Progressing from wrong conceptions to correct view

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Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Castle Rock, Washington.

Understanding emptiness

  • How the grasping mind is inaccurate
  • Different levels for understanding of emptiness
  • Types of mental elaboration
  • Process for realizing emptiness

Emptiness, part 3: Progressing from wrong conceptions (download)

Questions and answers

  • Viewing the world as an illusion
  • Conventional truths and ultimate truths
  • Different meanings of dependent arising

Emptiness, part 3: Q&A (download)


Let’s cultivate our motivation. We’ve seen from our discussions about aging and death that one of the main factors that make these things frightening is the tyranny of I. The tyranny of I because we conceive of a real I that’s there, that’s aging, and we don’t want it. We conceive of a real I that is threatened by nonexistence at death time and we don’t want that either. All day long we’re under the influence of the tyranny of I as we’re in the constant struggle to get the things we want close to us and the things we don’t want far away.

There’s no real peace, no real balance in our life because we’re always trying to protect this I and trying to give it what it wants. We’ve never stopped to question if this I that we’re so devoted to actually exists, or if it exists in the way that it appears to us to exist.

It appears to be something quite real, independent of causes and condition, of parts, of labels. It appears that it’s just simply me, that’s all. When we start to investigate, to try and find that me that seems so evident, that appears so strongly. When we check throughout the entire universe to find that thing that is me—we check inside the body and outside the body, inside the mind and outside the mind, looking for that thing that is me—it alludes us. We can’t find anything to say for certain that’s me. And yet, when we don’t analyze there’s the appearance of me, bright and vivid, commanding central stage.

When we generate the determination to be free, what we really want to be free of is that tyranny of I. And yet we have to be totally fearless in doing this because the wrong view of I is very clever. It sets up roadblocks and hindrances at every turn. So we come up with all the other things that are more important to do, and on and on. We have to try and really outsmart the tyranny of I and stay very steadfast to our goal.

When we open our hearts and see that all the other living beings are also under the tyranny of I, we can often see very clearly how they want happiness and not suffering. And how, under the tyranny of I, they just create the causes for more and more misery just like we do. We generate compassion for ourselves, compassion for them, and we aim for full enlightenment so that both we and them can be free from the tyranny of I.

Letting go of wrong conceptions

Yesterday we were talking about the line, “Therefore, strive for the means to realize dependent arising.” We talked about dependent arising as having three meanings: the dependence on causes and conditions, dependence on parts, and then dependence on term and concept. We also talked about the dependence of things that are related: parts and whole, long and short, these kinds of things—so that anything that exists, exists in relationship to other things. Nothing exists able to set itself up.

Statue of a Buddha.

The more we meditate on dependent arising, the more we come to see that that grasping mind is inaccurate.

The more we meditate on dependent arising and see how things are relational, how things are divided into objects by means of term and concept, then we begin to see that our mind that automatically holds things as existing as truly, out there objectively, in and of their own right—we come to see that that grasping mind is inaccurate. Then we begin to counteract it and let it go. In the stages of letting it go we have to realize emptiness.

Taking steps to let go of wrong conceptions

Step one

There are various steps that we want to take to realize emptiness, to let these wrong conceptions go. The first step is to have firm conviction in the disadvantages of cyclic existence.

Step two

The second is to ascertain clearly what the root cause of cyclic existence is, in other words, to really understand what is this self-grasping ignorance. What does it grasp at? How does it grasp? The third I explained as part of the second one. The third is to ascertain the way that the ignorance grasps at phenomena and then to prove that it’s unreasonable. In other words to refute it, to prove to ourself that the way we think is wrong. Here I’m not just talking about our gross level of thoughts. I say this because when we’re talking about the grasping at inherent existence or grasping at true existence, it’s not necessarily this gross thought that’s formulated in language of, “I’m grasping at the true existence of I.” It’s not like that. But it’s a conception of true existence that is just innately there, not in all of our cognitions, but in many of them. And it just holds the object to exist that way.

It’s a much more subtle type of conception. It’s not necessarily this gross type where we have lot’s of language and words about it because when we’re babies we’re born with this grasping at true existence. Remember how I was saying there are two levels of it? There’s the innate one we’ve had since beginningless time. We come into life with it; even babies have it, animal have it. It’s a much more subtle type of conception. And then there’s the acquired grasping, the acquired level of afflictions that we acquire by studying an incorrect philosophy or incorrect psychology. Those ones are more formulated, philosophical tenets and so on. But we just come into this life with innate self-grasping.

The mind has had these layers of ignorance and affliction on it from beginningless time that color even how things appear to us. The imprints of the ignorance just color the way things appear to us. Things appear to us to truly exist. And then from the side of us, the ignorance, we assent to that appearance and we grasp at it as true. Things appear to us to have their own essence. We never question the appearance—like the kid who was born with the sunglasses never questions that it’s dark—and instead we assent to that appearance and hold everything to exist truly, to exist inherently.

Like I said, it’s not necessarily this thought, “I’m holding everything to exist truly.” It’s this gut reaction like when somebody calls you a name. Say somebody looks at you and says, “You’re such a—whatever,” and this feeling comes up inside of you, “That’s not true!” This feeling of I. It’s instinctual, isn’t it? That is the conception grasping at true existence of the I. It’s this gut feeling. It’s at the emotional level when it comes up strongly like that. It’s not this dainty little thought that says, “Oh yes, the I is truly existent, blah, blah, blah.” It’s like, “Get off my back! This is me! Don’t talk to me like this. I’m not like that!” That very fierce strong concept of I.

It comes up also when we have very strong attachment like when you’re really lonely. Remember the times in your life when you’ve been outrageously lonely and you just feel, “If only somebody would love me?” We’ve all had that, haven’t we? “If only somebody would love me.” That me that wants to be loved is the object of the self-grasping ignorance. It’s that real concrete me that feels like, “I just desperately need somebody to love me or else I’m going to fall apart.” The self-grasping comes up when we have very strong emotions like that.

They often say to really look at it, to look for it when somebody accuses you of doing something you didn’t do. They say this because we usually react so much when somebody does that, don’t we? But the difficulty in recognizing the object of negation at that time is we are so involved in the tyranny of I that we don’t think to look at how the I appears to us to exist at that moment.

I think I’ve told some of you the story about when I was at Dorje Palmo Monastery—that was where the nuns lived. We would go to for teachings to Nalanda Monastery where the monks lived when Geshe Tegchok was teaching. One day at the end of teachings one of the monks, who was a friend of mine, just announced at the end of class, “Well, the monks decided that nuns have to leave 15 minutes after class is over.” And he left the room. Well, I was not a happy camper. I tracked him down afterwards. Actually not a happy camper is putting it mildly, I was furious! “How dare you discriminate against us! Sometimes we have to stay here to talk to Geshe-la! How dare you tell us we have to leave!” I was much more polite with him, but this was what was going on inside. Anyway, we took a walk and I was pretty worked up. He got pretty worked up. At the end we worked it out and we were both calmer again and he said to me, “You know, I don’t know about you, I just missed the perfect time to notice the object of negation.” And I said, “Yes, I did too.” Because at that moment we we’re both so involved in it that we couldn’t see the whole basis for the quarrel was something false because we were both very convinced that it existed.

Step three

That third step is to see how the ignorance grasps, and then refute it.

Step four

The fourth step is to familiarize ourself again and again with this correct view. The correct view is something that we have to put in time and energy to learn. It doesn’t just come naturally, because remember, we have beginningless ignorance. We have the seeds for wisdom, but they’re grossly underdeveloped. So we really need to cultivate them and spend some time and energy generating the correct view.

Progressing from wrong conceptions to correct view

How do we do this? Well, there are stages in going from the wrong conception of ignorance to the correct view. There are also different levels of the correct view. There are different levels of the understanding of emptiness. The emptiness of inherent existence, it’s sometimes called suchness or thusness or reality—there are various terms. Remember it is the deeper mode of existence of all phenomena, but because of ignorance we don’t perceive it.

1. Wrong view, or wrong consciousness

At the beginning we start out with distorted views. We’re totally enveloped by wrong views. We believe that everything is inherently existent innately, and then we often develop all these philosophies that justify it. Like, “I have a soul because God said so,” or my first grade Sunday school teacher said so, or whatever reason we have. Or “I truly exist because there is,” I don’t know—we develop all sorts of philosophies about it. What is it? “There’s like undercurrent anger in me all the time, therefore I exist.” We can develop all sorts of reasons. We start out at the level of wrong view.

2. Doubt inclined towards wrong view, or doubt not tending toward the fact

Just even recognizing that wrong view is wrong view is big progress when you think that from beginningless time we haven’t even identified wrong view as being wrong view. We’ve thought of it as right view. What happens before we can actually identify it as wrong view is we hear some teachings and we develop some doubt. You might now be beginning to develop some doubt, “Well, do things truly exist or don’t they? Well, I think they do.” “I think I really do have a soul.” You have doubt, but it’s inclined towards the wrong view.

3. Equal doubt

Then you’re hearing more teachings, you meditate some more, then you get to doubt which is between them. “Well, maybe I have a soul, maybe I don’t.”

4. Doubt inclined toward right view, or doubt tending toward the fact

Then you progress further to where you still doubt, but now the doubt is inclined towards the right view. “Well, do things truly exist or not truly exist? I’m not sure but I think maybe they don’t.” You have doubt inclined towards the right view.

5. Correct assumption, or correct assumer

Then you keep on learning, you keep on thinking. By this time maybe you’ve heard about dependent arising, you’re beginning to think more deeply about dependent arising and how things work. Then you get to the level of correct assumption. Your understanding is correct but it’s not very firm, it’s not very clear. It’s just like, “Yes, dependent arising makes sense,” and “Yes, if things are dependent arising they can’t truly exist.” You’ve got the right idea but it’s not solid. It’s kind of on quicksand.

Then you keep thinking and thinking, and so by this time what you’re really looking at is a syllogism that is proving emptiness. The syllogism might be, for example, “All things in samsara and nirvana, all persons and phenomena in samsara and nirvana, are not truly existent because they’re dependent arising.” It’s a syllogism, “All things in samsara and nirvana are not truly existent because they’re dependent arising.” You might even understand the syllogism roughly, that’s a correct assumption.

When you really meditate on it and really begin to understand it, you begin to see that all things in samsara and nirvana are dependent arising. Understanding that takes some time. And then you also have to understand that if it’s dependently arising, it’s not truly existent. You start to contemplate that too—that if it dependently arises then it can’t be truly existent, and if it’s truly existent it can’t be a dependent arising. You begin to understand that too.

6. Valid inference, or inferential cognizer, or inferential understanding

When you have understood what’s called those three modes of the syllogism correctly, then you have a correct inference. This correct inference can actually be quite a powerful experience. This is because at that point our belief in emptiness is very firm. We’ve understood completely how it’s totally impossible for things to be inherently existent if they’re dependent arising; and we’ve understood completely how all things in samsara and nirvana are dependent arising. The understanding is quite firm. We have what’s called a valid inference, or what’s called an inferential understanding.

That inference might be intellectual, what we usually think of as intellectual at first. But it actually goes much, much deeper. If it just stays at the level of intellectualism I think actually it’s a correct assumption and not really an inference. This is because the power of that correct inference has to affect some very strong emotional change in us because we know, irrefutably at that point, that what we’re perceiving is wrong.

Now, we’re also meditating, so we’re not just thinking about this and debating about it. We’re also meditating. In the progress of our meditation, at one point, we have a cognition of emptiness by means of a valid inference that is the union of calm-abiding (or mental quiescence or serenity, however you want to translate it) and special insight. So this awareness of emptiness is a unity of shamatha and vipassana for people who like the Sanskrit or Pali terms. In other words, you have complete single-pointed concentration, no distractions, the mind’s totally single-pointed. And the analysis, the probing awareness of this, has been complete. So you have this inferential understanding with samadhi of emptiness. That’s attained on the path of preparation. It’s the second of the five paths.

It’s a very strong awareness and it affects some very fundamental change in us. But still, it’s not a direct perceiver of emptiness because it’s still at the level of an inference—and an inference is still conceptual. When we have conceptual minds like a valid inference, we might be perceiving the object correctly, but we’re perceiving it by means of a “mental image.”1 We’re not perceiving it directly. It’s a thought consciousness, a conceptual consciousness that’s perceiving emptiness. It’s not just the bare, naked mental consciousness that’s knowing it. Rather, you have a union of shamatha and vipassana which is an inferential cognition of emptiness. It’s the path of preparation.

7. Direct perceiver

When you get to the third path, the path of seeing, at that time what’s happened is the mental image that is kind of the veil—because remember the conceptual understanding of emptiness has that mental image that’s veiling actual emptiness—that mental image has gotten worn down and worn down. It’s worn down until it’s completely vanished. And at that point there’s direct non-conceptual perception of emptiness that’s also the union of quiescence and special insight, of shamatha and vipassana. That’s the path of seeing. That is a yogic direct perceiver. It’s a type of mental consciousness that knows emptiness directly, non-conceptually. At that point, when we have that consciousness, we become what’s called a noble being or an arya. With that realization we’re able to eliminate the acquired level of afflictions so that they don’t appear any more.

As we keep familiarizing ourself with that understanding, with that direct perception of emptiness again and again, we gradually wear away at the innate levels of the afflictions—the innate ignorance, the innate anger, the innate attachment, and so on. That process of wearing away all the innate levels of the afflictions, the levels that we’ve had since beginningless time that we came into this life with, that happens on the fourth path—the path of meditation.

Remember we’ve talked about the two obscurations, the afflictive ones and the cognitive ones? When all the innate afflictions and the cognitive obscurations are eliminated, then we arrive at the fifth path. On the bodhisattva vehicle the fifth path is the path of no more learning, and that’s full enlightenment. You can see that there’s this progression from wrong view, to doubt, to correct assumption, to inference, to direct perception; and then through that direct perception it leads to the total purification of the mind.

Three types of elaborations

When we have the direct perception of emptiness it’s said to be a mind that is free from elaboration. I like that expression—elaboration—because it’s like proliferation, how we create all this stuff that isn’t there, that isn’t necessary, we elaborate. So the direct perception of emptiness is free from elaborations.

1. Elaboration of true existence

There are three kinds of elaborations. One is the elaboration of true existence. That mind that directly perceives emptiness in the path of seeing is completely free of even the appearance of true existence. While you’re in meditative equipoise on emptiness, while you have that union of shamatha and vipassana on emptiness, the ignorance isn’t active in the mind. The trace of ignorance, the seed of ignorance, may still be there. But manifest ignorance isn’t there. Things are also not appearing to be truly existent because only emptiness appears to that meditative equipoise that directly realizes it—because emptiness is the one thing that exists in the way that it appears. Everything else exists falsely. This is because the way it appears and the way it exists are not in harmony. All the things around us that appear to us, they appear truly existent. It’s a false appearance—they appear truly existent.

Only emptiness, when we’re perceiving it barely [or directly], exists in the way that it appears. Emptiness appears empty to direct perception. Emptiness doesn’t appear truly existent to direct perception. Whereas with conventional objects—when we look at the wooden fish, or when we look at the clock, or the mp3 player—these things appear truly existent to us. Sometimes our mind assents to that appearance and grasps at them as truly existent. Sometimes we’re not paying much attention and there’s just the appearance and not the grasping. But only emptiness actually appears in the way it exists. Everything else is a false appearance. That means that everything we are perceiving with our ordinary consciousnesses is hallucination. Everything we are perceiving does not exist, because we are perceiving inherently existent things and inherently existent things are non- existent.

Things still exist. The flower and the wooden fish and the clock and the mp3 player and the light and the books still exist. But a truly existent light and book and mp3 player, etcetera, etcetera, do not exist. To the meditative equipoise that realizes emptiness directly, that meditative equipoise is free from elaboration.

One meaning of free of elaboration is it’s free from true existence. So at that point in the meditative equipoise things do not appear truly existent; and so, of course, we’re not grasping at true existence either. Later on, after we arise from the meditative equipoise we may again have appearances of true existence. But that’s later when you’re out of the meditative equipoise. This is because when you’re out of the meditative equipoise, then you’re not directly perceiving emptiness anymore.

2. Elaboration of conceptuality

The second kind of elaboration is the elaboration of conceptuality, the elaboration of a mental image [or conceptual appearance]. Remember on the preceding path, the path of preparation, there was the mental image of emptiness. So we weren’t perceiving emptiness directly. Then on the path of seeing when there’s the direct perception of emptiness that’s free from elaboration, it’s free from the elaboration of conceptuality. This means it’s free from that mental image that’s blocking the mind from seeing emptiness directly.

3. Elaboration of appearances of conventional truths

The third kind of elaboration that the meditative equipoise directly perceiving emptiness is free from is the elaboration of the appearances of conventional truths. It’s free from the appearance of conventional truths because conventional truths like the building and the fan and the roof and your taxes and the picture and the water bowls and all these things, those are not appearing to the mind that is directly perceiving emptiness. This is because only emptiness is appearing to that mind. Because emptiness appears and because it exists in the way that it appears, that whole consciousness is understanding emptiness non-dually. There isn’t the appearance of subject and object to the mind that’s directly perceiving emptiness.

Can you ever of think of perceiving anything non-dually? When you think about it, we talk about so much about non-duality, and “Blah blah blah.” But what does it mean to not have the feeling of there being a subject me perceiving something? Can we even imagine perception without the feeling of there being a subject—me—that’s perceiving an object—that. Really that’s all we know, day and night, isn’t it? There’s subject and object, subject and object. This is because things appear truly existent, we grasp them that way, there’s a separation between subject and object.

When there’s the non-dual understanding of emptiness, the direct perception of emptiness, there’s no appearance of subject and object. I can’t even imagine what that would be like, but that’s what it is. Maybe that’s why they say it’s indescribable and unimaginable—because for those of us who haven’t realized it, how can you even think of it? That’s what we’re going for.

Realizing emptiness—it’s a process

Now the thing is that this whole process of realizing emptiness, like I’ve been saying, it’s a gradual process. So it’s not like boing, there’s emptiness. You go from wrong conception to realization of emptiness in five minutes. Maybe once in a while there’s a really exceptional practitioner and that happens to them. But that exceptional practitioner is exceptional because probably for several thousand lifetimes before this one they’ve been learning and meditating about emptiness. So they have very strong imprints about the realization of emptiness. Thus in this life something can go bingo! We always like to think that we’re that kind of high practitioner and certainly that’s going to happen to us. Maybe dampen your pride a little bit and think that maybe it’s not really like that—that it’s going to take some effort and it’s going to take some time.

We’ve seen that there’s this process of wrong conception to doubt, correct assumption, inference, direct perception. Then even when you have direct perception of emptiness, it isn’t like after that all your defilements are gone. You have one meditation session and you realize emptiness and you wake up and hallelujah, you’re a Buddha! It’s not like that either. Remember we have beginningless ignorance, beginningless afflictions, beginningless seeds of karma, beginningless seeds of afflictions. These things are beginningless cognitive obscurations—the appearance of inherent existence. This is not going to disappear overnight.

This is where people sometimes can go really astray in their practice. I say this because sometimes people might have some fleeting glimpse of emptiness—and maybe all it is, is a correct assumption. But it still, because they’ve never had that correct assumption before, it’s like a wow experience. And they go, “Oh! I’ve realized emptiness! I realized emptiness!” Now you know when you starting thinking, “I’m realizing emptiness,” that you haven’t. When there’s a big I, who’s now the one who realized emptiness, you’re still under the tyranny of I.

It’s very easy to misjudge our level of attainments. This is why it’s very important to have a good teacher that we check our meditation experiences with. Also this is why it’s very important to learn something about these stages of how the realization of emptiness gradually develops. I say this because if we don’t study that and know that, then we have some experience—and we’ve all read the Zen books about satori and we think, “Wow! I’ve got it! Hallelujah!” Then what we’ve gotten is actually a great deal of arrogance and more ignorance.

Progressing from inference to direct perception of emptiness

Even if you have not just the correct assumption, but even if you have meditative equipoise on the correct inference, still it’s not like all the defilements are going away. In fact, even with that correct inference—which you need samadhi for and they say is a very powerful experience—it isn’t like you wake up from that and you have eliminated anything from the root. It’s when you finally get the union of shamatha and vipassana with direct perception on path of seeing that you start to eliminate some stuff from the root. The first thing you eliminate from the root is the acquired afflictions. Having eliminated acquired afflictions from the root, when you come out of your meditative equipoise on emptiness everything still appears truly existent to you. (This is because you still have all the cognitive obscurations which aren’t eliminated until full Buddhahood.) So the appearance of true existence is still there. But the mind doesn’t assent to that appearance because you’ve had the direct realization of emptiness, so it’s very difficult to generate any kind of manifest grasping at true existence. Maybe it’s possible but it would be quite difficult, but still there is the appearance of true existence.

Subsequent realization and seeing things as like illusions

At that point what you do in these times that are called subsequent realization—subsequent realization means when you’re not in meditative equipoise on emptiness—at that time you practice seeing things as like an illusion. They’re like an illusion in that they appear one way but they exist in another. They’re illusion-like, they are not illusions. This is very important. It’s not that things are illusions, because we all know that illusions don’t exist.

Have you ever been on the Haunted House ride at Disney Land? I was on it maybe thirty years ago. When you’re coming out of the Haunted House you look in the mirror and you’re sitting next to a ghost. Do you remember that one? You’re sitting next to a ghost. It’s a hologram. There’s a ghost that appears. Are you sitting next to a ghost? No. That ghost is an illusion because there’s no ghost there.

When you come out of the meditative equipoise on emptiness, phenomena are like illusions because they appear in one way and exist in another. But they are not illusions because if they were illusions they would be totally non-existent—like the ghost. But things are not totally non-existent. They’re totally not truly existent. Saying that they’re not truly existent is very different from saying they’re not existent. If they’re not existent then they are not existent, basta finito. If they’re not truly existent it means that that false perception that we’ve projected on them, we’ve realized that that’s a false projection and they don’t exist in that way. But it doesn’t negate the existence of the conventional object that exists by being merely imputed. That conventional object you cannot find when you search for it with analysis, but when you don’t search it appears.

So when not in meditative equipoise on emptiness there’s the appearance of true existence. But great bodhisattva practices seeing things like an illusion. Like an illusion in that they appear one way—truly existent, but they exist in another—empty of being truly existent. That bodhisattva practices seeing things as mere appearances. So instead of seeing them as real and concrete, the bodhisattva sees them as appearances. There’s the appearance of this, the appearance of that. There’s not a truly existent thing right there for me to wrap my mind around, to wrap my hands around. It’s just an appearance. Why does it appear? Because there’s the basis of designation and there’s the mind that is labeling it. Things exist by being merely labeled but they’re totally unfindable when you look for them with ultimate analysis.

If you look with conventional analysis, you might look for Joe in the room. You can analyze, “Is Joe in the room?” That’s conventional analysis—“Joe’s in the room.” Or, “Joe’s not in the room.” Ultimate analysis is, “Who really is Joe? What is the referent of the label Joe? What is the thing, what are we actually referring to by the label Joe? Because it feels like there’s something real there.” That’s ultimate analysis—when we start to look for the thing that is Joe that we can find with that kind of analysis. And we can’t find anything. It’s the emptiness of true existence. There’s no truly existent Joe there. Truly existent Joe is totally non-existent. Truly existent Joe is totally non-existent. Conventionally existent Joe conventionally exists. Joe that is a mere label that exists by being merely labeled conventionally exists. You keep practicing like that.

Using this analysis in dealing with daily life

It’s very helpful to use this even just to deal with the world sometimes. Say if somebody’s calling you a name. Just to have the wherewithal to say to yourself, “This is an appearance to my mind.” Wouldn’t that lighten the situation a little bit? Just by saying, “It’s just the appearance to my mind of somebody insulting me,” instead of, “He’s insulting me!” There’s the appearance to my mind of somebody calling me a name. If you really start to examine who is the person that’s calling you a name, you can’t find a person. You start examining who is the me that’s getting called a name, you can’t find that me either. If you start to look for the action of ‘calling a name’ you can’t find an action either. The agent, the action, and the object are all empty. Yet conventionally maybe somebody’s calling us a name, but who cares? Who are they insulting? This is a real good time to practice emptiness meditation. You say, “I’m insulted!” You say, “Who? Me!” You see it so clearly, don’t you? Me! Who? And so you go through this back and forth in your mind. Because the mind keeps screaming, “Me! I’m insulted. He did it! Who does he think he is?” But you keep saying, “Who?” Every time the mind screams “Me!” you say “Who?” back to it. “Who? Who’s insulted? Me! Who’s the me? Who’s the me that’s insulted? Who’s the me that’s insulted? Is it my body? Is it my mind? Is it something separate from my body and mind? Who’s the me that’s insulted?” If there’s a real me that’s insulted, I should be able to find it. So you start looking. Where I am? Where’s the me that’s insulted? Very interesting.

You can use this with any kind of strong emotion, say fear comes into the mind, or strong craving, or jealousy, or rejection, or low self-esteem. “I’m so worthless. I’m so unlovable.” “Who?” “Me! I’m so unlovable!” And you just sit there and go, “Who? Who’s so unlovable?” “Well, me!” And you just go, “Who?” Who’s the me that’s unlovable? Find it. Find the me that’s so unlovable. Find the me that doesn’t deserve to be loved. Find the me that is unspeakable because it’s so shameful. Find it. Look for it. See if you can find it somewhere. So look for your I.

Questions and answers

We have a few minutes for questions.

Audience: Venerable, I was wondering if this would be helpful. I’m thinking about like that grasping on to an I. I know that for me when I see myself on a home movie or something, I immediately can’t stand the way I’m talking or looking or anything. It’s just like, it doesn’t seem like me—that kind of thing. Do you think that it would be helpful to actually look at home movies like that and ask that question when that comes up? Like, “Who is that that you’re reacting to so strongly?”

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So you’re saying that on home movies, you form a very judgmental mind about yourself. Like, “Oh, look how that person’s acting! What an idiot! That’s not who I really am! Why is she acting like that, anyway?” Yes, so when that comes up just to say, “Who? Who is it that looks so bad? Who is that?” And then, “Who is it that’s judging that person who looks so bad? Who’s doing the judging?”

Audience: You mentioned this practice of viewing the world as like an illusion.

VTC: As like an illusion, yes.

Audience: Is that a practice where you’re sort of continuously trying to apply the analytical approach of conventional persons-ultimate existence to all phenomena continuously, or is it a different practice from that?

VTC: You’re asking when seeing things as like an illusion, are you applying the analytical approach to it? I think when you really do this practice, the actual people who do this practice have already had the direct perception of emptiness, so for them the experience of seeing emptiness is in such stark contrast to the appearance of true existence—that they just go, “Oh yes. This appearance is false.” It comes much more easily.

Audience: So they’re referring back to the experience of emptiness in contrast to the appearances.

VTC: Right, the appearance versus the experience. But for us who haven’t realized emptiness yet, I don’t know about your level of realization but I haven’t, then the way we practice it is we have to do a little bit of analysis in there. So for us it’s, “Okay. It appears this way. Is that how it exists?” That’s why I was talking about writing the book The Joy of Being Wrong—because how joyful to be wrong! The way I see things is wrong! How wonderful, because if the way I see things is true, we’re in big trouble! If things were inherently existent the way I seem them, nothing could change, nothing could alter. I’m so happy to be wrong.

Audience: In the Heart Sutra, how does this relate to it where it says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” is that about conventional and ultimate reality?

VTC: In the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”, it’s talking about how conventional truths and ultimate truths are the same nature.

Audience: Are the same empty nature?

VTC: No, they are the same nature. We tend to see emptiness as like five universes away. It’s like there are conventional things here, and there’s emptiness out there—reality out there. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is saying, “No, emptiness is right here. It’s the nature of all the conventional things that we see. Emptiness is not universes away. It’s right here.” Lama Yeshe used to say that to us all the time, “It’s right here, dear! You just have to see it.” And we’re going, “Where Lama?” We’re looking in totally the wrong place.

The thing is that conventional truths and ultimate truths depend on each other. Conventional truths are all these things that are functioning, and changing, and so on. Everything that’s not emptiness is a conventional truth. Emptiness is an ultimate truth. We tend to see them as miles apart. But actually the nature of every conventional truth is emptiness, and you can’t have emptiness without having a conventional object that is empty. So they’re one nature, they’re inseparable. Form is empty—the conventional truth is empty of inherent existence. Emptiness is form—emptiness is the emptiness of form. It’s not some independent absolute truth that’s totally independent from form or from anything else.

When we’re realizing emptiness we’re not destroying conventional truths, we’re not destroying things that exist. Remember I was saying yesterday that all we’re doing is realizing that things that don’t exist—don’t exist. We’re not destroying anything that exists by realizing emptiness.

Audience 1: In the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation, the last verse says “By perceiving all phenomena as illusory …” Should we be seeing that in the same way, as illusions but not illusions?

VTC: Yes. Right. By seeing all phenomena as illusory …

Audience 2: That’s what he means, is it different from illusions?

VTC: Yes. “As illusions …” it’s not is illusions. “As illusory”—they’re like illusions. They’re like illusions in that they appear one way but exist in another.

Another example that’s used a lot is a reflection in a mirror. You look in the mirror and it looks like there’s a real face in the mirror. We can look at the face in the mirror and it looks so real that we can get attached to it, “Oh, how beautiful I am.” We can get angry at it, “Oh, how ugly it is.” We can generate all sorts of emotions at this face in the mirror. The face appears as a real face. Does it exist as a real face? Is there a real face in the mirror? No. There’s no real face in the mirror. Is there nothing there? No. There’s the appearance of the face in the mirror. There’s the reflection of a face in the mirror. Is there a face in the mirror? No.

It’s very interesting at how real that face in the mirror looks. (Do this when you’re brushing your teeth.) I mean, it’s so real. You know how puppies go and try to play with the puppy in the mirror? It looks so real. Or another good example is television or movies. You look in there and “Oh, he’s kissing her,” and your mind starts going woo, or “Oh, they’re killing each other,” ahh! You generate so much emotion. This is exactly what the producers want us to do. We stay tuned in because we’re addicted to our emotions. So we stay tuned and watch these movies, and “Oh, look!” and so much emotion. Are there people in that box? No! Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to look inside the TV to find the people who were inside the TV? Did you ever want to do that as a kid? “Let’s find the people who are inside the TV,” and you started to take off the back the TV. Remember what mom and dad said then?

Audience: But in your explanation, it’s not quite the same because here in our reality these are illusions. These are, you know …

VTC: They’re solid truly existent people.

Audience: No, they’re not, but they’re not quite … the analogy’s not quite accurate.

VTC: We’re using the analogy to show that things appear one way and exist another way. That’s what the analogy is. They appear one way but they exist another way.

Audience: But I could shoot the TV and no one would die.

VTC: Right. So it’s only an analogy.

Audience: Okay. Venerable Chodron: An analogy means that it’s not the actual situation. If it were the actual situation it wouldn’t be an analogy. So the analogy with the TV is: these people appear in it, and they appear real, and we grasp them as real. But are there real people in the TV? No. They’re illusions, aren’t they? There are appearances of people.

Audience: So what do you do when you think about this and you really do go to the nihilistic side? It’s like, any little bit of understanding I get and I go straight to “Ah! There’s nothing!”—and then I freak out and don’t think about it any more.

VTC: Okay, so what do you do when your mind goes from true existence to nihilism? Yes, this is what our mind does all the time—and the future verses in the text are getting into this. That’s why dependent arising is called the “king of reasonings” or the “queen of reasonings.” This is because when you realize things are dependent arising, you realize that they exist. Things cannot be non-existent if they dependently arise. They can also not be truly existent if they dependently arise. So if your mind flips to nihilism remember dependent arising—because if you go to nihilism you’ve negated too much. That’s why dependent arising is so precious. This is because it frees us from both extremes at the same time:

  • Because things are dependent arising, they’re not truly existent.
  • Because things are dependent arising, they’re not non-existent.

Audience: So maybe one could like meditate on dependent arising and leave emptiness alone for a while. Is that like an antidote?

VTC: Yes. I think that’s a good way to approach it, because if you meditate on dependent arising then automatically you’ll start to see that things don’t set themselves up.

Audience: What does that mean “to set themselves up?”

VTC: It means they don’t exist under their own power. They don’t come into being independently, by their own force, with their own essence.

Audience: Is it okay to say this? It helps me not to go to the nihilistic place if I say “dependent arising existence” versus “inherent existence.” So I say that there’s no inherent existence, but there’s dependent arising existence.

VTC: Exactly. There’s no inherent existence.

Audience: There’s still existence but it’s not that kind of existence.

VTC: Yes, exactly.

Audience: So that’s appropriate?

VTC: Yes, right. There’s no inherent existence, but there is dependent existence.

Audience: I would like to talk about the idea of permanent phenomena that you explained. Permanent—does it mean that it is not under the influence of dependent arising?

VTC: No, permanent means it’s not under the influence of causes and conditions—which is one type of dependent arising. But permanent phenomena are dependent arising because they are dependent on parts and they are dependent on the mind that conceives and labels them. Dependent arising has many different meanings, and some of those meanings apply to permanent phenomena. But arising due to causes and conditions doesn’t.

Audience: I’m not really sure if I can explain this properly but I’m wondering if this is because my mind is going towards nihilism. But if I were to analyze something and look for the actual object—and I’m looking at the body or a book—and that’s a label on top of pages. And what are pages and so on? Then I start thinking, “How can I label anything? I mean, if there’s nothing coming from the side of the object … I’m all over the place, I’m really confused.

VTC: So you’re saying that if everything is just merely labeled then couldn’t we call anything anything? If there’s nothing from the side of the object, and see, this is the difference between the Svatantrika Madhyamaka and the Prasangika Madhyamaka. Because the Svatantrika Madhyamaka says there’s something there from the side of the object and you label it. And Prasangikas say as soon as you say there’s even just a little something from the side of the object, your lost. You’re on the wrong view. Prasangikas say there’s nothing there from the side of the object, and the whole thing just depends on conventions. I mean, “Why is this a book?” Because all of us have agreed to call it a book. It only has the label book because all of us have agreed to give it that label. In French it’s livre and in Spanish it’s libro and in Chinese it’s something else, but we just conventionally agree to give it a certain label, that’s all.

Audience: But what are we putting that on?

VTC: What are we putting it on? Just this accumulation of stuff.

Audience: It seems like it could be any accumulation of stuff.

VTC: Well, why can’t we label this thing [a desk lamp] book? Because before we gave a definition to the sound book, we could have labeled this thing book—because at that point we could have given the sound book a different definition. But once we associate the sound book with the definition of something that has pages and a cover that you can read, then you can’t call this thing that lights up when you turn a knob a book— because it doesn’t meet the definition that we’ve agreed to give to the sound book.

Audience: I’m wondering if I’m getting confused at that point—about the part where form is empty, you know, is it there? Were they together? You can’t have … I’m just confused somehow. I’ll have to think about it.

VTC: Okay.

Audience: Could I follow up on that? So the book, whatever the basis is, it’s not part of the continuum that’s doing the labeling.

VTC: The basis of the label of the book is this stuff [picking up a book]. It’s the mind that’s doing the labeling.

Audience: It’s the mind that’s labeling.

VTC: Yes.

Audience: So, the book is not the mind …

VTC: No. [This answer is indicating: “Correct, the book is not the mind.]

Audience: So I think what she’s asking and I am too is: So, what then, what is it?

VTC: What is the book? It’s what exists by being merely labeled. Here, hold it!

Audience: That’s where I go.

VTC: How can you go there, there’s a book here!

Audience 2: I know. But if I, if I’m really being mindful, I see this is where I go, is that: This is just a mind that labeled it. And so this mind has put a label on something that only exists by only being labeled, so that means there’s no book there!

VTC: It means there’s no real book there. There’s no real book there. But there’s a book that’s mentally labeled. But can you find that book that’s mentally labeled when you look for it inside the basis of designation? No.

Audience: But it’s not just in the mind, that would be more like an illusion, or maybe …

VTC: No, I mean, the book—when you drop the book you’re dropping form, you’re not dropping the mind.

Audience 3: There’s still matter.

VTC: Yes, there’s form here.

Audience 3: Yes, there’s matter there and vibrations [when you drop the book].

Audience: So you’d say that’s a separate set of aggregates.

VTC: This belongs to the form aggregate.

Audience: Yes, okay, so that’s one individual form aggregate on another individual form aggregate …

VTC: Your body is another, yes.

Audience: And then the mind associated that can give a label to some other, or even its own, set of aggregates. So there’s the form aggregate, and it may not be anything from its own side, but it is …

VTC: [with joking sarcasm:] There’s really something there! There’s got to be something there that makes it the form aggregate, independent of me.

Audience: Yes!

VTC: Okay, what makes it the form aggregate independent of any mind?

Audience 4: Well, it is radiating something! It’s radiating light …

VTC: It’s only radiating stuff in relationship to a mind that’s perceiving it. Does something exist without any mind perceiving it?

Audience: So that’s the bottom line here.

Audience 4: Sure it does [exist]. If everybody on the planet died from a nuclear winter, that book would probably survive, or something would survive.

VTC: How do we know it survives because somebody’s got to be perceiving it. It doesn’t have to be us. There can be other beings.

Audience 4: Well, we can prove it scientifically that things can survive …

VTC: Who is proving it scientifically if there’s no mind there to prove it?

Audience: We can prove that these things would survive nuclear holocaust, or these things exist in the sun …

VTC: Somebody has got to be …

Audience: It’s only a [scientific] probability unless there’s a mind …

Audience 4: It’s a logical syllogism.

Audience: If you’re directly perceiving emptiness in meditative equipoise, could you label anything?

VTC: No. When you’re perceiving emptiness in meditative equipoise the only thing that’s appearing to your mind is emptiness—which is a non-affirming negative. It’s the nature of reality. And it appears the way it exists. We’ve never perceived anything that exists the way it appears; and we’ve never perceived anything that exists the way it appears before. We think everything that we perceive exists the way it appears, and that’s just how much we’re living in hallucination.

Audience 2: So nobody, unless they’ve had that experience, knows what the heck it looks like!

VTC: Yes. It’s like unless you’ve tasted sweet, can you describe what sweet tastes like?

Audience: When we were discussing “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” you said conventional truths and ultimate truths are …

VTC: … one nature.

Audience: You said Svatantrikas say there is something there. What do they say is there?

VTC: That’s what the Prasangikas are asking them! You said something’s there, show it to us!

Audience: These questions that we’re raising at the end here, the Svatantrikas would say, “Well there’s something there.”

VTC: There’s something there because otherwise, if there weren’t something there, anything could be called anything.

Audience: But they don’t say what that something is.

VTC: No. It’s something. They say that things inherently exist on the conventional level—because on the conventional level there is something there that makes it that. There’s something there that makes it a floor and not a grapefruit. And Prasangikas say, “Ok, show it to me. Show me what makes it a floor and not a grapefruit.”

Audience: And it’s just our good karma to be taught the Prasangika view and that’s that, right?

VTC: Yes, I mean you could start out with like Vaibhashika, it’s easier! If you’re grasping at truly existent go for Vaibhashika and Sautrantika.

Audience: In relation to all this, one thing that sort of gave me a little spark or something was a teacher saying, “To a dog it’s an object to chew.”

VTC: Exactly. It’s not a book. It’s an object to chew.

  1. Venerable Thubten Chodron now translates “mental image” as “conceptual appearance,” and it’s also translated as “meaning generality”; donchi in Tibetan. 

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