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Rebirth, karma and emptiness

Part of a series of talks given during the annual Young Adult Week program at Sravasti Abbey in 2006.

Rebirth and karma

  • Understanding rebirth and karma
  • Differences between the body and mind
  • Continuity of body and mind

Young adults 04: Rebirth and karma (download)

Dependent arising and emptiness

  • Continuity of the material universe and the logical flaws in believing in a “beginning”
  • The meaning of selflessness or emptiness

Young adults 04: Dependent arising and emptiness (download)

Questions and answers

  • Learning more about the nature of mind
  • Emptiness and an uneasy ego
  • Existing in dependence
  • Reciting mantras in Sanskrit

Young adults 04: Q&A (download)

From a Buddhist viewpoint, neither the material universe nor consciousness have some kind of absolute beginning before which nothing existed. This universe may have a so-called conventional beginning in the sense that maybe there was the Big Bang, and the universe came out of that, and the universe didn’t exist before the Big Bang, but something existed before the Big Bang, didn’t it? There was something that “banged.” There’s something that exploded there, there was the continuity that existed before. Similar to the mind—there is a continuity that existed before. Then somebody might come along and say “Well, when was the beginning of that continuity?” and that is like saying “Where is the beginning of the number line?”, “Where is the end of the square root of two?”, “How do you start counting infinity?”

You can’t answer these questions because by the nature of the questions there are no answers. When was the beginning? There wasn’t any. And you can logically investigate “Is it possible that there was some kind of absolute beginning either to consciousness or to matter?” If there were an absolute beginning, here’s the demarcation: on one side of the timeline, you have existence and on the other side you have non-existence. We are looking at a timeline. If this is the point of beginning, if nothing existed before the beginning, then how did the beginning come into existence? Because everything that exists depends on causes, nothing happens out of nothing, if there’s nothing, there are no causes to produce anything. If there’s nothing, there’s nothing. If there is total nothingness and non-existence before the beginning, then that’s impossible for the beginning to exist because there’s nothing that causes it. Why should the beginning start? There’s nothing. On the other hand, if before the beginning there was something that acted as the cause of the beginning, then the beginning wasn’t the beginning, because something existed prior to it.

You can’t point to any moment and say, “This is the beginning!” because everything that exists, that functions, depends on causes, and those causes always came before, and without causes nothing can come into existence. Then there must be causes before, so that’s why we trace back the continuity of mind and say there is no beginning. If we trace back the continuity of matter, matter changes forms, it might go into energy and it might come back into form. There might be a lot of transformations that it goes through in the process, but it still has some kind of cause-and-effect nature that’s going on. We were talking the other day about scientists saying that particles go in and out of existence; I’m not so sure that you can say that. It seems to me that maybe they transform in a way that we just don’t know about yet. How can something come into existence if there’s no cause for it? It’s impossible.

Audience: Is this what is referred to in the Heart Sutra, that “They are not produced and do not cease?”

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, that’s one of the meanings, that there’s no inherent beginning and there’s no inherent end.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yes. What we call birth and what we call death are labels. Birth is simply a continuity of certain physical substances and a continuity of mind coming together at a certain point of time in conception. Death is simply the name we give to those two continuities going in different directions. There’s no inherent birth or death before which there is nothing or after which there’s nothing. Birth and death are simply phenomena that exist as labels, certain demarcation lines, like first grade, second grade, and third grade. They are just arbitrary things that you put in there and you make up a definition for it, but there’s nothing there from its own side.


We have this continuity of body and mind in dependence on which we label “I” or “Self”. All the I or Self is, is that phenomenon that exists by being merely labelled in dependence upon the body and mind. There’s no separate Self or separate I or separate me that exist independent and unrelated to the body and mind. When we talk about selflessness or emptiness, this is what we’re getting at.

Now it sounds rather funny to say that [inaudible] “The self only exists by being merely labelled in dependence upon body and mind, but that’s my piece of grapefruit, don’t touch it!” We say all of these things but when we look at our life, we feel that there’s a real me there, that’s important, that knows what’s going on; we have all these images of me, all these labels we attach to it: “I’m smart,” “I’m dumb,” “I’m good looking” “I’m not good looking,” “I’m American,” “I’m Bolivian,” “I’m this,” “I’m that.” In actual fact, what is there that is the basis of all these identities that we think we are? There’s nothing.

There’s no solid thing there, there’s a body that is constantly changing moment by moment, there’s a mind that is constantly changing moment by moment. There are these two continuities that are changing moment by moment to moment and we, just for convenience, give them labels “Joe” or “Susan” or “Mary” or “Harry,” but that’s all! We grasp so much that there’s a real me in there, there is something, something that’s really me and then we build all these incredible neurotic identities on that basis. “I’m so stupid,” “I’m so unlovable,” “I’m the best one in the world,” “I’m this,” “I’m that,” Those are just concepts that we’ve dreamed up. Some of the concepts may have a valid conventional basis for them. For example, we say we are American. Why do we say we are American? On what basis do you say you are American? What makes you American?

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: No, there are lots of people whose body and mind came together in this piece of land and they’re not Americans. There’s a whole debate about immigrants going on now. On what basis do you say you’re American?

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: You can say anything you want.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yes. We’ve invented this notion of American, haven’t we? It’s an imagined community and we have a certain piece of paper that we give to everybody that says we belongs to this community, called a passport. We are American simply because we have an American passport, and we have that simply because our minds generated the thought that there’s a country and certain people who are living within its boundaries are able to call themselves members of a certain club—this imagined community. Is there anything about you that’s really American? Is your body American? Is your mind American? No! When you start looking you can’t find anything that’s it. We begin to say “Ok, ‘American’ exists, but only as something that we’ve imagined, we’ve created this concept of America given that label and conventionally everybody is kind of on the same page about it.:

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yes. There’s nothing about our body and nerve synapses or anything that’s American. You have something that exists because it’s labelled, but it exists only as a label-phenomenon, not as some kind of real findable phenomenon there. To say we’re American is a conventional identity but there’s nothing in us that is American. That’s an example of a conventional reality that is acceptable conventionally, we all kind of agree upon it. What about some of our other self-images, for example, when we get depressed and we say, “I’m unlovable”? Is there a valid basis for that thought “I’m unlovable”? On what basis do we say we’re unlovable? We’ve all felt that at some time or another, haven’t we?

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yes. We say we’re unlovable, we’re just inventing something in our mind, aren’t we? We invented the self that is seemingly solid, we’ve invented this notion of what lovable or unlovable means. We feel down and we say we’re unlovable. Is that true conventionally that we’re unlovable? Is it true? Is there anybody on this planet that has nobody that cares about them? No, everybody has somebody that cares about them, even if we’re talking about the inmates, even they have somebody in their life who cares about them, even if it’s us that have met them years into their prison sentence.

Whenever we say, “I’m an unlovable person”, that’s a total misconception, there’s no conventional basis for saying that. Each one of us has people who care about us. You see how sometimes we might have an accurate label—“I’m American”—and sometimes we have lots of inaccurate labels like “I’m unlovable.” We reapply all these labels, we make them more solid than they actually are. The label “I’m unlovable” is totally incorrect from a conventional viewpoint and yet we believe it, and we hold on to it and we say it to ourselves like a mantra, over and over again, “I’m unloveable, I’m unlovable, I’m unlovable, I’m unlovable,” we take our malas and count it. We grasp something that isn’t even true, we’re making into this very solid identity.

That’s why Lama Yeshe said we don’t need to take drugs to hallucinate, because we’re hallucinating this totally false identity. Here’s this person who is unlovable and we’re sure of it and actually we’re totally wrong. We can also reify just a conventional identity like saying “I’m American,” nothing wrong in saying “I’m American,” but if we say “I’m American and your big toe crossed over that line, and therefore I have a right to shoot you. You have to go back to your own country.” Then, we’ve grasped at being American as being inherently existent and we’re creating lots of divisions and lots of problems; we’re reifying it. Even though it’s conventionally existent, that identity, we’re giving it more weight than it actually has, we’re making it into something that it isn’t.

It is very helpful for us to start to look at some of these identities that we create and see which ones have any kind of valid basis for a label and which ones we’re just hallucinating. A lot of these identities we aren’t even aware that we have, because we have so much self-talk going on that we aren’t aware of “I’m this, I’m that, I’m this, I’m that,” we aren’t even aware of it and yet we act it out and so much of it is really wrong on a conventional level. Actually, this is where Lama Yeshe saw the value for us Westerners practicing tantra because he said “you’re immersed in your poor-quality view and if you can think of yourself, that poor-quality view dissolving into emptiness, and you’re potentially emerging as a deity then you can gain some valid self-confidence.” There’s this continuity that goes on that is unfindable, even the body, when we say, “my body,” is there anything that is my body? All the cells in our body change every seven years: is there something that is your body? Is there something that is our mind?

Dependent arising and conceptualization

When we start to investigate anything, we see that things exist in dependence upon parts, in dependence upon causes and conditions, in dependence upon our concept and our label that put these parts together. Our mind is what puts something together and makes it what it is. Some of you may have studied early childhood psychology in PHA and some of those people. They talk about how, for example, when a baby cries, it gets scared, it doesn’t realize that its crying is coming from itself and the noise that it is making scares it. We know when we’re talking, but a baby doesn’t know that its own crying is coming from itself, and it frightens itself. If a baby were in this room, it would initially necessarily pick out flowers and the statue and water bowls and then the altar, to the baby there’s just all these colors initially, they haven’t learned depth perception. Does the baby see a flower? Well, I don’t know. To the baby there’s just all this whole mush of colors. Does it know that there’s a flower there? No. When does that mush become a flower? It’s when our mind picks out all those colors that belong together, that shape belongs together, that becomes a flower. What’s the guy’s name who does the paintings with the hands coming together? Escher.

It’s our mind that conceptualizes and pulls out certain information from that drawing and makes it one thing because you can look at that drawing, and it can be several different things depending upon which lines you put together and which lines you bring into relief and which ones go into the background. It is similar in any situation we’re in. When we’re describing a situation, we’re all talking about similar but very different things because we all pick out different details. Like the famous story of the visually impaired man describing what an elephant is.

All these things happen through the power of conceptualization and label. We pull out certain things and give it a label. What is most of our education in school? Most of our education in school is learning labels: how you label something; how you conceive of something. What is going on at law courts all day? It’s trying to decide what label to give to something. In a civil court, one party is suing the other or arguing about whose piece of land it is. They’re arguing about the label: “Is this mine?” or “Is this yours?” In criminal court they’re arguing about a label: “Is this first-degree murder” or “Is it innocent?” It all depends upon how you conceptualize it. That’s why different jurors may have different opinions about what’s going on in a criminal case. Much of what’s going on in our world and what we have tension and conflict about is quarreling over concepts and labels that we’ve created. It’s really kind of amazing when you think about it.

I remember being in Israel leading this retreat and the kibbutz was right on the border with Jordan. There’s desert, sand, and in the middle of the sand is a fence, a kind of no man’s land. They have the sand combed in a certain way so that if somebody walks or steps on it, they can see, there’s a fence, still just sand. I stood by that fence one day. I thought, “You know, people kill each other arguing where that fence is going to be, arguing whether that grain of sand is called my sand or your sand. My dirt or your dirt.” That’s all they’re doing when they’re fighting those kinds of wars. You can see how human beings, by the power of our wrong conceptions, create so many problems for ourselves.

Even when somebody gets sick, they get cancer, and everybody freaks out when you hear the word cancer. What is cancer? On the basis of some molecules and atoms then you give those molecules and atoms a label, and you call it cancer. Those molecules and atoms, those cells function in a certain way, and you call it cancer, or you have certain physical symptoms, so you give it the name of the disease. The name you give to something is just a shortcut, but we don’t realize that the name is just a shortcut label, and we think that that thing is the object. Then we get scared and then we get frightened and then we get this and that. It was all coming about by the force of our conceptualization. This is what allows us to change our mind when we’re doing thought training practices. We might say “Ok, somebody hurt my feelings” We’ve all had that happen. We give it a label “they criticized me, they hurt my feelings” and then we feel really miserable.

When you’re practicing thought training, it’s the same situation. Somebody says, “nananana” and you give it the label “That’s my negative karma ripening from past lives. It’s ripening, it’s finishing; it’s over now.” When you give it that label, do you get all depressed? No. You feel good, you rejoice. You got rid of that karma. The situation is the same, the basis of the label is the same—what that person said or did. Depending upon what we call it, “They criticize me” or “That’s karma ripening.” Depending upon how we conceptualize it we can either feel okay or even feel happy or we feel depressed and miserable.

Why is it possible to change how we’re looking at situations? Because there’s nothing, no actual reality in that situation. It’s empty of its own inherent reality. Depending on how we conceptualize it, we could make it into a cause to feel really miserable and to carry around that hurt and pain our whole lives or through the power of our conceptualization and label make it into something that becomes the path of enlightenment for us. It’s all up to us.

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.