Skip to content

Teachings about the four noble truths, bodhicitta, the five paths and ten levels, and the six perfections
The Graduated Path to Liberation is a rendering in English of teachings given by Geshe Rabten Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, in 1969. It follows the traditional lam-rim (graduated path) format, which originated with the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and has been passed down through an unbroken succession of Indian and Tibetan masters.

Four Noble Truths
The Five Paths and the Ten Levels
The Six Perfections
Conclusion and Notes

Religion (Dharma) is a means to leave suffering and attain happiness.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught four noble truths 1: The truths of suffering and the cause of suffering, and the truths of cessation of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering. We must recognize and remove the first two and realize through practice the second two.

We can understand this deep subject by considering the simple example of physical illness. When we are sick, we suffer, and look for the underlying cause—a disease or other disorder. When we realize that the illness is curable we see that our suffering can cease and seek treatment—the path to the cessation of this suffering.

The following text is an expanded explanation of these four noble truths, and of how we can follow a path that leads us out of suffering to the attainment of happiness, not only for ourselves, but for all beings.


The countless kinds of suffering can be divided into three:

  1. Suffering caused by suffering 2This type of suffering includes the pain, sadness and everyday suffering recognized by all beings. Even the smallest insect can recognize it. No creatures want this suffering. The reason why all creatures are so busy and active is that they are trying to avoid this type of suffering. Ants, for instance, are busy all day and night to avoid suffering from hunger; countries fight each other for fear of suffering from domination (even though this method creates more suffering).
  2. Suffering caused by change 3This type starts as happiness and then changes into suffering. Most beings do not recognize this as suffering. Worldly happiness looks like happiness, but in time it too changes into suffering. If we are hot and immerse ourselves in cold water it is very pleasant to start with, but after a while it becomes painfully cold. If we are cold and stay in the sun to get warm we will, after some time, suffer from being burnt. When friends meet after a long time they are delighted, but if they then remain continually together they may quarrel and grow tired of each other.This type of suffering includes anything that appears to be happiness and changes into suffering. If a person wants to become wealthy, works very hard and becomes rich, suffering is produced from the need for maintaining the wealth, fear of losing it, and desire for more. If one country wants to take over another, the oppressed country reacts, and mutual suffering is caused.The first of these two types of suffering is easily removable. The second is not, because it is not easily recognized. Thus, it is more deeply harmful. Even small insects can stop the suffering caused by suffering, and so can human beings, who, when they are ill, for example, can get treatment. But most people and animals think that the suffering caused by change is real happiness and spend their whole lives trying to achieve it; for example, people in business who devote their lives to making money and people who fight each other in wars, all in search of happiness.
  3. All-embracing suffering caused by mental formations 4This type is even more difficult to recognize than the suffering caused by change. It is the suffering inherent in samsara (the whole round of existence) and the cause of the previous two kinds of suffering. It covers, or embraces, all beings in samsara. As the earth is the foundation of our life, so this type of suffering is the foundation of the other two. If someone cuts us we automatically feel pain simply because we have bodies; our very existence is the root cause of this suffering.Because all beings exist in a state of causality, all are liable to suffering. This kind of suffering (duhkha) is produced from a harmful cause and all other suffering comes from it. All beings recognize the first kind of suffering; some recognize the second. But this third kind of suffering is very, very difficult to recognize. Without recognizing it, escape from samsara is impossible. This suffering is like a wound that does not give pain until it is touched. It is the ground containing all sufferings. When we remove this suffering we attain nirvana, or liberation.

To practise Dharma, understanding suffering is the first essential. Without this understanding, the will to get out of suffering does not arise. We are like people in prison who don't recognize where we are or how bad it is, and therefore have no wish to escape. If we are ill but do not recognize it, we have no wish to be cured.

If the first type of suffering is not recognized we can have no wish to escape from suffering. If the second is not recognized we will try to escape from it in the wrong way, only to return to suffering again. If the third type is not recognized, then even if our method is good, we cannot get to the root of all suffering.

Therefore, it is very important to recognize all three kinds of suffering. This recognition is the first door to practising Dharma and also the reason for practising. This is the reason that the Buddha taught suffering as the first noble truth. We can observe suffering directly by looking around us. The suffering caused by suffering is evident in everybody. The suffering caused by change, unreal happiness, is also quite obvious. We can see also that all other sufferings derive from the all-embracing suffering caused by mental formations. Although it is difficult to know what causes these sufferings, we must experience them and see them for what they are; from our experience our belief will be strong and steady. That is why the Buddha said it was important to judge and test his teachings for ourselves, giving the example of assaying gold. When we see that reality is as the Buddha said, our faith in the Buddha will be strong and not be destroyed by what others tell us.

All suffering has a beginning and an end. Things are undergoing change all the time. There are two types of change: coarse, obvious change—as when a table is being made and the changes are plain—and subtle change, such as the molecular changes going on continually inside the table.

The changes in human life are obvious—people start small, grow larger, and age. But it is not so obvious that in the time it takes to snap your fingers everything has changed. If you pour water from a pot, the stream appears to be one unit, but in fact, at each moment, the stream has moved and become something else.

Not only sentient beings but also the whole environment—trees and so on—are undergoing change. All beings in samsara are suffering all the time. If we do not recognize suffering fully we will not practise what is necessary to get out of it.

The Cause of Suffering

All suffering has a cause. If the cause is not removed, escape from suffering is impossible. If rain is coming in through a hole in the roof, there is no use sweeping the water out of the house without blocking the hole as well. If we are sick and take medicine for the symptoms alone, we may be able to stop them for a time, but we cannot be sure they will not recur. If, however, we eradicate the cause of suffering we can prevent its recurrence forever.

Although we can do nothing about the suffering of the past, we must close the door of future suffering. If a thorn tree outside our house pricks us every time we pass, it is no real solution to cut off odd branches; we must uproot the tree completely. We need to find the real cause, not an illusory one. If we make a mistake about the cause of suffering, real progress will be impossible. So we must know the second noble truth, the cause of suffering.

The cause of suffering has two divisions: karma (action) 5 and klesha (mental defilements). 6

At this time we are experiencing much suffering, whose cause we ourselves created in past existences. Therefore we ourselves have to do the work to escape from it. A teaching about the cause of and escape from suffering is useless if we do not practise it. If we are sick and go to the doctor, who gives treatment, we must follow the doctor's instructions in order to be cured. In school a student needs the teacher's instruction, but the most important thing is the student's own work. Up to now we have never practised the path, so we are still in samsara. Those beings who have practised it, such as Milarepa, have passed out of samsara. This passing was not easy. Milarepa's buttocks were covered in sores from sitting for so long in meditation. When Lorepa was meditating in the mountains, no-one brought him food, so he lived by gradually eating his shoes. Lama Tsongkhapa meditated in the high mountains, always offering mandalas 7 on a stone slab. The skin on his right forearm was rubbed away from polishing the stone. Escape from samsara depends on ourselves alone; if it depended on only the Buddha, there would be no one in samsara, because that was his great wish. As a good mother loves her children, he has equal love for all beings. In one sutra the Buddha taught:

  • The Buddha cannot wash away the delusion of beings with holy water;
    Neither can he take away the suffering of beings with his hand.

He can not give wisdom to beings if they do not practise. The Buddha's responsibility is to show the true path. In another sutra it says:

  • I am my own lord and my own enemy.

"Lord" because if we practise Dharma, we can look after ourselves and bring ourselves much happiness; "enemy" because if we do not practise properly, we build up more and more suffering for ourselves.

The Buddha teaches the way; we practise it. This combination brings happiness.

Karma (action)

There are many kinds of karma, but all are included within the categories of karma of body, karma of speech and karma of mind. Each of these categories includes actions of that particular faculty. Generally, karma is divided into skilful and unskilful, but here we are concerned only with unskilful karma—the karma that produces suffering. That which gives us real happiness and takes us to the goal is quite different.

Unskilful karma of body

  • KillingKilling is the action that destroys the life of any being. It is the greatest malpractice of the present time. No one wants suffering, but by fighting to avoid it people create it. This action has the opposite effect to that which is desired. The action need not be done by physical attack with sword, gun, etc.; the person who gives the orders (the president or the general) also acquires the karma-fruit. When a person orders a bomb to be dropped and a thousand people die, though their deaths have roots in their own past karma, the person giving the order is the immediate cause. That person acquires worse karma-fruit than those who actually drop the bomb. If a hundred people are killed by a hundred soldiers, each soldier may receive the karma-fruit of one death, but the person who gave the order receives the fruit of the one hundred deaths. Such people may think themselves very great, but they do not realize the suffering that they are bringing upon themselves.When the world is in peace, deep as well as immediate benefits result. But to be really peaceful we must decide by ourselves to be peaceful by practising Dharma. Even if a person does not actually kill anyone or order anyone to be killed, if one approves of killing as a good thing or rejoices in it, the karma-fruit is also acquired.Stealing

    Stealing is taking anything belonging to someone else that has not been given. It can be done secretly, by force, by cunning words, by cheating, and so forth. It includes laying claim to something that does not really belong to one, as when a country lays claim to another. If the stealing is done indirectly through someone else, it has the same karma-fruit. Its object can be any property, any people, and so forth, taken by any means. If we mistakenly take something that belongs to someone else, it is not stealing. Stealing requires not only the action but also the intention to take something that is not our own. Our mind must be aware that we are stealing.

    Sexual misconduct

    This action occurs when a married person goes after another sexual partner, or has intercourse even with the right partner at inappropriate times such as on full moon or new moon days or in the daytime, in unsuitable places (such as holy places), or with inappropriate organs. This action includes having intercourse with monks or nuns. Whereas killing and stealing, even when performed indirectly, have the same karma-fruit, this is not the case with sexual misconduct. The first two actions harm others who are innocent; sexual misconduct concerns the people involved. For bhiksus and bhiksunis (Buddhist monks and nuns) any kind of sexual indulgence is forbidden.

    Beating other people, attempting unsuccessfully to steal, putting people in prison for the wrong reasons, improper behavior on holy days, and any other bodily deeds that are harmful or provoke mental defilements are also unskilful karma of body.

Unskilful karma of speech

  • LyingLying includes anything spoken with the intention of deceiving others, with selfish motivation.SlanderSpeech that creates enmity between friends, out of some motive such as jealousy of their relationship, is slander. The speech may be either true or false, but for it to be slanderous the desire to bring discord must be in the speaker's mind. Slander can take place between countries as well as between individuals. If a person says something false in order to break up a friendship, this is both lying and slander.

    Harsh words

    This includes angry words against another, or swearing by the name of some holy person or object for evil ends such as the reinforcement of a lie, or the use of words to make people sad or angry. The Tibetan for this is zig.tsup meaning "rough word." Just as a rough stone rubbed against the body creates pain, so harsh words hurt the mind.

    Irresponsible talk

    Any kind of talk that provokes delusion—talk of violence, pornography and so forth—is considered irresponsible or gossip.

Unskilful karma of mind

  • GreedThis term refers not to desire for beneficial things such as knowledge or wisdom, but to the insatiable desire for illusory possessions and sensory experiences. Greed is seen in the poor person who sees big, shiny cars and expensive possessions, and is always running after them, or in the rich person who is surrounded by possessions yet wants even more. Greed is born from desire. Other unskilful actions of body and speech, such as stealing, cheating, and so forth result from the mental action of greed.MaliceThis wish to harm others includes taking pleasure in their misfortunes. It can apply to all categories of life, from nations to small insects. At first glance this action of mind may appear more harmful than greed, but in fact greed is more harmful because it does not apply to just a single situation; greed is persistent and brings no satisfaction.

    Wrong views

    Any kind of thinking that denies the truth of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, rebirth, the law of karma, nirvana and so forth constitutes wrong views.

Unskilful karma of mind is the worst kind of karma because actions of body and speech arise from mind. For instance, to kill an animal, first the wish to do so must arise in our mind. After so wishing, we may do the action on our own (body), or tell someone else to do it (speech). All actions of the body and speech must be preceded by the wish of mind. The mind forces body and speech to follow it; if we can control the mind, then other kinds of bad action can be avoided. Mind is very difficult to control, because its actions are so quick—many unskilful actions of mind are possible in one minute. For instance, if we want to harm someone else we can think of many different ways of doing so in one brief moment. Unskilful actions of mind happen so quickly that they cannot be counted; unskilful actions of speech are slower, and unskilful actions of body are the slowest of all. The first essential is to practise control of the mind If we don't control our minds and just follow desires and instincts, we will not lead a good life.

All the sufferings of all beings in samsara are produced by mind. Beings out of samsara, in permanent bliss, are in that state because they developed their minds. Body and speech are only servants of the mind.

Fruition of karma

Many different kinds of fruit are possible from one deed. If in this life we were to kill someone, our immediate rebirth would probably be in a hot hell. Life in hell is much longer than on earth, and there is constant suffering from heat or cold. Hell beings and humans are completely different kinds of creature, and the particular properties of one existence are limited to that existence. Even in this world there are many kinds of spirit not normally visible to humans (although sometimes we may be aware of them), and they too have their own special properties.

Between one life and the next we experience the bardo. 8 We cannot see most bardos, but at a certain high stage of development, through special practices and meditations, we can. In order to strengthen all our qualities and not just one isolated faculty, we should practise both Dharma and those techniques that lead to special powers.

Some beings have the karma to be reborn in a state of such continual suffering that humans would not be able to survive. In some hells, for instance, there is no distinction between the fire itself and the beings living in the midst of it. Those who have killed in their past lives, even if reborn human, exist in a state of uninterrupted suffering from afflictions such as chronic illness. Treatment that preserves life and health cannot help them. When we suffer sickness, pain, and trouble, there is always an immediate cause, but the underlying reason is our karma. Two people may have the same disease and receive the same treatment, but one will progress better than the other because of different karma. If we attribute the difference to luck, we have only a superficial understanding of the situation.

Some people have bad tendencies from childhood; these are also karma-fruit. Parents may raise their children in the same way, yet they develop differently because of karma. Past lives produce inborn tendencies. The actions of past lives determine all factors such as the place of birth and type of death of future lives. One is born in a dangerous or strife-torn place because of one's past karma. If a person murders another in this life, in the next life the victim may become the murderer and the murderer the victim. Each of our actions is a link in a chain with no beginning, for samsara has no beginning; it can, however, have an end.

To understand this chain, it is necessary to understand the relation of mind to body. Mind is like a river passing through different countries (bodies). A river takes different names (forms) according to the different countries. In this way the mind passes on, carrying the accumulated karma with it. When a being dies, the body decays and the mind passes on, to continue in another bodily form, according to the type of body that it inhabits in that life.

Because they do not distinguish between mind and body, people think that both arise together from the parents and disappear together after death. After death the body does remain in a decaying state, but if the body and mind were the same, the mind should also remain in this state. In a living being, body and mind do have an immediate relationship, but when the being dies, this relationship becomes more and more remote. As the mind becomes further detached from the body, bodily feelings and functions gradually fade out until they finally cease. Some people think that the functions of the mind are dependent on breathing, but advanced yogis are able to live and concentrate for years without breathing. Because the mind and body are absolutely different, their causes must be absolutely different. The cause of the human body is the sperm-ovum union of the parents; thus children are physically similar to their parents. This immediate physical cause cannot produce the mind of the child, and could only do so if there were no difference between mind and body.

There are also some mental states that can be passed from parent to child. Some forms of madness, for instance, are caused by imbalance in the elements of the body, which can be passed on genetically. Mind usually follows the incoming and outgoing air; therefore imbalance in these airs can create mental disturbances.

Doctors can alter the temperament of a person by operating on the brain. Because the brain is the centre of the nerves carrying the airs that influence the mental processes, all the airs themselves are centralized in the brain. This is why we sometimes develop a headache when we concentrate too strongly; this overly strong concentration puts pressure on the brain. Although the mind is influenced by the nerves localized there, the mind itself is formless, not physical, and its cause must be of the same nature. Each mind- within-a-body causes the next. Bodies have a beginning; mind does not. Karma continues along with the mind.

The minds of beings in samsara are always covered with delusion. If, through the practice of Dharma, delusions can be removed and a high spiritual level reached, the mind can occupy more than one body; incarnate lamas (tulkus) can take several bodily forms simultaneously. When a person attains the high spiritual level of arhatship, he or she is then completely out of samsara. An arhat (foe destroyer) is not necessarily a bodhisattva, but the highest arhat is a buddha. Before buddhahood there are different levels of mind, but the minds of all buddhas are equal.

If a person steals, the immediate fruit is rebirth in a cold hell. Such beings are born in ice and their bodies are indistinguishable from the ice itself. The cracking of the ice produces much suffering. After birth in a cold hell, these beings may be reborn as animals living in very bad conditions, such as the pariah dogs of India. Even when finally reborn into human form, those who have stolen find themselves in conditions of extreme poverty. People with this type of karmic background may become children with a persistent tendency to steal, or may be born in a place where it never rains and there is famine. Whatever the fruit produced, it is related to the previous deeds. Any difficulties connected with property, lack of food and so forth are the fruit of stealing. Karma affects the environment as well as the body and mind.

The heaviest fruit produced by sexual misconduct is rebirth in a hell. More usual is rebirth as an animal. A being cannot practise sexual misconduct in hell. If the being is reborn human, he or she will experience such marital trouble as adultery. Sometimes even small children like perverse sexual acts; this tendency is the result of past misconduct. Because of these types of past action, the person may be reborn in a very dirty environment.

If a person tells a harmful lie, rebirth can also be in a hell. If the being is reborn human, then he or she will have neither faithful friends nor enjoy the good faith of others. Such a person, from childhood, will have the tendency to lie. The environment itself may be a very deceptive one.

A person who slanders with murderous intention may be reborn in a hell. If reborn human, friends will be lost through slander, and from childhood there will be a tendency to slander others. Rebirth may be in a dangerous place, with earthquakes and so on.

If a person uses harsh words, rebirth in a hell may result. If reborn human, the person will be a slave, beggar, or someone who is always being scolded. The person may be born as an ill treated dog. There will be the tendency to abuse others. This karma can also produce a bad environment. For instance, some people in Tibet always live in places where the conditions are unpleasant, the ground is covered with thorns, and so on. These people realize how bad the place is, but for some reason cannot separate themselves from it, saying, "This is my country, I cannot leave it." If by irresponsible talk people produce sufficient delusion, their rebirth may be in a hell. If human, they might be surrounded by friends with scattered minds much given to chatter. Even if they want to break free of this superficiality and delusion, the environment will prevent it. From childhood there will be a fondness for idle talk. Rebirth may be in a place where many useless weeds but no crops grow. Idle talk does not appear to be very harmful, but it can be the worst kind of unskilful action of speech because if we encourage the tendency toward it, it occurs again and again, wasting our lives.

Greed, if it has extreme ill effects, may produce rebirth in a hell. If the person is born human, the fruit that results may be of the same sort as that resulting from stealing—a constant lack of property. Even if no unskilful physical action was performed in the past life, the bad fruit will be produced because of the person's actions of mind. The person will have just the opposite of what was wanted. Greed causes other unskilful acts, such as stealing, lying, slander, etc. Greed itself is also produced in the next life.

If wishing to harm others leads to killing, or if the mind-action is strong and harmful enough, rebirth in a hell can result. Mental action is the strongest and most persistent kind. If someone kills an animal, this involves only one unskilful action of body, but many unskilful actions of mind. A person can be sitting in a meditation posture, appearing to be very pure, but performing many unskilful actions of mind. If someone who in the past has wished others much harm takes birth as a human, that person becomes the recipient of harmful intentions and has only treacherous friends. A person who in the past entertained harmful thoughts toward others will have that same tendency even from childhood in a later birth. It is ironic but the fruit of greed is that the person does not receive what is desired, and the fruit of wishing to harm others is that the person receives what is not desired.

Wrong views prevent spiritual progress. A person who believes that actions such as killing, stealing, etc. are not wrong and practices these actions may be reborn in hell. Even though the person believes that such actions are morally right, bad results are produced. Consider the following for example: There is some fruit to eat on top of a mountain; a man is looking for the fruit and three people deceive him. One sends him round by a very long way, the second sends him or, a very dangerous route, and the third tells him that there is no fruit to be had at all. By following the advice of the first two, it may take him a long time, but he will reach the fruit. However, the third has deceived him worst of all; if he believes from the start that there is no fruit, he will have no chance of obtaining it. Holding wrong views closes the door to happiness. If it does not cause birth in hell, it can cause birth as an animal (a state of ignorance) or as a human in a place where Dharma is unknown or forbidden. Wrong faith also opens the door to all unskilful deeds.

This is a simplification into ten general categories of unskilful karma and the respective fruits. If we sow wheat there will be many different results—stalk, leaves, grain, etc. Similarly, one deed has many different kinds of fruit—types of birth, environment, tendencies, and so on. This is why Buddhists say that everything comes from karma; karma structures all things that happen in the world. All events have two causes—an immediate cause and a deep karma-cause.

Klesha (mental defilement)

Karma results from klesha—mental defilement. Karma and klesha are both considered avarana. Avarana literally means "covering"—an avarana covers the mind, obscuring the realization of nirvana. Karma and klesha together make up kleshavararna. There is also another kind of avarana, which remains even in the arhat stage after karma and klesha have disappeared. This is called jneyavarana, "the covering of what can be known," or obscuration to omniscience.

Klesha is the immediate cause of karma; karma causes suffering. If we can remove klesha, we can stop the flow of karma, prevent suffering from arising, and reach nirvana—though not the ultimate nirvana. Jneyavarana still remains in varying degrees in both arhats and bodhisattvas, and is finally removed only when the buddha stage is attained.

In the scriptures, kleshavarana is said to have eighty-four thousand different forms. They can be simplified into three main categories, from which the others come or in which the others are included: desire, aversion, and ignorance. 9


  • Desire is easily distinguishable from aversion. Desire must have an object and it makes the object seem more beautiful and attractive than it really is. Desire causes unskilful karma in any of the following ways. If we desire to eat meat, we kill animals; if we desire property, we are inclined to steal it; if we desire intercourse, we may commit, sexual misconduct. In the desire to create a false impression, we may lie; to obtain a desired object or goal, we may slander others; although aversion is more usually the cause, desire too may cause us to speak harsh words; in the grip of attraction to foolish things, we waste ourselves in irresponsible talk. Desire is the direct cause of greed; desire for the possessions of others can produce harmful thoughts. In brief, then, if any being, from a human down to the smallest insect, desires something and this desire produces an unskilful action, that action has arisen from the klesha of desire.


  • Aversion is the opposite of desire: it makes its object seem worse than it is. Aversion can easily produce killing, and out of spite or the wish to deprive someone, it can cause stealing or sexual misconduct. Lying and slander are commonly caused by aversion, and harsh words usually arise from it. Irresponsible talk too can be the result of aversion, as when a person talks at length in a derogatory manner about another. Although greed is not produced by aversion, malice usually is.When we have desire it is not as painful as aversion. It can bring temporary happiness with it, and this makes us want to be very close to the object. Aversion always produces pain immediately; we want to be very far from its object. In the scriptures, desire is likened to a flower, which is very beautiful at first but soon changes and becomes ugly, while aversion is likened to a wasp, which only stings. The face of a person filled with desire is bright and shining; the face of a person filled with aversion is grim and dark.


  • All unskilful actions except wrong views, which are always produced by ignorance, can result from desire and aversion. Although we can be misled by the ignorance of our teachers, wrong views are, fundamentally, the result of our own ignorance. Desire and aversion are active, making things seem better or worse than they are; ignorance is the failure to realize the nature of things. If we kill, not out of aversion or desire, but because we don't think it wrong or perhaps even think it good, this is the direct result of ignorance. Any unskilful act that arises from not knowing that it is unskilful is partly rooted in ignorance. For instance, people who make animal sacrifices think that they are doing something good—they have no ill-will toward or desire for the animal; they simply believe that killing the animal will please their god.

Fear can be good, bad or indifferent. If we have done a bad deed and repent out of fear of the karma-fruit, the fear is reasonable and wholesome in its effects. That very fear can lead us to practise Dharma and thence toward enlightenment. If we are afraid to practise Dharma because we are afraid that the practice will prove harmful in some way, this fear is the fruit of ignorance. When children are afraid of the dark, fearing ghosts and so on, this is neither good nor bad. Similarly, while the fear of death is produced by our desire of clinging to life, the fear itself is neither good nor bad.

Desire and aversion are both produced by ignorance. We experience them because we do not know the real nature of things.

The reason for practising meditation is to overcome suffering; to overcome suffering we must overcome karma; to overcome karma we must overcome desire and aversion; to overcome desire and aversion we must overcome ignorance. Meditation overcomes ignorance.

Ignorance >> desire or aversion >> unskilful karma >> three sufferings

No beings want suffering; they all want to remove it. Most do not know how to, and some even create suffering in their efforts to remove it. People take medicines that cure sickness temporarily but cannot remove it forever. To remove suffering permanently, we must find its cause—karma; we must remove the cause of the cause —desire and aversion; we must remove the cause of these—ignorance. Ignorance is the deepest root of all suffering. If ignorance is removed, all that stems from it will automatically disappear. Escape from samsara is impossible unless ignorance is removed. If we sit in meditation without understanding the real reason for doing so we will achieve only limited results.

If we want to remove ignorance, we must first discover its nature and that of its opposite, shunzyata (emptiness). Then, through meditation on emptiness, we have to remove ignorance.

There are two different kinds of ignorance: ignorance regarding the ego and ignorance regarding external phenomena. 10

Ignorance regarding the ego

From devas to the smallest insects, all beings in samsara are subject to this kind of ignorance, from which the other mental defilements arise. This ignorance causes us to perceive our own nature the wrong way. To remove it, we must realize the true way we exist.

What we call "ego," or "self," can be divided into either the body (caused by the parents) and mind (caused by past existences), or the five skandhas (aggregates). These skandhas are the five elements of sensory existence:

  1. Physical form (rupaskandha). This includes air, blood, semen, bone—anything material, composed of atoms. The sound of the voice is included in this skandha, because sound is form.
  2. Feelings (vedanaskandha). These arise from bodily contacts and mental contacts (with ideas, concepts, and so on), and can be pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent.
  3. Cognition, perception, differentiation (samjnaskandha). This skandha is the mind that recognizes objects through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking.
  4. Volitional formations (samskaraskandha). Samskaras are the qualities or tendencies of mind, produced by karma, that control the various kinds of conditioned mental factors, or "caitta." (Caitta are in an inseparable relationship with the essential mind, "citta." These factors can be beneficial—for example, concentration, intelligence, wisdom, confidence, energy, tranquillity, friendliness and sympathetic joy at the success of others—or harmful—ignorance, desire, anger, greed and all that is unprofitable in the spiritual sense. Caitta are mental karma; karma of body and speech arise from caitta; most caitta are included in samskaraskandha. The sequence of time and the changing nature of things are included in this skandha.
  5. Consciousness (vijnanaskandha). The function of this skandha is the awareness of an object. It allows the other skandhas to operate.

The five skandhas together support the concept of ego. This concept cannot be supported by any of the skandhas in isolation; it depends on all of them, just as the wheels, windows, steering wheel, engine, and other parts together make up the concept of "car." Any of these parts in isolation is not the car. If all the parts are piled together in a heap, it is still not a car. Those parts arranged in a certain order comprise what people recognize and think of as a car. If people did not give it this name and did not recognize it as such it would not be a car.

The collection known as a particular human is built in the same way as is a car. A child is born composed of five skandhas and with all the usual qualities; his parents call him "Tashi." Then this collection of skandhas and qualities becomes generally known and recognized as Tashi.

In samsara there are three planes of existence: the desire realm (kamadhatu), the form realm (rupatdhatu), and the formless realm (arupadhatu). In the first two realms no being can exist without all five skandhas. In the formless realm, beings have no physical form – rupaskandha—but do have the other four skandhas. Without these there is no ego.

All beings exist as a combination of skandhas and cannot exist without them. Buddha is also a combination of these skandhas, but ones that have been purified and transformed.

There are two ways of looking at the ego:

  1. Through ignorance, negative understanding of the ego. This produces aversion and desire, unskilful karma, and suffering.
  2. Through realization of shunyata, understanding the emptiness of the ego. This is positive understanding of the ego. Meditation on shunyata removes ignorance and thus ail the other mental defilements and their results.

As soon as we think of "I" as an entity existing independently, our ignorance has apprehended the ego in the wrong way. When we are aware that the ego does not exist independently, we can find right understanding. Without this understanding, our ignorance persists. This is the main point about shunyata, or emptiness: that the ego does not exist independently. This emptiness is the emptiness of the ego as an entity existing independently. Ego exists only as a combination of the skandhas.

Ignorance regarding outer phenomena

Ignorance about the five elements, mountains, seas, and so forth constitutes ignorance regarding outer phenomena. If we consider a biscuit, for example, it is a combination of various things—wheat, water, oil, fire and the activity of the baker. We recognize it as "biscuit," but really it is a combination of forces and qualities. This analysis applies to all external phenomena; ultimately we will understand that there is no difference between the ego and outer phenomena. But when we look at either of them without thinking carefully about what they really are, we see them as existing independently. Everything changes subtly in a split second of time. Scientists can see very subtle changes in things with instruments such as microscopes (though not the most subtle changes), but when they are not studying these changes, these same scientists see things as existing independently.

This twofold ignorance about the ego and outer phenomena is the root of all defilements, karma and suffering. To remove suffering we must remove this ignorance completely. The only way to do this is to meditate on emptiness. There are many other objects of meditation, but emptiness is the most important.

Teachings on the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text.
Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Jampa Tegchok gave this commentary on the Heart Sutra to Saraswati Buddhist Group, Somerset, England on August 17 -20, 2007. The commentary is edited by Andy Wistreich.

Read the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text. You may also download the commentary in a pdf file.

6. Liberation from Cyclic Existence 

Cutting the Root of Cyclic Existence

Khensur Rinpoche: When we say "cyclic existence", because we often talk about the ocean of samsara or the ocean of cyclic existence, what do you understand by that expression, "cyclic existence"?

Student: The process of birth, aging, sickness and death?

Khensur Rinpoche: So you are saying that cyclic existence is birth, aging, sickness and death?

Student: Yes, shaped by ignorance.

Khensur Rinpoche: Ignorance forces us to appropriate or take a set of aggregates. So, to be precise, cyclic existence refers to the aggregates which are taken under the control of ignorance. In more general terms the aggregates are taken under the control of karma and the mental afflictions.

The aggregates are characterised by birth, sickness, aging and death. Cyclic existence implies circling, and we are circling in the stream or continuity of the four or five aggregates.1 With the aggregates come birth, aging, sickness and death which occur under the influence or control of karma and afflictions.

This means that the only way to be free of cyclic existence and achieve liberation is through the wisdom realising emptiness. We are in cyclic existence because of karma and mental afflictions, in particular the latter. From amongst these mental afflictions the specific root cause compelling us to take birth again and again in cyclic existence is ignorance - self-grasping, true-grasping. The only way to be rid of that is by realising emptiness.

No matter how powerful one’s love, compassion and bodhicitta, without wisdom realising emptiness, there is no way to achieve liberation from cyclic existence. No matter how strong one’s altruistic attitudes are, without that wisdom one cannot sever the root of cyclic existence which is the true-grasping mind. What binds one to cyclic existence is ignorance. In order to sever that bondage one needs the wisdom realising emptiness.

Beyond such realising, one is tied to the peace of personal liberation by the self-cherishing mind. To cut through that bond the altruistic attitudes of love, compassion and bodhicitta are required.

The two types of mental obscurations are the afflictive obscurations and a subtler set of obscurations called knowledge obscurations. Hearer and Solitary Realiser Arhats, the Foe Destroyers2, are amazing because, through having thought about, understood and meditated on emptiness deeply, thereby realising it, they can destroy the foe - the mental afflictions. Of the two obscurations they can eliminate the afflictive obscurations.

However, they are not free of all faults. Not having overcome all obscurations, they still retain the knowledge obscurations. This is because they have not taken full responsibility for benefiting others. Not having developed a sufficiently powerful sense of love and compassion towards others, they still have that fault or obscuration in the mind.

Because they can improve themselves further the arhats have not yet completely accomplished their own welfare. Theirs is not the most perfect experience a person can achieve. This is because of the self-cherishing mind. They experience only their own liberation and have not accomplished the ability to perfect the welfare of others. They remain in their own peace. The peace of that freedom from cyclic existence is much like a person that has gone to sleep. They cannot accomplish the welfare of others, or benefit others greatly because of still having the self-cherishing mind. They have not generated the altruistic attitude.

Both extremes must be overcome. The extreme of cyclic existence is vanquished by meditating on and realising emptiness while the extreme of remaining in one’s personal peaceful liberation is defeated by generating the altruistic mind.

The Importance of the Wisdom Side

Wisdom without the method side of bodhicitta and compassion binds one to the peace of personal liberation. This is the situation of the Hinayana arhats - the Hearer and Solitary Realiser Foe Destroyers, who are bound to the peace of their own liberation because of not having engaged in the practice of the perfections based on bodhicitta, which is in turn based on the altruistic attitudes of love and compassion.

Depicting the position of the Hinayana arhats like that does not mean denigrating them. Nevertheless, when the arhats are compared with the Buddha it becomes evident that they have become sidelined in the extreme of personal peace. Thus they are unable to benefit others extensively as can bodhisattvas and enlightened beings. They have not reached even their full personal potential.

Furthermore, one is tied down, bound or fettered with either wisdom divorced from method or method divorced from wisdom. In the latter case one is bound to cyclic existence. practicing the method side without wisdom leaves one unable to escape from cyclic existence. With only the first five perfections of generosity, morality, patience, enthusiasm, and concentration, but without the sixth perfection of wisdom, no matter how much one practises one cannot possibly achieve liberation.

A scriptural passage gives the example of a group of blind people who can reach their destination only with a sighted guide, whereas without one they are stuck. Similarly, the first five perfections can take one beyond cyclic existence to reach enlightenment only with the practice of wisdom. Without the practice of wisdom, which is like their eyes, the first five are unable to reach their destination.

To get somewhere you need legs to carry you and eyes to see where you are going. The first five perfections are like legs and the sixth perfection, wisdom, like eyes. [Walking is used to illustrate this point because when these scriptures were taught there were no cars and aeroplanes to travel by.]

With a complete set of eyes and legs operational one can go wherever one wishes and can even undertake a very long journey which would be impossible without them both. With all six perfections, one may handle the long journey to enlightenment. On the other hand, Hearers and Solitary Realisers with the practice of wisdom, but without the other perfections, lack the method side, like having no legs. Therefore they simply cannot manage the long journey to enlightenment which is too difficult for them.

These are some of the benefits of the practice of meditation on emptiness. It is very useful to reflect on these benefits because it gives one the energy to put into the practice of understanding, meditating on and thereby realising emptiness.

A sutra called, The Door of Entrance into Faith says that if a person were to provide each sentient being in the three realms - the desire, form and formless realms - everything needed for their whole life until death, there would certainly be a huge amount of merit or benefit. It is hard to grasp (if it were possible) how much merit there would be from that, yet there is even more merit in meditating on emptiness even for a short while. This does not mean even to have realised it.

Of course if one has realised it and meditates on it for one session, there is certainly far greater merit. However, even in the case of not having realised it but seriously thinking about, reflecting and meditating on it, there is far more merit than from providing all sentient beings of the three realms with everything they need for the rest of their lives.

To understand this it helps to look at another of Buddha’steachings which states that even though one kept pure morality and meditated one-pointedly for tens of thousands of eons, there is no way one could achieve liberation. This is because only with pure morality and stable concentration but without the realisation of emptiness, even meditating for tens of thousands of eons does nothing to harm ignorance, the root of cyclic existence. Despite having meditated with such stability for such a long period, one would finally have done nothing to harm ignorance, the true-grasping mind which is the root of cyclic existence. Hence, one would still be a samsaric being, meaning a person in cyclic existence just as before.

Although such a long period of meditation would not even touch that self-grasping mind of ignorance, it is said that even having doubts about self-existence in the sense of thinking "maybe things are empty of self-existence", completely undermines cyclic existence and inflicts very heavy damage on its root. The teachings use the image of reducing a piece of cloth to rags or tatters, making it very weak, so that were one to just pick it up it would fall to pieces.

The importance of practicing wisdom is illustrated towards the end of the three Mother Sutras where Buddha presented a section called "the complete entrustment". At that point in the Perfection of Wisdom teachings the Buddha said to Ananda that even if he were to forget everything else Buddha had taught, as long as Ananda could retain, memorise and remember all he had taught concerning the words, content and meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, he would not feel that Ananda in any way disrespected him as his teacher. However, were Ananda to remember absolutely everything else the Buddha had taught, but were to forget just one word or a single aspect of the meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the Buddha would not even consider Ananda to be his disciple. In that case, the Buddha said, Ananda should not consider himself to be his student, nor consider the Buddha to be his teacher. Furthermore, were he to forget any element of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the samaya3 between Buddha Shakyamuni and Ananda would have been completely destroyed.

This underlines how important the Buddha himself considered the Perfection of Wisdom to be. Of course it is so important because without wisdom, there is absolutely no way of going beyond the suffering of cyclic existence.

We consider Ananda to be very important in Buddhism; such beings are considered to be most precious. Similarly the seventeen pandits of Nalanda, the six "ornaments" of India and the two sublime beings are considered to be highly important and precious. The reason for this is that it is due to them that the teachings the Buddha gave so many centuries ago still exist in a pure and complete form for us to use today.


In conclusion, the importance of wisdom is that none of us sentient beings could possibly gain liberation from cyclic existence without the wisdom realising emptiness. Therefore it is highly praised and many scriptures describe the importance of this practice in various ways. One scripture says that were one to seriously meditate on the actual meaning of emptiness for only a minute or two, again not necessarily having realised it, the merit would be far greater than spending eons either listening to teachings on or reciting the Perfection of Wisdom, or practicing the other five perfections of generosity, morality, patience, enthusiasm and concentration. Therefore, although practicing the first five perfections for eons would create a huge amount of merit, meditating on emptiness for just one or two minutes would make far more merit.

The main reason why there would be so much more merit is that even if you spent eons engaged in listening to or reciting the Perfection of Wisdom or practicing the first five perfections you would still be in cyclic existence. Being tied down in and bound to cyclic existence, you would still be compelled to take birth repeatedly in cyclic existence. You would not have escaped cyclic existence at all.

I am sure you know that you cannot expect to be able to practise perfectly right from the beginning. practicing in general and specifically here thinking about and trying to understand emptiness is something that will get better and better but only if you apply yourself to it. As Shantideva says, there is nothing that will not get easier with familiarity. Therefore, if one keeps trying, it will get more and more familiar, and as that happens it will become easier and easier.

Unlike in the past, we now have a great many texts translated into English. So much hard work by so many people has been done to make the teachings available in English. We are able to read. We have the intelligence to pick up these books, to read them through and to go back and forth to compare what it says earlier in the book with what it says later and so on. Thus we definitely have the means to improve our understanding.

It is well worth getting, and spending time on reliable books such as those written or based on teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Other books by certain extraordinary beings are also worth buying and reading and if one cannot judge for oneself it is worth asking around and finding out other people’srecommendations.

Having reflected on the advantages of emptiness, do not think it unimportant to meditate on love, compassion and bodhicitta and so on. On the contrary, you should also maintain efforts to understand and practise these.


Most sentient beings in cyclic existence have the five aggregates of form, feeling, discriminative awareness, compositional factors and consciousness. However, those in the formless realms have only four aggregates since they lack form. [Return to text]

The "foe" they have destroyed is the afflictions. [Return to text]

The bond or personal pledge of commitment. [Return to text]


Teachings on the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text.
Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Jampa Tegchok gave this commentary on the Heart Sutra to Saraswati Buddhist Group, Somerset, England on August 17 -20, 2007. The commentary is edited by Andy Wistreich.

Read the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text. You may also download the commentary in a pdf file.

5. Meditation on Emptiness

The Object of Negation 

When meditating on emptiness it is important to be able to identify the object of refutation or negation. Without such knowledge it is like trying to catch a thief without being able to identify him. If you cannot identify the thief, not knowing what he looks like, it is very difficult to catch him. Similarly when we meditate on emptiness something needs to be negated, and without knowing what it is one will find it very difficult to make that negation.

If when trying to describe the thief one wants caught to somebody, one can say only that he has a round head, two eyes and two legs, this information is of little use to the thief-catcher because so many people fit the description. It is not precise. However, knowing what uniquely distinguishes the thief from everyone else, the thief-catcher will know for sure when she has found the right person.

In meditating on emptiness, whether the basis of your analysis is a person or a phenomenon, once you know what the object to be negated is, if you look in the basis for that object, on failing to find it you will realise emptiness. Realising emptiness means realising the meaning of emptiness.

The person uses phenomena, specifically the aggregates. If the person were self-existent he or she would be completely independent of all causes and conditions, of anything in fact. The only place where it makes sense to look for the object of negation, a self-existent person who is completely independent of anything, is within the aggregates. This is because the person actually exists depending on the aggregates. In a sense, the person exists on or in the aggregates. The person is based on the aggregates.

To try to find the self-existent person, one should look within the aggregates, the person’s basis of imputation. When analysing and searching for that self-existent person within the aggregates, and failing to find it, one realises or understands the meaning of emptiness. The emptiness thus realised is the selflessness of the person and one gains certainty of it with a valid mind, through one’s own logical analysis.

This is important because thinking there to be no such thing as a self of a person, or a self-existing person based merely on being told as much is insufficient. One must know exactly what one seeks, understanding what the object of negation is, and then must search for it oneself within the basis of designation of the person. Having looked and searched for it, not finding it means one understands emptiness.

How can one know whether or not one’s meditation on emptiness has been successful and effective? Having a clear idea of what one searches for, the object of negation - when meditating on the selflessness of the person, the self-existent person - one searches for it within the aggregates. One enquires whether that self-existent person is any one of the aggregates individually, the group of the aggregates or whatever. Having searched exhaustively, not having found it means it does not exist. Recognising this shows the meditation on emptiness to be a success.

The Risk of Nihilism

When looking for the object of negation, the self-existent person, within the aggregates, one fails to find it. Not finding it means finding that it does not exist. That means you have found or realised emptiness. However, approaching meditation on emptiness without a clear idea of the object to be negated, and simply looking for the person within the aggregates one fails to find the person. Simply looking for the person within the aggregates, without qualifying it with the object of negation, one fails to find that too. Thus, by looking for and failing to find the person within the aggregates there is the risk of concluding that the person does not exist.

This causes one to take emptiness as a form of nihilism, whereby whatever is empty does not exist. This is because in seeking the object within its basis of designation one fails to find it, suggesting it does not exist. Thereby meditation on emptiness may become a form of nihilism. As a result one could deny that karma and refuge exist and eventually abandon or reject emptiness itself. As a result of rejecting emptiness, one is born in the lower realms in a future life, specifically in the hell called "the hell of unrelenting torment". In this case one’s meditation on emptiness will have been ineffective, and will have gone extremely badly.

In the process of searching for a self-existing person, when thinking “I this and that,” an appearance of an "I" existing from its own side is produced. Such an "I" or person existing from its own side is what one should seek.

If instead one looks for the person within the aggregates asking oneself if it is the aggregates, part of the aggregates, the collection of the aggregates and so forth, one will not find it. Likewise one does not find the watch when seeking a watch within its parts, enquiring whether it is this part of the watch, the front or the back, this cog, that cog and so on. Taking this to mean the watch does not exist is a mistake. When meditating on the selflessness or emptiness of the person, if, having failed to find it one takes that to mean the person does not exist, this spreads over to other areas leading one to think that refuge, karma and so forth do not exist.

Thus the emptiness on which one meditates will be a nihilistic emptiness - a form of nihilism. When taking the things on whose emptiness one meditates to be non-existent, one’s meditation kind of annihilates them. The ripening result of meditating through misunderstanding emptiness like that is birth in the hell of unceasing torment.

Whilst every other kind of negative action (karma) can be purified there is no way to purify the fault of nihilism. One can only experience the ripening result. This is the meaning of the scriptural statement that when a person of limited intelligence approaches emptiness mistakenly, it brings about their downfall.

One will not find the person when seeking it within the aggregates, the person’s basis of imputation. Moreover, when seeking a self-existing person within the aggregates this is not found either. Thus there is a similarity between these two in the sense one fails to find either the person or the self-existing person within the aggregates. However, in the second case, not finding a self-existing person when looking for it within its basis of designation, the aggregates, equals finding it does not exist, which means realising it does not exist, and that is realising emptiness.

In the case of looking for the person within the aggregates, not finding it neither means to have found it not to exist nor that one has realised its non-existence. Nevertheless, one might make the mistake of thinking that the failure to find it means it does not exist.

Furthermore one could infer from that misunderstanding that like the person, other conventional phenomena do not exist from the perspective of the wisdom of meditative equipoise of the Arya when single-pointedly and non-conceptually experiencing meditation on the true nature of reality, emptiness. Since the person does not appear within the perspective of that meditation, the person does not exist for such a meditation. The only thing that exists and appears for that meditation is ultimate truth. Conventional phenomena do not appear for it because conventional phenomena are false. Being untrue1, they do not appear.

One might think that because conventional phenomena do not appear to or exist for that meditation they do not exist at all. Moreover one might think that when an Arya is absorbed single-pointedly in meditation on this non-conceptual realisation of the true nature of reality, he or she realises the non-existence of all conventional phenomena, and so annihilates them. This misunderstanding of emptiness will lead to the ripening result of birth in the hell of unceasing torment.

In fact the non-existence of conventional phenomena from the perspective of the Arya’s wisdom of meditative equipoise single-pointedly meditating on the nature of reality, emptiness is itself emptiness. Their non-existence from the perspective of that meditation is emptiness. There are two ways to misunderstand that, meaning there are two faults that may follow.

One fault is thinking that the view of emptiness is a nihilist position since conventional phenomena like karma and refuge do not exist from the perspective of that meditation. In other words, one thinks that because for the direct perception of emptiness conventional phenomena do not exist, emptiness means the non-existence of everything. To such a misunderstanding it seems that emptiness is the non-existence of or annihilates conventional phenomena. Therefore, although not rejecting emptiness one mistakenly thinks it means that conventional phenomena like refuge, karma and so on do not exist at all.

The other fault is rejecting emptiness as wrong or bad, for being like nihilism. When taking the view of emptiness to be a nihilistic position because it seems that emptiness annihilates things, one might conclude that emptiness is wrong. This follows because for the meditative equipoise of the Arya directly realising emptiness, conventional phenomena do not exist. That meditation realises they do not exist, so one might mistakenly conclude that meditation on emptiness annihilates conventional phenomena. This fault can lead the person to rebirth in the lower realms.

In the commentary it explains that a mistaken approach to the view due to low intelligence or limited wisdom brings about one’s downfall. The afore-mentioned two wrong approaches to emptiness can cause this. The same passage continues to say that a poisonous snake grabbed hold of in the wrong way will bite and poison one, though it cannot bite someone who knows how to take hold of it.

Conventionally Existing Phenomena and Emptiness

We cannot see the very subtle profound qualities of an enlightened being, but we have seen neither their non-existence, nor that the Buddha lacks them. One should not believe them to not exist just because of not seeing them. Likewise, it is natural that conventional phenomena do not appear to the wisdom of meditative equipoise of the Arya. Reality is all that mind focuses on, and all that appears to that mind is the ultimate truth of emptiness.

Though it is the nature of that meditation that conventional phenomena do not appear to or exist for it this does not mean that that mind has realised them not to exist. It is simply that they do not and cannot appear to such a mind.

There is a big difference between not realising something and realising that that thing does not exist. For example, the eye consciousness cannot experience or realise sweet, salty and sour flavours, and so on, but that does not mean the eye consciousness realises they do not exist. Similarly, the eye consciousness cannot hear or realise sounds, but this does not mean it realises that they do not exist.

In the same way, although we ordinary beings are unable to perceive, understand or realise the subtle qualities of the enlightened beings, this does not mean that through not seeing or understanding them, we understand and realise they do not exist.

The self-grasping mind looking at the person thinks that a self-existent person is there. The object of negation - in terms of the person, the self-existent person - appears to our mind, so to that very mind there is an appearance of the person being self-existent. It is not possible for a person who does exist and a self-existent person to appear separately. They appear to that mind as completely indistinguishable.

It is impossible to perceive only a self-existent person without the person itself appearing. These two appear mixed and indistinguishable because they cannot appear separately. One negates the self-existent person by meditating on emptiness using various forms of analysis to realise that there is no such thing. The appearance of the conventionally existing person disappears at the same time as that negation.

Because of that, when you negate the self-existent person it seems as though the conventionally existing person has also been refuted. However, you have not realised the conventionally existing person to be non-existent; you have realised there to be no such thing as a self-existent person.

For example, if you ask someone not to sit here but to move elsewhere, when they go they take their shadow with them. You do not separately tell their shadow to go, nor tell them to take their shadow with them. You merely ask the person to go, but their shadow goes along with them. This is similar and shows how meditation on emptiness does not imply the non-existence of conventionally existing phenomena such as refuge and karma.

Student: To ascertain the object of negation one must separate the appearance of the truly existent from the validly existent person, yet because we are ordinary beings, whenever the person appears to us it appears along with an appearance of inherent existence. Before we have realised emptiness how can we make that separation effectively in order to actually find the object of negation?

Khensur Rinpoche: The way to separate them is through thinking that the object of negation is a self-existent person that exists from its own side completely independent of causes and conditions. That is the thing to be negated. Get an idea of a self-existent person that exists completely independent of causes, conditions and anything else. Then recognise how the person actually exists depending on various causes and conditions and so forth. Thereby realise that because of being dependent, the self-existing one is a mistake and does not actually exist.

Several other options are available of reasoning showing that the self-existing person does not exist. However, the clearest, simplest and most straight forward is thinking about how the person is dependent.

Same student: It is very difficult to separate the validly existing person from the appearance of the inherently existing person.

Khensur Rinpoche: Everything that appears automatically appears not as dependent, but rather as self-existent. Things appear as independent, so use analysis to investigate whether "self-existing" things exist as they appear. Using the insight into dependent arising, see that they do not.

Same student: If one is having problems with that would it help to first establish that the conventionally existing person does exist, because of functioning for example, and then go on to establish that the truly existent person does not exist?

Khensur Rinpoche: Yes, one should recognise how the person does exist. There is a person who comes and goes, sits and eats, sleeps and so on. Then we need to realise that that person appears as if self-existent, meaning as existing independently, and then we analyse whether there is such a person.

Another student: I find the idea of being in a state where neither the "I" that is independent of causes and conditions nor the conventionally existing "I" arises a little bit frightening. I am wondering how you re-emerge from that experience to be able to function again? Do you just wait for some pain, for instance for your knee to hurt, to think “Ah, that’s conventional existence” or is there a meditative process, a way of analysing that there are indeed conventional realities?

Ven Steve Carlier: In other words if you have got to the point where there is a direct perception of emptiness, with no appearance of any kind of conventional phenomena, at what point would you reaffirm their existence?

Student: Clearly there are beings that have this meditative experience and then function. They do not just sit there for the rest of their lives, but they go out and function. How do they arrive at this place where they can function in conventional reality?

Khensur Rinpoche: When they come out of the meditation and just go about their normal activities, they are able to think very clearly how even though at that time there was no appearance of conventional phenomena nonetheless they do exist. That is the time of the meditation break.

Ven Steve Carlier: It is at the time of subsequent realisation.

Khensur Rinpoche: When they rise from their meditation they can see very clearly that although there was no appearance of the person during the meditation, nevertheless there is a conventionally existing person that can come and go, sit, sleep, and eat and so on.

The mantra of the Perfection of Wisdom, TAYATHA GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA is recited in the Heart Sutra.

GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI contains five sets of syllables which can be understood in connection with the five paths of accumulation, preparation, seeing, meditation and no more learning.

The first two syllables are each translated as "Go!" Thus there is "Go! Go!" Next is PARAGATE, "Go beyond!" and PARASAMGATE, "Go perfectly beyond!" Finally, BODHI basically means "Go to enlightenment!" and literally means to set up or place the basis or the foundation of enlightenment, so it means "Attain enlightenment!"

The whole mantra means "Go! Go! Go beyond! Go perfectly beyond! Go to enlightenment!" or "Attain enlightenment!"

Imagine a criminal imprisoned in a cell or dungeon for life. After he has been there a long time a friend visits and advises him, “Don’t stay here any longer! You must do something to get out, to get free of this!” The friend explains the route out, with all the shortcuts and secret passages. The friend explains, “You have to go here, and there; there are actually four paths or legs on this journey. When you have gone through all four segments of the path, finally you will be completely free and will never have to come back and undergo this kind of bad experience again.” The path to enlightenment is like this.

First is the path of accumulation on which one mainly accumulates merit. Then, on the paths of preparation, seeing and meditation, one principally uses wisdom to progress along the path, although that wisdom must be reinforced by the method side of compassion and so forth. Thus, although during this phase method and wisdom must be practised inseparably in combination, the main driver is wisdom. For example, on the path of seeing, although it must be bolstered with the method side, it is mainly wisdom which eliminates the intellectually acquired obscurations. Then on the path of meditation the innate obscurations must be eliminated in several stages. Once both types of obscurations are eliminated one achieves the fifth path which is enlightenment.

This means the journey across the ocean of cyclic existence to liberation relies mainly on the wisdom realising emptiness. One gradually eliminates the obscurations and faults in the mind through practicing the perfection of wisdom (developing the realisation of emptiness) and thus gradually achieves enlightenment.

At the outset of the waxing phase, there is a very fine crescent of the new moon. That thin sliver of a crescent of the new moon puts an end to the total darkness. Before waxing began, only darkness was in the moon’s place. Instead now, although predominantly dark it is no longer totally so. The very fine crescent eliminated the complete disc of darkness, of which less than a disc remains now. As the moon waxes, its light gets fuller and fuller, and what is being eliminated gets increasingly less until finally the full moon eradicates the finest, most subtle level, the final sliver of darkness.

Similarly, as we progress on the path, our wisdom is somewhat weak initially and can eliminate only the greatest, most superficial and gross obscurations. As the wisdom gets stronger and stronger it has the capacity to dispel increasingly subtle obscurations. On the path of seeing2 one has strong enough wisdom to enable one to eliminate the grosser obscurations in the sequence of the sixteen moments of the path of seeing. These wisdom processes are called forbearances and liberation. Then on the path of meditation the remaining, more subtle obscurations are eliminated in nine cycles. There are nine cycles of the path of meditation called the three great, three middling and three smaller cycles.


Although true conventionally or relatively, ultimately they are untrue.  [Return to text]

The path of seeing is the initial point of the dawning of the direct non-conceptual realisation of emptiness. This realisation is developed and deepened in the path of meditation which follows. [Return to text]


By Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey in New Delhi, India January 1980

This teaching was given at Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre on January 2, 1980. Edited from an oral translation by Robert Thurman. First published in Teachings at Tushita, edited by Nicholas Ribush with Glenn H. Mullin, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, 1981. The teaching now appears in the 2005 LYWA publication Teachings From Tibet.

We all suffer; many sentient beings experience almost constant misery. However, at present we have the time, space and ability to think about how to get rid of all suffering—not get over just one problem or become a little more peaceful, but completely finish with suffering altogether.

We humans have many methods of finding happiness at our disposal but even though we live in beautiful houses crammed full of all kinds of stuff we are still not satisfied. That’s because there is only one thing that can really eradicate dissatisfaction and bring true happiness: the practice of Dharma.

If we check within ourselves we will discover that all our misery comes from either attachment or hatred. These, in turn, come from an incorrect view of the self. Even at this moment we hold the “I” to be true. In the Madhyamakavatara, Chandrakirti stated that all emotional afflictions arise from ignorance—misapprehension of the nature of the self. This is the root. In order to get rid of all the branches of suffering and prevent them from ever arising again, we need to sever this root. In that way we can put an end to all misery, even birth, sickness, aging and death.

The Buddha’s main teachings on eradicating ignorance by understanding and realizing the wisdom of non-self-existence are found in his Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) Sutras, and these texts are the main scriptural source for the great sage Nagarjuna’s Six-fold Canon of Reasoning, especially his Root Verses on Wisdom (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Other teachings on the wisdom realizing emptiness may be found in Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses; Buddhapalita’s famous Commentary on [Nagarjuna’s] Treatise on the Middle Way (Buddhapalita-Mulamamadhyamakavrtti); Chandrakirti’s Clear Phrases (Prasannapada); and the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

The essence of all the techniques found in these and other scriptures for developing an understanding of the emptiness of self-existence is the method called the “Four Essential Points,” or the “Four Keys.” These provide a very effective approach to emptiness. We begin by applying these four methods of analysis to gain an understanding of the selflessness of persons and then use them to gain an understanding of the selflessness of phenomena.

The first essential point

The first of the four keys is called “the essential point of ascertaining the object to be eliminated.” We cannot realize emptiness without first knowing what it is that things are empty of; emptiness is not just a vague nothingness. This first point helps us understand how the false self—the object to be refuted and eliminated—exists. We need to recognize how we view the “I” as inherently existent, as if it were independent of the aggregates of body and mind. The “I” appears to be substantially established, existent in its own right, and this mode of existence does not appear to be imposed by our own mental projection.

The way we hold and believe the “I” to exist becomes particularly clear when we’re angry or afraid. At such times we should analyze how the self appears to our mind; how our mind apprehends it. We can provoke these emotions in meditation and, while maintaining them, use a subtle part of our consciousness to recognize how we conceive our “I.”

In order to catch a thief we have to know who the person is and what he or she looks like. The greatest thief of all is our mistaken sense of self—the conception that not only ourselves but all other phenomena as well are truly existent. We believe that things really exist the way they appear to our senses, as objectively established, as existing from their own side. This, then, is what we have to know in order to catch this great thief, who steals all our happiness and peace of mind.

If we do not recognize this wrong conception and simply walk around saying, “Emptiness! Emptiness!” we are likely to fall into one of the two extremes of eternalism or nihilism—believing either that things are inherently existent or that nothing exists at all, thus exaggerating or denying conventional reality.

Therefore, we must recognize the false self, the object of refutation, before we can start actually refuting, or eliminating, it. This is the initial step in developing an understanding of emptiness and the foundation of realizing it. First we must look for the false self, not selflessness. This requires a great deal of meditation.

For our meditation on emptiness to be effective, we need to prepare our mind by purifying negativities and accumulating merit. The essence of purification and creation of merit is the practice of the seven limbs of prostration, offering, confessing, rejoicing, beseeching, requesting and dedicating. We can also engage in preliminaries such as making 100,000 mandala offerings, Vajrasattva mantra recitations and so forth.

When we start observing how the false self—the self we have habitually assumed to exist in persons and objects—manifests, we soon discover that it does not exist at all. Before we begin cultivating this awareness, our “I” seems to really be there, very solidly, but as soon as we start checking, we cannot find it. It disappears. If the “I” truly did exist, the more we searched for it the more concrete it should become…we should at least be able to find it. If it can’t be found, how can it exist?

The second essential point

The inherently existent “I” must exist as either one with the body and mind—that is, identical with them—or separate from them. There is no third way in which it can exist. This is the second of the four keys, ascertaining the logical pervasion of the two possibilities of sameness or difference.

We have to watch for the self-existent “I,” which appears to be established independently, as if it were not created by the mind. If the self does not exist as it appears, we should not believe in it. Perhaps we think it’s someplace else—that it will show up when we meet our guru or that it’s floating around outside the window somewhere. But we need to understand that there’s no third alternative. Therefore, we have to meditate on the second key with awareness that if this apparent “I” is neither identical with nor separate from the five aggregates of body and mind, there’s no way it can exist. At this point it becomes easy for us to understand the general character of emptiness.

The third essential point

The third key is ascertaining the absence of true sameness of the “I” and the five aggregates. Once we have ascertained the object of refutation by meditating on emptiness and seen how it cannot exist in a way other than as one with the five aggregates or separate from them, we concentrate on whether or not the self-existent “I” can exist as one with the five aggregates.

If the “I” is the same as the aggregates, then because there are five aggregates, there must be five continuums of the “I” or, because the “I” is one, the five aggregates must be an indivisible whole. We therefore examine each aggregate to see if it is the same as the self. We ask, “Are my self and my body the same?” “Are my self and my feelings the same?” “Are my self and my discriminating awareness the same?” And so forth.

There are many different analytical procedures to show that the concept of the self as one with the psychophysical aggregates is wrong. I can deal with them only briefly here. For example, if the self were a permanent entity, as self-existence implies, destroying it would be impossible. Then, if the “I” were the same as the body, the body could never die and the corpse could never be burned, because this would destroy the self. This is obviously nonsensical.

Also, the mind and body would be unchanging, because that is the nature of a substantial self. Furthermore, if there were a self-existent “I” identical with the body and the mind, it would be one indistinguishable entity and the individual designations of “my body” and “my mind” would be incorrect.

Thus, there are many different ways we can reason and meditate upon to arrive at the conclusion that reality and our habitual way of perceiving things are completely different. We are not fixed, permanent entities.

The fourth essential point

Having ascertained, as above, that the self and the aggregates are not a true unity, we then consider whether or not our self-existent “I” is different from and unrelated to the aggregates. This is the fourth key, ascertaining the absence of any true difference between the self and the aggregates.

For example, if you have a sheep, a goat and an ox, you can find the ox by taking away the sheep and the goat. Similarly, if the “I” existed separately from the body and the mind, when we eliminated the body and the mind we would be left with a third entity to represent the “I.” But when we search outside of our body, feelings, consciousness etc., we come up with nothing. Generations of yogis have found that there is nothing to be found beyond the aggregates.

Once more, there are many different ways to reason when contemplating the possibility that the self is separate from the aggregates. If they were truly different, there would be no connection between them. When we said, for example, “My head aches,” the “my” would refer to something other than the “head” (the form aggregate) and “ache” (the feeling aggregate); it would be something that existed somewhere else. The aggregate would hurt, not me. If the self were truly a different thing, a true polarity apart from the aggregates, it would be absurd to say, “My head hurts,” “My hand hurts,” etc., as though the pain somehow affected the self.

By performing different kinds of analysis we cultivate the certainty that the self and the aggregates are not truly different.

Meditation on emptiness

Since these four keys contain the essential points of Nagarjuna’s main treatises on the Middle Way, they make it easy to meditate on emptiness.

If we meditate with the four keys to search for the self in our body, from the top of our head to the tips of our toes, and our aggregates of mind as well, we won’t find anything. Thus, we will come to the realization that a fixed, unchanging self does not exist. It’s like looking for a cow in a certain field. We walk all around: up the hills, down the valleys, through the trees, everywhere. Having searched the entire area and found nothing, we arrive at the certainty that the cow simply isn’t there. Similarly, when we investigate the aggregates of body and mind and find nothing, we arrive at the certainty that the self-existent “I” simply isn’t there either. This is the understanding of emptiness.

We then concentrate single-pointedly on the experience of the absence of the self that we had always presumed to exist. Whenever this certainty begins to weaken or lose clarity, we return to our analytical meditation and again check through the four keys. Once more a sharpness of certainty arises and we return to concentrating on it single-pointedly. In this way we cultivate two things: the certainty of finding nothing there and the subjective experience of how this appears. By keeping these two together and not allowing our mind to wander we reach what is called the single-pointed concentration of balanced space-like absorption, wherein everything appears non-dual. Subject and object merge like water poured into water.

We also have to learn what to do when we arise from meditation—in the post-meditation period we have to view everything that appears as illusory. Even though things appear to be self-existent, they are simply the sport of emptiness, like a magician’s creations. This state is called the samadhi of illusory manifestations.

Our practice should alternate in this way between the samadhi of space-like absorption and that of illusory manifestation, thus avoiding the extremes of absolutism and nihilism. This activates the mental factor called ecstasy and we experience intense physical and mental ease. Our meditation just seems to take off on its own without requiring any effort. Once this ecstasy is activated, the power of our meditation increases one hundred times and we achieve penetrative insight into emptiness.

We should spend a great deal of time meditating on the four keys. It may be difficult but it is the most powerful and beneficial form of meditation for counteracting delusions. As Aryadeva said, “Even doubting the validity of emptiness rips samsara to shreds.”

Meditation on emptiness is the most powerful way to purify negative karma. During Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s time there was a king who had killed his own father. He was terrified that this evil act would cause him to be reborn in hell and asked the Buddha for advice. The Buddha instructed him to meditate on emptiness. The king devoted himself to this practice and was able to purify that negative karma from his mindstream.

After Lama Tsongkhapa attained enlightenment he wrote the poem In Praise of the Buddha’s Teaching on Dependent Arising, in which he stated that although all of the Buddha’s teachings are beneficial and undeceiving, the most beneficial and undeceiving, the most miraculously wonderful, is his teaching on emptiness, because by meditating on it sentient beings can cut the root of samsara and attain liberation from all suffering. In awe and amazement, Lama Tsongkhapa thus praised the Buddha’s uncanny perceptiveness and reliability of knowledge as both a scientist and philosopher.

When we understand that the Buddha really did know and describe the true nature of reality by means of his teachings on emptiness, firm faith arises within us. This faith is not based upon stories or fantasy but upon the experience that arises by practicing and realizing the situation for ourselves. We find that reality exists exactly the way the Buddha described it. Furthermore, he discovered this reality a long, long time ago, without the need of so-called scientific instruments.