The decoration that pervades our life
Even taking refuge and protecting our karma so that we will not be reborn in the lower realms and will attain a higher rebirth is not sufficient because we are still under the control of karma and delusion. That means until we can break free we will continuously circle in samsara, having to be reborn again and again. Then, not only will we suffer endlessly but we will also be unable to ever meet and practice Dharma, to actualize the path to the direct perception of emptiness. It will continue to be like that as it has been from beginningless rebirths.
How we circle in samsara is through the twelve dependent related limbs. Upon the valid base of the aggregates there is a valid labeling mind, one that merely imputes an I on those aggregates. That happens in the first moment, then in the next moment, for many of us, myself included, what happens is that what was a moment ago a valid mind merely imputing an I, now, we have no idea that was happening. We are so ignorant, so totally ignorant that we don’t know that this is the reality. That merely imputed I should appear back as just that, an I merely imputed by the mind—that is the reality—but this has not happened from beginningless rebirths.
As I have mentioned, for a buddha, after the mere imputation, the I appears as merely labeled by the mind, however, this does not happen for sentient beings unless they are in meditative equipoise. Otherwise, it appears as existing from its own side. For us, in the first moment it appears as merely imputed by the mind, but in the next moment it appears as existing from its own side. That is a hallucination, a total hallucination. We are completely hallucinating.
I am not saying this because it is an interesting subject worthy of intellectual discussion. This is the real situation we are faced with. It is a big mistake—the biggest mistake—that we make, to see things as existing from their own side, existing by themselves, as truly existing. To use ordinary language, things appear real to us, real from there.
This ignorance is a hallucination; it decorates an object. I find this a very interesting way of describing it. This is how it happens. Past ignorance has left an imprint on the mind and that negative imprint decorates, projects, the hallucination, making the I appear as real.
Whatever the object of the mind is—the I, the action, the object, form, sound, smell, taste, tangible object—the whole thing appears to us as real. There is a real car, a real road, a real sky, a real shop, real ice cream, real money. On the road there is a real red light, a real yellow light, a real green light. In the real gompa there are real flowers, real thangkas, real statues. Everything is real from over there.
It is a creation, a projection, merely imputed by our mind, but we have no idea of that. We have no idea that it is only a hallucination coming from over there. We see it from there as real. This “real” thing does not exist; it has never existed. It has never come into existence and it does not exist now.
The whole thing is a hallucination. From morning to night it’s like that. Since we were born until our death, our whole life—whatever we do, wherever we travel—the whole thing, the objects of our senses, including the I, appear as real from there. Everything we experience, including the real I, is a hallucination.
Nothing exists in reality. Nothing exists the way it appears to exist, as real from there. Everything is totally empty. It’s like a dream, like an illusion.
Cutting the root of samsara
If we are able to meditate in this way, looking at all this as like a dream, an illusion, a mirage—all the different examples—then it becomes very interesting. There is nothing to become attached to because it is not real.
For example, if we recognize a dream as a dream, there is nothing to be attached to and there is nothing to be angry about. In a dream, somebody abuses us but if we can recognize the dream as a dream, the abuse does not bother us at all. Similarly, some object of desire appears in our dream, but recognizing it as just a dream, we are not agitated. Nothing disturbs us; our mind remains utterly peaceful. Anger and attachment do not arise, so we have a very, very interesting life.
Because things appear to us not as a dream but as real from their own side, which is how it has been since beginningless time, realizing emptiness is vital. It is more important than any job, than all the money in the world, than anything. To cut the root of suffering, ignorance, and be free forever from the oceans of samsaric suffering, there is nothing more important than realizing emptiness.
We need to cut the wrong belief that whatever object that appears to us is real, which is how it appears. As I have said, in the first moment the I appears as merely imputed; in the second it appears as real, as a real I; then, in the third moment, we believe that I to be real. That wrong concept is the root of samsara.
This is true of every sentient being who has not realized emptiness. Hell beings are the same; animals are the same; humans have better brains but they too are the same in this unless they have realized emptiness. No matter whether it is a king, a president, a scientist or whoever, everybody believes this I to be real, to be true.
Because we believe this I to be real, attachment to the I arises and, when somebody does something undesirable, anger erupts. That wrong concept of a real I is the root of all suffering—the suffering of rebirth, the suffering of old age, the suffering of sickness and the suffering of death. Having to become old comes from this; having to die without choice comes from this. Cancer and AIDS come from this. It is the root of the suffering of change, of all the temporary pleasures that never increase and never last.
Those two sufferings—the suffering of pain and the suffering of change—come from pervasive compounding suffering. Because our aggregates are under the control of karma and delusion they are pervaded by suffering and the contaminated seed of delusion. Because there is a continuity of consciousness from past lives, our mindstream carries the imprints of the karma we have created, which compounds this life’s and future lives’ suffering. Meeting desirable and undesirable objects, attachment, anger and ignorance arise, which motivates karma, which leaves an imprint on the mind, and then that produces future lives’ suffering. So, pervasive compounding suffering, the foundation of those other two sufferings, comes from this wrong concept of a real I.
Samsaric happiness can neither increase nor give us any real satisfaction, no matter how much effort we put into it. The happiness of Dharma, on the other hand, lasts and increases, and when we achieve enlightenment it is completed. Therefore, no matter how difficult it is, Dharma practice is extremely worthwhile.
The twelve limbs
Of the twelve dependent related limbs106 I have described the first one, ignorance. The second is compounding action, which creates karma and leaves an imprint on the consciousness, the third link. Sequentially, the others are name and form, six sense organs, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, becoming, rebirth and aging and death.
Looking at the twelve dependent related limbs of this life, in a previous human life we practiced the compounding action of virtuous deeds, such as morality and so forth, and just before the end of our previous life, craving and grasping, the eighth and ninth limbs, arose, conditioning the becoming of another human body, the tenth limb, which lead to the eleventh, the rebirth of this life.
Two deluded actions [links two and ten] arise from three deluded causes [links one, eight and nine]; seven uncontrolled results [links three, four, five, six, seven, eleven and twelve] arise from those two deluded actions. Again three deluded causes arise from these seven results. Such a wheel of life goes round and round.107
So once we are reborn the other six results occur: the consciousness of this life, name and form, the six sense organs, contact, feeling and aging and death. During this life, out of ignorance we engage in compounding actions, leaving karmic imprints on our consciousness, and at the end of our life, craving, grasping and becoming arise once more.
The wheel of life illustration seen at the door of many monasteries is symbolic. For instance, for name and form, the fourth limb, a man rowing a boat is shown: name is the mind and form is the body. After name and form come the six sense bases, depicted by an empty house, and then, after that, comes contact, symbolized by the contact of a man and a woman. From contact, feeling arises, shown as a man with an arrow in his eye.
Since our rebirth most of the other limbs have already happened and all that remains is aging and death. Normally the world defines aging by wrinkled skin and other visible signs of getting old, but aging actually starts from birth. In reality, death is the only one of those seven resultant limbs we have yet to experience.
With every action, we start another set of twelve limbs. For example, with one action we might create the potential to be born as a human being and with another the potential to be reborn in hell. Which seed will ripen when craving and grasping lead us into the becoming of our next rebirth?
It could easily be that of the hell rebirth. There are eight major hot hells, eight major cold hells, six neighboring hells and some occasional hells, ones that are anywhere rather than in a specific location. In each hell there is so much unbelievable suffering. We have experienced such rebirths countless times but cannot remember them. If we could it would be utterly terrifying.
Hungry ghosts have to suffer for tens of thousands of their years—which are much longer than human years—from not finding a drop of water or a scrap of food. They have the most unbelievable suffering but are unable to die. For tens of thousands of years they have to experience the three types of obscurations: outer obscurations, inner obscurations and obscurations of food and drink.108 And they have to experience exhaustion, hopelessness and disappointment. Their suffering is unbelievable, horrible.
Then there are the animals, who are so foolish and ignorant. They suffer from being eaten by other animals, heat and cold, and hunger and thirst. Those that are kept by humans have to endure much torture, being used for work and food, killed for their meat, bones and other parts of their body. They have so much suffering.
For example, African elephants are killed for their tusks, which fetch a lot of money. One of our students in Singapore has a project to protect the elephants, but one of the ways they are protected is by killing the poachers. So that’s thinking of the elephants but not thinking of the human beings, which seems very silly. I asked her if humans might have to die to protect elephants and she said that perhaps that was the case. Maybe later on she realized this.
I once saw a documentary on TV about a fish that hunts insects on the overhanging branches of a tree that grows by the river. The fish sees an insect from below in the water and squirts water at it to knock it off the branch. Usually it takes a few squirts to dislodge the insect, but as soon as it falls the fish shoots up and grabs it. There’s also an insect that kills its prey by spitting some kind of sticky stuff at it from a distance and immobilizing it in that way.
I once saw a fight between a snake and a mongoose. Mongooses are very smart creatures—the arhat Bakula holds a wealth-producing mongoose—but this time the snake won. While in front of the mongoose the snake kept its distance, fearing the mongoose’s sharp teeth, but when the mongoose got distracted by something, the snake came up from behind, grabbed it by the neck and finished it off.
This is all karma. What the Buddha said about ignorance is exactly true. Every problem is due to ignorance. Whatever suffering the animals must endure, being killed or whatever, primarily it can all be traced back to ignorance.
Humans have to experience the suffering of rebirth, old age, sickness, death, being separated from desirable objects and meeting undesirable objects. Even when we find desirable objects we are still unable to find any satisfaction at all. And then there is the suffering of having the five aggregates. These are the sufferings experienced by human beings.
Desire realm gods are completely distracted by pleasure and through their attachment to it they continuously create negative karma. Then, when they are about to die, they hear a voice telling them they will die in seven days—their days are fifty human years long—and they start to experience the very heavy sufferings of the signs of death. There are five ways they suffer. For the first time ever, dirt remains on their body. Their boyfriends and girlfriends refuse to come near them because of the signs of death but pass them flowers on the end of a stick in order to stay far away. And as they recall the blissful life they are about to leave, they can see where they are going to be reborn, which is a huge change from where they are now. Seeing this is said to be much heavier suffering than actually experiencing the hell realm. Kyabje Chöden Rinpoche said that hell beings have more physical suffering but gods have much greater mental suffering, in the same way that rich people have much more mental suffering than poor people.
Wherever we look in samsara there is so much suffering. The root of it all is this incorrect concept that believes that the I is real from its own side. It is formless, colorless and shapeless but the result of this wrong concept is the unbelievable sufferings of the six realms. The suffering we humans must endure is bad enough but that is nothing compared to the suffering of the other realms. All of this comes from something that is formless, colorless and shapeless.
Now you can see why meditating on emptiness is so important. Even though you don’t have a realization of emptiness, just meditating on it is the most important thing to do in order to overcome karma and delusion, the cause of the oceans of samsaric suffering.
While we are circling in samsara, because of ignorance we start so many sets of twelve links. We start so many sets of twelve links each hour, so many each minute. If we create so many sets of twelve links even within a minute, think how many we must create in one day, always creating more and more samsara.
Then, even if we can free ourselves from the prison of one set of twelve links, there is another prison outside that we are caught in. And even if we can free ourselves from that, there is yet another one outside of that one. The prisons are numberless. Due to ignorance we have been creating samsara from beginningless rebirths and even in one hour, even in one minute we create so many sets of twelve links. It’s endless and this will continue until we can actualize the direct perception of emptiness and remove the seed of delusion that causes rebirth.
All our happiness has come from other sentient beings
What I have been mainly talking about so far is how we must free ourselves from the sufferings of samsara. In exactly the same way as we are suffering, there are numberless other sentient beings who are also suffering: numberless hell beings, numberless hungry ghosts, numberless animals, numberless human beings, numberless gods, numberless demigods and numberless intermediate state beings. We are lost, but that is nothing. We are just one being. There are numberless other beings continuously suffering in samsara.
Therefore, it is not enough to achieve the blissful state of peace, nirvana, for ourselves alone while there are numberless other beings that need our help. We need to help all sentient beings.
As I have often said, we have eyes and limbs so that we can run and grab the blind person who is walking toward a precipice, mistakenly thinking there is a road there. That poor stumbling sentient being cannot see the precipice, so it is up to us. That is the first reason for helping sentient beings: because we can—they are suffering so much and we are capable of helping them.
The next reason for helping sentient beings is that all our happiness comes from them. This is summed up in the first verse of the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation:
Determined to obtain the greatest possible benefit
From all sentient beings,
Who are more precious than a wish-granting jewel,
I shall hold them most dear at all times.
This is so important. All our past, present and future happiness, including nirvana and the great nirvana, enlightenment, comes from our good karma. And our good karma is the action of the buddhas.
There are two actions of the buddhas: one is the buddha’s holy mind and the other is with us sentient beings, our own good karma. We create positive actions only because we understand karma—the cause of suffering and the cause of happiness—and our understanding of karma is the result of having been taught by the buddhas.
A buddha’s actions come from a buddha; a buddha comes from a bodhisattva; a bodhisattva comes from bodhicitta; bodhicitta comes from great compassion; great compassion is generated by contemplating the suffering of all sentient beings. Therefore we can see that we can attain enlightenment only by depending on the kindness of sentient beings.
The mind of great compassion—the cause of bodhicitta and thus a bodhisattva and thus a buddha—can only be generated by understanding the suffering of each and every sentient being. Every sentient being must be included: every hell being, every hungry ghost, every animal, every human being, every god, every demigod, every intermediate state being. Not even one is left out. That is their great kindness.
Therefore, great compassion comes from the numberless suffering sentient beings; bodhicitta comes from the numberless suffering sentient beings; bodhisattvas come from the numberless suffering sentient beings; buddhas come from the numberless suffering sentient beings—therefore, a buddha’s actions come from sentient beings. The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the refuge objects we always pray to, come from sentient beings. They come from every single suffering sentient being.
By their qualities, the buddhas are incredibly precious, but, by their kindness, sentient beings are even more precious. Sentient beings are really the most important.
All our past, present and future happiness, including our enlightenment, comes from every single sentient being. When we achieve the bodhisattva’s path, all the unbelievable qualities we attain there come from them. And the numberless qualities of a buddha’s holy body, holy speech and holy mind, all come from them, from their kindness, from every single suffering hell being, hungry ghost, animal, human being, god, demigod and intermediate state being; from every one.
When a person gets angry at and abuses us, whichever way we interpret the action, the fact is that every single pleasure and goodness has come from that person. Every happiness has come from every sentient being, including that person who abuses us. Because the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha come from sentient beings, sentient beings are extremely precious and the person who has abused us is the most precious one to us, the kindest, dearest one to us. He is our wish-granting jewel.
Every single sentient being is like that to us. Every one is our wish-granting jewel. This is what we have to meditate on every day. This is what we should live our life for. This is the purpose of our life, to live for them, for their happiness, to serve them. When we breathe, we should breathe in and out for them. Whatever we can do, we should try.
This second reason to benefit sentient beings is huge. Whatever we do we should do in order to benefit other sentient beings.
If you are a carer, whoever you care for, even just your own child, you should do it for all sentient beings. Whatever you do in that context—even things like saying prayers or chanting mantras—should be done without a sense of possession—my child, my wife, my husband, my, my, my—that is nothing; that is just attachment.
Caring for this precious sentient being, this child, you should think, “I’m so fortunate that I can dedicate my life, I can use my limbs to benefit even one precious sentient being—this most precious, most kind, most dear sentient being.”
It’s the same when taking care of an old person. It might be your father or mother or maybe you are working in an old folks’ home or something and you take care of one old person. You should think the same thing, that you are so fortunate to be able to use your body, speech and mind, your limbs, to serve this one sentient being. Remembering that all your past lives’ happiness, your present happiness and your future happiness all come from this person, you should see him or her as most kind, most precious, most dear.
Then you serve that person in whatever way you can. If there is something you are unable to do, what to do? We are all limited in power, but whatever you are able to do, offer that service from your heart. It’s not as if you’re doing it for money or some other worldly reason.
Many people who work for money, even in the care profession, come to dislike their job. They work as little as possible and at the end of the day get away as soon as they can, always longing for their day off. Many people in the West cannot appreciate how their suffering comes from the mind, from wrong concepts, from not having a good heart. That makes life so difficult. Working only for their own pleasure, they find no satisfaction.
Here, you should offer as much service as you can from your heart; offer your body, speech and mind. That is the best Dharma, the best meditation. Then you will be happy. The more you appreciate how precious serving another being is, the more you enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be a guru you are serving. Your mind will be so happy to serve, whatever you can do.
This applies to even the small things in your daily life: offering your seat to somebody on the bus, helping somebody carry a heavy load or, as my guru Kyabje Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche often mentioned, rescuing a drowning insect. Try to do whatever you can to help, according to your capacity, whether it’s big or small.
By using your body, speech and mind to serve others you are repaying your parents’ kindness, not making what they have done meaningless. Your mother suffered so much for you for the nine months you were in her womb. Then, during your childhood, you were constantly demanding things: “I want this, I want that.” Your parents always did whatever they could to please you but still you would cry. For so many years they took care of you, giving you medicine, books, food, clothing, spending vast amounts of money on you. You must repay that kindness, giving them meaning for their great effort.
Serving others means that your parents’ efforts have not been meaningless. Otherwise, they have made children simply for their own happiness. People get married, have children and then, after some time, there are many problems and finally, one day, it is finished.
Knowing how to live your life with bodhicitta, even if you are living a family life with children, means you know how to serve others, how to really appreciate others. If you must scold your child, you do it with love so that he or she will learn to be a better person.
Only by cherishing others will we attain enlightenment
The third reason to help sentient beings is that they have all been our mother and father numberless times and have all been kind in the four ways numberless times from beginningless rebirths.
If we are able to cherish one sentient being, even the enemy who gets angry at us, by cherishing that one sentient being we can achieve enlightenment. That person gives us enlightenment. Not only that, we become enlightened for sentient beings. And by the way, by cherishing that sentient being we also achieve the happiness of future lives and liberation from samsara.
By seeing that person as a wish-granting jewel, there is no mental suffering. By cherishing a wish-granting jewel we cannot achieve enlightenment but by cherishing that person we can. So, this person we call an enemy is more precious than a whole sky filled with wish-granting jewels. Thinking in that way, we should hold him most dear at all times, whatever state we are in, happy or unhappy, up or down. We should cherish that one person with our body, speech and mind.
Thinking like this, we ourselves become a wish-granting jewel to other sentient beings. This is not something we do only in a temple or Dharma center but not in our own home. It’s not like that. We should happily dedicate our body, speech and mind to every person in our family.
The more we cherish others, the more we see their kindness, the happier we will be to serve them. The opportunity to offer service brings such great happiness. We naturally, joyfully, want to serve others as much as possible because that is where the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha come from. Even the small things we do to serve others make our life so joyful, so happy, whether they are in our family or outside it. This is how bodhisattvas feel.
For bodhisattvas, to achieve nirvana, the blissful state of peace for themselves alone, is like used toilet paper. Here the texts say “used toilet stone.” I remember how in Buxa, because we used stones instead of paper, the toilets filled completely and became unusable. And it was a long time before they got fixed. When I first went to Sera in south India, the toilets were again filled with stones. So the text says “used toilet stone,” but we can read that as “used toilet paper.” For bodhisattvas, it is like that: achieving nirvana for themselves alone is something to immediately be thrown far away, just as we discard used toilet paper, never to use it again.
On the other hand, for bodhisattvas, the thought of being born in the hells for sentient beings—even for one sentient being—brings them unbelievable joy and happiness; much greater happiness than an arhat experiences achieving nirvana.
There is the story of one of the Buddha’s previous lives, in which he was a bodhisattva and the captain of a ship carrying five hundred businesspeople. On board was a man carrying a spear with which he intended to kill those five hundred people. The bodhisattva captain saw that and, out of great compassion, was concerned that if that man killed all those people, he would be born in hell and would have to suffer there for many eons. Therefore the bodhisattva killed him and faced the consequence of his being born in hell instead. But what happened was that, in reality, killing him with such great compassion purified a hundred thousand eons of the bodhisattva captain’s negative karma, which meant he was able to become free from samsara and achieve enlightenment a hundred thousand eons sooner. That is what happened, even though his wish was to be reborn in hell instead of the man with the spear.
106 Also called the twelve links of dependent origination. See Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, pp. 479–486 or Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, vol. 2, pp. 324–360. [Return to text]
107 From Rinpoche’s Wish-fulfilling Golden Sun. See that book for a clear, succinct explanation of the twelve links. Also quoted in Steps, vol. 2, p. 346. “The first, eighth and ninth are delusions. The second and tenth are karma. The remaining seven are sufferings.” [Return to text]
108 See Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, pp. 340–45. [Return to text]