Every stage of the path of both Sutra and Tantra is, in the final analysis, a meditation on correct belief. Understanding what are correct beliefs and how they function is therefore of fundamental importance. For some, this post may seem very technical. But if we understand correct beliefs, I believe we can gain great confidence in our spiritual path. Gen Tharchin said, “when we understand clearly how the Dharma works to produce its effects, effort becomes effortless.”
What is a correct belief?
In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la says, “the definition of correct belief is a non-valid cognizer that realizes its conceived object.” In short, a correct belief is the mental action of believing in something that exists and is true. Meditation on correct beliefs transforms them into valid cognizers which know (as opposed to merely believe) the truth of the object. Meditation is the process of familiarizing ourselves with a virtuous object. We do so through study and practice. Study and practice give us the valid reasons and personal experience which establish irrefutably the truth of the objects of our correct belief. Knowledge held by correct beliefs is correct, but vulnerable to doubts. Knowledge held by valid cognizers is also correct, but invulnerable to doubts – it knows the truth.
Before we can appreciate the power of correct beliefs, we must answer a fundamental question of how they are established. In other words, how do we know if a belief is correct or not? Ordinary beings attempt to establish truth by demonstrating something is objectively true. To be objectively true means it is true on the side of the object, and not dependent upon any subjective perception or opinion. But clearly this doesn’t work for Prasangika Buddhists who reject that anything exists on the side of the object. If nothing exists on the side of the object, then nothing can be objectively true. Understanding this can lead many people into an existential crisis – if things can’t be objectively established, then they can’t be established at all, and there is no basis for establishing anything as true. Every subjective opinion becomes equally valid, including genocidal mentalities like Hitler’s, which is a disturbing conclusion to say the least. For this reason, many people wind up rejecting the teachings on emptiness altogether because to accept them leads to terrible consequences – namely the extreme of relativism that all subjective opinions are equally valid to those who hold them.
So how do we escape this conundrum? Dharmakirti’s Commentary to Valid Cognition provides the answer. Lorig is the teachings on how to understand the mind. Lorig can be taught at many different levels depending upon one’s understanding of emptiness. Dharmakirti presents Lorig from the perspective of the Madhyamika Prasangika, or the highest view of emptiness. For modern Kadampas, the book How to Understand the Mind is our commentary to valid cognition from the Prasangika perspective.
Epistemology is the study of how truth is established. All the lower schools of Lorig establish truth on the side of the object – or objectively. The Prasangika presentation of Lorig is a philosophical Copernican Revolution in Buddhist epistemology. Prior to Copernicus, everyone thought the sun revolved around the earth. Copernicus turned all of this on its head by showing the earth revolved around the sun. In the same way, all of the lower schools attempt to establish truth on the side of the object. Prasangikas establish truth on the side of the mind. If the mind knowing an object is valid, then the object known to that mind is valid. If an object is known to be true to a Superior Being (a being who has a direct realization of ultimate truth or emptiness), then that object is established to be true. In other words, an object is true if it is known to be true by a Superior being.
But since we ourselves are not a Superior being, how are we to know what is true to them and how are we to establish what is true? In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la provides us with a compass pointing us in the direction of knowing what are valid minds (which in turn know valid objects). A valid mind is one that “leads us in the direction of purity and happiness.” In other words, truth is established by looking at the function of believing something. If believing that thing leads us in the direction of purity and happiness, then it is true. If believing that thing leads us in the direction of impurity and suffering, then it is false. Virtuous minds, by definition, are those that function to make our mind pure and peaceful. Deluded minds, by definition, are those that make make our mind impure and unpeaceful. We distinguish what is a virtuous and what is a deluded mind by looking at the function believing that mind has on our mind. If believing something makes our mind pure and peaceful, we call that something “virtuous.” If believing something makes our mind impure and unpeaceful, we call that something “deluded.” As both Gen Losang and Gen Tharchin often say, “what is true is simply what is beneficial to believe.” If believing something makes our mind pure and peaceful, it is beneficial to believe, and thus established as “true” from a Prasangika point of view. This enables us to escape from the extremes of both objectivism and relativism. Truth can be established on the side of the mind and we can say without a doubt that Hitler is wrong.
In this way, all objects of Dharma – of both Sutra and Tantra – can be established as true. They are known and taught by valid minds, and believing them moves our mind in the direction of purity and happiness.
This then begs the question “how” does believing in correct objects move our mind in the direction of purity and happiness? If we understand this, we will see the power of correct beliefs. In fact, we will see the power of the entire spiritual path since the entire path is a series of meditations on correct beliefs.
The Karma of Correct Beliefs
To understand the power of correct beliefs, we need to understand the karma we create through them. All mental actions create karma, and correct beliefs are mental actions – they are verbs, not nouns. All actions have four karmic effects: the effect similar to the cause, the tendency similar to the cause, the environmental effect, and the ripened effect.
The effect similar to the cause of a correct belief can be understood as follows. The mental action of a correct belief functions to purify the mind of the obstructions that prevent us from realizing directly the truth of that object. Because the object is in fact true and exists, when we engage in the mental action of believing it, it functions to purify our mind of everything preventing us from knowing it to be true. The analogy of the toy snake is very helpful here. If in fact a toy snake exists, the more we investigate our assumption that it is just a toy snake, the more vividly and accurately it will appear to our mind to be a toy snake until eventually we see directly and without a doubt that it is a toy snake. In contrast, the more we investigate carefully our assumption that it is a real snake, the less a real snake will appear and we will discover that despite thinking it was a real snake, we were mistaken – in fact, it is just a toy snake. The same is true for all correct beliefs. The more we investigate them with study and practice, the more they are established in our mind to be true. We transform what was a correct belief into a valid cognizer. In this way, all realizations of Sutra and Tantra are gained.
The tendency similar to the cause of correct belief is a future tendency to more naturally believe correct things. Gen Losang says, “what is natural is simply what is familiar.” When we have familiarity believing something to be true, it becomes more natural for us to believe that thing. Tendencies similar to the cause of correct beliefs are extremely helpful because we build up spiritual momentum within our mind until eventually it becomes like a locomotive barreling down the spiritual track. In space there is no friction, so if force is applied, an object moving through space will gain momentum; and once set in motion, it will keep going forever because there is no friction to ever slow it down. In the same way, the effect similar to the cause removes the karmic friction within our mind preventing us from realizing directly something is true, and the tendency similar to the cause creates self-reinforcing momentum in our mind to realize directly the correct object.
The environmental effect of a correct belief is to abide in an environment which is conducive to believing in correct things. We see this all the time in society. When we are surrounded by people who think in similar ways, we naturally start to think in the same ways – almost through osmosis. Sometimes this socialization effect can be negative – such as hanging out with gangsters – or it can be positive – such as surrounding ourselves with Sangha friends. Milarepa once said he does not need Dharma books because everything confirms the truth of Dharma for him. Why? Because he had ample environmental effects similar to the cause of correct belief ripening. His mind was positioned in such a way through the tendencies and effects similar to the cause to believe correct things that every object in his environment was conducive to him realizing directly the truth of his correct views.
The ripened effect of a correct belief is being born already validly knowing the truth of our correct view. The teachings on karma explain that the only things we take with us into our future lives are our mind and the karma we have planted on it. When highly realized beings die they are able to carry their prior Dharma understandings with them from life to life – they are simply born already having Dharma realizations. Of course there are many degrees of having a Dharma realization, from the initial understandings to yogic direct perceivers. A Buddha has realized directly the truth of all objects of Dharma, and when they are reborn, they retain their enlightened mind forever. This is the final goal of correct beliefs – to gain their ripened effects. The effects similar to the cause, the tendencies similar to the case, and the environmental effects of correct beliefs all eventually lead to the ripened effect of correct beliefs.
Seen in this way, we can understand how fundamentally the entire path is nothing more than meditations on correct beliefs. The mental action of meditation – familiarizing ourselves with the virtuous object – creates the karma that transforms our correct beliefs into valid cognizers.
The Path as Meditations on Correct Beliefs
All our Sutra Lamrim meditations, for example, are meditations on correct beliefs. Each object of the Lamrim is a correct belief. When we contemplate, meditate on, and practice in our daily life the different Lamrim teachings, we add valid reasons and personal experience which transform correct beliefs into valid cognizers. In science, we talk about necessary and sufficient causes. In Buddhism, we talk about substantial and circumstantial causes. The substantial cause of an oak tree is an acorn; and the circumstantial causes are the water, sunlight, and rich soil. In the same way, the substantial causes of valid cognizers are correct beliefs; and our study, meditation, and daily practice of the Lamrim teachings are the circumstantial causes which transform the acorn of our correct beliefs into the oak tree of valid cognizers. Just as you can never have an oak tree without an acorn, no matter how much water, sunlight, and rich soil you add; so too we can never have valid cognizers without correct beliefs, no matter how much study, meditation, and daily practice we add. They are fundamental and foundational.
In Tantra, it is said that all we need to attain enlightenment is faith and imagination. In other words, all we need is correct belief in our pure imaginations. In Tantra, we generate ourselves, our environment, our enjoyments, and our activities into ourselves as the deity, abiding in the pure land, enjoying all things as the dance of bliss and emptiness, and engaging in the enlightened deeds of a Buddha. This is a meditation on a correct belief.
At this point, an objection can arise – how can this be a correct belief if I am not, in fact, a Buddha? Rather, it seems like this is make believe. There are two main answers to this objection. First, this objection is grasping at ourselves inherently being one thing or another from the side of ourselves. But there is nothing about us that exists from the side of ourselves – we are empty of “objective” existence, or existence on the side of the object of ourself. Second, wherever we imagine a Buddha a Buddha actually goes. So if we imagine that our body and mind (and our subtle body and mind) transform into the body and mind of the deity (and our subtle body transforms into the body mandala of the deity), then actual Buddhas enter into our imagination. They are actually there. Wherever a Buddha goes, they perform their function, which is to bestow blessings. A blessing functions to move our mind in the direction of enlightenment, gradually transforming it from an ordinary state into an enlightened state. By imagining ourself, our body, our mind, and our subtle body and mind are all Buddhas, actual Buddhas enter into us and perform their function, which is to bless our mind moving it in the direction of enlightenment. Believing ourself, our environment, our enjoyments and our deeds are completely pure is a mental action. The effect similar to the cause is to purify the obstructions on our mind to seeing ourself directly in this way. The tendency similar to the cause is to build up spiritual momentum or familiarity with seeing ourselves in this way until it becomes entirely natural. The environmental effect will be to come to see our environment as a pure land. And the ripened effect will be to be reborn as the deity in the pure land (or as a Tantric bodhisattva reborn in a pure land so as to complete one’s training). What could possibly be more important than this?
The more we read all of our Dharma books – be they of Sutra or Tantra – the more we realize in the end all of the spiritual path is nothing more than meditations on correct beliefs. Meditating on correct beliefs is the sine qua non of spiritual practice. Or, put more poetically, it is the very heart of the spiritual path from which a thousand million blissful flowers of Dharma realizations may bloom.