Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The self as a merely labeled phenomenon

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.

  • Emptiness and dependent arising
  • How to understand the correct view
  • The mind’s tendencies to reify
  • Seeing how things are merely imputed

Emptiness, part 5: The self as a merely labeled phenomenon (download)


Let’s cultivate our motivation. When we start to practice Dharma our views change and as a result how we relate to others and the rest of the world begins to change. Things that we maybe got a lot pleasure out of before now don’t seem very interesting, or we start to refrain from certain actions that we did before because we understand the horrible consequences.

Some of these changes the people around us will appreciate. But some of the changes others will find very puzzling. When we start being mindful of our actions and think of the consequences, the karmic results, and thus act differently, sometimes the people around us think we’re a bit weird. And when we start to feel that there’s no happiness to be found in samsara, or the happiness that is here is cheap, low-grade happiness, then our old friends and the rest of society often think that we’ve just gone too far, that we’re too extreme.

As you begin to really familiarize yourself with the Dharma and deepen your understanding of what samsara is and the possibility of nirvana—we’ve got to really give up trying to please other people, give up trying to fit in, give up trying to get people to like us, give up impressing them, give up wanting to belong. Because when we’re attached to all those things, seeking the approval of others, the security of a group of worldly people surrounding us, then we’re bound by our attachment. And we’re going to release our Dharma understandings in favor of adopting a worldly view of others just so we’ll fit in, belong, and have people who understand us. That’s a path to suffering.

This is why our Dharma friends are very important—because they understand the view, the behavior, that we’re trying to cultivate. They understand that it’s much more realistic, much more beneficial than all the hallucinations of worldly people. This is also why we take deep refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Seeing that these same insights that we’re trying to train our own mind in are the insights that liberated their minds and enabled them to become the holy beings they are.

Interestingly, when we give up trying to belong, trying to get people to approve of us and love us, when we give up caring about what they think, then we can actually start to love them. At that moment when we stop being people pleasers, we can actually begin to love others. We can actually begin to have genuine compassion for them. We don’t need to be afraid of giving up the attachment because what happens is we actually feel much more connected to others, but in a healthy way, not in a needy way.

On the basis of this genuine love and compassion, we can develop the bodhicitta mind and have full confidence in the possibility of attaining enlightenment for their benefit—and thus have a great sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, knowing that no matter how long it takes, even eons, we’re doing something worthwhile that will bring wondrous results for ourself and others. Generate that kind of motivation.

What understanding of dependent arising precedes realization of emptiness?

I was reading and I found the answer to my own question yesterday. I’ll read to you what I found. Remember my question was, why in this verse: “He who sees the infallible cause and effect of all phenomena in cyclic existence and beyond, and destroys all false perceptions of their inherent existence…”—why seeing the cause and effect of all phenomena is the level of dependent arising necessary to realize emptiness? Remember I asked that? I shared my question with you. You see, what happens is in the lower philosophical tenet schools is they use dependent arising as the reason to prove inherent existence. They say things are dependent arising therefore they exist. And if things exist, they must inherently exist, because if they didn’t inherently exist they wouldn’t exist at all. They don’t want to be nihilistic and think that things don’t exist at all, so they must inherently exist. This is the view of the lower philosophical tenet schools.

Although they negate some levels of wrong views, like I was saying, the level of view of a soul or a self sufficient, substantially existent I, they still grasp at some true existence in there. So in the syllogism, “All phenomena of samsara and nirvana are empty because they’re dependent arising,” they don’t understand the pervasion that if something is dependent arising it must be empty. They don’t understand that and in fact they understand the exact opposite. They think that if things are dependent arising they must inherently exist.

Some of the non-Buddhist tenet schools don’t understand the entailment [The word entailment here I clarified with Venerable Chodron. It’s sometimes called the ‘agreement’ but more properly is called ‘presence of the subject in the reason’] that, “All phenomena of samsara and nirvana are dependent arising.” Some people don’t understand that. For example, if you believe in a creator god then not everything in the universe arose dependently because God didn’t arise dependently. God is an independent, absolute creator. For some philosophical systems just the entailment of the syllogism they don’t understand. Those are usually the non-Buddhist schools. For the Buddhist schools, then they don’t understand the pervasion that if it’s dependent arising then it must be empty.

In those three levels of dependent arising actually the understanding that things are produced by causes and conditions and that they’re dependent on parts, that’s sufficient to understand that they’re empty. Actually after you realize emptiness, that’s when you realize the subtle dependent arising. This is how things actually exist—which is that they exist by being labeled by term and concept.

Let me read this paragraph, it’s from an unchecked manuscript so I might tell you in two years that it’s all wrong, but so far: “Although emptiness and dependent arising are synonymous, (That is, they come to the same point.)…it doesn’t mean that when we understand one, we automatically understand the other. There is a sequence to realizing these. First we understand coarse dependent arising, that is things exist dependent on causes and conditions. (That’s the coarse level of dependent arising.) Using this as a reason, for example the sprout is empty of inherent existence because it is a dependent arising, we realize emptiness. After realizing emptiness, we realize subtle dependent arising, that is things exist by being merely imputed by mind. Only by first realizing emptiness can we understand fully the way in which phenomena are dependent, upon what they are dependent, and the deeper meaning of existing dependently, then we really comprehend that although things are empty, they still appear and exist.”

That actually applies to a couple of verses past the one where we’re at, but I found it very helpful. I just hope it’s right. We’ll find out.

[This manuscript was later checked and this portion rewritten as the following: “Understanding dependent arising is crucial to counteract ignorance because subtle dependent arising and emptiness come to the same point. Although emptiness and dependent arising are synonymous, when we understand one we do not automatically understand the other. There is a sequence to first understanding, and then realizing, these. We begin by contemplating causal dependence. Understanding this encourages us to inquire deeper into emptiness by contemplating mutual dependence and dependence on parts, which leads to understanding the emptiness of both impermanent and permanent phenomena. This, in turn, leads to an appreciation of dependent designation. We understand that while the I comes into existence by depending on causes and exists by depending on its parts, its identity and existence as a person depends on its being labeled by thought and language.”

“Meditating on causal and mutual dependence brings an inferential realization of emptiness. The realization of dependence on thought and language occurs subsequent to the inferential realization of emptiness. Similarly, the realization of emptiness precedes understanding that how things appear is not how they exist. Due to the latencies of ignorance, to all minds of sentient beings except for aryas in meditative equipoise on emptiness, phenomena appear to exist inherently although they do not. Once we realize their subtle conventional nature—that they exist dependent on being merely labeled by thought and language—we will comprehend that while they are empty, they still appear and exist—albeit falsely. Because this realization comes after realizing emptiness, it is important to have a robust understanding of conventional truths prior to meditating on emptiness to guard against nihilism.”]

Why focus on refuting wrong views?

Emptiness is difficult to realize. There are a lot of dead ends we can go down, a lot of wrong views that we can have. One of the questions someone wrote me on a note was: “The Buddha cautioned us against philosophical debate for the sake of philosophical debate and cautioned us about metaphysical speculation.” In fact there were fourteen questions that the Buddha refused to answer when people asked them. This was because these questions were all given from the perspective of inherent existence so there’s no right answer to them either way you answer. The question continues, “Is it really important to discuss all these things and to go into all this philosophy?” Well, it is when you see how numerous our wrong views are. Even at the time of the Buddha this occurred. There are some sutras in the Pali Canon where the Buddha talks about, I forget how many, it was sixty-two or sixty-four wrong views, and many more—he kept elaborating on all these wrong views that people had at his time. We read these wrong views and think, “They’re really wrong! How could anybody believe that?” But then we have our newly invented wrong views that we believe in.

The Buddha spent a fair amount of time refuting other peoples’ wrong views when he was alive. Why? Because if you have even one of these acquired afflictions, acquired ignorance, acquired wrong views (these you get from hearing wrong philosophy or psychology in this life), if you have one of those and hold on to it? Then it’s going to prevent you from understanding the correct view—even intellectually understanding the correct view. If you can’t intellectually understand the correct view, how are you going to meditate on it and free your mind from the mental image that obscures you from seeing it directly—because you don’t even have the correct view. That’s why some of what we’re doing now is quite important. It’s helping us free our minds from the very gross wrong views so that we can actually begin to understand emptiness.

Remember, emptiness isn’t just closing your eyes and saying, “Oh, it’s all empty.” Emptiness isn’t the emptiness like of your checking account, or the emptiness of your stomach, that’s not the meaning of emptiness. We don’t just close our eyes and empty our mind of all thought. That’s not the realization of emptiness. In fact, Je Rinpoche spent so long and so many pages refuting the view that simply emptying the mind of thought is the realization of emptiness, that simply stopping conceptualization and discursive thought is the realization of emptiness. This has been a constant thing in Tibetan Buddhism.

It’s very easy if somebody has attained samadhi and doesn’t have a lot of discursive thought, the mind is so peaceful, and they think, “Oh, I’ve realized nirvana.” It’s a very easy trap to fall into; especially if you have some kind of philosophy that says, “Oh yes, all those conceptions grasping at inherent existence. Just stop thinking and make your mind peaceful. That’s it, that’s all you have to do.” That’s not it. This is because the self- grasping ignorance, like we’ve been talking about, grasps things as truly existent.

The only way we’re going to get rid of that is by proving to our self, and seeing nakedly with direct perception, that what ignorance grasps as true does not exist. Until we can really understand on very subtle levels that what we hold as reality is a total hallucination, if we can’t do that, then that subtle ignorance is always going to be there grasping at true existence. We might have perfect samadhi, very peaceful mind, not think of anything at all—but at the time of death when the constructed self is dissolving there’s going to be grasping. There’s going to be grasping at an I, grasping at a body, grasping at a mind. That’s going to make karma ripen and throw us into another rebirth. That’s why the masters really emphasize time and time again how incredibly important it is to have the right view of emptiness. This is because if we meditate on the wrong view we get the results of meditating on the wrong view—which is more samsara.

The mind that reifies

Our mind has such a tendency to reify everything. We can see that in our discussions as we go back and forth, “Well, if it’s empty then there’s nothing. So something’s got to be there. Yes, there’s got to be something that’s got to be really me—otherwise you could call me anything.” We can see in our discussions that we’ve been having how the mind just instinctively has this knee-jerk thing of wanting to reify and grasp. Unless we have developed some kind of wisdom that can flesh out all these sneaky ways that ignorance works, we’re very liable to fall prey to one of them.

I remember something Geshe Sonam Rinchen explained when he was teaching us emptiness. They spent a lot of time, Chandrakirti and other masters spend a lot of time refuting the Samkhya philosophical tenet system. The Samkhyas are some ancient Indian tenet schools. We get a crash course in Samkhya philosophy so that we can refute it. And when we’re learning this crash course of Samkhya philosophy, we’re all scratching our heads going, “Who would believe this? It’s just so weird, who would believe it?” Geshe-la was saying to us, “These are not stupid people! If one of their teachers walked in here and gave you a talk you’d start believing him because you’re so ignorant.” It was very humbling, but I think he’s right. I say this because you see people, they start to get into the Dharma, then they hear some other philosophy—something something, and ‘boing,’ they’re off.

There was one person who was actually quite a dear friend of mine (and still is a dear friend of mine) who was a very early member of DFF [Dharma Friendship Foundation, in Seattle]. For many years she practiced the Dharma and had very strong refuge. In 1994 maybe, or ’93, I went to Asia for a month and I came back and she had become a Catholic. She wasn’t even raised as a Catholic. But she went to one convent and she loved their way of life. Some karma that was there, that nobody knew was there, just ripened and she’s now actually a Carmelite nun. We’re still in touch, we’re still good friends. Catholic nuns and Buddhist nuns understand each other very well, not over issues like God, but over other things that are much more important than that. I go to a lot of Catholic-Buddhist dialogues and I find them very wonderful. In fact, just this last weekend, some Carmelite nuns who live near the Abbey came to the Abbey. We have a very good connection.

I’m getting off on a tangent. What I’m trying to say is this is important because we have so many tendencies to reify. And if somebody’s an extremely skillful speaker they can talk us into believing anything when our own wisdom is very weak. That’s why there’s all this stuff that we have to look into.

Buddhist notion of the mere I

I thought to talk about a little bit today, and it follows from yesterday. We were talking about imputation and seeing how things are merely imputed. How words are conventions and yet we tend to really reify them. How we give the name of a result to the cause like when we say, “I planted a tree,” when we didn’t plant a tree. Does cancer exist at a time period in history when the symptoms existed but the word cancer didn’t exist? All these kinds of things we discussed. This fits in, a little bit, to the question that some of you were asking about, “What is it that goes on from life to life?”

A monk walking toward a transparent Buddha statue.

What goes on from life to life is the merely labeled I, something you cannot find when you analyze. (Photo by Hartwig HKD)

You’re going to love this answer of what goes on from life to life and what carries the karma from life to life. The answer is the mere I—the mere I—mere, m-e-r-e, the mere I. That means the merely labeled I. That means that something that exists by being merely labeled that you cannot find when you analyze. So if you start to go, “What is this mere I?” that’s the whole point. You can’t pinpoint something that is it. Because the I is not the body, the I is not the mind, so there’s no inherently existent, findable I. But we still say, “I’m sitting here listening,” or “I’m sitting here talking,” or “I’m going to go to dinner.” We use the word I all the time, don’t we?

Even the Buddha used the word I. If the Buddha used the word I, does it mean that there’s absolutely no I of any kind that exists? No, there’s no inherently existent I—but when you negate inherent existence what’s left is merely labeled existence, conventional existence. When you negate the truly existent I, which never existed—or said another way, when we finally realize that what never existed never existed. Then afterwards we can see what does exist—which is something that exists by being merely labeled. This means it’s unfindable when you search for it. You can’t pinpoint it because it’s just a mere label given in dependence upon whatever happens to be the aggregates at any particular moment of time. It’s a merely labeled I that’s labeled in dependence upon whatever happens to be the aggregates, the mental and physical aggregates, at any particular moment of time.

The aggregates are constantly changing. The body—changing moment by moment, rising and ceasing each moment, arising and ceasing at the same time—there’s nothing static, permanent about the body. The mind, if you haven’t noticed this last week, changes all the time too! Moment to moment there’s nothing static that you can grasp on to. So here’s this ever-changing body, this ever-changing mind, and in dependence upon those, being functioning in relationship to each other, we give the label I. That’s the only I that exists. And that’s the one that carries the karma.

What’s the consequence of being findable?

You’re going to go, “But if it’s not findable, how can it carry the karma?” Well, if it is findable how can it carry the karma? Because if it’s findable and it’s inherently existent that means it exists without depending on anything else. If it exists without depending on anything else, it means it’s static and permanent and cannot change. If it cannot change, how did it create karma to start with? Creating karma implies that the self changed, the self acted. If the self is static how can it go from one life to the next life where there’s change involved? As soon as your mind goes, “If it’s not findable, how can it carry the karma?” ask yourself, “If it is findable, how can it carry the karma?”

Anytime the mind starts to say, “Well, if it’s not findable it can’t exist,” say, “If it is findable, how can it exist?” Because if you can find anything that exists independently of everything else then it’s its own absolute, independent, unrelated reality—which means that nothing else can affect it. If nothing else can affect it, it can’t relate to anything else. It can’t change. It can’t act. It can’t function. Anything that’s inherently existent, it’s a dead end, it can’t do anything. That’s why things have to be empty of inherent existence.

Merely labeled in dependence upon the basis of designation

It’s this thing of being merely labeled in dependence upon what happens to be the basis of designation at any particular time. The body and the mind also are dependently designated as well. Don’t think that they’re inherently existent. They exist just as un-findably as the I that’s designated in dependence upon them.

I think sometimes an example is easier—take Seattle. When we say Seattle we think of some fixed city, don’t we? What comes in our mind is some inherently existent fixed city. This is Seattle. Maybe you get the Space Needle and some more things, this is Seattle. Go back to before the earthquake. What year was the earthquake? When was it, 1906 or something? Anyway, before the earthquake—if you’ve ever been to downtown Seattle, you can go and see the city sank and they built the new city on top of it. Seattle existed before that earthquake. Seattle exists now. Are they the same Seattle? No. Even yesterday’s Seattle and today’s Seattle, are they the same? No. The buildings have changed since yesterday; the people who are resident in the city have changed since yesterday. From day to day there’s a whole new basis of designation. The label that’s imputed, that’s designated in dependence upon that basis of designation, happens to be the same one. It’s been the same one since somebody first gave the city that name after Chief Seattle. So the labels remain the same, but the basis of the label has changed moment by moment. Are you with me?

It’s the same with our body. We say, “My body.” You look at a baby picture, and you say “That’s me,” don’t you? “That’s me, that’s my body.” The body that you say is my body when you were two months old, is that the same body that you have now? No. The label is the same, we still say, “My body.” The label’s the same, but the basis of designation of that label is completely changed. In fact, everything that was part of a previous basis of designation no longer exists. All of those cells, because what is it, every seven years all the cells of our body slush off and have new ones?

Audience: Except for bone marrow.

Venerable Thubten Chodron: Except for bone marrow? But those cells are changing all the time too. The electrons, everything’s whizzing around. Everything is completely different. The basis of designation is totally different. Nothing is the same and yet the label is the same. Do you see how when we first think of Seattle we conceive of it as some fixed inherently existent city. But when we start to scratch the surface we can see, “Wow, it’s just a name that’s given in dependence upon this basis of designation that’s changing all the time.” It’s the same way with our body. What we call, “My body”—it’s the same label but the basis of designation constantly changing.

When you think of what goes from one life to the next life, we have this label I, the mere I.

Audience: Seattle? I mean, would it be like what Seattle is, it’s being mere as a town?

VTC: Yes, the I is like Seattle or like my body—the object that is labeled. We have this label I, my previous life that was me, my future life that will be me. But the basis of designation of I changes profoundly from one life to the next. Actually it changes from one moment to the next.

We label I. When you look at that baby picture, we say, “That’s me.” We did this at DFF one time. We brought our baby pictures and we tried to match up baby with person now. It was very difficult to do because the basis of designation was completely different. The label I, the label Julie or Jordan or Peter, some of you were there at the time, the label was the same but the basis is different.

Even in one life that happens. There’s a drastically different basis. My Dad said that he went with my Mom to her 50th high school class reunion, and they had all the pictures of the high school students up. He said there’s no way you could match any of them with the old ladies who were there. They didn’t match. The name is the same, but the basis of the label, the basis of that name is completely different—unrecognizably different.

The mere I carries the karma from life to life

If that happens within one life, then of course, from one life to the next life—where our gross body has completely changed, we’ve left this one behind and gotten another one. Our mind we’ve left behind, the previous mental aggregates, and gotten new mental aggregates. There’s some kind of continuum there. The gross aggregates dissolved into the clear light mind which goes on to the next life—and the new aggregates, the new mental aggregates appear. The aggregates are different, but the label is still the same. It’s this mere I that carries the karma from one life to the next because the basis of designation, the body and mind, are changing all the time. There’s no solid body, soul, or mind that the karma latches on to that just goes “Boing” and into another body.

The karmic seeds exist by being merely labeled also. You have these merely labeled karmic seeds and the merely labeled I and somehow the whole thing functions. And it functions because it’s merely labeled. If everything had its own inherent existence, it couldn’t function. If the karmic seeds inherently existed, first of all, there would be no way for them to be created. This is because things that are inherently existent, remember, they’re independent. They don’t depend on causes. So they can’t be created. The karmic seeds couldn’t even be created in the first place if they we’re inherently existent because they would have to be permanent. If they were inherently existent then there’s no way they could ripen—because when karmic seeds ripen they change, they dissipate, the energy gets transformed into the energy of the experience of that time. So karma couldn’t ripen if it were inherently existent.

Using this understanding of merely labeled in purification

This is actually something very good to incorporate into your Vajrasattva practice. Especially when you see that you’ve gone from regret to guilt. Like when you’re building a big story about some negative action you did and about, “How terrible I was!” How negative that action was, and unforgivable, and sinful—and “Where’s the confessional so I can go tell the priest?” When your mind is starting to make some big deal about it, just remember that the karma exists by being labeled. Because it exists by being labeled, it can be created and it also dissipates. So it can be purified. There’s no karma that cannot be purified because karma is dependent. As soon as you change the situation, soon as you put more conditions in the soup, then the karmic seed is going to change—because it’s not fixed and permanent and independent.

When you meditate like this your whole feeling about your negative actions changes. You begin to lighten up a little bit. Meditating on the emptiness of our negative karma is actually one of the best ways to purify it—because meditation on emptiness is the strongest purification that there is to do to start with. It’s very interesting, go back to that scene where you created that negative karma. Just look at how many causes and conditions were going on there. I mean, so many causes and conditions—and this whole play.

What exactly was the moment of the negative action? We talk of a negative karma. It has a motivation and an action and a completion. We think of it as this very circumscribed thing, but what actually is the negative karma? Can you find one moment in the whole scene? Let’s say you blew up and said horrible things to somebody, what is the negative karma in all of that? You yelled and screamed for fifteen minutes. Which moment was the negative karma? Which word was the negative karma? Or was the motivation the negative karma? Or was it the action? Or was it the completion? And what was the motivation? Didn’t that last over a period of time also? Weren’t there many, many mind moments? So which moment of mind was the negative motivation? Which moment of the action was the negative action? At what point did the action actually end?

We begin to see what we call a negative action is just something that’s imputed in dependence upon certain events. There’s no fixed beginning and fixed end. It’s not all circumscribed and nice in a little package that you can draw a line around and say, “That’s the negative karma.” It’s not like that. It’s dependently arising. It’s merely labeled in dependence upon this whole ever-changing conglomeration of causes and conditions of that particular moment.

When you meditate like that it really serves to lighten the mind up. You can see that’s why it’s one of the greatest purifications there is—because it’s seeing the negative action in its actual light.

Similarly, when we create positive karma and also when we’re dedicating, then we should see that also is something that exists by being merely labeled. There’s no truly existent positive karma. In fact, what’s called negative and what’s called positive, just the labels attached to those, it’s completely dependent. Something is not inherently a negative action. Something else is not inherently positive action.

Something is called negative because when Buddha looked and with his clairvoyant power, when he saw people were experiencing some suffering, then he saw the causes. Whatever actions they did that brought that result out, those causes he gave the label negative karma. That’s how they’re negative karma. Simply because they produced that result, therefore they’re called negative karma. They’re not inherently negative. Buddha didn’t pronounce them negative and say everybody was going to hell who did them. They’re only negative because they bring the result suffering, that’s all. It’s similar with positive karma, there’s no truly existent positive karma either. Buddha just saw when sentient beings are experiencing some kind of happiness, and he gave the actions that caused those the label positive karma. That’s all. That’s the only way they became positive karma—by being merely labeled.

Making dedications: the “circle of three” or the “three spheres”

When we dedicate we think like this for positive karma also just merely labeled. There’s no inherently existent positive karma, there’s no inherently existent me that created it, and there’s no inherently existent action of creating it. When we say, “We dedicate the positive karma by meditating on the circle of three,” this is what we’re doing. We’re seeing the agent, the object, and the action all exist by being dependent on one another—all exist by being merely labeled.

It’s not like there’s some truly existent me that’s the creator of the good karma, and some truly existent good karma out there, and some truly existent action of creating good karma. I don’t become the agent creating good karma unless there’s the good karma that’s created, and unless there’s the action of creating it. Something doesn’t become good karma unless there’s the action of creating it and there’s somebody creating it. The agent, the action, and the object all exist in relationship to each other. They’re not like permanent entities out there waiting to encounter something else.

That’s how we meditate on the dependent arising of our positive karma when we say the dedication prayer, and of the negative karma when we do confession. They’re equally empty.

Two types of relationships: causal relationship and being one nature

Let’s look a little bit more at this label I. First let’s just back up a little bit so that we can understand about when we look at this label I. In Buddhism when we talk about relationships, there are two kinds of relationships that phenomena can have in general. One is a cause and effect relationship—that things are related because something is the cause and the other thing is the effect. There’s another kind of relationship where things are said to be one nature. This means they exist at the same time, and one can’t exist without the other one existing. For example, the color of the book is one nature with the book. They can’t exist separately of each other. The pages are one nature with the book because the book can’t exist separately from the pages. The wood is the cause of the book, it’s the causal relationship. If things existed inherently there couldn’t be either of these kinds of relationships.

Let’s take the example of this infamous I that we’re so attached to. We have the I of this life and the I of previous life, let’s say. What’s the relationship between the I of this life and the I of previous lives? Is there a relationship or is there not a relationship? There’s a relationship. What kind of relationship is it? Cause and effect—the previous life’s I was a cause for this life’s I. If the I were inherently existent this relationship couldn’t exist. This is because if this life’s I were inherently existent, it exists on its own, independent of everything else. But that means that it’s not a result of the previous life’s I. That means that this life’s I just ‘poof,’—without cause came into existence, and doesn’t even change, and has no relationship to that previous life’s I. If that were the case then clearly karma couldn’t be passed from one life to the other. What we did in a previous life couldn’t be experience in this life because they would be two different, inherently different, separate phenomena without absolutely no relationship.

The previous life’s I and the present I, they’re different, aren’t they? They aren’t the same person. They’re different—but they aren’t inherently different. There’s a difference here between different and being inherently different. Previous life I and this life I, they’re not the same person. They’re different people, so they’re different. Are they inherently different—meaning that there’s absolutely no relationship between them? No. There is a relationship between them. Previous life I is the cause of this life I. So neither of those two I’s exist inherently, both of them exist dependently. That’s one piece.

The “general I” and the “specific I”

Then you have, like the Buddha in one of the scriptures said, “In my previous life I was king.” (How do you say his name, one of those Sanskrit names I can never get?) He says, “I was King M.” (You don’t want to mispronounce the name.) When the Buddha said, “I was King M in a previous life,” that I that the Buddha says in “I was King M,”—that I is a general I. It’s a general I that is given, is labeled, in dependence upon whatever aggregates happen to be there in whatever moment of time. So that general I, when we say “I’ve been in samsara since beginningless time,” that’s the I that’s been in samsara since beginningless time. It’s also the I that’s going to one day become enlightened. But remember, we can’t find that I—it’s only a label—there’s no self, there’s no soul. So that’s the general I.

We each have our own general I because we say, “In my previous life blah, blah, blah, blah; when I attain enlightenment blah, blah, blah, blah.” There’s this general I that’s merely labeled in dependence upon whatever happens to be the aggregates, the body and mind, that we have in any particular lifetime. At one point this general I referred to a mosquito, and at another point it referred to a hell-being, and at another point it referred to a god, and at another point it referred to a terrorist, and at another point it referred to— who knows—because we’ve been everything in samsara. “Been there, done that, the whole lot!” That general I was merely labeled in dependence upon whatever the aggregates happen to be at any particular moment. And remember, the aggregates are constantly changing. They don’t even endure one moment, even within a lifetime they’re changing.

When the Buddha said, “I was King M in a past life,” he’s referring to his general I that was King M in the past life. It couldn’t be the I that is the Buddha, because the I when he was the Buddha is an enlightened being. King M was a sentient being. If these two were inherently existent, then the Buddha would be also a sentient being—if these two were inherently one, put it that way. If they were inherently one, then the Buddha would also be a sentient being. Buddha’s not a sentient being.

The life when he said, “I’m the Buddha,” that I is the specific I that’s the Buddha. The I that was the I at the time when he was King M is different that the I when he’s a Buddha. This is because they’re different persons, they have different aggregates. But both of them—the I when he’s King M is a specific I, the I when he’s a Buddha is a specific I—both of those are specific I’s that fall under the category of the general I. When we talked about the relationship of being one nature, the I at the time of King M is one nature with the general I. The I when he’s the Buddha is one nature with the general I. The I when he was a hell being was one nature with the general I. If the I were inherently existent it couldn’t work this way. All these things would get really tangled up because not all of them would exist inherently, independently, unrelated to anything else. You would have each individual I sitting there and not being able to relate to anything else.

If we look at the Buddha and the king, because the Buddha is a person and the king is a person—if those two people or if those two I’s were inherently different then they couldn’t be part of the same continuum. Remember, things that are inherently different have absolutely no relationship. If they were inherently existent and let’s say they were inherently different, then that king is that king—when he dies he has absolutely nothing to do with the Buddha.

What about your future self?

Sometimes when we first learn about reincarnation this is the way we feel, “I’m sitting here, sitting on this meditation cushion struggling to create some good karma and some other dude’s going to experience the result of it. And I’m not even related to that guy! Why I am sweating at creating this good karma and some other person is going to experience it?” You hear this all the time from beginners because it seems that way. It seems like, “Okay, future life, completely unrelated person. I’m my inherently existent person, and my future life is that inherently existent person. There’s no relationship between us so why should I work for that person’s happiness?” You might have even thought that yourself. Anybody think that? Yes? It’s not even me in a future life and, “Why should I work so hard now?” That kind of attitude comes because we’re grasping at inherent existence. We’re seeing this life’s I as an inherently existent thing, and next life’s I as an inherently existent thing, and there’s no relationship between the two. That’s why we feel this way.

Now, what about working for old age? Do you make some provision for old age? You bet we do. We have a 401k. And you have an IRA, and a SEP, and CD’s, and your mutual funds, and your real estate. You don’t even know if you’re going to live that long to become that old person. Isn’t that amazing! We don’t even know if that old person is ever going to exist, but we work so hard for his or her benefit. Is that old person the same as the person we are now? If we had our teenage picture and our eighty-year-old picture next to each other would they be the same person? No, they’re not the same person. They’re different people. Are they inherently different? No, there’s a causal relationship.

We see that causal relationship because it’s within one life, don’t we? We see there’s a causal relationship between me and that old person. So we think, “Oh, that’s me. Me when I’m eighty years old. I want to be able to go lie on a beach in the Caribbean,” because we think that we’re still going to have bodies that look like they’re twenty-one at that time! So there’s eighty-year-old me in a bikini in the Caribbean, and I’ve got to work really hard to get enough money saved up so when I’m eighty years old I can go do that, right? This is the way we think! We see that there’s some relationship between the present I and the future I. They’re different but they’re not inherently different, are they? If they were inherently different they would have no relationship.

We work very hard for that I for when we’re eighty, and we’re not even sure that it’s ever going to exist. Isn’t that phenomenal? Future life is definitely going to happen, but we don’t care much about that. Old age is very indefinite but we care a whole lot about it. Very strange, isn’t it? We’re willing to do without some pleasure right now to put it in the bank account to save for when we’re old—when we’re not even sure we’ll live to be that old. But to take that same money and make it as an offering or give it to a charity, we wouldn’t do that because then we won’t have it! But create good karma for future life by making offerings or giving to a charity? “No! Who believes in karma? Why should I give away my money for that guy’s benefit in the future life? [Here ‘that guy’ refers to our future self, our future life person.] You have nothing to do with me.”

So you see it’s because of our conceptualization. We feel like the I of this life is some inherently existent thing, and the I of future life is another inherently existent thing—a totally different person. And, “Why should I work for his benefit? I’ll keep the money for myself rather than create good karma that he’s going to reap the result of. Throw away my money for somebody else’s benefit!” You know? This is because we don’t see the relationship between the present I and the future life I—we’re grasping at inherent existence.

The present I and the future life I are not inherently different. Are they one and the same? No, they’re not one and the same, because it’s clearly two different people. If the I were inherently existent, then these two I’s should either be inherently the same or inherently different. Neither way is possible, therefore the I isn’t inherently existent.

As we start to practice Dharma what we see as I begins to change. We begin to have much more of a sense of the general I, the one that came from previous lives, that exists now, that goes on to the future. We begin to see, “Oh, the I of this life is related to the I of the previous life. They’re in the same continuum.” That’s why they’re both part of this general I, and that general I is going to go on into the future life. We start to care about it because we see that there’s a continuum, they’re all instances of the general I. We begin to feel a little bit more like the past was me and the present was me.

Sometimes we can even start to grasp our past I and our future I as inherently existent too. All these people who do past life regression, have you ever noticed how many of them were Cleopatra? I mean there’s one historical Cleopatra—a lot of people have past life memory of being Cleopatra. Lots of them have past life memory of being Marc Antony. I don’t know which one suffered more. I hope I wasn’t either.

We can make an identity out of a previous life and make it a solid, concrete thing. “Oh, I wonder what I was in a previous life? Oh, I was this. That means dah dah dah dah dah.” We make this whole identity of a previous life. It doesn’t even exist anymore. Or we go to a fortune teller or an astrologer, and we get some prediction about the future. “Oh, that’s going to be me,” and we get attached to that one. We don’t even know what these people say is true or not. Actually, all of them exist by being merely labeled—none of them are findable people.

The basic thing is, what we experience now is a result of what we did in the past, so accept it, and be careful in what we do now because we’re creating the cause for what we’re going to become in the future. That’s why the Tibetans say if you want to know what your previous life was, look at your present body; and if you want to know what your future life will be, look at your present mind. Our present body is a human body. We took it because of an incredible accumulation of positive karma, specifically the positive karma of keeping good ethical discipline.

That means in a previous life, we were somebody who kept good ethical discipline. We were somebody who practiced generosity. We were somebody who practiced patience because we’re not extremely ugly this life, just a little bit. We can tell about a past life person. We don’t know if it’s an immediate past life, but some person back there did a whole lot of good things. That being was probably a human being, and practiced the Dharma, and kept good ethical discipline, and kept the precepts, and whatever. And we can tell that by the fact that we have a human body.

Do we want to know what our future life’s going to be? Look at what karma we’re creating now with our mind. This is because our mind is the source of our karma—that is, what are we doing with our mind. Our present life mind is creating the cause for what we’re going to become in the future. This is the general I that goes from the past to the future. As we begin to believe in past or future lives we begin to care about this general I. And if we really start to think about how we exist by being merely labeled, we can actually start caring about other people’s I’s too. They’re also just as merely labeled, as our I is merely labeled. They all want happiness.

There’s nothing me about my general I. So we shouldn’t get attached to our own general I thinking, “It’s inherently me.” Why? Because there’s no person there; there’s just a label.

Time to eat soup. When you’re eating the soup, ask yourself, “Who’s eating the soup? Which I am I?” And then you go, “Aye-aye-aye!” But just sit there, “Who’s eating this soup, and what is this soup that is getting eaten?” Look into the soup. Or if you’re just having a drink, “What is this tea that is getting drunk. What is this tea? Who in the world is drinking it?” Okay? It’s a very good way to practice mindfulness of emptiness.

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.