Part of a series of teachings given during the Happiness and Suffering Retreat, a retreat on the four noble truths, at Kadampa Center in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2013.
- The four attributes of true cessations
- Innate and acquired afflictions
- The four attributes of true path
- Refining our idea of what liberation is
- Actualizing the path into our own mind stream
- Being balanced and calm, free of anger and craving
- Questions and answers
- Does the bliss of nirvana go from life to life?
- Could you give definitions and differences between “soul” and “mind stream?”
- To what degree is “I am a Buddhist” an acquired delusion?
- How do I reconcile doubt about rebirth?
- Do you know anyone who has accomplished liberation?
Think for a minute that our body and our mind, our five aggregates, are changing in every split second—and get a sense of that. Nothing’s remaining the same. Our life is completely under the influence of afflictions and karma; and so there’s no definite satisfaction, no peace to be found in that kind of state. Then let’s reflect that although there appears to be a permanent, monolithic, independent self or soul—something that endures this life and beyond this life without changing at all—although we may think that such a self or soul exists, when we examine it becomes impossible to establish that such a thing exists. We’re empty of having some real soul or self. Not only that, although there appears to be a controller or person that is in control of the body and mind, there too, we can’t identify an independent controller—something that is separate from the body and mind that is who we are, that controls the body and mind. That, too, doesn’t exist.
We can see that all these notions we have about who we are and what the world is are incorrect; that based on believing them, being confused about how things exist, then we fabricate a real ‘me’ that we get attached to. We get angry when somebody interferes with the happiness of this real ‘me.’ We lash out at them. We create all these virtuous and nonvirtuous actions under the influence of ignorance; and all of this serves to further our rebirth in this cycle of existence. So let’s generate a very strong intention to liberate ourselves from this situation, to attain a state of stable peace. Let’s develop a strong intention to develop our capacities so that we can help others attain a state of stable peace and bliss—and in that way aspire for full awakening.
Exploring our assumptions
When we really think deeply about our situation and then we look closely into how our mind thinks, what we believe, how we think things exist, what we think life is all about—when we really, instead of just taking our assumptions and preconceptions for granted, look deeply—we discover much to our surprise that we’re chock-a-block full of wrong conceptions and wrong views. Actually, very seldom, if at all, do we see things in an accurate way. Is that kind of shocking to you? We go, “Oh, no, she’s just saying that. Buddhism has to say something so she’s saying that.”
Check up. Being a Dharma practitioner involves questioning everything—absolutely everything—to really see how things exist and what things are all about. Really investigating and checking—especially this mind that just thinks automatically, “Oh, how I see things is what they are.” That’s how we usually go through life: “How everything that appears to me, that’s just what they are. This person over here appears to be a jerk; they’re a jerk from their own side. This person over here appears to be wonderful; they’re wonderful from their own side. Everything appears out there, so it exists out there. I think of myself as somehow not very good, so I must not be very good.”
We just assume that everything exists the way it appears and everything we think is true. This really leads us into a lot of problems. I mean, how many of you are parents? Quite a number of you here. You know that your little kids have a lot of wrong ideas, don’t they? You know that if you don’t help your children correct their wrong ideas, they’re going to have a difficult time later on. You know that when you’re a parent. So it’s very easy to see your kid’s wrong ideas. But it’s very hard for us to see our own. The Buddha’s trying to point out to us our fantasies and how they actually interfere with our happiness and cause us trouble. We so often go, “But this is the way things are, Buddha. I see them this this way. This is my experience.”
The senses mislead us
The appearance of this life is so strong to our senses and to our mind that it’s difficult for us actually to question these things and to think, “Maybe things don’t exist the way they appear to us.” Like we were saying yesterday, we look at the flower and it’s just out there. We don’t think, “Oh, the flower’s produced by causes and conditions. It’s only going to last as long as the causes and conditions for it to last are present. After that it’s going to cease.” We don’t look at the flower that way. It just looks like it’s a flower out there.
Similarly with people: when we look at the people we care about, we don’t think, “Oh, that person’s only going to exist as long as the causes and conditions for them to exist are there.” Do you look at the people you love and think that they’re products of causes and conditions, and that they’re only going to be there as long as the causes and conditions are there? We don’t see other people like that. They’re there, permanent, out there for sure! Not only are they permanent, but there’s a real person there. There’s some real solid person and personality: self, some core of them, who they are.
Questioning the solidity of loved ones
Yet when we ask, “Well, who is this person I love?” Have you ever asked yourself that? “Who is this person I’m so attached to? Is it their body? Is it their mind? Which mind? The mind that’s sleeping? Is that the one I love? Do I love their mind that’s listening to sounds? Do I love their mind that is smelling smells? Do I love their angry mind?” We start to look at, “Who is this person there that appears so strongly?” All of a sudden that person begins to get a little bit fuzzy—especially when you think about their body in constant change. Do you love the person that’s there this moment? Or do you love the person when they were a baby? When they were a toddler? When they had an adolescent body? Would you love them if all of a sudden their age changed? How would you feel about them if they became a different sex or a different nationality? It’s so interesting because we feel like there’s something solid there and yet we can’t really isolate it and identify it.
Questioning the solidity of ourselves
When we look at ourselves with those same inquisitive eyes to find out who is the ‘me’ that I feel so strongly exists, then it gets really perplexing. We say, “I’m sitting here.” Well, who’s sitting here? Well, we say, “I’m sitting here,” because our body’s sitting there. But are you your body? Is your identity your body? Are you your body? That one gets a little hard, doesn’t it? Which body are you then? The baby body? The toddler body? The adult body? The aching body? The sick body? If you are your body, then are you just atoms and molecules? Do you feel that that’s all you are, just atoms and molecules? Anybody here feel like they’re atoms and molecules? Anybody here feel like your emotions are atoms and molecules? Are your thoughts atoms and molecules—nitrogen and zinc and everything else? Is that what your thoughts are? Is that what your emotions are? If we think it’s just the brain then that’s what we’re actually saying, that my thoughts and emotions are atoms and molecules. Which means you could have a petri dish out there and you could say, “That’s anger.” Nobody would do that. If we say our genes cause everything, that means you can have alcoholism in a petri dish or love in a petri dish. Kind of stupid, isn’t it?
The notion of “I”
We need to really examine and ask ourselves these kinds of questions, especially based on this notion of ‘I’ being so concrete and solid—not only concrete and solid, but important. Then we do everything in our lives to try to bring happiness to this ‘I’ and to try and avoid suffering. All day long from morning until evening, even in our sleep, everything, everything is about how to protect and bring safety and pleasure to this ‘I’ that we’re sure exists. Everything is about that. Do you think that’s true? “But I think about other people sometimes.” We usually think about other people in terms of how they relate to me. Everything is seen through the filter of ‘me’ who happens to exist quite solidly and coincidently is the center of the universe. The most important one: whose ideas are always correct, whose happiness is more important than anybody else’s, whose suffering hurts more than anybody else’s. We just move through life with all these kinds of assumptions and ideas and never question them.
Even when we start to question them, we say, “Well no, I’m not going to go there.” Like to question the idea that I’m not the most important one. I mean, we’ll say that, “Oh yes, I know I’m not the most important one,” because to be socially acceptable we can’t go around saying, “Oh, I’m the most important one.” That is just plain old not socially acceptable. So we all go around saying, “Oh yes, everybody’s most important. Yes, yes, yes.” Especially if you’re a Buddhist, “Oh, I have so much love and compassion for everybody. They’re definitely more important. All these sentient beings are more important than me—but that’s my seat, get out of it!” It’s totally amazing. If we really look at how we operate in the world, this self-grasping and the self-centeredness, they just run the show.
The notion of “mine”
I often tell people this story of many years ago while I was in Knoxville, Tennessee teaching. I was teaching something from the seven-point thought training, the practice on the five powers or the five forces. It talks a lot about bodhicitta and having this aspiration to become a Buddha for the benefit of all beings, and in your life cultivating love and compassion, and at the time of death having love and compassion and bodhicitta. I spent the whole weekend talking about that, very nice. Then I got on the plane going from Tennessee back to Seattle—
I lived in Seattle at that time. That’s two long flights. I’m walking back in the airplane, and it’s completely packed—a totally packed flight—and somebody’s in my seat. I reserved an aisle seat because I don’t like sitting in the middle seat between two big people because I’m small and I get squished. So I said, “Excuse me, I think you’re sitting in my seat.” Then the person says, “Oh, I was hoping I could sit here. I have the middle seat but I’d like to sit here because it’s a long flight.” I said, “Well, I would like to sit there too, and it’s my seat.” This was after a weekend of teaching love and compassion and bodhicitta. You just see, you do—you say one thing but what’s the gut reaction? “This is my seat on this plane! It’s not your seat!”
What was even stranger was when the flight was over. We got up. I left the plane. I had absolutely no thought about that seat. Before the flight, that was my seat and thus incredibly important. As soon as the flight landed and we exited, there was no longer the label “my” on that seat and I could care less what happened to it. Isn’t that interesting? At one time this whole idea of “my” or “mine” gets projected onto something and it appears a certain way; then just a slight change in circumstance, that label is removed, and then your whole way of relating to it is totally different. Have you ever thought about that? Quite interesting—why do we think something is mine, and why do we think that what’s mine is most important? What is it that makes something ‘mine’? Who is the person that owns it anyway?
You have some sheet of paper saying you own this house or you own this car. Well, so what? Who is it that owns that? Does a piece of paper make it yours? In the conventional world it does; we don’t look at it as conventionally being mine. We see it as really being mine and that changes our whole way of relating to it. As soon as I look at these and say, “These are my glasses,” then I care a whole lot about what happens to them. If I give them to you and then the label changes and they become your glasses, I don’t care what happens to them. The glasses are the same—the label has changed, that’s all. Yet just by changing that label the whole way of relating to something changes.
I remember teaching in Israel many years ago. We had a retreat in a kibbutz on the Negev desert. Many of the kibbutzim were built right on the border with Lebanon or Syria or Jordan. This one was on the border with Jordan. I like to walk so I took my afternoon walk. There was the barbed wire fence, and then there’s a stretch of about eight feet, ten feet, twelve feet of sand that is raked. This is so if anybody stepped on it you would see the footprint. Raked sand. Then, I can’t remember if it was another fence after that. I don’t think so but there might have been. Anyway, I remember standing there and looking, like, right below my feet there’s sand. Twenty feet away there’s sand. It’s just sand. Yet human beings will fight and kill each other over sand—whether this sand is my sand or your sand. There’s the fence that delineates my sand from your sand. I wonder what would happen if you took the sand here and threw it on the other side of the fence. It becomes the other’s sand. Then this sand stops being Israel and that same sand becomes Jordan. Or if you move the fence a little bit then what is Israel and what is Jordan changes. People are going to fight about where to put that fence and kill each other over where to put that fence.
The mind invents and invests meaning
We look at the whole notion of honor. Honor, reputation, they’re so important to us, aren’t they? Honor—my honor, or my family’s honor, or my country’s honor. We identify something as “me” or as “mine” and then the reputation of whatever that is, again, becomes very important. If somebody insults our honor, this is a big thing. But what does ‘somebody insulting our honor’ mean? Well, they said something like, “You’re an idiot,” or “Your family’s corrupt,” or, “You’re blah blah blah,”—some derogatory comment. Then we say, “My honor has been offended! My family’s honor, my country’s honor—they took my flag and dragged it through the streets.”
Well, what is honor? What is it? Is it the words? What is this honor that was offended? Where does it exist? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Where is this honor that I cherish so much? Where is my family’s honor? Where is my country’s honor? Where is my honor? What is it? It’s basically just a thought, isn’t it? That’s all it is. It’s nothing material. Can you find honor? Can you say, “There it is,” and draw a line around it?
What is “offending my honor?” The person said some words, and those words are sounds. Words are sounds, just sounds—sound waves going back and forth. That’s all they are. A flag is a bunch of thread, just a bunch of thread, that’s all. Yet look at all the meaning that we impute onto something even though that something is not something we can even identify when we search for it. And we’ll kill people out of honor. Countries will kill people out of honor.
It’s when we really look at this—here is where we can see that our mind creates so much stuff and imputes values and imputes meaning on stuff that. From its own side, it has no value and meaning. Then we fight and quarrel over whatever it was we imputed that meaning on, even to the point of killing each other. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s sad. It’s sad. This is the disadvantage of having wrong views. This is the disadvantage of self-grasping or of self-centeredness—that we cause ourselves and so many other people incredible amounts of suffering because of the incorrect way in which we apprehend stuff. It’s really sad, isn’t it?
The importance of the four noble truths
This is why learning the four noble truths is important, and so what I just talked about pertains to the first two noble truths: dukkha, and the causes of dukkha. So [we should be] really looking into these and seeing how they function in our life. When you first study them they sound like, “Okay, there’re sixteen: one, two, three, four…” They sound like some kind of intellectual something that you just memorize. When you really think about them, they’re talking about our life, our mind, and pointing out to us something really important that we need to consider and think about.
Yesterday we talked about the first two noble truths. Then I told you to come back for the light and love and bliss. Not as many people came back for it. You’d think that they’d come for that one.
The first two noble truths are a pair and the last two are a pair. In the first pair, first we look at the situation we’re in—the situation that’s unsatisfactory—then we look at what causes it—what are its origins. With the second pair, we look at the state of liberation, and then we look at its causes or what brings about the state of liberation, which is the truth path. We have two sets here: of a circumstance and then what brings [about] that circumstance. The first two noble truths are what we want to abandon; the last two are what we want to practice or adopt.
In our monastic robes we have two flaps in the back representing the first two noble truths that we want to abandon. Then the two flaps in the front on the side are the last two noble truths that we want to adopt and practice. There’s a lot of symbolism just in our robes. Then the two sides together are wisdom and compassion joined. These [points to the flaps on her upper garment called the donka (not a robe but a shirt-like garment worn under the upper robe)], one on each side, are the fangs of the lord of death. These remind us that we exist within this state of disintegrating every single minute, that we’re going towards our own demise, so not to forget it. In this way we make our life meaningful by applying our attention to the path.
The four attributes of the third noble truth, the truth of cessation
The four attributes of true cessations. True cessations are the cessations of various levels of afflictions actualized by progressing through the paths to arhatship and full awakening. They’re cessations. They’re the destruction or exhaustion or lack of different levels of afflictions and the karma that causes rebirth. They’re the destruction of the true origins and thereby of the true dukkha. Are you getting what I’m saying?
Understanding the afflictions
The afflictions are of two types. We have innate afflictions—these continue uninterruptedly from one lifetime to the next—that even babies have. Then we have acquired afflictions—these we gain in our different lifetimes according to coming in contact with incorrect philosophies or psychologies. An example of an innate affliction would be the innate self-grasping—thinking that there’s a real me here that’s independent of any other actor. An example of acquired or learned affliction is thinking I am whatever race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, education, social class that I am. All of those things are things just from this life and so we develop some kind of, “Well, I am this, and therefore you can’t treat me like that.” The ‘I’ in this part, whatever it is we make as our identity, is the learned part. But the part that, “There’s a real me that is that”—that’s the innate part.
You can see that the innate afflictions are really serious. We’ve got to get rid of those because they just go on from one lifetime to the next if we don’t get rid of them. The acquired afflictions are also very serious. If we develop an ideology that’s very prominent in many religious traditions, that killing to preserve our religious tradition is virtuous—it’s in many traditions, isn’t it? It’s the foundation of the Crusades. We see it in radical Islam. We see it in Judaism. We see it in all the religions—that somehow if you kill to defend in the name of your religion you will get incredible benefits afterwards. That is an acquired affliction. It’s something we learn. But look what a powerful force it is in this world, the fact that people learn that. We have to be so careful what we teach children because we get inculcated with certain identities when we’re young and then it becomes a big button-pusher.
Nirvāṇa as the cessation of dukkha
The four attributes are the cessations of these different levels of afflictions and karma. The example that we’re using is nirvāṇa. Remember in true dukkha the example was the five aggregates, in true origin it was craving, and now here it’s the nirvāṇa of an arhat. An arhat is a foe destroyer, somebody who’s liberated from cyclic existence. They’re not fully awakened yet like a Buddha is, but they’re out of cyclic existence. This is taught according to all the different Buddhist schools—from a presentation that’s in harmony with all of them. Nirvāṇa is the cessation of dukkha because being a state in which the origins of dukkha have been abandoned, it ensures that dukkha will no longer be produced.
Remember, dukkha is the Pāli word for the bad translation of “suffering.” Understanding that with training true cessations are possible (by eliminating the continuity of afflictions and karma) dispels the misconception that the afflictions are an inherent part of our mind and that liberation is impossible. Knowing that liberation is possible, that the state of liberation exists, gives us a lot of energy and confidence to try and attain it.
First aspect: Nirvāṇa is the cessation of dukkha because, being a state in which the origins of dukkha have been abandoned, it ensures that dukkha will no longer be produced
The first wrong conception concerning liberation or true cessations is that it’s impossible, it doesn’t exist. Why does someone think that? Because they’re thinking that, “I am my afflictions,” or, “My afflictions are my inherent nature. There’s no way to separate me and my afflictions.” That’s often the way we feel—especially many people in the West suffer from very deep shame or low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence. Sound familiar? Anybody have this problem? Self-hatred? So guilt. When we look at all these self-deprecating emotions, with all of them we somehow believe that, “I am my afflictions,” or that, “My afflictions are an inherent part of me.” In other words, “I am damaged goods and there’s no way to purify my mind.” You‘ll hear people say, “I’m just an angry person and there’s nothing I can do about it.” You hear people say that, don’t you? Or you hear people say, “This is my personality. I can’t change it. This is the way I was born.” Thinking that way, then we believe that liberation is impossible because those things are who we are and we can’t separate ourselves from them.
This first attribute of liberation, saying that nirvāṇa is the cessation of dukkha, is saying, “No, you can eliminate these afflictions. They are not an inherent part of you. They’re something extra that are added on to your basic fundamental nature.” So this is really important. This gets into the whole topic of Buddha nature. One aspect of Buddha nature is saying that the fundamental nature of our mind is not mixed with the afflictions. The afflictions have not entered the nature of the mind. Also, the nature of the mind is empty of inherent existence. It’s not inherently this or inherently that. This is something that very much challenges our ordinary self-conceptions and how we limit ourselves by having very incorrect negative views of ourselves: “I’m just an angry person, there is nothing I can do about it, don’t ask me to change.” Wrong! “I’m just inherently inferior, inherently stupid, can’t do anything right, hopeless, unlovable, can’t change. That’s me.” Wrong again.
Ignorance can be eliminated
All these afflictions, why is it that the afflictions can be eliminated? Yesterday we talked about ignorance and how ignorance misapprehends things. Whereas things—the things that function in our world—depend on causes and conditions, ignorance doesn’t apprehend them as dependent on causes and conditions. Whereas all phenomena depend on parts, ignorance doesn’t apprehend them that way. Whereas all phenomena depend on our mind that puts the parts together, conceives of an object, and gives it a label, gives it a name, ignorance thinks that there’re things out there, from their own side, objective, out there. Ignorance’s whole way of apprehending phenomena is incorrect. It projects false ways of existence onto phenomena that phenomena don’t have, the chief one being inherent existence, existing independent from all other factors, and yet we see that everything exists in dependence on other factors. Nothing exists without depending on other things. I mean, a flower doesn’t exist without a seed, and the flower becomes a flower because there’re things that are not flowers.
Everything exists, becomes what it is, in relationship to other phenomena. Everything is dependent. Ignorance completely doesn’t see that and instead sees things as being objective and independent. We saw yesterday how all of our afflictions—attachment, jealousy, arrogance, laziness, lack of integrity, all sorts of afflictions—stem from ignorance. This ignorance can be eliminated because the object it apprehends does not exist. There exists a mind called ‘wisdom’ that perceives the exact opposite of what ignorance perceives.
Ignorance perceives things as inherently existent; wisdom sees things as empty of inherent existence. That wisdom can overpower the ignorance. It’s like, you may have one mind that sees a scarecrow and you may really think, “Oh, there’s a scarecrow out there,” but when you get closer you see it’s not a scarecrow, it’s a person. The mind that sees the person, that sees things correctly, can overpower the mind that sees a scarecrow. This is because the mind seeing a scarecrow is apprehending something that doesn’t exist. The wisdom that sees the person apprehends something that does exist. Wisdom can overcome and eliminate, eradicate that misconception.
All of our afflictions depend on ignorance. Ignorance apprehends things as existing in a way that they don’t. Wisdom apprehends things in the opposite way and relies on valid reasoning and direct perception, and thus can eliminate the ignorance. When ignorance is eliminated, then the afflictions have nothing to stand on. When the afflictions crumble, then the polluted karma created by the afflictions—that karma that causes rebirth in cyclic existence—also ceases being created.
Here we can see that through generating wisdom and eliminating ignorance, and thus afflictions and karma, it’s actually possible to attain a state of liberation from cyclic existence. This means that all this stuff that we don’t like about ourselves can get eliminated. Isn’t that nice? All this stuff we don’t like about ourselves that we thought we were, all of that is based on wrong conception and can be eliminated. There exists this state of freedom from that. What’s interesting is sometimes the idea of being free from our misconceptions can be a little bit scary because we’re so habituated to our misconceptions that at the idea of giving them up, we go, “Who am I going to be? I’ve spent my whole life seeing myself as a victim of abuse, if I give up that identity as a victim of abuse, who am I? How am I going to relate to the world?”
How we limit ourselves
Can you see in yourselves certain identities or certain self-conceptions that you grasp to very strongly, even though they are so painful? When you think of giving them up it’s a little bit unnerving because you’ve spent your whole life making an identity out of that. Let’s say when you were a little kid your parents told you you were stupid. I taught elementary school before I became a nun. There was a little boy called Tyrone in my third grade class. Tyrone was not stupid but the adults in his life told him he was and he believed it. As a result of it, he couldn’t learn to read. He had trouble reading not because he was stupid but because he thought he was stupid. We have many ways in which we limit ourselves by what we think we can do, or who we think we are. If all of a sudden that misconception is removed, in Tyrone’s case it would mean, “Oh, I can learn to read, which means I have to exert some energy to learn to read. I can’t just blame it on being stupid or blame it on the adults in my life who told me I was stupid. I now have to exert some energy. And who am I going to be if I know how to read? Wow, I’m going to be a whole different person. I’ve got to relate to all the other kids completely differently and I’m going to be a totally different adult if I know how to read.”
False security in old patterns
Sometimes, and this is just an example with the child, we can see we’ve latched onto certain created identities. If we give them up, it’s going to mean that we have to change something and that’s a little bit unnerving. Sometimes we hold on to our old painful identities simply because they’re familiar. I had a friend who told me once—I found this very sad—he suffered a lot from depression and he said, “There’s something very secure in being depressed because you know what tomorrow’s going to be like.” And I thought, “Oh wow!” When we want security we latch on to anything, even something painful like that. We have to look inside of ourselves and try and relinquish some of this and give ourselves some space to see that liberation can be attained. It is possible.
Second aspect: Nirvāṇa is peace because it is a separation in which afflictions have been eliminated
Second attribute of true cessations: Nirvāṇa is peace because it’s a separation in which the afflictions have been eliminated. This counteracts the belief that polluted states such as deep states of meditative absorption are a cessation. There exist these very deep states of meditative absorption and they’re extremely peaceful. Sometimes people confuse those with liberation. The reasons those states aren’t actual liberation is because ignorance is still present, there’s still grasping at true existence in those states. They aren’t true liberation. This is saying that true cessations are actual peace because they’re a separation in which the afflictions have been eliminated. In these deep states of meditative absorption this ignorance has not been eliminated.
This quality is steering us towards what actually is liberation and not getting stuck in some state of deep concentration. You might say, “Well what’s wrong with that? It’s blissful. What’s wrong with deep states of concentration?” Well, what’s wrong is that they’re great while you have them but when the karma to be born in those realms exists, then you get born in a grosser realm, a realm with more misfortune. You still continue to be reborn under the influence of afflictions and karma. One of my teachers, this older lama, was taken to the very top of the Eiffel tower and he said, “Oh, this is like those god realms with deep concentration: when you’re there the only place to go is down.” That’s exactly it.
Third aspect: Nirvāṇa is magnificent because it is the supreme source of benefit and happiness
The third quality of true cessations: nirvāṇa is magnificent because it’s the superior source of benefit and happiness. So, because as [true cessation is] the total freedom from all three types of dukkha—remember we talked about the three types yesterday: of pain, change and pervasive conditioning—so, as total freedom from all three types of dukkha, true cessation is totally non-deceptive. It’s not only the ultimate peace but it’s totally non-deceptive. There’s no other state that supersedes it. Knowing this prevents the wrong conception that thinks that there’s some other state that is superior to the cessation of dukkha and its origins. So that’s also important to know. This is getting us to refine our idea of what liberation is. Liberation from what? It’s not liberation from the communists or the socialists or the conservatives. It’s not that kind of liberation. It’s internal liberation from afflictions.
Fourth aspect: Nirvāṇa is freedom because it is total, irreversible release from saṃsāra
Then the fourth quality: Nirvāṇa is definitive emergence because it is total, irreversible release from saṃsāra. Liberation is definite abandonment because it’s the irrevocable release from the dukkha of saṃsāra. This eliminates the wrong conception that once you eliminate ignorance and the afflictions they can come back again. It’s like you can get over the flu and then you relapse. It’s not like this. Once you eliminate the afflictions they can never come back again because the root of the afflictions, this ignorance that grasps at inherent or independence existence, has been completely cut off by means of the wisdom that perceives the way things actually exist. When you mediate on the wisdom again and again the ignorant habit loses force and gets worn out and eventually is totally exhausted. It can never come back again. Once you know reality as it is, how are your wrong conceptions going to come back? The state of liberation, nirvāṇa, is not something that is reversible; it’s not something that you can fall down from. Once it’s attained you’ve got it forever. That’s nice, isn’t it?
Qualities of liberation
Now sometimes we think, “Well, that sounds good but what exactly is liberation like?” We have a hard time understanding what liberation is like. Let me give you just a few ways that I see it that helps me. How it is to be angry and have our mind out of control with anger because we feel hurt, afraid, offended or whatever it is? How is the complete havoc that anger, resentment and grudges wreak on our life? Liberation is a state where you’re totally free from anger, you never get angry again. People can call you all sorts of names, they can criticize you, they can demean you, they can talk behind your back, they can beat you up and you don’t get angry. Do you think that would be nice? Somebody may say, “But if I don’t get angry then they’re going to kill me.” Well no, anger isn’t the only thing that can protect you when you’re in danger. You don’t need to get angry to protect yourself. You can also have compassion for the person who is harming you and protect yourself because you don’t want that person to continue to create negative karma. Don’t think you’re going to self-destruct if you don’t get angry.
Just think, just imagine, people could betray your trust, they can do the things that you consider most painful and hurtful right now and, from your side, you’re not going to get bummed out about it. Wouldn’t that be nice? Your teenager can say anything and you’re just going to be balanced and calm. That’s one way to think of liberation.
Another way is think of how your mind gets when you’re full of craving and clinging desire. “I want, I have to have it! My whole life depends on this. I’ve got to have this. My reputation depends on it, my livelihood depends on it, my self-esteem depends on it. I need this love; I need this appreciation. I need, I need, I want, I have to have.” You know how our mind gets? Now imagine that that mind is totally eliminated, that you never get that way. All your neediness is gone inside; no matter what you have or who you are, what you do, you’re completely satisfied. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
When we see that liberation is the absence of these afflictions, then that gives us some idea and we imagine what it’s like to be free of those afflictions. It gives us some idea about what this state of peace, nirvāṇa, actually is like. Then we compare that with the happiness of eating chocolate. Which one do you want? Do you want the happiness of eating chocolate or do you want the bliss of nirvāṇa? People sometimes get afraid, “Oh, if I develop renunciation, if I seek liberation, I’m going to have to give up my happiness.” Well, when you compare the happiness of chocolate with the happiness of nirvāṇa, there’s no problem in giving up the happiness of the chocolate, is there? The happiness of nirvāṇa is so much greater that the happiness of the chocolate just becomes like, “I’m not interested anymore.”
Real renunciation does not mean giving up our happiness. It’s not torturing ourselves: “Oh, I want that chocolate but I’m a Buddhist and I can’t eat it anymore.” No, it’s not like that. Here I’m using chocolate just as an example for whatever it is we’re attached to. It could be anything, whatever you’re clinging to. Whatever it is that we’re clinging to, that I feel I have to have, I need desperately. When you compare it with how good it’s going to feel to never get angry again, to never have this clinging, needy, dissatisfied mind again—that the joy coming from nirvāṇa is so much better you’re not even going to notice chocolate. Chocolate is going to be boring.
The four attributes of the fourth noble truth, the truth of the path
Then there are the four attributes of truth paths. According to the Prāsaṅgika tenet system—this is the highest tenet system, the highest view system in Buddhism—a true path is an ārya’s realization informed by the wisdom directly realizing the emptiness of inherent existence. Remember yesterday, we were saying an ārya is someone who has directly realized the actual nature of how things exist, the emptiness of inherent existence? A truth path is a realization in the mental continuum of an ārya that is informed or influenced by this direct perception of reality. The wisdom realizing emptiness itself is the principal true path. That’s the example that is being used here—the wisdom directly realizing emptiness—to show us what the true path is. This is the wisdom that realizes things as they are and uproots the ignorance.
First aspect: The wisdom directly realizing selflessness is the path because it is the unmistaken path to liberation
The first attribute of truth paths: The wisdom directly realizing emptiness is the path because it is the unmistaken path to liberation. So, this wisdom leads to liberation. When you generate it you are on the path to liberation. It is the path. Knowing this counteracts the misconception that there’s no path to liberation. We might think, “Oh, liberation sounds nice but it’s impossible to get there. There’s no path.” If we think that there’s no path then we’re not going to try to cultivate the path. In that way, that wrong conception limits our ability.
Knowing that there’s a path to liberation, to nirvāṇa, is something really that gives us a lot of security. It’s different than seeking security in saṃsāra because our security is trying to actualize this path—directly perceiving realty—because we know it will definitely lead us to this ultimate security, the ultimate safety of liberation. Knowing there’s a path means that there’s a consciousness we can generate that will lead us. There is a system, a method of how to develop that consciousness. There is something we can do. We don’t just sit around, “May I attain liberation. Buddha, I take refuge in you. I request you make me a liberated being and in the meantime, I’ll have a cup of tea.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is so strong about how making prayers is not the path. It’s an adjunct because making prayers and aspirations sets our energy in the right direction. Just praying to the Buddha, “May I become a liberated being”—that alone will not get us to liberation. We have to actualize the path in our own mindstream. We have to transform our mindstream into the path. The prayers are an adjunct but they’re not the main thing; the wisdom realizing emptiness is the main thing. That path exists; we can actualize it.
That’s very comforting to know, otherwise you feel like you’re drowning in this world with so much misery and there’s no way to get out. I think that’s why so many people nowadays suffer from despair and depression because all we hear is the six o’clock news: one suffering after another, one manifestation of people’s afflictions after another. Then people just fall into despair and depression and say, “What’s the use?” because they don’t know that nirvāṇa exists and they don’t know that there’s a path to attain it. When we know that nirvāṇa exists, when we know that there’s a path, even though we haven’t developed the path, still our mood goes way up. We feel so much better about life and we have a sense of purpose and meaning in our life, something that we can do that will actually work to counteract not only our own misery but also the misery of all living beings.
Second aspect: The wisdom directly realizing selflessness is suitable because it acts as the direct counterforce to the afflictions
The second attribute of true paths: The wisdom directly realizing selflessness is suitable because it acts as the direct counterforce to the afflictions. The wisdom realizing emptiness or selflessness is the correct path because it’s a powerful antidote that directly counteracts the self-grasping ignorance and thus directly eliminates dukkha. Understanding this eliminates the misconception that the wisdom directly realizing emptiness is not a path to liberation. When we understand that this wisdom directly hits ignorance and can destroy it, again that give us a lot of confidence in the path. It gives us confidence in that wisdom because we know it actually is the unmistaken path. It’s going to hit directly at the heart.
What do they have, these laser bombers now? What do they call them? Drone is a good example of it, but drones don’t always hit their target, do they? There’s a lot of collateral damage from drones. The wisdom realizing emptiness exactly hits the target of the ignorance and there’s no collateral damage. This would be something really good for the CIA to develop. Have them all meditate, gain the wisdom realizing emptiness: then our CIA would really be the central intelligence agency, wouldn’t it? It would really be intelligent. The wisdom directly realizing selflessness is suitable because it acts as the direct counterforce to the afflictions.
Third aspect: The wisdom directly realizing selflessness is accomplishment because it unmistakenly realizes the nature of the mind
And then the third one is: The wisdom directly realizing selflessness is accomplishment because it unmistakenly realizes the nature of the mind. It’s beautiful. Unlike worldly paths—like gaining these deep states of meditative absorption without wisdom—the wisdom that realizes reality is the unmistaken path that can lead us to spiritual attainments. The states of deep concentration without wisdom cannot accomplish this ultimate goal. They can only bring us peaceful states of concentration. But they can’t eliminate our real enemy, which is our ignorance, whereas this wisdom directly realizing selflessness or emptiness can. This realizing this, understanding this, counteracts the misconception that worldly paths such as these deep states of concentration can eliminate dukkha forever. They can’t. Remember, when you’re at the top of the Eiffel tower the only way to go is down. When you have these states of blissful concentration, if you don’t have the wisdom you get born in the lower realms afterwards.
Fourth aspect: The wisdom directly realizing selflessness is deliverance because it brings irreversible liberation
Then the fourth attribute of true paths: The wisdom directly realizing selflessness is deliverance because it brings irreversible liberation. Phenomena lack inherent existence, and inherent existence and non-inherent existence are mutually exclusive; they’re direct opposites. By realizing the lack of inherent existence directly, with wisdom, then the ignorance can be conclusively and irreversibly eliminated from the mind. Definitely eliminating all the obscurations, this wisdom does not stop partway and only eliminate some obscurations. It eliminates all the obscurations to the mind. And it eliminates not only all the obscurations, but it eliminates them in such a way that they can never return. You’ve not just thrown the thief out of the house. But you’ve locked the door and sent the thief on a vacation to the Bahamas and he can’t get out. He’s never going to come back.
Changing the way we look at life
These sixteen attributes of the four noble truths, when we really think deeply about them they change the whole way we look at life. We no longer see ourselves as, “Oh, I’m just little old me and the purpose of my life is make money; eat chocolate; kind of try and stay out of trouble; get what I want when I want it but without ruining my reputation or getting in trouble in the process of it.” Seeing that as the purpose and meaning of our life, and then all we have to look forward to is dying! (And dying is the only thing we have to do.) It changes our life from that to, “Oh, my goodness, I’m in this cycle of existence but I can get out of it. And there exists a state of blissful liberation. There exists a path that, if I cultivate it and actualize it in my own mindstream, will lead me to that state of liberation. That state of liberation is completely free from every single afflictive obscuration—every single affliction. The karma that causes rebirth can never come again. It’s a state of total, complete bliss. Forever free of all my problems. There’s a path that leads there, and I’m fortunate enough to meet the Buddha’s teachings that can teach me how to practice that path. Wow, am I lucky in my life. My life has so much purpose and meaning now. It’s something I can do that’s really valuable for myself and for others. If I can gain liberation myself and actually develop compassion for each living being, and aspire for full enlightenment in order to be able to work for the benefit of sentient beings, then I can do incredible, amazing things to really transform lives of all the sentient beings who have been, and will continue to be, kind to me.”
Our whole view of our life: completely different. Then you wake up on Monday morning like, “Oh God,” and then you think, “Oh, but liberation is possible. The path to liberation exists. Wow, I’m glad I woke up from that sleep now. Let me study a little bit of Dharma, let me do some meditation practice. My life really has purpose and meaning.”
So, a few minutes for questions.
Questions and answers
Audience: Does the bliss of nirvāṇa go from life to life?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Does the bliss of nirvāṇa go from life to life? When we’ve attained nirvāṇa we no longer get reborn under the influence of ignorance and afflictions. So yes, that bliss continues ad infinitum.
Audience: And we may get another life?
VTC: Well, if you just aspire for arhatship and liberation from dukkha, then you’re going to stay in a state of meditative equipoise on the nature of nirvāṇa for a long time, until the Buddha comes and wakes you up and says, “What about everybody else?” You’ve got to attain full awakening to be able to benefit everybody else. So then you enter the bodhisattva path, you practice that path to full awakening. Then, although you may appear in our polluted world, you no longer take rebirth under the influence of afflictions. You no longer have this kind of body, which by its nature gets old and sick and dies. You can make an emanation that looks like an ordinary being and you do that out of compassion to lead others, but you don’t yourself suffer from having this kind of body. Wouldn’t that be nice? You may look like everybody else, your body may look like it has cancer, kidney disease, and heart failure, but actually you never get those things again.
Audience: Good morning, thank you for your teachings. You used the word “soul” this morning. Could you give definitions and differences between the word “soul” and “mindstream?”
VTC: Okay, the difference between soul and mindstream. When we think of a soul, the way I’m using the word, soul is something that doesn’t change moment to moment. It’s fixed, its static. It’s the essence of me; it’s the real “me” there. It’s something unitary; it doesn’t depend on causes and conditions. It’s fixed. Mindstream is dependent on causes and conditions. The mind changes moment by moment by moment. It never remains the same. When you look for something that is the mindstream—some unitary thing that is the mindstream—you can’t find anything. All you find is constantly changing moments of mind in a continuity. So soul and mindstream are quite different. That’s a good question, an important question.
Audience: You mentioned innate versus acquired delusions. Can you talk about to what degree the idea that, “I am a Buddhist” is an acquired delusion?
VTC: Just saying, “I’m a Buddhist” is not a delusion. Just saying, “I’m American” is not a delusion (or whatever nationality you are). Just saying that, just saying, “I’m sitting in this room,” is not a delusion. The afflictive part of it comes in when it’s, “I am a Buddhist. I am American. I am this race or this ethnicity.” When it comes—the grasping at inherent existent involved in it—that’s when there’s affliction. Just on the conventional level we’re Buddhists, a box to check. You’re a man or you’re a woman, what bathroom to go in, that’s helpful. When you get into, “I’m a man so you should treat me like this,” or “I’m a woman so you should treat me like this,” that’s when affliction comes in.
Audience: So the label is not a delusion. It’s the idea that there’s something concrete underneath the label.
VTC: Right. Giving something a label isn’t a problem. Otherwise, when I look at you, what’s your name?
VTC: Karl. I can’t say, “Karl’s there.” I have to say, “The guy with kind of a salt and pepper beard, with short hair, who’s wearing a kind of, what, dark purple t-shirt with tan pants is sitting there.” That takes a long time. It’s so much easier to say, “Karl’s sitting there.” On a conventional level giving things names is not a problem. Thinking that the object is the name, thinking the basis of the designation of the name is the object, that’s what the problem is.
Audience: Good morning. So I don’t want to get too far away from the four noble truths, but one thing you said this morning about questioning absolutely everything, one of the things that drew me to the Dharma initially was we don’t have to take most of it on faith. We can apply it to our lives, if it works then great. The practicality of it, not too much faith. Yet I still feel like there is some thing that maybe we have, well, not have to but faith is a part of it. Like rebirth. For example I do believe in rebirth yet there’s this little sliver of doubt, this little worm of doubt, this notion of somehow going to be born as a dung beetle in the next life. It just seems so silly to me. How do I reconcile that?
VTC: It seems like that. Though we say, “Question everything,” there are some things we just have to accept. Actually, His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that rebirth is something that can be logically proven. Now, in order to be somebody who is a receptive vessel who can understand the proof, we need to do some preparation and some purification. I mean, face it, we can’t always understand everything even if it’s presented in a reasonable way. Sometimes our mind is obscured; we don’t get the argument. So some preparation has to be done. Basically the way it goes, the way the proof goes, is that it comes back to experience. That our body and our mind are two different things, and I think that has to be established by experience.
We have to be able to sit there and get a sense of what our body is and a sense of what consciousness is, and know that they’re two different things. If we can do that, then we can see that our body has its own system of causes and conditions. Our body is material in nature so its causes and conditions are also material, or mass, in nature. The mind, on the other hand, is not material in nature and its causes also aren’t material in nature. That one moment of mind arises, its principle cause was the previous moment of mind, and the previous cause of that was the moment of mind before that. You can trace the continuity of mind back moment by moment by moment. Then you get to the time of birth and you can trace it back into the womb. Then you trace it back to the time of conception, which from Buddhism is defined as not only when the sperm and egg meet but also when the consciousness connects with the sperm and egg—that’s the moment of conception. Sperm, egg, consciousness. That moment of consciousness that connected with the sperm and egg, what was its cause? It’s the previous moment of consciousness. That takes you back into life before conception in this life.
Similarly, when we go forward, life is what we call body and mind, intertwined, relying upon each other. Death is just the body and mind split apart. The body has its continuity, is made of atoms recycled in nature. The mind has its continuity, one moment of clarity and awareness producing the next moment of clarity and awareness. What influences where this continuity of mind gets reborn is the karma that we’ve created in this life and previous lives.
Audience: Good morning. Do you know anyone that accomplished liberation?
VTC: I believe so. But of course if I asked them, “Have you attained liberation or enlightenment?” they’d say, “No.” To me that indicates somebody who’s probably an excellent practitioner. The people who go around saying, “I’m liberated. I’m an arhat. I’m a Buddha. I’ve realized this, I’ve attained that,” I don’t trust those people. Actually from a Buddhist viewpoint, for monastics, if we lie about our spiritual attainments we lose our monastic ordination. We completely destroy our ordination, that’s how serious it is. We’re also not allowed to proclaim realizations. I always tell people if somebody’s kind of hinting, “I’ve realized this, I know that, I’ve attained that,” hang on to your wallet!
You look at somebody like His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is such an incredible living being. When you listen to his teachings you can see something quite amazing about him, and the Tibetans think that he’s an emanation of Chenrezig, Avalokiteśvara. All these Westerners go up and say, “Dalai Lama, are you really Chenrezig? Are you really a Buddha?” And His Holiness says, “I am a simple Buddhist monk, that’s all.” And that to me indicates something special about him. He doesn’t go, “Oh, well, I’m glad you noticed. Yes, I am Chenrezig. The donation bag is right here, put your whole checkbook in it.”