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Identifying the person

The text turns to training the mind on the stages of the path of advanced level practitioners. Part of a series of teachings on the Gomchen Lamrim by Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa. Visit Gomchen Lamrim Study Guide for a full list of contemplation points for the series.

  • Identifying how self-grasping ignorance grasps the self
  • Describing the four point analysis
  • Why are the rules for inherent and conventional existence different?
  • Explanation of the general and specific I
  • Practicing using wisdom in daily life

Gomchen Lamrim 127: Identifying the Person (download)

Contemplation points

  1. Venerable Chodron said in the teaching that we just assume that the way things appear to us is how they exist, and we never really investigate how they actually appear.
    • Take some time to consider the world around you? How does it appear?
    • Does it seem like objects have their own nature, from their own side? Do they seem objective, unrelated to your mind, something that makes them what they are? Do they seem independent of being designated by your own mind?
    • Consider yourself. Do you ever think of yourself as dependent, as being a result of causes and conditions, or do you just have the feeling that you exist and will always exist as you are?
  2. Consider the four key points of establishing the lack of inherent existence of the “I”:
    • The first step is investigating the question that if an inherently existent “I” existed, how would it have to exist? You’re not looking for an inherently existent “I” because that doesn’t exist. You’re establishing that if one DID exist, it would logically have to exist in a certain way. Venerable Chodron said we have to see how the self-grasping ignorance grasps the object, why and how we grasp things as inherently existent. Why is this such an important first step?
    • The second step is getting clear that the only two options are that an inherently existent “I” would have to be 1) one and the same with its aggregates or 2) separate and unrelated to them. Why is it so important to be convinced that there is no third alternative here?
    • In the third step, we refute these two options, establishing for ourselves that the “I” cannot exist in either of these two ways by using reasoning. Why is this alone not the realization of emptiness?
    • Finally, in the fourth step, we understand that because the “I” is neither identical to nor separate and unrelated to the aggregates, it absolutely cannot be inherently existent. Venerable Chodron said that often we can go through these points and not feel any different at the end. Why do we have to meditate on these points again and again, investigating them deeply before they begin to impact the way we interact with the world?
  3. If the self existed in this truly existent way, as it appears, some problems would arise. Take some time to consider each:
    • If the self were the same as the aggregates, asserting a self would be redundant. You could say “My mind is walking” or “My body is thinking,” because “I” and “my body” or “my mind” would be synonymous. We often feel we are our body and mind. Consider what would happen if that were really the case, if you were your body or your mind inherently.
    • If the self were the same as the aggregates, the person would be many or the aggregates would be one. If the self and the aggregates are one and the same, why is there one “I” and five aggregates? Are there five “I”s? One aggregate?
    • If the self were the same as the aggregates, the agent and the object would be the same. Normally, we would say that at the time of death, the person grasps at another body and is reborn, but if the agent (the person) and the object (the aggregates the person takes) are identical, then which is the agent and which is the object? They are the same.
    • If the self were the same as the aggregates, the person would inherently arise and disintegrate. An inherent “I” is not dependent on causes and conditions. If it arises, it cannot be coming from a previous continuity and if it ceases, it must cease entirely, because it is separate and unrelated to anything else. With inherent existence, your 1 year old body, your 10 year old body, your 20 year old body, etc would all be totally unrelated to each other. Look at some old pictures of yourself. Are you the same/identical as the person in the picture? Are you different, separate and unrelated?
    • If the self were separate and unrelated to the aggregates, recalling previous lives would be impossible because there would be no relationship between them. As was addressed in the Q&A, you also couldn’t remember anything in this life. You couldn’t study for an exam and pass it because the person who studied and the person who took the test would be completely unrelated.
    • If the self were separate and unrelated to the aggregates, actions wouldn’t bring results. If our current life was separate and unrelated from the previous life, we could not experience results of karma that we created in previous lives.
    • If the self were separate and unrelated to the aggregates, results we do experience could have been created by someone else. Yet, we do experience the result of our own actions, not those of others. There is a continuity and cause and effect does work.
  4. Why is it that if something is inherently existent, it can only exist as inherently one (identical) or inherently different (separate and unrelated)? Why does conventional existence not have these same requirements? This is an important point, so take some time to really think about it.  Why are these the only two options with inherent existence?
  5. Venerable Chodron said that when we look at these refutations, it seems laughable, but the idea is that if things really existed the way they appear to us, we would have to have these kinds of results. We have to look at the consequences in order to prove to ourselves that the way things appear are not the way they exist. How might seeing things as empty of inherent existence change the way you view and interact with the world?
  6. With a greater conviction that things do not exist in the way they appear, resolve to continue investigating these points both on the cushion and in your daily life as you interact with the world.


Let us start with our motivation. When we sat down, we were talking about how a couple of the kitties aren’t very happy and how they live in this pure land, a kitty pure land. They couldn’t have a much better life than this as a kitty and yet they’re still unhappy. That is like us, isn’t it? We have incredible fortune having precious human lives, but we still find lots of things to be unhappy and discontented and inconvenienced by.

It is helpful to continually, frequently, reflect on our precious human life and use that understanding to stop wasting our time by being discontented because we can waste a whole lot of time being unhappy, and it doesn’t lead to happiness. Learn how to cut our discontent when it arises and return our minds to that joyful appreciation of our opportunities so that we can really use these opportunities wisely to progress along the path. Rather than memorize our litany of complaints, let’s memorize the recitations. Rather than pick faults with others, let’s criticize our self-centered thought. Rather than thinking that fulfilling our own wants and needs will bring joy, let’s understand that filling the needs of others, especially the spiritual needs, will really bring delight and a true sense of satisfaction in our minds. From that brand new perspective, then let’s listen to the teachings with the aim for complete Buddhahood as the fulfillment of our own aims and the aims of all other living beings.

I was thinking about some of the topics from last week. A question came up—actually I brought it up—of why [we use] the example of the selflessness phenomenon if what we’re trying to prove is the selfless person, and the selflessness phenomenon is said to be more difficult to realize than the selfless person. I was thinking about that, and the conclusion I came to was that understanding—dissecting a car for example, you can’t find a real car—that isn’t too difficult, and it’s probably easier than dismantling the idea of a person.

The selflessness of phenomena also includes seeing the emptiness of the mind. I think that’s more difficult. To see that something physical depends on parts is easy, but the mind doesn’t depend on parts that we can isolate and take apart. We label mind in dependence on the collection of moments of clarity and awareness. I could see that could be more difficult, because we often just say mind. And yes, it’s there, what else is it going to be? It’s there and it’s real and we don’t see it as dependent. [But[ it is dependent on its parts. The parts are momentary. That is one idea.

Also, I wanted to clarify the meaning of the word realization because understand and realize are different. There are two kinds of realization. One is an inferential realization, which is a reliable cognizer that you’re not going to budge from because you’ve really understood it. Then the second kind of realization, when we’re talking about emptiness, is the direct receiver, yogic direct receiver, that directly perceives emptiness. The inferential realization is a conceptual one. The yogic direct receiver is nonconceptual.

In Precious Garland, Nagarjuna says that to realize the selflessness of persons, we have to not have the grasping self of phenomenon. What that means is that you can’t have the manifest, acquired grasping at self of phenomenon at the same time as you’re meditating on the selfless person. That’s not going to work because the acquired grasping is one that you learn in this life through hearing incorrect philosophies or psychologies. If you’re holding on to an acquired affliction, with all these ideas about why phenomena are truly existent, well clearly at that time, when you have the acquired version manifest in your mind, if you try and meditate on the emptiness of the person, it’s not going to work because your gross conceptual process at that time is completely holding on to all these reasons about why things are inherently existent.

[speaking to audience member] Have not been subdued. Subdued there doesn’t mean eradicated, it means suppressed, temporarily suppressed.

We are going to continue. I’m going to read the part from Gonpa Rabsel rather Gomchen Lamrim, because it just gives a general lowdown on the thing, and then switch over and then go into the points more specifically.

Audience: I had a look at Gonpa Rabsel, and what’s interesting is that, before the verses that teach how to realize the selflessness of person, which starts at like 6.120, almost all of the chapter before that is on refuting the self of phenomena, and it’s looking at the refutations of other tenet systems, so that’s why I thought that what you brought up last week was really spot on, which is to refute the acquired grasping—maybe you said this, but I didn’t quite hear it—but it seems like one meditates on selflessness of phenomena first to refute that grasping at self of phenomena—did I say that right?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Well, you meditate on the example. You understand, the example.

Audience: Well, but as it’s laid out in Gonpa Rabsel, you’re actually refuting all those tenet systems, all those erroneous views in the four extremes of production as a way of developing that correct assumption towards selflessness of phenomena, and then you’re ready to move and actually use the example, which is the chariot.

VTC: Identifying the person.

Be they ordinary beings or aryas, all beings exist solely as a mere I, imputed, [it says, “to its basis.” I would say, “in dependence on its basis”] the aggregates. For that reason, the aggregates are the basis of imputation, and the person is what is imputed as explained clearly in the sutras. As the basis of imputation is not the imputed object, the view of the aggregates is not the view of the self of persons.

Are we clear about the basis of imputation and the imputed object? Everybody’s clear?

When it is said that the view of the self perceives the aggregates, it is to refute the idea that the nature of the self is distinct from the aggregates. The lower schools say that the view of the personal identity regards the aggregates, that’s the focal object, and grasps them, by regarding the aggregates, grasps an inherently existent person. The Prasangika say the aggregates are the basis of designation of the I, and the view of the personal identity regards the mere I that exists by being imputed and thinks it is an inherently existent I.

There is a difference there between the lower schools and the Prasangika.

The next thing is establishing the lack of an intrinsic nature of the I.

Here is the four-point refutation.

The key point, [there are four points], the key point of the object to be negated is to identify the mode of apprehension of the view of self.

In other words, to identify how self-grasping ignorance grasps the object. How does it grasp the object? That’s what we need to understand. The object is actually the mere I, the conventional I that exists, and we have to understand how it misapprehends that conventional I and thinks that it’s inherently existent. I say this because sometimes when we learn the four-point analysis, we’re told that you search for an inherently existent I. That’s not exactly it because an inherently existent I doesn’t exist. What you’re investigating is if the mere I, if the conventional I, did inherently exist, how would it have to exist?

The second point then is, if it inherently existed, it would have to be either truly existent one with the aggregates or truly existent separate from its aggregates. Sometimes they call this truly existent one and truly existent many, trying to determine whether they’re singular or plural, but for me it works better to see it as are they completely identical or are they totally separate and unrelated? There is no third possibility to that. If it inherently exists, it’s either identical or it’s totally separate. There’s no other way, so you have to ascertain that. They say it’s like if you lose something—if you know that you had your dog bone here in Ananda Hall, and you can’t find it, then you know it’s got to be either upstairs or downstairs. There’s no other place because you know it’s in here somewhere. There’s no third option. Things are either inherently one, the I is inherently one with the aggregates, or it’s inherently separate.

Then the third point is,

the key point of the property of the subject is to see the error of both modes of existence.

In other words, it can’t be inherently one and it can’t be inherently separate.

The fourth is,

the key point of what is to be established is that this leads naturally to ascertaining the lack of true existence.

Just discovering that the I isn’t inherently one with the aggregates and it’s not inherently separate from the aggregates—that alone is not the realization of emptiness. You have to realize that, because it’s not inherently one or inherently separate, therefore it is empty of inherent existence. There’s that one little extra step that sometimes we forget.

When these four key points are all present, pure view will arise as an existent and can only be established as either one or multiple, one or separate. True existence must be admitted being either one or multiple as well just as it must either possess parts or be part less. As for the way the object of negation appears as independent (this is the first point) as independent and standing on its own if an object existed in the way it appears, then it would truly exist.

Then you have to stop and say, “Well how do things appear to me?” Which we’ve hardly ever done. “How do things appear to me?” We just assume how they appear is reality, and we’ve never really asked, “How do they appear?” If we stop to ask, it looks like everything is objective—has some kind of objective existence that is unrelated to our mind. Doesn’t it look like that? Isn’t that what we’re taught in school? Science, until recently, [says] we are investigating an objective, external world apart from our mind. It is just recently beginning to see that the observer influences how something’s seen. We take things as objective and, when we look at them, they look like they’re completely discrete objects with their own nature.

This has the nature of a microphone. Anybody who walks in the room sees a microphone. This has the nature of a lamp. We all know it’s a lamp. This is a cup. It has some cupness nature. That’s a person. That’s a cat. They all have their own inherent nature that make them what they are. We think we’re just coming along and perceiving them as they are. We don’t think that these things maybe don’t have their own nature because they’re actually dependent on other stuff. When we look at the lamp, we don’t think that the lamp is dependent on its parts. We just see lamp. When we look at the cat, we don’t think there’s parts to this cat. We just see cat. Same with person. You see Henrietta—there’s Henrietta. That’s one whole thing. You don’t think of Henrietta as having parts, as dependent on something else. They’re just there. When we think of ourselves, do we think of ourselves as dependent on causes and conditions? Never. I just exist. I’m beyond causes and conditions. I’m just here.

That’s how we see things, and then, what we’re going to do now is start to investigate if things really existed the way they appear to us as inherently existent, then they’d have to be one, they’d have to be many or one and separate with their basis of designation or with their parts, and then we start to investigate that.

Furthermore, if an inherently existent self and aggregates were of the same nature (the aggregates are the basis of designation), the self is the designated object. If these two were entirely identical, if you agree with this, then the self could not take up and discard aggregates.

“They would be entirely identical. The self couldn’t take up and discard aggregates.” I’m just going to read now and then go through and explain all this.

There would have to be as many selves as there are aggregates. When the aggregates disintegrate, then the self would have to disintegrate, and karma could not be passed on. We have four reasons here. They’d be entirely identical. The self would not take up and discard the aggregates. They would have to be equal in number. When the aggregates disintegrate, then the self too would disintegrate. In this case the accumulator of karma and the experience of its results in the future, being inherently other, would be unrelated. If you agree with this, then one could not recall one’s past lives and think, “I was like that,” thus the idea of there being an inherently single continuum is refuted. If you assert that the inherently oneself and the aggregates disintegrate, then having a single continuum of past and future lives becomes impossible because just as the body ceases, so would the I cease. Agreeing with this raises many problems. You would then meet the results of karma that you had not performed, and the karma would go to waste. If an inherently established self and aggregates were distinct, then it should be perceptible to a reliable cognizer, but none perceives it. The traits of the aggregates are production abiding disintegration and so on since the inherently existent self would not have these, it would be permanent and so on.

That is the section we’re going to discuss, and we’ll see how far we get.

If the I is one and the same with the aggregates,

then here are the four problems in slightly different order than we just had.

First, asserting a self would be redundant. There would be no need to assert the existence of a person. Two, the person would be many, or the aggregates would be one, so they would have to be the same in number. Three, agent and object would be one. Four, the person would inherently arise and disintegrate.

Let us look at the first one—asserting a self would be redundant. If the I and the self were inherently one and identical, then there would be no need to assert a self. There would be no need to say I because whenever you said whatever aggregate it was, that would be synonymous with I. In that case, it would be superfluous to say I because you could just say mind and body instead of I, and it would have the same meaning. Instead of walking we would say, “Body is walking.” Instead of “I’m thinking”, “Mind is thinking.” Then it gets kind of confusing because you have I synonymous with two different things, so then if they’re all synonymous with each other, then you could say, “Body is thinking” and “Mind is walking.” Because you don’t need an I that somehow refers to both body and mind, that is related to both body and mind. You should be able to use just the word body to refer to everything the I does or just the word mind referring to everything the I does. That would be rather dumb, wouldn’t it? You can’t say, “Mind has an upset stomach” and “Body is studying for its exams.” That doesn’t work. That is one of the problems that asserting a self would be superfluous or redundant. We see that. It is interesting to really think about that because sometimes we very strongly feel, “I’m my body” or we very strongly feel “I’m my mind.” What would happen if we were our body, if we were our mind? Then you don’t need to say I. You could just say body or just say mind and it would do everything the I does.

Then the second thing is the person would be many or the aggregates would be one. If the I and the aggregates are the same—we usually say one I and five aggregates—if they were the same, then they would have to be the same in number. That means that if there’s one I, there should just be one aggregate. There isn’t. There’s five of them. Or, if there’s five aggregates, then you should have five different I’s. You have one person that’s the body, one person that’s the feeling, one person that’s discrimination, one person that’s miscellaneous factors and one person that is primary consciousness. Then you really are not going to know who you are because there’s five of you. Then also it’s going to get very difficult using language if there’s five I’s because which I are you referring to? That one also doesn’t work.


the third one is the agent, and the object would be the same.

Normally we would say, at the time of death, the person grasps at another body and is reborn. We say that. Of course, on a conventional level, there’s no person floating in space, looking down, saying, “Oh who am I going to be reborn as?” and jumping in. We just say, on the conventional level, “Oh the person took the new aggregates.” We say that or “He took a new body”. Something like this. If the agent, who’s the one who acts, which would be the person, and the object, which would be the body or the aggregates that that person took in the new rebirth, if the I and the aggregates were completely identical, then what would be the agent and what would be the object that was being acted on because they would be totally the same? Are you getting it? We couldn’t even say, “I scratch the body,” because the I is the agent, the body is the thing being scratched, but if the I and the object were inherently the same, I couldn’t say, “I’m scratching the body” because they would be completely, exactly the identical same thing, if they were inherently existent. Because the thing is, if something is inherently existent, it has to be either inherently one or inherently different. If something is conventionally existent, there aren’t those requirements that it be inherently one or inherently different. It can be conventionally one or conventionally different, but that’s very different than being inherently one or inherently different.

You have to think about this for a while because inherently one means they’re totally interwoven—the name and the designated object and the basis of designation are inseparable. That’s what inherently one means. Inherently separate means they don’t have any relationship at all, totally different.

On a conventional level, if we just talk conventionally, there is a relationship between the body and the mind. They aren’t entirely separate, but they also aren’t completely identical, but they are related because we identify the person on the basis of identifying one of the aggregates. They’re related and you can’t posit a person without having the basis of designation of some of the aggregates there. The rules, so to speak, for being conventionally existent are different than the rules for being inherently existent. You have to think for yourself a little bit about why are these rules different. Why are they different? Why, if they’re inherently existent, are there only those two options? Totally identical or completely unrelated? Why?

Because something that is inherently existent does not depend on anything else. It has its own essence. It’s there as an objective thing with its own essence that does not depend on causes and conditions, doesn’t depend on parts, doesn’t depend on our mind. It doesn’t depend on anything. Something that’s independent like that—it has to be either identical with something else or totally different. There’s no wiggle room with inherent existence. With conventional existence, there’s lots of wiggle room because you see that things exist only by designation.

That’s why the borders of countries can change. I always tell you about standing on the border between Israel and Jordan, and you take this piece of sand—this is Israel—and you throw it on the other side of the fence and now it’s Jordan. There’s a windstorm and some of the sands on that side of the fence come here—now Israel has more land, a few more grains of sand. We think now, like the US, we think of borders. We even want to build a wall on the border, like the border is fixed, and we want to make it actually concrete. Before the settlers came, there was no United States. There was no border. Even when they started the country, it was just these tiny 13 colonies on the East Coast, and we West Coast people had a totally different life than the people on the East Coast. It wasn’t even one country. Where I grew up, it was all Spanish spoken.

Borders change because that’s conventional reality, conventional existence. Inherent existence—this is the US, this is Canada, this is Mexico. Nothing changes. They’re like that forever, and the names are the same, and so on and so forth. That means Mexico can never become our 51st state, and Canada, I’m sorry, you can’t become our 52nd state. How many provinces are there in Canada? Ten provinces. Maybe the US could become the 11th province of Canada. That would be good, wouldn’t that? Then Justin Trudeau would be our guy. All these things change. That is the third one. Agent and object would be the same, but they aren’t the same.

This one is much more juicy:

The person would inherently rise and disintegrate if they were identical.

Of course, the conventional I arises and ceases, but here we have to make sure we put the word “inherently” in.

That the consequence of the aggregates and the I being one is that the self would arise and disintegrate inherently.

Because the body would be inherently existent. The mind would be inherently existent. The self would inherently exist.

Anything that is inherently existent is independent of causes and conditions

and whatever is independent of causes and conditions is permanent. Didn’t we learn that last night?

If the person didn’t change moment by moment [because it’s independent of causes and conditions], the self would be fixed and static.

That would mean that once one moment of self ceased, it would be totally gone, and the next moment of the self would arise completely without cause because if they’re inherently existent, they don’t depend on causes and conditions, so something could cease, and when it ceases, it’s totally out of existence. There’s no continuum. When the next moment of it arose, it would be something totally unrelated to the previous moment because, remember, it too is inherently existent. You could have things ceasing and things arising without causes and conditions. You are stuck with either it could not cease, and it could not arise or when it ceases, it’s totally gone and when it arises, it comes out of nothing.

Audience: But it can’t cease or arise.

VTC: There are two ways of looking at the thing. If there’s no cause and effect, you could either say it exists forever because it can’t cease or, if it ceases, it’s totally out of existence. It goes totally out of existence. There are two ways—there are two faults. What we’re talking about are the faults. There are two kinds of faults.

Audience: I don’t see how the second fault can occur because it’s a change.

VTC: When the body dies, then the body stops. Then you say the body stops, but the person doesn’t die. It’s totally impossible, and it doesn’t make sense, which is why we have a hard time sometimes understanding the arguments. There are two ways to look at it. Either it never ceases because to cease, it would have to have arisen depending on causes, but it didn’t. Or if it did cease, because we do see things ceasing, then if it did cease, then one moment of it becomes totally nothing and then the next moment would arise, not as part of the continuum of the first moment, but out of nothing without causes.

The different moments of the body would be totally unrelated because each moment of the body would exist independent of the other moments and independent of any other factors. Thus, the one-month-old body, the two-year-old body, the 16-year-old body, the 70-year-old body would all be unrelated to each other.

Then the selves that are associated with the body of each age would also be totally unrelated to each other. That isn’t how we see things, is it? We look back on the past, and we say I: “When I was a baby.” We all say that. We all know what it means. It doesn’t mean that when this big body somehow got squeezed into a smaller shape, and it doesn’t mean that the person we are now was exactly the same as that baby. We know that we’re talking conventionally and that they’re different. If they were inherently the same, then your body couldn’t age or, when your body aged, then the two people associated with the different bodies would be totally unrelated. That isn’t how we look at things.

I was cleaning some stuff out and here [holds up photo]. I don’t know what year that was taken in, but I look at that and we can say “Chodron”. Is it the same person as this person [points to self]? No. Is it entirely different? No. Then, there’s this one [holds up second photo]. This person’s a little bit older than that person, so we look, and we say I. Then there’s this one [holds up third photo]. I don’t know when this one was taken. They all have yellow shirts because they’re all quite old. Anyway, just when I was preparing for this, I was cleaning stuff out and I saw that, and you look and you say, “Oh, that’s me.” If the self were inherently existent, I couldn’t say, “That’s me.” They would be totally different people and so, when that one ceased, the next one would be a totally different person. There would be no continuity in terms of how they think, in terms of what they looked like. The karma would be totally cut off. I should have brought some baby pictures.

We have a natural sense that there’s a self that is related. We don’t see these people as totally, inherently different, do we? We remember things when we were young for example. There’s a natural sense of I.

There are three disadvantages that come under this outline of the person would arise and disintegrate inherently.

One is recalling events from previous lives would be impossible. Second is actions that we did would not bring results. Third is the events we did experience could be the result of actions created by other people.

The first one – “recalling events from previous lives would be impossible”. The Buddha said, “In a previous life, I was king so-and-so.” If the Buddha and king so-and-so were inherently the same, then a Buddha and a sentient being could be the same. If they were inherently distinct, then there would be no relationship, and the Buddha couldn’t say, “In the past, I was king so-and-so.” If our former and later selves were inherently distinct, there would be no relationship between oneself and the other, so we couldn’t say, “So-and-so died and was reborn as a deva.” Or “The cat died and was reborn as a human being” because there would be no connection between the former and later lives. On the other hand, if these two lives were totally different because if the self, previous life and present person, were inherently different, then what was done in one life couldn’t influence what happened in the next life.

There is a thing here that needs to be described, and it’s called the general I and the specific I. The basis of designation of the specific I are the five aggregates of a particular lifetime. The basis of designation of the general I is all the specific I’s. Like the specific I of this life would be Chodron. Chodron, when she dies, is finished, and doesn’t exist any longer. There is a continuum of the general self though that goes on to the next life. Chodron is not the general self. She’s part of the basis of designation for that general self, so that mere I continues. Chodron stops. Somebody could be Henrietta in one life and then Samuel in the next life and then Ethel after that [laughter], and then they could be Dallas after that. A nice Jewish person. You have all those specific I’s, but there’s a general I that goes from one life to the next, even though the specific I’s don’t. It is on the basis of the general I when Henrietta dies, we say “Henrietta was reborn as Samuel.” In the future, Samuel will be reborn as Dallas. Who names their kid Dallas? [laughter] Would you name your kid Fort Worth? Houston? Los Angeles?

Do you get the ideal of a general I and a specific I? That’s the way we handle it so that we can establish that there’s a continuum, but none of these people are exactly the same. And in the same way, when we talk of this life, Henrietta as a baby, as a five-year-old, a 15-year-old—looking at her prom pictures—and then when she’s 35 and 75 and so on. We label Henrietta on top of all of that, and we understand then Henrietta becomes like a general thing, and then the specifics are one-year-old Henrietta, five-year-old Henrietta, 15-year-old Henrietta, like that.

Then the other problem is, if the I’s of one life and the next life are totally unrelated, then the karma we create in this life, we will not experience the result of in the next life because they’re two separate people. This is interesting because this is the way a lot of people think. It’s like, “I do what I want. When I’m dead, I’m dead. There’s no continuity. If there’s somebody else who comes along, they’re unrelated to me.” We don’t realize that that person that we feel we’re going to become in the future is going to have that feeling of I just as we now have a feeling of I. We think, “Oh, I’m dead” and then that’s a totally different person without thinking that what I do is going to influence what I experience in the future. Those two I’s, there we’re talking the general I. What Henrietta does is going to influence what Calvin does, experiences in the future. Calvin—that’s not a Jewish name. [laughter] You have Calvinism, don’t you?

Then you also have the third problem that arises if all these moments of the self are entirely different. Just as we wouldn’t experience the result of our own actions because this life person and next life person would be totally distinct and unrelated, then if you still assert karma exists, then you would have to say,” Well, we experience the result, we could experience the result of actions that other people created because they’re inherently different than us.” If you say that the two lifetimes are completely distinct, then either you have to say, “This lifetime doesn’t experience the results of the actions this lifetime does” or if you say that there is going to be another person, then just as this person is completely other from this person, then George over there, who created karma—he’s over here—then Calvin could experience the result of George’s actions because, just as Henrietta and Calvin are two different people, George and Calvin are two different people. You would have to be able to say that to establish some kind of karma. Either that or you say, “There’s no continuum and there’s no karma and nothing affects nothing,” which is what the people who are materialists say.

The thing is that we do experience the results of actions that we ourselves create, and we don’t experience the results of actions that other people create. There is a continuity, and cause and effect do work. If things were inherently existent, cause and effect wouldn’t work, and there couldn’t be continuities. That would mean that this tomato seed could grow and become a bell pepper because there would be no continuity and the cause, and the result would be totally separate. That just throws everything into chaos.

When we look at all these different refutations, it may seem like we’re just talking about laughable things because we’re laughing a lot. It’s like, “Who would ever say that?” The idea is that if things really existed the way they appeared to us, we would have to have these kinds of results. If you assert this, it follows that this would have to be, and then we see, what you’re saying has to be, doesn’t make any sense. Then it’s like, “Oh, then maybe what we’re asserting is wrong.” That’s how the argument is structured. It’s a consequence thing – if it exists like this, then you have this kind of problem. You don’t want that problem. Which means that somehow, how you’re structuring your way of thinking, how you’re structuring your argument – something’s wrong with it. It’s the same kind of thing, there’s a continuity – if so and so gets sick and takes medicine, that same person recovers. Not somebody else. If the self were inherently existent, then the two moments, prior moment and latter moment, would be totally unrelated just like two people are totally unrelated. We can never talk about ourselves in the past. I would look [holding photo] and I would say, “This is Cherry. I don’t know who Cherry is—some nun sitting somewhere, wearing a yellow blouse—who does that anymore?”

So, questions?

Audience: Concerning the fault that it would be impossible to remember past lives: wouldn’t the same fault be there that you wouldn’t be able to remember past moments? If there was no continuum, you wouldn’t be able to remember past moments. You couldn’t study for an exam because it would be a different person taking the exam.

VTC: Yes, exactly. What we come up with—the system of cause and effect and inherent existence cannot exist together.

Audience: Also, if you had a different person in each moment… but, what is a moment? Where does that break go? Things are just changing. It’s not really incremented.

VTC: Yes. We’re just saying moment, but if you try and find what is a moment, then that’s a problem too because every moment has a beginning, middle and end, and if you say, “Well it must be the middle”, well the middle has a beginning, middle and end and so on. You can never find the moment. So how can you be in the moment?

Audience: Just for some clarity: the general I is all the specific I’s, the continuity life after life, the general I is that part, that mind, that continuity that goes from life to life.

VTC: The general I is the self, it’s not a mind. It’s a person, and its basis of designation is all the specific I’s.

Audience: Okay. And then, within a one rebirth, like you said, there’s a general I called Cheryl Green, but in that life, there are specific I’s: at five years there was a specific I and 15, so there’s broken down into also lifetimes.

VTC: What we’re getting at is, on one level, you can say there’s an I, a general I that’s with the whole continuity, based on all the specific I’s. If you look at each specific I, then it could be like a general I in the sense that it has parts.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: That is just an analogy. If you say the general I and there’s all these different specific I’s, and then you take the specific I, it too has many moments: five-year-old, ten-year-old. But then you take the five-year-old and the five-year-old on January 1 and the five-year-old… what you get is like everything that you give it a label to consists of parts that make it up, and it doesn’t exist independently of its parts. There is one general I that is a continuum because it’s not that this general I can create a cause and another general I experiences the result. Not like that.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: The general I and the mere I—yes, I think you could probably say that. Well, maybe not because the mere I, the basis of designation, is the aggregates, so maybe you have a mere I of each person or maybe there’s different ways of looking at the mere I. I mean there may be one way of looking at it where you say its basis of designation is the aggregates and another way of looking at it where you say… See that’s the thing. When something is empty of inherent existence, it doesn’t have to be either one thing or the other. The mere I could refer to this whole continuity, but its basis of designation changes the whole time.

Like if you take Seattle—I don’t know how long Seattle has existed; longer than Newport—but when we say Seattle, we think of one thing that’s Seattle. If you think of what Seattle was like say 150 years ago, it didn’t look anything like it looks now. They can take you on a tour, they show you some remnants of the old Seattle that’s under the street, but there’s nothing on top that looks anything like. We say Seattle in the 1850s and Seattle in the 1950s and Seattle in 2018 as if they’re the same thing. They are all designated on totally different things. The basis of designation is totally different on all of them, and yet the thing that’s designated has the same title. What I’m getting at is, in one way you can say Seattle is what it is in a specific time and in another way, you can say Seattle is that whole big thing. When you get insurance for a building, you get insurance for the present building, not for the continuity in the past, although they don’t give you the policy until half the time is up, and then they make you pay for the time that you weren’t insured.

Audience: How is that ordinary beings recognize their teachers so strongly from lifetime to lifetime? Does it entirely come from the side of the teacher?

VTC: How do ordinary beings recognize their teachers? Not everybody recognizes their teachers from previous lifetimes. I mean you might have a karmic connection with a certain person, but that doesn’t mean that you say, “Oh, I knew you in my previous life.” You might feel a strong connection, but it’s not like you’re recognizing that that’s the connection of somebody you knew in a previous life. For bodhisattvas, when they have the super-knowledge of the divine eye, and they can see sentient beings dying and passing away, then they know the karmic connections and so those bodhisattvas then know, in terms of who their teachers are, who to go to, and they also know which sentient beings they have a strong karmic connection with that they can help more easily. That doesn’t mean they don’t help everybody else.

Audience: I have a question from last week. When you’re talking about the chain of how ignorance creates suffering and there was distorted attention and then that creates the afflictions. And the way I wrote it down in my notes is that the distorted attention exaggerates the good or bad qualities of the object and then you have the afflictions.

VTC: And distorted attention, it also can see things that are impermanent as permanent, things that are dukkha in nature as pleasant.

Audience: When I hear it exaggerates the good qualities or the bad qualities, I think of attachment and anger. That is the affliction. How is the distorted attention different from the affliction?

VTC: Because the affliction is based on the basis of exaggerating or projecting good qualities, then the mind wants to stick to something, so the affliction is the wanting to stick. The distorted attention is the exaggeration or projection that makes you want to stick.

Audience: You would say that attachment is clinging to the exaggerated good qualities of something.

VTC: It’s a clinging to the object because you’ve exaggerated the good qualities. You’re clinging to your unrealistic notion of what that object is, confusing the object with your unrealistic notion and thinking they are the same thing.

Audience: I thought that the basis of designation for the mere I was the mental consciousness.

VTC: It depends. There are different ways of looking at it. If you’re talking about the person who goes from life to life, then you would say the basis of designation of that person would be the mental consciousness, but if you’re talking about whoever is playing football, then it’s going to have to be the five aggregates.

Audience: This is kind of a practical aspect of a question about when we are learning a [inaudible] reason and investigation of nonself it is very individual, right? But when we are talking about the suffering that we have it is at an intellectual level and an emotional level. It seems we are trying to, when we are studying something like this it is very, we are trying to investigate it is not truly existing something there to be attached but although at an intellectual level we know there it doesn’t really affect you. But then at the emotional level there are habitual tendencies are so strong so how can we, what would be my question. When we are studying this like this, I really enjoy doing this kind of thing, but it is very here [pointing to head] but the other problems come from here [pointing to heart]. So how can we get it from here to here. Yes. When we study things like this how can we really apply it? How can we adapt our meditation to try and apply it?

VTC: One of the big things is why we go through the reasoning, and then it seems like nothing’s changed is because we actually haven’t identified what inherent existence would look like yet. We just have an intellectual idea of it, so we haven’t really seen that what we’re investigating is our own experience.

We think inherent existence is like a hat you put on top of somebody’s head and that negating it just means you take the hat off. It is not that. Inherent existence is completely permeating what we see. Let us say, when you’re unhappy, and you say, “I’m unhappy.” Then you say, “Who’s unhappy?” Who is the I that is unhappy? If the I were inherently existent, then that I would have to be one with one of the aggregates. Which aggregate would be me? Then you sit there. “I’m unhappy. I’m unhappy. I’m unhappy.” Who is the I that is unhappy? You start looking through all the different parts. You look through your body. You look through your consciousnesses. You look through the feelings. You examine everything to try and find if any of those things, because if the I inherently existed, one of those things would have to be the person that’s unhappy. You keep looking and looking. Who’s unhappy? Then you get really stuck at a certain point.

Or somebody puts you down and offends you, and then you hold on to that feeling of, “I’m offended.” How does the I appear to me when I’m offended? It feels like there’s this real I here that’s really offended. “She called me Cherry. Who in the world is that person? Nobody can call me that. She called me Cheryl Green. I don’t know who that person is either. Why are they calling me names? [laughter] I’m offended.” So you sit there with that feeling of being offended, and you just focus on that feeling, “I’m offended. I’m offended.” That feeling is a very strong feeling. There’s a real me in there who’s offended. “I’m there. They didn’t offend some other person. They offended me.”

If I really exist the way I feel that I exist at that moment, then I should be able to identify in my aggregates who exactly it is that feels offended. When I search through my aggregates, I can’t find anything. My little toe doesn’t feel offended. My liver doesn’t feel offended. What feels offended? My mental consciousness? My mental consciousness alone can’t feel offended. Is it the mental factor of discrimination that feels offended? Well, no, it just discriminates different things. It never feels offended. It’s like you can’t find exactly who this person is, and when you can’t find it… “I’m offended. I’m offended. How dare they do this. I’m going to get even.” When you can’t find the person who’s offended, then it’s like, “Where is this upsetness coming from? Who’s offended?” Nobody’s offended anyway so why not relax? It is kind of like that. That’s how you make it more real for you.

Audience: When you realize emptiness by inference, what is it like? Because the four-point analysis—I know it’s not simple, but it’s like when I’ve tried to look for I, I can’t find it. I feel like I really can’t find it, but obviously I haven’t realized emptiness. What does it look like when you realize by inference?

VTC: I have no idea. Ask me in a few eons, maybe I’ll be able to tell you.

What they say is that it has a very profound impact on you. It’s like, “Oh what I’m seeing is false. Things do not exist this way. This I that my whole life is centered around, I can’t even find it. What am I doing? What am I doing in my life circling around something that I can’t even find?”

I think in that way it must really pull the rug out from under your feet. That’s if you really have an inference. We’re kind of going through the steps, but, like she said, we go through the analysis, and like, “Well, so what? What’s for breakfast? I’m hungry. I’m hungry and I want melted cheese on toasted bread.” Something like that—we see it all as very real, and we don’t realize what we’re meditating on should actually affect how we’re looking at it. Just even saying, “I’m hungry.”

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.