Main Points of Self-Voidness and Other-Voidness
Moscow, Russia, June 2007
Session Three: Conventional “Me” and Impossible “Me”
We have been speaking about the importance of understanding voidness, whether we speak in terms of self-voidness or other-voidness, and we’ve seen that it is necessary for overcoming and achieving a true stopping of the true sufferings that we all experience – ourselves and others – and the true origins or causes of that suffering. We’ve also seen that there are many different levels of sophistication in the understanding of voidness. In terms of self-voidness, we’re talking about an absence of impossible ways of existing. With other-voidness, we’re talking about the subtlest level of mind, the clear-light mind, which we want to use for having this nonconceptual cognition of self-voidness; and this mind is devoid of the grosser levels of mind and therefore, when we talk about other-voidness, this clear-light mind is devoid of the other levels of mind. Now we also saw in our discussion of self-voidness that when we talk about impossible ways of existing, we can speak of them in terms of how a person exists and how all phenomena exist, and this is usually – in the most general terms – discussed in terms of a lack of an impossible “soul” of persons and a lack of impossible “souls” of all phenomena.
In terms of what we began in our previous session, when we speak of the impossible “soul” of persons, then we have a grasping for that. In other words, we believe in that – our mind makes an appearance of it, and we believe in it – we have a grasping for that. In terms of a type of impossible “soul” that is doctrinally based, we learned about it from other non-Buddhist belief systems, and we believe it.
All of this is based on what’s usually translated as “ignorance,” but I prefer the word “unawareness.” “Ignorance” implies being stupid. It’s not that we’re stupid, but we just either – depending on how it’s explained, in which text – either we just don’t know how things exist, or we know it in an inverted way (the opposite way of how they exist). And if we use the general word “voidness” for speaking in terms of persons and phenomena, and we speak in a way which covers all the various systems, then we also saw that it’s important to work first on understanding the voidness of persons, particularly ourselves, and then go on to all phenomena – and within that discussion of persons, first ourselves and then everybody else.
Now let’s speak about the doctrinally based impossible “me” or impossible “soul.” This is speaking about a “soul,” or an atman, as is taught in the non-Buddhist systems, with which we identify. We think that’s “me”; that’s who I really am. This impossible “soul” has, in general, three characteristics: it is unaffected by anything (in other words, it’s static; it never changes); and it is partless (it’s a monolith); and it is independent, in the sense that it can exist separate from a body and mind. When we think of this impossible “soul” or atman with which we identify, we’re talking about the whole package of all three characteristics, not just one.
So what are these characteristics, if we look a little bit more closely? First of all, we have to understand that in Buddhism we are not denying that there is a self or a person. Therefore we have to differentiate between what’s known as the conventionally existent “me” – if we can use that type of terminology – and the impossible “me” (or false “me”). What we are refuting here is this projection that our mind projects because of this unawareness and the habit of this unawareness, and we believe in it – this projection of an impossible “me” on top of the actual conventional “me” that does conventionally exist.
Now all Buddhist systems, whether Mahayana or Hinayana, assert a conventionally existent “me” – a person or an individual. All of the Buddhist systems say that it is something that is imputed on the aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience. And without going into the five aggregates, which would take a long time to explain, let’s just put it very simply on a body and a mind. We have in every moment of our experience, it’s made up of many parts – a body, various things that we’re seeing and hearing, and a type of consciousness, and feeling of some level of happiness, and emotions, and so on. And Buddhism says that the “me” is something that can be labeled or imputed on the basis of the continuity of these ever-changing aggregates. So it is imputed on that. In other words, we refer to this individual stream of continuity as “me,” and we experience it as such. And the “me” is not the word “me” or concept “me,” and the “me” is not the basis – each moment of experience – but the “me” is what the word refers to on this basis.
We can understand this easily with the analogy of a particular movie, Pirates of the Caribbean. What is Pirates of the Caribbean? There is a movie Pirates of the Caribbean, isn’t there? Now what is Pirates of the Caribbean? It is not the title “Pirates of the Caribbean”; that’s not the movie. And it’s not any particular second or moment of the movie. We don’t just see one moment of the movie and that’s it; and every moment of the movie doesn’t play simultaneously, does it? We only have one moment of the movie at a time, in a proper sequence, a logical sequence that makes sense, moment to moment, connected by cause and effect. So what is the movie Pirates of the Caribbean? It’s what the title refers to on the basis of the continuity of all those moments. The movie is not the title. It’s not any of the moments. The movie doesn’t exist separately from moments of the movie, does it? And it’s not the same as any moment of the movie. Or even if you took all the moments and laid them out on the floor, that’s not the movie. But there is a movie Pirates of the Caribbean, and we can experience it watching it.
It’s the same thing in terms of the conventional “me.” We have all the moments of a stream of continuity of experience. We have the label, like the title of the movie – “me.” It could have even more specific label, like “Sasha” or “Lena” or whatever, right? That “me” doesn’t exist separately from these moments of experience, and it’s not the same as any moment, and the moments don’t play all at the same time, and so on. But on the basis of this conventional “me,” then we take responsibility for our lives, for what we experience, cause and effect in terms of karma, how we interact with others, etc.
Now according to the Buddhist teachings, particularly the way it’s explained in Mahayana – there’s a little bit of a dispute here with Hinayana – but we would say that the mental continuum, everybody agrees it has no beginning and Mahayana says also it has no end. Within Hinayana there are differences of opinion, but we won’t go into that – in terms of having an end. Since the mental continuum is eternal – no beginning, no end – so is the conventional “me.” Conventional “me” has no beginning and no end. Buddhism does assert that the “me” is eternal; forever. And it is always individual; even when we become Buddhas, it retains its individuality. “Individual” doesn’t mean that we’re all totally separate, encapsulated in plastic, and can’t interact with each other, so please make a clear distinction between “individual” and “separate” or “isolated.” Individuals interact with each other, but still retain their individuality. And based on our karma – the type of actions we do and the results of that – this individual “me,” within the continuity of its basis, its basis may be the aggregates of a human being, it may be aggregates of an animal, it may be aggregates of an insect, a god, a ghost, whatever. It can go up and down. It’s not that we all become one. We’re not all one, like one big undifferentiated soup.
This impossible “me,” the doctrinally based one, the first characteristic of it is that it’s static and unaffected. Well, the word for that is usually translated as “permanent.” And so “permanent” can have two meanings: “eternal” or “not changing.” Here it doesn’t mean eternal, because Buddhism says that the conventional “me” is eternal. So here this word “permanent,” when you read it, means unaffected by anything, static, it never changes. It means a “me” that never changes: We’re unaffected, for instance, by age. “My body may ache – but me, I’m young inside; I’m always the same.” Or what a prostitute might think: “You can have my body, but you can’t have me. I am unaffected by whatever you do to the body.”
Then the second characteristic – and these characteristics, as I say, all come in one package, so in many ways they’re describing the same package from different points of view – and this is the word “one” in Sanskrit or Tibetan, but what we have to understand with that is that this means a partless monolith. (The aspect of “same,” which is also a meaning of “one,” is taken care of primarily by this quality of being static; of never changing.)
Now there are two variants for being a partless monolith. Some non-Buddhist systems in India say that the atman (the self) is the size of the universe, without any parts; and other systems say that actually it is the size of a tiny particle or atom, with no parts, like a spark of life. being the size of the universe in some of the non-Buddhist Indian systems, we have this equivalent of atman and Brahman, and everybody is the whole universe, like that; it’s just an illusion of being enclosed in this body. But there are many non-Buddhist Indian schools of philosophy that assert that the self is the size of the universe, and not all of them are talking about the atman-Brahman equivalencies. So don’t reduce it to just one system; there are many systems. The other variant, that the self or the atman is like a tiny little spark of life, like the size of an atom, with no parts – the idea of a soul that’s like a spark of life, that never changes, and unaffected by anything, and comes into a body and mind and activates it and then goes on to another body and mind.
The third characteristic is that it is independent. That means that it can come out of a body and mind, a particular one, and then go into another one. And the body and mind that it goes into in any particular lifetime is like its house that it goes into. That’s one way of looking at it. Or it could be its possession; it possesses it. Or it could be something that it uses; it goes inside the body and mind and then turns the “on switch” on, and presses the buttons, and manipulates the body and mind.
there are two main variations on this interpretation of this package of a “me” that is unaffected by anything, a partless monolith, and independent. One is characterized by primarily the Samkhya position – this is one Indian school – which is that that type of atman, that type of “soul” or “me,” has a quality of consciousness – of being conscious itself. The other position is represented by the Nyaya school, which says that it doesn’t have a quality of consciousness; it uses a mind and a body, like using a brain, in order to be conscious of something. So one variation says that the “me” doesn’t have to use anything in order to be conscious, to know things; and the other says that no, it has to use a brain: it doesn’t know anything by itself.
As my teacher always pointed out, we shouldn’t think that these systems are stupid. They are very sophisticated, very complex, and give a whole worldview. And if we examine ourselves, we see that many of these aspects of this type of impossible “me” are what we think about ourselves. But we don’t have time to go into deep analysis of that, but this is a very helpful and useful thing to contemplate. We think like that. There’s some sort of independently existing “me” inside us that’s talking in our head – after all, who’s the author of the voice that’s going on there – and makes use of the various things that we have: “Oh, I’ll use my mind to try to figure this out.” Good looks. “I possess an intellect.” That’s like “I possess a cow.” So that type of “me” is impossible. There is no such thing – there never was; there never will be. And we go through, in the Buddhist training, a tremendous amount of use of logic to point out the logical inconsistencies of all the aspects of this type of belief, whether from the side of it being a conscious phenomenon or the side of it not being a conscious phenomenon.
We can have all sorts of disturbing emotions based on such a belief in an impossible “me.” “I am the size of the universe,” “I am the whole universe,” “I own everything,” “I can use whatever you think is yours, because actually it’s mine.” So that is what’s called the gross or coarse impossible “me,” or impossible “soul” of a person. [So the first step] of our understanding of self-voidness is to understand that there’s no such thing as this type of “soul,” or “person,” or “me.” Totally absent. That’s what voidness means – totally absent, no such thing – in this context of self-voidness.
But then we have a subtle level of our unawareness or our confusion about how we exist. Nobody had to teach us this; nobody had to train us or indoctrinate us in this type of description of a “me.” Whether we have this doctrinally based unawareness and grasping for an impossible “me,” or we realize that there’s no such thing as this type of gross impossible “me,” still this automatically arising unawareness will be there. And this type of impossible “me,” the technical term for it is a “self-sufficiently knowable me.” That means a “me” that can be known all by itself without simultaneously also knowing its basis for imputation. I will explain that. For the benefit of our Tibetan scholar here, this is the term “rangkya tubpay dzay-yokyi dag” (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod-kyi bdag); a very difficult term.
Now when we had the doctrinally based impossible “me,” we’d look at ourselves in the mirror and we see a face that is perhaps a bit fat, and old, and wrinkled, and gray hair, and we say, “That’s not me. That’s not who I am,” as if there were a “me” separate from this body that’s an independently existing “me.” We have this mental image – static, fixed, always the same – of “me,” and that certainly is not “me” in the mirror, or what it says on the bathroom scale in terms of the weight. “That’s not me.” Whereas here, a self-sufficiently knowable “me” is: we look in the mirror and we think “I see myself.” Now we don’t think “I see a face. And on the basis of the face is imputed a me.” We don’t think that. We think “I see myself in the mirror” – self-sufficiently, all by itself – “I see myself.” Or with respect to somebody else, I can think and say “I know Sasha,” as if I could know a Sasha all by himself. It’s not that I know a personality, I know a body, I know experiences – and on the basis of that, I know a Sasha. No. “I know Sasha,” just – there it is, by itself. “I see Sasha.”
If you analyze speaking on the telephone with anybody – now, this becomes really very, very strange, because we say “I hear Sasha on the telephone. I’m speaking to Sasha.” Well, what are we hearing? We’re hearing a vibration of some membrane that’s activated by some electronic impulse that was somehow transmitted by a voice vibration on something else; and on the basis of all that, we say “I’m speaking to Sasha.”
Now we can get a little bit more intimate than that in terms of our emotional wellbeing. Most of us will have the experience that. “I want you to love me for me. Don’t love me for my looks, don’t love me for my money, don’t love me for my intellect. Love just me. Love me for myself,” or “You don’t really know me.” “Love me.” And then of course we have all sorts of disturbing emotions associated with that – “You don’t really love me,” etc. – we get angry and lots of suffering. “You don’t appreciate me.” And it goes on and on, as we start to really think about it.
And all of this automatically arises. Nobody had to teach us this. The horrible thing about it is that it feels like that, and because it feels like that then we believe it to be true. To feel like that, this is this aspect that I was talking about – that the mind makes an appearance. “Appearance” doesn’t mean, necessarily, visual; it makes an appearance of even just a feeling like that. It feels like there is some “me” that somehow either is inside me – “Hi. Here I am!” – or is something that can be known and loved, all by itself, for itself. “I’m expressing myself.”
There are a lot of disturbing emotions that are either doctrinally based or automatically arising, and as you work with this material you discover more and more. Like, for instance, “I’m alienated from my body,” “I’m alienated from my feelings.” That’s a “me” that would be separate, exist independently from body and feelings, that could be possibly alienated from it. That’s pretty strange, actually. Or we get all sorts of strange dualistic ideas as well. “I’m going to India to find myself.” Right! “I’m sorry. Last night I was not myself. I was drunk. I was not myself. That wasn’t really me. And now I’m going to give myself a scolding – ooh, you were bad yesterday!” It’s dualism, isn’t it. There’s a “me” that was bad, and then the “me” that is the judge; the parent. “Ooh, I’ve been too hard on myself. I have to treat myself better.”
And all of this automatically arises. Nobody had to teach us to think like that. We have a tremendous amount of disturbing emotions and suffering that comes from these distorted views. There’s no such thing as these two types of impossible “me”; although, of course, conventionally I do exist.
Why don’t we take a moment to just digest that before we go on. “I have to stretch my legs,” as if we own the legs and now I’m going to get up and stretch them.
So I think perhaps this is a good moment to ask if there are any questions about what we’ve been discussing so far.
Question: The movie we were talking about, does it exist separately from the watcher – from the one who goes to the movie? So can we speak of a movie without talking about the subject receiving it?
Alex: Does the movie exist without the watcher, the person who sees a movie? Well, this gets a little bit complex, because you could of course have a movie playing in a theater with nobody sitting there and watching it. So this is too simplistic an answer. Is there a movie playing? Well, I don’t know; somebody would have to go into the room to check. And if they check, then the existence of the movie is established by a relation to a mind. If nobody went into that room, there would be no way of establishing that there was a movie playing or not. Or you would have to check with the machine, or the electric meter, or something like that, to know whether or not it played.
Participant: In terms of our lives, there should also be someone to watch them and perceive them, because if you liken it to a movie, the analogy of a movie, there should be watchers or a watcher who perceives that, in order to say, “Me.”
Alex: The question is: If we use this analogy for our lives, than there should be a watcher or observer that experiences what’s going on. Well, certainly a conventional “me” does experience our lives. But that “me,” as I said – conventional “me” – it is not something that is separate from our lives, watching it, like sitting in a theater in our head and watching what comes up on the screen of our eyes. It’s not separate from it. It’s not identical with it. It’s not that it goes into one body and then goes into another body and watches the movie. And it can’t be known separate from the whole experience. But there certainly is someone that experiences things and does things.
If I were a traditional Zen teacher and I had a question like that, I would have gotten up and hit you with a stick, and then the question would be: “Did anybody experience that?” – in order to reaffirm that there is a conventional “me” that experiences. But I am not a traditional Zen teacher.
Question: The question is about the Buddhist faith or belief or trust and confidence. You said earlier that only aryas perceive the truth or the validness of those statements we’ve been talking about here. We can’t perceive it, we can’t verify them, so we have to only believe in them or take them for granted or have faith in them. So some people, unlike us, not Buddhists, they don’t have faith in those postulates – those truths. How can we convince them or prove those truths, or prove ourselves right, and so forth?
Alex: The question is – I’ll repeat it for this recording – Only aryas know the four noble truths to be true. This is what they perceive as true, based on their nonconceptual cognition of them. We, before that, do not necessarily know that they are true; ordinary beings might not know that they are true. And so, therefore, we have to accept it on faith or some sort of belief – so trust, and so on. Therefore how would we convince somebody else who is not receptive to these views?
Well, it’s very hard to convince somebody else of anything if they are not open-minded and receptive. Even if you argue with them with logic, they might not accept what you say. This was stated by Shantideva, actually, that you can really only have a debate or discussion with somebody if you have certain things shared in common. One of the things shared in common is an acceptance of logic, and that logic proves things or it doesn’t prove things and therefore if what I believe is illogical and is refuted, then I don’t accept that anymore. If a person doesn’t accept logic and says, “I don’t care what you say. This is what I believe. This is the way it is, because it’s beyond what anybody can understand,” then it’s hopeless. There’s no way of convincing the person, unless they then accept miraculous powers – and you pull a rabbit out of a hat, or something like that, and then they believe you.
But when we say that these are the facts that are known as true by aryas, and ordinary folk would not think that they are true – like, for example, that there can be an end to suffering forever; not just that you can suppress it for a while but it’s going to come back, so the best we could do is to learn to live with it and make the best of it – nevertheless, we can, as practitioners, have an understanding and have a confidence in these four facts, these four noble truths, before we become an arya. It’s just that our level of conviction in it will not be based on nonconceptual cognition of it.
There are many stages to becoming convinced of something, of the truth of something, and it all starts with being receptive. We start with being curious, I suppose, and listening to some Buddhist teachings. Then we have what’s called indecisive wavering: “I don’t really know if it’s correct or not. I wonder. Maybe it’s correct, maybe it’s not correct; but I’m interested, so I investigate further.” Then we have presumption, which is basically that I don’t really understand why this is true, but I will presume that it is true and then see what follows. Then we use inference; we infer that something is correct. There are many types of inference that are valid. An inference is based on a line of reasoning, and so we would start with conviction that the Buddha is a valid source of information. If Buddha is a valid source of information – and this is based not just on faith, or “I like the Buddha,” or something like that, but if you are convinced through logic that there’s no reason why Buddha would lie or make something up, if the only reason he was able to become a Buddha was compassion to help others – then we gain conviction that what he said is true.
We shouldn’t think of this in terms of faith or something like that, because we know things that way. For instance, how do you know when your birthday is? How do you know? You have conviction that your mother is not lying to you, and when your mother tells you you were born on such and such a day, or you see it written in some certificate in a hospital, then you take this as a valid source of information. There’s no way we could have known it just by ourselves. Right? So, very basic. What’s my name? Somebody had to tell you.
Then there is inference, valid inferential understanding, based on logic and reasoning. And all these discussions about voidness are based on logic. [Long before we become an arya, we could be convinced] that it is possible to get rid of suffering forever and that it doesn’t return if we’ve understood the logic of it; the logical reasons for it. But we always have to go through that line of reasoning, the logic, in order to renew our conviction that this is true. So our understanding here depends on that line of reasoning. And the understanding of voidness, for example, is very much dependent on this, because what we have to do is cut off what we imagine to be this impossible way of existing. So that has to be on the basis of something, and it’s on the basis of being logically convinced that this is impossible. Then cut it off – “No such thing!” – in order to be able to focus on “no such thing.” Eventually, with enough familiarity, we don’t have to directly rely on the line of reasoning. We don’t have to go through the line of reasoning every time we want to meditate or focus on voidness. But still we would focus on it through a category, like “no such thing,” or any of the categories of – this is a “true stopping” or a “true cause of suffering.”
So it’s like… Let’s use a simple example of “No chocolate in the house.” If we think about it, if there were chocolate in the house, it could only be here, or there, or there, or there. If we look in all the possible places where it could be (or where my keys are) then logically you have to conclude: if it’s not in any of these places, there is no chocolate (or I lost my keys). So you focus on that by going through and remembering, “Well, it wasn’t here, it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there. So there is none.” And it’s not so easy, because we really don’t want to believe that I actually lost my keys or that I don’t have any chocolate in the house. I don’t want to accept that, and so again I look through every pocket and everything that I’m carrying for the keys, or I look everywhere in the house. Eventually you have to give up and decide that: “I lost my keys,” or “There is no chocolate.” And that’s the problem with this impossible “me,” because we don’t want to give up, even though we know logically that there is no such thing.
So – second stage – we don’t have to continue to look through all our pockets for the keys or to look everywhere in the house for the chocolate. We don’t have to rely on the logical reasoning: “If it’s not there, we don’t have it.” But still, in order to think about it, we still have this category of “Oh, there’s no chocolate,” or “I lost my keys.” We have to remind ourselves, and we think of it through this category – “no keys,” “no chocolate.” So it’s the middle of the night, we really did want the chocolate, we looked and we know there is no chocolate, so we don’t have to look again in order to convince ourselves. But when the craving comes up again, we have to remind ourselves and think, “Oh, no chocolate.” So it’s the same category – “no chocolate.” As we would say in America, “Tough luck, baby. No chocolate.” But eventually we might reach the point where we don’t really have to think in terms of this category; we just know there is no chocolate. You don’t have to search; you don’t have to use this category, this concept of “no chocolate”; you just know it. That would be nonconceptual cognition of it. So I just eat something else while being fully aware that there is no chocolate. I don’t have to think again “no chocolate,” and I don’t have to look again.
Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but I think that this gives at least a little bit of an idea of what we’re talking about here when we talk about conceptual, nonconceptual, logic, and so on, and how do you know something is true. But through all these stages the level of conviction is different: “I think maybe there’s some chocolate in the house.” “Well, I think there’s no more chocolate left.” “I will presume that there isn’t any, but I’ll look anyway to just make sure.” And then, “I didn’t find any, so there isn’t any.” Etc. So the conviction gets stronger and stronger.
Excuse me for taking a little bit long to answer that, but I think that this gives us another aspect of this teaching, which is: How do you know anything? And these are things that apply – these stages apply – to understanding voidness, whether we’re speaking about self-voidness or other-voidness. How do we know there’s such a thing as a clear light subtlest level of mind? “I don’t know. Well, Buddha said so” – so we start there – “and why would Buddha lie?” We could be convinced logically that there is such a level of mind, but until we actually experience it – not through thinking, “Ah, yes, a clear light mind,” but actually experiencing it nonconceptually – then our level of conviction will not be 100% full. The clear light mind is by nature nonconceptual. So if in meditation we think, “Ah, this is the clear light mind,” then that’s a very obvious indication that it’s not, because that’s conceptual. We could experience the clear light mind and not know what it is – the term is usually you don’t “recognize” it – that happens at the time of death. That’s no big deal. So, in order to be convinced of it, we have to not only experience it, but recognize it for what it is; but not conceptually. This is quite difficult. But there are many stages to that, of course. When I see Sasha, do I have to think “Sasha” in order to recognize him? Do I need a concept of “Sasha” in order to know who he is when I see him? It becomes an interesting question.
That’s why often we have to be very careful about our Western terminology. Because we don’t really have [in Buddhist terminology] something similar to “recognize,” which means to know it again. It’s not quite that, the Buddhist explanation. If we speak only in terms of “recognize” which is (in a Western sense) that you knew it before and then you recognize again, then that pretty much has to be conceptual, but Buddhism is not discussing that. So when we hear terminology like “recognize the clear light mind,” that’s a very misleading translation. It’s “to know the face of it.” So you know it, you know what is, you distinguish – the word that’s usually translated as “recognize” actually means to distinguish something – what it is from what it’s not. It doesn’t have to be conceptual; could be nonconceptual. Like, for instance, a baby being able to distinguish light from dark, or hot from cold. They don’t have to have any words, any concepts, but they can distinguish between the two. That just underlines the need to understand definitions – to learn definitions and understand them.
Let’s end here for this evening, and tomorrow we’ll go into the further discussion of self-voidness, about impossible ways in which phenomena – all things – exist, and then into the discussion of other-voidness. So after this you can pick yourselves up and take yourself outside. Do we think like that? This is the question. Right? The alarm clock goes off in the morning – “Oh come on, Alex. Get up. Get up, Alex.” So I’m going to get myself up and start the day. This is the impossible “me.”
So we end with a dedication: Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
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