|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:
- Suffering caused by suffering 2 This 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).
- Suffering caused by change 3 This 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.
- All-embracing suffering caused by mental formations 4 This 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.
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
Killing 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 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.
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
Lying includes anything spoken with the intention of deceiving others, with selfish motivation.
Speech 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.
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.
Any kind of talk that provokes delusion—talk of violence, pornography and so forth—is considered irresponsible or gossip.
Unskilful karma of mind
This 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.
This 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.
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:
- 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.
- Feelings (vedanaskandha). These arise from bodily contacts and mental contacts (with ideas, concepts, and so on), and can be pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent.
- Cognition, perception, differentiation (samjnaskandha). This skandha is the mind that recognizes objects through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking.
- 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.
- 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:
- Through ignorance, negative understanding of the ego. This produces aversion and desire, unskilful karma, and suffering.
- 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.