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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Healthy Development of One's Self through Lam-rim > Session One: The Conventional "Me," False "Me" and Eternal "Me"

Healthy Development of One's Self through Lam-rim

Alexander Berzin, Riga, Latvia, August 2013

Session One: The Conventional "Me," False "Me" and Eternal "Me"

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:46 hours)

Introduction: Examining the Self and “Me”

This evening we are beginning a course on the healthy development of the self through the lam-rim graded stages. And as we see, when we set a motivation for listening to this course, the whole concept of “self” is very central to the spiritual path in Buddhism. We are moved by compassion to work to attain a state in which we can help others as best as possible to overcome their problems. So, who is moved by compassion to do this? You have to say “me.” And who is it that is going to try to help bring others to liberation and an enlightened state? It’s “me.” And what prevents me from really being able to do that? Also you’d have to say is “me,” isn’t it? Whether it’s my laziness or lack of courage or lack of any feeling for others, it all comes down to issues about “me,” doesn’t it? “I don’t feel like doing it.” “I don’t want to do it.” “I’m afraid of trying to do it” – that’s all revolving around “me,” isn’t it? Around “me,” who I think I am and what I think that “me,” I, am able to do.

And when we look a little bit deeper, according to the Buddhist teachings what is really the problem here, the obstacle, is our unawareness of how we exist. Either we just don’t know how we exist or we have some inverted idea, an idea that is the opposite of what is correct. Therefore, it’s very important to start to examine this whole issue of the self, of “me.” So I think one way to begin our seminar is first of all to spend a short period of time, each of us, reflecting on what are we talking about when we talk about ourselves or “me.” Try to examine in yourselves and identify what actually is “me?” It’s hard to say in words because our language doesn’t really – at least in English – it’s not very convenient for even formulating the question.

But we all think in terms of “me,” don’t we? “What am I going to do?” “What do people think of me?” I mean we do think in terms of “me.” “I’m such a loser.” “I’m such a winner.” We have all sorts of ideas about ourselves. So, try to think of “me,” ourselves, not in terms of its qualities – I’m young, I’m old, I’m a man, I’m a woman, not like that; and not who am I, although that is really a very difficult question actually – who am I? – I’m “me,” well what does that mean? Am I a name? Who am I? But anyway, just what is this “me,” and a sense of “me,” because we all have a sense of “me.” And we’re not really talking here in terms of psychological theories of ego as opposed to super-ego and all these sort of things. But just our ordinary sense of “me”; what are we talking about when we talk about “me” or when I think of myself?

Let’s spend a few minutes contemplating that.

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The Labeling and Representation of “Me”

I think that when we try to examine what actually is this “me,” it’s not very easy, is it? We’re always operating in our daily lives with this concept of “me” very prominently, but when we actually try to focus on “me,” that’s not so easy. If we want to become technical here, then the technical description of how we would focus on “me” comes from basic Buddhist teachings on cognition. What we are thinking of when we think of “me” is a multi-layered object. First there’s the category “me” – that’s the general category of what we are thinking about, right? And each time that we think of “me” or that “me” is somehow involved in our mental process, then each of those “me’s” fit into this category, this general category of “me.” Individual instances of thinking of “me” all fit into that category of thinking of “me.” It’s not in the category “you,” is it?

Now, what are all the individual members of that category? They would be individual instances of labeling of “me.” And that “me” would be labeled on some basis – what’s known as our aggregates, the aggregate factors that make up our experience. So, it could be a form of physical phenomenon; it could be what our body looks like; it could be some physical sensation that we are feeling like in our stomach (“I’m hungry”); it could be the sound of our voice; it could be mental sounds like when we’re thinking “me” or the voice that seemingly is going on in our heads.

But, what that “me” is labeled onto could also be our consciousness; it could be some feeling of happiness, unhappiness; it could be some emotion. All these various things make up the so-called five aggregates. And this is what represents “me” when we think “me.” You can’t just think “me,” can you, without something representing that “me?” It could be the mental sound of the word “me” as you say “me” in your head; it could be the image of ourselves in the mirror when we look at ourselves – “Me, that’s me.” It could be any of these aspects that we spoke about as representing “me” from the aggregates. So, that’s how we think of ourselves, isn’t it?

Think about that. Does that make sense? There’s something representing “me” and it’s all in that category of “me.” And within that category of “me” there is an individual instance of a labeling of “me” onto something representing “me.”

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Okay? Do you follow that so far?

Now, that “me” – each time “me” is being labeled onto something representing “me” – that exists in a certain way, doesn’t it? And when we think of that “me,” our consciousness will consider it in one way or another in terms of how it exists. If it considers it correctly – this so-called “correct consideration” – then it’s accurate. This is how I exist, and it’s labeled on something representing “me” that enables us to think about “me” – what I look like, my age, my name, whatever. That’s called the “conventionally existent me,” the one that actually does exist.

But, we could have incorrect consideration of how that “me” exists. We could take it to exist in some impossible way, that’s how we consider it. And a very simple example would be to consider that “me” as the center of the universe, the most important one, the one that should always have his or her way. (By contrast), the conventional “me” – (that would be): “I am one of seven billion people, no better, no worse than anybody else. We’re all interconnected, everybody wants to be happy, and nobody wants to be unhappy.” We label that on whatever represents us – that’s correct, that’s the conventional “me.”

But if we consider that “me” to be the most important one, really special – “I should always have my way, everybody should pay attention to me what I think; what I think is important and everybody in the world should know it through Facebook and Twitter” – and we label that on something that represents “me,” (then) that’s the false “me.” That doesn’t refer to anything real. It doesn’t even correspond to anything real. There’s a slight difference between those two. No need to get into that; it gets a little bit off the track of what we’re discussing here.

But in any case the thing that is important here is to understand the distinction between the conventional “me” that does exist and the false “me,” the so-called self that is to be refuted that doesn’t refer to anything. We can label it onto my body, my age, my feelings, my opinion, etc.; but, it’s not referring to anything real.

So, in every case what we are doing is we’re labeling the conventional “me” onto something that represents “me.” We’re thinking about it and that’s through the general category “me,” and we have either correct consideration or incorrect consideration of how I exist.

  • With the correct consideration we’re thinking in terms of conventional “me.”
  • With the incorrect consideration we’re thinking in terms of the false “me” – the “me” that doesn’t exist.

But in both cases we’re just imputing or labeling “me” onto whatever represents “me.”

So, this is what we are going to discuss: How you develop a healthy sense of “me,” which is to think of ourselves in terms of the conventional “me;” and how we rid ourselves of this inflated “me” – inflated self with which we identify and think of ourselves in terms of that false “me.” In the West we speak of a healthy self and an inflated self. A healthy self is thinking of ourselves in terms of the conventionally existent “me”; and an unhealthy or inflated self is thinking of ourselves in terms of this false “me” – the one that doesn’t actually refer to reality.

So that conventional “me” (would be): “I consider myself nothing special. I’m one of seven billion people and I want to be happy. I don’t want to be unhappy just like everybody else.” And a healthy sense of “me” is thinking of ourselves in terms of that. And I have to take responsibility for my life and what I experience – it’s all in terms of a conventional “me,” this healthy sense of a “me.” But, if we think of ourselves as “I’m the most important one, I should always have my way,” etc.; and we identify with that – we consider ourselves, to use our terminology, as that type of “me” – that’s an inflated sense of “me.” And because it doesn’t refer to reality, then it could never be satisfied. It’s impossible that we’re always going to have our way and that everybody considers us as the most special one – that’s impossible, isn’t it?

So, what does that lead to? It leads to frustration, suffering, unhappiness. Whereas, if we think, “I’m one of seven billion, nothing special; in order to lead a happy life, realistic life, I need to get along with others, be considerate of others; we’re all here together” – then that leads to a happier life, doesn’t it? More realistic. That’s thinking in terms of the conventionally existent “me,” a healthy sense of self.

Please reflect on that, because I think it’s important for our seminar to understand this distinction between the conventionally existent “me,” the one that actually does exist; and the one that doesn’t exist, the false inflated “me.” We can’t think of “me” without something representing the “me,” right? We discovered that when we investigated – at least you have to think verbally “me” in order to think “me.” And so really it’s just a matter of how we consider that “me” to exist.

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The Self as Eternal

Okay, now, our topic as I said (and as is announced) is the healthy development of the self through the lam-rim graded stages. And although there can be what I call “Dharma-Lite lam-rim,” which is these graded stages just in terms of this lifetime, the full training of lam-rim is what we would call “Real Thing lam-rim.” And the Real Thing assumes the existence of past and future lives with no beginning.

What does that imply? That implies that the self, “me,” I am eternal. No beginning, no end. Even if I become a Buddha – it’s still “me.” Now the question becomes, if any of this material is going to be relevant we have to examine do I believe myself to be eternal? Do we? Think about it. It’s actually a very interesting question. In fact, it often becomes the case that I don’t even want to think about not being eternal.

Well, if we’re believers in a Western or Middle Eastern religion, we believe that an eternal God has created us, so we have a beginningless origin. And our souls, “me,” are eternal, and that after this life we either go to heaven or hell (or maybe there’s a purgatory in between depending on which brand of Western religion we believe in), and that will be forever. So we do believe, in these Westerns and Middle Eastern religions, in an eternal self. Alright? God didn’t create us out of nothing, but out of part of God in a sense, so we have this beginningless origin as part of God and then we’re going to go on forever after we die in the afterlife. So, an eternal self.

But what if we are non-believers, which I believe you have a long tradition of here in Latvia? Maybe not a long tradition but at least a tradition from the last century, well established. So, what do we believe then if we are a non-believer in creation by God and eternal heaven or damnation in hell? What do we think? If you are a non-believer, examine that question. Where did you come from and where do you go? It sounds like a song, doesn’t it?

Well, I think that most of us will come up with the answer: nothing. We came from nothing and we return to nothing. Is that correct?

Participant: His grandfather said he will get into the grave and that’s it.

Alex: Right; so you go into the grave and you stay eternally in the grave? Your body is in the grave; are you in the grave? I’m in the grave and I am dead. Well “I am dead’ implies there’s still “me,” and what is the characteristic or phase that that “me” is in? The phase is in the death phase. If you analyze that, if you think logically about that statement: I am dead. That’s present tense, isn’t it? That’s a terrible fate. What does that mean, that there is sort of this “me” still existing in the Big Nothing? And am I dead for just a short time? No; I’m dead forever – eternal. It sounds funny but logically we are drawn to that conclusion that even if we’re a non-believer we still believe that there’s an eternal self. Think of that. Does that make any sense? As odd as that sounds, it is the logical conclusion.

And it’s frightening that I’m going to turn into nothing, isn’t it? How could it be frightening if you’re really nothing, unless you exist as nothing, as part of nothing? Of course the fright could also be because you’re not quite sure. Everybody says it’s nothing, you were taught (that it’s0 nothing, but you really don’t know. So, if you are agnostic and “I don’t know, I’m not sure,” that still implies that there’s going to be something afterwards that’s going to last forever, not just last for a month and then it’s finished. So whether we want to admit it or not, actually we do believe in an eternal self. How we understand that, how we consider the various phases of our existence through eternity – that’s going to differ of course depending on our conceptual framework. But actually I think everybody does think in terms of an eternal self, if we really examine logically all the possibilities.

So, beginningless rebirth in the Buddhist sense is just one variant of the theme of an eternal self for which this life is just one episode. Regardless of how we think of eternal life, this one life now is just an episode or part of that. We don’t remember “me” in a previous life or any previous lives for most of us, and we don’t know “me” in future lives, but that’s not so surprising. When you’re in the womb as a fetus, was that “me?” Yes. Do I remember it? No. What about when I will be very, very old, will that still be “me?” It hasn’t happened yet, but it will still be “me.” It’s not going to be somebody else. So just because we don’t remember previous lives and we don’t know yet “me” in future lives, this doesn’t disprove the existence of past and future lives.

I hope you see where all of this is leading. This is leading to the whole discussion of precious human rebirth, how we begin the lam-rim, that this is relevant to anybody regardless of whether we think in terms of Buddhist rebirth or think in terms of Western or Middle Eastern religion or whether we’re a non-believer; still, this is a special episode, this precious human life that we have now in terms of the eternity of “me.”

Why is it important to be able to think of an eternal “me” in order to really appreciate the meditations on the precious human rebirth? Because if we are just thinking of this life and you don’t even really consider past or future lives, then Dharma-Lite – we could work to take advantage of this life because death will come. It’s not going to last forever. So we could have a perfectly beneficial Dharma-Lite version of meditation on the precious human life. But, if we think of this one life as just an episode of a much larger eternal continuum, and we don’t know what’s going to come next, then it really becomes much more urgent that we make use of this lifetime because there’s going to be something after that, even if it’s the Big Nothing. Well what can you do in the Big Nothing? Nothing, obviously.

I should mention that there is another perfectly valid, extremely helpful Dharma-Lite consequence of this discussion, which is that there is another variant of eternity, and that variant is that we can think of our family descendants going on in the future. Or even if you don’t have children, our legacy, our memory – that this will go on into the future and we hope that that will last. So we could think in terms of “I want to use this precious human life so that I don’t leave a mess behind me for my children and my students and people who work for me and people in my society and people in the future (I mess up the environment etc.).” We could think in terms of that, so I want to use this precious human life now to ensure that I leave a good legacy.

But, who are we kidding in terms of how important is it to me, what people in the future are going to experience in comparison to the importance that I attach to what I will experience in the future. What I will experience for most of us (unless we are super spiritually developed) is far more urgent that what those in the future will experience. I mean think about that; if I leave a mess and somebody else is going to have to clean it up, compare how you regard that with I make a mess and I have to clean it up. Which one gives us more urgency in terms of not making a mess?

It is more urgent to us not to make a mess if we’re going to have to deal with it ourselves than if we can leave it to our descendants or others in the future to deal with. So therefore what we do with this precious human life when we think in terms of “I’m going to have to experience the consequences” is far more powerful that thinking in terms of others have to experience my legacy. And that’s perfectly proper; it’s a healthy sense of “me,” that I’m responsible for what I do, what I make of my life because I will have to experience the results. That’s quite a healthy attitude.

More mature is that in addition to myself, others will have to experience the consequences. Both will have to experience the consequences. But just (to think) that I won’t have to experience the consequences at all, somebody else will – there’s something not very proper about that, psychologically. So think about that.

What we’re thinking about is the importance and helpfulness of thinking in terms of an eternal “me” regardless of how we conceive of that eternity, for appreciating the precious human life that we have now. If we think that, well, there’s something after that as well, this is just one episode.

Ways of Progressing Through the Lam-Rim Stages

You see, there are two ways, two levels, of going through the lam-rim. I’m talking about going through Real Thing lam-rim; going through Dharma-Lite lam-rim was yet another variant. But to go through Real Thing lam-rim, (one way) is basically in the realm of what His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy – not necessarily Buddhist religion. So that means that one can go through the lam-rim, or at least the beginning of the lam-rim, not as a Buddhist believer. We don’t start as a Buddhist believer, do we? One would start just as a general person, (with) whatever past beliefs that we have. But the point that I’m trying to make is that if we really examine, we do believe in an eternal self and that is I think the main criterion for doing Real Thing Dharma. And as we progress through the lam-rim stages as a non-Buddhist, then eventually we would see the value and the accuracy, the correctness of the Buddhist view of reality, and then we actually accept the Buddhist path.

Where we bring in the correct view (of reality) may vary along the graded stages. We might bring it in at the time of refuge, what I call “safe direction.” You have to really understand the Four Noble Truths in order to have any sort of confidence in what the Buddha taught and what the Buddha attained. To understand the Four Noble Truths you have to understand voidness, reality, and the true path. So it could come in there. Or it could come in in the intermediate scope or the advanced scope. People will vary.

On the initial scope, if we’re doing Real Thing lam-rim in this first variant in which we start not as a Buddhist, then we would just presume that the Four Noble Truths are correct. We’re not certain about it; we don’t really know based on logic and inference, let alone experience. So you presume that it’s true. It’s only really on the intermediate scope and the advanced scope where we really get into the discussion of voidness; so, fine.

The second way of going through Real Thing lam-rim is that we already are Buddhist; we already accept the Buddhist view. We already have probably gone through the lam-rim training and now you go back, which is very, very important, and go through the whole procedure of the graded stages on the basis of being Mahayana: we are aiming for enlightenment; in order to attain enlightenment I have to make use of this precious human rebirth and it’s not going to last etc., etc., etc.

These are the two variants of the way that we go through Real Thing lam-rim: either initially as a non-Buddhist; or initially as already a convinced Buddhist. And in both cases what makes it Real Thing Dharma is that we are thinking in terms of an eternal self.

In contrast with that, we have Dharma-Lite, with which we go through all the stages of the lam-rim within the scope of just thinking to improve this lifetime and that this is all that I’m really concerned about. And that can be very beneficial, but not so easy in terms of particularly the discussion of karma since we don’t really experience the results of most of our actions in this lifetime. So, it becomes a little bit unstable, our understanding.

That I think is helpful (I hope) to appreciate the various ways with which we can work with the lam-rim material:

  • Dharma-Lite;
  • Real Thing Dharma as initially a non-Buddhist, not really being convinced or even knowing of the Buddhist teachings on reality;
  • and then, Real Thing Dharma on the basis of already having trained in the Buddhist path, and going back and making it stronger.

What I would like to do then this weekend – this evening is the so-called introduction – is then to discuss the healthy development of the self through Real Thing Dharma, Real Thing lam-rim, from the point of view of not yet really accepting the Buddhist point of view; how we would start as a regular person who, if we thought more deeply, would understand that actually I do believe in an eternal self in some way or another, even if it’s in terms of this Big Nothing, “Now I am dead.” As we said there’s still a “me” in that “I am dead’ in the present tense. Okay? Before I open this up for questions or remarks, perhaps you can just reflect on how have we approached lam-rim, since I would presume that most of you have studied lam-rim, the graded stages in some level of depth or superficiality. How have we actually approached it and what benefit have I derived from it?

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Questions

Okay. What questions or comments do you have?

Experiencing Suffering with the Conventional or Inflated “Me”

Participant: I have one clarification: at the beginning you said that there are the conventional “me” and inflated “me.” Inflated “me” leads to suffering. How would you deal with sicknesses of the body – with the conventional “me” or inflated “me?” Because sicknesses create suffering as well.

Alex: The question regards how we understand the sickness of the body in terms of this division between conventional “me” and the false “me,” the inflated “me.” Where does that fit in if we say that our suffering and problems come from thinking in terms of an inflated “me?”

Well, first of all, who experiences the physical suffering of sickness? It’s the conventional “me.” The false “me” doesn’t exist at all. We can have an incorrect consideration of the conventional “me” and we think that that corresponds, refers to something real. But that’s a false “me.” It’s not referring to anything real. So the false “me” can’t experience anything. However, we can experience sickness and the suffering of sickness with a way of considering “me” that is incorrect, as in “Poor me,” “I’m the victim.” “Nobody has it as bad as I do,” “Why is this happening to me,” and all of that mental agony that can go with the sickness.

But, it’s not really a matter of where do we categorize the suffering of a sickness as being due to a conventional “me” or a false “me” or the statement that I made that believing of ourselves in terms of a false “me” leads to suffering. I don’t think that’s a fitting way of looking at the phenomenon of a physical sickness. It starts to become very complex. You know, I love to give long answers. Some people are very skilled in giving very short answers, but I’m not skilled at that; so let me give a long answer.

Okay, as we say the conventional self experiences the suffering of the sickness. The false “me” doesn’t. That’s clear. Now, you could say, “Well, the sickness has come about by karma. I had done something horrible in a previous life, shortened the life of others and as a result my own life is shortened and I have a sickness and so on; and that “I acted in this way out of ignorance, out of unawareness of how I existed. I thought of myself in terms of a false ‘me.’” So, one could give that rather simplistic, I should say, explanation.

I had mentioned before we started the recording about Tsongkapa’s presentation of the objects for focus for developing shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind. And he had mentioned that focusing on the breath was helpful – taking that as an object of focus – for those who have a lot of verbal mental activity. Quiet it down, just focus on the breath. For those who have naivety, naivety about reality, he recommends focusing on dependent arising in terms of the aggregates.

And he explains it – it’s not so easy to understand – but what we’re focusing on here is a situation that we are experiencing, let’s say this physical sickness. It has dependently arisen on causes and conditions. From a causal point of view we are experiencing this as the ripening of a karmic tendency. Let’s say it in a more impersonal way: it’s arising as a result of a karmic tendency – that would be the cause. But then there are all the conditions for why it ripened at this particular time. Without those conditions it wouldn’t have ripened now. So, the weather; what I did; there may be an epidemic going on – so many different things – my nutrition, the amount of exercise that I do, the people that I came in contact with. You can start listing all sorts of conditions that contributed to why I am sick.

And there are all the various causal factors that are involved with my emotional response in terms of my whole psychological background, and then of course everything that has affected that in terms of my family and my upbringing, etc., why there is a certain amount of self-pity – so many different emotions that are there. And each of those is arising from a different type of tendency, a different type of habit. And the situation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are the circumstances as well of what are the medical facilities that are available; what are the hospital facilities that are available; do I have friends and family that help take care of me?; am I completely alone? – so many other factors contributing to the situation.

So, the karmic cause – a previous type of action (that was) also committed under a whole cluster of conditions and circumstances – is only one part of this huge network of dependently arisen factors. And to attain shamatha with this as your object, Tsongkhapa says you just focus on the situation with your way of understanding it, namely that it has arisen from this huge complex of causes and conditions,

  • without there being a truly existent “me” who was the agent, the guilty one who brought this about;
  • and without a truly existent “me” who experiences the result, in other words the victim – poor me. So without guilt – “I’m the guilty one that brought this about because I was bad in a past lifetime”;
  • without the victim sense of me – “Poor me, I don’t deserve this” – you know, “This is my punishment” type of thing – without that.

Just this has dependently arisen from an enormous network of causes and conditions, without going into all the details. That’s your object for shamatha; and it’s a brilliant, absolutely brilliant meditation.

Why do I bring this up, aside from the fact that I find this a fantastic meditation? It’s because when we study the Dharma, we say that the root of all the problems – like in the twelve links of dependent arising, the first link, the root of all your problems is this unawareness of how you exist, how the self exists, “me” and everybody else. And we don’t know or we know incorrectly, and everything comes from that. Although that’s correct, we misunderstand it. What is the misunderstanding? It comes in the four incorrect views of the second noble truth, in terms of the sixteen aspects of the Four Noble Truths (just to tell you that I’m not making this up).

What is an incorrect understanding of the true cause of suffering? That all suffering comes from one cause; that results arise just from one cause. There can be a root cause, a most fundamental cause, but it is not exclusive that only because of “me” and “I’m so stupid’ that I am experiencing suffering. You see what an ego trip that is and the danger of thinking like that? “It’s because of me, I’m stupid and I didn’t understand, and that’s why I’m the poor victim, and I just have to wake up and understand correctly and all my problems will go away.” That’s much too simplistic; that’s thinking that results truly come from one cause alone. Results arise from a huge network of causes and conditions.

You see, although we’re jumping ahead really in the sequence of the lam-rim but it’s such an important point. We can see the difference between the healthy “me” and the inflated “me” in terms of this particular point of what is my responsibility in terms of the suffering that I experience? Inflated “me” is this big “me” and it’s “all my fault,” which is an inflation of that “me,” that everything that happens is my fault. So you can see how that can start to become quite paranoid: “I did this bad thing and this stupid thing and all of that in past lives and that’s why I’m suffering.”

A healthy sense of “me” is “Yes, conventionally I acted like this and so on, and therefore there are the karmic seeds to experience this and that, but there are the zillions of other causes and conditions that are involved.” So we don’t inflate the sense of “me,” “I’m responsible for every disaster that happens in the world, especially every disaster that happens to me. It’s all my fault.” That’s too inflated.

What is so difficult actually is to avoid the two extremes.

  • “It’s all my fault” is one extreme, that’s the inflated “me.”
  • The other extreme is “I’m not responsible at all; I experience this thing that’s happening just from outside. I didn’t do anything; I’m innocent.”

Those are the two extremes, and it’s in the middle that we have the healthy sense of “me” and a healthy sense of responsibility, but not an inflated sense of responsibility. So these parameters of “innocent” or “guilty” are really not appropriate to the whole Buddhist explanation. It’s very interesting actually when you think about it, how we get our misconceptions by superimposing onto Buddhism certain things from our culture that are coming from our sense of law – guilty or not guilty, guilty or innocent. It’s irrelevant.

I apologize for taking up all the time with one question. There will be time for questions in our other sessions. But your question leads to very important points; it’s a good question. And I think it also helps to give an introduction to what are the differences between a healthy sense of “me” and an inflated sense of “me” if we look at it from the point of view of responsibility for what we experience.

Self-Cherishing and the Root of Problems versus Causes of Problems

Participant: If this false “me” is self-cherishing, can we say that also the conventionally existing self is self-cherishing?

Alex: The false “me” does not exist. We incorrectly conceive of the conventional “me” as the false “me.” So, who is it that is self-cherishing? It can’t be the false “me” because the false “me” doesn’t exist. It’s the conventional “me” – my experiencing of the world has as part of it the mental factor of self-cherishing that’s accompanying various moments of my experience. And what else is going on in my five aggregates – what’s making up my experience, this composite – there is incorrect consideration of “me.” I think of “me” as the false “me” – “I’m the best, I’m the most fantastic thing, I should always have my way”; and another mental factor of self-cherishing. Therefore I’m only going to think of “me,” of what I will get.

We learn about these mental factors and all of that; you can think of this as just pieces of knowledge and so on. But if you can actually start to analyze in terms of these systems, it really indicates how to work on various problems. After all, everything that Buddha taught was to facilitate overcoming problems, overcoming suffering. So, I have self-cherishing – what’s going on? Self-cherishing is “me,” so I’m responsible; the conventional “me” experiencing things. I’m considering “me” incorrectly as a false “me,” and there’s self-cherishing that’s accompanying that. So if I get rid of that misconception about “me,” I wouldn’t have the self-cherishing. So you see what to work on.

If you just work on the self-cherishing – okay, I don’t have any self-cherishing but I’m still thinking in terms of, you know, this “me” “me” “me.” So I think of myself as “I am the martyr and I will not be selfish and I will take on all the suffering” – it’s a big inflated “me” that’s there. So you’re still thinking of a false “me.” You haven’t gotten to the root of the problem. But the problem itself is complex. It’s made up of many parts, many factors.

You see, the misconception of the self is the root of the problems. There’s a big difference between “This is the root of a problem, so if you want to put down the plant you get rid of the root” and saying “The root is the only cause for the plant.” The plant has grown with many, many conditions and many circumstances contributing to it – the soil and the rain and the weather; so many things are there. But if you want to get rid of it, you have to eliminate the root. So this is how we understand dealing with that unawareness or ignorance about the self in a conventionally correct way; not in the sense that, “Well, that’s the only cause” and “I’m stupid” and all of that.

So, please digest that for a moment: the difference between the root of a problem and “It’s all from that one cause and therefore I’m the guilty one”; the difference between getting rid of the root of the problem and thinking “It was all my fault.”

Participant: Can we experience results of the situation where we haven’t produced causes?

Alex: That’s the fourth law of karma, that you will not experience the results unless you’ve built up the causes. If that were so [that you could experience the results of actions you did not commit], that would be the extreme of “I’m totally innocent, I didn’t do anything, so why is this happening to me?” That’s the extreme of being the victim. That’s the nihilist extreme.

Okay, let’s end here for this evening with the dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to contribute to everyone’s enlightenment – not just “me,” “me,” “me,” I want to get enlightened. That’s why Shantideva’s tenth chapter, the dedication prayer chapter, is so wonderful because it’s always in terms of may everybody be like this, everybody like that; it’s never may I.

Okay, thank you very much.