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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Introduction to Voidness and Mental Labeling

Introduction to Voidness and Mental Labeling

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, February 14, 2000


Buddha taught in terms of four noble truths. These are four facts that are seen as true by any highly realized being or arya. These are, basically,

  1. we all face problems in life,

  2. these problems come from causes,

  3. it is possible to have a complete stopping of the problems such that they never return,

  4. such a stopping is achieved by an understanding that eliminates the cause of the problems.

When we speak about the deepest cause of our problems, it comes down to what is usually translated as “ignorance.” In English, “unawareness” is much better. Ignorance implies that you are stupid, so it is not a good word. It does not mean that we are stupid.

There are two different forms of unawareness. In one, we are unaware of cause and effect in terms of our behavior, that if we act in a destructive way it will cause problems. On a deeper level, we are talking about unawareness of reality. What happens is that we have the habit of cognitively taking things to exist with what we call “inherent existence.” In other words, we have grasping for inherent existence. Due to that habit, automatically, in every moment, appearances of things arise. They arise with an appearance that they inherently exist as what they appear to be. We take them to exist in this way. That is not so easy to comprehend. This says in one sentence what the problem is.

We can use the following example to illustrate. We are driving our car, there is someone in the other lane beeping the horn and trying to pass us. How does this person appear to us? This person appears to be an idiot who is trying to pass us. This person appears to inherently exist as an idiot; he appears to be an idiot and appears to be so inherently. There is obviously something wrong with this person, making him truly an idiot who is trying to pass us and honking his horn. We hear the horn, see the person, and automatically think, “You idiot!” The person appears like that and we believe that this appearance corresponds to reality: this really is an idiot.

What Voidness is Nullifying

What is the conceptualized object (Tib. zhen-yul, implied object) of this cognition of the person in this way? The conceptualized object of the cognition is a person actually existing as an idiot; there actually is an inherent idiot in the car. That is what is implied by this appearance and our cognitively taking it in this way. For example, if I think there is somebody in the other room, the conceptualized object would be somebody in the other room; it is what the thought would correspond to in reality. “ Conceptualized object” is a very important technical term in Madhyamaka studies.

In any cognition, many objects are involved. The word zhen in “zhen-yul” can be, and often is, used as a verb. Often it is translated as “ clinging,” which is not so helpful in most contexts. We infer/imply/assume that the way something appears to us corresponds to reality. “Clinging” and “grasping” are a bit too strong. It appears as though there is an idiot there, so we assume that there is an idiot; we believe it. The conceptualized object of this cognition and of this appearance is an actual idiot in the car over there.

Voidness is an absence; something is absent. What is absent is the conceptualized object. More specifically, what the conceptualized object implies does not exist. There is not an inherent idiot in the car over there. That is the general idea. We will have to refine it, because that is not so precise.

If we use a simpler example, if a child thinks that there is a monster under the bed, the conceptualized object would be an actual monster under the bed. The fear that this child has does not refer to anything real. That is an even simpler and less precise example, but it is important to get a general idea of what we are talking about: the absolute absence of something quite specific. It is the absence of something that does not exist at all. It is totally impossible. With voidness, however, we are not talking about the absence of an object that is impossible, like a monster. We are talking about a way of existing that is impossible. Let us look again at our example of the idiot.

Establishing a Label as Valid

Conventionally, this person may in fact be driving like an idiot and we can validly label this person “an idiot.” How can we correctly call this person an idiot? The Indian master Chandrakirti gave three criteria for a valid label.

First, there needs to be an established and accepted convention that agrees with the labeling. In Germany, there are certain rules of driving etiquette and it is not considered proper to drive with your hand on the horn as you constantly trying to pass everybody. Someone who does that can be considered an idiot. This is relative. In India, this would be normal driving. I once came to Europe with an Indian friend on the first trip he had made to the West and what shocked him most was that people drove without honking the horn! Because in the West we have the convention that a person who drives like that is an idiot, it is correct to call this person an idiot from that point of view.

The second criteria is that this needs not to be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes superficial or conventional truth. Objectively speaking, is the person driving like an idiot or not? Do I have my glasses on correctly? Do I have my hearing aid in correctly? Am I really seeing and hearing correctly? Everybody else around also sees that this person is trying to pass everyone and is beeping the horn, so it is not contradicted by others’ valid seeing of this conventional aspect either.

The third criterion is that this labeling not be contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. This is referring to a mind that validly sees how it is that this person exists as an idiot. How is it that he is an idiot? Is he just conventionally an idiot, dependent on where and how he is driving, or is it that we merely are projecting that this person inherently exists as an idiot? If we think this person really, inherently, is an idiot, that would be contradicted by a mind that sees how things actually exist. This person is conventionally driving like an idiot. That is accurate, that is a valid convention, a valid label, and a valid superficial truth. What happens is that we inflate how he exists as an idiot. He exists as an idiot merely dependently on many things – specifically on mental labeling, which we will discuss shortly.

We inflate the superficial appearance and project onto it something that is not there: a way of existing that is not there. We don’t do that consciously, it is unconscious. It just automatically happens because of our habit of seeing things in this way. The inflation is that he inherently exists as an idiot. That mode of inherent existence as an idiot is not referring to anything real. Again, we are talking about the absence of an impossible way of existing, not the absence of an impossible object.

The Difference Between Innate and Inherent

Let us look a little closer at what we mean by inherent existence and by mental labeling. We need to understand the difference between innate and inherent.

We have many innate qualities. For example, our mental continuums innately have body, speech, and mind, understanding, emotions, and so on as part of the package of being sentient beings. We have Buddha-nature and all the aspects of Buddha-nature. The technical term (lhan-skyes; Skt. sahaja) is sometimes translated as “simultaneously arising.” It means that these things are part of the package and they arise simultaneously with each moment of mind. In each moment of experience, we have body, speech, and mind – whether we are awake or asleep. We may not be talking when we are sleeping, but there is the ability to communicate. For example, others can look at us and see that we are sleeping. Even if we don’t snore when we sleep, the breathing has a certain regularity and slowness that communicates that we are asleep. That is an example of how we communicate all the time. Although this quality is often translated as “speech,” it is not to be limited to verbal speech only. These are innate factors.

Inherent (rang-bzhin) is something very different. Something inherent, if it existed, would be innate, in a sense, but, by its own power, it would make something exist and make it exist as what it appears to be. It is sometimes spoken of as some characteristic feature or defining feature inside the object that makes it what it is. With this idiot, it would be something really wrong with him, which is findable inside him, permanently there, and which, by its own power, makes him an idiot. Often we think like that: “This terrible person next door who plays music all the time...” or “This wonderful person whom I just saw...” as if there were something inherently inside the person all the time that makes him or her exist this way. I am using examples that are emotionally charged, but this is the case with everything. There seems to be something inherent about you that makes you inherently human.

This thing inside the driver making him inherently exist as an idiot makes him exist that way independently of anything else, just by its own power. It seems as though if we really examine we will be able to find it and point at it. Of course, when we examine and dissect we cannot find anything on the side of the object that is making it what it is. If you start to analyze this person in the car, you get a whole lot of atoms and energy fields and you don’t find anything solid that you can point to that is making him an idiot. If we analyze the actions of this person in terms of microseconds of movement, there is the motion of moving the finger one millimeter this way and then the next millimeter this way and the next that way, and so what is making the person an idiot? You cannot point to any microsecond of behavior that is making him the idiot, can you? In this way, you cannot find anything on the side of the object that is sitting there by its own power making this person exist as an idiot – even though he appears like an idiot.

Conventionally, he is acting like an idiot. We need to be careful here not to deny the accuracy of the superficial appearance and the accuracy of way that he is acting conventionally. He is acting like an idiot; that is correct. The problem is how he appears to exist as an idiot. He is acting like an idiot based on other factors; it is dependent on things other than himself. It is not that this person is acting like an idiot by the power of something inside him. This person is acting like an idiot based on parts (his hand is moving in a certain way, and so on) and dependently on causes (he is in traffic and is in a hurry). If he were inherently an idiot, he would have to be the idiot when he is not driving and even when he is sleeping. He is acting like an idiot dependently on the circumstance that he is in. There can also be all sorts of cultural, psychological, and personal factors causing him to drive like an idiot. It is dependent on all of these that this person drives like an idiot.

Mental Labeling

Also, even more basically, we can say that the cognition of the person as driving like an idiot is dependent on the concept “idiot.” If there were no such concept, we could not say that this person is driving like an idiot, could we? That gets us into the realm of mental labeling.

Mental labeling can be quite confusing. When we call this person an idiot, it does not make him an idiot, does it? We are not talking about little children shouting at each other, “You are an idiot!” Labels and names do not have the power to make a thing into what we call it. A lot of people think that mental labeling means that we create things by words. That is certainly not what mental labeling means in Buddhism.

Whether or not we label this person an idiot, and whether or not we think “idiot,” and whether or not anyone else is even on the road to see this person driving, is he still driving like an idiot? What do you think?

Participant: If he is alone on the road, nobody is calling him an idiot. So, he would not be an idiot.

But he is still driving like one.

Participant: It is different for a group of people who have the concept of idiot and another group who does not have that concept.

So, is he driving like an idiot?

Participant: It depends.

It depends! That is exactly the point. What we would say is that this person is still driving like an idiot according to a certain convention, but he is not absolutely, inherently, driving like an idiot. It depends on laws and customs, regardless of whether anyone sees him or not. If we say it is absolutely independent of anything else and just from the side of the way the person is driving, that is impossible. Do you follow? These are the points that people get most confused about in terms of mental labeling.

Participant: Can we objectively say how this person drives?

This is a perfect question. Thank you. That is the problem, this grasping for what is really happening. Is he really driving like an idiot or not? When we get into this realm of what is he really, we are in the realm of inherent existence. This person is driving like an idiot dependently on the concept “idiot,” Western customs, and so on. The inflation is that he really is an idiot. That is inherent existence; that is what is impossible.

I think this starts to indicate how deeply rooted this confusion is because most of us, in fact, want to know how things really are and think that there is a way in which they really exist, don’t we? We say, “This really is a wonderful house,” or “We really had a great time this evening,” as if there were something inherent there and everybody should see it in the same way. Because we are so accustomed to this, everything automatically appears that way and we think of it in that way. This is called “deceptive appearance-making,” sometimes called “appearances of duality.” Here “duality” means that it is discordant, not the same as what is in fact the case. The way it appears is out of harmony with the way it actually exists. This is what dual appearances means in the Gelug-Prasangika usage of the term.

Participant: Is it wrong, then, to have a personal opinion about things?

The thing is that this person is driving like an idiot. That is conventionally accurate. We can have a crazy opinion that no one will agree with, or one with which other people will agree. Here other people would agree that this person is driving like an idiot, but that does not make him a real idiot. We can have the opinion that a dog is driving, but nobody will agree. There are wild opinions and there are valid opinions.

The point is that there are valid cognitions to know conventionally what things are. That is very important. The various schools of Tibetan Buddhism have their own unique explanations of this difference. The Gelug system speaks in terms of accurate and inaccurate superficial truths. An inaccurate superficial truth about something does not correspond to what it conventionally is. There is a big difference between what something conventionally is and how something exists as what it is.

Valid Labeling in the Gelug Discussion of Svatantrika and Prasangika

Participant: How do we know an opinion is valid?

We use Chandrakirti’s three criteria for valid labeling. Here the difference appears between Svantantrika-Madhyamaka and Prasangika-Madhyamaka as Gelug explains it. Kagyu explains the two schools slightly differently. The main point of Madhyamaka is that everything exists dependently on mental labeling. That does not mean that mental labeling creates them. The Madhyamaka presentation of mental labeling is a refinement of what the less sophisticated schools of Indian Buddhist tenets, such as Chittamatra, explain concerning the relationship between the mind and objects. One of the main points of studying the schools of tenets in the proper order is to understand on a progressively more sophisticated level the relationship between the mind and objects.

The example used in the texts is labeling someone “a king.” Someone exists as a king depending on the label and concept “king.” If there were no social custom of kings, obviously, nobody could be a king. The question is: what makes a label valid? Svatantrika says that things have some findable defining inherent characteristic on their own sides that allows us to label the things correctly, as what they are. There must be something inside the king making him royal so that he can correctly be labeled “king.” If there were not, we could label a dog or a sweeper “king” and that would make them kings. We can see there is some political thought behind this. Actually, that is no joke. This did develop in India where thinking in terms of caste is very important, so there must be something inherent in someone making him or her a member of the royal caste. That is Svatantrika.

Prasangika says no, there is nothing findable on the side of the person that makes him the king. Of course, conventionally, there are defining characteristics. Somebody who rules a country in the system of royalty is a king. There is a defining characteristic of what a king is. If nothing had a definition, it would be impossible for things to function – but they are only conventional. It is not that defining characteristics actually exist as something findable inside the object, by their own power making a person royal, for example.

How do we know the label is valid? It is valid by the three criteria. First, there is an established, agreed upon convention. Let’s use a different example, the one I analyze in Developing Balanced Sensitivity. We come home and look at our partner. For ease of discussion, let us say that our partner is a woman. She has a certain look on her face: her brow is wrinkled, her mouth is turned down, and it appears to us that she is upset and angry. There needs to be an established convention. That is the first criterion. There is the convention that human beings, particularly from Western cultures, wrinkle their brow and have their mouths turned down when they are upset. Dogs growl, but humans express being upset in this way. Our partner is following the convention of what human beings do when they are angry. That is one way of validating the appearance. We can also compare it with previous occasions when she was upset to check if her expression conforms to her conventional pattern.

The second criterion is that it is not contradicted by a mind that validly sees superficial truths. We put on our glasses, turn on the light and make sure that we see the expression correctly. It was not that it was dark, we didn’t see correctly, or we didn’t have our glasses on. This criterion refers to something very practical and down to earth.

Although it is not mentioned explicitly in the texts, we can check other criteria in connection with this second point, such as the ability for something to produce an effect. For example, when we said “hello,” she didn’t say anything back to us. This is further evidence that the appearance that she is upset is accurate. Her other behavior corroborated that she was upset, because when she is upset and angry, she normally doesn’t say hello. In other words, anger has produced its usual effect. We may also ask her if she is upset, if we really want to check.

If we leave it at that and just say, “Well, she is upset and angry because probably something unpleasant happened today, it is dependent on many factors,” then our cognition is perfectly valid. It would not be contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest level, how things exist, how it is that our partner exists as being angry.

If it appears to us that our partner is not just angry for this or that reason, but rather we think, “Oh my God, she is angry again. She is an angry person, always upset about this or that. I can’t deal with it!” that is contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. No one exists inherently like that.

It is by this means that we validate the labeling of the person as being upset and angry without there needing to be something inherent on the side of the person that makes her exist as angry. When we talk about voidness, we are talking about when we think she is a terrible person. Voidness is an absolute absence of that way of existing: an absolute absence of there being something really wrong with this person that makes her a real pain to live with. When we believe that she really exists in that way, we react in a disturbing manner. We are upset with her and impatient.

Participant: Doesn’t our dealing wisely and calmly with the situation also depend on knowing why our partner is angry?

Even if we don’t understand why she is angry, we try to understand that it must be dependent on reasons and causes; it is not that she is inherently always angry. This allows us to see that perhaps somehow the situation can be changed. However, it is accurate to say, “My partner is angry and upset.” This is very important. If we do not acknowledge that our partner is upset conventionally, what basis do we have for compassion and for helping her? Everything falls apart in our relating to her beneficially and we fall to the extreme of nihilism.

This emphasis on recognizing what is an accurate superficial truth allows for the very close connection between the understanding of voidness and compassion. Without that, we don’t take others so seriously and that undermines really getting involved with others’ problems and helping them. It is quite subtle, but I think this is very important.

Dependent Arising and Karma

Participant: If you understand dependent arising, you must not neglect the fact that positive and negative actions are positive and negative.

That is very true. When we talk about relativity, we do not reduce things to the point where anything could be anything. Killing is destructive, no matter what the motivation is. Even if we kill out of very strong compassion, like Buddha killing the oarsman who was going to kill the four hundred and ninety-nine merchants on a boat, it is still the destructive action of killing. It ripened into an experience of suffering: Buddha got a thorn in his foot. The suffering, the negative consequences, were very minor because of the strong compassionate motivation, but still it was a destructive action and still the laws of karma hold: a destructive action leads to suffering. The strength of the negative action is relative, but it is not totally relative – a destructive action cannot become a constructive one. Buddhism agrees that there is order in the universe.

Participant: A killer is not inherently a killer. The act of killing can be for many different reasons.

The point is that, conventionally, killing is a destructive action. If we formulate it in our Western languages by saying that killing is ultimately not negative, we get into big trouble. That is what we were just talking about: anything can become anything. What we could say is that there is nothing findable in the act of killing that by its own power makes it a destructive action. It depends on there being someone who does the killing, someone who is killed, and a mental continuum that is influenced by that and will experience suffering as a result. The negative karmic force from the act continues as part of the perpetrator’s mental continuum, so that the person who committed the killing experiences suffering as a result. We can’t just speak in terms of something being “destructive,” independently of cause and effect. It is not just destructive up in the sky. Destructive means a certain action that ripens in the experience of suffering for the perpetrator.

Participant: What makes the act destructive, then?

The act is destructive dependent on factors other than itself – in this case, the karmic effect of the action. It is not that the act is inherently destructive, from its own side, made that way by something findable within it.

Let us use another example that brings the point down to more day-to-day situations. Our dog has an accident on the kitchen floor and we get angry and shout, “Bad dog! You messed the floor! You did this BAD thing!” as if that act by itself, independently of anything else, exists as bad.

Participant: What is the effect?

In this example, it is easier to think of the “man-made” result of the act, rather than of the karmic effect that the dog will experience. Please note there is a difference between a karmic effect and a man-made effect. The man-made, or in this case the dog-made effect of the action is that it made a mess and we have to clean it up. Based on that criterion, what the dog did on the floor was not nice.

Dependent Arising and Choices

Participant: In light of this discussion of valid labeling and opinion, what is recommended for making correct decisions?

There are so many different factors involved in making any decision. It is not simply a matter of correctly labeling one or another alternative as the answer or the solution to a dilemma. In order to determine what is conventionally the most appropriate decision, we need, for example, to try to take into account as many factors as possible that will influence the outcome. Whatever happens is not just caused by one thing. It is important not to overinflate our actions and the importance of our decisions about what to do. If we say something, for example, and someone gets upset, there were many other factors making the person upset, not just what we said.

It is quite easy to say, “As long as we have good intentions, whatever we decide to do is okay,” but there is an expression in English: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Moreover, we have many intentions and motivations behind each of alternative courses of action we might choose, not just one, so it is very complex.

Some people say, “Act spontaneously,” but spontaneously often means neurotically. If our baby is crying and the first thing that comes to our mind is to slap it, we would not say that was the best decision just because it was spontaneous. We need to try to consider as many different things as possible in making a decision.

The book that I wrote called Developing Balanced Sensitivity is a series of twenty-two exercises and the last, and most difficult, is how to make decisions in a sensitive way, especially decisions such as whether to end a relationship or whether to change jobs. This exercise presents a detailed analysis to clarify what I feel like doing, what I want to do, what I need to do, and what my intuition says. The four may be different.

For example, I need to go on a diet, I want to stick to my diet, but I feel like having a piece of cake. My intuition tells me I will feel guilty afterwards. We need to analyze these four aspects of the decision, as well as the reasons for each. Maybe we feel like eating because of greed for cake. Why do we want to lose weight? Is it for health reasons, out of vanity, or to be more attractive to find a mate? We also need to weigh the consequences of what we do and then, in a sense, weigh all the different factors and see which are valid and which are invalid. For example, “I don’t want to eat now, I do not feel like eating, but if I do not eat now I won’t have a chance to eat for the rest of the day. So, I had better eat something now.”

In this way, we try to make decisions, being as sensitive as possible to all the different factors. This is particularly important in making difficult decisions. With decisions like should I wear a black or a blue shirt, or what should I choose from the menu at the restaurant – just choose something, it doesn’t matter. We do not want to analyze too much. Making decisions is not easy.

It is quite interesting that one of the six root disturbing emotions and attitudes is indecisive wavering, not being able to make up our mind. To overcome this debilitating state of mind, we can turn to the detailed Dharma analysis of the factors that cause us to feel like doing something or to want to do something. The teachings on karma and the workings of the mind can explain the arising of these factors in a very complicated and sophisticated way. Within that, we can analyze which factors the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism say are valid and invalid.

Participant: What happens if we are so tired, for example, that we simply can’t get up?

The point is that often we need to do things that we don’t really want to do or feel like doing. And that is okay. I don’t really feel like getting up, I want to stay in bed, but I need to get up because I need to go to work.

Participant: Maybe I am not feeling well and need to stay in bed so it doesn’t get worse.

Then you investigate whether that is true or is just self-deception. Is that an excuse? Using Chandrakirti’s criteria, would somebody else looking at you objectively agree?

Participant: The third criterion of Chandrakirti is hard to realize.

Yes, we might be fully convinced that I really am someone who needs eight hours of sleep a night. However, we are aware that this could be self-deception, so we factor that into the equation. Am I just trying to make an excuse because I really feel like staying in bed, whereas I need to get up?

Participant: How can we know that we have made the right decision?

That is why this is the last exercise: it is the most difficult. Unless we are Buddhas, we can never know if we have made the right decision. We don’t know the consequences of our actions. Also, we need to be open to possible changes that can occur, especially in decisions about ending a relationship. That is a tough one. After weighing as many factors as possible, we need to enter a discussion with the other person and see how it develops.

In our discussion of voidness here, voidness in this context would be the absence of there being something inherent in the situation that would make a decision the right one, from its own side. It does not exist like that; it is dependent on many different things. It is not that one thing we decide or say, by its own power, is going to bring about the effect of what happens. What happens arises from a million different causes, not just from what we do.

It may seem as though something we did messed something up so we are guilty, as if our act inherently existed and by its own power messed things up. That is how it seems to us and we believe it, so we feel guilty. Conventionally, we may have contributed to the mess, but certainly, what we did, by its own power, independently of everything else, did not create the mess. There were many causes. As Buddha said, a bucket is not filled by the first, nor the last drop of water; it is filled by the collection of all the drops. There are thousands and thousands of factors that bring about an effect and that are responsible for what happens.

Responsibility and Guilt

Participant: What are some of the factors?

For example, I spilled the glass of water and made a mess on the floor. That mess is not only because I knocked the glass over, but because of the idiot who put the glass on the edge of the table, the person who built the table, the fact that it is at this height and that the light was like this so I didn’t see it – a million factors were involved.

Participant: But surely the person who built the table or who put the glass on the edge was not responsible for the mess.

That is true, we are responsible, nevertheless we are not guilty. I spilled the glass but that does not make me a clumsy idiot – inherently – so that you cannot take me anywhere because I will spill things. People take such things as their identity: “I am clumsy” or “I cannot possibly change the light bulb without breaking it, so help me.” These are very common thoughts. We all have them. We are not talking about some sophisticated philosophical stuff; we are talking about everyday life.

Participant: What does “guilt” mean?

“Guilt” means there is something inherently in us that makes us a bad person and what we did was inherently bad. We did something, we identify what we did as inherently bad and ourselves as inherently bad persons, and then we hold on to the identifications and don’t let go.

Participant: If you steal someone’s wallet from his or her pocket, aren’t you guilty?

Be careful about how you use the word “guilty.” If you use it in a legal sense, yes, you are legally guilty. However, if we use it in the sense of an emotional feeling, it is something else.


Let us end with a dedication. Whatever understanding we might have gained about voidness, may this go deeper and deeper so that we start to get a clearer understanding, so that even though the guy driving next to us appears like an actual idiot, we don’t really believe that this corresponds to reality. May we slowly start to see how things arise as “this” or “that” dependently on many factors, so that we can start to work with those factors and bring about beneficial results. May those beneficial results not simply contribute to making our samsaric existence nicer. May they act as causes for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you very much.