Dependent Arising and Emptiness | Thubten Chodron http://thubtenchodron.org The Thubten Chodron Teaching Archive Wed, 29 Mar 2017 22:06:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The middle way http://thubtenchodron.org/2015/02/dependent-arising-emptiness/ Sat, 21 Feb 2015 06:36:05 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=43573

  • Different types of dependence
  • Causal dependence as the reason to prove emptiness
  • Emptiness also is a dependent designation
  • Importance of understanding the meaning of “emptiness”

YouTube Video

The last two verses that His Holiness asked us to recite daily are two from the Karikas. The text is called The Treatise on the Middle Way, or, Root Wisdom, Fundamental Wisdom. There are several different ways the title is translated. But it’s [Nagarjuna’s] major text on emptiness. So these two verses are very famous. Actually, Geshe … when he was here several years ago, asked us to memorize them. And I started to try and develop a chant with them but then I stopped for some reason.

Anyway, so the first one is,

That which is dependent arising is explained to be emptiness.
That being a dependent arising is itself the middle way.

So, the first line: “That which is dependent arising is explained to be emptiness.” There the way Lama Tsongkhapa described it is “that which is dependent arising” is referring to causal dependence.

Because there are different types of dependence, remember? Causal dependence, mutual dependence (which includes the dependence of wholes and parts on each other), and then dependent designation. So we start out understanding causal dependence—that’s the one that’s much easier—and use that as the reason to prove emptiness. So in a syllogism you might say “the person is empty of inherent existence because of arising due to causes.”

That one always kind of shocks me because it’s like, oh, I arose due to causes? That means I wouldn’t be here without the causes. Then something inside me says, no, that’s not right. I’m going to be here anyway! You know? I didn’t come out of causes. I’m not going to disappear because of the nature of impermanence. I’m here! Yes?

So just thinking about causal dependence already, you can see, begins to shake our feeling of being some kind of independent being. So he’s saying here that all the things that are dependent on causes and conditions (in other words all impermanent, functioning things) are explained to be empty. They’re empty of inherent existence.

And remember we just talked about the previous verse, that because things (when I say thinks it mean functional things) because they’re empty…. Because permanent things depend on these functioning things. If the functioning things don’t have an inherent nature then the permanent things that depend on them also can’t have any kind of inherent nature.

Then the last two lines it says, “That being a dependent arising is itself the middle way.” “That being a dependent designation.” There are different ways of taking that. One is that something that is causally dependent is also a dependent designation. So if you think deep enough about causal dependence you eventually get to dependent designation, which is much more difficult to understand.

Another interpretation is that “that” refers to emptiness itself. So emptiness itself is a dependent designation. Emptiness itself doesn’t exist inherently. It depends on its parts, it depends on its basis of designation, it depends on the conventionalities that it is the ultimate nature of. So that itself is the middle way. So when we’re talking about “middle way” it’s emptiness of inherent existence on one hand and dependent arising (specifically dependent designation) on the other hand.

[In response to audience] Yes, emptiness has parts. Because if say “emptiness” in general it depends on the emptiness of the table, the emptiness of the rug, the emptiness of people. So all of those are types of emptiness. They’re the parts of the emptiness.

[In response to audience] If you think emptiness means non-existence then you haven’t understood emptiness correctly. It’s a wrong consciousness. You’ve made up your own meaning of emptiness. Which is why it’s very important to actually study the meaning of emptiness Because it’s just too easy for us to make up our own definition and then go astray. It’s not just you sit here and empty your mind and that’s emptiness. Or you don’t think about anything. Or you say, oh nothing exists. Or you say, oh there’s no good, there’s no bad. You know? None of that is the meaning of emptiness. But so often if we just hear words without studying the meaning of the words then we get all sorts of wrong ideas. So that’s why all these great masters wrote all these texts. If it weren’t important they had no need to sit around and write volumes of texts explaining emptiness.

[In response to audience] The basis of designation of emptiness is the lack of inherent existence. That base upon which emptiness depends are all the phenomena, because it is the ultimate nature of those phenomena. So don’t confuse base with basis of designation.

Basis of designation is the lack of inherent existence. But emptiness depends on there being conventionally existent things that are empty of inherent existence. Without those conventionally existent things you couldn’t have their emptiness. So they’re called the “base” of emptiness. But they’re not the basis of designation of emptiness. Okay?

Then the next line says,

There does not exist anything
that is not dependently arisen.
Therefore there does not exist anything
that is not empty.

And that is so succinct and to the point. There doesn’t exist anything whatsoever that is not dependently arisen. So even emptiness itself arises dependently. Emptiness is not some kind of absolute. Emptiness has the same existential status as everything else in that it exists conventionally and it’s empty of inherent existence. The difference between emptiness and all the other phenomena is that emptiness exists the way it appears to the principal mind that realizes it. Whereas all the other conventionalities do not exist as they appear to the principal mind that realizes it because they appear truly existent even though they aren’t. Okay?

There’s also been this tendency for people to reify emptiness and make it some kind of absolute–which is why I disagree with the translation “absolute truth.” Because we think of something that’s “absolute” as out there independent of everything. Whereas the word “ultimate truth” I think is a better translation because it means the final truth. When you search for something’s mode of being what’s the final thing you come up with is its emptiness. So don’t think of emptiness itself as something inherently existent and absolute and independent.

“So therefore there does not exist anything that is not empty.” Since everything arises dependently. And here “arise” doesn’t mean “is produced.” Because permanent phenomena aren’t produced. Here “arises” just means “exists.” So since everything exists dependently, then everything is empty. “Therefore there does not exist anything that is not empty.” So since everything is dependent, everything’s empty. So then you can’t point to something that is dependent that isn’t empty, and you can’t point to something that is empty that isn’t dependent.

Again, when they talk about emptiness and dependent arising coming to the same point, that’s what it’s getting at. Everything’s empty, everything also exists dependently. And those two things can’t be separated out. And it’s not like things first had dependency and then became empty, or first had emptiness and then became dependent. it’s just in their very nature they are both dependent and empty. And then the trick is– We usually use dependence as a reason to prove emptiness, but when you come out of the meditation on emptiness then you have to use the understanding of emptiness to see how things do exist dependently.

Okay. So let’s do it. [laughter]

[in response to audience] Why? You don’t want to be happy? Realizing emptiness is the path to happiness.

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La existencia de las Tres Joyas http://thubtenchodron.org/2014/12/tres-joyas/ Mon, 01 Dec 2014 21:54:20 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=70740

En los sutras en pali y sánscrito, el Buda dijo que todo el que ve la naturaleza interdependiente de los fenómenos ve el Dharma, y el que se ve el Dharma ve al Tathagata. Nāgārjuna explicó que la clave para verificar la existencia de las Tres Joyas es entender la naturaleza interdependiente de los fenómenos.

Al llevar a cabo un examen, podemos encontrar que las personas y fenómenos son dependientes. Son tres los aspectos de la dependencia:

  1. Las cosas condicionadas dependen de sus causas y condiciones, un brote surge de una semilla, y nuestras experiencias dependen de nuestras acciones previas o karma.
  2. Todos los fenómenos, tanto los impermanentes como los permanentes, dependen de sus partes constituyentes. Nuestro cuerpo está hecho de piezas tales como brazos, piernas y órganos internos, y éstos están hechos de otras partes. Nuestra mente se compone de una secuencia de pequeños momentos mentales que forman su continuo.
  3. En el nivel más sutil, todos los fenómenos dependen de la mente que los concibe y designa. Sobre la base de dos brazos, dos piernas, un torso, una cabeza, y así sucesivamente, una mente concibe y designa “cuerpo”. En dependencia de la colección de un cuerpo y una mente, imputamos “persona”.

La ignorancia, la raíz del samsara, comprende a todas las personas y fenómenos como si tuvieran un “yo” -una esencia inherente e independiente no relacionada con ningún otro elemento como causas y condiciones, partes y la mente que los concibe y designa. Debido a que todas las personas y los fenómenos existen en dependencia de otros factores, están vacíos de una existencia independiente o inherente. Por lo tanto, la ignorancia es una mente errónea, ya que carece de una base válida.

La sabiduría, por el contrario, es una mente fiable, ya que aprehende la realidad; se da cuenta de que todas las personas y los fenómenos están vacíos de una existencia inherente porque existen en dependencia de otros factores. La aprehensión de la realidad de la sabiduría puede vencer la ignorancia, y con la meditación repetida, la sabiduría puede erradicar por completo la ignorancia de nuestro continuo mental, haciendo posible la liberación.

De esta manera, el conocimiento del surgimiento dependiente nos ayuda a comprender las cuatro verdades que forman el marco básico de las enseñanzas del Buda. La ignorancia que percibe la realidad de una manera errónea, da lugar a aflicciones que crean karma y conducen a duḥkha. Ésta es la verdad de duḥkha y la verdad de su origen, las dos primeras verdades de los aryas. Entender el surgimiento dependiente también nos permite entender el vacío y la ausencia de una identidad sólida: las personas y otros fenómenos están vacíos de una existencia independiente, ya que son dependientes.

El vacío y el surgimiento dependiente se pueden establecer a través del razonamiento y pueden experimentarse directamente. La sabiduría que comprende la vacuidad es la cuarta verdad, el verdadero camino, que contrarresta la ignorancia, las visiones erróneas y las aflicciones originadas en una idea errónea de la realidad. De esta manera, podemos actualizar un estado en el que se han eliminado toda la ignorancia y las aflicciones. Este es el nirvana, la verdadera cesación, la tercera verdad.

Por lo tanto, las cuatro verdades de los aryas existen. Las últimas dos de las cuatro verdades, cesaciones verdaderas y caminos verdaderos, son la Joya del Dharma. Las personas que han actualizado al menos algunos de estos caminos y cesaciones en su continuo son la Joya de la Sangha. Cuando progresan hasta el punto en que todas las aflicciones y oscurecimientos han sido eliminados y todos los caminos y cualidades han sido llevados a la perfección, se convierten en la Joya del Buda. Entonces, partiendo del hecho de que todos los fenómenos están vacíos de una existencia independiente, de que surgen en dependencia de otros factores, podemos probar la existencia de las Tres Joyas. Por esta razón, el Buda dijo que los que ven la interdependencia ven el Dharma, y los que ven el Dharma ven al Tathagata.

Entender esto incrementa nuestra fe en las Tres Joyas, porque entendemos la posibilidad del desarrollo mental que conduce a actualizar las Tres Joyas. De esta manera, la comprensión de las cuatro verdades nos da la confianza de que no sólo podemos confiar en las Tres Joyas como guías espirituales que nos conducen al despertar completo, sino que nosotros mismos también podemos convertirnos en las Tres Joyas.

El orden histórico de la existencia de las Tres Joyas y su orden de generación para los practicantes individuales difieren. Históricamente, el Buda apareció primero. Luego dio las enseñanzas del Dharma. Sobre la base de la práctica de éstos, las personas obtuvieron realizaciones. Los discípulos que poseen realizaciones son los aryas, la Sangha.

Un practicante individual primero logra la Joya del Dharma cultivando un camino verdadero y logrando la verdadera cesación. De este modo, se convierte en la Joya de la Sangha. Al mejorar aún más la Joya del Dharma en su mente hasta estar completamente despierto, se convierte en la joya del Buda.

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Seeing the interdependence of phenomena http://thubtenchodron.org/2014/05/objective-reality-independent-entity/ Sat, 24 May 2014 13:10:35 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=50161

  • Review of the emptiness of the self
  • Chapter 6 on dependent arising
  • Questions and answers

YouTube Video

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The four seals of Buddhism http://thubtenchodron.org/2011/08/core-buddhist-principles/ Mon, 15 Aug 2011 00:48:58 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=4941

We may wonder: how do we determine whether a particular doctrine of tenet system is Buddhist or not? This is by assessing if it follows the four seals—four basic principles shared by all Buddhists. These four are:

  1. All conditioned phenomena are transient.
  2. All polluted phenomena are dukkha—unsatisfactory or in the nature of suffering.
  3. All phenomena are empty and selfless.
  4. Nirvana is true peace.
The face of a Buddha

When all obscurations to omniscience are removed, the mere I attains Buddhahood. (Photo by Tu Linh)

One of the chief factors that cause us difficulty in our lives, and thus in cyclic existence, is that we and everything around us is transient. Whatever we cherish as bringing us happiness—our body, possessions, friends and relatives, reputation and social status, love, honor, and appreciation—all these things arise due to causes and conditions, and thus by their very nature, they change.

When we reflect deeply that by their very nature, things change and nothing can prevent this, we come to understand that whatever enjoyments, relationships, success, and facilities we have at our disposal in cyclic existence do not last long. Although we may have these things now, because they are impermanent by nature, they cannot be totally relied upon or trusted. They do not have the ability to give us long-lasting happiness or to bring real security. Such transient phenomena in cyclic existence are the objects in relation to which we experience suffering. Our suffering, however, is not due to the objects or people we encounter, but is rooted in ignorance, the chief affliction that causes cyclic existence.

Transience, or impermanence, is of two types: gross and subtle. Gross transience refers to an object ceasing to exist. The death of a human being or the breaking of a car are examples of this. Understanding this type of transience is not too difficult. Subtle transience has two meanings. The first is that things change from one subtle moment to the next; they never remain the same. The second is that the subtle transience of phenomena occurs because things arise due to causes and conditions. In other words, the very nature of produced phenomena is that they do not last from one moment to the next. They are produced in the nature of change; their nature is to disintegrate in that very moment. A new cause is not needed to make something disintegrate in the very moment it exists. In other words, it is not the case that things are stable and contact with an external factor makes them change. Rather, their existence is governed by causes and conditions and their very nature is momentary. The causes and conditions that brought that thing into existence are the very causes for its disintegration. This is the meaning of “All conditioned phenomenon are impermanent,” the first of the four seals that make a doctrine Buddhist.

True dukkha, the first noble truth, is comprised of two factors: those in our external environment and those that are the internal world of sentient beings. Not only the feeling aggregate is considered dukkha, so too are the primary minds and mental factors with which it is concomitant and the sense faculties that are causes for these minds. All these have the potential to bring dukkha and so are considered true sufferings.

The external environment is called true suffering because sentient beings’ afflictions and actions influenced its creation and evolution. Since all sentient beings within our world enjoy or use the things within it, they individually, as well as collectively, contributed to its coming into existence. However, once someone has eliminated the afflictions and actions, she is liberated from cyclic existence although she may continue to live in the external world which is a true suffering. In other words, the criterion for being in cyclic existence is not the environment in which a person lives, but her state of mind. All these internal and external factors that are conditioned by afflictions and polluted karma are true dukkha. This is the meaning of the second seal, “All polluted phenomena are dukkha.”

But the story does not stop here because there exists an antidote powerful enough to eradicate these afflictions and karma totally. That is the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence. Thus the third seal is “All phenomena are empty and selfless.” When selflessness and emptiness are realized directly and non-conceptually and the mind becomes habituated with them through meditation over time, then all afflictions and karma causing rebirth are eliminated. In this way, cyclic existence is ceased and the fourth seal, “Nirvana is peace,” comes about.

The Buddha spoke of the mere “I”—the merely designated self that is in cyclic existence and that goes on to liberation and enlightenment. The distinguishing mark of whether we are in cyclic existence is if the mere I is under the control of afflictions and actions; that is, whether the aggregates in dependence upon which the “I” has been designated is produced by these undesirable causes. If the aggregates are under the control of afflictions and polluted karma, the person who is designated in dependence on them is bound in cyclic existence.

As soon as that person eliminates the afflictions, she no longer creates polluted actions that propel cyclic existence. In that way, cyclic existence ceases, and that person, that mere “I,” is liberated. Gradually, a person can also remove even all obscurations to omniscience, and when this is done, that mere I attains Buddhahood, the state of full enlightenment or non-abiding nirvana, in which the person abides neither in either cyclic existence nor the personal peace that is an arhat’s nirvana.

In summary, the psychophysical aggregates of whatever realm into which we are born in cyclic existence are called the appropriated or the “clung to”1 aggregates, and they result from afflictions and polluted actions. Because they have such inauspicious causes, our body and mind are incapable of bringing us ultimate peace and happiness in the same way that a plant that grew from a poisonous seed will surely make us ill. Identifying the causes and nature of our existence enables us to better understand the various types of unsatisfactory circumstances we experience. By strongly meditating on these faults of cyclic existence and its origins, we will generate an aspiration to be free of them and to attain the state of lasting peace and happiness, nirvana. In describing his own spiritual journey before attaining awakening, the Buddha said:

…before my awakening, while I was still only an unawakened bodhisattva, I too, being myself subject to birth, sought what was also subject to birth. Being myself subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I sought what was also subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement. Then I considered, thus: “Why being myself subject to birth, do I seek what is also subject to birth? Why, being myself subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, do I seek what is also subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement? Suppose … I seek the unborn supreme security from bondage, nibbana. Suppose … I seek the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme security from bondage, nibbana.2

While subject to the unsatisfactory circumstances of cyclic existence, we ignorant beings take refuge in other people and things that are also subject to the misery of cyclic existence. What if we were to turn to the Dharma for refuge and seek nirvana instead? The actual Dharma path begins with this aspiration to be free from cyclic existence and to attain nirvana. With it some people seek the personal peace of nirvana, while other people also generate bodhicitta and proceed on the path to supreme awakening.


  1. Sanskrit upadana; Tibetan nye bar len pa

  2. MN 26:13. 

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Avoiding the extreme of nihilism http://thubtenchodron.org/2008/08/antidote-wrong-view-existence/ Tue, 26 Aug 2008 16:09:32 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=33504

  • Negating true existence doesn’t mean nothing exists
  • Need to still be able to see that cause and effect functions
  • The importance of seeing that dependent arising and emptiness come to the same point

YouTube Video

So when we meditate on emptiness and we’re seeing that things don’t exist inherently as they appear to exist, then what we’re doing is getting rid of the extreme of absolutism, of grasping things as inherently existent. And they say, what is one of the most difficult things to do after you have direct perception emptiness like that, is that when you come out of it, is to be able to still affirm the existence of cause of effect and not fall to the extreme of nihilism, saying that “nothing exists” or “there’s no cause and effect. There’s no good or bad.” You know. And so there’s a tendency sometimes to think, when we talk about things existing by being merely labeled, to think that getting rid of all the labels is what realizing emptiness is. Just get rid of all the labels and then anything goes because you can call anything, anything and anything becomes anything because nothing has any inherent essence to make it what it is.

Do you see the kind of “logic?” And, it’s a very nihilistic logic, but it’s very easy to fall into. So, then, we have to stop and think, “Well, does realizing emptiness negate the natural laws of things? What is the realization of emptiness changing? Does it change the external world? Or does it change how we view the external world. Does it change the natural laws of science or does it view of how we look those things?” See what I am getting at? So when you realize emptiness does that mean that gravity no longer functions? You know?

Because, you know, the people who fall into the nihilistic extreme saying “Well, you know, it’s all just conceptions so there is no good and no bad- you can do whatever you want to,” they’re negating a natural law of, you know, how results depend on causes. So, if they’re going to negate that natural law then they might as well negate gravity, too, because that’s also a natural law, and say that things no longer fall down—when you realize emptiness they fall up! You know, if you are going to hold that nihilistic position, then you should also say like that, yes? And then you should also say that eating breakfast doesn’t make you full, because you’re negating all cause and effect; you’re negating all existence, the functioning of things. So that’s a little bit too much, isn’t it?

Ok, so even though the law of cause and effect in all of its ramifications—whether it’s the physical laws that govern gravity or biological laws or karmic laws or whatever—although those things all are dependent arisings and don’t have any inherent existent essence, the fact that they’re empty doesn’t change their functioning. And our perceiving emptiness doesn’t make those things function in different ways. Because remember, things are already empty, we’re not making them empty when we realize emptiness. So they’re not going to change how they function from their side. What’s changing is how we interpret them, how we react to them, how we interface with them. And in fact it’s the very opposite thing, that emptiness actually can help you understand dependent arising and the functioning of karma and the importance of following ethical conduct. Why? Because, either things inherently exist or they don’t—there’s no third choice. If things inherently existed, they would be permanent, because they would have their own essence but didn’t depend on causes and conditions. If they were permanent then any karmic causality is impossible. Okay? So it’s actually the reverse; that if things had inherent existence, then the law of karma couldn’t function. So if people get it upside down and say, “Because things lack inherent existence and they’re empty, then the law of karma can’t function,” then it’s real confusing because it should be the exact opposite. If things are inherently existent, then they’re permanent. Then they can’t function because functionality implies change, implies causes and conditions. So karma still functions, and, you know, destructive actions still produce suffering, constructive actions still produce happiness. This law was not created by the Buddha, you know, so it’s not up to the Buddha to change. Yes?

And then somebody might say, “But, but, but, I hear things about high tantric practitioners and, you know, they can kill people and it’s not negative, yes.” And then they cite this famous story in the Jataka Tales about the Buddha when he was a bodhisattva and he was on a ship with five hundred merchants and he saw that one person was there who was going to kill all five hundred and abscond with the goods. And so the Buddha, having compassion not only for the five hundred who would be killed, but also for the one person who was going to reap the negative karma of killing the five hundred people, he killed that person. And it said that, you know, the Buddha didn’t create any negativity because of that. Now, there are two views on that story. One view says that there was some negativity, but the Buddha didn’t experience the result, because of the power of his compassion—that that kind of karma couldn’t ripen. And, actually the power of his compassion, that he was willing to bear the suffering of experiencing the negative karmic result, that that compassion actually threw him ahead on the Bodhisattva path. So that’s what one group says. Another group says there wasn’t even the creation of any negativity at all because, you know, to create negativity, you need to have, you know, a harmful motivation and all these other kinds of conditions and those conditions were absent.

Now, does that mean that in general the action of killing is not a destructive action? No! It doesn’t mean that. Because, you know, most everybody else, when they kill, has a motivation of either ignorance, clinging attachment or anger. You know. So, the few rare exceptions to that don’t negate the general functioning of that law. Because the rare exceptions, if you look, they are lacking those particular attributes or particular conditions that would make that action of killing a negative action. Because, for example, when the Buddha or high bodhisattva did it, it would lack the condition of the negative motivation, which is the primary thing that makes the action negative to start with. Okay? So, it’s not the case that if people realize emptiness, then anything goes and karma doesn’t function, you know. Those people more than anything respect the law of karma and know how to function in a skillful way within it so that they create only constructive actions.

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Dependent arising and our true nature http://thubtenchodron.org/2006/04/dependence-establish-emptiness/ Fri, 28 Apr 2006 18:17:06 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=47169

Dependent arising

  • The meaning of dependent arising
  • How dependent arising acts as a reason to establish the emptiness of inherent existence

Dependent arising 01 (download)

Questions and answers

  • Finding a beginning
  • The origin of ignorance
  • Pure nature of the mind
  • Practice identifying the true nature of things

Dependent arising 02: Q&A (download)

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Emptiness in everyday life http://thubtenchodron.org/2005/04/wisdom-transform-experience/ Mon, 18 Apr 2005 14:26:41 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=47157

Wisdom in everyday life

  • How to look at everyday phenomena in terms of emptiness and dependent arising
  • How labeling objects influences our experience

Emptiness 01 (download)

Questions and answers

  • Relating to others as empty while also apologizing and acknowledging our own negative behavior
  • Balancing an understanding of the conventional and ultimate nature of sentient beings
  • Overcoming worry
  • Refocusing life towards Dharma practice
  • Merit creating in meditative practice and engaged compassion

Emptiness 02: Q&A (download)

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Lama Zopa on emptiness http://thubtenchodron.org/2005/01/selflessness-dependence-correct-view/ Sat, 29 Jan 2005 22:43:53 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=46572

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I have a question about emptiness that comes from Geshe Sopa-la’s teaching last summer. A couple of things are confusing to me. One is: In the four point analysis we are supposed to search for the inherently existent I. However, in the syllogism—the I, for example, is not inherently existent because it’s a dependent arising—the I that is the subject of the syllogism is the conventional I, not the inherently existent one. So which I are we searching for? How are we to meditate on this?1

Lama Zopa Rinpoche (LZR): We ordinary beings who haven’t realized emptiness don’t see things as similar to illusions. We don’t realize that things are merely labeled by mind and exist by mere name. Generally speaking, we don’t see the mere appearance of the I2 until we become enlightened, because whenever our mind merely imputes something, the next second the negative imprint left on the mental continuum by previous ignorance projects true existence. In the first moment, the I is imputed; in the next it appears back to us as real, as truly existent, as not merely labeled by mind.

Venerable Thubten Chodron, Lama Zopa with retreatants standing and talking.

We ordinary beings who haven’t realized emptiness don’t see things as similar to illusions. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

Until we achieve enlightenment we have this appearance of true existence. Except for the meditative equipoise on emptiness of an arya, all other consciousnesses of sentient beings have the appearance of true existence. During an arya’s meditative equipoise on emptiness things don’t appear truly existent. It is without the dualistic view (in two senses, first) not only is there no appearance of true existence, but there is no appearance of subject and object. This wisdom mind and its object are inseparable, like water put in water. The arya’s meditative equipoise on emptiness hasn’t completely eliminated the dualistic view from the person’s mindstream forever, but it has absorbed it temporarily. That is how the wisdom meditates on emptiness. It realizes emptiness directly, becoming inseparable from emptiness.

After arising from meditative equipoise on emptiness, everything appears truly existent again, even though the meditator no longer believes that this appearance is true. In this way, the meditator sees things as like an illusion in that they appear one way (truly existent) but exist in another (dependent, merely labeled). These post-meditation times are called subsequent attainment, or rjes-thob in Tibetan. So the appearance of true existence is there until we attain enlightenment. That’s why it is said that every consciousness of sentient beings except an arya’s meditative equipoise on emptiness is a hallucinating mind—everything that appears to it appears truly existent.

So whatever appears and whenever there is the thought “I,” aryas have the appearance of a truly existent I during the time of subsequent attainment. If this is the case for aryas, there is no question that ordinary bodhisattvas on the path of accumulation and the path of preparation, who have not realized emptiness directly,3 have a hallucinating mind. Everything that appears to them appears truly existent. Needless to say, whenever we common people, who haven’t realized emptiness, think “I,” we don’t think of a merely labeled I. Generally speaking, when we common people talk about I, it’s the real I, the I existing from its own side. During our conversations every day, we don’t talk about some other I; we’re always thinking and speaking about a truly existent I. That is how we see and think of things. Ordinarily people do not question that appearance. Nor are they aware that they assent to that appearance, grasping it as real and true.

So when we think “I” or point to I, naturally we think it’s truly existent. We don’t have any appearance other than that of true existence. Then we believe that appearance to be the way things actually exist. So when we say “I,” we’re automatically pointing to and thinking about a truly existent I because the merely labeled I is not appearing any more. But the I that appears to us is false; it doesn’t truly exist. When we meditate on emptiness, we drop an atom bomb on this truly existent I. The atom bomb is the reason of dependent arising—the I is not truly existent because it is a dependent arising. It’s not true. What appears true, what appears to exist from its own side, isn’t true. Thus it is empty of true existence.

But its being empty doesn’t mean the I doesn’t exist. The real I, the truly existent I, the I that exists by its own nature, the I that exists from its own side, is not true. It doesn’t exist. However, the conventional I, the I that exists by being merely labeled, the I that is a dependent arising, that I exists.

In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara says no form, no feeling, and so on. This is like throwing an atom bomb on the appearance of truly existent things. That appearance is not true. Those truly existent things that appear to us do not exist. Then what comes in our heart is that they’re empty. It’s not that they don’t exist. They exist, but they’re empty. Why? Because they’re dependent arisings. Because they are dependent arisings, they are empty of true existence; because they are dependent arisings, they exist (conventionally). Use the reason “It’s not true because it’s a dependent arising.” Do analytical meditation to search for the I, then do stabilizing meditation when you see its emptiness.

For us ordinary beings, whatever we contact, talk about, or think about—everything—appears truly existent and we believe in that appearance. We grasp things as truly existent. However, when you realize the emptiness of the I or any other phenomenon and train your mind in that realization, you see that this phenomenon is merely labeled by mind. Even though true existence still appears to you, you don’t assent to that appearance; you don’t believe that phenomena truly exist. You know they exist by being merely labeled by mind, even though they appear truly existent. You have discovered that they’re not true, that they exist in mere name.

Someone whose mind has realized emptiness in the meditation session sees things as like an illusion in the subsequent attainment time. He knows they exist by being merely labeled by mind. So even though that meditator has the realization that everything is a dependent arising and is merely labeled by mind dependent on the base, he still has the appearance of true existence. But now he points at that and say to himself, “This appearance isn’t true because it’s a dependent arising.” There is nothing contradictory in this—things are both empty and arise dependently.

Because this meditator has realized the emptiness of I, he has also realized that the I exists by mere name and is merely imputed by mind in dependence on the aggregates—this is the Prasangika view. The I is there. It exists, but you don’t grasp it as truly existent, even though it still appears to be. For example, let’s say you see a mirage and have the vision that water is there. But since you just came from that place, you know that only sand is there, so you don’t believe that it’s water. You think, “That water is not true. It doesn’t exist as it appears because there’s no water there. There’s the appearance of water—that appearance of water exists. But there is no water.” Many things are like that. Once when I was in Italy I saw a lady in a store but she turned out to be a mannequin. Then there was another figure that I thought was a mannequin but it was a lady. So this is similar: the appearance is false, it appears one way but exists in another.

VTC: In the texts, it says that we don’t realize that things are merely labeled by mind until after we realize emptiness. So how can we use the reason that things are merely labeled by mind as a proof that things are empty if we can’t realize that they’re merely labeled by mind until after we’ve realized emptiness?

LZR: It’s like this. There’s no contradiction. Being merely labeled by mind indicates how things come into existence. At this moment, this is not something you know through analytical meditation, not something you know by realizing emptiness.

Usually in the philosophical teachings, it says that whatever appears appears truly existent. That’s what normally happens due to the hallucinating mind. The only time true existence doesn’t appear to sentient beings is during the meditative equipoise on emptiness of an arya.

But in Pabongka’s text it says there is mere appearance of the object for a brief moment. Through analysis you can get the idea. For example, when you see a drum, analyze it at the same time. Be aware that your mind is labeling “drum” by seeing that base. Be aware at the same time as you’re labeling. Analyze: to be able to label drum you have to see a specific phenomenon. Even though the table is round like a drum, you won’t label “drum” on the base you label “table.” It has to be a specific base that performs the function of making sound and that has material to produce sound when hit. You have to see that base first. Then because of the function it performs—what it’s used for—the mind merely labels drum. Seeing that base—its shape, color, etc.—and knowing it has that function become the reason to label “drum.”

When you are aware and analyze at the same time as the labeling process is occurring—that is, you’re analyzing while you’re labeling drum—then, at that time, at the beginning there is a mere appearance.

If you’re aware of the brief instant the mind initially sees that base, the instant you’re starting to label drum, there is a mere appearance. When you’re aware the instant you begin to label drum, you’ll be aware that there’s no real drum existing from its own side. You’ll be aware that drum is merely imputed by seeing that base—that which performs the function of making sound when struck. At that moment, there’s just the mere appearance of a drum.

That awareness of the mere appearance of a drum lasts a very short second. It doesn’t last because you don’t continue that awareness or mindfulness and because you don’t yet have the realization that it exists in mere name, merely labeled by mind. And because the negative imprint left by the past ignorance is there, it projects a truly existent appearance on the drum and you see a real drum that exists from its own side. That’s the gag-cha, the object of negation.

I told Chöden Rinpoche that I agree with what Pabongka said. Why? For example, let’s say you have a child and you want to give it a name. While you’re thinking of the name—the minute you decide “George” or “Chodron,” for example—you don’t see George or Chodron right in that second while you’re labeling. If you’re aware that you’re labeling, at that instant you don’t immediately see George or Chodron as totally existent from their own side. So I agree with what Pabongka said—that this mere appearance is very short, just a brief moment. Here we’re talking about actual reality; that’s actually how things come into existence, merely labeled by mind.

However, since you don’t continue that awareness or you lack realization, in the next moment you see the object of negation that was projected by the imprint of ignorance. George or Chodron appear as if existing from their own side.

Except for the arya in meditative equipoise on emptiness, everything that appears to us sentient beings appears to be truly existent. At this time, the appearance of true existence is temporarily absorbed. Only emptiness appears; it doesn’t appear truly existent to this direct perceiver. This is what is usually said in the texts.

Also, it is normally said that as soon as you label something, it appears back to you as truly existent and you believe it exists in the way it appears to you. For example, suppose you are a parent with a new child and it’s time to give it a name. The thought “Döndrub” comes in your mind and you label “Döndrub.” Of course, the correct way would be for Döndrub to appear merely labeled by mind. However, due to the negative imprint or predisposition [Skt: vasana; Tib: bag-chag] left by past ignorance on your mind, the moment after you label the child “Döndrub,” Döndrub appears back to you as not merely labeled by mind but as existing from its own side.

But Pabongka says—and I think I agree with him—that doesn’t need to happen all the time. I think that sometimes if you’re analyzing and watching closely, there is a brief moment when the mere object appears without the appearance of true existence. Sometimes in the moment after the mind labels “Döndrub” there’s not the appearance of a real (i.e., inherently existent) Döndrub. Instead there is Döndrub but not real in the sense of existing from its own side. There’s the appearance of mere Döndrub, for a very short time. Then, due to the imprint of the ignorance that grasps at inherent existence, the mind goes into hallucination, believing that Döndrub exists from his own side, not merely labeled by mind.

This is a unique explanation. It’s not common and comes due to personal experience. I think I agree with what Pabongka said about this. I showed the text to Chöden Rinpoche and consulted him about it. I said I didn’t think that it would immediately appear truly existent. You need to watch your perception when you’re labeling. You usually don’t notice because the mind is not aware. Probably mere Döndrub appears for a split second and then real Döndrub appears. There is an evolutionary process: mere Döndrub; then Döndrub existing from its own side—a real Döndrub appearing more and more, that appearance becoming stronger and stronger.

Check with your own experience, especially when you’re labeling something for the very first time. I think you will understand this if you examine your mind when it’s happening.

For something to exist there must not only be the mind conceiving it and the label but also a valid base. You can’t just make up a label and think that therefore the object exists and functions according to the label you gave it. For example, let’s say before they have a baby a couple decides to name it “Tashi.” At that time, there are no aggregates—no body and mind. Remember the lam-rim story about the man who got excited and labeled a child he dreamed of having in the future “Dawa Dragpa”? It’s similar here, where the couple thinks of the name “Tashi.” At that time Tashi doesn’t exist. Why? Because there’s no base. Whether Tashi exists or not mainly depends on the existence of the aggregates, the existence of the base of the label. It depends on whether there is a valid base.4 In this case, since a valid base which could be labeled “Tashi” doesn’t yet exist, Tashi doesn’t exist at that time.

In another scenario, let’s say a baby is born—so the mental and physical aggregates are present—but the name “Tashi” hasn’t been given yet. So at that time, Tashi also doesn’t exist because the parents haven’t labeled “Tashi.” They could label “Peter.” They could label anything. So even though the aggregates are there at that time, Tashi doesn’t exist because the parents haven’t named the child. When does Tashi come into existence? It’s only when there is a valid base. When a valid base is present, then the mind sees that base and makes up the name “Tashi.” After making up the name and labeling it in dependence on the aggregates, then we believe Tashi is there.

Therefore, what Tashi is is nothing. Nothing. Tashi is nothing other than what is merely imputed by mind. That’s all. There’s not the slightest Tashi that exists other than what is merely labeled by mind.

The Tashi or the I appearing to you that you believe is something even slightly more than what is merely labeled by mind is a hallucination. That is the object of negation. Anything that is slightly more than what is merely labeled by mind doesn’t exist at all. It is the object of negation. Therefore what Tashi is in reality is extremely subtle. What Tashi really is is not what you’ve believed up to now. The Tashi you believed existed for so many years is a total hallucination. There’s no such thing. It doesn’t exist. The Tashi that does exist is what is merely labeled by mind. Nothing other than that. So what Tashi is is extremely fine, unbelievably subtle. The borderline of Tashi existing or not existing is extremely subtle. It’s not that Tashi doesn’t exist. Tashi exists but it’s like Tashi doesn’t exist. When you examine, you discover that it’s not that things don’t exist. They exist. There are the aggregates. Then the mind sees those aggregates and makes up the label “Tashi.” Tashi exists by being merely imputed. This is how all phenomena exist and function, including the hells, karma, all the sufferings of samsara, the path, and enlightenment—everything. All phenomena exist by being merely labeled, as in the example of Tashi.

The I is similar. What the I is is extremely subtle. The borderline between its existing and not existing is extremely subtle. Compared to how you previously believed things exist, it’s like it doesn’t exist. But it’s not totally non-existent. The I exists but how it exists is unbelievably subtle.

Because the conventional I is subtle, gaining the correct view is difficult. Thus before Lama Tsong Khapa there were many great meditators in Tibet who fell into the extreme of nihilism, thinking that nothing existed at all. It’s difficult to realize the view of the Middle View devoid of eternalism—grasping at true existence—and nihilism—believing that the I doesn’t exist at all. The Middle Way view is free from holding things to exist from their own side and holding that they don’t exist at all. As with the example of Tashi, things are empty of true existence—they do not exist without being merely labeled in dependence on a valid base—but they are not non-existent. They exist ever so subtly, almost as if they didn’t exist. But you can’t say they don’t exist. There’s a big difference between the I that exists by being merely labeled in dependence on a base and a rabbit’s horn. Similarly, there’s a big difference between this nominally, or conventionally, existent I and an inherently existent I.

While the I and all phenomena are empty of existing from their own side, at the same time the I and all phenomena exist. They exist in mere name, merely imputed by mind. The I is the unification of emptiness and dependent arising. It is empty of inherent existence and arises dependently. This point is unique to the Prasangika Madhyamikas. Svatantrika Madhyamikas can’t put these two together. When they think that something is merely labeled by mind they think it doesn’t exist and thus fall into nihilism. Although Svatantrikas don’t accept true existence (den-par drub-pa), they do believe that things exist inherently (rang-zhin gyi drub-pa), by their own characteristics (rang-gi tshän-nyi kyi drub-pa), from their own side (rang-ngös-nä drub-pa). It means there’s something on the aggregates, something on the base that can be found under analysis.

The term “true existence” has different meanings for the Svatantrikas and the Prasangikas. If you don’t understand that, then studying their tenets becomes very confusing. Although tenet systems may use the same word, they often give it different meanings, so being aware of this is very important in order to gain the correct understanding. For Svatantrika Madhyamikas, “true existence” means existing without being labeled by the force of appearing to a non-defective awareness. If something exists without being labeled by the force of appearing to a non-defective awareness, then according to the Svatantrikas it is truly, or ultimately, existent. For them, it has to appear to a valid mind and that valid mind has to label it for it to exist.

So for Svatantrikas something exists from the side of the object. While they say that things are labeled by mind, they don’t accept that they are merely labeled by mind. They don’t accept that things are merely labeled because they believe that the I, for example, is there on the aggregates. In other words, they believe you can find the I on the aggregates. If you believe that the I is on the aggregates, then it means the I is findable on the aggregates. For example, if there is a cow on the mountain you’ll be able to find a cow on the mountain. Since there is something in the aggregates that is the I, it should be findable under analysis. This is their philosophy. You can find the I on the aggregates, so while they think the I doesn’t exist truly, it does exist inherently; it exists from its own side.

This is the big difference between Prasangikas and Svatantrikas. Svatantrikas believe the correct view is that you can find the I on the aggregates. Therefore they say it exists from its own side; that it exists by its own nature. According to Prasangika philosophy this is totally wrong; what the Svatantrikas believe exists is in fact a total hallucination. Prasangikas believe this not just because their philosophy says so but because if you actually meditate and search for an inherently existent I, you can’t find it. In other words, this is not intellectual wrangling but what you actually discover when you analyze and investigate how things exist. Therefore, the Prasangika view is the ultimate view.

Not only can’t you find a truly existent I on the aggregates; you can’t find a merely labeled I on the aggregates either. Many people seem to say that the merely labeled I is on the aggregates but that there is no truly existent I. This is an interesting point. If the merely labeled I is on the aggregates, then where is it? This becomes a huge question. Where is it? For example, if we say there is a merely labeled table on this base—four legs and a flat top—then where is it? Is the merely labeled table on top or on the right side or on the left side? If we say a merely labeled table is on this base we should be able to find it. Where is it? It becomes very difficult to say exactly where.

Do you remember last summer when Geshe Sopa Rinpoche was teaching I asked where on the base the merely labeled table is? I think it would have to cover the whole base. The merely labeled table would have to cover the entire base, every atom of it, or it would have to exist on one side or the other. We can’t find it on one side or the other, in one part or another, so the merely labeled table must cover the entire base, every atom of it. Then it becomes very interesting. Then if you cut it in half you should have two merely labeled tables. But if we break a table into pieces we see only pieces, and there should be a merely labeled table on every piece. Take a little piece and it would be a merely labeled table because table exists on the whole object. So that is totally absurd! Many faults arise.

I find it much clearer to say that there’s not even a merely labeled table on the base. Geshe Sopa Rinpoche debated with me. At that time I think we were talking about the person, so I said a merely labeled person is in this room, on this seat, but it’s not on the aggregates. It’s much simpler, much easier, to say this. I don’t see any confusion in it. The person is on the bed but not on the aggregates. Why is the person on the bed? Because the aggregates are there. But the person is not on the aggregates, because if it were, it should be findable when we search for it.

If you don’t debate and just say, “The merely labeled aggregates are on the aggregates,” it seems OK. But if you analyze and debate, it becomes difficult to believe that.5

True, or inherent, existence is the gag-cha, the object of negation. It appears and we grasp it as true. That is, we believe the label exists on the base. Because of our deep habit of believing this, when phenomena appear to us, they appear to exist from the side of their base—from there on the base, appearing from there. But in fact, when you come in the room, you see this phenomenon with legs and a seat that you can sit on. Before seeing it, you don’t label “chair.” Why not? Because there’s no reason for your mind to label “chair.” There’s no reason at all. The label “chair” doesn’t come first. First you have to see the base. Your mind sees that and immediately brings up the label. Initially we learned the label from others; when we were children they introduced us to it, saying, “This is a chair.” So much of what we call education in childhood involves learning labels. Whether we study Dharma at a monastery or another subject at secular school, we’re learning labels. Whenever we have a conversation we’re talking about labels. Studying science or any other topic is the study of labels, learning labels that we weren’t previously aware of. This is the same when we learn Dharma and everything else.

First you see the base; the next moment your mind gives it a label. The same mind sees this base and then generates the label. The mind merely imputes the label “chair.” It makes up the label “chair” and then believes in that. In fact, nothing is going onto the object; there’s nothing concrete going there and sticking on the object. Rather, the mind imputes and then believes the object is that label. The difficulty and the wrong view begin just when the label has been imputed; we look and the object appears from there. There seems to be the object there, existing from its own side, not something that was merely labeled by mind, but something that is the object there on the base.

That is the object of negation. It appears as a real chair or person or table, not one that exists by being merely labeled. The reality is that your mind merely imputed “chair” just now by seeing the base. It’s the same with the table: in the next moment, it appears as a real table from the side of the base, not as something that became a table dependent upon your mind making up the label “table.”

Before seeing the base, you didn’t label “table” and no table was there. First you see the base—something with legs that you can put things on—then, upon seeing it, your mind imputes table. In less than a finger snap, your mind imputes table, generates the label “table” because as a child you were taught that name, “This is a table.” You know the label, so by seeing the base, your mind imputes the label table. Then you believe that. But the next moment, when you’re not aware, because of the imprint of past ignorance, the mind projects the hallucination of a real table.

For example, bile disease can make you see a white snow mountain as yellow; wind disease can make you see it as blue. If you look through colored glasses, a white snow mountain will appear to be the color of the glass. It’s a little bit like that. The imprint of ignorance makes us see the label on the base. What we see, in fact, is a labeled object as existing from the side of the base, as coming from the base. Precisely this is the object of negation; this is what doesn’t exist at all.

Anything appearing from there, from the side of the base (i.e., from its own side), anything coming from there is the object of negation. It’s a hallucination. Actually, the table is coming from your mind—your mind makes it up and believes it, but because you’re not aware of that, in the very next moment the table appears to exist from the side of the base. That’s the object of negation.

All objects of the senses—visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tangible—as well as the objects of the mental sense power—in sum, all phenomena that appear to the six senses, are the object of negation. They’re all hallucinations. The entire world, even the Dharma path, hell, god realm, positive and negative karma, and enlightenment, were made up by your own mind. Your mind projected the hallucination of things existing from their own side.

This hallucination of inherent existence is the foundation. Then, on top of that, you pay attention to certain attributes and label “wonderful,” “horrible,” or “nothing much.” When you think, “He’s awful” and get angry, you label the person an enemy. Not aware that you created the enemy, you believe there is a truly existent one out there and project all sorts of other notions on him. You justify your actions, thinking they are positive, when in fact you created the enemy. In fact, there’s no real enemy there. There’s not the slightest atom of an enemy existing; not even a tiny particle of true existence. Simply by hallucinating that an action is harmful or bad, anger arises and you label the person who did it “enemy.” You label “harmful” or “bad,” anger arises, and you’re your mind projects “enemy.” Even though that enemy appears real, there’s no enemy there.

It’s the same with an object of attachment. By reasoning that a person is intelligent or by projecting beauty on the body, then attachment arises and you project “friend,” but friend doesn’t exist because it’s built on the foundation of seeing a truly existent person, which does not exist. The special insight section of the Lam-rim Chen-mo describes this process. I think this is extremely important psychology. Through such analysis, we can see that anger and attachment are very gross superstitions. We understand the process by which ignorance causes us suffering.

First there is ignorance. From it, attachment and anger arise. Understanding this is very important; it is the best psychology. When we realize that what anger and attachment believe does not exist, our mind can be at peace.

The hallucinated appearance (nang-ba), the appearance of true existence, exists. But the truly existent table doesn’t exist. We have to identify the appearance of a truly existent table; it exists. If the appearance of true existence didn’t exist, then there wouldn’t be an object of negation. The object of negation is the object of that appearance.

For example, when you take drugs, you may have the appearance of many colors in the sky. That appearance is there. But are there many colors in the sky? No, there aren’t. What you want to realize is that there are no colors in the sky, because when you do, you will stop arguing with your friend about what shade they are, in which direction they are moving, and so forth. If there were no false appearances, then whatever appeared to our mind would be correct and true, which would mean that we would already be Buddha. [Is this what Rinpoche meant?]

One way to meditate is to start with your head. That’s one name that the mind made up. But when we search this object we can’t find a head on it. We see eyes, ears, hair, and so forth, but not a head. Head is merely imputed by mind in dependence on the base and then we believe in that. Then search for the eye and the ear. You can’t find them either. You cannot find ear in any part of the ear. By depending on this base, mind just made up this label merely imputed ear and believed in that. What appears as ear from the side of the base is the object of negation; it’s a hallucination.

Then if you mentally break the ear into pieces—lobe and so forth—these parts are also merely labeled. Then mentally break the parts of the ear into cells. These, too, are merely labeled. Then look at the atoms. They too don’t exist from their own side but are merely labeled. As we look at smaller and smaller parts of a thing all we see are more labels. Even atoms: why are there atoms? There’s no other reason other than because there are the parts of the atom. By depending on them as the base, your mind labels “atom.” These parts are merely imputed in dependence on other smaller parts. From the body, to the limbs, to the cells, to the atoms, there is just another label, another label, another label.

So the reality is that all these phenomena exist in mere name (tags-yöd-tsam); they exist by being merely labeled; they exist nominally; they exist in mere name. Everything is merely labeled by mind, everything exists in mere name. The I exists by merely being labeled. Consciousness also exists dependent upon its parts. We search this life’s consciousness, today’s consciousness, this hour’s consciousness, this minute’s consciousness, this second’s consciousness, this split-second’s consciousness—each one has so many parts. There’s another label, another label, another label. So every thing, even the mind, exists in mere name. All phenomena, starting from the I and going down to the atoms, parts of atoms, split-seconds—none of them exist from its own side. Therefore everything is totally empty. Totally empty.

That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They exist, but they exist in mere name, merely labeled by mind. So the way they exist is the unity of emptiness and dependent arising.

It’s good to do this meditation when you’re walking, talking, or engaged in other activities. There so many piles of labels to investigate. All these exist in mere name, merely imputed by mind. The feet doing the function moving forward one after another is merely labeled “walking.” The mouth moving making communicable sounds is merely labeled as “talking.” Writing, teaching, working are similar. This is excellent mindfulness meditation to do when you’re walking, eating, writing, and so forth. While you write, be aware that writing exists in mere name; it’s merely imputed by mind. Therefore the action of writing is empty. When you’re conversing with someone, teaching, working, playing—these are good opportunities to do this mindfulness meditation.

Until now we believed that things exist in the way they appear to us—out there on the base, real from the side of the base. Our mind is habituated with seeing this as true and believing it is true. When you start to analyze, you find and discover that how things exist is actually unbelievably subtle. What the I or any other phenomenon is is unbelievably subtle. It’s not that they don’t exist, but they’re so subtle that it’s almost as if they didn’t exist.

When we get an inkling of this unbelievably subtle way that things exist, fear may arise in our mind because it has been habituated to believe that what appears real is real, that it exists from its own side. Our mind has been living with that concept our whole life, and not only this life but from beginningless rebirths. Our mind believes that if it exists, it has to be truly existent; it has to exist from its own side. That which exists in mere name, that which exists merely labeled by mind and is empty of existing from its own side—these phenomena we think don’t exist. What in fact exists is for the deluded mind what doesn’t exist. So what doesn’t exist—a real table, real chair, real me—we believe all these exist. On the basis of believing this, other delusions arise. In this way samsara comes about. Our whole life and from beginningless lives we have believed that everything inherently exists. So when we discover that everything we believe in is totally false, it is terrifying. Discovering that everything in which we have believed is a hallucination is shocking.6

VTC: You spoke about labeling on a valid base. To me, that seems to be a Svatantrika viewpoint. It sounds as if “valid base” means there is something from the side of the object that merits its being given that particular label. Gen Lamrimpa brought that up in his book, Realizing Emptiness, and said that especially the first time we give a name to an object, if we say it’s labeled in dependence on a valid base, it sounds as if there is something inherently existent from the object that makes it worthy of that label. In that case, it would be inherently existent.

LZR: What is labeled exists. It has a valid base. Otherwise, if a valid base weren’t required, then when you dreamed about getting a billion dollars or dreamed about getting married, having ten children, all the children growing up and some of them dying, all those things would exist. But when you wake up you see that none of this happened. It doesn’t exist. Why? The mere labeling was there, but those objects don’t exist because there were no valid bases for those labels.

You have to distinguish the two kinds of merely labeled: 1) the merely labeled where there’s no valid base, such as things in dream, and 2) the merely labeled that relates to a valid base, such as this table. Both are merely labeled, but one does not exist. The one that exists is the one that has a valid base.

The valid base is, of course, also merely imputed by mind. What’s called “valid base” is also merely imputed by mind. It also comes from the mind.

For example, the I is merely labeled by mind. The base in dependence upon which we label “I” is the aggregates, and each of the aggregates is, in turn, merely labeled by mind dependent upon the collection of its parts—the body is labeled in dependence on the collection of physical parts; the mind is labeled in dependence on different parts, such as the collection of moments of consciousness. It goes on and on, each part being merely labeled in dependence upon its parts. Even atoms and split seconds of consciousness exist by being merely labeled.

Everything that appears truly existent—even atoms that appear real from their own side—is totally non-existent. All of these are totally non-existent—from the I to the aggregates down to the atoms. All of these are totally empty. But while they are totally empty, they exist in mere name. They are the union of dependent arising and emptiness.

This meditation is very good: starting from the I, to the body, to the organs, the limbs and other parts of the body down to the atoms—everything that appears truly existent is a hallucination, is totally non-existent. From the I to the mind to the various types of consciousness to the split seconds of consciousness—everything that appears to be real from its own side is a hallucination and is thus totally non-existent. All of these are empty. Concentrate for as long as possible on the fact that everything is empty. This is an excellent meditation to do.

While they are empty, all of them exist in mere name; you don’t need to worry about that. They are empty and exist in mere name—this is the union of emptiness and dependent arising. While it’s empty, it exists; while it exists, it’s empty. Whether you are sitting or walking, do this meditation that everything is empty, from the I down to the atoms. Investigate one by one; they are all empty. While they are empty, they exist in mere name; they exist by being merely labeled. Contemplating in this way even while you’re walking is very good. You can do this meditation while sitting, walking, or whatever.

The following might depend on the individual person’s level of realization of emptiness, but normally when you think, for example, “The I is merely imputed in dependence on a valid base, the collection of the five aggregates,” at that time you don’t see the aggregates as merely imputed. Even when you say “I is merely imputed in relation to the aggregates, even without using the word “valid base,” the aggregates appear existing from their own side. But when you analyze the aggregates you see they are empty. Before, when you think, “The I is merely labeled dependent upon the aggregates” you may see the I is empty while the aggregates still appear to exist from their own side. But when you think, “The aggregates are merely labeled in relation to their parts,” then how the aggregates appear to you is different. They don’t appear truly existent; they don’t appear truly existent. When we meditate that something is empty or merely labeled, at that time its base appears truly existent. Until we achieve enlightenment, the base will appear truly existent in post-meditation time. But when you take what was the base and analyze it you see that it exists by being merely imputed in dependence on its base and thus is empty. On and on, nowhere do you find anything that is truly existent.

If you have realized emptiness of the aggregates, for example, when you come out of meditative equipoise on emptiness, in the time of subsequent attainment, there will still be the appearance of the aggregates existing form their own side. This doesn’t mean you hold them as true. Instead, you recognize that they are empty, that that appearance is false. You look at them as you would the water of a mirage. There is the appearance of water but you know there is no water there. Similarly, if you recognize you are dreaming, you have the appearance of many things but you know they are not real. It’s similar here; there’s the appearance of the aggregates existing from their own side but you realize that appearance is not true. It’s empty. But without realization that the aggregates are empty, the feeling of the aggregates existing from their own side is stronger. But the valid base of the I—the aggregates—also exists by name, by being merely imputed by mind.

VTC: So something is not an inherently valid base. Its being a valid base is merely labeled.

LZR: When you’re focusing on “I is merely labeled on the aggregates,” there appear to be truly existent aggregates but the next minute, when you see the aggregates are merely imputed on their bases, the aggregates don’t appear truly existent, though their bases may. There’s no problem with that. That’s an expression of our mind at the moment. It’s a hallucination; it doesn’t mean that things exist from their own side. The base isn’t truly existent.

VTC: Regarding functioning things, if we meditate that they are dependent on causes and conditions—just that level of dependent arising—is that sufficient to realize emptiness? Or is it only one step and a deeper understanding of dependent arising is necessary?

LZR: Meditating that things depend on causes and conditions helps to realize emptiness, but it’s not the most subtle dependent arising. It is gross dependent arising. You will understand that things are empty of being independent of causes and conditions and that helps to realize emptiness, but it is not subtle dependent arising.

The extremely subtle one is this: because there is a valid base, when the mind sees that valid base, it merely imputes, simply makes up the label this and that. What exists is just simply that, nothing else. There’s nothing more real there, nothing extra than what is merely imputed by mind by seeing that valid base. Whether a phenomenon exists depends upon whether there is a valid base for that or not. The reason it exists is because a valid base exists and the mind merely imputes this or that in dependence upon that base. This is subtle dependent arising according to the Prasangika system.

VTC: So in order to realize emptiness, we have to realize a deeper level of dependent arising than things being dependent on causes and conditions. But I’ve heard it said that we can’t realize subtle dependent arising—that things depend on concept and label—until after we’ve realized emptiness. So meditating on which form of dependent arising gets us to understand emptiness? For example, we should meditate that the I is empty of inherent existence because it’s a dependent arising. But if we can’t realize that the I is a dependent arising in terms of its being dependent on name and concept until after realizing emptiness, how can we realize emptiness?

LZR: It’s like this example. We talk about generation stage and completion stage. You can meditate and get the idea but it doesn’t mean you have the actual experience. So it’s similar. You may not have the actual realization of the Prasangika view of dependent arising but you get some idea. For example, you don’t have the actual experience of completion stage but by going through the words you have some idea of how to practice. That idea helps. By developing it, later on you actually have the experience. It’s similar.

VTC: But if it’s only an idea and not the realization of subtle dependent arising, then how is that sufficient as a reason to enable you to realize emptiness?

LZR: That is because dependent arising and true existence are totally opposite to each other. They are contradictory. So when you think about dependent arising even intellectually, it helps. Even though it’s just an intellectual understanding now, it helps you to see that phenomena are not true, that they are not truly existent.

In the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, Je Rinpoche said,

Without the wisdom realizing emptiness,
You cannot cut the root of existence.
Therefore, strive to realize dependent arising.

It’s important to realize emptiness; without that you can’t be free from samsara. In order to realize emptiness, you must put effort into realizing dependent arising.

Different lamas have different views about what “realize dependent arising” means in this context. Kyabje Denma Lochö Rinpoche emphasized that the meaning of “realize dependent arising” is to realize emptiness. In order to do this you must realize dependent arising according to the Prasangika view. This is subtle dependent arising—dependent on concept and label. Geshe Lamrimpa, who gave so many teachings in Tibet and passed away there, also said that “dependent arising” means emptiness, and that means subtle dependent arising.

But when I received the oral transmission of the text from Chöden Rinpoche in Mongolia, he said that here “dependent arising” meant dependent on causes and conditions, the gross dependent arising. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche said that Pabongka explained it similarly. So that makes it easier: understanding gross dependent arising helps to realize emptiness. If you analyze in this way, even if you don’t realize it, having a correct intellectual understanding helps you to understand that it’s not independent. This, in turn, will lead you to realize the subtle view of Prasangika, how the sprout exists—that it is empty of inherent existence but exists by being merely labeled, dependent on name and concept.

First gain a correct intellectual understanding by listening. Then familiarize your mind in that; meditate on it until you actually experience it, until you have the realization and actually see things that way. Intellectual understanding is like a map. Somebody tells you, “Do this, you’ll see this.” But you have to actually go there to have the experience. You can have an intellectual idea of what Lhasa looks like, but when you actually go there, that’s experience. It’s similar here.

I think your question—the sprout is not truly existent because it is dependent arising—is connected with this. What level of dependent arising is meant in the syllogism? The sprout is the subject. You haven’t yet understood that it is not truly existent, so that is what is to be proven or understood. “Because it is dependent arising” is the reason to prove that it’s not truly existent. For the person hearing this, understanding the sprout is a dependent arising helps her realize that the sprout is not truly existent. This reasoning here and what is said in the Three Principal Aspects of the Path is the same. There is no means to realize emptiness other than by developing the view of the Prasangika school.

You can have an intellectual understanding of emptiness by using the reason of dependent arising, when dependent arising means relying on causes and conditions. This is the preliminary to the actual realization of subtle dependent arising. With the support of the collection of merit, strong guru devotion, imprints of the correct view put on your mind stream from hearing teachings and thinking about them in the past, this intellectual understanding will act as a cause to realize the extremely subtle dependent arising of the Prasangika view school. This is something to think about. This may be a way of harmonizing the two views above. Words and belief can create hell; they can lead to nirvana.

Thank you for your question.

Note: This material also incorporates clarification of a few points during an interview with Rinpoche in Wisconsin, July, 2005. This document has not yet been checked by Rinpoche.


  1. This question is related to, but not the same as, the issue of identifying the object of negation presented in Dreyfus, Georges. The Sound of Two Hands Clapping. Berkeley; University of California Press, 2003, pp. 284–6. 

  2. This is the conventional I, the I that exists. 

  3. This is referring to the bodhisattvas on these first two paths who initially entered the bodhisattva vehicle. 

  4. See Lamrimpa, Gen. Realizing Emptiness. Ithaca NY; Snow Lion, 1999, pp. 91–2. 

  5. Notice that “the I is merely labeled in dependence on the aggregates” has a different meaning from “the I is merely labeled on the aggregates.” “In dependence on the aggregates” means there is a dependent relationship between the I and the aggregates; in relationship to the aggregates, the I was labeled. It doesn’t imply that the I is findable among the aggregates. However, saying “on the aggregates” implies that the person is there, somewhere on or in the aggregates; that the person is findable under analysis.

    Here Rinpoche is also showing the difference between ultimate existence (the object of negation) and conventional existence (how things exist). While a conventionally existent person is on the seat or in the room, an ultimately existent person is not on the aggregates.

     

  6. This is why refuge, devotion to our spiritual mentor, and the accumulation of positive potential (merit) are so essential. They enrich the mind and enable it to sustain this realization and transcend any fear that may arise. 

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How to develop wisdom http://thubtenchodron.org/2003/10/cultivate-correct-view/ Fri, 10 Oct 2003 12:15:03 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=47112

Perfection of the three types of wisdom

  • Seeing the ultimate truth of how things lack inherent nature
  • Understanding karma and causal relationships
  • Using skillful means to be of benefit to sentient beings

Comments and discussion

  • Problems occur when we make our identities too strong
  • The value of having a daily meditation practice
  • Understanding karma to have more compassion
  • Looking at a situation to stop the cycle of negativity
  • The importance of practicing ethical discipline

How to develop wisdom (download)

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Disintegratedness of actions and rebirth http://thubtenchodron.org/2003/09/karma-propels-samsara/ Tue, 02 Sep 2003 06:00:20 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=51321

Karma

  • How different Buddhist schools posit what transmigrates from life to life
  • Using reasoning and analysis to investigate the Prasangika view of the self
  • The disintegratedness of actions as a means to explain how karmic imprints are carried from one life to the next
  • Using the reasoning of disintegratedness or zhigpa to explain how emptiness and conventional existence are complimentary

Disintegratedness 01 (download)

Questions and answers

  • How things being merely labeled also allows for things coming into existence or “approaching production”
  • Investigating the law of causality
  • Individual vs. collective karma
  • More on how emptiness and conventional existence are complimentary
  • The possibility for karma to increase
  • The importance of meditation in deepening our understanding of these concepts

Disintegratedness 02 (download)

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