Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Life is But a Dream

(9.9abc) Just as you receive merits you consider to be truly existent from making offerings to a Buddha you consider to be truly existent,
So we receive illusion-like merits from making offerings to an illusion-like Buddha.

We can sometimes think that if things do not exist inherently then nothing on the stages of the path will actually work because nothing is actually happening. To overcome this doubt we can consider dreams. It is clear that dreams are mere projections of mind, but we nonetheless do things in our dreams and our actions have effects in our dreams. For example if we get in a car and go someplace in the dream ultimately we are not going anywhere, but conventionally with respect to the appearances we are going from one place to another. In exactly the same way, when we engage in the stages of the path to enlightenment and other virtuous actions, ultimately we are doing nothing, but conventionally we are shaping the karma which determines what appears to our mind. Our actions have effects within our dream-like state. The merit that we accumulate through engaging in virtuous actions does not inherently exist, but it nonetheless functions. The blessings we receive from buddhas ultimately do not exist, but they still function within our mind to move it toward enlightenment. Buddhas themselves ultimately do not exist but nonetheless function to lead us along the stages of the path. Things do not have to truly exist to function and our actions do not have to truly exist in order to create causes. Dream actions create dream effects, it’s as simple as that.

(9.d) (Proponent of things) “If, as you say, living beings lack true existence and are like illusions,
How can they take rebirth after they die?”

(9.10) Provided all the necessary conditions are assembled,
Even an illusion will come into being.
Why, simply by virtue of their longer duration,
Should living beings be any more true?

Even we are like illusions.  We ourselves and all living beings are like illusions.  We come into existence in dependence upon causes and conditions and we will disappear at the time of death, just like an illusion comes to an end.  Sometimes people say the dream world is not true because it does not last long, but the waking world must have some truth to it because there is a continuum to it – the appearances we see have a longer duration.  But what about a longer duration makes the appearances any more true?  A short 30-minute video or a 9-hour Lord of the Rings epic are equally fictional tales.

We can sometimes likewise object thinking that the appearances in our dream cease when the dream ceases but the appearances we see when we are awake continue to appear day after day. Surely this means there’s a difference between the appearances of our dream and the appearances of our waking state. Actually no. First, it is not uncommon for people to have recurring dreams and see similar things in one dream after another. I have a friend who has narcolepsy and he actually spends more time in his dream state than he does in his waking state. For him every time he goes into his dreams he returns to the same place where he has a family a job a home and so forth. For him, his dream state is actually more his reality than his waking state. Second, The strength of our karmic actions determines the duration of the appearances that arise from that action. For example certain concentrations that are particularly strong can create the karma for rebirth as a long life god. Some actions which are very superficial only create a very short duration appearance, whereas other actions can create appearances that last for a very long time period in general, the extent or strength of our concentration determines the duration of the karma created. Our actions in the dream state tend to be more superficial, so it is normal that the duration of the appearances of the dream state are likewise short in nature. In contrast, our actions during the waking state tend to be stronger or more intense, and as a result the karma we create will last for a longer duration.  

But then we object, ‘but this world has a complete past from before I was here and has a future after I am gone, whereas when we dream it does not.’  How can we overcome this doubt?  First, it is not true.  When we dream, it also comes complete with an entire past and future – we have many dreams where there is an understood past or an anticipated future, even though none of it actually is real.  The past and future appear vividly and completely.  Second, the past and future are recreated all the time.  Every time we make a decision, we invent a new future for ourself.  This new future exerts an influence on the present.  The same is true for how we relate to and interpret our past.  Perhaps for a time we viewed a certain event in our past as our greatest curse, but later we came to see it as our greatest blessing.  Neither the past nor the future are fixed, but are constantly being recreated. 

But we may think, ‘OK, I see how that is true for myself, but even if I reinterpret my past and recreate a new future, all other living beings will have a long past in samsara and a future in samsara long after I have left for the pure land.  So there must be a difference.”  As long as the causes and conditions for suffering sentient beings in samsara remain assembled, a samsara filled with such beings will continue to appear.  But when these causes and conditions are removed, samsara will just dissappear, like an illusion or a dream.  If last night we dreamt of somebody in a wheelchair, who put them there? Clearly both the person and the wheelchair are coming from our own mind. In exactly the same way, if we see somebody in our waking state experiencing suffering, who created it?

Conventionally, of course, the person created the karma to experience whatever they experience. But ultimately, the person in our waking state is equally just a person in our dream. If they appear to inhabit samsara it is because we have mentally created other living beings of our dream to remain in samsara. Likewise, if we purify completely our own mind then the beings that appear to our mind will likewise appear to be completely pure, therefore also having been freed from samsara.

This can raise a question of whether Buddhas see suffering sentient beings. If a Buddha is omniscient, then surely they know that we are still drowning within samsara. If they do not know that we are still drowning in samsara, then how can we say that they are omniscient? The answer is Buddhas see all living beings as already Buddhas because this view functions to ripen living beings to become Buddhas. They do not see us as already having attained enlightenment because we actually have already attained enlightenment. We have or have not done anything because the things we normally see do not exist. But them maintaining the view of us having already attained enlightenment functions to bless our mind to be able to attain that state. If they continued to see us in samsara, then they would be mentally projecting us to be in samsara which a compassionate Buddha would not be willing to do.

This then can create the doubt of do Buddhas see our past as having previously been in samsara? Again, the answer is no. When Buddha attain enlightenment they see all living beings as having always been enlightened because that is again the most compassionate view they can maintain for other living beings. By viewing our past as having always been pure, it functions to bless our mind to reinterpret our own past to also see it as having always been pure.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Avoiding the Extreme of Nihilism

(9.7d) (Proponent of things) “Then it is incorrect to say that things exist even conventionally.”

(9.8) No, there is no fault, because things exist by conventional valid cognizers.
From the point of view of worldly people, seeing things is seeing reality;
But worldly people never actually see reality
Because the real nature of things is their emptiness.

Throughout Shantideva’s guide, there are a series of debates between the different philosophical schools. To indicate the views of the Prasangikas, Shantideva puts in italics the views that he is refuting.  Since it is not always obvious which school of thought the different parts in italics refer to, I will indicate in parentheses which school of thought the particular doubt comes from. In this context, the last line of verse 7 represents the views of the proponents of things.

As we go through the debates in Shantideva’s guide, we can sometimes feel tempted to just jump straight to the Prasangikas refutation because we know that is the final view that we are after. This is a big mistake. The debates between the Prasangikas and the other schools of thought only have power to move our mind if we first realize how we ourselves have the same doubt or objection that the other schools of thought are raising.  Each time we see italics in Shantideva’s guide, we should first spend some time to generate and identify how we ourselves have the different doubts or objections referred to by the lower schools. We almost need to first convince ourselves of the doubt of the other view, thinking, “yeah, that’s right.”  Only when we actually think in the way that the other schools think will Shantideva’s dismantling of that view move our mind. If we fail to realize how we ourselves are still holders of the views of the lower schools, Shantideva’s refutations will not function to move our mind.  But if we first identify how we are holders of these other views, then Shantideva’s refutation will actually move our mind and change our mind. We will realize, “oh yeah, I see, I was wrong.”  In this way, going through the debates itself is a method for arriving at the correct view of emptiness. We gradually chip away at all of our wrong understandings until we are left with the correct view of the Prasangikas.

Here, the objection of the proponents of things is that if things do not truly exist then they do not exist at all. This is known as the extreme of non-existence. They say if things are only mere appearances to mind, like in a dream, then nothing is real and nothing exists. If nothing exists, then nothing exists conventionally either. Nothing exists at all. We fall into the extreme of nihilism.  In truth, we all think this way.  For example, when a child has a nightmare, we say don’t worry it’s not real, it does not exist. Whereas we think that if a monster was actually in the child’s room, then it would exist, it would be real, and therefore it would be appropriate to be afraid. If we are saying that the monster in the room is also just a mere appearance to mind, not real, then why should we fear it?  But if we do not fear it, it will eat us and harm us. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to be afraid. Similarly, we think if the things we normally see do not exist at all then why bother generating compassion for others who appear to be suffering. They are not really suffering. There is no one there suffering at all. So why care?  

So how do we answer this doubt?  Geshe-la once said, ‘that which is conceived by ignorance, we believe to be the truth.’  In other words, things appear to us to exist independent of mind, and we assent to that appearance as if it were true, objectively true.  For example, somebody who is paranoid will project a world full of threats, and the person relates to these appearances as if they were objectively true.  They do not even put into question whether they are just projections of their mind because these appearances appear so vividly.  We are exactly the same.  This whole world is appearing to us and it appears as if we have nothing to do with its creation.  It is there functioning on its own and we are just observing what is taking place.

Geshe-la has said many times, ‘the things we normally see do not exist at all.’  This is because what we normally see are inherently existent things.  These things do not exist at all.  It is worth walking around the town repeating this like a mantra to gain some experience of it.

To understand the Prasangika view, it is worth it to understand a little more clearly what is meant by illusion-like things.  With respect to an illusion, it looks like there is something, but there is not actually.  What appears to be, does not actually exist.  It just appears that way.  So too it is with all things.  It looks like there is a table, for example, but there is not actually one there.  The table does not actually exist, it just appears to.  It appears that way.  When certain causes and conditions are assembled together, it creates an illusion-like appearance of something actually being there, like a rainbow or a Mexican salad.  Everything is like this, illusion-like effects from the assemblage of causes and conditions.  When we assent to that appearance, and engage in actions on that basis, we plant contaminated karma on our mind which ripens later as the appearance of objects that exist from their own side.  Thus, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating.

So how do things exist? They exist by convention. We all agree to call something the same thing if it has the same nature, aspect, and function. For example, something that is made of metal, has four wheels and an engine, and functions to take us places, we all agree by convention to call it a car. It’s “carness” does not exist on the side of the car, rather conventionally everyone agrees to call that thing a car. If last night we dreamt of a car, it does not exist as anything more than a mere appearance to our mind, but it still can function to take us from one dream place to another dream place. It functions within the dream. In exactly the same way the car of our waking state is a mere projection of our mind, a label we impute upon a collection of wheels and an engine, but it still functions to take us from one place to another.  Both of the places that it is taking us to and from are likewise just mere appearances to our mind as is the car that takes us between them. But the places still accomplish the function of being a place and the car still accomplishes the function of taking us to places, therefore even though these things do not exist as anything more than mere imputation to our mind, they still function and exist conventionally.

Here Geshe-la introduces the term “conventional valid cognizer.”  A cognizer is a mind that knows an object. A valid cognizer is a mind that knows something correctly.  A conventional valid cognizer is a mind that knows something correctly according to convention. For example, if I call a tennis racquet a spaghetti strainer, that is not a conventional valid cognizer.  But if I call a tennis racket a tennis racket and a spaghetti strainer a spaghetti strainer, then my mind has conventional valid cognizers.  

But it is useful to recall the first verse of Chapter 9 in which it said that conventional appearances are mistaken appearances. We might wonder how it is possible for a conventional valid cognizer to be a valid cognizer yet at the same time a mistaken appearance. It is a mistaken appearance in the sense that the way in which it exists does not correspond with the way that it appears. But it is still a conventional valid cognizer in the sense that conventionally we all agree this is a car. According to worldly people that is a car, and Prasangikas have no disagreement with worldly people.

But this then raises the question of do Buddhas see the car?  If the car is a mistaken appearance and Buddhas only know truth, how can they possibly know the car?  The answer is when a Buddha sees a car, what they are actually seeing is emptiness appearing in the aspect of a car. The car that a Buddha sees is emptiness appearing as car. The car that we normally see is a conventional valid cognizer, a conventional appearance, but a mistaken appearance. The car that we normally see does not exist at all. It still continues to function in our non-existent world that we inhabit, but it doesn’t actually exist at all. The car that a Buddha sees does exist, but it exists as a manifestation of emptiness. And it still functions in an all-empty world.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: What Exactly are Mere Appearances to Mind?

(9.5) When you proponents of things see things,
You do not recognize their illusion-like character
But assert them to be inherently existent.
This is where we Madhyamika-Prasangikas disagree with you.

In our earlier preparations for this chapter, I offered a series of analogies to help us understand the correct view of emptiness. One of those analogies is that all things are like an illusion. What do all illusions have in common? They appear in one way but they exist in another. For example, the illusory tiger appears to the audience to be an actual tiger, but in fact it is just an illusion created by the magician. There is no tiger actually there. Inherent existence and true existence are synonymous. True existence says that objects exist in the way that they appear. Prasangikas refute true existence. They say objects do not exist in the way that they appear. Objects appear to exist from their own side independent of the mind, whereas in fact objects are mere projections created by the mind, like in a dream. In this sense, they do not exist in the way that they appear and are therefore like illusions. All proponents of things believe objects do truly exist. This is the fundamental difference between the Prasangikas and all of the other philosophical schools.

(9.6) Forms that we see directly are just mere appearance to mind.
They exist falsely because the way they appear
Does not correspond to the way they exist,
Just as a human body is conventionally accepted as clean when in reality it is impure.

‘True’ in a Dharma context means to exist in the way it appears.  Truly existent means to exist in the way that it appears. Things appear to exist from their own side, but they do not exist that way, so they are falsely existent.  In reality, there is nothing other than the mere appearance of mind.

What is a mere appearance to mind? An appearance to mind means something that appears to our mind. For example, there are objects that appear to our eyes, objects that appear to our ears, and so forth.  There are also objects that appear to our mind, for example remembering the face of our mother. Normally we think there is a big difference between objects that appear to our senses and objects that appear to our mind. We understand that the objects that appear to our mind are simply mental projections, but we believe that the objects that appear to our senses actually exist out there independent of our mind. Shantideva is saying that all objects are equally appearances to mind. The memory of our mother and the car that we see with our eyes are equally just mere appearances to mind.  There is no difference in their fundamental nature. Mere in this context means that there is nothing to objects that is somehow more than just an appearance to mind.  Mere here means that the objects we perceive are nothing more than a simple appearance to mind. If we look for something that exists behind the appearance or something that the appearance refers to, we find nothing.

(9.7abc) Buddha taught the impermanence of things
To lead people gradually to a realization of emptiness –
The lack of inherent existence of things.

How does impermanence lead us to a realization of emptiness? Impermanence means that all things are constantly changing. They are all temporary in their existence.  To be permanent means to not change.  It means to never change. Something that is permanent never changes. When we look at objects, we typically are grasping at two different things. First, we grasp at the objects as being permanent, in other words unchanging. And second, we grasp at those things as existing from their own side.  For example, when we look at a car, we might say that is the same car that I have had for the last 10 years. As if the car has not changed at all. It is permanent. If we think about it, we of course recognize that the car has changed a lot over the years.  We may have changed the tires, changed the brakes, and so forth. But in our mind, we still think it is the same car. This thinking it is the same car is our grasping at the permanence of the car.

When we grasp at the inherent existence of the car, we think that the car exists independently of all other phenomena.  It exist out there, inside the car somewhere. For something to exist independently, it must also be permanent. If something changes, then it does not exist independently because it has to come into contact with causes and conditions which cause the object to change.  In this way, we can see that permanence is actually an aspect of inherent existence.  It is somewhat easy to understand how things are impermanent or changing. It is more difficult to understand how things lack inherent existence. For this reason, Buddha taught that objects are impermanent to weaken or to cut away at our overall grasping at things existing inherently.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: It’s Prasangikas vs. Proponents of Things

(9.3) Of those who assert the two truths, two types of person can be distinguished:
Madhyamika-Prasangika Yogis and proponents of things.
The views held by the proponents of things, who assert that things are truly existent,
Are refuted by the logical reasonings of the Prasangika Yogis.

There are many different philosophical schools of emptiness.   The highest view of emptiness is the Madhyamika-Prasangika view.  As a shorthand, usually we just refer to this as the Prasangika view.  Shantideva is a Prasangika.  From a Prasangika point of view, there are two types of being:  proponents of things and Prasangikas. A proponent of things believes that objects do truly exist. There is something that is a car, a computer, and so forth that exists independent of the mind within the object.

A Prasangika, or a proponent of no thing, says that nothing truly exists. There is no object that exists from the side of the object. If we look, we cannot find something that is the computer, something that is the car, and so forth. A proponent of things believes that we can find something that is the object.  A Prasangika says when we look with wisdom, we cannot find anything. Amongst the proponents of things, there are many different philosophical schools about where exactly we can find the object that truly exists. Some say the object exists in the material substance, some say it exists as the collection, some say it exists inside the mind, but that the mind itself truly exists, and so forth. All proponents of things believe that the object itself can be found upon investigation. The Prasangikas refute all of these views. 

The table for example is a thing.  According to Madhyamika-Prasangikas, there is no-thing that is the table.  There is nothing that is the table. Madhyamika-Prasangikas are proponents of no thing.  Unlike us, proponents of things believe that there exists something that is a table. There can be found something that is table.  Different schools believe it is a different thing that is the table.  The Prasangikas refute all of these views. 

(9.4) Moreover, among the Prasangika Yogis, there are different levels of insight –
Those with greater understanding surpassing those with lesser understanding.
All establish their view through valid analytical reasons.
Giving and so forth are practised without investigation for the sake of achieving resultant Buddhahood.

The first line that there are different levels of insight amongst the Prasangikas does not mean that they are realizing a different emptiness. For a Prasangika, all emptinesses are the lack of inherent existence. The different levels of insight correspond with the different degrees to which the Prasangika realizes directly not all phenomena lack inherent existence.

Another way of understanding the different levels amongst Prasangikas is the motivation with which we realize emptiness. In general, we can say there are two levels of philosophical tenants:  Hinayana and Mahayana. Normally when we talked about Hinayana and Mahayana we are talking about the motivation of the practitioner. A Hinayana practitioner seeks individual liberation, and a Mahayana practitioner seeks full enlightenment. The Hinayana schools of emptiness are the Vaibhashikas and the Sautrantikas.  And the Mahayana schools of emptiness are the Chittamatrins and the Madhyamikas.  We will get to know the tenets of these four schools of emptiness as we progress through Shantideva’s explanation. At this point, we can note that it is possible to hold Hinayana philosophical tenants yet possess a Mahayana spiritual motivation. Likewise, it is possible to be a holder of Mahayana philosophical tenets yet possess a Hinayana spiritual motivation.

We also need to be very clear on our motivation for meditating on emptiness.  It is not enough to just gain an intellectual understanding of emptiness within our mind, we need to firmly establish that things are actually this way.  When this is established within our mind, the more things appear different than the way we know they are the more it will confirm for us that things are empty.  It is like when Neo went back into the Matrix after he found out what it really was – the Matrix still appeared vividly, but he knew it was just a simulation.

To emphasize this point I will read what Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness in the chapter on ultimate Bodhichitta.  We can remind ourselves of this as we study Shantideva’s verses.  Right at the very end of the chapter he says:

“When we study emptiness it is important we do so with the right motivation. There is little benefit in studying emptiness if we just approach it as an intellectual exercise. Emptiness is difficult enough to understand, but if we approach it with an incorrect motivation this will obscure the meaning even further. However, if we study with a good motivation, faith in Buddha’s teachings, and the understanding that a knowledge of emptiness can solve all our problems and enable us to help everyone else solve theirs, we shall receive Buddha’s wisdom blessings and understand emptiness with greater ease. Even if we cannot understand all the technical reasoning, we shall get a feeling for emptiness, and we shall be able to subdue our delusions and solve our daily problems through contemplation and meditation on emptiness. Gradually our wisdom will increase until it transforms into the wisdom of superior seeing and finally into a direct realization of emptiness.”

The last line of this verse refers to the apparent contradiction between realizing that everything is empty and engaging in virtuous actions towards other living beings. If the beings we normally see do not exist, then why bother engaging in virtuous actions towards them. Shantideva says we can overcome this objection by simply engaging in virtuous actions without investigating more closely the exact nature of the existence of living beings. The main point here is we do not practicing giving, moral discipline, etc., because there are really other beings there, but because by doing so it functions to create the result of enlightenment within our mind.  For example, when we do taking and giving practice, we strongly believe that we have actually liberated all living beings from their suffering.  We do this not because we actually have liberated all beings, but by believing we have we complete the karmic action we are after which will ripen later in the appearance of our dream filled with beings free from all suffering.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: What are the Two Truths?

(9.2ab) The two truths are explained as conventional truths and ultimate truths.
Ultimate truth, emptiness, is a non-affirming negative phenomenon

Shantideva says emptiness is a non-affirming negative phenomena.  This explains the nature of the realization of emptiness itself. Here we need to use some technical terms, but I will try explain them in a simple and easy to understand way. The technical term is emptiness is a non-affirming negative phenomena. What does that mean? A negative phenomena is a phenomena that is realized by negating something else. For example, if I see the lack of money in my wallet, I realize that I am poor. The object of negation is money, I see it’s lack, and I realize that I am poor.  The lack of money is a negative phenomena.

A non-affirming negative phenomena is best understood by understanding what is an affirming phenomena. For example, if we say the fat man does not eat at night, then he must eat during the day. If someone grasps at gender binaries, and I say this person is not female, then we understand that the person is male. If I say in a coin toss it is not heads, then it implies that it is tails. These sorts of binaries are all examples of affirming negative phenomena. By negating one possibility, it necessarily implies the other possibility.

Emptiness, however, is a non-affirming negative. By negating its object, it does not affirm any other positive phenomena. It is simply the mere lack of something. The example that is traditionally given is space. Space is the lack of obstructive contact. The lack of obstructive contact does not imply or affirm any other phenomena. It is simply a mere lack of obstructive contact. This mere lack can have great meaning. For example, if I remember parking my car in space 24, and I then go to that space and see the mere lack of my car, this mere absence has great meaning. But it does not affirm any other positive phenomena. In the same way, emptiness is the mere lack of inherent existence, mere lack of existence from its own side, mere lack of independent existence, and so forth, but realizing this mere lack does not affirm any other phenomena. Nonetheless, it has great meaning. The meaning of emptiness is there is nothing to worry about, there is no one criticizing us, there is no death, no birth, and so forth. All of these things do not actually exist.

(9.2cd) That cannot be realized directly by a mind that has dualistic appearance,
For such minds are conventional, and thus mistaken awareness.

Once again Shantideva gives us some technical terms that we need to understand in order to grasp the meaning of emptiness that is presented. The first term is dualistic appearance. Dualistic appearance is when an object appears to be one with its inherent existence. Inherent existence is when we fail to see the difference between the basis of imputation and the imputation itself. We see the object itself as its basis. Dualistic appearance is when we see an object, we simultaneously see it as inherently existing or existing from its own side. Two things are appearing to our mind – the object itself and its inherent existence. This is dualistic appearance. The opposite of dualistic appearance is the union of appearance and emptiness. Here instead of the object appearing to be one with its inherent existence it appears to be one with its underlying emptiness. What we see is emptiness, but it appears as a form.

The second key term Shantideva refers to here is conventional appearance. A conventional appearance is something that we normally see, for example a car, a computer, or our best friend.  They are called conventional appearances because we all agree on the name to call these different objects. For example, when we see something with four wheels, a chassis, a motor, and seats, we call it a car. When we see a screen, a keyboard, and microchips, we call it a computer. The names car, computer, and so forth are the names we all agree by convention to call these specific objects with these particular functions. 

But fundamentally, conventional appearances are mistaken appearances. The things that we normally see appear to exist from their own side, independent of mind.  So while they appear, they do not in fact exist. Hence, they are mistaken. This can give rise to the question of whether Buddhas see conventional appearances. Does a Buddha see a car or a computer? If they don’t, how can we say they are omniscient? The answer is no, a Buddha does not see conventional appearances because conventional appearances are mistaken appearances and Buddhas only know truth.  Only emptiness is the truth. How can a Buddha see something that is not true?  So does that mean a Buddha only sees the clear light emptiness like a vast empty space? No, a Buddha does not just see the clear light emptiness. They do just see emptiness, but emptiness can appear in myriad different ways. Sometimes emptiness appears as a computer, sometimes it appears as a car, sometimes it appears as the clear light. Buddha sees only the infinite space of emptiness, but that emptiness appears in countless different ways. Therefore, Buddhas do see computers, cars, and so forth, they just don’t see the conventional appearances of computers, cars, and so forth that we normally see.  The things we normally see do not exist at all.

This can also give rise to the question of whether Buddhas see us seeing conventional appearances. The short answer is no, they do not. They see us as Buddhas seeing everything purely. They do not see us in this way because we objectively are Buddhas seeing things purely.  In fact, we are not objectively anything. Buddha’s see us seeing everything purely because this view functions to ripen us so that we are ourselves able to view things in this way. For ordinary beings they see suffering, and then engage in virtuous actions. For a Buddha, their pure view of us is their compassionate action. The duality between view an action has dissolved.

To keep it simple:  Ultimate truth is emptiness – that there is no thing that exists from its own side.  Conventional truth is things are nothing more than dream-like projections of mind.  If you look for something more than just a projection of mind, you find nothing.  Truth is relative.  Relative to conventional reality, a schizophrenic’s world is a mistaken appearance.  Relative to ultimate reality, conventional reality is a mistaken appearance.  Only emptiness is truth, but it can appear in countless ways.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Method Practices are Preparations for Realizing Emptiness

(9.1) Buddha taught all the method practices explained above
To enable us to complete the training in wisdom realizing emptiness.
Therefore, those who wish to liberate themselves and others from suffering
Should strive to develop this wisdom.

This is an important point:  the purpose of all the method practices is to help us gain the realization of emptiness, because only that can end samsara.  If we think samsara is created by something other than our mind, we can never become free of it.  When we realize everything is empty, we realize all that needs to change is our own mind.  Liberation is possible because it is entirely within our control.

Love and compassion alone are not enough, because they still grasp at beings existing outside of us.  It will take us a long way, but it will leave the roots in tact.  Only by realizing emptiness can we bring an end to all the suffering of all living beings because we stop projecting it.

At the end of the day, samsara is a dream created by delusions.  As long as its creator exists, samsara will continually be re-created.  If we can replace its creator – delusions – with its opposite – wisdom – then samsara will quite simply cease to be created.  If we stop creating new contaminated karmic seeds, the ones already on our mind will gradually exhaust themselves, either through purification or ripening.  Deluded minds activate contaminated karma.  If we eliminate all of our delusions from our mind, we will stop activating contaminated karma, and samsara will cease to appear. 

A Buddha is a being that has removed the two obstructions – the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience.  Just as all waves are the nature of water, so too all delusions are the nature of the ignorance of self-grasping.  If we remove the water, waves cannot arise – ever.  The wisdom realizing emptiness opposes self-grasping directly, and in so doing, opposes all other delusions indirectly, thereby removing the delusion obstructions.  Once we have removed the delusion obstructions, we attain individual liberation. This is also sometimes known as Nirvana. It is a permanent state in the sense that if we never generate delusion it is impossible for us to activate any contaminated karma potentialities that remain in our mind, so we never fall back into samsara, even though the karmic potentials to do so remain on our mind.

The obstructions to omniscience are the contaminated karmic potentialities on our mind from our past actions motivated by delusion.  Each one of these seeds, if ripened, would create a samsaric experience.  In order to purify the obstructions to omniscience we need to purify our very subtle mind of all of these contaminated karmic potentialities. The method for doing so is realizing the emptiness of our very subtle mind. When we connect with the emptiness of our very subtle mind it functions to uproot all of our contaminated karmic potentialities directly and simultaneously. In this way we gradually purify our very subtle mind of the obstructions to omniscience and attain enlightenment. From this perspective it is easy to see how the wisdom realizing emptiness overcomes both the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience.  Therefore, if we want to attain liberation or enlightenment we must gain the wisdom realizing emptiness.

It is useful to re-examine each of our method practices from the perspective of how it helps us to realize emptiness.  The method practices help us create the mental environment for realizing emptiness.  By seeing the connection between wisdom and our method practices, we will understand the deep meaning of the method practices.  All of our method practices are made more powerful when they are conjoined with an understanding of emptiness.   For example, dedication.  If things existed outside of the mind, our dedication is useless.  But because things are coming from our mind, our dedications can and have worked miracles. 

Back in 2013, I did an extensive series of posts where I looked at all of the stages of the path of lamrim, lojong, and Mahamudra from the perspective of emptiness.  We can do the same, meditating on the union of emptiness and each of the 21 lamrim meditations, the six perfections, and the two tantric stages.  When we build these connections within our mind, we realize that everything we have been taught has a deeper meaning – one informed by ultimate truth emptiness.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Overview of Chapter 9 as a Whole

Preparation 6:  Big picture overview of the whole chapter

As we go through the verses, I will add in where we are within the overall outline of Shantideva’s chapter.  Without this, it is easy to get lost as to what is the main point of each verse.  Each verse is building towards a main argument or point, which is indicated by the outline heading.  It is helpful to look at the outline as a whole.  This is like first looking at a map of the whole city before we look at the specific streets in any given neighborhood.  Having an overall understanding of how the city is laid out gives us an appreciation of how each neighborhood fits within a larger mosaic.

Shantideva’s presentation of the perfection of wisdom has five main parts. The first, the third, and the fifth are all exhortations encouraging people to develop this wisdom. And the second and the fourth part of his presentation actually explain the teachings on emptiness. It is not enough for us to know what emptiness is, we have to be actually motivated to try realize it ourselves. It is our motivation which determines the karmic effect of our wisdom, not the wisdom itself. For our meditation on emptiness to lead to liberation and enlightenment, our practice needs to be motivated by renunciation and bodhichitta.

In the second part on the presentation of the two truths, there are essentially two main parts. The first simply introduces what are the two truths. And the second refutes the arguments made by those who say we do not actually need to realize emptiness. This is important because we might begin to become discouraged during our study of emptiness and ask ourselves whether it is worth it. But if we recognize that we will never end our suffering until we realize emptiness, then we will be extremely motivated to gain this realization understanding it is not only the panacea for all our problems it is the only solution to all our problems.

The fourth part of Shantideva’s explanation is also primarily divided into two parts:  the explanation of the emptiness or selflessness of persons and an explanation of the emptiness or selflessness of phenomena. Because all things can be divided into persons or phenomena, if we realized the emptiness of both of these, then we realize the emptiness of everything. In particular, Shantideva goes into an extensive explanation of the emptiness of phenomena. He does so first through looking at the four close placements of mindfulness, namely close placement of mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of the mind, and of phenomena. Second, he looks at the relationship between the production of phenomena and their emptiness. Normally we think if things are empty they cannot produce anything, but actually if anything is produced it reveals that it is empty.  

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: What’s with All the Debates in Emptiness Teachings?

Preparation 5:  Understanding how to relate to philosophical debates about emptiness

Throughout Shantideva’s explanation of emptiness he refers to many different philosophical schools of thought.  the names of these schools, such as the samkhyas the chittamatrins, and the prasangikas are all very unfamiliar to us. The debates between the different schools can seem academic and since we have never actually met someone from these philosophical schools it can seem to have little meaning. So how can we understand these discussions?

Fundamentally, the presentation of the views of the other schools are designed to help us to better identify the object of negation.  As Gen Tharchin explains, 80% of realizing emptiness is correctly identifying the object of negation.  The debates between the Prasangikas and the other schools helps us identify different common forms of grasping we might still be holding onto.  By presenting them as different philosophical schools, we can see within our own mind how we have similar grasping.  When we see clearly how we have such views, the debates with the Prasangikas will function to dismantle the wrong views within our own mind.

Concretely, how can we understand these debates?

First, they are like a ladder that gradually brings us to the final view of the prasangika. By refuting each of the lower schools, we are able to leave behind an aspect of our ignorance. And each time we do, we move up the ladder closer to the final view. 

Second, we need to identify these different schools of thought in our own world. The views represented by these different philosophical school schools do in fact correspond with philosophical views many people or different religions hold. Therefore, it is helpful to connect the views of the different philosophical schools with common philosophical views we find in our modern world.

But third and most importantly, we must identify within our own mind how we are still grasping onto the views of these lower schools in our own thinking. If we do not recognize how we are in fact holding onto the views of these lower schools but just do not realize it, then the prasangika refutations of the lower schools will lack power. But if we see clearly how in fact we are holding such views, then the prasangika refutation will directly dismantle our ignorance. In this way, contemplating these different debates is itself a practical method for bringing our mind to a correct view of emptiness.

Since we know that the final view Geshe-la wants us to have is that of the prasangika, we can often think that the views of the lower schools are irrelevant and wrong and we can just look at the highest view. This is a mistake. Instead, when we read the objections of the lower schools, we should identify how we ourselves have the doubt that is being expressed by the lower school. We need to look into our mind and see how we do hold onto the views that they espouse. We might not ever call ourselves a samkhya, but we all definitely have samkhya tendencies. We need to find these tendencies within ourselves, and then the prasangika refutation will be extremely powerful in our mind. As we go through the debates in Shantideva’s presentation, I will introduce the basic tenants of each of the lower schools when we first encounter them so we know where they are coming from. For a complete explanation of tenets, please see the appendix in Ocean of Nectar. This is not an intellectual philosophical game, it is a practical method for bringing our mind to the correct view of emptiness.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Understanding Emptiness Through Analogies

Preparation 4:  Understanding key analogies for realizing emptiness.

By way of further introduction, I think it might be helpful to discuss some of the main analogies Geshe-la uses to illustrate the meaning of emptiness. The most frequently used analogies are dreams, illusions, holograms, waves on the ocean, and the blue of the sky. I will now discuss each in turn.

Phenomena are like dreams:  One of the most effective analogies for illustrating the meaning of emptiness is all phenomena are like dreams. It is easy to understand how dreams are merely projections of our mind. If we dream of an elephant, we do not then go looking in our room for the elephant after we wake up. The appearances of our dream simply disappear when we wake up, and we understand that they never truly existed. They were simply projections of our mind. The only difference between last night’s dream and today’s waking world is the mind perceiving the appearances. Our dream mind is a subtle mind and our waking mind is a gross mind but the appearances in dreams, and the appearances in our waking state, are both equally mere projections of our mind.  The appearances themselves are exactly equal in nature. They have no existence other than projection of mind. If we go looking for something that is more than just mere projection of mind we find nothing. Even modern quantum physics confirms the truth of Buddha’s teachings 2,500 years ago. Quantum physics says objects come into existence when they are observed. The object itself is a projection of our mind, just like a dream.

Illusions:  Phenomena are also likened to illusions. An illusion is something that appears in one way but actually exists in another. The classic example is an illusory tiger manifested by an ancient magician. To the people in the audience, they see a living tiger; but for the magician, he understands it is an illusion. In the same way, all phenomena appear in one way but actually exist in another. They appear to be truly existent or existent from the side of the object, when in fact neither of these things is true. Perhaps a more modern example is taking psychedelic drugs. When people take LSD for example, all sorts of hallucinations appear vividly to their mind, but none of these things actually exist. Or another modern example would be someone with schizophrenia. People, places, and things appear clearly to their mind but they do not in fact exist.

Holograms:  Holograms are things that can appear in different ways depending upon how you look at them. For example, at Disneyland on the ride Pirates of the Caribbean, there is a room you pass through which has a bunch of faces. At the first angle they appear to be friendly, normal people; but when you move a little bit farther along, they then appear to be Pirates. So what is actually there? A kind person or a pirate? The truth is neither is actually there – from one perspective it is a kind person and from another perspective it is a pirate. The same is true for all phenomena. Different people looking at the same person, for example, can see a friend, an enemy, or a stranger. Their mother would look at the same person and see their child. A boss might see an employee, a child might see a parent, a con man might see a potential victim, and so forth. So who is actually there? Nobody. The person is neither child nor parent nor friend nor enemy nor any of these things.  Who and what they are depends upon the perspective with which we look at them. If the person was truly existent, then they would appear the same to everybody. The fact that they do not, shows that they do not truly exist.

Waves on the ocean:  One of my favorite analogies for emptiness is waves on the ocean. Each phenomenon is like a wave on the ocean of our mind. We can nominally differentiate one wave from another, but all of the waves are equally the ocean. You cannot ever separate the wave from the ocean, nor one wave from another – they rise and fall in dependence upon one another.  In the same way, all phenomena are like waves on the ocean of emptiness. We can nominally differentiate one phenomenon from another, but all phenomena are equally empty. They are all equally emptiness appearing in different forms. Or more specifically, when we look at phenomena, what we are seeing is emptiness appearing in different ways. Just as when we look at waves, we are seeing the ocean appearing in different aspects.  The prasangika view of emptiness says all things are manifestations of their emptiness, like waves are manifestations of the ocean. The tantra prasangika view goes one step further and says that all phenomena are by nature our mind of great bliss and our mind of great bliss is the nature of emptiness.

Blue of the sky:  In Mirror of Dharma, Geshe-la spends a great deal of time explaining the union of appearance and emptiness. The union of appearance and emptiness is Buddha’s final view. The analogy he gives for illustrating the relationship between appearance and emptiness is the blue of the sky. when we look at the sky, it appears blue. What we are looking at and seeing is the sky, and it appears blue. We certainly cannot separate the blue from the sky, but we also do not say we are looking at blue, we say we are looking at the sky. In exactly the same way, a Buddha looks at and sees emptiness everywhere appearing in myriad different ways. Their mind is never separated from the wisdom realizing the emptiness of all phenomena, but they nonetheless are able to see this emptiness appearing in all of its different manifestations. When I look at my shrine, for example, I see emptiness appearing as my shrine. As Geshe-la says in Mirror of Dharma, when we see our body, in truth we see only the emptiness of our body because the real nature of our body is its emptiness. He goes on to say, we realize the non-dual appearance and empty as an endless space of emptiness. In Essence of Vajrayana, Geshe-la explains that Heruka has serene eyes symbolizing that his mind never leaves emptiness, yet he remains omniscient knowing directly and simultaneously all phenomena.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: 80% of Realizing Emptiness is Identifying the Object of Negation

Preparation 3:  Understanding clearly the object of negation

Before we dive into the actual verses of Shantideva’s explanation of emptiness, I first want to say a few words about the object of negation of emptiness. Gen Tharchin explains that 80% of realizing emptiness is correctly identifying the object of negation. If we know what exactly we are negating, then emptiness is simply the mere absence of that. The non-existence of that. If we do not correctly understand the object of negation, then our understanding of emptiness is merely fabricated and almost certainly wrong. Sometimes we are in a rush to get to the final object of emptiness, but this is a mistake. Instead, we should spend the majority of our time correctly identifying what exactly it is we are negating before we engage in the actual contemplations which dismantle our grasping at the existence of the things we normally see.

Geshe-la explains several different ways of understanding the object of negation. Each one is of course synonymous – there is only one emptiness. But each formulation of the object of negation reveals a different aspect of it that then enables us to better understand what exactly it is we are negating. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to first explain each of these different ways of understanding the object of negation so that when we enter into Shantideva’s explanation, we know what exactly he is talking about. Geshe-la alternatively refers to inherent existence, true existence, existence from its own side, independently existent, and the things we normally see. I will now explain each one in turn.

Inherent existence:  The most common explanation of emptiness in the majority of Geshe-la’s books is the absence of inherent existence. Emptiness is the mere lack of inherent existence.  What exactly is inherent existence?  Inherent existence means that the existence of the object inheres in the object itself. In other words, there is no difference between the object and its basis of imputation. We think the object itself is its basis. The car is the car, the tree is the tree, its existence is inside itself – its existence is itself. When we engage in the traditional meditation as explained in the Meditation Handbook on looking for the body that we normally see, the I that we normally see and so forth, we are looking for where is the object. We say it can be found either as one of its parts, as the collection of its parts, or as separate from its parts. Inherent existence means we can find the object itself inside the object. The key point of the Prasangika view of emptiness is recognizing the distinction between the basis of imputation and the object itself. When we see the imputation as distinct from its basis, we see the lack of inherent existence. When we see the basis of imputation and the object itself as one in the same, then we are grasping at inherent existence.

True existence:  True existence is if the object exists in the way in which it appears. Objects appear to exist from their own side, independent of the mind. It seems as if objects exist “out there” waiting to be observed, and our mind has no role whatsoever in bringing these objects into existence. True existence, therefore, is assenting to this appearance. We conceptually believe that objects do indeed exist in the way that they appear. We do not think that the appearance of objects existing from their own side is incorrect, rather we think it is exactly correct – that is how objects exist. 

Existence from its own side:  existence from its own side means that the object exists on the side of the object itself and not on the side of the mind. Normally we say there are two things: subject and object.  The subject is the person who or mind that knows and the object is what is known. We say I know John. In this example “I” is the subject “John” is the object. How does John exist? When we believe in existence from its own side, we think that John exists on the side of John. We believe that our mind has no role whatsoever in bringing John into existence. Existing on the side of the object and objectively existing are synonymous. In our normal way of talking about things we refer to a subjective perception of something and an objective perception of something. The subjective perception of something is seen to be false and dependent upon the person who is looking at it, whereas an objective perception of things is supposedly neutral and accurate and true for how the object actually exists from its own side. For example, we could say that is objectively good. To say something is objectively anything is to say that its existence is established on the side of the object itself. In truth, nothing is objectively existent, everything is subjectively existent. Believing that there is such a thing as objective existence of anything is ignorance, and the object of negation of emptiness. All of modern science is based on the assumption that we can objectively describe things. Every other discipline nowadays is trying to be more and more like science. Economics, sociology, political science, etc., all of these things are trying to be more science-like and describe things objectively. We often say someone who is objective has a better view than someone who is merely offering their subjective opinion. We even place a value judgment saying objective is better when in fact objective does not even exist.

Independently existent:  Another way of understanding the object of negation is independently existent. Objects exist independent of other things. This is how things appear to us. We think that we exist independently of others. We think others exist independently of us. We think our computer exists independently from our table. The list goes on and on.  To exist independently means to not depend upon other things for being able to come into existence. Everyone knows that a rainbow is a dependent-arising. When water and sunlight come together at a particular angle it creates the appearance of a rainbow. Without the water and without the sunlight, there is no rainbow. We know that the rainbow exists in dependence upon these causes and conditions. Independent existence is thinking that things exist and arise independently of other things. Of course, even superficially thinking about things we recognize that nothing exists independently of anything else, but our ignorance nonetheless innately grasps at things as existing independently of everything else. For example, because we think our self exists independently of others, it makes sense to us to cherish only ourselves and not others. When things happen to other people, we think it does not matter because we believe it is not happening to us. We think this because we think we are independent of others and others are independent of us. In many ways understanding the dependent nature of all phenomena is the easiest way of understanding emptiness. That is why Shantideva spends so much time discussing how objects come into existence.

The things we normally see:  In recent years, Geshe-la has primarily focused on explaining the object of negation of emptiness as “the things we normally see.” In Mirror of Dharma, Geshe-la says everyone knows that emptiness is the lack of inherent existence, but despite having this intellectual understanding our delusions are not changed. We remain just as deluded as before. The object of negation simply is an intellectual abstraction, and not our actual innate ignorance. The phraseology of the things we normally see counters this. What is my self that I normally see? It’s Ryan. The Ryan that I normally see. What is the body that I normally see? It’s my body that I look at and see in the mirror. There is no need to make it more complicated than that. It is simply the body that I normally see. The same is true for cars, our friends, the world, and all other phenomena. Everything that we normally see is the object of negation. None of these things actually exist. Our intellectual mind likes to focus on the words “normally see,” to then re-impute our intellectual understanding of inherent existence. How do things normally appear?  They appear to exist from their own site, they appear to exist inherently, etc. But by doing this, we miss the point of this phraseology and it just winds up being a recreation of our intellectual understanding of emptiness. We need to take these words exactly as they are without extra commentary. What is the object of negation? All the things that we normally see – our computer, our home, our boss, our children, etc., etc., etc. The phraseology of the things I normally see do not exist is also particularly powerful in meditation itself. Even in our mind the world continues to appear. That world that appears inside our mind is the things that we normally see. None of that exists – it is all mere projections, illusions, hallucinations, holograms, and so forth of the mind. When we say the things we normally see do not exist in meditation, then all of these appearances inside of our mind dissolve into the clear light emptiness. We then look out into the clear light and see the mirror lack or the non-existence of all of the things that we normally see.