Beginningless Mind


Lama Zopa Rinpoche:

Only when we recognize how to achieve liberation from the suffering of pain, change, and pervasive compounded suffering do we really come to realize the full extent of our unbelievably good fortune. But we must also understand both how the mind is a continuity reaching back into a beginningless past and how it is continuously being reborn.[1]

It is on the basis of this continuity that the root ignorance—the source of all suffering—is carried from lifetime to lifetime and so giving rise to all our problems.

The root ignorance is an unknowing mind.[2] It [falsely] apprehends that there is an I in either the phenomena of body, or mind, or their association—indeed, wherever one apprehends an I to be. In reality, however, there is no I there. Root ignorance, in other words, is unknowing because it involves apprehending an I that does not exist.[3]

This hallucinating mind, this concept of inherent existence, is born with us. It is with us even when we are still in the womb of the mother of this life. This is because, just as the consciousness of this life comes from the continuity of the mind prior to our birth in this lifetime, so too does our ignorance, which has always accompanied it.

If ignorance and our mind were not similar in terms of continuity, there would be no reason for us to be born with it at the time of conception.

This is also the reason why this innate wrong concept, root ignorance, didn’t come from our parents, or our parents’ ignorance. Parents, therefore, do not share with their children the ignorances that they also have—passing them on, as it were, like a blessing—I’m joking!

It has nothing to do with the parents, because ignorance has a continuity that precedes even the moment just before the consciousness enters the fertilized egg in the mother’s womb.

For the same reason, we can say that today’s ignorance has a continuity because it existed yesterday.[4]

Our current ignorance is therefore the continuation of our ignorance of the day before. This is how we come to conclude that the past continuity of ignorance has no beginning.

best cropped endless road

In the same way, we can establish that there is no beginning to other delusions such as anger either. Our anger did not start only one eon ago, a hundred lifetimes ago or a hundred years ago. There was no great celebration marking the day that our anger was born—a celebration bigger than a wedding ceremony in a church! Or a special annual celebration: “Today is my desire’s birthday!”

Like the other delusions, desire has no beginning. The continuity of all these obscuring disturbing emotional thoughts has no beginning. Likewise, there is no beginning to the continuity of the motivating karma that leads to suffering results.[5] The continuity of our suffering has no beginning—there is no first moment when we started to experience the suffering of pain, the changeable suffering of sense pleasures or the pervasive compounding suffering that is the continuity of the defiled aggregates that compound, or create, the future suffering of saṃsāra.[6]

Without an omniscient mind, we cannot see the entirety of our past lives; even with clairvoyance we might see only a certain number—say hundreds, or thousands. And, of course, most of us cannot do even that. But even if we cannot see them with our own experience, by studying, meditating and applying valid reasoning, we can establish the continuity of consciousness and the beginningless continuity of the delusions. As our realizations increase, our mind becomes clearer and clearer. Eventually we will be able to remember our own past experiences—and see the future as well. But at the moment, all we can remember are the problems of this life.

If we don’t study Dharma or meditate on sūtra and tantra we can’t really recognize the true extent of our problem—our perception is very limited and our understanding of what we should be free from is extremely gross. It is like having cancer or AIDS without knowing it; in that case our understanding depends upon a doctor’s knowledge and explanation. Similarly, here we need to rely upon the method, the path revealed by the fully enlightened Buddha Śākyamuni.

The Dharma path he showed eradicates the real cause of problems—not just the gross suffering of pain, but the other two less obvious sufferings, the suffering of change and pervasive compounding suffering. We can fully rely upon this path because it is the method of the Fully Enlightened One, who completely trained his holy mind in compassion for other sentient beings for many eons and taught the Dharma that protects us from delusions, wrong concepts, problems and the sufferings of life.

Only by understanding the beginningless continuity of the delusions and the hallucinating mind of ignorance, the concept of inherent existence, together with the manner, dependent on these, in which karma has been collected from beginningless time, can such sufferings and problems be eliminated.


For although the sufferings of saṃsāra have no beginning, they can end. But only by realizing emptiness, the ultimate nature that is the meaning of the Essence of Wisdom, or Heart Sūtra, can this occur. Moreover, without first realizing, for ourselves, the truth of selflessness that the Buddha taught, which eliminates all suffering, there is no way that we can liberate other sentient beings from all suffering and the delusions and karma that are its cause. Without understanding ultimate nature, we cannot bring others to full enlightenment.

Therefore, I again wish to emphasize how unbelievably fortunate we are to have this opportunity to listen to and reflect and meditate upon this profound topic. Even if you are unable to meditate every day, you should study or at least listen to teachings on emptiness, since by doing so you will leave a positive imprint on your mind, preparing you for a better future.

Even giving rise to the doubt that things might be empty of inherent existence is said to break saṃsāra into pieces.[7] The doubt alone that arises when you meditate on and analyze emptiness is that powerful. Not thinking it’s completely empty, not generating full faith in that, but merely thinking that maybe it is empty—even that smashes your suffering realm of saṃsāra, the circling from this life to the next, the container of all this life’s problems and the foundation for the next.

Even just thinking, without full faith, that it may be empty harms saṃsāra’s root.

Sometimes we might think, “What benefit are the teachings on emptiness? How does this philosophy help?” Here we must understand that meditation on emptiness is the most powerful meditation for shattering our hallucinations.


Our daily life’s problems happen because we believe the hallucinations to be real. By remembering emptiness we immediately stop this belief; the hallucinations break. As I mentioned before, it’s like dropping an atomic bomb—instantly, our problems cease.

Especially when in troubled circumstances, we’re in danger of creating very negative karmas and doing great harm to other sentient beings, and while creating problems in our lives and harming others, we give rise to anger, uncontrolled desire and a very dissatisfied, depressed mind, one preventing success in our aims. Depression arises because we didn’t achieve what our desire wanted, what the self-mind wanted, or get what we expected. Even if we don’t remember the reason we’re depressed, it happens. But when we meditate on the emptiness of the I or the emptiness of phenomena, depression does not arise because it comes from apprehending hallucinations and believing them to be real, or truly existent. Therefore, it is very important to remember emptiness in those daily life situations that are most confusing.


Buddha Shakyamuni. Tibetan Brass Tradition. 13/14 Century. Jokhang.


Rather than giving in to the desire to harm others or ourselves we should think:

 “This is a projection.”


“These things that look real from their own side are hallucinations.” 

Then meditate strongly that they are empty.

If we don’t generate aversion to anger, we’ll be more easily disturbed when we encounter difficulties. Also, when we get angry we destroy our accumulated positive karma. We can destroy a vast amount of positive karma in just an instant, a second, a split-second.

What we have to understand is that anger arises from the self-cherishing attitude.[8] Its causes don’t come from outside but are inside, in our own mind. So what we must do when anger arises is to dissolve it back into the self-cherishing attitude from which it arises. All the obstacles are dissolved back into the self-cherishing attitude so that it disappears.


“All the negative karma that ripens as anger and the other disturbing attitudes is dissolving back into its cause—the self-cherishing attitude—and is disappearing. Now it has completely disappeared. “

At the same time also think:

“All the objects held by the self-cherishing attitude as very important, as the most important, appear to exist from their own side. But they are empty of existing from their own side. They are empty of existing truly. Those obstacles ripened by the self-cherishing attitude are mere emptiness.”

See them in this way. What you must do is think about emptiness at such times and meditate on that. Make it empty.

In this way that obstacle will become a cause of happiness and peace for the mind. It is not just a matter of bodhicitta. In such moments we must recall the correct view of emptiness. Maybe it is like that.


“I shall eliminate the self-cherishing attitude from the point of view of reality and strive for enlightenment. This is why I am doing this activity, this meditation.”



[1] For a concise account of beginningless mind, see the Dalai Lama, Middle Way, 37–41; also his From Here to Enlightenment (Boston: Snow Lion, 2012), 42–43.

[2] Root ignorance (khor wai tsa war gyur pai ma rig pa) can be defined as “an absence of knowledge that involves obscuration with respect to the status of phenomena. It has the function of serving as a basis for the arising of false ascertainment, doubt, and afflictions. Its principal antidote is the wisdom cognizing selflessness.” As Hopkins further details, it is of two types: “obscuration with respect to actions and their effects and obscuration with respect to suchness. The latter serves as the causal motivation for all rebirth in cyclic existence.” Meditation, 257–58.

[3] Hopkins explains, “A consciousness conceiving inherent existence is the root of cyclic existence; therefore, it must be stopped. In order to stop it, we first have to refute its conceived object. Once we no longer believe in the object, inherent existence, the consciousness conceiving inherent existence itself will disappear.” Emptiness Yoga, 119. The emphasis is on the misconceiving consciousness itself: inherent existence is not (itself) the root. This is because it is a non-existent. But the image of inherent existence projected by the mind of ignorance does exist: as an image. That is why it collapses when we realise its exact dialectical opposite: emptiness. It is unable to withstand exact direct contradiction (by reality).  It follows that we alone are capable and responsible for its elimination as our mind remains in our domain. 

[4] This logical approach to establishing beginningless mind (together with primordial ignorance) is presented within the Abhidharma tradition of Dharmakīrti and Dignāga. In Advice on Dying, the Dalai Lama traces the logic:

“Consciousness is defined as that which is luminous and knowing…[it] is composed of moments, instead of cells, atoms, or particles. In this way consciousness and matter have basically different natures, and therefore, they have different substantial causes. Material things have other material things as their substantial causes (so called since they produce the substance, or basic entity, of the effect), because there must be an agreement in basic nature between substantial cause and substantial effect. Clay, for example, is the substantial cause of a clay pot. The substantial cause of a mind must itself be something that is luminous and knowing—a previous moment of mind. Any moment of consciousness, therefore, requires a preceding moment of consciousness for its substantial cause, which means that there must be a beginningless continuum of mind. This is how a beginningless round of rebirth is established through reasoning.”

Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life (New York: Atria Books, 2002), 129–30.

[5] Rinpoche will describe this process in greater depth in a future post when he gives an account of the twelve links of interdependent origination.  .  See also Lobsang Tharchin, King Udrayana and the Wheel of Life (Howell: MSTP, 1989), 90–113.

[6] Tsongkhapa describes how the five appropriated aggregates are suffering under five headings:

  • The five appropriated aggregates are a vessel of suffering that will become manifest;
  • They are a vessel of suffering based on what has already become manifest;
  • They are a vessel for the suffering of suffering;
  • They are a vessel for the suffering of change; and
  • They are in the nature of compounding suffering.

He elaborates:

  • In dependence on taking these appropriated aggregates, the sufferings of the next rebirth onward are induced;
  • The aggregates that have already been established become the basis of illness, aging, and so forth which depend on them;

3–4. The aggregates give rise to these two types of suffering due to their relationship with the negative tendencies of the two; and

  • Due to the mere establishment of the appropriated aggregates, they arise in the nature of compounding suffering, for all compounded phenomena under the control of other—previous karma and mental afflictions—are compounding suffering.

Tsongkhapa, Middle Length Lam-Rim (Portland: FPMT, 2012), 111.

[7] As verse 180 of Āryadeva’s Four Hundred says,

Those with little merit
Do not even doubt this teaching.
Entertaining just a doubt
Tears to tatters worldly existence.

Āryadeva and Gyel-tsap, Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1994), 188.

[8] Self-cherishing (rang gces/rang gces par ’dzin pa) refers to the self-centered or egotistical attitude of considering our own happiness to be more important than that of others. The main obstacle to the realization of bodhicitta, it is to be distinguished from self-grasping (bdag ’dzin): grasping at or apprehending a self of persons or phenomena [as inherently existent]. Writes Pabongka Rinpoche, “You will stop your misdeeds associated with self-cherishing when you pursue the meditation topic on the development of bodhicitta. You then train in the meditation topic of selflessness, until the topic of self-grasping.” Liberation in the Palm of your Hand (Boston: Wisdom, 2006), 69.

He further describes their relation: “Self-cherishing and grasping at the self are two quite distinct things, but they are discussed in this [seven-point] mind training as if they were the same, for there are some resemblances. To be brief, both are at the root of all problems. One of them operates by taking the ‘I’—your feeling of ‘I’—to be established as true. The other operates by not giving up ideas of ‘I’ and then assiduously cherishing it” (ibid., 541).

Care must be taken not to collate the two terms even if, in English, they might be superficially taken to refer to the same thing. The need for precise terminological understanding is again invoked. Confusion otherwise prevails. 


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