspect of the path and being quite familiar with it, you’ve done a lot of purification. You’ve accumulated a lot of merit, so when you meditate on emptiness, the mind is more stable and not so inclined to misinterpret things, to jump to wrong conclusions, to misunderstand the teachings. That’s why we do a lot of purification and creation of merit.

We may be very intelligent in a worldly way—you can have an I.Q. of who knows what and all sorts of degrees—but if you haven’t done purification and collected merit, when you hear teachings sometimes you just don’t get them, or you get them but you jump to the wrong conclusion, or you’re not even interested in the teachings, so you don’t go to listen in the first place. That’s why we do the thirty-five buddhas. You’re doing them every evening, doing mandala offerings, offering service, doing bodhicitta meditation and all that kind of stuff, because that makes the mind stronger and more stable. You can feel that as you practice, can’t you? Would you say your mind is more stable than it was a year ago? I think so. I know most of you pretty well.

Another quote from the Supplement by Chandrakirti says,

They will always adopt pure ethics and observe them.

These are the people who are suitable recipients. They try as best they can to abandon the ten non-virtues, and then they take various levels of precepts when they’re able to.

They will give out of generosity.

Again, this is because they have faith in cause and effect, and they know that generosity not only brings happiness to the other person, but it is also a condition for having a precious human life. If it’s motivated by bodhicitta, it can become something that leads to full enlightenment.

Because of their faith in cause and effect, they’re generous, and then through generosity they accumulate a lot of merit. Generosity is good no matter who you are. We have all these reasons—“You accumulate merit, so you approach enlightenment, and da-da-da-da-da”—but even on a totally unreligious level, people value generosity, don’t they? We look at people who are generous, and we say, “Wow, how kind they are. They’re not completely enveloped in themselves.”

I had to laugh at myself today because Samatha the squirrel who lives by the cabin found my preta offering this afternoon. She’s not much bigger that the preta offering, but she grabbed it, and I found myself saying, “Now, share it with your friends.” It’s like, “Okay, Samatha the squirrel, don’t be miserly.” I had to laugh because I think of how when I get something good, I don’t share it with my friends, and yet, here I am telling the squirrel that’s what she should do.

A generous person will cultivate compassion. Again, a person practicing the method aspect of the path is definitely going to cultivate compassion. This doesn’t matter whether you’re on a hearer, solitary realizer, or bodhisattva path—all of them meditate on the four immeasurables, so you cultivate compassion. Some people think, “The people that follow the hearer and solitary realizer path are all selfish. They have no compassion.” That’s not true. They meditate on the four immeasurables, just like we do. And in many cases, they have more compassion than those of us who just say the four immeasurables and then take it all for ourselves.

They will cultivate compassion and will meditate on fortitude.

Again, keeping ethical conduct, generosity, and fortitude are the first three far-reaching practices. They’re having patience or fortitude because they know that if they cultivate that, they won’t harm so many people. It reduces the opportunities to get angry, and anger destroys our merit. They have confidence in that, so they practice fortitude.

Dedicating each virtue entirely to full awakening, for the liberation of wandering beings.

When they create merit, they dedicate it to full awakening, for the liberation of all wandering beings. They’re dedicating it for their own enlightenment so that as an enlightened being they’ll best be able to be of benefit to others. This practice of dedicating merit is another practice of generosity because you’re being generous with your merit. You’re not saying, “This is my merit! I just want to be born in some super-deluxe-sense-pleasure-heaven; that’s all I want, and it’s all for me.” Instead, they really want to share the results of their merit because they know that as you share the results of your merit, those results increase and multiply.

By doing all these things,

They pay respect to accomplished bodhisattvas.

When they see accomplished bodhisattvas and they see the qualities of those bodhisattvas, those who are suitable vessels can identify them as virtuous qualities that they want to cultivate themselves. So, they pay homage to those bodhisattvas.

Again, here we see that when we pay homage to others it actually makes our own mind more receptive to generating the same kind of realizations that they have. Through that process of respect and appreciation, we work harder to develop those qualities ourselves. Whereas when we’re jealous of somebody else’s good qualities, that doesn’t help us at all to generate those good qualities ourselves. Our mind state is in an opposite mode; it’s quite a negative mode when it’s jealous.

When is the appropriate time to impart teachings?

The next part is about the time for imparting the teachings. The text says,

When stability has been attained, impart the secret teaching.

Or another translation reads,

Having gained stability, receive the secret teachings.

The secret teaching means the teachings on emptiness. They’re called “secret” in the sense that you have to have a certain preparation in order to really benefit from them; they’re not teachings that you teach on the street corner.

When His Holiness gives a public talk, he doesn’t start out with “everything is empty, folks” because people could really misunderstand that. He always talks about love and compassion and forgiveness, doesn’t he? Always, because when you practice that you stabilize your mind, you create merit, you purify—you have a better life right here and now even.

The way people of the Great Vehicle lineage generally venture into the spiritual path is that they initially stabilize their view of emptiness and subsequently engage in the aspects of practice concerning method.

Here he’s talking about the sharp-faculty person. The way it’s worded here, it sounds like they only do the wisdom side of the path and no method and then go and do method after they’ve realized emptiness. That’s not correct, because you always have to do method and wisdom together—always, always, okay?

What it’s meaning is that the person will emphasize the wisdom teachings more in their practice, and when they have some kind of realization of emptiness, they’ll go back and perfect their bodhicitta. It doesn’t mean they haven’t done any meditation on bodhicitta before, or that they haven’t listened to any teachings on the method side of the path. It doesn’t mean that. They certainly have. But in terms of what they’re emphasizing and what they want to gain realization on first, they go towards the wisdom side.

Somebody can have an inferential realization of emptiness before they even enter the path of accumulation. Before you’ve even entered the first bodhisattva path, you can have an inferential realization. You can’t have a direct realization before entering the path, but you can have an inferential one. That can be something very powerful, and some people might work quite intently to get that.

Now, we might say, “Well, I understand the argument, that ‘the person is empty of inherent existence because of being a dependent-arising.’ Yes, I know I’m a dependent-arising, so I’ve realized emptiness.”  In the syllogism, “the I is empty of inherent existence because of being a dependent arising,” first you have to realize what they call the presence of the reason in the subject. In other words, you have to understand that the I is dependent arising. That’s one thing to say—“Oh, yeah, I’m a dependent arising”—but do we really understand what being a dependent arising means? Do we really have a sense of that? Even more so, then you have to see everything that’s a dependent arising is also empty. Or to put it another way: if it’s a dependent arising, it is empty. And that is also quite difficult to realize.

Of the different philosophical tenet schools, only the Prasaṅgika say that. They’re the only ones that say, “if something is a dependent arising, it’s empty.” All the other schools say, “If it’s a dependent arising, it exists inherently.” Here you can see the real uniqueness of the Prasaṅgika view because this teaching on dependent arising is so vital in the Buddhist tradition, yet only the Prasaṅgika will say, “If it’s dependent, it’s empty.”

 All the other schools say, “If it’s dependent, it exists inherently.” Why do they say that? Because for them if it’s a dependent arising, it means it exists, and if it exists, it exists inherently. They’ve confused existence and inherent existence and think they’re the same thing. They think that if things don’t inherently exist, they must be non-existent.

You can’t say, “If it’s a dependent arising it’s non-existent,” so then you have to say it exists, which means it inherently exists for those tenet systems. Whereas the Prasaṅgika say, “If it’s a dependent arising, it’s empty of inherent existence.” It’s completely the opposite, 180 degrees. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it, but we don’t really understand what it means. That’s why we might say, “Oh, yeah, I understand—the I is empty because it’s a dependent arising,” but we don’t really understand.

We’re meditating on this idea that the I is dependent arising. We’re thinking about it. We’re getting some kind of understanding. And then we have to think, “If it’s a dependent arising, then it must be empty of inherent existence.” Why? Because if it’s dependent, it cannot be independent. They’re mutually exclusive. And independent existence is synonymous with inherent existence, so if they’re dependent arising, they cannot be inherently existent. They cannot have their own essence—some objectifiable basis that you can locate and say, “That’s it.”

In the different philosophical systems when they talk about what goes from one life to the next, what carries the karma, they all postulate something that really is the person that carries the karma. Some of them will say, “Oh, it’s all five aggregates.” Well, that’s kind of weird because the body can’t carry the karma. Some of them might say, “It’s the mental consciousness that carries the karma.” They’re saying the mental consciousness is the person.

Then the Cittamatrin say, “Oh, but there’s a whole other consciousness called the ‘foundation consciousness,’ the ‘storehouse consciousness,’ and you put all your karmic seeds there, and that’s the one that goes on to the next life. Here’s something that’s really existing from its own side, this treasury of karmic seeds.” So, they all postulate something that you can isolate, that you can find when you investigate and say, “This is the person that goes from one life to the next.”

Everybody has to have a way of accounting for how the karmic seeds go from one life to the next because if you can’t do that, your whole theory about karma goes bye-bye, doesn’t it? They all postulate something, so they’re all holding some inherent existence—“There is something findable you can identify as the person that will carry the karmic seeds to the next life.”

The Prasangika view

Whereas the Prasaṅgika say, “You don’t need some kind of metaphysical thing like the foundation consciousness, and you don’t need to say the mental consciousness, the continuum of the consciousness or anything like that carries the seeds, because everything is merely labeled.” There’s a mere I, and the mere I goes from one life to the next.

And then you go, “Ah, the mere I—you see, Prasaṅgika think there’s a real person.” Well, no. Because if you ask, “What is the mere I,” that’s the I that is merely designated in dependence upon whatever aggregates are there. Can you find that I? No. No, you can’t find it. That’s why they call it the mere I. Because mere is negating it existing by its own characteristics or existing from its own side. The mere I carries the karma, but you can’t find the mere I when you look for it. When you don’t look for it you can talk about it. When you look for it you can’t find what it is.

That’s why we use analytical wisdom to investigate the ultimate nature of how things exist in a deep way. But when we talk about conventional existence you don’t use ultimate nature to understand because that’s just nominal existence on the level of language, symbols and things like that. You don’t have to analyze. Somebody says, “Where’s the cat?” And you say, “There.” And you don’t go, “What cat?”

If you start saying, “Which cat? I want to see the truly existent thing. Who really is Manjushri? I want to know that,” then you’re getting into the level of ultimate analysis. And you’re not going to find anything that is truly him. When you don’t analyze, you say, “There’s Manjushri the kitty, and there’s Ach the kitty.” And it’s the same with us—“There’s Semkye.” But when you ask, “Who is Semkye? What’s the real Semkye? Will the real Semkye stand up?” Then look at that feeling you’re having right now; that’s the one.

Some people emphasize the emptiness side of the path, and then when they have the inferential understanding of emptiness, they’ll go and really work hard on bodhicitta. When they have that understanding of bodhicitta spontaneously, they enter the path of accumulation.

In the thought training we’re doing it the opposite way. Here it says,

However, according to this tradition,

the tradition of the seven-point mind training

you first deeply contemplate the four fundamental topics of the preliminary practices and then in the actual practice you become well-acquainted with the awakening mind and its attributes, seeking the meaning of enlightenment in the interest of others.

So, in this tradition of mind training first you deeply contemplate the four preliminaries, which are: precious human life; death and impermanence; karma and its effects; and the miseries of cyclic existence. You meditate on those, and you really integrate them in your mind. If you do that, you can have some really strong experiences in your meditation. Don’t think that because they’re called preliminary, they’re baby things, and they won’t affect your mind. If you really meditate quite deeply on them they can affect your mind quite a bit.

Then after you have that kind of stability,

You become well acquainted with the awakening mind and its attributes, seeking the meaning of enlightenment in the interest of others.

With those four as a foundation, you start doing all the bodhicitta meditations. Between the bodhicitta meditations, the precepts, the commitments of mind training and all those kinds of practices, then you do that.

In this tradition, it is only after you have stabilized your acquaintance with the aspects of method

bodhicitta and the four preliminaries—

that the secret teachings concerning the cultivation of the ultimate awakening mind is imparted.

I don’t think that means that you don’t hear any teachings on emptiness until you have stability in all those other things. As you develop some awareness and some feeling for the preliminaries and for the incredible practice of bodhicitta, you of course hear some teachings on emptiness at the same time.

 That influences your understanding of the preliminaries and of the bodhicitta, but you’re not making that your exclusive practice. You’re not putting the emphasis there or only listening to teachings on emptiness. While you’re practicing the method side of the path, if you hear teachings on emptiness, it will definitely help you when you practice the method side of the path. Because it’s hard to practice the path if you don’t have a global view and know what’s coming next. When you hear teachings on emptiness, it will inspire your practice of bodhicitta and the preliminaries.

Questions & answers

Audience: You said that all schools except the Prasaṅgika would say that if something exists it has to exist ultimately. But wouldn’t the Cittamatrin accept that there are some things that do exist but don’t exist ultimately?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): The Cittamatrin talk about things not existing by their own characteristics, but the only things that don’t exist by their own characteristics are the imaginaries. In their three classifications of phenomena, it’s only the imaginaries. There’s two kinds of imaginaries: things that are non-existent, like the rabbit’s horn and a self of persons, and things such as non-compounded permanent space. The permanent phenomena that exist because they’re conceptualized don’t exist by their own characteristics.

Audience: So, imaginary things exist in the Cittamatrin?

VTC: Yes, like permanent space exists, but it exists only by conception. Whereas everything else has some kind of inherent or ultimate nature.

Audience: My other question is about the eleventh bodhisattva vow and not teaching people who aren’t ready. It seems like that’s kind of lip-service considering that pretty much all the teachings are given to almost anybody. Like, our teachings are being broadcasted over the internet for anybody to see right now. So, what is that vow, and what does that mean if nobody follows it?

VTC: Well, I’m assuming that even though we’re broadcasting this, it’s only people who have been following this series so far who are going to be listening in. If it’s your first night listening, and you haven’t heard any Buddhist teachings before, please email us and let us know, okay? But I’m kind of assuming that there’s nobody like that out there, that they’re all people who have been following along for some time or who have done some reading or something like that.

Audience: For example, books—anybody can go and pick up a book on emptiness without having any idea about it.

VTC: Yes, you can go and pick up Nagarjuna’s book, but it’s like what Zong Rinpoche said to me—“You wouldn’t understand it even if I told you.” It’s like if you pick up Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom, and you haven’t done any study, you’re not going to understand what in the world he’s talking about. So, I don’t think you’re going to have the danger of falling into nihilism because you won’t even understand enough to fall into nihilism.

Audience: I also wanted to give an example of people who fall to the extreme of nihilism and negate cause and effect. Somebody used the example of Charles Manson, which I thought was very good. I don’t think he even really realized that Charles Manson was so well-known, because he was watching the actual trial when it happened, and I think he went off to Sri Lanka or whatever. But he said that Charles Manson was in the courtroom, and he was saying something to the extent of, “It’s all a dream. It’s all a dream. Man, it’s all a dream.”

VTC: This is how somebody can misunderstand things. We say in the tradition, “Things are like dreams.” If you’re listening to the teachings, the teacher will also say, “They are like dreams, but that doesn’t mean they are dreams.” It’s when you think they are dreams that you can go to the nihilistic extreme like Manson did.

Audience: He just said a sharp-faculty person emphasizes the wisdom teachings, but in this tradition, we don’t. ,is this the tradition for the people of dull faculties? What is he saying when he says that?

VTC: I had the same question. I think they’re saying that some people do the emptiness teachings first and then generate bodhicitta. But this is a mind training teaching, so it could be that they’re saying it’s for the more modest faculty people, or they could be saying you want to start training the mind at the very beginning with precious human life and death and impermanence and things like that. Also, if some people get too interested in renunciation and wisdom, there’s the danger that they won’t generate bodhicitta, and they will enter into the hearer vehicle or a solitary-realizer vehicle and become an arhat. So, you want to make sure that you have a lot of teachings on bodhicitta, even if you emphasize the wisdom side, so that you make sure you’ll enter into the bodhisattva vehicle.

Audience: The seven-point cause and effect doesn’t emphasize emptiness, but exchanging self and others does. And that’s what we’ve just been studying…

VTC: They did not say in the book, “This is the technique for dull people.” [laughter] They didn’t say that.

Audience: But it’s not that they don’t teach that; it just doesn’t emphasize…

VTC: Yes, it doesn’t emphasize it. Because we did study equalizing and exchanging self and others, and that does have the perspective of emptiness. But you see what I’m saying? I didn’t say that if you meditate on the wisdom aspect you don’t do any bodhicitta, and if you meditate on bodhicitta you don’t do any wisdom. I didn’t say that.

Audience: That’s why this statement didn’t make any sense to me.

VTC: What statement?

Audience: This thing about according to the thought training tradition, we don’t emphasize emptiness.

VTC: It says,

However, according to this tradition, you first deeply contemplate the four fundamental topics of the preliminary practices and then in the actual practice you become well acquainted with the awakening mind and its attributes, seeking the meaning of enlightenment in the interest of others. In this tradition, it is only after you have stabilized your acquaintance with the aspects of method that the secret teachings concerning the cultivation of the ultimate awakening mind is imparted.

And I explained that when it says, “only after” it doesn’t mean that you have to enter the bodhisattva path before you get any teachings on emptiness. It just means that you have some stability in the method before you get the teachings on emptiness. It did not say here you don’t teach people emptiness.

Audience: What’s the difference between just talking about emptiness and teaching it?

VTC: What happens if you’re having tea with your friend and they say, “Well, what did you hear in the Dharma class last night?” And you go, “Well, it’s a secret teaching, and you haven’t done the preliminaries, so sorry, I’m not going to tell you.” No. You can say to your friend, “Oh, we were just talking about how things don’t exist in the way that they appear to our consciousnesses,” or, “We were talking about how things exist dependently.” Because if you talk about dependent arising, you’re implying emptiness. But you’re talking about dependent arising, so you’re encouraging people. Everybody can understand something about dependent arising.

This statement about not teaching emptiness to the unprepared, it doesn’t mean you don’t teach dependent arising. Just because dependent arising is one of the reasons that proves emptiness, it doesn’t mean you don’t teach it. Actually, dependent arising is the chief of the reasonings because it establishes conventional existence and negates inherent existence.

Sometimes I’ll be invited to give a talk about emptiness, and I have no idea about the background of the people in the audience. It’s maybe a public talk, and there’s likely to be some new people there. So, what I do is talk about how we create things by conception and then we think that they have some meaning in and of themselves. Then I give examples, like when we talk about manners—one culture will say, “This is good manners, and this is bad manners,” but in another culture, the complete opposite will be true.

When we grow up in a certain culture and learn what good manners are in that culture, we solidify it and “legitify” it and then when we see somebody not behaving that way, we criticize them. Actually, it’s just because of the way we labeled things that that makes it bad manners. It’s not inherently bad manners, because in another culture it’s good manners. For example, in our culture it’s very bad manners to stick your tongue out, but in Tibetan culture, it’s a sign of respect. So, I’ll use this kind of example of how things don’t exist that way from their own side; they become like that due to our conceptual processes. That’s a good example that people can understand, and they’re not going to fall to nihilism thinking about that. It might actually make them more culturally tolerant.

Or, if you want to talk about how things are mentally labeled, you give an example like: There’s Prince Charming, infallible and perfect, and I can’t live without him, but everybody else looks at the guy and thinks, “Yuck!” Whereas if he had some inherent something inside, everybody would see that and react the same way. So then you can see that there’s not some inherent beauty. It’s due to our conceptual processes and our perspective. That’s a good way to introduce people to the notion of emptiness without teaching emptiness.

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.