Dharma - Merit - Meditation - Nectar - Liberation - Emptiness - Process - Awakening


in Buddhadharma

On the Great Perfection Vehicle

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"... if they see the Tathâgata constantly present and not extinct, they will then become puffed up and lazy, and unable to conceive the idea that it is hard to meet the Buddha or a mind of reverence for him. Therefore the Tathâgata tactfully teaches : 'Know, bhikshus, the appearance of Buddhas in the world is a rare occurrence.'"  - The Lotus Sutra, chapter XVI.

The Great Perfection Teachings
The Key in Three & the Ten Virtues Actions
The Two Meditations & Eight Jhânas
The Mind of Enlightenment or
Self-cherishing & Self-grasping

The Four Immeasurables & the Six Perfections
The Ten Stages & Five Paths
The Bodhisattva Vow


Tangkha of Buddha Amitabha
with hands in the mudra of meditation


The Great Perfection Vehicle, "Pâramitâyâna", "Sûtrayâna", Transcendent Wisdom Vehicle or "Bodhisattvayâna" is the Mahâyâna path of the Bodhisattva, leading him or her to the bliss of Buddhahood. It entered on the world stage ca. 100 BCE, and developed parallel with the Lesser Vehicle. Its teachings are called "Sutric" and contrasted with the later "Tantric" Vehicle. The latter is also part of the Mahâyâna, but contested by some. The earliest Mahâyâna Tantras date from the early 2nd century CE.

Each time he turned the Wheel of Dharma, the Buddha set in motion a set of functional & interdependent differences, i.e. Dharma energy.

Turning the Wheel of Dharma several times, the Buddha created a wide number of methods (the so-called 84.000 Dharma-doors), accommodating all kind of people. There are Lesser Vehicle practioners who doubt whether the Third and Fourth Turnings actually happened. For the Mahâyâna, these "higher" teachings were given by the Buddha to selected disciples during his lifetime (to be revealed much later) or bestowed to accomplished meditators after he had entered "parinirvâna", becoming a Dharmakâya Buddha. The latter view is akin to Tantra.

 The Great Perfection Teachings

Dating between 100 & 500 CE (for the non-tantric texts) or 1000 CE (tantric texts included), about 600 Mahâyâna sûtras are extant, either in Sanskrit, Tibetan or Chinese. In sensu lato, the non-tantric sûtras of this body constitute the teachings of the Great Perfection Vehicle. In sensu stricto, these teachings are identified with the Perfection of Wisdom sûtras, the "Prajñâpâramitâ Sûtras", a series of about forty sûtras, mainly dealing with the new wisdom ("prajñâ") taught by the Mâhayâna. The earliest layer of this collection probably dates from the 1st century BCE (cf. like the Ratnagunasamcayagâthâ and the Astasâhasrikâ). In the West, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra are best known. The best approach is to take all schools into consideration, maintaining the division between sutric and tantric Bodhisattvas (the latter use Deity Yoga, the former not).

The path of the Bodhisattva is at hand, its nature & itinerary. The inevitable preparation is nothing less than a long and hard training. The first stage of the path involves accumulating merit. Moral & spiritual exercises provide the shield of the training. In a certain sense, the Mâhayâna focuses on the itinerary of the Buddha before his enlightenment, i.e. when he was still a Bodhisattva, giving away parts of his flesh to feed wild animals ! The Hînayâna looks at what happened after his enlightenment, defining what has to be renounced to live like the Buddha. Indeed, the Mahâyâna aims at Buddhahood (awakening), considering it within reach, while the Hînayâna targets Arhathood (liberation) and does not consider it possible to realize Buddhahood in this world.

Due to this continuous practice, the method of the Bodhisattva culminates in the generation of compassion with the mind of enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, or Bodhicitta. Because of meditation on emptiness, wisdom-mind increases and when he or she has more than just conceptual understanding of emptiness, but actual, direct experience of it, then the first of the Ten Bodhisattva Stages is entered. At this point, the ordinary Bodhisattva is a Superior Bodhisattva. In each of the following nine Bodhisattva grounds, the Superior Bodhisattva must gradually eliminate all subtle & very subtle obscurations & delusions or innate self-grasping. Eventually, this ends in Buddhahood, at which point a Form Body ("Rûpakâya" = "Sambhogakâya" + "Nirmanakâya") is taken to allow the enlightened wisdom-mind (the "Dharmakâya") to work for the benefit of all sentient beings.

However, reaching this lofty goal is full of difficult austerities, long (three countless aeons) and arduous. Like the Individual Vehicle, the Great Perfection Vehicle is not a quick path, nor easy at all ! Buddhahood is possible, but not very likely as a this-life event. One then wonders how effective the Buddhadharma can be ? If it takes so long to realize Buddhahood, then truly helping sentient beings becomes a rare activity. Does this not annul the intent ? The salvic goal of the Great Perfection Vehicle clearly differs from that of the Lesser Vehicle, for Buddhahood can indeed be attained (according to some Lesser Vehicle schools, Arhathood and Buddhahood are not identical and only the former can be attained). Nevertheless, a Sutric Bodhisattva cannot say practice is comfortable or quick ! Hence, given teachers are so scarce, sentient beings are likely to continue to suffer for a very very long time. Was this Buddha's intent ? And if not, was he not able to devise a method enabling a short-cut to "nirvâna" ?

Only by coupling the Great Perfection Vehicle with Tantra or Secret Mantra ("Guhyamantrayâna") can these difficulties of speed & comfort be eliminated. Only when Sûtra training is strongly established, eventuating in compassion and a thorough insight into emptiness, is the horizon of Tantra in sight. Without the former, the latter should not be entered, for without Bodhicitta the practice of Tantra leads to worldly powers and a rebirth in the realm of the gods (of desire), not to "nirvâna". As only a human birth, empowered with free will, enables one to practice, such a rebirth, like all non-human rebirths, is a disaster. So we see the limitations of the Third Turning are solved in the Fourth Turning. Without the latter, the Great Perfection Vehicle too stops to be a truly effective means to help sentient beings in this degenerate age. But without it, Tantra cannot be practiced.

 The Key in Three & the Ten Virtuous Actions

The foundations of the training protocol for Bodhisattvas are detailed by schematic organizations of the world, encompassing cosmology & psychology (object & subject), and concepts related to the gradual progress towards enlightenment.

Theoretically, it is common to turn the fivefold aggregates or heaps defining the human being into a twofold :

Aggregates Functions Body/Mind
form sensations body
feeling affects/emotions/feelings mind
compositional factors will/volition/intention/etc.
discrimination thoughts

clarity & awareness
luminosity & movement

Note this Buddhist definition of "mind" is much more extended than what is usually understood under mind in Western epistemology. In the West, and this since Descartes, the division between "res extensa" (the extended thing) and "res cogitans" (the thinking thing) is pertinent. For Descartes and rationalists after him (except Pascal) all other factors, such as feelings, affects, will etc. are subsumed as an instance of thought. Not so in Buddhism. Although in Hindu Yoga the mind is part of the body (only "purusa" or "âtman" are set aside), Buddhism clearly separates the physical body and the various functions. "Mind" refers to cognitive, affective & volitional functions, as well as the overarching luminous, sentient clarity of consciousness. Although Descartes also speaks of the "natural light", he situates it before all possible cognition and so it cannot be identified with the Buddhist notion of consciousness, but rather with the underlying nondual Clear Light of the original, natural mind (Tantra).

In Buddhism, the mind merely gives rise to something, making it into an object of engagement. It gives rise to things and apprehends them.

The divisions introduced by Buddhist psychology are helpful to grasp the process of death & rebirth, as well as the various classification of minds. The body dies, but the mind as a whole does not. Buddha was clear. Although there are only heaps, rebirth is a fact. So there must be a "thread" joining these consecutive rebirths. Tantra explains how coarse & subtle minds dissolve, but the very subtle mind, underlying consciousness, does not. Buddha did not wish to speculate too much about these matters, for this distracts practice. Nevertheless, if we eliminate rebirth from Buddhist philosophy, then physical death becomes the natural end of suffering and not "nirvâna". This contradicts the truth of cessation, for physical death is a merely return of the biological organism to non-existence, while true cessation is beyond any possible negation & any possible affirmation. Indeed, when the body dies, the (very subtle) mind does not.

The very subtle part of a given mind continuum is the continuous "thread" between rebirths. It may be called "âlaya-vijñâna" when overlayed by obscuring veils or "âvarana" and samsaric imprints or "samskâras" and "âlaya-prajñâ" or "âlaya-jñâna" when pure, i.e. in the state of Buddhahood. However, this may be confusing, for in the Mind-Only School -where this category is extensively developed- this "storehouse-consciousness" points to an absolute, inherently existing subject, and this conflicts with the Mâdhyamika fruits of ultimate analysis, finding no inherent existent objects. For the Gelugpas, this very subtle mind, devoid of afflictive imprints, is identical with the precondition of enlightenment (or Buddha-potential) at the heart of each and every sentient being, and experienced as the awake, ever-present, innate, spacious, luminous clarity of the mind (of Clear Light). For the yogis, it is covered or veiled by the resonances of previous, subtle & coarse actions. The latter exist on their own plane, while the emptiness of mind is the uncontaminated Body of Truth ("Dharmakâya"), as it were veiled or covered by these imprints. This Body of Truth is empty of self, but not empty of something (namely relationality and its own inherent enlightened properties).

This very subtle mind has the capacity to retain impressions from previous actions (of body, speech & mind), allowing a Buddha to remember all his or her previous rebirths. Due to their meditation on emptiness, causing the transient dissolution of the coarse & subtle minds, Superior Bodhisattvas may also remember some strong imprints of previous actions. Take away the very subtle mind, and nothing survives the end of the physical vehicle, as materialism conjectures. Without the very subtle mind, Buddhism is reduced to a very elaborate spiritual psychology with a limited salvic result, namely liberation from suffering in this life only. Such a motivation assists personal liberation, but does not trigger the generation of Bodhicitta.

Indeed, the "personality" defined by coarse & subtle minds dies with the body. Only the very subtle mind of Clear Light, although empty and so not independent or existing from its own side, is immortal, i.e. with a continuous subtle form. By achieving Buddhahood, the very subtle mind mounted on a very subtle body becomes the Truth Body manifesting the Enjoyment Body, a perfect illusionary body apprehending emptiness continuously. Right view recognizes the enlightened nature of the deepest level of our mind. This Buddha-nature or precondition of enlightenment is a forteriori already ours. All defilements can always be purified. This is the great hope offered by the Mâhayâna. Our "sins"" are never bad enough to justify a permanent state of woe, like the hells of monotheism. For the philosophers, this Buddha-nature is a potential. For the yogis, it is the only inherently existing thing, a Buddha-matrix.

To see the Clear Light after death is to enter "nirvâna". This is the gift of death, prompting us to properly prepare and directly experience this light during life.

To practically situate Dharma in terms of the former division between "body" & "mind", a threefold organization or "Key in Three" is introduced :

Three Jewels Three Gates Three Vehicles Three Methods Three Ways
Buddha mind Dzogchen self-liberation Wisdom
Dharma energy/speech Tantra transformation Compassion
Sangha body Sutra renunciation Renunciation

This division shows how important speech/energy is. Speech reveals the subtle energy of the body. It can also be used to invoke specific states of mind (as in prayers, mantra & recitation). When purified, ordinary speech becomes enlightened speech or Dharma-in-action. This explains why Hearers were liberated by just listening to the Buddha. This power of speech reminds of the Great Word spoken by the divine kings of Ancient Egypt, the "Logos" as "second God" in Hermetism and the identification of "Christ", the "Son of God" with the Word in orthodox Christianity, although obvious differences pertain.

psychological cosmological
mind meditate fruit beyond Form & Formless Dharmakâya Mother
speech/wind reflect path Form/Formless Sambhogakâya Son
body study view Desire Nirmânakâya Energy

Bodhisattvas engage in virtuous actions and accumulate extensive merit or non-samsaric "good karma", i.e. actions leading to enlightenment, the escape from "samsâra" (liberation) and the realization of omniscience (Buddhahood). These actions are paths leading to the transient happiness of higher rebirths (as humans, anti-gods or gods), to the ultimate happiness of liberation (Arhathood) or to awakening or full enlightenment (Buddhahood).

The Ten Virtuous Actions are restraints from the Ten Non-Virtuous Actions founded on a clear recognition of its faults & dangers. So the moral discipline of a Bodhisattva is to deliberately refrain from them. They have fully understood their negative consequences, namely the depletion of merit and so lack of accumulation. Not to engage in any kind of non-virtue is not enough. One needs a firm decision to abandon it and understand why this is so. This practice is not limited to Buddhists. Everyone is able to practice this and establish this great and vast discipline.

Mahayanists first generate the "mind of definite emergence" or renunciation. The experience of suffering results from cyclic rebirth and realizing this makes us wish to definitely leave "samsâra". This does not imply rejecting or turning away from cyclic existence. While working with conventional reality we accept both presence & absence of objects of desire. We do not grasp at them, nor do we reject them. When what we long for is absent, we do not worry. When it is present, we do not become excited but know how to enjoy in a spirit of thanksgiving.

Eventually, while developing various methods to practice renunciation, we wish to generate the "mind of enlightenment", i.e. generate compassion for all sentient beings. Without compassion, our minds are not supple and caught in self-cherishing rooted in self-grasping, or attributing substantial, inherent existence to objects. But before we eradicate self-grasping, we must eliminate self-cherishing by "exchanging self with others", training the mind in that sense. When Bodhicitta has been generated, we engage in eliminating the ignorance caused by self-grasping and its Two Obstruction (to liberation because of acquired self-grasping and to omniscience because of innate self-grasping). Doing so, we enter the wisdom realizing emptiness, culminating in Buddhahood.

 The Two Meditations and Eight Jhânas

Generally speaking, Buddhist meditation is to familiarize our mind with a meritorious object constantly & thoroughly. Concentrating on such an object causes one to develop a peaceful state of mind. The bird of meditation has two wings :

  • analytical meditation : involves the purposeful process of investigating the meaning of an object, usually Dharma teachings heard or read. By intently analyzing the object from various points of view, inferential conclusions are drawn, causing virtuous states of mind to arise. Imagination, mindfullness and reason are used to do so.

    Following Atiśa, these meditations are divided in three scopes : small, middling and great :
    Small scope meditations : on our precious human life, on impermanence, on death, on lower rebirths, on refuge, on "karma" (actions and their effects) ;
    Middling scope meditations : on renunciation, on birth, on sickness, on ageing, on death, on various sufferings ;
    Great scope meditations : on equanimity, on mother sentient beings, on kindness, on equalizing self & others, on self-cherishing, on cherishing others, on exchanging self with others, on compassion, on taking & giving, on Bodhicitta, on the spiritual guide etc.

    Analytical meditation helps the virtuous objects underlying the Dharma teachings heard, read & reflected upon to rise, take root in the mind & grow. By study, we understand the various individual Dharma teachings heard and/or read. By reflection, we are able to confront these teachings with one another and establish an larger, comprehensive view on Dharma, as it were bringing the pieces of the puzzle together to form a whole. These two steps involve the use of imagination & reason, and aim at a clear representation of the Dharma. When reason has thus firmly grasped the vastness of the Dharma, and cleared inconsistencies by the use of logic & reasoning, analytical meditation allows, on the basis of such a right view, virtuous states of mind to arise. These make the mind supple and willing to move on, i.e. establish these virtuous states as objects of Calm Abiding ;

  • Calm Abiding or "śamatha" meditation : the virtuous states of mind generated by successful analytical meditations are the objects of a single-pointed concentration or placement meditation. We train to avoid distractions disturbing concentration, holding the virtuous objects before the mind's eye. When these thoughts and/or feelings fade, we return to analytical meditation. Very deep levels of calmness are attained while concentrating on an object firmly placed in the mind. Having found our virtuous object through analytical meditation, we concentrate on it single-pointedly for as long as possible. In this way, it becomes very acquainted & familiar. Eventually we spontaneously mentally circumambulating it, contemplating its interdependent possibilities with little or no effort. This happens with increased inner stillness.

    The total peace of mind of "śamatha" acts as the ground for the development of "special insight", empowering the mind to realize "vidyâ", wisdom & enlightenment. First, a special type of analytical meditation, called "Insight Meditation" ("vipaśyanâ"), is used during balanced placement to clearly see into the nature of subject (mind) and object (sensate & mental objects), gaining a first-hand understanding of the way things truly are, without reliance on opinions or theories. Then, at some point, when "special insight" or "superior seeing" rises, Insight Meditation automatically brings about meditative equipoise. This finally empowers the mind to totally grasp emptiness.

The process of Buddhist meditation thus involves three steps :

  • analytical meditation : establishing a comprehensive right view on Dharma and generating its co-relative virtuous objects ;

  • placement meditation : complete concentration on the virtuous objects generated during analytical meditation, causing the deepest possible calmness ;

  • Insight Meditation : analysis of the empty nature of self & others during placement in equipose (the most advanced level of Calm Abiding), allowing one, on the basis of "special insight" to completely mix one's conceptual idea of emptiness with the object of placement, ending the Path of Preparation, leading to the Path of Seeing (or the direct, non-conceptual experience of emptiness).

Note calmness is a necessary condition for true insight into the nature of phenomena. Without meditation, the mind will never be able to know reality (the outer world of phenomena) and/or ideality (the inner world of the self). Without peace of mind, genuine wisdom is impossible. Without stillness, only one's own delusions are confronted, not the fundamental nature of all phenomena, i.e. ultimate truth. Conventional reality is the child of mental delusions generating afflictive emotions. It cannot penetrate into the nature of things.

Although the Bodhisattva aims to realize final enlightenment to be able to help others adequately, he or she trains the mind to experience the subtle layers of "samsâra", namely those of the Form and Formless realms, part of the world of the gods. Eight absorptions are divided four concentrations and four attainments.

The first "Four Jhânas" or "four concentrations" are the four stages of cessation of the Form Realm approached with Calm Abiding :

  • the First Jhâna : accompanied by discursive thought ("vichâra") & conceptualization ("vitarka"), with joyful rapture ("priti") & happiness ("sukha") born of seclusion ;

  • the Second Jhâna : with internal confidence & unification of mind, without thought & examination, with inner calm, rapture and happiness born of one-pointedness of mind or concentration ;

  • the Third Jhâna : equanimous, without joy, mindful, alert, aware and pervaded by happiness ;

  • the Fourth Jhâna : neither-pain-nor-pleasure, purity of mindfulness due to equanimity & wakefulness. At this stage psychic powers are attained (clairvoyance, clairaudience, retrocognition, telepathy & psychokinesis).

The mind trained in these Four Jhânas is concentrated, purified, wieldy, steady, bright, unblemished, rid of defilements and imperturbable.

The last four formless ("ârûpya") absorptions of the Formless Realm, approached with Insight Meditation, are "samâpattis" or "attainments".

  • the Fifth Jhâna (Infinite Space) : discrimination of forms completely disappears and there is no longer any perception of obstruction & variety. In this state, space pervades everywhere ;

  • the Sixth Jhâna (Infinite Consciousness) : consciousness is experienced as limitless and peaceful ;

  • the Seventh Jhâna (Nothingness) : there is nothing formed or formless to be apprehended ;

  • the Eight Jhâna (Peak of Samsâra) : by letting go the sense of existence of nothingness, subtle discrimination is left. There is neither perception nor non-perception.

The Bodhisattva trains in these absorptions for the sole purpose of having a supple, clear, strong and willing mind. He or she does not wish to abide on these levels, for doing so only engenders rebirth as a god, which is not the aim.


Literally "awakened mind" or mind of enlightenment, Bodhicitta is the central notion of the Mahâyâna. Generating merit by virtuous actions and/or realizing absorptions do not fundamentally characterize the Bodhisattva. Non-Buddhist systems also maintain moral discipline and develop spiritual exercises, involving calmness and concentration.

Bodhicitta defines the way of the Bodhisattva.

It is said the Bodhisattva, like a good shepherd, vows to postpones his own enlightenment until all sentient beings attain theirs. He or she enters "nirvâna" only after the last sentient being has done so.

Why ? Because all other sentient beings are more important than one sentient being. This is the intent. So to convey this universality of compassion, the Bodhisattva makes sure he or she comes last. 

It is also said the Bodhisattva is like a boatman, ferrying sentient beings across, from conventional truth to "the other shore" of wisdom or ultimate truth.

These admirable & devotional images, conveying vital information (namely universality & process) nevertheless somewhat misrepresent the Bodhisattva's true intent. Does the Bodhisattva have the energy to stay last ? Is he or she able to serve others without making sure he or she is also self-serving ? Not so. No doubt extremely compassionate, powerful and wise, the Great Bodhisattva, still under the sway of very subtle delusions, must first become a Buddha to realize his or her goal. These logical considerations are important, for the Buddha urged his followers to question themselves on everything, his own teachings included !

True Bodhicitta is therefore "king-like". The Bodhisattva seeks full enlightenment (Buddhahood) and then, as a Buddha, i.e. no longer a sentient being, brings infinite energy-resources into play to help (teach, empower, bless) all sentient beings without free will (hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, anti-gods, gods) and all humans of good will. While very powerful, a Buddha is not omnipotent, nor a Creator-God. To propell into Buddhahood, the Bodhisattva vows to generate the "mind of enlightenment for all sentient being".

According to the Lesser Vehicle, the Great Vehicle miscalculates. Lacking time, the Bodhisattva will never be able to complete his or her training. Liberation (Arhathood) may be intended, but Buddhahood is extremely rare, if not impossible. And in a certain way, Great Perfection Teachings confirm this, for although Buddhahood is definitely possible, it remains extremely difficult. To accumulate from scratch the necessary merit to clear all the dross in a single lifetime was deemed nearly impossible.

This problem was solved by the tantric "turbo", increasing the accumulation spectacularly, i.e. making available Bodhicitta and its compassion generate very vast merit quickly. The two baskets (of merit and wisdom) thus rapidly filled, enlightenment is possible in a period of time as short as three months or a single lifetime ! In exceptional cases, a single "pointing-out" instruction may suffice (cf. Dzogchen).

By itself, this mind of enlightenment is the ultimate vehicle of vehicles. But, once entering the "Body of Truth" ("Dharmakâya"), it is no longer necessary. Completing the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattva training for the sake of the enlightenment of all sentient beings is therefore the final goal of the Bodhisattva, the first of which is entered when emptiness has been directly perceived during meditative equipoise (the Path of Seeing). Then he or she is an "Ârya" or a Superior Bodhisattva.

Note a "turn of mind" is at the heart of the Buddhadharma.

In Tibetan Buddhism, relative & absolute Bodhicitta are distinguished. The relative mind of enlightenment is subdivided in (a) the intention and wish to generate this mind of enlightenment for all, called "aspirational" Bodhicitta, and (b) actually doing so, called "engaging" Bodhicitta. Absolute Bodhicitta is the vision of the true, fundamental nature of all phenomena, the direct, undeluded experience of emptiness or suchness.

The way of the Bodhisattva is the appropriate means to generate relative Bodhicitta, while the Ten Stages train the former to realize the ultimate wisdom of absolute Bodhicitta. To generate Bodhicitta, the sevenfold instruction on cause and effect by Aśanga is to be applied during meditation.

 Self-cherishing & Self-grasping

All actions of body, speech & mind done with self-cherishing intention cause suffering. This is the mind considering oneself more important than others. Can we find a direct example of (coarse or subtle) physical and mental painful contractions not directly or indirectly caused by self-cherishing ? If nothing can be found, then self-cherishing is the heart of (personal) problems, miseries and inner & outer faults. If so, abandoning self-cherishing is necessary to enter the broader context of acquired & innate self-grasping.

Self-cherishing is a mind dependent on self-grasping the "I", fully generating the effects of discriminating between oneself and other persons in a way which attributes (posits, imputes, designates) substantial, independent existence to both oneself and to others. These effects are invariably desirous attachment (craving) when sensating something attractive, aversion (anger, hatred) whenever beholding the unattractive and indifference for what is grasped as neither attractive nor unattractive. These are the Three Poisons of affirmation (craving), negation (hatred, denial) and ignorance from which all mental delusions and afflictive emotions arise. These are the emotional afflictions to be abandoned by the minds of renunciation, moral discipline & joyous effort.

Grasping at our own ego or self as inherently existing from its "own side", we also grasp at the ego or self of others as substantial & independent. Hence, the sense of selfhood integrates the view of isolation, while in ultimate truth only universal interconnectedness is at hand. This discrimination of oneself generates a mind cherishing itself over and above all other persons. This self-grasping at the person can be gross or subtle. In the former case, we grasp at a self-supporting, self-settled, self-endowed, so to speak substantially existing person, in the latter case, we grasp at an inherently existing person as such, i.e. at the concept of things being independent & isolated. Gross self-grasping is a person able to appear to the mind without depending on the appearance of any of the five aggregates : consciousness, thought, feeling, volition and sensation. Subtle self-grasping is a person appearing to the mind as any kind of inherently existing person in the category of personhood.

In the first case the object to be negated is a person independent of aggregates, in the second case the object to be negated is an inherently existing person as such. When these negations have been realized, the process-nature of selfhood has been established.

Self-cherishing & self-grasping and lie at the root of attachment (craving), hatred and the other secundary afflictive emotions ruling the Desire realm of "samsâra" : cruelty, greed, stupidity, craving, jealousy & pride. The power of the ego identified as a substance is directly felt when it is harshly criticized, blamed, mocked or hurt. The imprints left lacerate our mind and due to self-cherishing we remember them over and over again, and may hold a grudge against the other(s). All this because we think & feel our ego is so precious, important, unique & independent ! Self-cherishing inflates the singular ego facing all other sentient beings and instead of following logic (one element is never the whole set), it recklessly posits the "I" before and above everybody else. Inconsiderate and shameless, the ego as "number one" slaughters the life-force, steals merit inflicting anger and plants the wrong seeds. These possess the mind and cause mental suffering.

Happiness is the result of making others happy. Suffering is the outcome of trying to make oneself happy. The Bodhisattva trains in eliminating self-cherishing from his or her physical, vocal & mental continuum. This does not call for the annihilation of the ego, quite on the contrary. The ego is healed by restoring the foundational parameters of its mode of functioning, namely interdependent, impermanent and "in process". By generating Bodhicitta, the Bodhisattva cherishes the other above the own self. The latter is a functional reality existing as a process rather than a substance or any fixed, freezed, eternalized essence of sorts. In the work on self-cherishing, the Bodhisattva trains in the exchange of self with others.

In Treasury of Abhidharma, Vasubandhu posits six causes of delusion :

  • the seed of delusion : this is the potentiality of delusion developed in the past, the initial, "substantial" state from which delusions arise. This seed of delusion is not emotional, affective (limbic), but mental (frontal) and involves self-grasping, the mind identifying itself & others as substantial & independent, i.e. not process-like & interdependent. Arhats have destroyed this "substantial" cause of (self) delusion ;

  • the object of delusion : this is the sensate and/or mental object(s) we posit when developing a delusion, countered by restraining sensation ;

  • distractions : interaction with those chained by the ontological illusion of their own inherent existence increases the number of objects of delusion, reinforcing self-cherishing. Only serious Dharma training counters this ;

  • bad habits : arousing and encouraging attachment & hatred empowers the ego to consolidate wrong actions. Moral discipline corrects this ;

  • familiarity : when arising spontaneously in our mind, delusions become very familiar, attachment & anger daily business. So they seem "part of our nature" and reinforced by years of mental hallucination are strong enemies when confronted. Mindfulness is the antidote ;

  • inappropiate attention : projecting the substantial "I" outside, the characteristics of a conventional, contaminated object are exaggerated and treated as independent & substantial. Wisdom is the antidote.

According to Vasubandhu, a delusion is at hand as soon as there is a seed, an object and an inappropriate attention. To take away the seed, one has to uproot the mental cause, namely self-grasping.

Self-grasping is a mind radically discriminating between object & subject, attributing inherent existence to each. Discrimination in itself may be valid, duality can by itself be harmless (as in non-afflictive emotions), albeit in a conventional way, but self-grasping discriminates between substances. It grasps at the ego, self or "soul" in a radical way, attributing static permanence, viewing it as something independent, solid & isolated in space & time, findable as a self-settled substance, self-evident and independent.

Meditation on the five heaps allows the mind to realize this ontic ego or self is nowhere found, is not self-evident (but other-powered), not permanent (in a static way), fixed (knowing no change) or without interconnections (Einstein-isolated). While the ego has a functional reality (is a process), it has no thing-like or substance-like existence. Not like a mountain, but rather like a tornado, a stream rather than an architecture.

Realizing the ego fakes and then hallucinates itself as a substance-self, as a permanent architecture of space, is a crucial first turn of mind ("metanoia"). The state of consciousness at any given moment reflects the interdependent activities of sensation, volitions, affects, thoughts & consciousness. These constantly change and there is nothing else to be found. The "I" of the ego is a provisional "focus" generated by causes & conditions (out there). It is not some fixed, substantial entity to be found (in here). In a strict sense, there is no "existing I", only an impermanent isthmus or interval ("bardo"), rising, abiding & ceasing between an "existing I" and a "non-existing I".

Self-grasping of persons is common, but rather difficult to detect. It clearly manifests when our body is in danger, when criticized or mocked etc. and when mental suffering takes over. In these cases, the natural reflex of innate ignorance seem to rule, for -on a conventional level- it may happen one needs to confront dangerous and/or hurting circumstances, mobilizing a strong ego. But is there need to cherish this ? Clearly not.

Due to enculturalization, socialization, education, conditioning, etc. the idea takes root the empirical ego exists as it appears, namely as an independent subject, a substance "on its own", ontologically autonomous, somewhere "in here". This learned self-grasping is usually daily reaffirmed by wrong livelihood, etc. In reality, the ego does not exist as it appears. Because its ultimate nature or truth is concealed, the ego is an illusion, not appearing as it truly is, namely impermanent. Appearing permanent, solid, in charge, self-evident etc. in truth the ego is impermanent, volatile, dependent on causes & conditions, interconnected, etc. Recognize this, then study, reflect & meditate on this for a long time. Finally realize it.

This epistemological analysis takes us at the root of the problem, often avoided by so-called "solutions" like far-reaching reifications of subjectivity, positing an "efficient spirit", an "immortal soul", a "purusa", an "âtman", or worse, a "ghost in the machine" or "epiphenomenon of matter" etc., designating this ideality as inherently existing from its own side, as a kind of substantial "monad" (cf. Leibniz and his monadology). This is an extreme form of self-grasping called "eternalism", and is the exact opposite of the other extreme, "nihilism", positing absolute non-existence as the ground of existence instead of absolute existence (cherised in Hinduism, Ancient Egypt, Hellenism, Judaism, Christianity & Islam).
The actor, the action and the others are merely impermanent functions, sharing the fundamental, process-like nature of all phenomena.

Extending the analysis of the identitylessness of persons is eliminating self-grasping of phenomena, finalizing the quest for the wisdom realizing the true nature of all things, establishing the identitylessness of phenomena.

The exercise is done again. This time with all possible phenomena (all virtual and actual happenings) as object.

 The Four Immeasurables & the Six Perfections

The Four Immeasurables are a Mahâyâna practice involving joy, love, wisdom & equanimity, with as object all sentient beings, whose number is immeasurable. These sublime attitudes are said to be the preferred abodes of Brahmâ.

  1. joy ("muditâ) : may all mother-sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness : this is the act of rejoicing in the happiness of others ;

  2. love ("maitri") : may all mother-sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering : this is wishing every other not to be afflicted with suffering, or an act of love ;

  3. compassion ("karunâ") : may all mother-sentient beings realize the greatest happiness : freedom of suffering : this moves beyond merely wishing, but refers to actually realizing or contributing to the happiness of every other being, or an act of compassion (charity) ;

  4. equanimity ("upeksâ") : may all mother-sentient beings abide in equanimity, free from attachments to loved ones, free from hatred of foes : this is dealing with every other with impartiality or an act of fairness.

The Bodhisattva, while  respecting Brahmâ, does not worship Him. He "perfects" these qualities because in his mind they are generated for the sake of all sentient beings and viewed as devoid of inherent existence ("nihsvabhâva"), the opposite of the substantialist creator-God.

The Six Perfections or "pâramitâs" are six qualities the Bodhisattva is also to perfect : (1) generosity ("dâna"), (2) ethics ("śîla"), (3) joyous effort ("vîrya"), (4) patience ("ksânti"), (5) meditation ("samâdhi") and (6) wisdom ("prajñâ"). They are perfect because in each, all actors in play are deemed process-based, i.e. dependent-arisings.

To correlate the Six Perfections with the Ten Stages ("bhûmis"), four perfections are added : (7) skillful means ("upâya"), (8) vow to achieve Buddhahood ("pranidhâna"), (9) power ("bala") and (10) knowledge ("jñâna").

These practices involve Calm Abiding on all these virtuous objects.

 The Ten Stages and Five Paths

The Ten Stages called "Very Joyful", "Stainless", "Luminous", "Radiant", "Difficult to Overcome", "Approaching", "Gone Afar", "Immovable", "Good Intelligence" and "Cloud of Dharma", underline the epistemological intention at work. Indeed, each stage deals with a level of innate self-grasping.

Recent studies indicate these "bhûmis" appear in canonical texts about traditional graded spiritual paths (involving study, reflection & meditation on how to eradicate innate self-grasping), more than being a description of the phenomenology of the higher Bodhisattva training. From the start, these paths integrate the scheme of the perfections. After having finished the earlier stages covering the immeasurables & the perfections, as well as prolonged meditations on emptiness, these Ten Stages reflect the training of the (higher) Superior Bodhisattva more than being his pre-fixed spiritual itinerary. Nevertheless, these degrees do indicate levels of purification.

1 "Very Joyful" : generosity : the Ârya Bodhisattva rejoices at partially realizing truth ;
2 "Stainless" : ethics : freedom of all defilement is realized ;
3 "Luminous" : joyous effort : the light of wisdom radiates around one ;
4 "Radiant" : patience : the flame of wisdom burns away worldly desires ;
5 "Difficult to Overcome" : meditation : the Middle Way is found ;
6 "Approaching" : wisdom : supreme wisdom begins to manifest ;

7 "Gone Afar" : skillful means : far above Hearers, Arhats & Solitary Realizers ;
8 "Immovable" : vow : the Mahâsattva Bodhisattva dwells in non-conceptuality ;
9 "Good Intelligence" : power : free & without restriction Dharma is taught ;
10 "Cloud of Dharma" : knowledge : as a cloud raining on all, all benefit.

Kamalaśila (ca. 700 - 750 CE), integrated the "pâramitâs" & "bhûmis" in five "paths". These form the basis for the understanding of the Path of the Bodhisattva in Tibetan schools like the Gelugpas :

  1. Path of Accumulation : entered upon the spontaneous arising of the mind of enlightenment for all sentient beings (Bodhicitta), becoming a Bodhisattva, the practice of the Six Perfections causes the two baskets (of merit and wisdom) to be filled. By improving their method and wisdom, Bodhisattvas train in generating virtuous minds, the Four Immeasurables and the Six Perfections. Understanding of emptiness is enhanced by relying principally on the wisdoms arising from listening and reflecting. Self-cherishing is eliminated ;

  2. Path of Preparation : entered upon the generation of "superior seeing" or "special insight", a deep calming conceptual insight into emptiness, the fundamental nature of all phenomena, is realized by way of Insight Meditation. Once achieved, this full conceptual understanding is irreversible. This preparation is necessary to directly perceive emptiness, for when the conceptual mind is truly convinced of the rational grounds for the absence of substantiality, it has the power to identify the illusions of conventional reality, generating the conceptual antidote for acquired (intellectual) self-grasping ;

  3. Path of Seeing : after this full conceptual understanding, a direct experience of emptiness during meditative equipoise happens. Then, the Bodhisattva enters the First Stage ("bhûmi") and is called a "Superior Bodhisattva" ("Ârya"). Acquired self-grasping is eliminated. To eliminate the subtle & very subtle delusions (caused by subtle & very subtle innate self-grasping hindering omniscience), the Bodhisattva has to train further  ;

  4. Path of Meditation : here, thanks to further Insight Meditations, this direct experience is developed, stabilized & refined by way of the remaining nine levels (eliminating big, middling & small innate delusions in three stages). The experience of emptiness of the Hînayâna Arhat is identified with the Sixth Stage. In the Seventh Stage, the Bodhissatva has a mind entering into absorption on emptiness and rising again in a fingersnap. Only obstructions to omniscience remain ;

  5. Path of No More Learning : leading to the state of Buddhahood, the nondual simultaneous experience (prehension) of conventional & ultimate truth, of "samsâra" & "nirvâna", of compassion & wisdom. The Eight Stage Great Bodhisattva equals Dhyâni Bodhisattvas, the emanations from enlightened beings.

 The Bodhisattva Vow

There are three kinds of vows or commitments, organizing three levels of moral discipline : the Prâtimokśa Vow of "personal liberation" of monks and laypeople, the Bodhisattva Vow and the Tantric Vow. They are distinguished by motivation. The first set involves the aspiration to attain personal liberation and is kept by adherents of the Individual Vehicle. The second set aims as Bodhicitta and the third is intended to realize special Tantric Bodhicitta.

Taking vows is a skillful method to daily generate merit. Once we have gathered all necessary information (by hearing, studying, reflecting & meditating), we accept certain virtuous objects as necessary. For example, when not killing has been accepted as part of one's moral discipline, even killing an insect will pose problems. When the destructive reflex has been thoroughly removed from the mindsteam, a vow solidifies this intent, making it permanent. By connecting this vow with other virtuous objects (such as the Buddha, the Dharma or the Sangha), maintaing it generates great merit. A vow is a devotional mental mechanism, a tool turning the wheel of compassion.

The three sets of vows are powerful combinations of virtuous objects, causing vast accumulations. The first set of the Individual Vehicle allows one to create a strong "Dharma fence" around one's spiritual practice. This protection guarantees an unimpeded growth. At some point, one's mindsteam is liberated from afflictive emotions and aspiring Bodhicitta is practiced. When generated and engaged, it propells one to take the Bodhisattva Vow, after which Bodhicitta never degenerates (there is never a return to a self-cherishing mind) and increases (becomes more engaged, giving more "energy" to deepen one's Insight Meditation).

There are "four doors of receiving downfalls", namely (a) not knowing what downfalls are, (b) lack of respect for instructions, (c) delusions and (d) not being conscientious. The first door is closed by learning the downfalls and the way they are incurred. These downfalls are certain actions which run counter the ideal of the Bodhisattva, namely the realization of absolute Bodhicitta. The second door is shut by realizing ignorance forces us to disbelieve the teachings of the Buddha, not the teachings themselves. It targets a person, not a principle. The third by meditation and the fourth by reminding the advantages of moral discipline and the disadvantages of incurring downfalls.

Generating the Four Immeasurables maintains the Prâtimokśa Vow. Generating Bodhicitta the Bodhisattva Vow. Overcoming ordinary appearances by practicing Deity Yoga eliminates the possibility of incurring Tantric downfalls.

The Bodhisattva Vow ("pranidhâna") can be taken alone, visualizing the Buddha in front (assisted by a statue or a painting). Making a strong determination to practice the Six Perfections and avoid the 18 root downfalls and 46 secundary downfalls, a prayer is recited (usually three times) :

"O Buddhas, Bodhisattvas & Gurus.
Please listen to what I say now :
Just as countless practitioners before me,
generated the mind of enlightenment
for the sake of all sentient beings,
and accomplished all the stages
of the Bodhisattva training,
so I too generate the mind of enlightenment
for the sake of all sentient beings,
and will accomplish all the stages
of the Bodhisattva training.

My life has borne great fruit !
My precious human life has become extremely precious,
for I am born into the Lineage of the Buddha,
I am a Bodhisattva !
All my actions from now on,
shall accord with this noble, pure & faultless lineage,
one which I truly uphold !


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 10 X 2012 - version n°2