Commentary on Chapter 8 of Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama presented these teachings in Bloomington, Indiana from August 20-23, 1999. The teachings are a commentary on Chapter 8—the chapter titled "Meditation"—of the great master Shantideva's book Bodhicaryavatara (A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life).

Section Two: August 20th PM

I will continue with a general overview of the path. I spoke of the fundamental factor of how causes and conditions bring into being a particular thing or event, which is also the very factor that implants the seed for the cessation of that thing or event. Also I spoke about how when one pursues the line of reasoning, the causes and conditions themselves are products of preceding causes and conditions. These in turn are products of preceding causes and conditions and so on thus leading to an understanding of the infinity of the causal chain and the beginninglessness of the causal chain. Now this is the case if one were to look at things and events in terms of their continuum.

Of course at the level of manifestation because of the diversity one can validly conceive of, for instance in the context of a particular event, a beginning of the event and the end of the event. At the level of the world of multiplicity and the world of manifestation of course one can talk about a beginning and an end. But in terms of the actual continuum of things and events, especially when viewed through the principle of causation, then one finds that it is beginningless, it is infinite.

This is the nature of things and events, the nature of reality that one experiences. This is the nature of the world of dependent origination. Within this world of dependent origination one finds that by nature one finds two principal categories or kinds. On the one hand are those phenomena, which have physical or material properties such as color, shape, odor, tactile properties and so on. On the one side are all of these material objects or things that possess obstructive, material qualities. On the other side is the second category of phenomena, which do not possess material qualities but exist simply in the nature of mere experience, a nature of knowing and luminosity. This category of phenomena one calls the world of mind or consciousness.

Within the realm of mental phenomena, which is in the nature of mere knowing and experience called awareness or consciousness, the Tibetan term shepa, which means awareness by itself, suggests the quality of knowing. It has the subjective quality of knowing. Again within this realm there is diversity. For example when one sees something through one’s visual consciousness, one has a vivid image of that object in front of one that is the sensory experience of visual perception. When one sees things through one’s eyes, visual perception one also has because of this experience an immediate experience that “I am seeing” or “I see this”. Now of course this does not suggest that the visual perception itself is the I or self yet the experience of that perception does give rise to the thought that “I see this” or “I am seeing”.

A problem arises. If visual perception itself is the actual person, being or self then this cannot account for other observed facts of one’s subjective experience. For example one may be seeing something with one’s eyes at a particular instance but immediately thereafter due to some other circumstances one becomes distracted by hearing or smelling something. This distraction need not be an external object as one could withdraw one’s mind focusing single-pointedly on a thought. This suggests that even though one perception may be dominant at a particular given moment, one has the capacity to be dominated by other sensory perceptions like auditory or tactile sensations. Similarly one is capable of directing one’s focus inwardly to a purely subjective experience.

This suggests that underlying these diverse sensory and mental activities there is a continuing agent or subjective experiencer, a person or self that in a sense controls all of these various activities. There seems to be a person that is the true experiencer, that is the true perceiver. This is what is referred to be “I”, self, mine and so on. If one examines this kind of sense of self or sense of “I”, one finds that it arises in dependence on some kind of continuum. In the final analysis it said to be dependent on the continuum of the consciousness. Since as I discussed earlier, the continuum of the consciousness is beginningless and infinite, similarly the self or the I that is designated upon this continuum will also be accepted as beginningless and infinite in terms of its continuum.

As to what exactly the nature of this self, person, being or “I” is there is of course a diversity of opinion among the philosophers of ancient India. There is one camp of the ancient Indian schools of thought, a non-Buddhist school who on the whole accept some kind of independent entity that is unitary and so on, that is in the final analysis independent of the mind and body, independent of the mental and physical aggregates. This is one camp. The other camp to which all of the Buddhist schools belong to which reject the need to posit some kind of independent self that is independent of the physical and mental aggregates. Rather they accept the existence of a self in relation to the physical and mental aggregates.

Within these Buddhist schools there are some who maintain that in the final analysis the self has to be identified either with one or several of the psychophysical aggregates. There are then others who reject this kind of strict identification of the self with the aggregates but rather accept that the self or person must be understood only as a kind of a construct in relation to the psychophysical aggregates. Nothing within the psychophysical aggregates can be said to be really the true self. So the self is a construct that must be accepted in relation to the psychophysical aggregates.

Whatever the truth of these various positions the fact is that all of us have this natural sense of self, the natural thought of “I am”. On the basis of this natural sense of selfhood all of us also have a natural aspiration to be happy and to overcome suffering. This is a fact of our existence. It is on the basis of this natural aspiration, this fundamental aspiration to seek happiness and overcome suffering that all of us exist and survive. We survive on the basis of hope and this hope points towards the future although there is no guarantee that the future will be better than the present. But still we survive on the basis of hope and with hope we direct our thoughts towards the future. This kind of aspiration and hope is what lies at the root of our survival and existence. This is not something that is unique to human beings even animals also survive driven by this kind of instinctual aspiration to seek happiness and avoid suffering.

Among all sentient beings, this basic aspiration to seek happiness and shun suffering compared to human beings, beings in the animal realm have a limited pursuit of happiness. They are only able to pursue the fulfillment of this aspiration in limited circumstances and only related with the immediate moments of pain or pleasure. They have a very limited scope.

Unlike animals we human beings, because of our intelligence and imaginative faculties, we have the ability to project into the future and recall our experiences of the past. We are able then to make plans and build infrastructure for the future for others’ wellbeing. Also what is normal for human beings to protect themselves from potential misery later in life by earlier in life we accumulate wealth or create the appropriate conditions for whatever we may need in the future. Also we are able to project beyond the concerns of our own existence and make plans for the wellbeing of future generations. Only we human beings have this capacity to project ahead and make long-term plans and try to pursue the fulfillment of our basic aspiration to seek happiness and overcome suffering.

If one examines carefully one’s normal day to day experience, one’s pursuit of happiness and suffering is dominated by the experience of the senses. The kind of happiness one seeks, the type of suffering one seeks to avoid are on the whole sensory level experiences. Whether it is attraction towards a particular object and its acquisition or avoiding physical threats, the type of fulfillment one is seeking is purely at a sensory level. One’s pursuit of this happiness and avoidance of suffering is dominated by sensory level experiences.

However there is another dimension, a deeper level of the experience of happiness and the avoidance of suffering, which is a satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that one acquires as the result of reflective thought processes. Here the experiences are beyond the level of the sense and if one compares these two levels of experience, the physical and the mental, I would say that the mental level of pain and pleasure is more acute and more powerful. The reason for this is simple. For example if one has cultivated within oneself a certain degree of an inner sense of fulfillment or happiness based on mental composure then even if one achieves material facilities it is helpful. But if one lacks those material comforts because of one’s inner qualities, one is able to sustain one’s sense of wellbeing.

On the contrary if one lacks this inner sense of fulfillment and composure then even if one is surrounded by the finest material facilities then one simply cannot enjoy the benefits of those material comforts. This suggests that the mental level of the experience of pain and pleasure is more acute than the sensorial level.

So just as all of us, by virtue of our very existence have this fundamental, innate aspiration to seek happiness and overcome suffering, also all of us have the natural right to fulfill this aspiration to be happy and overcome suffering.

What one finds in the Buddhist teachings is the suggestion that so far as the nature of awareness itself and its continuum is concerned, it is beginningless and there is nothing that can obstruct the flow of the consciousness. There is nothing that can obstruct or bring about the cessation of the continuum of awareness therefore awareness is not only said to be beginningless but also in terms of its continuum it is also infinite and endless.

Compared to this suffering and pain are more relative and have a more circumstantial nature. Sufferings and pain come into being as the result of many other factors, many of which are circumstantial conditions. If one examines the nature of suffering, it is fairly obvious that their nature is dependent on causes and conditions, the fact that the experience of suffering comes about as the result of other causes and conditions. Take the example of physical pain like headache or hunger pains. These very obvious types of pain are recognized as undesirable sufferings even by animals. There is universal agreement between humans and animals that those types of experiences are painful.

In the case of someone experiencing severe hunger and suffering for this, one could go into a detailed analysis of what the various causes are. Of course the immediate cause is a lack of food, something to eat. Now why is it that the person has no food to eat? One can go further into the causes. Now there is a level of causation that is very apparent but there is another level of connection that is not so obvious but which one can infer through some reasoning and reflection. For example one can talk about misguided economic policies of the country, the failure of the person’s initiative and so on. One can bring in all sorts of factors that have help lead to the poverty of this person.

When one thinks along these lines then one will appreciate the significance of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths. One of my fundamental beliefs is that the purpose of our existence is to be happy, to seek happiness. In fact within the natural world the things that are of interest to us and the things that have a direct bearing on our experiences are the things that give rise to happiness and suffering. What matters to us is happiness and suffering. I believe that the fundamental purpose of our existence is to seek happiness.

When one talks of happiness obviously one is also talking about suffering as happiness and suffering are related. When one thinks along these lines one appreciates that what one does not desire instinctively, naturally and by one’s innate nature is suffering and what one does seek and aspire to attain by one’s innate nature is happiness. If this is the case then one needs to examine what are the origins, what are the factors that give rise to suffering that one does not desire and one must try to get rid of those factors, causes and conditions. What one aspires to attain is happiness therefore one must look into the factors, causes and conditions that give rise to the happiness that one seeks. One must then cultivate those causes and conditions, seek them and develop them. This is how one will pursue the fundamental aspiration to be happy.

Also one knows that happiness and suffering do not exist as absolutes. There is no absolute happiness and there is no absolute, independent suffering. Rather happiness and suffering, pain and pleasure come into being through dependence upon many factors, causes and conditions. Therefore one appreciates the significance of the teachings of the Buddha on the Four Noble Truths. Because one does not desire suffering it is in one’s interest to seek the origin of suffering and try to eliminate the origin by finding the way to do this.

Earlier I spoke about the Dharma in the context of Buddhadharma, being nirvana or the liberation from suffering. Here it is important to recognize that in the Buddhist context where one is referring to happiness, the achievement of happiness as being the ultimate aspiration of a spiritual practitioner, one’s understanding of happiness should not be confined to ordinary happiness of the senses. Rather here one is talking about lasting happiness, permanent happiness which is the total cessation of suffering and its underlying root or cause that are the afflictive emotions and thoughts.

This true cessation of suffering along with the mental afflictions is nirvana. Of course although one has go through the gradual stages of attaining various levels of cessation, the highest cessation is the complete overcoming of all of the afflictive thoughts and emotions. This is the true nirvana. This is the Third Noble Truth, the Truth of Cessation and this can only be attained when one cultivates the right path, the true path that leads to the attainment of such liberation.

Given the happiness that is being sought in the context of the Buddhist practice is not the ordinary happiness of sensual experience but rather lasting happiness defined in terms of total cessation of negativity along with the afflictive thoughts and emotions, therefore when the Buddha taught the Truth of Suffering again one’s understanding should not be confined to one’s ordinary experience of suffering. Even animals can recognize ordinary suffering as painful and as undesirable. Rather the understanding of the nature of suffering has to be grounded in a deeper recognition of the nature of suffering, which is based upon the awareness of recognition that the mental afflictions are the ultimate root of one’s suffering. Thus one generates an attitude that those are one’s true enemies. Once one has this kind of deeply felt conviction in the recognition of the afflictions of the mind as being one’s enemy then one will develop the genuine aspiration or desire to attain freedom from suffering and freedom from the afflictive emotions. In this way one will be able to understand the nature of cessation as well. In other words it is important to have a deep appreciation of the nature of suffering when one talks of the Truth of Suffering.

When one thinks along these lines one will appreciate the statement that all the eighty-four thousand sets of discourses taught by the Buddha, all of them converge on the teachings of Dependent Origination. What is the significance of this statement? It is first that the object of aspiration of a Buddhist practitioner is nirvana that is the true cessation of suffering and the afflictive thoughts and emotions. This requires the practitioner to have a deeply felt conviction that at the root of suffering lies the mental and emotional afflictions. Therefore any teachings of the Buddha must either directly or indirectly eventually converge on the point of teaching the techniques and methods for eliminating and diminishing the force the mental and emotional afflictions. This is the meaning of the statement that all of the Buddha’s teachings converge on the teachings of Dependent Origination.

Once one has this kind of understanding and deeply felt conviction of the negativity and destructive nature of the afflictions of thoughts and emotions, then one will definitely have a genuine desire to seek freedom from them. One will seek to overcome those afflictions. Even for the skeptic who does not have a belief in any religious system, if this person engages in some sort of reflective thought, simply asking the question “What happens when powerful negative emotions occur within my mind?” for example strong anger or hostility. Sometimes it may be the case that some person when they become very angry towards another tends to have some sense of satisfaction thinking “I was able to show them”. However generally speaking when strong hostility or anger arises within one’s mind, it undermines one’s wellbeing. It begins to effect one’s thoughts, appetite as well as one’s sleep. Thus these negative emotions effect one’s physical health. It is said that if one is really angry, at that instant even if one meets a friend one may find that friend annoying. Such is the power of the negative emotions.

Similarly when one has strong attachment or desire for something, this begins to undermine the stability of one’s mind. If the attachment or desire is very strong then one’s mind will be totally dominated by this craving to attain the object of desire. One is willing to do anything, exploiting someone, deceiving someone, telling lies and so on until the object is attained. Such is the power of craving.

Similarly when one has strong pride or arrogance then when gripped by this pride and arrogance one falls into a self-congratulatory, complacent state of mind. Thus one neglects many other important purposes. When one has such arrogance one tends to look down upon others. One is competitive towards others as well as envious of others. Pride leads to envy and other negative emotions. So when powerful negative emotions arise in one, one knows even without any religious beliefs that they undermine one’s sense of wellbeing and the underlying stability of one’s mind.

The point I am trying to make is that when one thinks carefully, one will realize that the negative emotions are the destroyer, the ultimate cause that lets one down. If there is any possibility that these could be eliminated, could be rooted out of one’s psyche then surely one must find the aspiration and that endeavor worthy of effort.

From the Buddhist point of view if one looks at the nature of suffering then one will appreciate that at the root of all suffering or painful experiences lay with the powerful negative emotions and thoughts. Whether the suffering or pain are the result of human creation or the results of natural events such as sickness, aging or death, whatever painful experiences or sufferings one encounters from the Buddhist point of view all are the products or consequences of the afflictive emotions and thoughts.

This alone would be a benefit to achieve total freedom as a result of the total overcoming of the negative emotions and thoughts. Even the very awareness that one cultivates as the result of reflecting upon the destructive nature of suffering and cultivates some feeling of distance from the powerful negative emotions and thoughts, this in itself has a powerful effect on one’s mind. This in itself creates a strength within one and has a powerful effect upon one’s mind.

Even in the case of ordinary human conflicts between individuals if one is able to have some kind of assessment of the power, strength and capability of one’s opponent, although one may not be able to totally overwhelm one’s enemy but this knowledge itself will give one confidence. Similarly in the case of a spiritual practitioner whose sole purpose is to combat the negative emotions, when one has a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the afflictive emotions, an understanding of their strength and destructive nature, this knowledge in itself can create confidence in one. This is similar to having performed an assessment of the enemy’s strength.

As one finds in the Buddhist scriptures and also in the writings of the great Kadampa masters, it is said that the true practitioner must cultivate some kind of skillful relationship or understanding in the afflictive thoughts and emotions. These masters are not suggesting that one should be skilled in expressing these powerful negative emotions. All of us are so habituated to expressing these powerful negative emotions that we are all in some sense experts. We do not need to develop such expertise in the experience of the negative emotions, as we are all experts in expressing anger, attachment and so on. Just as the Seventh Dalai Lama stated in so far as one’s being an expert in the experience and expression of negative emotions, all of us are equal with the only difference being one’s external appearance. Some may have a holy appearance wearing impressive robes but in actual fact of being totally habituated and being an expert in the negative emotions we are all the same. The great Kadampa masters are suggesting that one develops a new expertise in understanding the nature of the afflictive emotions. By expert here is meant to have the insight into their deeper nature such as what factors give rise to what negative emotion, what are the conditions, what antidotes are to be cultivated or what are the dynamics between the negative emotions? This is what the Kadampa masters meant by becoming an expert.

If one looks at the world of emotions, one knows that it is a world of multiple experiences or events. Within this world of emotional activity and thoughts there is a convergence of opinion on one thing by the great Indian masters. This is that there are two principal underlying emotional types. One is attachment to oneself and as a result of this one has a feeling of attraction towards those whom one considers close to one or those whom one considers loved ones. Because of the attachment to one’s self one also has a notion of separate others. There is a division between self and others and towards others often there is often a strong emotional repulsion which manifests in the forms of hostility, jealousy, envy and so on.

Primarily there are two principal driving forces, attraction towards things associated with oneself and a sense of repulsion towards things that are related with others. What is the dynamic that gives ride to this attachment to self and that associated with the self? Of course there are complex explanations for this phenomenon. As to the question of this dynamic, Nagarjuna suggested the following explanation. He wrote two lines, which read something like:

To a mind clinging on to an object
Why wouldn’t powerful afflictive emotions arise?

He is suggesting that when one examines how one relates to the objects of one’s attachment or anger, one will realize that underlying these powerful emotions is an assumption of that object having some sort of independent objective reality, some status of existence supported in and of itself. Because of this sort of projection of an objective and intrinsic reality to the object then when one relates with that object, one sees certain qualities that one immediately clings to developing powerful emotional reactions.

Therefore if the object did possess such independent, objective, and intrinsic reality then, say in the case of anger, the quality of undesirability would be an absolute characteristic of that object. In that case then there would be an objective ground for one’s emotional reaction. Similarly if the attachment felt for an object was inherent, intrinsic and objective in that object then the quality of desirability that one projects on to the object would be grounded in reality. However this is not the case. Therefore what Nagarjuna suggested was that the belief in some kind of intrinsic and objective existence in an object, the belief that things and events possess some kind of independent and objective reality is what gives rise to the powerful emotional reactions to things and events. So the underlying root factor really is the conception of an objective reality or the independent existence of things and events.

Earlier I spoke about the gap between one’s perception and reality. That discussion is relevant to what I am speaking about here. When one relates to things, when relates to them in a distorted manner. Although the reality of phenomena is the absence of such an intrinsic existence but one tends to believe in the intrinsic reality and identity. In this way it gives rise to powerful emotional reactions and so on. This suggests that this kind of conception of things as possessing some kind of objective, independent existence is a distorted perception and therefore this is said to be the fundamental ignorance. When one refers to ignorance here one is not talking about the simple and mere fact of not knowing but rather a distorted way of perceiving things. One is referring to a misknowing and therefore this kind of misknowledge has to be eliminated by cultivating the right insight and right knowledge.


Let us ask the question about this underlying root of fundamental ignorance that misconceives the nature of reality as possessing some kind of independent, objective, intrinsic reality that gives rise to all of the negative emotions and thoughts. Is this fundamental ignorance totally inseparable and totally indivisible from the basic nature of one’s mind? Earlier I spoke about how the mere fact of knowing, the mere quality of knowing and luminosity is something that is beginningless and endless. The question is whether this fundamental ignorance because it is inseparable for the continuum of knowing and luminosity, is it also beginningless and endless? One needs to ask this question.

One knows from one’s own personal experience that although when one experiences powerful emotions such as anger or hostility, at that instant the mind is completely dominated by the powerful emotion. But it is also the case that these powerful emotions do not reside in one’s mind all of the time. Simply by virtue of being conscious does not entail that one is always angry or that one is always craving for something. So one knows that regardless of how powerful these may be, they are occasional; sometimes they arise and at other times they subside. This suggests that these powerful emotions are separable in principle for one’s continuum of consciousness.

Similarly in the case of fundamental ignorance although it is very deeply imbedded within one’s psyche it is in principal separable from the basic mind, the simple continuum of luminosity and knowing. This is because it is not the case that one has this kind of belief consciously at all times. What one realizes here is the adventitious character or quality of the afflictive emotions; they are occasional, not ever present. This indicates that they are not inherent or an essential part of one’s mind.

Another point to consider is that so far as the continuum of the basic mind is concerned, the basic quality of one’s experience and mere knowing is concerned, as I mentioned earlier there simply is no factor, no condition that can bring about cessation. Therefore the mind will maintain its continuum infinitely. So there is a fundamental difference between, so far as the continuum of the basic mind and the afflictive emotions are concerned, the continuation of these two phenomena.

Another consideration one needs to bring into one’s thought process here is how the fundamental ignorance, not only is it adventitious and occasional in terms of its occurrence but also it has antidotes. Fundamental ignorance is a misconception of reality as possessing some sort of intrinsic reality therefore the insight into emptiness that negates that kind of objective and independent existence of reality directly counters this fundamental ignorance. So there is an opposing factor or antidote for fundamental ignorance. Furthermore the more one habituates, the more one familiarizes with the insight into emptiness, the deeper one’s experience of emptiness is the more powerful that insight becomes [as an antidote]. At the same time it also undermines the force of the fundamental ignorance. In this way one can see that fundamental ignorance has a powerful antidote. Furthermore fundamental ignorance and its derivative negative emotions, regardless of how powerful they may be, one knows that their power derives more from habituation or repeated experience rather than any grounding in valid considerations, reasoning or in reality.

In contrast the insight into emptiness has a much deeper grounding in valid reasoning and it is derived through rational thought processes. It also has valid grounding in reality therefore the more one cultivates the insight into emptiness the greater becomes its power. At the same time it undermines the force of fundamental ignorance. Moreover the true insight into emptiness is grounded in the simple fact of knowing and luminosity, which maintains its continuum infinitely. Therefore it is also from this point of view more powerful.

When one thinks along these lines one will begin to see at least the possibility that fundamental ignorance and its derivative negative emotions both have their roots in a distorted perception of reality. One will see that they can be eliminated by cultivating their opposing insight [the view of emptiness]. When one begins to see this possibility then one will be able to envision the possibility of obtaining moksha, true liberation from unenlightened existence, true liberation from suffering. When one can envision this then one can also envision a time when one can say goodbye to the negative emotions and thoughts. Also it gives one more hope and it empowers one with courage.

Otherwise if after the result of reflection if one came to the conclusion that there were no possibility of a way out from this unenlightened existence, that there was no possibility of true cessation then one would truly reach a desperate state of mind. If one concluded that there was no possibility of overcoming the afflictive emotions, no possibility of freedom then one might develop suicidal states of mind because of desperation. In fact if this were the case one could argue that it would be healthier not to reflect upon the nature of suffering, as it would only lead to pessimistic thoughts. In that situation it would be more logical then to seek solace in worldly pleasures like drugs forgetting about the nature of suffering.

This is however not the case. So one appreciates some kind of possibility of moksha then one’s enthusiasm for attaining moksha will increase.

The main point is that by engaging in critical analysis examining the nature of reality and then analyzing whether one’s perception of things and events as possessing some kind of objective, intrinsic existence is valid or not. One comes to realize that one’s perceptions do not accord with reality because the actual reality is emptiness. Once one cultivates this kind of insight then one will be able to appreciate that there is as the result of this cultivation of insight and by means of applying this insight, there is a possibility of attaining cessation of suffering along with the negative emotions. So when this kind of understanding arises then one will be able to develop a genuine aspiration to attain this liberation.

Once one develops this genuine aspiration to attain liberation, freedom from suffering and the unenlightened existence then one will seek the right path, the true path leading to freedom, leading to that cessation. When one speaks about the true path through the context of the Four Noble Truths, the reference to true here is to emptiness; truth here refers to emptiness. So the true path, the essence of the true path must be understood in terms of a direct realization of the highest truth, which is emptiness.

In order for this direct realization of emptiness to take place one must first have cultivated a deeper understanding both intellectual and conceptual of emptiness. In order for this understanding to progress to the higher levels of the understanding of emptiness, it must be complemented with the faculty of single-pointedness. One needs here the higher training in meditation and concentration. Since the key practice of meditation and concentration is the development and enhancement of one’s faculty of mindfulness, it is therefore important first of all to have a firm grounding in the training of morality. The key practice of morality is guarding one’s body, speech and mind from negative conduct.

In other words the true path consists of the three higher trainings. The higher training in morality, which is the initial starting point. By observing a morally disciplined way of life one develops and enhances one’s faculty of vigilance against negative actions. In this way when one’s faculties of vigilance and heedfulness are further developed then one attains the higher training in meditation. When one has the higher training in meditation then one can enhance one’s understanding of emptiness through the union of single-pointedness and insight. In this way one will be able to develop the wisdom of emptiness derived through meditative experience eventually leading to a direct realization of emptiness.

One finds that it is by engaging in the practices and paths of the three higher trainings, training in morality, concentration and wisdom that one actually eliminates and overcomes the afflictive emotions. The question can be asked, “Are there further levels of obscuration that need to be overcome?” Yes, although the manifest levels of the negative emotions may be eliminated through the practices of the three higher trainings still subtle imprints and propensities that were implanted in one’s mind as the result of endless experiences of the negative emotions still remain.

It is these subtle dispositions and imprints that obstruct the individual from obtaining full perfection of the consciousness. Also they obstruct the subtle knowledge of phenomena. As to what these actual obstructions are, whether they are cognitive or not, there is a consensus that this obscuration is that which obstructs one from attaining total realization within a single instant of thought. This is a realization of the unity of the Two Truths, the conventional and ultimate truths. Because of this obstruction one’s direct realization of emptiness is occasional. When one is directly experiencing emptiness then one’s knowledge of the conventional reality is submerged and when one has direct knowledge of conventional reality one’s direct experience of emptiness is submerged. This is what is meant by occasional.

It is also this subtle obscuration that prevents one from fully perfecting…

In so far as the actual path that directly serves as an antidote to eliminating even the subtle imprints and dispositions of the negative emotions is concerned, there is still the wisdom directly realizing emptiness. However here there is a fundamental difference in terms of the complimentary factor. First of all, previously although the wisdom directly realizing emptiness has been attained and the insight has been achieved, this insight was cultivated out of a motivation to attain liberation from samsara, from unenlightened existence.

However here that motivation alone is not adequate, the motivation needs to be altruistic, to be expansive. It is not only the attainment of one’s own liberation but also the elimination of suffering for all sentient beings is the key motivating factor. There is a fundamental difference in terms of the motivation behind the practice and there is also the additional dimension of the accumulation of merit. In order for one’s wisdom realizing emptiness to become powerful enough to serve as an antidote against the subtle imprints, not only need there be an altruistic motivation but also there needs to be the complimentary factor of the accumulation of great merit.

In other words what is required here is the path known as the emptiness endowed with all aspects. The key here is the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings. This aspiration to attain enlightenment is a major factor. The second major factor is that altruistic dimension that it is for the benefit of all beings so when one has this type of altruistic aspiration that embraces the wellbeing of all sentient beings, this in itself has a very powerful, expansive quality. Because of this it also creates a powerful basis for the accumulation of great merit.

When one refers to this altruistic mind one is talking about bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is cultivated through a process of exchanging oneself with others, which is the essence of the path. This ideal of exchanging oneself with others, if thought through carefully is an amazing sentiment and an amazing, unimaginable aspiration. When such an amazing and unimaginable aspiration and sentiment serves as a complimentary factor then of course one’s realization of emptiness, of the wisdom of emptiness becomes all the more powerful. As to the relationship between those aspirations and the wisdom of emptiness is concerned, how they become powerful factors for the accumulation of great merit is very clearly explained in Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland (Ratnavali).

When one brings all of these points together then one really develops a deeper understanding of the passage I cited at the beginning of this talk, which was the salutation to the Buddha’s enlightened qualities of compassion and wisdom. This was from Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way.

I suspect that many of you may have already heard this before so perhaps to those this may have been boring. I always point this out to others, as I strongly believe this myself that it is although wonderful and precious to have a deep reverence, faith and devotion but there is no guarantee that this faith in the Dharma can be reliable and firm. What is required is a grounding of that faith on a deeper understanding so that one’s faith in the Dharma is genuinely a faith derived through understanding and a conviction. When one has this then the effectiveness of one’s practice will tremendously increase but such faith grounded in understanding can only be developed if one has a basic understanding of the overall framework of the general path of the Buddha’s teaching.

As to the practical methods or steps for cultivating and training one’s mind in this powerful sentiment of bodhicitta, which is the ultimate courage, the source of all perfections and goodness and the source of all admirable sentiment there are two principal approaches in the texts. One is the method known as the Seven Point Cause and Effect approach and the other as found in Shantideva’s text is the Exchange and Equalizing of Self with Others.

Question: How can we teach children about afflictive emotions when they are young so that when they grow up they have a good starting point for eliminating these emotions?

Answer: Perhaps one thing that might be of help is to not to so much present the discussion as a spiritual teaching or as a religious practice but rather to simply relate it the child’s own personal experience. Maybe one can find a way of pointing out the destructive nature of these afflictive emotions. For example one could ask the child to imagine what it would feel like to be angry, happy. Is it a disturbing experience? One could also try to relate the child’s own experience with others. For example to suggest that if a family which is always expressing anger, shouting and yelling at each other, is that a good atmosphere or not? This is not to judge others but to simply observe the fact of the destructive nature of strong negative emotions. When one relates these ideas in this way maybe one can communicate the ideas to children.

Children also go through the educational system and know that they have a degree of ignorance in relation to a particular subject. As they learn more and more they discover this level of ignorance. Similarly they can, by recognizing the destructive nature of anger or hostility eventually be able to cultivate some kind of way of dealing with them, diminishing their force.

Question: In the beginning you mentioned briefly skepticism saying that someone who was too skeptical would not recognize the Buddha even if the Buddha were here in person. On the other hand if I am not mistaken it is encouraged to question and check the teachings and the teachers within Buddhism. Could you comment more on this? To what degree is it good to doubt?

Answer: Perhaps there might have been some confusion here with the Tibetan term, which I should have translated as a hardened skeptic as opposed to a mere skeptic. I was referring to an extreme form of skepticism but otherwise you are correct. Generally speaking Buddhist practitioners do need a degree of skepticism, especially at the initial stages when approaching scriptures and the teachings. In a talk in New York I pointed out the importance of the need for skepticism and the need for applying critical reasoning when approaching the teachings of the Buddha.

Within the Mahayana teachings there is an understanding that there is a category of teachings that cannot be taken at their face value; they must be considered as provisional requiring further interpretation. There is another category of teachings, which can be accepted as being definitive. Once one makes this distinction between provisional and definitive teachings the obvious question arises how does one determine the provisionality or definitive nature of a particular teaching. If one has to rely on another scripture for this kind of distinction then that scripture would need another scripture to validate it leading to an infinite regress. Therefore in the final analysis it is through applying one’s critical faculties and developing understanding that one should be able to distinguish between what is provisional and what is definitive.

So obviously the final authority has to come from one’s understanding derived through the application of one’s critical faculties. This of course suggests the need for open skepticism right from the beginning. Therefore I personally believe, especially for Mahayana practitioners a degree of open skepticism is very critical at the beginning stages. Even in relation to the instructions given by the teachers, even the Vinaya scriptures, the monastic ethical texts themselves state that if a particular instruction of one’s teacher does not accord with the basic Dharma teachings, then one must reject them. Similarly in the Sutras it is stated that for instructions given by one’s teacher, those that accord with the general principles of the Dharma should be adopted and those that do not accord with the general principles of the Dharma must not be pursued. However it is important that one should not develop a negative opinion of the teacher simply based on these instructions.

The point is that especially for Mahayana practitioners some degree of skepticism at the initial stages is very crucial. Extreme skepticism is a hardened skepticism that is also combined with self-righteousness which prevents one from seeking the opinion of someone else so much so that it has nothing to do with rational thought processes. This is simply a form of arrogance so that one is reluctant to listen to another person’s opinion. This is the kind of skepticism that is negative and dangerous.

Question: How does one go about skillfully attacking the delusions without falling into the trap of self-hatred?

Answer: I think it depends very much on the fundamental perspective of the practitioner on the nature of the self and its relation to the negative emotions such as greed, anger and so on. Even when one is engaged in the task of attacking the delusions one is doing so because one does not want oneself to be overpowered and controlled by the negative emotions. So one is doing this for one’s own sake, for one’s own interest. This suggests that there is a caring for oneself.

Also it is helpful to reflect upon the teachings on the Buddhanature, which suggest that the essential nature of the mind is pure and luminous. One would also be helpful is to think through how it is important for one when relating to others, especially people who commit negative acts, that as practitioners one should be able to differentiate the person from the act. In this way one recognizes the negativity or suffering nature of the act but because of this one does not judge the person who commits the act. If one thinks through carefully one has this ability to distinguish between the person and the negative act along with the underlying motives that lead to the act.

Similarly one can apply the same principal to oneself. Instead of negatively judging a person in fact one can develop compassion towards that person because that person has committed a negative act because they were under the control of a powerful negative emotion. Instead of negatively judging another one can in fact develop compassion toward them while still recognizing the negativity of the act. Similarly one can again apply the same principal to oneself. When one is under the power of a negative emotion there is a negative dimension to one’s actions. One can acknowledge this negative dimension but at the same time one should be able to distinguish oneself as an individual from a negative state of mind. Thus one is able to distinguish between the person and their mental activity.

Question: Since habituation to emotional afflictions leads to desperation leading to suicidal possibilities and it takes time rehabituate to the insight in emptiness, what can one do to prevent a suicidal person from taking their life?

Answer: The question may be related to the point I made that if it were the case that there is no way out of unenlightened existence then contemplation on the nature of suffering could lead to suicidal tendencies. From the Buddhist point of view suicide is pointless due to the continuation of the consciousness. However if the question is purely from the conventional point of view not taking into account the wider Buddhist teachings this is related to the issue of self-hatred and self-loathing. These seem to be a problematic idea. As I understand the concept of self-hatred, I feel that even though there may be a level where an individual has a degree of hatred towards themselves, but deep down even that kind of self-hatred dynamic arises from an attachment to the self. There is an expectation for oneself and when this expectation is not fulfilled then one tends to judge oneself in an extreme way. This is how I understand the dynamic of self-hatred and self-loathing.

As to the question of suicide one thing that can be said is that so far as committing suicide is concerned as to what might lay ahead if one commits suicide, it is something that is obvious. One will cease to exist. The termination of one’s being is the definite outcome if one commits suicide. But on the other hand if one does not commit suicide then there is the possibility of better days. If one chooses between the two, one is a result one knows with the other result having prospects for betterment.

(End of day)