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A commentary on the emptiness section of the Seven Point Mind Training text

Mirror of Wisdom includes commentaries on the emptiness section of Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun and The Heart Sutra.

CHAPTERS
Mirror of Wisdom
Part One: Introduction
Part One: Mind Training - Developing Bodhicitta
Part One: Mind Training - Developing Emptiness
Part One: Learning to Become a Buddha
Part Two: Commentary on the Heart Sutra

Part One: Introduction

MOTIVATION

I personally feel extremely fortunate to have this opportunity to teach the Heart Sutra, otherwise known as the Perfection of Wisdom or the Wisdom Gone Beyond. I also feel that you, too, as participants in this teaching, are very fortunate.

Why should we feel fortunate to be able to participate in this teaching? Firstly, this human life is extremely precious and very hard to achieve. Secondly, it is very rare that a buddha, an enlightened being, manifests as an emanation body in our world. Lastly, it is very difficult to come into contact with the Mahayana, or Greater Vehicle, teaching of Buddhism. Even though it is only under exceptional circumstances that all these factors come together, somehow we have been able to achieve it. We have this wonderful life with all its freedoms and potential for liberation and we also have the opportunity to follow the Greater Vehicle teaching of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni.

The Heart Sutra is special because by putting its teaching into practice it is possible for us to attain liberation from samsara, the cycle of existence, and to become enlightened within our own lifetime. Even though this is a short sutra, its meaning is extremely profound and we find a wealth of information within just a couple of pages. Take the time to reflect upon and contemplate the meaning. When we recite the HeartSutra, we shouldn't rush our recitation as if skating on ice. Instead, we should try to understand what each word means and should not be afraid to ask those who know more than we do when our understanding fails us.

We will not gain much from the teachings if we listen with the sense of being coerced by some external force or authority. Only if we listen with our own inner spiritual enthusiasm can we listen fully. This enthusiasm flows from our understanding of the true value of the Dharma. When we ask, from the depths of our minds and hearts, what it is that we are truly seeking, then we can begin to realize the enormous value of spiritual practice in our present and future lives. Remember that meditation practice is far more important than simply reading Dharma texts. We shouldn't spend too much time reading books, but should try to meditate as much as possible so that we can internalize and actualize the meaning of the teaching within our mind-stream. It is primarily through meditation that deep experiences and realizations come. A poor person doesn't gain much simply by knowing how much a rich person owns. In the same way, an intellectual understanding of emptiness does not benefit us much if we don't put it into practice and meditate on it.

Let us cultivate our altruistic intention, seeking enlightenment for the sake of liberating all sentient beings, who pervade limitless space. It is with this kind of motivation, the motivation of bodhicitta, that we should participate in this teaching.

OUR BUDDHA NATURE

We have within us two types of buddha nature, or buddha lineage- our "naturally abiding buddha nature" and our "developable buddha nature." The naturally abiding buddha nature refers to the emptiness of our mind. As we engage in Dharma practice, we purify our negativities and accumulate wisdom and positive energy. It is through this practice that each of us can become a buddha. It is the emptiness of our infinite, all-knowing, or omniscient, mind that becomes the natural truth body of a buddha. This occurs when our mind is completely pure, free from defilements such as anger and pride and even of the imprints, or seeds, of those defilements.

Our developable buddha nature is the infinite potential of our mind to grow and develop spiritually through listening to, contemplating and meditating on the teachings. When our mind is completely free of the two obscurations-the obscurations to liberation (deluded emotions, such as anger and desire) and the obscurations to knowledge (ignorance born from dualistic perceptions)-it transforms into the all-knowing mind of a buddha.

BACKGROUND TO THE HEART SUTRA

Shakyamuni Buddha was born in India over two thousand five hundred years ago. After generating bodhicitta-the altruistic mind of enlightenment-for three countless aeons, he then thoroughly perfected the two types of accumulation that constitute the fruition of the entire Mahayana path, the accumulations of merit, or positive energy, and wisdom, or insight. Eventually, he became an enlightened being-a fully awakened person.

Buddha performed twelve great deeds, but the most important deed of them all was turning the wheel of Dharma. Buddha gave the three great discourses that are known as the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma. The first wheel was turned in Sarnath and concerned the Four Noble Truths (aryasatyas). This teaching was primarily aimed at those who have the mental dispositions of the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, practitioner. The third turning of the wheel was at Shravasti and concerned the characteristics of buddha nature.

It was on Vulture's Peak, a mountain near Rajgir in the present day state of Bihar, where Buddha turned the second wheel of Dharma. His discourse concerned the Wisdom Gone Beyond (Prajnaparamita) sutras, which include the HeartSutra. Sutras and treatises deal with two types of subject matter-emptiness and the various levels of realization. The Heart Sutra explicitly presents emptiness as its subject matter and implicitly presents "the hidden levels of realization." The Heart Sutra is one of the most important of the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras. It is in the form of a dialogue between Shariputra, one of the Buddha's two closest disciples, and the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The most extensive version of the Prajnaparamita sutras contains one hundred thousand verses; another contains twenty-five thousand verses, and there's also an abbreviated version eight thousand verses long. But the most concise version of the Wisdom Gone Beyond sutras is the Heart Sutra, which contains the innermost essence of them all.

RECORDING THE SUTRAS

The sutras of Shakyamuni Buddha were not written down during his lifetime. However, when Buddha passed into parinirvana, final nirvana, there were many highly realized arhats and bodhisattvas who had great powers of mental retention, and they recorded everything the Buddha had taught about the Wisdom Gone Beyond.

Buddha passed into parinirvana, the state of solitary peace, during a spring full moon, on the fifteenth day of the fourth lunar month, according to the Tibetan calendar. It was later, during a summer retreat, that the great council was held, where as many as five hundred arhats assembled together to write down Buddha's teachings. During the great council, the three master narrators of Buddha's works collected all of the teachings together. They are now found in the three divisions of the Buddhist canon, called the Three Baskets (Tripitaka). Mahakashyapa recalled all Buddha's teachings on higher knowledge (abhidharma). Then Upali narrated all the teachings given by Buddha on moral, or ethical, discipline (vinaya). Finally, Ananda, the Buddha's personal attendant, recalled and narrated all Buddha's teachings on the discourses (sutras).

When they had gathered for the great council, all the arhats folded their yellow robes (chö-gö) together and placed them one on top of the other to make a throne. The principal narrators sat on this throne of robes and recalled all the teachings given by Buddha. When it was Ananda's turn to sit upon the throne, he faced in the direction where Buddha had taught the Prajnaparamita and the other sutras. He remembered Buddha so deeply that he wept as he began to narrate the sutras. Thus, when you read the words at the beginning of sutras such as the Heart Sutra, in "Thus I have heard...," the "I" refers to Ananda.

THE MEANING OF THE TITLE

In Sanskrit, the Heart Sutra is called Bhagavati Prajnaparamitahrdayam. The Tibetans retained Sanskrit titles in their translations for two reasons. Firstly, it is believed the buddhas of the past, present and future give their teachings in Sanskrit, so by reading the title in Sanskrit, we plant the seeds of the source language of Dharma in our minds. The second reason is to help us remember the great kindness of the lotsawas, whose name comes from the Sanskrit term meaning, "eye of the world"-the great translators who originally translated this and other sutras from Sanskrit into Tibetan.

In order to understand the meaning of the Sanskrit title it is also helpful to know the Tibetan translation: Chom-den-de-ma she-rab kyi pa-rol-tu chin-pay nying-po. This line is actually an extremely concise statement of the doctrine of emptiness. It is regarded as the heart essence of the vast Prajnaparamita literature. Chom-den-de-ma relates to the word bhagavati in the title. Chom literally means "to destroy"; den means "to be in possession of remarkable qualities and realizations"; and de means "to go beyond." The Tibetan suffix -ma also relates to bhagavati and denotes that of the two aspects of Buddha's teaching, method (upaya) and wisdom (jnana), the Heart Sutra belongs to the mother-like, wisdom aspect.

The first part of the title signifies the state of nirvana beyond the two types of obscuration, which I mentioned before. Prajna means "wisdom" and paramita means "perfection" or "gone beyond." Thus Bhagavati Prajnaparamita can be translated as "the possession of the wisdom gone beyond." The Sanskrit word hrdayam relates to the Tibetan nying-po, which means "essence," translated here as "heart." So, the meaning of the title suggests that this sutra is the heart of all other Wisdom Gone Beyondsutras.

THE WISDOM THAT PERCEIVES EMPTINESS

There are many kinds of wisdom but the Wisdom Gone Beyond sutra refers to the essential wisdom. This wisdom perceives the emptiness of true existence and thus the ultimate nature of all phenomena. It is with this wisdom that we can transcend ordinary levels of reality. Some other forms of wisdom include that arising from listening to teachings, the wisdom that arises from contemplating the teachings and the wisdom that arises from meditating on the teachings. These wisdoms can themselves be divided even further, but they are all only complementary or auxiliary wisdoms to help us generate and cultivate the wisdom that perceives the emptiness of true existence. Buddha said that it is because sentient beings have not realized that emptiness is the true nature of phenomena that they wander in the various states of cyclic existence. It is our delusions, particularly our ignorance, that keep us here in samsara.

The root of all ignorance is our continual grasping at a self and it is this grasping that perpetuates our suffering. The wisdom that perceives emptiness is the direct antidote to this self-grasping and, as such, is essential in order for us to become liberated from the compulsive cycles of existence. Once we directly and nakedly realize the final and ultimate mode of existence of phenomena, we case to create new causes to return to samsara.

The great Indian master, Aryadeva, in his treatise the Four Hundred Stanzas, clearly stated that even if one is not able to gain direct insight into the emptiness of all phenomena, merely by developing some positive doubt about the nature of reality, one can create a state of mind so powerful that it can shatter samsara. At the very least, if we think about and meditate on the meaning of emptiness every day, it will be of tremendous help in our spiritual growth. So, the Wisdom Gone Beyond refers to the wisdom that perceives emptiness, which itself is the very heart of wisdom.

INTRODUCTION TO EMPTINESS

This teaching focuses on the profound view of emptiness (shunyata), which we find in the Wisdom Gone Beyond sutras. This kind of teaching is meant for both those who have not yet realized the emptiness of true existence and those who have, to help them further their understanding. It is difficult to fully understand emptiness, but we must make every effort to do so. It is only through gaining this understanding and experience that we can liberate ourselves from the suffering of samsara, particularly the suffering of the three bad migrations, the unfortunate realms of rebirth.

If anyone thinks that by merely reciting a mantra they can liberate themselves from samsara, they are very mistaken. Likewise, simply cultivating great love, compassion and bodhicitta is not enough to completely remove delusion. Certainly, by reciting mantras and cultivating bodhicitta we can temporarily overcome manifest forms of delusion, but in order to eradicate delusion entirely, we must realize emptiness.

The way to generate an unmistakable understanding of emptiness in our own mind is by studying and listening to teachings on emptiness from qualified spiritual masters. However, the text states that emptiness is beyond words, expression or thought. How can we study something that is beyond words, expression or thought? What this statement means is that emptiness cannot be explained or even talked about without taking into consideration conventional phenomena as a basis or reference. There is no way to speak about emptiness directly, so we speak about it through its relation to certain phenomena.

Emptiness cannot be taught in the way that it exists for aryas in a state of meditative equipoise. Even they themselves cannot explain their experience to others. In the Sutra of the Ten Spiritual Grounds of Bodhisattva Realization (Dashabhumisutra), it is written that when aryas watch a bird fly they can see and understand the trail that it leaves in the sky. Most people can see only the bird, but aryas can somehow see the path that the bird is following. Similarly, aryas can see the trail-like emptiness of all phenomena.

We cannot deal with emptiness in isolation. We have to talk about the basis upon which emptiness is established. For example, a wave is empty of true existence. When we focus our mind on the wave we see that the wave and the ocean cannot be differentiated. We see that they are dependent upon one another. The wave has no truly separate existence. In the same way, the experience of emptiness is non-dual, and in this state of non-duality our mind does not see the wave, only its emptiness. The wave then becomes the basis upon which emptiness as its ultimate characteristic is established.

Everything exists dependently upon everything else. Nothing exists independently in and of itself. Therefore, everything is empty of inherent existence. Every phenomenon is empty of true existence, therefore emptiness is the ultimate nature of everything that exists.

Emptiness is a characteristic that all phenomena share. Like the wave, the self, or "I," is also a basis, and emptiness is its characteristic. Emptiness is a very profound reality. We can understand this from the life story of the great master Lama Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug school of Buddhism. When he was in Central Tibet, he was deeply involved in intensive meditation. I mentioned before how once, while meditating on emptiness in the assembly of monks he was so absorbed that he didn't notice the other monks leave the assembly hall. I also explained how Lama Tsongkhapa reached such a high level of attainment that he was able to meet with the tantric deity of wisdom, Manjushri, and receive teachings directly from him. Remember how Manjushri informed Lama Tsongkhapa that he had not yet fully realized emptiness and that in order to do so he needed to accumulate more positive energy, so Lama Tsongkhapa went into retreat at Wölka and practiced intensive purification and accumulation, doing innumerable prostrations and mandala offerings.

Realizing emptiness is no easy task. Even if we spend our entire life practicing meditation and reciting mantras, if we do not understand emptiness we cannot be liberated. We must realize that all the suffering we experience comes from the delusions in our minds. To cut through these delusions, we need the weapon of the wisdom that perceives emptiness.

Lama Tsongkhapa has stated that when we have made ourselves suitable recipients through cultivating the common paths or practices, we will be able to enter confidently into the tantric vehicle-the point of entry for the achievement of enlightenment. Before we receive a tantric empowerment, there are three conditions that are required of us. First, we must have the sincere wish to be liberated. Second, we must have generated the altruistic mind of enlightenment. And third, we must have the wisdom that perceives emptiness.

Part Two: The Meaning of the Text

THE QUALITIES OF THE TEACHER

"Thus I have heard. At one time the Lord was sitting on Vulture's Peak near the city of Rajgir."

It was out of Buddha's own deep experiences and realizations and his infinite compassion for all sentient beings that he gave his teachings. Buddha is an incomparable master. His body, speech and mind are completely pure of defilements and even the imprints of defilements. His body, speech and mind are the result of completion and perfection in the process of the accumulation of excellence, that is, of positive energy and wisdom. It is our knowledge of Buddha's qualities and realizations that helps us develop unshakable faith, confidence and trust in him and his abilities.

The English translation of the text refers to the Buddha as "Lord." In the original Sanskrit this word is bhagavan, but it is more profound in the Tibetan translation, chom-den-de. As we mentioned earlier, the word chom literally means "to destroy." It is saying that Buddha has destroyed all defilements and the imprints of defilements. Den means "to possess excellent qualities and realizations"; de means to "go beyond" or "transcend." What this tells us is that in his enlightenment, Buddha has transcended the two extremes, which can refer to either the two types of obscurations or the two extremes of cyclic existence and solitary peace. This is why the Buddha is called chom-den-de. He is the destroyer of defilements, the possessor of excellent qualities and one who has gone beyond ordinary levels of reality.

The honorific term bhagavan is also used to refer to other holy people, so the translators added the word de to the original Sanskrit to indicate that this wasn't just an ordinary bhagavan but a truly transcendent one.

The city name of Rajgir literally means "the king's palace." This was where King Bimbisara, one of the Buddha's great royal patrons, lived. There are two interpretations given to the origin of the name of Vulture's Peak. Some people thought that the rock formations at the site looked like a flock of vultures. Others say that when Shakyamuni Buddha was teaching the Prajnaparamita sutras, the great bodhisattvas took the form of vultures when they came to receive the teaching.

THE QUALITIES OF THE STUDENT

"He was accompanied by a large community of monks as well as a large community of bodhisattvas."

This tells us something about the excellent assembly, those who were witnesses to Buddha's teaching. This teaching was explicitly intended for bodhisattvas and those with bodhisattva inclinations, even though there were also shravakas (pious hearers) as well as ordinary monks among the gathering.

Emptiness cannot be taught to everyone, simply because not everyone has the capacity to understand it. As we find mentioned in the great Indian master Chandrakirti's work, Supplement to the Middle Way, a suitable recipient of the teaching of emptiness is someone who has already acquainted himself or herself with emptiness or teachings on emptiness and who is especially enthusiastic. There is an inner sign, an inner joy of the heart, which is sometimes expressed by tears rolling down the cheeks or by goose-bumps on the skin. Such a person has the right kind of mind to be able to comprehend the emptiness of true existence. Furthermore, based on their acquaintance with the subject of emptiness, such persons can grow spiritually to understand even deeper levels of realization.

The English translation of the text simply refers to a large community of monks and bodhisattvas. "Monk" is the common translation of the Sanskrit word bhikshu, but bhikshu can refer to people of varying levels of spiritual accomplishment. It can mean a person who has received full ordination, who relies upon the food that is given in alms and who enthusiastically engages in the practices of abandonment and meditation. There are also arya, or superior, bhikshus- those who have gained direct experience of emptiness. This third kind of bhikshu is one who is already in a state of liberation and has become an arhat-a full destroyer of delusion. The core disseminators of Buddha's teaching were this third kind of member of the community of bhikshus-bhikshus who had already attained this profound realization.

In the eight thousand verses of the Wisdom Gone Beyond sutra, we find that in the last community of monks before Buddha's death, all except one were arhats-completely free from contamination, defilement and delusion. The one exception was Ananda, the Buddha's personal attendant. Fortunately, Ananda achieved arhatship shortly before the great council was held.

The text states that the Buddha was also accompanied by "a large community of bodhisattvas." The Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word bodhisattva is jang-chub sem-pa." Jang literally means "pure of faults and defilements." Chub means "internally realized." Sem-pa is Tibetan for sattva. Sem means "to think" and pa means "to be brave." Taken together, the term literally translates to "hero." So a bodhisattva is a pure, realized person who thinks about the welfare of others and who works courageously towards the attainment of enlightenment for the sake of all, bravely cutting through the forces of negative actions.

Another interpretation of the word sattva is "one who is heroic, courageous and patient in contemplation of the two truths-the conventional truth and the ultimate truth." In his Abbreviated Sutra, Buddha himself explained that sattva means "one who is generous, has great wisdom, is full of energy, has entered the path of Greater Vehicle Buddhism and has put on the armor of patience and tolerance and thereby combats the defiled states of mind."

In the Tibetan text we find the phrase thab-chig-tu zhug-pa. This has been translated as "accompanied by" and refers to how people are seated or gathered together. Zhug-pa means "to sit" or "be together," while thab-chig-tumeans "a form of discipline." Thus, the termthabchig- tu zhug-pa means that the assembly was sitting together in the same disciplined state.

THE PROFOUND APPEARANCE

"On that occasion the Lord was absorbed in a particular concentration called the profound appearance."

The words "on that occasion" are not simply a casual reference to the time when this teaching was given. It means an auspicious confluence of events-a point in time when everyone's positive energy ripened and they became fully prepared to receive this teaching.

"Profound" refers to profound emptiness and "appearance" here refers to the wisdom that perceives emptiness. Therefore, Buddha was involved in single-pointed concentration on the ultimate nature of reality, which was free from both coarse and subtle forms of laxity (drowsiness) and excitement (distraction). There isn't a single moment when Buddha isn't absorbed in this kind of meditative state. Lama Tsongkhapa said that this is because Buddha is constantly aware of everything that exists. In him, mindfulness is ever-present.

However, Buddha is described as doing all sorts of other things such as eating, sleeping and so on. So, what is his state during these activities? It is said that a buddha doesn't need sleep. Nor is he ever hungry or thirsty. When a buddha appears thirsty, it is just because of the nature of our own perceptions. When Buddha went begging for alms, he wasn't really in need of food but was trying to inspire benefactors to create positive energy by giving and thus increase their own merit (punya). A buddha doesn't need to eat food because he already enjoys the food of concentration.

AVALOKITESHVARA

"Meanwhile the bodhisattva, the great being, the noble Avalokiteshvara was contemplating the profound discipline of the perfection of wisdom. He came to see that the five aggregates were empty of any inherent nature of their own."

The sutras were not necessarily spoken word by word. There are different kinds of sutras-blessed sutras, permitted sutras and spoken sutras-composed of words blessed, permitted or spoken by Buddha. These three kinds of teaching are not seen as contradictory and are all considered as teachings of Buddha. The Four Noble Truths constitute actual words spoken by Buddha himself, as do most of the teachings in the Prajnaparamitasutras.

The Heart Sutra is generally considered to be a sutra presented through Buddha's permission and so it is a permitted sutra. But within the text we find passages that seem to dwell within the two other kinds, as when Buddha says, "well said, well said" to Avalokiteshvara. It is also a blessed sutra in the sense that Buddha blessed Shariputra and gave him the confidence to ask his question.

We find innumerable bodhisattvas among the ten levels of bodhisattva realization. There are the eight close bodhisattva disciples of Buddha, for example. But of them all, it is Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani and Manjushri who are considered to be the most important. Manjushri is the embodiment of the highest form of wisdom-that which perceives the emptiness of all phenomena. The unique quality of Vajrapani is that he is the embodiment of the enlightened power of all the buddhas.

The word "noble" used in reference to Avalokiteshvara is a translation of the Sanskrit word arya, which has often been translated as "superior" or "transcendental" being. Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of the compassion of all the buddhas, always keeps his eyes open to all sentient beings in order to liberate them from suffering and the causes of suffering and to endow them with happiness and the causes of happiness. Bodhicitta is the altruistic mind of enlightenment and the bodhicitta of Avalokiteshvara is said to be cowherd-like. Just as a cowherd doesn't rest until all the cows are safe in their shelter, so too has Avalokiteshvara promised that he will not rest until he has established all sentient beings in the mind of enlightenment. He is special because he represents compassion in its most intense and ultimate form.

Avalokiteshvara's compassion is extended infinitely to all sentient beings. To him, all are equal rather than being separated into friends, adversaries and strangers. He is able to manifest simultaneously in innumerable forms. His mind is omniscient, understanding precisely and distinctly each and every aspect of phenomena and the qualities and characteristics of the paths and grounds leading to liberation and enlightenment. The text demonstrates that Avalokiteshvara understands that the five aggregates-the principal faculties that make up a sentient being-are all empty of true existence.

SHARIPUTRA'S QUESTION

"Through the power of the Buddha, the venerable Shariputra approached the noble Avalokiteshvara and asked him, 'How should a son of the noble lineage proceed when he wants to train in the profound discipline of the perfection of wisdom?'"

Thus, absorbed in meditative concentration, Shakyamuni Buddha blessed and inspired his disciple Shariputra to ask Avalokiteshvara this question; that is, how should a person who wishes to follow the Mahayana path leading to enlightenment train his or her mind? "A child of the noble lineage" means someone who has the inclination of a bodhisattva or of Mahayana Buddhism. A Mahayana practitioner with keen intelligence and sharp mental faculties realizes emptiness first and then cultivates love, compassion and bodhicitta, the altruistic mind of enlightenment. One with slightly lower faculties cultivates love, compassion and bodhicitta first, and then studies and realizes emptiness.

AVALOKITESHVARA'S S ANSWER

"The noble Avalokiteshvara replied to the venerable Shariputra, 'Whatever son or daughter of the noble lineage wants to train in the profound discipline of the perfection of wisdom should consider things in the following way. First, he or she should clearly and thoroughly comprehend that the five aggregates are empty of any inherent nature of their own....'"

Avalokiteshvara's answer tells us that from the Buddhist point of view, men and women are equal in being able to follow spiritual practice and gain spiritual realizations. Furthermore, every phenomenon-the house in which we live, the environment, in fact everything around us-has two truths, conventional and ultimate. When we shift the focus to ourselves, we see that we also have conventional and ultimate aspects. Once we know about the emptiness of forms, we can apply the same reasoning to the other four aggregates that make up our psycho- physical personality-feeling, discriminative awareness, compositional factors and consciousness, which are also empty of true or inherent existence.

The crucial word here is "inherent." Of course the aggregates exist in a conventional sense but they do not exist in and of themselves. That is, they do not possess an objective existence. The line of philosophical reasoning is as follows. If a phenomenon were to exist in and of itself, it would not depend upon causes and conditions. If things did not depend upon causes and conditions, it would mean that results could occur without causes, which is impossible.

THE CHARACTERISTICS OF EMPTINESS

"Form is empty but emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form and form is not other than emptiness. Similarly, feelings, discernments, formative elements and consciousness are also empty. Likewise, Shariputra, are all phenomena empty. They have no defining characteristics; they are unproduced; they do not cease; they are undefiled, yet they are not separate from defilement; they do not decrease, yet they do not increase."

In the text we find that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. In other words, form is not different from emptiness and emptiness is not different from form. In his answer to Shariputra, Avalokiteshvara says that all phenomena are empty. This does not mean that nothing exists. What it does mean is that all phenomena are empty of something. That "something" is inherent, or objective, existence. The Heart Sutradoesn't explicitly mention inherent or objective existence-it simply states that "form is empty"-but this is the true meaning of emptiness.

The text describes eight characteristics of emptiness, one of these being that phenomena have no defining characteristics. What this means is that phenomena have no inherently existing defining characteristics. So, when we contemplate this section of the Heart Sutra, if we conclude that nothing is produced and nothing ceases to exist, we are mistaken. The reality of phenomena is created by our perceptions and consciousness. Phenomena do exist and we cannot deny them. It is only inherent existence that does not exist. We know this because inherent existence is not apprehended to exist by any valid perception or state of mind. It is from this point of view that we speak of the self of phenomena and the self of a person as not existing.

"They are undefiled" means that even afflictive emotions and the afflictions of delusions do not inherently exist. This is precisely the reason why we can rid ourselves of them. Everybody who is not free of defilements possesses delusions, which means that all of us are defiled. But where are these defilements? Do they have form or are they formless? If they had form it would be easy to take them out and remove them, but our defilements do not have form. We can't throw them away because they are a part of our consciousness. Yet these defilements cannot contaminate the absolute nature of our mind. If they did, then when we removed them we would also be removing our mind. Then, when we reached enlightenment, we would be without consciousness altogether.

Therefore, we must understand that our defilements and our consciousness are not inseparable. When our clothes get dirty, the dirt is not the same as the cloth. When we wash our clothes it is the dirt that comes out. Our clothes remain intact. So remember, when we get rid of defilements we are not getting rid of our mind. When we engage in the activities of accumulating positive energy and wisdom, thus purifying our defilements, what we are really doing is purifying defilements onthe mind rather than inthe mind.

In the line "yet they are not separate from defilement," we see how even the liberated side of phenomena, the freedom from defilements, does not inherently exist. Where it says "they do not decrease," we see that we have to work to develop qualities to decrease defilements or negativities. They do not diminish in and of themselves. The eight characteristics of emptiness presented here describe the "three doors to liberation." The first one presents emptiness as the door to liberation. The next five characteristics represent what we call "signlessness" (tsen-ma me-pa) as the door to liberation. The last two characteristics represent "aspirationlessness" (mön-pa me-pa) as the door to liberation.

THE FIVE BODHISATTVA PATHS

In Mahayana Buddhism, we present five progressive levels, or paths, of spiritual realization by which an aspiring bodhisattva travels towards enlightenment-the paths of accumulation, preparation, seeing (insight), meditation and no more learning.

On the first two paths, those with bodhisattva inclinations are primarily engaged in listening to and contemplating the teachings on emptiness. As they progress along the paths of seeing and meditation, they begin cultivating the awareness of emptiness that arises through meditation. The obscurations to liberation and the obscurations to omniscience are the two main types of mental affliction that obstruct one's attainment of buddhahood and each of the five paths acts as an antidote to these obscurations.

The path of accumulation. Within the path of accumulation we find three levels-the great, the intermediate and the initial, or small. At first, practitioners simply listen to the teachings. They do contemplate to some degree, but mainly they just listen. On the great, or advanced, level of the path of accumulation, it is possible for certain practitioners to actually ascertain or realize emptiness, at least conceptually. It is on this path that one gains the two collections of merit (virtuous actions) and wisdom. Although one has not yet gained any real clarity in relation to emptiness, one is clearly accumulating the necessary causes for that clarity.

The path of preparation. There are four levels on this path-heat, peak, patience and supreme mundane qualities, or supreme Dharma. On these levels, practitioners comprehend emptiness conceptually. At the heat level, the meditator attains a clear conceptual awareness of emptiness within a meditative stabilization. The peak level marks a point at which the virtuous roots that have been cultivated previously will no longer decrease or be lost. At the patience level the meditator develops familiarity with the concept of emptiness and overcomes fear of it. When practitioners have reached this level and beyond, they are safe from falling into the three bad migrations, the unfortunate states of rebirth. At this stage, based upon their own valid reasoning, their conceptual understanding of emptiness is so powerful that they gain a deep understanding of the infallibility of the law of karmic actions and result. Even though they may have already-accumulated negativities, they cease to create fresh ones. At the level of supreme mundane qualities, the cognizing subject no longer appears while one is in meditative equipoise. Subject and object do appear, but the meditator no longer consciously perceives them. The path of preparation is also called the connecting path, as it connects us to the path of seeing.

The path of seeing. As one progresses on the four levels of the path of preparation, one moves onto the path of seeing. It is while the meditator is on this path that he or she directly experiences emptiness for the first time. Here, one does not create any new karmic actions to cause rebirth in samsara. There is a quote-"seeing the truth, there is no precipitation"-which means that when one sees the ultimate truth of emptiness, just as a person with good eyesight will not walk off a cliff, one does not create any new karmic action that will precipitate one to be reborn into cyclic existence. The path of seeing is the first of the ten spiritual grounds of the bodhisattva, the remaining nine of which lie within the path of meditation.

The path of meditation. On the path of meditation, when practitioners are in the state of meditative equipoise on emptiness, they experience it directly, with no duality whatsoever.

The path of no more learning. This means that we literally have no more to learn. We have reached the state of perfection. We have reached enlightenment.

THE OBJECT OF NEGATION

The first thing with which we have to deal in our meditation on emptiness is identification of what is called in Buddhism "the object of negation" or "the object of refutation." The object of negation is the concept of the inherent existence of phenomena and the subsequent grasping at the existence of phenomena. As we find in the great bodhisattva Shantideva's Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life, "Without coming into contact with the inherent thing, one cannot comprehend the absence of that thing." This means that without precisely identifying and recognizing the concept that you are refuting (the object of negation), you are not going to understand emptiness. After all, emptiness is established by way of refuting something. That something is inherent existence.

The main purpose of meditating on emptiness is to be able to counteract grasping at inherent existence. This grasping is the other object of negation. If we don't understand what is being refuted, then even if we try to meditate on emptiness, our meditation will not counteract our grasping. We will be shooting an arrow without knowing where the target is.

When we talk about the object of negation we are speaking of two kinds-one that exists and one that does not. To be able to identify the two types of object of negation, we have to check our perception and the habitual way we perceive things. For example, how do we perceive the self to exist? We perceive it to exist in and of itself. This idea of the inherent existence of the self is what we call a "non-existent object of negation"; our grasping at self is an "existent object of negation." We perceive and then we grasp. We use two different methods to deal with these two types of object of negation. We use authentic scriptural quotations to deal with the object of negation that does exist and valid reasoning to deal with the one that does not. Thus, we should try to imagine how we individually perceive the self to exist and where we perceive it as existing. Once we recognize the fallibility of the idea of a self, it is easy to recognize how we grasp at other phenomena. But in order to be able to understand the nonexistence of the self, we first have to know what we mean by the term "inherent existence." What are the criteria by which we judge whether something exists inherently? First, it should exist independently; second, it should not rely upon causes and conditions. Does the self exist this way? Upon analysis we can see that it does not. The self exists dependently. It is dependent upon the collection of our five physical and mental aggregates. This is the first level of how to meditate on emptiness.

EMPTINESS OF THE AGGREGATES

"This being the case, Shariputra, in terms of emptiness there exist no forms, no feelings, no discernments, no formative elements, no consciousness..."

Remember that Avalokiteshvara is explaining how to train the mind in the perfection of wisdom. The key point is that while we are on the path of meditation, what exists for us in the state of meditative equipoise on emptiness is just emptiness and nothing else. Conventional phenomena do not exist for that kind of wisdom. We do not even perceive the basis upon which emptiness is established. We perceive emptiness directly, nakedly and non-conceptually.

When one first begins to meditate on emptiness, one also perceives the conventional phenomena that are the basis upon which emptiness is established. Eventually, our perceptions become like "water poured into water"-undifferentiable from one another. We no longer experience any duality existing between our perceptions and they become of "one taste." This is why we say that all conventional phenomena have been exhausted for aryas in the state of meditative equipoise on emptiness.

What Avalokiteshvara means when he says "in terms of emptiness there exist no forms" is that conventional forms do not exist in this state. It is common for people to fall into the extreme of nihilism and misinterpret this as meaning that forms do not exist at all. This is as mistaken a view as the extreme of absolutism, or eternalism. If a person is not receptive or "ripened" they can easily misconstrue the meaning of emptiness.

There is a story of a mahasiddha, a great Indian master, who took shelter from the midday heat in the carcass of an elephant. The elephant's insides had been eaten by worms and its body was empty like a cave. The mahasiddha meditated here and gained direct experience into emptiness. One day, the local king invited the mahasiddha to his palace and asked him to teach about emptiness. The mahasiddha entered a deep meditative state and started pointing at things saying, "That doesn't exist, this doesn't exist, they don't exist." He wasn't denying the existence of phenomena; what he meant was that nothing exists inherently, in and of itself. But his audience completely misunderstood him. The king became very angry and sentenced the mahasiddha to death.

Some time later, the king invited another great master to his palace. This master first spoke about basic things, such as the practice of refuge and the law of karma and its results. Eventually, he began to guide the king and his attendants into an understanding of emptiness. Because of his great merit, the king was able to gain direct insight into emptiness through these teachings. But when he entered into meditative equipoise on emptiness, he couldn't help repeating the first mahasiddha's statements, "That doesn't exist, this doesn't exist, they don't exist." It was then that he understood how truly realized the first mahasiddha had been. (Now, you might ask, if the mahasiddha was so realized why did he have to die in such a miserable way? This has something to do with the infallible law of karmic action and result. When unwanted problems come to us we must understand that this is the result of our own negative karmic actions, but we should not conclude that the practice of Dharma doesn't work.)

Just as forms do not exist for an arya's wisdom in meditative stabilization on emptiness, so the remaining aggregates-feelings, discriminative awareness, compositional factors and consciousness do not exist for such wisdom. When we read this statement we must understand that we are not denying the conventional existence of the five aggregates but just their inherent existence. We can see that the aggregates exist dependently, arising as they do from certain causes and conditions.

OBJECTS, FACULTIES AND PERCEPTIONS

"...no eyes, no ears, no noses, no tongues, no bodies, no minds; no visual forms, no sounds, no smells, no tastes, no tactile sensations, no mental objects. There exist no visual elements, no mental elements, and no elements of mental consciousness."

As you recite the Heart Sutra and come across these lines, you must understand that what is being stated here is that none of these things exist for the wisdom of an arya in a state of meditative equipoise on emptiness-especially on the path of meditation. In the Heart Sutra, we find eighteen elements of phenomena. There are six objects, six faculties and six perceptions, all of which are empty of true existence. Emptiness pervades all phenomena. For example, when we are directly perceiving the emptiness of the true existence of eyes, we are only perceiving the basis upon which the eyes exist, but not the eyes themselves.

Visual forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations and mental objects are the six objects, or objective conditions, of the six faculties. The six faculties are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. Visible form is an object of eye consciousness, sound is an object of ear consciousness, smell is an object of nose consciousness, taste is an object of tongue consciousness, touch is an object of tactile consciousness and thought is an object of mental consciousness. The six faculties are the basis for the arising of a particular consciousness. For example, the eyes are the basis for the consciousness that perceives visual forms.

Sometimes we speak of the twelve sources. These refer to the six objects and the six faculties combined. The twelve sources give rise to the six perceptions of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and thinking. "Source" is the English translation of the Tibetan word kyeche, meaning "that which gives rise to" and "door through which things are perceived," as well.

THE TWELVE LINKS OF DEPENDENT ARISING

"There exist no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance, no aging and death and no exhaustion of aging and death."

This sentence refers to the chain of twelve dependent links, or the chain of dependent origination. This describes the process by which we are continually falling into cyclic existence. This chain or sequence of events begins with 1) ignorance and follows with 2) karmic formation, 3) consciousness, 4) name and form, 5) sensory fields, 6) contact, 7) feelings, 8) attachment, 9) grasping, 10) becoming, or existence, 11) birth and 12) aging and death.

Buddha has pointed out the need for us to understand and meditate on the twelve dependent links in both sequential and reverse order. In sequential order we are seeing the afflictive side of phenomena -that which pulls us into cyclic existence, or samsara. In reverse order we see the unafflictive side of phenomena-that which liberates us from cyclic existence. Contemplating the twelve links in sequential order, we gain insight into the limitations of cyclic existence; contemplating them in reverse order, we learn how to liberate ourselves from cyclic existence.

1) Ignorance. The first link is ignorance (ma-rig-pa). Ignorance is the root cause of cyclic existence. It misperceives the self of a person and the reality of all phenomena and causes us to grasp at ego and material things. But the wisdom that perceives selflessness sees the emptiness of the self and all other phenomena. Ignorance and selflessness contradict each other. It is very important to individually focus on our own ignorant grasping at self and to know that this root delusion gives rise to all others.

All problems stem from this root-the ignorant grasping at self, or I. This is the real troublemaker in our lives. To be able to fight the tendency to grasp at a self we have to prepare our minds through study and practice of the three higher trainings-training in higher ethics, higher concentration and higher wisdom.

Training in higher ethics lays a firm, solid foundation on which to build our other practices. Monks and nuns have their own ethics to keep, but even people who haven't taken any vows should refrain from engaging in negative actions, particularly the ten negative actions.

Having laid a foundation of ethics, one can then practice in the higher training of concentration. Just as a woodcarver needs strong arms to cut wood, we need to develop the strong arm of concentration through mindfulness and introspection. Without mindfulness and introspection, our meditation will be very weak and ineffectual. Once we have cultivated concentration, we need to cultivate wisdom, particularly the wisdom perceiving emptiness. This is our superior weapon; with it we can cut through the grasping at self. It is our woodcutter's ax, with which we can chop through our dense forest of ignorance. All of our spiritual activities, no matter what they may be, should be geared towards destroying our habitual grasping at self and cultivating the wisdom perceiving emptiness so that we can experience ultimate reality.

In the pictorial representation of the wheel of life, ignorance is depicted as a blind man, walking without any guide. Such a person is always uncomfortable and confused wherever he or she goes. Ignorance prompts us to create karmic actions that then become the cause of all our problems and suffering. Just as a blind person moving towards a precipice is certain to fall, whatever actions spring from ignorance are bound to bring about problematic results. Buddha made the statement, "Because this exists, that arises." In the same way, because ignorance exists, karmic formation naturally follows.

2) Karmic formation. The second link is karmic formation (du-che kyi lä). Karmic actions arise out of ignorance and are capable of precipitating our rebirth into samsara. There are two kinds of ignorance, that pertaining to the infallibility of the law of karmic actions and result and that pertaining to the ultimate reality of phenomena. Ignorance of the law of karma motivates us to do negative, or nonmeritorious, actions. These actions ripen in cyclic existence, especially in the three unfortunate states of rebirth-the hell, hungry ghost and animal realms.

Ignorance related to misunderstanding the ultimate nature of reality can make us do karmically positive or neutral actions. Positive actions stemming from this type of ignorance can ripen within fortunate states of rebirth-in the human, demigod or deva realms. In the drawing of the wheel of life, this link is depicted as a potter rotating his wheel. It is karma that spins and molds us in cyclic existence.

3) Consciousness. The third link is consciousness (nam-she). There are two kinds of consciousness-causal and resultant. Causal consciousness exists with the performance of a karmic action. As that action- good or bad-comes to an end, it leaves an imprint on our consciousness. The consciousness that receives that imprint is the causal consciousness. Resultant consciousness is activated by an imprint, or latency, that was deposited earlier on. The consciousness that enters the womb of a mother is an example of this. It is the consciousness that arises as a result of certain karmic actions in the past.

Say, for example, that out of ignorance we kill someone and don't purify that action. The action leaves an imprint on our consciousness, which thus becomes a causal consciousness. Some day this imprint will precipitate an unfortunate rebirth; the consciousness that goes towards that conception is the resultant consciousness.

In the wheel of life, consciousness is shown as a monkey. When a monkey inside a house with windows on all four sides looks out each window it sees different views, but it is still the same monkey.

Similarly, it is our single consciousness upon which imprints of our karmic actions are deposited and then activated at different times to bring about certain results. This is how we are born into various states in cyclic existence.

4) Name and form. The fourth link is called "name and form" (mingzug). Those born from the womb (as opposed to those born through miraculous power) possess the five aggregates that constitute the psycho-physical personality. The first aggregate is "form." The remaining four-feelings, discriminative awareness, compositional factors and consciousness-are called "name" because they do not have the concrete quality of form. Form is considered to begin when the consciousness enters the womb and absorbs into the mixture of sperm and egg. In the wheel of life, the dependent link of name and form is depicted as a boat. Just as we need a boat to cross a river, in order to cross over into a physical being in cyclic existence we depend on name and form.

5) Sensory fields. The fifth link is called "origination" or "sources" (kyeche). As I mentioned before, there are twelve sense fields altogether- one for each of the six senses and one for each of the objects of the six senses, including mind. There are eye and visual forms seen, ear and sounds heard and so forth. In the wheel of life, this dependent link is represented by a fortress because our senses encompass and concretize our experience of the world.

6) Contact. The sixth link is called "contact" or "touch" (reg-pa). It refers to the interaction of an object, a sense faculty and a consciousness. Before this contact, although our faculties are fully developed, we cannot perceive anything or distinguish one thing from another. Only when there is a union of these three things can perception or discriminative awareness occur. When there is a meeting of attractive object, sense faculty and consciousness, a pleasant feeling arises. Similarly, when there is a contact of unattractive object, sense faculty and consciousness, an unpleasant feeling is experienced. In the wheel of life, contact is depicted iconographically by a man and woman in sexual union.

7) Feelings. Contact naturally gives rise to the seventh link of feeling (tsor-wa). We talk about three types of feelings-pleasant, unpleasant and neutral-all of which arise from some kind of contact. When we see something, there follows a sense of attraction or aversion and a value judgment about what we are seeing, which stimulates these feelings further. In the wheel of life, feelings are represented by a man with an arrow stuck in his eye. This describes our sensitivity and how, when feelings arise, we notice them immediately.

8) Attachment. Feelings precipitate the eighth link, attachment, craving or desire (se-pa). When we experience a pleasant feeling, we desire to not be separated from it. When we feel trapped in a problem, we experience the desire to be free from it. In our everyday life we experience all sorts of feelings. It is possible to have feelings without attachment, but the feelings we are talking about here are the kind that stem from ignorance. If we eliminate ignorance, we will experience feelings without attachment. Not surprisingly, attachment is depicted in the wheel of life as a person indulging in intoxicating liquor. In some treatises, attachment is likened to someone scratching an itchy skin irritation-it feels pleasant at first, but it is actually creating the conditions for more and more itching.

9) Grasping. Attachment gives rise to the ninth link, grasping (len-pa), which is an intensified form of attachment. There are four kinds of grasping-grasping at sense objects (forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile objects); grasping at wrong, or distorted, views; grasping at improper ethics and disciplines, seeing them as worthy; and grasping at the inherent existence of the five aggregates. In the wheel of life this dependent link is depicted as a person picking fruit.

10) Becoming, or existence. Grasping gives rise to the tenth link, becoming, or existence (si-pa). A karmic action leaves an imprint on our mental consciousness. At the time of death, that imprint is activated by craving and grasping. In this way, the karma becomes fully prepared to precipitate the next rebirth and a being about to be reborn feels a powerful attraction towards its future parents, who are about to engage in sexual union.

11) Birth. The eleventh link is rebirth (kye-wa). It occurs from this fully ripened karmic action. In Buddhism, rebirth is considered to have taken place when the consciousness enters the womb of the mother at conception and later culminates in the act of physical birth.

12) Aging and death. The final link is aging and death (ga-shi). Aging begins from the moment of conception. Death is technically defined as the complete exhaustion of the aggregates, when the life energy, or life force, comes to an end. The dependent link of birth necessarily gives rise to aging and death, and if one dies under the power of karmic actions and delusions one is necessarily born under their influence. Yet, if someone born from delusions and contaminated karmic actions becomes an arhat and attains liberation, such a person does not die under the influence of delusion, and his or her rebirth is not influenced by them.

Summary: Ignorance is the cause of all karmic formation, which gives rise to consciousness. Consciousness allows for name and form and the sensory fields, which prepare the way for contact. Contact elicits feelings that stimulate attachment and create grasping. Grasping is the condition that brings about existence, which in turn precipitates rebirth and leads to aging and death. The twelve dependent links can be brought under four headings:

  • Precipitating causes—ignorance, karmic formation and causal consciousness. These are the links that instigate our rebirth into cyclic existence. Ignorance is like a farmer, karmic formation is the seed sowed by the formation of ignorance and causal consciousness is likened to a field.
  • Accomplishing causes—craving, grasping and becoming. Just as water, manure and sunlight prepare the seed for growth, in the same way, craving, grasping and becoming activate the karmic action and prepare it to bring about its result.
  • Precipitated results—resultant consciousness, name and form, sources, contact and feelings are brought about by the accomplishing causes.
  • Accomplished result—aging and death. When we study the twelve dependent links in reverse order we are really trying to reverse the entire process. We are trying to put an end to aging and death by preventing birth and trying to put an end to ignorance, which stops the whole cycle from repeating. What uproots ignorance is the wisdom realizing emptiness, and when ignorance is eliminated, karmic formation does not arise. The whole purpose of studying and meditating on emptiness is to break this chain of twelve dependent links.

THE EMPTINESS OF SUFFERING

"In the same way there exist no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation, no path, no wisdom, no attainment and no lack of attainment."

Neither suffering, the path, attainment nor the lack of these things truly exist for an arya's wisdom in the state of meditative equipoise on emptiness. Even the wisdom that realizes the Four Noble Truths does not exist for this wisdom. We must not misinterpret "no attainment" to mean that we cannot attain buddhahood or the qualities of a buddha. We can. It simply means that this attainment does not exist for an arya who is in a state of meditative stabilization because in this state he or she sees only emptiness and not conventional phenomena. There also exists no lack of attainment, so neither does failure appear for this kind of wisdom.

THE NATURE OF BODHISATTVAS

"Therefore, Shariputra, since bodhisattvas have no attainment, they depend upon and dwell in the perfection of wisdom; their minds are unobstructed and unafraid. They transcend all error and finally reach the end point: nirvana."

This passage deals with the path of meditation in general and the meditative stabilization of a bodhisattva on the final stage of the tenth ground in particular. This vajra-like state of meditation becomes an antidote to the last obstacle to enlightenment. What is meant by "they depend upon and dwell in the perfection of wisdom" is that bodhisattvas are completely free from any fabrications when absorbed in the nature of emptiness, being completely engaged in that state. When we talk about purifying negativity, we find two kinds of defilement-coarse, or gross, and subtle. Just as the coarse dirt on our clothes is easier to wash away, coarse defilements are easier to get rid of. Subtle stains penetrate our clothes more deeply and are harder to clean away; the final obscurations to omniscience, even though the smallest in magnitude, are the toughest to eradicate. We need the most powerful weapon to destroy them. This weapon is the vajra-like meditative state.

"Their minds are unobstructed and unafraid" tells us that such bodhisattvas, having trained their mind in stages, from the path of accumulation all the way up to the final stage of the tenth bodhisattva ground, have abandoned many of the obscurations along the way, including fear.

Then comes the phrase, "They transcend all error." We talk about four kinds of error, sometimes called the "four distortions"-perceiving that which is impure as pure; perceiving that which is painful as pleasurable; perceiving impermanent phenomena as permanent; and perceiving that which is selfless as having self. Bodhisattvas are free from these errors and also from the error of the two extremes-solitary peace and cyclic existence.

When we emerge from the vajra-like meditative state, we achieve the liberated path and attain the final enlightenment of buddhahood. This state is described by the Sanskrit word nirvana, which means, "beyond distress" or " beyond sorrow." These are the sorrow and distress of the solitary peace of personal liberation and the sorrow and distress of cyclic existence. Nirvana refers not just to personal liberation but to complete enlightenment as well.

Buddha's great compassion prevents him from falling into the extreme of solitary peace. If he did, he wouldn't be able to work continuously for the benefit of other beings. Like the bodhisattvas, he also has the fully developed perfection of wisdom and is thus free from cyclic existence. Foe destroyers, arhats of the Lesser Vehicle, who have liberated just themselves from samsara, are still trapped in solitary peace and, unlike bodhisattvas, cannot work for the welfare of other sentient beings.

THE UNIVERSAL PATH

"All the buddhas of the past, present and future have depended, do and will depend upon the perfection of wisdom. Thereby they became, are becoming and will become unsurpassably, perfectly and completely awakened buddhas."

From this we understand that the perfection of wisdom is the universal path trod by all the buddhas of the past, present and future. The perfection of wisdom is also referred to as the Great Mother because it gives birth to the buddhas of the three times. In both Buddha's sutras and tantras we find skillful means, or method (upaya), referred to as father-like and wisdom (jnana) as mother-like. This wisdom gives birth, metaphorically speaking, to the three different states of liberation-those of the hearers, solitary realizers and bodhisattvas.

THE MANTRA OF THE PERFECTION OF WISDOM

"Therefore, the mantra of the perfection of wisdom is a mantra of great knowledge; it is an unsurpassable mantra; it is a mantra that is comparable to the incomparable; it is a mantra that totally pacifies all suffering. It will not deceive you, therefore know it to be true!"

In both sutra and tantra, the word mantra has the same connotation -protecting the mind. Practitioners who practice mantra are protecting their minds from fears and danger. The perfection of wisdom fulfills the same purpose. It is called a mantra here because when we cultivate the wisdom gone beyond, this practice also works to protect us from fear and danger.

The perfection of wisdom is "a mantra of great knowledge" in the sense that of all the various kinds of wisdom, it is the greatest-the real antidote to ignorance. The mode of apprehension of ignorance is incompatible with the mode of apprehension of the wisdom of emptiness, which directly contradicts the grasping at self. It is "unsurpassable" inasmuch as we cannot find any other wisdom that has such power to free us from both suffering and its causes. The perfection of wisdom leads us to the non-abiding state of enlightenment, and because of this it "is comparable to the incomparable."

Another interpretation of this passage can be related to the five paths. "Therefore the mantra of the perfection of wisdom" relates to the path of accumulation; "Is a mantra of great knowledge" relates to the path of preparation; "It is an unsurpassable mantra" relates to the path of seeing; "It is a mantra that is comparable to the incomparable" relates to the path of meditation; and "It is a mantra that totally pacifies all suffering" relates to the path of no more learning, or enlightenment. The five paths of the Greater Vehicle are differentiated from one another from the point of view of wisdom, or insight, not from the point of view of method, or skillful means. The way in which everything actually exists-the ultimate nature of phenomena -is the way that it is perceived by the perfection of wisdom. It is this perception that can take us to the state of enlightenment. As we train our minds in the perfection of wisdom, we should do so together with the practices of the other five perfections, or the skillful means of method. We should not isolate wisdom from method or method from wisdom. If we do not practice the two together, we will never achieve enlightenment. The integration of method and wisdom is essential.

The importance of this was expressed well by the first Dalai Lama in his praise to Lama Tsongkhapa when he said, "Integrating method and wisdom together, you have actualized the three enlightened bodies. Most glorious spiritual master, please bless me." By practicing method and wisdom on the five paths, we can abandon all obstacles and finally reach the state of non-abiding enlightenment.

THE MEANING OF THE MANTRA

"I proclaim the mantra of the perfection of wisdom, TAYATHA GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA. Shariputra, it is in this way that the great bodhisattvas train themselves in the profound perfection of wisdom."

The Heart Sutra can be condensed from a Mantrayana or tantric Buddhist point of view into the one-line mantra, TAYATHA GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA.

The word TAYATHA means, "it is like this." GATE means "go" as an exhortation. So GATE GATE means "go, go," meaning that we should go onto the path of accumulation and then go further onto the path of preparation. PARAGATE literally means "go beyond" and PARASAMGATE means "go thoroughly beyond." It is telling us to go beyond the paths of accumulation and preparation and onto the paths of seeing and meditation towards supreme enlightenment.

The first GATE or "go" is for beginners with Mahayana inclinations, those practitioners who haven't yet entered the Mahayana path but who are cultivating compassion and the perfection of wisdom. It means go to the path of accumulation of the Greater Vehicle. When practitioners spontaneously and naturally experience bodhicitta, they have already entered the Mahayana path of accumulation.

The second GATE also means "go." When practitioners have gone to the path of accumulation they should go on to the next path, which is the path of preparation. It is on this path that practitioners can conceptually understand emptiness. Practitioners who have traversed the paths of hearers or solitary realizers may have already realized emptiness directly when they enter the path of Mahayana. When we have reached the path of preparation we should go beyond to the path of seeing. When we reach the path of seeing we are already on the first spiritual ground of bodhisattvas. We are then told to "go thoroughly beyond." We should not get stuck on the path of seeing but go higher up onto the path of meditation. BODHI is enlightenment and SVAHA means to become stabilized in the state of enlightenment. So the meaning of the entire mantra is, "It is this way: Go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond, go to enlightenment and become stabilized there."

CONCLUSION

"At that moment the Lord arose from his concentration and said to the noble Avalokiteshvara, 'Well said, well said. That is just how it is, my son, just how it is. The profound perfection of wisdom should be practiced exactly as you have explained it. Then the tathagatas will be truly delighted.' When the Lord had spoken these words, the venerable Shariputra and the bodhisattva, the great being, the noble Avalokiteshvara, and the entire gathering of gods, humans, asuras and gandharvas were overjoyed, and they praised what the Lord had said."

When Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra finish their dialogue, Buddha rises from his meditative state. He authenticates the words of Avalokiteshvara and congratulates him on his presentation of the perfection of wisdom. His explanation delights not only Buddha himself but all the enlightened beings of the ten directions and the buddhas of the three times. After the teaching, everybody in the gathering committed themselves to following the perfection of wisdom, while others who were not yet ready made fervent prayers that they would soon be able to do so.

Part Three: Great Compassion

The life stories of Buddha and other enlightened teachers shouldn't be regarded as just interesting tales but should be seen as practices for us to follow and paths by which we can grow spiritually. Buddha stated that compassion is the core of his teachings. This compassion should be all-pervasive and non-discriminatory. We should minimize harmful actions towards others and try to increase the scope of our compassion to bring more and more people and sentient beings into its fold. We also need to cultivate the determined wish to be liberated and develop a true aspiration for enlightenment.

It is not so hard to aspire to be liberated from the problems of cyclic existence, but we need also to have the same wish in reference to samsara's prosperity and happiness. Pain in cyclic existence does not last but neither does pleasure, so we should not cling to samsara's temporary marvels. To be true Dharma practitioners, we must consider our future lives to be more important than the present one. We should consider others to be more important than ourselves and spiritual activity to be more important than worldly activity. Of course, all these things will come to us gradually. We need to train our mind in stages before we can experience this kind of change in attitude. Remember that all good things happen to us through the kindness of others. It is only in relation to other sentient beings that we can do our practice. If sentient beings didn't exist, we couldn't practice at all or create the positive energy and positive actions through which we receive peace and happiness. Thinking in this way, we can see the kindness of all sentient beings.

As Dharma practitioners, our practice involves two things- purifying our negativities and accumulating positive energy and wisdom. You can do these things in relation to the Three Jewels, sentient beings or both. Therefore, experienced lineage masters who have deep spiritual understanding tell us that sentient beings are as kind to us as Buddha himself. This might seem inconceivable at first, but in terms of the inspiration for our practice there is little difference between them. Normally, although we may accept certain sentient beings as being kind to us, we also become selective. We exclude those who have been bad to us and include only those whom we consider worthy. But if we exclude some beings, then logically all others should be excluded as well. We must create a sense of equanimity, a balanced attitude, in relation to all sentient beings-friends, adversaries and strangers.

If we really want to work for the benefit of others, it is essential to cultivate great compassion. For those who wish to pursue the path of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, it is as important to cultivate great compassion and altruism as it is to cultivate the perfection of wisdom. It is not very difficult to generate compassion for ourselves, but it is a great deal harder to cultivate the same compassion for others. Yet this should be our goal, however hard it may be.

Part Four: Dedication

Let us dedicate our positive energy to the flourishing of Buddhadharma throughout the world.

Let us dedicate our positive energy to the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. May his sacred mandalas of body, speech and mind be unharmed by negative intentions and actions. May he and other great masters be successful in fulfilling their dreams and visions for benefiting all sentient beings.

Let us dedicate our positive energy to all spiritual communities throughout the world, so that they may flourish in their study, contemplation and meditation.

Let us dedicate our positive energy to the elimination of the problems in our world, such as famine and war. May everyone in this and other world systems experience peace, happiness and harmony. Let us dedicate our positive energy to ourselves and to other Dharma practitioners, so that we may overcome all obstacles to spiritual development.

Let us dedicate our positive energy to ourselves and to all sentient beings, so that we can purify the obscurations to liberation and omniscience and quickly reach enlightenment.

A commentary on the emptiness section of the Seven Point Mind Training text

Mirror of Wisdom includes commentaries on the emptiness section of Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun and The Heart Sutra.

CHAPTERS
Mirror of Wisdom
Part One: Introduction
Part One: Mind Training - Developing Bodhicitta
Part One: Mind Training - Developing Emptiness
Part One: Learning to Become a Buddha
Part Two: Commentary on the Heart Sutra

THE WISDOM THAT PERCEIVES EMPTINESS

We have already dealt with training our mind in cultivating conventional bodhicitta, or the conventional mind of enlightenment. We now need to look at how to cultivate ultimate bodhicitta-the mind of enlightenment that deals with emptiness. The mind training text we are studying presents actual instructions for cultivating the ultimate awakening mind. In certain texts such as this one, you will find that the conventional mind of enlightenment is presented first and followed by the ultimate mind of enlightenment. In other texts, the order of presentation is reversed. The reason has to do with the mental faculties of Mahayana practitioners. For those with sharp faculties, emptiness is presented first. For those with relatively less sharp faculties the conventional truth is taught before the ultimate.

There are four major traditions within Tibetan Buddhism- Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya. We may find differences between them in terminology or the emphasis of certain practices, but they are all authentic Buddhist traditions. The Kagyu and Gelug traditions use the term mahamudra-"The Great Seal"-to talk about emptiness, whereas the Nyingmapas use the term dzog-chen-"The Great Perfection"-to refer to the same thing. In the Nyingma tradition, there is a tantric practice called atiyoga, which means the pinnacle, or topmost, vehicle. This could be compared to dzog-rim, the completion stage practice of the Gelug tradition, which is the most exalted practice of highest yoga tantra.

When people hear about The Great Perfection of the Nyingmapas they may think that this tradition has something that other Tibetan Buddhist traditions do not, but this is not the case. Each of these traditions is talking about the ultimate nature or reality, which we also call the profound Middle View, or Middle Way. Also, some people might think that because dzog-rim practice is said to be very profound, it must be a quick and easy way to reach enlightenment without having to do meditation. It is never like that. Meditation is as essential in Tantrayana as it is in Sutrayana. It's not as if in tantric practice you just do some rituals, ring the bell-ding! ding! ding!- and then you get enlightened. No; you have to meditate.

As the great Atisha tells us, the way to conduct one's studies of meditation and contemplation in order to realize the true nature of emptiness is by following the instructions of Nagarjuna's disciple, Chandrakirti. Lama Tsongkhapa elucidates the view of emptiness in accordance with the system of Arya Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti. It is within Lama Tsongkhapa's mind-stream that we find the presence of the buddhas of the three times, and I am going to explain emptiness in accordance with Lama Tsongkhapa's way.

WHY DID THE BUDDHA TEACH EMPTINESS?

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, taught the profound middle path-the way of the wisdom perceiving emptiness, or selflessness- in order to liberate us from samsara. It is by way of perceiving and experiencing emptiness that we will be able to counteract our basic sense of ignorance, or grasping at self.

There is a passage from the sutras: "Thus, not being able to realize that which is known as emptiness, peaceful and unproduced, sentient beings have been helplessly wandering in different states of cyclic existence. Seeing this, the enlightened one has revealed, or established, emptiness through hundred-fold reasoning." What this tells us is that we ordinary sentient beings, who are unable to see the ultimate nature of everything that exists, create all kinds of negative karmic actions for ourselves and face unwanted problems and sufferings as a result. All the teachings Buddha gave either directly or indirectly point to what emptiness is. This is because the sole purpose of Buddha's teaching is to free all of us from the causes of suffering.

TRUTH AND FORM BODIES

For us to reach the state of enlightenment we need to understand the basis, the path and the result. The basis consists of the two truths, the conventional truth and the ultimate truth. The path is method and wisdom, or skillful means and awareness. The result consists of the two enlightened bodies-the form body, or rupakaya, and the truth body, or dharmakaya. First we must study the view of emptiness as presented by enlightened beings. This is our basis. Then, as trainees on the path, we need to integrate method and wisdom. We must never separate method and wisdom from one another. If we focus on one and forget the other, we are going to get stuck. Eventually, as a result of this practice, each of us will reach the enlightened state and be able to realize the form body and the truth body.

Although nominally different from each other, these enlightened bodies actually share the same nature. For example, Avalokiteshvara, whom Tibetans call Chenrezig, can manifest in innumerable ways to work for sentient beings, yet all these manifestations are Avalokiteshvara. When we become buddhas we will do so in the form of the buddhas of the five families, the five dhyani buddhas. So, you may ask, what happens when I become a buddha, a completely awakened being? Having actualized the form and truth bodies, you will be working solely to help others become free from cyclic existence. You will be constantly working for their benefit until samsara is empty of all sentient beings.

The primary cause for accomplishing the enlightened form body is the practice of method, the collection of positive energy, or merit. The primary cause for accomplishing the truth body is the collection of wisdom, or insight, particularly the wisdom realizing emptiness. This does not mean that accumulating either merit or wisdom alone will allow us to reach the state of enlightenment. When we understand that the wisdom realizing emptiness is the primary cause for the truth body, implicitly we should understand that in order to accomplish that body we must practice method as well.

THE MUTUAL DEPENDENCE OF SUBJECTAND OBJECT

Everything that exists can be classified into objects or subjects. There isn't any phenomenon that doesn't belong to one of these two categories. However, object and subject-the observed and the observer -are actually mutually dependent upon one another. If there is no object, there cannot be an observer of that object. This is what Chandrakirti states in his Supplement to the Middle Way: "Without an object, one cannot establish its perceiver."

There is a line from the mind training text that says, "Consider all phenomena as like a dream." This does not mean that everything that exists is a dream, but that it can be compared to a dream. If you miss this emphasis, then when you read in the Heart Sutra, "no ear, no nose, no tongue" and so forth, you will interpret this passage to mean that those things don't exist at all, which is a totally bizarre notion. This is the position of the nihilist-someone who rejects even the conventional existence of phenomena. We know that the things in our dreams don't really exist, that they are dependent upon our mind. Also, for us to experience a dream, the necessary causes and conditions must come together. First we have to sleep, but if we go into a very deep sleep then we're not going to dream. Just as a dream occurs as a result of certain causes and conditions, such is the case with everything that exists. Every functional phenomenon depends upon causes and conditions for its existence. This is a fact of reality. Nothing exists in and of itself, inherently, or objectively. Everything exists dependently, that is, in dependence upon its parts, and so we say that things are emptyof inherent, or objective, existence.

The next line in the stanza reads: "Analyze the nature of unborn/unproduced awareness." What this means is that this subjective mind, or consciousness, is not born or produced inherently, in and of itself. As much as objective phenomena are to be seen like dreams, which arise from their causes and conditions and are empty of inherent existence, subjective phenomena, too, exist dependently and are empty of inherent existence. We must analyze the non-inherent nature of our awareness, or mind.

With the line, "Consider all phenomena like a dream," we are primarily dealing with the observed, or the object. When we discuss awareness we shift our focus onto the observer, or the subject. If you perceive that objects don't exist independently, or inherently, then what about their subjects? Do they exist inherently? Again, the answer is no. Just like the object, the subject does not exist inherently, in and of itself. Just as objects and their perception exist dependently, so does the person who is experiencing and interacting with the objects and perceptions. The observed and the observer are both empty of inherent existence.

INTELLECTUAL AND INNATE FORMS OF IGNORANCE

Ignorance is the grasping at inherent existence, especially the inherent existence of the self. There are two forms, the intellectual and the innate. The intellectual form of ignorance-grasping at the inherent existence of "I," or self-is found in those whose minds have been affected by some kind of philosophical ideas, but the innate form exists in the mind of every sentient being.

The type of grasping at inherent existence that is presented in the Abhidharmakosha, the Treasury of Knowledge, and its commentaries is the intellectual form. If this were to be taken as the root cause of samsara, then our position would have to be that only those whose minds have been influenced by philosophical concepts could possess the root cause of cyclic existence. According to this view, birds and other animals couldn't have this cause of cyclic existence because they can't study or be influenced by philosophy. It is certainly true that yaks and goats don't sit around discussing philosophy, so they don't have the intellectual form of grasping at self. However, the root cause of samsara exists in the mind-streams of allsentient beings who are trapped in cyclic existence.

The text provides a quote from the Supplement to the Middle Way to clarify this point. "Even those who have spent many eons as animals and have not beheld an unproduced or permanent self are seen to be involved in the misconception of an I." What this passage is telling us is that beings who remain in the animal realm for many lifetimes do not possess the intellectual grasping at self but they do have the innately developed form of ignorance. Therefore, the root cause of cyclic existence cannot be intellectual but must be the innately, or spontaneously, developed ignorant conception that grasps at the self.

INNATE IGNORANCE IS THE ROOT OF CYCLIC EXISTENCE

We need to ask ourselves what the original root cause of cyclic existence is. How did we get here in the first place? Having discovered this cause, we can then apply the method to counteract it. Due to our ignorant attachment to self, we grasp at and get attached to everything that we perceive as being ours and at anything that we think will help to make us happy. This is the root delusion. When we discuss the process of coming into and getting out of cyclic existence- taking rebirth and becoming liberated-we talk about what are known as the twelve links of interdependent origination. In the mind training text, there is a quote that spells out three of these twelve links, which are the main reasons we remain in samsara.

Our innate self-grasping ignorance is the root cause of samsara, so ignorance is the first link. It is because of this ignorance that we create karmic actions, therefore the second link is called karmic formation. This refers not only to bad karmic actions but also includes positive and neutral ones as well. These karmic actions then deposit their latencies upon our consciousness, or mind-stream. Our minds carry the imprints of all the good and bad karmic actions we have created, and when any of these karmic imprints get activated, they can precipitate all the other links and lead to our rebirth either in either a positive or a negative state.

There are six types of sentient beings in cyclic existence. Of these six, three are relatively fortunate types of rebirth and three are unfortunate. Under the influence of ignorance we could create positive karmic actions and, as a result, take one of the good rebirths as a human being, a demigod (asura) or a god (sura). For a positive karmic action to lead to a fortunate rebirth it must be activated by positive conditions. However, even someone who takes a good rebirth is still bound to cyclic existence.

Similarly, under the influence of the delusions of ignorance, attachment or aversion we might create negative karmic actions. These leave imprints on our mental consciousness such that when they are activated by other negative actions or conditioning factors, we can be reborn in one of the three bad migrations. Great negativities precipitate rebirth in the hells. Negativities of medium intensity precipitate rebirth as a hungry ghost. Small negativities can still cause us to be reborn in the lower realms as some kind of animal. Karmic formations connect us to our next conception in our mother's womb, which is the tenth dependent link of existence. These three links of ignorance, karmic actions and existence are very important. To substantiate this point we have a quote from Arya Nagarjuna's Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness, "Actions are caused by disturbing emotions." In other words, the karmic actions we create can be traced back to our innate self-grasping, which is the origin of our disturbing emotions, or delusions. Nagarjuna continues, "Karmic formations have a disturbed nature and the body is caused by karmic actions. So, all three are empty of their own entity." This means that because ignorance, karmic formations and existence all interact with one another to cause our rebirth, they are therefore all empty of inherent existence.

We should train ourselves to clearly ascertain the way in which we enter cyclic existence because then we can work to reverse this process. Once we have put an end to our delusions and contaminated karmic actions we will achieve the state of liberation. This is what Nagarjuna refers to in his Fundamental Wisdom Treatise when he says, "You are liberated when your delusions and contaminated karmic actions are exhausted." We must all understand that any situation we go through is nothing but our own creation-the results of our karmic actions. Usually when things go wrong we find someone else to blame as if others were responsible for our wellbeing. If we can't find other fellow beings to blame then we blame inanimate objects like food. Either way, we always view ourselves as pure and separate from things.

Again, we can use the example of a seed to understand karma. If the seed is not there in the first place, then even if all the other conditions needed for growth are present, we are not going to see any fruit.

MIND TRAINING, DEVELOPING EMPTINESS

In the same way, if we ourselves do not create any good or bad karmic actions, conditioning factors alone cannot bring us any good or bad results. However, once we have created these actions, they can be activated or ripened by other conditions. It is in that sense that other people can act as conditioning factors to activate our good and bad karmic actions. Even the kind of food we eat can be a conditioning factor to activate certain karmic actions we have created. Even so, it is the karmic actions themselves that are the most important factor in bringing good and bad situations upon us. We should adopt positive actions and abandon negative ones because it is us who will experience their results. We should feel that every good and bad experience is the result of our own seed-like karmic actions. This is a very good subject for meditation.

We should understand that the ignorance of grasping at self, which all of us have within our mind-stream, is the very ignorance that locks us like a jailer within the walls of samsara. In the diagram of the wheel of life, which depicts the twelve dependent links, a blind person represents ignorance. We are blind with regard to what we need to abandon in our lives-to what we should not be doing-and also blind to what we need to cultivate in our lives-to what we should be doing. Just as an untrained blind person will create a big mess around himself or herself, so we make a mess of our lives. And we continue doing this, repeating the whole process of samsara and perpetuating a cycle that is very difficult to stop.

We all wish for happiness, but the happiness that we experience is very small. We don't want any kind of pain or problem, but innumerable pains and problems befall us. Deep down we are motivated by the ignorance of grasping at self and engage in different kinds of karmic actions, which bring forth all kinds of experiences. The wisdom that realizes selflessness is the direct antidote to our ignorant self-grasping.

All of us who want to reach the state of highest enlightenment must combine the practice of the two aspects of the path-skillful means, the extensive aspect of the path, and wisdom, the profound aspect of the path-as presented by the two great pioneers of Buddhadharma, Arya Asanga and Arya Nagarjuna respectively. First, we must recognize that the innate ignorance of self-grasping is the root cause of cyclic existence, or samsara. Then we have to deal with the presentation of selflessness, or emptiness, which is the antidote to this ignorance. The Tibetan word, rig-pa, literally means "to see," and ma-rig-pa means "to not see." Ma-rig-pa is translated as "ignorance" while rig-pa is translated as "wisdom." In other words, wisdom directly opposes, or counteracts, ignorance. Rig-pa doesn't just mean any kind of awareness or wisdom-it refers specifically to the awareness, or wisdom, that realizes emptiness.

GRASPING AT SELF AND PHENOMENA

There are two kinds of objects of this ignorant grasping-the grasping at the self of persons and the grasping at the self of phenomena. Both kinds of grasping are misconceptions because the focus of both is non-existent. The grasping at the self of persons means perceiving a person to exist inherently and objectively. This grasping is an active misconception because it is projecting something that doesn't actually exist. The self does not exist in and of itself-it is not inherently existent -however, our innate self-grasping perceives the self, or I, to exist in that manner. Our self-grasping, or ego-grasping, (dag-dzin in Tibetan) actually serves to fabricate the way that the self appears to exist for us. Similarly, grasping at the self of phenomena means that a person perceives phenomena to exist inherently and objectively. There isn't a self of phenomena but our grasping makes one up. It exaggerates and fabricates a self of phenomena and then grasps at its supposed inherent reality. So, we can talk about two kinds of selflessness, the selflessness of a person and the selflessness of phenomena. When we refute the inherent existence of a person, we are dealing with the selflessness of a person, but when we refute the inherent existence of anything else we are dealing with the selflessness of phenomena.

What we mean by "a person" is a projection, or label, that is placed onto the collection of someone's five physical and mental aggregates of form, feeling, discriminative awareness, conditioning factors and consciousness. When we take a person as our basis of investigation and think that this person exists in and of himself or herself, that is what is called "grasping at the self of a person." If we grasp at the inherent existence of the aggregates, that is, at any part of a person, whether it be a part of body or mind, that is called "grasping at the self of phenomena." This is described as including all things from "form to omniscient mind." In Nagarjuna's Precious Garland, it is stated, "So long as the aggregates are misconceived, an I is misconceived upon them. If we have this conception of an I, then there is action that results in birth." What this passage is saying is that as long as we grasp at the physical and mental constituents, or aggregates, as being truly and inherently existent, then we will have the misconception of a truly existent I. Due to this grasping we create karmic actions that precipitate our rebirth and cause us to become trapped again and again within cyclic existence.

The object of our grasping at the self of a person is an inherently existing self. This is something that doesn't exist at all, yet our grasping makes it feel as if that kind of self truly exists and we cling to it in this way. Similarly, the object of the grasping at the self of phenomena is an inherently existent self of phenomena. From these two innate forms of grasping come attachment to the happiness of I. Attachment to one's own happiness actually depends upon the concept of "my" and "mine"-my feelings, my possessions, my body, my family etc. As Chandrakirti states in Supplement to the Middle Way, "At first there arises the conception of and attachment to I, or self, and then there arises the conception of and attachment to mine." We experience the grasping at the self of a person, and this grasping then induces the grasping at the self of phenomena, which is the grasping at mine. Due to the strength of our clinging to these feelings of I, my and mine, we are not able to see the fallacy of seeking self-happiness. This attachment obscures our mind and we are unable to see what is wrong with it.

From being attached to ourselves we become so attached to our things and different parts of our bodies that some of us even change our appearance through plastic surgery. If we weren't attached to our I, we could be totally liberated and free, like Milarepa. He turned a strange greenish color from eating nettles, but this didn't matter to him because he wasn't attached to his appearance. As we look into this mirror of teaching, we can see a different kind of reflection of ourselves-one that shows us how we grasp at things and how attachment arises within us.

It is important for us to understand that "I" and "mine" are not identical. If we can't differentiate between these two, we will have problems later on. The object of our innate grasping at self is the "I" not the "mine," because mine includes the physical and mental aggregates. Chandrakirti explains that if the aggregates of the person were the object of our innate grasping at the self of a person, then we should be able to perceive our aggregates as being I, which we are not able to do. Also, if the aggregates are taken to be the self, then we have to assert that there are five selves because there are five aggregates. The kind of conception that arises with regard to the aggregates is not the conception of I but the conception of mine. We do not think about our ears or our nose as our self, but as things belonging to our self. In the same way, when we investigate our mind, we don't find any part that is I.

We should examine, investigate and analyze the mode of apprehension of our innate grasping at self. In other words, how does our innate grasping perceive the self to exist? What does our innate ignorance perceive? What does it grasp at? We should always focus upon our own condition and not point our finger at someone else's ignorance. Having discovered this, we must then find the means of generating a different kind of perception, one that directly contradicts the mistaken one that grasps at self. This perception is the perfect view of emptiness, or selflessness. However, in order to realize this view, we first have to be clear about what this view actually is. We need to establish the correct view of emptiness.

USING A BASIS TO DESCRIBE EMPTINESS

There is no way to reveal emptiness nakedly or directly because we must use words and terminology. It is only through conventional terms that emptiness can be revealed. In other words, there is no way to discuss emptiness without using something as a basis. For example, when we talk about the emptiness of forms, these forms constitute the basis upon which their emptiness is then established. This is also

the case with any other phenomenon-sound, smell, taste and so forth. Everything around us is characterized by emptiness and so our body or any other phenomenon constitutes the basis upon which we can then understand its emptiness.

In the Heart Sutra we read that "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form." This means that the ultimate nature of form is emptiness and that emptiness relates to form. Emptiness is not the same as form, but in order to understand emptiness we have to take form into consideration as our focal object. Without dealing with a form, we cannot understand its emptiness. There is a line of a prayer that states, "The wisdom gone beyond (emptiness) is beyond words and expression." The Tibetan translation suggests that it is also beyond thought. This means that without depending upon a basis you cannot even conceptualize what emptiness is.

The same thing is stated by Arya Nagarjuna in his Root Wisdom Treatise, where we read, "Without depending upon conventional terms or terminology, one cannot reveal the ultimate truth or reality." When we deal with emptiness, however, it may have nothing to do with form at all. In certain mental states, for example, we don't perceive forms; for instance, when we are in a deep sleep. Even so, it is empty.

When we deal with the selflessness of a person, the basis for that selflessness is the person. Therefore, it is in relation to the person that we establish the person's emptiness. When we deal with a person's aggregates (body, feelings, thoughts, perceptions and so forth), we are dealing with a different kind of basis, one that is the selflessness of phenomena. The text tells us that with regard to what is being refuted, there is no difference in subtlety between establishing the selflessness of a person and establishing the selflessness of phenomena. So, once we understand the selflessness of a person, we don't have to repeat our reasoning over again to understand the selflessness of phenomena. We can simply shift our focus onto another object while remembering the same reasoning with which we realized the selflessness of a person. This is what the great Indian master Aryadeva was saying in his Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle View when he stated, "The view of an object is the view of everything else."

THE OBJECT OF NEGATION, OR REFUTATION

In order to realize what selflessness or emptiness is, we must first understand its opposite. What is the antithesis of selflessness? What is it that we are trying to refute, or negate, in order to establish what emptiness is? What we are refuting is the way that our innate selfgrasping perceives the self as existing truly, inherently and objectively. Therefore, we say that inherent, objective or true existence of the self is the "object of refutation" or the "object of negation." The object of refutation, or negation, is the thing that we are denying exists. There are a few terms that may sound different from one another but which, in the context of Prasangika-Madhyamaka (the school of philosophy that we are studying here), all mean the same thing. They are "existing by way of its own characteristic," "existing from its own side," "existing in and of itself," "inherent existence," "objective existence", "independent existence" and "true existence." Also, the terms "I," "self" and "person" all mean the same thing.

We can speak about the object of refutation on two levels-the object of refutation by reasoning and the object of refutation by scriptural authority. Inherent existence is the object of refutation by one's own valid reasoning, because nothing exists in and of itself without being imputed by terms and concepts. The object of refutation according to scriptural authority, however, is the grasping at that object, such as the grasping at the inherent, or true, existence of the self. Even though it is an object of refutation, that grasping actually does exist. There is no inherently existent self; however, there is grasping at the self's inherent existence as if it existed inherently. Therefore, the object of refutation by reasoning (inherent existence) refers to something that does not exist, but the object of refutation according to scriptural authority (grasping at inherent existence) refers to something that does exist.

Let us say that we want to investigate the emptiness of a particular form, such as a vase. As we analyze the vase, we must remember that we cannot perceive its emptiness by negating its very existence. Perceiving the vase's emptiness is not the same as concluding that the vase does not exist at all. If we refute, or negate, the conventional existence of the vase, then we have fallen into the extreme position of the nihilist. We have annihilated the vase's very existence and, as a result, we are not going to discover its emptiness. So, if we are not refuting the conventional or nominal existence of form in our search for emptiness, what is it that we are refuting? What is it that doesn't really exist? What we are refuting and what does not exist is the inherent existence of form. If we want to hit a target with an arrow we need to be able to see exactly where that target is. In the same way, to understand what emptiness is, we must be able to precisely identify what it is that is being refuted.

REFUTING TOO MUCH AND NOT REFUTING ENOUGH

If we overestimate the object of negation then we will be refuting too much, but if we underestimate the object of negation we won't be refuting enough. An example of refuting too much is when we take conventional existence and inherent existence to be one and the same, concluding that because phenomena don't exist inherently they must not exist at all. When we take this position we are denying the existence of everything and have become nihilists. Remember, conventional existence and true existence do not mean the same thing.

If we deny the existence of everything then we won't be able to assert the distinction between the two types of phenomena-deluded phenomena (which includes our contaminated karmic actions and delusions, or afflictive emotions) and the liberated aspect of phenomena (which includes the spiritual paths, the true cessation of suffering and so forth). We won't be able to talk about the infallible law of karmic actions and their results because we will be asserting that its existence is merely a hallucination. If we cannot present the existence of both contaminated and uncontaminated phenomena, then we cannot present the complete structure of the path leading to spiritual liberation.

On the other hand, if we underestimate the object of negation and don't refute enough, that is as much of a problem as refuting too much. Certain schools of Buddhism assert only the selflessness of a person and not the selflessness of phenomena. Other schools assert both types of selflessness. Within each of the four schools of Buddhist thought-Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Cittamatra and Madhyamaka- we find sub-schools. In the Madhyamaka, or Middle Way, school we find two major sub-schools, the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka, or Inference Validators, and the Prasangika-Madhyamaka, or Consequentialists. The Prasangika-Madhyamaka school's presentation of emptiness is considered the most authentic and it is this presentation that we are studying. The schools of Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Cittamatra and Svatantrika-Madhyamaka all present an assertion of deluded states of mind that we find in Jamgon Kongtrul Yonten Gyatso's Treasury of Knowledge, the root text of which is the Abhidharmakosha.

The Prasangika-Madhyamaka school, however, presents in addition to these delusions, a subtle form of delusion that the other schools have not been able to identify-the conceptual grasping at inherent existence. Except for the Prasangika-Madhyamaka, all the other Buddhist schools assert the inherent existence of phenomena. They assert that if things don't exist inherently, they can't exist at all. The Svatantrika-Madhyamikas, who are in the same school as the Prasangikas, make a distinction between the true existence of phenomena and the inherent existence of phenomena. They say that things do exist inherently, from their own side, but that they do not exist truly. Their explanation for this distinction is that things exist from their own side as well as being posited by thought, or concept. According to them, a phenomenon exists as a combination of existence from its own side and of the mental thought imputed onto it.

They don't include the conceptual grasping at inherent existence as a subtle delusion. Therefore, the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka and other Buddhist schools, apart from the Prasangika-Madhyamaka, have not been able to refute enough in order to establish selflessness or emptiness. In other words, the object of negation identified in their schools is inadequate.

There are many people who try to meditate on emptiness, but I believe that those who really know such meditation are very few. If you overestimate the object of negation and refute too much, you are off track, and if you underestimate the object of negation and don't refute enough, you again miss the point. It's like a mathematical equation. The text cautions us that we have to be very precise in identifying what is to be refuted and refute exactly that amount-no more and no less.

HOW INNATE IGNORANCE PERCEIVES SELF AND PHENOMENA

We have seen how the innate form of ignorance is the root cause of our being in samsara, therefore, we must study how this ignorance perceives or apprehends its object, be it a person, a person's thoughts or a physical thing. Naturally, ignorance apprehends its object in a distorted way, yet how exactly does our innate ignorance perceive things? It perceives things to exist in and of themselves, from their own side, by way of their own characteristics and without being imputed by terms and concepts. However, this is not the way in which things actually exist. In fact, this kind of existence is a complete fabrication.

There is a popular Tibetan children's story that illustrates this point. A lion was always bothering a rabbit, so the rabbit began to plan a way to get rid of him. The rabbit went to the lion and said, "I have seen another beast even more ferocious than you." The lion was outraged by this notion because he felt that he was the king of all the animals. The rabbit said, "Come with me, I'll show you," and took the lion to a lake and told him to look into the water. The lion looked carefully into the water and when he saw his own reflection, he thought it was actually another lion. He bared his teeth at his own reflection but it did exactly the same thing back at him from the water. The rabbit said, "You see that dangerous animal down there? He is the one who is more ferocious than you and if you don't kill him, you won't be the strongest guy in the forest." The lion became even angrier and jumped right into the water. He struggled and splashed for a while but could not find the other lion, so he crawled out onto the bank. The poor lion looked really confused and bedraggled, but the rabbit, laughing to himself, said, "I think you didn't dive deep enough; try again." So, the lion went even deeper into the lake and eventually drowned trying to fight with his own reflection. We have seen that the ignorance of self-grasping is of two kinds- an intellectual form and an innately developed form, and we have established that it is the innate ignorance, the innate self-grasping, that is the root cause of all our problems. So, how does this innate form of ignorance perceive or grasp at I? Without knowing this, even if we try to engage in analytical meditation on selflessness we will never understand it. If a thief has run into a forest, his footprints will be in the forest. If we look for his footprints in the meadow, we will never find the thief.

Also, we must have a clear idea or picture of what inherent or selfexistence is. If the I were inherently existent then how would it exist? Until we can precisely identify the inherent existence of I, we will never be able to realize the absence of the inherently existing I, that is selflessness. It is for that reason that the great bodhisattva, Shantideva, states in his Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, or Bodhisattvacaryavatara, that until you identify the object of grasping at true existence you won't be able to understand its non-existence; its lack of inherent, or true, existence. Therefore, we need to make a great deal of effort to identify how the I appears to our innate form of ignorance. It is relatively easy for us to understand that we do have this innate grasping at our self but we have difficulty seeing exactly how this grasping perceives the I to exist. Once we are sure that we have found the object of refutation, then in order to realize what emptiness is, we have to refute that object.

We all know that snow is white but it is possible that someone with certain sensory defects will perceive snow as yellow. That is an example of a distorted perception that misconceives the true color of snow. In a similar way, our grasping at self is a distorted perception that misconceives the self to exist in and of itself. The valid perception of snow as white invalidates the perception of snow as yellow. In the same way, our grasping at I is invalidated by the wisdom that perceives selflessness. When we actualize and experience this wisdom, then the grasping at self must leave because we understand that the way in which the self actually exists is the opposite of the way that our self-grasping perceived it.

Through this reasoning, we are trying to establish that the self could not exist in and of itself. As we refute the inherent existence of I, what we are establishing on the other hand is selflessness. If the self does not exist inherently, then how does it exist? It exists being empty of inherent existence. This is how we establish selflessness. We will deal with this topic from different perspectives and angles so that we can really understand it.

The self is apprehended as existing objectively, in and of itself. The example given in the text is a person who is completely ignorant about the fact that the reflection of a face in the mirror is not the real face. Like the lion in the story, such a person cannot tell what is real from what is not real.

WHAT IS SELF?

When someone calls you by your name, by the time you respond there is some kind of concept or picture of yourself that has emerged in your mind. You may not get a very clear or lucid concept of this self, but you do experience some kind of rough imagery of yourself before you answer. This self is something that seems to exist independently of anything else. It's a sort of solid point, a fixed entity that is just there by itself. It's very important for each of us to personally find out where this image of self or concept of I comes from. Does it come from the collection of our body and mind? Or does it come from a single part of our body or mind?

If an I exists then we should be able to find it within either our body or our mind. We have to analyze each part to find where the sense, concept, or image of I comes from. Let's say that your name is John. Who or what is John? You should investigate from the hair of your head down to your toes whether or not any particular part of your body is John. When you have eliminated one part, go on to the next. Then do the same kind of analytical meditation on your mind. Like your body, your mind also has many parts, so you should try to find out whether any one part of the mind can be identified as I. There are many levels or kinds of mind and every one has its preceding and subsequent moments. You have to look at every minor detail and ask yourself, "Is this moment responsible for the sense of I?"

Westerners love to do research; this is a good topic to research. If you feel that your concept or image of I comes out of a particular part of yourself, be it body or mind, then that is what you identify as being your self. You might think, for example, that your sense of I comes from your brain. However, because each aspect of your body and mind has multiple parts, then logically, you must have that many I's or selves within you. Mind is a whole world in itself, with many states and levels. So which one is the self?

At the end of your analytical meditation, you will not be able to pinpoint any part of your body and mind as being an inherently existent I. At this point you might get scared because you haven't found yourself. You may feel that you've lost your sense of identity. There is a vacuity-an absence of something. However, when you really develop certitude of the absence of an inherent I, you should then simply try to remain in that state of meditation as long as you can. As your understanding of the absence of self improves, then outside your meditation sessions you will be able to realize that although the self seemed to exist inherently, this perception was simply the result of your innate grasping. Next time someone calls your name, try to do this examination.

The mind training text states that when we investigate how our innate conception of I apprehends the self to exist, we must make sure that our investigation is not mixed up with the intellectual grasping at self. The text reads, "Detailed recognition of this comes about through cultivating a close relationship with a spiritual friend of the Great Vehicle and pleasing him for a long time." Thus, if we want to comprehend every detail and subtlety of this issue, it is essential that we consistently rely upon a qualified Mahayana guide.

DEPENDENT ARISING

At the end of your analysis it may seem as though no conventional realities or phenomena exist, including the law of karmic actions and results. However, they do exist-they just don't exist in the way that you thought they did. They exist dependently; that is, their existence depends upon certain causes and conditions. Therefore, we say that phenomena are "dependently arising." All the teachings of Buddha are based upon the principle of the view of dependent arising. As Lama Tsongkhapa states in his Three Principal Paths, "…it eliminates the extreme of eternalism." This means that because things appear to your perceptions to exist only conventionally or nominally, their true, or inherent, existence is eliminated. The next line says, "...it eliminates the extreme of nihilism." So, when you understand emptiness you will be able to eliminate the idea of complete nonexistence. You will understand that it is not that things are completely non-existent, it is just that they exist dependently. They are dependent arisings.

In Arya Nagarjuna's Root Wisdom Treatise, he says that there isn't any phenomenon that is not dependently existent, therefore there isn't any phenomenon that is not empty of independent, or inherent, existence. Dependent arising is what we use to establish emptiness. Everything exists by depending upon something else, therefore everything is empty of inherent existence. When we use the valid reasoning of dependent arising we can find the emptiness of everything that exists. For example, by understanding that the self is dependently arising, we establish the selflessness of a person.

An example we could use is the reflection of our own face in the mirror. We all know that the reflection is not the real face, but how is it produced? Does it come just from the glass, the light, the face? Our face has to be there, but there also has to be a mirror, enough light for us to see and so on. Therefore, we see the reflection of our face in the mirror as a result of several things interacting with one another. We can investigate the appearance of our self to our perception in the same way. The self appears to us, but where does this appearance come from? Just like the reflection of the face in a mirror, it is an example of dependent arising.

This is quite clear in the case of functional things such as produced, or composite, phenomena, but there are other phenomena that are not produced by causes and conditions. However, they too exist dependently, that is, through mutual dependence upon other factors. For example, in the Precious Garland, Nagarjuna talks about how the descriptive terms of "long" and "short" are established through mutual comparison. "If there exists something that is long, then there would be something that is short." This kind of existence is dependently arising, but it is not dependent upon causes and conditions. So, dependent arising can mean several things. As we practice analytical meditation on emptiness we need to bring these different meanings into our meditation.

Dependent arising also refers to how everything is imputed by terms and concepts. Everything is labeled by a conceptual thought onto a certain basis of imputation. There is the label, there is that which labels things and then there is the basis upon which the label is given. So, phenomena exist as a result of all these things and the interaction between them. In his Four Hundred Stanzas, Aryadeva says, "If there is no imputation by thought, even desire and so forth have no existence. Then who with intelligence would maintain that a real object is produced dependent on thought?" In the commentary, Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun, we read, "Undoubtedly, those that exist only through the existence of thought and those that do not exist when there is no thought are to be understood as not existing by way of their own entities, just as a snake is imputed onto a coiled rope." The example I gave earlier is how perceiving snow as yellow is a distorted perception. The example of distorted perception given here is mistaking a coiled rope for a snake.

Several conditions and factors need to come together for a person to misapprehend a coiled rope as a snake. It's not enough just to have a coiled rope in a corner on a bright day. No one is going to be fooled by that. There has to be some obscuration or darkness and distorted perception in the mind as well. Only then can the misapprehension take place. Even if we analyze every inch of that coiled rope we will not find a snake. In the same way, even if we analyze every aspect of self or phenomena we will not find inherent existence.

In the mind training text we find the following explanation. "An easier way of reaching a conviction about the way the innate misconception of self within our mind-stream gives rise to the misconception of self of persons and phenomena is that, as explained before, when a rope is mistaken for a snake, both the snake and the appearance of a snake in relation to the basis are merely projected by the force of a mistaken mind. Besides this, from the point of view of the rope, there is

not the slightest trace of the existence of such an object [as a snake], which is merely projected by the mind. Similarly, when a face appears to be inside a mirror, even a canny old man knows that the appearance in the mirror of the eyes, nose and so forth and the reflection is merely a projection. Taking these as examples it is easy to discern, easy to understand and easy to realize that there is not the slightest trace of existence from the side of the object itself." The moment that a person thinks that there is a snake where the coiled rope lies, the appearance of a snake arises in that person's mind. That appearance, however, is nothing but a projection.

Similarly, although there isn't a self that exists independently and objectively, our grasping misapprehends the self to exist in that way. So then how does the self exist? Like any other phenomenon, the self exists imputedly. It exists by labeling, or imputation, by terms and concepts projected onto a valid basis of imputation. We must be able to clearly distinguish between the imputed self that is the basis for performing karmic actions and experiencing their results, and the inherently existent self that is the object that needs to be negated. When we consider our own sense of self, we don't really get the sense of an imputed self. The feeling we have is more as if the self were existing inherently. Let me explain how the labeling, or imputation, works. People use names for one another but those names aren't the person. The words "John" and "Francis" are merely labels for a person. Just as the reflection of a face in a mirror does not exist from the side of the face, in the same way, the names John and Francis don't exist independently. The names are applied to a valid basis of imputation -that is, the person. When you apply a label onto any base of any phenomenon, it works to define that thing's existence-a vase, a pillar, a shoe and so forth. They are merely labels applied to their respective valid bases of imputation.

There is a common conceptual process involved in labeling things. Things don't exist from their own side, but they are labeled from our subjective point of view and that's how they exist. Let's take the example of a vase that we used earlier. In order to understand the selflessness, or emptiness, of the vase, we need to refute its inherent, true or independent existence, just as we have to refute the inherent, or true, existence of a person in order to understand the selflessness of a person. We must also be able to establish what a vase is conventionally or nominally because we cannot annihilate the conventional reality of a vase.

Conventionally, a vase exists. It is made out of whatever materials were used to create it. It has hundreds and thousands of atoms and then there is its design, the influence of the potter and so forth. All these factors contribute to the production of a vase. So, a vase exists as a mere labeling, or imputation, onto the various factors that form its conventional existence, that is, its valid basis of imputation. If we look for what is being imputed, if we look for "vase," we cannot find it. Just as we cannot find the imputed vase through ultimate analysis, we cannot find the imputed person through ultimate analysis.

The person, self or I is neither the continuity nor the continuum of a person, nor his or her collection or assembly of aggregates. So, what is a person? Chandrakirti gives the example of how the existence of a chariot depends upon the collection of its various parts. In today's terms we could use the example of a car. When we examine a car we discover that no single part is "car." The front wheels are not the car, the back wheels are not the car, neither is the steering wheel or any other part of it; there is no car that is not dependent upon these individual parts. Therefore, a car is nothing but a mere imputation onto its assembled parts, which constitutes its valid basis of imputation. Once the various parts of a car have been put together, the term "car" is imputed onto it. Just as a car is dependent upon its parts, so too is everything else.

Chandrakirti continues, "In the same way, we speak of a sentient being conventionally, in dependence upon its aggregates." So, we should understand that a person also depends upon his or her collection of aggregates. No one aggregate is the person, self, or I, yet there isn't a person who is not dependent upon their aggregates. A person or sentient being is nothing but a label projected onto his or her valid basis. As we find stated in the mind training text, "Such a technique for determining the selflessness of the person is one of the best methods for cognizing the reality of things quickly. The same reasoning should be applied to all phenomena, from form up to omniscient mind."

REFUTING INHERENT EXISTENCE THROUGH VALID REASONING

We need to use our intelligence to establish that the way in which our innate ignorance perceives the self to exist is not really the way that the self exists at all. This is what we call "refuting inherent existence through valid reasoning." It is not enough to say, "Everything is emptiness" or "Things don't inherently exist." We need a process of sound reasoning to back up this viewpoint. Once we have that, we will understand that there isn't anything that exists objectively. However, this is still only an intellectual understanding. We have to develop an intimacy between our perception and the true understanding of emptiness.

When we gain what is known as "definite ascertainment"-certitude with regard to the absence of inherent existence-we will be able to realize emptiness experientially. To substantiate this point, the mind training text offers a quote from the Indian master Dignaga's Compendium of Valid Cognition. "Without discarding this object, one is unable to eliminate it." This is telling us that once we have discovered the object of apprehension of our self-grasping-that is, the inherently existent self-we then need to train our mind to get rid of the idea of this object from our perception.

We must be aware of three examples of mistaken approaches to emptiness. The first example is of people who don't even allow their minds to investigate what self and selflessness are. They just never engage themselves in these questions. People with this kind of attitude will never be able to cultivate the wisdom realizing emptiness because they haven't made any kind of connection with the concept. Again we find a quote from Dignaga's Compendium: "Since love and so forth do not directly counter ignorance, they cannot eliminate that great fault." What this tells us is that even if we cultivate any or all of the four immeasurables-immeasurable love, immeasurable compassion, immeasurable joy and immeasurable equanimity-we still will not be able to understand selflessness. However wonderful these attitudes may be, they do not directly counteract the way in which our innate grasping perceives the self to exist.

The second example is given in another quote from the text: "We acquaint ourselves with a non-conceptual state in which thoughts about whether things are existent or non-existent, whether they are or are not, no longer arise." This refers to people who remain in a blank state of mind during their meditation, without investigating the nature of existence. They stop all kinds of conceptual thoughts. It's almost as if they are in a state of nothingness. Such people also will not understand selflessness, for they have exaggerated the object of refutation and refuted too much. They consider every conceptual thought as if it were the object of refutation; as if to allow a conceptual thought to enter one's mind would be to accept the inherent existence of that thought. They view all thought processes as something to be abandoned. Therefore, they don't think about anything at all. They have confused what is being refuted through valid reasoning-the inherent existence of the self, or I-with something that actually conventionally exists, that is, a thought. In other words, they have taken conventional existence as being identical with inherent existence.

If the wonderful attitudes of love, compassion, joy and equanimity cannot directly counteract our innate self-grasping, how can thinking about nothing achieve this aim? If we stop thinking about anything, that is not a meditation on emptiness because we are not allowing the wisdom understanding emptiness to arise. If we could ever reach the state of enlightenment by this method we would be buddhas without omniscient wisdom or compassion, because we would not have let anything arise in our minds. I encourage you to investigate this for yourselves.

The next example of this mistaken approach to emptiness is, "If, in meditation, following analysis of the general appearance of what is negated, our analytical understanding differs from the meaning intended or we meditate merely on a non-conceptual state in which we do not recognize emptiness, no matter how long we do this meditation, we will never be able to rid ourselves of the seed of the misconception of self." What this is saying is that if we refute inherent existence through valid reasoning and then meditate on something else, our meditation is not going to work. The text continues, "The third mistaken approach is to have established something other than the view of selflessness through analytical awareness so that when we meditate, our meditation is misplaced." We will never realize selflessness with this approach either, because we have disconnected the focus of our valid reasoning from the focus of our meditation. This is, as the text describes, "like being shown the racetrack but running in the opposite direction."

INTERPRETATIONS OF EMPTINESS BY EARLIER MASTERS

In order to realize what selflessness is, we have to understand the self that does not exist. Different schools of Buddhist thought have different interpretations in regard to this. The commentary on one of Lama Tsongkhapa's greatest works, The Essence of Eloquent Presentation on that which is Definitive and that which is Interpretable, tells us that Tsongkhapa asserted that many earlier Tibetan masters, although endowed with many great qualities, somehow missed the true meaning of emptiness. By "earlier Tibetan masters" Tsongkhapa is referring to the period after the eighth century when Acharya Padmasambhava and Abbot Sangharakshita were invited to Tibet and also to the period after the eleventh century, including the arrival of Atisha up until the time of Tsongkhapa in the fourteenth century.

What Lama Tsongkhapa meant was that in terms of the aspect of the path, which has to do with method or skillful means, these masters had innumerable great qualities such as bodhicitta. They had perfected the method aspect of Buddhism, but somehow many of them had missed the view of emptiness. They couldn't quite grasp it completely. Then, in the eleventh century, the great Indian master Atisha was invited to Tibet. He composed a very beautiful text called Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, and with this work Atisha refined the complete teachings of the Buddha, including both sutra and tantra.

In the fourteenth century, Lama Tsongkhapa realized the view of emptiness with the help of the deity, Manjushri. Tsongkhapa said that in order to understand emptiness, our understanding must be free from the two extremes of refuting too much and refuting too little. Some earlier Tibetan masters did not precisely identify the object of refutation. They asserted that the ultimate truth is findable under ultimate analysis. This is a case of underestimating the object of refutation. They have not refuted enough and, in so doing, have missed the view of emptiness. We need to purify much negativity and accumulate great merit in order to realize emptiness. If such great masters can miss it, we can easily miss it as well.

EMPTINESS INDIFFERENT BUDDHISTS CHOOLS

There are four essential points of Buddhism called the "four seals"- every composite phenomenon is impermanent; everything that is contaminated or deluded is suffering in nature; everything that exists is selfless, or empty; and nirvana, or liberation, is peace. All Buddhists accept these four points as definitive teachings, but in regard to the third point-that all phenomena are selfless, or empty-different Buddhist schools have different interpretations.

Theravadins interpret the third seal as meaning only that there is no self of a person. This Buddhist tradition does not accept the selflessness of phenomena. Within the four major tenet schools of Buddhism-Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Cittamatra and Madhyamaka -we find different assertions and presentations with regard to selflessness, and also in regard to the object of refutation. The two lower schools are the Vaibhashika-sometimes called Particularists or Realists-and the Sautrantika-Followers of Sutra. Like the higher schools, the tenets of these schools say that there isn't a self-sufficient and substantially existent self of a person. However, they also only assert the selflessness of a person and not the selflessness of phenomena.

As we go higher in Buddhist philosophy we find the Cittamatra, or Mind Only, school of thought. Their presentation is different. They talk about two types of selflessness, the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena. According to the Mind Only school, it is the "duality between subject and object" that is the object of negation or the thing that one is denying exists. They establish the selflessness of phenomena by saying that the subject and its object have the same nature and that it is the division between subject and object as being separate entities that is the object of negation. In other words, the subject and object are empty of being dual and separate entities.

The Mind Only school talks about three different categories of phenomena -"imputed phenomena," which do not exist by way of their own characteristics, and "thoroughly established phenomena" and "dependent phenomena," which do exist by way of their own characteristics.

As mentioned before, in the Middle Way school we find two subschools -the Prasangika-Madhyamaka and the Svatantrika- Madhyamaka. These two philosophical schools present selflessness differently. The Svatantrika-Madhyamaka school also talks about two kinds of selflessness, the selflessness of a person and the selflessness of phenomena. They agree with the Mind Only school that the selflessness of a person is easier to understand than the selflessness of the phenomenal world. They agree with the Mind Only School and the other two Buddhist schools as far as the selflessness of a person is concerned, but their selflessness of phenomena is different.

Most Buddhist schools assert that if something does not exist from its own side or by way of its own characteristics, it does not exist at all. The Svatantrika-Madhyamikas, however, assert that things do exist by way of their own characteristics but do not exist truly. So, according to this school, the terms "true existence" and "existing by way of its own characteristics" are not synonymous. The Svatantrika- Madhyamaka school asserts that everything exists as a combination of projection and inherent existence. They believe that things exist partly as a result of our mind's conceptual projections, or imputations, and partly from their own side. They believe that nothing exists in and of itself without labeling, or conceptual imputation, and this assertion is their object of negation, but they believe that things do exist from their own side to some degree. In other words, phenomena possess a characteristic that we can call objective existence.

In the highest Buddhist school of thought, the Prasangikas, it is said that nothing exists from its own side, even to the slightest extent. Everything is imputed, or labeled. Unlike other schools, they assert that the selflessness of a person does not simply mean that there is no self-sufficient or substantially-existent person. They talk about a person not existing inherently, or in and of itself. According to the Prasangikas, the "emptiness of true existence" and the "emptiness of inherent existence" mean the same thing. Like the Mind Only and Svatantrika-Madhyamaka schools, the Prasangikas assert two types of selflessness, the selflessness of a person and the selflessness of phenomena.

However, in terms of what is being refuted, they assert that there isn't any difference between them. One is just as easy to understand as the other because the process of discovering them is the same. Supposing that you as the meditator want to focus on the selflessness of I, using the person as the basis. When, through reasoning, you perceive the selflessness of I, as you shift your focus onto any other object or phenomenon you can understand the selflessness of that phenomenon by the power of the same reasoning. You don't need to re-establish the selflessness of phenomena using some other method.

For the Prasangika school, there is not even a subtle difference between the selflessness of a person and the selflessness of phenomena.

When we realize that a person exists through mere labeling by terms and concepts and does not exist in and of itself we have realized the selflessness of a person. Taking phenomena as our focus, when we realize phenomena as mere labeling by terms and concepts and not existing in and of themselves, we have realized the selflessness of phenomena. There is a difference with regard to the basis of imputation, but there isn't any difference between the two types of selflessness in terms of what they actually are. It is for that reason that Chandrakirti states that "selflessness is taught in order for sentient beings to be liberated from cyclic existence. The two kinds of selflessness are simply posited on their bases of imputation." When we take a person as the basis of imputation, we are dealing with the selflessness of a person. When we take any other phenomenon as the basis of imputation, we are dealing with the selflessness of phenomena.

According to the Svatantrika-Madhyamikas and the three schools below them, phenomena are not just names or labels. They assert that phenomena should be findable under what is known as "ultimate analysis." When things are found under this type of analysis, they say we can validate the existence of these phenomena. When something is not findable under this kind of analysis, they are not able to assert its existence.

The assertion of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka school is totally different. According to the Prasangikas, nothing should be findable under ultimate analysis. If something is found then that thing must truly exist, and it is true existence, or findability under ultimate analysis, that is the object of refutation according to this school. Arya Nagarjuna said, "Knowing that all phenomena are empty like this and relying on actions and their results is a miracle amongst miracles, magnificence amidst magnificence." So, even though we understand the emptiness of all phenomena, we still rely upon the understanding of the infallible nature of cause and effect.

According to the Prasangika-Madhyamaka school, the terms "existing by way of its own characteristic," "inherent existence" and "true existence" all mean the same thing. For the Prasangikas, all these terms describe the object of negation-the kind of existence that is being refuted or negated. For that reason, our innate grasping at the inherent existence of the self (that is, the innate grasping at the self, existing by way of its own characteristics) is a distorted perception. It is exactly that distorted perception that needs to be cut through and eliminated by cultivating the wisdom that understands emptiness.

THE MEANING OF I, OR SELF, INDIFFERENT BUDDHIST SCHOOLS

All Buddhist schools of thought agree that the I, or self, constitutes the focus of our innate grasping. Where they differ, however, is in terms of what a person is. Certain lower Buddhist schools assert that a person is their five physical and mental aggregates. Other schools say that it's just the mind that is the person and not the other aggregates. In the Mind Only school there is one sub-school that follows a sutra tradition and another that follows reasoning. The sutra followers of the Mind Only school assert that the mind is the person.

The majority of Buddhist schools assert six consciousnesses-the five sensory consciousnesses (eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness and body consciousness) and mental consciousness. In addition to these six consciousnesses, however, the sutra followers of the Mind Only school talk about "deluded mental consciousness" and "mind basis of all," sometimes translated as "store consciousness." According to them, the mind basis of all is the person and as such it is the focus of the deluded mental consciousness. Those who assert this position say that all our karmic actions deposit their imprints on this particular consciousness.

According to Bhavaviveka, the great Indian master of the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka school, the person is a stream of mental consciousness. So, according to these two schools, when we create karmic actions, the imprints of these actions are stored or deposited on this mind-stream. The reason that the sensory consciousnesses don't store any of these imprints is because they only function here and now. When we die they cease to exist. They are confined to this existence and so cannot become connected to our future lives. Bhavaviveka has presented his position or assertion of what a person is in his work called Blaze of Reasoning.

Now, all the Buddhist schools of thought agree that the person, or self, is an imputed phenomenon-something that is imputed onto its aggregates. Yet, when you ask many of them to pinpoint what that imputed self is, the examples they give are some kind of substantially existent self, or person. Such is the case with some of the assertions we have just been considering. According to the Buddhist school of thought below the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka school, in order to know whether something exists, its existence must be proved by a valid cognition. According to these schools, when we look for a phenomenon it should be findable under analysis. When you find something under such analysis, that thing is said to exist by way of its own characteristics. If you don't find something, then that means that thing doesn't exist at all. However, according to the Prasangika-Madhyamaka school, things should not be findable under ultimate analysis. If you find something, you've gone wrong. That is how the Prasangika position totally opposes that of these other schools.

According to the Prasangika-Madhyamaka school, when you investigate self, you will not find anything such as a person existing from its own side at the end of your analysis. A person is merely a projection that is imputed onto the aggregates. If you do find a person existing from its own side, it should be inherently existent, existing in and of itself, which is impossible because things exist dependently.

THE DIFFICULTY OF UNDERSTANDING EMPTINESS

These are very technical points and you need to take time to think about them. After contemplating the profundity of these teachings, you may simply come to the conclusion that the wisdom realizing emptiness is too difficult to achieve. It is important to understand that however difficult it is, with perseverance and the passage of time, you will be able to see progress within yourself and gain this wisdom. This is simply the law of nature. If we keep doing something, through the power of familiarization, it gradually becomes easier to do.

You may find it very hard even to conceptualize the view of emptiness, especially at the beginning, but think positively and make continuous effort. If you keep inspiring yourself, you can develop what is called an "affinity" with the view of emptiness-an inkling of what it all means, even if you don't yet have a full understanding. You develop a positive doubt about the nature of reality, a question as to whether things actually exist in the way that they normally appear to you. Such positive doubt is somewhat in tune with what we might call the "music" of emptiness and is said to be very beneficial and powerful. The text states that, "Buddha, the transcendent subduer, prophesied that the protector, Nagarjuna, would establish the unmistaken, definitive and interpretable meaning of emptiness as the essence of his teaching." The commentary given on these lines explains that before he spoke on emptiness Buddha knew that ordinary people would find it difficult to understand these concepts. So, even though you may find it very difficult to follow this teaching, you must never give up hope. Determine that you are going to make every effort to understand and please remember that it is better to put your effort into these matters by trying to understand them slowly. After all, if you don't want to suffer any more, you have no choice!

DEFINITIVE AND INTERPRETABLE TEACHINGS

All the teachings of the historical Buddha are contained in the sutras and can be classified into two groups-definitive teachings, which need no elucidation, and interpretable teachings, which require explanation. A definitive teaching is one that can be accepted literally, in the way that Buddha presented it. An interpretable teaching is one that, if it were accepted as it is literally presented, would cause misunderstanding. The Buddha predicted the coming of two great spiritual pioneers, Arya Nagarjuna and Arya Asanga, who would illustrate the real meaning of his teachings and distinguish both their definitive and interpretable nature.

There is a sutra passage that states, "Father and mother are to be killed. The subjects and the country are to be destroyed. Thereby you will attain the state of purity." This passage is obviously an example of Buddha's interpretable teaching, as it requires interpretation. The background to this passage is something that took place in the ancient Indian city of Rajgir, in the present state of Bihar.

Devadatta, a cousin of the Buddha who was always trying to compete with him, befriended a young prince named Ajatashatru. Devadatta poisoned the prince's ears, saying that his father the king was clinging to the throne. He plotted with the prince to have the king assassinated so that Ajatashatru could take his place. Devadatta also plotted to kill the Buddha because he was jealous of Buddha's spiritual attainments. Devadatta told the prince, "I have a beautiful plan. Your father often invites the Buddha and his followers for alms, so you should ask the Buddha and his entourage to lunch. Dig a big fire pit right before the entrance to your palace and cover it so that it's well hidden. Buddha always walks ahead of his monks so, when he steps onto the pit, he will fall in and burn to death." The prince argued that the Buddha was too clever to be deceived, but Devadatta told him that, to be certain, he should poison Buddha's food in case the first plan didn't succeed.

One day, when the king was not at home, the young prince invited Buddha and his monks to the palace for lunch. He constructed a fire pit and poisoned the food just as Devadatta had instructed him. However, when Buddha placed his foot on the hidden fire pit, it instantly turned into a beautiful lake covered with lotus flowers. Buddha and the entire sangha walked safely across the lake on these flowers and entered the palace. The young prince was totally amazed and immediately confessed to Buddha that he wouldn't be able to serve the lunch because it was poisoned. Buddha told him to go ahead and bring the food anyway. When his meal arrived the Buddha blessed it and ate it without any harm coming to him. Meanwhile, the assassins who had been sent by the prince had caught his father.

Before they killed him, the king asked them to take a message back to his son. The message read, "By killing me you have committed two heinous crimes of boundless negative karma because I am your father and an arhat, having already achieved the state of freedom." When Ajatashatru received this message he felt tremendous remorse for his actions. The emotional burden was so great that he felt he would die right then and there. He decided to go to the Buddha and tell him everything. Buddha wanted to give the prince more time to do confession and purification and so he told him, "Father and mother are to be killed and if you destroy the king and his ministers and subjects, you will become a pure and perfect human being."

Of course, at that moment the prince didn't understand the meaning behind the Buddha's statement, but later on when he had given it more thought he realized that the terms "father" and "mother" stood for contaminated karmic actions and delusions and that these were to be killed, or destroyed, within himself. The remainder of the passage meant that other negativities associated with negative karmic actions and delusions also needed to be destroyed in the sense of being purified, and by doing that the prince would be able to attain the state of pure and perfect liberation.

The Heart Sutra is another example of an interpretable sutra, because it contains many statements that require explanation. For example, it doesn't make any sense to say "no ear, no nose, no tongue," and so forth. We know all these things exist. We need to understand that what Buddha really meant by these terms is that the ear, nose and tongue don't exist inherently.

An example of Buddha's definitive teaching is the sutra that presents the "four seals" of Buddhism. As I mentioned before, the four seals are that every composite phenomenon is impermanent, that which is contaminated is suffering in nature, everything that exists is empty, or selfless, and nirvana is peace. This teaching doesn't require any additional interpretation.

When we don't know how to differentiate between the definitive and interpretive teachings of Buddha, we get really confused. The Tibetans say that we make porridge of our misunderstanding. There is a very popular statement from the sutras: "O bhikshus and wise men, you should analyze and investigate my teaching just as a goldsmith analyzes gold. Just as a goldsmith tests gold by cutting it, rubbing it and burning it, so should you examine and investigate my teaching. Do not accept my teaching just out of devotion to me." So, just as a goldsmith tests gold in three ways, so should we examine and analyze the validity of Buddha's teaching through what are known as the "three types of valid cognition."

First, there is "direct valid perception." Then there is "inferential valid perception," which is not direct but based on reasoning. Finally, we use another form of inferential valid perception, which is more like a form of conviction based upon authentic reasoning. Having applied these three kinds of investigation, when we discover the refined goldlike teaching of Buddha, we should then adopt and practice it.

Buddha taught different things to different people at different times and under different circumstances. So, one thing we must do is understand the context of the situation in which he gave the teaching and to whom it was addressed. Without taking all these factors into consideration we cannot understand Buddha's intention. This is why it is important to study both the definitive and the interpretable teachings.

Another reason we talk about the three types of valid cognition, or perception, is that we find three different types of phenomena in the world. There are manifest objects, or obvious phenomena-those we can directly perceive with our senses. Then there are other kinds of phenomena that are hidden or concealed-we cannot perceive them directly and so we need to use inference in order to understand them. These phenomena need to be realized through valid reasoning and that is why we talk about inferential valid cognition. Third, within these concealed phenomena, there are those that are even more subtle and obscured. In order to perceive these, we need to rely upon authoritative or what are called "valid statements" by an unmistaken enlightened being. This is how we develop the conviction to perceive more obscured phenomena. For example, the text mentions that the great Indian master Atisha follows the elucidation of Arya Nagarjuna in terms of presenting emptiness. Therefore, Atisha's presentation of emptiness is authoritative and valid and the author advises us that we can feel confident in following it.

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.

4. The Mere ‘I’

The Consequence (Prasangika) School View of the "I"

The innate I-grasping mind is one to which "I" appears to be self-existent and which grasps that "I" to be self-existent just as it appears. To understand how this innate I-grasping mind works one should first understand the way the person actually exists.

Within Buddhism are four philosophical systems, each presenting differently how the conventionally existing person exists. This means they have different ideas about what comes from past lives to this life, goes from this life to future lives, engages in various types of actions and must take birth in cyclic existence, experiencing various types of suffering and so forth, as a result. Each school has its own idea but here the key proposition about the person is that made by the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) School. Within that school are two separate systems, the Middle Way Autonomy (Svatantrika) School and the Middle Way Consequence (Prasangika) School. Between these two, the key proposition to investigate and understand is that of the Middle Way Consequence School.

People are born and engage in various types of action (karma). As a result of performing particularly destructive types of action they are born in the three lower realms - the hell realm, the preta realm and the animal realm - and when they engage in more constructive or positive action, they are born as human beings, demigods or gods, thereby experiencing less suffering. There is some suffering, as these three higher realms are still in cyclic existence.

All Buddhist philosophical systems agree that it is the person who engages in action, creates karma and has to be reborn in cyclic existence experiencing the various results of their karma. However, they describe and classify that person differently.

The Consequence School assert that the "mere I" is the person that goes from life to life engaging in destructive and constructive actions, and experiencing suffering as a result. For them this "mere I" is the person and refers to the continuity of the aggregates, particularly the continuity of consciousness. Of the five aggregates, the fifth is the consciousness aggregate. "mere I" meaning the consciousness aggregate includes six consciousnesses, namely the eye, ear, nose tongue, body and mental consciousnesses. The "mere I" refers to the continuity of the sixth one, the mental consciousness.

The specific significance of "mere" in the expression "mere I" is that the "I" or the person does not exist from its own side. Therefore the "mere" negates the existence of the self-existence of the person. At the same time it indicates that the person who goes from life to life is a mere name, label, or imputation by conception.

To repeat: for the consequence school the person is the "mere I"; they usually describe it as the example or illustration of the person. For them the "mere I" is the person, but the term "mere I" refers to the continuity of the aggregates, specifically the fifth one, the consciousness aggregate. This is comprised of the six consciousnesses from the visual to the mental consciousness, and "mere I" is a name that specifically refers to the continuity of the mental consciousness. The "mere" in "mere I" negates the self-existence of the "I" and indicates that the "I" is a mere name, label and imputation by conception.

The "mere I" is both the person and its illustration. The mind grasping or apprehending that "mere I" is not the innate I-grasping mind. The mind apprehending the "mere I" is a conventional valid mind. It is the mind that thinks, “I am coming, I am going, I am sitting, I am doing this, I am doing that.” These are all conventional valid minds, grasping1 at an "I".

Although the "I" appears to those valid minds as if it were self-existent, they themselves do not think it is self-existent the way it appears. Another mind does that. The "mere I" both appears to the innate I-grasping mind - a completely mistaken wrong mind - to be self-existent, and is also grasped by it as being self-existent the way it appears. The innate I-grasping mind believes in that appearance and thus thinks there is an inherently or self-existing "I". The innate I-grasping mind is a type of true-grasping and a mental affliction.

Thus on one side is the innate I-grasping mind and on the other the valid I-grasping mind. The "I" appears to both of them as self-existent, but one grasps it as self-existent the way it appears whereas the other does not. Though the "I" appears as self-existent to the valid I-grasping mind, it does not believe in that appearance. It is not that it has realised the appearance is wrong, but just that it does not think the "I" inherently existent the way it appears to be. Therefore although the "I" appears to it as self-existent, that valid I-grasping mind does not think "self-existent". On the other hand, to the innate I-grasping mind, not only does the "I" appear to be self-existent but it also thinks 'self-existent".

The continuity of the aggregates - specifically the continuity of the mental consciousness - is the basis of imputation of the person, but is not the illustration of the person. The illustration of the person has to be something which is the person, so whereas the continuity of the mental consciousness is not the person, the "mere I" is the person. That is why the "mere I" is the illustration of the person.

Question and Answer

Student: Does the "mere I" seem relatively permanent as opposed to being impermanent and completely empty, because it exists for eons and eons, with its various manifestations? If the continuity of mental consciousness is the basis of the label "mere I" and if I say the "mere I" is the illustration of the person, that suggests that the "mere I" is something more than the continuity of the mental consciousness. It suggests that the "mere I" is something extra on top of the person, that the person has something added to it on top of the continuity of the mental consciousness. You say the continuity of the mental consciousness is not the person, but you say the "mere I" labeled on that continuity is the person. I cannot see the difference.

Khensur Rinpoche: Maybe one can explain it as follows. Take a watch for example: at first you make an object, but until somebody has labelled "watch" onto it, it is not a watch. The watch does not exist until the point of being called a watch. Could you say the watch exists before the label "watch" has been given to it, before it has ever been called a watch? Until people have decided, “Let's call it a watch,” the watch does not exist, does it? The object would be able to perform all the normal functions of a watch, but until being called a watch it is not a watch, therefore the watch does not exist. It is only a watch when the name "watch" is applied to it. This does not mean that if somebody makes a watch today it is not a watch until somebody calls it a watch. It refers to that time at the beginning when the watch was first developed and given the name "watch". Although the thing was there, it was not a watch until called "a watch".

The same applies when somebody becomes a country's president. Before being designated "president" according to the democratic system of the country, although the person has the same abilities, knowledge and so on, they are not the president.

Just as there is a sequence in these two cases, it is similar with designation of the "mere I". The continuity of the mental consciousness is already there, but until designated "I" it is not the "I" and not the person.

Student: It seems to me that in your example the parts of the watch are like the continuity of the mental consciousness, and the "mere I" is like the label "watch". However there is additionally the label "person" on top of the label "mere I". This strikes me as being like adding the label "Rolex", but "Rolex" really has no effect whatsoever on the watch. "Person" does not add anything to the "mere I" in the same way that "Rolex" just does not really support the idea of watch.

Khensur Rinpoche: When we look at the "mere I", person and so on, once the continuity of the mental consciousness has been designated "mere I", meaning that the continuity of the mental consciousness is the basis of designation of "mere I", at that point the "mere I" exists and at that point the person also exists, because the continuity of mental consciousness is the basis of designation not just of "mere I" but also of "person".

Student: Are they synonyms?

Khensur Rinpoche: Yes. They usually say that "I," self and person are synonymous. Although "mere I" and person are synonyms, "person" does not have the particular connotation that "mere I" does, of negating the self-existence. This is because in "mere I" the mere negates self-existence. Thus it has a particular connotation that "person" does not specifically have.

For example, you might be walking along and see a shape in the distance. At first you are unsure whether it is a person, a tree, a heap of bricks, or something else. As you get closer you see it is a person. Then as you get closer still you recognise who it is and think, “Oh, it is so and so who did such and such to me or helped me in such and such a way in the past.” Where does that thought, “This is so and so who hurt or helped me at such and such a time in the past,” come from? It comes through the appearance of the person's aggregates, specifically in this case their physical form. Thus through that person's physical form appearing you have the thought, “It is so and so who hurt me or helped me in the past.” The aggregates are the basis of imputation of the person, because it is through the appearance to our minds of the person's aggregates that we have the thought and imputation, “It is so and so.”

The point is that the mind apprehending or grasping at this conventionally existing "I" when thinking, “I am coming, going, doing this or that,” is a valid mind. It is neither a mistake, nor any form of true-grasping. We might think that every mind thinking "I" has something wrong with it, that it is self-grasping, true-grasping, or ignorance. But this is not the case. The mind thinking "I" when thinking, “I am going, coming and so on,” is a valid mind. It is neither true-grasping, nor the innate I-grasping mind. Nevertheless, there is an appearance to that mind of the "I" being self-existent.

Apart from the wisdom of meditative equipoise of an arya being which directly, non-conceptually realises emptiness free from the appearance of self-existence, there is an appearance of self-existence every single consciousness of a sentient being. In other words, other than that single exception, objects appear as self-existent to every kind of mind and consciousness of a sentient being, apart from that sole exception. This includes our valid minds thinking, "I this" and "I that", which means that not every mind to which things appear to be self-existent, grasps them as being self-existent the way they appear. However, the innate I-grasping mind both experiences the appearing "I" as self-existent and also believes this self-existent "I" to exist.

Regarding the valid and innate I-grasping minds, the sequence of arisal of those two is that first the valid and then the innate I-grasping mind arises. First one might think, "Oh, it is such and such a person" which would be the valid mind, and after that the innate self-grasping mind would arise.

First the valid mind thinking "I" arises, and then the innate I-grasping mind. With respect to the two types of self-grasping - at the person and at phenomena - the first to arise is the self-grasping at phenomena, followed by self-grasping at the person. However, in terms of the order of realisation, first is the selflessness of the person, followed by the selflessness of phenomena.

Although the person is a phenomenon, we distinguish between the self of the person and that of phenomena, and therefore of the selflessness of the person and that of phenomena, because generally the aggregates - the form aggregate, feeling aggregate and so on - are objects used by the person. The person is the user and the aggregates and so on are things used by that person.

Thus when meditating on emptiness the first thing one does is to meditate on and gradually realise selflessness with respect to the person who uses phenomena, namely the aggregates and so on. After that we meditate on and realise the selflessness of the phenomena used by that person.

At first, one can meditate on the selflessness of the person, through thinking of how the person is a dependent arising. It is then relatively easy to progress to the phenomena of the aggregates and so on, which are the objects used by that person, thinking about how they are empty because of being dependent.

Form is Empty…the Fourfold Purity

The essential point of this sutra is contained in the words:

Form is empty. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is also not other than emptiness.

The first point is relatively simple, since form is empty because of existing through dependence on its causes and conditions. The second point, that emptiness is form, means that when considering the emptiness of form, meaning form's emptiness of being self-existent, one cannot find this emptiness anywhere other than form itself. The third point that emptiness is not other than form is because in looking at the emptiness of form one finds just form.

The fourth point is that form is not other than emptiness. Although it says "emptiness" it means "empty". In other words, form being empty, or the empty aspect of form, is neither different nor separate from form. This is because form being empty - that empty aspect of form - is form being empty of self-existence, empty of existence independent of causes and conditions and so forth. It is that aspect of form being empty of independence, thus dependent. That aspect of form being dependent is precisely form itself, and as with form, it is emptiness.

Therefore the third and fourth points are similar, but from opposite perspectives. The third, "emptiness is not other than form," points out form's empty aspect and its not being separate from form. To understand the fourth, "form is not other than emptiness", think of form and recognise how it is not separate from or other than the empty aspect of form. This fourth point is that the empty nature or aspect of form, its aspect of being empty, cannot be established (does not exist) separate from form itself. The fourth and third are similar, but while the fourth focuses on form itself and its not existing apart from its empty aspect, the third shows how the empty aspect cannot be found separate from form.

I hope you can understand this explanation without error. When one can understand this fourfold purity with respect to form, one can understand how it works in connection with anything. The commentary states this very clearly.

Question & Answer

Student: Rinpoche stressed the difference between emptiness and empty, and now I think that is clear. What is not clear for me is where it says in our text on the first of the eight profundities, "Likewise Shariputra, are all phenomena empty."

Khensur Rinpoche: Empty and emptiness are different. Conventional and ultimate truths are different. "Everything is empty" means that absolutely everything that exists is empty of true existence, self-existence, and inherent existence, whereas not everything is emptiness, which is the ultimate truth.

Another student: Regarding what goes from life to life and the "mere I" being imputed to the aggregates and specifically to the continuum of mental consciousness, it seems to me that the potentiality for the other consciousnesses and aggregates also goes from life to life. However, potentialities" going from life to life has not been mentioned. Do those potentialities go from life to life and how do they connect with the "mere I"?

Khensur Rinpoche: In the case of karma, when an action has been completed, from the next moment onwards there is the state of having been destroyed (Tib. shik.pa) of that karma. The very next moment after the action has finished, comes the first moment of the state of having been destroyed, which gives rise to the second moment, which in turn gives rise to the third moment, the fourth moment and so on, in a continuity of the states of having been destroyed. That process continues, and one might say that the potential for the result to be given rise to is with or depending on the mental consciousness.

Another student: Everything that exists is dependent. The innate I-grasping mind exists, therefore the innate I-grasping mind is dependent, but on what does that innate I-grasping mind depend?

Khensur Rinpoche: The innate I-grasping mind arises through depending on the appearance of inherent existence to the earlier moments of consciousness. Therefore it comes into being or exists, depending on referring to the "I" and thinking it to be inherently existent. That is the process whereby the innate I-grasping mind manifests, because in fact it is there all the time, at least in latent form.

Another student: You said that the "mere I" is the "illustration of the self"? What proofs of illustration are there?

Khensur Rinpoche: Only once the term has been imputed can you speak of it as being the illustration. For example, up to the point that the person has been designated "president", he or she would be the basis of imputation for "president", but not an example of a president. To repeat, before the person has actually been designated "president" they would be the basis for imputation of "president". After having been designated president he or she would be not only the basis of imputation for "president", but also an example or illustration for "president". Actually this distinction between a thing being a basis of imputation, an example and so on is quite a subtle point.

Notes

The word "grasping" in this context does not refer to an ignorant mind. It refers to the normal way the mind takes hold of or cognises a conventional object. [Return to text]