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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Incorrect Consideration and Voidness > Session Four: Incorrect Consideration of What Is Not Self as Self

Incorrect Consideration and Voidness

Alexander Berzin
Arco, Italy, October 2007

Session Four: Incorrect Consideration of What Is Not Self as Self

Unedited Transcript
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We’ve been talking about incorrect consideration, and in the presentation of this, the standard presentation, there are four types of incorrect consideration. To consider what is nonstatic, impermanent, as being static and eternal, to consider what is suffering as happiness, to consider what is unclean as clean. The fourth one, quite literally, is usually translated as “to consider what is not self as self.” So, what does this mean? This is referring to either ourselves or others, and to consider that there is a me, or a you, which is separate from the body, and mind, and feelings, and so on – that it’s existing all by itself – and there is no such thing. So, in a situation in which there is no such thing, we imagine, and consider that there is such a thing. Like a body and a mind, there is no separate me, and we consider that there is a separate me, independent of these.

We can think of many examples of this. We might be a bit old or a bit overweight. We look at ourselves in the mirror and we think, “That’s not me. I can’t look like that,” or “I can’t weigh that much.” So it’s as if there was a me that was independent of the body. Of course we have all sorts of strange ideas in the West, which actually would be quite difficult to translate into Tibetan, like, “I am trying to find myself.” “Be yourself!” “I am trying to be myself.” “I am alienated from myself.” These are quite Western ways of looking at things. And what is it based on? It’s as if there was a me that was separate from everything, we’re trying to find, or be comfortable with. “I’m not myself today,” “You’re not acting like yourself today,” and these sort of things. It’s quite strange, actually, if you analyze it.

We saw how this can be related as well to what we were discussing in terms of the other types of incorrect consideration, “I want to be loved by you,” “If it’s your cup, it’s clean. If it’s somebody else’s, it’s not OK.” As if there was some independent you, all by itself. There is no such thing as this type of me or you. Does that mean that we don’t exist at all? No, it doesn’t mean that. When we speak about a “me” in Buddhism, we have to differentiate about what’s called the “conventional me,” which does exist, and the “false me,” which doesn’t exist. And we’re not talking about the idea that we have, we’re talking about the actual self.

Now, what is a person, or a “me?” Buddhism says that it is something that’s imputed on a body, a mind, and feelings, and so on. We have to understand what this means. It is something that changes from moment to moment. It’s not a form of some physical phenomenon. It’s not a sight, or a sound, or something like that. It’s not a way of being aware of anything – it’s not seeing or thinking. It’s not anger, it’s not love. But it’s something which is imputed or labeled on what’s known as the “five aggregates.”

Five aggregates – these are the various forms of physical phenomena, so not just the body. Actually, when we talk about the aggregates, what we’re talking about is what makes up each moment of our experience. So when we speak about forms of physical phenomena, the so-called “aggregate of forms,” we’re not just talking about our body, which is obviously present in each moment, but also a sight that we see, a sound that we hear, a smell that we smell, a taste, a physical sensation. These are forms of physical phenomena that are part of each moment of our experience. That’s referring to like the mental holograms that we were discussing before. They can also be forms that we experience in a dream, it’s not material, but it’s physical, has shape, color, etc. That’s one aspect of our experience.

Another aspect would be “a consciousness,” seeing, hearing, smelling… or mental consciousness. The consciousness is just aware of the general nature of the object. In other words, with consciousness we’re just aware of this being a sight, or a sound, or a smell. In a sense it’s like, “What channel are we on?” Are we on the seeing channel, the hearing channel, the smelling channel, the thinking channel?

And we have – we’ve been discussing this before – “distinguishing.” So within the sense field, we’re able to distinguish one object from another object, such as the field of colored shapes, for example, that we see. It doesn’t mean that we know what it is, or we give it a name. It’s just to be able to distinguish. Even the dog can distinguish the door from the wall. It doesn’t smash into the wall.

Then we have “feeling a level of happiness,” that’s part of each experience. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, but some level of happy or unhappy. We can notice that: you’re looking at the wall, and you continue to look at the wall, so you’re happy to look at the wall. It doesn’t mean, “Ahaha, I’m so delighted!” but you’re happy to look at the wall. If you look away, that means that you were unhappy about looking at the wall and you look somewhere else. That’s there in every moment; some level of happiness or unhappiness is there in each moment.

Then there is “everything else” that changes and is part of our experience. So we have all the emotions there, both positive and negative, and we have mental factors like concentration, interest, all these things that’s in this other big, big group of “everything else.”

[See: Basic Scheme of the Five Aggregate Factors of Experience.]

How do we put this all together? We put this all together with labeling on that “me.” Now there’s not a me that’s separate from all of this. What is “me?” Well, “me” is a way of referring to the whole thing, from moment to moment to moment. That’s what we mean here. It’s like, when I look at this colored shape over here to my side, what do I see? Well, I see a body. But also I see “Massimo,” I see a person. Is there a Massimo, or a person, separate from that? No, is there? So, it’s something which is labeled on top of that. It’s imputed on it; it depends on a basis, here like a body, or it could be the sound of a voice on the telephone. It could be many things.

We’re not just talking about a name. Even if I don’t know his name – I don’t remember or know the names of everybody in this room, but I see people, I see persons, I see you. But is there a you that’s separate from it? “I don’t really know you, I can see you, but I don’t really know you,” as if there were a you that was somehow separate from all of that.

There are other phenomena like this, maybe this makes it easier, maybe this makes it more complicated, I don’t know. What is age? “How old are you?” “What’s your age?” “Well, my age is sixty-two. Maybe your age is, whatever it might be.” So that’s something which is imputed. Age doesn’t exist by itself, does it? Age is not just a number. It’s a measurement, in our Western concept, from when we were born until now. So we put that all together and we count it by some system, and we come up with a number. “What’s your age?” “My age is sixty-two.” Does it exist all by itself, as in the disturbing thought, “I can’t relate to my age,” “I don’t feel my age.” What’s this? The self or “me” is a similar type of phenomenon. Let’s think about that for a moment.

So, we have this incorrect consideration that there is some sort of separate me, like we say, “I hurt my finger,” as if there was a me, separate from the finger, and then we say, “I hurt myself.” Does that make any sense? “I hurt myself,” as if there was a me, separate from the body? Or you say something nasty to me, and I say, “You just hurt me, by what you said.” What was hurt? Is there a separate me that was hurt here?

It’s funny when you start to analyze these types of things. It’s like, “I’m in love with you, and I would like to lie in bed with you on top of me.” Is it you who’s on top of me? We tend to think, “Oh, this is what will really make me happy.” But is there a you that’s separate from the seventy or eighty kilogram body that is on top of me? If there was a seventy or eighty kilogram bag of sand on top of us, would that be the same? “No, it’s OK because it’s you,” but is it a you that’s separate from this weight? What is it that’s making us happy? Is it happy having a seventy kilogram weight on our body? It’s really strange when we start to analyze.

“This is clean.” We could be sweating and everything, but “It’s clean.” If something else was sweating and on top of us, it wouldn’t be clean. So this is an incorrect consideration that there is a separate me, or a separate you, a separate person, from a basis, a body, a mind, etc.

“Me” or “you” is labeled on, imputed on, a basis, each moment. Each moment, it’s constantly changing, and so the “me” is constantly changing. Just like our “age” is constantly changing. So when we talk about “me” and “age” and these types of phenomena, we have a continuum, a continuity. But, as I said, this type of thing is not very easy to understand. Slowly we have to get into this way of thinking, this way of understanding, because it seems as though there is a separate me. It feels as though there is a separate me, but this is incorrect.

We’re not questioning here being individual. I am not you. I put food in my mouth and eat, and that doesn’t fill your stomach, does it? There is individuality, but – this becomes again something quite complex – what makes us an individual? What makes “me” not “you?” An interesting question; but that’s a question that we consider as we go further and further into this topic. First we get a general idea of what we mean by “something being labeled onto something else” that doesn’t exist by itself.

Like age, how can there be an age separate from something that’s aging? How can there be impermanence separate from something that’s changing? We see the glass fall and break; and we see it’s impermanent, don’t we? You see it breaking: it’s impermanent. But that’s not separate from the glass. I see a body and it’s you; I don’t see you separate from the body.

Now it starts to become a little bit more complicated when we say that “I want you to love me.” What do I want to love me? A mind, a body? What do I want to love me? What do I want you to love? Do I want you to love my mind? Do I want you to love my body? No, “I want you,” as if there was a separate you, all by itself, “to love me,” as if there was a separate entity, me, all by itself.

This is the issue that’s involved here, that we consider something that doesn’t exist like that – there is no such thing – we consider that there is such a thing. So again there is an absence of that. This gets more into the direction that voidness is talking about, “There is no such thing.” Is that a little bit clear? Mind you, we’re just starting the topic, we will go further. Do you have any questions, so far?

Question: Isn’t it obvious that “me” is dependent on a body and mind and so on? And isn’t it a fact that we are all individuals? Even from a genetic point of view, we are all individual.

Answer: Well, maybe so, if you think about it, but when you analyze a little bit more deeply, we find that, although it may be obvious, perhaps it’s not so obvious. First of all, we could have an incorrect consideration based on doctrine and propaganda, and so on. For instance, we are told, “Be yourself,” “Choose for yourself,” “Be an individual,” “Stand up for your individuality.” So we could be taught that this was something very positive. And we get very frustrated when we can’t do that. “I have to express my individuality!” That might also be something that we feel as if it were some sort of thing.

It could arise just automatically, as in selfishness. What is selfishness all about? It’s all about thinking about me, and “I have to get my way,” as if there is a me. We’re not thinking in terms of a body; we’re not thinking in terms of a mind; we’re not thinking in terms of anything, just me, “I want my way.” “This is my way of doing things.” We’re speaking about something very basic here, like selfishness. And what’s the misconception upon which selfishness is based? It’s in terms of thinking there is some concrete me, all by itself.

So, is it obvious? Is it not obvious? Not so obvious, selfishness is quite deeply engrained. Nobody has to teach us to be selfish. “This toy belongs to me!” A little child thinks that. “I don’t want you to have it,” not thinking in terms of a body, not thinking in terms of mind, not thinking in terms of anything like that, just me and you. So we’re talking about something very fundamental here.

When we talk about this issue of genetics and so on, then, well, what is genetics, what is the genome? Well, it’s made up of this compound and that compound. Well, each compound is made up of atoms, and so on. If you start to deconstruct, then you don’t find anything solid. So there’s many levels on which we can look at this.

But, as I said, this gets into the whole topic of what establishes our individuality. We are individuals, sure, but what makes us an individual? Is it something solid, like a chemical formula, or what is it? But for that, we need to go deeper and deeper into our understanding of what mental labeling actually means. Now we’re just starting the topic.

Question: What are the five aggregates themselves based upon?

Answer: They are based on their parts, their components. So, moment-to-moment they change, with each based on this type of consciousness or that type of consciousness, etc.

Question: But is this our imputation onto the aggregates, or the aggregates by themselves?

Answer: Our imputations on their parts. They have this very clearly in texts like Shantideva, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. The hand is imputed on the fingers, the fingers are imputed on the joints, the joints are imputed on its parts, and so on. It goes down, and down, and down, further, and further.

Question: The reason to go and on and on?

Answer: This becomes very interesting. Is there a findable basis that’s actually there? These are our questions, aren’t they? For instance, if you think about it, then everything is made of atoms – I mean everything physical. And atoms are made up of protons, and neutrons, and electrons and we go further and further and further and there is nothing solid there, energy fields, etc. So, it seems as though it’s solid – this is like an illusion – but it isn’t really solid. This chair isn’t solid. My body isn’t solid, it’s made up of atoms. Both of them are made up of atoms – mostly empty space and energy fields. Now the important part is that nevertheless, despite of this, I can sit on the chair, and I don’t fall to the floor.

That’s the important thing. If we can understand that it’s not solid, it only appears to be solid, nevertheless it holds me up, it functions, then we’re starting to really get into a correct understanding. Can we accept these two, without them being contradictory? If we can do that, and accept that, and understand that, then we’re ready to go to a deeper level, and a deeper level, and a deeper level, because each deconstruction – here we’re just making the deconstruction of things being solid – nevertheless still leaves us with things functioning. Despite that there is no solid me and no solid you; nevertheless, seeing you can make me happy, seeing you can make me unhappy. Why not? There is no contradiction here, but that’s very difficult to understand.

Question: “I want you to love me,” is this incorrect to say?

Answer: No, but we have to understand what we mean by that.

Question: What would be the correct way to say it?

Answer: No, conventionally, it is correct. “You love me,” or “I’d like you to love me,” and so on. But if we think that there is a solid me and a solid you, then there’s a lot of difficulty there, in terms of “Well, then you don’t love me, and I’m no good, and there’s something wrong with me, and I am a loser, and nobody ever loves me, and I can’t be loved, I’m unlovable, and …” Wow, you go into deep suffering, deep unhappiness, there. But conventionally, “I love you and you love me,” there is no problem with that. It’s how we consider it. This is what we’re talking about, incorrect consideration.

The problem is when we start getting into the downward spiral of, “Why can’t somebody love me? Why can’t I find someone who loves me? Nobody loves me. When can I find someone who will really love me for myself?” It’s these type of thoughts that are troublemakers. “Nobody loves me.” The problem is when we make that me into something solid, all by itself.

Why don’t we take our break and then we’ll continue.