Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ways in which we apprehend phenomena

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.

  • Different levels of mistakenness
  • Emptiness and dependent arising
  • How and why things are labeled

Emptiness, part 4: Ways in which we apprehend phenomena (download)


We’re able to be here at this retreat due to the kindness of others. Just think for a moment how our being here is interrelated with the lives of so many beings across this planet. So many causes and conditions went into producing this brief result of a retreat. Many people are involved in creating those causes and conditions. Yet all those beings, and an infinite number more aside from them, are all under the influence of their ignorance. So they’re grasping at what doesn’t exist as existing, negating what does exist as non-existent, and so completely enveloped in the darkness of their confusion. We have the good fortune for this brief instant to have the opportunity to not only hear the teachings, but to think about them, to meditate on them, to practice them. As we do this let’s do so with the remembrance of the kindness of other sentient beings and with the aspiration to repay that kindness by actualizing our full spiritual potential so that we’ll be able to benefit all others most effectively.

Levels of mistakenness

Yesterday we started talking about how things appear one way but they exist another. And then how thus, because of this, everything is falsely existent except emptiness. This is because emptiness actually exists the way it appears. But everything else exists falsely. You can put this emptiness (in which things exist the way they appear) in counter-distinction to true existence (which is the object of negation). Things don’t exist in the way they appear, they exist in a different way. So everything is falsely existent. Everything that we ordinary sentient beings are perceiving, what we perceive through our senses, is all mistaken appearance. That’s a very interesting thing to go through the day with, “What I am perceiving is mistaken. What I am seeing is mistaken. What I am thinking is mistaken.”

There are different levels of mistakenness. We might see yellow and that might be a valid cognizer of yellow. We’re not saying that yellow is red. And when you see yellow that’s not a wrong consciousness, but it’s mistaken in the sense that truly existent yellow is appearing. It’s not mistaken in the sense that we’re looking at the yellow in the tablecloth, that’s not a wrong consciousness that sees yellow as purple, but it’s mistaken in the sense that truly existent yellow is appearing to us.

When we had the discussion about our identities, one identity may be that you are a merely labeled parent, or a merely labeled American, or a merely labeled man or woman or engineer or whatever it is. That might be a merely labeled identity. But what appears to us the moment we think of it is a not a merely labeled identity but a truly existent one. When we have that truly existent one, that’s where we get all those definitions and concepts and, “I am this, I am not that. People should treat me this way, they should not treat me that way,” proving the identity to ourself, proving it to others, fighting against it. All of that comes because we’re not seeing it as just a mere label—but as something that is truly existent. We see it as truly existent because we think there’s a big I in there that exists from its own side that can bear all those other identities. That’s one of our big hallucinations is that inherently existent I.

Things don’t truly exist, they falsely exist. Quite interesting, try that on as you’re going throughout the day. “This is a false appearance. This is a false appearance. This is a mistaken consciousness.” It’s very interesting for it pulls us out of our rigid concepts and the very demanding judgmental mind that knows exactly how everything is.

Three ways of apprehending phenomena

Now, we also talk of different ways of apprehending phenomena—because not all of our consciousnesses apprehend true existence. True existence may appear to all the consciousnesses of us ordinary beings, but not all of our consciousnesses, not every cognizer we have apprehends true existence.

There are three ways of apprehending phenomena. One way is as truly existent. Like I was saying yesterday when we have a very strong emotion then we’re apprehending the I as truly existent—and that’s a wrong consciousness. It’s not just mistaken, it’s wrong—because we are actively grasping at the I to exist inherently.

Mistaken appearances talks about how it’s appearing; mistaken consciousness talks about how it’s appearing. Wrong consciousness is how we’re grasping at it. When we’re grasping at something as truly existent it’s a wrong consciousness. We’re seeing rabbit’s horns, turtle’s moustaches, and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Whenever we are apprehending true existence, that’s what we’re cognizing—something that does not exist we’re holding as existent.

The second way of cognizing things is apprehending something as empty or apprehending it as like an illusion. We talked a little bit about this yesterday, and I’ll talk in a minute about who has these various perceptions.

A third way of apprehending things is not apprehending them in either way, we’re just apprehending it as merely existing in general, without apprehending it as either truly existent or falsely existent.

Who has these various apprehensions? We ordinary beings have the first one and the third one. An ordinary being is someone who has not realized emptiness directly. We apprehend things in the first way as truly existent like when we’re angry or when we’re craving something. We also apprehend them just as existing in general, the third way. So when there’s no special emotion attached when we’re just saying, “This is the floor, this is Diamond Hall, this is John or Fred or Harry or Susan or Carol or whoever.” We’re not apprehending them either way. The first and the third way, that’s how we ordinary beings apprehend things.

The second of apprehending things, apprehending things as empty or like an illusion, is how aryas in general perceive things. When they’re in meditative equipoise on emptiness they’re perceiving things as empty. When they’re out of meditative equipoise—walking around—they often, not always, see things as like illusions. They also would apprehend things as merely existing in general, the third way. Actually, the aryas who are not yet arhats can apprehend things in all three ways. And then the aryas who have eliminated all their afflictive obscurations apprehend just in the second and third way. Those beings who have realized emptiness directly can have all three apprehensions, so once in a while something comes out of left field, they apprehend it as truly existent. When they’re in meditative equipoise then they’re seeing things as empty; or sometimes in the subsequent realization times they’re seeing things as like an illusion. Sometimes in subsequent realization times they’re not seeing things in either way. Those are the aryas who have direct perception of emptiness who are not yet arhats, who haven’t eliminated the afflictive obscurations.

Statue of Je Tsongkhapa

Those who have eliminated the afflictive obscurations no longer have the apprehension of true existence. (Photo by C. Reid Taylor)

Those who have eliminated the afflictive obscurations, whether they’re arhats or bodhisattvas of the eighth ground and above, then they only apprehend things in the last two ways. They no longer have the apprehension of true existence. Sounds nice! Because when you no longer apprehend things as truly existent then you no longer get angry, you no longer get attached or arrogant or jealous or lazy or negligent or reckless. All that stuff is gone. Sounds nice, don’t you agree? Let’s go for it. I just wanted to touch on those points.

Just one more thing about the first verse, we’ve been spending a long time this one. When it says, “Therefore strive for the means to realize dependent arising.” the reason that dependent arising is called the queen of reasonings—can’t wait until a Tibetan listens to this, “Who does she think she is!” It’s gender equal here! It’s the queen of reasonings! There are a couple of reasons. One is because if we realize dependent arising we’re able to see that things are empty of inherent existence, so it prevents the extreme of absolutism or inherent existence. Also by realizing dependent arising we realize that things do exist, so it prevents the extreme of nihilism—because if things are dependent arising they exist. But if they’re dependent arising they can’t inherently exist—because they exist dependently. Dependent arising prevents both extremes so that’s why it’s a very important line of reasoning.

Learning reasonings to prove emptiness in order to benefit beings

There are several different kinds of reasoning that is used to prove emptiness and dependent arising is one of them. Je Rinpoche uses it as the foremost, but there are several other ways. There’s the seven-point analysis of Chandrakirti—which if I have time I’ll talk about. There’s the analysis of production—whether things are produced by self, others, both, or without causes. There are various other ways. Let’s just leave it at that.

On the bodhisattva path you learn all these different reasonings to prove emptiness because it makes your understanding of emptiness very deep, very comprehensive. If you’re on the path to arhatship you usually just focus on one of these reasonings. You use it to realize emptiness and get rid of your afflictive obscurations—and that’s it. But when you’re on the bodhisattva path, because there’s the commitment to lead others on the path to enlightenment, therefore you have to know all these different kinds of reasonings and have a very comprehensive deep understanding of emptiness. This is so that you’ll have the ability to really instruct and guide others who have many different kinds of dispositions. This is because one reasoning is going to work better for one person, and another reasoning for another person.

On the bodhisattva path you have to know it all to be able to benefit others—and not just know it intellectually. But really do the meditations using these different kinds of reasonings so the understanding of emptiness becomes very deep. That’s one reason why on the bodhisattva path it takes three countless great eons. It’s because you have a lot of work to do, not only realizing emptiness comprehensively, but also creating the great amount of merit that it takes to reach full enlightenment. It doesn’t take nearly as much merit to reach arhatship so it’s a much shorter path. But when you really are committed to benefit all sentient beings and liberate them from samsara, then for your own mind you eliminate both the afflictive obscurations and the cognitive obscurations. So this takes a lot more effort.

The path is longer and you really have to hang in there. It takes great fortitude or patience—patience with our self, patience with the Dharma, patience with all these sentient beings for whose benefit we’re working (and who don’t even say thank you!) It requires a lot more. But when there’s that vast commitment and that feeling of very deep interconnection with other beings, then you find it totally impossible to just seek your own liberation. It seems like, “How could I ever do that?!” and so there becomes a very firm commitment to work for the benefit of all beings. I think that’s quite important.

Verse 10: All phenomena are both empty and dependent arisings

Let’s go on to the next verse since we all understand this one perfectly:

One who sees the infallible cause and effect of all phenomena in cyclic existence and beyond and destroys all false perceptions (of their inherent existence) has entered the path which pleases the Buddha.

Remember I was saying yesterday how they make syllogisms to prove emptiness? This actually expresses the syllogism. “All phenomena in cyclic existence and beyond … ”—here “beyond” means nirvana. “All phenomena in samsara and nirvana … ”—which means everything that exists, so that’s the subject of the syllogism. The predicate is, “ … are empty of inherent existence” and that’s shown by the lines “destroys all false perceptions of their inherent existence.” Those words are indicating the predicate. So it’s things “ … are empty of inherent existence.” The reason is, “ … because they’re dependent arising.” Here it’s the “One who sees the infallible cause and effect” that refers to the dependent arising. [The complete syllogism is: All phenomena in samsara and nirvana are empty of inherent existence because they are dependent arising.]

As I was reading this verse this afternoon a question popped in my mind, and that is: why does Je Rinpoche say, “One who sees the infallible cause and effect of all phenomena”? When they talk about dependent arising, seeing the cause and effect of all phenomena is the most superficial way of understanding dependent arising. It’s usually said that that’s not sufficient—that just understanding that level of dependent arising doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody is going to understand that things are empty. They say that one really has to understand that things depend on parts, and especially that they depend on term and concept. That question popped into my mind: Why does he say “infallible cause and effect of all phenomena in cyclic existence and beyond”? Especially when “and beyond” means nirvana, and nirvana is a permanent phenomena. It’s not produced by causes and conditions. I just had that question pop in my mind and I’m going to have to ask one of my teachers about that. I will let you know what I find out.

But that’s the syllogism. Let’s go for the syllogism here with the third meaning of dependent arising, that things exist by depending on term and concept. That’s the path that pleases the Buddha. Why does it please the Buddha? This is because it prevents the two extremes of absolutism and nihilism, and because it liberates the mind from samsara and also from the self-complacent peace of nirvana.

Existing depending on term and concept

What does it mean that things exist depending on term and concept? One of the elementary ways that they use to describe this is they always talk about the name that our parents gave us. I don’t find this way too tasty, it doesn’t do a lot for me. But it must be useful because they use it a lot. Let’s say the name your parents gave you was Carol. Before they gave you the name Carol, were you Carol? Were you Carol before they gave you the name Carol? No. You become Carol only after the name is imputed. There’s the basis, the body and mind of that child; and then the parents impute that name; and then you say, “I’m Carol.” Now, of course, are you Carol? No. You’re merely labeled Carol. You’re not Carol, you’re merely labeled Carol.

That’s an easy way to see how things are dependent on term and concept, because we already have a feeling about how our names are somehow quite arbitrary. But if we take some other aspects of our identity that seem much more inherently existent, like what’s the first way we’re differentiated as a baby? Yes, male and female. That’s the first way we’re differentiated. That seems much more inherent existent. Like, “I’m an inherently existent woman, I’m an inherently existent man.” We even think the I becomes inherently existent. Then of course we think of our mind as inherently female or as inherently male—because women think like this and men think like that, right? What was that, “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars,” whatever it is. I don’t know. We develop identities around this.

What is the basis of the label male or female? It’s the arrangement of atoms and molecules in one part of your body. That’s all it is folks, is the arrangement of atoms and molecules in one part of the body. That’s the basis upon which we say male or female. Look at how much identity we create in relationship to that label. It’s stupendous, isn’t it? How much suffering comes because we’ve forgotten that this was something that was merely labeled and instead start thinking of it as inherently existent.

All these identities that we looked at in the discussion group, they’re merely labeled identities. And we’ve been the ones who have merely labeled most of them on our self. Some of the identities are conventionally true. You might be such and such a nationality, or such and such a race, or gender, or sexual orientation. Those might be accurate conventionally but none of them are ultimately existent. None of them are who you are on a deeper level. Some of those identities that we grasp at aren’t even conventionally existent. That’s why I asked you to try not being them—because the identity of “I’m a failure” is not even conventionally existent.

Looking more closely at the process of labeling

We can see how things are labeled—but we forget that we labeled them and we grasp it as that label coming from its own side. So it’s quite interesting to watch how we begin to label things. I used the example of Escher paintings yesterday and I really find that quite helpful. When you just look at just colors and shapes and then watch how all of a sudden it’s a hand and it’s a lizard or it’s a wall or it’s a tower. It looks like it’s any one of those things coming from the side of the drawing—but one minute before you didn’t see that thing in the drawing. What was it that made you see that thing in the drawing? It was the conceptual mind. It put all those different parts and colors and shadings together and got the idea, “Oh, that’s a flower,” or whatever it is. You can see how it’s merely labeled but then how we grasp—we forget how it’s merely labeled and we think that it is that thing from the side of the picture.

I find it interesting that certain tribes in Africa, if you show them a photograph of themselves they don’t recognize the people in it. In fact, I don’t even know that they recognize that there are people in the photograph. Maybe the mind hasn’t learned yet to put together those different colors and shapes and think, “Oh, that’s a person.”

This is a nice example: When we come up with new diseases we say, “Oh, AIDS.” Did AIDS exist two hundred years ago? Who says AIDS existed two hundred years ago? Who says AIDS didn’t exist two hundred years ago? Two hundred years ago was there the label AIDS? Did AIDS exist?

Audience: Yes. No. Yes. No. [various responses from different people]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Did AIDS exist? There wasn’t the label two hundred years ago. Did it exist? Just sit with that a little while, okay?

We can begin there to see how things are mere conventions. On one hand you can say, “It didn’t exist two hundred years ago; because two hundred years ago if you asked somebody, ‘Is there AIDS?’ Somebody would have said, ‘No, what are you talking about?’” In one way you could say AIDS didn’t exist two hundred years ago. If there was the virus around at that time then from the point of view of now, when we have that label, in retrospect we can give the label to that accumulation to those symptoms. Then we say, “Oh yes. AIDS was around two hundred years ago.” But with that you can see how it’s just conventional designation, isn’t it? Because a person two hundred years ago wouldn’t have said that AIDS exists.

What’s the book called where you have all these new psychological diagnoses?

Audience: DSM and it’s now in its fourth edition. [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]

VTC: As soon as you have this label like “borderline,” you take the label borderline—and we’re all crack psychologists, aren’t we? We love to say about somebody we don’t like, “Oh, they’re manic depressive, they’re bipolar, they’re borderline.” We do this, don’t we?

Even fifty years ago, did borderline exist? There wasn’t a label borderline, was there? There wasn’t bipolar either. Did some people have the symptoms of borderline fifty years ago? Did some people have the symptoms of bipolar fifty years ago? Yes. We might be able to impute now, from the time when we have those labels, impute that great-great grandma was bipolar. But actually at that time bipolar wasn’t exactly existing. Nobody would have known what you were talking about.

It’s interesting how we take just a bunch of symptoms and upon that accumulation of symptoms we give it a name and then we think that there’s a real disorder there. Is there a real disorder there? No. All these names that we give to diseases, whether they’re physical or mental diseases, are just labels given on the basis of certain symptoms. But we forget that. When we hear the word cancer everybody goes, “Ahh!” You hear cancer and you freak out. Cancer is something that’s merely labeled on certain symptoms, that’s all. But we don’t think of cancer as just a label that you give based on those symptoms—so that you don’t have to repeat all the symptoms every time you use a sentence. Instead we start thinking of cancer as its own individual thing out there, or in here, that then we go, “Ahh!” But all it is is a label given on symptoms.

Consequences of labeling

It’s important to look at this because how do we relate to things when we forget that they’re merely labeled? We become quite stressed about them, don’t we? If you had something going inside your body—before you get the diagnosis cancer and after you get the diagnosis cancer—how you react to it totally different, isn’t it? If the doctor calls you in and says those two syllables has anything in your body changed? No. What happens to your mind when you hear those two syllables? “Ahh!”—you freak out. But it’s only a label. Nothing has changed in the body from before the doctor said those words until after. Yet how we relate to the label, we forget that it’s just a sound given in reference to symptoms. We think that there’s something there from its own side. Then we have all this meaning and all this emotional garbage that we put on, that we associate with that label—that then we suffer after we give it.

It’s very interesting, start looking at some of the labels that you put on yourself. See how much you constrict your own growth by forgetting that it’s a label and thinking that it’s something real. Especially all these psychological diagnoses, as soon as you get one, “Oh, I’m this!” Sometimes it provides a certain amount of security, “Oh, I have a diagnosis. Now I know what’s wrong with me.”

Yet even with a physical illness, “Oh, I have a diagnosis. Now I know that’s wrong with me.” Has anything changed? No, nothing has changed. It’s just that you have one word instead of a list of symptoms. But one word, “Oh, it’s a thing. I know what it is. And I know that there’s a remedy.” Or, “Maybe there’s not a remedy. Maybe this is who I am forever. I’m an alcoholic forever and ever.” These things are just labels, but we put so much on it. Are you getting some sense about how things exist by being merely labeled, but how we grasp them as inherently existent, as truly existent? I find this very helpful to think of especially when you’re sick.

Some people mentioned pain, like when there’s pain in your body. Instead of giving it the label ‘pain,’ give it the label ‘sensation.’ Take away the label pain. Or if you’re giving yourself the label pain, ask yourself, “How do I know it’s pain?” That’s a very interesting thing to meditate on, “How do I know it’s pain?” I say this painful, how do I know it’s painful? On what basis do I give it that label painful? Explore what is the basis upon which you’re giving it that label. Start to differentiate the basis from the label. Do this so you don’t see the label as inherently existent there on the basis—because it’s not.

Or when you say, “I’m tired.” I don’t know about you but I hate being tired. It’s a really unpleasant sensation for me—being tired. And I’ll just go, “I’m tired.” Then it’s real interesting if I say, “How do I know I’m tired?” As soon as I say, “I’m tired” then I have all the reason to be in a bad mood. You see? I’m tired therefore I’m in a bad mood, therefore, “Let me go to bed. Please just let me go to bed. I’ll feel so much better. You’ll be much happier with me. Just let me go to sleep.” But if I stop and say, “How do I know if I’m tired?” How do you know you’re tired? On what basis do we say, “I’m tired?” Is the body tired? Is the mind tired? What about the body is tired? What about the mind do we call tired? It’s very interesting. Investigate that. What is the basis upon which I give that label tired? Then to see it’s just a set of symptoms, just a set of certain kinds of feelings.

It might be interesting to discuss this some time. What I find is, on the basis of certain feelings I have right around the rims of my eyes, that’s how I give the label. Then when I look, I go, “Okay, I’m having that sensation around the rims of my eyes. Why do I have to be in a bad mood because of it?” It’s just a sensation. If I took off the label ‘tired’ I might not be in such a bad mood. I’m confusing the label with the basis of the label. And because I confuse the label with the basis of the label, then seeing it as inherently existent all these problems start afterwards.

Experiments in labeling

Here’s another interesting way to do this. This is good to do on your break time. So instead of reading books tomorrow after breakfast sit inside or outside. Then look at something, for example, a tree—and say, “How do I know this is a tree? On what basis do I call this tree?” Then you start looking, “Oh, there’s a trunk, there are branches, there are leaves. It’s a certain color. It’s a certain shape. On all that basis I call it tree.” Is there a tree there on that basis?

If there’s a tree there, then I should be able to find something that is the tree. Is the trunk the tree? Are the branches the tree? When you do this just look at trunk, look exclusively at the trunk, and see if you can find tree in it. Then look exclusively at a branch and say, “What is that? Is that a tree?” No, it’s a branch. Look at the leaves. Focus just on the leaves. Is that a tree? No, they’re leaves. You start going through all the parts, you can’t find any of them that is a tree. But then when you step back and you’re not analyzing, you look out the window and there’s a tree.

Play with that. Sit there and look at something and play with it in that way. Go back and forth between the parts and the whole, the parts and the whole, the basis of designation and the label you’re designating it. Then, when you do that for a while, then look at a person. Of course maybe they don’t want you staring at them. He’s saying he mistook you for a tree or something, to see if you’re a tree. How do I know there’s a person there? First try it with a person’s name. Look at somebody. You’re sitting in the front row—Barbara. How do I know it’s Barbara? On what basis do I say it’s Barbara? What basis do you say it’s Barbara?

Audience: She was called that.

VTC: Yes, because her parents called her Barbara and we learned that that sound is affiliated with that basis. That’s the only way we know that’s Barbara. How do we know it’s a person?

Audience: (unclear) … we’ve been told that she’s a person.

VTC: Yes. We’ve been told that’s a person, but on what basis do we call this person and we don’t call this person.

Audience: (many answers)

VTC: Okay, the shape and the color. Is just seeing the shape and the color enough to call person? If there’s a corpse there is that a person? If there’s a body there, there’s a dead corpse, is there a person there?

Audience: No.

VTC: No. There’s no person there. So and so died. That person no longer exists. When the corpse is there, that person’s not there. We say they died. They ceased existing. A person’s not there when there’s the corpse.

Actually it’s interesting, we might say, “Oh, it’s John’s body,” but John doesn’t even exist at that point! John died. John is non-existent. But we say that’s John’s body. When you look at this you begin to see how things exist just by labels. Because in the past that was called John, then nowadays, even though John is no longer there, we call it John’s body—even though John doesn’t actually exist now. Technically speaking we can’t call it John’s body because we’re giving it the name of the cause. The corpse is getting the name of the cause—John’s body—because John’s body was the cause of the corpse.

Sometimes we give things a label that is actually on their cause, or sometimes we give things the label that is actually on the result. Like when we plant a seed, sometimes we say I’m planting a tree. Are you planting a tree? No, you’re planting a seed. But because we know the seed will grow into the tree, on the basis of the cause—the seed, we say we’re planting a tree. Actually we’re not planting a tree. Actually it’s not John’s body. It’s very interesting, if we start to look at the things and how we call them names and see really how arbitrary it is—because so often we call things the name of something that it isn’t really at that time.

You might look at me and say, “There’s Chodron.” Now, when was Chodron born? Oh, blah, blah, blah, 1950. Was Chodron born in 1950? Was Chodron born in 1950? If somebody asked me, “Chodron, when were you born?” I would say 1950. Am I lying?

Audience: No.

VTC: A baby was born in 1950, it wasn’t labeled Chodron. It didn’t get labeled Chodron until 1977. But on the basis of that then you impute backwards. When you’re building a house, you’re building a house and you have various rooms in it. Does the kitchen exist yet? Before you’ve decided which room is going to be the kitchen, does the kitchen exist?

Audience: Maybe it exists in the mind.

VTC: So you can cook in your mind? That’s a good way—you don’t have to go shopping! Before you decide and give one of those rooms the label kitchen, is there kitchen? No, there’s not kitchen before you decide which room is going to be the kitchen. There’s no kitchen there. Yet, after the house is built, if you take out a picture of when you were starting to build it you’ll say, “Oh, look at the kitchen when we were first building it.” Isn’t that interesting? We even say, “Look at the kitchen when we were building it.” The kitchen didn’t exist! We’re building the kitchen, how can you build something that doesn’t exist yet? How can you build something that already exists? Before you call it kitchen, how can you say we’re building the kitchen? Kitchen doesn’t exist. If you say we’re building the kitchen, kitchen exists, how can you build it if it’s already existent?

Do you see how words are just so arbitrary, how they’re labels, and that as soon as you try and make them into inherent existent entities things backfire. Things just don’t work when we make them inherently existent entities. They’re just conventional labels. We use them all the time, don’t we?

Inherently the same or conventionally the same? Inherently different or conventionally different?

Your mother shows you a picture of when she was pregnant with you and says, “There you are in my tummy!” And you go, “I can’t fit in there!” But on the basis of the you that you are now, being a continuation of the fetus that was inside of her, she says, “There you were, in my tummy.” At that point the word ‘you’ actually is referring to the ‘general I’ of this life—because clearly the person who’s 30-40 years old wasn’t in her tummy.

We’re just referring to the general I of this life. But the basis, what was in her tummy, is completely different than we are now, isn’t it? The mind is not the same. Are you thinking the same thing you thought when you were a fetus? Is your body the same? No. Different body, different mind, different person—does that mean you are a different person than you were then? You’re not the same person? Are you a different person than you were then—that fetus? If you’re a different person from the fetus, then how could that fetus grow up to be you, if they’re totally different?

Audience: It’s like the Mississippi River.

VTC: What we’re looking at is, are things inherently different or they only conventionally different? Are things inherently the same, or are they conventionally the same? We have to start looking at things, but it does give us some idea of how things exist just by being labeled. They don’t have an identity of their own.

Getting back to the person, just look at how you see the basis and then project the person on top of it. You see a body that’s walking around. That indicates that there’s a mindstream in it, and we project person. Then as soon as we give it a name of a specific person, we give it the name Kevin, “Oh!”, and all this meaning. Our whole idea of Kevin comes in. And I said your name, did you kind of jump? Yes? “Oh, Kevin. She’s talking about me!” Kevin’s just a label, but see how we all put much more on that label than is actually there? Just a label—so we don’t need to say, “That body and mind over there.”

Play around a little bit with how things are labeled, and with differentiating the base and the label, and seeing how they’re two different things. Watch how we get them confused. Watch how we think that the label is in the basis, or the label is even on the basis. Sometimes it feels like the label is on the basis, like it covers the whole thing, like the label is what holds it together. We say, “Book” and book holds all these pieces of paper together. It seems like book is right on there, holding it, because if there weren’t the label book then it would all disintegrate and go all over the floor—but the word book keeps all those pieces of paper together.

Quite interesting when you start to look at this, how we label things and we react to the labels. But the labels are not given on the basis of designation. They’re given in dependence on the basis of designation. So don’t get it confused and think that the designated object is on the basis of designation. There’s no book on this thing here. There’s no book on this. There’s a book that arises in dependence upon this basis. There’s a book on the table, but there’s no book on the basis of designation.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche plays with us a lot. He’d say, “There’s a person on the chair, but there’s no person on the aggregates.” We say there’s a person on the chair because conventionally speaking, when we’re not analyzing, there’s a person. We can’t say there’s a person on the aggregates because when we look with ultimate analysis there’s no person there. You see the difference between conventional and ultimate? There’s a person on the chair, there’s not a person on the body, there’s not a person on the aggregates. Conventionally, yes, there’s a person on the chair. Ultimately, there’s no person there on the aggregates. Conventionally there’s a person labeled in dependence upon the aggregates, but that’s only a convention. The person is only a convention, that’s all.

When I said that did something inside of you feel a little bit uncomfortable, when I said person is only a convention? “What do you mean? I’m not a convention. I’m me!” Did that feeling come at all? “Not a convention, I’m me.” Are you? What’s me? What’s me about that basis? What’s I about that basis? Are you your body? Are you your mind? If you cut up the body—like an autopsy—cut open the body. Is there I in there? Did somebody jump out of your stomach and say, “Hi, I’m Leah!” We cut open the body, do we find me, I? But we feel so much, “This is me—whatever your name is, this is me!” What’s me about the body?

When we did that body meditation this morning, having all the tissue and everything fall off, and just the bones left there. Is there a person there? No person there, no person there. What about in your mind? “I think therefore I am.” Oh yes? Which one of your thoughts is you? Which one of your thoughts is you? Which thought is you? The angry thought? The sweet thought? The restless thought? The spaced out mental state? Which one is you?

Who is angry? What is anger?

Are any of them you? We say, “I’m angry.” Are you your anger? Are you your anger? We say, “Oh, but I have repressed anger.” Where in the world is this repressed anger? On what basis are you labeling repressed anger? Where’s there anger? Does anybody have repressed anger right now? Is anybody angry right now? If you’re not angry right now, how can you have repressed anger? Is there something that’s anger that’s there? On what basis do you label anger? On what basis do you label anger? How do you know you’re angry?

Audience: Shortness of breath, quickened pulse.

VTC: Quickened pulse, shortness of breath. You can have that when you’re running too. How else do you know you’re angry?

Audience: A series of thoughts.

VTC: A series of thoughts? Yes.

Audience: Sensations in the body

VTC: There are different sensations in the body; there are different thoughts in the mind. There’s a different flavor in the mind. On the basis of all those things together we give it the label anger. Is there any anger there? There’s no anger there. Anger is just given on the basis of a few things happening in your body and a few things happening in your mind. Is there any anger there? No.

What do you mean you have repressed anger? Where? There’s not even the basis. When you’re sitting here in this room, hopefully feeling nice, there’s not even the basis of the label anger present, is there? Not unless somebody’s going to explode any minute now. There’s not even the basis of the label anger present but we make up the idea, “I have repressed anger,” and boy, that doesn’t that create an identity to live by. Yes? “I have repressed anger.” Boy, the weight of that identity.

Now, what’s anger? It’s just a label that you give on some mind moments that happen in association with some physical things. Mostly it’s given on the basis of the mind. On the basis of a few mind moments that have similarities we call it anger. Is there something that’s anger that happened today, happened tomorrow, and was there in between? No. There was maybe the seed of anger. Was there anger? No. Is there inherently existent anger even when your mind is thinking all these thoughts about how much you want to beat somebody up or tell them off? Is there inherently existent anger then? No. There’s the basis of the label and then on top of that we give it the label anger, that’s all.

Are you your anger? If you can’t even find the anger how are you going to find the you that is it?

Who is thinking? What is a decision?

Which one of your thoughts is you? Which one of your thoughts is you?

Audience: It’s the thinking.

VTC: Who’s thinking? Is there some little homunculus inside there? Is that why in the autopsy they split the brain and pull it up, plop—the brain out—waiting for the homunculus? “Hi, I’m thinking!” Who’s thinking? Who in the world is thinking? Is there some independent thing there that’s the thinker, and then the think decides to have a thought? So first the thinker isn’t thinking, then thinker thinks, “I think I’ll think a thought,” and then it has thought? Can there be a thinker without the thought? Who in the world is thinking?

Audience: The brain.

VTC: The brain? You mean when they plopped that thing out and put it on the scale, that’s what was thinking? That stuff of grey matter? Then, when they put the brain on the cutting board and went [cutting noises]—remember, I was telling you I was waiting for the frying pan because they’re cutting it with a kitchen knife—that’s cutting your thoughts off?

Audience: You know how the monks that had the scans, they scanned the different areas of the brain …

VTC: But who’s thinking?

Audience: And who decides to do anything?

VTC: That’s what I’m asking? Who decides to do anything? Who’s making the decisions there? What is a decision? What is a decision? On what basis do you say, “I made a decision?”

Audience: It’s a response.

VTC: But think about it, what is a decision?>/p>

Audience: A choice.

VTC: How do you know you’ve made a decision? Is just any thought a decision?

Audience: No.

Audience: A decisive thought.

VTC: We usually give the word decision after there’s been a lot of different thoughts bouncing around and a lot of confusion and then finally we settle on one thought, at least for a millisecond, and we say decision. Who made that? That’s all that a decision is, and who made that decision?

Audience: The dependent arising me.

VTC: Yes. I mean, a dependent arising person can make a decision. But is there somebody you can find that makes a decision? Then how do I wind up with these decisions if I’m not making them? So it’s interesting.

Just take some time and think about it and explore in your own mind—who’s running the show? Who’s running the show? We say I. Is there an I who’s a controller of the body and the mind, “I” think I’ll make a decision? If there’s no I there that’s controlling, making the decision, does that mean that there’s no I whatsoever? Does that mean that there’s no decision whatsoever? But if there’s an I making a decision where’s that I? And where in the world is that decision? Where did that decision come from? Anyway, think about it.

I’m not asking you to give me the answers. I’m asking you to think. Not read a book, not ask me for the answers, I’m asking you to think about it yourself. I am asking you to think.

Actually let’s think right now. Let’s spend the last little bit and do some meditation. So think about what I just said because we don’t have enough time to get into the next topic so I’ll save that for tomorrow. But just think about this whole thing of dependent arising and who’s thinking, who’s making the decision, did AIDS exist before?

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.