The Links That Throw Us into Samsaric Rebirth

We were talking about the first link in this chain of dependent arising and we saw that this is the link of unawareness and it has to do with unawareness of how persons exist, both ourselves and others. And the main emphasis that we need to put first is in terms of ourselves. And we saw that there are two levels of this unawareness: there is the doctrinally based level and the automatically arising level. And we’ve discussed the doctrinally based unawareness and the disturbing emotions that derive from that.

Automatically Arising Unawareness

The automatically arising unawareness or confusion or ignorance, or however we want to translate it, is something that nobody has to teach us. We all have that in every lifetime. Animals have it as well – or I should say, we have it as well when we are in an animal rebirth. And this is the misconception that we exist as persons that are self-sufficiently knowable is the technical word, in other words, can be known all by itself, without simultaneously knowing anything else.

So we have this [automatically arising unawareness]. If we have as well the doctrinally based unawareness, so we think that there is an independently existing, unaffected, monolithic me that can be known all by itself – or even if we realize that this is not referring to anything real, and even if we realize that the “me” is just something which is labeled or imputable on an ever-changing stream of continuity of aggregates – still we can misconceive that it can be known all by itself.

So what does this actually mean? It would mean, for instance, that when we look at ourselves in the mirror we think, “That’s me.” It’s not that we think, “There is a body and on the basis of that body I’m seeing ‘me.’” We think we’re just seeing me, by itself. Or – it becomes very funny – we see ourselves in the mirror, we think we see our selves in the mirror, and then we say, “Well, that’s not me,” like if we are looking older or too heavy or something like that, “Well, that’s not me!” We think of a me that is knowable separate from that image in the mirror or the number on the bathroom scale.

This belief in a self-sufficiently knowable me manifests in so many different situations. One of the most common is, “I want you to love me for me – not for my body, not for my intellect, not for my wealth, not for my possessions – just love me,” as if there was ame that could be loved separate from these things. Is there a me that can be loved separately from all these other things? Just by itself alone? Or, “I want you to respect me,” or, “I want you to pay attention to me.” We don’t think, “I want you to pay attention to my voice, to a voice, or what I’m doing, and on the basis of that you’re paying attention to ‘me.’”

We don’t think that, do we? Automatically it feels like, “Pay attention to me” – self-sufficiently knowable. And this leads to all sorts of strange views, like, “I need to go to India to find myself.” What is that? Or, “I’m a creative artist, I need to express myself.” Or we were drunk last night and we said all sorts of strange things and did all sorts of odd things and then we say, “Well, I wasn’t myself last night.” Who were we? And then we get all sorts of dualistic thoughts as well, “I will treat myself to an ice cream today,” “I will force myself to get up,” as if there were two people in there.

Of course, we have the same false view about other people as well. We think, “I know Helmuts.” What do I know? Can I know Helmuts separate from knowing what he looks like or the sound of his voice? Or, “I see Helmuts.” What am I seeing? I can’t see Helmuts separate from seeing a body. Or, “I’m speaking to Helmuts on the telephone.” What is that? That’s really weird, if you think about it, “That’s Helmuts on the phone.” Well, it’s a voice – it’s not even a voice; it’s a vibration of some membrane being stimulated by some electric current and we label that “Helmuts,” but no, we don’t think that – “I’m talking to Helmuts.”

How in the world that gets to your mobile phone is incredible, but in any case, “There’s Helmuts on the phone.” What?

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: The question is: is the Tibetan language different in this way?

No, not really. I mean, there are many expressions that are absolutely impossible to translate into Tibetan and if you do it literally, it would make no sense, like, “I want to get to know myself, so I’m going to go into retreat or find myself,” “This person is out of touch, out of contact with themselves, out of contact with their bodies.” These sort of things are absolutely impossible to explain in Tibetan or say in Tibetan. But in Tibetan you would say, “I see Boris.” Also I can’t imagine how to say in Tibetan, “I want to express myself in this piece of art, or express myself in this piece of literature.” I don’t know how you would say that. That’s very weird.

In any case, we think like this and, as I say, I think one of the most common examples for us as Westerners is this one of, “I want you to love me for myself. Just love me.” “I want somebody to love me, someone to pay attention to me.” And of course, based on that misconception of a me that could be loved all by itself, then we get all sorts of disturbing emotions, “You don’t love me,” and we get angry – and attached, greed, desire, jealous, all these sort of things. That automatically arises; nobody had to teach us that.

Even when we act constructively, like helping others, doing nice things for others, it could be based on this misconception of the self-sufficiently knowable me, that “I’m doing this, so that you will love me,” or “ that I will feel useful,” as though there is a separately knowable me that could be useful. I mean, what’s useful? The body is useful, the hands are useful, the mind is useful – on the basis of that there’s a “me,” but certainly we don’t think that.

This is something that we have to understand, that this type of me, the false me, doesn’t exist at all, is not referring to anything real. We exist, as we discussed this morning, conventionally as “me,” “I’m talking,” “I’m sitting,” and so on. It’s not that it’s somebody else, but the “me” is merely what the word “me” refers to on the basis of this ever-changing stream of continuity of body, mind, etc. – the aggregates.

Now, even if we understand that the person, or “me,” or the individual, the self, whatever you want to call it, can’t be known by itself, has to be known while also cognizing the basis of imputation of it, like a body or a mind or a personality or whatever – even if we realize that “me” has to be known that way, there is a further, subtle misconception that’s asserted by only the most sophisticated schools of theories in Buddhism.

This is the misconception that even though “me” is only what can be labeled, what can be imputed on the basis of these aggregates, nevertheless there must be some characteristic feature or mark, individual defining characteristic on the side of the basis, in other words, on the side of the aggregates that allows for a correct labeling. In other words, “There has to be something here inside that makes ‘me’ me and not you, something special that makes ‘me’ me and makes me an individual.”

It’s sort of like almost a bar code or some genetic code that’s inside there that when you label it with a scanner or something like that – boom! – there comes the price, or something like that. “There’s some individual thing inside me that makes me special, and me an individual.” So that’s more subtle and that’s also false. This is very interesting. How is it that when I look at this body... am I scanning a bar code on its side? And then the answer pops up in my head, “Helmuts,” and that’s how I know that it’s Helmuts? How does that work?

Buddhism, on the most sophisticated level, says, “There’s nothing findable on the side of the object that makes it what it is; it’s purely in terms of convention.” We can’t establish that this is Helmuts by anything findable on the side of the basis, this body or mind or anything. We can only establish that it’s Helmuts by the fact that there is this name “Helmuts” and it’s labeled on this and other people agree.

What even makes an object a knowable object? Is there some sort of line around it that separates it from the air and things like that, and then on the inside of this line, that’s the body and that’s Helmuts? The outside of the line is not? No, there’s no line there. If you really look in an electron microscope, it’s very hard to find a boundary between the atoms of the body and the atoms of the air, the energy fields and so on. It’s established by the mind. Yet is there a body here? Is there a person here? Well, yes, conventionally there is. Everybody would agree.

Based on not being aware of this, because it doesn’t seem like that, it doesn’t feel like that, it feels as though there’s something special about me and there’s something special about you that makes you either so wonderful or so horrible. Then again so many disturbing emotions come up on the basis of that, “I want this one. I want you to love me, not that one. It doesn’t matter if the other ones do; I want you to love me.” “I am special. There’s something special about me,” and “This work is so oppressive, I can’t be mein this work.” These type of things. And then we get angry and frustrated.