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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 Two: Identifying the False "Me"

The Continuity of the Conventional “Me”

We have seen that according to the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we have a conventional “me,” which is actually an abstraction that can be labeled onto the everchanging stream of continuity of the five aggregates factors that make up each moment of our individual subjective experience. We have seen that this conventional “me” is included in the large aggregate that includes everything that is nonstatic and not in the other ones – all the emotions and so on. The conventional “me” is something that changes from moment to moment, it’s not static. “Now I’m doing this, now I’m doing that.” Obviously, it is changing from moment to moment. Also, it can produce effects. “I can wash my clothes; I can make somebody happy; I can make somebody unhappy.”

We spoke about how things can either last forever or for a short time. From the Mahayana point of view, each individual conventional “me” lasts forever, with no beginning and no end. Although an individual’s five aggregates may expand during a lifetime and then primarily exist in potential form during the bardo in between lives, the continuity of each individual mind or mental activity also goes on with no beginning and no end. It continues through to enlightenment as well. Different Indian Buddhist tenet systems assert different levels or aspects of mind as having an unbroken continuity that goes on forever. But, regardless of which system we follow, there is always some aspect of mental activity that can serve as a basis for labeling “me” and, because of that, we can say that the conventional “me” goes on forever.

Participant: I thought that a person ceases to exist when they attain nirvana.

Alex: That’s why I said, “according to Mahayana.” According to Theravada and perhaps other schools of Hinayana, the mental continuum ends at parinirvana, after you become a Buddha or an arhat and die. There are different theories. In any case, that attainment is probably a long way off for most of us, so our mind-streams are going to last for a long time.

Question: Does this mean karma lasts forever?

Alex: According to Mahayana, karma can be purified, in the sense of being cleansed away, without needing to ripen. According to Theravada, all karma will ripen, even if in trivial forms, before we attain parinirvana. No Buddhist system asserts that karma goes on forever.

Participant: There is a big difference between thinking that my mind-stream will end when I become an arhat and thinking that it will go on forever.

Alex: Buddha taught many different explanations to suit different people with different mentalities. They do not even necessarily have to be for different people, they could be for the same person in different stages of their life. This weekend, I am presenting a course from the point of view of the Indo-Tibetan Mahayana tradition. The assertion in that system is that each individual mental continuum goes on forever. Of course, if we have the opportunity to study many different Buddhist schools, we have to see for ourselves which one suits us now at our current level of development.

From the Mahayana point of view, the Hinayana presentation is for people who would become very discouraged if they thought that the mind-stream goes on forever. If they thought there was a definite end, it would give them much more courage. The Theravadins would not say that. Among the various schools of Hinayana, not even all Theravadins would say that the mind-stream ends with parinirvana. Some would say that after one becomes an arhat or a Buddha, the quality of the mental continuum changes and the old quality of it is finished. That is for sure. Everyone would agree with that.

But whether we adopt a Hinayana or a Mahayana view, in either case, we want to reach the point at which the continuity of our everyday, disturbed, crazy mind ends. Whether we think of anything following that or not is not so important. What is important is to get rid of the disturbing aspect. As I said, that is so far in the distance that it’s not such a big worry at the moment.

Identifying the False “Me”

In a sense, from the Mahayana point of view, there is something about each individual being that is eternal; however, it’s not permanent, it’s not static. We have to really understand what we are talking about here. When we say anatma or “no self,” that self is very specific; it is not just talking about any self. This self has a definition; it has certain qualities.

The first level of what we are refuting is that a self, a false “me,” an atman, that has three characteristics. The first characteristic is that it is static. Static doesn’t mean eternal. It is usually translated as “permanent,” but that term is misleading and confusing, especially here. Static means that it doesn’t change from moment to moment, it is not affected by anything, and it can’t produce any effect. “One plus one equals two” does not change. It is always the same. It cannot do anything. This “me” is changing from moment to moment; it’s doing different things at different moments. It is not something static.

The second characteristic we refute is that the self is one thing, which means that it is a monolith without any temporal parts and without any aspects that are parts of it. In a sense, this means that the self is always one and the same. The “me” in this life is one and the same as the “ me” in my past and future lives, and the “me” who is a father is one and the same as the “me” who is a son.

The third characteristic we refute is that the self is totally separate and therefore separable from any set of aggregates and so can fly off after death or nirvana and exist by itself. It is because of misconceiving ourselves to exist like this that we feel alienated from our body and from our feelings. Once I fell down and cracked my ribs, and the feeling that I had was that there was this little “me” that is separate from this whole experience and didn’t really want to associate with what was happening. I thought, “Oh no, I don’t want to go on this bad trip.” People who are sick often experience this. 

This type of “me,” with these three characteristics, is not referring to anything real. It becomes very important in the practice of voidness meditation to identify in our own experience how we hold this view of ourselves. We cannot go any further in the practice unless we identify in ourselves what this means to us from our own experience. We need to identify the false “me,” the “ me” to be refuted.

Questions and Discussion about a Static “Me”

Let’s think about it out loud as we try to identify this false “me.” I’ll just talk about it, but think about what I’m saying. Let’s be very informal.

I think that most people have the feeling that they remain the same throughout their whole life. Let’s talk only about this lifetime. For most Western people, the idea of future lives is a bit difficult to really start with.

Question: What do you mean by identifying this type of self within our meditation?

Alex: The first stage of meditation on voidness is to identify what is to be refuted. The great Indian master Shantideva wrote that if you cannot see the target, you cannot shoot an arrow into it. If we want to see that the fantasy we project about ourselves doesn’t refer to anything real, we have to be able to see what that fantasy is – not just theoretically and intellectually.

Think about it. Do you think – as I think most people do – that you are the same person that you were when you were ten years old? Like, “I was Alex when I was ten years old and now I’m a fifty-year old Alex – I am the same person?”

Participant: It’s like a river. A river gets a lot of water from everywhere. But inside the river, there is the water from the original spring.

Alex: That would be like, “Well, I’ve learned a lot of lessons – I’ve collected a lot of water – but I’m still ‘Alex,’ an older ‘Alex’ – the same basic river – who has learned these lessons and had these experiences.” It is almost as if we had gone on an interesting amusement park ride during our life and there is this “me” that went through that ride. Do you have that feeling about yourself?

Of course, it’s going to be different for each person. You have to identify from your own experience what this means. At least for myself, the feeling is that in some aspects I have changed, but in other aspects I’m still the same person.

We have to make a distinction here. We are individuals from the Buddhist point of view. I have not changed into somebody else. We sometimes do think we have changed, as in when we say, “Since I’v e had the baby, I’ve become a different person.” But, are we? This is the type of question we need to ask ourselves. What does it mean to say we have changed?

The Buddhist method is not that of a teacher or a book giving us the answers to questions. We have to experience things ourselves. If we look at the example of the Buddha himself, how did he learn? He learned by seeing a dead person, an old person, a sick person and a monk. It meant something to him. We can give suggestions in Buddhism, but then we have to ask ourselves these questions and really try to get some feeling for what they really mean, and not just say, “I don’t think like that” and dismiss it. Even if we have some experience and some understanding of Buddhism, we need to go more subtly and more deeply and think, “Do I really think like that on some subtle level?” We examine ourselves: “A self that is static – it doesn’t change, it’s not affected by anything, and doesn’t affect anything else – have I ever thought of myself like that? What could that mean?”

Have you ever had the experience of being with people or being in a crowd and not wanting to be there? You just sort of close everything out and retreat to some little part of your head as if somehow you could disappear and that your presence there doesn’t affect anybody? You just dissociate yourself from the whole situation? I have that experience sometimes. The idea that we are static leads us to think that we could just extricate ourselves from cause and effect, as if what we do and say doesn’t matter anymore, because we’ve turned off. For instance, the baby is crying and we are tired and don’t want to get up and so, for a minute, we just don’t hear the baby anymore, as if nothing is happening. We start to look into where and when we might have experienced this. What is it talking about in my life?

Participant: I know this experience, but it is as if I exist on another level than the people around me.

Alex: Exactly. It is like that. You have to walk down a dangerous street at night and you protect yourself by withdrawing inside, like you have gone into another level and that there is a precious little “me” that you can keep immune from everything and that is not going to be affected by anything. We think, “I’m not going to let myself be afraid,” which is really weird, as if there were two “me’s.” Or we’re involved with somebody on an emotional level and they break up with us and say terrible things and we just freeze up inside as if we had gone onto another level and exist as a static self, unaffected by what just happened.

In order for meditation on voidness to have any effect on our lives, we have to be able to relate all of this to our personal experience. Otherwise it’s just an intellectual exercise that goes nowhere.

Participant: It seems that beneath this other level, there are even subtler levels in oneself that one wants to protect even more, like something very, very holy that we do not even want to speak about.

Alex: That’s getting closer to what we’re talking about: “There is something special in here and I don’t want to get it dirty. I don’t want to get involved with you, because I don’t want to get hurt.” Is that what being static means?

Why don’t we spend a few minutes and think about it. We’re looking for experiences in which we imagine that somehow we are separate from what’s going on and not affected by anything. Once I was bitten by a dog and I felt this way. It was as if there was a “me” inside who was being violated by this creature. How could this being actually bite “me”? It was just inconceivable.

[Silent contemplation]

Further Discussion about a Static “Me”

Some people were talking while we were contemplating and I noticed that a few people turned and looked at them. “What’s going on? What’s happening?” This is the thought, “I don’t want to be interrupted,” as if there were some “me” inside that does not want to be affected by what is happening. We want to keep the “me” a static thing inside of us that is not changing and can just do its own thing without being affected by everything else going on. We have this experience all the time! There are so many examples if we start to really look.

Question: Is there any static “me” at all, which doesn’t change from moment to moment?

Alex: No. There’s nothing static underneath our conventional “me.” Our conventional “me” is all there is and it does change from moment to moment.  But even if we see that, we don’t want to accept it. For a few moments we might understand it and think in terms of the “me” always changing, but then we lose our mindfulness and see things differently.

Question: Is emptiness that state of mind wherein whatever happens within me is always in harmony with whatever happens outside?

Alex: First of all, let me clarify. Emptiness or voidness is not a state of mind. But a mind that understands voidness would be in harmony, both externally and internally, in the sense that we would be fully participating in whatever is happening. For instance, with the people talking during the meditation, we would respond by thinking, “People are talking. I heard it. So what?” and continue our meditation. “If other people here don’t want to meditate during this time, that’s their loss. Maybe they didn’t understand and they were asking their neighbor a question to clarify. Who knows?” Like this, we are in harmony with what’s happening and just go on with our own meditation. Where we get into trouble is when we think of this solid, static “me”: “This is my holy, special time to meditate and I paid so much money for it and now I want to have my special time! How dare you talk and interrupt ME!”

This wish to be able to cut ourselves off from everything and just do what we want without being affected by anything else, as if we were static, is the basic underlying premise or thought for being selfish and self-centered. When we’re selfish, we’re thinking only of ourselves, that we’re not affected by anything else that’s going on around us, and we don’t affect them. We don’t care. We’re just looking at ourselves: “I have to get served first at the restaurant. I have to get this first. ME, ME, ME, ME.” That is a “me” that is static and out of context with what is happening around us.

Participant: This certainly does not mean that one doesn’t behave at all or react at all to what happens outside.

Alex: That’s right. That is why we say there is a conventional “me.” Otherwise, we couldn’t function. But, in fact, we still respond to whatever is happening.

Participant: Maybe the essence is that one really gets involved when it is necessary, but whenever things are not so urgent, one just passes them by.

Alex: In a sense. One doesn’t take things personally, as a personal insult. We are not the center of the universe.

Participant: I saw someone who was angry and I thought he was angry with me. That might not have been the case. Maybe he had troubles with his shoe.

Alex: Yes, when we get angry like that, that’s called self-preoccupation. It comes from this misconception about how we exist. By thinking about ourselves all of the time, we think we are the center of the universe and if somebody has a funny look on his face, then we think it’s because of us. Or I might think, “I came to Europe a few days ago and the weather here turned cold a few days ago, so I must have brought the cold weather.” That’s narcissistic self-preoccupation.

Or, the waitress brings all the food for my friends at the table and she didn’t bring my pizza. I could get very angry: “I want MY pizza. I’m starving. Everyone else always gets served, but I never get what I ordered. She doesn’t like me.” That’s childish, isn’t it? On the other hand, if our order really takes a long time, we don’t need to just sit there and think,  “Well, whether she brings it or not, same-same.” We can ask her to please check on our pizza, but without getting angry and taking it personally. That’s the whole point: don’t take things personally.

It comes as a big shock to most people, especially young people, they that are not the center of the universe. Young people – and even some older people – worry about what they look like when they go out. “Oh, I have a pimple. Nobody is going to like me.” The reality is that nobody cares. Nobody is looking. Everybody is just concerned about themselves; they’re not checking whether or not you have a pimple. Other people think that they are the center of the universe and that everyone is looking at them. But, of course, we do not go to the other extreme and just walk out naked. What we are trying to do is to get out of this self-preoccupation as if we were the center of the universe.

Question: For normal day-to-day things that may well be, but another example is a black African in Germany who was verbally abused and maybe even thrown out of the subway and got hurt. This person starts to be afraid and becomes paranoid. Here, it is not the person himself who is imagining that something is happening to him, but it is the society and people in it that do something to the person. What is there to say about this?

Alex: Again, one would try not to take it personally. The African in your example can think: “The people on the subway don’t know me as a person. They are just reacting to the color of my skin. I am not just the color of my skin. It does not affect me as a person. It doesn’t mean that I’m a less worthy person.” Of course, we have to deal with other people’s prejudices and be careful about how we look and about how we act and so on. But, if we don’t take everything personally, then we don’t lose our dignity through the experience. If we have to pass by a yard where an excited dog is barking at passersby, we can take that personally: “That dog doesn’t like me!” or we can think, “This is a very disturbed dog that barks at anybody and I happen to be walking by, so it’s barking at me.” We are careful, of course, but we don’t get personally offended and hurt by the dog. I think it is similar.

Actually, we could take it even further. We could think, in reference to the dog, “Maybe this dog has been mistreated by its owner, and that’s why it’s barking so furiously at everybody who is passing by.” Similarly, “Maybe these people on the subway are suffering from economic pressures and are dissatisfied with their lives and the consequences of reunification here in Germany, and so, because of that, they are venting their frustration on dark-skinned foreigners like me.” Thinking in this way, we develop understanding and compassion, rather than fear and paranoia.  

Questions and Discussion about a “Me” That Is One

“One” literally means one or identical. Do we somehow think of ourselves as always being the same thing regardless of what happens, like a monolith without any parts? I must say that I do think like this very often. Alex was in India in the beginning of this week, then Alex was in Prague and now Alex is in Berlin, but it is always “Alex” – this one thing. It is like one person going to two different movies or watching another television program. Is that reality? I think that that is what this quality of being “one” is all about: a partless monolith remaining the same all the time.

Participant: Intuitively, I thought that this quality of being one means that I am one with everything that happens; that everything is just one thing.

Alex: No, it’s thinking about ourselves, not about what’s around us.

Participant: So, does that mean being one with myself or in unison with myself? But, that’s a very positive thing.

Alex: It is certainly not talking about that. Think in terms of what it could mean to think that “I” am a partless monolith.

Question: If I think that I am one, then if one part is missing – like a hand or a leg – then there is no “me” anymore.

Alex: Exactly. If I lose my hand, am I still “me”? If I get Alzheimer’s and lose my memory and my personality, am I still “me”? This problem comes together with identifying “me” with some aspect of our experience – for instance, our body as a whole or our mind as a whole – and then thinking that “I” am identical with this one monolithic thing. After all, if the “me” is partless, it can’t lose any parts.

Question: Should we really differentiate between this idea of a monolithic person like a stone statue and, on the other hand, this idea of being one with my feelings? Both are illusions, so why do we have to make a distinction here?

Alex: Those are two separate issues. The idea of being one with our feelings has to do with not feeling separate and alienated from them. This is a different point from the concept of a partless monolith that is “one.”

Participant: I have a little bit of a problem with the word “monolithic.” It sounds a little bit static. For me, it’s more a one-pointed focus, more of a process.

Question: There seems to be something enduring through time, but which has all of these experiences. Is this is what you mean by “monolithic”? Is it something that goes like a thread through life?

Alex: This comes later. There is a line of reasoning that we use in voidness meditation called “neither one nor many.” In that discussion, “one” is explained as follows. “Alex” and “Alex” are one; “Alex” and “Dr. Berzin” are two. They are different. They are referring to the same person but they are not identical, they are different words. “One” implies totally identical, all the time.

So, is there one thing inside me that is sacred and that is the real “me” and is always the same? People may call me “Dr. Berzin” or “Alexander,” they may call me anything. But to me, I’m really “Alex.” That’s interesting. Do you ever have that experience? I have different names. Professionally people call me one thing, my friends call me another thing, and so who am I really? To me, I’m really “Alex.” The whole point is that this idea is incorrect. Maybe it has something to do with the feeling that there are all these different levels of “me,” each with a different name, but somehow inside there is this real “me” as one sacred thing, without any of these parts having different names. It is probably more like that. I think most people think like this. Is this something you can recognize in yourselves?

As I said, this whole practice of voidness meditation is a process. It is not enough for somebody to just tell us in one sentence what voidness means, and then we write it down and are finished.

Participant: As long as we have not reached the liberated stage of an arhat, it seems that there is always this feeling of a “me.” This “me” might change, but the feeling of a “me” is always there.

Alex: The conventional “me” is always there, sure. But we add to it and exaggerate it. That’s the problem. We project onto it some special “me” inside that is always one and the same, without any parts.

How about this experience: We say, “You really hurt me” as though you touched that really deep place in me where it hurts. All the other things that you said were bad enough, but now “you really got to ME.” This is what we’re talking about. We get very indignant: “This is my private special ME!”

Question: Isn’t that which is hurt in such a situation really something that we have never dared to look at, something like the neurotic side of ourselves, like our shadow?  Is it something that would resolve itself were we able to look at it clearly?

Alex: We need to be careful here. When Jungian psychology speaks about our shadow side, a negative side that usually remains unconscious, it still asserts that this shadow side is real. In Buddhism, the false “me” is not real. There is a big difference. Also, just becoming aware of our misconception about ourselves and how we exist is not enough for getting rid of that misconception, although it is a start. We need to realize that this misconception is not referring to anything real.

Participant: As soon as we look at our private special “me,” it isn’t holy anymore.

Alex: The question is, as we try to look at it, is there anything there to find?

Participant: Change.

Alex: What are we left with after we’ve gotten rid of the false “me”? We’re left with a self that changes all of the time. Well, what is that? You say “change,” but can there be change without something that is changing? And how does that thing that changes exist? Is it some solid findable thing that is changing, or what? Please think about it.