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Cognizing the Voidness (Emptiness) of the Self in Terms of the Five Aggregates

Alexander Berzin
Boise, Idaho, USA, April 2003

Session Three: Mental Labeling

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:30 hours)

What Voidness Is Nullifying

Now when we look a little bit more deeply in terms of what is the impossible way that we project – this impossible way of existing that we project onto “me” – then in Prasangika we go a little bit more deeply than just that: This “me” is an unaffected entity, separate from the aggregates. And it’s always the same. And it’s the boss over them. That can be known self-sufficiently on its own without simultaneously cognizing the body, or the mind, or some sort of combination or network of the aggregates. And which possesses the aggregates and can use them, or inhabits them. Or a mistake that comes in meditation often, which is that it can dissociate from them and just sort of watch them and observe what’s happening and, in that sense, be liberated from them. That’s also incorrect, incorrect perception.

But we need to go more deeply. We need to understand that the “me,” self, “I” only exists in terms of mental labeling. Mental labeling is something which is discussed a great deal in Tibetan Buddhism. And it’s important to have a correct understanding of what we mean by that.

Let’s take our example of the person trying to pass us in the car, honking their horn wildly. The one who appears to be an idiot, trying to pass me, at whom we get angry, thinking that: “He’s an idiot, driving like that.” Now, in terms of this, we have three things here in mental labeling:

There is the label “idiot.” It’s a word.

The person driving the car. In other words, the conventional “me” of the person driving the car. And that would be the basis for labeling “idiot.” It’s the basis on which the label “idiot” is imputed.

And then the third thing is what does the “idiot” refer to. That word “idiot” refers to a conventional idiot. He’s driving idiotically. And it’s a convention based on the rules of the road, and how fast one can drive, and what’s safe, and what’s polite driving, and all of that.

So conventionally this person could be correctly labeled an “idiot.” However, what’s to be refuted is that this person exists inherently as an idiot. There’s a difference between what the word refers to and what would correspond to the word. What would correspond to the word would be IDIOT as a solid thing, the big line around it, something wrong with the person that makes them an idiot and they’re always an idiot. That is totally nonexistent.

Or if we think in terms of me: “me” is a word; aggregates are the basis; and I’m doing this, doing that. What does the word “me” refer to? It refers to me, conventional “me.” It’s not the word. It’s not the basis. It’s what the word refers to. But when we start to think of that in terms of ME with a solid line around it, special, and solidly existent, and all of that – which would be what a word would correspond to, because words sort of give the impression that things are just in that category of that word and nothing else – well, that’s an inflation.

Table. The word “table.” There’s the basis: these legs and top, and the wood, and the tree that it came from, and the work that went into it, and all of that. What’s the table? Well, it’s what the word “table” refers to on the basis of all these parts and causes. And it’s a little bit like an illusion. It’s not something solid. But does it truly exist as a table and nothing else? No. Because if it did, that would be what would correspond to the word “table.” In the dictionary, there it is, the category “table,” and this is only a table and nothing else. Well, then you couldn’t sit on it. If you sit on it, it’s functioning as a chair. You couldn’t stand on it to change the light bulb. It couldn’t be firewood. It couldn’t be the home for a termite. That would be the falsely existent table, what would correspond to categories – solid entities cut off from anything else – found under this word in the dictionary and nowhere else. This type of thing.

Establishing a Label as Valid

So things can function in many, many different ways. When we talk about dependently arising phenomena, things arise or act in this or that way – perform this or that function – dependent on many, many other factors that influence it, and dependent really in terms of mental labeling. In other words, it’s a table dependent on the concept “table,” and it’s a microphone dependent on the concept and word “microphone.” If we had no concept of microphone, what is it? Just a piece of metal sculpture if you don’t have any concept of microphone.

Now mental labeling doesn’t create something. It isn’t the case that this is only a microphone when I say or think “microphone,” and if I don’t say or think “microphone” it’s not a microphone. We’re not talking about, when we say things exist in terms of mental labeling – it’s not that the mental labeling creates it. If it can perform the function of a microphone, it’s a microphone. It really doesn’t matter what we call it. Again, there’s a lot of discussion of this in the different schools of philosophical tenets. But, in any case, something existing in terms of mental labeling is not saying that something exists only when it’s labeled. Otherwise, you’d have to think “Me Me Me Me Me…” consciously, all the time, in terms of that labeling.

So what we’re talking about is how do you establish the existence of something. Since you can’t point to the object – there’s nothing inherent in it that makes it exist as what it is – then the only way that we can specify or establish something is in terms of labels for it. What’s a book? Well, a book is what the word “book” refers to, on the basis of pages, and somebody having written it, and the trees that made the wood, and all of that. Is there something inherent on the side of the object that makes it a book, even if nobody’s labeling it as a book? No. Nevertheless, you don’t have to label it for it to be able to perform the function of a book.

You want to disagree?

Participant: I don’t have to be the one to label it to make it perform, to make it be a book. But it has to be labeled in order to be a book because things are dependent upon the mind and the label. Without the label they don’t exist as that object. But it doesn’t mean I have to be the one, and it doesn’t mean… I don’t need to say “Me Me Me Me Me…” for me to exist.

Alex: So the objection – and I don’t think we really need to get into a big debate here – the objection is that I don’t have to label it as a book, but somebody else can label it as a book…

Participant: Somewhere in the universe.

Alex: Somewhere in the universe. And I would qualify that and say that nobody has to actively label it. It has to be labelable – if we can make up the word – can be labeled. It doesn’t have to be actively labeled at this moment. Even if in this moment no one in the universe is labeling it a book, that doesn’t mean it goes out of existence. Can be validly labeled. And so that’s what I mean when I say that the labeling process does not actively create the object.

Question: So without language it doesn’t exist?

Alex: Well, no, because… So the question is: without language, it doesn’t exist? No, that’s not the case because a mental label doesn’t have to be a word. It can just be sort of that “thing.” A cow has a concept of home – the barn. A dog has a concept of me and my territory – me as the possessor of this territory. It doesn’t have words for it. But you would have to say there is a concept. Mental labeling is conceptual.

Question: Is it concept involving a function? The territory – there’s a function there, a place to go, to watch over. A label entails a function and action.

Alex: Okay, so the question is: in the process of mental labeling it, is it that we label something in terms of the function that it performs? That a label is based on the function of something? That’s not always the case because there are the labels “north” and “south”, and the label “one,” “two,” “three.” Well, it really depends on how you want to define “performing a function.”

Do you want to say something to that?

Participant: There’s a performance of a function. And socially, as a group, we attribute one label to it, so that we all know what we’re talking about for convenience sake. But it doesn’t mean that function or that object is that thing. But conventionally speaking, as a group, we call “north,” “east,” or “one,” “two,” “three,” and there’s a certain function and we agree on it, and so then we can use those words.

Alex: So the comment here was that as a social group we agree on conventions. And in terms of these conventions, things perform a function. I would clarify that: that the convention itself performs a function. If we have the convention “east,” “west,” “north,” and “south,” then that allows us to orient ourselves in terms of going somewhere. But just “east” and “west” by itself doesn’t do anything. So there could be many different bases for labeling, things that we would use as a basis for labeling something.

Participant: Just a clarification…

Alex: Right. And in that case of “east,” “north,” and “south,” the basis would be parts.

Question: This is not implying that things don’t exist conventionally unless they’re labeled. Things do exist conventionally if they’re unlabeled. Correct?

Alex: The question is: what we’re saying here is that things exist conventionally whether they’re labeled or not? This again gets into the semantics of how you actually say that. You have to be very careful in how you say it. Things exist conventionally, as labelable, but it doesn’t mean that somewhere somebody has to be labeling it this moment for it to exist. Did the universe exist before there was life in the universe, when there was nobody around? If we don’t take the Buddhist point of view – of beings in infinite universes all over the place – but if we just talk in terms of this universe, did it exist before there was life? You’d have to say yes. It didn’t require somebody to actually be there and label it. It could be labeled if there were somebody there.

Participant: The dinosaurs didn’t get labeled until after the fact.

Alex: Well, labelable. Could be labeled after the fact.

Participant: They’d have to be labeled at some time or another. Like there was a group of symptoms that it took us awhile to give the label “AIDS” to. That doesn’t mean AIDS didn’t exist until we gave it the name, the label. It could be labeled in retrospect, but it has to be labeled at some time because if it didn’t depend on the label, then it would have its own inherent nature that made it “it.”

Participant: But there could be things – going back to dinosaurs – that came and lived and passed and went away on the earth, and we never knew that they existed, and they’ve never been given labels. But yet they surely existed.

Participant: But just because we didn’t give it a label doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

Participant: Right. It’s still labelable.

Alex: “Labelable” I think makes it quite understandable, what we’re talking about. But when we say that, we have to be very careful. It’s not as though there are knowable objects sitting out there, like blank CDs or blank tapes, waiting to be mentally labeled as this or that. Not only is there nothing on the side of the object that, by its own power, makes something into a table, for instance. There’s nothing on the side of the object that, by its own power, makes it into a validly knowable object – like surrounding it with a plastic coating and making it a thing that then could be labeled as this or that.

So when we say that things are labelable or imputable as this or that, it’s not that there are truly or inherently existing things that are imputable. The basis for labeling is likewise something which exists only in terms of mental labeling. But all of that’s not so easy to understand.

The Gelug Discussion of the Svatantrika and Prasangika Views

Participant: What did you say? If it can’t be labeled then that means it has inherent existence from its own side?

Participant: If it exists independent of being labeled, then it would have to have its own inherent nature.

Alex: So let us clarify that. If something existed… Let’s clarify that. This can be clarified, that statement. If something could not be labeled – did not exist as what it was, dependent on the label – then… So what makes it what it is? What makes this a table? We call it a table and it performs the function. There are many criteria that it has to satisfy. We couldn’t call it a dog. We could call it a chair. You could call it a dog, but that wouldn’t be a valid label.

Participant: You could call it a dog if you defined the word “dog” differently.

Alex: Yes, you could make up any sound. You could call it a dog – was the comment – if you defined the sound “dog” to mean something that this table could do. But, I mean, there… I don’t want to go into all the detail of this – this you can study later – about what is a valid label and what’s an invalid label. Obviously it has to make sense. It has to be able to function. But if it wasn’t that…

What makes this a table is – well, we call it a table on the basis of its function and its parts, and all that sort of stuff. Then the alternative would be that there’s something independent of that that makes it a table. So what would make it a table – independent of parts, and conditions, and conventions, and words, and functions, and all of that – it would be something inherent, inside the thing, that by its own power, independent of anything else, makes it a table. So then you get into the whole discussion – and I don’t want to go into in detail – but is there some findable, defining characteristic on the side of the table that it has to satisfy and so, in conjunction with mental labeling, that makes it what it is? The Svatantrika say yes. The Prasangika say no. That’s the distinction between those two schools, according to Gelug. Non-Gelug define it differently. According to the Gelugpa school, that’s the difference.

Question: So some in that school, then, think it could be with inherent existence?

Alex: The Svatantrikas believe in inherent existence, yes.

Participant: Well, that’s it right there.

Alex: Right. But you need to understand… But the lack of inherent existence has to be understood first in the context of a lack of true existence. In other words, what the Svatantrikas are saying is that everything exists in terms of mental labeling – exists as what it is, in terms of mental labeling. But in order to insure that that mental labeling is valid, there has to be some inherently existing defining characteristics on the side of the object that makes it what it is – in conjunction with mental labeling. So that eases us into the whole mental labeling because earlier than that, in the earlier schools, only some things exist by terms of mental labeling – these metaphysical entities, ideas, and so on – but not everything.

So Madhyamaka: that everything exists in terms of mental labeling. So the first step in that is that you need a little bit of something to hang onto, and so – because you’re still holding onto the side of the swimming pool, type of thing – and so, well, there’s some inherently existing defining characteristic. Now Prasangika would say, sure, there are defining characteristics of things, conventionally, but it’s not that those defining characteristics – like DNA or something like that – by its own power makes it what it is, even in conjunction with mental labeling. So it’s not just that things have something inherent in them that makes them what it is, but it’s more sophisticated than that – that it makes it what it is in conjunction with mental… Even if you accept mental labeling, that there’s something inherent that makes the mental labeling correct. So it gets more and more subtle.

Participant: That’s the Svatantrika view.

Alex: Right, that’s the Svatantrika. And Prasangika would say that, no, you don’t need that.

Participant: This school still has the training wheels on its bike.

Alex: Yes, you could say that the Svatantrika still is like having trainer wheels on the bike. Yes. But you have to go from a three-wheeler to a two-wheeler. But eventually you take off the training wheels – from the Gelug point of view.

Question: Wouldn’t it just be easier to start with taking off the training wheels and just struggle with that?

Alex: Well, wouldn’t it be easier to take off the training wheels and struggle with that? The danger is you can fall off the bike.

Participant: That’s okay. You can get up.

Alex: Well, it’s maybe not so difficult with a bicycle as it is with a view of reality. Because the danger is that you go and say, well, anything can be anything, and you fall to nihilism. I can label anything as anything, and it would be okay. The reason why – the story – for why you have this Svatantrika view is that it was too upsetting to the king. That if there was nothing inherent, some defining characteristic on the side of the royal family…

Participant: They wouldn’t be special.

Alex: Then anybody could be king. A beggar could be the king.

Participant: That’s a no-no.

Alex: Right. So there has to be something on the side of the caste or the individual person that allows for the correct labeling of a king as a king.

Participant: An untouchable could become king.

Alex: Yes. That was the…

Participant: This was a no-no.

Alex: This was a no-no. An untouchable could become king. So it was on that… For the skillful method of being able to get the king to accept this view, the Svatantrika view was taught. At least that’s the common account. And that’s understandable. You would say that first, so that the king could feel comfortable with this view. And once the king could feel comfortable with this view, then you could slowly, diplomatically, get to the Prasangika point of view.

Participant: Okay, so you could fall off the Gelugpa and really go a long ways down the karmic road.

Alex: Not that you could fall off the Gelug way down the road, but from Prasangika. If it’s not approached in a gradual method.

Participant: You could leave the training wheels on forever and forget to move on.

Alex: So the comment is that you could also leave the training wheels on forever and not make progress. Well, I think the thing that one has to appreciate is that you can still drive with training wheels on.

Ways of Studying

So this is what Serkong Rinpoche was saying when he said that we shouldn’t think that these non-Prasangika views are stupid, and that anybody who believes that is stupid. These are very valid paths and very helpful paths. They may not be able to take you to the final goal, but they can take you pretty far. So it’s not that from the very beginning you have to take off the trainer wheels. It depends on one’s skill, one’s ability to ride. Or one’s ability to do spiritual practice. And what also is emphasized is not to go to a more sophisticated view before you’re ready for it. Which means that you really need to digest and work with each of these views and take them seriously. And really see, well, how would that affect my life if I understood that? How would it affect my dealing with other people?

Participant: So we’re really fortunate to be able to hear both views.

Alex: The comment is that we’re very fortunate to be able to hear all the views. Yes and no. Yes and no. It could be confusing.

I mean, I had the experience myself. I went to India in 1969. I studied Buddhism at university in the sixties, when very little material was available in translation. And when I went to India and I first started studying lam-rim (graded stages of the path), I was really very fortunate, because this was before Jewel Ornament of Liberation was available – the first sort of lam-rim in English – and I had no idea what lam-rim was. We had read at university a few pages here and there of Lam-rim chen-mo, but I had no idea of the scope of the thing, or the order or anything.

And so the way that I studied it was really nice. First of all it was very traditional. It was with this great Geshe, a learned master called Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, and it was before he became the teacher at the Library in Dharamsala, before the library was built. And we lived in Dalhousie. He lived in a converted cowshed which was plastered with cow dung and filled with insects and vermin and these sort of things. And it was big enough for one bed; that fit in between three of the walls, and then there was a little space in front where you could sit on the floor. It was me and three tulkus (reincarnate lamas) who were teenagers or in their young twenties, who were his students. And the four of us sat there. They, of course, knew this material, but they helped with translation. And it was sort of fun for them to see how this Western person was going to be taught. I was the first Western student of this teacher.

And the way that I studied lam-rim there was – I had no idea what was coming next. And I just learned one point at a time, and I had to work with it, try to digest it and figure it out. And then the next point would come, and the next point. So this, I think, was really the intended way, traditionally, because that way you don’t jump ahead prematurely. Because you don’t even know what’s coming next. And it’s very easy to sort of skip. Not that I did it so thoroughly the first time I heard it; but still, I proceeded in this type of gradual order. So I was very fortunate. So it’s the same thing if we learn all the schools of philosophical tenets all at once. You can read it in a book and go through it in a couple hours. Then, likewise, you don’t really chew on each of them in progressive order.

But it was an interesting experience, studying in this cowshed. The Tibetans love to play games with flies. There were a lot of flies in this cowshed. And one of them… The Tibetans are very good at catching flies. I learned how to do that as well. You sort of come up – you have to see what direction the fly is going to take off in, and come up behind it, and have your hand go in the same direction as the fly, and then you can catch it. And so they would catch it. And he would shake it up to make the fly dizzy, and then let it go. And the fly would be dizzy and fly in a funny way, and they would all roar with laughter. Tibetan fly games.

And I remember I used to be… At times I just couldn’t take it, all the flies and so on inside this cowshed. And I remember once Geshe Dhargyey jumping up on the bed and waving his robes around, going “Ghaaaaaaaaaa!” with all the flies, and then just sitting down and looking at me and laughing and laughing and laughing – because that was the mental movie that was going on in my mind. But it was really a very valuable experience.

So things need to go slowly, in progression. It’s not always of benefit to have so much available at once. It can be a bit overwhelming. We lose the sequence and, in a sense, you lose the adventure of it. When I and the people of my generation, the sort of early generation, in India with the Tibetans there, it was all a great adventure because we had no idea of the full scope of what was available. And so, in that sense, it was easier to put a lot of enthusiasm into it because there was also a whole element of it being fun and exciting. And that’s really very nice with Buddhism, for it to become an experience of discovery, rather than: here is this overwhelming library with three hundred books in English and, oh my god, where do I start? That type of thing.

Participant: And also we had to depend so much on the teachers. And it’s so different now. You just pick up a book and you read it, and you think you know it. And for us it was just this real close relationship with our teachers because that was our only access to the Dharma.

Alex: Yes, that’s right, that in the early days we had to rely totally on the teacher for teachings – as we used to call them, still call them – because they weren’t available in books in our languages.

Participant: That probably was a better way.

Alex: The question is: that probably was a better way. That really depends on having a competent teacher. And we were – at least in the case of Venerable Chodron and myself – we were extremely lucky. Lucky isn’t the word. That’s a weird concept when you talk about karma. But we were very fortunate, very fortunate, because we had access to the best. Especially from the last generation, most of whom are no longer around. So, very reliable sources of information.

That’s not always the case nowadays with the wide, wide proliferation of teachers, some of whom are more qualified than others. So one has to really check up. Same thing with books. Just because it’s published doesn’t mean that it’s correct. And that’s not so easy to check up. Not so easy. Then one has to rely on recommendations of people, in a sense.

Okay. So that, I think, brings us to the end of our discussion here. The main point with voidness is to remember what the word means. It doesn’t mean nothingness. It doesn’t mean nothing exists. It’s an absence – a total absence – of something that never existed. And that’s these impossible ways of existing that we project and we perceive to be how things actually exist, but they’re really impossible. And so if we can clear all of that out – what we’re clearing out is not this false existence because that was never there. What we’re clearing out is our projection of it and our belief in it. If we can clear that out, then we have a true stopping of our problems and their causes. That enables us to not only be free from our own uncontrollably recurring existence filled with problems, but also enables us to be of best help to others.

So let’s end with a dedication.