Commentary on “Eight Verses of Mind Training” – The Dalai Lama

Sometimes we encounter very negative people, or others yell at us, or people we’ve helped are ungrateful. If we become angry and upset at them, we lose our ability to be of any help. But with the mind training methods, we can change our attitude toward them so that we not only remain calm, but are better able to be of help to others. The “Eight Verses of Mind Training,” or attitude training, a text by the Kadampa Geshe Langri-tangpa, explains how to train our minds with method and wisdom so that we can change our attitude when we're in danger of becoming upset. The first seven verses deal with method – namely loving kindness and bodhichitta – and the eighth deals with wisdom, discriminating awareness.

Verse 1: All Beings Are Superior to Wish-Granting Gems

May I always cherish all limited beings by considering how far superior they are to wish-granting gems for actualizing the supreme aim.

We ourselves and all other beings want to be happy and completely free from suffering. In this, we are all exactly equal. However, each of us is only one person, while other beings are infinite in number.

Now, there are two attitudes to consider: that of selfishly cherishing ourselves alone and that of cherishing others. The self-cherishing attitude makes us very closed. We think we are extremely important and our basic desire is for ourselves to be happy and for things to go well for us. Yet we don’t know how to bring this about. In fact, acting out of self-cherishing can never make us happy. On the other hand, those who have an attitude of cherishing others regard all other beings as much more important than themselves and value helping others above all else. And, acting in this way, incidentally they themselves become happy.

For example, politicians who are genuinely concerned with helping or serving other people are recorded in history with respect, while those who are constantly exploiting and doing bad things to others go down as examples of terrible people. Leaving aside, for the moment, religion, future lives and nirvana, even within this life, selfish people bring negative repercussions down upon themselves by their self-centered actions. On the other hand, people like Mother Teresa, who sincerely devote their entire life and energy to selflessly serving the poor, needy and helpless, are always remembered for their noble work with respect. Others do not have anything negative to say about them.

This, then, is the result of cherishing others: whether we want it or not, even those who are not our relatives always like us, feel happy with us, and have warm feelings toward us. If we are the sort of person who always speaks nicely in front of others, but says nasty things about them behind their backs; of course, nobody will like us. Thus, even in this life, if we try to help others as much as we can and have as few selfish thoughts as possible, we shall experience much happiness.

Our lives are not very long; 100 years at most. If, throughout their duration, we try to be kind, warm-hearted, concerned for the welfare of others and less selfish and angry, that will be wonderful, excellent. That really is the cause of happiness. If we are selfish, always putting ourselves first and others second, the actual result will be that we ourselves will finish up last. Mentally putting ourselves last and others first is the way to come out ahead. So don’t worry about the next life or nirvana; these things will come gradually. If, within this life, we remain good, warm-hearted, unselfish persons, we will be good citizens of the world.

Whether we are Buddhists, Christians or communists is irrelevant; the important thing is that as long as we are human beings, we need to be good human beings. That is the teaching of Buddhism; that is the message carried by all the world’s religions. However, the teachings of Buddhism contain all the methods for eradicating selfishness and actualizing an attitude of cherishing others. Shantideva’s marvelous text, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Skt. Bodhicharyavatara), for example, is very helpful for this. I myself practice according to that book; it is extremely useful.

Our minds are very cunning, very difficult to control. But, if we make constant effort and work tirelessly with logical reasoning and careful analysis, we will be able to control our minds and change them for the better.

Some Western psychologists say that we should not repress our anger, but express it. They say, in fact, that we should practice anger! However, we must make an important distinction here between mental problems that need to be expressed and those that are better not to express. Sometimes, we may be truly wronged and it’s right for us to express our grievance instead of letting it fester inside us. But, it is never helpful to express it with anger. If we foster disturbing negative emotions such as anger, they will become parts of our personality. Each time we express anger, it becomes easier to express it again. We do it more and more until we are simply furious persons completely out of control. Thus, in terms of mental problems, there are certainly some that are properly expressed, but others that are not.

At first, when we try to control disturbing emotions, it is difficult. The first day, the first week, the first month, we cannot control them well. But, with constant effort, our negativities will gradually decrease. Progress in mental development does not come about through taking medicines or other chemical substances; it depends on controlling the mind. Thus, we can see that if we want to fulfill our wishes, be they temporal or ultimate, we need to control our minds not to have self-cherishing. For this, we need to rely on other beings much more than on wish-granting gems. In other words, we need always to cherish other beings above all else, because the attitude of cherishing others is what will actually fulfill all our wishes.

Improving our minds and actually doing something to help others are both important. First, if we do not have a pure motivation, whatever we do may not be satisfactory. Therefore, the first thing we need to do is to cultivate a pure motivation. But we do not have to wait until that motivation is fully developed before actually doing something to help others. Of course, to help others in the most effective way possible, we have to be fully enlightened Buddhas. Even to help others in vast and extensive ways, we need to have attained one of the bhumi levels of mind of an arya bodhisattva – that is, we need to have had non-conceptual cognition of voidness – emptiness – and to have achieved the powers of extrasensory perception. Nevertheless, there are many levels of help we can offer. Even before we have achieved these qualifications, we can try to act like bodhisattvas. But, naturally, our actions will be less effective than theirs.

Therefore, without waiting until we are fully qualified, we can generate a good motivation and, with that, try to help others as best as we can. This is a more balanced approach and better than simply staying somewhere in isolation doing some meditation and recitations. Of course, this depends very much on the individual. If we are confident that by staying in a remote place we can gain definite realizations within a certain period, that is different. Perhaps it is best to spend half our time in active work and the other half in the practice of meditation.

Verse 2: Regard Oneself Less Than Others and Value Others More Highly Than Oneself

Whenever I come into anyone’s company, may I regard myself less than everyone else and, from the depths of my heart, value others more highly than I do myself.

No matter with whom we are, we often think things like, “I am stronger than he is,” “I am more beautiful than she is,” “I am more intelligent,” “I am wealthier,” “I am much better qualified,” and so forth. We generate much pride. This is not good. Instead, we need to always remain humble. Even when we are helping others and are engaged in charity work, we should not regard ourselves in a haughty way as great protectors benefiting the weak. This, too, is pride. Rather, we need to engage in such activities very humbly and think that we are offering our services up to the people.

When we compare ourselves with animals, for instance, we might think, “I have a human body” or “I am a monk” or “I am a nun” and feel much higher than they are. From one point of view, we can say that we have human bodies and are practicing the Buddha’s teachings and are thus much better than insects. But from another, we can say that insects are very innocent and free from guile, whereas we often lie and misrepresent ourselves in devious ways in order to achieve our ends or to better ourselves. From this point of view, we have to say that we are much worse than insects, which just go about their business without pretending to be anything. This is one method of training in humility.

Verse 3: Confront and Avert Disturbing Emotions with Forceful Means

Whatever I am doing, may I check the flow of my mind, and the moment that conceptions or disturbing emotions arise, since they debilitate myself and others, may I confront and avert them with forceful means.

If we investigate our minds at times when we are very selfish and preoccupied with ourselves to the exclusion of others, we find that disturbing emotions and negative attitudes are the roots of this behavior. Since they greatly disturb our minds, the moment we notice that we are coming under their influence, we need to apply some antidote to them.

The general opponent to all the disturbing emotions and attitudes is meditation on voidness (emptiness); but, there are also antidotes to specific ones that we, as beginners, can apply. Thus, for attachment, we meditate on ugliness; for anger, on love; for naivety, on dependent arising; for many disturbing thoughts, on the breath and energy-winds.

We develop attachment to things because we see them as very attractive. Trying to view them as unattractive, or ugly, counteracts that. For example, we might develop attachment to another person’s body, seeing his or her figure as something very attractive. When we start to analyze this attachment, we find that it is based on viewing merely the skin. However, the nature of this body that appears to us as beautiful is that of the flesh, blood, bones, skin, and so forth, that compose it.

Now let’s analyze human skin: take our own, for example. If a piece of it comes off and we put it on our shelf for a few days, it becomes really repulsive. This is the nature of skin. All parts of the body are the same. There is no beauty in a piece of human flesh. When we see some blood, we might even feel afraid, not attached. Even a beautiful face – if it gets all scratched up, there is nothing nice about it. Ugliness, then, is, in fact, the nature of the physical body. Human bones, the skeleton, are also repulsive. A sign of skull and crossbones on something has a very negative connotation, doesn’t it?

So that is the way to analyze something toward which we feel attachment, or love – using this word in the negative sense of longing desire and attachment. Think more of the object’s ugly side; analyze the nature of the person or thing from that point of view. Even if this does not control our attachment completely, at least it will help subdue it a little. This is the purpose of meditating on or building up the habit of looking at the ugly aspect of things.

The other kind of love, or kindness, is not based on the reasoning that “such and such a person is beautiful, and because of that, I feel admiration and shall show kindness.” The basis for pure love is, “This is a living being that wants happiness, does not want suffering, and has the right to be happy. Based on that, I feel love and compassion.” This kind of love is entirely different from the first one, which is based on naivety and ignorance and is therefore totally unsound.

The reasons for loving-kindness are sound. With the love that is simply attachment, the slightest change in the object, such as a tiny change of attitude, immediately causes us to change. This is because our emotion is based on something very superficial. Take, for example, a new marriage. Often after a few weeks, months, or years, the couple become enemies and finish up getting divorced. They married deeply in love – nobody chooses to marry out of hatred – but, after a short time, everything changed. Why? Because of the superficial basis of the relationship; a small change in one person caused a complete change of attitude in the other.

We need to think, “The other person is a human being, like I am. Certainly I want happiness; therefore, he or she must also want happiness. As a living being, I have the right to happiness; for the same reason this person, too, has the right to happiness.” This kind of sound reasoning gives rise to pure love and compassion. Then, no matter how our view of that person changes – from good to bad to ugly – he or she is basically the same living being. Thus, since the main reason for showing loving-kindness is always there, our feelings toward the other are perfectly stable.

Obviously, when we enjoy being with someone to whom we are attached or when we enjoy objects to which we are attached, we do experience a certain pleasure. But, as Nagarjuna has said in Precious Garland (Skt. Ratnavali) (169),

Scratching an itch brings pleasure, but more pleasurable than that is not having an itch. Likewise, satisfying worldly desires is pleasurable, but more pleasurable than that is not having desire.

The antidote to anger, on the other hand, is meditation on love. This is because anger is a very rough and coarse state of mind that needs to be softened with love.

As for naivety, we mediate on the twelve links of dependent arising, starting from unawareness or ignorance and going through to aging and dying. On a subtler level, we can use dependent arising as the reason to establish that all phenomena are devoid of truly established existence.

Verse 4: Cherish Cruel Persons Like a Treasure of Gems

Whenever I see beings instinctively cruel, overpowered by negativities and serious problems, may I cherish them as difficult to find as discovering a treasure of gems.

If we run into somebody who is by nature very cruel, rough, nasty and unpleasant, our usual reaction is to avoid him or her. In such situations, our loving concern for others is liable to decrease. Instead of allowing our love for others to weaken by thinking what a terrible person he or she is, we need to see him or her as a special object of love and compassion, and cherish that person as though we had come across a precious treasure, difficult to find.

Verse 5: Accept the Loss on Oneself and Give the Victory to Others

When others, out of envy, treat me unfairly with scolding, insults, and more, may I accept the loss upon myself and offer the victory to others.

If somebody insults, abuses, or criticizes us, saying things like we are incompetent and do not know how to do anything, we are likely to get very angry and dispute what the person has said. We must try not to react in this way. Instead, with humility and tolerance, we need to accept these harsh words.

Although we need to be humble and accept harsh words, yet at the same time we need to be realistic about the good qualities that we possess. But we need to differentiate between confidence in our abilities and pride. We need to have confidence in whatever good qualities and skills we have and use them courageously, but without feeling arrogantly proud of them. Being humble does not mean feeling totally incompetent and helpless. Humility is cultivated as the opponent of pride, but we need to use whatever good qualities we have to the full.

Ideally, we need to have a great deal of courage and strength, but not boast about or make a big show of them. Then, in times of need, we rise to the occasion and fight bravely for what is right. This is perfect. If we have none of these good qualities, but go around boasting how great we are and, in times of need, completely shrink back, we are just the opposite. The first person is very courageous, but has no pride; the other is very proud, but has no courage.

As for the advice to accept the loss on ourselves and offer the victory to others, we need to differentiate two kinds of situation. If, on the one hand, we are obsessed with our own welfare and very selfishly motivated, we need to accept defeat and offer victory to the other, even if our lives are at stake. But if, on the other hand, the situation is such that the welfare of others is at stake, we need to work very hard and fight for the rights of others, and not accept the loss at all. After all, one of the 46 secondary bodhisattva vows is, in situations in which somebody is doing something very harmful, not to refrain from using forceful methods or whatever else is necessary to stop that person’s actions immediately, if all peaceful methods fail. In other words, if we do not act forcefully, when we have the ability, we have transgressed that commitment.

It might appear that this bodhisattva vow and the fifth verse here, which says that one must accept the loss and give the victory to others, are contradictory; but they are not. The bodhisattva precept deals with a situation in which our prime concern is the welfare of others: if somebody is doing something extremely harmful and dangerous, it is wrong not to take strong measures to stop it, if necessary.

Nowadays, in very competitive societies, strong defensive or similar actions are often required. The motivation for these must not be selfish concern, however, but extensive feelings of kindness and compassion toward others. If we act out of such feelings to save others from creating negative karma, this is entirely correct.

As for how to judge when it is necessary to take strong actions, that’s complicated. When we consider taking the loss upon ourselves, we need to see whether giving the victory to the others is going to benefit them ultimately or only temporarily. We also need to consider the effect that taking the loss upon ourselves will have on our power or ability to help others in the future. It is also possible that by doing something that is harmful to others now, we create a great deal of positive force or merit that will enable us to do things vastly beneficial for others in the long run. This is another factor we need to take into account.

As Shantideva says in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (V 83-84):

I shall practice the far-reaching attitudes of giving and so on as being more exalted, one after the other. I shall never discard a greater for the sake of a smaller: I shall consider, most importantly, the benefit for others.

Having realized it’s like that, I shall always keep striving for the benefit of others. the Far-Seeing Compassionate One has permitted, for such (a bodhisattva), what’s prohibited (for others).

In other words, we need to examine, both superficially and deeply, whether the benefits of doing a normally prohibited action outweigh the shortcomings. At times when it is difficult to tell, we need to check our motivation.

In Compendium of Trainings, (Skt. Shiksasamuccaya), Shantideva similarly says that the benefits of a normally prohibited action done with bodhichitta outweigh the negativities of doing it without such motivation.

Although it is extremely important, it can sometimes be very difficult to see the dividing line between what to do and what not to do. Therefore, we need to study the texts that explain about such things. In lower texts, it will say that certain actions are prohibited; while higher ones tell us that those same actions are allowed. The more we know about all of this, the easier it will be to decide what to do in any situation.

Verse 6: View Ungrateful Persons as Hallowed Teachers

Even if someone whom I have helped and from whom I harbor great expectations were to harm me completely unfairly, may I view him or her as a hallowed teacher.

Usually we expect people whom we have helped a great deal to be very grateful; and if they react to us with ingratitude, we are likely to get angry with them. In such situations, we must not get upset, but practice patience instead. Moreover, we need to see such people as teachers testing our patience and therefore treat them with respect. This verse summarizes all the teachings on patience in Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior.

There are many methods for cultivating patience. Knowledge of and belief in the law of karma themselves engender patience. We realize, “This suffering I am experiencing is entirely my own fault, the result of actions I myself committed in the past. Since I cannot escape experiencing what is already ripening, I have to endure it. However, if I want to avoid suffering in the future, I can do so by constructive attitudes, such as patience. Becoming irritated or angry with this suffering will only create negative karma, the cause for future misfortune.” This is one way of practicing patience.

Another thing we can do is to meditate on the suffering nature of the body: “This body and mind are the basis for all kinds of suffering. It is natural and by no means unexpected that suffering should arise from them.” This sort of realization is very helpful for the development of patience.

We can also recall what Shantideva says in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (VI 10):

If it can be remedied, why get into a foul mood over something? And if it can’t be remedied, what help is it to get into a foul mood over it?

So, if there is a method for overcoming our suffering or an opportunity to do so, we have no need to worry or get into a foul mood. If there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, worrying and getting upset cannot help us at all. This is both very simple and very clear.

Something else we can do is to contemplate the disadvantages of getting angry and the advantages of practicing patience. We are human beings and, as such, one of our better qualities is our ability to think and judge. If we lose patience and get angry, we lose our ability to make proper judgments and thereby lose one of the most powerful instruments we have for tackling problems: our human wisdom. This is something that animals do not have. If we lose patience and become irritated, we are damaging this precious instrument. We need to remember, then, that it is far better to have courage and determination, and to face suffering with patience.

Verse 7: Take On the Sufferings of Others and Give Them Happiness

In short, may I offer to all my mothers, both actually and indirectly, whatever will benefit and bring them joy; and may I hiddenly accept on myself all my mothers’ troubles and woes.

This refers to the practice of taking upon ourselves all the sufferings of others and giving away to them all our happiness (tonglen), motivated by strong compassion and love.

We ourselves want happiness and do not want suffering, and we can see that all other beings feel the same. We can see, too, that other beings are overwhelmed by suffering, but do not know how to rid themselves of it. Based on this, we generate the intention of taking on all their suffering and negative karma and pray for it to ripen upon ourselves immediately. Likewise, it is obvious that other beings are devoid of the happiness they seek and do not know how to find it. Thus, without a trace of miserliness, we offer them all our happiness – our body, wealth and positive karmic force – and pray for it to ripen on them immediately.

Of course, it is most unlikely that we shall actually be able to take on the sufferings of others and give them our happiness. When such transference between beings does occur, it is the result of some very strong unbroken karmic connection from the past. However, this meditation is a very powerful means of building up courage in our minds and is, therefore, a highly beneficial practice.

In Seven Point Mind Training, Geshe Chaykawa says, “Train in both giving and taking in alternation, mounting those two on the breath.” And here, Langri-tangpa says that this needs to be done in a hidden manner, secretly. Shantideva says the same in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (VIII 120):

Thus, anyone who wishes to give safe direction swiftly to himself and others needs to practice the most sacred secret: the exchange of self with others.

The practice is called “secret” or “hidden” because it does not suit the minds of beginner bodhisattvas: it is something for only a select few practitioners.

Elsewhere in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (VIII 126cd), Shantideva says: “Paining myself for the aims of others, I’ll acquire all glories.” But, in Precious Garland (11), Nagarjuna says, “Dharma (practice) is not through merely tormenting the body.” These are not contradictory. When Shantideva says that we need to pain or harm ourselves, this does not mean that we need to hit ourselves on the head or something like that. Shantideva is saying that at times when strong, self-cherishing thoughts arise, we need to argue very strongly with ourselves and use forceful means to subdue them. In other words, we need to harm our self-cherishing mind.

We need to distinguish clearly between the “me” that is completely obsessed with its own welfare and the “me” that is going to become enlightened. There is a big difference. Also, we need to see this verse of Shantideva in the context of the verses that precede and follow it.

There are many different ways the “me” is discussed: there is grasping for a truly existent “me”; there is self-cherishing in terms of a “me”; there is the “me” that we engage when looking at things from the viewpoint of others; and so forth. We need to see the discussion of the self, the “me,” in these different contexts.

If it really benefits others, if it benefits even one limited being, it is appropriate for us to take upon ourselves the suffering of the three planes of samsaric existence or to go to one of the hells, and we need to develop the courage to do this. In order to reach enlightenment for the sake of all limited beings, we need to be happy and willing to spend countless eons in the lowest hell realm, Avichi. This is what is meant by taking the harms that afflict others upon ourselves.

The point is to develop the courage to be willing to go to one of the hell realms; it does not mean we actually have to go there. When the Kadampa Geshe Chaykawa was dying, he suddenly called in his disciples and asked them to make special offerings, ceremonies and prayers for him, because his practice had been unsuccessful. The disciples were very upset because they thought something terrible was about to happen. However, the Geshe explained that although all his life he had been praying to be born in the hells for the benefit of others, he was now receiving a pure vision of what was to follow. He was going to be reborn in a pure land instead of the hells, and that was why he was upset.

In the same way, if we develop a strong, sincere wish to be reborn in the worse realms for the benefit of others, we build up a vast amount of positive force that brings about the opposite result. That is why I always say, if we are going to be selfish, we need to be wisely selfish. Narrow-minded selfishness causes us to go down; while wise selfishness brings us Buddhahood. That’s really wise!

Unfortunately, what we usually do first is to become attached to Buddhahood. From the scriptures, we understand that to attain Buddhahood we need bodhichitta and that without it, we cannot become enlightened. Thus, we begrudgingly think, “I want Buddhahood; therefore, I have to practice bodhichitta.” Actually, we are not so much concerned about bodhichitta as we are about Buddhahood itself. This is absolutely wrong. We need to do the opposite; forget the selfish motivation and think how really to help others.

If we actually go to a hell realm, we can help neither others nor ourselves. How can we help anybody? Not just by giving them something material or by performing miracles, but by teaching them Dharma. However, first we must be qualified to teach. At present, we cannot explain the whole path – all the practices and experiences that one person need to go through, from the first stage up to the last, enlightenment. Perhaps we can explain some of the early stages through our own experience, but not much more than that. To be able to help others in the most extensive way by leading them along the entire path to enlightenment, we must first gain enlightenment ourselves. This is the proper reason for feeling that we must practice bodhichitta. This is entirely different from the more usual, self-centered approach with which, because of selfish concern for our own enlightenment, we think of others and dedicate our hearts to them with bodhichitta simply because we feel obligated to do so. This way of going about things is completely false, a sort of lie.

Verse 8: Overcome Upset over the Eight Worldly Dharmas by Realizing All Phenomena Are Like an Illusion

Through a mind untarnished by stains of conceptions concerning the eight passing things, throughout all of this, and that knows all phenomena as an illusion, may I break free from my bondage, without any clinging.

This verse deals with discriminating awareness or wisdom. All the preceding practices must not be tarnished by the stains of conceptions concerning the eight passing or transitory things in life, the so-called “eight worldly dharmas”– praise or criticism, hearing good or bad news, gains or losses, and things going well or poorly.

These eight can be referred to as white, black or mixed. Feeling overly excited when experiencing the first of each pair or overly depressed when experiencing the second is black when it arises because of attachment to the happiness of this life, together with a self-cherishing attitude and grasping for a truly existent “me.” It is mixed when it arises without any such attachment, but still with the second two motivations. It is white when it arises without either attachment to the happiness of this life or self-cherishing, but solely because of grasping for a truly existent “me.” But, I think it would be all right if I explain this verse simply from the point of view of the practices described in the first seven verses being done without their being tarnished by the conceptions with which we grasp for a truly existent “me” in the face of the eight transitory things in life: praise, criticism and so forth.

How do we avoid tarnishing our practice in this way? By recognizing that all existent phenomena are illusory and thus by not grasping for them to have truly established existence. In this way, we become liberated from the bondage of this type of grasping and clinging.

We need to be clear, however, about what is meant by “illusory” here. Truly established existence appears to our minds in the aspect of various objects, wherever they are manifest. But, in fact, there is no truly established existence there. In other words, truly established existence appears, despite there not being any such thing as truly established existence, and therefore such existence is an illusion. This means that even though everything that exists appears to have truly established existence, all phenomena are devoid of such an impossible mode of existence.

To understand this requires a firm and decisive, correct understanding of voidness (emptiness), the voidness of manifest appearances. First, we need to ascertain that all phenomena are devoid of truly established findable existence. Subsequent to that, when anything that has this devoid nature appears to have truly established existence, we refute that impossible mode of existence by recalling our previous ascertainment of the total absence of truly established existence. When we put these two together – the appearance of truly established findable existence and its voidness, as previously experienced – we discover the illusory nature of all phenomena. Thus, the appearance of truly established findable existence is an illusion, while the phenomena appearing to be truly existent are merely like an illusion, in that they appear to exist in a manner in which they do not actually exist. They are established merely by dependent arising.

It is very difficult to understand how something that is unfindable and whose existence is established merely by its dependently arising functioning. If we can realize that the existence of both agent and action is established merely by reason of their being phenomena that arise dependently on each other and they can’t possibly exist and function self-established on their own, then voidness will appear in terms of dependent arising. This is the most difficult thing to understand. If we have realized correctly existence not established or accounted for by a findable self-nature – in other words, non-inherent findable existence – then the experience of existent objects speaks for itself. That their existence is established or accounted for by a findable self-nature is refuted by logic. Logic convinces us that there is no way that phenomena can have a findable self-nature that establishes or accounts for their existence. Yet, phenomena definitely do exist, because we validly experience them.

So, how do they exist? In other words, what establishes or accounts for their existence? Their existence is established or accounted for as arising dependent merely on the power of names. This is not saying that phenomena do not exist at all; it is never said that things do not exist. What is said is that the existence of things can only be established or accounted for in dependence on names. This is a difficult point; something that we can only understand slowly, slowly, through experience.

First, we need to analyze whether or not things have truly established existence. This means analyzing whether or not their existence is truly established or accounted for by something findable on their own sides or, in more simple terms, whether or not things are truly findable. But, actually we cannot find anything establishing the existence of things from their own sides. In fact, we cannot find anything: nothing is findable. However, if we say that phenomena do not exist at all, this is a mistake, because we do experience things. In other words, although we cannot prove logically that things have true findably established existence, we do know through our experience that they exist. Thus we can definitely conclude that things do exist.

Now, if things exist, there are only two ways in which their existence can be established: either from their own side, by their own power, or through the power of other factors – in other words, either completely independently or dependently arising. Since logic disproves that the existence of things can be established independently by their own power, the only way their existence can be established is dependently on other factors.

Upon what do things depend in order for their existence to be established or accounted for? They depend upon a basis for labeling and a concept or name labeling or designating it. If phenomena could be found when searched for, it must be that their existence is being established by their own self-natures. In that case, the Madhyamaka scriptures, which say that the existence of things is not established by their own self-natures, would be wrong. However, we cannot find things when we search for them: we cannot find anything on their sides that establish their existence. What we discover, then, is that the existence of phenomena is established merely through the power of other factors, namely merely through the power of names.

The word “merely” here indicates that something is being cut off. But, what is being cut off is not the name itself, nor is it what the name signifies, means, or refer to and which is the object of a valid cognition. We are not saying that names do not signify or refer to anything, or that the referent objects of names are not the objects of valid cognition. What the word “merely” cuts off is that the existence of phenomena is established by something other than the power of names. The existence of phenomena is established merely by the power of names; but, names refer to something and what they refer to are the objects of valid cognition.

Thus, the actual nature of things is that their existence is established or accounted for merely by the power of names. There is no other alternative, only by the power of names. But that does not mean that besides names, there is nothing. There are phenomena: there are referent objects of names and there are names. What establishes the existence of the referent objects of names? Their existence is also established merely by the power of names.

According to Prasangika Madhyamaka, the highest, most precise view, it is the same situation whether something is an external object or an internal consciousness that cognizes that object. The existence of both is established merely by the power of names; neither has true findably established existence. The existence of thoughts and concepts is also established merely by the power of names, as is also the case with voidness, Buddha, good, bad, and indifferent. The existence of all phenomena, of everything, is established solely by the power of names.

When we say “name only,” it cuts off referent objects of names that have their existence established not merely by the power of the names for them. There is no way to understand what “name only” means other than that. But, consider, however, a real person and a phantom person. Both are the same in that their existence can only be established or accounted for merely by the power of the names for them. But there is a difference between the two. Whatever exists or does not exist can be mentally labeled and that is all. We can mentally label “real person” and “phantom person.” But in terms of names, some names refer to things that exist and some do not. The name “real person” refers to something that does exist, while the name “phantom person” does not refer to anything existent – it refers to something that does not exist.


When we realize that emotionally challenging persons and the harsh words and nasty behavior they direct at us are like an illusion, we do not project onto them that they exist truly and findably as inherently awful people, words or behavior. They are devoid of existing in that impossible way. Seeing, then, how the concepts and words or names with which we label and designate these people affect the way we regard them, we are able to transform our attitudes toward them by labeling them as wish-granting gems. Viewing them as such, we take our encounter with them as a precious opportunity to develop good qualities such as patience and humility.