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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Introduction to Meditation on Voidness (Emptiness) > Session Four: Misconceptions Based on Belief in a False "Me"

Introduction to Meditation on Voidness (Emptiness)

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, January 1995

[edited transcript]

Session Four: Misconceptions Based on Belief in a False "Me"

Review of Day One

Yesterday, we discussed the source of our problems in life, our ignorance or unawareness concerning behavioral cause and effect and the nature of reality. Either we don’t understand them, or we understand them incorrectly. Because of our unawareness of the nature of reality, we have grasping for true existence. We can define what true existence is in many different ways, but, to put it simply, things appear to exist as concrete “things” and we believe that this is truly the way that they exist. Our body appears to be solid and concrete, whereas in reality it is made up of atoms and energy fields. It is not solid at all. Likewise, our problems seem to be concrete, but they are actually made up of one changing moment after another. There is nothing concrete there.

We can grasp for the true existence of persons or of phenomenon. “Persons” can be ourselves or others. We have been focusing primarily on the problems we have regarding our view of ourselves, of who we are. We have discussed this in terms of the five aggregates. Each moment of our experience is made up of one or more items from five bags or collections. There is always some form of physical phenomenon involved in each moment – our body, our brain, the photosensitive cells of our eyes, and so on. Form also includes sights, sounds, smells, and so on – for example, the sight of somebody else’s body. Then there is the primary consciousness: the channel we’re on, whether we’re seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling a physical sensation, or thinking. There is also distinguishing. Within the specific field of our awareness – visual, audio, or whatever – we are distinguishing some object from the background. There is also some level of subjective happiness or unhappiness. Then there is this other large sack of everything else that affects our experience, which includes all of the emotions, positive and negative, all of our urges and impulses to do things (karma), as well as interest, attention, and concentration – aspects that help us to focus on something. Also in this large sack are things from the third basic category of nonstatic phenomena: nonstatic things that are neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. This includes our habits, our age, and the conventional “me.”

The conventional “me” is really an imputation that exists by mental labeling alone. In every moment, we have these five changing aggregates, with each of them changing at different speeds. When we practice mindfulness meditation in the Theravada tradition, what we try to be mindful of is the constant changing of what is happening, so that eventually we see that there is no solid “me” in all this change. In any case, when we speak about the conventional “me” in Mahayana, it is just an abstraction, imputed as a way of putting together an individual continuity of everchanging factors of subjective experience.

This process of change is going on in an individual sequence, like a movie, and the sequence is determined by karma, by behavioral cause and effect, as well as by everything external with which we interact. Just as in a movie that’s playing, there is continuity although there is no solid thing going from one frame to the next; likewise, nothing concrete goes from one moment to the next in the movie of our lives. Yet there is continuity. But be careful here with the movie analogy. We’re not talking about the continuous strip of plastic on which the frames of a movie are printed, or the blank screen on which the movie is projected. We’re just talking about the movie itself, as it’s playing.

Just as the movie itself is not the same as the title of the movie, similarly the conventional “me” is not just a way of referring to this stream of aggregates with a word. The conventional “me” is not a word; it is what the word means: it is the significance of the word on the basis of a continuum of everchanging factors. The conventional “me” is something like an illusion because there is nothing solid there. The problem is that it doesn’t appear like that. It appears to us as if there is something solid there and we believe that that’s true.

The grossest level of what appears is what the Buddhists say the Hindus believe in. I say it like that to be fair to the Hindus. In this context, it doesn’t matter what present-day Hindus actually believe. Buddhism is referring to a false view that appears to us to be true. What appears to us is not like with the analogy of the movie, but rather a solid “me,” like a solid statue, moving on a conveyer belt through life.

There are three characteristics to that false “me.” Firstly, it is static, meaning not only is it not changing, it is not affected by anything and it is not affecting anything else. It seems isolated from the process of cause and effect, as if we could retreat into a special little “me” inside and avoid everything. Secondly, it also appears as though this “me” is monolithic, without any parts and always remaining one and the same. The third characteristic is that it is separate from the aggregates, not part of them, as if it were something that can be dissociated and fly off into another body and mind.        

When we discuss the voidness of the “me,” we are not denying or refuting the conventional “me,” nor are we denying the existence of the projection of a false “me.” We are refuting that the conventional “me” exists in the manner of a false “me.” The word voidness means “an absence.” What is absent is that our projection of a false “me” refers to something real – a real referent of our projection is absent. It is absent not in the sense that an elephant is absent from the room because it’s in the other room. It is absent in the sense of there being no pink elephant in this room. Pink elephants don’t exist. But it is more than that. It is absent in the sense of this room does not exist as being haunted by a monster. Voidness is referring to the absence of an impossible way of existing that never existed at all. The way of existing that is refuted is that the conventional “me” exists in the manner of the false “me.”

When we eliminate this totally imaginary, impossible way of existing – existence as a static, monolithic “me” separate from the aggregates – then we see what is left. What is left is a “me” that is changing all the time, etc., but which we project to be the boss, the controller pressing the buttons and deciding what to do. It’s worrying and is the author of the voice in our head. This appears to all of us to be who we truly are.

When we see that that too is not referring to anything real and that it’s just a projection based on appearances, then what we’re left projecting is a “me” that, nevertheless, can still be known by itself. When we want some to love “me,” just “me” for myself and nothing else, aren’t we thinking that someone can love us without simultaneously loving something about us, like our body, our intellect, our personality, our sense of humor, our way of doing things, our possessions, etc.? That’s impossible

So, now we’re left with mental labeling. But still, we think – and our minds make it appear like that – that there must be some findable, individual, defining characteristic mark inside of me that makes me “me” and not “you,” and allows for me to be correctly labeled “me” and not “you.” It’s hard for us to say what it is that makes me “me,” but we think that there has to be something. But, when we investigate whether there is something that makes us who we are, allowing a correct labeling, we discover that there is nothing findable. We’re left with the fact that our existence as “me” is established merely in terms of mental labeling alone.

The Three Factors That Determine the Validity of a Mental Labeling

Are all mental labelings correct, just on their own? If someone thinks I’m a window and calls me a window, does that mean I’m a window? Obviously not. Mental labeling becomes valid depending on three factors. The first is that the label has to be a convention agreed upon and used by a certain group of people and what is labeled must be able to function according to what it’s labeled as. We could be labeled “teacher” by our students, “relative” by our family, and “breakfast” by the mosquito. Each label is valid because we function in those ways to those groups of beings. And so that establishes our conventional existence as a teacher, a relative, and as breakfast to each of those groups respectively.

The second factor is that the labeling must not be contradicted by a mind that validly sees conventional truth. If a group of nearsighted people looks at us from across the room without glasses and sees us as a blur, it does not make us into a blur. We are not a blur. That is contradicted when they put their glasses back on.

The third factor is that the labeling must not be contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. If a group of people thinks there is something findable inside me that makes me “me,” or something findable inside me that makes me truly a monster, that doesn’t make that true. When we understand reality, we see that nobody exists that way. A person may be acting like a monster in certain situations, but that does not mean that they are forever unchanging and that they are a monster to everybody. They’d have to be a monster to their pet dog as well. The “me” exists in terms of mental labeling alone.

When we see that our projection of a false “me” that exists as a monster, for instance, is not referring to anything real, we stop projecting the false “me” and “monster.” When we stop projecting them, it doesn’t mean that the movie is over. The movie of our aggregates and the conventional “me” continues. For example, when we see a horror film and stop projecting that there is a real monster there that is going to get me, the movie still goes on. What happens next in the film arises dependently on causes and conditions, based on what has already happened in the movie.

The same is true in terms of our lives. The conventional “me” still goes on once we have understood voidness. The basis on which that “me” is labeled is the continuity of aggregate factors that make up each moment of our individual subjective experience, following one another based on behavioral cause and effect.

Deluded Outlooks

Let’s speak a little bit about what follows from grasping for true existence, and although that grasping can be for the true existence of persons or of all phenomena, let’s speak only about persons. Grasping for the true existence of persons projects some level of a false “me” onto the conventional “me” and believes that this false “me” is true. It can do this in reference to the conventional “me” of ourselves or of any other person in any life form – humans, animals, ghosts, and so forth. To put it in very simple words, grasping for the true existence of a person projects and believes in some sort of solid, substantial “me.”

What follows on the basis of such grasping is a deluded outlook toward a transitory network. Deluded outlooks are a form of disturbing emotion or attitude. Disturbing emotions and attitudes are mental factors that, when they arise and accompany a moment of our sensory or mental cognition, cause us to lose peace of mind and become out of control. They make ourselves or others uncomfortable. Some of them do not entail an outlook on life and, in Western terms, we would call them disturbing emotions, such as anger and attachment. Others entail an outlook on life and we would need to call them disturbing attitudes. There are five of them, and the first of these disturbing attitudes with an outlook on life is a deluded outlook toward a transitory network. “Transitory network” refers to the network of our five transitory, changing aggregates. Although grasping for the true existence of a person can be directed at either ourselves or any other being, a deluded outlook toward a transitory network is defined as being directly only at ourselves.

[See: Mind and Mental Factors: The Fifty-one Types of Subsidiary Awareness.]

The discussion of this deluded outlook is rather complex. Most Buddhist systems assert that it focuses on some network of our aggregates and considers them incorrectly, in terms of the false “me,” as either “me” or “mine.” In the Gelug Prasangika system, this deluded outlook focuses on the network of aspects of our conventional “me” and, projecting a false “me” onto that, identifies that false “me” as either identical with the aggregates or as “myself, the possessor of them.” To simplify the discussion, let us speak from the point of view of the first position.

[See: A Deluded Outlook toward a Transitory Network.]

A deluded outlook toward a transitory network has one aspect concerning “me” and three aspects concerning “mine.” Since each of these four can be related to any of the five aggregates, there are twenty deluded outlooks toward a transitory network. Let’s speak just of the deluded outlooks in relation to the body.

The first is “I am this body.” This is an idea of a solid “me” as identical to this body. We see ourselves in a mirror and think, “I am an old person,” “I am a fat person,” “I am a skinny person” and so on. We could identify with the mind as well: “I am smart. I am my mind.”  Again, the type of false “me” involved here is a static, monolithic one, unaffected by anything. So, to a person who thinks they are fat, it doesn’t matter what they weigh; in their minds they are “fat.” To somebody who thinks that they are ugly, it doesn’t matter how beautiful other people say that they are, in their minds they think, “You don’t really mean it. I’m ugly.”

The three other types of deluded outlook toward a transitory network regard the aggregates – for instance, the body – as “mine,” in the sense of something the false “me” possesses, controls, or inhabits. The first regards the aggregates as something I possess as “mine.” When we say “This is mine; I possess it; I have it,” we can use these expressions in two ways: “This body is mine” or “This chicken is mine.” There is a difference. The body is always with us; the chicken isn’t always with us. Common forms that this misconception takes among men might be, “I have a sexual organ. I have a muscular body.” Or for a woman, “I have a womb. I can have a child.” But, like the analogy of “I have a chicken,” it could be “I have money, or I have a beautiful house or a fast car. They are ‘mine.’” We misconceive of a solid “me” that possesses some part of our aggregates as its possession, as “mine.”

We already discussed the second form of this deluded outlook toward a transitory network as “mine,” namely misconceiving our aggregates, such as our body or womb, as something for this solid “me” to control and use as I like. The third form regards our head or brain, for instance, as where the solid “me” is located. We think, “There’s a voice going on in my head, so ‘I’ am located in my head.”

The Three Poisonous Attitudes

These subcategories of a deluded outlook toward a transitory network give us a lot to think about. We need to recognize them in ourselves. We find that it really does appear to us like that. For instance, we think, “I have a good mind,” as if there were a solid “me” that can possess a mind. Based on such a view of ourselves, we develop disturbing emotions. We are insecure about this seemingly solid “me” and the good mind that it possesses, and so, with arrogance, for instance, we feel we have to prove how smart we are by answering all the questions in class and not giving anyone else a chance.

The most common disturbing emotions are the three poisonous emotions and attitudes – naivety, longing desire, and hostility. The term for “naivety” – in Sanskrit, moha – is not so easy to translate. In the past, I’ve translated it as “closed-minded ignorance” and as “foolish confusion.” It is a subcategory of ignorance or unawareness, which can be about behavioral cause and effect or about reality. Unawareness about behavioral cause and effect only accompanies destructive states of mind, whereas unawareness about reality can accompany not only destructive states of mind, but also constructive and ethically neutral ones. “Naivety” refers to only that unawareness – whether about cause and effect or about reality – that accompanies destructive states of mind.

[See: Constructive, Destructive, and Unspecified Phenomena.]

For example, with a deluded outlook toward a transitory network, we might identify a solid “me” with our gender – being a man. An example of naivety based on that would be the unawareness that accompanies killing in a duel someone who insulted us and believing that this proves we are a man. On the other hand, when we help someone do heavy physical labor and think that, by doing so, this proves that we are a man – our attitude is an example of unawareness or ignorance, but not naivety. Opening a beer bottle with our teeth and thinking that proves we are a man is also ignorance, but not naivety. Obviously, naivety is not a very good translation for this poisonous attitude either; but I can’t think of any better way of translating it.

The second poisonous emotion is longing desire. With this disturbing emotion, we exaggerate the good qualities of something or someone that we don’t have, and feel we have to have it. According to another definition, this disturbing emotion is attachment. It also exaggerates the good qualities of something or someone, but in this case, something or someone that we have and don’t want to let go of.  For example, we might view ourselves as a solid “me” and view our mind and the books in our house as “mine.” With longing desire, we exaggerate the good qualities of books, regard them as attractive from their own side, and feel we have to buy more and more – even though we have no time to read them – to prove that we are “an intellectual.” We might do the same with friends, attention, or anything else, in the hope of making our identity secure.

The third poisonous emotion is anger or hostility. It is a brutish state of mind that exaggerates the bad qualities of something or someone, and wants to harm it or get rid of it. Anger can be aimed at our own suffering or at situations that can cause suffering. We can be angry with a person or with our illness or the prison walls. It is as if our sickness could be taken out and shot. Something is threatening us, threatening our identity as a solid “me.” For instance, we may feel, “I am an orderly and neat person. I possess habits. This is the way that I keep my kitchen.” Then somebody comes in, moves things around and does something differently and we get very hostile and want to get them out of “MY kitchen” – “This is how I do it!” That is hostility.

These poisonous emotions and attitudes act as circumstances for an impulse of karma to arise. Karma is an impulse or an urge. It could be the urge to say something very cruel: “Get out of my kitchen, you idiot!” Or we see a book in the store and compulsively think, “I’ve got to have it!” We see that there is a group of men around and there is this beer bottle and we think, “I’ve got to show everybody how much of a man I am!” The urge to say something cruel, or to buy the book, or to open the beer bottle with our teeth is karma. We act out that impulse and do various actions, which then produce effects. The next scene in the movie may not be so nice.  

This is how it all works, in a very simple presentation. This is why we want to get rid of this grasping for true existence. It’s not sufficient to just get rid of our deluded outlook toward a transitory network. If we identity with being a short, fat, ugly person that nobody loves, we might realize that that is ridiculous. It is not referring to anything real. But that has not eliminated our grasping for true existence. We may have a relatively short, fat and ugly body and realize that this is not our true identity, and yet still grasp for a solid “me” and, on that basis, act selfishly. We have to get to the root: grasping for true existence.

I should add that if we don’t grasp for a solid “me,” then we don’t grasp for an identity of that “me” within our aggregates, such as our body, so we do not think that this solid “me” possesses something, like a sexually attractive body. Without that misconception, we do not have the longing desire with which we might unconsciously feel that, by having a sexual liaison each night with a different partner, this proves that I have a sexy body and that I exist. We can see, by this example, that if we get rid of the root of our problems, the rest falls apart.

Listening and Thinking

How do we meditate on all of this? How do we use this? First, let me explain a little about the theory of meditation. “Meditation” means to build up something as a positive habit. First, we try to listen to a correct explanation. The second step is to think about it, so that we understand it. If all of our meditation time is spent on the second step, trying to understand, for instance, what voidness means, that’s okay. We need to take time to do that. It is not easy. We need to understand what we have heard or read, and become convinced that it is correct. If we don’t think it’s correct, why would we want to adopt it? Then, the actual meditation entails making what we have heard and understood a part of ourselves, integrating it. In the case of meditation on the voidness of ourselves, we need to be able to generate a correct understanding and then practice seeing ourselves in light of it. Through frequent repetition, meditation builds this understanding up as a beneficial habit.

To understand voidness and be convinced that it is correct, we need to analyze with logic. How do we know things? What is a valid way of knowing? In Buddhism, we talk about two valid ways of knowing something. Either we perceive it straightforwardly through our senses, or we infer it. For example, we look at a mountainside and, by seeing a house there, we validly know that there is a house on the mountain. We know it by straightforward cognition, without needing to rely on logic.

But, how do we know that there is somebody living in that house or using it? Every day we see smoke coming out of the chimney. We can’t see someone inside, but we can infer that if there is smoke coming out the chimney not just once, but every day, somebody must be building a fire inside, so there must be somebody living there or coming there each day. We know this by inferential cognition.

For inference, we need to rely on a valid line of reasoning. In this case, it would be as follows: Where there is smoke there is fire. Smoke comes out of the chimney every day; therefore there must be a fire in the house every day. If there is fire in the house every day, there must be someone there every day who makes the fire. If there is someone in the house every day who makes a fire, there must be someone who either lives in the house or who visits it every day. We need to rely on this line of reasoning in order to generate the understanding or conviction that there is a person there.

The understanding here is with conviction based on logic. That is an important point. We have to be convinced that this is true. There is somebody who lives there or comes there. It’s not just thinking that perhaps there is somebody. Similarly, with regard to understanding voidness, it’s not just thinking that there probably is no solid “me.” We have to know that there is no solid “me.” So, we rely on a line of reasoning in order to understand and to become convinced. That is the second step leading up to meditation – the step of contemplating or thinking.

Meditating

In the third step, we go through the line of reasoning again. This is part of what is sometimes called “analytical meditation,” but I prefer to call it “discerning meditation,” since analysis is primarily what we do during the second step, thinking, in order to gain understanding and conviction. Now, however, we go though the line of reasoning once more, merely to generate our understanding and conviction freshly. “Fresh” means that it is vivid in our mind. Then we stop the verbal thinking process and just try to discern things with that conviction.

We were speaking before about how we can discern that there is no elephant in this room. We can discern that, we can see that. We can discern that there is no monster in the room. We can also discern that the room is not haunted by monsters. Similarly, we discern that we are not haunted by a false “me” inside. We try to discern that without saying anything in our head.

When we can really discern the absence of a false “me,” then we let it sink in. Letting it sink in is called “stabilizing meditation” or “fixating meditation.” We then alternate discerning and stabilizing meditations. When our stabilizing meditation is not so clear anymore, we need to try to discern this absence actively again. To do that, we may need to go through the line of reasoning again to get our understanding fresh once more. Once we become very familiar with voidness, we will be able to generate the understanding over and again without having to rely on the line of reasoning; we won’t have to generate it through inference.

When we have an inferential cognition of something through a line of reasoning, we cognize it conceptually. This means that that we cognize that something through a category to which it belongs. For example, we don’t actually see the person in the house on the mountainside, but we think about there being a person there through the general category a person. In simple language, we think of the person there through the idea of a person. That idea of a person doesn’t need to have a specific form or shape associated with it of what a person looks like, let alone what that specific person looks like. But it may have some sort of imagined image associated with it, to represent a person, or it may have the mental sound of the word person associated with it.

Likewise, when we have an inferential cognition of the absence of a solid “me,” we focus on it conceptually, through the category absence. But when we focus, through this category, on the total absence that is voidness, something has to appear to our mind associated with that conceptual cognition. What appears resembles the appearance of an empty space.

Buddhism defines “space” as an absence of any tangible impediment that would obstruct the spatial existence or motion of something material. What does an empty space look like? Well, when you see the absence of an elephant in this room, what do you see? You see “nothing.” But, we know that the nothing that we see is the absence of an elephant, don’t we? It is not just a nothing, is it? Think about that.

Voidness is like space, in the sense that it is the absence of any impossible way of existing that would prevent the conventional existence of something or the functioning of something in the context of cause and effect. When we focus on it through the category voidness or absence, similarly what appears to us associated with it is like an empty space – nothing. But we understand that this nothing is the absence of an impossible way of existing.

In the first step of our meditation on voidness, we have an inferential cognition of voidness. Our inferential cognition is conceptual, as are all inferential cognitions. It arose based directly on a line of reasoning and focuses on voidness through the category voidness. It is like focusing, through the category a person, on the person in the house on the mountainside. We can’t see and don’t know exactly what the person looks like, but we have the general idea of a person. Similarly, we can’t see and don’t know exactly what voidness looks like – or more precisely, what the appearance associated with a nonconceptual cognition of voidness looks like – but we have the general idea of an absence, as in the case of an empty space.

The next moment, after this inferential cognition, we have conceptual straightforward cognition of voidness. According to the Gelug presentation of the Prasangika Madhyamaka school of Indian Buddhism, straightforward cognition has two aspects: conceptual and nonconceptual. Both are “straightforward,” because neither relies directly on a line of reasoning. Conceptual straightforward cognition of voidness still focuses on voidness through the category of “a voidness” or “an absence.” What appears is the same as what appears to inferential cognition. It still looks like an empty space, like nothing.

It takes a great deal of time, effort, and an enormous build-up of positive potential (merit) in order to gain a nonconceptual straightforward cognition of voidness. But, eventually, we will gain that. Then our focus on voidness will not be through the category voidness. It will still look similar to an empty space or a nothing, but our cognition will be far more vivid than when it was conceptual.

Once we achieve nonconceptual straightforward cognition of voidness, we have just begun the process of ridding ourselves of the grasping for a true solid “me.” We need to gain a long familiarity with cognition of voidness. It is a long process, because unawareness or ignorance is very deeply ingrained in all of us. First, we rid ourselves of the doctrinally based grasping that came from learning some non-Buddhist view of reality. Then, with further meditation, we rid ourselves of the automatically arising grasping that even animals have. A dog, for instance, has its territory, which it considers “mine,” and barks at anybody who comes into it. Nobody had to teach the dog to do that. Then, in the end, we get our minds to stop producing and projecting appearances of true existence. Only then do we achieve enlightenment.

[See: The Five Pathway Minds (The Five Paths): Basic Presentation.]