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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 Four: Liberating the Conventional "Me," not the False "Me," from Insecurity

Healthy Development of One's Self through Lam-rim

Alexander Berzin, Riga, Latvia, August 2013

Session Four: Liberating the Conventional "Me," not the False "Me," from Insecurity

Unedited Transcript
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Review

We’ve been discussing how to develop the self in a healthy way through the lam-rim graded stages. And we saw that we have a conventional self, we do exist; and that is what can be labeled or represented or understood in terms of whatever we are experiencing in each moment. So “me” is not just the way of referring to each moment of experience, but how do we know the “me” that is the issue. How do we know ourselves? We know ourselves only in terms of experience, the moment to moment experience of a lifetime. And we can understand how we exist in a correct way or an incorrect way. When we think of our conventional self as existing in an impossible way then we’re thinking in terms of the false “me” – this is the self that’s to be refuted. To do anything about our situation in life, to try to improve the quality of our lives, to try to overcome suffering and problems, we need a healthy sense of “me” – a conventional “me” – otherwise we don’t care about what we experience and we don’t make any effort to do anything to take care of our lives.

When we start the lam-rim progression of understanding and insight that forms a graded path, then we begin with appreciating the precious human life that we have. When we appreciate how we are free, at least temporarily, from the worse situations that would prevent us from doing anything constructive with our lives, and when we realize how our lives are so enriched by opportunities to do something constructive with ourselves, then we appreciate very much ourselves, this conventional “me.” Let me say that more precisely: we appreciate the situation that we have, and that leads to having a more positive attitude toward ourselves. Rather than thinking “poor me” and complaining about our situation in life, we are very grateful for our situation. In other words, we’re looking at the good qualities rather than the negative qualities. We don’t deny that there are shortcomings to our life. Everybody’s lives has shortcomings, but it doesn’t benefit us to complain about them and dwell on them.

There’s a guideline that we find in the teachings on how to relate to a spiritual teacher: you don’t deny the shortcomings, but there’s no benefit from focusing on them. Instead, one looks at the good qualities because these are inspiring. So when we look at the good qualities of our situation in life with this precious human life, we are likewise inspired to have a more positive attitude about ourselves.

We also realize that because we have this situation now, this precious human life, it’s not going to last. Death will come for sure and before that – if we live that long – old age, perhaps sickness, etc. So, because we are very grateful for the precious human life that we have now, and that gives us a warm feeling about ourselves and we really want ourselves to be happy, then we don’t want that to end if we die. We want that to be able to continue because we saw that whether we consciously believe in rebirth or in an afterlife or whatever type of belief system we might have, it comes down to thinking that we’re going to go on forever even in terms of “now I am dead.” Well, I am dead forever and there’s a “me” who’s experience that being dead or being a Big Nothing. So, we would like to be happy in that Big Nothing, obviously.

And we don’t to be unhappy, which means we don’t want to have worse future lives. But we’ve started to care about ourselves, and care not just in terms of right as this moment, but also in the future; and not just in the latter part of this lifetime, but in future lives as well. So this is even a more constructive healthy attitude toward taking care of ourselves. And the healthiest attitude that we could have is that we look for some way to avoid suffering, to avoid problems.

So that is in terms of seeking for a safe direction, a way to avoid future suffering, because “I’m afraid of suffering, I really don’t want that,” and then actually putting that direction in our lives. That direction is indicated by Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; and on the deepest level this would be to attain a true stopping of the causes of problems, therefore the true stopping of suffering, and to gain the understanding, the true path that will lead to that the way that the Buddhas have done in full and the Arya Sangha has done in part.

We saw that the first thing that we need to do to go in that direction – safe direction – is to avoid the causes for unhappiness, the so-called “suffering of suffering.” So that means gross unhappiness and pain, because that was what we were focusing on when we were thinking of the worst rebirths that we could experience and we really don’t want to experience that. So, let’s first try to work on getting rid of those causes for that type of experience, because if we really care about ourselves, we’re going to take ourselves seriously and what I’m going to experience seriously.

This means that we need to understand that if we’re experiencing unhappiness, this is the result of destructive behavior. And if we experience happiness, that’s the result of constructive behavior: constructive behavior being refraining from acting destructively when we feel like acting destructively. So, we can think in terms of destructive behavior, like killing and stealing and lying, forcing ourselves sexually on others and so on. This is under the influence of disturbing emotions – either lust and greed or anger, naivety. And when we experience these types of disturbing emotions that cause us to act compulsively in a destructive way, then we can notice, from the definition of a disturbing emotion, that it’s a state of mind that makes us lose peace of mind. So we’re uneasy – so basically we’re unhappy – and we lose self-control, therefore we act compulsively. That’s the definition of a disturbing emotion.

So, if we act destructively with a state of mind that is disturbed and basically unhappy, not at peace, then that’s like – to use an example that my translator told me in our discussion coming here – it’s like lifting a rock up, putting it on a pole. So you do an action and then it produces, from that kinetic energy of that action, the potential energy now of the rock up on the top of the pole. There’s potential energy there. So, as in physics – the law of conservation of matter and energy – kinetic energy is now potential energy and various circumstances and so on, the pole gets knocked down and that potential energy now changes into kinetic energy again when the rock falls – it produces heat or whatever when it hits the ground.

So that kinetic energy – how the karmic potential ripens – will be in further destructive behavior. I mean if you think of the whole flavor of this process of the kinetic energy going into potential and then back into kinetic – the whole thing is destructive, with disturbing emotions and unhappy. And so it starts to make sense that we experience unhappiness as a result of destructive behavior, because destructive behavior is done in a state of mind that is not happy.

So, we exercise self-control basically on this initial level: when we feel like acting in a destructive way – you sort of feel that tension of wanting to lie or hurt somebody or say something nasty and so on – and we refrain because we realize that it will just produce more unhappiness or suffering.

Now, if we act in that way we can avoid at least in the immediate future lives – I mean we haven’t gotten rid of the cause completely – but at least provisionally we can avoid worse rebirth states and gross unhappiness. Primarily what we’re avoiding at this level is worse rebirth states in our next lifetime. We’re still going to have, even if we’re reborn with a precious human life, we’re still going to have times of being unhappy. It isn’t that we’ve gotten rid of that completely, but at least we can strive and attain a precious human rebirth again. That’s really what we want – to be able to continue on this spiritual path.

Unsatisfying Ordinary Happiness

Now in the intermediate scope, okay, so we have a basically happy rebirth state. But remember what is going on in this initial level when we acted constructively. When we acted constructively we refrained from acting compulsively in a destructive way when we felt like it (when we felt like acting destructively). So, that required will-power and self-control; so that is a healthy development of the self. Like the simple example of getting up in the morning and going to work and taking care of the children – it requires self-control not to just lie in bed and will-power to get up, so this is a healthy sense of self, when you take responsibility. But, what is going on here underneath this self-control and will-power is a very strong sense of a solid “me” – that “I have to be in control, I have to do this.” So it is a very strong sense of “me” and “I should have been able to control myself if I didn’t” and we feel guilty and so on. This goes into the direction of the false “self.”

So that’s the concept of a “self” that should have been in control regardless of conditions and causes and everything else that was going on; it should act independently of causes and conditions. That’s impossible. So this is a “disturbing attitude,” we would call it, about ourselves: a disturbing attitude in regard to how we view ourselves: I should be in control no matter what. And although in that state of mind we are basically more at peace, we’re not under the influence of a disturbing emotion like anger or lust and so on – “Okay now I’m in control and I can act in a controlled manner” – nevertheless, it becomes compulsive. There’s still karma here; it’s compulsively “I have to control myself.” The example that we used was being a compulsive perfectionist: compulsively cleaning the house; being compulsive so very, very stiff in terms of ethics.

And what type of happiness do we experience as a result of that? It’s happiness that doesn’t last. So, for instance, you are a perfectionist in cleaning the house and you clean it, but then you’re never satisfied and then you have to clean it again; and you have to clean it again. Or you’re correcting a paper and you’re a perfectionist – you never know when to stop, so you’re never satisfied. That happiness is the “suffering of change,” it’s called. And then that extends to other areas of our experience: any sort of happiness that we experience doesn’t last. It changes; you eat a meal and you really enjoy it, but if you kept on eating and eating without stopping, you would make yourself sick. So, this is our suffering of change, our ordinary happiness.

Deconstructing Misconceptions about the Self

We have built up a healthy sense of self in terms of the conventional self: I am responsible for my actions; I’m responsible for what I experience; I need to do something about it in order to eliminate the causes for unhappiness. Now we want to even eliminate the causes for this unsatisfying type of happiness as well. So, what is the problem here? What is the cause of the problem? What we see is that we have to start deconstructing our misconceptions with which we conceive of ourselves in terms of this false “me.”

Let us explain this in a simple type of way. The false “me” – we are conceiving of that conventional “me” (“I’m doing this,” “I’m doing that”; “I’m experiencing this,” “I’m experiencing that’) as being some sort of a solid entity “me” inside my head that is the author or the voice that’s going on. The one that’s saying “What should I do now and what do people think of me?” and the one that’s worrying about myself. The one that’s sitting there almost like operating a machine, the body – “What should I do now? Well I’ll do that,” and then sort of presses the button and gets the body to do this or the speech to do that, and is getting in all the information from the video screens and the loudspeakers from the senses; sitting in central control inside the brain and talking in the microphone inside your head so that only you hear it.

Now, this is total fantasy, a fiction. There is no such thing. We don’t exist like that; but, because that’s who we believe that we are – that there is this “me” sitting there – how do we experience that? We experience that as insecurity. Of course it’s insecure because it doesn’t exist at all, so how can you feel secure about it? So we have all these strategies to try to make that little “me” secure.

“If I could just get certain things to “me,” that somehow will make “me” secure.” So we have longing desire and then if we have it we don’t want to let go – so attachment; and even if we have some we want some more – so greed. Somehow that’s going to make me secure – “If I could have enough money,” “If I could have enough ‘I like it’s’ on my Facebook page” or whatever it is – that will make “me” secure. And it doesn’t of course. It never does.

Then another strategy – we’re talking about the disturbing emotions here – so another strategy is to get things away from “me” that somehow threaten my security. So, we have anger, aversion, hostility – these types of disturbing emotion. Or we have naivety – “I just don’t want to think about something that would be threatening.” Denial – this type of putting up the walls.
Somehow behind the wall of denial and naivety I will be safe. And of course we’re never secure. We always feel insecure inside the wall that something is going to get through.

So these are the disturbing emotions that we have; we feel insecure so we use these mechanisms and they lead to the compulsive destructive behavior of stealing to get what we want; killing to destroy anything that we don’t like; or just not dealing with things, you know, out of naivety. This is all based on this misconception about the self – thinking that we exist as this false “me.”

This belief in this false “me” is also behind our constructive behavior, this obsessive compulsive constructive behavior. There can be constructive behavior that is not compulsive, which is not based on this belief in the false “me,” but here we’re talking about the karmic one, the one that is compulsive. And what’s behind this compulsive obsessive perfectionism – as the example of constructive behavior here – is still this belief in this false “me.”

Disturbing Attitudes

We don’t necessarily have disturbing emotions here; we have disturbing attitudes. Disturbing attitudes can be underlying the disturbing emotions or just by themselves. The most prominent of these disturbing attitudes has a difficult technical name: it is a “deluded outlook toward a transitory network.” I’ll explain what that means.

  • “Network” is our aggregates – all the things that make up each moment of experience.
  • It’s “transitory,” which means it changes all the time.
  • And we have a “deluded outlook” toward it – an incorrect view toward what we’re experiencing; it’s changing all the time.

And what actually is this attitude? If you look at the definitions and the descriptions of it in the texts it’s like – I like to use the analogy of having a net, like a fisherman with a net, and you’re throwing out this net of simply “me” or the net of “me as the possessor of something,” “me as the possessor of something as ‘mine.’”

Usually we think of this in terms of, let’s say, a youthful body and then we throw out this net of “me” identified with it – that’s “me.” And so then we hold onto that – with further deluded disturbing attitudes in terms of “this is permanent” and you look at yourself in the mirror and you see white hair and you say “That’s not me.” [With this disturbing attitude] we have a fixed image of “me.” So, we’ve thrown out that net of “me” onto something in the aggregates – let’s say our body – and identify with it. You know, “me, I’m fat,” and then compulsively you’re on a diet and try to lose weight and you lose one kilo and you’re a little bit happy, but that happiness doesn’t last and you have to lose another kilo. Or there can be this type of (attitude) with compulsively eating well. There’s nothing wrong eating well, but when it becomes compulsive, based on this idea that “I have to be thin,” then in the West we’d say that’s a bit neurotic.

It’s the same thing with “mine”: “me, I’m the possessor of things, the controller of things.” This is relevant to the example that we were saying: we throw out the net of “me” onto a situation that we experience and “I should be able to control it.” This solid “me” that is the boss inside the head – “I should be able to control it, and if I don’t control it I’m guilty.” So, this is the disturbing attitude that’s behind it, throwing out that net of “me” – “me” the controller, “me” the possessor – on whatever we’re experiencing.

[We imagine,] “If I can get everything under control, then I’ll feel secure.” Well, you might feel secure for a few moments and have a little bit of happiness, but that doesn’t last, does it? That’s because it’s impossible to get everything under control. You throw out this net of “me” – “I’m going to correct everybody, I’m going to correct everybody’s mistakes.” Okay, that’s constructive, that’s positive; but it’s a bit too much, isn’t it? And it’s impossible that there will never be any more mistakes, isn’t it? Because mistakes coming, or things going into chaos and so on – that’s being affected by so many causes and conditions. We’re not an almighty God. That’s a fantasy.

So, these disturbing emotions that are behind destructive behavior – compulsive destructive behavior – and the disturbing attitudes that are not only behind destructive behavior but also behind our compulsive positive constructive behavior – all of those are based on this belief, this misconception about ourselves, believing that we exist as this false “me” – to put it in simple words, this solid little controller inside our heads. And believing that that’s “me,” we feel insecure. So we try to either get things to it, get things away from it, put walls around it, or throw out its hand, its net, to control everything around. And none of these strategies work and all that it creates is the uncontrollably recurring up and down of samsara – unhappiness, happiness, unhappiness, happiness – in this lifetime and in future lives. That’s samsara.

Think about that for a few moments in terms what we’ve been calling the “false self,” the self to be refuted. It’s based on a misconception and projection of a complete fantasy onto the conventional self in terms of how that self exists. There is a self, but it’s not this little controller sitting in your head behind the control board. And the important thing is that there is the conventional “me.” It just doesn’t sit in the control room. But there is a conventional “me.” That’s what is so important, that we have built up through the previous stages. If you just go to this stage without doing the previous stages, you get rid of the controller in your head, then there’s nothing. So, then, “Well why bother to do anything? I don’t exist.” This is incorrect. So it’s very important to have gone through these steps beforehand to build up a healthy sense of “me” that’s taking responsibility for our lives and what we experience.

How Karma and Rebirth Operate

Okay; now, we start to develop what’s called “renunciation.” This is the determination to be free from this up and down of samsara. In order to break this syndrome of unhappiness and then this unsatisfying happiness and the rebirths that will support it and so on, we need to overcome the basis for that. Why is it continuing? Why do we have the type of – if we think in terms of lam-rim – rebirths and so on that will continue to be the basis for experiencing these up and down unhappiness and unsatisfying happiness. For this, we look at the mechanism of how rebirth, how this recurring syndrome, operates; and that’s described with the “twelve links of dependent arising.

There’s no need on this occasion to go through all of these twelve links, but what is really quite significant are the links that will activate the karmic potentials. We have what’s usually translated as “craving;” but if you look at the Sanskrit word, it’s the word “to be thirsty.” Now, what’s happening in our daily life and life after life with rebirth is that we’re experiencing this happiness and unsatisfying happiness, and conceiving of ourselves as this solid “me” in our heads. We’re dying of thirst; that’s an expression in English – I mean we’re really thirsty.

And so unhappiness is like being really thirsty and you want to get rid of it so, so strongly; this thirst is to be rid of that unhappiness. I mean obviously there can be grades of how intensely thirsty we are and wanting to get rid of that unhappiness like the unpleasant feeling of the thirst. But this is the mentality that’s there when we are unhappy, because everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy.

And when we are really, really thirsty, if you have just a tiny little sip of water, that’s not enough, isn’t it? You don’t want to be parted from that little sip of water, from that bottle of water. You want to keep it. So, this is the state of the mind that we have – it’s a disturbing emotion really – with that happiness and unhappiness that we’re experiencing. We’re constantly thirsty.

And then what’s sometimes called “grasping” but which is really literally an obtainer attitude – it’s what obtains the rebirth – we throw or cast out [a disturbing attitude]. There’s a whole list of these, but the main one is that we throw out this net of “me,” that “I’ve got to somehow control and deal with this situation; I have to get rid of it.” You know, we identify with it; “me” – “I’m so unhappy;” “I’m so miserable;” “Poor me;” and depression and all that stuff that follows. Or, “I’m so deprived of happiness, it’s always alluding me” – all these things of throwing out this net of “me” and “me, the possessor, the experiencer, controller” of this happiness and unhappiness.

Those two – that thirsting and that obtainer attitude, throwing out this net of “me” onto everything – that’s what activates the karmic potentials. As a result of that activation process, then (as described through the mechanism) of the twelve links, we compulsively take rebirth. But you can think in terms of this lifetime as well: compulsively we act to get rid of that thirst; in one way or another we try to satisfy it, which you never can. So, the root of all this is of course our unawareness of the first link of dependent arising: our unawareness about us, about how we exist. So we have to somehow get rid of this belief that we exist as this false self – this little “me” sitting in the head that’s so thirsty; thirsty and insecure. Think about that.

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It’s very interesting to analyze in ourselves what is my attitude toward unhappiness and happiness. It’s very, very interesting, really. How do I deal with it? Am I like this thirsty person in the desert? I mean obviously first you have to care about it. If you don’t care, then you don’t do anything; but, we have developed a healthy sense of self in which we do care about what we experience. But do we care too much like this person in the desert who’s unbelievably thirsty? That’s the issue here. You know, this desperate person that is so thirsty that he or she will just grab anything to drink with the hope that it will make you happy. It’s very interesting, the more you explore the image. Maybe this movie will make me happy; maybe this website will make me happy; maybe this person will make me happy; this meal will make me happy. We’re always thirsty.

Or we put up the wall of having constant music on your iPad so that you don’t have to think about anything. It’s like extreme naivety, putting the big wall around so that I don’t have to deal with the issues of my life; maybe that will make me happy. So that I never really have to think about my situation and maybe, if I deny everything and drown it out with constant music, that will make me happy – which of course it doesn’t. You always have to listen to another song; one isn’t enough.

Questions

Negating Only the False “Me”

Yeah.

Participant: Real thirst is permanent; you should drink otherwise it’s not possible to wait. But you’re speaking about a transitory kind of thirst, which you have for a moment, and then wait, and then it goes away.

Alex: So he’s asking about thirst. If we take this term quite literally, then, we do get thirsty. We’re human beings and it is necessary to drink. So what are we talking about, some obsessive neurotic attitude about it or what? This is the question hopefully. This is why it’s so important to not negate the conventional “me,” but only to negate the false “me.” The provisional way of dealing with this whole syndrome of happy/unhappy and thirst and so on, is this attitude of “nothing special.” “I’m unhappy” – nothing special; what do you expect out of life? “I am happy and it will go away” – Well, nothing special; what did I expect?

So you don’t make a big deal out of either being unhappy or being happy. Don’t make a big deal out of being thirsty; if I’m thirsty and there’s something available to drink – fine, I drink it. I don’t expect that I’m never going to be thirsty again. Of course I’m going to be thirsty again. So there’s nothing special about drinking; there’s nothing special about being thirsty, in terms of the conventional “me.” You just deal with it; but not with this false “me” of “Ohhh, if I have this perfect drink, then everything will be wonderful, and don’t take it away from me!” – like a dog at the bowl looking around as if somebody’s going to take it away. Don’t get fooled by the TV commercials; they hold up this bottle of soft drink or whatever: “Thirst buster!” – it will get rid of all this sort of stuff. Come on!

Gaining a Deeper Understanding

Participant: About this conventional self; you said you need to know how the conventional self exits, but I think knowledge is not enough because I was thinking that I don’t actually understand what I see. How can we really make it work?

Alex: So she’s saying that we we’re not just refuting how we what’s impossible about the false “me,” that it doesn’t exist this way; but also we need to understand how the self does exist and for that just knowledge is just not enough. How do we actually get some – I don’t even know what you would call it – a deeper understanding, a transformational type of understanding? That’s the question.

The problem really I think here is our whole way of conceptualizing about this. There’s an intellectual understanding and there is a deeper emotional understanding, and what really are the parameters that are involved here? This is what we have to examine. I think that one of the parameters that’s involved here is “certainty.” How certain are we? How convinced are we that this is the conventional “me” and this is how it exists and this how it doesn’t exist. So first we have to be really, really convinced that this is correct.

There’s a whole progression of mental factors that are involved here. We need to distinguish between the way it is and the way it isn’t; and then develop discriminating awareness – you’re really certain about it; and then firm conviction – there’s nothing that will sway you. So, there’s a progression.

  • First you distinguish between the way it is and the way it isn’t.
  • And then discriminating awareness – you discriminate, so that adds certainty.
  • And then firm conviction – nothing is going to change your mind: “I’m really convinced.”

Now, if you say “Well that’s still intellectual,” what’s missing? Well, you need to actually act with this understanding, and this is part of the whole “becoming convinced” issue. Part of this whole discussion [is becoming convinced] that if I act with the belief that I am this false self, it produces unhappiness and suffering; if I get rid of that and just act on the basis of the conventional “me,” I will not produce this type of suffering. So to really become convinced of that, you need to actually put it into practice and then you see that the results come in accord with what the teachings say. Then you’re really convinced.

So if you really understand it correctly, why don’t you try it out? Why don’t you put it into practice? So, then you analyze: “Well, I still perhaps have indecisive wavering. I’m not quite sure. I have my doubts.” You’re not really convinced. Now, you could try it out on the basis of presumption: “I presume that it’s true so I’ll try it and see.” So why don’t we do that? Laziness – and then you look at all forms of laziness and the reasons for being lazy: fear, the bad influence of others around you saying “Oh this is stupid” and so on.

So, gaining this more transformative type of understanding arises from many, many causes and conditions. Don’t mystify or mysticize – “mysticize” I guess is the word – don’t make it mystical “ooh, now a deep emotional transformation.” It’s not some sort of mystical experience. Getting to that point is a very rational progression, and I think the main parameter here is how convinced are you, how certain are you that this is correct.

Renunciation, Discriminating Awareness, and Ethical Self-Discipline

Okay, now we develop next renunciation. We understand now the whole mechanism of this uncontrollably recurring rebirth and even the uncontrollably recurring up and down within a rebirth of “happy” and “unhappy.” Renunciation is that “I’m sick and tired of this; I’m bored, basically bored with it; and want to stop, to get out.” This requires a very strong sense of the conventional “me” that has this will-power and this determination to actually do something to gain liberation. Without that strong healthy sense of a conventional “me.” you’re not going to do anything. Please appreciate that point. It takes a tremendous amount of will-power to work toward liberation. “I’m going to do it” – this type of thing; and confidence that I can do it.

Now, in order to gain that liberation, we understand that we need to have this discriminating awareness with which we gain conviction that this false self – this manner of existing of the self, of “me” – doesn’t refer to anything real. There’s the conventional “me”: it’s what can be labeled on or imputed on [an individual continuum of] ever-changing moments of aggregates. It goes on eternally; that’s not a problem. But it doesn’t exist in this impossible way. So we have to refute that. We have to get rid of that belief.

And we have to have higher concentration in order to stay focused on that discrimination and understanding. And we need to have ethical self-discipline with which we develop this mindfulness – mindfulness is the mental glue – to hold onto this state of mind; and alertness to check: am I deviating or not? You develop that with ethical self-discipline in terms of your grosser behavior of body and speech; and then with the strength that you develop from that, you can use it for your mind to develop concentration; and then use that to stay focused on how we actually do exist – on voidness, the absence of impossible ways of existing. So, for higher ethical self-discipline, higher concentration, higher discriminating awareness, we need to have a strong healthy sense of “me.”

What Kind of “Me” Are We Trying to Liberate?

Okay, now the central issue here really is, what kind of “me” are we trying to liberate? We have to understand how that “me” exists that we want to liberate. It’s not that we want to liberate the false “me” and now the false “me” is liberated. We want to liberate the conventional “me.” This is why the first level of understanding that we need to have, the refutation that we need to make, is of the self that is asserted in the other non-Buddhist Indian traditions, because they’re also teaching methods for attaining liberation. But it turns out that what they’re aiming to liberate is the false “me.”

A “me,” a self, that is separate from the whole system – this is what they’re [the non-Buddhist Indian traditions] aiming to attain: the liberation of a self that is separate from that whole system of up and down samsara and that can be in control to liberate itself. That’s very interesting if you try to think about it: there’s a “me” who’s going to be in control of everything; now I’m going to free myself from this unhappiness and unsatisfying happiness, and there I’ll be out of my head, because who wants to sit at this stupid control board, and I will be liberated.

And it’s not so funny because actually if we examine ourselves, usually that is the concept that we have of who it is that we’re trying to liberate, isn’t it? We’re trying to liberate the false “me,” the false self.

Okay, so, let’s look at the characteristics here [of that false self]. We want to have a self that will not be affected by these disturbing emotions and compulsiveness of karma. That’s okay. But, if we think in terms of the false “me,” what we want to attain then is a “me” that is not affected by anything.

We’re talking about the three characteristics of the doctrinally-based incorrect view of the self. So the first one is that it is static. They say “permanent,” but we’ve seen even in Buddhism we think in terms of an eternal self, so “permanent” doesn’t mean eternal here. It means static; unaffected by anything. The important point is that it’s not affected by anything: it’s an unconditioned phenomenon.

So here is the confusion: it’s not that you have to realize that the self is not affected by anything; what we want is for that self not to be affected by the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes. But of course we’re still going to be affected by compassion and concern for others; there are many things that we’re still affected by. But the misconception is that the false self itself can be unaffected by anything. And that’s the type of self that in the non-Buddhist systems they are thinking to liberate; that’ll be a self that is not affected by anything, that [when liberated] is totally separate from the whole system, totally separate from everything.

What we’re looking at, the initial refutation, is of a self that is – it’s usually translated as (1) “permanent,” (2) “one,” and (3) “independent.” So, we look more closely.

(1) “Permanent” actually means static, so it’s not affected by anything. So [in Buddhism] we just want it to be not affected by ignorance basically and the disturbing emotions, unawareness. But it can’t be something that cannot be affected by anything.

(2) The second characteristic is “one.” What does that mean? “One” means partless, a monad. So, the main systems that are being refuted here, the non-Buddhist systems, are the Samkhya and the Nyaya Vaisheshika. So, the Samkhyas and Nyayas assert that the self is partless, a monad, and all-pervasive with the universe; so the size of the whole universe. And the Vaisheshika say that the self is a partless monad but the size of a tiny particle, like a spark of life. So, partless. Now you have to think what in the world is the connotation of partless, of being a monad? What’s so relevant here?

So, we enter “partless” into our internal search engine and we come up with the Vaibhashika assertion of what are the deepest and conventional type of true phenomenon. There they discuss “partless,” so this is how the Buddhists would understand the connotation of “partless.” Vaibhashika is one of the Buddhist tenet systems. Now, the definition is that when you analyze something partless, it retains its individual true findable identity. Something that has parts, when you analyze it, it no longer retains its identity. Here’s the table and it has parts. So when I look and take it apart and look at all the parts, none of the parts are the table. So it no longer retains the identity as the table.

But something that is partless – and the examples that would be used would be for instance the ultimately smallest particle – can’t be divided. And so you try to analyze it and no matter what you do, it still is this particle, because there are no parts to it. So it retains its identity. Now, if you apply that to the self, the liberated self, then what’s the fault? The fault is that it implies that the self is not imputed on a basis that has parts. The self, the conventional self, is imputed on the body and the mind and emotions and all these sort of things that are changing all the time. So, in that sense it has parts, like a table is imputed on all these parts. So, we have all these parts: body, mind, emotions, etc.

But if the self were this one, partless thing, it couldn’t have a basis of imputation that has parts. There couldn’t be “me” as a six-year old, as a sixteen-year old, as a twenty-five-year old, etc. There couldn’t be “me” in terms of body, mind, emotions, what I’m feeling and so on. It would have to be a partless monad. That’s impossible; what they’re trying to do is to liberate something that doesn’t have parts, so it’s not made up of any of these constituents (in the Samkhya system it would be the three constituents: rajas, tamas, and sattva). So it’s not that. In the Buddhist system you say it’s imputed not on these three gunas, these three constituents, but on the aggregates. 

If we put it in simple language, these other systems say that the self is not made up of anything; so it’s partless. So don’t think that that’s a self that we’re trying to liberate that is not made up of anything. The self is made up of body and mind and emotions and it is changing through age and so on. It’s made up of things. So, if you analyze it, is the body the self? Is the mind the self? The self no longer retains its identity in terms of the parts.

(3) The third quality that we want to refute is a self that is independent of any body or mind, so a self that can exist separately from a body and a mind, from a basis of imputation – that’s what the Samkhya and the Nyaya Vaisheshika want to liberate. Then you will have a self that is totally separate from the universe, separate from a body and mind, separate from anything – it has no basis for imputation. [Just to clarify] the second part [of the definition of this false self] was getting rid of or denying [that it has] a basis for imputation; here it’s [asserting] that it’s totally separate from anything.

Now it becomes very interesting if you actually look at what these non-Buddhist systems say. Samkhya says that the self is a passive consciousness not made up of matter – the primal matter that they talk about. So it’s not the same as the physical faculty for sentience, which in our Western terms would be the brain. It’s not the same as the brain. The brain experiences happiness and unhappiness, this samsara. It’s the brain; it’s the physical basis that has that. But the self, just liberate the self. The self is this passive consciousness not connected with any brain, so that’s how I will become liberated from suffering and this unsatisfying happiness. Just realize that I’m separate from the brain; it’s the body that’s doing all of this, so who wants that? And that is how I will become what the liberated self will be; it doesn’t feel anything. A liberated self is this passive consciousness, but it doesn’t really know anything. It’s just, there it is.

Translator: Blissed out.

Alex: Not blissed out, because that’s a feeling.

Translator: Oh, right, right.

Alex: No feeling. It’s the brain that has feelings. That’s interesting because in fact many of us would like that.

Translator: A feeling that is physical…

Alex: Feeling is physical. From the Samkhya point of view, this is merely the firing of electrons and neurons and so on; it’s just some chemical electrical process going on in the brain. It’s physical. But the self is not physical so it’s separate from all that.

And the Nyaya Vaisheshika point of view is that the self doesn’t have consciousness. The Samkhya says it has passive consciousness; Nyaya says no consciousness. It doesn’t have any qualities whatsoever. It says that actually what has consciousness is something called a “mind particle,” and so the self is not associated with a mind particle. This Nyaya Vaisheshika system, I always think of it in terms of – in America we have an Erector Set with little sticks and balls that you connect at the end of the sticks. These balls have little holes in them and you can connect many different things with these sticks. This is sort of the way in which the Nyaya Vaisheshika has things: there’s a self and then there’s the mind particle and there’s a body and there are feelings; things are just these little balls that are connected by sticks, and the sticks are different types of relationships – possession or whatever.

Translator: Acquisition.

Alex: Acquisition, these sort of things. So it’s a very physical view of how things are connected. And it just says “Well, the self is something that is not connected to anything; all you have to do is disconnect it.” So disconnect it from a mind particle, disconnect it from everything – pull out all the plugs – and there it is, liberated. You pulled all the plugs so there’s no consciousness; so that’s how you stop feeling unhappiness or this unsatisfying happiness. Just pull the plug.

Translator: It’s Nyaya or Vaisheshika?

Alex: The two of them together. They have slightly different variants of that, but they both assert the same type of thing.

So, this is not what we want to liberate, this false self. The self that we want to liberate, the conventional self, is one that is affected by things. It’s no longer to be affected by disturbing emotions but it’s affected by positive ones, and can interact with others. It’s not partless, so it’s not without a body and mind and so on. It’s still going to have body and mind and feelings – positive feelings, emotions. And it does experience; it won’t experience unhappiness or this unsatisfying happiness but it experiences a pure type of happiness or it can be – if we’re talking about just simply liberated – a neutral type of feeling when you are deeply absorbed in meditation. So it still will experience feelings – the pure feelings.

It’s very important when we’re striving for liberation to strive to liberate the conventional “me” and not to liberate the false “me,” which doesn’t exist at all. And the deeper level that we have to refute here is that there is a self that can be known by itself without some sort of a basis also appearing at the same time. The technical term for that is a “self-sufficiently knowable self.” There is no such thing.

The example that I always use is: I want people to love “me” for “me,” just for myself; not for my body, not for my money, not for this or that – just to love “me” for “me,” as if that “me” could be an object that can be loved just by itself. But it can’t be known by itself. It can’t be loved by itself. It’s always with a basis.

So, when we work with “I know myself,” “I want to know myself” – how can you know yourself just by yourself? You know yourself in terms of experience and mind and your body – all these sort of things. That’s how you know yourself. The self is imputed on that. Similarly, how do I liberate myself? Don’t conceive of it as a self that can be known independently of all these other things. It’s always with a basis. Remember, we started this course by saying think of yourself. And the only way that you can think of yourself was either with the mental sound of the word “me” or a mental image or a feeling or something. You can’t just think “me” without something as the basis. So, similarly, you can’t liberate “me” just by itself without working on a “me” imputed on a basis and known at the same time as its basis.

What are the ramifications of this? The ramifications are that when I’m working to try to attain liberation, I have to think in terms of my everyday experience; and it’s in terms of the problems that I’m actually facing, the disturbing emotions that I’m actually facing, and the “me” imputed on that. That is how we work on gaining liberation of the self. It’s not that you just think of an abstract self without anything else appearing, which is impossible, and I’m liberating that. Then you don’t really connect your meditations with life, daily life.

So, it’s very important when we practice these three higher trainings to gain liberation – although we need this conventional sense of self that is with will-power and determination to be free and so on – we need to be careful that it’s not “I’m going to control my mind,” “I’m going to control my behavior” and “I’m going to liberate myself” – as if there was this solid “me” that’s doing all of this and liberating itself. As if it were this solid separate “me.”

Let us digest that for a moment. It’s, of course, an awful lot to digest. And then we can try to have lunch and digest that. I mean you can just sum it up in one little sentence: don’t try to liberate a false self, because it doesn’t exist at all; we’re to work to liberate a conventional “me.”

Okay, let’s end for lunch. Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for liberation and enlightenment of everyone – conventional “everybody,” not impossible “everybody.”