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Emptiness and compassion

Part of a series of teachings on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book titled How to See Yourself as You Really Are given during a weekend retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2016.

  • How understanding emptiness can help us to develop kindness
  • Giving up our wrong ways of thinking that make us miserable
  • Commentary on Chapter 12: “Determining the Choices” (the second point of the four-point analysis)
  • Commentary on Chapter 13: “Analyzing Oneness”
  • The person that goes from life to life
  • Not getting discouraged if we don’t understand
  • Questions and answers

Let’s have a habitual way of approaching people and approaching ourselves: one of kindness, open-mindedness, not feeling threatened, but feeling connected. Imagine what that would feel like. If you have that kind of attitude towards yourself, you would be quite relaxed. If you had that attitude towards others, there would be quite a wonderful feeling of understanding them, even if they were strangers to you. Upon that kindness and open-mindedness we can build the intention to be of great benefit to others and to ourselves as well. Then see the attainment of full awakening as the best way to do that, the best way of gaining the qualities we need to be of great benefit. Let us have that intention as we approach the Dharma today.

I think it’s helpful for us to imagine what it would be like to have certain qualities, even before we’ve generated those qualities, because imagining having them is part of the way of cultivating them. To really look at what is our usual way of approaching people and approaching ourselves. Is it one of, “Who are these people and am I going to fit in?” Is it one of, “What are they going to do to me? Is this all going to work out? I don’t know.” Is it one of, “I don’t trust them – something’s up? I better defend myself. I better protect myself.” We have these habitual attitudes that we bring to everything and everyone we encounter. Is it one of, “Oh, I wonder what they can do for me?” Or is it one of, “Here’s somebody who’s like me who wants to be happy and doesn’t want to suffer.” Quite interesting to spend some time and just watch—what is our usual approach? It might be, “Where do I rank with these people? Am I better than them? Am I equal? Am I inferior?” [We are] always comparing ourselves to others.

Just check up and see what our habits are and see how all of that comes back to this conception of there being a real concrete I that exists from its own side. All of the wrong conceptions are dependent upon that conception of an I. The one that says, “Here’s everybody like me wanting to be happy and not wanting to suffer”—that one doesn’t depend on the ignorance grasping the I. All of the other ones do because they reify, they concretize, the self.

Then we also see not only concretizing the self, but how we have this habit of persecuting ourselves and others. It’s kind of a strong word, but in some ways, sometimes, we do. We persecute ourselves. “I’m not good enough. These people are better than me. I’m a dimwit. I can’t cut it. I’m stupid.” All of that—there’s no kindness in that, is there? There’s just judgement. Where does that leave us? Where does that kind of self-judgement and self-persecution lead us—lead us and leave us? Not to something good, does it? It makes us so tight, so tight, and so unable to connect, which is what we all want to do. We want to be able to connect with others.

How can we bring a little bit of kindness to our attitudes towards ourselves and also some kindness to others instead of judging them, wanting them to be our version of perfection? How can we look and say, “Oh, there’s no self-existent person there?” There’s a body and mind and a bunch of habits. We label “person,” and that person wants happiness and not suffering, and I know exactly how they feel. There’s nothing really special about my suffering anyway because the whole idea of a me that’s owning the whole thing—my suffering as opposed to your suffering. Making this big thing of my suffering and diminishing others’ suffering doesn’t make much sense when there’s no concrete person there that owns any of it. How can we loosen and open our hearts to others?

This is what the Dharma is trying to help us to do. Of course, in the process of doing it, the Buddha’s got to point out to us all our wrong ways of thinking. Since we’re so familiar with our wrong ways of thinking, when the Buddha points them out, sometimes we get a little bit defensive. Like, “I don’t want to hear that. Yes, I know I’m judgmental. I know it already. Why do you have to say it in front of everybody else, even though they’re the same too?”

Right away, do you see how the defensiveness arises? Again, on the basis of there being some I, some me, that sets itself up. Then we always have to defend this I. Always. From the slightest little thing. Even when you’re washing the dishes – “I’m not washing one dish more than anybody else who’s doing the dishes at this meal. Otherwise, that is unfair. I’m being taken advantage of. I’m standing up for myself. Everybody’s got to wash the same number of dishes.” Is that a happy mind? We come out of it, “Yes! Nobody took advantage of me. We all washed the same number of dishes.” Or even better, “I got them to wash more dishes than me. Aren’t I happy?” Is that real happiness? Do we feel so proud of ourselves because of that? Do you sometimes how our attitudes cause us so much misery? They just box us in. Instead of, “Gee, that was fun. We all washed dishes and had a good time. And I didn’t spend my time counting how many they washed and how many I washed. [laughter] I was able to spend my time enjoying the company of these other people.” Just a small example, look how in our life we sometimes approach things like that. Sometimes I joke that the first words we learn as American children—I don’t think other cultures are quite as bad—but our culture, American culture, the first words we learn, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair. My brother/sister got more noodles than I did. They get to do stuff I don’t get to do. When I was their age, you wouldn’t let me do that. Now you let them do that. It’s not fair.” It’s the persecuted mind, isn’t it? “Everybody’s out to get me.” Then we bring that right into adulthood with us, don’t we?

It’s very helpful to dismantle this stuff, to start looking at who we think we are. I always say my mother used to ask me that. My mother was my first Dharma teacher. “Cheryl Andrea Green, who do you think you are?” [laughter] Someone said that’s why kids have middle names, so you know when you’re really in trouble. Yes, who do you think you are? I mean, I didn’t listen to her, but she was asking a very good question. The same question His Holiness is asking me. In a different tone of voice, but the same question. Who do you think you are?

Then you find out, you’re not who you think you are. It’s quite a relief. It’s quite a relief. Like I was saying this morning, people come to the Dharma, and they want to find out who they are, and we keep telling them who they aren’t. You aren’t your poor-quality vision of yourself. “Poor quality vision”—that’s Lama Yeshe’s term. Poor quality vision. “I’m just poor quality. That’s all. Born poor quality. Lived poor quality. Irredeemable.” That’s who we think we are. We are not. Sometimes we get mad at people who tell us we’re not poor quality, because when we’re not poor quality, it means we have potential, and when we have potential, it means we can do something. Some of us just are a little bit lazy and don’t want to really do something. It’s so easy just to be poor quality and sign off on life. You know, “The whole world’s against me. Nothing’s going to happen. I’m defective. It’s all because of my childhood. I don’t have any responsibility. I can’t do anything anyway because the world has to change.” There’s something so comfortable in that misery. Isn’t it? So comfortable. “I have no responsibility. I don’t have to do anything.” Even though we’re so comfortable being miserable, instead of saying “Boy, I’ve been making myself miserable, and none of this is true, and I can drop it and be happy. That’s going to take some effort, but, hey, if it brings happiness at the end, why not make that effort?” Because it takes a lot of effort to hold on to our poor-quality view. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of energy, to be mad at the world. Might as well use that energy for something useful instead of keeping it bound up in making ourselves miserable.

That’s another thing my mom use to say when I was whiny and miserable: “You think you’re so suffering. If you’re not careful, I’m going to give you something to suffer about.” [laughter] She was right. I was just creating the cause of my own suffering. She didn’t even have to give me something to suffer about. I was creating the cause for my own suffering. I really have to do this book … aphorisms from mom. Maybe we should all write down.

Audience: inaudible

Venerable ThubtenChodron (VTC): [laughter] The same mom, and when we become Buddhists, we’ll also have the same mom because Prajnaparamita is the mother of all the Buddhas. Do that if you can, sometime today … momisms. Write down some of the things your mom used to say. Or your dad. We can make it gender equal here. Poor dads—they feel persecuted and unwanted.

Let us go back here. These situations I was just talking about with our moms or our dads—they fit into a lot of the situations that His Holiness mentioned yesterday, and asked us to check up on what our idea of ourselves is. He said, “Remember a time when you were fed up with your mind, such as when you failed to remember something.” Remember a time when your mom and dad reminded you that you failed to remember something, and how did you think of yourself at that time? How did you apprehend yourself? Who was that I that is not only in trouble, “I’m in trouble,” but angry at whoever got us in trouble or angry at the person who we’re in trouble with? The I comes up in many different ways there. “I’m in trouble. Uh oh.” Or “I’m in trouble and it’s not fair. I’m in trouble—who do mom/dad think they are talking to me like this, even though I’m a miserable kid. I’m mad.” To look in those situations – what was the feeling of I? What was our sense of I? It was a pretty strong one, wasn’t it? What was that I? Does it appear at that moment when you’re so angry because you’re getting in trouble as a kid, which of course we take on when we get in trouble as an adult too. Except we don’t call it, “I got in trouble.” We call it, “They’re blaming me for something I didn’t do.” But to look—does that I appear to be dependent on the body and mind? “Who do they think they are talking to me like this?” Does that me seem to be your body? Does that me seem to be your mind? Or does it seem to be something hanging out near your body and mind, but not either of them actually? Or when you want to do something, and you can’t do it—when we want to control something.

How many of you like to control other people? [laughter] “If I could only control them, then my life would be okay.” Forget about controlling myself. We don’t even think of that. “Let’s control them.” It feels like there’s a controller somewhere in here, doesn’t it? There’s a me that is in control or should be in control that’s fighting against this chaotic world because “I’ve got to get all the duckies lined up.” What’s the appearance of that one, that controller? Who in the world is that controller? Does it seem to be your body? Does it seem to be your mind? Do you think that controller exists by mere dependence on thought? No way. It’s the real one. It’s very interesting to look at how we hold on to that idea of I, and yet, as soon as we start to question exactly what it is, it kind of hides itself.

I am on Chapter 12. The Buddha said,

While phenomena are individually analyzed as selfless, and what has been analyzed as meditated upon, that is the cause for attaining the fruit, nirvana. One does not go to peace through any other cause.

Here the Buddha is emphasizing that if we want to attain nirvana, which is true peace, the only way to do it is to individually analyze its phenomena, including ourselves, as selfless, as lacking some inherent existent nature. Analyze that and then meditate upon that single-pointedly. That that’s the only way to overcome the ignorance, anger, attachment, jealousy, pride, laziness and all the other things that keep us stuck. We can meditate on compassion, and compassion can really help us open our heart, but compassion alone without wisdom cannot lead us to nirvana, because compassion alone does not challenge that ignorance that misapprehends how the self and how all phenomena exist. Only wisdom does that. That is why wisdom is the only path that’s going to liberate us, and it has to be an essential part of our dharma practice.

In the first step, you figured out how you appear to your mind. This realization was necessary because if you do not get a sense of what inherent existence is, no matter how much you might talk about selflessness or emptiness, it would be just words.

Why? It’s like, let’s say somebody in this group is a thief. We want to get rid of the thief, but if we don’t know what the thief looks like, who are we going to throw out? If we just say, “Oh, well, the thief is somebody who takes things that aren’t given to them, and the thief goes and sells them for other stuff and uses the money for whatever, blah, blah, blah.” We can talk very well about what a thief is and what to do with the thief, but we have no idea what the thief looks like. We have to identify what the thief looks like. Is this person sitting over there with this color hair and this build with their pockets stuffed? Or whatever. If we can identify who the thief is, then we can say, “Okay, get out.” That’s why it’s important to identify how the wrong conception of the I appears.

After you’ve identified the sense that objects exist from power within themselves, then when you study about and meditate on selflessness and emptiness, the way is open for some understanding of the absence of over-concretized existence to don in your mind.

When you have some sense of what that I looks like, then we’re on our way.

However, without knowing how objects appear to have such a status and how you assent to it, you might have the impression that the great treatises on emptiness are just trying to force us to accept what they are saying. Therefore, keep coming back to the first step, since as your knowledge deepens, your estimation of the target being investigated will become more and more subtle.

Actually, it should be “subtler and subtler”. I learned that from the dictionary. You see how superior I am? [laughter]

Then the second step is limiting the possibilities.

Now you need to establish a logical structure for the subsequent analysis. In general, anything that you take to mind has to either be one or more than one. It has to be either singular or plural. For instance, it is obvious that a stone pillar and an iron pot are plural.

They’re more than one thing. The group—stone pillar, iron pot—they’re two things, so they’re plural. They’re not one thing.

But a bowl is one thing. It’s singular.

If you have two things, the two things have to be different. They’re not exactly the same.

Because this is the case, what is inherently established must also be either one entity or different entities. There is no other possibility. This means that, if the I inherently exists, it must be either one and exactly the same with the body and mind, or entirely different from the body and mind.

If something were inherently existent, it needs to be findable, because that’s how it appears. It appears as something that’s findable there from its own side. It has to be either one thing that totally sets itself up without being dependent on anything else or it has to be something else. It has to be either one with the body and mind or it has to be totally different and isolated separate from the body and mind, because if we’re going to find it, we have to look for it. There are two places to look—either the same with the body and mind or separate from the body and mind. Can you think of another place, a third place where to look? “I’m going to look for myself out in the garden.” Well, that’s separate from the body and mind, isn’t it? That goes in that category. Or, “I’m going to look for myself inside my …” What was it, the pineal gland that they used to think the little homunculus was inside? “Well, I’m going to look for me in the pineal gland.” That’s thinking that you’re one with the body. It has got to be either one or the other. There’s no third possibility.

You need to ponder these parameters. They’re the context for examining the last two steps. Whether the target that you identified in the first step really does exist so concretely. If it does, it should be able to withstand this analysis.

That’s the thing. This I that we feel so strongly feels like it can set itself up. It exists under its own power. It doesn’t depend on anything else. It’s independent. An I that is independent of everything else doesn’t depend on causes, doesn’t depend on parts, doesn’t depend on the basis of labeling, doesn’t depend on the mind and the term. It doesn’t depend on anything. It’s just there. We should be able to find it if it’s there. There are only two places to look—either one and the same with the body and mind or totally separate from the body and mind.

The meditative reflection: analyze whether the I that is inherently self-established in the context of the mind/body complex could have a way of existing other than being part of or separate from mind and body.

Is there a way that that I could exist without being either part of one with the mind and body or separate from them? Think. How else could it exist? Really think if you could find a third option.

Take other phenomena, such as a cup and a table or a house and a mountain as examples. See that there is no third category of existence. They are either same or different.

The thermos and the tissue—they’ve got to be either the same thing or different things. What are they? They’re different. The thermos—what is it? Is it the same or different? The same as itself is one thing. It’s one. It’s singular. These two things are plural.

Audience: inaudible

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Here we’re not looking so much at the my. We’re looking at the I right now. Then once you negate the I, then it’s easy to negate the my because is it the same? Is the my that owns these the same as the body and mind or different than the body and mind? It’s an interesting question: who owns this? Is it the body or the mind? Or is something inherently separate from the body and mind? Who’s the one who owns this? When I say, “My tissues—you can’t have them.” Who’s that my? It’s there, isn’t it? If that my exists, it needs to be either not one or different from the tissues, but one or different from the body and mind.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Right.

Decide if the I inherently exists as it seems to. That if the I inherently exists as it seems to, it must be either one with or separate from mind and body.

Then: Analyzing oneness. This is the third point. It’s got to be either one or separate. Now we’re going to see if it’s one.

Nagarjuna from Praise of Reality says, “The doctrine supremely purifying the mind is the absence of inherent existence.”

The previous quote told us that that wisdom—realizing the absence of inherent existence—is the one thing that is going to make liberation possible. It’s not the only thing, but it’s the essential thing. The supreme doctrine that purifies the mind is this absence of inherent existence.

Now you are ready to analyze whether the I could be one with the body and mind. Consider the following implications. If the I is established in and of itself (in other words, inherently), as it appears to our minds, and if it also is the same as the mind/body, then the I and the mind/body could not differ at all.

If I was the same as my body/mind, then we have to be exactly the same. That means there’s no difference between I and body and mind.

Is there some difference between I and the body/mind complex? When you apply for a driver’s license, who gets the driver’s license? You or the body/mind complex? Does your body own the driver’s license?

If the I is established in and of itself as it appears to our minds, and if it also is the same as the body and mind, then the I and body and mind should not differ at all.

They should be exactly the same. If they’re exactly the same, they’re the same in name and in meaning, which means that every time we now use the word I, we could be able to substitute the body/mind. Or maybe just body. Or maybe just mind. If they were exactly the same, instead of saying, “I got my driver’s license.” We would say, “Body/mind got its driver’s license.” Did the collection of body/mind get a driver’s license?

They would have to be utterly and, in all ways, the same. Phenomena that appear one way but exist another way are false (they appear one way but exist another way – those are false), but it is impossible for what is truly established to have a conflict between appearance and fact. What is true must appear the way it exists and must exist the way it appears. If the I is the same as the body and mind, does it even make sense to assert the existence of the I?

Isn’t saying I redundant?

As Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way says, “When it is taken that there is no self except the body/mind complex, then the body/mind complex itself would be the self. If so, your self is non-existent.

If the body/mind complex is the self, there’s no need for self, because they’re exactly the same, and whenever you use one word, you would have to use the other word. Also, if the I—here we’re saying is the I one or separate from the body/mind complex, the two of them together, we could also ask, is the I one or separate from the body—just use the body? Is the I one or separate from the mind? Because maybe we might think, “Oh, I’m not both the body and mind together. I’m one of them.” If you were exactly the same as your body, then every time you use the word I, you could substitute body. “I’m thinking” could become “Body is thinking.” Because I and the body are exactly the same thing. Does it make sense to say, “Body is thinking?”

If you say that you’re your mind, then mind and I would be interchangeable meanings, in which case when you say, “I’m walking”, you should be able to say, “Mind is walking.” Is your mind walking? What we’re getting here is, we’re trying to find out what exactly this I that appears to exist independently is, because if it does exist independently, we should be able to find it, either as one or different from the body/mind—either one with them or totally separate. Now we’re examining: is it one, am I my body. If I say I’m my body, then every time we say body, we should be able to say I. And every time we say I, we should be able to say body. In other words, the I would be nonexistent in the sense that it would be redundant. “I’m walking.” The body is walking. But, “I’m thinking.” “Body is thinking” doesn’t make much sense. If you search your body, can you find one part of your body that is who you are? If you took all the parts of your body and laid them out here, which one is you? Is your heart, is that you? Is your brain you? It feels sometimes like I’m inside here, but I can’t find exactly what is me that seems to be inside.

What about our mind? It’s easier to say I’m not my body. That’s not terribly hard unless you’re a scientific reductionist, in which case it’s really difficult. For the rest of us, it feels somehow like I’m my mind. I’m my mind. Then which mind are you, the mind that’s awake or the mind that’s asleep? Are you the mental consciousness or the visual consciousness? Are you a gross consciousness, a sense consciousness or are you a subtle consciousness, because whatever you pick, if you’re that one, then you’re that one and the same with that one? Are you your anger? Are you your love? On a bad day, we say, “I’m my anger.” So then, if I’m my anger, then whenever I use the word I, I should be able to say anger. Then anger is walking down the street, anger is feeling love, anger is taking an exam. You might say, “I’m not my anger, I’m my love.” Then love is angry, love is taking the exam, love is asleep.

Are you getting what I’m saying here? If they’re exactly the same, then there’s some problems that happen. And then His Holiness also points out:

If I and the mind/body complex are exactly the same, it would be impossible to think of “my body” or “my head” or “my mind” and surmise that “my body is getting stronger.”

Because as soon as we say my body, we’re seeing the I as something different than the body. As soon as we’re saying my mind, we’re seeing the mind as something different than the I. We couldn’t say that because these things would have to be exactly the same.

A second problem—that’s the first problem if they’re exactly the same. The second problem is that, since mind and body are plural—they’re more than one—then the person should also be more than one, because if the mind/body complex and the person are exactly the same, if the mind/body complex is two things, mind and body, then there should be two persons. Are there two yous? Sometimes it feels like there’s a million of them. Are there two yous walking down the street? Are there two yous sitting in here listening? “As Chandrakirti says, “If mind and body were the self, then because mind and body are plural, the selves would also be plural.” Things that are the same, are exactly the same, if one is plural, the other one has to be plural. If just because the self is one, then the mind/body would have to be one. The mind and body would have to be exactly one thing, because that would have to be one because the self, the person, is also one. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s the second problem.

A third problem is that, just as the mind and body are produced and disintegrate, the I would have to be inherently produced and inherently disintegrate. Although Buddhists accept that the self is produced and disintegrates, we hold that this is so conventionally and not inherently from its own side. In the absence of inherent existence, it is possible for a series of moments, and even lives, to form a continuum in which the later depends on the earlier. However, if the self is inherently produced and inherently disintegrates, it would be impossible for the present moments of your life to depend on former moments, since each moment would be produced and disintegrate in and of itself, without depending on anything else. In this case, former lifetimes would be impossible since each life would exist in and of itself.

Let us take this apart. If mind/body were the same thing as the self, and they were inherently existent, then if the mind/body inherently existed, then maybe you could find the I there. It’s exactly the same. When you look at the mind and the body, neither one of them is inherently existent. Why? Because an inherently existent thing exists separate from all other factors. It can set itself up. It doesn’t depend on anything. That means that if you had a series of moments of an object, we have a series of moments of, take any object—yourself or any physical object—there is a series of moments, there’s a continuum. If each moment of that series inherently arose and inherently disintegrated, it would not be related to any other moment in that series because things that inherently arise don’t depend on causes and conditions. They’re independent of everything else. Things that inherently cease don’t depend on causes and conditions. They cease all by themselves. We see, when we really look at things, that things are not inherently existent—they don’t inherently arise and cease, do they? For something to come into being, it has to have had a cause.

Can you think of something that exists without it having a cause?

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Here we’re talking about something that arises and ceases. It didn’t arise depending on causes and conditions. Can we think of something that functions and ceases not depending on the exhaustion of its causal energy? Yes, things are changing all the time. If each moment, let’s say of our mind, were independent of every other moment of the mind, and the latter moments of the mind didn’t depend on the previous moments, and the previous moments weren’t the causes of the later moments, then you couldn’t have a continuum because they would all be totally disjointed things. Kind of like, you know the old 8mm films—when they produce movies nowadays, do they use film strips like that or is everything digital? Anyway, in the age of the dinosaurs, [laughter] you had each frame that was a separate entity. Remember that? Or cartoons—remember those little cartoon books we got at Disneyland? They looked like one thing, but actually each one was a separate page, and each 8mm screen was a separate one. They look like a continuum, but actually they weren’t a continuum because they were all separate.

If the I arose inherently so that each moment of the body and mind—let’s say we’re our mind—so that each moment of the mind was like an individual page in the cartoon book, that could not really be a continuum. It might look like one, but it’s not because it’s many different pages. To be a continuum, the latter moments have to be produced by the former moments, whereas all those pages in the cartoon book exist at the same time. They can’t be cause and effect. All the individual frames in the 8mm thing exist at the same time. They’re not cause and effect.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Yes, you couldn’t have a memory. Exactly. It would be very strange, wouldn’t it? Because they wouldn’t be in sequence. You couldn’t have a memory of what you were in the past because they were totally disjointed. If you say, “Well I was the result of something, of a previous page in the cartoon book.” Then you could say, “I was the result of another cartoon book page,” because they would both be equal in being unrelated like that.

There are some problems with this. That is what he’s getting on. On the next page he says,

Buddha spoke of remembering former lifetimes, and some people mistakenly take this to mean that the Buddha after enlightenment and the Buddha when he was in a former lifetime are one and the same, and thus permanent.

We have this idea, even if we accept multiple lifetimes, “Oh, the me of this lifetime and the me of the previous lifetime were one and the same. We’re permanent. We don’t change.” That’s the idea of a soul, isn’t it? “I have a soul. Something that is always me. It never changes from one moment to the next. It’s the same soul when I was an ant and the same soul when I’m a human being.”

Maybe that’s why, in Christianity, there’s the big debate about whether insects have souls, because it’s so hard to conceive of a soul of an ant and the soul of the human being the same. But if you said there was one permanent soul, then the soul of the ant in one life and the soul of the person in the next life would be exactly the same soul. That’s problematic. Then you say, “They aren’t the same soul—God created each soul,” that’s also problematic because why did God create and if God himself (or herself, or itself) is permanent, how can anything that’s permanent create anything? Why did God create suffering—you get into a whole bag of worms here, a whole can of worms. Worms come in bags, not in cans. [laughter]

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Exactly. It’s a mystery we can’t see through. Read Sherlock Holmes.

People also think, “Oh Buddha was a bodhisattva. Shakyamuni Buddha—exact same person. He must be permanent. There must be a soul.” However, when Buddha described earlier lifetimes, he was careful not to specify that the person of his present life in a particular place at a particular time was the former person in a particular place at a particular time. He spoke in general terms, saying merely, “In the past I was such-and-such a person,” but he did not say, “In the past Shakyamuni Buddha was such-and-such a person.”

Have you noticed sometimes, how even we, as Buddhists, talk about impermanence and there’s a continuum and there’s no self, but Sam died and now Sam is in the god realm or Sam is a worm, as if there’s the soul of Sam, there’s some unchanging soul of Sam. This comes out so much when people talk about the tulku system, when you identify the next birth of some tulku. People talk about it, and they expect it to be the same person. You meet the incarnation of the person who, in the previous life was your teacher, and other people are thinking, “Is he going to recognize me? Does he have the same habits as he had before?” They expect it to be the same person with the same personality in the next life. The person in the previous life is gone and finished. The person in the new life has arisen. They do form a continuum because one caused the other. That’s how you can remember something from the past. It works even in one life—how we can remember things in the past because there’s a continuum of mind moments. But if there were a permanent soul—here’s the soul of your teacher in one life and it picks up and kerplunk, goes into the body in another life so that they have the same personality. We call ourselves Buddhists and we believe in that? That’s completely contradictory because that’s assuming a permanent self, doesn’t it? It’s very interesting to watch.

One time, I don’t even remember how this discussion went … I can’t remember exactly the context, but Zopa Rinpoche and I were both attending Geshe Zopa’s teachings on emptiness. I went to talk to Rinpoche one day, and we were talking about Serkong Rinpoche, who is a different Rinpoche, who was both of our teachers, and Rinpoche was asking me how Serkong Rinpoche was, etc., and then he made some comment, “Well, you know, it’s the same person as you knew before.” Then Rinpoche realized what he’d said, and we both cracked up because Geshe Zopa had just gotten done teaching us that it wasn’t the same person. [laughter]

It is the same person in the sense that this lifetime person A, person B, person C, person D, all are parts of what we call a general I. There’s a general I that is merely designated in dependence upon all these different people who exist in a sequence. All the different people who exist in the sequence are not the same soul. They’re not the same person. Are you getting what I’m saying?

The Mississippi River starts up here, somewhere in like Montana or North Dakota? Yes, but the Missouri River is the precursor to the Mississippi. Minnesota? Here it is in Minnesota (somebody else told me somewhere else. They were wrong and you’re right). [laughter] Then from Minnesota, where does it go, Iowa? Wisconsin, then Iowa, then Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi? Between Tennessee and Arkansas. Is it between Mississippi and Louisiana? We call this whole thing Mississippi River. But the Mississippi in Minnesota is different than the Mississippi in Wisconsin and it’s different from the Mississippi in Iowa and different from the Mississippi in Illinois and as you go down, aren’t they? Yes, by designation—that’s the point. Because they’re designated as different things, and they’re designated because the water up here is not the same water as down here, and it’s not the same water that’s down here. And the banks that are up here are not the same banks here and not the same banks here. Everything’s changed from here to here and even from here to here. Everything’s changing, but we still give it one name, Mississippi River.

In the same way person A, B, C, D, E, F, G, whether it’s a tulku or whether it’s one of us, they’re designated different people because they have different bodies and minds. Because there’s a continuum, at least of the mind, because there’s a mental continuum, then all of them are said to be I. We can’t say that the Mississippi in Louisiana is the same as the Mississippi in Minnesota. We can’t say that this incarnation of somebody is the same as that person. The XIV Dalai Lama is not the same person as the V Dalai Lama or even the VIII Dalai Lama. But they all fit into this merely labeled category of Dalai Lama, which is the general Dalai Lama.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Yes, when there’s a continuum, there are going to be similarities, but similarity is different than the same, if they were inherently existent, each one would be totally separate and unrelated to the next one, and any similarity wouldn’t be because this one caused that one. It would be totally different. Even in this lifetime there’s a continuity of consciousness, even though the individual moments of consciousness are quite different. There’s a continuity because one moment produces the next moment, produces the next moment, but one moment is not the same as the next moment.

If they were inherently existent, they would have to inherently rise and cease, which would mean each moment is not related to the next moment, which would mean that if this could be produced by something before it that was totally unrelated to it, then it could also be produced by a moment of consciousness from this other person over here that is equally unrelated to it, which would mean, if all these moments of consciousness are unrelated to each other, but we still say they form a continuum, then karma can’t go from here to here because each moment arose and ceases on its own and is totally unrelated to the previous one. There’s no way that karma can get from one moment of consciousness, or one moment of the mere I to the next moment. Then we would have to say that we could create karma down here and not experience the result up here because none of the moments of consciousness were cause and effect. Then karma would get lost.

Or if you say, no, we still experience the karma from my moments that are completely different than we are, then we should be able to experience the karma result from this person’s my moment because it is also equally, totally unrelated and separate to this one. Then you could create the cause and I would experience the result. That’s chaotic. [laughter]

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Yes, it doesn’t ripen until all that happens. You see, there are all these difficulties that happen if we say the person is one and the same with the mind and body. We can’t make logical sense of it. It is like saying, “If I were exactly the same person as who I was as a baby—goo, goo, ga, ga.”

Audience: inaudible

VTC: To form a continuum, everything has to change, but the latter moments have to depend on the former moments, and the continuum itself can be given one label, one designation, that encompasses all those moments even though none of the moments are exactly the same as the other ones. They are causally related.

There’s a general I, and then each lifetime, there’s a specific I. “What is this? This is crazy! You told me there’s no I, and now you’re telling me I have a different I every lifetime.” Remember that all of these I’s exist by being merely designated, by thought. There’s nothing more there than a mere designation by thought. What exists by being merely designated. Somehow, we’ll say it’s merely designated depending on the basis of designation. “Oh, depends on the basis of designation. Great. It is that.” Now we have something to grab on to. It exists depending on the basis of designation. It is not the basis of designation. If you’re feeling confused, that’s okay. That’s okay. When I was studying this, I remember with Geshe Sonam, he was teaching us a class, a small group of us, a class on Chandrakirti’s Supplement, and we got so confused. We were going, “What are you talking about?” And he kept on coming back to—the problem is you don’t understand the object of negation. We can’t clearly identify what the inherently existent I is and how it could differ from a merely labeled I. We get the two completely … like this.

Do not worry about being confused. If this is all crystal clear to you, then please come and teach it because I’m confused. Do not worry about being confused. You don’t have to understand everything when you learn the Dharma. The Dharma is not taught like in school where you have to understand everything the first time the teacher says it or at least the second time. It’s taught where we’re not meant to understand everything. Each time we hear it, we understand a little bit. Each time we think about it, we understand a little bit more. These are all just incremental, tiny bits of understanding that keep coming. Don’t worry about it. If you understood it on the first hearing, then it would mean that you had thousands and millions of previous lives in which you were a bodhisattva and created so much merit so that even hearing one teaching this lifetime put you over into enlightenment. Then that would be your situation because you would understand it all perfectly the first time you heard it. People don’t become enlightened like that. It takes time. We exist as part of a continuum that’s going in that direction, and we’re just working at it, chewing it over like a cow chews its cud, we chew over the teachings, little by little, we get a little bit more.

We have time for one or two questions.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: It doesn’t exist.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: There’s the continuity of the mind, but different karma is ripening, so different mental factors become more prominent. Then also if there’s some physical change in the brain, that may influence also how the mind is able to function.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: None of us have the big I. None of us have it. [laughter] This is an important point. When we realize emptiness, we’re not destroying something that used to exist and making it non-existent. We’re realizing what has never existed is non-existent.

There is a sense of the conventionally existent, merely labeled self, because arhats, just like the Buddha, use the word I. You read the Sutras; the Buddha says I. He doesn’t say mind/body complex. He says I. But you can’t find that I.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: It’s not. A Buddhist sense of I is accurate, an arya or arhat sense of I is accurate when they are in meditative equipoise. When they come out of meditative equipoise, there’s still the appearance of true existence, of a big I, but they know it’s false. They know it’s false, but it still appears.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Where are you going to find the conventional I? If you look for it with ultimate analysis, you could say the Buddha’s sitting on the chair. No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying, the Buddha is sitting on the chair, but there’s no Buddha. There’s no I that’s findable within the Buddha. Findable indicates that you’re searching for it with ultimate analysis. You can find the Buddha on the chair, but you can’t find the Buddha in the aggregates. There’s no Buddha there, in the aggregates. One of the problems is when Nagarjuna taught, when you just read Nagarjuna, it sounds very nihilistic. When you just read the exact words he taught, it sounds like he’s saying nothing exists at all. The reason he spoke like that was because in his time period, there were so many people, all the other sects, the Sankhyas, the Vaisesikas, all these other groups, asserted some inherently existent I. When Nagarjuna spoke, he just put like that. He didn’t qualify “conventional”, “inherent”. He just said there’s no Tathagata. That’s it. There’s no Tathagata because he needed to make it so jarring to people that they would go from the extreme of thinking that there was a real, concrete soul to just loosening that a little bit to think that “Hmm, maybe my idea of the Buddha, or of any person for that matter, isn’t right.” At the time of Tsongkhapa, prior to Tsongkhapa, there were the first Tibetans that had brought Buddhism into Tibet. They had gone to the other extreme, and they were quite nihilistic.

A Buddhist at Nagarjuna’s time, the people were very absolutist: everything’s inherently existent. At the time of Tsongkhapa, many people had the wrong view of nihilism. They negated too much. Tsongkhapa, and everybody who followed him, always were very careful to put, “There’s no conventionally existent this, there’s no ultimately existent that, there’s no ultimately existent that.” When you look at the Heart Sutra, the Buddha said “no eye, no ear … no body, no mind – no conventional.” He’s talking – no I. There’s no I. You can exchange the eye for the other I. There’s no I. There’s no I, meaning there’s no inherently existent I. When they unpack it, because they don’t want people to go to nihilism, they say it means there’s no inherently existent I because earlier in the sutras, the Buddha had used the term “inherently existent”, so you’re supposed to carry it over to that thing. It means there’s no inherently existent I. But the Buddha doesn’t say, “There’s no inherently existent eye, there’s no inherently existent ear…” There’s no I.

Similarly, when I say there’s no conventionally existent person in the aggregates because if there were a conventionally existent person in the aggregates, it wouldn’t be a conventionally existent person, it would be an inherently existent person. We can say there’s no I, but in parentheses, we know—inherently existent. But there is an I because we’re all here. You see, our problem is, we say “Yes, that sounds good, we’re negating, there’s no inherently existent I. Look, everybody says there’s a conventionally existent one, so here I am. Unchanged.” The refutation had absolutely no effect. As soon as we say conventionally existent, we think inherently existent because we can’t separate them. We haven’t identified the object of negation. That’s what I’m getting at. As soon as we say, “Oh yes, conventionally existent person, whew, I’m exactly who I think I am right now. This solid, concrete person. Good, I’m glad we negated something out there that doesn’t threaten my sense of I.”

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Yes, never the same.

We have to stop now. This is good. Think about this. Talk about it amongst each other because this is how we’re going to learn. If you get confused, that’s fine. It means you’re thinking about it. If you’re not confused, either you’re an arya or you don’t understand anything. [laughter]

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.