Ignorance: The First of the 12 Links

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Unawareness of How Persons Exist

Now, it’s very significant that the first link here is in terms of unawareness about how persons exist – both ourselves and everyone else. It’s not unawareness about how phenomena exist in general. And even if we follow the tenet system that says that really to gain liberation, you have to understand that the impossible way that all phenomena exist and the impossible way that persons exist that you have to get rid of to achieve liberation is the same, even if we follow that system, still the emphasis here is on getting rid of the unawareness about persons. That has a very, very big implication in terms of our application of the Buddhist teachings.

Our problem, the real problem, and what we need to focus on in order to gain liberation is not my attachment to my car, or my computer, or chocolate, or something like that. The problem is my attachment to “me”: “I always have to have what ‘I’ want,” and my attachment to “you,” that “You always have to do what I want ‘you’ to do.” And even when we’re thinking in terms of the problem that I have with my attachment to my computer, car, chocolate, etc., the emphasis here is not on the car or the computer; the emphasis is on “me” as some solid thing that possesses these things, that “I’m so solid that I can possess things.”

This becomes very interesting and very important in terms of dealing with daily problems. Let’s say we’re trying to do a lot of meditation and there is externally a lot of noise. So, how do we approach that? We could do all sorts of fancy meditations on deconstructing the sound, “It’s just the vibration of air,” and all this sort of stuff, “The perception of it is just a wave on the ocean of the mind.” There’s lots of methods we could use, “This is an obstacle sent by the demon Mara and I will make this little torma cake and send it off to Mara the demon and tell it to stop annoying me.”

You can use that sort of approach. But what is the real problem here? The real problem is this concept of a solid “me” that should always have the conducive circumstances and that “I should be in control of what’s going on around ‘me.’” That’s the problem. Because even if we deconstruct the sound from its side, we’re still left with a “me,” very strong, that is a little bit uptight, waiting for the next obstacle to come up. So, there’s still this solid “me.” This is a very helpful point here that helps us to deal with various problems.

Let me give an example from my own experience. A couple years ago a cafe moved in on the ground floor of the apartment building that I live in. And this cafe is extremely popular and it’s open seven days a week from seven in the morning till three in the morning. And when the weather is warm, there’s tables outside, directly underneath all my windows, and people drink and are loud till very early in the morning. So, problem, not so much when I’m working during the day, I can deal with noise then, but problem falling asleep.

So, I could lie in bed and curse the people who are sitting outside enjoying themselves and drinking lots of beer and being loud and laughing. I can do, “Well, this is only sound and so what?” But that doesn’t help me actually to fall asleep. I think you would have to be super-super-advanced for that to have some effect. I could move, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that where I move will be any quieter. All you need is one neighbor who is fond of techno music late at night and that’s the end of your peaceful atmosphere.

So you work on deconstructing the “me,” that “I have to have it the way ‘I’ want it,” and “I’m more important than all these people and what I’m doing, meditating and working on my website and doing all these things, is so much more important than these silly people outside who are just drinking and having what they consider a good time.” But if one works on trying to deconstruct this big solid “me,” then you see, “Well, there are millions and billions of people and everybody is acting under the influences of causes and conditions, and so am I. And there’s nothing special about me or about them, or anything like that.”

So what do you expect? The famous line, “What do you expect from samsara?” Now, on that basis, then if you apply the teaching from lojong mind training or attitude training, of “give the victory to the others, accept the defeat onto yourself,” then that works quite well. And so in the summer months I move my mattress into the kitchen, which doesn’t face the street. It’s the only quiet room in the house. And I sleep in the kitchen, on the kitchen floor, for the summer, which is perfectly fine.

But if you just simply give the victory to the others and move into the kitchen without the work on trying to deconstruct this big solid “me,” then you’re lying in the kitchen thinking, “Oh, I’m so clever and those terrible people are out there drinking and being noisy.” You’re still holding on to a solid “me.” So, although it helps, you haven’t really gone deeply enough to really start working on the cause of the problem.

This is just an example. I’m chuckling because before applying any method, when you’re lying in bed, then you think of all sorts of medieval days, “I should have a big pot of boiling tar that I can pour down,” and this sort of medieval approach that obviously is not the greatest solution either. But those thoughts go through your head.

Put the Emphasis on Deconstructing a Solid “Me”

So, we have unawareness about how persons exist, both ourselves and others. And again, although it does refer specifically to both ourselves and others, I think the emphasis needs to be first on ourselves. If you think about it from your own experience, if you try to apply these teachings – somebody is not very nice to us or they don’t pay attention to us or they ignore us and they said something or did something that we didn’t like and so on, so we get very angry, “Oh, you did this and I’m very disappointed with you,” and all this sort of stuff.

So, we’re upset with the other person and you say, “Well, who’s the person? Where’s the person? Are they the mind, the body, etc.? It’s just imputed on all these aggregates. And everything that they’re doing and have done is influenced by so many circumstances and causes and their karma and their family and all these sort of things,” so in a sense you deconstruct the other person, “What am I angry with?” And this definitely helps. There’s no question about it. However, if we haven’t applied that analysis to ourselves, then there’s still the solid “me” inside, “Well, I’ve deconstructed this situation and so I’m not angry.”

But there’s still the me that, “I want to have my friends act the way that I want them to act,” and so we’ve set ourselves up to getting angry at the next situation and the next person. And it’s very interesting, because it’s much less threatening to deconstruct the other person than it is to deconstruct ourselves, isn’t it? So, “OK, I’ll deconstruct ‘you,’ but here ‘I’ am,” and “Everybody should love ‘me’ and everybody should pay attention to ‘me’ and appreciate ‘me’ and ‘I’ should always get ‘my’ way.” So we’ve left ourselves as the center of the universe and we’re just deconstructing some of the things around us.

Overcoming Resistance from the Ego

So, even though it says here that the unawareness link is unawareness of how persons exist, both ourselves and others, we need to start with ourselves. And we have to deal with the fact that it is painful, it’s threatening, and our habit of grasping for a solid “me” and our habit of selfishness and self-cherishing is going to put up resistance. Resistance will arise; it’s not as though they’re sitting in there as some heavy force and they’re going to send out this resistance. But the resistance is going to be there, so although we need compassion for ourselves, nevertheless, we need very strong force.

For instance, the mind training text called The Wheel of Sharp Weapons calls on this very strong force of Yamantaka. That’s the representation of the forceful aspect of discriminating awareness, or wisdom, part of Buddha-nature, that you have to call on this great strength within us to smash through this resistance. Yamantaka is the forceful aspect of Manjushri. And watch out for translations that call these type of figures “wrathful, angry deities,” because then again that brings in a judgmental aspect: they’re angry with us and, “I’m angry with myself,” and so on and that’s not at all the flavor here.

The flavor is just “strong, forceful,” and we are quite capable of being strong and forceful with ourselves. For instance, we might not want to get up in the morning out of bed and we have this alarm clock, that truly is an invention of Mara, on which you can press the snooze button and it will go off again in five minutes. So, you keep on pressing it and pressing it and eventually you have to be forceful with yourself to get up out of bed and go to work. So we are capable of being forceful with ourselves. Otherwise, you just lie there forever, pressing the button every five minutes.

Doctrinally Based Unawareness

OK, unawareness about how persons exist, how we exist. There are two levels of this. There is the doctrinally based unawareness and the automatically arising unawareness. Doctrinally based is something that we’ve been taught and accepted. Specifically, this is referring to having been taught and believed an explanation from one of the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems of how the self or soul – the “atman” – exists and that this is actually who you are. And this soul has a fixed set of characteristics. Even if no one has taught us any of these Indian theories of the self in this lifetime, we could come up with this view in on our own cogitations, based on instincts for thinking this way built up from learning and believing these theories in some previous lifetime. Because Buddhism and all these other Indian systems assert beginningless lifetimes and that all these theories have been taught forever, age after age, everyone has this doctrinally based unawareness, though it might not be manifest in this lifetime, for instance during a lifetime when we’ve been reborn as an insect.

When we identify with this atman, “That is who I really am,” then based on that, we get all sorts of so-called “doctrinally-based disturbing emotions.” This is the “me” that we feel is our selves when we are selfish, greedy, angry, jealous, arrogant and so on.

Even though many of our Western religions – the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – do assert a soul and a lot of the characteristics of the soul sound quite similar to what’s asserted by these Hindu and Jain systems in India, the Buddhist commentaries are quite insistent that this doctrinally based unawareness is referring specifically to the whole package that you get in these non-Buddhist Indian systems. But understanding that the Indian assertions of an atman are not referring to anything real can of course help us to overcome our belief in some of the non-Indian assertions of soul that have points that are similar, so it’s not unrelated.

The Three Characteristics of an Atman

So what is exactly this description of an atman, of a soul? It has three characteristics and these three characteristics are all describing the same thing – atman – so in many ways they overlap each other.

The first characteristic is usually translated as “permanent.” That’s very misleading. One has to understand that we’re not talking about “eternal,” “forever.” Buddhism says that the conventional “me” is eternal: it has no beginning and no end, so that’s not the problem. The problem is asserting permanent in the sense of “static,” “never changing,” “unaffected by anything,” “Nothing affects ‘me.’”

It’s like, I remember once I fell in India in the monsoon rain on slippery concrete and cracked some ribs. And you dissociate, you say, “Well, that’s not affecting ‘me,’” there’s a “me” inside, “I’m not affected by that.” And then you dissociate and you say, “I don’t really want to go on this trip of now having the cracked ribs and the whole recovery and so on,” so you feel that there’s a “me” that’s not affected by this.

Or I heard recently a description of what it was like to be in the Soviet army. You have all these horrible things that are happening to you, to your body and psychologically and so on, but to protect yourself you feel, “Well, there’s a‘me’ inside that’s not affected by this. This is just external,” and so you have some wall, some emotional wall that you put up and, “All of this is happening, but it’s not really affecting ‘me,’” and this is the idea here.

The second characteristic is usually translated as “one.” We could understand it as similar to static, which means that it’s always the same, no matter what, “I went to sleep last night and here I am in the morning, the same ‘me.’ I’m back again, the same ‘me.’” But the actual explanation of this characteristic is that it is a partless monolith, that the atman has no parts. It’s a monolith that is either the size of the universe, like atman is brahman, so this big undifferentiated monolithic thing, or in some of the theories it’s a tiny little spark, like a spark of life.

That’s the partless atman, partless “me.” So now we start to get a little bit of the flavor that this is really something that someone had to teach you, that you have a soul that is the size of the universe, a monolith, partless, never changes, this type of thing, and your individuality and so on is just an illusion – this is maya.

And the third characteristic is that this atman is something which is totally independent of aggregates, of a body and mind, which means that it’s like something that goes into a body and mind and then comes out and then goes into another one – but in its own state, by itself it’s completely dissociated from any sort of basis, a body and mind. And usually when they say you’re liberated, then it just exists like that, totally without any body or mind.

The Samkhya system says that that atman with these characteristics of “unaffected by anything,” “is a partless monolith,” and “independent,” has a quality of awareness from its own side. The Nyaya and Vaisheshika systems say that it doesn’t have the quality of awareness, but when it comes into a body, it connects to a brain and a mind and then it’s aware of things. But there are many, many logical problems, inconsistencies, contradictions, and so on that follow from these types of assertion of an atman, that that’s who we are.

And it’s important to not just think as Westerners, “Well, these stupid Indians believe like this,” and “OK, interesting to refute this, but what does that have to do with “me” and my emotional setup, profile?” But as I said, although you had to be doctrinally taught the whole system, we do have certain aspects of these beliefs, if you really look into it – like, for instance, that there’s a “me” that’s totally independent of a body and mind. And so you think, and this is an example that His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses, you see somebody else and think, “I wish I could change bodies with you,” or, “I wish I had your intelligence,” as if somehow this “me” could leave this body and mind and now be “you.”

And more relevant is that when we receive all these teachings about the clear light mind and “it’s pure with no beginning” and stuff like that, then it’s very easy to misconceive of that clear light mind, that continuum to exist like a Hindu atman. Of course Buddhism says it’s eternal, so you think, “Well, it never changes. Its stainless nature never changes.” Well, sure the stainless nature never changes, but it has a different object each moment. So it changes from moment to moment, but we think, “It never changes, is not affected by anything, doesn’t have any parts and it goes into one body after another,” like that.

Hey, this is atman, Hindu atman. “And even as a Buddha, my enlightened clear light mind will go into a body, this thing made of elements and so on, and then operate it as an emanation.” This is a misconception and one that is very, very easy to fall into, if we haven’t really worked on the refutation of this doctrinally based false me, this atman. So, watch out for that. A lot of people fall to this misconception.

The Self Is Imputed on the Aggregates

What does Buddhism say? What Buddhism says – and this is all traditions, all schools, Hinayana, Mahayana, India, Tibet, whatever – is that there is a conventional “me,” a self, a person, but it is something that is imputed on the aggregates. So you have to understand what that means. Although it may be difficult to express the word “imputation” in some languages – and even in English, it doesn’t convey the meaning clearly – it’s certainly not the same as “projection.” “Projection” gives the connotation that it’s false and that it’s made up by the mind, and this is not false. An imputed phenomenon is, literally, something that is tied or bound to something else. It is dependent on the other phenomenon as its basis for existence and for being validly knowable.

An example of an imputed phenomenon is motion. What’s motion? When we look at our hand, all we can see is one nanosecond at a time. In this nanosecond, I see my hand here; in the next nanosecond the hand is now here; in the next nanoseconds it’s there, there, there, there and there. What’s motion? Motion is something imputed onto this series of perceptions. You don’t see motion all at once in one moment, do you? But you do see motion. So it’s not just a projection of fantasy; motion isn’t just an object of conceptual cognition. This is what we’re talking about here. There is motion, isn’t there? You don’t just think there is motion, you can see it.

So, likewise we have a series of moments, nanoseconds, that are made up of the aggregates, these factors of experience – perception and objects perceived and body and emotions and all these sort of things – moment to moment to moment to moment, made up of all these different parts. And just as motion is something imputed on this sequence of a hand being in different positions over several nanoseconds, likewise “me” is something imputed on this sequence of moments of experience made up of the aggregates. And “me” is not just some concept or something just known by conceptual thought; I can see myself and you can also see me.

And each moment of experience, of course, is generated by a karmic cause and effect sequence of what came before. But it’s not existing in isolation, because what’s perceived is also affected by what everybody else is doing, what’s happening with everybody else in the universe, etc. And that “me” or person imputed onto these aggregates is not the aggregates themselves, just like the motion imputed on a hand in consecutive different positions is not the hand itself. Both motion and the self are imputed phenomena and cannot exist or be known separately from what they are imputed on, namely their basis for imputation – the hand in different consecutive positions and the aggregates comprising consecutive moments of experience.

I’m not my body. If I were my body, then if I lose my hand, then it’s no longer me? No, it can’t be like that. And I’m not my mind. As I grow older and I lose parts of my memory, then does that mean it’s no longer me? No, it’s not like that. And so “me” is not identical with any of the aggregates, the body or the mind or any of its parts, and it’s not something separate from it, completely independent from it. We don’t experience, “The body is cold, but I’m not cold,” “The stomach is hungry, but I’m not hungry.” We don’t experience things like that.

The “me” isn’t always the same. It has parts. It’s something imputed not just on consciousness, but also, simultaneously on the body, the emotions, physical sensations, and so on. So there’s parts, it’s affected by things, and so on. It’s not separate. It’s not identical to the aggregates and it can’t possibly exist separately from any aggregates like, “After I die there is just ‘me’ with no basis of a mind or a body or anything like that.”

Each Buddhist system says that the “me” is something imputed on what continues from lifetime to lifetime. The anuttarayoga tantra systems, for example, explain that it is something imputed on the clear light mind inseparable from the subtlest energy-wind. But the “me” isn’t identical with either of them; they are the basis for imputation of “me.” There’s always a basis, there’s always some aspect of mind and body. No matter which Buddhist system we look at, it asserts that the “me” is always something that is imputed on a continuity, a continuum, an everlasting continuum, with no beginning, no end, and that it cannot exist or be known separately from a basis for imputation. That’s the Buddhist view.

The “Me” Is Not Something Inhabiting Our Body and Mind

There are further qualities of this doctrinally based “me,” this false “me.” And that is that we imagine that there’s this entity, “me,” atman, that somehow comes into a body and mind and lives there. This is it’s home. So a feeling that this is the home of the atman, this body and mind, it possesses it – like now I possess a house or a car and I go into it – and that it uses it, makes use of it to walk here and there, to pick up things, to communicate and so on. That’s the larger package here of the misconception. And we often tend to think like that, don’t we?

Many people experience terrible, terrible pain, like, for instance, when they have terminal cancer or even just experiencing extreme old age. I have an aunt who is 95 and an uncle who is 96 and they often complain, “I feel like I’m trapped inside the prison of this body.” For them, the body is a prison with this pain and the old age. You can’t even walk. You can’t even do anything. You can’t even read or whatever, because your eyes are no good and this is a prison. And the conception is that the “me” is living inside this house-like body, which has now become a prison, and can somehow get out and exist by itself.

So this is a misconception. And we can have all sorts of disturbing emotions based on believing that, “This is ‘me.’” “This is ‘my’ body. ‘I’ am the possessor of a body.” “’I’ am the possessor of this space around ‘me,’ don’t violate ‘my’ space” – this type of attitude. There are so many disturbing emotions that can come up, not just, “Let’s go out and make a religious war based on this belief.”

Examining These Misconceptions about “Me”

What we need to do then is to examine this type of misconception with logic, to see – is this logically consistent, is it self-contradictory, and so on – to realize that this is impossible: nobody, nothing could exist with these characteristics. And the more that we are convinced that there’s no such thing, eventually we stop believing in it. It doesn’t happen immediately. It’s a long process. It’s like, basically we don’t want to believe that there’s no such thing.

A good example is that you can’t find your keys and you look every place where it could possibly be and it’s not there. But you really don’t want to accept that you lost your keys, so you look again and again and again. And it takes a while before you give up and accept the fact that, “I’ve lost my keys. I’m locked out of the house.”

But you have to know what your keys are in order to know that, “I don’t have them,” don’t you? It’s like in order to know “not an apple,” you have to know “apple.” “This is not an apple.” How do I know that this thing here, which is a glass, is not an apple? If I didn’t know what an apple was, how could I possibly think that this is not an apple?

And so in order to really work on and get rid of this unawareness, you have to recognize what is this misconception. Only if you’ve recognized it, and not just recognized it in some theoretical way, but recognized it in yourself, at least some of the remnants of it, that then it is much more significant that, “There is no such thing.”

And, as I say, one needs to really work for quite a long time on this. It’s not so easy. But this refutation through analysis is very, very important. Let me use an example, it’s not exactly analogous, but often we think, “Nobody loves ‘me.’” Well, if you analyze “nobody loves ‘me,’” that means “...including my dog, including my mother, including my entire life there had to be absolutely nobody who loved ‘me.’” Well, this is ridiculous. It’s hardly likely that there’s anybody that has experienced like that.

So then, the more you focus on that, although it might feel like “Nobody loves ‘me,’” you understand that this is not so, “That doesn’t correspond to anything real.” The problem is that we think, “Well, that doesn’t count that my dog loves me and my mother loves me, that doesn’t count. I want ‘you’ to love ‘me!’” And then we have to work on this false concept of the solid “you” and the solid “me.” It’s interesting how our mind works, isn’t it?

OK, so that’s the doctrinally based unawareness and actually it’s this link that we have to understand the most deeply, because this is what we really have to get rid of. Then the whole thing falls apart. But just to get rid of this doctrinally based unawareness, that’s certainly not enough to bring liberation. We have to get rid of the automatically arising one that even dogs have, that everybody has. But first you have to get rid of all the garbage that you’re believing in based on indoctrination. Once you get rid of that, then you can start working on subtler levels.

And I think many of you might know this from your own experience. If you’ve been brainwashed with propaganda – and this could happen in any culture, any situation – that first you have to clear your mind of this, “This is absolute garbage,” before you can deal with more universally common, shared human problems. And it doesn’t help to think, “How stupid I was to have believed that propaganda.” That doesn’t help, but just in a very emotionally nonjudgmental way to realize, “Well, this was garbage and now let’s clear that out and go ahead.”

And the important thing of course is, although it’s not definitional doctrinally based unawareness, to try not to come under the influence of all sorts of propaganda schemes. Like, for instance, modern advertising that “If you buy this, then all the girls will love you,” or this type of nonsense. That just encourages desire, greed, attachment. The kind of car that you drive makes you more or less sexy? This is absurd.

Next is the discussion of the automatically arising form of unawareness. This is the real one that we have to get rid of in order to gain liberation. But as I said and I underline this: you can’t just work on the automatically arising one without first having worked on this doctrinally based one. And the reason within the Buddhist context is that without dealing with this doctrinally based one, it is so easy and so many people fall into this trap of making clear light mind, for instance, into a Hindu atman. So we need to be careful of that and deal with this.