Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Negating inherent existence

Negating inherent existence

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

  • Understanding that nothing is inherently existent
  • Meaning of self and phenomena
  • Dependent arising

Emptiness, part 2: Negating inherent existence (download)


We’ve been discussing the various layers of distorted conceptions we have, the various layers of ignorance. This ignorance is not just a simple not knowing or unawareness, but it is various minds that hold the opposite of what is true to be true. It’s not just an un-awareness, but it’s grasping the opposite to be existent, to be true. We’ve been noticing various layers of this ignorance of these distorted conceptions and how they influence our lives and perpetuate the unsatisfactory condition we’re in. We can really see how our own samsara comes from the mind, comes from the ignorant wrong conception mind.

Although we want happiness and not misery, it’s so difficult to clear these various layers of ignorance away. We get a little bit of clarity and wham-o; ego steps in again and obscures it. We get some desire to learn the Dharma and out of the blue some karma ripens and we don’t have the opportunity to do so. When we look at this situation we have to have compassion for ourselves. Also when we think that all other beings are afflicted in this very same way, then rather than judging them or being arrogant over them, we have to be compassionate. With this compassion for ourselves (or the determination to be free) and the compassion for others (which leads to the bodhicitta), then we gain a very strong wish to generate the correct view—the wisdom realizing emptiness. This is because we see that’s the one antidote that can really shred the ignorance and eliminate it once and for all. So we’ll learn about the correct view with the motivation of compassion for self and others, and with the aspiration for full enlightenment.

Clarifying key points from our first discussion: three turnings of the Dharma wheel

Yesterday we were talking about the first verse that discusses the correct view, the wisdom realizing emptiness, and why it’s important to generate that correct view. Just to clarify a few points to begin with. When we talked about the three turnings of the Dharma wheel and said, for example, that the first turning was at Sarnath with the teachings on the Four Noble Truths, that means that the most prominent of the teachings of the first turning was that teaching given at Sarnath. It doesn’t mean all the teachings on the first turning of the Dharma wheel were all given at Sarnath. It just means that that prominent one was given at Sarnath. I say this because the Buddha taught for 45 years around India at various places.

Similarly, when we talk about the second turning of the Dharma wheel being given at Rajagriha, it doesn’t mean that all the Prajnaparamita Sutras were necessarily spoken there, or that all the sutras from that Dharma wheel were spoken there. Like I said, I can’t remember where they talk about the third one being given. It might have been at Drepung, but I can’t remember. But again, it doesn’t mean that all these sutras from the third turning of the wheel were just given in one place at one time.

Clarifying key points from our first discussion: the objects of negation

Then when we were talking about inherent existence being the object of negation, there it’s the deepest object of negation, the most prominent, well, the deepest one—the ultimate or final one. There are other levels of the object of negation that come first that are easier to negate, that we refute or prove don’t exist first, and then gradually work up to inherent existence. But if we’re able to refute inherent existence then it automatically cuts off these other layers as well. The actual easiest layer to refute is what I mentioned yesterday about a soul or an atman—some kind of self that is permanent, partless, and autonomous. It’s permanent in the sense that it doesn’t change moment to moment. That’s very much the Hindu concept of atman and the Christian concept of soul. It’s always there and it’s unchanging.

A second quality is that it’s unitary or it’s partless, so it’s just one thing. It doesn’t depend on parts. It’s one solid soul—indivisible. The third quality is that it’s autonomous, which here, autonomous or independence means independent from the body and mind. Independent can mean different things in different situations. In this context it means independent of the body and mind. So it’s some kind of soul or self that is separate from the body and mind, unchanging, and just one solid thing. The idea being is that it exists with us now and when we die this soul just floats up and then it goes to heaven, it goes to hell, it goes kerplunk in another body, but that that’s us—unchanging, immutably me.

That was the first level that the Buddha refuted because that was a very gross, prominent level that we see in many cultures. It’s said to be an acquired affliction, an acquired view. In other words, it’s not our innate view of our self. It’s not a view of self that we’re automatically born with, but it’s one that we learn by hearing incorrect philosophies. We’re taught in Sunday school or wherever, “Oh, you have a soul that is forever you, that’s unchanging, that God will take to heaven. Or if you’re bad, you know what happens to it.” But that’s all stuff we learned, so that’s called an acquired view. It’s not the deepest level of affliction. It’s also not that deepest level of the object to be negated—what it holds isn’t the deepest level of the object to be negated. But we start with that. And that’s already hard enough sometimes, depending what we learned as kids, because we’re so used to the idea that there’s a me that defies death. A me that goes on. Well, actually there isn’t.

Then the second level of the object to be negated is what’s called a self-sufficient, substantially existent person. This is the feeling or belief in a person that is the controller of the body and mind. You know how we sometimes feel like there’s a controller in there? It seems like there’s a me in there that’s running the show? It’s kind of like—remember centuries ago they had that idea that in the pineal gland there was this person, a homunculus, that was the controller that ran the show. I like to think of it like in the Wizard of Oz, there’s this wizard that flashing who’s in control of the whole show. We often feel like that, we flash like the Wizard of Oz, don’t we, making a big production out of ourselves.

There are two ways that we can feel like this controller. Before I give the analogy for the controller, let me back up and give the analogy that goes with the soul or the atman. That’s the analogy that goes there is like the porter and its load. The porter is like the self and the load is like the aggregates—the body and mind. This is the first level, there’s this permanent, partless, autonomous self. There’s this feeling that there’s a me that carries a load of the aggregates (the aggregates being the body and mind), and at death we put it down and then we go off into another rebirth. That’s the analogy that goes with that first level.

With the second level, the self-sufficient, substantially existent one—the feeling of there being a controller there—then there are two analogies. One analogy is the sheep and the shepherd. The body and mind, the mental and physical aggregates are like the sheep; and the shepherd just nudges them along and gets them to go here and there. Now that’s one way of understanding it, but there’s another way of understanding it that’s a little bit different. There’s still a controller. But here the controller is part of what’s being controlled. So there the analogy is like salespeople and the head salesperson. The head salesperson is still a salesperson, but they’re the chief. It’s kind of like the controller is mental, the I, or the controller is the mental consciousness, but the mental consciousness is also one of the aggregates—that kind of level of feeling of controller. So that’s the second level of the object to be negated. These first two all pertain to a view of the self, the person.

Negating inherent existence—designated object and basis of designation

Let’s talk about the third level. Actually there are more objects to be negated between these first two and the third. But I don’t want to go into all of them now because it just gets too many and too much for a short teaching. Let’s go directly to the third level, that’s inherent existence. That’s a feeling, like we were talking yesterday, of the object that’s labeled and the basis it’s labeled upon being confused of being one. Let’s explain what the labeled object and the basis of designation or the basis of labeling. Labeled object is also called designated object.

The basis upon which the “I,” or the self, the person labeled is the mental-physical aggregates. We have five aggregates. The first one is form which means our body. That’s the physical aggregate. The next four aggregates are all consciousnesses; one type of mind or another I should say. They’re all a type of mind. So the second aggregate (or the first one that’s a type of mind) is feeling. This refers to pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. It doesn’t refer to feeling as in emotion. It’s just pleasant, unpleasant, neutral feelings. The second mental aggregate is discrimination. This is a mental factor that is able to discriminate or discern things. We can tell yellow from blue, okay? It can discern different objects and their unique traits. The third mental aggregate is called compositional factors, or sometimes it’s called volitions. What it is—is it’s a hodge-podge grab-bag of all the other mental factors. It includes all sorts of emotions. We talk about anger, resentment, arrogance, jealousy, faith, and conscientiousness—so it includes constructive or virtuous mental factors and also destructive or harmful ones. It’s just compositional factors, it’s just all the others put in a bag. The fifth aggregate (or the fourth mental aggregate) is called primary consciousness and this refers to the five sense consciousnesses and the mental consciousness. The five sense consciousnesses are visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile; they each have their own sense organ. Then the mental consciousness is that which thinks and also can have direct non-conceptual perceptions. All these are primary consciousnesses.

Whenever we have any perception or cognition as a whole, it usually has a primary consciousness, some volitional, some of the compositional factors, the mental factor of discrimination, the mental factor of feeling. They’re all there in one cognition. But we can break that cognition apart into various parts.

These five aggregates: form, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and primary consciousness are the basis of designation. Those are the parts, which when assembled in dependence upon them, we give the label I, or person, or whatever your name is. The basis of designation is different than the designated object or the person. But they’re related because you can’t have one without the other. The basis of designation, the aggregates, becomes the basis of designation because there’s an object designated or labeled in dependence upon them. The object becomes an object because it’s labeled in dependence upon the basis of label. These two things depend upon each other but they’re not exactly the same.

If we look at a physical example—we have a table. The basis of designation is four legs and a flat top. In dependence upon those parts, that basis, we label “table.” But the table isn’t any one of the parts, and it’s not the collection of the parts either. But the table depends on the parts; and the parts of the table depend on the table. This is because they don’t become parts of a table unless there’s a table that there are parts of.

What is inherent existence?

What is inherent existence? It’s when we confuse the object and the basis of designation. Remember yesterday we were talking about how “that is the flower,” not that how “it is called the flower”? That’s what it means, to confuse the object and the basis of designation. Instead of seeing the object as something that is labeled in dependence upon the basis, we think that the object is the basis. The flower isn’t what’s called flower in dependence upon all those petals and stamens and pistils and all that stuff, but all those parts are the flower.

That’s one way to think of inherent existence—that those two things are mixed. Thus what appears to our mind is that things have their very own essence, that the object exists there from the side of the basis of designation, and we’ve forgotten that we were the one that imputed the object in dependence upon that basis. Instead we see the object as radiating forth from the basis.

In dependence upon the branches and the trunk and the leaves and the fruit, in dependence upon all those put together, we give the label tree. But when we see the branches and the trunk and the leaves and the fruit, we aren’t aware that I gave that the label tree. We think that from the side of those things tree is radiating—and that we’re just perceiving what’s already there from its own side. We forget that we’re the one who imputed it there, that put it on that basis. We see it as coming from its own side.

It’s like when you see a person, you see Harry. What you’re seeing is Harry’s body, but we don’t think, “There’s Harry’s body.” We think, “There’s Harry.” We don’t think, “Oh, there’s a body and a mind put together and I gave it the name Harry.” We think, “Oh, there’s Harry.” There’s “Harry-ness” from the side of the guy! What it is, is that it’s radiating from its own side. That’s false because Harry didn’t become Harry until his parents gave him that name.

This gives us some idea about how we see things as inherently existent or how we see them as existing from their own side—not existing in dependence upon our conceiving and labeling them, but existing from their own side. And we see them as existing under their own power, from their own side, in their own right. We don’t see them as being dependent on causes and conditions, on parts, on the mind that labels them. We just see them as being there. This is a floor, there. When we look at the floor we don’t think, “That’s something that I labeled floor,” do we? We don’t look at it and say, “That’s something that’s called floor.” We say that is the floor.

One interesting way to practice this is this. You go through your day being mindful of emptiness by always using the words “is called.” Like this, “Here’s something that is called a table. I’m opening something that is called a door. I’m closing something that is called a window.” Then you go, “Something that is called I is opening something that is called opening the window.” Does that change things, to say “something that is called I is walking?” Does that make you feel a little bit uncomfortable? It feels a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t it? “What do you mean, ‘Something that is called I?’ There’s nothing that is called I, there just is I, right here, solid, concrete! Don’t talk about calling me I. I’m I!” Do you get that little feeling of discomfort from saying, “Something that is called I is listening to the teachings.”? It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it, “Something that’s called I. I’m listening to the teachings, it’s me! I’m here, real, I can touch myself, I can feel myself. I can, I’m here! I’m not just called I, here.” That’s inherent existence. That’s what we’re grasping at.

That’s the deepest level of the negated object. Like I mentioned, there are a few others that are asserted by the Cittamatra philosophical tenet system but I’m not going to go into them right here.

Is Buddha nature inherently existent?

Now, somebody asked the question, “What about Buddha nature? Is it inherently existent?” No, sorry. Nothing is inherently existent. That means really nothing is inherently existent. If Buddha nature were inherently existent, then it would be out there, permanent, independent—it wouldn’t have any relationship to us, wouldn’t depend on anything, could never evolve to become a Buddha. If Buddha nature were inherently existent it would be like a soul. We really have to be careful when we talk about Buddha nature because we’re very habituated with holding onto the idea of a soul. So we can throw out soul and substitute Buddha nature and all we’re doing is changing language but not meaning. We have to be real careful there. It’s not like there’s this solid, concrete, something here that’s really me, that’s really good, solid, concrete. No, there’s actually nobody home, and it’s not just because we’re spaced out.

I had that feeling. I say that ‘nobody home’ because of one of my teachers Kyabje Zong Rinpoche. I had the honor to be able to be his cook one time for a period of months and I would go serve him the food—and there was nobody home there. He would talk to you and he would do things and he taught and there was nobody home. Not how we say there’s nobody home when we mean somebody has Alzheimer’s, not like that. But there was just no grasping at an I. It was really quite amazing.

Even in us, our Buddha nature is not some kind of solid concrete thing that’s really who I inherently am. There are two kinds of Buddha nature. One kind of Buddha nature is the emptiness of the mind. Another kind of Buddha nature is all the different factors that we have that can change and evolve and become the enlightened mind of a Buddha. In terms of the emptiness of the mind, the Buddha’s mind is empty of inherent existence; our mind is empty of inherent existence. In the sense of both of them being empty of inherent existence, there’s no difference. In the sense of it being the emptiness of the Buddha’s mind and the emptiness of my mind, there’s a difference in the emptiness because there’s a difference in the basis of the emptiness—my mind and Buddha’s mind. My mind is defiled, Buddha’s mind isn’t.

In one way the nature of our mind is pure because it’s pure of inherent existence. But in another way, even that empty nature of the mind is covered or veiled because the mind itself is veiled by afflictions. In purifying the afflictions from the mind, what the emptiness of that mind is changes as well. Initially it’s the emptiness of an afflicted mind. Slowly it becomes the emptiness of a purified mind. That’s the natural Buddha nature. But the mind, the clear and knowing nature of the mind, all the seeds of virtuous qualities of compassion, wisdom, love, generosity and so on that we have right now—that’s called the evolutional or evolutionary. Is that a word, evolutionary? It’s evolutionary Buddha nature in the sense that those are factors that can be cultivated, that can change and evolve, that are impermanent, and that grow and develop and become the enlightened mind of a Buddha.

Neither of those Buddha natures, the natural Buddha nature (which is the emptiness of inherent existence of our mind) or the evolutionary Buddha nature (the factors that allow for the transformation into the enlightened mind of a Buddha), neither one of those are inherently existent. This is because nothing is inherently existent; because inherent existence is impossible. Our problem is we think inherent existence is reality. That’s a big problem. Not being able to pay your rent, that’s not a big problem. Grasping onto inherent existence is a big problem.

Conventional and ultimate

When we are negating these various levels of the object of negation (the soul, the self-sufficient, substantially existent person, and inherent existence of person and phenomena) we are not negating the conventional existence of objects. We have to talk here between two levels, ultimate and conventional. Ultimate is how things really exist, conventional is how they appear. Ultimate is the deeper level, conventional is the superficial level. When we say that things are not inherently existent, we’re negating any kind of ultimate existence, any kind of solid thing being findable there when searched for.

We’re not negating the fact that there’s a person that exists in dependence upon being merely labeled. What we’re negating is an inherently existent person that exists without being merely labeled—and that kind of person doesn’t exist at all. It never has and it never will. But the conventionally existent person, that exists—because there’s a body and a mind, and we conceive of them as a person, and give them a name. That conventionally existent person does exist. The thing is that when you search for it with analytical wisdom, you can’t find anything that is it. When you don’t search you can find a person in the room. When you search in a conventional way, “Where’s Sam in the room? There he is.” But if you search for who Sam really is, you can’t find anything.

We’re not negating the existence of conventionally existent objects. What we’re doing is negating inherent existence upon those objects. Why is that important? Because otherwise it would be like negating everything and saying nothing exists whatsoever—and that’s nihilism. It’s like if we have the flower. Lama Yeshe always used to talk about flowers. There always used to be flowers on his table so he’d always pick one up. And you look and you separate it out. There are all these petals and stamens and pistils and leaves and stems and all this. And you can see there, all these parts, the basis of designation; and they’re assembled in a certain way. But even that’s not sufficient for it to become a flower yet—because the mind has to look at that and conceive of it as an object and give it the name flower. Only at that time does it become a flower.

Now, a flower that exists by being merely labeled is there. We look at it, there it is. You didn’t offer nothing on the altar, you offered a flower on the altar. But, can that flower be found when scrutinized—when we’re looking with ultimate analysis to find out what that flower really is? Can we find something when we look in the basis of designation—and we look through all the petals and the stamens and the pistils and the leaves and the stems, can we find something that is the flower? No. So the inherently existent flower doesn’t exist and it has never existed.

When we’re meditating on emptiness we’re not destroying something that once existed, we’re not making non-existent something that existed—because an inherently existent flower was never there. We hallucinated an inherently existent flower that we projected on to that accumulation of parts. When we’re realizing emptiness, what we’re realizing is what has never been there is not there. Think about that. We’re only realizing that what has never existed doesn’t exist. This is how out of touch with reality our mind is—is that we’re so convinced that what doesn’t exist exists! We just have to realize that what has never existed doesn’t exist, that’s all. We’re not destroying the conventionally existent flower.

We’re also not destroying a conventionally existent person. You still exist, I still exist. The floor in the meditation hall and Cloud Mountain still exist. But none of them exist inherently. The appearance that we have of them—all existing inherently with their own nature, under their own power and control, radiating their own essence—all that is a hallucination. That’s why Lama Yeshe used to tell us that we didn’t need to take drugs because we we’re already hallucinating; and it’s really true! We live in one big hallucination and we think it’s true. It’s like when we’re out of your mind on acid and you’re sure that there are flowers in the sky and mustaches on the turtles and horns on the rabbit. You’re loaded out of your mind and you see those things and they look real and you believe them. That’s what the situation of cyclic existence is. That’s how out of touch with reality our mind is—is that we are seeing inherently existent things that never have and never will exist.

Meanwhile, what does exist—the conventionally existent things—we can’t even see as conventionally existent because they’re so bundled up with inherent existence. Let’s go back to the kid who was born with sunglasses on. The kid can’t see yellow as yellow really is because it’s so mixed with darkness that they just see the dark yellow through the sunglasses. This is a big problem. You can see now why samsara is suffering and unsatisfactory in nature.

The joy of being wrong: How things exist

I was thinking that I’d like to write a book sometime called The Joy of Being Wrong. The joy of being wrong because: it’s because we’re wrong that liberation and enlightenment is possible! If things were inherently existent they would exist the way they appear to us and nothing could ever change that. An enemy would always be an enemy. Self-loathing would always be self-loathing. Beauty would always be beautiful and everyone would see everything exactly the same way if it all inherently existed and had its own nature. If we were —about Buddhahood. If we were really who we thought we were—we couldn’t become Buddhas. We aren’t who we think we are. We never have been and we never will be. We’ve just got to realize that.

In Buddhism it’s not finding out who you are, it’s finding out who you aren’t. All these layers of images, and one layer of wrong image upon another layer of wrong image, these are all the things that we have to shed. But does that mean that there’s no person there? No, there’s a person. But can you find that person when you search with analysis? No. There’s just the appearance of a person—because a person appears when merely labeled in dependence upon the basis of designation, the aggregates. Things exist conventionally, but they don’t exist ultimately.

We talk about two levels of truth, conventional truths and ultimate truths, or we talk about two levels of existence. This gets, I won’t even go into that. That gets really confusing at the beginning. Things conventionally exist, they don’t ultimately exist. Emptiness is an ultimate truth but it conventionally exists. Why does emptiness and ultimate truth conventionally exist? Because conventional existence is the only kind of existence there is. There’s no ultimate existence because ultimate existence is inherent existence. It’s findable under analysis. Nothing can be found under analysis. Got it?

The words “self” and “phenomena” have different meanings and usages

In looking at the object of negation there are many ways to break up the object of negation. But one way we can talk about of doing it is into a self of persons and a self of phenomena. You’re going to go, “What do you mean a self of phenomena? You’re going to tell me that the flower has a self? Doesn’t self mean person?” Well, the word self can be used in different ways in different contexts. They get us very confused here, okay?

In some usages the word self means the person, the I. In other usages the word self means inherent existence, or it means the object of negation depending upon which philosophical tenet school you’re adhering to. Self can mean the object of negation according to that tenet system. According to the Prasangika system (which is the tenet system I’m speaking of) self, in one way it’s used, means inherent existence. Be careful. When we talk about the self of persons and self of phenomena we’re talking about the inherent existence of persons and the inherent existence of phenomena. This is from the Prasangika view. Other schools are going to define the self of persons differently and not all the schools even talk about a self of phenomena. Let’s just stick with Prasangika here. I think I’ve got you confused enough already.

The self of persons is an inherently existent person. Then the self of phenomena—here phenomena also has two meanings. Sometimes phenomena means everything that exists. But in self of phenomena or selflessness of phenomena, phenomena means everything that exists that isn’t a person. It’s like in English, one word can have multiple meanings, can’t it? It’s just it would be so much nicer if Sanskrit and Tibetan words just had one meaning and we didn’t have to juggle multiple meanings because they’re already hard enough. But alas and alack, they’ve got multiple meanings and we’ve got to wrestle with it.

Selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena

When we’re talking of the self of phenomena, there phenomena means everything that’s not a person. So it’s principally referring to the aggregates, the basis of designation upon which person is imputed. But it also refers to the trees and the rocks and the sky and democracy and totalitarianism and all these other things too. Those all go in the category of phenomena. Self of phenomena means that we’re seeing all these things as inherently existent, for example, an inherently existent tree. Self of persons means an inherently existent person.

Because we can talk of the object of negation in those two ways, we can talk of the object of realization also in two ways. We can talk of the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena.

So the selflessness of persons is the emptiness of inherent existence of persons. That means you and me and also, by the way, dogs, cats, horses, hell-beings, gods, those all fall under the category of persons. Layperson, monastic, carpenter, doctor—those are persons. All those things are persons and it doesn’t matter what realm they’re in. The self of persons means we’re seeing them as inherently existent. The selflessness of persons is their emptiness of inherent existence.

The self of phenomena is seeing the floor and the body and the flowers and the offering bowls and the picture frame—seeing inherently existent objects. The selflessness of phenomena is the emptiness of inherent existence of all those objects.

In terms of it being emptiness, the emptiness of inherent existence of the person and the emptiness of inherent existence of the phenomena, from the experiential viewpoint they merge. They can’t be differentiated. For somebody who has direct perception of emptiness it’s both of them. At the time when you’re directly perceiving the emptiness non-conceptually there’s not the thought, “Oh, this is the selflessness of persons and this is the selflessness of phenomena,” because there’s only emptiness appearing to the mind. But because the basis of these emptinesses are different, one is persons and one is phenomena. So then we can talk about the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena.

Now, when we talk about the selflessness of persons, within that there’s me and then there’s everybody else, right? All these selflessnesses are important to realize—of persons, of phenomena. But the one that is most beneficial to realize and that we really want to focus on—is the selflessness of person, of this self, the one that we are grasping onto as me.

Now this also goes back to the afflictions that we have and the root of cyclic existence; because when we’re talking about the self-grasping ignorance—the self-grasping ignorance graspsverything as inherently existent. Person, phenomena, principals, everything is grasped at as inherently existent by that self-grasping ignorance. So that’s one mental factor that’s the root of samsara.

There’s another mental factor that’s called view of the perishing aggregates [now often translated as view of a personal identity]. Some of you may remember hearing about this view of the perishing aggregates. The Tibetan word for this is jigta, and it’s much easier to say than view of the perishing aggregates. The Tibetans have a long term for it. They just abbreviate it as jigta. From the Prasangika viewpoint what this view is—is this view grasps; it grasps at an inherently existent “I” and “mine”—here “I” and “mine” meaning me (your own particular “I”). So that one is a big trouble maker because when we grasp at ourselves as inherently existent then that whole unfolding happens that I described yesterday—which was, there’s an inherently existent me; so there are inherently existent objects that I need to possess; and then there’s inherently existent obstacles that get in the way of me getting the things that I want.

For us in particular our grasping at our own “I” is a real big problem. Within all the selves of persons, the self of person that is me is the one I really want to focus on understanding does not exist. Understanding that there’s not an inherently existent child standing on the corner of Vermont and 34th Street in Los Angeles, we need to understand that to become enlightened. But that’s not going to cut the root of our samsara and diminish our afflictions right away. Understanding that there’s no inherently existent me is going to radically change how we relate to the world.

This view of the perishing aggregates is a particular form of ignorance. Don’t get confused thinking that there are two roots of samsara—one being ignorance and one being view of the perishing aggregates. There’s only one root. The thing is that the way the view of the perishing aggregates grasps things and the way ignorance grasps things are exactly the same. It’s that same self-grasping or grasping at inherent existence.

The reason why it’s called view of the perishing aggregates is because the I, the conventionally existent I, is imputed in dependence upon the perishing aggregates—our body and mind. Our body and mind are perishing all the time, aren’t they? They’re changing. They’re transient. They’re aging. In dependence upon the perishing aggregates the conventional I is imputed. That conventional I exists. That conventional I is the observed object of the view of the perishing aggregates because that wrong view observes the conventional I and says, “Oh, that’s an inherently existent I.” That’s why it’s a wrong view of the perishing aggregates. But it’s way of grasping things as inherently existent is the same way as the ignorance grasping at inherent existence. It just happens to specialize in grasping me, center of the universe, as inherently existent.

We talk of self of person, selflessness of person, self of phenomena, selflessness of phenomena.

The meaning of dependent arising

Now, the last sentence in that verse says:

Therefore, strive for the means to realize dependent arising.

Now we have to talk about what dependent arising means. What Je Rinpoche [Lama Tsongkhapa] is doing here is using dependent arising as the whole reason to prove the existence of emptiness. Because things are dependent arising they are empty of inherent existence, or empty of true existence.

What does it mean that they’re dependent arising? Well, again, in the different philosophical tenet systems there are different meanings for dependent arising. It’s helpful to learn these because it’s an ever increasing level of understanding what dependence means. This is so interesting because America is founded on independence, aren’t we? We are so proud on Independence Day, the 4th of July, and we are independent people, and we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps—and here we are being asked to realize dependent arising. How un-American, because we believe in independent existence.

Dependence upon causes and conditions

There are different levels of dependent arising. The first level is things depending on causes and conditions. Here it refers specifically to impermanent things. Somebody asked the other day about the difference between permanent and impermanent. Impermanent things are things that are caused, things that change moment by moment, so all these things that function. Functioning things is another synonym for impermanent, or for composite, or compounded phenomena.

All these things arise due to causes and conditions. They’re there only when the causes and conditions come together. When the causes and conditions don’t come together they’re not there. We can see the tree grows because you have the seed and the ground and the fertilizer and the water and the warmth. Geshe Sopa is so cute and English is his second language. So he talks about it has to be the right season for the tree to grow (in meaning that it has to be warm enough), you have to wait for the right season. So the water and the fertilizer and the seed aren’t enough, you need the right season. But he gets the word season and seasoning confused. He’ll talk about the tree grows due to the water and the fertilizer and the seasoning! He always makes us laugh. I think he knows the difference now, but he mixes it up because it makes us laugh. There are a few other words he does like that too. I’m sure I’ll remember them and teach them to you.

The tree exists only when all these causes and conditions come together. Just some of the causes being there isn’t enough to make the tree exist. The seed being there is not enough. Just having water and fertilizer and earth and heat isn’t enough, you also need a seed. The water and fertilizer, those things, those are conditions. The seed is the cause. You need all those things to come together.

When we talk about I as the person, we need the sperm, the egg, and the consciousness all to come together for there to be a person. It’s not sufficient that there’s just a consciousness, or a sperm and the egg. They all need to come together. We need causes and we need conditions, then a person comes into existence.

It’s interesting to start to think of yourself as a conditioned phenomenon. Think, “I only exist because the causes for me exist.” Doesn’t that make you feel a little bit unstable? I only exist because the causes for me exist? Because you know, one day, the causes for me aren’t going to exist any more.

The I, the person, is not independently existent. It exists in dependence upon the causes and conditions. Everything that functions, that changes, that is a compounded phenomena, exists in dependence upon it’s own specific causes and conditions—and without them it doesn’t exist.

Just meditating on that level of dependent arising already shifts how we feel about ourselves and the rest of the world. This world exists only because the causes and conditions for it exist. That’s all. If there weren’t the causes and conditions for it this world wouldn’t exist. When there are no longer the causes and conditions for it this world will no longer exist. It’s completely dependent upon causes and conditions and it only came into existence because of its causes and conditions. It didn’t come into existence because it’s always been there, solid, concrete, permanent and inherent. It only was this fluke that came into existence because all the causes and conditions came together at the right time, that’s all. That’s one level of dependence.

That first level of dependence only applies to things. Here the word things has a very specific meaning. It means functioning things, or impermanent things, composite things. It doesn’t mean things as existents.

Dependence upon parts

The second level of dependence is that things exist dependent on their parts. For the table it’s the four legs and the top. For us it’s a body and our mind. For our body it’s the arms and the legs and the liver and the spleen and the pancreas and the tongue and the tendons and the ligaments. That whole meditation that we did going through all the organs of the body can also become an emptiness meditation on the body—because when we divide the body into all of those parts, where’s the body? We begin to see that what we call body exists in dependence upon parts. It’s not some solid thing that’s there to take for granted. It exists in dependence upon its parts. That’s the second level of dependence.

Dependence upon term and concept

The third level of dependence is that things exist in dependence upon a mind that conceives and labels them. They exist in dependence upon term and concept, name and concept, label and concept. What this means is that when you have a collection of parts in a certain way that alone does not make an object. The object only comes into existence when the mind conceives of those parts in relationship to each other and gives them a name.

What I find very interesting, Jean Piaget and some others have done research on how babies perceive things. Babies don’t perceive objects the same way we do. Babies have to be taught that the different things that they see are put together and you give it a label and that’s an object. A baby might look and they might see something that is this shape and this color, and something this shape and this color, and something this shape and this color, and that shape and that color. It’s just this hodge-podge of sensory experiences to a baby. As we grow older we are taught that you put together this and this and this and this, and you give it the label somebody’s body. And you put together this and this and this and this and you give it the label thermos. This is quite interesting because we forgot that we had to learn all these words and labels when we were learning to speak. We think that those things exist like that from their own side, but they only become that way because we have learned to conceive of them as such.

Another good analogy is M.C. Escher drawings and how you can look at Escher drawings. You look at it this way and see a hand drawing a hand; and you look at it that way and you see something else. It only becomes what you’re seeing dependent upon how you’re putting those parts together and conceiving of them. Whether you put those parts together to make a hand or you put the parts together to make a lizard or whatever it is, it’s dependent on our mind forming the concept and giving a label and then it looks like that. But if we form a different concept and give a different label it’s a different thing.

Now I’m going to reveal another thing about me that you may not know. I don’t know if other people do this, so it’s not about paperclips today. Do you ever look at the floor in the bathroom and see different shapes and different things? When I was a kid the floor in the bathroom had different colors, it was linoleum—you know the old linoleum they used in the 1950’s. You didn’t want it to look dirty so there’s all these colors all together and you could sit there and look at these colors and shapes and make things out of them. Did you ever do that? You can look at the floor here, you look at tile and you can see squares or you can see triangles. We look at things and we can see different things in them. It’s evident to us that it’s just a random bunch of designs and dots—but it’s our mind that’s putting them together and making them into a picture. So we make it into squares or triangles, we make one part closer, one part distance. You look at the linoleum floor and you see dogs and you see people’s faces and you see all these different things.

That’s imputed. It’s the same mechanism of our mind taking the data and conceiving of it in a certain way to be something; and then it imputing it as such; and then forgetting that we’ve imputed it that way and it appearing back to us as existing from it’s own side. But in fact, it’s dependent upon the imputation that we give it. It’s the whole thing about, “Is this situation an opportunity or a problem?” Depends what you impute it. You can impute both those terms on the same situation, and depending on what you impute, that’s what you experience.

Similar thing, somebody harms us. We can impute, “Somebody’s harming me! How terrible!” Or we can impute, “I’m burning off negative karma, that’s great.” How we experience it depends upon the label that we give it. So a lot of what we’re learning also is how to give different labels to the things that we experience instead of the labels that create the afflictions.

We have these three levels of dependent arising: dependent on causes and conditions, dependent on parts, dependent on term and concept, label and concept. These are progressively deeper levels of realizing dependent arising.

There are other ways that we can also talk of dependent arising. Remember how I was talking about how the basis of designation and the object designated depend on each other? Remember also how we can talk about how the whole and the parts depend on each other? Because a whole can’t be a whole unless there are parts; and parts aren’t parts unless they’re parts of a whole. Do you see how the whole and the parts depend on each other? How long and short depend on each other. Good and bad depend on each other. A lot of these categories that we make come into existence simply because they’re separated out from something else. So they depend on that other thing that they’re separated out from to exist.

[Venerable Thubten Chodron strikes a bell so it sounds.] The sound that we’re hearing depends upon the bell and the clacker and the person who’s hitting it. That sound didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s a produced phenomena, it ceases. We can hear it cease. It’s a dependent phenomena and it’s merely called sound. Why is it merely called sound? Because it’s the object detected by the ear, therefore it’s called sound. It isn’t sound, it’s called sound. All it is basically is waves, isn’t it? It’s just waves. And how much meaning we impute to waves—especially waves that start from the vocal chords! Boy, do we start imputing meanings to those.

Okay, so we ran out of time. There’s not time for questions. Please feel free to write your questions down and then I can talk about them tomorrow.

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.