How The Other Links Depend on Ignorance

This post continues directly from the last: Pinpointing Root Ignorance




By understanding the twelve links of interdependent origination we can better understand how the ignorance not knowing the ultimate nature of the “I” is the source of saṃsāric suffering.[1] This ignorance, which is the first of the twelve links, is likened to the cultivator, or farmer. Karma (the second link) is the action motivated by this ignorance, while the third link, consciousness, is likened to the field in which the crops grow.[2]

According to the Prāsaṅgika, the karmic imprint is left on the mere I.[3] In the other, lower, schools it is left on consciousness. For example, in the Mind-Only School it is left on the seventh consciousness, which is called the mind-basis-of-all.[4] But when the Prāsaṅgikas say it is left on the mere I, there is still a link with the aggregates, including consciousness, for how can we refer to the I without referring to the aggregates that are its base of labeling? So it amounts to the same thing.[5]

The imprint is left on the consciousness (the third link) in the manner of a seed that carries all the potentials for the development of sprouts, stems, branches, leaves and rice grains. This karmic seed[6] holds all the potentials for different experiences of life and different rebirths in the lower and upper realms. Its ripening determines whether we have a difficult or a happy life.

The analogy of a TV or telephone message transmission is helpful. The filmed person in the studio is invisibly transmitted as electronic signals, either through the air or through wires. At the other end there is a machine translating or manifesting these signals back into sound and pictures. In the same way, karma (the second link) is carried as an invisible imprint upon consciousness (the third link). When the seed in the soil meets the right conditions, such as water, minerals, nutrients and so forth, it germinates and ripens. In the same way, when this karmic seed deposited on consciousness is ripened by meeting with the minds of strong craving and grasping (the eighth and ninth links), it also manifests its result.[7] Craving and grasping here can be understood by comparison to the powerful craving that arises when we are shopping. We first have the intention to buy something. Craving is already manifesting. Then, by looking at the object we desire, its qualities appear more strongly and our sense of attraction, of wanting to have that object, intensifies until we reach the point where we actually make the decision to buy it: “I must have it!” So, this is like grasping.[8]

We can also liken the placing of consciousness onto the fertilized egg to the growth of a plant’s stem. Conception is the eleventh link.[9] As a fetus develops we have the formation of feeling, cognition and compounding aggregates (or compositional factors) that are called “name” (pertaining to the fourth link, name and form).[10] The physical part of the fertilized egg that has color and shape is called form. Name refers to the feelings and other nonphysical aggregates. Together, name and form become the basis to be labeled “I,” or “the person.”[11]

Then the six sense bases (the fifth link) arise, followed by contact and feeling (the sixth and seventh links), followed by aging and death (the twelfth link).[12] Because the first moment of consciousness that takes place on the egg is immediately followed by the first moment of aging, they are considered together.

So, starting with being under the control of ignorance, this is how we are currently wandering in saṃsāra through the operation of the twelve links, and how we will continue to wander in the future unless we overcome the root ignorance of the first link.

Now you can get an idea of what saṃsāra might mean. There are two actions, those of karma motivated by ignorance and becoming. The tenth link of becoming, often called mature karma, which I didn’t explain earlier, refers to the moment when the seed is ready to produce its stem, or the karmic seed is ready to throw the future rebirth.[13] Craving and grasping, which come first, increasingly ripen the seed until it is ready to actually bring its result—becoming. Ignorance, craving and grasping are the three delusions producing the situation that leads to becoming. In this way, the aggregates can be said to come from these three delusions and two actions.


Wheel_of_life_Kopan_Monastery slightly cropped



So, why are our aggregates of the body and mind in the nature of suffering? Even now, while we’re just sitting, simply pinching our skin can cause discomfort. If we pay attention to our feelings we can usually detect discomfort, pain or tiredness somewhere in our body. Or even if we’re feeling comfortable, just sitting, walking or moving our body in a certain way can immediately cause pain to arise. In addition, we very easily experience hunger, thirst, heat, cold and other unpleasant sensations. Why is this? Why do our body and mind have to go through this? Why do we have to experience suffering? It is because our body and mind come from an impure cause—the karma and disturbing thoughts that are the cause of suffering. Because our aggregates come from the cause of suffering, they are in the nature of suffering; if they were not caused by delusion and karma we wouldn’t have to experience the many sufferings we do.

All the sufferings sentient beings experience arise because their aggregates are under the control of delusion and karma. For example, people are born with terrible deformities, such as missing limbs or even the entire lower half of their body. Others have to live their whole lives with incurable diseases such as leprosy, no matter how much they hate their disease, no matter how much they wish they didn’t have it. But nothing can be done until that particular karma finishes. Some people are always sick with one illness after another, or even two or three simultaneously, and have to live that way.

Others live being tortured by another more powerful person who beats, scolds or enslaves them or tortures them in other ways. We also see husbands tortured by wives and wives tortured by husbands, unable to separate, fighting from morning to night every day, one beating the other for their entire lives. And this is just the humans. Animals undergo even worse suffering: snakes, spiders, centipedes, sheep and especially creatures that live in the ocean, such as jellyfish, or on the rocks by the beach, such as anemones. Then there are the worms that live in the earth, the lizards that live on the rocks, with their long, pointy tails and thorny skins, and the birds that fly in the air, some of which suffer unbearably because of many insects biting their body.


Until the karma to experience a certain suffering finishes there is not that much that can be done to stop it. This is what we mean by pervasive compounding suffering.[14] Our aggregates are under the control of delusion and karma, which are pervasive. Our suffering is compounding in the sense that, because our aggregates are already contaminated by the seed of the disturbing thoughts, we carry their imprints and therefore, in the future, will meet with desirable and undesirable, beautiful and ugly objects.

It is also compounding in a second sense: because we have not generated the true path, whenever we encounter these conditions and objects they cause further disturbing thoughts of anger, desire and ignorance to arise. So our original mistake is not having generated the remedy of the path. Nor did we apply meditation to these contaminated objects and hence didn’t oppose delusions arising and motivating more karma which, in turn, establishes more karmic imprints on the mind, which then results in the production of more future saṃsāra.

I’ve noticed that sometimes the translation of the Tibetan term for pervasive compounding suffering leaves out the “pervasive” bit. This means that readers don’t gain the requisite idea of how suffering is compounding because it creates future saṃsāric suffering. The Tibetan term khyab pa ’du byed kyi sdug bsngal is packed with great meaning, but the conclusion is that our aggregates compound our future lives’ saṃsāra and our suffering is pervasive because it’s under the control of karma and delusion.

Many people think, “What is the point of practicing religion?” They also consider that the only people who need to practice Buddhism are those who are suffering. This implies that they don’t consider themselves to have any problems. Such a belief indicates a lack of comprehension of what it means to suffer. It also indicates that there is no real comprehension of the extent of our suffering or its different levels.

Pervasive compounding suffering is the fundamental suffering. We understand the second kind of suffering, the suffering of change, in terms of the analogy of a bubble that, upon rising to the water’s surface, bursts.[15]

Our aggregates experience three types of feeling: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Pleasant feelings are those we consider to be happiness. With respect to physical feelings, think of what happens with sitting and standing. When we’re exhausted from standing for a long time, we sit down. Then, after a while, we start to experience discomfort, so we stand up again. At first we experience this as pleasant, as the suffering of sitting has temporarily abated, but actually, from the first moment we stood up, that pleasure of standing was already compounded by suffering; the greater suffering of sitting ceased but the subtle suffering of standing commenced. Although the suffering of standing starts off small, it also compounds and becomes great. At first we labeled standing as “pleasant,” but now we label it as only “suffering.” The longer we stand, the greater is the compounding of this suffering. When it becomes identified as suffering because it is so noticeable, it becomes the suffering of suffering, the first kind of suffering.[16]


That the pleasure that comes from sense objects doesn’t last proves that such pleasure is actually the suffering of change. If such pleasure weren’t labeled on a suffering base, it would be pure happiness and would increase more and more. Year after year we would experience unimaginable bliss. His Holiness Zong Rinpoche used to illustrate this with the example of swimming at the beach. If being in the water was pure happiness, we should experience increasing bliss the longer we stayed in.

Similarly, the pleasure of eating is also suffering. As the initial discomfort of hunger goes away when we start eating, we label that feeling pleasure, but actually, the suffering of being too full has just begun. This suffering increases spoonful by spoonful until the suffering of eating is more intense than that of not eating. It’s the same when we’re cold and try to get warm: our initial exposure to the sun feels pleasant but it immediately compounds into discomfort until we again crave the shade. In the same way, sleeping and not sleeping are suffering, as is the joy of accumulating material possessions—eventually it wanes and we become bored.

Indifferent suffering, or neutral feeling, is what is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Why is it called suffering? It is because our aggregates are the result of the contaminated seed of disturbing thoughts. All three kinds of suffering—suffering of suffering, suffering of change and pervasive compounding suffering—come from karma and delusion and therefore bear only suffering results, which continuously attack us.[17]

With respect to the suffering of suffering of human beings, we can identify five types related to birth, five related to old age, five to sickness and five to death. There are also the suffering of encountering the unpleasant, the suffering of not getting what we desire and that of being separated from it.[18]




Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] The twelve links of dependent origination (rten ’brel yan lag bcu gnyis, dvādaśāṅga-pratītyasamutpāda), sometimes also called the twelve limbs of dependent origination, are 1) ignorance, 2) immature karma, 3) consciousness, 4) name and form, 5) sense doors, 6) contact, 7) feeling, 8) initial desire [craving], 9) strong desire [grasping], 10) mature karma [becoming], 11) conception [birth] and 12) aging and death. See Tharchin, King Udrayana, 85–143, for a traditional account.

[2] Ignorance (ma rig pa, avidyā) in this context is defined as “that perishable view which motivates new immature karma.” Immature (or throwing/projecting) karma (’phen byed kyi las) is defined as “that stained directing thought which is the type motivated anew by ignorance.” Consciousness (rnam par shes pa, vijñāna) is defined as “that stained consciousness which occurs immediately after conception into a new existence through the power of karma and bad thoughts,” ibid., 85–115, for comprehensive detail. The consciousness link can be seen in two parts: “The third link is called consciousness and refers to that moment when the action stops and the seed is implanted. This is consciousness at the time of the cause, or causal consciousness. Consciousness at the moment of conception in the rebirth resulting from this imprint is referred to as resultant consciousness” See Rinchen, How Karma Works, 66.

Further, regarding ignorance, Rinchen suggests that if we are speaking technically (which here, in the name of accuracy, we must), great precision is required:

There are forms of ignorance that act as the root of cyclic existence which do not constitute the first link of this twelve-part process. There is also ignorance which is the first link but does not act as a root of cyclic existence and there are forms of ignorance that are both, and others which are neither. An example of ignorance that acts as a root of cyclic existence but which is not the first link of this twelve-part process is the innate misconception of the aggregates that constitute body and mind as truly existent. An example of the second kind of ignorance mentioned is an intellectually formed conception of a truly existent self, namely one acquired through philosophical speculation, or through misleading instruction. The first of the twelve links, which also acts as a root of cyclic existence, is a misconception of the self that is present in all living beings and must therefore be the instinctive or innate kind. Ignorance accompanying desire, anger, and so forth is neither the first link nor does it act as the root of cyclic existence.

How Karma Works, 58.

Hopkins observes: “Here in the twelve links of dependent-arising, ignorance refers to the misconception of the person, specifically oneself, as inherently existent, and to the misconception that phenomena that are part of one’s continuum, such as mind and body, inherently exist.” The Meaning of Life 10.

In the same text, His Holiness the Dalai Lama stresses the need to distinguish innate from acquired forms as it is the former that is the root of all problems:

One type of ignorance is the mere non-knowing of how things actually exist, a factor of mental obscuration. However, here in the twelve links of dependent-arising, ignorance is explained as a wrong consciousness that conceives the opposite of how things actually do exist.

            Ignorance is the chief of the afflictive emotions that we are seeking to abandon. Each afflictive emotion is of two types: innate and intellectually acquired. Intellectually acquired afflictive emotions are based on inadequate systems of tenets, such that the mind imputes or fosters new afflictive emotions through conceptuality. These are not afflictive emotions that all sentient beings have and cannot be the ones that are at the root of the ruination of beings. As Nāgārjuna says in his Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness:

That consciousness that conceive things
Which are produced in dependence upon
Causes and conditions
To ultimately exist
Was said by the Teacher to be ignorance.
From it the twelve links arise.

This is a consciousness that innately misapprehends, or misconceives phenomena as existing under their own power, as not dependent. Ibid.

Further, His Holiness notes that innate ignorance can be found in two forms:

Because this consciousness has different types of objects, ignorance is divided into two types: one that conceives inherent existence upon observing persons and another type that conceives inherent existence upon observing other phenomena. These are called consciousness that conceive, respectively, a self of persons and a self of phenomena. Ibid.

In its turn, the conception of a self of person is also subdivided:

[T]he first is to take cognizance of one’s own person, one’s own I, and consider oneself to be inherently existent. The second, courser type of conception of a self of persons is where one misapprehends other persons as being substantially existent in the sense of being self-sufficient. The former is called “the false view of the transitory collection.” In the stanza cited above, Nāgārjuna indicates that the innate false view of the transitory collection, which is the root of cyclic existence, is the conception of one’s own self as inherently existent and that it arises in dependence upon the conception of those mental and physical aggregates that are the bases of designation of oneself––one’s mind, body and so forth––as inherently existent. In this way, the conception of a self of phenomena acts as a basis for the innate false view of the transitory collection that is a conception of the person as inherently existent, even though both types are ignorant consciousnesses that conceive inherent existence. Ibid, 44-5.

The above requires careful approach if we are not to become confused. For example, in the Precious Garland, Nāgārjuna famously writes:

As long as the aggregates are apprehended [as inherently established],
So long thereby does the apprehension of “I” [as inherently established] exist.
Further, when the apprehension of “I” exists,
There is action, and from it there also is birth.

Tsongkhapa however, points out that:

Chandrakīrti’s  Supplement to (Nāgārjuna’s) “Treatise on the Middle Way” explains that the view of the transitory is the root of cyclic existence:

Seeing [through investigating] with their minds that all afflictive emotions [such as desire and so forth] and defects [birth, aging, sickness, death, and so on]
Arise from the view of the transitory collection [apprehending “I” and “mine” as inherently established]…

See Tsongkhapa, Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Final Exposition, 49.  Are we then to conclude that there is not one but two discordant innate roots of cyclic existence (i.e. one grasping to a self of phenomena and then, in dependence upon that, another grasping to a self of persons)? Tsongkhapa replies that the discordancy is only apparent (i.e.not actual) because:

although this Middle Way Consequentialist system differentiates the two apprehensions of self by way of object of observation, the two do not have different aspects in their mode of apprehension, since they both have the aspect of apprehending [their objects] to be establishing by way of its own characters, and because [a contradiction of two roots of cyclic existence] is taken to be positing two [consciousnesses] that have discordant modes of apprehension in their operation on an object as roots of cyclic existence. Ibid, 49-50.

Tsongkhapa then spells out the conclusion. “There is no fallacy” because:

–when it is taught that the apprehension of a self of phenomena is the cause of the view of the transitory, it is being shown that the two inner divisions of ignorance are cause and effect [the apprehension of the inherent existence of phenomena causing the apprehension of inherent existence of the person], and

–when it is taught that both of those are the root of the afflictive emotions, it is being shown that they are the root of all other afflictive emotions whose modes of apprehension are discordant with them.

And since this fact is so for both of them, there is no contradiction, just as there is no contradiction in both former and later [moments] of a similar type of ignorance being the root of cyclic existence.

Ibid, 50.

Understanding this will save the reader possible confusion when the ignorance that is the root of cyclic existence is being discussed. For example, we can appreciate the exact extent of what Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche intends when he says “[b]y understanding the twelve links of interdependent origination we can better understand how the ignorance not knowing the ultimate nature of the “I” is the source of saṃsāric suffering.” See top of this post. 

To further distinguish the ignorance that is the ignorance of the first link, Geshe Doga notes that we must also necessarily consider tenets:

The Prasangika say that this ignorance is the ignorance of both the grasping at a person and the grasping at other phenomena. But schools below the Prasangika (the Svatantrika Madhyamika school and down) say that the ignorance of the first of the twelve links must be the self-grasping at a person because, according to the Svatantrika Madhyamika for example, the self-grasping at other phenomena is not an afflictive obstruction. For them it is an obstruction to omniscient mind. So there is this difference between the Prasangika and all the schools below it with respect to the very meaning of the two types of self-grasping.

See Geshe Doga, The Twelve Links, forthcoming book from Tara Institute Publishing [currently in end-stage production]. 

As has just been noted, via Tsongkhapa, for the Prasangika, the apprehension of self of phenomena and the apprehension of the self of person are exactly alike [have the same aspect] in that both erroneously (mis)conceive their respective objects to exist inherently. Both apprehensions therefore are necessarily equal examples of afflictive ignorance which means that both must be successfully opposed by the (same) wisdom realizing emptiness if liberation is to be obtained. This is a unique Prasangika tenet. By way of contrast, for the Svatantrika following Sūtra (a sub-school of Svantantika), and to pursue Geshe Doga’s point a little, the self grasping at a self of phenomena is an obstruction to omniscience and must be overcome if full enlightenment-–not just liberation from cyclic existence–is to be obtained. The implication: for them the ignorance grasping at a self of phenomena is more subtle and has a different aspect to the grasping at a self of person. Therefore, for them, it is therefore not just a matter of the base (whether person or phenomena other than person) being different; the actual objects to be negated by wisdom are also distinct.See Hopkins and Sopa, Cutting through Appearances, 298.   

The implications for the meditator in what might appear initially as extremely refined and perhaps even finicky distinctions regarding the topic of “what is root ignorance” are now obvious: exactly what is the deepest obstruction to our happiness? How are we to determine it and how are we then, consequently, to oppose it? And, when are we mistaking an object of negation that is the fabricated product or elaboration of belief in false tenets for that which arises innately, having accompanied us from beginningless time?

[3] This is because, as Tegchok observes:

From the Prasangika viewpoint, the conventional I, the mere I, and the aggregates that are its basis of designation are one entity, although the aggregates are not the self, and the self is not findable within the aggregates. The aggregates of this life and the self of this life are one entity, but the aggregates of this life and the general I are not one entity, because if they were, when the aggregates of this life ceased when the body died, the self would also cease. However, this is not the case. The mere I—which is empty of inherent existence—continues to the next life.”

Insight, 83. He also defines:

The mere I is the I that is merely imputed in dependence on the continuity of the mental consciousness because the mental consciousness is what goes from life to life and to enlightenment. The Prasangikas say that what the mere I refers to is the continuity of the mental consciousness. This is very different from the other schools that say that the continuity of the mental consciousness is the illustration of the person, because those systems also assert that when you search for the person in the aggregates, you find the continuity of the mental consciousness” (ibid., 80).

Further, according to Prāsaṅgika, the “I” (nga, aha) that exists is a “mere I” (nga tsam). It exists in dependence on being labeled by the mind and does not therefore exist as the aggregates, within the aggregates (considered either collectively or individually) or from the side of the aggregates. Rather, it is “imputed to” the aggregates. The qualifying “mere” (tsam, mātra) thus indicates how the mere I is none other than the dependently imputed self. Writes Tsongkhapa, “Consequently, you should differentiate between references to the ‘mere “I”,’ called self, which exists in conventional terms, and the inherently existent person, called self, which does not exist even in conventional terms.” See Hopkins, Final Exposition, 66.

For further detail on Tsongkhapa’s presentation of a “mere I” as “the object of our instinctual thought ‘I am,’” see Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason, 123–24. On the same point regarding an innate I, Yeshey Tupden writes: “This ‘mere I’ [is an object of the] nonanalytical mind that thinks, ‘I come,’ and, ‘I go, ‘I eat,’ ‘I drink,’ and so forth, This I goes to work, goes to shows, reads texts. It exists.” But he immediately goes on to distinguish this from the I that is to be refuted:

When, thinking of this, one reflects, ‘I saw a show,’ there exists a great ‘I’ which exceeds the existential measure (yod tshad) of the conventionally existent I. This mind conceiving of this does so under its own power, without reflecting on reasons. This mind is a conceiver of true existence whose referent is ‘I, I.’ This is not something [purposely] made up by the mind; it is not acquired but innate, and [its object is] the inherently existent I. This I does not go to shows [that is, it does not exist]. One needs to identify the measure of apprehension (’dzin tshad) of this mind.

See Klein, Path, 104.

[4] Mind-basis-of-all/foundational consciousness (kun gzhi rnam shes, ālayavijñāna).

[5] The Dalai Lama explores this point in relation to how “oneself is a continuation of the mere I that performed the action….Since, for a person who performed an action and thereby accumulated the karma, the continuum of the mere I keeps going, one continues to be the I who accumulated that karma.” He then relates this to the manner in which, to ensure a stable base of continuity, the I must be designated to the subtle level of consciousness that “has been together with oneself since beginningless time.” The Meaning of Life (Boston: Wisdom, 2000), 69–70.

Regarding what criteria are required (according to Prāsaṅgika) to establish a base (or basis) of designation (gdags gzhi), Lamrimpa notes three factors: “There must necessarily be something that is cognized (Tib. dmigs pa) as well as a referent object of that cognition (Tib. dmigs yul). In addition, there must be an awareness that is the simple cognition of the basis of designation (Tib. dmigs mkhan).” Realizing Emptiness, 37. Lama Zopa Rinpoche (above) is therefore stressing the third, as he is discussing Mind-Only tenets, which don’t accept external phenomena. This has obvious implications for any account of the labeling process, especially as the Mind-Only Followers of Scripture say that the object perceived and the consciousness perceiving that object arise simultaneously in dependence on a ripening karmic latency residing in the mind-basis-of-all. See Hopkins, Meditation, 383.

[6] Karmic seed: bag chags, vāsanā. Also translated as latency, predisposition or instinct. See Dhargyey, Tibetan Tradition, 103.

[7] Writes Rinchen, “Ignorance, formative action, and consciousness are the three projecting causes. The results they project are name and form, the six sources, contact, and feeling. Craving and grasping, like moisture and a fertile growing medium, activate the seed-like imprint so that it begins to grow.” How Karma Works, 66.

[8] Craving, or initial desire (sred pa, tṛṣṅā), is defined as “that mental function which, due to the limb of feeling, wishes by its own power not to be separated from its object.” Tharchin, King Udrayana, 127. Grasping, or strong desire (len pa, upādāna), is defined as “that desire which is the previous initial desire greatly increased” (ibid., 129).

[9] Birth, or conception (skye ba, jāti), is defined as “those heaps which are by nature the stained results of ripening which constitute the conception into a rebirth through the power of karma and bad thoughts” (ibid., 139).

[10] Compounding aggregates (’dus byas kyi phung po). Name and form (ming dang gzugs, nāmarūpa) is defined as “that name or form which is by nature a stained ripening of karma and which exists during the period of time when the branch of consciousness is already present but that of the sense doors has not yet appeared” (ibid., 117).

[11] Conventional person (tha snyad kyi bdag).

[12] The six sense bases, sense doors, or six sense entrances (skye mched drug, ṣaḍāyatana), are defined as “those sense doors which are by nature stained heaps which are a maturation of karma and which exist during the period after the branch of name and form has occurred but before the branch of contact has come about” (ibid., 119).

The definition of contact (reg pa, sparśa) is “that stained directing thought which experiences the quality of its object due to the convening of the three of object, power and consciousness, and which occurs during that period in which the branch of the sense doors has already occurred but that of feeling has yet to appear” (ibid., 121).

Feeling, or sensation (tshor ba, vedanā), is defined as “that stained directing thought which is caused by the branch of contact and which experiences, through its own power, its particular object—which can be pleasure, suffering, or that which is between these two” (ibid., 123).

The twelfth link, “aging and death” (rga shi, jarā-maraṇa), is defined as “the condition of the heaps’ becoming older through the power of karma and bad thoughts” and “the condition of one’s life force coming to an end due to the power of karma and bad thoughts” (ibid., 143).

[13] Becoming, or being (srid pa, bhava), is defined as “that directing thought which is by nature a stained, ripened result and has become extremely potent karma through development by initial and/or strong desire” (ibid., 133).

[14] Pervasive compounding suffering, all-pervasive suffering of conditioning (khyab pa ’du byed kyi sdug bsngal). See Dhargyey, Tibetan Tradition, 22. Regarding this suffering [which is also sometimes translated as the suffering of conditionality], Tsongkhapa writes: 

Contaminated neutral feelings are like an inflamed boil which is in contact with neither soothing nor irritating substances. Because these feelings coexist with dysfunctional tendencies, they constitute the suffering of conditionality, which, as explained above, does not refer to the feelings alone. Insofar as the suffering of conditionality is affected by previous karma, as well as the afflictions, and coexists with seeds that will produce future suffering and affliction, it coexists with persistent dysfunctional tendencies. 

See Tsong-kha-pa, The Great Treatise, Volume one, 290. To recognise this we need look no further than our current appropriated aggregates. Witness our  body:

In the same way that someone bearing a heavy burden cannot be happy so long as the burden must be borne, you too will suffer so long as you carry the burden of the appropriated aggregates. Though you have occasional moments when painful feeling is absent, because the aggregates are firmly embedded in the dysfunctional tendencies of suffering and the afflictions, the suffering of conditionality is still present, and therefore myriad sufferings are just on the verge of arising in countless ways. Therefore, since the suffering of conditionality pervades all suffering and is the root of the other two types of suffering, meditate on it often in order to become disenchanted with it.” Ibid. 291.

[15] The truth of suffering (sdug bsngal bden pa) is presented in the middle scope of the lamrim together with elaboration of the three kinds of suffering, including the suffering of change (’gyur ba’i sdug bsngal). See, for example, the Dalai Lama, Path to Enlightenment, 120–27; Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise, Volume one, 265-95.  

[16] Suffering of suffering (sdug bsngal gyi sdug bsngal).

[17] As detailed above, the three types of suffering (sdug bsngal gsum, triduḥkhatā) are the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change and pervasive compounding suffering.

[18] Lama Zopa Rinpoche is referring to the eight types of general suffering experienced by saṃsāric beings as well as the six types pertaining especially to human beings. For a detailed commentary on the first set, see Sopa, Steps, Volume 2, 199–224, and for the second, ibid., 225–42. See also Tsongkhapa, Middle Length Lam-Rim, 107–12; Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise, Volume one, 265-87.


Pinpointing Root Ignorance

The Mādhyamaka and lamrim teachings give the analogy of seeing a piece of rope lying on the road as a snake. Due to way the rope is coiled, its color, the lack of visual clarity and so forth, we develop the wrong concept that it is a snake.

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Tribute to Geshe Dawa Part Two


Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH


Resident Translator: Samdup Tsering

Transcribed from audio file and personal notes with light editing:   Ross Moore.




Because compassion is generated by thinking over the suffering of sentient beings you need to know how the objects of compassion–sentient beings–suffer. When we think it over, there is no sentient being who does not have any suffering.

Consequently, when we think about how sentient beings are tortured by various pains and sufferings, it is reasonable and important to have the feeling to free them from suffering. Why the generation of this compassionate wish is reasonable is because we and others are not unrelated. Though some might feel quite alienated to us, in reality this is not the case. By considering the beginningless nature of our life we come to know that we have some personal relation even to these alienated sentient beings. While we might not currently know what relationship formerly existed it is certain that other sentient beings have been our mothers and relatives. By thinking deeply in this way we come to realize that sentient beings are all belonging to one family and, just like myself, they are suffering. Moreover, because they are my relations they have been kind to me. So, in this way, we imagine all sentient beings as our own mother and remember their kindness.

Having generated this awareness of the kindness of others the thought of repaying their kindness automatically comes. In dependence on this we generate love towards other sentient beings. This love is like that of a mother’s love for her only son; because she wants her son to feel happy she feels love towards him. So, if we had the same likeness [affectionate feeling] towards others, we would love them all in this way. Just as a mother, due to her love for her only child is willing to shoulder [take upon themselves] all suffering on their behalf, likewise, if we had the same feeling of love towards other sentient beings we would automatically wish to take their suffering by ourselves. So this is the beginning of the process of developing bodhichitta according to the method called Seven-Fold Cause and Effect, starting with (1) recognition of all beings as our mother to remembering their kindness (2) and up to wishing to repay their kindness (3) and love [through the force of attraction] (4).[1]

Although there are many different ways of developing bodhichitta, amongst them this method of Seven-fold Cause and Effect is one of the main ones. At the same time, the generation of bochichitta through practising the method known as Exchanging Self and Others is practised.[2]

The way to reach [engage] the system of Exchanging Self and Others involves knowing the suffering of sentient beings and, at the same time, recognising other sentient beings as our mother. We need to contemplate on the kindness of sentient beings according to the Seven-fold Cause and Effect method. In this way we have a two-fold approach.

When we talk of exchanging self and others we don’t take this literally: that I become you and you become me! Rather, it means that instead of self-cherishing we need to produce the mind of cherishing others.

Now the question arises: how can we exchange self-cherishing with cherishing others? At the beginning we need to contemplate upon one’s own misery. By thinking upon this more, together with contemplating the causes of our suffering, we come to know that suffering is not without a cause. But, at the moment we feel that the suffering we have is coming from the other side. While it is true that suffering has come from some cause we nonetheless feel that all the suffering we are undergoing is absolutely due to some other beings! It is due to him or her. But in a real sense this is not so. Maybe sometimes other people will cause one to suffer but the main cause of suffering is not those others: it is our own misconceptions. Our own misconceptions are the main source of one’s suffering and this main cause is not the immediate cause or condition: it is something else. This means that if, in order to be free of sufferings, we wait for the external conditions of suffering to be exhausted we will conclude that there is no way to get rid of suffering.[3]

The suffering we have is not merely coming from the side of others. For instance, all the Buddhas who have attained highest enlightenment did so in times when people’s nature was not different from what it is today: there were still those who showed anger and hatred, and so forth, towards them. But those who became Buddhas were still able to achieve enlightenment in those conditions. This indicates that in order to destroy suffering we must see how it comes from our own mind. Therefore, when we think that the main cause of suffering is other beings and their bad manners, this is not so. If it were, then there wouldn’t be any persons who have attained liberation–freedom from the suffering of this life.

In connection with this Bodhisattva Shāntideva has said: to clear the whole surface of the hill of all stones and thorns by covering it entirely with leather is difficult. It is better to cover the soles of your feet with leather shoes.[4]

The meaning: in order that we do not suffer by walking on the rough hills, it is better to cover one’s feet with sufficient leather. Similarly, though we normally point towards others when we experience any problems or suffering, but in a real sense this is not appropriate. Just as Shāntideva has said: rather than pointing outside, it is better to point inside at one’s own self-cherishing. It is reasonable to do this because self-cherishing is the main cause of our internal suffering. But even when we go very deeply inside to look into how much self-cherishing we have there, it is still very difficult to know how self-cherishing deceives us. The way other people cause us to suffer is quite coarse and rough compared to it. That is why we are so quick to hold external causes responsible; they are relatively easy to understand. But when we consider how self-cherishing harms us, it is harder to see. We recognize I-grasping as our savior, as our best friend, but it is in this way that self-cherishing gives problems to us.

If we consider our self-cherishing so highly, then, in the end, we will even live far from one’s friends and relatives. We won’t think of other sentient beings, let alone our friends and relatives. This proves that the I-grasping of self-cherishing is supported by only one being who is the “I”.

If one proceeds according to the suggestions of self-cherishing one can’t be free from the whole of suffering. It could be [relatively] ok, but it is impossible to get free of suffering if one goes in the direction self-cherishing pushes us, pushes us even when we can’t get enough happiness in this life.[5] The “I” or self-cherishing gives a lot of problems to us; this is why Shāntideva has said that the main source of our entire suffering is this self-cherishing “I”. Furthermore, Shāntideva has said that it is the main source of one’s own suffering and our worst enemy. This is because while our enemy can do no more harm than actually kill us, our self-cherishing attitude has numerous times caused us to be reborn amongst hell beings. Therefore it causes immense suffering in limitless lifetimes.[6] Even if we think in just terms of this lifetime, surely it has given us lots of problems and sufferings?

The self-cherishing is the main enemy of oneself so, in order for it to be destroyed one needs to contemplate on the effects of self-cherishing and think of the advantages of cherishing others.

Why are other beings more beneficial and in possession of more qualities than oneself? If we think of this lifetime we were born naked and were grown-up by the love and kindness of others. This shows how kind are others to us. Up till now we have been brought up by the kindness of others.

At the same time, to attain Buddhahood, fifty percent of the causes to obtain it are dependent on the other side. This is because the main causes for Buddhahood, such as love and compassion, are generated through other beings. So all our qualities are dependent on the kindness of other sentient beings and the Buddhas; other beings are the objects towards whom we generate love and compassion and bodhichitta. Just as others are so grateful to us for our attainment of Buddhahood, so too we must we be grateful to them for even allowing our enlightened attainment.

Because of others, Milarepa and Nyangtsa Kargyen (his mother) have made spiritual development. Even though Nyangtsa was treated so rudely by her aunt, Nyangtsa said that she was the main cause leading her to enter dharma practice.[7] At the same time, Milarepa attained the highest enlightenment in one lifetime due to the over-bearing rude nature of the uncle. Sometimes the other being may be so harsh and rude to oneself, yet, due to them, one can do one’s best practice of spiritual development.

With regards to the benefits of cherishing others, Shāntideva has said there is no need to mention the distinction between the advantages of cherishing others and the disadvantages of cherishing ourselves: all we need to do is to observe or look upon the qualities possessed by Buddha and the qualities possessed by ordinary people.[8] We can know this distinction by thinking in terms of this lifetime: who is a person whom we consider good? Is it someone with self-cherishing or someone who cherishes others?


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Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Though not enumerated here, the remaining causes are: great compassion (5) and special intention or altruism. The result (7) is the mind generation of bodhichitta itself. See Pabongka, Liberation, 566.

[2] Geshe Dawa is teaching the unique combined method passed down in oral tradition from Lama Tsongkhapa. It is that taught by the Panchen Lama in The Easy Path. As Gyumed Khensur Lobsang Jampa explains:

Lama Tsongkhapa himself innovated a unique method for making these powerful instructions more accessible for beginners by combining them with the seven-point cause-and-effect instructions, like two rivers flowering into one powerful current. Lama Tsongkhapa did not write these unique instructions down. They were passed orally from teacher to student until Panchen Lama Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen put them in writing for the first time in Easy Path as well as in the Guru Puja. In this approach, which is very effective for beginners, you begin by meditating on the first three points from the seven-point cause-and-effect instructions: seeing all beings as your mothers, recalling their kindness, and wishing to repay their kindness. The purpose of those three meditations is to give rise to great love. Practitioners of very high capacity who can realize great love solely through equalizing and exchanging self with others don’t have to engage in these initial steps, but most of us will find this instruction very useful. In this unique approach, great love is generated in two ways. First you generate it as a result of those first three contemplations. Then you intensify that love by meditating on equalizing self with others, on the faults of self-cherishing, and on the advantages of cherishing others. All of this gives rise to very intense universal love.

See Jampa, Easy Path, 179-80.

[3] The point implied here would appear to be that we would conclude thus because the external conditions could never be actually or successfully exhausted: there is always another problem or difficulty lying in waiting as it were. This was covered in the extensive point concerning the manner in which the suffering of uncertainty pervades cyclic existence. Though we remain unsatisfied we remain addicted to finding it within terms that perpetually fail. At some point our habits must be challenged and broken.

[4] This is a paraphrase. The verse reads:

To cover all the earth with sheets of leather–
Where could such amounts of skin be found?
But with the leather soles of just my shoes
It is as though I cover all the earth!

See Shāntideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, translated by Padmakara Translation Group, Chapter Five: Vigilance, verse 13, 33.

[5] Shāntideva writes:

While in cyclic existence how can I be joyful and unafraid
If in my heart I readily prepare a place
For this incessant enemy of long duration,
The sole cause for the increase of all that harms me?

See Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, translated by Stephen Batchelor, Chapter Four “Conscientiousness”, verse 34, 40.

[6]  Shāntideva:

Should even all the gods and demi-gods
Rise up against me as my enemy,
They could not lead nor place me in
The roaring fires of deepest hell.

Yet the mighty foe, these disturbing conceptions,
In a moment can cast me amidst (those flames)
Which, when met, will cause not even the ashes
of the king of mountains to remain.

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, translated by Stephen Batchelor, Chapter Four Conscientiousness, verses 30-31, 40.

[7] For detail of what is, in many fascinating mystical and yet all-too earthy ways, a torrid Himalayan tale of intergenerational cruelty, familial abuse, black magic, ugly revenge, repentance and actual Enlightenment, see The Life of Milarepa, translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa. Boston & London: Shambhala Books, 1985. Other translations are available.

[8] The exact reference intended here is elusive, though the following is a possible contender:

If, in the past, I had practised
This act (of exchanging self for others),
A situation such as this, devoid of the magnificence and bliss of a
Could not possibly have come about.

See Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, translated by Stephen Batchelor, Chapter Eight “Meditation”, verse 157, 125.




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