Understand conventional things first, then emptiness

Jan 26, 2023


As far as Buddha is concerned we’re living in la-la land in relation to how things exist. And this, very simply, is why we suffer. Therefore his method for stopping suffering, achieving liberation from suffering, is to get in touch with reality.


The final, the ultimate – the actual – way things exist, as far as he’s concerned, is that everything, every conventional phenomenon, lacks an intrinsic nature. A bit abstract-sounding, but what’s implied in Buddha’s telling us this is that we all assume things have an intrinsic nature. This mistake is primordially deep and thus hard to recognize, not to mention remove.


But before we get anywhere near establishing that as true, we need to first establish what exists conventionally, because we’re in la-la land in relation to that as well.


Buddhism, then, is a presentation of Buddha’s views of how things exist, so one way of framing the entire process of learning and practicing Buddhism is in terms of recognizing our wrong views, our misconceptions, and gradually ridding our mind of them.


We live at the level of conceptuality, of viewpoints, Buddha’s saying, and basically some are valid and some are not. A view is valid if it’s in sync with what exists.


“That’s a pretty cup” – that’s a view. “That’s a rose” – that’s a view, too. She is the cause of my suffering, God created me, my mind is my brain, the law of karma runs the universe – these are all views.


The lamrim, the Tibetan packaging of Buddha’s teachings, is a presentation of Buddha’s views of how things exist, first conventionally: karma, impermanence, the realms of existence, the mind and how it functions, compassion, bodhichitta – they’re all the components of the conventional world, of how things exist conventionally.


Finally we’re led to understand the ultimate way that things exist, their emptiness of an intrinsic nature, and that’s when we become liberated. And combined with bodhichitta, it leads to buddhahood.


Where do these views come from? From Buddha’s own direct, experiential observation. He didn’t make them up, he’s not a creator, he’s not speculating.


And what do we do with them? We don’t shove them down our throat and merely believe in them. We take them as our working hypothesis and then, through our own experience, eventually discover the truth of them, first intellectually and then experientially – or not. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama tells us modern people, if we get to a point in our investigation and practice that we find that what Buddha said is actually wrong, we must reject him.


All the time we fret about being able to realize emptiness, but it’s not possible until we get things clear conventionally, because the absence, the emptiness, of inherent existence is the very character of that which exists conventionally. 


If we don’t understand beginningless mind, forget about emptiness.


If we don’t understand impermanence, forget about emptiness.


If we don’t understand the law of karma, the natural law of cause and effect within which the universe exists, and begin to see how it plays out in our lives, forget about emptiness. 


If we don’t understand the way our mind works and can’t distinguish between delusions and virtues, forget about emptiness.


If we can’t see how we’re all in the same boat, all causing our own suffering – and all possessing the marvelous potential to cause our own happiness – and can’t begin to put others first, forget about emptiness.


And, frankly, we can’t even begin to imagine the joy and fulfillment we’d experience by just getting conventional reality clear!


In his lamrim, Lama Tsongkhapa leads us beautifully through this logical progression that culminates in the understanding of how all things exist ultimately. 


Understanding beginningless mind, impermanence, karma, how the mind functions, bodhichitta and the rest leads to emptiness.


As always, one step at a time.

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