It is said that there are sentient beings as far as space extends, and wherever there are sentient beings, karmic formations and conflicting emotions also exist. But the nature of these does not transcend misery. In order to establish sentient beings, which have such natures, in a state of happiness and to eliminate suffering, one should involve oneself in the practice of Dharma.
If the motivation is highly extensive and intensive, then also the result will be comprehensive and exhaustive. The practice and reflection of Dharma should, therefore, be preceded by an altruistic mind or, in other words, the attitude of bodhicitta.
Generally, sentient beings possess what is known as the conceptual mind that fixates on the existence or non-existence of things. From our fixation on the notion of existence evolves many different views and conceptual elaborations. For example, certain spiritual traditions claim that God created the earth, and certain non-Buddhist traditions claim that the Supreme Self created the world. But the Buddha says that the world was not created by a Supreme Self or a Supreme Being, but by the law of interconnectedness, the rule of interdependency.
Therefore, the Lord Buddha gave his first sermon as the Four Noble Truths. Most of his audience, like most of the sentient beings, have a strong tendency to fixate on the notion of existence. The Four Noble Truths, therefore, reveal the law of karmic causation, which shows that there exists a cause and there exists a result. Causations can be samsaric, or nirvanic. In samsaric causations, the Buddha presented the cause and result of samsara. In the nirvanic causations, the Buddha presented the cause and result of nirvana.
To avert the notion that fixates on existence—the existence or non-existence of everything—the Buddha gave the second sermon, which is extensive teaching on emptiness. His third sermon, on the tathagatagarba, also rejected the idea of fixating on the existence and revealed that the creator of everything is the sugatagarba or Buddha-nature. In this third sermon, he said that the root of all phenomenal appearances and experience can be traced back to one’s mind.
If the mind thinks in the right manner, then everything seems to unfold in a good way. Conversely, if the mind thinks mistakenly, it appears that many things go wrong. Good and bad things, or negative or positive, therefore, cannot be established merely concerning external existence. Similarly, positive and negative cannot be found, as far as the Buddha-nature is concerned.
If good and bad cannot be established with regard to external phenomena or the internal existence of one’s mind or Buddha-nature, then where do good and bad exist? The root of all these things can be traced back to a lack of knowledge. In the teaching of Dzogchen, it is stated that the nature of mind itself is Buddha-nature, that the mind itself is Buddha. Whether it is the smaller vehicle or the large vehicle of Mahayana or the Vajrayana, of all the teachings the Buddha gave during the presentations of these various vehicles, the main force is said to be one’s own mind. Because of this, one can say that Buddhism is the science of mind. As Buddhist practitioners, then, we should try to attain certainty that the mind is the creator of both samsaric and nirvanic experience.
At the moment, sentient beings experience four confused, or wrong, views and, because of this, are said to experience the miseries of samsara. The first wrong view is to fixate on something being clean. The second is to fixate on the notion of happiness. The third is to fixate on permanence. The fourth is to fixate on self. In these ways, we tend to fixate onto our own physical existence as being clean, permanent, and happy and with an existing self.
As far as the truth is concerned, the skandhas (Sanskrit), the collection of our psycho-physical existence, form, feeling, perceptions, will and consciousness, are impermanent. When sentient beings are not able to perceive the impermanent nature of their psycho-physical existence, they will fail to realize their impermanent nature as a whole. But if they utilize the sword of wisdom and dissect the psycho-physical life, they would be able to reveal the truth, which is that the skandhas are impermanent. When we investigate our psycho-physical aggregates, it will be shown that this body and mind, the spirit and matter of our existence, is a composition of many particles and sub-particles, atoms and sub-atoms, not some solid lump.
From the perspective of gross appearance, we say that there exists a person if all five limbs are present. But if we remove some of the limbs from a person—the arms, for example—and place them somewhere away from that person, then these separate limbs will not be called a person. Therefore, the body is only a collection of parts.
From the perspective of the base of the composition, this base is said to be a conglomeration of atoms and sub-atoms. Preceding this base of atomic particles is the level of the atomic energy that gives rise to the subsequent unfolding of the particles. Therefore, even the subtlest level of atomic particles cannot be said to be the creator of the world, and the atomic particles cannot be claimed to be permanent. As soon as the subtlest particles appear, they vanish or transform into something else and so are not permanent.
Therefore, from the perspective of one’s psycho-physical existence as a whole, one can understand that one’s skandhas do not remain constant; they go through constant changes because the building blocks of the skandhas go through constant changes.
If you analyze the skandhas by applying your wisdom and intelligence in this way, and if you further investigate this gross body regarding the subtle body, this subtle body will be understood regarding subtle impermanence. This understanding of impermanence will evolve into knowledge of emptiness. If one meditates in this manner, this is said to be a true meditation as mindfulness of one’s own body.
What is the significance of understanding impermanence? Understanding the impermanent nature of things will allow us to avert our attachment to our experiences, and we will be able to enjoy a non-attached state of mind. Realizing impermanence will also allow us to further develop practicing wholesome deeds and to stop indulging in negative actions. In the same way, the understanding of impermanence can give rise to certainty of and a longing for liberation. When we genuinely long towards the attainment of liberation, it will be possible to attain ultimate happiness.
In many of the sutras, the Buddha said that, among all the footprints, the elephant makes the biggest, and among all the meditations, the meditation of impermanence is the greatest. It is therefore essential initially to exert oneself in meditation on impermanence. External phenomenal appearance undergoes a constant change; in the same way, our own body also goes through continuous evolution. If our minds are not able to move in parallel with the external movement and change of our body, we will experience misery.
Realization of impermanence will remove the fear we usually experience. For example, it will remove the exhaustion we can experience in spiritual practice, the suffering that occurs when we encounter something unexpected, and the pain that comes from seeking something and not finding it. Thus, the mediation on impermanence has the power to lessen the impact of all of these different miseries.
Suffering will come, momentarily or for a period, but then it will go away. In the same way, happiness comes, remains for a while, then vanishes—all because of the law of impermanence. Therefore, there is not much point in worrying about the beginning of suffering or the end of happiness because the law of impermanence will touch both experiences.
The Buddha said that, if we do not understand the fourfold knowledge of the impermanent nature of our skandhas, suffering, emptiness, and selflessness, then we will experience misery; if we do understand this, we will experience happiness.
Buddha formulated many rules, not merely to restrict us from doing certain things, but to protect us from certain things. For example, the restriction against monks living with women, not because women are evil of nature, but to secure the mind of the practitioner from disturbing emotions. The same applies to intake of alcohol: Alcohol is not wrong in itself, but the restriction is formulated to stop our addictions.
In some instances, however, it might be useful to perform seemingly negative actions. If one performs one of the seven negative activities through one’s body or speech, and the activity is associated with the Dharma, and there is a compassionate motivation for performing it, then one is not entirely restricted from doing it.
The Buddha has not said that all external and internal phenomena are suffering. But when we do not understand the nature of these phenomena, such a lack of knowledge will be a cause of misery. Hence, one should understand that the root of the teaching of the Buddha lies in understanding the law of interdependent origination. One should equally understand impermanence; that is, the fact that everything is empty and without self. When these things are understood in their proper context, then all outer and inner experiences become nirvanic experience, the experience of happiness. But when we fail to understand their nature, they become the suffering of samsara. It is therefore essential for a practitioner to become well versed and learned in the law of interconnectedness, emptiness, selflessness and so forth.
I would now like to reveal the four wrong views: the fixations on cleanliness, happiness, permanence, and self. The antidote to these four wrong views or attitudes is the meditation on dirtiness, suffering, impermanence, and selflessness and emptiness.
When we fixate on our skandhas to be something immaculate and blissful, or to be permanent or to have a self, we generate a tremendous amount of attachment which can lead to the development of many complications. To realize the impermanent and suffering nature of our skandhas, we must meditate on the meaning of emptiness and selflessness.
At the moment, we are explaining the suffering nature. Everything is not like suffering, but when we do not understand the impermanence, the emptiness, and the lack of self of the outer and inner phenomenal experiences, then everything becomes suffering. So if one were to explain that everything is misery, that everything—all outer and inner phenomenal experience—has a suffering nature, then one is making a false statement. Such statements are traditionally said to be criticism and fabrication.
By now, the impermanence and suffering nature should be properly understood as the nature of the relative truth, so the nature of the relative truth should be understood. On the other hand, emptiness and selflessness are the law of the ultimate truth and, when we enter into the practice of the Dharma, it is important to acquire certainty with regard to such views, primarily through studying and reflecting on the Dharma. The practice of Dharma is, therefore, not something that should be studied outwardly, but something that should penetrate one’s heart or mind. There is a saying that, if Dharma is practiced as it should be, instead of lifting us to further heights of wisdom, we will actually descend. According to the legend, it is said that Devadatta, the nephew of the Buddha, was extremely learned in the Dharma, but the knowledge had not penetrated into his heart. Therefore he was reborn as a preta, a hungry ghost.
In contrast, the Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, was not that well versed or very learned in academic Buddhism, but he became completely enlightened. His teacher, Marpa, gave instructions as pith instructions (concise instructions), and Milarepa meditated very enthusiastically on these and attained enlightenment. So, even if you are not very well versed in the whole spectrum of Buddhism, you will be able to familiarize yourself with the four antidotes that will avert the wrong view: the meditations on dirtiness, emptiness and selflessness, impermanence, and suffering. That will be sufficient.
We live within the world of impermanence, experiencing it constantly, so failing to realize the impermanent nature of ourselves and others will cause suffering. As an example, if you are in very deep water and you don’t know how to swim, you will be in trouble. The impermanence can be compared to the body of water, and the knowledge of impermanence can be compared to swimming. Swimming in impermanence, as we all do, is dangerous if one does not have the knowledge of impermanence. Today, the weather is very warm and nice; therefore, this example of swimming came about. Laughter.
We are still talking about the suffering nature, and while we are talking about this nature, I would like to mention two equal terms, subtle impermanence and all-pervasive suffering. These two terms mean the same thing because they point towards the same experience. You might have heard or will hear the term “all-pervasive suffering” mentioned.
If you genuinely understand the meaning of impermanence in this life, you will realize that there isn’t anything significant that you can acquire or lose. You will become free from the hope of both acquiring something and losing something.
Understanding the nature of the relative truth requires understanding of impermanence and, also, understanding impermanence is said to be very essential even with regard to understanding the nature of the ultimate truth, emptiness and selflessness. Understanding of the relative truth in terms of impermanence and suffering is a stepping stone that will allow us to understand the nature of the ultimate truth. Because of this, the Indian master, Chandrakirti, said, “Relative truth is the method, whereas the ultimate truth is the result of that method.” He said that, if you do not understand these two things, you will be entering a wrong path. It is like a bird that jumps from a cliff without two wings will fall to earth and die. Due to the lack of knowledge about the nature of the relative and the ultimate truth, the individual will go through the turmoil of samsara, whereas the individuals possessing the knowledge of relative and ultimate truth can be compared to a bird having two wings being capable of flying wherever it wishes, up and down, because it has complete freedom in the totality of space. Through this example, we understand that we shall try to equip ourselves with the two wings of understanding, both relative and ultimate truth. With such skills, we will be capable of flying through space.
By acquiring certainty of the relative and ultimate truth, it is possible to meditate on emptiness, which is said to be like the vast expanse of space. But if we lack this certainty, even if we were to meditate, and our meditation generates pain in our butts and our knees, it will be no more than self-torture. Therefore, the attainment of certainty with regards to these views is essential.
What do we mean when we say “view”? The view is something that is decided by our thoughts or concepts. The Buddha thought the teaching on impermanence, emptiness, suffering nature, and selflessness from his certainty. Buddha based his teachings on the confidence he gained, and we should also examine whether meditation on such lessons will bring about a spiritual benefit or not.
The fourth antidote is said to be the understanding of emptiness. Generally, when we talk about emptiness in this context, it should be understood as the emptiness of phenomena. It implies that all phenomenal appearance is not single; it means there is no singular the phenomenal experience. Also, the term “emptiness” implies that phenomenal appearance or experience relies on other factors, meaning that they are interconnected. The term “emptiness” also implies an assembly of many causes and conditions.
To recapture and establish a line of argument; phenomena are not found to be singular, because the phenomena depend on a multitude of other factors. Because the phenomenal appearances or experiences depend on other factors, they are interdependently originated, and because of the law of interdependent origination, phenomena are said to be empty. The emptiness of the phenomena implies the interconnectedness of the phenomena.
For example, the emptiness of the space accommodates mountains—the external environment—as well as the sentient beings within that environment. Space functions to accommodate all these things. Therefore, emptiness accommodates the possibility of interdependent origination. Because of emptiness, the phenomenon that occurs from interdependency comes about in the beginning, remains, and finally disappears. Many teachers have worked towards establishing emptiness, like Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, and others.
Since time without beginning, up to this present point, our mind has been habituated in terms of fixating onto the true existence of things. In order to avert such fixation, we need to exert effort in terms of meditating on emptiness. For example, our confusion has become so solid that even phenomenal experiences like dreams are taken to be true while we are dreaming. In order to lessen our clinging onto true existence, many logical arguments were developed by the ancient masters of India. And even though there are many logical arguments which should be studied and reflected upon, they can all be summed up in the Four Logical Arguments.
The first logical argument is examining the cause. It is called the vajra (Sanskrit, meaning "thunderbolt") argument. Of course, vajra is based on a particular mythology. The vajra argument can challenge all wrong views and concepts. The first argument is therefore called the vajra argument.
Question: You used the word “singularity.” I don’t think I understand what you imply by the word singularity. It seems that it means that they don’t exist by themselves, but as a result of many causes and conditions coming together.
No phenomena can be singular because many causes and conditions need to come together for the phenomena to appear, and if "one" does not exist then "many" will not exist either. So, the understanding of emptiness transcends singularity and plurality. According to the view, it is said that, while phenomena are empty, there is at the same time appearance. You see, sentient beings generally attach to appearance, but in the nyingma view, this appearance is established as emptiness on the spot.
Person: On the spot?
Lama Changchub: What Rinpoche was saying is that we tend to generate attachment to appearance, right? To avert the attachment to things, the emptiness of that appearance is established on the spot. Emptiness is revealed in the very moment something appears; one does not to establish emptiness separate from the appearance.
Rinpoche: Now, do you feel like realizing emptiness? You look like a great meditator.
Before we meditate, we should use our conceptual mind to think. The reason is simply because we possess this mind, and this mind is capable of thinking. When we think about these subjects and gain certainty, then the thinking mind will drop on its own. Dropping the thinking mind and gaining certainty is termed “acquiring the wisdom mind.”
Certain spiritual traditions say the Buddha experiences both purity and impurity. They say the Buddha is omniscient, and therefore the Buddha must experience impurity as well as purity. But such statements are wrong. The reason is because, when we abandon this physical human existence, we are not able to experience the humanness. When we leave our present physical existence and acquire a new physical existence, for example that of an ant, our experience of possessing a human body is completely gone. In this new body of an ant, we will not have the slightest trace of the experience of the human body, because we are completely enveloped by the new experience of the ant. It is therefore said that the Buddha knows what impurity is and what purity is. But the Buddha does not experience these; they do not present themselves in front of him; they are only known to him. For example, in order to train sentient beings, the Buddha sometimes talks about many precious jewels and articles within the pure lands. But, in fact, there may be no such jewels in those pure lands. The point is that we are fond of precious jewels, that we are attached to them, so Buddha uses our liking of the jewels and says that if you cultivate the ten virtues actions, you will be able to acquire these precious jewels and you will be borne in certain pure lands. But it is questionable when you are borne there, whether you are truly able to acquire such jewels, but certainly you are able to acquire the precious jewel of Dharma. Do you have more questions?
Question: Can Rinpoche explain more about subtle impermanence?
Subtle impermanence is said to be difficult to realize and understand for common people. This is because it is very subtle. For example, the gross changes of a child becoming a youth, and the youth becoming a grown-up come about because of the subtle changes that occur within the mind stream of that individual. The subtle impermanence cannot be seen by our eyes. For example, as soon as a plant sprouts, it goes through change, but this is difficult to perceive with the gross sense organs of our eyes. But if you placed a video camera in front of the small sprout, then you would be able to see the changes. Or you can sit in front of the plant until it grows big; then you will see all the changes that occur. But it is easier to use a camera. Laughter.
The Buddha has said that the experience of common people is like the palm of the hand. The experience of noble people, of realized beings, is like the experience of the eye. He further said that, if you place a strand of hair in the palm of your hand, you are not able to feel anything. But if you place that single hair on your eye, then immediately you will feel uncomfortable. Because noble beings have realized subtle permanence in this manner, they do not develop attachment to their body, not to mention other phenomena. But ordinary sentient beings, not having realized the subtle impermanence, develop attachments and difficulties of letting go of things and so forth. For example, you might fixate on the same Khenpo Sangpo that came to Norway four years ago and today. Actually I have gone though a tremendous change. But I also perceive Reidun (a person in the room) in the same way, but my perception could be wrong.
Question: Is the realization of emptiness one of the primary conditions for achieving wisdom mind?
The realization of emptiness is the attainment of the wisdom itself because the realization of emptiness corresponds to the reality of the phenomena. You are realizing the truth of the phenomena as it is.
Question: How should one realize emptiness?
One of the methods is to realize impermanence on its various levels, including the subtle level. Understanding of the gross form of impermanence is quite easy. One should use this understanding as a stepping stone to understand the subtle nature of impermanence. This will lead to the understanding of emptiness. It can be compared to the construction of an airplane. In the beginning, somebody discovered the knowledge of how to build a machine that could fly. At that time, the knowledge was rather gross, but using that as base, it has been refined and airplanes have become more and more sophisticated. In a similar way, using the understanding as a base, one should move slowly to understand more and more of the subtle reality.
Initially, our meditation should take into consideration the grosser aspect of the reality, such as impermanence and so forth. Then, gradually, we should try to enter into more subtle levels of impermanence, and then finally into emptiness. It is a little bit like all the numbers can be constructed from zero. Zero can be said to be the mother of all numbers. But the zero in itself is nothing. So similarly, the base of all phenomenal experiences is emptiness, but emptiness in itself is nothing.
Question: So, when one meditates, can one meditate on a table or a brick stone or some other object?
You can select one object and then try to establish the emptiness of that object. When you do this, the same emptiness can be applied to all other phenomenal appearances as well. It is said to be like when you cut one bamboo, and you realize the emptiness of the bamboo, you will understand that all other bamboos in the world also has this empty, hollow quality.
Buddhist texts talk about the 16 different types of emptiness, but as far as the truth of the emptiness itself is concerned, you cannot divide the truth of emptiness into 16 types. This division is made on the basis on the objective phenomenal existence. Take, for example, 16 different sizes of vases placed in the midst of space; you are talking about 16 types of emptiness, not from the perspective of emptiness itself, but from the perspective of the different-sized vases. The main thing is to look within oneself and then try to establish the emptiness of one’s skandhas, the psycho-physical aggregates. This is the most important.
Question: Is that what you sometimes call selflessness?
When you realize emptiness of the self, this is the realization of selflessness.
There is a term that says “the body simply vanishes into atomic particles.” In other words, it means disappearing into a rainbow body. This happens because the person realizes the emptiness of the skandhas.
Our mind has created a diversity of phenomenal appearances and experiences in terms of big, small, good, bad, and everything in between and so forth. When we realize that the creator of all the diversity of these phenomena appearances and experiences is merely our own mind, then this single realization allows us to make everything vanish.
Translated by Lama Changchub at Karma Tashi Ling Buddhist Centre, Norway