Our Hallucinating Mind


14099509_1663876940594331_1670037804_nSays Lama Zopa Rinpoche:

With the motivation of working just for ourself there is no way we can completely free our mental continuum from all the gross and subtle obscurations. We can free ourselves from the gross disturbing-thought obscurations but the subtle obscurations will remain. It is good to know this point.[1]

Arhats[2] don’t have the kind of selfish mind that we do—they don’t have our very gross egos. But they do have the attitude of working for self. In terms of attainment, all arhats have realized emptiness directly and see the I as illusory. Therefore there is no way in which they can have the same very gross mind clinging to an I as do most of us ordinary beings. We hold a very strong sense of ego within our mind. It is very rough, gross, unrelaxed and painful in nature. It is like a rock inside our heart. Arhats don’t have that. Instead, their thought of self is very subtle, and even though their attitude is one of seeking liberation and happiness for the self, it is unlike our current hard self-attitude.

The big difference is due to their direct realization of emptiness together with their subsequent attainment of awareness of the illusory nature of the I  which they see as like a dream. Their seeking of self-happiness bears no more resemblance to ours than does dust in space to a huge solid rock mountain. Until we have realized emptiness, our egos will be like those mountains.

The conclusion is that there is neither reason nor  time to give rise to negative emotional thoughts based on a self-cherishing attitude such as attachment and grasping or anger with intention to harm. Causing only continuous suffering in saṃsāra and particularly in the lower realms, negative emotional thoughts delude our mind; our mental continuum is poisoned.



We need to consider how, just like illusions, phenomena do not exist as they appear to us. So we must ask: what is meant by illusory?[3] Do phenomena exist in the manner in which they appear?

You can explore this  in the same way you might question whether or not a person might be [correctly] identified by looking at their appearance in a passport photo: do they exist in the way we believe them to exist according to  their image? Likewise, do they exist in the way we believe them to exist according to our own ignorance?

While they do not exist in the way they appear to our ignorance, we believe them to exist in the way they appear. While they are false, we believe them to be true. So while we believe them to exist from their own side, they are empty of existing from their own side.[4]

By looking with mindfulness into their very nature we can extend our understanding of the illusory nature of what appears  to the false view of the I and [to the false view of] all the rest of phenomena.[5]

But consider also the shortcomings of not meditating in this manner: no liberation, no enlightenment. Just as our suffering in saṃsāra is beginningless, it will also be endless. Furthermore, we will be unable to liberate others from the ocean of saṃsāric sufferings. Due to being unable to reveal the path to them by showing what is true and false, we will be unable to help them remove the root of saṃsāra from their own continuums. Also, how ignorance holding things to be truly existent is a wrong concept and is to be abandoned, totally eradicated, will remain obscure [i.e. hidden from knowledge]. Therefore, other sentient beings will have to suffer endlessly.

Because the unknowing mind, the mind that does not know the ultimate nature of the self and the aggregates is within us, so too is liberation—the total liberation that is everlasting freedom from all suffering and its cause.[6]

What we must understand is how this unknowing mind is the source of all the other hallucinated mistaken minds of anger, attachment,  jealousy, and so forth. These arise by exaggerating and placing negative or positive labels upon  objects already exaggerated and hallucinated by ignorance as existing in a manner exceeding what is really there. It is the same as when taking a hallucinatory drug: we project something that is not there and then believe it to be true. Under the influence of drugs, or ignorance, we see all sorts of nonexistent things.


[1]  Lama Zopa Rinpoche refers here to the achievement of liberation (thar pa, vimokṣa/mokṣa) in contrast to  full enlightenment (byang chub, bodhi).  According to Prāsaṅgika tenets, Hīnayāna practitioners, after traversing either the path of a Hearer (Skt: śrāvaka; Tib: nyen thö) or Solitary Realizer (Skt: pratyekabuddha; Tib: rang sangye) attain their fruit of practice: liberation from cyclic existence. This attainment is predicated upon having abandoned the gross afflictive obscurations (nyon mongs pa’i sgrib pa, kleśāvaraṇa) but, because they have not generated  bodhichitta and traversed the bodhisattva  paths, subtle obscurations (shes bya’i sgrib pa, jñeyāvaraṇa) obstructing full enlightenment remain on their mindstream. In other words, although  arhats have attained liberation from suffering they are not endowed with a buddha’s fully perfected qualities. But they retain and can  still realise this potential. See Hopkins, Meditation, 99; 106–9.

[2] According to the Mahāyāna, other practitioners seek to traverse the grounds and paths of the Bodhisattva vehicle. Their aim is to become  fully enlightened in order to  be ideally and best situated to rescue all suffering sentient beings without exception, even if this delays the fulfillment of one’s own goals (i.e. liberation). Because Bodhisattvas have generated the mind of enlightenment (bodhichitta) and are also engaged in the practice the Six Perfections on that basis, it can be said that they are no longer motivated by personal self-interest.  It should be understood that Lama Zopa Rinpoche is  disparaging neither Arhats nor their great achievement. To do so would be to abandon the teaching of the Buddha who taught Hearer and Solitary Realizer paths in order to best appeal to certain individual’s karmic pre-dispositions. Indeed, as Lama Lhundrup explains, the thirteenth root Bodhisattva vow reads: Encouraging others to abandon the self-liberation vows. Its explanation:The transgression occurs when we tell people that the self-liberation vows, such as the monks’ and nuns’ ordination vows, are not necessary. We tell people to just study the Mahayana Dharma and generate bodhicitta. If we talk and influence people in this way, we incur the thirteenth downfall of abandoning self-liberation vows.” See http://www.lamayeshe.com/article/bodhisattva-vows. The fourteenth root downfall reads: Disrespecting or criticizing the Hinayana teachings (or Belittling the śrāvaka Vehicle). The essential point: “working for self” has a particularly refined meaning in this Hinayana context and is not to be equated with usual afflicted selfishness (which we might have to a colossal extent) as Lama Zopa Rinpoche is explaining.

[3] Illusion (sgyu ma, māyā); illusion-like/illusion-like nature (sgyu ma lta bu, māyopama). Jinpa notes that “according to Tsongkhapa, there is a clearly discernible degree of fictionality to persons as far as their existential status is concerned. Persons are, to use his own words, ‘illusion-like.’ The central point of comparison between persons and illusory objects is simple: like a magician’s illusion, persons appear to be ‘real’ while in actual fact they are ‘empty’ of their own being. There is an apparent inconsistency at the heart of an illusory object, It appears in one way, yet exists in a contrary way. Tsongkhapa calls this essential characteristic of illusion ‘the discord between appearance and reality’ (snang gnas mi mtun pa) and suggests that this cannot be characteristic of ‘real’ entities, which possess intrinsic being. Tsongkhapa argues that there is a real sense in which persons are fictional as well in that they possess this contradiction at the heart of their existence. In fact, according to Tsongkhapa, all objects of everyday reality are similarly fictional.” See Geshe Thubten Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle Way (Oxford: Routledge Curzon, 2002), 163. His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes, in a similar vein:

To view yourself or other phenomena as like illusions requires two things—the false appearance of objects as inherently existent, and an understanding that you or whatever you are considering does not exist that way.

He points out that, for this reason, the discrepancy between appearance and reality becomes apparent only once one has realised emptiness in meditation:

Because of your experience in meditation of searching for and not finding this independent quality (although after meditation, phenomena still appear to exist inherently), the power of your previous understanding opens the way for you to recognise that these phenomena are illusory, in that, although they appear to exist inherently, they do not. As Buddha said, “All things have the attribute of falsity, deceptiveness.

See the Dalai Lama, How to See Yourself As You Really Are. Translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkin  New York: Atria Books, 2006), 178.

[4] Existence from the object’s own side/ established from the object’s own side (rang ngos nas grub pa, svarūpasiddhi).

[5] Regarding illusory natures, Tsongkhapa writes,

Therefore, whatever arises dependently
Though always free of inherent existence,
Appears to exist from its own side;
So you said this is like an illusion.

See Geshe Lobsang Gyatso, The Harmony of Emptiness and Dependent-Arising: A Commentary to Tsong Khapa’s the Essence of Eloquent Speech, Praise to the Buddha for Teaching Profound Dependent-Arising. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 2006, 6. He glosses, “In this verse Buddha compares all phenomena to an illusion. Notice that he does not say all phenomena are illusions, merely that they are like illusions. The kind of illusion referred to by the Buddha is an illusion conjured up by an Indian magician of the type who is able to cause a pebble or stick to appear as a horse or an elephant or as a beautiful woman to his audience by casting a mantra that affects their eyes. The illusion appears to be a real horse, an elephant or woman but, in truth, is not” (ibid., 81). For more on Tsongkhapa’s critical distinction between illusion-like/illusion-like nature (sgyu ma lta bu, māyopama) and illusion (sgyu ma, māyā), see  Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason,  25. Lama Zopa Rinpoche develops the classic analogy of a magician’s illusions or magical display in the next post. 

[6] Absolute precision, via a careful contextualisation of terms, is again required. “Self” here refers to a validly existent “conventional person” (tha snyad kyi bdag), or mere I (nga tsam), and is not to be confused with “self” (bdag, atman) referring to the object to be refuted by the wisdom realizing selflessness—in this immediate case, in regards to the self of persons (gang zag gi bdag med, pudgalātman).

Writes Tsongkhapa, “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,Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Final Exposition of Wisdom. Edited by Kevin Voss (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2008), 66.

As Jinpa explains, only the “sense of self—conceived in terms of an autonomous, substantial reality” is to be “destroyed.” Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason, 81. The explanatory source is again Tsongkhapa: “Thus, there are two senses to the term ‘self’ (bdag): a self conceived in terms of an intrinsic nature that exists by means of intrinsic being, and a self in the sense of the object of our simple, natural thought ‘I am.’ Of these two, the first is the object of negation by reasoning, while the second is not negated, for it is accepted as conventionally real” (ibid., 71).

Likewise, neither can we hope to approach the intended meaning of the key term “self of persons” or, indeed, self of phenomena (chos kyi bdag, dharmātman) without first understanding this distinction. Nor can we appreciate, as Jinpa further explains, how “for Tsongkhapa, the self (ātman) becomes intrinsic existence (svabhāva)” or how “a belief in the intrinsic being of persons is a belief in self” (ibid., 79). These critical points will be extensively explored in this blog. 


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