The eightfold path
In the Pali and Sanskrit traditions
Part of a series of teachings on The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, a lamrim text by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, the first Panchen Lama.
- How the eightfold noble path is subsumed under the three higher trainings
- The mundane and supramundane paths
- The similarities and differences in how the two traditions view the eight
- The Sanskrit tradition divides the eight path factors into four branches
- How the eight appear in the standard lamrim sequence
Hello everybody. Good evening to the people in the U.S., good middle of the night to the people in Russia, and good morning to the people in Singapore. We’re all linked together due to the kindness of technology to be able to listen to the teachings. Let’s start with the meditation that we always do. We’ll begin with a few minutes of breathing just to calm the mind and then we’ll do the visualization of the Buddha. Since we’ve been doing it for quite some time, I won’t give a lot of description but will leave it to you to fill out and to remember that, as you become familiar with these visualizations, they just come into your mind all at once. It’s not like you visualize the Buddha and you get one arm and then a leg and slowly the Buddha comes in to the room. It’s like when your friends come into the room they come in all at once. Similarly, here when we visualize the holy beings, even if you can’t see all of them exactly, they all are there; they all appear at once.
Let’s start with the breath. Let the mind settle. Before taking refuge we visualize in the space in front of us, the Buddha surrounded by all the other Buddhas and bodhisattvas and holy beings, all made of light, smiling at us because we’re doing something virtuous. We’re surrounded by all mother sentient beings: our mother on our left, our father on our right. All the people that we don’t like or are afraid of, and with the events of the past week there may be some of those, are there in front of us. We have to look at them and make peace with them to see the holy beings. Then we visualize all other sentient beings all around us as far as the eye can see. We think that we’re leading all the sentient beings in reciting the verses and in generating the thoughts and feelings that they express.
Next, visualize that a duplicate of the Buddha that is in front of you comes on top your head, and also that duplicates go on the heads of all the sentient beings around you. They are all facing the Buddha as are we, and then they help us as we petition the Buddha for inspiration.
Then as we say the Buddha’s mantra, light comes from the Buddha into us and into all the sentient beings around us from the Buddhas on all of our heads. The light performs two functions: it purifies negativities and it brings all the realizations of the path.
Then, addressing the Buddha on your crown, think of the fact that:
I and all other sentient beings have been born in samsara and are endlessly subjected to the various kinds of intense dukkha. This is due to our failure to cultivate the three higher trainings correctly once we have developed the aspiration for liberation.
Try and feel that in your heart.
In response to your request, from the Guru Buddha’s body, five colored lights and nectars stream down through the crown of your head into you, absorbing into your body and mind. Similarly, from the buddhas on the heads of all sentient beings, the light and nectar stream into them [the sentient beings], absorbing into their bodies and minds, purifying all negativities and obscurations accumulated since beginningless time. This especially purifying all illness, interferences, negativities, and obscurations that interfere with cultivating the three higher trainings correctly once you have developed the aspiration for liberation. Your body becomes translucent, the nature of light. All your good qualities, lifespan, merit and so forth expand and increase. Having developed a superior aspiration to liberation, think that a superior realization of the correct cultivation of the three higher trainings has arisen in your mindstream and in the mindstream of others.
Eightfold noble path in the Pāli tradition
Last week we were talking about the eightfold noble path. I wanted to return to that and review a little bit about what we talked about and then also finish it. In the Theravāda tradition, the true path, the fourth of the Four Noble Truths (also called the four truths for āryas) is the eightfold noble path. In the Madhyamaka philosophy, however, a true path is an ārya’s realization informed by the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence. This wisdom realizing emptiness is the main true path because it is what counteracts ignorance. This is a slightly different emphasis here.
In both traditions we need to practice the eightfold noble path and in both traditions they say that the actual eightfold noble path exists in the minds of āryas but not in the minds of ordinary beings. However, to generate the mind of an ārya with the eightfold noble path in it, you have to practice the eightfold noble path as an ordinary mundane being first. It doesn’t automatically appear out of nowhere.
I want to review a little bit from last week what we were talking about. For those of you who have Buddhism: One Teacher Many Traditions, it’s also in that book on page 56. I want to go over how it’s approached in the Pāli tradition in the Mahācattārīsaka Sutta and the Majjhima Nikāya number 117. Here it talks about if we’re going to take the first of the eightfold path: the wrong view, the right mundane view, and then the supramundane right view.
The wrong views are believing that our actions have no ethical value or that our actions don’t bring results; that there’s no continuing of consciousness, in other words, there’s no rebirth; there’s no cause and effect, karma, and its effects; thinking that everything ends at the time of death; that other realms of existence don’t exist; that liberation is impossible; that defilements inhere in the mind—it’s impossible to get rid of them. With that kind of view you’re definitely going to be depressed—really. If you think that all the afflictions inhere in your mind and that people are intrinsically defiled and there’s no way to get rid of them, if you have that worldview, what do you have in your life? You have nothing. Your life is like, blah. There’s no goal, there’s no aim, there’s no meaning in your life except maybe running around and trying to get a little bit of short term happiness. But even that is depressing because in your worldview that your wrong conception mind created, you think, “Well, when I die there’s nothing anyway—so what’s the use?” It’s really a horrible worldview. Not only is it incorrect according to a Buddhist viewpoint, but psychologically that worldview is just going to pull you right down in the dumps.
Mundane right view where we start out is the opposite of these. It includes knowing that our actions have an ethical dimension, which means we know that we can change our life by changing our actions. Automatically, right there, you don’t feel helpless in life. You feel like there’s something you can do. If we change our actions, we change our experience. You think that there’s a continuity after death, and so when you have that kind of view, you don’t fear this nihilistic thing of, “Well, nothing’s worthwhile, and it’s all for nothing, and after death there’s nothing.” You think that other realms exist, that there are holy beings who have cultivated the path. Then you feel uplifted because, “Wow, there’re other beings who have cultivated the path. They’ve done it. They’ve been in my situation. They’ve gotten themselves out of it. I can do this too.” So the right view automatically uplifts your mind.
The supramundane right view (or the transcendental right view) is the faculty of wisdom, the power of wisdom. It’s the right view in the eightfold noble path that’s in the mindstream of an ārya. From the Pāli perspective this right view is the direct penetration or the direct perception of the four truths as well as the direct knowledge of nirvāṇa.
Next we go on to the second one of intention. The wrong intention is sensual desire, malice, and cruelty. This is because, again, we can see if we have sensual desire, malice, and cruelty in our mind, and those are the intentions that we live our life by, we’re going to have a whole lot of confusion and not very good relationships with other people. We’re going to be kind of miserable.
The right intention, the second branch of the eightfold noble path, is renunciation, benevolence, and compassion. Renunciation is a balanced mind that isn’t attached to sense objects. If you have that balanced mind you have a lot of freedom. If the sense object is there, you enjoy it. If it’s not there, no problem. Wouldn’t that be nice? You enjoy it. When it disappears you’re not, “Oh, I want it again!” It’s like your mind is still content. Benevolence encompasses fortitude, forgiveness, and love. It’s going to open your mind towards having good relationships with others. Compassion is an attitude of nonviolence. This kind of right intention is going to motivate the next three of the eightfold path: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. This intention also wants to share our knowledge and understanding with others, so it’s nice. Specifically for those following the bodhisattva vehicle, right intention is going to bodhicitta.
The supramundane right intention includes a very pure intention and the mental absorption and different concentration factors in the mindstream of an ārya. Here, right view and right intention are part of the higher training in wisdom of the three higher trainings. The eightfold noble path can be subsumed in the three higher trainings. These two [right view and right intention] are the last of the three higher trainings—the higher training in wisdom.
You start out with right view when you’re doing the eightfold noble path—even us ordinary beings—because our worldview is really important. Depending on our worldview, our meditation will bring one result or another result. Having this Buddhist worldview is really quite important and also approaching our practice with the right intention is very important. Right at the beginning of the eightfold noble path it’s interesting that there are these two factors of the higher training in wisdom. They come first, even though when you’re listing the three higher trainings, the higher training in wisdom comes last.
These lead us then to practice the three branches of the eightfold noble path that pertain to the higher training in ethical conduct—right speech, right action, and right livelihood.
Wrong speech is the four non-virtues of speech: lying, creating disharmony, harsh speech, and idle talk. Right speech is meritorious speech that abstains from these four; and that also speaks truthfully, uses our speech to create harmony, encourages others, and speaks what is appropriate and suitable at an appropriate time. By keeping silence in the retreat we’re going to be able to really study our speech, and our impulse to speak, and how we usually speak. This will help us really cultivate this mundane right speech which is very important because so many of our problems come about through wrong speech, don’t they, when you think about it? Most of your problems with other people: are they because you or they beat somebody up, or stole their stuff, or slept around? Or are most of your problems due to you or somebody else lying, creating disharmony, speaking harsh words, or talking idly and gossiping? I mean these are some of the physical ones—they can create a whole lot of disharmony—but for most of us, it might be speech that creates the most problems in our relationships. Therefore, it is very helpful to cultivate right speech. I’ll get to supramundane right speech in a minute.
Let’s go on to actions. Wrong actions: killing other sentient beings, stealing from them, taking what hasn’t been freely given, and unwise or unkind sexual behavior. Sleeping with somebody who isn’t your partner. Even if you don’t have a partner sleeping with somebody else’s partner, unprotected sex, using people for our own sexual enjoyment without taking into consideration their feelings as human beings—things like this. This one, whenever you teach it in India, the whole audience explodes. This is because it’s all these 20-somethings, and it’s like, “What do you mean unwise and unkind sexual behavior? I want to do anything I want.” Once you get a little bit older you begin to see there is such a thing as unwise and unkind sexual behavior, isn’t there? And it causes a whole lot of problems. Those are the wrong actions.
Then right mundane actions involve abandoning these three and then also doing their opposite: protecting life, protecting property, using sexuality wisely and kindly in the case of a lay practitioner or being celibate in the case of a monastic. There was one retreat, was anybody at that? We were talking about this and somebody said something to the effect of, “Unkind and unwise sexual behavior creates so many problems, so how do we stop it?” Out of my mouth just very spontaneously I said, “You ordain.” Everybody cracked up and years later that person ordained. Was anybody at that retreat? Were you there? It was your partner! But you heard the advice, too. That’s right action.
Wrong mundane livelihood: For monastics it’s procuring the requisites of life, food, clothing, shelter, and medicine by means of flattery, hinting, offering a small present to get a big one, being a hypocrite, putting a person in a position where there can’t say no. For a lay person it would include those, but more specific for a lay person it would be working at a job where you were manufacturing poisons, or for a company that was making explosives or weapons, or that was polluting the earth, or manufacturing something that’s very bad for people. Being a butcher, making or selling intoxicants, producing or distributing pornography, embezzling, overcharging customers, lying to customers—these kinds of things would be wrong livelihood.
Mundane right livelihood for monastics is abandoning the five wrong livelihoods and procuring the requisites for life in a straightforward, honest way, in a way that doesn’t harm others, or trick them in any kind of way—and also in keeping our end of the deal by keeping our precepts pure. This is because if you accept people’s offerings but you don’t keep your precepts well, then that’s quite deceptive and untruthful. For lay practitioners right livelihood is working in a job that contributes to the healthy functioning of society and to the welfare of others, or at least that doesn’t harm in any kind of way. Right livelihood is also a lifestyle free from the extremes of asceticism and luxury. Interesting, isn’t it? Extreme asceticism is discouraged and also extreme luxury is discouraged. Good lifestyle is free from both of those.
These three—right speech, right action, and right livelihood—pertain to the higher training in ethics; and mundane right speech and right action are the seven virtues of body and speech out of the ten paths of virtue. Supramundane right speech, right action, and right livelihood are āryas refraining from and abandoning wrong speech, action, and livelihood and their engaging in right speech, action, and livelihood.
The next one is right effort. Wrong effort could either be the absence of effort, or it could be putting our effort, our energy, into things that are not worthwhile—keeping ourselves the busiest of the busy, doing non-virtuous actions, or wasting our time—things like that.
Mundane right effort is what’s called the four supreme strivings: effort to prevent the arising of non-virtue, effort to abandon non-virtues that have already arisen, effort to cultivate new virtues, and effort to maintain and enhance the virtues that are already present. That’s the right way to put our energy. Let me repeat those because it’s good to think about these. Write them down. Think about them in your meditation. Think about how you can do these:
- (1) to prevent the arising of non-virtues,
- (2) to abandon non-virtues or counteract non-virtues that have already arisen,
- (3) to cultivate new virtues, and
- (4) to maintain and enhance the virtues that are already there.
We put our effort into this instead of into idle talk, and making a lot of money, and playing video games. With right effort we can direct our mind away from harmful thoughts and into the development of beneficial qualities and into nonviolent and compassionate action too.
Joyous effort is a really important kind of mental factor. It also enables us when we’re meditating to abandon the five hindrances and thus to be able to gain concentration and wisdom. Right effort is actually needed for any kind of virtuous endeavor we want to do.
The next one is right mindfulness. Mundane right mindfulness is the four establishments of mindfulness. We went through that in previous series of teachings: mindfulness of body, feelings, mind, and phenomena; really developing that in our meditation practice. This is according to the Pāli tradition. If you were practicing tantra it would be like the four mindfulnesses that we chant after lunch: mindfulness of the spiritual mentor, of compassion, of the deity’s body and divine dignity, and of emptiness and the unity of appearance and emptiness. Remember this, we chant it very often. So that would be the mindfulness in the case of tantra.
In daily life mindfulness enables us to keep our precepts because it remembers our precepts. In meditation, mindfulness focuses our mind on our object of meditation and keeps it there so it can’t get distracted. In a very concentrated mind, mindfulness leads to insight and wisdom. Mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective is not just knowing what’s going on. It’s not just, ”I’m mindful that desire is arising to sleep with this person. I’m mindful that this is somebody else’s partner. I’m mindful that I’m making advances.” This is not the meaning of mindfulness. It doesn’t mean observing what’s going on. It means holding your precepts and your values in your mind so that you don’t get mixed up in that kind of behavior.
Supramundane right effort and right mindfulness are present with the other aspects of the eightfold noble path at the time of realizing nirvāṇa.
Right concentration includes the four jhānas (the Sanskrit term is dhyāna). It’s four levels of concentration that are beyond our desire realm. It’s where you’ve actualized śamatha or serenity and you can place your mind on the virtuous object for as long as you want and it’s not going to get distracted. Concentration directed towards liberation investigates the nature of phenomena with mindfulness.
Concentration for beginners is just trying to develop a little bit of concentration in our daily meditation practice. Supramundane right concentration is having actualized the four jhānas—they’re also called the four form realm absorptions in the Pāli system—and conjoining that with wisdom and other path factors and using it to realize nirvāṇa. In the supramundane realization all eight of these path factors are present simultaneously, each one performing its own function. Right concentration then leads to right views, knowledge, and liberation.
You can really see here right effort actually pertains to all three of the higher trainings and then right mindfulness and right concentration pertain to the higher training in concentration. Do you see how the eightfold noble path is subsumed in the Three Higher Trainings?
Eightfold noble path in Sanskrit tradition
I want to talk about the eightfold noble path in the Sanskrit tradition. It’s pretty much the same. There are some slight differences. You can begin to see how it is different when it’s the practice of bodhisattvas. In the Sanskrit tradition the eightfold noble path are all ārya paths, as they are in the Pāli tradition. They are divided into four branches. I find this kind of interesting. Here in the bodhisattva practice—because remember these are ārya’s paths and we’re talking about them here, so you know of course they pertain to hearers and solitary realizers. But we’re going to talk about them specifically for bodhisattvas.
Right view: branch of affirmation
Right view refers to realizing in your post-meditation time, in your break time between sessions, the correct understanding of the four truths that was realized in meditative equipoise. It constitutes the first of the four branches. It is called the branch of affirmation because it affirms the realization of emptiness that occurred during meditative equipoise. This is interesting that right view is defined here as occurring in an ārya’s mind, but it’s occurring during post-meditation time—and it’s affirming the view of emptiness that you had during your meditative equipoise. So it’s the branch of affirmation.
Right intention: branch of promoting understanding in others
Right intention is the motivating intention wishing to correctly explain to others the view of selflessness and emptiness that was realized in meditation. Right intention for a bodhisattva is your wish to teach and share whatever you’ve realized. You don’t keep it just for yourself but you go out and you share it. This is included in the branch of promoting understanding in others. Here you can really see bodhisattva influence, can’t you? You’ve got to be able to affirm your realization of emptiness in post-meditation time so that you can go and teach it to others, so that others can benefit from it. You have the branch of affirming and the branch of promoting understanding in others.
Right speech, action, livelihood: branch of that develops trust and respect in others
Right speech is speech explaining to others the right view we have realized. Right speech comes back to explaining the right view, both of conventional reality but especially of the ultimate nature. Right action is refraining from physical acts harmful to oneself or to others. Right livelihood is procuring the four requisites without recourse to the five wrong livelihoods. These are pretty much the same as in the Pāli. But these three are included in the branch—we’re talking about the four branches—that develops trust and respect in others because others will see that we keep pure ethical conduct.
If you want to benefit sentient beings, when they talk about the four ways of gathering disciples one of them is acting in accordance to what you teach. Clearly, keeping good ethical conduct is going to be part of that. Ethical conduct makes people trust you and trust is the basis for, or should be the basis for, people making a student-teacher relationship with somebody. I say should be because some people think that charisma is the basis; you’re attracted to a teacher for charisma. That’s not the right motivation. It should really be somebody’s ethical conduct and that we trust that person, we respect that person.
Right effort, mindfulness, concentration: branch of antidotes to opposing factors
Right effort exerts effort energy to develop the antidotes eliminating the objects to be abandoned on the path of meditation. It really puts our energy into our meditation practice so we can abandon the afflictions and the seeds of the afflictions that are to be abandoned on the path of meditation. This right effort also enables us to advance to higher paths.
Right mindfulness does not forget the object of meditation so it prevents hindrances to single-pointedness. Right concentration is the antidote to the obscurations to mental absorption, so those obscurations that refer to the un-serviceability or the lack of pliancy of the mind and the body that hinders developing single-pointedness and śamatha.
Through right concentration bodhisattvas become able to cultivate the super-knowledges. These are special powers that they gain by the force of their concentration. Some of them are supernormal powers: walking on water, going under the earth—these kinds of things. Others are, for example, clairvoyance: knowing the minds of others, or knowing the past, knowing the karma of other livings beings—these kinds of things. All these kinds of super-knowledges are very helpful if you’re a bodhisattva because it helps you see what people you have a close karmic connection with so that you can bring those people into your circle of disciples. These powers also enable you to know what is somebody else’s karma. In other words, what’s their disposition, what kind of teaching is appropriate for this person according to their particular level of mind and their particular way of thinking at this time. Having these kinds of super-knowledges that come from concentration, if you’re a bodhisattva they really enable you to be of much greater benefit to others than if you don’t have these. This is because you can really know the disciples much better and can really guide them on an individual basis.
These three—right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration—constitute the fourth branch, the branch of antidotes to opposing factors because they overcome and purify different obstructions or different obscurations on the path. So that’s the eightfold noble path.
Audience: What’s the source of the Sanskrit version of that?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): What’s the source, what’s the text of it? Asaṅga, I think. Yes, I think it’s Asaṅga. Vasubandhu talks about it too but his view is going to be probably more in accord with the Pāli version. But I think it’s Asaṅga. Yes, it must be in either his Hearer Śrāvaka-bhūmi, Bodhisattva-bhūmi, or something like that.
With that we’ve concluded the path in common with the person of intermediate capacity. This is, a person who has meditated on the first two noble truths and thus has the motivation to be free of samsara and obtain liberation, and then cultivates the last two noble truths in order to bring that about. Thus, we’ve done the path in accordance with the middle level practitioner. Now we’re coming to the path of the advanced practitioner. But before we do that let’s pause and see if you have any questions.
Audience: I have a comment.
VTC: A comment?
Audience: Yes. I think it’s extremely deceptive that it seems like such a short section…. [inaudible]
VTC: So a comment. In the whole lamrim, this section [seems short]. I actually explained it in a longer way than it usually is—although I left out some other topics that are ordinarily explained, like the factors that make the afflictions arise, and the death process, and other topics. I left out some of that.
So, yes, in the standard lamrim it usually is thin. That is because many of the same topics are going to come when you talk about the six far-reaching practices. The three higher trainings—ethical conduct, concentration, wisdom—they are repeated in the six far-reaching practices, aren’t they? Actually, when you look at the bodhicitta as the intention in the bodhisattva practices, you can see they are all elaborations of the eightfold noble path—in bodhisattva conduct and in bodhisattva context. Generosity is everywhere. Ethical conduct is in both. Fortitude comes under right intention. Joyous effort comes under right effort. Right meditative stabilization is right mindfulness and right concentration. The far-reaching practice of wisdom is right view. It’s basically an elaboration in the context of a bodhisattva practice of what was taught before. That’s why they don’t go into a lot of depth in the intermediate stage because they’re trying to get you to the bodhisattva path. Don’t stop at just wanting to attain liberation. Go on and generate bodhicitta and practice the bodhisattva path.
Audience: When they have the monastic education for geshes and this… [inaudible] the perfection of wisdom, there’s one whole section I think, is this the topic in there?
VTC: In the geshe studies that they do in the monasteries, what they call Parchen—the far-reaching practices—the study of those is based on the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. But it’s teaching the paths and stages. So it’s teaching all the bodhisattva practices and actually all the hearer and solitary realizer practices too. So it goes into all this material. Yes, for sure.
Audience: Could you please repeat the names of the four branches?
VTC: The names of the four branches. The first one is the branch of affirmation, and that’s right view. Second is the branch promoting understanding in others, and that’s right intention. Third is the branch that develops trust and respect in others, and that’s right speech, right action, and right livelihood. Then the fourth branch is the branch of antidotes to opposing factors and that’s right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Audience: How do we link the six perfections with the eightfold path and the 37 practices of bodhisattvas?
VTC: How do we link the six far-reaching practices with the eightfold noble path? I just explained that. And with the 37 practices of bodhisattvas, meaning the 37 harmonies with enlightenment? [This was an online question.]
Audience: That was not clear, [they wrote] the 37 bodhisattva practices.
VTC: There are the 37 aids or harmonies to awakening that come in the Pāli scriptures. (They’re explained in the Mahāyāna scriptures too.) But there what’s emphasized [in the Pali scriptures] for somebody as the path is 37 harmonies for somebody who wants to attain liberation. They’re also included in the bodhisattva path; but the bodhisattva path also includes other things. As to how these things overlap and relate, remember at the Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner today I said that sometimes we ask questions before we’ve thought about it ourselves, and I think this is one of those questions.
I would like you, as part of your homework assignment, to go home and this week really think about that. Draw some diagrams and charts about how does the eightfold noble path relate to the six far-reaching practices. And when you talk about the 37 harmonies to enlightenment, how do those relate to the six far-reaching practices? Go through and outline these and study them yourself and see what you come up with. If you’re talking about the 37 practices of a bodhisattva, according to Togmey Sangpo’s text, then that’s a little bit different. But still you can go through and see how all of these things relate to each other. If you think about this yourself, you’ll gain much more wisdom than if I figure it out and tell you. So do that and I’ll ask you next week. If you sit there and go, “Duh,” instead of “dhih,” then I’ll know you have the wrong seed syllable. Mañjuśrī’s seed syllable goes dhih, dhih, dhih, dhih, dhih, dhih, dhih, not duh.
Other questions or comments?
Audience: I’m just wondering if I heard this correctly. I still don’t get it if I heard it correctly. You’re saying that right view refers to realizing, in post-meditative time, the correct understanding of the four truths realized in meditative equipoise.
Audience: So what is going on then for the practitioner, in the post-meditation time that they are realizing?
VTC: Now here’s an interesting question. If in the Sanskrit tradition they say that the right view is realizing, during post-meditation time, the correct understanding of the four truths that you realized during meditative equipoise, what does that mean? Well, what do you think? What do you realize when you’re meditating on the four truths in meditative equipoise? You have the sixteen aspects of the four truths remember. Then what are you understanding when you meditate on true dukkha, true origin of dukkha, true cessation, true paths? What are you understanding?
Audience: What’s to be understood, what’s to be abandoned, what’s to be actualized, and what’s to be cultivated.
VTC: To start out you’re realizing what’s to be known—true dukkha. What’s to be abandoned? True origin. What’s to be actualized is the true cessation; and what’s to be cultivated is true paths. So, yes, that’s a start, you’re realizing that. So what else are you understanding?
Audience: For the first one, you’re realizing that things are impermanent, things are by nature suffering, and that they’re selfless.
VTC: Yes. In reference to the first noble truth, you’re going to be realizing the subtle impermanence of things, that all polluted phenomena are in the nature of dukkha. You’re going to be realizing emptiness and selflessness, aren’t you? If you remember those, that’s just four of the 16 aspects. If you remember those and you’re thinking about them in post-meditation time, is that going to change how you live your life? It better! Just realizing impermanence, just imagine if you had a realization of subtle impermanence how would that impact how you lived your life? I say this because post-meditation time is just how you live your life in your daily life activities. How would that impact it?
Audience: Most of the attachment and aversion in our minds would be eliminated.
VTC: Most of the attachment and aversion in our minds—it wouldn’t be eradicated completely, but it would have a really hard time coming up, wouldn’t it? How else would that affect your life?
Audience: You might reassess your values and reprioritize.
VTC: Yes. You would create very different priorities, putting your Dharma practice as something at the top of the list. What else?
Audience: You’d have a lot of energy.
VTC: You’d have a lot of energy.
Audience: And you’d have a lot of compassion.
VTC: And you’d have a lot of compassion. Why would you have compassion if you’re realizing impermanence?
Audience: Because you’re seeing how we cling to permanence moment by moment; and you’d see how all the people around you are just hanging onto things that are disappearing like sand in their fingers; and that’s really a cause for compassion.
VTC: You realize that you and others are hanging onto things, thinking that they’re permanent, whereas those things are changing moment by moment, slipping through their fingers, and people suffer so much because of that and that would make compassion arise in your mind.
Audience: I would think it would make you fearless in your right effort.
VTC: It would make you fearless in your right effort, yes. Expand on that a little bit. Why would it make you fearless?
Audience: Well, for me, my attachment to my life as I imagine it and my vision of myself as living forever, or trying to keep me living forever. My fear comes from that. So I’m wondering that if I saw this true impermanence, that I would lose those fears. I would be fearless about that because I am…
VTC: You’re saying that a lot of what confines your mind is the fear of death and the fear of changing, even of losing your health before you die. If you realize subtle impermanence, all that fear would be gone because you would be able to accept the reality of it, so that would give you a lot of fearlessness in putting forth effort in your practice. How else would it change your life?
Audience: Probably would be able to really progress on the path quite quickly.
VTC: Yes. You’d be able to progress on the path quickly because we wouldn’t be wasting our time in stupidaggios.
Audience: Pretty unshakable renunciation, I’m thinking.
Audience: It would lead to unshakable renunciation because there’s nothing to hang on to. Even if you don’t have the realization of emptiness, if you have the realization of subtle impermanence you see that there’s nothing you can grasp.
Audience: It helps you realize emptiness.
VTC: It helps you realize that all these saṃsāric things that are polluted are the nature of dukkha. Because these saṃsāric things are changing moment by moment, they’re not going to be able to bring us any lasting happiness. That helps us understand that they’re dukkha by nature. It also draws us into seeing emptiness because if everything’s changing moment by moment, then what is there that’s going from one moment to the next moment. If the ‘I’ is impermanent, then what is the ‘I’? That leads you into searching to see if there’s a truly existent person or not. Even that one realization would have a very profound effect, wouldn’t it? You’re realizing it in post-meditation time and then applying it to your life.
How would realizing emptiness change your life?
Audience: You would feel like you were putting your hand through things instead of seeing people so solidly. It would feel more ethereal or illusion-like.
VTC: Yes, things would be more illusion-like. But we’d be much more relaxed about them. Wouldn’t we?
VTC: We would—because our mind wouldn’t make everything so solid and impute so much meaning onto everything. We’d realize that it’s just our mind putting the meaning on something. We’d realize, not just our mind as if we could erase all meaning, but that the meaning is something that’s dependent on many factors. It’s not something that inheres in one factor or another. It would just make the mind so much more relaxed, so much more open minded.
Audience: That would be true contentment.
VTC: Yes. You would be able to be content.
Audience: It seems like that realization would be more a cause for fearlessness and compassion than just impermanence because it seems like impermanence needs to be coupled with something else. Somebody may just realize they’re impermanent and be terrified of that, or they may think that people are idiots for chasing after that.
VTC: It seems that there needs to be something along with impermanence for it to lead to a really good view. I think you need the Buddhist worldview for realizing subtle impermanence really to affect you in a positive way. It’s true that the realization of emptiness is going to be much more penetrating and have a stronger effect on you than the realization of subtle impermanence.
VTC: Right, because realizing that we aren’t permanent affects us in one way, it draws us into realizing emptiness. Realizing emptiness shows us really the empty nature of all these fabricated identities and just the dependent nature of the self—that there’s no solid person there that needs to be protected. It’s going to be much more powerful than realizing subtle impermanence. This is why they say that the realization of emptiness is the ārya true path and it’s the only thing that can eliminate the ignorance from the root. Realizing subtle impermanence can reduce our afflictions but it can’t eliminate them from the root.
Audience: That’s never the end goal no matter what path we’re on. Subtle impermanence is a stopping point, I mean, it’s a realization point along the way.
VTC: Yes, right.
Audience: Never put out as an end goal.
VTC: No. None of the Buddhist schools put subtle impermanence as the end goal of the path. But it is a very strong realization, and a realization that’s very necessary.
Audience: I was just thinking about to realize emptiness directly, the eight worldly concerns would simply…
VTC: You’re saying if you realize emptiness directly, the eight worldly concerns would cease. Probably, if you realized subtle impermanence…
Audience: The eight worldly concerns would cease.
Audience: [inaudible]… get caught up in the illusion and our energy would go in the direction of benefitting others.
VTC: Yes. Definitely we would stop getting caught up in all of our afflictions, all of our dramas, and we would be able to focus more on helping others.
Audience: Would that be only if you generate compassion together with the…you can realize emptiness and not…
VTC: Yes. You can realize subtle selflessness and emptiness without realizing bodhicitta or without having great compassion. If you have great compassion in your mind, then that great compassion is going to affect the result of those realizations of subtle impermanence and emptiness. You remember when we talked before about Candrakīrti’s Praise to Great Compassion at the beginning of Madhyamakāvatāra and how he talked about three kinds of compassion? One being the compassion of just seeing sentient beings in the nature of dukkha. One being the compassion of seeing sentient beings—it is called something to do with phenomena. What it means is that you realize sentient beings as being qualified by impermanence. Then the third and deepest level of compassion is seeing sentient beings being qualified as empty of inherent existence. You would definitely have all these realizations. Again, they aren’t independent like nice little cubicles. It’s not like each one is a square—that enlightenment is a puzzle piece and each realization is a piece of the puzzle. Actually, all these realizations affect each other. Very much they affect each other. That’s actually one reason why they start us out thinking about bodhicitta from the very beginning, even though we haven’t even developed the realizations in common with the initial level practitioner. We still learn about bodhicitta and get encouraged in that because it plants the seeds and it affects our mind even though we haven’t realized bodhicitta. All these teachings affect our mind and steer our mind in that direction.
Audience: While I’m thinking about realizations, it seems like I have this motivation or aspiration to do certain things. Then as I’m interacting with the world or just the thoughts in my head, things appear in my mind and they’re kind of accompanied by all garbage and bad habits and incorrect ways of viewing things. It seems like, and as these are 16 realizations actualized in meditation, in effect if we looked outside those things that are appearing to me would have less and less garbage as more of these… [inaudible]. I can relate to them in a way that more accords with whatever my aspirations are.
VTC: Yes. So you’re saying that you have bodhicitta aspirations, but on a day-to-day basis you see that your mind is accompanied by all sorts of wrong views and disturbing emotions and things like that. You can imagine that as you realize the 16 aspects of the four truths, that those correct understandings would diminish these afflictions and wrong attitudes and wrong views. That’s what you’re saying. Quite definitely. Otherwise, what’s the use? If they don’t diminish our wrong views and our disturbing emotions, what’s the use of meditating on them? That’s the whole reason we do any of these meditations in the lamrim—to bring that effect either directly or indirectly. If a meditation doesn’t bring that effect directly or indirectly, then it’s useless. We don’t need it because it’s not leading us towards our goal.
Audience: Just when you were saying that though, it seems to me to make it really clear how important it is to have a teacher who can help you understand what you’re doing, to study more. Do you know what I mean? How can you have these realizations unless you’ve got somebody who’s really guiding you very closely?
VTC: You’re saying how can you gain these realizations unless you have somebody who’s guiding you and teaching you? That’s why relying on a spiritual mentor is something that’s quite important. Correctly relying on a spiritual mentor is something that’s very important because we can’t dream the path up on our own. Since beginningless time we’ve been dreaming up paths to happiness, haven’t we? Look where they’ve gotten us.
Audience: I think a part of that as well, you don’t always know the progress necessarily that you’re making. You might think you’re having realizations. But unless you’ve got a qualified mentor it might not be what you think it is.
VTC: Yes, that is another good point. Lots of times we think that we’re gaining realizations and we’re not. One role of having a good relationship with a qualified teacher is that person is going to be able to help you assess whether you have actual realizations or not. There was a book called After the Ecstasy the Laundry, or something to that effect. I read it and all these people were describing their meditation experiences and how afterwards they completely lost them, or got very confused by their experiences, or very disoriented. One of the things that came very clear to me in reading that book was this, the advantage of studying the stages and paths. Also, of having a really sound understanding of the path before you, I mean, you meditate at the same time you’re getting a sound understanding of the path. At the beginning, you really put some energy into that because if you do that then when you have experiences in your meditation, you know where to place them. You have some idea whether these are actual experiences or phony baloney experiences—because our mind has the capacity to dream up so much. If you haven’t studied, you don’t know the teachings. If you don’t have a good teacher who guides you, we can have so many exotic experiences and then we get infatuated with them; and we think that they’re real realizations and they aren’t.
I remember when I was first learning to meditate—because I didn’t know anything about anything. My first experience was in Buddhism. But when I came back from that course I was just exploring anything that was called meditation—because I didn’t know anything about anything—that there were different schools or who knows what. I went to this one group where it was some kind of thing like if you were overpowered in your meditation, then you fell back and people would catch you. This was indicative of your having these really good meditation sessions. It could be something too like people speaking in tongues. If you have a good meditation session, then all of the sudden you start speaking in tongues saying secret mantras from ancient civilizations that are really ancient because nobody knows. But if you don’t know anything about what you are actually trying to develop, like: What are virtuous mental states? What are mental states indicative of progress on the path? If you don’t know that, then you think all these things are really fantastic. I was sitting down meditating and all of a sudden I started feeling like I was sliding backwards. I thought, “Wow, I’m getting it!” It’s a good thing I went to Kopan and I learned that I wasn’t getting it at all. I was just involved in the power of suggestion.
Audience: Well, when you look at all the conclusions that the Buddha has us come to when we do each one of the lamrim topics it’s things like determination, clarity, humility, gratitude, joy. It doesn’t say if you start seeing stars inside your eyes and your hair stands on end you’re really getting it. What you have to do is just get really grounded and get really clear and get very in tune with just the practice of becoming a good person.
VTC: That’s a very good point. If you really study the stages of the path and what are the qualities that you’re being encouraged to develop and when you do certain meditations what kind of feeling or experience are they directed towards, then you begin to see they’re all virtuous qualities that make you a good human being. None of them are star-spangled explosive far out things that are indicative of the specialness of ‘I.’
Audience: I suppose when the lamrim gets close to that type of thing it’s like that feeling of your head having just been shaved and the wind blowing by.
VTC: Yes, it’s true. In the stages when they’re talking about developing śamatha one of the things when you’re getting pliancy is the feeling of a freshly shaved head and placing a cool hand on a freshly shaved head. Oh yes, I just shaved my head and I did that. Maybe I’m getting close to śamatha! Well, not exactly.
Audience: It’s a subtle thrill.
VTC: The subtle thrill. One time I went to Putuoshan, the island in China that is Chenrezig’s island and there’s one cave where they say that Kuan Yin appears to people. I went there with my friend. Of course, I couldn’t see anything. I just saw the cave and space between the rocks in the cave, that’s all. There were some other people, some Chinese people who were there too and they were going, “Oh look, Kuan Yin is there. Kuan Yin.” They bowed to Kuan Yin. They made prayers to Kuan Yin. They said, “Oh, Kuan Yin must be getting tired. We better say goodbye to her,” and they said goodbye and then left. It was very sweet but I’m not quite sure what they were seeing. Maybe they were seeing Kuan Yin, but I don’t think Kuan Yin would get tired.
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.