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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Introduction to Meditation on Voidness (Emptiness)

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, January 1995

[edited transcript]

Session One: The Basics for Understanding Voidness

The Four Facts of Life

This weekend, we are going to discuss how to meditate on voidness (emptiness). The reason for learning and practicing meditation on voidness is to overcome our problems. Buddha spoke about what are called the four noble truths, the four facts of life, the first of which, in simple language, is: “Life is difficult.” That is very true if you think about it. Life is not easy. We have to be born, we have to go to school, we have to find a partner, and we have to find work. Then, if we are fortunate enough, we have to grow old, and of course we have to die. Throughout our life, we have difficulties with relationships and so on. It is not easy. Buddha said, however, there is a reason for difficulties and problems and that we need to look very deeply, not just at the superficial reasons. That brings us to the second noble truth – the true origin of suffering.

The deepest reason for our sufferings and difficulties is what is usually called our “ignorance.” When we talk about ignorance, it is concerning either behavioral cause and effect or the nature of reality – the reality of ourselves and of all phenomena. Ignorance doesn’t mean that we are stupid, but rather that we don’t know about these things, we don’t understand them, or according to some theories, that we understand them incorrectly. Let’s call it “unawareness,” rather than “ignorance.”

Unawareness, then, is the true origin, the true cause of our problems and difficulties – we just don’t understand what is happening. Not understanding things, we project all sorts of strange made-up ideas, believe in them, and live in a fantasy world of the impossible. For instance, the thought, “I am the center of the universe” cannot possibly be true, because if it were true, everybody should agree that we are the center of the universe. But obviously nobody else agrees; everybody thinks that they are the center of the universe. Since everybody cannot be correct, there is some problem here. We get into a lot of fights because of that problem, not only as individuals but as ethnic groups thinking that they are the most important, they are the center.

Buddha said that it is possible to get rid of these difficulties and problems such that they never arise again. That is the third noble truth – a true stopping of our problems and suffering. In order to accomplish that true stopping, we need to eliminate the causes of them with correct understanding – the fourth noble truth: a true pathway mind of understanding. Understanding gets rid of our lack of understanding. Then the problems won’t ever arise again.

It is possible to get rid of the cause of our problems, if you think about it. Not knowing how things exist, or having an incorrect understanding of it, cannot exist in our minds at the same time as a totally correct understanding. In-between, we have indecision, when we are unsure and are weighing, “Maybe it’s like this; maybe it’s like that.” But if we are totally convinced about the correct way in which we, others, and everything exist, we don’t have an incorrect understanding or a not-knowing at the same time. If you know that the earth is round, then you don’t think that it’s flat anymore – you know that it is round. Because correct understanding can totally replace incorrect understanding, and can replace it to the point in which the incorrect understanding will never arise again – because we are fully convinced that the correct one is correct – then we have gotten rid of the causes of the problems. And so the problems themselves will not arise anymore. When we think like that, we become convinced that it is possible to actually get rid of our problems. It is actually quite an important thing in Buddhism to become convinced that we can accomplish this goal. Otherwise, why are we trying?

This is the general picture of what we are trying to do in Buddhism: we want to get rid of our problems and stop them from ever recurring, so that we ourselves will never suffer again. And from the Mahayana point of view, we want to do that so that we will overcome our problem of being unable to help others because we’re so confused. Then we want to be able to help all others, as much as is possible, also to overcome their problems.

The correct understanding of voidness (emptiness) is the correct understanding of reality. Remember, unawareness is also about behavioral cause and effect – karma. If we understand the workings of karma, we overcome that level of unawareness, the unawareness of cause and effect; but that is only unawareness about the surface truth about the world. We really have to understand reality to understand not how the laws of behavioral cause and effect work, but why they work. For that, we need to understand voidness. This understanding of voidness is very central in all forms of Buddhism.

Why Is There Ignorance?

Unfortunately, it is not very easy to understand voidness. People often ask, “Why is there ignorance in the world? Is it that somebody created it? Did it come because Adam and Eve ate a forbidden apple from a tree or...where did it come from?”

In Buddhism, we say that unawareness has no beginning. The reason we are unaware and don’t know how things actually exist is because the way that things appear is not how they exist. That is referring to ordinary, conventional things. It appears to me, for instance, that I am the center of the universe and, to everybody else, it appears that they themselves are the center. When you close your eyes to go to sleep, it seems as though the rest of the universe is not there and we are the only ones who exist, doesn’t it? But that is not how the world exists.

This is a very simple example, but it is true about everything that we normally experience. Our minds make things appear in very confusing, strange ways and we believe that they are true. We do not really understand how reality exists. It is like that even for animals; it appears to them as though they are the center of the universe too. We are not talking about some intellectual mistake. The way things appear in our everyday experience is incorrect, even for animals.

The Scope of the Weekend Course

We are going to talk about some complicated things this weekend, so if you do not understand, please ask, because I don’t want people to get lost. You do not have to say, “Most assuredly Socrates,” when you follow the explanation, but let’s have a little bit of an interchange here. I will try to make this subject matter accessible, which is very challenging to do.

When we are unaware of the nature of reality, it could be either about persons or about general phenomena. It appears to us that we are the center of the universe, or that our partner is the most beautiful person in the world, which is probably not true. Or we think that some possession that we are attached to is the most wonderful thing in the world, which is also probably not true. But, in our discussion, let’s limit ourselves to talking about people and primarily about ourselves. We’ll bring in some of the other points, particularly about other people, as a side discussion.

Our main question, then, will be, “Who am I?” It is not so simple to answer – it’s not just giving a name. You can forget somebody’s name. That certainly happens. And what about the baby before somebody gives it a name?

The general approach will be to discuss the theory – I am sorry if people don’t like the word theory, but it is necessary to understand in order to get rid of confusion. Then we will talk about the general process of meditation and about how to actually meditate on voidness itself. With each of the theoretical points that we discuss, I will try to control myself not to go into too much detail. However, the more detailed it becomes, the clearer our understanding. That is the benefit of detail.

The Five Aggregate Factors of Experience

Confusion about Them

The fundamental confusion we have about reality concerns the relationship between “me” and the body and the mind. To eliminate this confusion, we need to have some clear understanding of the five aggregate factors of experience (the five aggregates). “Aggregate” is an adjective meaning “made up of many parts.” What it’s talking about is our everyday experience from moment to moment. Our experience is made up of many parts, which are all continuously changing. However, it doesn’t appear like that to us. We wake up in the morning and feel depressed, for instance, and so we think that this mood is one solid, heavy thing and it is going to last all day. We are not mindful of the fact that, in each moment, we are seeing something different, hearing something different and so on. We don’t consider what’s actually happening in each moment. If we have a headache, it seems as though nothing else is happening except for the headache. This is another example of how the way things appear are not the way things exist.

It is the same thing in terms of “me.” “I am fat.” It doesn’t matter that we’re experiencing all sorts of things every moment, we identify with one thing: being fat. That is the way it appears to us when we look in a mirror. What we are doing is identifying with some aspect of our experience, namely the weight of our body. But, there is much more to us than just the weight of our body, isn’t there? We need to understand all the things that make up our experience – the five aggregates.

The Buddhist Classification of Phenomena

Buddhist philosophy differentiates between things that exist and things that do not exist. What exists can be validly known. What does not exist cannot be validly known. Chicken lips do not exist. We can imagine human lips on a chicken, but we cannot imagine chicken lips on a chicken because there is no such thing.

What exists can be divided into the two broad categories of “static” and “nonstatic.” These terms are usually translated as “permanent” and “impermanent,” but that is misleading. The difference is in whether or not a thing changes while it exists. It could exist for a short period of time or forever. I don’t really want to go into examples of static phenomenon, but in just one sentence, they are things like mathematical qualities, facts that never change. “One plus one is two” does not change.

The five aggregate factors refer to only the nonstatic phenomena that make up our experience from moment to moment. Some are connected with our mental continuum and some are not. There are three basic categories of nonstatic phenomena: forms of physical phenomena, ways of being aware of something, and affecting variables that are neither of these (nonconcomitant affecting variables).

[For more detail, see: Basic Scheme of the Five Aggregate Factors of Experience.]

Let’s keep it simple. Forms of physical phenomena make up the first aggregate factor of our experience – the aggregate of forms. They include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations and so on. There are also certain forms that are not material, like the obects that we see and hear in dreams.

Question: A shadow?

Alex: Sure, but you can see a shadow; it’s a colored shape, a sight. You can’t see atoms though, yet they’re a form of physical phenomenon.

What I am translating as “ways of being aware of something” is usually translated as “mental phenomena,” but that way of rendering the term is unclear. They are ways of being aware of something: to hear, see, feel or think something, to be angry at something, to like something, etc. All of these are ways of being aware of something. They are quite different from a form of a physical phenomenon, aren’t they?

Then, there are things that affect our experience that are neither of these two. An example is time. Time passes and it affects us: we get older. But time is neither of the previous two.

Primary Consciousness and Mental Factors

There are two types of ways of being aware of something: primary consciousness and mental factors. Primary consciousness makes up the second aggregate and it is aware of merely the essential nature of something. The essential nature of something is it’s being a sound, a sight, a smell, a thought. Seeing, for example, cognizes merely the essential nature of a sight as being a sight.

A simpler, but very profound, example involves knowing an orange. What is an orange? It is an interesting question. Is it the sight of an orange? Is it the sound of an orange when you squeeze it? Is it the smell or the taste of an orange? Is it the sensation of it in your hand? What is an orange? Are all of them inside the orange? With primary consciousness, we are aware simply of which of these fields of information are we cognizing. We are really talking about what channel we’re on – the seeing channel, the hearing channel, the smelling channel. Are we dealing with sights, with sounds, with thoughts? What are we dealing with in respect to this orange?

Question: Is the primary consciousness the appearance of something?

Alex: No, it is not the appearance. We are not talking about a form of physical phenomenon. We are talking about a way of being aware of something; a way of being aware of just what type of information we’re perceiving – it’s a sight or a sound.

Question: I think if you have an orange, you don’t think about what it is, you just take it and use it. Most things we just do without thinking. It’s a physical thing.

Alex: That’s the orange, but we’re not talking about the orange now.

Participant: It’s our action?

Alex: Right, the mental action of primary consciousness is that we’re either seeing a sight as a sight or we’re smelling a smell as a smell.

Participant: I cannot differentiate between the physical form and the awareness of a physical form. I have to be aware of something.

Alex: That is a very good point, because there always has to be something that we are aware of. Subject and object, or consciousness and object, are called “one by nature,” but that is a terrible translation. We might call that “non-dual.” That is a literal translation and is also misleading. It does not mean that the two are identical. In very simple terms, the two always come in one package. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot have an experience without experiencing something. You cannot have a thought without thinking a thought. They are different, not identical, but they always come together.

Question: Is it possible to say that primary consciousness is some kind of contact with the appearance?

Alex: Contact is something else. In Buddhism, we speak of contacting awareness, and that’s another mental factor. The simplest way of saying it is: primary consciousness is awareness of the channel you are on. Are you on the seeing channel, the hearing channel or the thinking channel?

Participant: Please comment on why you call it “primary.”

Alex: Because it determines what type of cognition it is. In other words, around that primary consciousness come all the mental factors or subsidiary types of awareness – liking the object, disliking it, paying attention to it, interest in it, and all the various possible emotions. It’s the most basic part of the experience.

Participant: If I understand correctly, the issue here is through which of our senses do we experience something?

Alex: Right, but the senses refer to the dominating condition of a cognition, not to the primary consciousness. Each type of primary consciousness works through a specific sensory power. “Sensory power” is not a good word either. What we’re talking about here are the cognitive sensors and, for the five physical senses, these are forms of physical phenomena. There are the photosensitive cells of the eyes, the sound-sensitive cells of the ears and so on. Each type of primary sensory consciousness works with its own specific type of sensitive cells.

Question: Does this involve some kind of focusing?

Alex: No. Focusing on something entails yet another mental factor. Primary consciousness, working through sensory cells, is doing nothing but putting a channel on the television.

Just as I’ve asked you to stop me from going into too much detail, I now must ask you to stop from going into too much detail with your questions; otherwise we’re never going to get anywhere on this weekend. Let’s try to get the general idea.

Feeling a Level of Happiness

The mental factors go together with the channel. Once we’re on a channel, we have to play with the other dials to get it into focus and adjust the volume and all these other things. That’s like the mental factors or different types of subsidiary awareness. There are a lot of them.

Of the most important ones, first there is feeling a level of happiness. That is usually just translated as “feeling,” but that is misleading because it has nothing to do with emotions. When you read the word feeling in a Buddhist text, the only meaning that it has is “feeling a level of happiness.” Although it’s usually translated as “feeling,” it is not emotion or “intuition,” and not feeling a sensation like hot or cold.

In every moment, we are on some channel: we are dealing with something, with sights, for example, and that is happening on the basis of the photosensitive cells of the eyes and on the body in general. That’s happening all of the time. Together with that, in every moment, we are feeling something on the scale between happy and unhappy – it could be neutral, it could be anything – and that is giving an experiential tone to each moment. That mental factor by itself constitutes the third aggregate factor, the aggregate of feeling a level of happiness

Distinguishing

Another important mental factor is distinguishing, usually translated as “recognition,” which is a totally misleading translation. “Recognition” means that you’ve seen something previously, you compare some new thing to it and thus recognize the new thing as being in the same category. We’re not talking about that.

For example, we’re on the seeing channel, so we are seeing a field of vision. In order to do anything with that, we have to be able to distinguish something in that field of vision from everything else in that field. To look at you, I have to distinguish the colored shape of your head from the colored shape of the wall behind you in order to be able to look at you, experience you, and have some emotional response to you. Without that, we really could not survive; we couldn’t function in this world. It’s the same thing in terms of distinguishing somebody’s voice from the background noise of traffic. That is “distinguishing,” which is an aggregate factor all by itself.

The Aggregate of Everything Else

Then there is “everything else” that’s nonstatic and changing all the time. That constitutes the fifth aggregate factor. “Everything else” includes paying attention, interest, anger, desire, love, compassion – all the emotions and all the things that enable us to concentrate and so on. It is a big category.

Question: Does one of these last three aggregates happen first or are they all together at the same time?

Alex: Actually, all five aggregates go on at the same time. It is not that thought happens first and then you notice it and then think it.

The five aggregate factors are five groupings or like five bags. Each moment of our experience is made up of one or more items from each bag. These five are: (1) the aggregate of forms, so that’s our body and all these sights and sounds and so on; (2) the aggregate of consciousness – seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking and this sort of thing; (3) the aggregate of feelings – feeling a level of happiness; (4) the aggregate of distinguishing; and then (5) the aggregate of other affecting variables, sometimes called “the aggregate of volition.” That was the one I was referring to as the “aggregate of everything else.” This last one includes an urge, as in “I have the urge to scratch my head.” According to some Buddhist systems, that is karma. Since urges or karma are the most outstanding factor in that category, some translators call the aggregate “the aggregate of volitions.” To call it “will” is much too strong. But, volitions and emotions are all in one big bag.

Identifying the Conventional “Me”: The Example of a Habit

Now we can work with this scheme of the five aggregate factors of our experience. What we will want to do is to identify the conventional “me” included within this last factor, the aggregate of other affecting variables, and understand its relation with all the other members of the aggregates.

The conventional “me” is a nonstatic phenomenon and, from among the three types of nonstatic phenomena that we discussed, it is an example of the third type – those that are neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. To begin with, let me give you some other examples of items in this third category of nonstatic phenomena. We already had “time” as an example, but there are some other examples that are important, for instance habits.

What is a habit? Let’s give an example: the habit of smoking cigarettes. The habit is not the actual physical act of smoking – that is the smoking, not the habit of smoking. The habit is not the desire or impulse to have the cigarette – that is a way of being aware of something: you see the cigarette and you want it.

Participant: John the smoker is not conscious of his wanting to smoke because he has chemical substances in all of his cells which compel him to smoke.

Alex: Those chemicals are the physical basis for the habit of smoking, but a habit is not the chemicals themselves. If you have a bottle full of that chemical, it’s not going to cause that bottle to smoke a cigarette, is it? Therefore, a habit is not the chemical support for a habit. It’s not even a “well-lubricated” pathway of neurochemical impulses in the brain. A dead brain having that pathway also won’t smoke a cigarette.  

So, what is the habit of smoking cigarettes? All that we can say is that there is a sequence of similar events. Every hour, let’s say, there is a chemical reaction, a wish to smoke, and the physical act of smoking. On the basis of that sequence of similar events, as an abstraction we can say, “There is a habit of smoking.” That is what a habit is according to Buddhism. It’s like a probability chart from mathematics. On the basis of this abstraction, you could predict that probably an hour from now a similar event is going to occur again – you’ll want another cigarette. But the habit is a nonstatic phenomenon, affected by many things.  Habits can change: they can grow stronger or weaker and so on. That is a habit. It is in the third category of nonstatic phenomena, the “neither” category.

The Conventional “Me”

The conventional “me,” which is going to be quite important in our discussion, is another example of this category of “neither.” We have a sequence of similar events – seeing someone, hearing something, going here, doing this, doing that. These all form an individual sequence of experience, because one moment follows another. As an abstraction, we can say, “It is ‘me’ – I’m doing this, I’m saying this, I’m hearing this.”

Just as a habit is not some little devil sitting inside our heads saying, “Smoke a cigarette now,” similarly the conventional “me” is not some little controller inside our heads saying, “Now do this; now do that.” It’s an abstraction. The problem is that it appears as though there is this little controller in our heads, because we experience a voice saying, “Now I’m going to do this or that.” It appears that way and we believe it is true, but that’s not the way that it exists.

In Buddhism, we do talk about a conventional “me,” Which does exist. We do exist. We don’t just say, “This body is sitting in the chair.” We would say, “I’m sitting in the chair.” Conventionally, we are sitting here. And conventionally, we are experiencing everything: we’re seeing, feeling and so on. But there is not some little concrete devil or angel sitting in our heads who is the real “me” doing the experiencing.

We will discuss this in much more detail, but that is the general situation. When we think that we are this little controller in our heads, we are very self-conscious and we start to worry about what people think about “me.” We become very worried and we develop all sorts of neurotic problems. For example, we think, “You just interrupted ME!” and we get very angry.

Question: Is one characteristic of the conventional “me” being effortless and uncontrived?

Alex: Not necessarily. Effort is another mental factor that can just be part of an experience. We experience doing something with or without effort.

Question: Isn’t it necessary to think about what other people think of me?

Alex: That’s why we differentiate between the conventional “me” and the false “me.” The false “me” is like chicken lips. The conventional “me” is like the beak of the chicken. But we imagine that the conventional “me” exists like a false “me”; we imagine that there are lips on this chicken. The false “me” would be like this controller in my head. Believing in that is like imagining lipstick on the beak of a chicken. We say, “Oh, I have to be like this and I have to be like that.”

Conventionally, it is important what other people think of us. As part of Buddhist ethics, we refrain from hurting others because of our consideration for what others think, what others experience and so on. It is important. That is dealing with the conventional “me.” If we confuse the conventional “me” with the false “me,” we base our whole sense of self-worth on what the other person thinks. For instance, somebody doesn’t approve and now I think I’m a bad person and I have no self-worth. We get all sorts of psychological problems. There is quite a difference between the two. The conventional “me” is a little bit impersonal. If somebody criticizes us, we can learn from it – all on the basis of the conventional “me.” If we think in terms of the false “me,” we take their criticism personally: “They think I’m a bad person, I’m no good! They don’t love me anymore.” There is a big difference.      

Question: Now we are speaking about a conventional “me” among other things that exist. But, in Buddhism, there is anatma, no self, which means there is absolutely no “me,” not even a conventional “me.” How do we come to claim, among other things that exist, there is a conventional “me”?

Alex: This is the most common misunderstanding of the Buddhist teachings of no self or anatma. What we are denying is the false “me.” We are not denying the conventional “me.” The chicken has a beak. We are not denying that. We are denying that it has any lips. We’ll get to this, so please be patient.

Question: Is it possible that in other categorizations of other Tibetan teachers, “usual” or “conventional ‘me’” is termed differently, and what they term “usual ‘me’” is something on a higher level and we mix up the categorizations? Maybe people are confused by the terminology?

Alex: I’m not familiar with any other system of terminology like that used specifically in reference to the self. Usually the confusion comes from the description of the mind, because we have the term “ordinary mind.” For instance, the Karma Kagyu tradition uses the term ordinary mind to refer to the subtlest level of mind, the clear light mind: whereas for the other Tibetan traditions, “ordinary mind” would imply the ordinary ignorant mind, so it means completely the opposite thing. But I’ve never seen that terminology used with respect to the “me” or the self.

Brief Summary of the Conventional “Me” and the Five Aggregates

We have been talking about the five aggregates, the factors of our experience, which is a classification scheme of all nonstatic phenomena. All nonstatic phenomena can be included in five bags. But those five bags, the five aggregates, are abstractions; they don’t exist concretely somewhere in the sky or in our heads. But, one or more items from each of the five bags are going to make up every moment of our experience. In each moment, we’re on some channel – seeing, hearing, thinking, etc. – and we are distinguishing some object in that field, we are dealing with something – a sight, a sound, etc. – and we are feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness about it. Then we have everything else – there is some emotion involved, some level of paying attention, some interest and all of these sorts of things. And then also in this bag of everything else is the conventional “me,” which can be labeled onto each moment: “I am experiencing this, I’m seeing this, I’m doing this...”

Mental Labeling

Habits and the conventional “me” are examples of phenomena whose existence is established in terms of mental labeling. According to the more sophisticated systems of Buddhist philosophy, everything exists that way, but these are very simple examples to understand first.

Again, what is a habit? There is the word habit. That is the mental label. A habit is not a word. It’s not the sound of the word habit – that is just a word or a name. We have a basis for the label: I smoked at 8:00, at 9:00, at 10:00, at 11:00, at 12:00. On that basis, we put it all together, give it a label and say, “Here’s a habit.” A synonym for mental labeling is “imputation.” We say; “There’s a habit.” What is the habit? The habit is not the word, and it’s not the basis. The habit is what the word habit refers to on the basis of the label. So, a habit is a little bit like an illusion: it is not something concrete. It’s just what the word habit refers to on the basis of each changing moment.

Question: I didn’t understand that last bit.

Alex: Let’s look at another example, the conventional “me.” We have the word me. It could be more specific, it could be “Alex” or whatever your name is, but we don’t need that.  So, who am I? I’m not the word me. I am not the label itself; I am not a word. What are we applying the word to? We’re applying it to an individual sequence of moments of five aggregates of experience – walking, talking, seeing and doing all these things. That’s the basis for the label. And the basis has to be an appropriate, valid one. We’re not giving the label to something completely weird. We’re not calling a movie of a rocket going to the moon “me.”

What does the word me refer to? The word refers to the conventional “me.” But who, or what, is this “me?” It is something that is very nebulous; it is what the word me refers to. All we can say is that it’s what the word me refers to when it’s applied to this basis. It appears as though it’s a little controller in my head, but it’s not, it’s just what a word refers to on the basis of this individual sequence of moments of subjective experience. That conventional “me” is like an illusion, it’s not the same as an illusion. It is like an illusion, because it appears to be concrete, whereas it is not.

Now, when we say that the existence of something is established by mental labeling – or, more commonly, that something exists by means of mental labeling – that is not saying that something is created by mental labeling. The baby doesn’t exist only if I see this small creature and think or say “baby.” Whether we actively label or impute a baby makes no difference. Labeling or imputing a baby doesn’t create a baby. It isn’t that when no one is actively labeling the baby, then the baby doesn’t exist.

The baby does exist. We’re not questioning that. But what establishes that it exists as a baby? What establishes its existence as a baby is the mental label baby applied to a valid basis for labeling it. This is what it means when we say it exists as “baby” or “Maria” on the basis of mental labeling. It also exists as “breakfast” for the mosquito. The mosquito doesn’t have to know the word breakfast, but it can see this Maria as something nice to eat.

Voidness as an Absence

That brings us to “voidness.” “Voidness” is a misleading word. Excuse me, but my background is as a translator and I find that most of the misunderstandings about Buddhism in the West are because of the translation terms giving wrong ideas. Whether we call it “emptiness” or “voidness,” it’s about the same, although if we need to choose one of them, I prefer “voidness.” But, we’re not talking about nothingness here. The meaning of the word is much closer to “an absence.” More specifically, it’s an absence of impossible ways of existing.

First of all, does an absence exist? Yes, it exists. Can we see an absence? Yes, we can see that there is no elephant in this room. We can all see that absence of an elephant very clearly. We’re not talking about things that do not exist; we are talking about something that exists: an absence.

With voidness, we’re not talking about the absence of something that could exist, like there could be an elephant in the room. We’re talking about the absence of something that doesn’t exist at all. We can also see that there is no pink elephant in the room. It doesn’t exist at all. It never existed and never will exist. It’s not that the pink elephant was here and walked into the other room and it could come back! It’s not that type of temporary absence. It is a total, complete absence, like the absence of a pink elephant. It was never in the room.

With voidness, we’re talking about an absence of something totally impossible. The mental concept or fantasy with which we imagine a pink elephant does exist, however, and it can make us afraid. We could be afraid that there’s a pink elephant in the room or a monster. What is absent is what the fantasy is referring to something real – a real pink elephant or a real monster. We can have the false idea of one, but it’s not referring to anything real.

But here, we’re not just talking about the absence of some impossible thing, like a pink elephant. We’re talking about the absence of an impossible manner of existing. We’re not saying that there’s no monster in this room. We’re saying this room is not haunted by a monster; we’re talking about how the room exists. It never existed as being haunted by the monster. Of course, if the child believes that the bedroom is haunted by a monster, it will be very frightened and will not be able to go to sleep. But that misconception and the accompanying fear don’t refer to anything real in terms of how the bedroom exists. When we put on the light, we can show the child that the room doesn’t exist this way.

When we talk about voidness, we’re talking about an absence of impossible ways of existing. That is wordy, but that is what voidness is talking about.

We have the conventional “me,” but we project or superimpose on it the misconception that it exists as a false “me,” the little controller in our heads. In a sense, we give it the wrong name, a wrong label. We think that this controller in our heads is the real “me,” the true “me.”  For example, we say something to someone and that person gets angry, and we have an interchange of strong words. Our speaking of the original words, the other person’s reaction, and the interchange that followed – all of that is the basis for labeling. The valid label here would be: “I said something and the other person responded with anger, and we then exchanged heated words.” That’s really all that happened.

Believing in and projecting the false “me,” however, onto the conventional “me” who participated in this incident, we would think, “I am a real IDIOT! I did it again! I’m always saying the wrong thing! I’m such an idiot! I’m no good!” What is absent is that this idiot “me” is actually real. We have the concept of an idiotic, no good “me” – that concept exists. But what that concept refers to – a “me” that actually exists as a real idiot – that’s absent; there is no such thing. We merely imagine that the conventional “me” exists as this false “me.” That is an impossible way of existing. We may, conventionally, have said something stupid, but nobody can exist as just totally stupid and nothing else.

Participant: Alex, you really are getting away now from this old, forever puzzling thing that is said in Buddhism, that there is no “me” at all.

Alex: Buddhism doesn’t say that. It never says that anywhere.

Participant: But that’s what we’ve heard and read for generations. The “me” is what the Hindus say they have, this real “me” that they call the “atman” and then the Buddhists deny that.

Alex: I am sorry, but I think there is some misunderstanding here. Buddhism denies the atman that the various schools of Hinduism assert, but it does not deny that there is a conventional “me.” That’s very clear in the Buddhist texts. The conventional “me” or “person,” pudgala in Sanskrit, does not exist as an atman, as a “soul,” but persons do exist. We have to understand what that means. That’s why I was starting to explain mental labeling.

First, we need to get a general idea of what is absent and then, once we stop projecting that, we see what is left. Then we realize that, well, it’s not exactly that and then we have to get rid of some more. We do that several times with several levels of understanding. Eventually, we get to the understanding that the “me” is like an illusion. That is said by all Buddhists – it is LIKE an illusion, they don’t say that it doesn’t exist. When they say “no self” what they’re referring to is no false “self.”

The conventional “me” that does exist is dependent on and affected by what’s happening; it is changing all the time. It’s an abstraction that is like an illusion, because it appears to be concrete, but is not concrete at all. It’s a convenient way to refer to the sequence of an individual life, as in “my life.”

Grasping for True Existence

Let me speak a little about grasping for true existence, as way of introduction before we end our session. Without getting too complicated here, this can be grasping for the true existence of persons or of all phenomena, and the persons can either be ourselves or others. If we speak about it in terms of persons, particularly ourselves, we need to understand exactly what it is.

When we are experiencing a state of mind, we can specify what it is aimed at and its manner of taking its object. “Grasping” is a difficult word. It’s not really grasping like with our hands, it’s just taking an object; it’s a way of cognizing it. Grasping for true existence of one’s self is aimed at the conventional “me” and its way of cognizing it is to cognize it as if it were the false “me.” If it is aimed at ourselves, it would be like looking at “me” and thinking, “I’m a REAL idiot!” If it is aimed at somebody else who just made a mistake, then it would be like thinking, “You’re a REAL idiot!” If it’s aimed at a phenomenon or a situation, like a flooded basement, it would be like thinking, “This is a REAL disaster!” and completely freaking out. That’s grasping for true existence.

But, even establishing the existence of a flood is dependent on a mental label. The word flood is a word. What is the basis? There is water here and there and there. On that basis, we say that there is a flood. What is the flood? It’s what the word flood is referring to on the basis of this watery mess in the cellar. But, instead of realizing that, we make a huge monstrous thing out of it and think, “It’s the end of the world!” and we have a nervous breakdown. When we are grasping at the true existence of the flood as a disaster, the mind is aimed at the conventional flood. The way that we are taking it or grasping at it is as if it were a disaster – a true disaster, which is the end of the world. But that misconception through which we cognize the situation is not referring to anything real. No matter what happens to our house, it’s not the end of the world.

Question: Is it that the false “me” always crops up whenever emotions come into play, so that if someone were able to perceive things without being emotional, she or he would be able to stay within the bounds of the conventional “me”?

Alex: The difficulty with your question is the definition of “emotional.” The texts say that in emotional times, the false “me” is the easiest to recognize. The classic example is that somebody calls you a thief and you say, “What! Me? I’m not a thief!”  That shows you the false “me.” I would imagine that one could recognize the false “me” in nondramatic situations as well. As I say, the problem is the definition of “emotional.” If being emotional is opposed to having wisdom and understanding, then what you say is correct. If it just has the sense of being dramatic, there can be nondramatic situations as well, in which the notion of a false “me” is strong.

Question: Could we call the false “me” a projection?

Alex: Yes, that’s what we would call it in Western psychology. It’s a projection that is not referring to anything real. But there is a basis. What is the false “me” being projected onto? It is being projected onto the conventional “me.” We’re not projecting it onto the tea kettle.

Let me be a bit more precise. Grasping for true existence is not really what I just explained. What I just explained – the projection, “I am a real idiot” – is the step after grasping for the true existence of “me.” That’s because it is defining who the truly existent “me” is. Grasping for the true existence of “me” is not identifying specifically who the false “me” is, it’s just grasping for the existence of this false “me.”

Let me give an example to illustrate this. I am sitting here and talking to you. Conventionally I am doing that. “I am sitting and talking” refers to the conventional “me.” It’s an abstraction, just a way of referring to what is happening. If I grasp for my own true existence, then I start to think, “Everybody is looking at me. What should I say now? What are they thinking of ME?” and I get very worried about “me.” It’s a second step to think “I’m the idiot! They’re all looking at ME, the idiot.” Grasping for the true existence of “me” is referring to the first step. It’s just dealing with the existence of the “me,” not with the specific identity of the “me.”