Automatically Arising Grasping for the Self of a Person

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We have been speaking about voidness in general. We’ve seen that it refers to an absence of impossible ways of existing. There are impossible ways of existing of persons, or individual beings, and that’s certain specific impossible ways, which would refer only to persons, or individuals, and then there are impossible ways of existing that pertain to all phenomena, including persons and individuals.

With “unawareness,” often just translated as “ignorance,” we either don’t know how things actully exist, or we believe incorrectly, that these projections of impossible ways of existing refer to reality. So there are two ways of formulating unawareness: not knowing or incorrectly believing. Based on this unawareness, we have all sorts of disturbing emotions.

With the understanding of voidness, we understand the total absence of a real referent to these impossible ways of existing. There is no such thing, and there never has been and never will be. The more that we are able to focus non-conceptually on this absence, then we are able to gradually stop believing in this garbage that the mind projects, and eventually get the mind to stop projecting it. When we stop believing in these false ways of existing, these impossible ways of existing, then we no longer develop disturbing emotions. Not only do we get rid of disturbing emotions, but also disturbing attitudes, disturbing states of mind, etc.

When our mind stops projecting all of this garbage, then we’re able to be as a Buddha, able to see and understand what actually is the interrelation between everything, what is the cause for everybody’s situation, what would be the effect of teaching something to somebody – and in this way we are best able to help everybody. So, when we get rid of the unawareness – either not knowing or knowing incorrectly – and its tendencies – tendencies cause it to repeat – then we gain liberation.

That means that we get rid of samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which is the basis for experiencing the up-and-down problems that we all face: sometimes the “suffering of suffering,” of unhappiness; sometimes what’s called the “suffering of change,” which is our ordinary happiness, which never satisfies, is frustrating, ends, etc.

But, at that stage, we’re still left with the habits of this unawareness, and it’s only with further familiarity with the non-conceptual cognition of voidness that we get rid of those habits. It’s the habits that cause the mind to project these impossible ways of existing, and the mind will continue to project them, even after we no longer believe that they refer to anything real. With this attainment, we achieve enlightenment.

We also saw that when we speak about the causes of the disturbing emotions like greed, and attachment, anger, hostility, pride, jealousy, etc., that, of course, one of the main causes for this is unawareness, ignorance, like when we believe that there is this solid me – to just put it in very simple language – then what happens? We feel insecure about this solid me; we feel we have to make it secure, and so how do we try to make it secure? By getting enough things to us to make it secure. So there is desire, greed, and so on. And if we have it, we don’t want to let it go, so attachment, hoping that it will make us feel secure. But of course it never does.

Or we have anger and hostility, “If I could just get something away from me, or destroy it, then,” hopefully, “that will make me secure.” But we always feel threatened, so it never works.

Or we have jealousy, “If I could just have what somebody else has, that will make me secure,” or “If that person doesn’t love somebody else, but loves me instead, then it will make me feel secure.” But of course it never works.

Or pride and arrogance, so “I puff myself up, so I’m the best, and therefore that should make me secure.” But then we’re always suspecting maybe somebody is better, so we’re still insecure, in our arrogance. It’s usually hiding insecurity.

All of these are disturbing emotions and attitudes that – if we look at the definition – when they arise, they make us lose our peace of mind and self-control. When we lose self-control, then we act in all sorts of foolish ways, saying all sorts of foolish things to other people. That just causes more problems, for example, “Don’t ever leave me, I can’t live without you,” and it just chases the other person further away.

All of these disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes arise from our unawareness of reality. We are unaware that these projections don’t refer to anything real, and we believe that they are real, and so we understand them in an incorrect way.

We saw that this unawareness and the disturbing emotions are fed by incorrect consideration. With incorrect consideration, the mind projects something that is not there. And so with nonstatic phenomena it projects that they are static, so that things that are impermanent, that are going to end, it projects that they’re going to be there forever, and things that change from moment to moment, that they don’t change, that they’re stable, not affected by anything.

Situations that are suffering and entail suffering, it projects that it’s happiness – the second form of incorrect consideration, or things that are unclean, it projects that it is clean.

Here what is occurring is… you see the word "consideration" in the term “incorrect consideration” literally means “to take to mind,” so, it’s projecting something that’s incorrect here, and taking that object to mind, or paying attention to it in this way, as if it were static, or as if it were clean, or as if it were happiness.

Then the forth kind of incorrect consideration is that there is a me, or a “self” that is separate from the aggregates, a mind and a body, although in fact there isn’t. There is no such a thing. There may be things that are separate from our aggregates, that are not connected with my aggregates, like this table when I’m not looking at it, but that’s not the case with the self, “me.” On the basis of this incorrect consideration, then we get the unawareness, disturbing emotions, and so on.

Now, these types of incorrect consideration can be either doctrinally based – somebody could have taught us these things through some sort of philosophical or religious system, or just through advertising – or they can just automatically arise. So although these four types of incorrect consideration are not considered a disturbing emotion, because they project something, and the disturbing emotions themselves don’t project anything; nevertheless, like disturbing emotions, they have a doctrinally based and automatically arising aspects or forms.

When we get rid of the doctrinally based disturbing emotions, we also get rid of the doctrinally based incorrect consideration When we get rid of the automatically arising disturbing emotions, we get rid of the automatically arising incorrect consideration. It goes together like that.

When we ask, “What are the causes of disturbing emotions arising?” then it’s this incorrect consideration; and it’s a tendency, or habit, for these disturbing emotions; the proximity or closeness of an object that could stimulate the disturbing emotion – something, or someone that you would have greed for, or attachment to, or hostility towards – and our lack of applying any opponent to prevent the disturbing emotion. We need all these circumstances for the disturbing emotions to arise. It’s not just because of the tendencies and habits. But the root of the disturbing emotions is the unawareness, and if we get rid of this unawareness, then we’ll get rid of the disturbing emotions, and the incorrect consideration will go away as well.

We started our discussion of the unawareness about how persons exist, individuals exist – as a doctrinally based form, and an automatically arising form. So we have what’s usually translated as “grasping for the self of a person,” the grasping for an impossible soul of a person. If we just understand it as a self or a me, it’s easy to fall to a nihilist extreme. We are not denying the existence of a “self” or a “me,” we’re denying here, or refuting, an impossible kind of me, an impossible soul.

First, we work to get rid of doctrinally based grasping for an impossible me, an impossible soul. Here, Buddhism is speaking specifically about an incorrect view of a soul, or an atman, that is taught in the various Indian non-Buddhist systems. This is a soul, or a self, or a me, that combines certain features that we had incorrect consideration about.

We think that there is a me, or a soul, that is static, meaning that it doesn’t change from moment to moment, it always stays the same, it’s not affected by anything; and it’s a monolith, with no parts, either the size of the entire universe, or a tiny little spark of life; and that it is a separate entity, a separate thing, that enters into a body and a mind – there are various versions of, “Is it a conscious thing?” or not – it enters a body and mind in a rebirth, and then goes off to another body and mind in the next rebirth. While in that body, it lives inside the body and the mind, and it is the possessor of it, it owns it, and controls it, like pushing the buttons, and then it goes off, either to repeated rebirth, or to some sort of heaven, or some sort of liberated state.

Buddhism is speaking specifically about a soul that has this whole package of qualities, and somebody would have to have taught us that, we wouldn’t automatically believe that. And we also saw that in our Western philosophies and religions, maybe we don’t have an assertion of a soul that has all these qualities, but we might have some of these qualities, and that would be taken care of by various types of incorrect consideration. So, Buddhism still covers the impossible views of non-Indian philosophies and religions as well. By using logic, we can understand that this type of soul is impossible. When we have full conviction that this is impossible, the way that we focus on voidness is to just completely “cut off” this false view, this incorrect view, just cut it off, “no such thing.”

Then we saw that Buddhism asserts that there is a self, or a “me,” a person, that does change from moment to moment; it is affected by various things. It is eternal, it has no beginning and no end, and it’s individual, but it changes from moment to moment to moment, and is affected by causes and conditions, and it’s not something which is separable from a continuum of a body and mind, but is something which is imputable on a continuum of body, mind, emotions, etc., one lifetime to another lifetime. It’s a way of putting together and referring to the whole continuum.

The example that I always use to explain this is a movie, let’s say “Star Wars.” We have a continuum of one scene after another scene after another scene. We’re not talking about the plastic film; we’re talking about the actual seeing of a movie. There is one scene after another after another. It’s constantly changing, nothing is staying the same through it, and we refer to the whole thing as “Star Wars.” “Star Wars” isn’t just one tiny, little moment of it. The whole thing doesn’t play at once, but there is a movie, “Star Wars,” on the basis of the continuum of all these scenes.

When we see any one scene, what are we looking at? We’re looking at “Star Wars.” Are we looking at the whole movie at the same time? No. Is “Star Wars” just a name? No, it’s not just a name, it’s what the name refers to. Where is “Star Wars?” It’s not one scene and it’s not the whole thing all together, because you can’t see the whole thing all together in one moment, but there is a movie called “Star Wars.” So the “me” is just like that.

“I know me, here I am.” Is it just this one tiny, little instant? My whole life – can anybody know my whole life in one instant? No. Am I just a name “me,” or a name “Alex?” No, but it refers to something, a person, on the basis of the continuum of body, mind, feelings, experience, etc.

Because the basis is changing from moment to moment, so it has parts, in that sense temporal parts, also you have to say “me,” I have different parts, different phases – the Alex as a young man, the Alex as a middle-aged man, etc., a social life, academic life, sport life, etc. There are parts; it’s not a monolith. It’s not like the simple-minded view of Tintin comic books. Tintin: you have the solid same thing, now in Tibet, Tintin in Egypt, Tintin in Switzerland. It’s not like now there is this solid Alex, static, staying the same, no parts, and now in this situation or that situation. So, different, but not totally unrelated, of course, a continuum.

Now that we spoke about a doctrinally based impossible me that we learn from some system, and there is also an automatically arising impossible me, impossible way of existing of a “me.” But before we describe that, it might be good to spend a few moments digesting what I just explained.

The “automatically arising unawareness” is to imagine that there is what’s called a “self-sufficiently knowable “me.”’ That means a me which can be known by itself, without simultaneously cognizing a basis on which it’s imputed – I’ll explain that. “Self-sufficiently” – that means “sufficiently by itself.” You don’t need a basis also appearing. Literally, it is a “self that can stand on its own feet,” by itself. This “automatically arises,” which means that nobody had to teach us this, at all. A dog has this as well.

For instance, I am looking here, and what does it seem to me? It seems to me that, “I see Massimo.” It doesn’t seem to me that, “I see a body, and on the basis of the body I’m imputing ‘Massimo.’” No, no. It just appears as though I see Massimo. There is Claudia. “I know Claudia.” What do I know, when I say I know Claudia? Do I know her mind? Do I know what she looks like? When I hear her on the telephone, “Ah, I’m speaking to Claudia,” “I hear Claudia.” Well, what do I hear? I don’t hear Claudia, I hear a voice. I don’t even hear a voice, I hear a vibration of some electronic things, and on the basis of that I’m imputing that it’s the voice of Claudia. On the basis of that, I’m imputing that it’s Claudia. But no! It seems as though, “I’m talking to Claudia,” “I’m listening to Claudia.” – self-sufficiently knowable.

In other words, a basis has to appear, at the same time as we know, or think, or see a person. But it seems to us that, “No, you just know a person; you just see a person.” When we start to analyze and see, “How do I believe in such a thing?” then we discover all sorts of syndromes that are the basis for a lot of disturbing emotions. “Poor me, nobody loves me.” What are we thinking of? Are we thinking of a body? Are we thinking of a mind? What are we thinking of? Me. “I want somebody to love me for myself, not for my money, not for my good looks, not for my body, not for my intelligence.” I want them to just love me, as if there was a me that could be loved separately, by itself, separate from all these things. It’s not just that it exists separately, but that it can be known separately, that it could be loved, for example. I’m using that as an illustration here, that could be loved separately from a body, a mind, your possessions, your sense of humor, all of that. “Just love me for myself,” we say.

“You don’t know the real me; you just know my writing,” “You don’t know the real me,” as if there was a real me that you could know separately from all of this. Funny, isn’t it? Sometimes it gets a little bit more complex, so we say, “The real me is my emotions,” or this, or that. “The real me isn’t my professional life,” or that aspect, “it’s just this little aspect.” There are many variations that come up here. So, these derive from this incorrect view that the real me can only be known on the basis of certain aspects, but not the other aspects, that’s not the real me. This is the automatically arising form of grasping for an impossible me or soul of a person.

Let’s take a few moments to try to recognize that, and understand that. When we talk about voidness, it’s usually spoken in terms of a lack of an impossible me – there is no such thing, an absence of it. There are many, many consequences of this. Often we say that we love somebody, but we’re just basing that on a few aspects of themselves. It’s usually the good points that we exaggerate, and we don’t really even consider the negative points. We think that we can only know the person in terms of this little aspect, and then there is an incorrect consideration, “This is just fantastic,” whereas it might be quite ordinary.

That’s like the syndrome “I’m not myself today,” or “you weren’t yourself.” Let’s think about all of this.


OK, do you have some questions?


What is your advice to bring this awareness into everyday life?

My advice is, like this example, if I’m thinking in terms of a relationship with someone, and “I want you to love me for myself, and not for all these other aspects,” to realize that this is ridiculous. “This doesn’t refer to anything real; there is no such me as that. If they love me it is on the basis of my personality, and my possessions, and what I’ve accomplished, and my body, and all these other things.” There is nothing wrong with that. It has to be on that basis; it cannot be anything other than on that basis.

Or, if I love somebody, well I can’t just love this person, although it might seem, “I just love you, and I want you.” We are going to get the whole package of this person, of all their strong points, their weak points, the family relationships, and the level of intelligence and physical strength. You get the whole package; you can’t just love this person. Because often we want to deny and not deal with certain aspects that we find disagreeable, and just as soon ignore them. You can’t ignore it, it comes with the package. There is no me that’s separate, that you can love separately from that. So, it becomes much more realistic.

Also, I know some people are involved with this Tara Rokpa training, which is a training in which one reviews one’s whole life in this lifetime, going from the present back to the earliest days, and then back up to the present, and then back again to the earliest days. Not only does one realize – I haven’t done the training myself, but I would imagine that one realizes – nonstaticness, that you change, and are influenced and affected by so many different things, and so on; but in light of what we’ve been discussing here, to realize that the “me” is imputed on this whole history, and that we can’t really know me, when we argue that there is a me that’s knowable and functioning separately from all of this. So, it helps us to integrate our whole history, everything that we’ve studied, everybody that we’ve met, all the experiences that we’ve had, and that’s true, not only with respect to ourselves, but with everybody else.

I understand that the “I” is not one instant, and that it’s not the whole movie seen in one instant, because that’s impossible. So what are we left with? What is the “I?” I understand what it’s not, but not what it is. The second question is about the automatically arising incorrect consideration of an impossible me. Why would that arise automatically? There must be a reason why it arises automatically.

First of all, what we are left with is an “I” that’s labeled onto all of this, which is changing from moment to moment, and can only be known on the basis of something that’s happening now, the five aggregates. But to go more deeply into what we’re left with brings us to the next topic, which is the voidness of all phenomena, and it’s only in the context of that discussion that we go deeper into that question: “What are we left with?” and “Can we refine that further?”

And why does the automatically arising grasping for this impossible me occur? Well, I was just explaining that before – the causes for this incorrect consideration – habit, tendency, reinforcement from other people, the influence of objects, like a telephone, so you just hear a voice and don’t see someone, etc. This is the horrible thing: that our mind continues to make such an appearance, without any beginning. Prior, prior causes, each cause has a cause, like that.

Isn’t this strange?

Yes, this is strange, this is samsara.

With the example of a relationship, you spoke about how we want somebody to love us in a certain way, and how we want somebody to be. I think that most of the time it’s not like that in a relationship. We try to see the other person in a “holistic” way, in which we know and we accept “the whole package” of the other with their good aspects and their not so good aspects, and that they can change, day by day. It’s not that we have an image of the other that we just take for this, but not for that, and all the time we are deluded by. Most of the time, in relationships with our friends or our partners, we try to spontaneously see the others in all their aspects and not separate them into this part that I want and that part I don’t want.

If you are able to do that, that’s wonderful. However, I think, for most of us, a certain situation comes up and, “You just did that!” or “You let me down!” and we get annoyed and we get angry. And then we think just of that you, “You did that.” We don’t think of the whole basis that, “Well, maybe they were involved with other things.” “Maybe they weren’t feeling well,” maybe this, maybe that. So it automatically arises, this is the point, this idea of a self-sufficiently knowable person. “I wish you were here.” What’s behind that?

Big desire.

Just you. We don’t think of all the other stuff.

I didn’t get a chance to ask my question.

Me. I didn’t have a chance to ask my question, so what does that mean? My body didn’t have a chance to ask it? My voice didn’t have a chance?... No. Just me. I want to... So now I will ask you. Well, what am I asking? Am I asking the body? Am I asking the mind? No, you. And now I’m going to express myself. What are you expressing? A voice coming from a body labeled Lisa...

Talking about projection. Is it wrong to project, or are there wrong projections and right projections? I project something as permanent, which is impermanent. I project happiness that’s unhappiness. Now these you also explained as incorrect considerations. Are considerations projections? And are projections wrong, or are there right and wrong projections?

I’m sorry if I confused you, but I was trying to simplify things, so I used the word “projection,” and I wasn’t really using it as a technical term. There are many different technical terms that are included here, but I didn’t really, in the beginning, differentiate.

For instance, we have something called “interpolation.” “Interpolation” means to add something that’s not there. It’s described like putting a feather on an arrow that wasn’t there. So, you can add something which is impossible, which was never there, like an impossible way of existing, or you could add something that could exist, but doesn’t exist there, or it could be exaggerating something that’s there. We exaggerate the good qualities of something when we have attachment or desire. We exaggerate the negative qualities of something when we have anger and repulsion.

The inverse of interpolation is called “repudiation”: we deny something that’s there. We deny that there is anything wrong in our relationship. We deny that there is such a thing as death – a lot of problems that come from a state of denial.

Then there is, in this broad general word “projection,” there is “imputation of a category,” what is involved in conceptual cognition. Like the category “table.” There is a category and then there’s a name for it as well. Obviously there are different names in different languages, but there is a category that in English we call “table,” and so that can be projected, or labeled, or imputed onto this object next to me, that object over there, which has a slightly different shape, each of these objects in front of you.

These can either be conventionally accurate or they could be inaccurate. If I look at this object and think of it as a table, that’s conventionally correct. Everybody here would agree, But, if I look at it and label it “a dog,” people wouldn’t agree with that, and it couldn’t function as a dog. If I put this at the gate, for it to bark and chase people away, it’s not going to do that, so there is something incorrect here. So, incorrect consideration, that’s a very technical term, but it could include, for instance, considering this object a dog rather than a table.

The “I” is imputed on the aggregates, or labeled on the aggregates.

Correct, and we will investigate further what that means.

If I go to a psychiatric hospital, if they have so many problems with the “I” at the psychiatric hospital, then the “I” should be more than something which is imputed on the aggregates. If not, why are there so many problems? They deconstruct the “I.” The “I” is not well structured, so they do well, because they didn’t deconstruct the “I.” But they have a lot of problems.

We have to go back to what I mentioned. Perhaps I didn’t emphasize it enough. There is a difference between the “conventional me” and the “false me.” The conventional “me” is the one that is imputed on the aggregates, and we will get further and further into what that actually means. There is the imputed “I” – a healthy ego. What we call in the West “a healthy ego” is one that considers oneself in terms of this conventional “me.” Now, a “false ego,” an “inflated ego” is when we interpolate, throw on top of this, qualities to this “me,” like “can be known all by itself,” or “exist all by itself,” that are not there, and then you have an inflated ego. People that have a lot of psychological problems either have a tremendous, inflated ego, or they have no healthy ego, so they have no sense even of the conventional “me.”

I don’t know if you make this distinction in the Italian language, but there’s a distinction in English at least between an “ego,” and a “me.” An “ego” is a way of being aware of something, and so a healthy ego has as its object, what it is aware of, is the conventional “me.” Now, an inflated ego is a way of being aware of “me” in terms of a “false me.” [This is] how you put the Buddhist explanation together with Western psychology. The conventional “me” and the false “me” are actually the objects of a healthy ego and an inflated ego. They’re not equivalent; they are related to each other.

That’s why it’s very important that when we go deeper into Buddhism and the study of Buddhism that, basically, we have to be qualified as a student. The major qualification is that we are mature and have some sort of healthy sense of “me.” Because if we deconstruct the me, and the person doesn’t have a healthy sense of “me,” then they are left with nothing. Therefore, it’s not recommended to teach voidness to children or young teenagers, who haven’t yet developed a healthy sense of an individual “me,” because they will deconstruct too much.

We hear over and over again in the teachings the warning, and you can take vows for this, not to teach voidness to those who are not ready. And that’s the danger, that they refute everything and then it can result in real psychosis.

Is there also the danger that the ego could become even stronger?

Well, it, could either become more strong, or you deny everything.

You spoke about the suffering in relationships that results from the disturbing emotions, which arise from the projection of impossible ways of existing of a person, or a “me.” But there is another, maybe deeper kind of suffering that comes as a lack of purpose, a lack of a sense of meaning. I see that in my children.

Are you talking about not finding a meaning in life? Again that’s not having a healthy sense of the conventional “me.” There are several factors involved here. One deals with what we call “refuge,” which I call the “safe direction” in life. The direction in life that you are going in is to achieve a true stopping of all the disturbing emotions, and stuff that causes suffering, and the true pathway mind – the understanding, the realizations that will bring you not only happiness, but the ability to help others, like the Buddha and the community has done in part. So you have a direction, a safe direction; it gives you a meaning in life.

If you have a safe direction – “refuge” is too passive, it has to do with “protection,” which doesn’t really convey the full meaning here rather than a direction. If you have a direction, you know where you’re going in life, then that helps to establish a sense of the conventional “me.” Of course you could inflate that, “I’m going to save the world, I’m Saint Alex.” But this direction in life is very, very fundamental. That’s where we start – absolutely essential.

With children, there is no need to give them technical jargon. But to just speak in terms of what is the purpose, what is your meaning in life?, To grow, to become a good person, a kind person, not be angry, and so on, to learn as much as you can so that you can be helpful to others, and so on. In doing that, which I think a child can understand without bringing in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and all these sort of things, then a child has a feeling that, “I’m doing something” “I’m going somewhere in my life.”

That helps to establish a healthy “me.” You don’t have to explain in terms of “mental labeling,” and “conventional ‘me,’” and so on. It helps to establish a sense of a “me” with a purpose. Then, you can worry about later on about an exaggeration of it. Of course, the way that you explain this and present this to a child depends on the age of the child. You wouldn’t explain to a three-year-old in the same way that you would explain to a ten-year-old.