The Links That Throw Us into Samsaric Rebirth

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We were talking about the first link in this chain of dependent arising and we saw that this is the link of unawareness and it has to do with unawareness of how persons exist, both ourselves and others. And the main emphasis that we need to put first is in terms of ourselves. We saw that there are two levels of this unawareness: there is the doctrinally based level and the automatically arising level. We’ve discussed the doctrinally based unawareness and the disturbing emotions that derive from that.

Automatically Arising Unawareness

The automatically arising unawareness or ignorance is something that nobody has to teach us. We all have that in every lifetime, no matter what we are reborn as. We have automatically arising unawareness as well when we are in an animal rebirth. This is the misconception that we exist as persons, as individuals, that are self-sufficiently knowable – in other words, persons that can be known all by themselves, without simultaneously knowing anything else.

So we all have this automatically arising unawareness. If we have as well the doctrinally based unawareness, we think that there is an independently existing, unaffected, monolithic “me” that can be known all by itself. And even if we realize that this is not referring to anything real, and even if we realize that the “me” is just something imputed on an ever-changing stream of continuity of aggregates, still we can misconceive that it can be known all by itself.

What does this actually mean? It would mean, for instance, that when we look at ourselves in the mirror we think, “That’s ‘me.’” It’s not that we think, “There is a body and on the basis of that body I’m seeing ‘me.’” We think we’re just seeing me, by itself. Or – it becomes very funny – we see ourselves in the mirror, we think we see our “selves” in the mirror, and then we say, “Well, that’s not ‘me,’” like if we are looking older or too heavy or something like that, “Well, that’s not ‘me!’” We think of a “me” that is knowable separate from that image in the mirror or the number on the bathroom scale.

This belief in a self-sufficiently knowable “me” manifests in so many different situations. One of the most common is, “I want you to love me for ‘me’ – not for my body, not for my intellect, not for my wealth, not for my possessions – just love ‘me,’” as if there were a “me” that could be loved separate from these things. Is there a “me” that can be loved separately from all these other things, just by itself alone? Or, “I want you to respect ‘me,’” or, “I want you to pay attention to ‘me.’” We don’t think, “I want you to pay attention to my voice, to a voice, or what I’m doing, and on the basis of that you’ll be paying attention to ‘me.’”

We don’t think that, do we? Automatically it feels like, “Pay attention to ‘me’” – self-sufficiently knowable. And this leads to all sorts of strange views, like, “I need to go to India to find ‘myself.’” What is that? Or, “I’m a creative artist, I need to express ‘myself.’” Or we were drunk last night and we said all sorts of strange things and did all sorts of odd things and then we say, “Well, I wasn’t ‘myself’ last night.” Who were we? And then we get all sorts of dualistic thoughts as well, “I will treat ‘myself’ to an ice cream today,” “I will force ‘myself’ to get up,” as if there were two people in there.

Of course, we have the same false view about other people as well. We think, “I know Helmuts.” What do I know? Can I know Helmuts separate from knowing what he looks like or the sound of his voice? Or, “I see Helmuts.” What am I seeing? I can’t see Helmuts separately from seeing a body. Or, “I’m speaking to Helmuts on the telephone.” What is that? That’s really weird, if you think about it, “That’s Helmuts on the phone.” Well, it’s a voice – it’s not even a voice; it’s a vibration of some membrane being stimulated by some electric current, with a person imputed on it and we designate that person with the name “Helmuts.” But no, we don’t think that, we think, “I’m talking to Helmuts.”

I think one of the most common examples for us as Westerners is this one of, “I want you to love me for myself. Just love ‘me.’” “I want somebody to love ‘me,’ someone to pay attention to ‘me.’” And of course, based on that misconception of a ‘me’ that could be loved all by itself, then we get all sorts of disturbing emotions, “You don’t love ‘me,’” and we get angry – and attached, greed, desire, jealous, all these sort of things. That automatically arises; nobody had to teach us that.

Even when we act constructively, like helping others, doing nice things for others, it could be based on this misconception of the self-sufficiently knowable “me,” that “I’m doing this, so that you will love ‘me,’” or “ that ‘I’ will feel useful,” as though there is a separately knowable “me” that could be useful. I mean, what’s useful? The body is useful, the hands are useful, the mind is useful – on the basis of that there’s a “me,” but certainly we don’t think that.

This is something that we have to understand, that this type of “me,” the false “me,” doesn’t exist at all, it doesn’t correspond to anything real. We exist conventionally as “me,” “I’m talking,” “I’m sitting,” and so on. It’s not that it’s somebody else. But what establishes that there is such a thing as a conventional “me?” All we can say that what establishes it is that “me” is merely what the concept or category of “me” refers to when labeled on the basis of this ever-changing stream of continuity of body, mind, etc. – the aggregates. And it is also merely what the word “me” refers to when designated on this category and on this ever-changing stream of aggregates.

A Subtler Misconception about the “Me”

Now, even if we understand that the person, or “me,” or the individual, the self, whatever you want to call it, can’t be known by itself, has to be known while also cognizing the basis of imputation of it, like a body or a mind or a personality or whatever – even if we realize that “me” has to be known that way, there is a further, subtler misconception that’s asserted by only the most sophisticated schools of theories in Buddhism.

This is the misconception that even though “me” is only something imputed on the basis of these aggregates, nevertheless there must be some characteristic feature or mark, an individual defining characteristic on the side of the basis, in other words, on the side of the aggregates that allows for a correct labeling of “me” with the category “me” and a correct designation of it with the word “me.” In other words, we think there has to be something here inside that makes me “me” and not “you,” something special that makes “me” an individual.

It’s sort of like almost a bar code or some genetic code that’s inside there that when you label it with a scanner or something like that – boom! – there comes the price, or something like that. “There’s some individual thing inside ‘me’ that makes ‘me’ special, and makes ‘me’ an individual.” So that’s subtler and that’s also false. This is very interesting. How is it that when I look at this body... am I scanning a bar code on its side? And then the answer pops up in my head, “Helmuts,” and that’s how I know that it’s Helmuts? Or what if I look at a series of photos of him from childhood on, how do I know correctly that they’re all Helmuts? They look quite different from each other. How does that work?

Buddhism, on the most sophisticated level, says, “There’s nothing findable on the side of the object that makes it what it is; it’s purely in terms of convention.” We can’t establish that this is Helmuts by anything findable on the side of the basis, this body or mind or anything. We can only establish that it’s Helmuts by the fact that there is this name “Helmuts” and it’s designated on this and other people agree.

What even makes an object a knowable object? Is there some sort of line around it that separates it from the air and things like that, and then on the inside of this line, that’s the body and that’s Helmuts? The outside of the line is not? No, there’s no line there. If you really look in an electron microscope, it’s very hard to find a boundary between the atoms of the body and the atoms of the air, the energy fields and so on. It’s established by the mind. Yet is there a body here? Is there a person here? Well, yes, conventionally there is. Everybody would agree.

Based on not being aware of this, because it doesn’t seem like that, it doesn’t feel like that, it feels as though there’s something special about “me” and there’s something special about “you” that makes you either so wonderful or so horrible. Then again so many disturbing emotions come up on the basis of that, “I want this one. I want ‘you’ to love ‘me,’ not that one. It doesn’t matter if the other ones love ‘me’; I want ‘you’ to love ‘me.’” “I’m special. There’s something special about ‘me.’” And when we don’t get what we want, then we get angry and frustrated.


What use in this situation then is liberation or enlightenment, if there is no atman, no soul, or no “me,” no nothing basically. Why do we then do all these practices and all this?

This is the confusion that many people have about these teachings, which is that “It’s a completely nihilist position that is denying and refuting everything.”

We still exist, conventionally there is a “me.” It’s just not something that exists in impossible ways. It doesn’t exist as something all by itself, totally independent of anything, not affected by anything, or that can be known all by itself, or that has something on its own side that makes it special. That kind of me doesn’t exist. But conventionally “me” – that exists.

There is the subjective, individual experiencing of things and on the basis of that we label “me,” “I’m experiencing.” What establishes the “me?” Well, nothing on the side of the mind or the experience. The only thing that establishes that there’s a “me” is the word “me,” it can be labeled. So that kind of “me” exists.

But that’s only the name, the label. Right?

Well, the label refers to something. Gone with the Wind is not just the title. Gone with the Wind is an actual movie that the title refers to. So the same thing with the word “me.”

So what exactly is imputed or labeled by the name “sentient beings,” then?

A sentient being is, as I was explaining, a person with a limited mind. And it’s a category, because there are many individual sentient beings and they’re all individual, but not existing totally isolated from each other. We all have a nose – my nose isn’t your nose though. So what is a nose? It’s not that we all share in the Great Nose in the sky. It’s not like that either. But you could say, well, the defining characteristics of a nose. What are these defining characteristics of a nose?

“It sticks out from between the eyes and you can use it for breathing.” Does a chicken have a nose? Does a worm have a nose? Does a worm breathe? So, what is a nose? This is very interesting. And where does the nose begin on your face? Is there a line that separates the nose from the cheek? People made up a definition and wrote it in the dictionary and that’s what a nose is, but you can’t actually find that on the side of somebody’s face. But conventionally we all have noses and they’re individual.

So the same thing with “nose,” the same thing with “sentient being,” the same thing with “me.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama loves to use the nose as an example, because it’s silly and when people tend to laugh when you use the example of the nose, it makes things a little bit lighter. Otherwise, sometimes they get very tense trying to understand something difficult. So, it’s a good example.

But this is a very, very difficult point. How is it that there is a conventional “me,” even though we’re talking so much about voidness, the absence of an impossible me. And this is a central point of all the philosophical discussion: how do you establish the “me” that actually does exist? The Zen solution to somebody who asks that question, “Well, nothing exists, I don’t exist, etc.” is to hit them with a stick! And then, “Who felt that? Did you feel that? There’s no ‘you?’”

You said that there is no one kind of big Mind we are all plugged into, like no big one Nose. But then the question is whether all minds are the same size?

When we speak about mind, we’re speaking about mental activity, so size is irrelevant – size is a quality of something physical. Do they all have the same capacity? Yes, but the capacity can be limited by the hardware in which it’s functioning. What the mind can understand on the basis of a human brain is quite different from what it can understand on the basis of a worm brain.

Now you get into really weird stuff, if you start analyzing this further. I don’t know if we really want to get weird here. But the clear light mind has a certain energy which is associated with it, the subtlest energy. That is going to then become associated with the gross elements of the body. Based on that, you can feel sensations all over your body, different parts of your body. So, I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of all of this, but then the question is: how is it that you’re aware of something outside of your body? Does the energy go out to that? Does the energy from that object come into the body?

As a Buddha is omniscient, that means that the subtlest energy of a Buddha is on the basis of everything. And if it’s on the basis of everything, then that’s the explanation of how it is that a Buddha can manifest simultaneously everywhere. That starts to become very weird, because then you have to be very careful that you’re not falling to the atman extreme that the atman is the size of the universe. So, we get into very, very weird subtle stuff here. You see the problem: the clear light mind of a Buddha is omniscient, it takes everything as its object, so the energy pervades everywhere. If you can label “me” of a Buddha onto that, are you labeling the “me” of a Buddha onto the universe? Do you have an atman/Brahman thing?

Well, you don’t. You don’t. And it’s the same issue as what I was saying in terms of the connection of the clear light mind and subtlest mind with the gross elements of the body. So one has to be very, very careful here. Also you have to appreciate that this whole discussion is within the context of Indian philosophy and basically they’re all talking about the same issues and just solving them in a different way. To really appreciate Indian Buddhism, you have to understand it in the context of Hinduism and Jainism and all these other philosophies.

Buddhism and all the other Indian systems say that the energy goes out to perceive objects, so it’s like my attention goes out to the object. The Western systems say that the information comes in, so it’s very, very different. And how that actually works, I must say, I don’t recall. I heard once an explanation of it, but I don’t recall that. I have to look that up. It’s a difficult point; it’s a very difficult point.

There’s lots of discussions of: could that consciousness or that energy be a truly existent, solid thing that’s going out? So how does it go out? First it noticed that there was something and then it goes out to look at it? That doesn’t make any sense. Or it didn’t notice anything and it goes out blind and then all of a sudden it sees something? This starts to become very weird and these are the arguments that are used to refute that it’s some solid, findable thing, this consciousness or cognitive sensors or powers and so on. But that’s for a more advanced discussion about voidness.