Introduction to Meditation on Voidness (Emptiness)
Berlin, Germany, January 1995
Session Five: The Four-Point Analysis Meditation on Voidness
We discussed voidness or emptiness in Buddhism, particularly in terms of the absence of a true identity for ourselves – the absence of an impossible false “me” – and we have talked a little bit about how to meditate. Now let’s put these two together and look at one of the most common ways of meditating on voidness. It is usually referred to as the “four point analysis,” which uses with the line of reasoning called “neither one nor many.” The first point is recognizing the object to be refuted; the second is becoming convinced that the line of reasoning for refuting it, namely “ neither one nor many,” actually refutes it; the third point is refuting “one”; and the fourth is refuting “many.” The conclusion is that because the false “me” is neither one nor many, the false “ me” does not exist at all. The aim of the line of reasoning is for us to come to this conclusion. When we reach this conclusion, we try to discern ourselves in light of what we have understood and then we try to stabilize that view.
We’ve been covering the first point already during the course of our discussions: recognizing the object to be refuted. To make it very simple, let’s use the idea of a false “me” as being some sort of solid “thing.” With a deluded outlook toward a transitory network, we might identify this false “me” with some part of the aggregates, like our body, and then think, “I am attractive.” In doing so, we are viewing things as if they were solid, as if everything had a solid line around it like in a children’s coloring book. We think that things exist as if with solid lines around them: “ This is ‘me.’ This is my ‘body.’ This is my ‘mind,’” and so on.
If things existed in this way, there could only be one or many such things. Either there is one thing with a line around it or there are many things with lines around them. If there are neither one nor many things with lines around them, then there is no such thing as something with a line around it. That’s the line of reasoning in very simple form.
It requires a little bit of thought to understand this line of reasoning and to become convinced that the line of reasoning proves what it says it proves. For instance, if there were cockroaches in the bedroom and no way for them to come in or out, there are only two possibilities: either there is only one cockroach in the bedroom or there are many cockroaches in the bedroom. There is no other possibility. If we cannot find either one or many cockroaches in the bedroom, what is the conclusion? We could be paranoid and say that the cockroaches are hiding, but the logical conclusion is that we were mistaken. There are no cockroaches in the bedroom.
It’s the same line of reasoning concerning things existing with lines around them, such as a “ me,” a “body,” a “mind,” and so on. Either there is one such thing or there are many such things, and if neither is the case, there are no such things. It is not that difficult to understand.
But, we have to understand clearly what “one” and “many” mean. “One” means totally identical – one and the same thing. If we’re talking about words, for instance, “Alex” and “Alex” are one; “ Alex” and “Alexander” are two – they are many. It doesn’t matter that they are referring to the same thing, they are two words.
What are our cockroaches in our example? The cockroaches are things with solid lines around them, namely this “me” and the aggregates. Are they just one thing? Are they identical? When we think, “I am sexy,” for instance, we are identifying “me” with a sexy body, part of the aggregate of forms. If the “me” and the sexy body were totally identical, everyone who sees me should see a sexy body. That means that even when the dog or the baby sees me, they would see me as a sexy body. But they don’t. When I am drunk and have just thrown up all over myself, everyone who sees me should also see me as a sexy body, and nothing else. That too doesn’t happen.
Another example of “one” would be a woman who identifies with being “mother.” Regarding herself, she believes that “me” and “mother” are one and the same thing. Thinking like that, then even when her child is thirty years old, she still has to be mother and tell her child what to wear and what to eat. She has to be mother to everybody, even to people who don’t want her to be mother to them. We can see that this can become very neurotic. So, we can conclude that a “me” with a solid line around it and something in the aggregates with a solid line around it cannot be one and the same thing.
Then we need to consider, “Maybe there are many things with solid lines around them; maybe there are a lot of cockroaches in the bedroom.” If there were many things with solid lines around them, then there should be a “me” with a line around it over here and a body with a line around it over there and a mind with a line around it over there, and so on – all totally separate things, with solid lines around them and with no relation to each other. In a children’s coloring book, there are many separate objects with lines around them. They are not interacting with each other; they are just sitting there. That is not realistic. We do have a relationship with the body. It is not completely separate. If we cut the body, we say we cut ourselves, don’t we? We react. There is a relation. We feel pain based on it. It’s not that there are many separate things with lines around them, like many cockroaches on the bedroom floor.
If there’s neither one nor many cockroaches in the bedroom, then we have to conclude that there are no cockroaches there. Convinced of the truth of that, we then look carefully in the bedroom and discern that there are no cockroaches there. We see an absence of cockroaches and then we focus on that absence. This point is not so easy. We’re not focusing on the bedroom floor; we’re focusing on the fact that there are no cockroaches there. In other words, we see nothing there. If we do this well, eventually nothing appears except this absence – like space.
Here is maybe an easier example with respect to projecting a truly existent identity onto somebody else. We’re always looking for Prince or Princess Charming, the perfect partner. We project this onto somebody and then we get very angry when they disappoint us by not acting like the perfect partner. The conclusion of this type of voidness analysis is that there is no such thing as a Prince or Princess Charming. It’s a nice fairy tale, but it’s not referring to any real person.
After we realize this voidness or absence of a Prince or Princess Charming, it is not that, at this stage of the meditation, we are focusing on our friend and seeing that they are not Prince or Princess Charming. That comes later. Here, with total absorption on voidness, we are focusing on the fact that there is no such thing as Prince or Princess Charming. It’s like we experience the bursting of a bubble. We realize that our projection was just a fantasy of something impossible; it just doesn’t exist and never did and never will. We realize that we have been banging our head against the wall for nothing. Believing in Prince or Princess Charming caused us and the other person a lot of problems and obstacles in the relationship. Now the bubble is burst and we see that there is no such thing. It is empty and so there are no more blocks anymore, nothing hindering motion, activity or relationship, because we’re not projecting this impossible way of existing onto the other person.
Although it’s difficult to do, we try to focus on just this absence, which is like an empty space. With total absorption on this voidness – which many translators call “ meditative equipoise on emptiness” – we simply focus on this absence with perfect understanding, conviction, and concentration. In simple language, we feel this truth deeply. There is a big difference between seeing that there are no cockroaches in the bedroom and the incredible feeling of relief when it really sinks in: “There are no cockroaches here, I don’t have to be afraid.” We’v e digested it.
If our total absorption becomes a bit unclear, we have to look again. “Oh, yeah, there aren’t any” and then it sinks in more. In other words, we need to alternate the two aspects of meditation that we discussed before: discerning and stabilizing meditation, both focused on space-like voidness.
After a period of total absorption on voidness, we continue our practice with the subsequent realization or subsequent attainment phase. This phase is usually translated as the “ post-meditation period,” but that translation is not so accurate. This phase of practice can occur either while we are still meditating, or in between meditation sessions. It simply is referring to what we realize, or the realization that we attain, after we arise from total absorption on space-like voidness.
During total absorption, we realized – to continue our analogy – that there are no cockroaches in the bedroom. We focused on that absence, which was like focusing on space: a lack of impediment for the spatial existence of something. During the subsequent attainment phase, we focus on seeing the bedroom without any cockroaches, and realize that, although it looks like there should be cockroaches in it, the bedroom appearing to have cockroaches in it is like an illusion. It is like an illusion in the sense that the way it appears does not correspond to the way it exists. The bedroom, however is merely like an illusion. The bedroom is not the same as an illusion. The bedroom is not an illusion: we use it every night to sleep in.
Similarly, during the subsequent attainment phase, we focus on our partner with the understanding that he or she does not exist as a Prince or Princess Charming, although he or she appears to be one. In other words, while focusing on our partner, we explicitly understand that they are human, like everybody else, and implicitly we understand that they are not Prince or Princess Charming. They are a person, who merely has the illusion-like appearance of being a Prince or Princess. But, our partner is only like an illusion, since they appear to exist in a way in which they do not exist. Our partner, however, is not an illusion.
It’s the same thing with the conventional “me.” I’m sitting here and talking. I might have made a mistake, but I am a human being: human beings make mistakes. What is absent is that I’m truly an idiot who can never get anything right. The first realization, during the total absorption phase, is that there is no such thing as a “me” who is a “total idiot.” The second realization, during the subsequent attainment phase, is that there is the conventional “me,” and I did say something wrong, which has arisen from causes and conditions, karma and so on. We are not denying karma. We’re not denying what’s actually happening. That would be nihilism. The conventional reality of people making mistakes, however, is devoid of existing as “people who are idiots” with a big solid line around it. Even though what we said might conventionally be considered idiotic, that doesn’t make us solidly exist as a “true idiot.”
What is the conventional “me” like? It is like an illusion. It appears to exist as an idiot with a big solid line around it, but it doesn’t exist in that way at all. It never did and never will. The conventional “me,” who said something wrong, is merely what that word “me” refers to, when labeled on a set of aggregates that include speaking incorrectly. That conventional “me” is like an illusion: it appears to exist like a solid idiot, but solid idiots don’t exist at all.
This is a very crucial point. Conventional things, for instance “me,” are like an illusion, not the same as an illusion. There is a big difference. They are like a dream, not the same as a dream. If we say something cruel to somebody in a dream and we say it to them in real life, there is a big difference, isn’t there?
Those are steps of the meditation on voidness: like space and like an illusion.
Do you have any questions?
Question: Can you say more about the basis for labeling the conventional “me”? You said that it is some aspect of mind.
Alex: Let me try to explain this by using some examples. My mother has Alzheimer’s disease and is in the very final stages of it. Who is my mother? Her memory is gone; her recognition of her family is gone. She probably doesn’t even know who she is. I don’t know if she knows her own name anymore. Her personality is gone. Who is she? Is she still my mother? Yes, we have to say she is still Rose Berzin. The personality, the memory, and all these sorts of things are gone, but there must still be something left that is the basis for a correct labeling of her as my mother, right? She’s still alive; she’s not dead.
The same thing can happen with the body. Someone could lose an arm or a leg; they can have a stroke and be paralyzed; they can be terribly burned in a fire – they can lose a lot of their body, and even have parts of it replaced, like a heart or a liver. Are they still your mother? What about being in a coma? Is your mother still your mother if she’s in a coma? You have to say, “Yes, that is still my mother,” even though the grosser mind is gone. What about if she is brain-dead, but her heart is kept beating and her breathing is maintained artificially with a life-support machine? That becomes very tricky, since not everyone agrees on the borderline after which someone is actually dead.
This issue of what is the ultimate basis for labeling a conventional “me,” and when is it still present and when is it gone, becomes a little clearer, perhaps, when we see a corpse. Most of us in the West don’t see corpses, except in an unnatural state lying in a fancy coffin, all clean and wearing makeup and elegant clothes. That’s a shame. It’s not nice to see a corpse in its natural condition, that’s true, but Buddha learned a lot from seeing a corpse. We would too.
I was very fortunate to have had an experience in India about ten days ago when a Westerner living in Dharamsala died. He had gone to sleep with a coal stove burning in his room and had forgotten to leave the window open, so he died in his sleep from the carbon monoxide. Although I actually didn’t know him personally, it was up to me and a few other elders in the Western community to go to the morgue, collect him, and cremate him. The Indian authorities had already performed an autopsy on him. So here was this man, lying naked on a concrete floor inside a concrete hut, like a dead fish, with the stomach cut open and just sort of crudely tied back together with some string, and smelling horribly. They had done nothing to preserve his body. We had to pick it up, carry it to the jeep, and sit next to it while driving to the cremation grounds. Handling it, it really felt like a dead fish, and even had similar colors. It was really quite incredible. We then had to carry it out of the jeep, throw it on a pile of wood, and burn it, like burning paper or garbage.
I found that to be an incredibly helpful experience, as awful as it was. It became very clear in my mind that this person was not his body and how strongly we identify with our body. All these things we have been discussing started to become really quite relevant and vivid. Who is this guy? Was he somebody who was living inside this body and now has gone away? That’s one of the deluded false views, isn’t it? Was he some sort of thing that entered into this body and made use of it, like using a computer, and that is now going to make use of some other body? What was the relationship between this person and this body? It becomes really very interesting. When you see a decomposing corpse in its natural state, you experience it as being like a piece of garbage. Nobody wants it around. You want to burn it as quickly as possible because it smells so terribly.
The ultimate basis for labeling the conventional “me” is not this body; it’s not the memory; it’s not the collection of these sorts of things. As I say, if we can actually see a corpse, or go visit somebody with Alzheimer’s, it starts to become more obvious. A person can lose so many parts and still be validly labeled a conventional “me,” whereas a corpse is no longer a “me.” Even if someone has no conscious awareness of “me,” like when in a coma, they are still a person; they are still a “me” Maybe they still have an unconscious sense of “me,” but that is difficult to say, isn’t it? We do still have a sense of “me” when we are dreaming, but what about when we are asleep without any dreaming? I don’t know.
The discussion of the conventional “me” in Buddhism, however, is not about whether or not a person is aware or conscious or has a sense of being “me.” Buddhism simply addresses whether or not a conventional “me” can be validly labeled on something that never ceases and goes on, without any break in continuity, from one lifetime to another, with no beginning and no end, even into enlightenment. As we discussed before, no one needs to actively label that “me” – the act of labeling it is irrelevant to the discussion. The conventional “me” is simply what the word or label or concept “me” refers to, labeled or imputed on an appropriate basis for labeling. The “me” needs to be validly imputable, not necessarily validly imputed by anyone.
In answer to your question, then, Buddhism asserts that the subtlest level of mind or mental activity, together with the subtlest life-supporting energy, is what continues unceasingly from lifetime to lifetime, and ultimately, this is the basis for labeling the conventional “me.” In the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, this subtlest level of mind or mental activity is called “ clear light” – the “clear-light mind.”
Question: We sometimes hear from high Tibetan masters that they can remember their former lives. How can that be?
Alex: This is very interesting. First of all, we have to look at former lives without thinking of them as my former life. It is not as if there were a solid “me” who possesses former lives and always maintains the same fundamental identity, like thinking, “Alex had former lives.” We have to take past and future lives totally impersonally, although each person’s stream of continuity of lives is individual. It is perhaps helpful to think of past lives like earlier scenes in a movie. Just as we could label “me” onto the scenes that are happening this hour, we could label “me” onto scenes that were happening in the last hour, or in another body in another life.
Now, we need to bring in the Buddhist discussion of how memory works. What Buddhism discusses as memory is not referring to the storing of information, but rather to recollection. The mechanism is the same as that for habits. I haven’t come up with a good translation for the Tibetan word for “ habit,” because it includes the way that memory works. Recalling something is similar to repeating a habit. In both cases, we experience a series of similar events.
For example, we might have smoked cigarettes on many past occasions. On the basis of that, we can label or impute a habit of smoking cigarettes. It is not that we smoked the same cigarette each time we smoked, or smoked the cigarette each time with exactly the same motion of our hand holding the cigarette. We smoked different cigarettes each time and we smoked them in a different way. But each cigarette we smoked was similar to the previous ones, and each act of smoking was similar to the previous ones. On the basis of this habit, we may smoke another similar cigarette in the future.
Likewise, we experienced something at one time, let’s say meeting someone, and then later, on several occasions, we remembered that meeting. We don’t think the exact same thought each time we remember the meeting, do we? We think something similar each time – something that resembles that meeting, but not the actual meeting itself. On the basis of this sequence of occasions of thinking something similar regarding the meeting, we can label or impute a memory. It’s the same as the repetition of similar actions, on the basis of which we label a habit.
So, like this, we could recall something similar to what happened not only earlier in this lifetime, but also in a previous lifetime. This is because there is unbroken continuity of subtlest mind and the conventional “me.” Habits and memories as a subcategory of habits have as their basis for labeling this continuity of subtlest mind as well as the conventional “me”labeled on that continuity, and so memories and habits have the same type of existence as the conventional “me.” They are not solid or findable at all. They are not physically stored on this subtlest mind or in “ me.” Memories are merely imputable nonstatic phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something
Question: If there is no solid “me,” we should not experience pain as pain, should we? We could think, “It’s only pain” and not be so depressed. There is suffering, but not a sufferer.
Alex: When you bang your foot against a table in the dark, there are two ways of handling it. One is to jump up and down and to make a big thing out of it. “Oh! Poor ME! I banged my foot! It’s not fair!” It’s as if you wanted your mommy to come and kiss it and make it all better. Lying behind that way of reacting is grasping for a true solid “me.” The other way to handle it is: you bang your foot, it hurts and you don’t make a big deal out of it. You just think, “Okay, I banged my foot. It really hurts; so what else is new?” Then you continue doing whatever you were doing without projecting a big solid line around “me,” the accident, or the pain.
Nevertheless, there was a conventionally existing banging of your foot. It’s not that nothing happened. So, you calmly check your foot to see if it is bleeding or if you broke a bone. And if you need medical treatment, you go and get it.
Question: When we are in a lot of physical pain over a long period of time, like with cancer, it’s much more difficult to handle, because the reaction of getting depressed or angry about it comes again and again. How can we get rid of that compulsive reaction?
Alex: I think it’s the same thing. There are many ways of dealing with the pain of cancer. The mindfulness meditation of focusing on the breath is very helpful. It reconfirms that we are alive and connects us with something more stable and enduring than the pain. If we are very strong in our Mahayana practice, we can also do the giving and taking meditation, tonglen, of imagining that we take on everyone else’s pain of cancer and give them calmness, happiness, and good health. But that’s a very advanced practice that is difficult to do on a sincere level. It’s easier to do that practice when we’re just sitting here and not in severe pain.
We could also try doing voidness meditation as a way to deal with chronic pain. What is happening here? Is there a solid “me” with a big line around it; a solid sickness with a big line around it; a solid pain with a big line around it? Are they like three cockroaches? Or are they not solid at all? When we are thinking, “Poor me, the victim! I have this pain and it’s so terrible!” the first point is to recognize what’s to be refuted: the true “me” as the victim, this true pain, and this disaster. When we get into the whole victim mentality, it just adds a tremendous amount of mental pain on top of the physical pain. We need to realize there is no such thing as a solid victim. This realization can help free us from the tight state of body and mind that comes with the victim mentality.
I think that we can understand this with another example. When we get an injection, we could be really frightened of it, thinking, “It’s going to hurt ME so much!” Then our muscles become tense and tight and for sure, it’s going to hurt much more. If, instead, we think, “I’m going to have an injection. Okay” and we’re relaxed about it, then our muscles are relaxed and, yes, the injection hurts, but it is bearable and we let it pass.
It’s the same thing with any type of pain. When we are grasping at a solid “me,” we literally become tense and uptight. We’re grasping. If we are like that and we’re sitting in the dentist’s chair, it’s going to be like torture. If we’re relaxed, it’s much better. The understanding of voidness helps us with that. We can achieve something similar to this with meditation on impermanence. We can realize that we are not going to be in this dentist’s chair for the rest of our life, so it helps us to relax. But the voidness meditation is much stronger.
Participant: I think all of us here are perhaps too weak to start with such a sophisticated method of meditation as meditation on voidness. If one simply remains joyful in suffering, there is an element in this state of mind that has already overcome suffering.
Alex: Yes. There are many methods in the lojong or attitude training teachings. If we bang our foot, we can think, “I’m really happy that I didn’t break my foot.” Or, “I’m very happy that I’ve gotten rid of whatever worse karmic obstacles could have occurred. Now the negative karma is finished in not such a bad way.” There are many ways of transforming it.
That brings us to the end of our course. We haven’t had time to actually do the voidness meditation together and I’m sorry about that, but I think we’ve described it sufficiently to be able to practice it ourselves.
May whatever positive potential and understanding that has come from explaining and listening to this explanation act as a cause for everyone to reach enlightenment for the sake of all. Thank you.
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