Let’s continue our ongoing discussion of how we stop uncontrollably recurring rebirth such that it never recurs. To stop it, we need to realize that there isn’t some impossible “me” undergoing rebirth through the twelve links of dependent arising: experiencing true suffering and generating more true suffering. There isn’t some impossible “me” that could get liberated by having a correct understanding of how it exists. There is no such thing as an impossible “me” experiencing the first two noble truths through the mechanism of the twelve links and experiencing the second two noble truths by reversing and ending the twelve links. That’s because there is no such thing as this impossible “me.”
We do exist, but we project onto how we exist an impossible way of establishing it. There are several different levels of ways in which we can’t be established as existing. Unfortunately, when we believe in the impossible way of existing that we imagine to be true, it feels like it is true, and we believe that it actually corresponds to reality. We are unaware that it doesn’t correspond. That’s the first link of dependent arising.
Through the mechanism of the twelve links, we then have disturbing emotions, disturbing attitudes and compulsive karmic impulses. When we act on those compelling impulses, we build up karmic tendencies and we activate them with further disturbing emotions and attitudes. When karmic tendencies are activated at the time of death, they become another type of compulsive impulse, known as throwing karma. Throwing karma causes our continuum to continue obtaining tainted aggregates as its basis, but now in a next life. These aggregates: the body, mind, feelings, emotions, etc., then become the basis for experiencing, yet again, the sufferings of samsaric rebirth.
True Stopping of Impossible Ways of Existing
In order to attain a true stopping of this uncontrollably recurring rebirth and suffering, we need to refute our misbelief and stop believing it’s true. We need to prove, through logic, that there is no such thing as a “me” existing in any impossible way or whose existence can be established in any impossible way.
When we understand that there is no such thing as something corresponding in reality to this impossible “me” and have rid ourselves of our unawareness of this fact, then we will no longer experience disturbing emotions or attitudes based on that unawareness, with which we would try to make that impossible “me” secure. We will no longer experience compulsive impulses to try to make that impossible “me” secure. It’s a futile effort. We won’t build up any more karmic tendencies and we won’t activate the ones that are already there. In this way, we will experience a true stopping of uncontrollably recurring rebirth such that it never recurs again.
The Basis for Imputation of the Conventional “Me”
Of course, we do continue as a person, me. The mental continuum has no beginning and no end. We can understand that in terms of how cause and effect works. There’s a whole analysis of the voidness of cause and effect to help us to understand that. In short, it makes no sense for something to have an absolute beginning and an absolute end if it’s non-static and continuing without degenerating moment to moment. No need to go into detail on that.
The “me” that does exist, the conventional “me,” will always have a basis, the five aggregates. It’s an imputation on an individual continuum of a network of ever-changing aggregates: a body, mind, feelings, distinguishing, other mental factors and so on. Not only are they all changing, but each is changing at a different rate in a very complex network. The self, as an imputation on that, is likewise changing from moment to moment, and is affected by what it experiences. It is not partless; it has many parts, each doing different things as imputations on different clusters of these components or networks. Just think how a teenager these days can do their homework while watching TV, listening to music, and texting their friends all at the same time. The conventional self continues multitasking like this, changing from moment to moment, and can only be known with its basis for imputation simultaneously also appearing and being known with it. There is nothing on the side of that basis, no findable characteristic feature – even when known simultaneously with the basis – that has the power from its own side to establish that there’s a “me.” The “me” is merely an imputation on an ever-changing network of five aggregates. That’s the conventional “me.”
Tainted aggregates continue to be the basis for the imputation of the conventional “me” as the self continues from lifetime to lifetime. But with correct understanding, eventually we gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring tainted aggregates and become an arhat, a liberated being. At that point, the conventional “me” continues as an imputation on untainted aggregates – aggregates that are not mixed with confusion and not generated through the mechanism of the twelve links, based on unawareness.
Appearances to a Liberated Being
As a liberated being, our minds will still be limited. They will still make us appear to be established and exist in impossible ways, but we will no longer believe that that corresponds to reality. We no longer have unawareness of this. Because of that, we won’t generate more disturbing emotions or compulsive karma, and so no more samsaric rebirth. When we attain enlightenment and become a Buddha, we rid ourselves forever of all those limitations. We achieve a true stopping of the constant habits of grasping for impossible “true” existence, which were causing our minds to make ourselves and everything else appear in impossible ways.
When things no longer appear in these impossible ways as if self-established, encapsulated in plastic, establishing by their own power as if independent of causes, conditions, mental labels and all of that, then we see the interconnectedness of everything. We see the interconnectedness and interdependence of all merely conventional things. When we see the interconnectedness of everything in terms of what’s no longer happening, what’s presently happening, what’s not yet happening, we understand cause and effect. We understand that what is happening now for all of us derives from what’s no longer happening: our previous actions and so on. Also, on the basis of what’s presently happening, we can see what is possible in terms of what is not yet happening. We can know the result of what we might teach somebody. When we have awareness of not-yet-happening results, we can decide with skillful methods the best way to help each person to attain liberation and enlightenment. We have become omniscient Buddhas.
Ridding Ourselves of Successive Layers of Unawareness in Proper Sequence
To attain enlightenment and rid ourselves completely of all layers of unawareness, we need to refute the total absence of each successive layer of what’s impossible and stay focused non-conceptually on their voidness. To try to skip refuting the deepest level of what’s impossible without refuting the grosser levels is misleading. Any realizations we gain tend to be trivial because they lack a foundation and context. It’s like trying to generate the advanced scope of motivation in the lam-rim training without having sincerely understood the initial and intermediate scopes upon which it’s based. The advanced level becomes reduced to something completely trivial – just love everybody and you’ll be happy forever.
Total Absorption on No Such Thing
In successively refuting each level of impossible “me,” we need to focus on “no such thing.” When we come to the conclusion, through a line of reasoning, that there is no such thing as the impossible “me,” we need to be very decisive about it. There is really no such thing. Our understanding needs to be accurate and we need to be decisive that our understanding is in fact correct. For this, we need to understand why there is no such thing and what it is that we say there is no such thing as. Based on that decisive and accurate understanding, then when the mind projects an appearance of ourselves as being established as an impossible “me,” we need to just cut that appearance and our belief in it off, like with a sword. No such thing. And when we focus on no such thing, what appears? Nothing appears.
In general, we meditate with our eyes open in the Tibetan tradition. Also, generally speaking, our eyes are just looking downward, loosely focused, in the direction of the floor, described as following the direction of the tip of our nose. We aren’t looking at our noses and becoming cross-eyed. We’re just looking downward, loosely focused. It’s not like we’re staring at the floor to see where we’ve dropped our contact lens. What we’re focusing on is no such thing, so we’re not paying attention to the visual image of the floor. The more deeply and single-pointedly our concentration becomes absorbed in no such thing, it becomes more and more absorbed in no appearance – nothing. That’s what I translate as “total absorption.” Some others translate it alternatively as “meditative equipoise.” We are totally absorbed on that. But we understand what that nothing is. It’s the absence of something impossible.
Earlier, we described the example of seeing no apple on the table. What do we see? We see nothing on the table. It appears as a nothing, but we understand that nothing as an absence of an apple. We don’t think that it is an absence of an elephant, although that absence would look the same. If we focused on the absence of something impossible, like a little green Martian, it would also look like nothing there. The same if we focused on the absence of something corresponding to an impossible way of existing, like the absence of the moon being made of green cheese. It would still look like nothing. Here, in our case, when we focus on the absence of all appearances, we understand it to be the absence of an impossible way in which a person, “me,” exists and in which a person, “me,” can be established as existing.
Subsequently Attained Realization
Our meditation on the voidness of the impossible “me” does not end with this total absorption. We follow it with the next phase of meditation, which I translate as “subsequent attainment” or “subsequent realization.” This is what some others translate as “post-meditation,” but actually it is “post” to this total absorption and can occur both while still in meditation or afterwards. Once our minds arise from total absorption on no such thing as the impossible “me,” once again an appearance of an impossible “me” explicitly arises in our meditation and we focus on that; but, implicitly, we also know decisively and accurately that it doesn’t correspond to reality, because there’s no such thing.
In an apprehension of something – namely an accurate and decisive cognition of something – we can accurately and decisively apprehend both something explicitly and, simultaneously, something implicitly. With explicit apprehension, the object appears, while with implicit apprehension it doesn’t appear. So here, an appearance of an impossible “me” arises and is apprehended explicitly, while implicitly we apprehend no such thing. No such thing, or nothing, does not appear; it is apprehended implicitly.
We also understand that the appearance of an impossible “me” is like an illusion, because it doesn’t correspond to anything real. Like an illusion or a dream, it doesn’t even refer to anything real. In addition, implicitly and simultaneously we know that it is devoid of existing in impossible ways. That is our subsequent attainment. We can continue to focus on that in meditation, which is certainly recommended and done. We could also maintain this understanding when we are meditating on something else and continue it in daily life too.
With this subsequent attainment, we know that what appears is like an illusion or like a dream. It appears to be solid, but it isn’t. It’s very helpful to realize that. It’s recommended in so many different texts, such as those on mind training, lojong. For example, if somebody says, “I’m going to give you a million dollars next week,” and we just take that as being like a dream, we think, “When it’s actually in my bank account, then I’ll believe it.” The next day the person says, “My bank won’t let me transfer it and so I can’t give it to you.” If we took it to be like an illusion or a dream and didn’t take it so seriously, as if it were referring to concrete reality, then there is no disappointment or disturbing emotion. It was just what somebody said.
It is like the birth and death of our child in a dream. The child was born in a dream; the child died in a dream. Neither of these refers to anything real and therefore we’re not upset by it. This is very helpful if we can actually live with understanding like that, but it requires great familiarity with that way of thinking. We can only gain that through meditation. Meditation means building it up as a beneficial habit, repeating and thinking about it over and again, and then practicing viewing things like that in daily life.
The Illusion of the Perfect Partner
A very simple example is how we’re always looking for the perfect partner, like from a fairy tale, the prince or the princess on the white horse that is going to be just perfect. Sadly, there’s no such thing. No one exists as the prince or princess on a white horse. But often we meet someone, and we project onto them that they are the prince or the princess. Then we get very upset when it turns out that they do not live up to our projection and fantasy. This is a good example of a disturbing emotion based on something that we have been taught and believe. We have been taught the fairy tale and we believe that there will be my prince or my princess on the white horse, the perfect one.
Plato’s image was, “I’m just a half and there’s the other half out there who will complete me in all ways. Then we will be one.” When we project that onto somebody, we get very angry when they don’t live up to that. “Why aren’t you there all the time for me?” It’s that type of thing. What we need to realize is there’s no such thing: that myth, that fairy tale, does not correspond to anything real. There’s still a person, our partner. It’s not that our partner doesn’t exist, but our partner doesn’t exist as the prince or princess on the white horse.
What we need to focused on is no such thing. There is no prince or princess on a white horse, so how can we possibly expect that our partner is going to be that? In that case, we just deal with the reality of the person. This is just a person, with good qualities and shortcomings, like anybody else. What we’re focusing on is no such thing as a Prince or Princess Charming, just as there is no such thing as this atman or impossible soul as we have been previously taught and in which we believed.
Does no such thing refer to all the illusions and the creations of our mind?
No such thing isn’t referring to the projections or illusions; actually, we perceive those projections, but they are merely representations of something that doesn’t exist. What is absent is an actual referent object that corresponds to what we project. There’s nothing behind our projection backing it up in so-called “reality.” There’s no real Prince or Princess Charming backing up our projection of one.
Is there still a person, or should I regard this person as a dream too?
There is a person; the person is not a dream. They may appear like a dream, but there is a person. There’s a difference between killing a dream person and killing a live person. Those are different, so somebody in a dream and somebody in waking life are not the same.
If I can see that person as being not a concrete self, a monolithic self, but something that is changing all the time, that is undergoing the same causality and process that is everything else, will it be easier for me to relate to that person?
It will be easier to relate to that person, that’s true, if we can understand that they are changing all the time, multifaceted, and an imputation on their aggregates. That understanding will free us from a certain level of disturbing emotions based on the misbelief that they are not like that. We can then be free of a certain amount of suffering that would come from our compulsive behavior based on that.
However, there are still further levels to be refuted. We feel that there is nevertheless a self that is self-sufficiently knowable. “I want you to love me for myself.” It’s as if there were a “me” that could be known separately from a body and mind, feelings and so on, and who could be loved by you for itself. And even if we refuted that level of impossible “me,” we would still feel there’s something special in “you” that makes you “you,” therefore, “I want to be loved by you because you’re the only one for me.” That also is an illusion. Based on each of these further levels of refutation, we’re going to rid ourselves of subtler and subtler disturbing emotions: attachments, anger and so on.
Stopping the Habit of Projection
It takes a great deal of familiarity to stop that habit of projecting the various levels of impossible “me,” like you should be the perfect partner, and believing it to be true. First, we stop believing it. It takes much longer to stop projecting it.
Take another example of being a parent with a grown son and the projection on him that he is always considerate and will phone us every Sunday morning at 10. If he doesn’t call, we get really worried, upset and angry. With familiarity, we can see that this expectation is ridiculous. It would be nice if our son were always considerate and always called Sundays at 10, but it’s unreasonable to demand that he’s always going to call us each week and always on time. Just because he doesn’t call doesn’t mean that he has gotten into an accident or been kidnapped or something like that. Or that he doesn’t love us. It could be that he was really busy, or slept late, or that the charge on his phone was finished. It could be anything. If we want to speak with our son every week, we need to call ourselves.
If we don’t have the expectation that our son will call, we don’t have any disappointment if he doesn’t and that of course is one of the main instructions for proper meditation. Meditate without expectations or worry. If nothing spectacular happens in our meditation, we won’t be disappointed. If something great does happen, it’s “nothing special.”