Emptiness of All Phenomena

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We’ve discussed the impossible ways of existing of a person, and the absence of any actual “referent thing” to these impossible ways is what voidness is. If we wish to go deeper, then we need to discuss impossible ways of existing of all phenomena, which would include persons and individuals. Again, we can, with some of these, learn them from a system, doctrinally based, and also can be automatically arising. We won’t get into fine distinctions here. We can also go deeper and deeper and get more subtle in our recognitions of what’s impossible and our refutations of them.

First we would need to understand that phenomena that are dependent on other things, that are nonstatic, change from moment to moment, arise based on causes and conditions – that these are devoid of existing in the manner of some totally conceptual object, like a category. Something that is dependent on other things, changing from moment to moment, doesn’t exist as just something like a category, which is totally conceptual.

A category is something which is fixed. We have a category like “a table,” and it’s just “a table,” defined in a certain way, and then that can be applied to various things; it doesn’t change. So, things that are dependent on other things, and arise dependent on causes and conditions, don’t exist like some sort of category. “Me” – I’m not just some sort of conceptual category. There is a “me.” It changes from moment to moment, and so on. Even though it is imputed on a continuum of ever-changing aggregates, it’s not like the category “table” imputed on something, not just some fiction of the imagination.

According to this view – this initial view that we would work with – the “me” does have defining characteristics on it’s own side that make it an individual, knowable person, “me,” not “you.” There are certain defining characteristics, general ones like age, and so on. Like a body – also as we talk about all phenomena – has a certain characteristic like size, and so on. But, what’s also absent is that… technically what we say is that it lacks a basis for fixing a name or a quality. What that means is that, on the side of the object, it’s not “Alex” or “Fifi,” or anything like that, that arises dependent on various things. I’m an individual, but the name is not established on the side of the object. There is a size on the side of the object, but “big” or “small” is not established on the side of the object. That’s in relation to something else: big compared to an ant, small compared to a dinosaur.

Here we have an object and it has defining characteristics. An individual object has defining characteristics: a flat top and legs that it stands on, can perform a function of holding something on top of it. But from its own side it doesn’t exist as a “table,” or a “tavolo,” or a “Tisch,” or anything like that. These are names that are imputed onto it, that are labeled onto it. From its own side, it doesn’t have its own specific name or a quality like “good,” or “bad,” or “big,” or “small.” All of that’s relative.

This is quite significant when we apply this to a “me.” “I’m stupid.” “I’m no good,” I’m this, I’m that. There is nothing on the side of a “me” that’s like that. All of that’s relative, it’s labeled, and so on. But there is a “me” and a defining characteristic that makes “me” an individual, and so on. It’s not just something that’s a fiction of the imagination or a category.

This becomes very interesting if we look more deeply into this field. We can only talk about an object in terms of our experience of it. “What is this table?” and “What’s a person?” If I talk about it, that’s in relation to a mind talking about it. If I see it, that’s in relation to a mind seeing it. If I think about it, it’s in relation to a mind thinking about it. It doesn’t make any sense of this table independent of a mind, because we talk about it. And it is related to the mind. “Well, but the Big Bang,” or “the Earth before there was any life on it.” Well, we’re not seeing it, but we’re talking about it, and so it’s in relation to a mind.

All that we can really deal with are the appearances of things, in terms of a cognition of them. Within that context then it sounds as though we’re saying, from this initial description, that I gave, that objects are just like a blank disk, diskette, or something like that, that has size and is an individual diskette, and then on it, is labeled, or printed “good,” “bad,” “Alex,” “Fifi,” or whatever. Although it’s like that, you have to realize that all of this is within the context of a mind. It’s not that objects exist as blank cassettes out there by themselves, like diskettes.

This is the Chittamatra view, the “Mind-Only” view. Let’s say I have a loved one, somebody that I love. It’s not that they exist out there as some sort of blank diskette, as an individual with size and age and stuff like that. Because, if I’m thinking of them, or loving them, or seeing them, or anything like that, we can only deal with this person in terms of experiencing this person, seeing, thinking, etc.

We can only talk about, think about, or anything, within the context of my perception of them, or thinking of them, and so on. And so in that perception, well, I might conceptualize “good” or “bad,” “nice” or “not nice,” “pretty” or “ugly,” or things like that, but from it’s own side, within that appearance, they’re not like that, I’m just projecting that. In my perception I can point to them, from their side it’s like a blank thing that all these judgments and so on are being projected on, but it’s not that they exist out there as some blank diskette.

We are talking about our perception of people, our perception of objects, and so on, and within that perception, or cognition, we have to differentiate that the person, or the object doesn’t exist in the manner of these categories, like “good,” “bad,” “pretty,” “ugly,” and so on. This is a very complex view, not a very easy one to understand, but actually very profound.

We don’t have so much time, and the customary way is to go fairly quickly at the end with the most complicated, difficult stuff. The theory behind that is, either you’ll understand it, or if you aren’t quite ready to understand it, even if we spend hours and hours, you’re still not going to understand it, because it requires a great deal of reflection and thought. If we at least get the point from this – that, from the person’s own side they don’t exist as wonderful, or horrible, or as Claudia, or as some other name, or as an angel, or a bastard, this sort of thing, that’s not from the side of the object, this is just being thrown on top of it, from their own side nobody exists like that – that, at least, is a great help.

It’s just in now my moment of experience of this person, of thinking of them, or seeing them, I am projecting on top of just a person “bastard,” or “angel,” or “wonderful,” and so on, but there’s a person, and in each different time that I experience them, I think of them, I may project other things on them, and when somebody else perceives them, they project yet other things on them. So what’s absent is that these objects themselves are established as “that’s what they really are.” It’s not like that. Although a person is imputed on an everchanging stream of aggregates, body, mind, and so on, it’s not the same as “good” or “bad” being imputed on something, labeled on something.

One brief question – I don’t want to do too many questions, because then we’ll never finish. There are two more positions to explain.

It’s impossible to fall in love, if you only think of things in this way.

Yes, in a sense. Falling in love is rather a disturbing state of mind. We can love somebody, but falling in love is usually so exaggerating the person. It’s a disturbed state of mind, because when they’re not there, we suffer, and we lose all self-control, because we ignore everybody else in our life, and we ignore our work, and so on.

No more love songs.

No more love songs. But it doesn’t refute love. Love is the wish for the other person to be happy, to have the causes of happiness, regardless of what they do. Regardless of what they do to me, regardless of what they do to anybody, just because they are a living being, and everybody wants to be happy, and nobody wants to be unhappy.

If we get rid of all projections, then the person is still there?

Correct. According to this view, yes. In the beginning I was just using “projection” as a general word, but we have to differentiate here between a mental hologram of a person, when I’m seeing them, and a projection of good, bad, nice, wonderful, horrible, etc. It’s not that these labels “good,” “bad,” etc. are incorrect. They could be conventionally correct, according to a certain convention of “what is good behavior” and “what is terrible behavior” and so on. But it’s relative. It’s not established on the side of the person. An example: you serve somebody a meal and at the end of the meal they burp, they belch. In Arab society that’s very polite. It shows that you enjoyed the meal. In Western society that’s very impolite. A burp is just a burp, regardless of what name we give it, but it is valid within the context of a convention, of a society: it’s either “polite” or “impolite.”

Then if we don’t cognize the object, the object doesn’t exist?

No, it’s not that the object doesn’t exist if we don’t cognize it, but how can you talk about an object out of the context of talking about them. How can you think of an object outside of the context of thinking about them? It doesn’t make any sense. So what’s the consequence of this? The consequence of this is – Don’t worry about what objects are like out there by themselves. If we want to overcome suffering, deal with it in the context of something that I’m talking about, or thinking about, or seeing or hearing. That’s the context. What’s the point of Buddhism? It’s to overcome suffering. That’s in terms of our experience.

If we take the table as an example and we get rid of all concepts like “good,” “bad,” “big,” “small,” and so on, then what is left of the table?

From this point of view – the defining characteristics, an individual item within our perception of it that we can point to and “There it is,” “Here is the object.” It has a size and it has a color, but what we call it is, in a sense, subjective. I may call it “yellow”; you may call it “brown.” What difference does it make? Why should we argue about that? Now, you could say, “Does the table exist in the room when nobody is here looking at it?” But we’re talking about it. We’re asking the question, so that’s related to a mind. If you are asking the question about it, “Does it exist in the room when nobody is there?” – here it is, in the context of a mind asking that question.

If in the other room there is an individual who is suffering, then are they suffering?

Yes, in my thought of the person in the other room suffering, the person is suffering. You don’t exist only in my mind, that other person doesn’t exist only in my mind. However, we can only consider the other person in the context of my thinking about them, or seeing them, or speaking about them. It doesn’t make any sense outside of that kind of context.

It’s Mahayana. There’s compassion, there’s love, there’s helping all beings. It’s not just something that is like a fictional thing in your head. However, as I mentioned, this is a very, very difficult view to understand. It requires a great deal of thought and consideration, and so if you haven’t heard about this before, this is an introduction to that. Don’t expect that you will instantly understand it. It’s difficult, and very, very, very subtle.

The simple version: as long as we understand that somebody from their own side isn’t “good,” or “bad,” or “wonderful,” and so on, that’s a start. And obviously, when we believe that they do exist from their own side, “You’re truly a terrible person,” then we get the disturbing emotion of anger.

Of course, this has to be understood within the context of voidness of an impossible soul of a person, so that’s also not that you are permanently, statically terrible, independent of what’s happened to you in life, and what you’ve done, and stuff like that. Our understanding of how the self exists, or things exist, is in the context of this larger presentation.

We’ll take just one minute, swallow, digest, and then we’ll go on.


The next question that we have to consider is, “What establishes that something exists?” “What proves that something exists?” We’re not talking about “What creates something?” We’re talking about, “What establishes that it exists.” Some less sophisticated views would say, “Well, if it performs a function, it exists. That establishes that it exists. Obviously performing a function, doing something doesn’t create it.” What establishes that the fire is hot? I stick my finger in it and it gets burned. My finger getting burned doesn’t make the fire hot; it didn’t create the fire to be hot. It just establishes that it’s hot. This is not a terribly sophisticated view. We can look much more deeply. There are some problems here, which we won’t go into.

The next view is saying that, “Well, you were already talking about the relation with the mind, and that has to do with the appearance of things. Now let’s talk about the relation with the mind in terms of how you establish that something exists.” This gets into the sophisticated discussion of mental labeling. So, what establishes that it exists? It is that there is a name or label, or a concept, that when applied to an appropriate basis, it refers to something. It is imputable, the existence of something is established, if it is imputable on a basis – validly, because you could impute anything. The classic example is that I could impute onto somebody “a king,” I could impute on a beggar “a king,” I could impute on the dog “a king.” So, according to this view, there is some characteristic on the side of the object that, in connection with the concept of “king,” establishes that it’s a “king.”

There are words and concepts for things. Words and concepts for things don’t create things. How do you know, how do you establish that there is such a thing as a wall? Well, there is the concept “wall.” I can impute it on this flat surface between the floor and the ceiling, and there is a defining characteristic in this context that I’m labeling “wall” on top of – “flat surface between the floor and the ceiling.” The combination of a findable defining characteristic on the side of the object, plus word or concept “wall,” which is a category after all, that establishes that there’s a wall existing, establishes the existence of a wall.

“Wall” is a category. It has a definition. But in order for that to be correctly labeled on an object, that side has to have those defining characteristics, according to the definition. So, maybe “muro” and “wall” are defined in the same way. Maybe they’re not. But to be able to call it a muro or a “wall” or anything, there has to be some defining characteristic on the side of the object, in connection with the label, that establishes that it’s a wall. It doesn’t create the wall. The wall is made out of stone and plaster.

Even if we don’t deal with calling it a “wall,” or a “muro,” or anything like that, there is something on the side of the object that makes it a “knowable object.” For instance, it’s like there is something on its side that separates it from the ceiling and from the floor, that makes it an individual, knowable object – a defining characteristic of a “knowable object,” and in connection with the label “knowable object,” “thing,” or something like that, that establishes that it’s a thing.

If we apply this to persons, what is a person? I can label a “person.” It’s what the word “person” refers to, on a basis of the everchanging aggregates. But there’s something on the side of the aggregates that, like a defining characteristic, that makes it an individual, so it’s “me,” not “you.” The basis of the table is not a basis for labeling “me,” not a valid basis, although sometimes we have really crazy ways of speaking, I don’t know if you express it like this in Italian, but in English you park your car somewhere. “Where are you parked?” “I’m over there.” I’m over there? The car is over there. It’s really quite funny.

Anyway, within Madhyamaka philosophy, this is the Svatantrika point of view. So, “Sure, me, I’m not just a category.” If we apply a label of a category, it’s applied on individual objects like a table. This object here has the defining characteristics of a table, that object in front of you has the defining characteristics of a table. And it also has the defining characteristics of an individual, knowable object. This table isn’t that table. But what establishes it as a table is the word or concept “table” and the basis having the defining characteristics of the word, or concept “table.”

Is the object something that can only be known conceptually? No. I see it, and I see it as a knowable object. And what establishes that it’s a knowable object? Well there’s a label, there’s a concept of a knowable object, plus its characteristics. If I call it “a table” and think of it as “a table,” then that’s conceptual. But I don’t have to say “table” or anything like that in order to see this object. This is not a very easy explanation to understand, something that we really have to work with – mental labeling. Mental labeling is what establishes the existence of something; it doesn’t create things. I don’t create the table just because I give the name “table.” How do we establish the existence of the table or of a knowable object? Well, it’s what the word “table” refers to, on a basis, and the basis must have the defining characteristics that allows for a correct labeling.

“I am in love with a person.” What’s a “person?” Well, a “person” is what’s labeled on the everchanging aggregates of a mind and a body, and so on. It’s not that I’m in love with a table or that object there that I’m calling a “person.” If I am in love with this person and I consider them, and I label them as beautiful, that’s on the basis of some characteristics in my definition of what’s beautiful that I find in the other person. We can only establish that anything is anything, that something is something, in terms of concepts, words, and labels. If that weren’t the case, we couldn’t communicate with each other.

Prasangika view, within Madhyamaka, goes a step further and says that, “The only thing that establishes it is merely that it is what a word or label refers to, but there is no definable characteristic that you can find on the side of the object. Even the defining characteristic is imputed.”

The example that I always use, which I think is an example that’s easy to understand, is “color.” What color is this rug? Well, I could label it “red” and another person could label it “orange.” What establishes that it’s red or orange? Is there a certain wavelength on the side of the object that is red or orange? Well, if you look at light, wavelengths of light, there is no boundaries on the side of light that says, “On this side of the boundary it’s called red and that side of the boundary is called orange.”

The category is made up by a mind: it’s defined in that way. This becomes quite profound, the more that you think about it. Emotions – do emotions exist in boxes? On this side of the line it’s love, and on that side of the line it’s something else. Even the defining characteristics are mentally labeled: it’s made up by a mind.

We experience jealousy. Every moment and every incidence of jealousy in our life, was it exactly the same? And what I experience and call “jealousy,” is it the same as what you have experienced and called “jealousy?” No it isn’t, but there is a concept “jealousy,” and there is a word “jealousy,” and it refers to something. But it’s not established from its own side, with a big line around it, or a big plastic coating that makes it this individual thing called “jealousy.”

We have to differentiate here in this view between an “object that a label refers to” from a “referent thing.” A “referent thing” is some sort of … If I use the word “jealousy,” or I use a word “good,” or “red,” or “orange,” or something, it’s referring to something, an object that it refers to. What is a person? A person is what the word “person” refers to, on the basis of the aggregates, for example. That’s an object that something refers to. A “referent thing” would be something that from its own side is “in this box.” I think that that’s the difference in a very simple language. Things don’t exist in boxes, which is what our dictionaries and our words would imply. “Here it is, in this box in the dictionary, and so it must exist out there in this box.” But things don’t exist like that.

But words and concepts refer to something, and the only way that we can establish the existence of anything is in our communication and thinking – it’s what our words and thoughts refer to.

Even words are just made up by convention. The sounds themselves don’t have any meaning in them. Some ancient people put together some sounds and said, “This sound means that object over there.” So, even the meaning of words is just mentally established, established through labeling. Nevertheless –same thing we had with “you don’t fall through the chair” – nevertheless, words communicate, don’t they?

So, “Who is this person that I love?” Well, there is a person. There’s a whole history, like a whole continuum of moments of awareness and objects that they are aware of, and all of that’s been influenced by all the people that they’ve ever met, and all the things that they’ve ever done, and their emotions, and stuff like that. So, who am I in love with? Well, the person. I could label the person. Everybody else could label a person, but whatever characteristics and things I ascribe to this person is based on my own personal dictionary of these concepts. Is there a person? Yes, there is a person. How do you establish that there’s a person? Well, because I have this concept “a person.” How do I know this person? Well, on the basis of a body. I can’t just know the person, so a body is appearing, or I’m thinking about something that they did, or something like that. We don’t have to fill in everything that we’ve discussed before.

When we come across explanations, which say, “Try to find your mind. Is it up your nose? Does it have a color?” – things like this, if you don’t have all this background, as I said earlier, the conclusion of that is to say, “So what?” But if we understand it in the context of this whole presentation, this whole progression of understanding, then what is it talking about? It’s talking about, “You can’t find a thing called mind, with “plastic” around it, with something on its own side, a defining characteristic that’s making it mind, that you can give the word “mind” to.

Where is the hand? Well, is the hand in this finger, or that finger, or that finger? Where is the finger? Can you find a finger? Well, there’s the joints. Is it just that joint, or that joint? You can’t find anything. Is there a hand? Sure, there is a hand. So how do you establish that? Well, the concept “hand,” and it refers to something: it can do things, and so on. Then we get into trouble, “Oouh! My hand is ugly,” and “Uuah! My fingers are too short,” and so on. Then we have to go back to what we were saying before, “Well, it’s relative to various things. There’s nothing on its own side that makes it ugly, or short, and so on.”

We are not denying the existence of things. When we talking about voidness, we’re talking about an absence of these impossible ways of existing, as a real referent thing that you can find, that you can point to, that the words and concepts are – you see, in English we can make the difference – that the words and concepts correspond to. They don’t “correspond” to these things; they “refer” to something. “To correspond” would be that it actually sits out there in a box called “red,” or the box of “good,” or the box of “bad,” like in a dictionary entry. So, it’s devoid of that. That’s impossible. Nothing exists like that. But our words do refer to something, and we know them, and other people would agree, and so on.

This is very, very subtle. I exist; you exist; but what establishes that I exist? Is it something on my own side? Is it findable, a defining characteristic that makes “me” me? “I’m special,” we have all these very funny concepts. We’re individual, that’s true. I am not you, but is there something special that makes “me” me. We could say, “Well, this genome.” But what’s the genome? It has all the parts, and is it this part, or that part? What is there that’s findable, that makes “me” me. But we think that there is something that makes “you” you, therefore you are special, and I need to be loved by you. Somebody else doesn’t count. I have to be loved by you. When we understand this view, we’re able to deconstruct on a much, much deeper level the confusion that causes our suffering.

If we have a very disturbing type of love, with attachment and desire, and we feel miserable when we’re not with the person, and so on, then we have to apply these gradual stages of analysis to “Why do I love this person?” “What’s a person?” “What is it that I’m loving?” “What is it that I’m so attached to?” and “Who is the me that feels that somehow I’m going to gain something from having this love.” This is the way that we work with this understanding, this understanding of voidness, and deconstruct these various things.

Then we find a more reasonable basis for loving the other person, not because “You’re so special!” or this or that, what I have as a concept of “beautiful,” and so on. We’re left with everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, so we wish you to be happy.

“Maybe some karmic connection..,” so then we have to get into the voidness of cause and effect of the special connection that we might have. ”Where is that special connection?” “What is it?” “How does it exist?” “Is it some findable bond between us, like some sort of stick that attaches two balls?” “What is it?” – analysis, further and further and further.

Why do I love you? Well, I could say, “Because you’re nice to me and make me feel good. You show affection to me,” and so on. But that’s my own definition. Maybe you could find it in a dictionary also, of “What is lovable.” But, from your own side, are you really lovable? And what is it “you show me affection.” Is it always the same in every single moment? What did you actually do? Was it your finger touching me? Was it your palm touching me? Was it another part? What was it? Where was it? So we deconstruct, “Ooh! I love you, because of this and that,” and so on, and it’s not that we’re left with no emotion whatsoever. But there is no exaggeration there; there is no disturbance there. And we’re left with warm affectionate feelings for everybody. Everybody is equal.

On this basis of an equal attitude toward everyone, with no favorites, then we can function as a Buddha, eventually, to be able to help everybody. Of course some people will be more receptive to us than others. That’s something else. But our willingness, our attitude toward everybody is the same – no favorites.

Let’s end here with a dedication. We think, whatever understanding, whatever positive force, may it go in this direction, to be able to understand voidness like this, so that we are best able to help everybody with this equal attitude and understanding.