Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche


Dharma & Dharmata – Part 1/4


Instructions on “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being“

by Buddha Maitreya / composed by Asanga


presented at Thrangu Tashi Chöling in Boudhnath, Nepal, in 1992


A. The Title

B. The Homage

C. The Purpose for Composing this Treatise

D. The Treatise

1. The Brief Explanation

2. The Detailed Explanation

2.1. The Definitive Characteristics of Dharma

2.2. The Definitive Characteristics of Dharmata

2.3. The Relationship between Dharma & Dharmata

2.4. The World & Beings

2.5. The Benefit of Realising No Self


* * *


A. The Title


The Root Text:

“In Sanskrit: dharmadharmatavibhangakarika

In Tibetan: chös-dang-chös-nyid-nam-par-‘byed-pa’i-tsig-le’ur-byäs-pa“


In this session of presenting the Buddhadharma, I will speak about a text that is called “Dharmadharmatavibhanga” or “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being,” tentatively for dharma and dharmata, ‘phenomena’ and ‘the nature of phenomena’ as a possible translation. Generally speaking, who spoke this treatise? It was spoken by the Regent of the Victorious One whose name is Maitreya. All texts spoken by the Regent Maitreya are written down and are known as “The Five Books of Maitreya.” The text “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being” is one of those five books.


Generally speaking, the learned persons of India and Tibet debated the meaning of these texts in great detail and at length. Even as to the composition of the five texts, there is a Tibetan scholar named Kanga Tsultrim who wrote a book in which he argued that the texts were not spoken by the Buddha’s Regent Maitreya but by a human being whose name was Maitreya and that Asanga received them from him. His thought in speaking about the texts in this way is simply that of a sophist or of a person who is unnecessarily or overly concerned with logic. He has in my own view no confidence in the Buddhadharma and no confidence in the heaven called “Ganden” or “Tushita,” i.e., ‘The Joyful Place.’ He has no confidence that Maitreya dwells there. However, except that he said so, in fact, Maitreya spoke and taught these texts, which is well-known to a great many pandits and siddhas (‘scholars and accomplished practitioners’). Many scholars have established such through inferential cognition that they presented in various texts and many siddhas have demonstrated it by way of direct knowledge and magical displays. In fact, the Superior Asanga went to the heaven of Ganden and received the texts from Maitreya.


Why did Asanga go to Ganden to receive the five texts? Generally, the principal place for the dissemination of the Buddhadharma in India at that time was the monastic university of Nalanda. A short time prior to Asanga’s birth, a great fire had broken out at Nalanda and many books were destroyed, in particular, a great deal of harm was done to the “Abhidharma.” Was it possible to make amends or to repair the damage right away? No. A nun called Tsawai Tsultrim was deeply concerned about the harm that had been done, in particular to the collection of Abhidharma teachings. She thought, “I won’t be able to refurbish, increase, and spread this teaching by myself. Therefore, if I give up being a nun, I could give birth to sons who would study the Buddhadharma and restore the Abhidharma teachings.” She did just that and gave birth to two sons. One son was Asanga, whose father was from the royal cast, and the other son was Vasubhandu, whose father was from the Brahmin cast. According to the tradition of those times, a son took up the work of his father, so at a certain point the two sons of Tsawai Tsultrim met with her and asked, “Who are our fathers? What work do they do? We should do work like that of our fathers.” Their mother replied, “Taking up the job of your fathers is not the purpose of your lives, rather, the purpose for you being here is to train in the Abhidharma teachings. A great deal of harm has been done to those teachings and they have practically disappeared. So that they don’t deteriorate altogether, you need to study and teach them. That is the reason you are here.”


Generally speaking, there are the vehicles of Mahayana and Hinayana. The views and teachings of Mahayana surpass the sphere of human beings. For this reason, the elder of the two sons, Asanga, practiced and tried to achieve a meeting with the Regent Maitreya so that by receiving teachings from him, he would be able to spread them. The younger son, Vasubhandu, went to study with a Kashmiri teacher named Gendün Tsabmo. He received the Abhidharma teachings from him. Thus, the two sons did as their mother had instructed them to do. Asanga went into retreat for twelve years to meet the Regent Maitreya. After having endured many hardships, he met directly, face-to-face, with the Regent Maitreya. He went to the heaven of Ganden with Maitreya and received the oral instructions from Maitreya there. He wrote them down. They are “The Five Books of Maitreya.” The text we are looking at during this seminary is one of those five books.


Tibet is renowned throughout the world for being the home of Mantrayana, however, not only the Dharma of Mantrayana was disseminated widely in Tibet but also the Dharma of Mahayana. The meditation that was practiced in Tibet depended upon the Dharma that was taught. There are two particular traditions of meditation in Tibet. They are the practices of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. What is the basis for these teachings and meditation instructions? The teachings of the Buddha that are recorded in the Sutras as well as the explanations in the Shastras. The Shastras are the commentaries of those teachings. They were composed in the land of India by great scholars and accomplished persons.


To gain certainty of the exalted views of Mahamudra and Dzogchen and not to fall into various sorts of aberrations, it is necessary to eliminate one’s hindrances and cut one’s doubts. How does one go about this? By listening to the teachings of Mahayana and by contemplating them. Is it enough to just receive the Mahayana teachings and contemplate them? No, because mere knowledge is not sufficient to experience and realise the Dharma. In order to attain fruition of the oral instructions, it is necessary to practice, and in order to practice, it is necessary to receive and contemplate the oral instructions. The practice of Tibetan pandits and adepts was Mantrayana-Vajrayana, however, the teachings they received and contemplated were Mahayana. We, too, aspire to receive and contemplate the Mahayana teachings.


From among the two types of teachings, those recorded in the Sutras and those of the Shastras, Tibetans take the treatises in which great scholars and masters explained the thoughts and meanings of the words of the Buddha as more important. In this world, there are many people who criticize the Tibetan tradition for this. They say, “After all, the root of the Buddha’s tradition that is recorded in the Sutras is the main thing.” However, even though they say this, there are many reasons why the Shastras are more important. What is the reason the Shastras are seen of greater importance than the Sutras in the Tibetan tradition? The Sutras contain the spoken words of the Buddha, but due to circumstances, students went to the Buddha and asked various questions. He answered. Then other disciples who had more faith, devotion, intelligence, and who wished to practice asked other questions, which the Buddha answered. Thus, with the Buddha’s speech, there are the definitive teachings and the indicative teachings. It would not have been beneficial for students who have no faith and devotion if the Buddha had given them definitive teachings. So, he gave them the indicative teachings that they could understand and contemplate. If we read the Sutras, we would not be able to sort them out but would make the mistake of either taking indicative teachings to be definitive teachings or vice versa. Based upon their higher knowledge, exertion, and experiences, many scholars and masters were able to differentiate and wrote treatises in which they offered explanations. This is why the Shastras are more important than the Sutras.


There are two kinds of Shastras, the Shastras themselves and the oral instructions. The Shastras themselves are specifically for hearing or receiving the teachings. They deal with the inferential reasoning of various topics, in detail and with great clarity, such as the five skandhas (‘aggregates’), the twelve ayatanas (‘sense fields’), and eighteen dhatus (‘constituents’). The oral instructions, in brief and in detail, are principally taught for the purpose of practice. Which of the two is more important? The oral instructions.


From among “The Five Books of Maitreya,” four belong to Shastras proper and one falls into the category of oral instructions. The four that are Shastras proper are “The Ornament of Clear Realisation, The Ornament of Mahayana Sutras, The Treatise that Perfectly Differentiates the Middle from the Extremes, and The Unexcelled Nature.” Since they are very lengthy, they are considered Shastras. “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being” is brief and direct, so it is considered an oral instruction. Thus, for disciples who have faith and are diligent practitioners, the oral instructions are more important.


Why is “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being” an oral instruction? As we know, there are the practices of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, and within the meditation practices there are shamata and vipassana (zhi-gnäs and lhag-mthong in Tibetan, ‘tranquillity meditation and special insight meditation’). Vipassana is mainly practiced in the traditions of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. How is that? Through the introduction to the enduring nature of our mind. It is through this introduction to the true nature of our mind that it is possible to abandon our conflicting emotions and become a Buddha. In the Sutras, this profound nature of our mind is called Dharmata in Sanskrit (chös-nyid in Tibetan, translated as ‘nature of phenomena’). In Mantrayana, it is called sems in Tibetan (‘mind nature’). It is necessary to understand that it is this nature of phenomena or mind that is to be known by hearing and contemplating the teachings about it. Ordinary people aren’t able to realise it directly. Why is this so? Because the true nature of phenomena and of our mind is obstructed by conventional appearances. If we realise the profound nature, then we will naturally separate from confused, concealing, conventional sorts of appearances. On the one hand, “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being,” is devoted to differentiating exactly what conventional appearances or conventional truths are. On the other hand, it teaches what exactly the ultimate truth is, i.e., the nature of phenomena or the ultimate enduring condition. So, this treatise is very important for disciples who wish to engage in the meditation practices of Mahamudra and Dzogchen.


The book “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being” was composed many generations ago, so it is an old book. It is not like books written these days, therefore it is hard to read and understand it right away. However, since it was written by a great Bodhisattva, it is not incomprehensible, and even if we don’t understand it perfectly, there will be a benefit from studying it. If we put forward exertion and approach it with longing and respect, then we can indeed understand it. If we have no meditation experience but bring our understanding into the practice of meditation, it will be of great benefit. For individuals who have practiced meditation, it will help to give them confidence, definite ascertainment, knowledgeable understanding, and stability of meditation. For practitioners who already have these qualities, it will help to increase them. Therefore, from whichever point of view or experience we approach “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being,” the teachings are very important and beneficial.


B. The Homage


“To the Guardian Manjushri we bow in supplication.”


When texts were written in ancient India, the prostration would accord with the classification of that text. At the beginning of Sutrayana and Vinaya texts, the prostration would be to the Ominiscient One, the Buddha. In texts that dealt with Abhidharma or higher knowledge (prajna in Sanskrit), the prostration would be to Youthful Manjushri. That is how things were done in the past. Scholars eventually departed from this tradition somewhat and wrote, e.g., “To the Guardian Manjushri we bow in supplication.” So, a statement of prostration is related to the time in which a text was translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Although all five books of Maitreya appeared in the world at the same time, i.e., when the Regent Maitreya transmitted them to Asanga, the Root Text of “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being,” the Root Text of “The Unexcelled Nature” as well as its commentary that Asanga composed himself were concealed as treasures for future generations. When the time was right, the powerful Lord Maitripada, who was a contemporary of Mahasiddha Naropa, saw light issuing forth from a crack in a Stupa. He brought forth these three texts that he saw concealed inside the Stupa and so they could be disseminated widely in the world. This is the reason they were translated into Tibetan at a later time than the other books by Maitreya and why the statement of the prostration in “Distinguishing Dharma & Dharmata” differs slightly.


C. The Purpose for Composing this Treatise


“Something there is to be given up through knowing and something else that can only be actualised because of which this treatise has been composed, with the wish to distinguish the traits defining these.”


Regent Maitreya gave the reason this text was taught and composed. He stated, “One must understand that which possesses the quality.” The quality is Dharmata itself. It is often translated as “subjects” and refers to those persons who bear the quality of Dharmata. To realize Dharmata, samsaric appearances or samsaric confusion and delusion need to be abandoned. How? By recognizing and understanding the enduring true nature or the fundamental way things abide (gnäs-lugs in Tibetan). This treatise was written so that disciples know how to abandon confusion about the fundamental nature of all things and are able to realise the pure state of being. But it is necessary to understand the distinctive characteristics of impure and confused being and Dharmata’s characteristics of excellence, purity, ultimacy, and so forth. “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being” was taught and composed for this purpose.


D. The Treatise


1. The Brief Explanation


“A summary of everything in brief should be known to include the following two motifs: Everything can be summarised fully in terms of phenomena and likewise pure being. That which is classified here as phenomena comprises samsara. Phenomena’s pure being is classified most precisely as nirvana. This is defined by the vehicles, which are three.”


The Sanskrit term “dharma” (chös in Tibetan) is translated as ‘phenomena’ and (used for the singular and collective form) refers to all appearances that are apperceived while confused about their true nature. The Sanskrit term “Dharmata” (chös-nyid in Tibetan) refers to the true nature of all appearances, i.e., the way in which all things arise and abide. No appearance or experience is excluded from these two. Therefore, by having realised both the manner of appearance and the manner of abiding, there is nothing that has not been realised.


Learned persons and great scholars have given an example to illustrate what it is like to know how things appear and how they really are. The example is that of a rope that is mistaken to be a snake. If we think we see a snake that is in fact a speckled rope in a dark room or because we have bad eyes, we are deluded, frightened, suffer, and might think, “It is very big and will bite me. If it bites me, then I’ll be poisoned. I’m really in a lot of trouble.” What would help in such a predicament? We might look for a weapon to kill what we think is a snake or go to the medicine cabinet to get an antidote to treat a poisonous snake bite. But, in fact, those solutions don’t strike at the essential point of the matter. The essential point is to know that the object that we see is a rope and not a snake. If we know this, then we will no longer be scared, the problem will be solved, and we will not suffer. In the same way, when we speak of dharma in this context, we mean samsara. And samsara is that we sometimes experience suffering and sometimes experience happiness. In terms of our body, we experience suffering due to sicknesses and diseases. In terms of our mind, we experience the suffering of frustration and unhappiness. All together, we experience the suffering that arises because of impermanence. We might think that the best way to eliminate suffering is to get rid of impermanence, but that is impossible. The best way to eliminate suffering is to understand that phenomena are not established by way of their own nature and that nothing has inherent existence. How can we understand the way in which phenomena really are? By realising Dharmata, the manner in which phenomena really are. What, then, do we mean by Dharmata? The nirvanas of the three yanas (‘vehicles’). The Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit term “nirvana” literally means ‘passed beyond suffering.’ By realising nirvana, we will have understood the manner of abiding of phenomena, just as they are. It is the method to clear away the suffering that marks samsara.


2. The Detailed Explanation


2.1. The Definitive Characteristics of Dharma


“Here the traits of phenomena are defined as duality and equivalent formulation, the appearance of which is mistaken interpretation. Since what appears is not, it can not be true. No references have ever existed either and being but concepts, consist in interpretation.”


Dharma is the great variety of phenomena that can be and are apprehended. Samsara includes all appearances and experiences that are apperceived while confused about their true nature, and this brings on a great deal of difficulties and hardships. However, it is extremely fortunate that the manner of apprehending phenomena is mistaken and can therefore be abandoned and fixed. This means to say that there is Dharmata and it can be realised. By realising Dharmata, all samsaric difficulties, hardships, and suffering end.


The definitive characteristics of appearances that are apperceived in samsaric confusion concern what is apprehended and the apprehender. As a result, duality of the apprehender and what is apprehended, i.e., what is perceived and the one who apperceives, is created. In relation to that, one has imaginary mental impressions and makes verbal statements about them. Conventional appearances that we perceive and apprehend are not truly established in the way that they appear to us or in the way that we think they are. We apprehend everything that appears to us based on our mental capacities and propensities. Therefore, in describing this situation, we often speak about sems-tsam, ‘mind only.’ This means to say that there are no external objects but only mentally fabricated images. There are conceptual activities and non-conceptual sense consciousnesses.


To resolve the interpretative views, the Buddha taught in stages, which is the reason various philosophical schools or systems of tenets have arisen in Buddhism. There are four, the first being the Vaibhasika, ‘the great exposition school,’ and the second being the Sautrantika. These two schools are Hinayana. The third school is Cittamatra, ‘the mind only school,’ and the fourth is Madhyamaka, ‘the middle way school.’ The last two are Mahayana. If we learn to appreciate and acknowledge the views that the Buddha presented in these stages or schools, then we will understand that appearances are just mind and that mind itself has no inherent existence. But we must learn about them according to the stages in which the Buddha taught them and proceed as though we were going up a staircase. We start with the first step, then take the second step, and so forth. It is impossible to jump from the bottom step to the top of the staircase. If beginners are told, “All things are emptiness,” or “The Buddha’s wisdom pervades all sentient beings,” or “All appearances are merely the nature of the mind,” they wouldn’t understand.


For the benefit of his disciples, the Buddha first spoke about the skandhas (‘aggregates that constitute being’), indicating that a person consists of a collection of many different substances and organs and therefore isn’t a unique being. He taught that external objects are also collections of many tiny particles and that the internal mind consists of moments of consciousnesses. There are slight differences between the view of Vaibhasikas and Sautrantikas, but they both believe in partless particles and moments of mind. They teach that external phenomena come about due to a collection of partless particles and that the internal mind is a continuum of moments of consciousnesses. What is the benefit of understanding their view? It is this: Ordinarily, we don’t realise that the coarse phenomena that we apprehend are not unique as they appear to be, so we come to understand that they aren’t. If we realise this, meditate upon it, and bring it to fruition, then by understanding no self, we will have been able to abandon many faults and will have achieved many qualities. Is that enough? No. To reach the top of the staircase, it is necessary to realise that all appearances are just mind. The Buddha taught that all phenomena are just mind. When great scholars explained the Buddha’s teachings in detail, they set it forth in terms of two inferences. First they negated external phenomena, and secondly they showed that what we think are external phenomena are in fact only our mind.


As to the steps that lead to the top of the staircase, we understand that coarse outer appearances are just a collection of smaller parts. If we investigate the tiniest part of an object, we would have to be able to find a smallest particle that is not composed of parts. But we will never find a partless particle. We can set up a hypothesis that there is such a particle, but we will never be able to validate it, rather, we will discover that appearances are mind only. There are reasons to prove this. One is called “clear knowledge.” We think that large objects such as mountains or small things such as fruits truly exist because we see them. It is merely due to seeing something that causes us to believe it truly exists. If we ask somebody else if a mountain that we both see exists, he/she will answer, “Yes, I see it and therefore it exists.” This shows that there is no way to prove that something exists other than that we perceived it. It is the same with a sound. Should we be asked why we believe that a sound that we heard exists, we would answer, “Because I heard it.” Is there an unheard sound? No. In that way, any object that we perceived with a respective sense consciousness appeared to our mind and therefore we think it truly exists. And so, external phenomena and the internal mind are indivisible.


Comparing the Cittamatra and Madhyamaka schools, it is said that the Madhyamaka is superior because the Cittamatra believe that the mind is a true existent. Yet, the view set forth by Cittamatrins has great qualities. They clarify that appearances are only mind. There is a purpose and benefit. What is the aim of Mahamudra meditation? To realise our mind’s way of abiding. If we have not previously settled that appearances are just our mind, then we will not be able to realise our mind’s way of abiding. That is why it is necessary and meaningful to realise the view of the mind only school. In fact, realising the importance of our mind is very helpful for all meditation practices. If we haven’t realised the importance of our mind, then we will not understand why meditating on our mind is worthwhile and beneficial. For example, if the object we see in a dark room were a snake and not a rope and we were to think, “It’s a rope,” then it would be very painful to be bit because we didn’t take any precautionary measures. In that way, realising that appearances are mind only is of great value to understand our mind’s true way of abiding.


2.2. The Definitive Characteristics of Dharmata


“Moreover, being as such is here defined as being the suchness in which there is no division between there being perceiver as well as perceived, a signifier as well as a signified.


“Because what does not exist appears, delusion provides the cause for completely afflicted states. As things like illusory elephants appear, hence, even what does appear does not exist.


“If either the lack of existence or the appearance were missing, delusion and being free of delusion and likewise states afflicted in every respect and thorough refinement would be unjustified.”


In the foregoing section, we saw that we mistakenly think that any appearance we have apprehended is external, i.e., what we apprehended or apprehend is outside us. We saw that this isn’t the case but that all appearances are mind only. As for the mind, if external phenomena really existed, then they would be valid and true. For example, if there were an external blue patch, then it could only be perceived by an inner consciousness or mind. If there were no external blue patch, then no inner consciousness could perceive it. The same applies to forms that are seen, sounds that are heard, and so forth. This means to say that if a phenomenon that is perceived by a consciousness and that seems to be external is not an external phenomenon, then the internal consciousness that perceives it is not valid either. It’s like that for all six consciousnesses. Again, because external appearances are not established indicates that the internal mind that perceives and apprehends appearances is also not established. This applies to words that are used to designate phenomena as well as to things that are labelled or named. The literal translation in the first verse of the Root Text above would be “those which express, those which are expressed,” i.e., “a signifier as well as a signified.”


Madhyamikas explain the conventional and ultimate status of phenomena and argue that no external and internal phenomenon has true existence or a nature of its own. There are appearances of forms, sounds, odours, and so forth. Phenomena are appearances of things that have no true existence, so they are appearances of that which does not exist. In this way, appearances are mistaken, i.e., taken wrongly. The fact that phenomena are impermanent and change is also mistaken and thus confusion about appearances arises. This is the cause of afflictions and the resulting suffering.


Even though phenomena do not truly exist, nevertheless they appear. As the Buddha indicated in “The Heart Sutra”: “Form is emptiness.” This means that forms lack inherent existence and have no true nature of their own. Does this mean that forms, sounds, odours, and so forth are non-existent? No. As stated in “The Heart Sutra”: “Emptiness is form.” This means that emptiness appears as forms and so forth. It is the same as elephants conjured by a sorcerer in a magic show or as elephants that appear in a dream. In such cases, although they don’t exist, elephants appear. In this way, conventional appearances appear.


Because conventional phenomena appear but do not truly exist, they are called “delusions.” Since they are just delusions, there is release from delusions and the possibility to realise the actual way of the abiding of phenomena as well as Buddhahood. If phenomena were true existents, then they would not be impermanent and would not change. In that case, there would be no afflictions and appearances would not be mistaken. Likewise, if phenomena were true existents, there would be no realisation of a correct nature that is different than that of the mistaken appearance. If there were no realisation of the true way of abiding of phenomena, it would not be possible to achieve nirvana. Therefore, if phenomena were established existents, there would be neither samsara nor nirvana.


Following, the Root Text discusses the relationship between dharma and Dharmata, asking whether they are one nature or different natures. In fact, they are neither one nature nor different natures.


2.3. The Relationship between Dharma & Dharmata


“These two are not one and the same nor do they differ, because between that which exists and that which does not, a distinction exists and does not exist.”


First it is asked whether dharma and Dharmata are the same. They are not the same because conventional appearances are not established, i.e., even though things appear in a certain way, they are not established in the way that they appear and therefore they are false. Dharmata, on the other hand, is true. Since the one is false and the other is true, they are different and not the same. But, are they different? No, they are not different. Why not? Because Dharmata is the nature of phenomena, i.e., the non-established dharma. Dharmata is not some thing that exists somewhere else, i.e., it is not possible to have false appearances in one place and true appearances in another place. Dharmata is the mere non-establishment of phenomena in the way that they seem to exist. Thus, these two, dharma and Dharmata, are not the same and are not different.


Other texts explain the relationship between dharma and Dharmata by discussing the no self of a person and the no self of phenomena. However, these two ways of approaching the matter come down to the same meaning.


“Because it provides a thorough introduction to their characteristics as well as their rationale, their neither being the same nor different, the ground in common and not in common shared, and the lack of appearance involving perceiver-perceived. This six-point approach to phenomena is the best.


“Of these, the defining traits and the rationale, their neither being the same nor different, are just as these were demonstrated in brief.”


No Self of a Person


The Buddha taught the no self of a person to Hinayana disciples and the no self of phenomena to disciples of Mahayana. Why did he speak of no self to Hinayana followers? It was an act of method, upaya in Sanskrit. Since sentient beings bound in samsara suffer very much, to become free from suffering, they need to know what suffering is. Having the wish doesn’t suffice. It is necessary to know the causes of suffering, which are conflicting emotions, and to abandon them. As it is, we have become habituated to our conflicting emotions that cause us to think, speak, and act the way we do. We might think, “I’m going to abandon suffering right away. I’m going to give up hatred. I won’t be envious and won’t have desires anymore. I’ll do all that straight off.” But, that’s not possible. Which method will enable us to become free from suffering? Giving up the conflicting emotions that cause suffering. Belief in a self is the source of the conflicting emotions. So it is necessary to overcome belief in a self, which is the root of all actions, afflicting emotions, and thus of suffering. Is it possible to overcome belief in a self? Yes. The Buddha saw that the concept “self” is a mistaken conception of a non-existent and taught that if a self truly existed, it would be impossible to overcome suffering in samsara. He taught that the “self” is a misconception and that it can naturally be eliminated by engaging in analytical deduction and meditation practice.


There are a great variety of belief systems in this world that do not take the lack of a truly existing self, i.e., no self, into consideration. In Buddhism, realising no self takes in a prominent position. By realising no self, our coarse and restless mind becomes peaceful and calm. No self is a distinctive and important feature of Buddhism. I will say a little bit about it for those of you who are not very familiar with the Buddhadharma.


The concept “self” has two aspects. One is thinking “I/me.” The other one is thinking “mine.” Between the two, thinking “I/me” is the main mistaken concept. It is easier understanding the mistaken concept “mine.” If we look at what is literally translated as “that upon which the conception ‘mine’ focuses,” there is no such thing. For instance, sometimes we think, “My mind,” in which case we have a concept of “mine” with regard to our mind. At other times we think, “My body,” in which case we have the concept of “mine” with regard to our body. We can extend this to a great number of things and think, “My resources. My house. My land. My country. My kingdom,” regarding all of these things as “belonging to me.” At other times we regard these same things as “not belonging to me but belonging to somebody else.” This shows that these thoughts aren’t very stable. Taking Tibet as an example, no matter how much we think the country belongs to the Tibetan people, we don’t have control over it, so it’s not ours. This concept causes many difficulties and much suffering and pain. Another example is seeing a bell fall and break in a shop around the Boudhnath Stupa. When we see this happen, we merely think, “Oh, a bell fell down and broke.” However, we would suffer if our own bell fell down and broke. Why don’t we suffer in the one case but in the other? It leads back to whether or not we see the bell as “mine.“ And this concept is not founded upon anything. It is merely an imputation. What do we need to understand in order to become free from the suffering that we create through such mistaken concepts? We need to understand that things do not have the status that we give them. This weakens our conception of what we call “mine.”


Just as the concept “mine” is unstable, the concept “I” is also extremely unstable. When we try to identify the self that we call “I,” sometimes we focus our attention on our body and sometimes on our mind. As to our body, it is a collection of many different substances. Not one organ in our body is the “me” that we think it could be. As to our mind, it is a collection of many moments of consciousness and isn’t just one thing. Sometimes we think all six consciousnesses are the self and sometimes we think only the sixth mental consciousness is the self. Our mind is a collection of many moments of consciousnesses. We try to point to our overall sense of past, present, future, months, days, weeks, years, and so on and call it “I/me,” which is also a mistake. Whether we think about our past, present, or future, we will never find what we consider our self. If we realise that nothing can ever be definitely established as our self, then pride, desire, and other conflicting emotions will diminish. So, first it is necessary to know about and understand no self. Then it is necessary to meditate upon our understanding of no self. And finally, through practice, we will be able to realise no self, and then all our conflicting emotions will cease.


No Self of Dharma


The Sanskrit term “dharma” refers to all appearances, experiences, and activities. One meaning is ‘engaging in wholesome practices.’ Another meaning refers to all objects of knowledge, i.e., anything that can be known. What does the term mean in the teachings about no self of dharma? In this context, the term refers to all objects of knowledge, i.e., any object that can be apprehended and known, and to what is referred to as “internal knowers.” Here we are speaking about their lack of a self. We saw that realizing the no self of a person eliminates the conflicting emotions that cause suffering. By realizing the no self of phenomena, we understand that the causes of suffering aren’t established and have no own nature. In this way, we appreciate and realize that nothing really harms us.


The Mahayana-Cittamatrins recognize that all appearances are mind only and without giving a detailed explanation, they understand that appearances are not established. Mahayana-Madhyamaka scholars meticulously analyze no self of phenomena and win valid cognition through inferential reasoning. Followers of Mantrayana-Vajrayana realize no self of phenomena through the path of meditation. Having gained experience, they are introduced to the way the mind and phenomena abide and meditate upon it. As a result, the no self of phenomena or Dharmata appears and can be recognized, understood, and realized. By realizing the no self of dharma, a successful practitioner naturally experiences all things as peaceful, pleasant, and liberated.


2.4. The World & Beings


“As long as there is someone circling somewhere, these are the grounds in each and every case – the constituents of beings and that of the vessel. The constituents of the vessel seem to be shared; the awareness being the common experience. The constituents of sentient beings are shared, in common as well as not in common shared.”


In this verse, Regent Maitreya addressed the world in which living beings reside and what causes them to revolve in samsara. There are two aspects. They are the constituents or elements of sentient beings and the constituents or elements of the world that serves as a vessel for living beings. Looking at the constituents of sentient beings, they are the internal mind and its functions. Looking at the constituents of the vessel, they refer to people’s birthplace, their environment, and so forth. Although there are slight differences, generally the vessel and its constituents are alike for all of its inhabitants, e.g., everyone apprehends a mountain alike.


“Further, birth and conventions, to nurture, subdue, benefit, harm, qualities, and faults are each mutually caused by way of an interchange, because of which these are experiences shared in common.”


Examining things we have in common with others, everyone experiences birth, activities of body, speech, work, conversations, help, harm, the cultivation of good qualities, the creation of faults, failures, and so forth. These things do not come about by us alone, rather, through an interaction with others. For example, to be born, we need a mother and father. To accomplish a task, we need to work together with others. To converse, we need others who speak and listen to. Helping or harming somebody also involves others and therefore they are experiences that we have in common with them.


“Since the ground and awareness, happiness, suffering, action, transition at death, captivity, birth, and liberation are not observed in common, they make up the ground that is not in common shared.”


Appearances and experiences that not everyone has in common are those that are not alike for everyone. They are ground and awareness or consciousnesses. “Ground” means that which serves as the basis for various appearances, and that which serves as such a basis is the mind-basis of all.


“What appears to be outer, perceivable in common is perceiving awareness. There are no referents existing as something extrinsic to consciousness because these are only experienced as common.”


When it is stated that appearances are just mind and that everyone has this in common, it is not saying that phenomena that are suited to appear do not appear. The fact that they are suited to appear at another place and in a future time is due to latencies that remain stored in everyone’s own eighth consciousness, the ‘mind-basis-of-all,’ alaya in Sanskrit, kun-gzhi in Tibetan. When causes and conditions prevail, latencies arise and appear and can be known.


“The counterpart is the one in which what is perceived is not shared in common, awareness’ referent being the minds and so on associated with other that do not comprise an object of mutual exchange for perceiving awareness, not resting nor resting poised, because for those not resting in equipoise, it is but their own conceptions that appear. And because for those who are resting in equipoise, it is its faithful reflection that appears as the object encountered when into samadhi absorbed.”


Explaining that phenomena are just appearances for the eight consciousnesses of our mind, the eighth consciousness (the alaya) is the basis and support for our other seven consciousnesses or knowers. The first of the seven consciousnesses is the eye consciousness that perceives various forms in dependence upon our eye organ and eye sense power. In the same way, in dependence upon our ears and ear sense power, we perceive a great variety of sounds with our ear consciousness. Thirdly, we perceive odors of all kinds with our nose consciousness in dependence upon our nose organ and nose sense power. Likewise, in dependence upon our tongue organ and tongue sense power, we perceive various tastes with our tongue consciousness. Then there are tangible objects. Some are soft, some are rough, some are smooth, and so forth. In dependence upon our body and body sense power, we perceive tangible objects with our body consciousness. These five sense consciousnesses are called “the five doors.” They are non-conceptual. For example, our eye consciousness does not think about what it saw, sees, or will see but directly perceives a visible object in the present moment. Likewise, the other four sense consciousnesses are not involved with the past or future but perceive a respective phenomenon in the present moment. Even though all five sense consciousnesses are mistaken, they aren’t the real problem. Our sixth mental consciousness (sems in Tibetan) is mistaken and is the real problem. It arises in dependence upon the five sense consciousnesses, creates concepts about the three times (the past, present, and future). It thinks and judges whether things that have been perceived are good or bad and specifically, it attaches a name to what the five sense consciousnesses perceived. As a result, for example, by just hearing the name of somebody we have seen or learned about, our mental consciousness mixes that name with the image we have of him/her so that he/she appears in our mind. That is why the sixth consciousness is described as “a conceptual consciousness/mind that apprehends a name and object mixed together.” This means that the name of an object and the object itself appear mixed together. For example, the designation “bell” that I recognize as the object in front of me does not inhere in that object. It is just an imputed name given to a specific object of that kind. However, our mental consciousness apprehends objects and the names it has imputed upon those objects mixed together.


The seventh consciousness is the afflicted consciousness (klesha-mana in Sanskrit, nyön-yid in Tibetan). It is that aspect of our mind that senses and conceives the thought “self.” How does this imputed self operate? In two ways. Firstly, it instinctively thinks of a self and of the thought “I am.” But the afflicted consciousness is not stable because it also becomes involved with other things. Then it isn’t preoccupied with what it purports to be a self, nevertheless, the sense of a self is never forgotten or lost. The eighth all-ground-mind is the basis for all seven consciousnesses.


Our eight consciousnesses are only experienced by us and not by others. They are not shared with others, i.e., we do not have these states in common with anybody else. Examples are physical and mental feelings such as pleasure, pain, happiness, and suffering. Generally speaking, there are three types of feelings. They are: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. There is another way of enumerating feelings into five. They are: pleasant mental feelings, unpleasant mental feelings, neutral mental feelings, pleasant as well as unpleasant physical feelings, and neutral physical feelings. These feelings are not shared. We go through experiences that we do not have in common with anybody else because only we feel and experience them, for example, our death, Bardo, bondage in samsara, and abandonment of afflictions that kept us in samsara.


All phenomena are just mind, i.e., they are just appearances of the mind. There are two divisions: those that are shared, i.e., that we have in common with everyone else, and those that are not shared, i.e., that we do not have in common with anyone. It is easier to understand that appearances and feelings that we do not have in common with anyone are just mind than it is to understand that shared experiences and feelings are just mind. Regarding our commonalities that we share with others, we think that mountains, buildings, the birth of sentient beings, and so forth are truly existing external phenomena. However, all appearances are not other than our mind. What appears to our mind is not experienced by others in the same way as we apperceive things, and we do not apperceive what appears to others. Except for similarities, appearances are only our own mind. It is hard generating a clear understanding that shared experiences are just mind. There is no fault in that. I, too, had difficulties understanding this point.


In the discussion of mind only, a question is raised whether it is possible to read the mind of somebody else and if so, whether that, too, is just an appearance of our own mind. There are two possibilities. We either perceive somebody else’s mind while resting in meditative equipoise or we perceive somebody else’s mind while not resting in meditative equipoise. Taking the second possibility, it is said that perceiving another person’s mind while not resting in samadhi is a case of our own thoughts appearing as those of somebody else. Taking the first possibility, it is said that perceiving another person’s mind while abiding in samadhi is not seeing that person’s mind directly, rather, it is seeing that person’s mind as a reflection or likeness.


2.5. The Benefit of Realising No Self


The benefit of realising no self has to do with the cause and effect of suffering. Having concepts about things that we perceive solidifies our adherence to them. Concepts cause us to make judgements about something we perceived. If we think something is good, then we generate desire and attachment – this leads to suffering. If we think something is bad, then we generate dislike and aversion – this, too, leads to suffering. However, if we realise that nothing is established, then both the cause of suffering as well as resultant suffering will have been pacified.






The calligraphy by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche on this page reads Chös, which is the Tibetan term for both “Dharma” and “dharma” as used here. The original was a present from him in 1988 for having transcribed the teachings he presented in Oxford, entitled “The Practice of Tranquillity and Insight.” The transcript of those teachings was published by Shambhala Publ., Colorado, & in 1993 by Snow Lion Publ., N.Y. All proceeds from these publications as well as all other publications of Thrangu Rinpoche’s teachings that I brought to paper have been administrated by Namo Buddha in Colorado. Just as His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Third had advised me, my work for Kagyü masters and scholars has always been voluntary. Because of always having had a full-time job as a source of livelihood and due to His Eminence’s Blessings, it has always been possible to do this according to His will.


These teachings on “Distinguishing Phenomena & Pure Being” that Thrangu Rinpoche presented in Tibetan were simultaneously translated into English by Jules Levinson. The Root Text was translated in reliance on the instructions of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche by Jim Scott; it was published in Kathmandu, Nepal, & printed by the International Press Co. Ltd., Singapore, no. 1233, in 1992. Thrangu Rinpoche’s teachings of this seminary were transcribed from the recordings that Clark Johnson from Colorado had sent by Gaby Hollmann in 1992 & in 2013 the manuscript was revised & edited again so that it is available through the Dharma Download Project of Karma Lekshey Ling Shedra, Nepal. This rendering is for personal studies only; it may not be published anywhere else & it may not be translated into another language. All rights reserved. Copyright, Munich 2013. – May virtue increase!


©Karma Lekshey Ling Institute