Virtue and Reality

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Decatur, IL, August 1997 (Archive #1082)

This book contains methods for transforming everyday actions into the cause of enlightenment, anger into patience, and the ordinary view of phenomena as inherently existent into the wisdom realizing emptiness.

Listen to the original recordings of these teachings by clicking on the audio icon for each chapter.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche in 1975 in Tarzana, California, after the first American course with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche held at Lake Arrowhead, CA. Photo by Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter Two: Living with Bodhicitta

Again, take a break from reading and meditate on the meaning of life, the purpose of being alive.

Think, “The purpose of my life is not simply to get happiness for myself, not just to solve my own problems. The meaning of my life is to free all sentient beings from suffering and lead them to all happiness because it is from the numberless, precious sentient beings that I receive all my past, present and future happiness, temporary and ultimate, from each everyday comfort and pleasure up to the highest enlightenment.” Feel this in your heart.

When you meditate on all sentient beings, start with the precious sentient beings around you right now. Start with the ones you encounter in everyday life—those in the same room, in the same building, your family, your work mates—and slowly extend your awareness beyond them to gradually encompass all sentient beings throughout infinite space. Generate the wish to free them from all suffering and its cause and bring them all happiness, without discrimination or exception. With all this in mind, think, “This is the meaning of my life; this is the reason I’m alive.” Feel it.

Now think, “I, myself alone, am responsible for bringing happiness to all sentient beings and freeing them from all suffering and its cause. I am personally responsible for the happiness of each and every sentient being.” Dwell with your mind in this state of universal responsibility.

Remember, too, that this responsibility extends far beyond only human beings. There are many different kinds of living being. There are numberless animals that are suffering; numberless hell beings that are suffering; numberless hungry ghosts that are suffering. There are numberless suras and asuras, those worldly gods, that are suffering. There are numberless intermediate state beings that are suffering, experiencing much fear between death and rebirth because of the terrifying appearances their karma creates. Rest your mind in the awareness that, “I am responsible to bring happiness to these numberless, precious sentient beings, the source of all my past, present and future happiness.”

Now think, “The happiness of all these sentient beings—temporary, ultimate and the peerless happiness of full enlightenment—depends on whether or not I have compassion, loving kindness, the good heart. Therefore, I need to develop the method of compassion, the good heart, within me. I also need to develop wisdom. Therefore, I am going to purify my mind, accumulate merit and plant the seed of enlightenment by meditating on the path to enlightenment—not just for my own sake but for the sole purpose of bringing all happiness to the most precious, numberless sentient beings, whose value far exceeds that of countless wish-fulfilling jewels.”

You can use this meditation to set your motivation before any virtuous activity—reading Dharma books, practicing meditation, listening to teachings—taking the above paragraph as an example.

Now bring your attention to the reality of your life, which is impermanent in nature and rapidly approaching death. Then think about the nature of phenomena, which although appearing to exist from their own side are, in fact, completely empty of existence from their own side. Not even a single atom exists from its own side. Everything is empty—your self, actions, objects—nothing exists from its own side. They do exist, but not from their own side. Whatever exists is merely labeled by the mind. Whatever functions does so merely in name. Focus your attention on this empty nature of phenomena.

If you can practice mindfulness of the facts of life—impermanence, impending death, emptiness and so forth—in your daily life, if you can maintain constant awareness of the basic nature of phenomena, you will be able to stop disturbing, emotional thoughts from arising. Normally, these disturbing thoughts control our lives, torture us daily, always give us trouble and prevent our minds from experiencing any peace. Instead of peace, happiness and satisfaction, all we get from them is dissatisfaction, unhappiness and problems—not only in this life but, through the karma they force us to create, in many future lives to come.

Thus, practicing mindfulness of impermanence, death and emptiness—the fundamental nature of phenomena, which cuts the root of suffering, ignorance, the unknowing mind—everything we do in our lives becomes the cause of our liberation from all suffering and its cause. In this way, we can help others at a deeper level by also liberating them from the cycle of death and rebirth and its cause, the disturbing thoughts and the actions they motivate, karma.

In the previous chapter I mentioned some of the benefits of receiving oral transmissions of lam-rim, or steps of the path, texts, where you imprint your mind with the entire path to enlightenment. Another very important text is the Heart Sutra, or the Essence of Wisdom, which is the heart, or essence, of the entire sutra and tantra teachings of the Buddha. This text explains transcendent wisdom, the wisdom gone beyond. The subject is emptiness, the ultimate nature of the I, the aggregates and all other phenomena. It is the essential teaching, or meditation practice, for cutting the root of samsara and attaining liberation from suffering. By receiving the blessings of the oral transmission of this text, you plant in your mental continuum the seeds to understand and realize this crucial topic, emptiness, the only direct remedy to the cause of all suffering—delusion and karma.

When you receive an oral transmission, it is important to think, “May I immediately be able to actualize in my mental continuum the meaning of every word that I hear, may every word I hear benefit all sentient beings, and when I repeat these words myself, may the path that they contain actualize immediately in the mind of any sentient being that hears me say them.” By generating this kind of motivation and listening intently to the transmission, every single word you hear will greatly benefit both yourself and all other sentient beings.

The Three Principal Aspects of the Path

Now I’m going to read an English translation of Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path to Enlightenment in order to plant the seeds of the entire path to enlightenment in our mental continuum. Short lam-rim texts like this are very important. It doesn’t take long to read them, but they leave an imprint of the whole path, and these imprints become the foundation for the development of our mind to its ultimate potential. When you read such texts mindfully or listen carefully to them being read straight through, it becomes what is called direct meditation on the path to enlightenment.

Prostration to the Venerable Gurus.
I will explain to the extent that I am able
The essence of all the teachings of the Conqueror,
The path praised by the Conqueror’s holy children,
The entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation.
Listen with clear minds, you fortunate ones,
Who rely on the path that pleases the Conqueror,
Strive to make your freedoms and endowments meaningful,
And are unattached to the pleasures of cyclic existence.
Embodied beings are bound by the longing for existence.
Without pure renunciation, there are no means to pacify
The aspiration for pleasant results in the ocean of existence.
Therefore, at the beginning, seek renunciation.

Counteract clinging to this life by familiarizing your mind
With the difficulty of finding the freedoms and endowments
And with the fleeting nature of this life.
Counteract clinging to future lives by repeatedly contemplating
The infallibility of action and result
And the sufferings of cyclic existence.

By familiarizing yourself in this way,
When you do not desire the perfections of samsara for even an instant
And continually aspire for liberation, day and night,
At that time, you have developed renunciation.
However, renunciation without pure bodhicitta
Cannot result in the perfect happiness
Of unsurpassed enlightenment.
Therefore, the wise generate the supreme mind of enlightenment.

Swept away by the four torrential rivers,
Bound by the tight bonds of actions, so difficult to escape,
Caught in the iron net of self-grasping,
Totally enveloped by the thick darkness of ignorance,
Born and reborn in boundless existence,
Incessantly tormented by the three sufferings—
Reflecting upon this state of all beings, your mothers,
Generate the supreme mind of enlightenment.

Even though you familiarize yourself with renunciation
And the mind of enlightenment,
Without the wisdom realizing emptiness,
You cannot cut the root of existence.
Therefore, strive to realize dependent arising.

Whosoever sees the infallibility of cause and result
Of all phenomena in samsara and nirvana
And destroys all modes of apprehension
Enters the path that pleases the Buddha.

Appearances are infallible dependent arisings;
Emptiness is free from assertions—
As long as these two are understood as separate,
You have not yet realized the thought of the Conqueror.
When these two realizations are simultaneous and not alternating,
The mere sight of infallible dependent arising
Brings the certainty that destroys all modes of apprehending objects.
Then, your analysis of the profound view is complete.

Furthermore, appearances eliminate the extreme of existence
And emptiness eliminates the extreme of non-existence.
When you understand the way emptiness appears as cause and result,
You will not be carried away by extreme views.

When you have realized the essentials
Of the three principal aspects of the path,
Rely upon solitude and powerful effort
And swiftly accomplish your eternal goal, my child!

The importance of compassion

There are many different kinds of Dharma practice— hundreds of different mantras to recite, all kinds of meditation—but the most important of them all is the practice of compassion. Since each of us has taken personal responsibility for the happiness of each and every sentient being, our development of compassion becomes even more crucial.

If the practice of compassion, the good heart, is missing from your life, then no matter what other practices you do—even the profound, esoteric ones from the highest yoga tantra division of Mahayana secret mantra, which is undertaken for the express purpose of attaining buddhahood as quickly as possible for the sake of all sentient beings—they don’t become the quick path to enlightenment that they’re supposed to be. Without compassion, no practice can lead to enlightenment and can even become a cause of not only samsara in general but rebirth in the lower realms—the hell, hungry ghost or animal realms. Therefore, no matter how profound or advanced a practice might be considered—dzog-chen, the natural great perfection, or dzog-rim, the completion stage of highest yoga tantra—if it’s done without the good heart, the intention of benefiting others, instead of being of benefit, it can be of harm. This is not the fault of the practice but of the practitioner who does it with improper motivation, with the wrong attitude.

If the practices you do—prayers, mantra recitation, meditation—are motivated by compassion towards all sentient beings, they become an incredibly skillful means of collecting vast amounts of merit and purifying the mind of eons of obscurations and negative karma.

This applies not only to formal practice. If everything you do in the course of a twenty-four hour day—walking, sitting, sleeping, working, talking, eating, whatever—is done with the good heart, with an attitude of compassion towards all sentient beings, then even if you don’t have much time to do sitting meditation or other formal practices, all these regular daily activities are transformed into service for other sentient beings. Even if your life is fully occupied by work and family obligations, if you bring the essential practice, compassion, the thought of benefiting others, into everything you do, it becomes the best kind of Dharma, the cause of happiness and success for yourself and, more importantly, all the numberless other sentient beings.

Therefore, no matter how you lead your daily life—in retreat, studying Dharma, chanting sadhanas, reciting mantras or putting in long hours at the office—if you never let compassion leave your mind, if you constantly keep in mind the thought of benefiting others, everything you do becomes work for the welfare of others. Before, when what you did was motivated by ego and attachment, it was work for simply your own happiness. Therefore, everything you did was non-virtuous and created only negative karma, the cause of suffering. But now, like iron transformed into gold, the alchemy of compassion transforms your previously samsaric actions into the cause of not only happiness, peace and enlightenment for yourself, but also happiness for each and every sentient being without exception. Your life itself becomes like gold—pure, rich, extremely meaningful and highly beneficial. Your mind becomes a wealth of merit and good karma, the cause of every happiness.

If you keep the intention to benefit others in mind, if there’s compassion for all sentient beings in your heart, even if you are just going to work, every step, every moment in your car, generates infinite merit in your mental continuum. Because your main goal is the happiness of all sentient beings, every step is very important, extremely precious. Every step you take creates merit as infinite as space.

If you are giving a speech with bodhicitta motivation, compassion, the thought of benefiting other sentient beings, every word, every sentence generates great good karma, the cause of happiness. Why? Because your speech is motivated by the wish for all sentient beings to experience happiness and benefit.

Similarly, if you eat and drink with the motivation of compassion for all sentient beings, every mouthful you swallow creates merit as vast as space. You collect infinite good karma, the cause of happiness. If you work at your job keeping the happiness and welfare of all sentient beings in your heart, every second, every minute, every hour you spend at work continuously generates infinite merit, boundless good karma, the cause of happiness in your mind. Every action that you do with bodhicitta motivation, compassion, the thought of benefiting others, becomes the cause of happiness of all sentient beings.

Bodhicitta transforms your life

That’s why Khedrup Rinpoche, one of Lama Tsongkhapa’s two main disciples, wrote in his praise of his guru’s good qualities, “Every breath you take is of benefit to all sentient beings.” He said this because Lama Tsongkhapa had realized bodhicitta—renouncing himself and cherishing only others. If you have realized bodhicitta—the altruistic mind determined to achieve enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings, the thought of working only for the benefit of others—every single action of your body, speech and mind is dedicated to the welfare of others. Your entire life is lived completely for the sake of others. There’s not even a second’s thought for yourself, for your own happiness. Everything you do is solely for the happiness of other sentient beings. If you recite one rosary of mantras, it is done only for others; if you eat one bowl of food, it is only for others; if you drink one cup of tea, it is only for others. Every single thing you do is done only for others. Nothing in your life is not done for others, for their benefit.

The realization of bodhicitta, compassion, loving kindness, completely transforms your mind. With your old mind, you thought only of your own happiness and worked solely for the sake of self, your old self. The continuity of that mind has no beginning. Because of that mind, you’re still mired in suffering, not free from samsara, and of extremely limited benefit to others. Since you have not developed your mind, your ability to work perfectly for other sentient beings, to bring them all happiness, including enlightenment, is very limited. The realization of bodhicitta turns all that upside down. It brings you a fresh attitude, a new mind—the kind of mind that Khedrup Rinpoche was talking about when he said of Lama Tsongkhapa, “Every time you breathe in or out, it brings happiness to all sentient beings.”

There’s a related story concerning the great enlightened being, Pabongka Rinpoche (1871–1941), a great lama, scholar and yogi who had actualized the entire path to enlightenment. He wrote not only lam-rim texts like Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand but also many other sutra scriptures and, especially, several excellent, extremely lucid commentaries on the tantras—really clear explanations of deity practices from his own experience. Of course, his writings were based on the teachings of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and the commentaries of the ancient Indian and Tibetan pundits and yogis, but by practicing these he had his own experiences and actualized the entire path himself. Thus, he was able to write with great clarity on tantra and benefit the Dharma and all sentient beings in general. He had thousands of disciples, many of whom, on the basis of his teachings and guidance, had realizations of the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment and, in particular, the path of secret mantra, the Vajrayana.

One of Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo’s disciples was a lama called Togten Rinpoche. He had formerly been a practitioner of the Nyingma tradition—there are four main Tibetan Buddhist schools: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug—but one day he came to discuss emptiness with a high Gelugpa lama called Denma Locho Rinpoche, whose present incarnation is one of my gurus. So Denma Locho Rinpoche advised Togten Rinpoche, “If you want to realize emptiness, you should go to Lhasa and meet Pabongka Rinpoche.” So he went to Lhasa and received many teachings from Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo and practiced meditation under his guidance. Pabongka Rinpoche’s monastery is not far from Sera Monastery, and high on the cliff above is his cave-hermitage, where Togten Rinpoche did his retreat.

He would practice his meditation, and whenever he had a realization, would come down to offer it to his guru, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo. One day he attained the ninth level of meditative stabilization, the final step in the process of developing calm abiding. This is a very important realization because you have overcome both gross and subtle scattering and gross and subtle sinking, the main hindrances to perfect single-pointed concentration. It is a similitude of calm abiding, not the actual one, but it leads right into actual calm abiding. Togten Rinpoche must have been pretty excited at having attained this level of meditation, so he came down to tell his guru all about it. Now, before I get to the punch line of this story, I should give you an idea of exactly what Togten Rinpoche had accomplished.

The five paths

When you realize calm abiding, you can concentrate single-pointedly on whatever object you choose for as many months or years—even eons—as you like, as determined by your motivation. No matter how many distractions surround you—police sirens, train whistles, people beating drums in your ear—nothing can disturb your mind or interfere with your concentration. However long you plan to concentrate, that’s how long you can keep your mind on the object, immovable as a mountain. Not only that, but you also experience rapturous ecstasy of body and mind. Your body feels as light as cotton, as if it could float away, and very, very healthy. You can use your body in any virtuous action or practice with no hardship or difficulty whatsoever. Your mind is so controlled that, as I mentioned, you can concentrate on any object for as long as you like, and if you let go of your mind, it automatically gravitates to virtuous objects—so there’s no danger of creating any negative karma. The great advantage of having achieved calm abiding, however, is that it now becomes very easy for you to achieve other realizations. In particular, you can meditate on emptiness as your object in order to develop special insight and the wisdom that is the actual antidote to the suffering of samsara.

The Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings, are true suffering, true cause of suffering, true cessation of suffering and true path. True path means the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, the very nature of phenomena, ultimate nature. This is what actually ceases the delusions—the cause of all suffering; the cause of the cycle of rebirth, aging, sickness and death; the cause of the hell realms, the hungry ghost realms, the animal realms and all the suffering those rebirths entail; and the cause of the human, asura and sura realms and all their suffering as well.

When you achieve the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, you attain what’s called the right-seeing path. It is here that the delusions, the obscurations, the defilements, actually begin to cease. In all, there are five paths to liberation from suffering and its cause—the paths of merit, preparation (or conjunction), right-seeing, meditation and no more learning. By developing the wisdom realizing emptiness motivated by the method of renunciation of samsara—the determination to free yourself from samsara—you can achieve your own liberation. By achieving the right-seeing path, you remove 112 disturbing thought obscurations, and on the path of meditation, 16 disturbing thought obscurations.

However, you destroy not only the delusions, but their seed as well, so that it becomes no longer possible for them ever to arise again. That means you will never again create karma or have to experience suffering. You become an arhat, your holy mind free from the obscurations of the disturbing thoughts. You attain nirvana, the sorrowless state, and liberate yourself from the entire round of samsaric suffering.

To achieve enlightenment for the benefit of numberless other sentient beings, you need to achieve the five Mahayana paths, which are also called merit, preparation, right-seeing, meditation and no more learning. Here, no more learning means omniscient mind, the completion of all understanding; there’s not a single object of knowledge left to discover. Again, it is on the Mahayana right-seeing path that your wisdom directly perceiving emptiness starts ceasing the delusions. Anyway, there are many details of these paths and many texts describing them, of which the Abhisamayalamkara is probably the best known. In the great Tibetan monasteries, such as Sera, Ganden and Drepung, the monks study many root texts and commentaries that detail the five paths and so forth. They memorize, debate and meditate for thirty or forty years. It’s a bit like one person trying to learn all the parts of an airplane and how they function together so that it can fly safely.

Anyway, to attain your own liberation from samsara, you need to understand the details of the five paths. The right-seeing path eliminates intellectual wrong conceptions, those acquired from incorrect teachings, while the path of meditation eradicates the innate misconceptions, the ones you were born with and have had in your mental continuum since beginningless time. After that, you reach the fifth path, that of no more learning, and attain nirvana, the sorrowless state.

To reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, you have to follow the five Mahayana paths. When you achieve the Mahayana right-seeing path, you also eradicate the gross obscurations (nyön-drib, in Tibetan), which prevent you from attaining your own liberation from samsara, but in addition, you eradicate the subtle obscurations (she-drib), the negative imprints left on your mental continuum by the gross delusions, which prevent you from attaining enlightenment.

Merely labeled

We believe that there’s an I, a real self, in our body. But if you look for it, if you analyze the appearance to see whether or not the I really exists in your body, or on your aggregates, you can’t find it. If you don’t analyze, it looks like it’s there, but if you do, you discover that it’s non- existent. This is what your wisdom discovers. When you do not analyze, do not meditate, when you haven’t realized the ultimate nature—the emptiness of the I, the ultimate nature of the self—it appears as if there’s a real I there, in your body or on your five aggregates of body and mind. When you search with wisdom, you discover that the real I, appearing from there, is totally non-existent. It exists nowhere. That absence of the real I is what we call emptiness, or shunyata, the very nature of the self. That is the reality of the self. That’s what the I is. It is empty—empty of the real I that appears from there—and exists merely in name. The only reason the I exists at all is because of the existence of a valid base, the aggregates. The five aggregates—form, feeling, cognition, compounding aggregates and consciousness—are a valid base for labeling “I,” therefore the I exists.

For example, a child is born and its parents give it a name, a label. First the child, an association of body and mind, is actualized; then comes the label. So, depending on the base, let’s say the parents call the child Richard. First the base comes into existence, then the label is applied. The base is not one with the label, “Richard.” If it were, as soon as the base came into being, so would the label, “Richard.” But the two are different. The child—the association of body and mind, the aggregates—and the label—the name, “Richard”—are not separ-ate, but they’re different. Similarly, our base—the association of our body and mind, our aggregates—is not one with the label “I.” The base and the label do not exist separately, but they exist differently. The definition of why Richard exists is because the association of body and mind—the base that can receive the label “Richard”—exists. Richard exists because his base exists. That’s the main reason. Similarly, the only reason the I exists is because the base, the association of body and mind, exists—the valid base that can receive the label “I.” Because of that, the self exists.

But our deluded mind does not see this. To us it appears as if the I exists from the side of the aggregates, as if there’s a real self there. But by analyzing this appearance and your belief in it, you can discover that what you see and believe is a hallucination. The real I that appears from there is completely non-existent. There’s not an atom of real self there. In reality, it is non-existent, but not recognizing this, not realizing this, believing the illusion to be real, believing one hundred percent that the I that appears from there is its reality, blocks you from seeing the ultimate, empty nature of the I.

The I that exists, that experiences happiness and suffering, that walks, talks, eats, sits and sleeps is nothing other than what has been merely labeled by the mind. But even though that merely labeled I exists, if you look for it on the aggregates, on the base, you cannot find it anywhere, from the ends of your hair to the tips of your toes. There’s no question that the merely labeled I exists. It’s just that you can’t find it on the base, on your aggregates.

The I that appears to you in your body or on your aggregates as not merely labeled by the mind—as if it has nothing to do with your mind, as if there’s a real I there that never came from your mind, that exists from its own side—is the I that does not exist. Neither in your body nor on your aggregates nor anywhere else—that I exists nowhere. This is reality. The absence of such an I, the emptiness of that, is the ultimate nature of the I.

The hallucinating mind—the wrong conception holding on to the I as not merely labeled by the mind, as existing from its own side; holding as true that something real is appearing from there—is the root of all delusion, karma and suffering. This unknowing mind, this ignorance, is the main suffering. This hallucinating mind—the wrong conception that believes the I to be other than it really is, in completely the wrong way—is our worst suffering. This is the basic ignorance that we have to eradicate in order to escape from all suffering and its cause.

The only way to do this is to realize emptiness. The wisdom realizing the emptiness of the I is the only solution, the only direct remedy, for this wrong conception. By developing this wisdom we can remove all delusions, liberate ourselves from suffering, and, by revealing the truth to others, liberate numberless other sentient beings as well.

More about the five paths

Before going off on that tangent of emptiness, I was explaining the five paths. There are five paths to nirvana—individual liberation from samsara—and five Mahayana paths to enlightenment. To complete these paths, first you have to achieve calm abiding (shamatha), by proceeding through the nine levels of meditative stabilization. Then you have to realize special insight (vipashyana), and finally achieve the wisdom realizing emptiness, the great concentration—the wisdom realizing emptiness unified with calm abiding.

If your motivation is not bodhicitta but simply renunciation of samsara, at that point you achieve the path of preparation, which is the basis for achieving the right-seeing path, the true path of the Four Noble Truths. At that level, as I mentioned above, the intellectual wrong conceptions are eliminated, and on the fourth path, the path of meditation—as the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness is further developed—the innate defilements are eradicated.

Following the Mahayana, on the basis of having achieved bodhicitta—the compassionate loving thought, the altruistic mind set on achieving enlightenment for sentient beings, renouncing yourself and cherishing others—and the wisdom realizing emptiness unified with calm abiding, you achieve the Mahayana path of preparation. That is the basis for achieving the Mahayana right-seeing path, the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness.

There are two ways of entering the Mahayana path. Either you can enter directly by first developing bodhicitta, or you can first complete the five Hinayana paths as either a solitary realizer or a hearer by becoming an arhat, and then enter the Mahayana in order to attain enlightenment. On the Mahayana right-seeing path, you remove 112 gross and 108 subtle obscurations, and on the path of meditation, 16 gross and 108 subtle. Then you achieve the Mahayana path of no more learning, full enlightenment.

Incomparable bodhicitta

I have explained the above to give you an idea of how great an achievement it is to have progressed through the nine levels of meditative stabilization and to achieve calm abiding. Now to get back to the story.

When Togten Rinpoche arrived, extremely pleased that he had reached the ninth level of meditative stabilization, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo was in the middle of eating a lunch of pak—a dense ball of tsampa, the Tibetan staple of roasted barley flour, mixed with tea and butter. But Togten Rinpoche couldn’t wait, and reported his experience anyway. When he had finished, Pabongka replied, “Compared to the benefits of my eating this pak, your realization is nothing!”

Even though the attainment of calm abiding is incredible and has inconceivable benefits—rapturous ecstasy, unsurpassed clarity of mind, unshakable single-pointed concentration, freedom from sickness due to refinement of body and mind—it doesn’t have bodhicitta: compassion, loving kindness, renouncing yourself and cherishing others. Pabongka, however, had realized bodhicitta. Therefore, every mouthful of pak he ate was work for all sentient beings without exception. Naturally, effortlessly, each mouthful of food created infinite merit, as limitless as the sky. This story, therefore, illustrates the benefits of bodhicitta and shows how practicing the good heart can make our lives most practical and beneficial.

When Lama Yeshe—who was kinder than the buddhas of the three times and took care of me like a father cherishes his only son, not only with education but also with food and clothing and all other means of living—was in Delhi on his way to America for treatment, there was a discussion about a student who had done something wrong, and Lama was asked if he was angry with him. “How could I possibly be angry with him?” Lama replied. “He’s a sentient being.” That shows that Lama had realized bodhicitta. If you don’t have realization, just the knowledge that someone is a suffering sentient being isn’t enough to prevent you from getting angry.

Awareness and the self

Student: May I ask a question, please? You were speaking before about the illusory nature of the I. What’s the difference between that itself and the awareness of it?

Rinpoche: The awareness that recognizes things is mind. That awareness is not the I, the self. The mind is a part of the base. In this life you have a body and a mind. This association of body and mind is the base that you label I. Body and mind are the base; I is the label. The base and the label are two different phenomena. Not only that. I is the possessor; mind that which is possessed. When you say “My mind,” I is the possessor and mind is the possession. They are subject and object; two different things, not one. Therefore, the awareness that recognizes things is not I. It is neither the real I—the I that appears to us not merely labeled by the mind—nor even the merely labeled I. But just because you cannot find the I on your aggregates, from the tips of your hair down to your toes—the body is not I; the mind is not I; even the association of both is not I; the I cannot be found anywhere—does not mean that it does not exist. The I exists. The I, the self, cannot be found on your aggregates, the association of your body and mind. The real I that appears from there cannot be found. Even the merely labeled I cannot be found there. But that doesn’t mean that the I does not exist in this room. It exists in this room; it exists in America. But it doesn’t exist on your association of body and mind.

As long as your body and mind are in this room, the I cannot be found on that base, but it exists in this room. But the only reason for saying that it exists in this room and is not at home right now is that the association of your body and mind are in this room. That’s the only reason. Even though you cannot find the I on them. The minute your body and mind leave the room, so does the I; it is no longer present in this room. So, what is that I? It is nothing other than what has been merely imputed by the mind because of the existence of the base, the association of body and mind.

By analyzing your I in this way, you can come to see that it is totally something else, completely different from what you’ve always thought it was, from beginningless rebirths up to the present. All this time your mind has merely been labeling I on the association of body and mind, and that is how it exists. But every time your mind has merely labeled I, it doesn’t appear back to you as if it’s been merely labeled. That’s the problem. If the I did always appear to you as merely labeled by the mind, it would be impossible for you to generate anger, jealousy, grasping, attachment and all the other painful emotional minds. If you were able to perceive the I as merely labeled by the mind there would be no base upon which delusions could arise. Then you wouldn’t create motivating karma, suffering or samsara itself.

What happens is that after your mind merely labels I, when it appears back to you it does not appear as if it has been merely labeled by the mind. It appears back in completely the opposite way, as if it has not been merely labeled by the mind. That is the hallucination.

Therefore, the reality of the I that is merely labeled by the mind is that it is totally empty. It exists, but it is totally empty. It exists, but it is totally empty of existing from its own side. While it is empty of existing from its own side, the I exists. How? In mere name. When you realize this, you have gained an unmistaken realization of emptiness. On the single object, I, you are able to unify dependent arising and emptiness. The I itself is both empty yet existent. It exists, but it is empty. When you realize these two, without division, you have gained an unmistaken realization of emptiness. If, in what you think is a realization of emptiness, you cannot unify these two or find a contradiction with existence, then your so-called realization of emptiness is wrong. When it comes to this point and you cannot define how the I exists, you cannot see the existence of the I, that means your realization of emptiness is not the actual realization of emptiness but just ordinary emptiness.

When you analyze, the I becomes extremely subtle—so subtle that even though it is not non-existent, it is as if it were non-existent. It is not non-existent, but it seems to be non-existent. It appears not to exist; it becomes an unbelievably subtle phenomenon. The line of demarcation between the existence and the non-existence of the I is extremely fine, extremely subtle. So fine that what is existent appears to be almost non-existent. What it is, however, is merely labeled by the mind.