What Emptiness or Voidness Negates

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Question about Mediation of Disputes at Work

When we try to apply this principle of looking at the validity of others’ points of view, particularly in a work situation when youre a manager, sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the view of the workers and its hard to actually deal with it. How do we make a balance?

In general, there’s the principle of equalizing self and others, so you don’t go to either extreme of “I’m the only one that’s valid,” or “they’re the only one that’s valid” – so you all have equal validity. What that leads to is taking both sides equally seriously. That doesn’t mean that how you handle the situation, what you decide to do, is going to be affected only by that – only by the fact that both sides are equally valid from the point of view of each side.

First of all, to deal with the situation, you need the four immeasurables and the six far-reaching attitudes. On that basis, you analyze the reasons why they experience the situation the way that they do? And what are the reasons why I feel that my way is more valid? So, you evaluate with discriminating awareness.

You described a work situation. Let’s say the workers are on strike, they want more salary. Is that because of greed? Or because they don’t have enough to live on? Then look at your side. Is it because you’re being miserly? Or is it because the company doesn’t have enough money to pay more?

The situation exists within the context of the economic situation of the whole country, and what are the prospects and so on of the company making more money? You take into consideration all these factors. As for the factors that are based just on disturbing emotions, you can’t give that more weight than the factors that are based on reason. Then you come to some sort of compromise with the workers. But the compromise is based on the principle that the way I experience it is real to me, and the way you experience it is real to you. You don’t deny that.

Here’s where you need to apply this wonderful teaching of the four ways to gather disciples, which we can rename “the four ways to be a positive influence on others.” The first one is be generous: give them something, anything. If you just say “no, no, no, no, no,” they become completely turned off. So, give them something, not just material, but give them the acknowledgement that something of what they say is correct.

Then speak kindly, don’t just yell at them. Speak meaningfully. Then, set the example by following the advice yourself. Don’t say, “I can’t give you a higher salary,” but then take an outrageously high salary for yourself. Better to negotiate, “I’m willing to take a cut, are you willing to take a cut, because the company just doesn’t have the money?”

This is applicable not just in work situations, but in personal relationships as well. These four pieces of advice are fantastic. That’s the way to be a positive influence on others: be generous, speak kindly, speak meaningfully, and practice what you preach.

Life Is Not Like a Still Photograph

Does the understanding of voidness imply that the way that we understand now is upside-down; upside-down meaning reversed from the way things normally are?

That’s correct. This is what I was referring to in terms of seeing everything like an illusion. Things appear to exist in a certain way, but they don’t actually exist like that. What we’re seeing is just what's in front of our eyes. We see various people in this room, and just their superficial appearance is what we see. We have no idea of each other’s family lives, no idea of the relationships that each of the others have, no idea of their childhoods. None of that appears. But all these things – a childhood, etc. – happened and they influenced each of you.

None of you exist like a still photograph that I see just now. That’s upside down, it’s the reverse of actuality. And that’s what we need to always keep in mind, that things are not like a still photograph, or a current movie that’s playing. There’s a lot more.

The Phenomenon of Selfies

This makes me think, by association, of why we have this almost “epidemic” of people taking selfies. So many people take pictures of themselves with their mobile devices and constantly take photos of everything they encounter and send it to everybody, as if life was so complicated that we want to simplify it into still photos or short video clips. It’s very interesting. If you analyze it in terms of voidness, it’s as if we’re trying to establish our true solid existence by taking a photo. “If I take a photo and post it to everybody, that makes me real.” This analysis becomes very applicable for identifying the object to be refuted with the understanding of voidness. How does taking a selfie, sharing it with others and getting many “likes” make you real? It’s absurd!

The response, if you want to deal with that issue properly, is not to say that all these people who take selfies are stupid, and be very critical and arrogant about that. Such people are truly objects of compassion – their lives are so complicated and so difficult and stressful, that somehow they want to hang onto something that somehow makes them feel secure, and so they take a selfie. The appropriate response to them is compassion rather than “how stupid you are.”

I look at it another way. Posting selfies and other photos on social media is a kind of a new language, a visual language thats right now coming up into the world. Isnt connecting with others and communicating with them something positive? Also, if were viewing things incorrectly, sort of like upside down, cant we just simply turn things right-side up? And are there other images that might be useful for understanding reality besides the fact that we see things upside-down, for instance the analogy of thoughts being like waves on the ocean of the mind?

In terms of the sense of connectedness when you post selfies and pictures, yes there is a sense of connectedness, but you could also analyze it as a way to try to establish our existence by being connected. The more people we’re connected with, the more “real” we feel we are. For sure, there are positive sides to being connected via social media, but it all depends on how you view what you’re doing. We often assume with our posts that other people are really interested with seeing the nice meal we prepared, which they may not be, so there’s a bit of self-importance there. Sharing, if it’s going to be proper, should be sharing with people who would like to receive what we share. It doesn’t make you more real, it merely allows you to interact with others. So the motivation behind our taking a selfie and posting it or sending it to friends is very important. It shouldn’t just be a compulsive reflex.

As for this image of how we perceive reality as upside-down and that, if we use that image, we just need to turn it right-side up – there’s a problem with that. The underlying false assumption is that corresponding to the upside-down appearance is something findable that all we need to do is to turn right-side up. The problem is there isn’t anything findable that we can turn right-side up!

But, this image of things being upside down could be helpful as a start. Look at how Buddha taught and how the understanding of his teachings and their later commentaries became codified as the Indian tenet systems. And look at how the Tibetans approach their study in a graded way. First you gain a very rough understanding of how things exist with the Vaibhashika system and then you refine it, and refine it, and refine it. Many of the images that we start with, like this image of things being upside-down, can be very helpful, but they need to be further refined. As I explained, it’s not as though there’s something concrete that’s actually there that’s upside down and could be turned right-side up. But as an initial way of understanding, this image can be helpful.

As for the image of waves on the ocean, this is something found in the teachings in one of the presentations of mahamudra, the great sealing nature of the mind. In this presentation, the mind is like an ocean and the movement of the internal winds or energies, when they’re very disturbed, makes like waves on the ocean. These are like the disturbing emotions and the distortions in our perceptions and so on. One of the methods is just to let the waves quiet down and then we’re left with the calm, vast and deep ocean.

But, of course that image can also be refined, because in this process, where am I? Am I a boat on top of the ocean being tossed by it? Or am I a submarine that I want to just go underneath and escape the turmoil? The image of the ocean can be refined in terms of the relation between the self and the mind. But it’s a useful image.

Let’s go back to our discussion of dependent arising.

Emptiness or Voidness — A Total Absence of Something Impossible

Voidness, or emptiness, is a total absence of something impossible. It never was the case, it’s just impossible. It never existed before, it doesn’t exist now, it will never exist. It’s impossible. But it’s not a total absence of some impossible object, such as chicken lips or turtle hair. Nor is it simply the total absence of an impossible way of existing, like independent existence. That can be an initial way of understanding voidness, but the absence of an impossible way of existing is not precise enough. If one really analyzes the terminology that’s used in both Sanskrit and Tibetan, what it’s talking about is the total absence of impossible ways of accounting for or establishing the existence of validly knowable phenomena. This is very subtle, but it’s very important to understand.

How do you account for the fact, how do you explain the fact, how do you establish the fact that there are validly knowable phenomena and that they can be validly known as this or that? That’s the issue that voidness is dealing with: what establishes that there are such things in the universe as teachers and students, and that we can validly know somebody as a teacher and we can validly know somebody as a student? How do you account for such things?

Do you understand that? It’s very interesting. We have such things as teachers and students. We have such activities as learning and teaching – we do a million things during the day – how is it that out of all those things that we do, somehow some of those things are grouped together and called “learning” or called “teaching?” And out of all the things that somebody does, how can you validly know somebody as a teacher? There are certain ways of accounting for that that are valid and possible, and certain ways that are not valid and impossible. Voidness is the absence of those impossible ways: they don’t correspond to anything valid.

An Example of Emptiness or Voidness

Here’s an example of what we’re talking about. The question we’ll analyze is: what makes what I just explained easy or difficult? How do you account for the fact or explain the fact that you find it easy or you find it difficult? Is it something on the side of what I explained – the topic, the words I chose to explain it, the sound of the words, the movement of my tongue and mouth that makes it easy or difficult? Is it something findable in any of those that inherently – in other words, by its own power alone – makes it easy or difficult? Is that what makes it easy or difficult? When you think about it, that’s impossible. The absence of anything valid that corresponds to that way of establishing what I explained as easy or difficult is what voidness is talking about.

If what established it as easy or difficult were really something from the side of the words that I said, they would be easy for everybody, or difficult for everybody to comprehend. But easy or difficult depends on many, many factors. It arises dependently on you, the listener’s level of understanding, your background in the Buddhist teachings or in philosophy in general, etc. It also depends on the skill of me, the teacher, in explaining it and, of course, on my level of understanding. And it also depends on your state of mind – are you sleepy, are you alert?

So, how is it that you or I find it easy? How is it that you or I find it difficult? There’s nothing on the side of the words that necessarily make them easy or difficult. Words are just words and the sound of words are just sounds. Being easy or difficult can only be established dependently on other factors, not on something inherent in the words or their sounds.

Things Are Relative

Further, things like easy or difficult are relative. The example that His Holiness the Dalai Lama always uses is your fourth finger. Is it long or short? Well it’s long compared to your little finger, but short compared to your middle finger. It’s only long or short dependently on something else, or compared to somebody else’s fourth finger. But by itself, it’s not long or short.

This idea of relativity is not so difficult to understand in terms of adjectives: long, short, easy, difficult, good, bad. So, it’s a good place to start to understand dependent arising. Long or short, easy or difficult arise not just dependently on “the eye of the beholder,” but also in comparison with something else. What is good and bad, in any case? What do they mean? It all depends on how they are defined, and different people and cultures will define them differently. There are many levels of understanding when we talk about dependent arising.

As I say, it’s easiest to understand this with adjectives, like good or bad and long or short. But then we need to apply relativity to nouns – like being a mother or a father, or being a teacher or a student. We also need to apply it to activities. Out of everything that I do, what does it mean that I’m learning? What does it mean that I’m doing anything? How can we validly know that?

These are very interesting, but much more difficult to understand – if I may use that word “difficult.” First, we need to understand dependent arising and relativity with adjectives, and from that, we get the general idea of dependent arising. Then we can consider what makes me a mother or a father? Well, you can’t be a mother of a father without a child, to start with. They depend on something else.

Once you start examining questions like, “What am I doing now?” you could say, “I’m learning.” But, you’re also sitting, you’re also listening, you’re also paying attention, you’re also breathing. Do we draw some sort of circle and put a plastic over some part of that and call that “learning?” You can’t isolate any of these from each other; none of them are happening all on their own. Nevertheless, conventionally, we’re learning, we’re listening.

Reflection on Emptiness or Voidness

Let’s try to digest this very important principle here of what emptiness or voidness is actually talking about. We’re not talking about some impossible object, like chicken lips. We’re not just simply talking about an impossible way of existing, like independently. We’re talking about how do you account for the fact that you can validly know things as this or that. How can you validly know that this is long or this is short? You can only validly know it dependently on other things; it’s relative. There is nothing on the side of an object that establishes it as long or short, or good or bad, or easy or difficult, by its own power or influence alone. You can only establish something as validly long or short, or good or bad, relative or dependent on factors other than the object itself.

In saying this, we want to avoid the two extremes. It’s not that there’s only one way for everybody – the object is long for everybody or good for everybody. That’s the absolutist extreme. Or that it could be anything – that’s the nihilist extreme. It’s not that the object could be anything. The object, from its own side, isolated from everything else, cannot be established as either long or short, either both or neither.

Let’s spend a few minutes trying to let that sink in. Once we can understand the general idea, in this general way, then we can refine our understanding further and further.

And please apply this to emotionally-charged issues. Not just is my fourth finger long or short. Apply it to “I’m a good person, I’m a bad person. I’m pretty, or I’m ugly.” These kinds of things.


Let me give an example. Let’s say you’re 40 years old. To your children, you’re old. To your parents, you’re young. What are you? Are you young or old? Are you nothing? We’re not nothing. We’re 40 years old. And it’s valid that to our children we look old, and to our parents we look young. Everything is dependent. Even being 40 years old is dependent on how many times the earth went around the sun.

The problem is when we identify ourselves inherently with anything, for instance: “I am truly old.” Then we convince ourselves that “I’m too old to learn a new language, I’m too old to do this or that.” Or we still think, “I’m young” – I can stay out and dance all night and only function on two hours’ sleep, as if I’m 20 years old. See the relevance of understanding voidness and dependent arising?

These are helpful examples, I find. To our children, we’re old. To our parents, we’re young. And we’re 40 years old. All of those are relatively true, conventionally true, aren’t they?