What is buddhahood?
It is the attaining of egolessness. According to the hinayana—the “narrow path”—if we attain egolessness of self, we realize nirvana, enlightenment.
This is a common approach: to attain enlightenment for oneself. But when we have discovered the emptiness of the self, what is left? The other. In the mahayana—the “great path”—egolessness of other is one of the most profound teachings.
The nature of the self is that it spreads. It has no entity in itself, but it believes it has an entity. Wherever it goes it pervades, and whatever it encounters it begins to absorb as I. For example, when we are born, somehow our consciousness has been able to transfer from our previous life into this body. This particular body, this form that we have, does not exist primordially; it exists in a temporary way.
So we came into this body and we thought, “Hmm, not bad. It’s not mine, but I’ll make it mine.” Once we get used to our body, we immediately begin thinking: my mother and my father, or my house. Then there is my city, my state, my country, my planet, and so forth.
Ego has no boundary; it can continuously go on, appropriating other. Whatever we come in contact with, initially we look at it in a neutral way; we see it as belonging to somebody else, or maybe belonging to no one. If we see a tree, we don’t automatically think, “My tree.” Then we build a house next to it—and after a while, we think, “My tree.” This happens in any situation. When we buy an article of clothing, at first it feels foreign, and then it begins to feel familiar as my shirt. It is other. The ego is constantly solidifying the self.
The mahayana teaches that complete egolessness comes about only when we have also understood egolessness of other. These teachings direct us toward helping other sentient beings. Being able to help others is grounded in having discovered the emptiness of the self. The mahayana logic is that we begin to flip from self to other.
There are two approaches in terms of how to study the mahayana: a direct path and an experiential path. On the direct path, we recognize the empty nature of self and other on the spot. On the gradual path, we recognize the nature of things progressively. First, we recognize the self as empty. Then we recognize other to be empty. Then we recognize things to be the mind, and that this mind itself is empty. But then, what is emptiness itself?
A crucial element of the mahayana is the bodhichitta practice of tonglen, or sending and taking. In Tibetan, tong means “to send,” and len means “to get.” With a basic understanding of this practice, we begin to draw in the pain of others and send out goodness.
We can practice this exchange in many ways. We can do it specifically for someone who is ill, taking in that person’s suffering and claustrophobia and breathing out spaciousness. We can do it by visualizing the inbreath and outbreath as heavy and light, respectively, and drawing in negative energy and sending out love.
At the first stage it is important that we have this dualistic approach, because we can use what we see “out there” to incite compassion “in here.” In the same way, it is good that we have our emotions so we have something to work with. That’s why human birth is so precious: it provides us with the attributes to go on the path. With our breath, we can take in aggression and give out peace. We can breathe in pain and breathe out relief.
Scholars and yogis have divided the ego into 51 levels of thought patterns and emotions. They’re listed in several categories, including universal patterns such as form and feeling, occasional patterns such as rapture, unwholesome patterns such as recklessness and lack of shame, and wholesome patterns like faith, love and compassion.
Love and compassion are wholesome because when we experience them—even on an everyday level—some kind of openness takes place. Those emotions are a fault line of the ego. When we feel them, the ego breaks down a little. We begin to see that our sense of “me” is not airtight. Even though love is an emotion and is often connected with someone we want, or who makes us happy, it brings some quality of actually relaxing and letting go. Compassion works in the same way, poking holes in the seeming solidity of self and other. This is how relative bodhichitta works, through love and compassion.
Tonglen is a very potent practice that helps us develop confidence in kindness and compassion. It brings sanity to us and to others because it provides a way of working with our mind in terms of what we can do practically. For example, if we are practicing tonglen for someone who is close to us, because we’re meditating and we’re calm, we are not spinning out of control, thinking about what could happen. Therefore, the meditation is a way to actually bring some sanity to us and the other person.
When we begin to do tonglen practice, the question arises of who or what is sending out and taking in. Through practicing shamatha we have established peace, and through practicing vipashyana, we begin to develop insight. We begin to realize that we can’t actually find the mind we have tamed. Where exactly is the mind? Is the mind in the body? Is it in the eyes? Is it in the feelings? Where is the mind that is following the breath? Where is it coming from? Where is it going? Where is its space? We can’t really say that it’s here or it’s there. Nevertheless, there is definitely a process of experiencing being here, experiencing the wildness of mind and experiencing peace. Where, literally, is that peace? If I’m meditating, I feel tranquil. Where is that tranquility?
As we progress in our meditation, emptiness becomes more apparent. Emptiness means that there is no inherent existence. Emptiness and egolessness are very similar in that way. Emptiness is empty of our assumptions, and it is full of compassion. Discovering the selfless nature is freedom. We realize that assumptions are the basis of most of our experiences. We discover that the mind and the world are empty of those assumptions.
Sometimes we misunderstand emptiness to mean that nothing exists, which is nihilism. A more accurate perspective is that without emptiness, we cannot have form, and without form we cannot have emptiness. They are inseparable. Exchanging self for other, we realize the self is empty—then we realize that other is empty, too. That is how true giving and taking can happen. Exchanging oneself for other is the point where relative and absolute truth meet. The whole notion of self and other starts dissolving. If there’s somebody sending, who’s receiving?
As our meditation progresses, we begin to see egolessness. We’re meditating, and we can’t find any inherent thing. Compassion seems endless and boundless, but where does compassion come from? Where does insight come from? Where is this mind? Actually, we all have the capacity to know; but we can’t completely understand unless we practice meditation. Mind is empty and luminous: this is its nature. The mahayana teachings say that with the right view, we can utilize certain aspects of our emotions in order to bring out this natural wisdom.
As we develop love and compassion, glimmers of wisdom begin to shine through.
Author: Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Shambhala Times