Renunciation of Clinging to Self-Established Existence

The next level of determination to be free is renunciation of clinging to self-established existence and having our main interest instead be in voidness, emptiness.

What a Buddha Perceives

To understand this, let me explain a little bit about what a Buddha actually perceives and what voidness or emptiness refers to. A Buddha is omniscient, which means a Buddha knows all conventional phenomena simultaneously and, at the same time, the voidness of each of them, their total absence of impossible ways of existing.

What a Buddha perceives when a Buddha perceives all phenomena simultaneously is perhaps analogous to what scientists describe as the quantum universe. But, of course, for most of us that doesn’t mean very much, to say quantum universe – so thank you very much, but what does that mean?

One great philosopher and scientist, Richard Feynman, gave a very good example: Consider this room. At this moment in this room there is every possible radio wave, TV signal, mobile phone signal and internet signal of the entire planet. They are all present in this room in the sense that they are all accessible, dependent on having the appropriate receptors. If we had a radio receiver, or a television set, or some sort of computer or mobile device hooked up to the internet, we could get any signal, any channel, any website, any telephone number.

How is that possible? It’s possible because all these radio waves and so on are accessible in this room and available everywhere. And depending on our device, we can collapse that entire field of every possible radio wave into one image, or one website, or one radio station. Think about that, that’s an incredible example.

Like that, what a Buddha perceives would be like perceiving all the possible radio waves, TV waves, internet site “waves,” and so on – everything simultaneously, because they’re all, in a sense, here, aren’t they? All of that simultaneously, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all confused. A Buddha also knows the individuality of each particular signal.

What an Arhat Perceives

What about what an arhat perceives? An arhat would still be somebody that is looking at a particular device, and so their device collapses this field into one image. That device is these types of limited aggregates, this type of limited body, with the sensors, the brain and the photosensitive cells of the eyes, and so on, which, like a radio receiver or a mobile device, collapses the field into one image. That’s like in the description of the quantum universe, an observer collapses the quantum universe into one particular position of particles or waves.

For arhats, it seems as though what they are perceiving in their device, their minds, is like what appears on this computer screen. It seems as though what appears is established inside that machine and is established by itself. That’s called “self-established existence.” But arhat knows that it’s like an illusion: the image appears like that, but it’s not really established all by itself from inside the computer. Like an illusion, it appears as though that it’s established by itself from the side of the computer screen, independently of all the work that went into making it, but it’s not really like that, is it?

Grasping for Self-Established Existence

Like that, when we perceive the quantum universe with our limited receptors – our eyes, our brain, and so on – it appears as though everything is self-established, a person for instance. There he is, right there, independently of everything that has come before in his life. All the causes, and conditions which have influenced the way that this person is thinking and so on – none of that appears. The only thing that appears to us is what’s directly in front of our eyes, just like the website appears directly in front of our eyes on the computer screen, as if it were established there by its own power.

When we see a website on the computer screen, it doesn’t appear as though it has depended upon thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of work, and hundreds of people, and all the education and training that they had to have to be able to make this website. None of that appears to us. Like an illusion, it appears as though – bam! there it is, just by itself. An arhat realizes that this is just like an illusion and doesn’t think that there’s really that fully established website sitting there, all by itself. Arhats know that appearance is like an illusion.

But somebody who is not an arhat still has ignorance or unawareness and thinks that it’s really established from the side of the computer screen, independently of all the work that went into making it. These appearances that our limited minds make, which collapse the quantum field, appear to be like an illusion, and with unawareness or ignorance, we believe that they really have self-established existence.

So, when we talk about self-established existence, that’s what we are talking about. We’re talking about something on the side of that computer screen that all by itself, by its own power, establishes that website that we see, independently of all the causes and conditions and our own apparatus of looking at it, etc. Independently of all that, bam! there it is, and we believe that – that’s grasping for self-established existence, ignorance.

Now you apply that to actual everyday life. For example, some person says something to us and, in perceiving it through our limited audio sensors, our limited minds collapse everything about the person into these words that they just said. It appears as though they just said that because they’re a nasty person and they don’t like us. And we believe that that’s really is what’s there, so we get angry. “How dare you say that to me! What do you mean?” There’s the quantum field of all the influences, causes and tendencies that have been influencing this person, from past lives, from this life, from what they did in the morning, from everything in their education, etc. – there’s this huge quantum field, and it has collapsed into what they said just now. And it’s collapsed that way in accord with how I heard it. It wasn’t that they said this in their home and I didn’t hear it. My experience is that I heard it. So, my limited mind collapsed it into my experience of hearing this, with this interpretation of “You’re a nasty person.” Did it happen? Yes, it happened. It wasn’t literally an illusion, it wasn’t nothing, I experienced it.

A Buddha would perceive all the influences, interactions, tendencies and so on of this person, and would know that when I perceived it with my limited equipment, that it looked to me as though it were established all by itself: this person appeared to me to be really nasty and said something horrible to me for no reason at all. A Buddha knows that it appeared like that to me. But unlike an arhat to whom it also appears like that, a Buddha sees the whole quantum field of all the influences, everything involved with this person and everybody else that they’ve ever interacted with.

When we believe in self-established existence, that there’s something actually backing up what appears to us with our limited equipment, then we get all our disturbing emotions. Because of all the disturbing emotions, we get all our compulsive behavior – that’s karma – which produces all our suffering and problems.

What Voidness Refutes

What does voidness refute? It refutes that there is such a thing as self-established existence. It’s refuting that what we see on the computer screen, that website, is sitting inside the machine, and popping out complete in itself, by its own power; or the TV station is sitting inside the TV and just popping out by itself. That’s impossible. Voidness refutes that.

What voidness does not refute is that the website appears on the screen or that we see things the way they appear to us with our limited apparatus; that’s not refuted by voidness. That deceptive appearance happens, it occurs; but it doesn’t exist the way that it appears to exist.

Please take a moment to digest that. I hope that this makes this whole discussion of voidness, of self-established existence, and omniscient Buddhas, a little bit more understandable. And please use this example of your mobile phone, or your computer screen; it’s a perfect example. What do you think is going on with this machine?


It’s really very funny when you start to think about it, isn’t it? The person that I’m talking to on the mobile phone is not sitting inside the phone talking to me. People that I see on my TV screen are not actually inside the screen. But that’s how they appear to exist. It’s not that we’re seeing nothing; we are seeing something, but it’s like an illusion. It seems that this voice coming out of this thin, black rectangular box exists as something that just comes out of this box, all on its own. But where is it coming from?

Renouncing Self-Established Existence

Now we can talk about this type of renunciation, the renunciation of self-established existence and our belief that the way these images we see on the screen of our computer or phone appear to exist – as if they are established there by their own power – actually corresponds to the way they actually exist.

What we are determined to be free of is having our main interest be in self-established existence. Like a cookie-cutter stamping a cookie out of a large piece of dough, our minds cut from the quantum field of every possible wave that’s going on in this room a single cookie, isolated on the screen from everything else. We need to renounce being caught up in our belief that what our mind makes appear, like a cookie cutter, corresponds to reality. We need to have our main interest be in voidness – the total absence of this impossible way of existing, this impossible way of establishing the existence of something.

Over-Refuting or Under-Refuting Self-Established Existence

Over-refuting it would be to conclude that nothing exists at all. In doing that, we refute the conventional existence of knowable phenomena; we refute that there’s something actually appearing on the screen. If we refute that, we refute cause and effect. Then there’s no result of anything that we do – that’s over-refutation.

Under-refutation is that there is a self-establishing nature on the side of something, not by itself, but in conjunction with mental labeling, establishes the conventional existence of that phenomenon. An example would be that the website is actually sitting on the side of the computer, there’s something self-established there, but it will only appear if I type in the URL of the website. So, it’s in conjunction with tuning in that it appears. But it’s actually already sitting there – that’s under-refutation. Do you get that? It’s very subtle.

We can only account for things in terms of mental labeling – you’ve probably heard that before, the Prasangika view. But what does that mean? All the radio waves, the SMS messages, chatting, websites, and so on, all of that’s present in this room. So, how do we account for the fact that there’s this website or that website? The only way we can account for it is if we type in the URL, then it will appear on our screens. That’s how we account for it or explain it or establish its conventional existence; that’s mental labeling.

Did typing in the URL create the website? No. Mental labeling does not create conventional existence. Were the waves of that website present? Well, yes. It’s not that they come from nothing, from nowhere. But how do we, with our limited apparatus, explain or account or demonstrate that there is this website? Well, if we type in the URL, there it is.

If we mentally label with a category and designate it with a name or a word, “human being” for instance, then if we ask “What is a human being? How do we establish that there are such things as human beings?” – well, a human being is what the category and word “human being” refers to. So out of all the causes and conditions and past lives and so on, I can collapse them and refer to someone with a category, I can fit them into a category, “human being,” and give it a personal name as well, whatever your name is. It’s like in the URL, it’s the same.

Think about that.


I hope that’s a useful analogy. It’s something to think about for a long time – what the implications of that are.

Please note that the same analysis holds true for the omniscient mind of a Buddha and the so-called “quantum universe” a Buddha perceives. It isn’t that there is a quantum universe that is self-established, sitting in this room or sitting everywhere and a Buddha is tuning into the entirety of it. And it isn’t that the omniscient mind of a Buddha is self-established either, or that it creates the quantum universe. We can only establish that there is such a thing as the quantum universe by the fact that it is what the term “quantum universe” refers to, designated on all validly knowable, dependently arising phenomena. Further, we can only establish the existence of the quantum universe and the omniscient mind of a Buddha dependently on each other – in other words, also in terms of dependent arising. This is the formulation of voidness as non-duality that many of the non-Gelug schools of Tibetan Buddhism assert.

The Cause and Disadvantages of Grasping for Self-Established Existence

The cause for grasping for self-established existence is the constant habit of our minds to project an appearance of self-established existence and ascribe actual existence to it. That’s the habit of observing the universe with limited hardware; we’ve constantly been doing that forever. Because we observe everything with limited hardware, with a body and mind of so-called tainted aggregates, it looks like things are established right there, by themselves, under their own power. And we’ve been doing that with no beginning. Because of the inertial force of that, we constantly believe that what we see, in terms of how things appear to exist, corresponds to reality.

The disadvantages of believing in self-established existence is that, based on that unawareness or ignorance, we develop all sorts of disturbing emotions and attitudes. These trigger our compulsive behavior, which then drives the three types of suffering, prevents liberation, and prevents enlightenment. So, the disadvantages are that this grasping brings us suffering and limitations.

One warning: we need to be very careful when, in these practices of immeasurable love, compassion and so on, we open ourselves up to all beings throughout the whole universe. If we’re still grasping for a solid “me” that has now opened up, we feel very vulnerable, and it’s very frightening. That opening-up with love and compassion needs to be combined with deconstructing the solid “me.” Otherwise we feel exposed and are very vulnerable.

Non-Conceptual Cognition of Voidness

What are we aiming for? We’re aiming for non-conceptual cognition of voidness. What does that mean? Voidness is the total absence of self-established existence – it’s impossible, there’s no such thing, and there never was. So, we’re focusing on the total absence. There’s no little website sitting inside the machine; there are no little people sitting there talking to me and moving. Impossible.

If we focus on that conceptually, we’re collapsing this fact, we could say, into a box. That box of “no such thing,” the box of voidness. It’s called a “category,” we put it into a category. We don’t have to say the word “voidness” in our minds, but our minds have put voidness into that category.

Can it be understood in a category? Yes, I can look at all these colored shapes that I perceive in front of me and fit them all into the category of human beings. Conventionally, that’s correct. I’m not just looking at colored shapes. But to perceive them non-conceptually would be without the medium of these categories, in other words not at the same time collapsing the field into some sort of box. Simultaneously, with that, to maintain understanding – that’s what so difficult. It’s difficult because we usually understand in terms of categories: human being, male, female, light, dark… categories. We have words for them. Maybe animals don’t have words for them, but they also perceive things in categories: food, not food.

Over-Estimating or Under-Estimating Non-Conceptual Cognition of Voidness

We don’t want to over-estimate what we’re aiming for with non-conceptual cognition of voidness. Over-estimating it would be thinking that just having non-conceptual cognition of voidness by itself brings liberation and enlightenment and that it does that the first moment that we have it. That’s over-estimating it. We need to build up a tremendous amount of positive force. The first zillion eons will get us to the first moment of non-conceptual cognition of voidness. Then we need two zillion eons more: one more zillion for liberation and another zillion for enlightenment.

So just that understanding of voidness by itself is not enough. That non-conceptual cognition of voidness needs an unbelievable amount of positive force behind it to be able to counteract and get rid of that constant habit of believing in this garbage that our mind projects, which has been building up with no beginning at all. It requires a tremendous force to bring about a true stopping of that. Therefore, we need to have this huge buildup of positive force, as well as a buildup of deep awareness, which is more and more familiarity with non-conceptual cognition of voidness. They’re usually called the “two collections” – or two networks – of merit and wisdom.

To under-estimate, we would think that the cognition of voidness of self-established existence can only be conceptual. It could never be non-conceptual, and we need something else to achieve a true stopping of our unawareness, our ignorance.

The Benefits of Non-Conceptual Cognition of Voidness

What is the benefit of gaining this non-conceptual cognition? Well, together with the buildup of the networks of positive force and deep awareness, it brings about the true stoppings. First it brings about a true stopping of doctrinally-based unawareness, in other words we were taught by some system that what appears corresponds to reality. So first we stop that. We realize “this was wrong.”

Then we get rid of the automatically-arising unawareness or ignorance that just automatically arises because it appears in that deceptive manner with our limited hardware. The more that we realize that there’s nothing backing up the way that things appear to us – there’s no little man sitting inside the computer screen – and the more that we realize that it doesn’t correspond to reality, eventually the mind will stop projecting that and we get rid of this limited hardware. Those are the benefits of gaining non-conceptual cognition of voidness: it brings liberation and enlightenment, but in stages.

What do we do once we’ve gained this non-conceptual cognition? We continue building it up more and more, familiarizing ourselves more and more with it, so as to build up more deep awareness. So, we build up our network of deep awareness and, while doing that, also build up more and more positive force.

The method for attaining that non-conceptual cognition is relying on lines of reasoning to gain conceptual cognition. There are five classic lines of reasoning that are used for understanding voidness. There’s no time to go through them; I have them on my website.

[See: The 5 Great Madhyamaka Lines of Reasoning for Emptiness]

Through the logic of these lines of reasoning, we come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as self-established existence. Things aren’t established all by themselves from their side, bam! there they are, complete. That’s impossible.

The Process for Gaining Non-Conceptual Cognition of Voidness: Shamatha and Vipashyana

What is the process for gaining non-conceptual cognition of voidness? First, we get correct conceptual cognition of voidness through inference. Then we attain shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind, focused conceptually on voidness – as perfect concentration focused on voidness. Then we get combined shamatha and vipashyana focused conceptually on voidness. Vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, that without any “blah blah blah” or anything like that, perceives all the details, all the possible reasons, to establish voidness – simultaneously.

At the same time, we need to build up a tremendous amount of positive force by having a bodhichitta aim, then that will bring about non-conceptual cognition of voidness.

Can someone with no motivation of either renunciation of samsara, or both renunciation of samsara and bodhichitta, gain an understanding of voidness? How far can they go? The answer is yes, they can get a correct understanding of voidness, but they can only get as far as shamatha focused conceptually on it. They would not be able to get vipashyana in addition, and certainly would not be able to get a non-conceptual cognition, because you need a tremendous amount of positive force to attain those states, and they would lack that. A professor could get a correct understanding of voidness, explain it to people in the class, but if they have no proper motivation, it’s certainly not going to help them get rid of anger and attachment, to put it in simple words.

We can have confidence that we can gain this non-conceptual cognition through conviction in the lines of reasoning and logic, and understanding the necessity for all this positive force, and so on.

That’s the presentation of this rather difficult topic: renunciation of clinging to self-established existence and having our main interest be in voidness.