Voidness, or emptiness, is an extremely important and central topic in the Buddhist teachings. What it means is an absence; something is absent, not there. What is absent is an impossible way of existing; this is something that never existed at all. It is very important to understand this and to understand why. This is dealing with the whole problem of projection. We all have a great deal of confusion; some of it is very gross and big. So we might be aware that we are confused, but there are very subtle levels of that as well.
We project all sorts of things that are pure fantasy. We believe that “That is reality,” and then we respond to these projections, like somebody is late in meeting us, a loved one that we are quite attached to is late in meeting us, because of traffic, and my mind projects that “You are late, because you don’t love me anymore,” and “You have abandoned me,” “You are never going to come.” And because of our insecurity and attachment we become very, very unhappy. Then, when they finally show up, we get very angry with them, “Why are you late?” and we don’t even give them a chance to explain.
These things happen all the time in one form or another. We have all sorts of funny projections about ourselves, about other people, about the situations in the world, etc. Believing that reality corresponds to that, we create more and more sufferings and problems for ourselves, and for others. The whole point of voidness is to understand that what we are projecting does not refer to anything real. So, what is absent, what’s not there, is a real referent to our projections. It is not referring to anything. So, what is absent? A real referent of our projections was never there to start with. It is impossible.
Now, of course, what is impossible has many, many different levels of subtlety. In working to understand voidness we need to deconstruct our projections, our personal and social myths, because there are many myths that we project, that all of society is projecting, not just our own personal ones, but we have to go step by step to deconstruct them and try to realize that this is just garbage.
That is really important to understand that we don’t have just our own personal myths and projections, but there are certain ones that our whole society might share, “The national enemy, and these people, and every one of them is bad,” and these sorts of things. That is the grossest level of it, but there are more subtle ones.
The point of all of it is to try to understand that this is the cause of suffering, the cause of our problems, the cause of everybody’s problems, these projections of what’s impossible. Because we want to overcome our own problems and suffering, so we need to understand this, and so does everybody else. If we want to overcome our own problems and suffering, and gain liberation, then basically we have to understand that it’s not referring to anything real, so basically, we have to stop believing in our projections, basically just, “This is garbage,” and we don’t believe that.
My mind is making it appear as “this scorpion,” for instance, that we just had on the floor, “Aah, this is a monster, it’s horrible.” If we think like that, then we experience a great deal of fear, which is not a very pleasant state of mind. But, in understanding that it is not this monster, that does not mean that it doesn’t exist and it’s not dangerous. Of course it is. So we very carefully take it out of the room, put a piece of paper underneath it, something on top, and take it out. Understanding voidness doesn’t mean that we are no longer careful about the scorpion. Of course we need to be careful. But in understanding… I am speaking on a very superficial level, voidness is much more subtle than this, but just using this as an example … if we realize that this thing does not exist like a monster, we can handle it without fear. So we are not upset by it.
Like this, we can think of many, many, many examples, in which this understanding is very, very helpful, even on a very superficial level. We love somebody very much, are quite attached to them, and then they don’t call us, and they don’t come. Some time can pass and they still don’t call us, and we get very, very upset. So, what is our projection here? This is what one needs to analyze, “What is wrong with the way this appears to me?” There are many things that are wrong, but one of the things that is very, very common here is that, “I am the most important thing in the universe,” and particularly, “I am the most important thing in this other person’s life, and they have nothing else happening in their life except me. And so, anything that they do has to do only with me.” So if they don’t call, it’s because “They don’t like me,” or whatever.
This is not reality. People have lives; we are not the only one in their life, they have other people in their life, and they have many things that are happening to them, and many other people that they are interacting with. Even if they are our marriage partners, they have many things in their life besides just me. So, that gets us a little bit more down to earth in terms of our relations with this person and we find out, “Well, they must have been busy with something, or something must have come up,” and then we can actually ask in a calm way, “What happened?” In order to overcome our own suffering and making ourselves miserable about the whole thing, then even if our mind makes it appear like that, that “I am the only reason for anything that happens in this other person’s life,” then we say, “Come on, this is ridiculous!” and we don’t believe it.
But, if we really want to be able to help everybody, what we really need to do is to reach the point where our mind stops projecting this stuff. Because even if we don’t believe in the junk that our projections make appear, still, if our mind is projecting this, it prevents us really from seeing reality very clearly. So, we need to accustom ourselves over and over with voidness. Because, what are we doing when we are focusing on voidness? We are focusing on “There is no such thing, no such thing as a real referent to what my mind is projecting.”
Now, when we are focusing on “no such thing,” nothing appears, there is nothing. For instance, if you focus on, “There is no chocolate on the floor here,” so, what are you focusing on, what appears? Nothing. First, maybe the floor will appear, but we are not talking about “There is no chocolate on the floor.” We are talking about “There is no chocolate.” The more you absorb yourself in that, what is happening? Your mind is not projecting “chocolate.” You can have great hope that there is chocolate there, but there isn’t, and you go to the refrigerator – no chocolate. You go to the cabinet – there is no chocolate. Then you sit there, and eventually you understand, “There is none.” So, there is “nothing” that is appearing. We understand that that means that there is no chocolate, there is none. So, your mind is not projecting “chocolate,” or the “hope of chocolate” anymore. The more that we accustom ourselves to this, then eventually our mind will stop projecting “chocolate.”
In the same way, if we are projecting, for instance, the example I love to use, because it is so common, is the Prince, or Princess Charming on the white horse, the perfect partner that we are all longing to find, so that we will live, like in the fairy tale, “happily ever after.” We are all hoping, at least most of us have hoped, and maybe still are hoping, that we will still find the prince or princess on the white horse, the perfect partner. And of course we project that onto someone that we meet, in the great hope that they will be like that. And when they don’t live up to that, then we get very disappointed and angry.
As sad as it might be, we have to understand that there is no such thing. Nobody exists as the prince or princess on the white horse. Eventually, if we familiarize ourselves enough and really can believe on an emotional level that “There really is no such thing,” it is not that, “Everybody else finds one, and I don’t find one, poor me, I am the loser,” but, “There is no such thing, it is impossible,” then eventually our minds will stop looking for one. Maybe in the beginning we cry, “Oh, how sad it is that there is no such thing.” The great Indian master Shantideva said it’s like a little child crying, when their sandcastle by the ocean falls apart when the water comes in.
Actually it is a relief that there is “no such thing.” Because there is a great relief, it is very joyous actually, when we realize that we are just – like with the English expression – “banging our head against the wall” trying to find something that doesn’t exist. So, not only do we want to stop believing that our partner is the prince or princess, so that we ourselves stop suffering, but if we could stop projecting that, then we could see our partner just the way that he or she actually is, and we’re in a much better position to help them. Although I am simplifying greatly, nevertheless this is the general principle that we follow. If we want to gain liberation, we have to stop believing in these projections of fantasy; and if we want to gain enlightenment, we have to get our minds to stop projecting it.
Therefore we have to understand voidness, this total absence of any real referent to any of this fantasy that our mind is projecting, and familiarize ourselves with it, over and over and over again, so that our mind stops projecting it, by focusing on “there is no such thing,” like we used this example, “there is no chocolate.” Then we work in stages to deconstruct and get our minds to stop projecting more and more and more subtle levels of what is impossible. Of course, each level that we deconstruct is very helpful, but it is important not to stop halfway.
This is what is actually quite difficult. There are many, many things about the understanding of voidness that are difficult. No one ever said it was easy. But what we need to identify is our projections, because we really believe that they are real. We have no – even – feeling for the fact that “This is just garbage projected by my mind,” and so for this we need to work very hard, be very open. We need to study, we need to learn, “What is this garbage?” that our mind is projecting. Somebody has to point it out, whether it’s in a book or a teacher, it is not so obvious, and we have to think about it, try to understand, “What is going on here?” and really examine ourselves and examine the way that the world appears to us, and other people appear to us, and how we appear to ourselves. So, it requires a great deal of reflection and this is active reflection to try to understand, to try to recognize, “Well, what is appearing here?”
We have in Buddhism so many practices that deal with how things appear, which actually help us to understand projection, and some of this is very helpful. I am sitting in front of you and I could be frightened, for example. I could think, “All of these people are looking at me, they are judging me,” and “What are they going to think of me?” and I could become very nervous and this could become a very unpleasant event for me. So, what is the problem here? The problem is that I’m just thinking in terms of, “me, me, me,” and everything is all revolving around me, and what you think of me.
It is true that I am sitting here, and most of you are looking at me, but so what? Now we are talking about projection. Rather than looking at you as people who are judging me, and probably don’t like me, think that I am an idiot, I can change my attitude – Buddhism always speaks about changing your attitude to a more positive, helpful one – and I could look at you as my best friends, and as my brothers and sisters, as my parents, as my children, and I am explaining to you with as much concern for you as I would to my best friend. Then I am really concerned that you understand, and there is a great deal of friendliness, at least, if not love. And I am not going to pretend something. How can you pretend something with your brother, your sister or your best friend? Thinking like that, with that change of attitude, then I am very relaxed; this is a very enjoyable evening.
What is involved here? It is projection, isn’t it? In actuality I don’t know any of you, I mean, one or two I’ve gotten to know a little bit, and Claudia I know from before, but I haven’t met most of you before this evening. So, that’s not true what I am projecting, at least not in terms of this lifetime. In Buddhism we speak of previous lifetimes, so at some long ago lifetime you could have been my best friend – sure – that is the basis for thinking like this. What I am projecting is not completely unreasonable. In Buddhism, we speak of everybody having been your mother in a previous lifetime; so if that is not comfortable, everybody has been your best friend. Everybody has also been your worst enemy in some previous lifetime by that logic, but that doesn’t help.
Maybe you are sitting there and judging me. So what? You want to judge me, you judge me. The problem is not whether you are judging me or not. That’s not the problem. The problem is being focused on me, and worrying about me, “What do you think of me?” I am worried about me, because I want everybody else to love me. I mean, everybody wants everybody else to love them, don’t they?
Then you remember that not everyone liked the Buddha, so, “If not everybody liked the Buddha, then why should everybody like me?” That’s very helpful, but if that is a little bit too distant, then, “Not everybody likes His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Look at the Chinese, they don’t like him, and so what am I going to expect? That everybody is going to like me? So, if you don’t like me, if you are judging me badly, well that’s OK.” Here is the point. The point is that initially you understand that so much of what we experience is based on the projection, when you understand that, then you can change the projection. Rather than project one that is going to make you miserable, like, “Uaah, you’re all judging me,” project one that is helpful, which is that, “You are all my best friends.”
But then, eventually, you don’t have to project anything. Each of you is an individual person, and you may judge me, you may be a close friend, you may be an enemy. Fine, no problem. But, as His Holiness always points out that everybody is a human being, well not everybody, a dog is not a human being, but anyway, everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, and so just speak to everybody, equal, no problem.
I think this illustrates the fact that there are stages of how we can work with projection in order to diminish and eventually stop any suffering, any problems. But for both of these levels, you have to understand that what is causing me to be miserable is thinking, “me, me, me,” “Everything is involved with me,” and “What does everyone think of me?” That’s the problem. But, here we are in an interaction, so if I understand that this projection of you as being my judges, and “You don’t like me,” and “You’re not going to love me,” and so on, if I realize that this is garbage, then I don’t believe in that anymore, but my mind is still projecting. That’s the way my mind works, it projects, so I might as well project a more beneficial thing, like, “You are all my best friend.” That allows me to help you to a certain extent, but not the fullest. Why? Because maybe you are judging me, and maybe you don’t like me.
Now, in order to really help you, I need to be able to deal with that reality. Not just, “Everybody loves me; everybody is my best friend.” Once I am no longer afraid of you and no longer just focusing on, “me, me, me,” then I am ready to do away with these nicer projections and just really be open and deal with the reality of each person individually. Some may not like me, some may like me, some may be a close friend, somebody may be distant, whatever it is, then you just deal with it, whatever it is.
So this is an introduction to just the general way in which voidness, working with voidness, working with – basically it’s – projections of garbage that our mind projects. Sometimes it is not beneficial; it’s not helpful garbage at all. Other times, well, we project something that is helpful, but eventually you want to stop projecting at all. That gives a little bit of an idea of what we are talking about here. I think that this is enough for this evening. We can have some questions now, and then, starting tomorrow, we’ll speak a little bit more in detail about, what is the garbage that our mind is projecting, and how can we recognize it and deconstruct it?
If we deconstruct so much, then won’t we deconstruct our good sentiments?
Well, no not necessarily. Voidness is not nihilistic. We are not asserting here that nothing exists, that there is nothing. What we want to get rid of our projections of fantasy and exaggerations. Now, when we talk about greed, and attachment, or anger, that is basically an exaggeration of either the good points or the bad points about something.
But there are certain basic movements of energy underlying those two, which are helpful. If our wish to have something is exaggerating the qualities of, let’s say, ice cream or money, then it is a very disturbing state of mind. But, if we get rid of that exaggeration, then we need that energy, which says, “I wish to achieve something,” like, for instance, “to help you,” help that person. So that is striving for something, that is OK, it is positive, we need that. So when we deconstruct, what we’re deconstructing is the exaggeration, which is that, “Whether it’s successful and helping you or not, depends totally on me. I am the only cause for your overcoming your problem and gaining happiness. So, if it works, then I am the greatest, and if it fails, it is my fault, and I am guilty.” That, we want to get rid of. That is the exaggeration.
When we deconstruct here, we are still left with the wish to help others – love, the wish for them to be happy, and compassion, the wish for them to be free from their suffering. We are still left with that, but a realistic attitude of it. It’s like, excuse me if you are a vegetarian, but if I can use the example, it’s like a piece of meat. You want to cut off the fat that is around it, and get rid of that, and be just left with the nutritious part.
You know what I’m talking about? Like you have compassion for somebody, but then, if you get carried away, this is all the fat around it. Like, your child is hurt and you just, “Aaah!” and you scream, and you cry, and you yell, and you carry on, and you don’t do anything to help the child. This is just, “Poor me, I can’t deal with this,” and so on. Get rid of all of that garbage, and, “Ah, my child is hurt,” and then just take care of them, of course compassion. If you don’t have the fat around it of, “Aaah, disastro!” and the screaming, and crying, and yelling. Feeling sentiments don’t have to be dramatic, or melodramatic, in order to be very positive.
It seems very difficult to distinguish between reality and exaggeration.
That is correct; it is very difficult to differentiate between the two. That is why one needs to have a teacher. That helps. Just reading in a book might not be so clear. You need someone to answer your questions, to point things out. But, even if we have a teacher that works with us personally, which is rare, but if you have one, your mind has to be open. If you are not open, then Buddha himself could be there trying to teach you and it won’t help. To become open, we have to do – what is called in Buddhism – purification, building up positive force. There are a lot of practices that we can do to help us to open up and overcome mental and emotional blocks. Then teachers can help you.
I can give you some examples from my own experience. Geshe Wangyal, this great Kalmyk Mongol teacher, he was tremendous. Mongols are quite different from Tibetans, but, in any case, a little bit more like what you imagine a Zen master, a classic Zen master.
Geshe Wangyal always had people build things, and he supervised very much. So he had one student, one friend of mine, who was helping to build a house for the students and Geshe-la to live in, and was on the roof, and building it. And Geshe Wangyal climbed up on the roof, and he went over to this friend, his student, and started yelling at him, “You are doing it completely incorrectly. You’re ruining the whole thing, get out of here!” So my friend said [whimpering], “What do you mean, I’m doing it incorrectly? I am doing it exactly in the way that you told me to do.” And then Geshe-la said, “You see, that is the me, the ‘false me.’ That is your projection you have to get rid of.”
Another example, because Geshe Wangyal was the master at this, he died long ago. He was an old man and a few of us sitting in his living room, and this woman came in, and she was very upset, and she wanted to speak to Geshe-la privately about her personal problem. And Geshe-la said, “It’s OK, we are all friends here, you can just speak freely.” So, she told her story, and it was very, very emotionally difficult for her to tell her story, and when she finished Geshe-la put his hand by his ear and said, “What did you say? I didn’t hear you. Say it again, louder. Hard of hearing.” So then she had to repeat it and shout it word by word into Geshe-la’s ear. Sometimes he would make her repeat words two, three, four times, and by the time that she had finished, she herself realized, without Geshe-la having to say anything, that she was making too big a thing out of this, and was exaggerating, and getting too upset; and she was able to calm down.
But, you have to be a really great master to be able to do that, to know who you can do that with and who you can’t do that with. For some people it would be helpful, some people would get very upset. That’s why somebody needs to be open and ready, and then, with the guidance of a skillful teacher, they realize themselves what their exaggeration or projection is. It is very difficult to really know, as a teacher, who is ready for a method and who isn’t. That’s why one really needs to get rid of projections. But it is very difficult to differentiate between our projection and reality, because the projection feels so real, and not only that it feels so real, but we react very emotionally to it.
If I were to think that everything is a projection, that might be dangerous. I could become careless, taking possible dangers for projections.
That is why I used the example of the scorpion. You stop projecting that it’s a monster, but the thing is dangerous and so you are very careful. So, as I said, and I think this is very important to repeat over and over again, voidness doesn’t negate or do away with everything. What we are getting rid of is the projection of what’s unreal, what’s impossible.
Realizing all the trouble associated with projections, particularly in relationships, I can try to reduce them on my side, but the projections of other people are still there. Somebody might say, “You are the worst person I know,” but even if I don’t project “poor me,” and realize “This is their projection,” how to deal with that?
I think that it was Buddha who said that, “If someone wants to give you a present, and you don’t accept it, who has the present?” The person who is offering it still has it in their hand; you haven’t accepted it. So, if somebody projects something on you, then, at least from your own side … it’s very difficult to get them to stop projecting… but at least from your own side, don’t accept it and don’t react that way.
The point is – let’s use an example, rather than speaking theoretically. We are in a relationship and the other person says “You don’t love me.” Now, that may be true, I mean, maybe you don’t love them, but let’s say that it’s not true. Now you can say, “But that’s not so.” But, you can say that based on really being upset, or you can say that based on being more calm about it. If we accept it, that doesn’t mean that we believe, “Yes, you are right, I don’t love you.” Accepting it, in this case, that would be to get very upset, get angry with the other person, feel insecure, whatever. That we want to get rid of.
Not accepting it, that means emotionally not getting upset about this. They say something and there are many ways of dealing with it. If you are very calm about it, then you examine, “Is there a basis for this? Am I ignoring the other person, or what is it?” And if you think the person is rational, you can discuss it with them, see maybe there is some part of it that is true, maybe some part that’s not true.
It is very important – this just as an aside that’s very helpful in this type of situation, whether they are projecting on us or we are projecting on them – is to think of money, currencies. They want us to pay them in a certain currency, let’s say euros, and, “I’m sorry, I don’t have euros; but I can pay you in dollars.” So it’s a matter of each person realizing that they can show love in a different way, “Maybe I can’t show you in the way that you like, I can’t give you the money in euros, that’s what you want, but I can give it to you in dollars, this is the way that I show my love and affection.” You point out, “Well I do love you, I’ve been doing this and this and that, and that’s how I show love.” Or the other way around, if the other person is not giving you, you want it in dollars, and they’re giving it in euros, and you need to recognize that they are paying in a different currency. That’s very helpful. Or rupees, or in lira, which are no longer a valid currency, but this is what they have.
The point is not to get emotionally upset by their projections, so you don’t accept it on that level, but you deal with it, because this is what they are projecting. This is what they are feeling, so you deal with it, but in a more rational type of way. But sometimes you have to deal with the other person like they are a small child, when you have a two or three year old child and “It’s time to go to bed,” and, “I hate you, I hate you.”
This is a projection, obviously, but do you take it seriously and believe, “Oooh! They hate me?” You just, “It’s time to put the child to bed.” Sometimes that’s not the time to discuss it further with the person; wait until the next day. These situations, you say, “Look, it’s a very emotionally volatile, very strong moment now. Maybe this is not the best time to discuss it. Let’s wait until tomorrow.” In that sense, you put the baby to sleep and discuss it when the person is more calmed down.
If, through the understanding of voidness, the “I” collapses, then who understands voidness?
It is not true that the “I” is collapsing. What is collapsing is the exaggeration of how the “I” exists.
So is there an intrinsic existence of an “I.”
Now we have a problem of technical terminology, so I am not quite sure what you mean by “intrinsic existence of an ‘I.’” But if it’s a belief in an impossible way of existence for an “I,” when that is gone, you are left with what is known as the “conventional me.” I am sitting here, I’m talking to you, and you are asking a question and that’s still happening. I am listening to you; it’s not that somebody else is listening to you. You’re asking a question, and not somebody else.
If the problem is the attachment to the “I,” and I believe in this conventional “I,” then I could become attached to the conventional “I” again.
Who is getting attached to the conventional “I”? Is it somebody else? Are there two people here: there’s “me” and the conventional “I?”
If there is “I,” then I might be afraid of dying.
You see, what I was trying to point out a little bit in this introductory talk is that it is very, very important to study, get instruction, and think a great deal, and make ourselves open enough to be able to understand what really is the projection, what is it that is impossible, and what is it that is possible? If we don’t have a very, very precise, clear idea of what’s possible and what’s impossible, then the danger is that we negate either too much or too little.
We are dealing with very, very subtle issues here, very, very subtle. Just sitting there and trying to recognize it yourself with no guidance, maybe you’ll recognize it correctly. But the chances are that you are going to sit there for a very long time and not get it correctly. But if one correctly recognizes the conventional “I,” and how it actually does exist and cuts off all the “fat” of the exaggeration of what doesn’t exist, what’s impossible, then there is no reason to feel afraid of death. There is no reason to be attached to anything. The problem is gone. The cause of the problem is gone, therefore the problem is gone. If you are still afraid of death, then you haven’t understood voidness deeply enough.
Then that’s why I am here.
Perfect, that means that you’re afraid of death. That’s a very serious fear that most people have, and one that is very important to deal with. So it is very good that one faces that problem and tries to deal with it, because there’s a lot of people who deny death and don’t want to think about it, and don’t want to deal with it, and then they are very terrified at the end of their life.
You say negative projections could be transformed into positive projections. But then, anyway there are projections. Is it not better then, to focus on intention and motivation?
Intention and motivation are important regardless of what method we use to deal with the problem. Intention and motivation are what you start with for dealing with the problem, but then you have to apply a method. We could come across somebody who has had an accident and they have fallen down in the street. We could have the motivation, that compassion, and the intention to help them, but that is not enough. So, we could have a projection and attitude that, “This is too horrible and I can’t deal with this, and the blood, it’s so awful,” and like that, and we completely freak out. And although you want to help, you can’t, because you get too emotionally upset and frightened.
But if you change your projection, “What if this was me that was lying there? I would certainly want somebody to help me, not just freak out,” or “If this was my child, it wouldn't matter how horrible it looked, I would do something.” But, as I said, that is not the deepest solution. The best is not to project anything. I have the motivation, I have the intention, and then I just deal with it. I see what I am capable of doing, what am I not capable of doing and maybe the best way I can help is to call a doctor.
Let’s end here with a dedication. Dedication is very important at the end. The example that I often use is with a computer, you are familiar with computers. We type a document and we want to save the document at the end. So if we don’t do anything special, you know the term “default setting?” the default setting is that whatever understanding or positive force that comes from this, will go into the “samsara” folder, improving samsara. That’s where it will automatically go if we don’t do anything at the end, no dedication.
So what you want to do is have that positive force not go into the “samsara” folder, but press the button with the dedication, and put it into the “enlightenment” folder: “May this act as a cause for reaching enlightenment,” and it will only do that, if you dedicate it. If not, it is just going to go into making, say, having a nice, interesting conversation about this, over coffee, with somebody. So it makes a nice samsara but it doesn’t lead to liberation or enlightenment. Dedication is to put it in the “enlightenment” folder, save it there.
Our computer doesn’t work by just a voice command, we can’t just recite the words, “May it act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.” You have to actually press the button, so you have to actually internally, very strongly, intend that, and wish that, so that there needs to be some movement of your energy, not just, “blah, blah, blah,” the words. With that in mind, “whatever positive force” … this is, by the way, the way that I translate “merit.”Merit sounds like, in the scouts, you get a badge at the end, if you have enough points, so I don’t like the word “merit,” but “positive force,” so … “whatever positive force and understanding has come from this, may it act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.”