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Cognizing the Voidness (Emptiness) of the Self in Terms of the Five Aggregates

Alexander Berzin
Boise, Idaho, USA, April 2003

Session One: The Four Noble Truths and the Five Aggregates

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:11 hours)

Today we’re going to speak a little bit about voidness. And I’d like to correlate this to the discussion that we’ve been having about mental factors and place it into the larger context of the discussion of the five aggregates, the aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience.

[See: Introduction to Mind and Mental Factors.]

Buddha taught, initially, what is usually called the four noble truths or the four facts that are seen as true by aryas, those who have nonconceptual cognition of voidness. And this is the basic framework of all Buddhist teachings and all of Buddhist practices.

True Suffering

The first of these facts is the fact of suffering or problems, that everything we experience in terms of our ordinary type of compulsive existence is filled with problems. And this is referring to three general points. The first two of them are in our aggregate of feelings – and actually we can even present all three of them in terms of the aggregate of feelings – which is this mental factor that we were discussing of feeling a level of happiness. That’s the way that we experience the ripening of our karma: is feeling happy, or unhappy, or neutral. And we all know what it’s like to feel unhappiness, or pain, or suffering. This is quite obvious in terms of our ordinary experience. And one of these types of feeling is going to accompany each moment of our experience. So sometimes we feel unhappy, and this is what ripens from the legacies of our destructive behavior.

Sometimes, though, we feel happy or pleasure, but there’s a problem with it. The problem with it is that it doesn’t last, it doesn’t eliminate unhappiness forever; and what really is the most devious about our usual type of happiness is that we don’t know what’s going to come next. There’s no certainty in samsara, as is said, about what’s going to happen next, not only in the next rebirth, but in the next moment. And so we can be eating something, or talking to a friend, reading something, and we feel very happy. And the next minute we’re bored, we feel unhappy, or we’re dissatisfied in some sort of way. So there’s no security from this type of ordinary happiness. So it’s problematic. It’s not ideal. This type of happiness is what ripens from the legacies of our constructive behavior. So that’s the second type of suffering or problem. That’s called the suffering of change, the problem of change. It’s always changing. That happiness doesn’t last; it goes away.

And then the third type of problem, from some presentations, can be associated with neutral feelings. But it’s not just when we have neutral feelings; it’s sort of when we have any type of feeling. It’s called the all-pervasive suffering. And that’s referring to the aggregate factors of our experience. In other words, just having this type of body and mind and emotions that we have – if we speak in very general terms – comes from our confusion, and it perpetuates our confusion. Just by its very nature it’s going to attract these two types of problems: that things are going to go up and down all the time. You get sick, you feel better. We are young, we grow old, die, get young again, grow old again. All these sort of problems, from lifetime to lifetime. And also in this lifetime itself, if we want to just limit our view for initial understanding.

And that’s generally the type of problem that we have. You have to take care of this body, and you have to work, and you have to sleep, and you have to feed it, and all these sort of things that we have to do. And you get sick, and so on, and it wants affection. And all these sort of things. So that’s a problem in terms of: there’s no end to it, it just goes on and on and on, and doesn’t really get us anywhere. Although temporarily, of course, we might have happiness – nobody is denying that – but we look a little bit beyond.

And so these are the general problems that we face. And it can be, as I said, associated with either this mental factor of happiness – feeling a level of happiness – or, in general, all the factors that make up our experience: our limited bodies, our limited minds. We have to learn again – we forget as we get older, and then we have to learn again. And all these sort of things. That’s really quite tedious if one thinks about it.

True Causes of Suffering

So that’s the first fact of life, that life is filled with these problems. The second fact is that it comes from a true cause. And the cause of these problems is basically the karmic legacies, based on the type of behavior that we’ve engaged in, that ripens into these different forms of suffering, different types of happiness, the aggregate factors of our experience, and so on. In other words, what happens: the type of impulsive actions that we do, the situations that occur to us, and so on.

And if we look more deeply, these karmic legacies and this impulsive type of behavior, we engage in it because of our either unawareness – now we get to this mental factor we were talking about – unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. In other words, we think we can do something which is basically destructive, that it’s not going to have any result. If we really knew the result and were really aware of it, then we would restrain from acting in a destructive way. That would be the cause of our suffering of suffering. Or it could be just our unawareness of reality – of how we exist, how everybody else exists, how the universe and everything in it exists – and that causes us to act in selfish ways, for example. That may be there with constructive behavior as well.

This type of unawareness of reality underlies, in fact, all our moments of experience and all our actions. So we might help somebody, for example – so that’s something which is constructive and positive – but we might do that with a mixed motivation, if we use “motivation” in the Western sense. It could be a bit of altruism – we want to help them, etc. – but also it could, in addition, be to make us feel good, make us feel useful, or we want to receive some sort of affection or attention or appreciation, or even just a “thanks” in return. So it’s mixed with some sort of a fixation on “me” and what I want, in terms of thinking of a solid “me” that’s insecure and needs to have these things in order to feel good. In order to, even deeper, to confirm my reality: I’m useful. I do something that’s helpful, therefore I’m real. My existence is confirmed. This is often the case with older people, that if they feel that they are useless and nobody needs them, then they get pretty despondent; but if they can do something that is helpful, even if it’s something very small, then they feel needed and it affirms or reaffirms their existence. And so that’s really based on a bit of confusion about how we exist, and is there something that we can do that actually proves that we exist, makes us solid.

So, anyway, we have this unawareness, which causes us to act in impulsive types of ways. And also it is going to, if we look deeper, we find that what underlies this unawareness… Remember, unawareness is a mental factor, and mental factors or subsidiary awarenesses do not interpolate anything. They don’t add anything to any type of perception or cognition; it just sort of colors it, in terms of an emotion or something that helps to connect us to the object, or something like that. So what is underlying or preceding – there are several ways of explaining it – is what we call “grasping for true existence.” And this grasping for true, inherent existence – which is a funny term because in the Madhyamaka point of view, true existence is actually false existence: there’s no such thing. But, in any case, that grasping is what interpolates, what adds, what exaggerates, makes – well, there’s just “me,” but it adds to that that this “me” is the center of the universe, and the most important one in the universe, and it has to always have its way.

This type of interpolation, if we speak in very simple, basic terms, that’s underlying or preceding each moment of our unawareness of reality, and that is what triggers the karmic legacies to ripen. It’s very important to identify what’s the trigger, because if you get rid of the trigger then there’s no way that these legacies are going to ripen anymore. They can’t ripen anymore. Basically, you would say that they are no longer imputable on the mental continuum. And we’ll discuss later what that actually means. That’s technical jargon. But in any case that’s what you have to get rid of, actually, is the trigger in order to get rid of these karmic legacies and to stop building up more and more karma. So this is the true cause. True troublemaker, as His Holiness likes to use that word. So this is what we all have. We all have this all the time, and this is part of each moment of our experience.

True Stoppings

The third fact is that it’s possible to actually get rid of all of this. And basically we can get rid of the grasping for true existence, this trigger which underlies the whole mechanism there, and we can get rid of it such that it never comes back again. In other words, get rid of it forever. This is called a “true cessation.” That’s the usual jargon. I prefer a simpler word: true stopping. We can stop it forever, get rid of it. That’s what the word “abandonment” usually means, is to get rid of. “Abandon” doesn’t mean to put it on somebody else’s doorstep, or something like that. So you rid yourself completely of it.

There’s a whole discussion that perhaps you can go through it sometime with your teacher here: why it actually is possible to get rid of this grasping for true existence forever. This is an important point because our conviction – remember, we had firm conviction before – that it’s possible to attain liberation and enlightenment all hinges on the understanding of the fact that we can actually get rid of this troublemaker, this grasping for true existence. That it is not part and parcel of every moment of our mental activity – mind – that it doesn’t necessarily have to be there. It is possible to actually get rid of it forever.

True Paths

And this brings us to the fourth fact, which is the path, which in general is speaking about a pathway of mind, although in some accounts you can include pathway of action as well, but basically the pathway of mind that is going to get rid of this troublemaker – grasping for true existence. This is something that we need to actually develop. It is the understanding, the nonconceptual understanding, of voidness – the main topic here – basically that there is no such thing as this true, inherent existence.

If we look at it in more broad terms, then maybe makes it a little bit easier. True, inherent existence is an impossible way of existing. And when we work through the various philosophical tenets of Indian Buddhism, then each of these tenet systems is going to explain different types of impossible ways of existing. Whether it’s with respect to how we ourselves exist – the “me,” as it were – that’s in the Hinayana systems; or not only that, but also impossible ways in which everything exists, which is what is explained in the Mahayana systems.

So when we grasp for things to exist in impossible ways, then what actually is happening – we have to go back to our definition of mental activity – is that there’s appearance-making and some sort of cognitive engagement that is part of making an appearance, a cognitive appearance. So what’s happening is that this mental activity is automatically giving rise to an appearance of impossible ways of existing.

So, for instance, with ourselves there’s this voice in our heads. That’s really very deceptive because it gives the impression, the appearance – and what’s even worse, the feeling, we would say in our Western terminology – that there is somebody inside, talking. “Me.” The real, solid “me,” separate from all my experience, commenting on it, and observing it, and worrying about it, and planning it: “What am I going to do next?” This type of thing. As if we were in front of a big master control panel; there’s a little me that’s talking, that then presses the buttons to get the arm to do this and the mouth to say that and so on, because all this information is coming in from the eyes and the ears on the internal loudspeakers and internal video screen. It feels like that.

So there’s the appearance-making of this. And then the cognizing aspect of that is what’s called “grasping for true existence.” It’s just that we perceive that. There could be attachment with it, and so on. What’s connected with it is this unawareness. Either we’re unaware that’s not the way that things are – it just appears like that – or we take it in an inverted way and think that really is the way that things exist. So either we don’t know that this is impossible, or we think it is possible. In fact, we think it’s not only possible, it’s real. True. That’s true existence. What we mean by true existence here in the most general way of defining it. Of course, it could be defined much more specifically. In any case, this is this grasping for true existence based on making this appearance of impossible ways of existing.

And so when that is the cause of our trouble, of our difficulties, this grasping for impossible ways of existing, and the making of those appearances of impossible ways to arise cognitively – sort of like an internal hologram, that even we project and get external holograms of this – then what’s going to get rid of it is the exact opposite, what’s mutually exclusive with that. In other words, what’s mutually exclusive with that is the nonconceptual understanding that there is no such thing as this impossible way of existing. It doesn’t exist. It’s merely like an illusion. It seems to. It appears. One doesn’t deny that it appears. The appearance exists, but what it is referring to doesn’t exist.

So we have this understanding that there’s no such thing as these impossible ways of existing. That’s what voidness means. It’s the total absence of impossible ways of existing. And if we can focus on that total absence of this – no such thing – then at that moment, while we are focusing on that nonconceptually (in other words, not through some sort of idea or mental picture of this, or anything like that, but just straightforwardly) then, at that time, our mental activity is not giving rise to this appearance of impossible ways of existing. When we’re focusing on it really, really deeply. Nonconceptually. And so that state of mind – those moments of mental activity – in that moment, there is no appearance of any impossible way of existing. And there’s no perception of it, no grasping at it, no believing it – grasping has this aspect that is part of it, together with it, which is you believe it’s true – you don’t believe it’s true, it doesn’t appear. You don’t believe in it. You’re not grasping at it. You’re not perceiving it. So, in that moment, you can’t also have the appearance of this impossible way of existence, and the perception of it, and belief in it. They’re mutually exclusive. Either you have the appearance or you don’t have the appearance. Meaning – let’s say it more precisely – either the activity is giving rise to this appearance or it’s not giving rise to this appearance. And either you’re perceiving it or you’re not perceiving it. Either you’re believing it or you’re not believing it. And, of course, it has to be together with an understanding that there’s no such thing as this impossible way of existing.

So if you get that combination, that’s the true path, the true pathway that eliminates this impossible appearance-making and this grasping for this impossible way of existing. Because the two can’t exist at the same time, can’t coexist in one moment of mental activity. So, because of that, that means that you can get rid of this impossible appearance-making and this grasping for impossible ways of existing. Well, you can get rid of something just temporarily. We’re not talking about that. But you can achieve a true stopping of it. A true stopping of it means that it never arises again. How do you get it never to arise again? By being able to stay in this nonconceptual perception of voidness forever. If you can stay like that forever, then you’ve achieved a true stopping of this appearance-making and grasping for impossible ways of existing.

Now, of course, it’s done in steps, and it’s complex, how it actually occurs, but that true understanding – the correct understanding that this is impossible – well, that can be verified. The more you check up, the more you see that it’s correct. So here we get the belief in a fact to be true. It’s correct. It stands up to analysis. It stands up to what Buddha said as well. We don’t just rely on what Buddha said, but we analyze, try to figure it out ourselves. And the more we investigate this confusion, the belief in these impossible ways of existing, the more we discover it’s impossible. It doesn’t make sense. It is this – to use the example that we’re using – the person trying to pass us in the car on the road, wildly beeping their horn. Well, do they truly exist as an idiot? Well, that’s impossible. If they really were an idiot, truly, from something inside them, something wrong with them that makes them an idiot, well, it should make them an idiot all the time, to everybody, from the time they were born until the time they die. And everybody, including the dog, should consider this person an idiot – and the baby, and everybody – because obviously that’s who this person is: THE IDIOT. That’s impossible.

Of course, one can get much more sophisticated in terms of proving that these projected ways of existing are impossible. They’re not referring to anything real. That’s the whole thrust of the understanding of voidness. And so this true path is what will bring about the true stopping of these troublemakers. And it’s also the state in which that true stopping has occurred. It’s both the path and the result of this so-called purification or elimination: getting rid of the troublemakers so that they never come back again.

Review of the Four Noble Truths

So we have this presentation of these four facts that are seen as true by any arya. An arya is a highly realized being. Somebody who has achieved nonconceptual cognition of voidness, if we speak from a Mahayana point of view.

So we have true problems, which are basically referring to different types of feelings – happiness, unhappiness – go up and down all the time, and all the things that happen to us going up and down all the time. And it comes from this grasping for impossible ways of existing. But it is possible to achieve a true stopping of this grasping because there is a way of understanding and perceiving that is mutually exclusive with it. And it has the backing of logic and experience. So it’s something which can overpower – is the word that they use – overpower this grasping for impossible ways of existing and get rid of the appearance-making of these impossible ways. That’s basically the four facts.

Okay. Why don’t we take a moment and just sort of digest that.

Stages of Working with the Third and Fourth Noble Truths

When we talk about believing a fact to be true, and then gaining firm conviction in that, we’re talking primarily about these four facts. We can, of course, extend it to other things, but that’s the primary focus. This is the so-called “facts of life.” It’s the way it is. And firm conviction in that, of course, becomes the basis for Buddhist practice. If we don’t understand this, well, what are we doing in Buddhism? What is our aim? Our aim, actually, are the second two noble truths.

When we talk about refuge or safe direction, that’s what’s really ultimately showing us that direction, because that’s what we want to achieve – is true stoppings and true paths on our own mental continuums. Buddhas are the ones who indicate it. The Sangha, arya Sangha, are those who have achieved it in part and are working toward achieving it in greater and greater measures. When we speak in terms of the bodhisattvas, they’re working to achieve it in full. And when we talk about bodhichitta, well, bodhichitta is aimed at that: our own future attainment, full attainment of the third and fourth noble truths. True stopping, the true paths that lead to that, and all the qualities and aspects of that resultant state of a Buddha. So it’s absolutely essential in Buddhism. It’s what Buddhism is all about. So, as I said, it’s important to try to gain some understanding of this and work with it more and more.

First we might have a distorted view – distorted cognition, I should say – that, well, everything is fine, and just exercise enough and have a good life, and this is all that life is about – make a lot of money, and so on. And that, well, we all have problems, but you have to live with it. And so just sort of shut up and make the best of it. This type of thing.

And then we hear about this, the Buddha’s teachings, and then we have a bit of indecisive wavering: maybe my regular view is not correct; maybe this other view, there’s something to it, the Buddhist view. So that’s indecisiveness. We go back and forth and eventually we tend toward, well, maybe it is true. Then we have presumption: Well, I presume it’s true. I don’t really understand it, so I can’t really be fully convinced, but I’m convinced enough – based on seeing the great masters, and inspiration from the stories and accounts, and so on – that I presume it’s true. Sort of give it the benefit of the doubt. And we’ll work with it.

And of course that’s a level in which we can practice for a long time, and we can make progress on the basis of that. But really to start to be able to transform ourselves in a meaningful way, then we need to actually understand this and have conviction that it’s true. So inferential understanding, based on reasoning: That these are impossible ways of existing. That the usual type of happiness that I experience in my life is really not satisfying. It’s pleasant enough – I don’t want to just go around beating myself all the time – and in a more pleasant state of mind I can certainly practice better, but there’s no security to this type of situation. And sometimes I feel like practicing and sometimes I don’t. And that’s going to go up and down all the time. So it’s a bit of a bore because you can’t predict what you’re going to feel like doing tomorrow. Never. We can’t even predict what we feel like doing the next minute. So that’s a pretty uncertain situation.

So eventually we get an inferential cognition of this; we understand all of this based on a line of reasoning. So then we can start to get real firm conviction here – a belief in a fact, based on reasoning. And it helps to clear our minds – we had clearheaded belief – clears our mental activity (or begins to clear our mental activity) of various disturbing emotions. Here, primarily, it could be things like insecurity, feelings of meaninglessness in our lives, directionlessness – my life’s going nowhere, just the same old boring routine every day. And, on a deeper level, it can clear our minds of a lot of other disturbing emotions as well.

And so we work with this belief. “This is true.” And what comes with that is the aspiration, aspirational type of belief, which is also the belief that it is true that I can actually achieve a true stopping and a true path that leads to it. And not only the belief that I can, but the belief that I will do this. I’m going to do it. So that’s believing a fact to be true, and then firm conviction. Nobody’s going to sway us from it. You have that in bodhichitta, the development of aspiring bodhichitta. Just the wish to achieve enlightenment, and then that state, the promised state – pledged state, sometimes it’s called – that I’m not going to turn back. So that’s this mental factor of firm conviction. Nothing’s going to sway me from this course. I’m going to do it. Based on confidence, not just based on: “Well, maybe I can achieve it, but I don’t really know.” But I can do it and I will do it.

Once we have worked sufficiently with this inferential cognition, then we can get what is called… We were talking about it in terms of bare perception. That’s the Sautrantika view, which would be a nonconceptual cognition of it. But if we look at the Prasangika view of cognition, then we can differentiate two states here. Instead of it being bare perception, which means bare of concepts or ideas, we speak in the Prasangika system of straightforward cognition. It’s the same word in Tibetan or Sanskrit, but here I think it’s better to translate it differently because what it’s talking about is perception of it without relying on a line of reasoning – without directly relying on a line of reasoning, I should say. And so it’s straightforward in that sense. And that can be at first conceptual and then nonconceptual.

That means that you don’t have to actually work through the line of reasoning to come to the conclusion. In the beginning you have to. Because to just say the conclusion – there’s no such thing as impossible ways of existing – without really going through that line of reasoning of why, well, there’s not very much understanding there. Decisiveness. To get that decisiveness, you have to go through that line of reasoning. But once we have gone through the line of reasoning enough times so that it really, really is digested, then you don’t have to go through that line of reasoning anymore. You can just remind yourself of the key word or something like that – “voidness.” Or there are voidness mantras that are used in tantra practices or sadhanas: OM SVABHAVA SHUDDHA SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA SHUDDHO ‘HAM. These sort of things. So you just remind yourself of this, and then you don’t actually have to go through that line of reasoning because you can go to that conclusion with decisiveness, straightforwardly. So that’s called straightforward cognition. And that can still be conceptual, still through an idea of what voidness means. Or, ultimately, it becomes straightforward nonconceptual cognition – not through an idea, but just straightforwardly without one.

So these are the stages, and our study of cognition theory helps us to understand those stages that we go through.

Again, let’s take a few moments to digest that. And then maybe you have questions on it before we continue.

Understanding Voidness by Progressing Through the Tenet Systems

Okay. What questions do you have?

Question: Just a clarification. The impossible ways of existence simply refers to understanding things in a way that they have inherent existence. Would that be correct?

Alex: The question is: this grasping for impossible ways of existing, is that to understand or perceive things in terms of having true, inherent existence? That would be the way that it’s defined in the Prasangika system, but in the other tenet systems they’re going to define it differently – what’s impossible. And one works with going through these various schools in progressive order, in order to get a more and more sophisticated understanding of what are these impossible ways that we project and perceive, so that we can get rid of them.

If we jump immediately to the Prasangika view then, because it lacks the background, it often gets trivialized because we really don’t appreciate the profundity of it. Just that you can’t find a truly existent “me” when you look for it: So, well, where is the “me”? Am I in my ear? Am I up my nose? Am I in my foot? Well, I can’t find this “me.” Well, although that could be helpful, it’s not terribly profound in comparison to what the deeper significance of this is.

And so one has to work up to the Prasangika view. This is why the Tibetans study these four systems of tenets. Because whether or not it was intended that way in India is something else, but the way that the Tibetans study them is in a progressive order, in order to be able to narrow in on a more and more accurate understanding. Here, specifically, in terms of what’s impossible and what type of understanding do you need in order to get rid of the belief in this impossible way of existing. Because not only is the appearance-making side (that impossible way of existing) faulty – I mean, it’s always staying the same in terms of believing it, but what we’re going to need is a progressively stronger and stronger opponent in order to understand and get rid of that perception and that appearance-making. Like, for example, a child thinking there’s a monster under the bed. Well, just to understand that “there’s no such thing as monsters” is not going to liberate us completely from all our fantasies and projections. So one goes deeper and deeper.

Conceptual and Nonconceptual Cognition

Question: Could you clarify the meaning of the words conceptual and nonconceptual? So when we talk about nonconceptual awareness of voidness…

Alex: Right. Conceptual and nonconceptual, can we clarify what we mean by that. If we speak in the most general way, then conceptual cognition is through the medium of an idea of something, whereas nonconceptual is not through the medium of an idea.

Now if we look more closely at what we mean in terms of idea, then there are a few things that we have to take into consideration here. First of all, the whole point about universals. Ideas are basically dealing with universals, so we have audio or word universals and we have meaning universals. When we ascribe a word and the meaning of a word – let’s say “table” or “mother” – well, that’s a universal because it applies to many, many different tables and many, many different mothers.

So we have this general idea (a mental type of thing, we would say) of a word – it’s a convention, “mother” – and the meaning of it. Now you perceive an object which is a particular table or a particular mother. Well, if you talk about nonconceptual cognition, then it’s just perceiving that individual item. But if we talk about conceptual, then it would be giving a name. That’s “mother.” That’s fitting this individual person into this large category of “mother,” either with a word or with the meaning of the word – you don’t have to actually think the word – or usually it’s both; not always, though; not always. Or if we think “mother” – you know, when she’s not there – we might have a mental picture of our mother, but that would be a universal in the sense that it represents mother. I mean, she’s not frozen into that particular position, and age, and so on, that we use to picture her in our minds, to imagine her. So it’s a universal that sort of represents her in any moment. So that’s conceptual.

Now the other point that we need to understand about conceptual and nonconceptual is how the cognition actually works. And this is the Gelugpa explanation; non-Gelugpa has slightly different. But in the Gelugpa one, then, when we just see our mother, that’s nonconceptual. There is the external form of our mother. And we would say – also from the Gelugpa point of view – the commonsense object “mother” or “table.” It’s not just colored forms, colored shapes, that we see, but there’s a mental aspect, a cognitive aspect. Mental activity makes an appearance. That cognitive appearance is called the “aspect.” So there’s some sort of aspect, cognitive aspect, which arises. It’s sort of like an internal hologram, or something like that, that we actually perceive. And from the Gelugpa point of view, that is transparent. And so through that transparent mental aspect – it’s a mental cognitive appearance – through that, you see this mother, this external object.

Now in the case of a conceptual cognition, there’s the idea of mother. An idea itself doesn’t have a shape or form or color, or anything like that; it’s much too abstract. So, what they would say is that the idea arises. There’s the appearance of an idea – “appearance” doesn’t necessarily mean visual, just an arising – and that is semitransparent. And what you get, what is veiled through that semitransparent idea, is the form of your mother. But it’s not vivid; the two are mixed together. Your mother doesn’t have to be present; she could even be dead. But there’s a mixture there of a semitransparent idea – which itself doesn’t have a form – and some form, mental form, of the mother. But it’s not vivid. And so they speak in terms of this sort of mixed object, in terms of an idea. So it’s a little bit sophisticated in terms of how that actually works.

But experientially – when they say, well, what’s the difference between a conceptual and nonconceptual cognition of something when you’re sort of sitting there – then the usual term that differentiates the two is “vividness.” When you see your mother, it’s much more vivid than when you think of her. Dreams are likewise nonconceptual. The perception in a dream that seems like seeing or hearing – I’m not talking about thinking in dreams, but that aspect that seems to be sense perception in dreams – that’s also vivid. It’s nonconceptual. A dream is much more vivid than just imagining your mother. Vivid in the sense that it seems real.

So that’s the difference, if we speak in more general terms. You can get much more detailed about that. And, as I said, there’s a slight difference in the way that the Gelug and the non-Gelug explanations are given for this.

[For a more sophisticated presentation of conceptual cognition, see: The Nature of Mental Appearances: Gelug Explanation. See also: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation.]

The Appearance-Making of Impossible Ways of Existing

Question: Okay, then, to follow on. We start bringing all of our perceptions or misperceptions to the object, and from this comes the impossible ways of existence. Would that be fair now?

Alex: The question is: do we bring or project all these impossible ways of existing on an object, and from this comes the impossible ways of existing? Not quite, not quite.

We project. So there’s this appearance-making of these impossible ways of existing. And it’s not that we create these impossible ways, because the impossible ways don’t actually exist. So what arises is something which resembles or represents these impossible ways of existing. So that’s what we create, these deceptive appearances. And then we believe in them – perceive them and believe in them. And when we say “believe” in them, then this is the misapprehension that the way that it appears corresponds to the actual way that it exists. And what’s so deceptive and nasty about it is that it feels as though it exists the way it appears. It feels as though there’s some solid “me” inside my head, talking. That’s what’s very devious there. Very deceptive.

[For more detail, see: The Appearance and Cognition of Non-existent Phenomena: Gelug Presentation.]

So you can take it on a very simple level. Well, where is that “me” who’s talking, sitting? Is there some desk inside my head? Then you look for this “me” who’s talking, and you can’t find it. And although that can be helpful, as I say, one could go a lot deeper than that. But that’s a start. And that’s the way that Buddha recommended – that we start at the level at which we can understand. Therefore, he taught skillful methods. Start at a level where we can understand, and then progress from there.

And that level where each of us can begin in each lifetime, depending on our age when we begin, depending on our education, life experience, and so on, our intelligence, our exposure to teachings – dependent on many, many factors – we would start in a different place. That’s okay. No value judgment. No moral judgments. This is very important in Buddhism; there’s no judge. Because there’s no judge separate from everything – just like there’s no “me” separate from all my experience, sitting in my head, there’s no judge separate from everything, sitting off somewhere and judging us, giving moral judgments. “You’re stupid,” “You’re not good enough” – this type of thing, which then we internalize and judge ourselves. “This is the level where I’m at” – fine; start from there.

Voidness of the Self and Voidness of Phenomena

Question: In the order of examining the way things exist, is it taught that you should look at yourself first and then phenomena? Or look at phenomena first? Or does it matter?

Alex: In terms of looking at how things exist, do we start with the self first or with phenomena? Well, there are various approaches, depending on the schools, but usually it’s in terms of looking at the self first. In terms of how our confusion arises: It arises from confusion about our aggregates, about our experience. And then, from that, confusion about how I exist in relation to that. But in terms of our gaining an understanding, it’s usually explained the other way around. That it’s easier to see that there’s no impossibly existing “me” – impossible way of existing of “me” – first, and then in terms of the aggregates when you start off.

There are other systems of meditation – like in Chakrasamvara, the tantra sadhana – where when you review, get yourself familiar, then you start the other way around. So it depends on where we’re at in our understanding, but initially the “me” is the first thing that we work with.

Okay. Let’s go on.

The Five Aggregates

When we begin to work with voidness, we start to work in terms of the “me,” the conventional “me.” And we need to understand the “me” in terms of its relation to the five aggregates, because the presentation of voidness… That word “voidness” is pretty much used in the Mahayana teachings. If we want to look for a more general term that’s used in both the Hinayana schools and the Mahayana, then there’s this term that’s often translated as “selflessness” or “identitylessness.” It’s a difficult word. It’s a lack of an impossible identity for that “me” or a lack of an impossible identity of all things. “Lack” means that there’s no such thing. So here we’re talking about the identity of that “me” – “who am I, how do I exist” – and that’s discussed in relation to the aggregate factors of our experience. The five aggregates. And so we need to understand the five aggregates.

Now the aggregates are basically referring to what makes up each moment of our experience. And what’s included in them are only the nonstatic phenomena that are part of our each moment of experience. We’re not talking about the static phenomena here in this classification system. There are certain things that are static that also are part of our experience – “static” means that they don’t change – like ideas. “Change” here means organically grow. You can replace an idea with another idea, but one idea doesn’t organically grow into another one, changing moment to moment like a plant grows, or like anger grows, or gets less. So it’s something which is static. Numbers, those are things – they’re just sort of static facts. One plus one is two. These sorts of things. So we’re not talking about those. We’re talking about the things that change – that organically grow, basically. One can speak more generally than that, but let’s just leave it on this level for the sake of simplicity.

Now these aggregate factors, these things that are changing, can be grouped into five bags, if you want to speak very colloquially. And it’s not that these bags exist somewhere up in the sky, or anything like that, but they are just classifications. Each moment of our experience will contain one or more items from each of these five bags. And also what can be included in these bags, in these aggregates, are things that are either connected with our own mental continuum, like anger, these sort of things, love; or things that are included in somebody else’s mental continuum, like perceiving somebody else being angry, or perceiving the form of somebody else, seeing somebody else; or it could be things that are not included in any mental continuum, like seeing the table – not the seeing of the table, the table. So my body, somebody else’s body, or the table. All of these can be included in the aggregate factors of our experience.

Now there’s various ways in which you can present the five. In terms of the order of the five, there’s a classical order of the five. And I don’t want to go into too much detail here.

The Aggregate of Forms of Physical Phenomena

But the first is the aggregate of forms, referring to forms of material phenomena. And here we would include sights, and sounds, and smells, and tastes, and tactile sensations – like rough and smooth – and hot and cold, and motion. These sort of things. So these are the usual sense objects.

And then we have what I call the cognitive sensors. “Sensor,” that’s usually translated as “sense power,” but we’re not talking about some abstract power; we’re talking about the photosensitive cells of the eyes, or the sound sensitive cells of the ears, or the smell sensitive cells of the nose, or the taste sensitive cells of the tongue, or the physical sensation sensitive cells of the body. We’re talking about some form of physical phenomenon, not an abstract sense power. Those little cells themselves. So I use the word “sensor,” like you have something in an electric eye in an automatic door, something like that.

Then there’s another category, which are these forms of physical phenomena which can only be perceived by mental consciousness. These other ones can be perceived both by their specific sense consciousness and mental consciousness, when we speak about the sense objects. But here there are certain forms of physical phenomena that you only perceive mentally. Like, for instance, what looks like sights, and sounds, and smells, and tastes, and physical sensations in dreams. You don’t actually see them, relying on your eyes, but they have shape and color and sound, and these sort of things. There’s a whole list of these, but it includes things like astronomical distances – you can’t actually see twenty light years or ten billion light years of distance – or the space between atoms, and these sort of things. You can’t actually see that with your eyes, but it’s a form of physical phenomenon.

These are in the aggregate of forms.

The Aggregate of Feelings of a Level of Happiness

Then we speak about the aggregate of feelings. That’s this mental factor of feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness. That’s there in every moment, and is singled out – I forget if it’s Vasubandhu or Asanga who says it’s singled out – because it’s the basis of our samsaric existence, and our grasping, and disputes among laypeople, he says. About “I want this desirable object” or “I don’t want that one.” This sort of thing. So it’s singled out because it’s very important.

The Aggregate of Distinguishing

And then there’s the aggregate of distinguishing. Distinguishing in terms of our sense perception – distinguishing something from the background. And in terms of conceptual – in other words, thinking – we distinguish one idea from another. When we think one idea, we are thinking that. It’s not that we have a whole field of ideas simultaneously; we focus on one. But it’s almost like that, in the sense that we single out some idea to think of it. And that’s made into a separate aggregate again, in the same text, because it’s what becomes the object of disputes of monastics – that monastics are debating about all these various ideas and concepts. And so, because of that, it’s made into a separate aggregate, because although it can bring, of course, clarity, it can also bring a lot of arguments, and pride, and arrogance, and all these sort of things.

The Aggregate of Other Affecting Variables

The next aggregate is the aggregate of affecting variables, I call it. I think it’s from the Theravada tradition, that one of those affecting variables is singled out. It’s usually called “volition,” which actually is what we’ve been calling “intention.” But that’s only one. It’s basically referring to everything that’s not in the other five [sic! four] aggregates. So all the mental factors, besides those two that have been specified, plus everything else in the pie that was not divided into fifty-one pieces.

Plus what I call the nonconcomitant [or noncongruent] affecting variables. According to one definition of it, it is the affecting variables – things that change and affect what we experience – that do not have five things in common with the principle awareness that they accompany. That’s where you get this word “nonconcomitant” from. Often people describe them as affecting variables that are neither forms of material phenomena nor ways of being aware of something. Anyway, this is referring to – if we speak from one point of view – they’re like nonstatic abstractions: habits, legacies, these sort of things. We’ll come back to that because that’s an important point. But anyway, these sort of things – time, age – are also there as well. An easy way of thinking of it is sort of something that’s abstract but it changes. Our age is constantly changing. Our habits, legacies from our previous behavior, and so on – that’s changing and it affects our experience. Our age affects our experience, but it’s not something that takes on the same cognitive aspect and is focused at the same object, and it doesn’t have these five things in common with, let’s say, being upset about growing old.

[See: Congruent and Noncongruent Affecting Variables.]

So we have these other affecting variables, a whole big grab bag of everything else. So all the emotions go there, both positive and negative.

Aggregate of Consciousness

And then the fifth one, which is placed fifth because it’s the most subtle, is the aggregate of consciousness. And that is basically all the different types of primary awareness. So that’s the channel that we’re on, the visual consciousness, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling a physical sensation, or mental (like thinking or dreaming). These type of things.

Working with the Aggregate Factors

So every moment of our experience is going to have one or more items from these five groups. In every moment, we’re going to be on some channel, cognitive channel. We’re going to be either seeing, hearing, etc., or thinking. There’s going to be some form of physical object as the object of that consciousness, even if it’s a blank, an absence of sense objects. (Like when we are in deep sleep. That would also be considered, in a sense, the aggregate of form. And even if we don’t consider it as the aggregate of form, there can be two opinions on that. Nevertheless, our body is still there, the breathing is still there; so there is some form of physical phenomenon involved in that moment of experience.) And we’re distinguishing something, in terms of the object. And we’re feeling something, in terms of some level of happiness or unhappiness. And then there’s everything else, all the other mental factors. Some group of them are going to be there, in terms of interest, concentration, anger, love – all these sort of things. There’s going to be some of those there.

And the aggregate factors are, of course, very important to understand and work with because what it allows us to do is to desolidify our experience. Often we feel: “Oh, I’m in such a bad mood. I’m depressed.” And we take our experience to be one solid lump, one solid thing. And then, of course, we identify with it. That’s what we’ll talk about in the afternoon, this whole identification process. But our experience seems to be one solid horror of a “bad mood.” And what we need to appreciate is that actually each moment of that experience is made up of many, many things and they’re all changing at different rates. So now there’s seeing, looking at the wall, looking at the television, looking out the window, and hearing different sounds. And it’s all changing. Even if we say, “Well, I’m feeling terrible all the time,” still the intensity of that’s changing. It’s not that it’s constantly one level that you can give a number to and it’s always that. It’s still going up and down on that spectrum of happy and unhappy.

We’re always distinguishing different things as we look, and as we think, and as we hear. And the emotions are constantly changing as well. And our interest is changing, boredom is changing, concentration is changing, all the time. And they’re changing at different rates. While looking at the same object, our interest can change. All of a sudden we can get bored, then all of a sudden we can get annoyed with it. The object is pretty much staying the same, in terms of its continuity. So all of that is changing. If we can deconstruct it and desolidify it – which is one of the things that we do, let’s say in the practice of Theravada vipassana, in which you try to observe all these things changing, our physical sensations and emotions and these sort of things. If we can observe them changing all the time, then that helps us to not identify with one. “Oh, I’m in a terrible mood.” What are you identifying with? And then, of course, vipassana practice goes deeper in terms of, well, how does the “me” exist in relation to all of this? Is there a separate “me” that’s actually doing the watching? And one discovers that that also is a deceptive appearance, deceptive feeling. It’s just that there’s all this stuff that’s changing all the time that makes up our experience. So the understanding of the aggregates is quite important for that.

Why don’t we take a few moments to reflect on that, and then perhaps you have some questions.

Okay, what questions do you have?

Recognizing Grasping for True Existence

Question: I’m curious about what are some of the signs or indicators that a certain perception or feeling is particularly laced with a misapprehension of self-existence.

Alex: There is certainly a discussion of how do we recognize the presence of a disturbing emotion, a disturbing attitude that the grasping for true existence will underlie. A disturbing emotion makes us lose our peace of mind, and we lose self-control. It incapacitates ourselves. Then, in terms of the unawareness – which is a specific type of disturbing emotion which is more general, it doesn’t actually do the interpolating, the projecting that the grasping for true existence does – that not only makes us lose our peace of mind and lose self-control, but also…

I mean, even when we’re disciplined you lose self-control. In the sense that you have no control over are you going to feel happy or unhappy in the next moment. You might be able to have self-control of what object you’re focusing on, or your behavior, but other things are just happening out of control. Control is, of course, an interesting issue. Is there anybody who is in control or could be in control? I mean it’s just our Western idiom here that I’m using.

But with that unawareness, as we saw, it functions to make us stubborn and insecure and befuddled. It makes us stressed. So there would be this type of feeling. Sort of stubborn – “This is the way it is!” – and insecurity, and stressed.

But I’ve not come across a specific explanation just of the grasping for impossible ways of existing – by itself – how we would recognize it in terms of general experience. I mean, there is the big discussion about recognizing the object to be refuted. This is a big, big point in the Gelug presentation of voidness. You know, Tsongkhapa. And so we can look at that from the point of view of just what does it seem like.

It depends on what impossible way of existing we would specify here. But let’s say that there’s something inherently on the side of the object that makes it what it is – we speak Prasangika – then is there something in me that makes me “me”? We’re all individuals, but there’s this concept that there’s something unique about me – special, inherent inside me – that by its own power makes me special. Often that’s encouraged, even in the American system, with children. Everybody has something inherent in them that makes them special and unique. Well, that’s impossible from a Buddhist point of view. We’re individuals, that’s for sure. Nobody denies that. My eating doesn’t make your stomach feel full, or anything like that. So we are individual and it’s objective. But there’s nothing inside us that makes us unique, by its own power.

Everything is made up of all sorts of things that are changing and influenced by many, many other things. It seems like that, you see, so that’s the – You have to understand what’s impossible. And this is identifying the object to be refuted, the object to be nullified. There is no such thing. Once you can understand what that is, then you can start to identify it – what seems to be like that, in our experience. And what feels like that. I think you have to add in what feels like that. It feels like there’s something special in me. It feels like that person is an idiot or I’m an idiot. So it’s a complex process.

Individual, Innate, and Inherent

Participant: Well, even though we’re not special, we are individuals. Now the way the arrangement of atoms and parts of atoms and molecules come together gives us a unique fingerprint and unique…different than this one’s…

Alex: Right.

Participant: But it’s not special.

Alex: Right.

The question here is about the usage of the word “unique.” And “unique” could be a synonym for “individual.” And that’s fine, we are individual. I’m not you. The DNA is different, and so on. But there’s nothing – This is when we talk about inherent existence.

There are three terms here that one has to differentiate, and sometimes it’s confusing, I must say. Individual, innate, and inherent. Those are completely different things. Completely different things.

Participant: We’re talking about individual. We’re not talking about innate.

Alex: So “individual” could be unique. X is not Y. Mary is not Jane. Mary is not Harry. So we are individual.

“Inherent” means that there is something on the side of the object that by its own power makes it what it is, independent of anything else. Something inherently wrong with that person that makes them an idiot. Findable. You can point to it. There’s nothing like that.

“Innate” though – another term for that is “inborn” – it simultaneously arises with something. Simultaneous with being a human being is going to be – what is going to arise with that will be – a unique, individual DNA pattern or genetic pattern, or something like that, if we speak from a scientific point of view. That, by its own power, doesn’t make us who we are because there’s the influence of a million things – environment, and parents, and psychological things, and historical time that we’re born into, and economic situation, and so many things. Nothing by its own power makes us who we are. And the DNA is made up of atoms, and the atoms are made up of quarks, and all of that sort of stuff.

Question: So you can have individual, you can have innate, but you can’t have inherent.

Alex: Right. You have individual. You have things that are innate, like mental activity, or various qualities. Good qualities. Certain good qualities are innate in terms of responsiveness. That’s the basis for compassion. The whole innate feature of taking care of somebody, whether we’re talking about selfishly taking care of ourselves or taking care of somebody else. From certain points of view, that’s described as an innate quality; it can be developed.

So “individual” and “innate” are validly correct, but not “inherent.” It’s jargon, but we need to make the differentiation. Sometimes people don’t differentiate “innate” and “inherent,” and it becomes very confusing.

Insecurity and Grasping for True Existence

Question: This is harking back to Dan’s question. A kind of shorthand way to see if the disturbing emotions reflect a particular self-grasping going on. Could you just look for attachment or anger because attachment and anger are there in full force when self-grasping is going on, could that not…

Alex: You could say that, but we don’t have that all the time. If we want to speak in a much more general way, what I would say is indicative of this grasping for an impossible way that I exist would be insecurity. That’s a very Western way of describing it, but I think it’s fairly applicable. You could always say that, well, there’s some people who aren’t really insecure. But then there’s going to the other extreme of inflation and overconfidence, which usually masks some sort of insecurity.

If you have this grasping for a solid “me,” well, you’re on shaky ground. This is because the “me” doesn’t exist as solid, so you feel insecure about it. Therefore you have to prove it. You have to exert it. You have to defend it. You have to get things around it – accumulate stuff – whether it’s actual physical stuff or money or friends, affection. Attention – that’s a big one – I need to be the center of attention. Why does everybody have to know our opinion? Why does everybody have to pay attention to us? Because we think that, well, I’m the center, I’m important, so we have to get that. That’s your longing desire or attachment. Or get things away from us that we don’t like.

But I think it’s all based on insecurity, if we want to look at the most fundamental emotion that gives away this grasping for true existence of “me” or even of other objects as well. So then one has to become very attentive – paying attention – and really be able to distinguish, within all the mental factors that are occurring in any moment, that insecurity. So here what we have to heighten is the distinguishing. It’s called “recognition.”

It’s like the same thing in our experience: what is it that has to be nullified and what is it that doesn’t? Well, the content of our experience – looking at you, talking to you – that’s not to be nullified. You have to be able to distinguish that appearance of true existence from just the regular appearance. There is an appearance, but what kind of appearance? There’s the appearance of what something is, and there’s the appearance of how it exists. So what’s really deceptive is the appearance of how it exists. You have to be able to distinguish that.

So these are the things that one works on in terms of recognizing the object to be nullified, the object to be refuted. Not nullifying too much or nullifying too little. I prefer “nullify” to “refute.” “Refute” sounds too logical. It’s not just the logical process of refuting it, it’s also nullifying – you’re getting rid of it; there is no such thing – a little bit stronger word.

Okay. That brings us to the end of our morning session, so let’s end here and then we’ll continue after lunch.