Voidness in Terms of Dependent Arising
Session One: Introduction to Voidness
I’ve been asked this weekend to speak about the topic of voidness, which is of course an advanced topic and a topic which is not terribly easy to understand. And in order to understand it, we need to be very well prepared. If we’re not prepared – in other words, if we don’t have the background and we don’t have a strong enough motivation for wanting to understand it – it will remain something very confusing. Therefore, if we look in terms of cause and effect, then we ask the question: What will be the causes for being able to understand voidness?
We can’t say that the understanding is simply going to arise simply on the basis of having a very clear explanation, or on the basis of having simply a great deal of intelligence, or a great deal of background, or a great deal of effort on our parts, or having the proper conducive circumstances. But our understanding is going to arise dependently on all these factors. And so we need to seek out good explanations. But first we need to be prepared to be able to understand them. And to be prepared to understand them, we of course need conducive circumstances to make that preparation in. So, although I will try to explain a little bit about voidness, don’t be discouraged if you find it quite difficult to understand. Because, no matter how clear an explanation may be, those who are unprepared won’t be able to understand it; and no matter how confusing an explanation might be, those who are prepared may be able to understand it.
Now if we ask “What is the need for understanding voidness?” then, from one point of view or one level, we can say the importance of it is for helping us to overcome suffering. So that of course is in the context of an understanding of cause and effect. And here when we speak about cause and effect, then that of course is a complex issue. Most systems of thought do explain cause and effect on a physical level. You push a ball and the ball goes in a certain direction – this type of causality. And theistic systems bring in God as a cause for various things to happen. But within nontheistic explanations, then, Buddhism is quite unique in terms of explaining that what we experience is caused by what we do.
Now that doesn’t mean that, just on a simple level, if we walk into a room then we experience seeing what’s inside the room. We’re not speaking on such a simplistic level. Everybody can understand that, pretty much. And we’re not speaking just in terms of physical causality, in the sense that you bang your foot against the chair and then you feel pain. But we’re speaking on the level of our experience of happiness and unhappiness, and this is caused by our state of mind, our actions. Actually, to be a little bit more precise, it’s caused by our behavior, the way that we act and speak (or communicate) and think; and all of those are affected and influenced very much by our attitudes.
We speak in terms of disturbing attitudes, disturbing emotions, and even when they are positive types of emotions, like love and compassion, usually there’s something disturbing underlying them, like attachment. And underlying the disturbing emotions and attitudes is our confusion, our simply not knowing various things. This is referring to our unawareness of either cause and effect in terms of what we are speaking about now – that the way that we behave, based on these emotions and so on, is going to cause our happiness and unhappiness – so we’re unaware of that causal relationship or we understand it in a reversed way.
Let me just give an example so we have a clearer idea of what I’m speaking about. We think that, for instance, if I act on the basis of anger – say I’m not getting my way, and I act on the basis of anger and yell at somebody and so on – that then I will get my way and I will be happy. So either we don’t know that getting angry and yelling at somebody is a cause for unhappiness, or we think (in a reversed way) that it will in fact make us happy. But no one is happy while they feel anger; it’s a very unpleasant feeling. And nobody feels happy being the object of our anger. And it doesn’t cause them to be friendly and happy back toward us, even on the short term, even if they might obey what we scream and yell at them to do. And we build up the habit to deal with anything that we don’t like by responding on the basis of anger, and so we just continue to create more and more unhappy experiences. So we’re unaware of this causal relationship. And Buddhism is unique in speaking in terms of this type of causality without bringing in God and these other external factors.
So when we speak about voidness, voidness is literally speaking about an absence. The Sanskrit word for voidness is the same word that is used for the number zero. And what it means is not that nothing exists and there is no such thing as causality – if we speak in terms of, here, its application to causality – but it means that there is zero or nothing backing up our false belief about how causality works. And so I usually explain voidness as an absence – a total absence – of something impossible: an impossible way of existing, an impossible way of functioning.
And we have to understand that when we speak about the mind, we’re speaking about mental activity. We’re not speaking about an instrument or thing that does that activity. We’re speaking of that activity. And that mental activity makes appearances of things, and knows those or cognizes – sees these appearances in one way or another. And so, because of confusion, this mental activity creates appearances of what is impossible. And although our confusion – I mean the habit of confusion – makes this false appearance, and with our confusion, either we don’t know that there’s nothing backing it up in terms of reality, or we believe in these false appearances and we think that it actually does correspond to reality. And so the purpose of voidness here, and our understanding of voidness, is to negate that there’s anything backing up what we focus on, in terms of these appearances. So, in that sense, zero. There’s nothing behind it.
When we talk about appearance, we’re not just talking about a visual appearance. We don’t really have a good word for that, at least in English. Let me use an example of how we would say it in English, at least: “It appears to me that if I yell at you, I will get my way and I’ll be happy.” That’s an appearance. So it seems like that. It feels like that. Well, perhaps I’m mixing two steps here. “It seems like that” is the first step. Then “It feels like that” is when I believe it, when I believe that it corresponds to reality.
“It seems to me that, since I’m depressed, if I go and eat some chocolate ice cream it’s going to make me happy.” It seems like that. I think that. That sort of comes up to, we would say – it comes to my mind, and I believe that that’s true. So it really feels as though that’s true. And so I go to the refrigerator or I go out to the store and I get myself a chocolate ice cream, and I eat it with the hope that it will make me happy. And afterwards, well, maybe I do feel a little bit happy, but that happiness certainly doesn’t last, and it didn’t make all that work that was sitting by my desk – or it didn’t make the dirty dishes in the sink – go away. They’re still there. The problem is still there. So our hope for happiness here is misdirected, in terms of what would bring us happiness.
And so the purpose here of understanding voidness would be to understand that, although things might appear to me in a certain way, this is a projection based on confusion. And what’s missing – this is what voidness is talking about: what’s not there, and what was never there, and never will be there – is something backing it up in reality that corresponds to what I think is there. And what we are talking about here is a relationship between cause and effect. So that’s one aspect of voidness, one level of voidness, and it’s speaking in a very general way. Voidness is not usually used, in a technical sense, to refer to eliminating our understanding of cause and effect in terms of just simple behavior. Because here what we’re speaking about in terms of destructive behavior, destructive thinking, disturbing emotions leading to unhappiness – this is dealing with what we would call conventional or relative truth of things. That’s referring to appearances of what things are. So it appears to us that there’s this type of behavior. It appears as though there’s this type of result. And it appears to us that this cause brings this type of result: angry behavior brings happiness.
If I call my friend, the one that I love so much – my partner – every hour, on the hour, they’re going to love me even more, and it’s going to make our relationship happier. There are many, many examples that we can cite here. This is an example of attachment and clinging; that this is somehow going to bring us more happiness. That’s dealing with what things are. We call that relative or conventional truth. “What things are” I suppose is not exactly a precise way of saying it, but there’s not really an easy way of saying it, what we’re talking about here. But in Buddhism we also speak about the deepest level of truth about things, and that deals with how things exist – not in terms of what exists, like causal relationships, but how they exist. So how I exist, how you exist, how everything exists. And it’s not denying that things exist, when we talk about voidness. But, again, our mental activity makes things appear to exist in a certain way, and there’s nothing backing that up. That’s when our mental activity is under the influence of the habits of confusion.
And we’re not speaking here so abstractly about how things exist. We’re speaking more in terms of what establishes the existence of something. Now this is not an easy concept to understand. The word here that I translate as “to establish” or “to establish the existence of something,” it appears in many different grammatical forms in Tibetan – and the original Sanskrit as well, it appears in many grammatical forms – and some of the other forms of this word, drub (sgrub) in Tibetan or siddha in Sanskrit, have the meaning of “to actualize” something. Now to actualize would be – like, for instance, there’s these various attainments that we can achieve with Buddhist practice, such as compassion for everyone, or understanding of everything, these sorts of things, extrasensory perception, and this word is used: to actualize that, so you actually have that. So when we speak in tantra of a sadhana (sgrub-thabs), it’s a method to actualize ourselves as one of these Buddha-figures. To actually make it happen; actually make us that way.
And so here, in terms of the discussion of voidness, when I use the word “establish” we’re talking about what establishes the existence of something. So what do we actually mean then in terms of this understanding of actualization? These are very difficult words to translate into English or, obviously, into Latvian, or into any other language. That’s why I’m explaining it a little bit elaborately. So if we look at an example of what I’m speaking about here, we’re saying what establishes me as “me”? What makes me “me”? Is there something special that makes me “me” and not “you”? Well, obviously I’m not you and I’m not the table either. So if there is something that makes me “me,” where is it? Is it on the side of my mind? Is it on the side of my body? What makes me “me”? And this is the topic, here, of voidness, when we are speaking on the deepest level. It seems as though there is something making me “me,” which actually is impossible. And voidness is saying that there’s nothing backing that up. Zero. Total absence.
This is not easy to understand, so we need further examples. And I’m using voidness here and introducing the topic in a very, very general way. I’m not speaking in terms of any specific school or anything like that. Let’s use the example of low self-esteem. Low self-esteem, that’s a disturbing attitude and it can lead to very destructive behavior, self-destructive. We could become anorexic, for example: that “I’m terrible. I’m no good. I have to look so thin,” and like that, “so then I’ll be loved and accepted,” etc. And we starve ourselves. There are so many neurotic syndromes that can arise from low self-esteem, and it’s based on confusion about how we exist. This is just to speak in general, but we need to get more specific.
So it’s not just that I exist as being no good or not good enough, but more that there’s something wrong with me that makes me not good enough. Or there’s something wrong with you that makes you an idiot. “You’re an idiot.” And we have this judgment, in a sense, and we relate to the other person: you’re an idiot; you’re whatever. We always yell at them. There’s something basically wrong with you that makes you an idiot.
Now, of course, we can analyze more deeply in terms of cause and effect relationships: what is the causality relationship here, in terms of what establishes someone to be an idiot or to be not good enough. But we don’t need to get into a technical discussion here. We’re not talking really, here, in terms of creation, in terms of making something, like you make a table. It’s more subtle.
This word “to establish” also is used for the meaning “to prove something,” or “to affirm” or “reaffirm” something. So we have this very complex word that we’re using here that is very intimately involved with the whole discussion of voidness. Well, when we work with voidness and the understanding of voidness then the simplest level that we need to understand is that there are all these projections – my mental activity, my mind, is making all these projections – of something impossible. Impossible relations between things in terms of causality, particularly in terms of my experience of life, and impossible ways in which things are established as what they are and how they exist. Let’s use a more subtle example because I think this also helps to illustrate what I’m speaking about here.
If we analyze from the point of view of science, then we can speak in terms of electromagnetic radiation; we can speak in terms of force fields; we can speak in terms of atomic and subatomic particles, etc. So when I look out in this room and my mind makes an appearance, there is an appearance. It’s like a mental hologram. This is what I see. There’s all these photons and light rays coming in and transformed into electrical impulses through the neurons going from my retina to the brain, and it’s sort of reassembled into a mental hologram and that’s what I see. It’s an appearance. It’s like a mental hologram.
So what establishes this person’s body as something distinct from the background? I can see this person’s hair. It’s a dark color. And behind this person’s head, I see the black shirt of the gentleman sitting in the back of the room. Now, if it’s just a whole bunch of photons coming in, what establishes that dark colored shape is part of this person’s head and the other dark colored shape is part of that person’s shirt? Is there a line that goes around the top of this person’s head that establishes it as a distinct object? Or is it encapsulated in plastic that then separates it from the shirt that I see behind? What makes it an object? What establishes it as a distinct individual thing? Or is it established just simply in terms from the side of the mind? So, to speak on a more subtle level, we’re speaking about that.
What makes somebody a good person – establishes them as a good person or a bad person or a pretty person or an ugly person? We’re also speaking on an even more basic level of what establishes anything as anything. So we get very, very subtle here when we get into our understanding of voidness. And we have to go back to the way that I started this discussion of, well, what’s the purpose of understanding voidness? It is to eliminate the suffering and problems that arise based on believing that there is something backing up and supporting our misconceptions, our false projections. So we have to understand when we understand voidness that there is nothing backing it up. There never was. There never will be. Zero. That’s why I prefer the – I don’t know if there are two different words in Latvian – but in English I prefer the word “voidness” rather than “emptiness.” It’s not that there is empty – like there’s a box that’s sitting there, and inside it’s empty. But, rather, voidness means zero. It’s also the word for zero. There’s nothing there on that level.
It doesn’t mean that nothing exists whatsoever, but it’s saying that these impossible things don’t exist. Zero. Although our mind makes things appear in these impossible ways and, unfortunately, we believe that it’s true. And we believe it’s true that “I’m not good enough,” for example, because it really feels like that. And what’s really nasty is the more that we believe in that, it reinforces that belief and it feels like that even more; and so it perpetuates itself. This is part of what we call “samsara”: uncontrollably recurring problems. And this belief “I’m not pretty enough,” “I’m not good enough,” all these things – “I’m not thin enough” – then cause us to engage in self-destructive behavior; destructive to others as well, in terms of our family, etc. And it results in unhappiness. We are unhappy while we feel not good enough, and it just makes us feel even more unhappy the more that we believe it and act on its basis.
Perhaps we can have some questions if you understand this or not. First let’s take a minute to just digest what I’ve spoken about.
Let me give one more example that just came to me that maybe is helpful. I believe, for example, that there is such a thing as witches who have the power to change people into frogs. And because I believe that there’s a thing as that, I’m very afraid of these witches. And as I look around in my city and I see some women who are acting not in the usual way as everybody else, then my mind makes it appear as if this is a witch and she can change me into a frog. And there’s something on the side of this woman that makes her a witch – maybe it’s the influence of the devil or something like that – that establishes her as a witch with this satanic power to change me into a frog. And so I live in terrible fear. And, because of that habit of believing in witches, then it appears to me that various women are witches. And I think, in terms of cause and effect, if I burn this woman alive that this will get rid of the influence of the devil. And so I go around and I have these trials of witches, and there’s great fear and great belief that burning them alive is going to save us all from being turned into a city of frogs. Then we have witch burning. But with the understanding of voidness, we would understand that although, because of my habit and the fear that it produces, it seems as though various people are witches with this power, there is nothing backing it up in reality. This appearance doesn’t correspond to anything real. Nothing. Absent. Never was; never will be.
So the same type of analysis can be applied to: “There’s somebody who will be the perfect partner, the prince or princess on the white horse. If I meet them and marry them, then we will live happily ever after.” Or, “If I move to this wonderful city that I think is going to be so great, or if I get the perfect job, that that also will make me eternally happy.” These are all fantasies. They’re based on a belief in something which is impossible. Shantideva has a nice analogy that he uses in terms of children crying when the waves wash away the sandcastles that they build on the beach. And our beliefs are like these sandcastles – there is nothing to substantiate them; nothing holding it up.
So, what questions might you have?
Question: So, basically, everything which I see and everything which I cognize, we could consider it kind of this mental projection which comes from habituation and which comes from my mind; maybe from my previous karma. And so if I perceive this and start recognizing that these are just projections and I start reacting accordingly, and then I finally reach enlightenment, then the question is maybe this is still this projection, the same kind of a film which is going on, but it’s just not really real. Everything is basically just determined by our mind. Just by themselves, things aren’t bad or good; everything is assigned by our mind.
Alex: Well, now we have to get into a discussion of appearance-making. When we speak about basic mental activity, which is what mind means, there are two facets or two aspects that are working together in connection with the two truths about things. What we call the “two truths.” One is what it appears to be; so what it is. And the other is how its existence is established; how it exists. So what it is and how it exists. Now if we use the Gelug explanation of this… There are many different variants of explanation of how we classify these appearances, how you classify appearance-making, but let’s just use one system. Since this is a Gelug center, we’ll use the Gelugpa explanation, from Tsongkhapa:
We have to differentiate between accurate appearances and distorted appearances. And so, basically, according to the Gelug explanations, the mind is making accurate appearances – or it has the ability to make accurate appearances – but distorted appearances are projected on top of it. So it’s an exaggeration or an interpolation; something added on top. The word means a feather added to an arrow. So there’s something, and then something extra is added that doesn’t need to be there.
Let’s use an example. There’s a girl, a woman, but this woman has a man’s haircut and wears men’s clothing and is quite flat-chested, and it appears to me that this is a man. Well, actually it’s a woman, but I can’t tell; and not only can I not tell by seeing this person from a little bit of a distance but, in fact, it seems to me that that’s a man. So there is a woman appearing but, projected on top of that, is also an appearance of a man. Now it’s deceptive in the sense that it looks like a man; but it’s also distorted because it’s not a man, it’s a woman. So there is an accurate appearance and there’s a projection of a false appearance. So the same thing in terms of how things exist: an accurate appearance and a projection of false appearance. So the mechanism of mental holograms as how we actually – how a mind actually knows things, that stays the same whether it’s an ordinary being, whether it’s a bug, whether it’s a Buddha. That’s the same. What a Buddha doesn’t have are these false projections; everything is accurate.
I mean, this example of a man or a woman – it’s very interesting in terms of what establishes that it’s a man or a woman. Now we’re not seeing them in the sauna in which they are naked, so we’re seeing them fully clothed, and so we’re basing our understanding, our belief, in terms of: this woman is established as a man because of the haircut and the clothes and the fairly flat chest. So it seems as though it’s established from the side of the appearance, doesn’t it, that this is a man. But who decided that a certain haircut means a man’s haircut and certain haircut is a woman’s haircut? Where did that come from? And that a certain type of clothing is a man’s clothing and a certain type of clothing is a woman’s clothing. I think that the most wonderful example is buttons: that buttons on one side is man, and on the other side is woman’s. Who decided that? That’s convention. It was decided by mind, by some people who got together and decided that this is what men will wear and this is what women will wear; and this is how men will have their hair and this is how women will have their hair. It’s totally invented by the mind. It’s mentally established, established from the side of convention, not from the side of the object.
Mental labeling. My favorite example for that is: you go to a center, a Dharma center or whatever, and there are two toilets. They are exactly the same inside, but one has written on the door “Men’s” and one has written on the door “Women’s.” And the men’s one could be completely empty, but the women will not use it because it says, written on the door, “Men’s.” Perfect example. Actually, many women will use the men’s one; it’s the men that won’t use the women’s.
Question: Another analogy is: I’m standing here and there’s a Buddha or a bodhisattva standing next to me. We see a tiger coming after us; it’s clear that he’s hungry. Am I accurately perceiving it to say, “He is hungry. He will realistically eat me if I don’t move”? At what point am I perceiving it accurately? At what point would I be adding a distortion to it? And would a Buddha perceive the tiger chasing us differently than I would as a samsaric human?
Alex: Okay. Let me repeat that, since I don’t know if it came to the recording. If we’re standing and we see a Buddha or a bodhisattva, and a tiger is running toward us, and it’s obvious that the tiger is hungry and it’s going to eat us, then is that an accurate perception or not? And how would a Buddha perceive it versus how I would perceive it?
Well, if the tiger is indeed hungry and we are labeled by the tiger as lunch, it’s quite likely that the tiger is going to eat us. But, I mean, you never know – the tiger could have a heart attack before it reaches us; but let’s assume that that’s not going to happen. A Buddha would see that; that is accurate. We would see that also; that is accurate. Let’s not get into what has not yet happened in terms of the tiger eating us, but certainly we’d see the tiger running toward us.
Now the question is: what is projected on top of that? Now obviously a Buddha would have compassion, both for the tiger and for us, and a Buddha would not have fear, and a Buddha wouldn’t just stand there and watch – he would handle it according to whatever would be most beneficial in this situation. But here it’s not so much the appearance of what’s happening that can be distorted. I mean, obviously if we thought that this animal running toward us was a large pussy cat that was going to come and lick us, as opposed to eat us – okay, that could be a bit distorted. Maybe, because of the influence of the Buddha, the tiger would be tamed and not eat the Buddha, but that’s getting a little bit in the realm of what’s silly. The point is that for us, we would experience this probably with great fear. So the fear is based on a false projection on top of the appearance of this animal running toward me. So it’s the projection that this is a monster that’s running toward me, and the big solid “Me Me Me” – that if I get eaten, then I won’t exist anymore, or whatever. I mean, there can be all sorts of false ideas of how we exist and what will happen to us. So if we don’t have that fear based on that misunderstanding, then we could act in way which: either as a super bodhisattva and feed ourselves to the hungry tigress, as the Buddha did in a previous lifetime; or somehow try to avoid being eaten by the tiger; or we could start praying.
That reminds me of one of my favorite Buddhist jokes, so I cannot resist telling it. The joke is told in terms of a bear, but we can use it in terms of the tiger. The tiger is running toward us, running toward us, as we’re running away; and we trip and we fall, and so we start to pray. And so we pray, “May the tiger be a Buddhist. May the tiger be a Buddhist…” And so the tiger finally catches up to us, and is over us with claws out and so on. Then we hear the tiger say, “I offer this food to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” So we have to be careful what we pray for.
So any other questions?
Question: Is it true then that this mental hologram for Buddha is zero?
Alex: Is it true that the mental hologram for a Buddha is zero? No. A mind of a Buddha certainly works in terms of mental holograms – that’s not the problem – but everything is accurate in terms of the mental hologram. And so, for example, rather than seeing things totally separate and isolated from each other, as if encapsulated in plastic, then a Buddha would see the interconnection of everything. “See” meaning to understand, to perceive. So Buddha perceives the tiger not just as this entity running at me or at you, but sees all the history of the tiger; the tiger maybe has hungry babies or itself is hungry; maybe it’s on the verge of extinction, and has been over-hunted and has been terrified throughout its life; and it sees in terms of the person that’s about to be eaten all the karmic causes and various things that has led to that situation. So Buddha sees all the interconnected causes and circumstances, past, what the results would be, etc.
An example that I often use is the example of looking through a periscope in a submarine. You look through this little pipe and you can only see a very small amount of the vista. You don’t see 360 degrees; you see just a little bit. So, similarly, when we have this type of body that we have and the type of brain that we have, then because of that hardware – if we can use that terminology – our perception is very limited. We only see what’s in front of our noses. And so it could be accurate, what we see within that limited field. But what is inaccurate is to think that it’s encapsulated with plastic, and that’s all that there is. That’s not backed by anything because, in fact, there’s the whole vista – 360 degrees. That’s what a Buddha would perceive because a Buddha doesn’t have the limited hardware of this type of body and brain and mind that only can see things like through a periscope.
So you see, this is what is absent – what is impossible – is that things exist all by themselves, establishing themselves in isolation from everything else. That’s a very, very important point, and we will develop that in the next portion of our teachings. So, as I said, using this example of the tiger, what we see through the periscope is just an animal running at us. But that’s not all that really exists, because that animal running at us has its own background, we have our own background, there are the hunting restrictions, there’s the global warming and cutting down of the forests, and the tigers becoming extinct – a huge combination of factors that are going on, but we just see an animal running at us. Not only that, but it appears as though there’s this monster that’s going to destroy me.
So what is accurate then is that things don’t establish themselves in isolation from everything else, but things are established dependently. That’s known as dependent arising. And when we speak of dependent arising, when things arise or come about dependently on other things, not just by their own power, then we can understand that on three levels. We can understand this on the level of cause and effect: things arise dependently on causes and conditions. We can also understand that things arise dependently on parts. And we can understand that things arise dependently in terms of what concepts and mental labels and names and conventions refer to. The third one is very subtle, so we’ll get to that tomorrow. It’s the topic that is referred to usually with the term “mental labeling” or “imputation.”
Participant: Unfortunately, “mental labeling” and “imputation” in Latvian is just one word.
All right. Let us first look in terms of causality. We only have a short amount of time left in our first session, so I’ll just introduce the topic. We’ll speak about it in more detail in the afternoon.
Now when we speak in terms of causality, as we spoke earlier this morning, there are many different levels of causality. There’s the purely physical level: You throw a ball up in the air, it comes back down. You plant a seed, a flower comes from it. So we have that type of causality. We also have causality in terms of our experience, in terms of you bang your foot against the chair and it hurts; you experience pain. And also in terms of the experience of happiness and unhappiness being caused by our behavior – destructive or constructive behavior. We bang our foot against the table; that, although it’s painful, it’s an ethically neutral action, isn’t it? I mean it hurt us, but you can’t say that it’s a destructive or a constructive action. It’s just a neutral action. But when we are speaking on this level of happiness and unhappiness, we’re speaking about what results from destructive or constructive behavior.
Now when we face a situation in life, again there is a mental hologram – we get back to our mental holograms – of what appears. And in this mental hologram we could – I’ll use an example of someone that I know: That my child is anorexic and bulimic. Bulimic is when you binge eat, you go eat a huge bag of chocolate and then throw up. And anorexic is you don’t eat the chocolate, you just starve yourself, so it’s a similar type of eating disorder. So our child has this, and our child even got so sick it had to go into the hospital; starved herself to death. And so there is the accurate appearance that the child has this eating disorder and the child is very, very sick, both physically and mentally. And, okay, we could understand that the child is sick and the child has such low blood pressure and such low heartbeat, and so on, that the child is practically dead, and that is the result of the eating disorder. So we can understand that level of causality. But, as a parent, what also appears to us, the mental hologram, is that it’s all my fault: “I must have done something wrong in parenting,” and I take upon myself all the guilt of what’s happened to my child, in addition to all the worry and the fear and so on.
It doesn’t have to be such an extreme example. “My child is failing in school; it’s all my fault.” Whatever. “My relation with this person is breaking up; it’s all my fault.” Or “it’s all your fault.” And so this is a false appearance of the causal relationship, what’s going on here; and we believe that it corresponds to reality: there’s something backing it up, in reality, that establishes and makes this appearance (that it’s all my fault) true. And, although we wouldn’t speak so technically in terms of voidness here, we could apply our understanding of voidness in terms of causality – that this is impossible; how it appears to me is false. And it requires understanding dependent arising, in terms of whatever happens arises on the basis of an unbelievably large number of causes and conditions.
And in order to really deconstruct the false appearance, and the unbelievable unhappiness and the problems that result in believing in this false appearance, then we have to approach this deconstruction process from many different angles. We have to understand many different things that are impossible. Does a result come just from one cause? Does it come from a cause that really is not in harmony with the effects – so something which is an irrelevant cause? Did what happened come from nowhere? Was it fated already, in the genes or whatever, that this is what was going to happen, and it just waited to pop out and manifest? We have to analyze and recognize when it feels like that, and deconstruct this appearance – that there’s nothing backing it up; it’s not referring to anything real. But not deconstruct to the point of there’s nothing there. If this situation arose based on, let’s say, a million causes and conditions, then perhaps I did contribute some of those million, three or five of the million. So it’s not that I have no responsibility whatsoever, but it is not solely due to the mistakes that I made as a parent.
So this is the general introduction to this topic of dependent arising in terms of causality and, in relation with that, with an understanding of voidness. And we’ll explore that further in our second session, after lunch.
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