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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > The Voidness or Total Absence of an Impossible “Me” > Session Three: Dependent Arising in Terms of Mental Labeling

The Voidness or Total Absence of an Impossible “Me”

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, November 2005

Session Three: Dependent Arising in Terms of Mental Labeling

Unedited Transcript
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Yesterday, we were speaking about voidness and we saw that voidness is a negation phenomenon, something that we know by negating or refuting something else. What we are refuting, when we know voidness, is impossible ways of existing with respect to everything: ourselves, others, and all objects in general. We started to look in terms of the person or “me” and the voidness of the person, and the relationship between a person or “me” and the aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience, because when we first start to try to understand voidness, we start with trying to understand the voidness of the self, the person, because that is a bit easier to understand than the voidness of all phenomena, although voidness is the same with respect to both.

We saw that the self of a person is something which is imputed or designated onto the basis of all the aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience, and we looked a little bit more deeply about what that actually meant. If we look at our experience, the question is, “What’s happening; what’s happening each moment?” All that is happening at each moment is that we are on some “channel of consciousness,” when we’re seeing, hearing, thinking, or whatever. There are various objects that we are aware of, particularly here in terms of sense objects: sights, sounds and so on. Within the sense field – because when we see, we take in a whole sense field – there is distinguishing certain colored shapes from other colored shapes, for instance, if we think in terms of vision. And how do we actually experience these various shapes, and objects, and so on, that we distinguish? We experience them with some level on the spectrum between “completely happy” or “completely unhappy.”

Feeling some level of happiness is defined as that which ripens from our karma. In other words, depending on the positive force from constructive behavior that we’ve done in the past, or on the negative force from the destructive behavior we’ve done in the past, we experience things with happiness or unhappiness. After all, two people can be served the same food: one person experiences it with happiness and pleasure, they like it, the other person hates it, is very unhappy, “I don’t like this.” This is the ripening of karma. It’s quite interesting, if you think in terms of a computer that is dealing with information. How is that different from a mind dealing with information? A computer doesn’t experience happiness or unhappiness with that information, whereas a mind does. Although we might think that the computer is very unhappy with us when it loses our data.

And then also what is part of our experience is this last aggregate, the aggregate of everything else, all other affecting variables: all the emotions, and concentration, sleepiness, and interest, and all these other things in there. And what is “me?” “Me” is found in this last aggregate, by the way, in the aggregate of other affecting variables. It’s not that it’s outside the system. The “me,” the self, is something which can be labeled onto each moment of all these aggregate factors that are changing all the time. In a sense, it is a way of labeling the whole. Like, if we have a movie: a movie is made up of one moment after another moment, after another moment, and the content of it is changing continuously. But we can give it a name, “a movie,” which is referring to the whole thing, isn’t it?

This was what we covered last time, and we saw that this “me” is what’s known as the “conventional me,” which can be labeled onto a particular stream of continuity of aggregate factors – that this is something which conventionally does exist. What we are refuting is an impossible way in which that “me” exists. Yesterday, I suggested that perhaps you think over this material, and if you had any specific questions on it before we proceed – but before I ask for questions, let me just explain one small thing, which is not so small, but a very important point that perhaps might have caused you some confusion.

A person or “me” is not just a name or a word that is a mental label. When we talk about mental labeling or imputation, there are three things that are involved. First is the basis, the basis of the labeling. Remember, yesterday we were giving the example of oranges. We spoke about an orange circle, we spoke about a smell, we spoke about a taste, these sort of things, that is the basis for labeling.

The label “orange,” well, that’s just a word. An orange is not a word, that’s the second thing, the label. We have the basis for labeling and the label. Then, the third thing is what the label or word refers to, and the referent object of the label is the actual orange. What does the label refer to? It refers to an orange. Do you follow? There is an actual orange. The orange is not an orange-colored circle, it’s not a smell, and it certainly is not just the word “orange.” That’s just a combination of sounds, but those sounds – we use that as a convention, on the basis of these orange circles, and smells and taste – we refer to the conventional object “orange.” The orange isn’t the basis; the orange isn’t the word. It’s like an illusion. It’s somewhere in between, isn’t it? But there are oranges.

So, it’s the same thing in terms of there are all these moments of experience: seeing, talking, and thinking and all these sort of things, and there is the name “me,” which in this particular life is also given the name Alex, and that refers to a person. I am not a name. Surely that’s not true. A person is, a person is not just a name. A person is what the word or label “me” refers to, on the basis of a stream of continuity of experiences. Like in a movie theater – you sit there and you only see one moment at a time on the screen. That’s the basis for labeling. The label is “a movie,” “Star Wars,” or whatever movie you want to talk about. “Star Wars” is not just the name “Star Wars.” I actually saw a movie “Star Wars.” This moment wasn’t it, and that moment wasn’t it, and it wasn’t the name either. It’s what the name, the title of the movie refers to, is the movie “Star Wars,” on the basis of the sequence of moments. “Who am I?” I’m what the word “me” refers to, on the basis of my whole life experiences. This is very important to understand. If you don’t understand this, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to understand what voidness is talking about.

Question: It’s not quite clear what the third component is, because the basis for labeling seems to be what the referent object of the label is.

Alex: This is what the whole issue of voidness is all about. It is the relationship between what the label is referring to and the basis for designation. If the orange is just an orange-colored circle, then the taste or smell could not be an orange, an orange could only be that orange-colored circle. If the orange was not just the orange-colored circle, but also the smell and also the taste, then there would be three different oranges. The orange would be three different things. We are talking about the conventional object, an orange, a commonsense object, an orange. When somebody says, “Would you like to eat an orange?” we don’t think in terms of eating an orange-colored circle. We think of eating a fruit. The visual form, an orange-colored circle, is the basis for designation. The actual, conventional, commonsense object, an orange, is what the word “orange” refers to. Of course it could be referred to by many names in different languages. It’s just a convention, made up by a society. Do you follow?

“Who am I? Am I my body?” Well, this body, when I was a baby, and the body of, you know, who I’m now, as an older man, it’s not the same at all. There is not a single cell in the body that is the same.

Question: Where lies the limits of the conventionalities of conventionally true phenomena, because all of us, we can sort of try and imagine a blue orange? It’s sort of OK, so we can have a blue orange. Or an orange with a salty taste, we can also try to imagine. So, we can substitute the basis for designation and still have the orange behind it. So if the idea of an orange that sits behind the term – is kind of a Platonic idea thing, which is self-sufficient, independent, standing on its own...

Alex: No, not at all. This gets into the discussion of voidness. So we have to jump ahead in order to answer your question. Well, we might as well do that, since our weekend is short. When we talk about voidness, what we are talking about is what is it that establishes the existence of something? “Establish” is the same word as “to prove.” We are not talking about what creates the object. Voidness is saying that there is nothing on the side of the referent object that establishes the existence of that object as that object, as a validly knowable item.

We are not talking about calling this table an orange. When we talk about objects, we are talking about something that is knowable, which is validly knowable, which can be known correctly, and other people who know correctly would agree. Nobody would agree that this thing in front of me is an orange. It’s a table.

Let's use an example to illustrate what I'm talking about. Think of an emotion. An emotion that I usually use is jealosy, but it could be any emotion. What is jealosy? Or let's use the simpler example first, the color – red. If you think of the light spectrum, there is absolutely nothing on the side of the light spectrum that has boundaries and markers, that from the side of the light, divides the spectrum into yellow, orange and red: on this side of the line it’s orange and on that side of the line it’s red. There is absolutely nothing on the side of the light. So, what establishes it as red or yellow or orange is merely concepts, and words, and labels – nothing on the side of the object.

A group of people, thousands of years ago, got together and they decided that they were going to refer to a certain band with a certain set of arbitrary sounds, totally arbitrary sounds, “rah eh dah,” with no meaning in these sounds. But they said, “Brilliant idea!” We will use these sounds to represent something with which – in their minds – they divided the light spectrum.

Different groups of people maybe had a similar idea, but they didn’t necessarily divide the light spectrum in exactly the same way – maybe, a few angstroms in this direction, a few less in that direction. That, they decided, was “red,” and they used another arbitrary set of sounds to refer to it. And even the definition of “red” is made up by some group of people with the concept they made of the definition. The defining characteristics – you can’t find them on the side of the object, “from this wavelength to that wavelength.” So, “red” is established not at all from the side of the object. “Red” – it’s established from the mental label, the concept “red.”

Nevertheless, if we ask, “What color is this table?” “It’s red.” “Is it red?” “Yes,” we would all agree, if we were “valid cognizers,” it’s called. Somebody who is color-blind might not think that this is red. But that would be contradicted by somebody who had good eyesight. So, the same thing with your example of the oranges. There are many different varieties of oranges that are found around the world. Some convention decides that this group of different kinds are all called “oranges.” In fact it’s even weirder – I mean, aside from hybrids and all of that – because what makes all of these round orange-colored circles that we see in the store next to each other, what makes each of them an orange? Why don’t we have a different word for each one of them? We have groups – that’s getting into this whole topic of categories. Words are what we use to refer to categories, and then within that category, to items within the category, particulars.

If this is true with respect to colors, if it’s true with respect to different types of fruit, we can see, when we start to talk about emotions and these sort of things, how really, “What is jealousy?” It’s just some group of people came up with this concept “jealousy.” But do we always experience exactly the same thing when we experience what we would call “jealousy?” I wrote an article on it, it’s on my website, actually it’s the most popular article on the website, that explains all of this.

[See: Dealing with Jealousy.]

Now, of course, if we understand this, this is incredibly helpful. We have been in this situation and we feel something, and so, what do we say? “Oh, I am so jealous. I am feeling so much jealousy.” So, “what am I feeling?” It’s just one moment after another in which all the factors are changing, constantly. I am just using some sort of concept, the word “jealousy,” that I was taught as a child, and “here it is” in the dictionary. “OK, that’s what I am feeling,” using it to organize what I am feeling, to understand it. Now, conventionally that is correct, because our society has agreed upon this definition of this word. So it is referring to something.

There is jealousy, even though it is just established by a word of a concept. Dealing with it in terms of this concept, I can apply various methods that are used for overcoming jealousy. But because there is nothing on the side of this “jealousy” that is making it “jealousy,” then I don’t make a big deal out of it. There is no “solid thing like a big rock inside me,” called “jealousy,” and “there it is sitting,” and “Oh my god! This is such a problem,” and so on.

But, as I said, this has jumped way, way ahead in our discussion of voidness, and in order to really be able to work with that, it’s necessary to approach it more and more gradually. But this weekend seminar is just to introduce you to some of the basic ideas that we’ll hear in our discussion of voidness. So you can start to work with it.

Question: What about small children that have no concepts yet? Does it mean they are free of emotions, before they learn what, let’s say, jealousy is?

Alex: Oh no, it’s not like that. It’s important to understand that when we talk about concepts, and labels, and so on, they don’t necessarily have words associated with them. Things exist in terms of mental labeling, are established in terms of mental labeling, regardless of whether anybody is actively labeling it or not. That is not relevant here. “I am feeling something.” It doesn’t matter whether or not I can identify and give it a name “jealousy.” I am still feeling something. But if we ask the question, “What is it?” then we have to bring in mental labeling. But I don’t have to label it in order to feel it. A baby feels hunger, an infant feels hunger, it doesn’t know the word “hunger,” but it certainly feels it.

Question: Se wonders whether is it correct to compare such things as colors, for instance the red of this table, with emotions? Emotions are totally individual experiences. We can’t expose them and judge them or compare them. But with this table, we all can reach the conclusion: this is the weight, the length, number such and such, like fifteen. No one can disagree with that. It can be proven scientifically with an experiment and repeatedly, which is not the case with emotions. So is it justified to compare such things? They seem to be different.

Alex: When we try to understand a basic mechanism, such as mental labeling, of course the defining characteristics that are also made up by concepts, which are used in relation to different objects, will be different. So, with a color, yes, we have certain wavelengths where we can say, “That’s the dividing line.” With emotions, that’s much more difficult. With oranges, perhaps there you can get into a genetic “thing” that might be more specific. But whether it is something which is very specific like that or just more abstract like with “jealousy,” what we are talking about here are defining characteristics. So there are many types of defining characteristics. It could be a wavelength; it could be something that someone puts in a dictionary and says, “This is the defining characteristics of jealousy.” So, the principle is the same.

But there are certainly different societies that divide the color structure quite differently. There are some societies that don’t have “orange,” for example. It’s just “yellow” and “red.” So the dividing line is quite different. There are societies that have not just “green” and “blue,” but they have three colors there. Experiments were done like that at my university, when I was at school, taking people from different cultures and showing them different colors and saying, “What color is this?” And they found that different cultures certainly divide the color structure differently, and individuals do that as well.

Question: So then the problem seems to come that… OK, let’s say for the Australians, it’s a red table and for the Chinese it’s a dark yellow table. And then the spark of nevertheless comes. So, but conventionally for one group of people it functions as a red table. For the other group of people, nevertheless, it functions as a dark yellow table. So there are two correctly fully functional tables of different colors. How is that possible?

Alex: Why not? For one person, let’s say you take this item in my hand. I look at it and I give it the label “watch.” Other people around here might also agree that this is a watch and it functions as a watch. The baby looks at it and labels it as a “toy,” and other babies would agree and they could play with it and it would function as a toy. So what is it? Is it a watch or is it a toy? And, it is only established as a watch or a toy by mental labeling concepts alone. There is nothing on the side of the object that establishes it as a watch or a toy; because if it did, if there were something on the side of the object, then it would have to be two different objects, or a toy would be a watch, it would have to be one of them.

Do you follow that? Because it is only established by mental labeling, then it can function as both, and there is no problem. But if I think that this is established from its own side as “a watch,” then I would get very angry with the baby, “You stupid baby, this isn’t a toy!” It’s perfectly valid for the baby to think of it as a toy. If I don’t want it to break it, I take it away from the baby, but I don’t get angry. For me, it’s a watch; for the baby, it’s a toy. It’s established merely by concepts and labels.

Question: So we can say that all is relative, basically.

Alex: All is relative, yes. That’s another way of saying it.

Question: The orange came into being through interdependent origination. Then there’s no true existent “orange,” from its own side, and then we label it as an “orange,” so it appears as an orange. Is that a correct understanding I have?

Alex: When we talk about dependent origination, that has several meanings. Things can arise in terms of causes and conditions, and so certainly the orange arose dependently on causes and conditions. And so, certainly, we had to have the causes and conditions first, the seed, and the earth, and water, and sunlight and so on, before we got the orange.

Another meaning of dependent origination is things arise dependent on parts. Now, in the case of an automobile, perhaps you have the parts first, and then you get the whole, because you put them together. But that is certainly not the case with an orange. It isn’t that you put together the meat and the skin and paste it together and then get an orange. In this case, the parts and the whole are simultaneous.

But when we speak of dependent origination on the deepest, most profound level, we are thinking in terms of items that can be validly known arise dependently on mental labeling, which does not mean that the mental label creates them. A common mistake, which is refuted in the Buddhist teachings, is the mistake that is the position of one Indian philosophical non-Buddhist school, the Samkhya school, which is basically, everything is this primal soup, an undifferentiated soup. And our concepts are like a cookie cutter, and it cuts objects out; it makes objects out. But without that, it would be just this big, undifferentiated glob of soup. And Buddhism says, “No, that’s not the case.”

There are, conventionally, oranges and apples, and red and green, but they are not established from the side of the objects, because the referent object of words and labels can’t be found. There is nothing on the side of the referent object that makes it the referent object. I was indicating earlier on, when I cited Shantideva and we gave the example of the Vaibhashika position. If we can understand that this chair is made of particles and my body is made of particles and nothing solid about it whatsoever. Nevertheless I don’t fall through this chair, it functions. If we can understand that and accept that, then, although there is nothing on the side of the chair that makes it a chair and there is nothing on the side of my body that makes it a body, all in terms of what words and concepts refer to, nevertheless, I am sitting on a chair, and everybody would agree. That’s why this “nevertheless-factor” is very important and not easy at all to really understand.

Question: The qualities of the object like the hardness or the parts of the chair, they are not naturally projected from the side of the object. So, somehow if we realize the emptiness of the qualities of the object, we push our hand through the chair, or something like that? Is it that possible? Or those are true and not changeable qualities of the matter or of the chair.

Alex: There are several parts to your question. It is true that the qualities of an object are not established from the side of the object. But they are established by the concept of hardness/softness, and there can be all sorts of scientific measurements that people five hundred years ago didn’t even know that there were. So it’s established by concepts; nevertheless – here it is again, our nevertheless, which is the most difficult aspect – nevertheless things do have qualities. Now we get back to our dependent arising. Various qualities, especially physical qualities, will be affected by gravity, and the speed of the object, and the speed of the observer and all these sorts of things, getting back to relativity here. But it doesn’t mean that there is nothing there on the side of the object. It doesn’t mean that there is a findable “nothing.” We are not going to the extreme of nihilism.

Now it’s a whole different issue whether or not, through an unbelievable development of the mind, it becomes possible to have control over the elements: that is something else. Whether you can put your hand through something – that is something different. But that is extremely, extremely difficult to understand how Milarepa could shrink himself into the size of going into a yak-horn, and certainly that’s not something that we are going to be able to do.

[See: Extraphysical and Extrasensory Powers.]

Question: In many sadhanas we use the words and the visualizations of dissolving ourselves into emptiness. What would be the practical advice from your side, what we should use to be more successful in this dissolving visualization that we do in our daily practice?

Alex: Again, there are many points to your question. As I indicated before, the steps for meditating on voidness are first to think of the basis for the refutation, which is basically the basis of the imputation. And so you think of, for instance, “My body is the body of a Buddha-figure, a deity.” We could start here with, although one is not supposed to do this, because supposedly one is visualizing oneself as a deity all day long, but if we have forgotten that and are conceiving of ourselves in terms of our ordinary body; then first we think of our ordinary body. So, our ordinary body is – of course – imputed on parts, and “me” is imputed on the body.

The second object to be refuted, which is the appearance of the body and “me,” as if there is something on the side of the body, something on the side of “me” that made it “me,” that made it “my body.” The example that I always use is, “as if these things existed, sitting here like a ping-pong ball, with a little label on it saying me!” Some solid thing, encapsulated in plastic, “There it is me, my body.” This is the object to be refuted.

Now, when we are actually doing the tantric practice, that’s not the time to do the analytical meditation, we need to have done this before, so that we are convinced through logical reasoning that “This is absurd that there is something existing solidly, from its own side, me and my body,” and then you just – with your understanding – cut that off, very forcefully. This is how His Holiness always describes it, very forcefully, just “RAH! There is no such thing! This concept that I have that is like some sort of ping-pong ball is not referring to anything that’s real, this is absurd!” And we focus on “there is no such thing.” Then the dissolution process is dissolving this appearance of solidity in stages. It gets more and more subtle so that there is no appearance of solidity. But I believe we have a morning on the Kalachakra practice, in which the discussion of this topic would be more appropriate.