Geshe-la’s Insight Teachings: 1 Apr 2014

On Tuesday evenings, Geshe-la gives an in-depth commentary on Tsongkhapa's middle-length lam-rim. He started this in 2012! Last week, he spoke about diffferent aspects of dependent arising, especially 'subtle dependent arising' or the insight that all phenomena are 'merely labelled by language and conception'. In trying to understand the nature of reality and emptiness, dependent arising is called the 'King of Reasons'. I don't claim to have understood all that Geshe-la taught that night, so your corrections to the following notes would be appreciated.



1 April 2014

How to Abandon the False Concept of the Self

As Taught in the Buddha’s Sutras

The Tibetan Buddhist canon is a loosely defined list of sacred texts recognized by various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, comprising the Kangyur or Kanjur ('The Translation of the Word') and the Tengyur or Tanjur (Tengyur) ('Translation of Treatises').


We have acquired the precious human rebirth and now we need to take the essence of this fortunate state. It is extremely rare to come into contact with the Buddha’s teachings, so we should make the most of this opportunity. How do we connect with and benefit from the teachings? We follow the lam-rim and the steps to enlightenment. The method is given in the Four Noble Truths. 


Shantarakshita said that all phenomena arise from causes. All compound things, including happiness and suffering, arise from causes and conditions. These experiences don’t come from no cause, from a cause of a different ‘class’ or from a creator god. The causes were taught by Budddha. For example, happiness comes from the intention to benefit others, while suffering comes from the desire to harm. Aryadeva talks of ‘three conditions’:

  1. Non-deceptive condition
  2. Impermanent condition
  3. Condition of potency

The Buddha said that from this, that comes into being. With respect to non-deceptive conditions, this means that happiness and suffering are not produced by a creator god or by no cause. Our experiences arise from particular causes. The Buddha also said that because of this, that is produced. Experiences are impermanent, they are in the nature of change. They could not arise if they were permanent. It would create a dis-concordance if an impermanent thing could be produced from a permanent thing. A stream of similarity is required. Whatever is the ripened result, it has to have a particular cause; this is the condition of potency.


Buddha taught the twelve interdependent links that begin with ignorance and lead to suffering. The reverse process of cessation is also causal. Our unsatisfactory experiences come from an unsubdued mind that is ignorant of the true nature of reality and the law of cause and effect. We do not know the way the object actually exists and are ignorant of the way that phenomena abide in the nature of reality.  The final nature of mind is clear light, its stains can be removed, antidotes can be applied and there is a stepwise method for achieving this. Understanding this, ignorance can be harmed. In time, a mind that is based in valid cognition can lead eventually to the clear light mind of a buddha. 


To antidote the ignorant grasping at true existence we must realize the teaching on subtle dependent arising. The Buddha set forth the law of cause and effect on the basis of dependent origination and then he set forth subtle dependent origination as the antidote to subtle ignorance. Realizing cause and effect leads to a happy rebirth. Realizing subtle dependent origination leads to enlightenment. All this happens in dependence on being human. So take refuge thinking of subtle dependent origination.


To settle of the view of the nature of reality we need to rely on the scriptures and their commentaries, backed by thorough analysis. We can’t realize emptiness without utter certainty with respect to the object of refutation. We need to refute the referent object – the self of persons and phenomena. We need to recognize the wrong way in which we engage with the object. We must be able to recognise the mistaken object, the root of cyclic existence. It is not enough to meditate on loving kindness, bodhicitta and so on in order to understand emptiness. We must strive to understand dependent arising. Beings do not understand the ‘Three Doors of Liberation’ said the Buddha. These are the ‘non-production of entities, causes and results’. 


We are ignorant on a causal level of the very nature of things. We grasp at truly existent causes, phenomena and results. Therefore we suffer. The Buddha and Nagarjuna used scripture and logic to reverse each of the three doors.


The ‘Three Reasonings’ used were:

  1. Causal: reasoning of ‘vajra strands’
  2. Entities: reasoning of inherently one or many
  3. Resultant: reasoning of not truly existent or non-existent at the time of the cause


Over and above the three reasonings stands the ‘King of Reasons’ – subtle dependent arising. The three reasonings refute the true existence of phenomena in terms of emptiness rather than of appearance. They refute the extreme of eternalism but not the extreme of nihilism. The king of reasons refutes both true existence and the non-existence of things. It cuts both extremes at all three levels of cause, entity and result. It all comes down to understanding dependent arising – all things are merely labelled.


The term ‘vajra strands’ comes from the Hindu belief that Brahma wields a vajra or thunderbolt and when he points it at someone, they cannot get back at him.


  1. Vajra strands: Take a sprout.It follows that it does not exist inherently because it is not caused by an [inherent] self, other, both or neither. It is an example of a compound thing. It is not ultimately produced by self, other, both or neither. A sprout is changing all the time, so it could not come from an inherent cause that is not changing. 
  2. Characteristics themselves. The sprout doesn’t exist inherently as one or many. 
  3. Result. The sprout did not exist inherently at the time of the cause. 
  4. King of Reasons. The sprout doesn’t truly exist because it is a dependent arising. This cuts both extremes. ‘Dependent’ means that the sprout cannot be eternally a sprout. Depending on causes and conditions it grows into a plant and dies. The non-dependence of the sprout is cut, it can’t be that way. ‘Arising’ alludes to the fact that the sprout still comes into being; this cuts nihilism, the view that the sprout doesn’t exist at all. 


The king of reasons does not negate the mere appearance of things. For example, consider your reflection in a mirror. There is the appearance of you but not an atom of that reflection exists from its own side. The conventional appearance of things should not be negated. We grasp strongly at the way things appear. We take them at their face value, as having autonomy. Understanding that things merely function is very hard. Look at objects. Do they exist as they appear? On close analysis you won’t find the object. Phenomena are like the ‘water’ in a mirage: when you come close, there is no water, it doesn’t exist. Therefore, that ‘water’ is merely labelled by convention, by language and conception.


From our feeling of self-importance, we deduce that an I or self exists. But now check the parts of your body: can you find it? Its basis is a body that functions in a worldly sense, but in an ultimate sense is merely labelled. 


Furthermore, when we search, we can’t find what is merely labelled either.

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