Nonstatic Phenomena as Static

How to Integrate the Teachings

Before we began today, I asked you to try to remember the main points of what we discussed last evening. This is a very important thing to try to do after we have heard a lecture, or after we’ve read something. I am not just referring to reading a newspaper or an advertisement on a storefront, I’m talking about when we read something that we’re trying to learn, whether it’s Dharma or anything else. After reading something or listening to a teaching, then just immediately after, we try to recall what the main points were. That way it makes a deeper impression on the mind. The next day as well, we see what it is that we remember.

We take notes because sometimes our memories are not that good, or they’re not very accurate, but it’s not sufficient to just rely on our notes. It’s like, for instance, when the time of our death comes, we can’t say to death, “Wait a minute. I have to go get my notes about what I need to be mindful of when I’m dying.” We have to have everything fresh in our minds and be able to have it instantly, as we say in English, “at our fingertips.” 

When we receive a teaching, whether listening orally or reading, we need to try to make an effort to digest it, to remember it, to make it part of ourselves, and not just remember the jokes or funny bits, but remember the essence of what we have heard or read. This is part of the whole process of meditating. Meditation has many different facets to it, and this is one facet of meditation, which is called “review;” it’s like “the reviewing meditation,” sometimes called “glance meditation.”

No matter what type of meditation we’re doing, we need first to remember the instructions. We can’t just sit down and say, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I don’t remember what I’m supposed to do.” So even for the most basic type of meditation, even if it is just something like focusing on the breath, we have to remember, “What am I doing?” and “How do I do it?” and “Why am I doing it?” etc. This reviewing process is not just some intellectual exercise, but it really is part of how we integrate anything.

Often it’s helpful to put things into our own words. If we are a translator, we might need to remember every word that was spoken, so that we can translate it. However, it’s also important to put something into our own words, so that we confirm that we’ve understood it. This is something that we can do either by ourselves, or we can help each other, by working with one other person, or in a group of people. Somebody explains something and the next person has to explain it back in their own words. This way, we help each other to understand.

The Tibetan monks and nuns train by debating, which is basically challenging each other’s understanding by asking questions, and trying to make sure that the other person is consistent in their understanding, that they don’t contradict themselves. Even if we don’t get into debate and logic, which is not absolutely necessary, unless we really want to go deeply; nevertheless, if we just simply ask each other what our understanding is, and if that understanding is incorrect, then correct each other, or go back to tapes, go back to notes, etc., then, we will clarify things. This is the process by which we can gain a more correct and accurate understanding.

Here is where motivation comes in, because we really need to want to get a clear understanding. If we don’t care, then we just go to a teaching, and we’re there, but it goes in one ear and out the other, and that’s it. It becomes maybe a social event, and that’s all. We have to really want to understand and this depends upon our motivation. There are many levels of motivation and Buddhism presents a whole course of training to develop stronger and stronger motivation, but there’s no need to go into that in any detail.

Review of Voidness and Projection

Yesterday, we began our discussion of voidness, or emptiness, and we saw that voidness speaks about an absence, an absence of something that was never there. We’re not just talking about an object that was never there like there was never the president of Italy in this room. He could have been in this room, but he’s never been in this room. We’re not talking about the absence of an object, a thing, like a person, or a car, in the middle of this room. We’re talking about the absence of something that is impossible, and not just an impossible thing, like a monster, but an impossible way of existing. There are some things that don’t exist, for example, monsters don’t exist; however, there are things that do exist, but that don’t exist in impossible ways.

By the way, the difference between what exists and what doesn’t exist, from a Buddhist point of view, is whether something can be validly known. Some crazy person might think that they are Napoleon or Cleopatra, but that’s not valid because everybody else would contradict that. They would say, “Come on, you are not Cleopatra.”

We also discussed projection, which concerns the mind projecting something onto various things. Some things that the mind projects can deal with just what something is. Like, for instance, we may see something out in the field and the mind projects that it’s a human being; but when we get closer, we discover that that’s not true; it’s inaccurate. It was a scarecrow. So that’s an inaccurate projection that it’s a human being. Nevertheless, we can also see something in the distance that’s not very clear. We’re not quite sure what it is and we project that it is a human being. Then, we get closer and we discover that it was in fact a human being; it’s true. So this projection was accurate.

I am sure we’ve had experiences like this, maybe not in terms of a human being and a scarecrow, but we see somebody in the distance, walking toward us on the street, and we think it’s our friend, but we can’t see very clearly. Then we get closer, and sometimes it was correct, it was our friend; sometimes it was incorrect, it was just somebody who looked like our friend. However, when we talk about voidness, we’re not talking about a projection of what something is, like our friend or a stranger. We’re talking about a projection of how things exist. We can discuss this on increasingly more subtle levels, but let’s leave it like this for the moment.

Mental Hologram vs. Projection

Voidness, then, is speaking about an absence of impossible ways of existing. We can project what’s possible, or we can project what’s impossible. “Project” is a funny word here, I must say, because at least in English, “project” has the connotation of “incorrect,” what isn’t there. Now it starts to become a little bit complicated because, in order to cognize something, to see it, hear it, or think it in some manner, the mind produces a “mental hologram.”

“Mental hologram” – if we think about that from a scientific point of view, that’s certainly correct. For instance, light hits various rods and cones in the retina, and that’s transmitted as electric impulses and chemical sequences to the brain, and somehow the brain transforms that into, what? I can’t think of another, more descriptive term than a mental hologram; that’s what we see, isn’t it? The mental hologram can be accurate or inaccurate, but do we want to call it a “projection?” I don’t know. Maybe “projection” isn’t so precise a term here, is it?

For instance, if I take my glasses off, then my mind produces, when I look at you, a mental hologram of “colored blurs.” Now is that accurate? No, it’s not accurate. If I put my glasses back on, then there’s a mental hologram of the bodies of people that are in focus. So, some mental holograms are accurate, some are inaccurate. Nobody would agree that this room is filled with colored blurs, would they? Is this “projection?” I don’t know. It’s difficult here using terminology. When we get into Buddhist studies, we make very, very precise distinctions in our terms.

We see an object falling from the table, and what do we actually see? It’s a little bit like a motion picture: in each moment we see the glass in a slightly different position. The glass falling from the table, reaching the floor, and breaking – that whole process doesn’t happen simultaneously in one moment. Here is another type of mental hologram that puts together all these moments, and – what do we see? We see the glass falling from the table and breaking.

Even more amazing is how we understand language. We don’t even hear one word at a time; we only hear a consonant and then a vowel at a time. And yet, we can hear a whole sentence, which takes an interval of time to hear. We only hear one tiny little sound at a time and, nevertheless, there is an audio hologram, as it were, that the mind produces, and we understand the meaning. That’s extraordinary if we think about it. Is that a projection? What do we want to call it? It certainly is something that is produced by the mind, but extremely useful, in fact, necessary; otherwise, we couldn’t communicate with each other.

Discriminating Awareness and Distinguishing

We couldn’t live in this world if we couldn’t, in a mental way, string together sequences. Like, “a rock is approaching us,” and we put it together and see, “Well, if it continues like this, it’s going to hit me.” Of course, we then move. We need this to function. Sometimes we hear the term “mental construct” or “mental constructions,” and many of these are totally not just helpful, but necessary in order to function. This is why we need to develop “discriminating awareness,” to discriminate between what is helpful and what is not helpful, what’s accurate and what’s inaccurate.

Understanding voidness requires “discriminating awareness.” This is the word that often is just translated very loosely as “wisdom,” but “wisdom” is so vague that it doesn’t mean anything. There are many different, very specifically defined terms in Buddhism that many people translate all the same as “wisdom.” This is really not being fair to the tradition, as it’s an over-simplification. Here we are talking about “discriminating awareness” – to discriminate between what is accurate and what is inaccurate, and to discard what is inaccurate by understanding that it does not correspond to what’s actually the case.

Understanding voidness requires discriminating how something exists – or, more precisely, how we establish that something exists: what establishes or proves that something exists, but that’s speaking about voidness on a more subtle level. Let’s speak first in a more general way. 

We all have many mental factors that accompany our various types of consciousness. There are mental factors that accompany our eye consciousness of seeing something, our ear consciousness of hearing something, our mental consciousness of thinking something, and so on. There are many mental factors that accompany each of them. One of the most essential mental factors is “distinguishing.” I distinguish the colored shapes of your body from the colored shapes of the wall. In the visual field of what I see, I see many colored shapes, and I can distinguish one object from another. 

That’s sometimes translated as “recognition,” which is a totally inaccurate way of translating it. It’s talking about “distinguishing.” We do that every moment; otherwise, how could we possibly function? We wouldn’t be able to distinguish the colored shapes of the door from those of the wall, and we would walk into the wall. We have to be able to distinguish objects within a field of perception. That’s correct, isn’t it? If we think about it, what do we see? Do we just see colored shapes? No. We also see objects, don’t we? So how do we know where to draw the line around this set of colored shapes from the colored shapes around them?

This becomes, actually, a very deep and profound question. Are the lines established on the side of the object, or are the lines established from the side of the mind? This becomes a very important point to investigate, but that gets deeper. Especially when we start to look on a sub-microscopic level of the atoms, where are the boundaries of things? Then, it becomes very interesting.

Feeling a Level of Happiness or Unhappiness

There are many, many other mental factors – there are big, long lists of them in the various Buddhist teachings, different lists, not always the same list. Another important one is “feeling.” “Feeling” in Buddhism refers to a level of happiness, unhappiness, or a neutral feeling experienced in extremely deep meditation. There’s a whole range of feelings that can accompany our perception of things. That’s what differentiates us from machines, actually, from cameras or computers. Computers deal with information; we don’t just deal with information: we experience perceiving information with a level of happiness or unhappiness. A computer doesn’t feel happy or unhappy; a robot doesn’t feel happy or unhappy when dealing with sensory information. That’s important when we talk about the aggregates that make up each moment of our experience.  

The aggregate of feeling is only talking about the variable of happiness or unhappiness. It has absolutely nothing to do with the emotions. Emotions are in another category. That’s why sometimes it’s difficult with our languages; we don’t make these types of distinctions very comfortably in our languages. That’s why sometimes we have to just say, “feeling a level of happiness, that’s what we’re talking about,” a little bit longer. Each language has its own particular difficulties in expressing these things. In some languages, it’s easier; in some languages, it’s not so easy.

This is something really to pay attention to in our study of Dharma. Most of the misunderstanding that people have concerning the Buddhist teachings derives from an inaccurate or misleading translation of the terminology. This is what I’ve seen in my experience, and most translators have observed that as well. And we shouldn’t think that we as Westerners are the only ones that have experienced or are experiencing this difficulty. The Chinese had terrible difficulty in understanding the Indian Buddhist terminology, as their language is so different from Indian languages.

Correct Consideration vs. Incorrect Consideration

In any case, the mental factor that I wanted to discuss is “consideration.” It’s the same word as “attention.” There are two facets to it. It is how we pay attention to something and how we consider it. Literally, the word means “taking something to mind.” We have “correct consideration” or “incorrect consideration,” “discordant” or “concordant.” Does it accord with the actual way that things are, or not?

Further, in order to understand voidness, it’s important to approach it in stages. First, we need to understand some of the standard ways in which we incorrectly consider things and see that they are not accurate. We need to discriminate and try to see things more in accordance with how they actually are. Then, when we get to voidness, we’re speaking about how all phenomena and especially “persons” exist – and again this is a difficult word because it is referring to not just human beings, but animals, various life forms with a mind, all individual beings. Voidness also deals, however, with how objects – our computer, our car, etc. – exist.

Static vs. Nonstatic

Now, one variable of how we consider things is whether things are – the usual way that it’s translated is – “permanent” or “impermanent.” We incorrectly consider things that are impermanent as permanent. However, we have to watch out for this term; I don’t like to use it so much. The problem is that these words, permanent and impermanent, can have two very different meanings. One is whether or not something lasts forever or only a short time, and the other meaning is whether or not something changes or remains static so long as it exists. Those are two different variables. In Buddhism in general, when we use this term, we’re not talking about whether or not something is eternal or temporary. We’re talking about whether or not it changes from moment to moment, whether or not something comes to an end, so undergoes a gross change or a moment-to-moment change. But in this context of incorrect consideration, we also use it sometimes to refer to the variable eternal or temporary. In either meaning – static or nonstatic, eternal or temporary – our incorrect consideration can be either doctrinally based – in other words, we were taught this – or it can automatically arise.

Let’s take as an example my body and considering it “always young.” I vaguely acknowledge that I will die someday, but meanwhile, I project that it is always strong, always fit; it has never changed and never will. Somehow, I have this image of myself as being 25-years old, even though I’m 62. This is very common, isn’t it? A 60-year-old man meets a 25-year-old woman, and in the man’s mind, his body is still attractive, like that of another 25-year-old. He has no concept of what he actually looks like. On that basis, the man acts and has an expectation that the 25-year-old woman is going to find him attractive. Usually, he’s very disappointed and frustrated. 

So, our body is changing, getting older and older, and this is an accurate consideration that we need to have. However, sometimes we don’t even want to look at ourselves in the mirror; we just have this image of ourselves as always young. So this is incorrect.

We can be taught this incorrect consideration of our body by the media through advertising, “Wear this beauty cream and be eternally young.” We could get this idea of never changing either “doctrinally based” – based on propaganda, advertising – or we could have it as “automatically arising incorrect consideration.” In that case, nobody had to teach us this; it just automatically arises that we have this image of ourselves as being eternally young, never changing. Here we are mixing eternal and unchanging. 

It’s very interesting. When we are a teenager, we consider somebody who’s 30 “old.” That very quickly changes when we’re 30, as that’s not old anymore, and people who are 50, they are old. Then that changes, and even if we’re 80 years old, that’s not old because the 90-year-olds, they’re old. My mother lived in a retirement village, and everybody there was over 60, and they were all “young.” They were all young; however, the people in the old-age homes, they were old. Of course, the ones in the retirement village, they were young. Interesting, isn’t it?

We have this incorrect consideration of considering something that is nonstatic to be static. It could be our body, or it could be our computer. We project and expect that our computer is always going to work. We don’t really think that the computer is gradually getting older and falling apart and is going to crash. Or how about our CD discs or old videotapes, and things like that? We think things are not changing, but they’re degrading, and eventually they will come to an end, and our things will no longer function. We put the disc in, and now the sound is indistinct, and so on, and eventually, it falls apart. But, we think that it’s not changing, that it’s always the same.

We have the same incorrect consideration about ourselves. We might say to somebody, “This is the way I am; you better learn to live with it!” Or “I have to have that; that’s the way I am.” We think our personality, our likes and needs never change. “You have to accept me the way that I am.” What we have to realize – it’s not quite voidness in the technical sense – but we have to realize that “this is impossible.” A body doesn’t stay the same; a personality doesn’t stay the same. Things change. For instance, depression doesn’t stay the same all the time. Every single moment, do we feel miserable? No. It changes. It goes up and down, even when we are in a so-called depression.

It’s very important then to understand that things that are affected by causes and condition are not static. They’re not because causes and conditions bring them about and affect them to change. For example, we’re in a depression; we feel miserable. Somebody tells us a joke, we laugh. At that moment, when we’re laughing, are we miserable? Obviously not, we are affected by the joke we heard. Because we are affected, we change from moment to moment.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on this in our own experience. Do we have a static image of ourselves, of our personalities, of who we are? Our objects, for example, do we think our computer or our car will always work the same? Let’s take a few moments to reflect on this, and if we discover, as most of us probably will, that we have an image of ourselves or these things as being static, not changing, we need to realize that this is ridiculous. Such misconceptions do not correspond to anything real; they’re not accurate. Then, we try to just cut off the belief in that, “That’s not the way it is.”

This is the reason why I was bringing up, earlier in this lecture, the difference between a mental hologram and a projection. When we see our body or we see somebody else’s body, a mental hologram arises. The mental hologram of our body is not the problem. The problem is how we consider it. When we talk about projection in the Western sense of projection, we’re dealing with this issue. Does a body exist as something that’s static, or does it exist as something that’s changing from moment to moment?

An even better example to examine is “our relationship.” Is a relationship with someone something that is static and stable or is it something that changes from moment to moment? It’s a very clear example, how we think that our relationship is solid and stable. Is it really? We can only hope. 

Buddhism speaks about subtle and gross nonstaticness. The gross nonstaticness is that it will actually end. If we have any relationship with somebody, it will end. Either we’ll die first, or they’ll die first, or we’ll break up. It can’t be forever; it will end. Subtle nonstaticness is that every moment it’s changing and getting closer to its final end. What’s the reason why it ends? Because we met. If we hadn’t met, it wouldn’t end. The argument that we had that caused us to break up – that was just the circumstance for the break-up, not the deepest cause.

It’s like, “What’s the cause of death? The cause of death is birth.” If we weren’t born, we wouldn’t die. This doesn’t mean that we’re fatalistic. We just enjoy the time we have together, realizing full well that the relationship is going to change from moment to moment, and will eventually end. People grow apart. This is the important point that we need to reflect on. If we consider the relationship, or a body, or a personality, or whatever, as being static, never changing, and as being forever, that really causes us a lot of suffering.

“Static” means not affected by anything, as if we were the only person and the only thing in this other person’s life. But that’s not true. Our relationship will be affected by the other person meeting other people, by them changing jobs, by them getting sick, or whatever. It’s affected. Reflect on this. This gets us into the way that we meditate on voidness. It’s like, “There is no Santa Claus. There is no Santa Claus.” There is no stable, unchanging, eternal relationship with anybody. To believe that there is is like believing in Santa Claus. There’s no such thing.


What questions might you have about this?


Is your explanation of voidness based on Nagarjuna?

We haven’t really gotten deep into the specific type of refutation that Nagarjuna makes, but yes, it’s based on Nagarjuna’s teachings.

It seems that voidness is explained in two ways, one way, like yours, can help us to live better, so to consider the impermanence of things will help to perceive things in a more adequate way. And the other way, like Nagarjuna’s, is that things don’t exist.

If we look more carefully at what Nagarjuna says, it’s not that he says there is no such thing as impermanence or moment-to-moment change. The point is, how do we understand what is changing? Is there something sitting there, established by itself, which is changing from moment to moment, or what is going on? Is there some substratum that remains from moment to moment? Is it like a piece of luggage moving on a conveyor belt, that, sure, changes position from moment to moment, but still it’s the same piece of luggage? 

We can go much more deeply into understanding the process of change than we have so far. Nagarjuna is not denying change. He is analyzing how does change work. He is refuting that it occurs in an impossible way, but he’s not denying that everything is changing from moment to moment.

It may be true that things change from moment to moment, but that’s very difficult to realize, to see, and maybe too difficult. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to consider things as changing according to a human rhythm? For example, believing that our relationship is completely static is one extreme and that is wrong; however, on the other side, it’s very difficult to consider it as changing from moment to moment. As a “middle way,” couldn’t we correctly consider it as changing according to a human rhythm?

This is certainly the way that we approach the understanding of impermanence, change. First, we have to understand the gross nonstaticness, or the gross impermanence, that eventually the relationship will end, either in death, or whatever, or eventually the computer will break. We start with this grossest time period. Then we can think in terms of slightly shorter periods of time. We may understand our relationship with somebody has changed from let’s say before we got married, and then after we got married before we had children, and then after we had children until the children grew up and left home. And sure, we understand it changing in larger periods. But then, eventually, we can get it down to moment-to-moment change. Understanding has to be in stages and steps.

To be able to be aware of things changing from moment to moment, we need to be quite sensitive. I think, in a relationship, it’s a little bit easier because while we’re having a conversation with somebody, we can see that the mood and the emotions change. Sometimes there’s good communication; sometimes we don’t really understand what the other person is saying or doing. In that particular example of a relationship, I think it’s a little easier to see moment-to-moment change than it is with our computer or our body.

To get back to your Nagarjuna question, Nagarjuna is always questioning, analyzing. So, for instance, is there some substance that remains the same over a period of change? Like, for instance, milk changes into yogurt, and yogurt changes into cheese. Well, is there some substance that has now changed into three different things, but is the same? Is the milk, the yogurt and the cheese the same thing or are they totally unrelated to each other? How does cause and effect work?

Further, is there some relationship that’s basically “our relationship,” and then it’s changed, “before we’re married,” then “after we’re married,” and so on? Do we make it into a “thing?” If we do, then we get into this really weird mental space of “You’re not relating to ‘our relationship,’” and “What is your relationship to ‘our relationship?’” It starts to become very strange. Is there a basic relationship that has remained always the same, and just the circumstances have changed, or is our relationship totally different after we had children?

We start our understanding on grosser levels; something will eventually destroy and end, and then smaller periods, and then smaller, moment-to-moment periods, and then, eventually, we have to get into the whole analysis of, “If things are changing from moment to moment, how does cause and effect work?” This then gets very, very profound and very subtle.

As we get rid of our projections, we can see more and more clearly, how things really are. I wonder, how are they really?

Well, the thing is, when we work with the understanding of voidness, in dealing with reality and differentiating and discriminating between reality and fantasy, we need to go through stages of understanding. Once we refute a very gross misunderstanding and projection, we have to see what’s left. Once we are able to accept what’s left, like for instance, that things are not stable, static, they’re going to end – the computer will eventually break, or the car will eventually break – we have to accept that. Then, we see what’s left.

What’s left is something that will last for a certain period of time. A marriage starts with the vow, “till death do us part.” So even a marriage relationship will last only for a certain period of time. Then we might be able to understand that our relationship will change from before we have children to after we have them. Once we can recognize that our relationship will go through these larger changes, then what’s left is shorter phases of our relationship. Then, we start to deal with them and get rid of any misunderstandings we might have.

Then, we understand that our relationship is going to change from moment to moment to moment, but then what do we have left when we get rid of our misconceptions about that? But we might still have the misunderstanding that our relationship is like some solid object that’s going through this moment-to-moment change, but is some findable “thing.” Then we have to get rid of that, and then we can go further and analyze even more deeply. 

If from the very beginning, we go to the most subtle understanding and don’t go through these stages, then, in almost all cases – maybe there will be one exception in a billion – but in almost all cases, we just won’t understand, and the subtlest explanation will seem trivial. I’ll give an example. We read in certain texts, let’s say in Kagyu texts, analyzing, “Where is your mind; what color is your mind? Your mind isn’t green, and it isn’t yellow. Is your mind up your nose? Is your mind in your armpit?” Then, OK, we can’t find our mind, and it doesn’t have a color, and then, at the end of that, we say, “So what? Of course, the mind isn’t up my nose, and it isn’t green or yellow. So what?” It doesn’t make any difference; it doesn’t help us. 

However, these questions are very profound if they are asked at the end of a very long, gradual process of analysis. Then, we see what’s the point that they’re getting at. We can’t start with the final point because, as I said, it comes out sounding, “So what?” So, how is it really? There are many, many different levels of answers to that.