Cognizing the Voidness (Emptiness) of the Self in Terms of the Five Aggregates
Session Two: The Conventional “Me” and False “Me”
This morning we were speaking about the five aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience. And each of them is a group of several factors, and they’re all changing all the time at different rates. And in each moment, that moment of experience is going to contain one or more item from each of these five groups, these five aggregate factors. These were the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena; the aggregate of feelings—feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness; and distinguishing; and then other affecting variables, which was everything not in the other four; and then consciousness. And these are arranged in that order in terms of the further subtlety of each of them.
One of the things that we noted was that this aggregate of other affecting variables—in other words, everything else that makes up our experience, which affects our experience—it’s variable, so it changes. And it’s affecting it. It affects how we experience things in terms of our emotions, in terms of all these mental factors—like how we pay attention, and interest, and concentration, and discriminating, and all these sort of things. And we saw that in this fourth aggregate we also include what I called nonconcomitant [noncongruent] affecting variables. These are these abstractions, these nonstatic abstractions; they’re changing. Included there we saw were things like age, time, and things like our habits and karmic legacies and so forth.
Now another thing that is included in that category of nonaffecting variables—nonconcomitant affecting variables, sorry. Jargon is jargon, no matter even if you make it up yourself! Anyhow, included there is also the conventional “me.” And when we get into our whole discussion of voidness and how we exist, how this “me” exists—I prefer “me” to “I” just because it fits the grammar in most sentences better. And also “I,” one always tends to confuse it with “eye,” what we see with. So I like “me” there. Because we think in terms of “me.” We don’t think in terms of “I,” do we? So… You do? Well, no comment! No comment.
Participant: There are three people: you, me and I. There’s you and there’s me, but then there’s I inside.
Alex: Well, the comment is that there’s you, me, and I. There’s you and me, in the sense of this dualism or relationship with someone else. And then there’s “I” in terms of just thinking of ourselves, not so much in relation to others. Of course we can make that distinction.
We can also get into all sorts of dualistic formulations like “I’m trying to find myself.” “I can’t relate to myself”—as if there were two me’s. “I’ve got to get myself to do this or that”—as if there were a controller “me” and then the reluctant, screaming kid who doesn’t want to do what the controller makes us do. Or “I wasn’t myself last night.”
In any case, all of this is a distorted cognition of…
Participant: The “I” is that appearance of the inherent self. It’s not real.
Alex: No. The question is: is the “I” the appearance of that inherent self which is not real? No. The “I” or the “me,” the conventional “me,” is what I’m trying to explain now, which is the nonconcomitant affecting variable, which is an abstraction. And so let’s see what that means.
I’ll use this jargon, non-static abstraction—a changing abstraction—which is only good for Gelugpas. The non-Gelugs would take objection here because for them all abstractions are static. So the Gelug makes a difference between some that are static and some that are nonstatic. But, in any case, let’s get back to the main topic here. The main topic here is “me.”
Participant: Not “I,” but “me.”
Alex: So the main topic is the conventional “me.” And what is the conventional “me”? It’s an abstraction. And how can we understand these nonstatic abstractions, these things that may change from moment to moment and affect our experience?
So let’s look at an example of a habit. A habit is also one of these nonstatic abstractions, and it is a way of integrating a series of similar phenomena. In other words, let’s look at the habit of drinking coffee. Drank coffee three days ago, drank it two days ago, drank it yesterday, drank it this morning. So we have all these individual instances of drinking a cup of coffee. And we’ll probably drink another cup of coffee tomorrow morning. And so the question is, well, what’s the habit? Well, the habit is not any individual moment of drinking a cup of coffee. The habit is an abstraction that we can impute—is the technical word—you can impute, or it’s a way of labeling, it’s a way of putting together and describing all of these similar instances of drinking a cup of coffee. Because obviously I didn’t drink the same cup of coffee each morning; it’s a different cup of coffee. That’s what an abstraction is, in that sense. It’s a universal. It’s not a particular moment of drinking a cup of coffee.
But, as I mentioned, it’s only the non-Gelug schools that consider this type of abstraction—a habit—as a universal. When the Gelug school speaks about universals [categories], they’re speaking about static phenomena. Like the universal cup of coffee. There is a word universal—“cup of coffee”—that would allow us to identify various individual cups of coffee all to fit into the category “cup of coffee.” And then also there’s the meaning universal, which would be the meaning of this word, this combination of words—“cup of coffee”—which, after all, are just sounds—the actual meaning “cup of coffee” as a category, which would also allow all individual cups of coffee to be identified as cups of coffee.
So in the Gelug sense, when we speak of universals we’re speaking more of categories. And these are static phenomena. Whereas here a habit is a type of abstraction, which is not a static phenomenon. It’s a nonstatic phenomenon; it changes from moment to moment, and it is going to affect other things. So it’s an abstraction; it’s a way of putting it together. It’s sort of like in mathematics or geometry: what’s a line? Well, a line is how you put together a collection of dots that are straight. And so the line is a way of integrating it, putting it together, making a construct out of it. It’s a mental construct. And so, similarly, a habit is a mental construct that we use as an abstraction to describe a series of similar events. Do you follow? Okay.
So the same thing now is going to apply, by analogy, to a series of moments of mental activity—what we call a mental continuum—that is individual, that follows in a meaningful order, according to karma, obviously. How do we put that together? We would put that together with the label or the abstraction “me.” And each one of us would do that. A conventional “me” can be labeled onto any mental continuum, a mental continuum being made up of moments of the five aggregates. In each moment there’s a different cluster of these five aggregates. And, putting it together, we would say “me”. But that “me” is not something which is concrete. It’s not something which is separate from these aggregates. It’s just sort of a way of integrating it.
Now me, this me, is not the word “me.” The word “me” is just a word. It’s just a sound. And there’s nothing inherent in “mmm” and “eee” put together that means me; it’s just that people came up with a convention that that sound happens to mean me. In other cultures that sound would not mean me; it might mean something else. In Tibetan it means person. In Chinese, “me” means hidden or secret. So it has nothing inherent. But, in any case, we have that word “me.”
And what is this me? This me is what that word “me” refers to. It refers to something; it has meaning. That’s the conventional “me,” and what does it refer to? It refers to something on the basis of this continuity, this continuum of moments of experience—of experiencing (it’s an activity, a mental activity). So that’s me. Because it’s like an abstraction. And that’s the conventional “me,” it’s called. “Convention” meaning that we make up a convention to call that “me.” We could have called it something else, but we call it “me.” And that exists. That exists. There’s nothing fallacious about that. There’s nothing wrong about that. That exists. And on that basis, we have the convention that I’m sitting here, I’m talking, I’m eating, I’m sleeping. And that’s valid. It’s called a valid labeling.
Now the problem is that we then project onto this conventional “me” an impossible way of existing. And that’s where we get into trouble. And when we add, when we interpolate, when we project onto this conventional me an impossible way of existing, that’s called the false “me” or the “I” to be refuted or nullified. So you have to differentiate between the actual conventional “me” that exists and the false “me” which doesn’t exist at all. Although it feels as though—this is the problem—it feels as though that’s how we exist. And we identify with that false “me.”
Participant: Would you repeat that? The “I” to be refuted…
Alex: The “I” to be refuted is not the conventional “me.” It’s the projection of an impossible way of existing onto that conventional “me” which does exist. So it’s an inflation.
There’s a difference here. On the one hand, the Buddhist terminology conventional “me” and false “me.” And our Western psychological terminology of a healthy ego and an inflated ego. When we speak in Western psychological terms, when we talk about ego, it is a sense of “me.” It’s an awareness of “me.” So when we are aware of “me” just in terms of the conventional “me”—the one that exists—that would be called a healthy ego, which we need in order to be able to get up in the morning, and get dressed, and deal with our daily activities. If you don’t have a healthy ego, then you have just a nervous breakdown, or something like that—you can’t deal with anything—because you don’t take care of yourselves, in a sense. And when we have a sense of “me” which is the false “me,” then we have an inflated ego. We think of ourselves as—to put it in very simple terms—the most important thing in the world, the center of the universe. So this is the difference here. You can see we’re basically referring to different aspects of the same phenomenon that we all experience, everywhere.
Is that clear?
Participant: I just want to get that term—the “I” to be refuted and nullified?
Alex: “Nullified” is just another way of saying “refuted.” The usual jargon is the “I” to be refuted. My jargon is the “I” to be nullified. Both will do. Each gives a slightly different connotation.
Question: So how do you know… Are there signs that tell you when your healthy ego is changing to your inflated ego?
Alex: Well, this gets back to the same question that we had this morning of how do you know when there’s grasping for true existence, an impossible way of existing? And I think the same answer applies. If we speak of it in the most general terms, there’s a feeling of insecurity about it.
Participant: Well, that’s good. Then every time you feel insecure, you’re going to know it.
Alex: The comment is: then every time we feel insecure, we will be aware of this grasping for a false “me.” Well, we’re not always so sensitive to know that we’re insecure. And it could be very, very subtle. And this is really just a very general way of describing it; it’s not terribly precise.
Participant: But at least we can get rid of the gross parts that we…
Alex: That’s exactly correct. We can work on the gross parts. That’s exactly the methodology. That we work with the gross manifestation of it first, and then try to go deeper and deeper. Because the gross level of it is going to mask the subtle level because it’s so gross. When we’re always trying to be the center of attention, or push our way ahead of everybody else—this type of thing—then it’s more obvious. More obvious. What is much more difficult is the more subtle level because, according to Tsongkhapa, this grasping for true existence is occurring every moment. So, he says, you don’t have to look far for the object to be refuted or nullified because it’s there every moment of our lives—but, of course, very, very subtle. So not so easy to really identify on its most subtle level.
We can get more gross levels…
Participant: Sometimes you just know inside when you go on and you do it. But somehow you know inside.
Alex: Well, that’s a very good point. We know inside. This is what I was referring to in the definition of a disturbing emotion. It causes us to lose our peace of mind. And because we lose our peace of mind, you sort of feel it in your gut. A little bit insecure. That’s a very good clue, by the way, when we’re talking to somebody and all of a sudden, if you’re sensitive to your body, you can feel your pulse get a little faster and you start to feel a little bit uneasy in the stomach. It could be an indication—it is an indication—that maybe we’re speaking with some pride, maybe we’re trying to sell ourselves to the other person, we want to get them to like us, or we’re trying to get rid of them—I wish they would leave; I really want to get out of here—or whatever. There’s that uneasiness.
That’s what it means to lose the peace of mind. It destroys your peace of mind. You feel uneasy. And, in general, if we are a little bit sensitive, you can sort of feel that in your gut. Being uneasy. That’s very important to watch out for, especially when we’re speaking with somebody. It gives us some idea that there’s a disturbing emotion behind what I’m saying. An attitude may also be there, not a very healthy attitude.
Question: When you notice that while you’re speaking to somebody, what would you suggest to do at that moment?
Alex: When you notice that while you’re speaking to somebody? Shantideva’s advice is to just be quiet. “Remain like a block of wood” is what Shantideva says. Remain like a block of wood. So you don’t have to continue saying that; you can change what you’re saying.
Participant: Start talking about the weather.
Participant: Well, I was thinking, at least take a deep breath. Put a big, big pause in there and then maybe you’ll be able to remember to be like the block of wood.
Alex: That certainly can be quite helpful, making a pause. Of course, we have to be not too gross about that—in terms of when you’re having a conversation with your boss, or something like that. But we learn to be skillful in terms of…
Participant: You could cough, I guess.
Alex: Well, just stop and change. Just sort of quiet down.
So we have the conventional “me” and this is inflated into a false “me.” Now what we do then is—because we don’t know how that conventional “me” exists and we are projecting some impossible way onto it, then we have this unawareness, usually called ignorance. And that mental activity is automatically giving rise to an appearance of a false “me.” And we believe that. That’s how it appears; that’s how it feels. That’s what I was describing in terms of that voice in our head. That we think there’s some separate, solid “me” that’s talking in there. And it’s based on that that we get our various problems. Because that’s the one that we feel insecure about, and we have to do something to make it secure. Whereas we’re trying to make something secure that is an inflation; it doesn’t even exist. The conventional “me” is just an abstraction. The issue of making it secure or it being insecure is irrelevant. It’s just a way of referring to moment-to-moment experience. So you just sort of act straightforwardly. Just do. As my mother would say, “Do it straight up and down.” Just do it. “Don’t do it sideways,” she said, she used to say—worrying about me and what are people going to think of me, and all of that—just do it.
Now when we have this grasping for the true existence of “I,” as I said, it’s aimed at the conventional “me” and it takes it to exist in the manner of a false “me.” And we need to recognize what this false “me” is, this impossible manner of existence of this false “me.” What is involved here is thinking of this false “me” in terms of having three characteristics:
The first characteristic is usually translated as “permanent”—there’s a permanent “me.” Well, this is misleading because we don’t mean here permanent in the sense of eternal. Because actually Buddhism does accept that there’s an eternal “me” in the sense that the mental continuum has no beginning and no end, and so the “me” that can be labeled on it has no beginning and no end; so that’s not the issue here. But what is meant is that there’s a “me” that is static, which means unaffected, unaffected by anything, and not changing. And so we think in terms of ourselves as: “Age is not affecting me. It may be affecting my body, but it’s not affecting me.” Or we have some sort of trauma and we say: “I’m withdrawn into myself. I’m not going to let that affect me.” This type of a feeling of a “me” that is unaffected by anything. Often we associate that with being cut off from our feelings: “My partner left me and, well, that’s not going to affect me. I’m not going to let that hurt me.” So that’s the first aspect of this, this impossible way of existing, is that there’s a “me” that’s unaffected by anything. As I said, that’s usually translated as “permanent.”
The second aspect is a “me” that is always the same—or monolithic, but I think “always the same” is a little bit more accurate. Technically this means a “me” which has no parts. And we can think of parts in terms of temporal parts—over time. So it’s in this sense that we are thinking here of a “me” that is monolithic, always one and the same thing. This characteristic could also refer to having no parts in a spatial sense; so, in that way, being one solid thing. But let’s stay here with just being monolithic over time, one and the same thing.
It’s like in every situation, it’s the same “me” going into that situation. I went to sleep last night, and now it’s the morning and I wake up. And here I am again, the same “me.” Which is how it feels, doesn’t it? You see, that’s what’s so deceptive, is it feels like that. It feels like that. It’s the same “me.” Now I’m going to go to the store. I’m going to go to another city. I’m going to go to another country. It’s the same “me” that we’re sort of taking to each place. That’s the second characteristic: in every situation, the same “me.”
And the third characteristic is that “me” exists as some sort of entity separate from our aggregates. In other words, separate from our bodies and minds, separate from our experience. It’s like when we say, “Last night I was drunk. I was acting stupid. That wasn’t the real me. That was something different. Something else.” Or “I’m out of touch with my body. I’m out of touch with my feelings,” as if there were a “me” that was separate from the body and the feelings that was out of touch with them. Or “I’m a different person now, after that experience,” as if there was a “me” separate from experience that then was changed by that experience. So all of these are part of our common everyday experience. Or a prostitute, “You can have my body, but you can’t have me.” This type of feeling.
So these are the three main characteristics of this false “me.” And this is something which is impossible. That’s not the way that we exist at all. And so when we understand that, we understand what’s called the lack of a gross identity of “me”—a conventional “me.” So that’s our first inflation.
Please bear in mind that I’ve been explaining this in a very simplified, introductory way. If we want to get more technical, we would say that this type of belief in a false “me”—the gross impossible “me”—is something which is doctrinally based. It’s based on having learned this concept of a “me” from one of the Indian non-Buddhist philosophical systems in which an atman (or a “me”) is described as a “me” that is unaffected by anything—it’s static—it’s a partless monolith, and it exists as something separate from the aggregates. Although this is something that we would need to doctrinally learn from one of these systems, nevertheless, as I’ve explained it here, we do have certain strange ideas about how we exist which are very similar to these points.
Now in addition to this type of doctrinally based belief in a false “me”—the gross false “me”—there’s also the subtle belief in a false “me.” And this is something which automatically arises; you don’t have to be taught this type of false view. And it automatically arises whether or not we have refuted this gross impossible “me.” This subtle false “me” would be a “me” that can be known independently of the aggregates. In other words, that we don’t have to know any of the aggregates simultaneously with knowing “me.” Or, for that matter, with knowing “you.”
So, for example, we think “I know Mary,” or “I see Mary.” It seems to us that we just see Mary. It doesn’t seem to us—and we don’t really think in these terms—that I see a body, and imputed on that body is Mary, and I can only see Mary by seeing her body at the same time. Or I can only think of Mary simultaneously with thinking of her name, or thinking of a mental picture of her, or something like that. We hear a voice on the telephone. “I hear Mary.” But actually we’re hearing a voice simultaneously with hearing Mary.
And so we could imagine that there is a “me” or a person who is unaffected, always one and the same, and separate from the aggregates, whom we can know independently of knowing the aggregates at the same time. Or, even if we’ve refuted that, we can think that there is a “me” which is nonstatic—it changes all the time—and it has parts, it doesn’t remain the same all the time, and it is not something that exists separately from the aggregates. It’s something which is imputed on the aggregates—imputed on the body and mind—nevertheless, automatically it seems to us that we can know that “me” independently of knowing or cognizing one or more of the aggregates simultaneously. So this is the subtle impossible “me,” and we need to refute that.
Now, according to the Prasangika school of Madhyamaka as defined in the Gelug tradition, there’s an even more subtle impossible “me” which is underlying both of these types of impossible or false “me,” which would be a “me” that has on its own side findable defining characteristics that make me “me.” In other words, this impossible “me” that has inherent existence.
Now what happens after that in terms of the evolution of our problems, of our troubles? And what happens is that we get… remember we were talking about the six root disturbing emotions and attitudes, and we spoke about only five of them. These are the five that don't entail an outlook on life, so they’re not really an attitude. And then there are five which constitute the sixth of the list of six—the sixth is actually a group of five—and these are with an attitude on reality. So it’s an attitude that we have with an outlook on reality.
The first one is called the false outlook of a transitory network (deluded attitude toward a transitory network). “Transitory” means that it’s changing, and “network” is referring to the network of all these aggregate factors. In each moment, that moment is made up of a network of aggregate factors. They’re all interconnected with each other and functioning as a whole network in terms of what I am experiencing this moment. And it’s transitory, meaning that it changes—and this is quite a literal translation of the Tibetan term. And here we have a false outlook toward it. How we’re regarding it is false.
So it’s aimed at some transitory cluster of aspects of aggregates. In other words, some moment of our experience, whatever is comprising it. And it incorrectly considers it to be the true identity, first of “me”, and then there’s a larger exaggeration of it; it’s looking at it to be the true identity of “me” as the possessor, controller, or inhabitant of them—as “mine.” That’s usually translated as “me and mine,” but that’s imprecise. It’s looking at something in our experience and either identifying it as “me,” or making that “me” even more inflated by “There’s a me that possesses them. I own them, or I inhabit them, or I can control them. They are mine.” But the emphasis is on the “me” here, actually. It’s being inflated. And so it’s accompanied by, and based on, this grasping for the true existence of “me.” This inflation of the “me” that we’ve been talking about—unaffected, and so on, the boss.
And so we would identify with some sort of aspect that is going on. Like it could be my body. “That’s me.” Or my mind. “That’s me.” Or it could be something that we did, that we feel very guilty about, so we hang onto it. “That’s me.” We identify with some mistake that we made. It’s changing all the time, in terms of what we identify with, but it’s something in our experience. Of course, there could be a lot of dualities. You look at yourself in the mirror. “That’s not really me!” Or you look at the scale and you don’t identify. “That’s not me!”
So there’s this type of identification—well, the rejection comes later in terms of that—so that’s identifying something as “me”; it’s this false outlook toward this transitory network, towards our aggregates, basically.
And then that can get inflated even more to us identifying this false “me” as having the identity of the possessor of this as “mine.” It’s this whole phrase: “I am someone who has a lot of money. I am someone who has a good mind. I am someone who has a strong body. I am someone who has a family. I am someone who has this profession, this job.” So I’m the possessor. It’s not just that this “me” is the boss and separate and solid, and all these sort of things, but now it can possess things. It possesses things as “mine.”
Or it could identify these things as: “I’m the controller of them. I am someone who has this under my power to utilize for my pleasure. I can use my mind to understand anything. I can use my good looks to seduce anybody.” So we can use—control and use—these various aspects of our experience. So that’s even a further inflation of this “me.” “I can use my money. I can use my youth. I can use my talents”—all of that—“use my good looks.” I can do that in order to get what I want. And that’s what we do, isn’t it?
And the third one of these is: “I’m the inhabiter of them.” There’s sort of like a “me” inside the body that inhabits it. And I can affirm my existence by using them. Like you affirm your existence by—you know, people have to touch everything in the store when they walk by. If I can touch it, it makes me real. If I can give my opinion, that makes me feel real. If I can buy something, that makes me feel real—these compulsive shoppers. Sort of living inside this body, and I will make this “me” feel real by using this body and doing something with it. Or using this mind and doing something with it. Or work. This whole work ethic that if I am always productive that sort of makes me feel real. So here I am inside this body, and so I’m going to use it and work and produce something, and then that will sort of justify my existence.
So we’re talking here about things that are very much part of our everyday experience. And it feels like that; that’s what’s so deceptive. And all of this is an inflation. It’s impossible. Just because I produce something or I work fourteen hours a day doesn’t make me more real. It doesn’t make that “me” more worthy, to justify my existence. I exist anyway, whether I do anything or not.
The conventional “me” is just what’s labeled on each moment of our continuum. Like the movie, each moment, each frame of the movie. Although you have to be a little bit careful with that image of the movie. But continuum—I mean, I prefer that image to a stream because when you talk about mind-stream, the whole stream is present at one moment. We’re not talking about that. It’s more like a movie in the sense that there’s only one moment happening at a time. One of the problems with the movie is that, well, where’s the projector? And who’s watching it? One frame doesn’t necessarily follow the other in a movie; it could be edited differently. And if we talk only about the actual film—the plastic film—rather than talking about the movie that is projected that we see, then those all exist at the same time. But analogies are useful for certain things and are never totally precise. So there are difficulties with any analogy that one uses.
When we’re talking about this false outlook toward the transitory network, we can grasp for the identity of “me” in terms of things that are actually… Remember, we were talking about our aggregates. There are some that are connected to our own mental continuum, but it can also be things that are connected to the mental continuum of others. “I,” in a sense, am the solid thing, that I possess this other person. This person is mine to use. Let’s say you’re an employer: so I possess all these workers; they’re mine to use as I like. Or I can use or enjoy this other person’s body. This type of thing. I own this dog. The possessor of it. That’s how we think of it, isn’t it, if you really analyze.
Or it could be something that appears in our aggregates that’s not connected with any mental continuum. There’s a solid “me” who owns this bank account, or this car, or all these possessions as mine. And that defines me. I’m defined by the style of furniture in my living room. That’s me. That’s the real me. The true me.
Participant: Or that’s not the true me.
Alex: Or that’s not the true me. That was the interior decorator, and this really is not—that’s not me. The repudiation as well: this is not me. This mess in the house has nothing to do with me. That’s not the way I really am. Or what we see in the mirror is the creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s not me. It’s the whole dualism. I love to do that in terms of Beauty and the Beast: It’s our experience of looking at ourselves in the mirror. The mirror is the Beast. I’m the Beauty and the mirror is the Beast.
Participant: And we believe this.
Alex: Absolutely. Not only do we believe it, it feels like that.
Participant: This gets to the very core of our being, and we can’t separate that.
Alex: Right. That’s this grasping for true existence. It feels like that. That’s what’s so horrible about it. Why it’s so difficult to disbelieve. It’s very compelling. And why is it so compelling? It’s because we’ve been doing this forever. We’ve been experiencing it like this with no beginning, and so the habit is very, very strong.
Participant: We need a lot of help from the few Buddhas that there are.
Alex: Well, we need a lot of help from the few Buddhas there are. I would qualify that in saying that we need their inspiration, but we ourselves have to do a lot of work to replace that incorrect cognition with something correct. And you can achieve a true stopping of it. That’s the point. In other words, it can be stopped forever so it doesn’t recur. We’re not just talking about stopping an incident, because that’s going to end anyway—when we walk out of the room, or whatever. We’re talking about stopping the recurrence. A specific instance of anger will end just by itself, in terms of impermanence. But the point is that you don’t want it to come again, another instance of it. So just to get over being upset in one situation, that’s really not enough. Given enough time, we’ll get over it.
So we have this false outlook toward a transitory network. That’s the first one. Then the next one of these five disturbing attitudes with an outlook on reality is called an extreme outlook. And it’s again aimed at the aggregates, some cluster of the aggregates, as constituting the solid identity. (Let’s just use that as an easy way of referring to it: as a solid identity of a solid “me.”) And it considers them either to be eternal—I’m identifying with my youth or with my good health, and we think that’s going to last forever—or that it’s not subject to cause and effect and doesn’t have continuity into future lives.
And so I can drive as fast as I want to and as recklessly as I want to—sort of a teenage mentality—and take as many drugs as I want to, and that’s not going to affect my health. I am impervious to all of this. Not thinking in terms of cause and effect. I can drink as much as I want to. I can eat as much as I want to. And we don’t really, at that time, think that this is going to make me fat.
I think of my sister with cake: When you have a cake in the bread box or the refrigerator and there’s a lot of crumbs. Well, the crumbs don’t count. You can eat the crumbs. They don’t count. They don’t have calories. It’s just: you won’t take a piece of cake, but you’ll nibble at the crumbs. So there’s no—Sort of squish it a little bit so there’ll be more crumbs.
We have no cause and effect. We’re identifying with something, and it’s not subject to cause and effect. So this is the extreme outlook.
Then the next one is called holding a false outlook as supreme. Holding a false outlook as supreme. And here Asanga says, again, it’s either aimed at this identity—the solid identity—or our extreme outlook, or our antagonistic outlook, or at our aggregates that are the basis for these. And it incorrectly considers them as supreme, the best, the most magnificent, unequalled by any. My body is the best. I’m the most beautiful. I’m the most intelligent. My understanding is the best. My identity is the best, it’s unequalled. I’m special. Here’s where we get this “I’m special” coming in there. Inherently special. There are many different ways, really, of looking at what we mean here by “supreme.” I think that we can extend its meaning to “I’m special” rather than “I’m the best,” and I think we could also extend it to “I’m the worst”—I’m the world’s worst cook—this type of outlook or attitude toward ourselves.
According to Vasubandhu—he defines it slightly differently—it’s looking at our aggregates and it considers them supreme in terms of an incorrect consideration that they are totally clean by nature or a source of true happiness. So it’s supreme in that sense. You know, the whole “body beautiful” mentality. That this is the most important thing: my suntan, my hairstyle, the fashion, the clothes that I wear. That this is the most important. This is an extension of this idea of clean rather than irrelevant. So we have this false outlook as supreme. Sort of like if I have the most money, or if I have the most stuff, that makes me the best person. So you can see, all of this is built on this whole idea of this false “me,” this making it grander and grander and grander. More and more inflation.
Then we have the fourth one, an outlook of holding false morality or conduct as supreme. There’s two aspects here. False morality, Asanga says, is to restrain from acting in certain ways that either are constructive or unspecified. And then false conduct is to engage in physical or verbal activities that are either destructive or unspecified.
So this would be: our aggregates are disciplined by these things, and it considers them purified of negative karmic forces or released from samsara. In other words, if I restrain from something which is positive, or just from something that’s neutral—like if I stand on one foot all day long—or if I restrain from following all these rules, these ethical rules… If I just am a free soul, be natural, do what is spontaneous—this sort of thing—don’t restrain from anything, express myself fully, that then I’m going to be free, free of all problems. All problems come from restraining, from holding in, from holding back. This type of view. Or if I engage in something which is either negative or neutral, that this is going to bring me liberation. If I can just have the perfect orgasm, that this is going to bring true happiness, true liberation. I will be liberated.
Question: I missed something. What is “unspecified”?
Alex: “Unspecified” means that it’s neither specified to be constructive or destructive. Like standing on one foot. Or if I change my diet and don’t eat this or don’t eat that, that this is somehow going to liberate me.
Participant: Like trivial things.
Alex: Neutral. Not so much trivial, but neutral. If I can win the Olympic gold medal in some sport, that this will really free me from all worries, and I’ll be the greatest, and liberated. And that’s neutral. It’s neither positive nor negative to be a good athlete.
Participant: When the early Christians, and now we’ve seen pictures on the news of the Muslims doing it too—of scarifying themselves, hitting themselves with chains, switches, or whatever. If I do this, I will erase the bad part of me and I will be totally good.
Alex: That’s right. That’s another example. The example was that of penance we have in early Christianity or in Shiite Islam. That by whipping myself or cutting myself, or these sort of things—carrying a heavy cross—that this will purify me of my sins, my negative karma. In Islam I don’t think it’s quite like that. This is sort of commemorating, remembering the martyrdom of Hussain, that they do that. It’s not so much penance themselves, but in honor of the suffering of this figure. But it’s a show of faith. Respect. But, in any case, that this is a positive thing to do.
Participant: Or if you say the mantra so many times, or if you hold the perfect yogic pose, or if you do your tai chi absolutely perfectly.
Alex: That’s right. So if we hold our yogic pose absolutely perfectly. If we, in a sense, just recite a mantra, like the magic words, without anything really deeper going on in our minds, that this will bring liberation.
This is a disturbing attitude, and it involves an outlook on reality—what is it that’s going to bring ultimate happiness for that “me,” that solid “me”? All of it’s based on this view of the solid “me” and something in our activities, because, obviously, engaging in ethical behavior combined with concentration and discriminating awareness of reality does bring liberation. But one has to be careful here. It’s not liberation of the false “me.” The false “me” never existed. It’s liberation of the conventional “me.” And so if we’re conceiving of ourselves as a false “me” that has to become liberated, this often leads to a very neurotic way of following the spiritual path: I have to be perfect; I’m not good enough. We identify with our practice—something in our aggregates—and it’s not good enough. We judge it.
Participant: Then that follows that it’s kind of a Taliban kind of thing: “You have to be perfect. You have to do it my way.”
Alex: So this whole control thing of “You have to be perfect. You have to do it my way.” And the whole dynamic of the word “should” comes in here. I think that’s a good word to strike from our vocabulary when we’re talking about Buddhism. There’s no “should,” as if there was some authority pointing a finger and saying, “You should do this. And if you don’t do this, you’re bad.” It’s not like that.
Participant: Attachment to the view, one must be wary of that.
Alex: Yes, attachment to the view. This is what it says. Being attached to your view and making it into some big thing, particularly when it’s a wrong view. Specifically when it’s a wrong view, a distorted view.
The last one of these five is a distorted, antagonistic outlook. It’s sometimes translated as “wrong views,” but that sounds like heresy, and we certainly don’t mean heresy here. But it’s a distorted outlook. And it’s not only distorted, it’s also antagonistic. So it has certain qualities to it. And it is aimed at a repudiation, a denial of something true or existent—such as behavioral cause and effect, or the existence of past and future lives, or voidness—and it incorrectly considers it to be true, and it’s antagonistic toward anyone that would counter this.
Or that there’s any benefit to practicing: “Ah, there’s no benefit. Why are you going to this Dharma center? Why are you meditating? That’s stupid.” It’s not just that there’s no benefit, but it’s a bit antagonistic there—“That’s stupid! You’re dumb for doing that. I don’t want to do that. That’s stupid!” This sort of antagonistic, distorted outlook, “No benefit will come from that. That’s nonsense. That’s mumbo jumbo.” Obviously, everything depends on how we practice, but this is in general.
And, according to the Gelug Prasangika, it could also be aimed at an interpolation of something nonexistent to be existent—but that’s just special within Gelug Prasangika—like belief in some external power that can do all the work for us and we don’t have to do anything. This type of thing.
So these are the five disturbing attitudes—not emotions, but disturbing attitudes—that entail some sort of outlook on reality. And we can see with this, it gets bigger and bigger in terms of this feeling of a solid “me” with this identity and all these other additions to it. And then longing desire to get more things around “me” in order to make that “me” secure, more secure. Get a lot of attention, get a lot of love, get a lot of possessions, a lot of money.
Or get things away from me that I don’t like. The way that we get so upset when somebody does something differently from the way that we do it. Somebody comes in and rearranges our desk. Or washes the dishes differently from the way that we do. Or peels the grapefruit rather than eating it with a spoon. “That’s wrong!” Or, the other way around, “How can you do that?” We reject it. What difference does it make? Do we get angry with the way the dog eats? So we reject things that threaten our identity, in a sense. “This is the way that I keep my kitchen. The way that you do it is wrong.” You correct them. “The way you explain it is wrong. The way I explain it is correct.” This type of thing. That solid “me” feels threatened.
And, of course, naivety about cause and effect, about how things exist. Then all of this triggers karmic impulses. Triggers, actually, the ripenings of karma. And then, based on what ripens then—Like the feeling to say something nasty, and then we actually get that urge to act on that feeling and we say something nasty. So then it builds up more karmic legacies from the way that we act, and brings problems. So this is all described as samsara, uncontrollably recurring existence or situations. It recurs, same thing, more and more, building up more and more karma—experiencing the ripening of more and more karma, which just perpetuates our building up more—based on this projection and in belief in an impossible way of existing of “me” and everything.
Question: You mentioned all these examples based on the sense of “me” feeling threatened, and you gave some pretty good examples about that. But I’m thinking of an example of a friend of mine, a woman who had done grocery shopping her entire married life. And her husband retired, and when they went to the grocery store together he started explaining to her how to put food in the basket correctly. And I’m sure he didn’t feel threatened. So is there something else going on there besides a mere sense of “me” feeling threatened?
Alex: Okay. So the example that’s being mentioned is: There’s a woman who always did the grocery shopping. And her husband retired, and for the first time went grocery shopping with his wife, and corrected her in the way that she put things into the shopping basket, the shopping cart. And isn’t it a bit too strong to say that he did this because he felt threatened by the way that she was putting things in the cart. Well, yes, that is perhaps a stronger explanation, in terms of feeling threatened. It can also be just to assert the way that you are: “This is me. The way that I do things is correct. The way you do things (if it’s different) is therefore wrong.”
Participant: Also it’s just a little bit of strengthening…
Alex: It’s strengthening of the self. We have a lot of these sort of things. One of my favorite ones is: if it’s my lover’s cup, it’s clean; if it’s the cleaning lady’s cup, it’s dirty. If it’s my beloved one’s cup, it’s clean. I can drink from it, share it. I’m certainly not going to share it with the cleaning lady. That’s dirty. So this partition of things into me and what I like, that’s okay. And what’s different from me, well, I don’t like that. It’s dirty. It’s no good. It’s wrong. So it’s based on a feeling of a solid “me” that is defined—this is what I’m saying by “identity”—defined by the way that I do things. And that’s supreme, remember? In other words, it’s right. The way I do it is right. The way you do it, it’s different. So it’s obviously wrong. This is the way to organize the files in the computer, not the way you do it.
Question: Are there ways that are better than others, or are all people right?
Alex: Well, that’s saying are there objectively more efficient ways of doing things. In a sense, yes. But I don’t think you can do that in the most absolute sense. Certain ways are more efficient, but I think that again you’d have to say it’s not inherently efficient—from its own side. It depends really on the person. For some people this is more efficient. For other people, well, they just do things differently and that’s really not the most efficient way for them to do it.
Question: Would it be alright for someone to say what you just said: for some people it’s better this way, for some people it’s better that way… Well, let’s say somebody has always done something a certain way and they’re kind of too old to change. Then somebody comes along and… Would it be alright for them to say, “No. For me this is easier. Because this is what I’m used to and this is what has worked for me.” Would that be okay?
Alex: Well, the question really revolves around offering suggestions to someone in terms of how to, in our opinion, improve the way that they’re doing things. It doesn’t have to be an old person. It could be a young person who is very stubborn and fixed in their ways, and who believes—that’s the important word—who believes that they are too old to change. Because in reality nobody’s too old to change. You can always change. You just change. That type of thing. It’s just a matter of decisiveness, and then mindfulness to remember a different way. But it gets into a whole discussion of diplomacy, of how you are going to offer suggestions. What is to be avoided is the word “should.” “You should do it like this.” We can offer a suggestion: “Have you ever tried doing it this way? You might find it easier.”
Participant: I think the best example we have of this right now, that’s going on, is the Iraq war. And how we’re telling them, and how they’re reacting to our telling them. How we’re reacting to their false projection of how they think we’re telling them.
Alex: Well, this is very much true. When either one person tries to make another person change, or one government tries to make another government change, as in the current Iraq-American situation. That, again, not only might the other person not want to change, but it might be not suitable for them, based on them not having any idea of what you’re talking about. When you say you should have democracy, something like that, and they have no idea what that actually means. And it might be very irrelevant to the society. And they might think, as many civilizations in the world think, that democracy means chaos: That anything can happen. There’s no sustained policy or leadership. And you have thirty different parties and thirty different opinions, and it’s chaos. So you want a strong, enlightened—not an unenlightened dictator type of leader—but a strong, enlightened leader. Sort of like the grandfather or mother figure that just sort of keeps everything in order. In good mental health, obviously.
So there isn’t just one way which is correct.
Participant: But then if everybody does it differently, then there’s no right or wrong. I could be doing something very wrong and I think I’m in the right, but I could work like that.
Alex: Well, that’s a very good point. The point is that if any way that anybody does it is okay—that it’s okay for them—then is there no right or wrong? And you wouldn’t say that. You would have to have certain ethical guidelines which are in terms of doing things that are going to be damaging and harmful to others and to ourselves. And so just because one society says that ethnic cleansing is perfectly great—let’s persecute and get rid of this ethnic group because they are evil, they are threatening our welfare—and just because they might believe that is the true path to happiness—we can get rid of them—well, that doesn’t make it okay. Because we have to think in terms of damage, harm to those people, and so on.
But are there certain things which are okay in all situations? Well, something that is of benefit to the largest number of people. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that one has to look at the long term benefits rather than the short term benefits. Short term benefits. Well, maybe if we chop down all the trees and get oil from absolutely anywhere that possibly exists, that the short term benefit will be that some of us will get pretty rich, and we can leave the lights on in every room in our house forever, and that’s okay. Well, the long term effect of that is—damage—is more important than the short term benefit. So there’s certain criteria that you look at. How many people is it going to benefit? What’s the long term benefit, not just the short term one? And how much harm does it produce? And that gives us an idea of what’s acceptable or not.
Do we have the right to go in and stop somebody from acting destructively? Well, it all depends. What Buddhism always says is first you use all peaceful means whatsoever. Once that is totally exhausted… If there’s somebody up on a tower with a machine gun shooting everybody in the street, if all peaceful means fail, well, you have to do something pretty drastic to stop that person. But, in doing that, Buddhism always says that you have to take responsibility for the karmic effects of that. Don’t be naive in thinking that you’ll just be a hero. So, even in that case of stopping the mass murderer, you’re going to have to go through a whole big legal process, and the trial, and all of that sort of stuff, even if you don’t necessarily have to go to jail. So there will be consequences of the action. And so, likewise, going into a country and so-called “liberating” them, one must not be naive in thinking that there won’t be very serious consequences to the liberators in terms of that—in terms of responsibilities, in terms of the effects of their action and how everybody’s going to treat them in response to that.
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