The wisdom of emptiness should be a direct remedy for our ignorance of the true nature of reality. If this wisdom is not completely opposite to the ordinary way we view things, then it is not true wisdom at all. Because our ignorance conceives of objects in a distorted manner, our wisdom must be directly opposed to it in order to be effective. Thus, first we must gain insight into how our perception normally functions so we shall know what we must combat.
Our mind has been so accustomed to viewing things in a distorted manner that it is difficult to gain a clear picture of reality. Because our wisdom is so limited, it is hard enough to recognize our mistaken beliefs, much less the actual state of things. For instance, if we ask ourselves, “What exactly is this ‘I’ that I am always talking about?” we shall have great difficulty in formulating an answer. This is so despite the fact that we think in terms of “I” at all times, even in our dreams. Our delusions are so thick that we cannot even explain what we are accustomed to seeing.
From beginningless samsaric lifetimes up until now we have been thinking of our “I” as if it were something inherently unique, born by itself and existing completely independently. It does not appear to rely on our body, mind or anything else. Rather, it seems to be completely self-sufficient. We did not have to learn this erroneous belief; we are born, die and born again with it instinctively. In fact, the very reason we take birth in a contaminated body is that our mind is preoccupied with the supposed self-existence of this “I,” and we therefore crave and grasp for security on its behalf.
This way of looking at ourselves is completely mistaken. For example, when we are frightened or angry, the strong feeling,” I don’t like this at all!” arises within us and everything else becomes unimportant. The only thing we can think about is how to defend this apparently self-existent “I” lodged in our heart. But, in fact, such a supposedly independent “I” has no real existence whatsoever. It is the product of a completely ignorant conception.
There is a conventional “I” that we do have, but the fact that it exists in one way while we believe it to exist in a completely contrary manner is the principal source of all our suffering. We are constantly running into problems of our own making because our expectations are based on a false idea of who we are. Our judgments are mistaken and we are unable to deal skilfully or effectively with the situations we encounter. No wonder we are always disappointed by the way things turn out and experience great discomfort and dissatisfaction as a result.
Why is it wrong to feel that the “I” is some sort of independent entity existing by itself? If we approach this question carefully, the answer will eventually become clear. It is impossible to think of the “I” without also thinking in some way of either the mind or the body. Thus, if the “I” were truly independent and self-sufficient, it would either have to be exactly the same as the body and mind, existing in perfect oneness with them, or else be some· thing totally separate and distinct from either. If we meditate on this well, we shall see that these are the only two possibilities.
However, it is obvious that the “I” cannot exist separately from the body and mind because there is no “I” we can point to without also pointing to some aspect of our mental or physical make-up. For example, when the body is sleeping we say, “I am asleep.” When it is engaged in consuming food we say, “I am eating.” When it is resting in a chair we say, “I am sitting.” If the “I” actually did exist in the way we instinctively conceive it to—as something independent of our body or mind—then it would be meaningless to refer to our activities in such ways. If the “I” were something that existed separately from the body, why should we think “I am sitting” when our body is in a chair?
The same holds true with respect to the mind. In a very short space of time our mind engages in many different, and often contrary, activities. Yet whether the mind is thinking, sleeping, meditating, becoming angry or merely dreaming, we say “I am thinking,” “I am meditating,” “I am angry,” and so forth. If there were an “I” that existed in some way separately from these various states of mind, it would be senseless to refer to all these mental activities in terms of an “I” felt to be unique and independent.
The only remaining alternative concerning a supposedly independent “I” is equally mistaken. This is to think that it is the same as the body, mind or one of their aspects. Such a view cannot stand up to analysis either. Despite the fact that the label “I” refers in some way to the body and mind, there is no one part of our physical or mental make-up that we can point to and say, “This is ‘I’.” Neither our hand, nor our heart, nor any other part of our body is our “I.” Nor can we say that what we are thinking or feeling at this or that moment is our “I.” To identify ourselves with our body or mind and yet continue to think, “This is my body,” or “This is my mind,” is to make nonsense out of everything. These thoughts would imply, “This is the body’s body,” and “This is the mind’s mind,” both of which are completely meaningless statements. Furthermore, there are so many atoms in our body and so many thoughts passing through our mind that if we called each one of them “I” we would have to conclude that we were a million different people. Nor is it reasonable to identify “I” with any one particular atom or thought, for then what would everything leftover be? To whom would they belong?
There are the relative or conventional and the ultimate or absolute levels of truth. The conventional “I” appears to an ignorant mind as if it were the previously mentioned false “I,” that is to say independent and self-existing, and thus is a relative truth. The ultimate truth of this conventional “I” is the actual way in which it exists, and this cannot be perceived by such an ignorant mind. Only a mind that understands emptiness and realizes directly that all things lack true independent self-existence can perceive this absolute true nature. Such a supreme mind is unpolluted with misconceptions concerning relative truths and thus can see things the way they actually exist on both levels.
When we develop an insight into emptiness we shall view things quite differently from the way we do now. It will be as if everything were a phantom or mirage. But this does not imply that nothing exists. It is important to realize that while the “I” is neither separate from nor exactly the same as the body and mind, this does not mean it is totally non-existent. This would be a wrong and very dangerous conclusion to draw. A person suffering from the ordinary delusion of I-consciousness may start investigating to see what his troublesome “I” is like. After searching and being unable to find the independent type of “I” he was looking for, he may conclude that his “I” is totally non-existent. Once his belief in reality has been undermined in this way, it would not be difficult for him to deny everything. He would not only think that in some way he himself were non-existent, but would also harbor the same feelings about other people and things.
As we meditate on emptiness, we pass through several stages of insight. First we gain a clear view of how we conceive of our false “I,” the one that appears to exist independently. Then, as we try to pinpoint this false “I” by checking to see if it is one with or separate from our body and mind, our “false view is dissolved” as Je Tsong-khapa has said. This “I” begins to fade and eventually disappears, dissolving into its absolute true nature.
When we can no longer find this “I,” we shall experience a profoundly empty feeling within. It is as if we had lost something precious. At this point, fear may arise because we no longer have this “I” to hold onto. When and if this happens, we must be on guard not to fall into the extreme of nihilistically denying everything. This is a dangerous mistake, as mentioned before. Rather, we should persevere in our meditation and eventually a very subtle realization of emptiness will arise. We shall be able to discern the absolute true nature of the “I”-its lack of independent existence-and yet fully appreciate that it has a phantom-like existence on the relative level of truth. As stated in Guru Puja:
Not even an atom of samsara or nirvana
Has any such thing as inherent existence,
Yet there is no fraud in saying that all of these atoms
Are dependent arisings from cause and effect.
Please bless me to realize Nagarjuna’s great view
Of the non-contradictory, mutually beneficial function of
the two levels of truth.
When we gain this dual realization, we are truly on “the path that pleases the buddhas.”
The mistaken way we view the “I” as something independent and self-existing is the same way we view all other phenomena. For example, when we see something such as a table, we pay no attention to the fact that it exists for us in terms of the name we call it and that this name, or label, is given to an aggregate depending upon parts, causes and circumstances. Instead of viewing the table in terms of the interdependence of all these many factors, we see it in a very simplistic and misleading way. With an instinctive wrong belief that is deeply entrenched within our mind, we feel that this object is something very real and self-sufficient, coming forward to us from the outside. We do not think of it as something we have named and, to this extent, have in fact created.
There are many books telling us how to meditate further on the lack of independent self-existence of the “I” and all other phenomena. By reading such texts on emptiness we can amass a great deal of intellectual knowledge. But the most important thing is actually to purify ourselves of all wrong views, delusions and misconceptions. As long as we remain ignorant of what is proper and improper, failing to realize how distorted our picture of reality is, all our knowledge will be empty of real meaning and value. Thus, there is much purification to be done on our minds.
Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-1984) was born in Tibet and educated at the great Sera Monastic University. He fled the Chinese oppression in 1959 and in the late 1960s, with his chief disciple, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, began teaching Buddhism to Westerners at their Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal. In 1975 they founded the international Buddhist organization, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, which now has more than 160 centers, projects and services worldwide.
Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche is the Spiritual Director of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a worldwide network of Buddhist centers, monasteries, and affiliated projects, including Wisdom Publications. Rinpoche was born in 1946 in the village of Thami in the Solo Khumbu region of Nepal near Mount Everest. His books include Transforming Problems into Happiness, How to Be Happy, and Ultimate Healing. He lives in Aptos, California.
Adapted from Wisdom Energy: Basic Buddhist Teachings, by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Copyright © 1982 by Wisdom Publications. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Somerville, Massachusetts. www.wisdompubs.org