The Root Of Cyclic Existence
by Khensur Jampa Tegchok Rinpoche
Renunciation of cyclic existence is having compassion for ourselves. We want ourselves to be free of true duhkha and true origins, which are the afflictions and karmas that cause those unsatisfactory experiences. Karmas or actions ripen into the rebirths we take and the events we experience in these rebirths. These actions are motivated by the afflictions in our mind streams — attachment, anger, jealousy, conceit, confusion, and so on. All the faults of cyclic existence arise from these mental afflictions, and all the mental afflictions are derived from the ignorance grasping true existence.
Sometimes we hear that the root of cyclic existence is ignorance. Other times the root of cyclic existence is said to be self-grasping, true-grasping, or the view of the perishing aggregates. It is important not to get confused here because all of these boil down to one common denominator: grasping at true or inherent existence.
The Tibetan word for ignorance literally means “unknowing”; it is a mind that does not know or is not aware of the true nature of reality. In fact, it is not only unaware of the true nature of reality, but it also grasps things as existing in the opposite way to how they actually exist.
There are two types of self-grasping: (1) self-grasping of the person and (2) self-grasping of phenomena. Both of them are forms of ignorance, and both are the root causes that keep us in cyclic existence. The nature of both the self-grasping of persons and self-grasping of phenomena is ignorance. According to the Prasangikas, these two are differentiated merely in terms of their focal objects. The self-grasping of persons grasps at the inherent existence of persons, while the self-grasping of phenomena grasps at the inherent existence of phenomena.
You may wonder, “Isn’t the person also a phenomenon?” Generally speaking, the person is a phenomenon because anything that exists is a phenomenon. A phenomenon is defined as “that which holds its own entity or has its own identity,” and this includes the person. It is a phenomenon because it is an object of knowledge, because it is an object realised by omniscient mind, and because it has an identifiable entity or nature.
However, in this instance, the person and phenomena are differentiated in order to vividly distinguish the I, which is a person, and the aggregates, which are phenomena. The person, self, or I is the agent, and the aggregates are objects used by the person; they are what the self clings to or appropriates. They are also the basis of designation of the person. Close analysis and examination of the precise relationship between the I and the aggregates is essential to realise emptiness. For this reason, the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena are investigated separately.
The view of the perishing aggregates is also said to be the root of cyclic existence. It is one type of self-grasping of persons. Self-grasping of persons refers to grasping at any person — ourselves or others — as truly existent, while the view of the perishing aggregates grasps only at our own self as truly existent. This view is of two types: the view of the perishing aggregates grasping at “I” and the view of the perishing aggregates grasping at “mine.” Both of these are forms of self-grasping because they grasp their object as existing in a way that is precisely opposite to the way in which it actually exists. The view of the perishing aggregates is so-called because the I is merely labelled in dependence on the aggregates, and the aggregates arise and cease in every moment.
In short, when we speak about the root of cyclic existence, we use different names to refer to the same thing. In fact, sometimes we combine terms — “self-grasping ignorance,” “ignorance grasping the self of persons,” and “ignorance grasping the self of phenomena.” These are not contradictory; they arrive at the same point: the mind that grasps at true or inherent existence, the mind that believes we exist in a way that we don’t. Ignorance is their shared nature in the sense that they are all obscured with respect to the true nature of reality and grasp things to exist in the exact opposite way from the way they do exist.