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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Incorrect Consideration and Voidness > Session Two: Incorrect Consideration of Nonstatic Phenomena as Being Static

Incorrect Consideration and Voidness

Alexander Berzin
Arco, Italy, October 2007

Session Two: Incorrect Consideration of Nonstatic Phenomena as Being Static

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:41 hours)

Before we began today, I asked you to try to remember the main points of what we discussed last evening. This is a very important thing to try to do, after we have heard a lecture, or we’ve read something. When we read something, I am not just referring to reading a newspaper, or reading advertisement on a store front, I’m talking about when we read something that we’re trying to learn, whether it’s Dharma or anything else. After teaching, then just immediately after, we try to recall what the main points were. That way it makes a deeper impression on the mind. The next day as well, we see what it is that we remember.

We take notes, because sometimes our memories are not that good, or they’re not very accurate, but it’s not sufficient to just rely on our notes. It’s like, for instance, when the time of our death comes we can’t say to death, “Wait a minute. I have to go get my notes about what I need to be mindful of, once I’m dying.” We have to have everything fresh in our minds, we say in English, “at our fingertips,” to be able to have instantly.

When we receive a teaching, whether listening orally or reading, we need to try to make an effort to digest it, to remember it, to make it part of ourselves, and not just remember the jokes or funny bits, but remember the essence of what we heard or read. This is part of the whole process of meditating. Meditation has many different facets to it, and this is one facet of meditation, which is called “review,” it’s like “the reviewing meditation.”

No matter what type of meditation we’re doing, we need first to remember the instructions. We can’t just sit down and, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I don’t remember what I’m supposed to do.” So even for the most basic type of meditations, even if it just something like focusing on the breath, we have to remember, “What am I doing?” and “How do I do it?” and “Why am I doing it?” etc. So this reviewing process is not just some intellectual exercise, but it really is part of how we integrate anything.

Often it’s helpful to put things in our own words. If you are a translator, you might need to remember every word that was spoken, so that you can translate it. But also it’s important to put it in our own words, so that we confirm that we’ve understood it. This is something that we can do either by ourselves, or we can help each other, by working with one other person, or in a group of people, that somebody explains something and the next person has to explain it back in their own words. This way, we help each other to understand.

The Tibetan monks and nuns train by debating, which is basically challenging each other’s understanding by asking questions, and trying to make sure that the other person is consistent in their understanding, that they don’t contradict themselves. Even if we don’t get into debate and logic, which is not absolutely necessary, unless we really want to go deeply; nevertheless just simply asking each other what your understanding is, and if that understanding is incorrect, then correcting each other, or going back to tapes, going back to notes, etc, then we clarify things and this is the process by which we can gain a more correct and accurate understanding.

Here is where motivation comes in, because we really need to want to get a clear understanding. If you don’t care, then you just go to a teaching, and you’re there, and it goes in one ear and out the other, and that’s it. It becomes maybe a social event, and that’s all. You have to really want to understand; and that depends upon your motivation. There are many levels of motivation and Buddhism presents a whole course of training to develop stronger and stronger motivations, so there’s no need to go into that in any detail.

Yesterday, we began our discussion of voidness, and we saw that voidness is speaking about an absence, an absence of something that was never there. We’re not just talking about an object that was never there, like there was never the president of Italy in this room. He could have been in this room, but he’s never been in this room. We’re not talking about the absence of an object, a thing, like a person, or a car, in the middle of this room. We’re not talking about the absence of an object, but we’re talking about something that is impossible, and not just an impossible thing, like a monster, but an impossible way of existing. Things do exist. There are some things that don’t exist, monsters don’t exist; but there are things that do exist, but these things don’t exist in impossible ways.

By the way, the difference between what exists and what doesn’t exist, from a Buddhist point of view the difference is whether something can be validly known. Some crazy person might think that they are Napoleon or Cleopatra, but that’s not valid, because everybody else would contradict that. They would say, “Come on, you are not Cleopatra.”

We also discussed projection, which is, concerning the mind, projecting something on to various things. And some things that the mind projects can deal with just what something is. Like, for instance, we may see something out in the field and the mind projects that it’s a human being; but when we get closer, we discover that that’s not true, it’s inaccurate. It was a scarecrow. So that’s not accurate to project that it’s a human being. But we can also see something in the distance that’s not very clear. We’re not quite sure what it is and we project that it is a human being. And we get closer and we discover that it was a human being; it’s true. So this is accurate.

I am sure we’ve had experiences like this, maybe not in terms of a human being and a scarecrow, but you see somebody in the distance, walking toward you on the street, and you think it’s your friend, but you can’t see very clearly. And you get closer, and sometimes it was correct, it was your friend; sometimes it was incorrect, it was just somebody who looked like your friend. But when we talk about voidness, we’re not talking about a projection of what something is, like my friend or a stranger. We’re talking about a projection of how things exist. We can discuss this on a more subtle level than that, but let’s leave it like this for the moment.

Voidness, then, is speaking about an absence of this impossible way of existing. We can project what’s possible, or we can project what’s impossible. “Project” is a funny word here, I must say, because at least in English, “project” has the connotation of “incorrect,” what isn’t there. Now it starts to become a little bit complicated, because in order to cognize something, to see it, to hear it, or to think it, in some manner the mind produces a “mental hologram.”

“Mental hologram” – if you think about that from a scientific point of view, that’s certainly correct. For instance, light hits various rods and cones in the retina, and that’s transmitted as electric impulses and chemical sequences to the brain, and somehow the brain transforms that into, what? I can’t think of another, more descriptive term than a mental hologram; and that’s what we see, isn’t it? That can be accurate or inaccurate, but do we want to call it “projection?” I don’t know. Maybe “projection” isn’t so precise a term here, is it?

For instance, if I take my glasses off, then my mind produces, when I look at you, a mental hologram of “colored blurs.” Now is that accurate? No, it’s not accurate. If I put my glasses back on, then there’s a mental hologram of the bodies of people that are in focus. So, some are accurate, some are inaccurate. Nobody would agree that this room is filled with colored blurs, would they? Is this “projection?” I don’t know. We get difficulty here with terminology. When we get into Buddhist studies, we make very, very precise distinctions in our terms.

We see an object falling from the table, and – what do we actually see? It’s a little bit like a motion picture: in each moment we see the glass in a slightly different position. The glass falling from the table, reaching the floor, and breaking, that whole process doesn’t happen simultaneously in one moment. Here is another type of mental hologram that puts together all these moments, and – what do we see? We see the glass falling from the table and breaking.

Even more amazing is how we understand language. We don’t even hear one word at a time; we only hear vowels and consonants at a time. And yet, you can hear a whole sentence, which takes an interval of time to hear. You only hear one tiny little thing at a time and, nevertheless, there is an audio-hologram, as it were, that the mind produces, and we understand the meaning. That’s extraordinary, if you think about it. Is that a projection? What do you want to call it? It certainly is something that is produced by the mind, but extremely useful, in fact necessary; otherwise we couldn’t communicate with each other.

We couldn’t live in this world, if we couldn’t, in a mental way, string together sequences. Like, “a rock is approaching us,” and we put it together and see, “Well, if it continues like this it’s going to hit me.” And so we move. We need this to function. Sometimes we hear the term “mental construct,” and these are mental constructions, but many of these are totally not just helpful, but necessary in order to function. This is why we need to develop “discriminating awareness,” it’s called, to discriminate between what is helpful, what is not helpful, what’s accurate, what’s inaccurate.

Voidness is based on a “discriminating awareness.” This is the word that often is just translated very loosely as “wisdom,” but “wisdom” is so vague that it doesn’t mean anything. There are many, many different, very specifically defined terms in Buddhism that many people translate all the same as “wisdom.” This is really not being fair to the tradition – over- over- over-simplifying. Here we are talking about “discriminating awareness,” to discriminate between what is accurate and what is inaccurate, and to discard what is inaccurate, to understand that this… it’s not referring to what’s actually the case.

Voidness is talking about discriminating how something exists, how we establish that something exists, what establishes, what proves that something exists, that’s speaking on a more subtle, specific level.

Let’s speak first in a more general way. We have a mental factor, Buddhism speaks about mental factors that accompany our eye consciousness of seeing something, our ear consciousness of hearing something, or mental consciousness of thinking something, and so on. There are many mental factors that accompany that. The mental factors can be like “distinguishing.” I distinguish the colored shapes of your body from the colored shapes of the wall. The visual field of what I see, and I see many colored shapes, and I can distinguish one object from another. That’s sometimes translated as “recognition,” which is a totally inaccurate way of translating it. It’s talking about “distinguishing.” We do that every moment, otherwise how could we possibly function? We wouldn’t be able to distinguish the colored shapes of the door from the wall, and you would walk into the wall. We have to be able to distinguish objects within a field of perception. That’s correct, isn’t it? If you think about it, what do we see? Do we just see colored shapes? We see objects, don’t we? So how do you know where to draw the line around this set of colored shapes from the colored shapes around them?

This becomes, actually, a very deep and profound question. Are the lines established on the side of the object, or are the lines established from the side of the mind. That becomes a very important point to investigate, but that gets deeper. Especially when we start to look on a [sub] microscopic level of the atoms, where are the boundaries of things? Then it becomes very interesting.

There are many, many other mental factors – there’s big, long lists of them in the various Buddhist teachings, different lists, not always the same list – like “feeling.” “Feeling” is referring in Buddhism to a level of happiness, happy, unhappy, or somewhere in between. There’s a whole range that accompanies our perception of things. That’s what differentiates us from machines, actually, from cameras or computers. Computers deal with information; we don’t just deal with information: there’s a level of happy and unhappy. A computer doesn’t feel happy or unhappy; a robot doesn’t feel happy or unhappy in terms of dealing with sensory information.

That’s important when we talk about the aggregates. The aggregate of feeling is only talking about the variable of happy or unhappy. It has absolutely nothing to do with the emotions. Emotions are in another category. That’s why sometimes it’s difficult with our languages; we don’t make these types of distinctions very comfortably in our languages. That’s why sometimes you have to just say, “feeling a level of happiness, that’s what we’re talking about,” a little bit longer. Each language has its own particular difficulties in expressing these things. In some languages it’s easier; in some languages it’s not so easy.

This is something really to pay attention to in our study of Dharma. Most of the misunderstanding that people have concerning the Buddhist teachings derives from inaccurate or misleading translation of the terminology. This is what I’ve seen in my experience, and most translators have observed that as well. And we shouldn’t think that we as Westerners are the only ones that have experienced, or are experiencing, this difficulty. The Chinese had terrible difficulty in understanding the terminology, as their language is so different from Indian languages.

In any case, the mental factor that I wanted to discuss was “consideration.” It’s the same word as “attention.” So, there’s two facets to it. It is how you pay attention to something, and how you consider it. Literally the word is “how you take something to mind.” We have “correct consideration” or “incorrect consideration,” “discordant” or “concordant,” does it accord with the actual way that things are, or not?

And, in order to understand voidness it’s important – as I said – it’s not just me saying it – that we need to approach it in stages. First, we need to understand some of the standard ways in which we incorrectly consider things, and see that this is not accurate. And so we discriminate and we try to see things more in accordance with how they actually are. When we talk about voidness, we’re speaking about how “persons” exist – and again this is a difficult word, because it is referring to not just human beings, but animals, various life forms with a mind, and individual beings – how we exist as a person, how others exist as a person, and also objects, our computer, our car.

Now, one variable is whether things are – the usual way that it’s translated is – “permanent” or “impermanent.” We consider things that are impermanent as permanent. But we have to watch out for this term, I don’t like to use it so much. The problem is that these words can have two very, very different meanings. One is whether or not something lasts forever or only a short time, and the other meaning is whether or not something changes or remains static. Those are two different things, two different variables. In Buddhism in general, when we use this term here in this context, we’re not talking about whether or not something is eternal or temporary. We’re talking about whether or not it changes from moment to moment, whether or not something comes to an end, so undergoes a gross change or a moment to moment change.

What happens is that we have incorrect consideration. We consider something that is “nonstatic” – that’s the way that I prefer to translate the term – as “static,” as unchanging. And the incorrect consideration that we have can be either something which is doctrinally based, in other words, we were taught this, or it can automatically arise.

Let’s take as an example my body – “always young.” And I vaguely acknowledge that I will die someday, but meanwhile my body is always strong, always fit. Somehow I have this image of myself as being twenty-five years old, even though I’m sixty-two. This is very common, isn’t it? A sixty year-old man meets a twenty-five year-old woman, and in the man’s mind, his body is still attractive, like another twenty-five-year-old – no concept of what he actually looks like. On that basis, the man acts and has an expectation that the twenty-five year-old woman is going to find him attractive; and usually he’s very disappointed and frustrated. So, our body is changing, getting older and older, and this is an accurate consideration that we need to have. But sometimes you don’t even want to look at yourself in the mirror; you have this image of yourself. So this is incorrect.

We can be taught this by propaganda or media with advertising, “Be eternally young and wear this beauty cream,” or do whatever, “And you will be eternally young.” So we could get this idea based on, it’s called “doctrinally based,” so propaganda, advertising, or we have just “automatically arising incorrect consideration.” Nobody had to teach us this, it just automatically arises that I have this image of myself as being “eternally” young, not “changing,” I mean. Here we are mixing a little bit of “eternal” and “changing,” but since I might realize that I am going to die, it’s “eternal, but.”

It’s very interesting, when we are a teenager, we consider somebody who’s thirty “old.” That very quickly changes when we’re thirty, that’s not old anymore, and people who are fifty, they are old. Then that changes, and even if we’re eighty years old, that’s not old because the ninety-year-olds, they’re old. My mother lived in a retirement village, and everybody there was over sixty, and they were all young. They were all young, the people in the old-age homes, they were old. But, of course, the ones in the retirement village, they were young. Interesting, isn’t it?

We have this incorrect consideration of considering something that is nonstatic to be static. It could be our body, it could be our computer. “The computer is going to work.” We don’t really think that the computer is gradually getting older and falling apart and is going to crash. Or how about our CD discs or old video tapes, and things like that? You think it’s not changing, but it’s degrading, and eventually it will come to its end, and the thing will no longer function. You put the disc in, and now the sound is indistinct, and so on, and eventually it falls apart. But, we think that it’s not changing, that it’s always the same.

We have the same thing about ourselves, “This is the way I am, you better learn to live with it!” we might say to somebody else, “Well, this is the way I am. I need this and I have to have that, and that’s my personality, and that’s it, it’s not changing. You have to accept me the way that I am.” This is what we have to realize, it’s not quite voidness in the technical sense, but we have to realize that “this is impossible.” A body doesn’t stay the same; a personality doesn’t stay the same. Things change. A depression doesn’t stay the same all the time. Every single moment, do we feel miserable? No. It changes. It goes up and down, even when we are in so-called depression.

It’s very important then to understand, “Things are not static.” Why are they not static? Because they’re affected by causes and conditions. We’re in a depression, we feel miserable. Somebody tells us a joke, we laugh. At that moment, when we’re laughing, are we miserable? Obviously not, we are affected by various things. Because we are affected, we change from moment to moment.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on this in our own experience. Do we have a static image of ourselves, of our personalities, who we are, of our objects, our computer is a very good example, our car? Let’s take a few moments to reflect on this, and if we discover, as most of us probably will, that we have an image of ourselves or these things as being static, not changing, to realize that this is ridiculous! It’s not referring to something real, or accurate. And then you try to just cut off the belief in that, “That’s not the way it is.”

This is the reason why I was bringing up, earlier in this lecture, the difference between a mental hologram and a projection. The mental hologram of our body – we see our body or we see somebody else’s body; there’s a mental hologram – that’s not the problem. The problem is how we consider it. So when we talk about projection in the Western sense of projection, we’re dealing with this issue. Does it exist as something that is static or does it exist as something that’s changing from moment to moment?

An even better example to examine is “our relationship.” Is that something which is stable or is that something that changes from moment to moment? It’s a very clear example, how we think that our relationship is solid and stable. Is it really? We can only hope. Buddhism speaks about subtle and gross nonstaticness. The gross nonstaticness is that it will actually end. If we have any relationship with somebody, it will end. Either we’ll die first, or they’ll die first, or we’ll break up. It can’t be forever, it will end. Subtle nonstaticness is that every moment it’s changing and getting closer to its final end. What’s the reason why it ends? Because we met. If we didn’t meet, it wouldn’t end. So the actual argument that we had that caused us to break up, that was just the circumstance.

It’s like, “What’s the cause of death? The cause of death is birth.” If you weren’t born, you wouldn’t die. This doesn’t mean that we’re fatalistic. We just enjoy the time we have together, realizing full well that the relation is going to change from moment to moment, and will eventually end. People grow apart. This is the important point that we need to reflect on. If we consider the relationship, or a body, or a personality, or whatever, as being static, never changing, and forever, that really causes us a lot of suffering.

“Static” means not affected by anything, as if we were the only person in this other person’s life. They will be affected, our relationship will be affected by the other person meeting other people, by them changing jobs, by them getting sick, whatever, it’s affected. Reflect on this, and get into the way that we meditate on voidness. It’s like to realize and focus on, “This is impossible, there is no such thing.” It’s like, “There is no Santa Claus. There is no Santa Claus.” There is no stable, unchanging, eternal relationship with anybody. It’s like believing in Santa Claus.

We’ve ended our meditation. What questions might you have about this.

Question: Is your explanation of voidness based on Nagarjuna?

Answer: We haven’t really gotten deeply into the type of specific type of refutation that Nagarjuna makes, but yes, it’s based on Nagarjuna’s teachings.

Question: It seems that voidness is explained in two ways, one way, like yours, can help us to live better, so to consider the impermanence of things will help to perceive things in a more adequate way. And the other way, like Nagarjuna’s, is that things don’t exist.

Answer: If we look more carefully at what Nagarjuna says, it’s not that there is no such thing as impermanence, or change from moment to moment. The point is, how do we understand this? Is there something sitting there, established by itself, which is changing from moment to moment, or what is going on? Is there some substratum that remains from moment to moment? Is it like a piece of luggage moving on a conveyor belt, that, sure, changes position from moment to moment, but still it’s the same piece of luggage? One can go much more deeply into understanding the process of change. Nagarjuna is not denying change. He is saying, “Well, how does that actually function, how does it exist?” Nagarjuna is speaking about how does change work? Is it in an impossible way that it is functioning, and happening, or what is actually the case? He’s not denying completely that everything is changing from moment to moment.

Question: It may be true that things change from moment to moment, but that’s very difficult to realize, to see, maybe too difficult. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to consider things as changing according to a human rhythm? For example, believing that our relationship is completely static is one extreme and that is wrong; but on the other side, it’s very difficult to consider it as changing from moment to moment. As a “middle way,” couldn’t we correctly consider it as changing according to a human rhythm?

Answer: This is certainly the way that we approach the understanding of impermanence, the change. First, we have to understand the gross nonstaticness, or the gross impermanence, that eventually the relationship will end, either in death, or whatever, or eventually the computer will break. So we start with a grosser period, and then we may understand our relationship with somebody, let’s say, before we got married, and then after we got married before we had children, and then after we had children until the children grew up and left home. And sure, you understand it changing in larger periods, and then, eventually you can get it down to moment-to-moment changing. Understanding has to be in stages, and steps.

To be able to be aware of things changing from moment to moment one needs to be quite sensitive. I think, in a relationship it’s a little bit easier, because while we’re having a conversation with somebody, you can see that the mood changes, the emotions change. Sometimes there’s good communication; sometimes you don’t really understand what the other person is saying or doing. So, in that particular example of a relationship, I think it’s a little easier to see moment-to-moment change than it is with our computer or our body.

But, to get back to our Nagarjuna question, to Nagarjuna always questioning, analyzing, so for instance, is there some substance that remains the same over this period of change? Like, for instance, milk changes into yoghurt, and yoghurt changes into cheese. Well, is there some substance that has now changed into three different things, but is the same? Is the milk, and the yoghurt, and the cheese, are they the same thing, are they totally unrelated to each other? How does cause and effect work?

The same thing – Is there some relationship that’s basically our relationship, and then it’s changed, “before we’re married,” then “after we’re married?” and so on. Do we make it into a thing? Then you get into this really weird mental space of “You’re not relating to our relationship,” and “What is your relationship to our relationship?” It starts to become very strange. Is there a basic relationship that has remained, always the same, and just the circumstances have changed, or “is our relationship totally different, after we had children?”

So we start our understanding on grosser levels, something will eventually destroy, and end, and then smaller periods, and then smaller, moment-to-moment, and then, eventually, we have to get into the whole analysis of, “If things are changing from moment to moment, how does cause and effect work?” which then gets very, very profound and very subtle.

Question: As we get rid of our projections, we can see more and more clearly, how things really are. I wonder, how are they really?

Answer: Well. The thing is, when one works with the understanding of voidness, in dealing with reality and differentiating and discriminating between reality and fantasy, one needs to go through stages of understanding. Once we refute a very gross misunderstanding and projection, we have to see what’s left. Once we are able to accept what’s left, like for instance, that things are not stable, static, they’re changing from moment to moment – well, first that it’s going to end. The computer will eventually break, the car will eventually break. We have to accept that. Then you see what’s left.

What’s left is something that will last for a certain period of time. A relationship will last for a certain period of time, “I understand that our relationship, when we get married,” or “when my children go away to college,” or something like that, “it’s going to change.” Once we can recognize that, “OK, it’s going to go through this larger change,” then what’s left is that, “Well, there is a temporary period of time.” Then we start to deal with what’s left, “Well, what’s my misunderstanding about that?” and get rid of that.

Then we understand that it’s going to change from moment to moment to moment, but then what do you have left? “OK, it’s just changing from moment to moment to moment,” and then, “what’s my misunderstanding here?” Well that there’s something solid that’s continuing, and just going through a change from moment to moment, and then you have to get rid of that, and you go more and more and more subtle.

If from the very beginning, we go to the most subtle understanding, and don’t go through these stages, then, in almost all cases… maybe there will be one exception in a billion… but in almost all cases, you just won’t understand and it will seem trivial. I’ll give an example. One reads in certain texts, let’s say in Kagyu texts, where they talk about, “Where is your mind; what color is your mind? Your mind isn’t green, it isn’t yellow. Is your mind up your nose? Is your mind in your armpit?” So then, OK, you can’t find your mind, and it doesn’t have a color, and then, at the end of that, you say, “So what? Of course the mind isn’t up my nose, and it isn’t green, or blue. So what?”

It doesn’t make any difference, it doesn’t help us. But these questions are very profound, if they are asked at the end of a very long, gradual process of analysis. Then you see what’s the point that they’re getting at. You can’t start with the final point, because, as I said, it comes out sounding, “So what?” So, how is it really? There are many, many different levels of answers to that. Let’s have our coffee break and then we’ll continue.