Doctrinally Based & Automatically Arising Impossible “Me”

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We have been speaking about the importance of understanding voidness, whether we speak in terms of self-voidness or other-voidness, and we’ve seen that it is necessary for overcoming and achieving a true stopping of the true sufferings that we all experience and the true origins or causes of that suffering. We’ve also seen that there are many different levels of sophistication in the understanding of voidness. With self-voidness, we’re talking about an absence of something impossible. 

  • Voidness in Gelug is the refutation and total absence of impossible ways of establishing the existence of something. Gelug masters, however, do not refer to their assertions of voidness as “self-voidness.”
  • In non-Gelug, it is the refutation and total absence of conventional objects, all of which are established in impossible ways. 

With other-voidness, we’re talking about the subtlest level of mind, the clear-light mind – the level of mind that is devoid of certain other phenomena. We want to harness this clear-light mind for having non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of what is impossible, whether or not the system asserting other-voidness calls this cognized voidness “self-voidness.” Some systems restrict the term self-voidness to only the voidness of what is impossible that can be cognized conceptually and do not apply it to the voidness cognized non-conceptually.

We also saw in our discussion of self-voidness that when we talk about an absence of what is impossible, we can speak of this in terms of persons and of all phenomena. In the most general terms, this can be discussed in terms of a lack of an impossible “soul” of persons and a lack of impossible “souls” of all phenomena. 

We also mentioned grasping for an impossible “soul” of persons and for an impossible “soul” of all phenomena. Our minds give rise to a deceptive appearance representing an impossible “soul,” and “grasping” for it literally means “cognitively taking it.” We cognitively take this deceptive appearance in two senses – we take it as a cognitive object – we cognize it – and we take it to correspond to reality – we believe it is true. Our grasping can be doctrinally based – we learned about this way of existing from some Indian non-Buddhist tenet system, and we believe it to be true. Or it could be automatically arising. The representation of an impossible soul that appears in each of these two cases is different. I’ll explain that difference shortly. 

Our grasping at an impossible “soul” is accompanied by what’s usually translated as “ignorance,” but I prefer the word “unawareness.” “Ignorance” implies being stupid. It’s not that we’re stupid, but depending on which definition we follow, we either don’t know that this deceptive appearance is false or, because of being unaware that it’s false, we take it in an inverted way – in the opposite way in which it actually exists. 

If we use the general word “voidness” in relation to both persons and all phenomena, and we speak in a way that covers all the various tenet systems, then we also saw that it’s important first to work on understanding the voidness of persons – first ourselves and then everybody else – and then go on to the voidness of all phenomena. 

For the time being, we are restricting our discussion to the Gelug presentation. 

The Doctrinally-Based Impossible “Soul” of Persons 

Let’s speak about the doctrinally-based impossible “me” or impossible “soul” of persons. This is speaking about a “soul,” or an atman as is asserted in one of the Indian non-Buddhist systems. We identify ourselves with such a soul or self and think that’s “me,” that’s who I really am. This impossible “soul” has, in general, three characteristics: 

  • It is unaffected by anything – in other words, it’s static; it never changes
  • It is partless – it’s a monolith 
  • It can exist independently of a body and mind when liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. 

When we identify with this impossible “soul” or atman, we are identifying with the whole package of all three characteristics, not just one or two.

Let’s look more closely at what these three characteristics are. First of all, we have to understand that Gelug is not denying that there is a self or a person. Gelug Prasangika uniquely asserts that when not analyzed from a conventional or ultimate point of view, there is a self or person that exists as a “mere conventionality” (kun-rdzob-tsam) that is not to be refuted. When analyzed, however, from either of these points of views, no conventionally existent person or self can be found. According to the Gelug non-Prasangika systems, on the other hand, there is a conventionally existent self or person, devoid of existing in an impossible way, that is still left unrefuted. To simplify the discussion, let’s call the self that is not to be refuted the “conventionally existent ‘me’” and the self to be refuted the “false ‘me.’”  

What we are refuting here is that the deceptive appearance that our minds project of a false self or “me” that has these three characteristics corresponds to the conventionally existent “me.” The non-Prasangika systems say that our minds project this deceptive appearance onto the conventionally existent “me,” while Prasangika asserts that neither the conventionally existent “me” nor the “me” that is a mere conventionality can be found upon analysis. Therefore, there is nothing findable onto which the false “me” is projected. 

Despite this difference, all Buddhist systems, whether Mahayana or Hinayana, assert a conventionally existent “me,” a person or an individual. All of these Buddhist systems say that it is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of an individual continuum of aggregate factors that make up each moment of experience. Without going into the five aggregates, which would take a long time to explain, let’s reduce them to a body and a mind. An imputation phenomenon is something that cannot exist and cannot be known separately from a basis. The conventionally existent “me,” then, can neither exist nor be known separately from a body and a mind as its basis. It is on the basis of an individual continuum of a body and a mind – or in more detail, a body, a type of consciousness, something seen or heard, a feeling of some level of happiness, and various emotions – that we exist and can be known as “me.” 

We can conceptually label this “me” with the concept of “me,” the category me, that we have of ourselves and designate this “me” with the word “me.” But the “me” is not the concept “me” or the word “me,” and the “me” is not the basis – each moment of experience. The “me” is what the concept and word “me” refer to in the context of this basis. Technically, the “me” is the referent object (btags-chos) of the imputation.

We can understand this with the analogy of a particular movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance. What is Pirates of the Caribbean? There is a movie Pirates of the Caribbean, isn’t there? Now, what is Pirates of the Caribbean? It is not the title “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the title is not the actual movie, and it’s not any particular second or moment of the movie. We don’t just see one moment of the movie, and that’s it. Every moment of the movie doesn’t play simultaneously, does it? We only have one moment of the movie at a time, in a proper sequence, a logical sequence that makes sense, moment to moment, connected by a plot. So, what is the movie Pirates of the Caribbean? It’s what the title refers to on the basis of the continuity of all those moments. 

To repeat, the movie is not the title. It’s not any of the moments. The movie doesn’t exist separately from moments of the movie, nor is it the same as any moment of the movie. Even if we took all the moments and laid them out on the floor, they’re still not the movie. Nevertheless, there is a movie Pirates of the Caribbean, and we can experience it by watching it. 

It’s the same thing in terms of the conventional “me.” There are all the moments of an individual stream of continuity of experience. There is the word me, like the title of the movie, that can be designated on this stream. This individual me could even have a specific name in a particular lifetime, like “Sasha” or “Lena” or whatever, right? But Sasha and Lena are not just names, they refer to persons. That “me” doesn’t exist separately from these moments of experience, and it’s not the same as any moment, and the moments don’t play all at the same time, and so on. However, on the basis of this conventional “me,” we take responsibility for our lives, for what we experience based on karmic cause and effect, for how we interact with others, etc. 

Both the Hinayana and Mahayana systems agree that the mental continuum has no beginning, and Mahayana says it also has no end. Within Hinayana, there are differences of opinion in terms of having an end, but we won’t go into that. Since the mental continuum is eternal – no beginning, no end – so is the conventional “me” that is an imputation phenomenon on it as its basis. The conventional “me” has no beginning and no end. Buddhism, then, asserts that the conventional “me” is eternal, its lasts forever and no one created it. It is always individual; even when we become Buddhas, it retains its individuality. 

“Individual,” however, does not mean that we’re all totally separate entities, encapsulated in plastic and unable to interact with each other, so please make a clear distinction between “individual” and “separate” or “isolated.” Individuals interact with each other, but still retain their individuality. Based on the karmic potentials we build up from our compulsive behavior, in some lifetimes the aggregates that are the basis for “me” may be those of a human being, or those of an animal, an insect, a god, a ghost, or whatever. The life form with which we are born can go up and down. And it’s not that we all become one when liberated or enlightened. We’re not all one, like one big undifferentiated soup. 

The First Characteristic: Static 

The first characteristic of the doctrinally-based impossible “me” is that it’s static – it never undergoes any changes because it is unaffected by anything. The technical term for that characteristic feature is usually translated as “permanent,” but “permanent” can have two meanings: “eternal” or “not changing.” Here it doesn’t mean eternal because Buddhism says that the conventional “me” is eternal. Here, this word permanent means unaffected by anything, static, it never changes. It means a “me” that never changes. We’re unaffected, for instance, by age. “My body may ache – but me, I’m young inside; I’m always the same.” Or what a prostitute might think: “You can have my body, but you can’t have me. I am unaffected by whatever you do to my body.” 

The Second Characteristic: One

The second characteristic – and these characteristics, as I say, all come in one package and, in many ways, they’re describing the same package from different points of view – this second characteristic is given with the word “one” in Sanskrit or Tibetan, but what we have to understand is that this means a partless monolith. The aspect of “one and the same,” which is also a meaning of “one,” is covered already by the characteristic of being static, of never changing. 

Now, there are two variants for being a partless monolith. Some non-Buddhist Indian systems say that the atman, the self, is the size of the universe, without any parts. Other systems say that actually it is the size of a tiny particle or atom with no parts, like a spark of life. Being the size of the universe in one of these systems is referring to the equivalency of atman and Brahman, and everybody is one with the whole universe. It’s just an illusion of being individual and separate, enclosed in this body. But there are other non-Buddhist Indian systems that assert that the self is the size of the universe, and not all of them are talking about the atman-Brahman equivalency. So, don’t reduce it to just one system; there are many Indian non-Buddhist systems. The other variant is that the self or the atman is like a tiny little spark of life, like the size of an atom with no parts. It’s the idea of a soul that, like a spark of life, never changes, is unaffected by anything, and comes into a body and mind and activates and animates it, and then goes on to enter, activate and animate another body and mind. 

The Third Characteristic: Independent

The third characteristic is that it is independent. That means that when it achieves liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, it continues to exist totally independently of a body or mind. 


In addition, there are two main variations of this atman that is unaffected by anything, a partless monolith and, when liberated, continues independently of a body and mind. Both agree, however, that when the atman enters a body or mind, it makes use of it as its possession.

  • One is the Samkhya position, that this type of atman, or “soul,” or “me,” has a quality of passive awareness but without being aware of any object. When in a body, it animates the equivalent of a brain to know objects. 
  • The other position, the Nyaya one, asserts that it doesn’t have any quality of awareness; but again, when in a body it animates the equivalent of a brain so that there is awareness of things. 

Both agree that a brain, as merely a piece of matter, is not aware of anything, otherwise a severed brain in a bottle would have awareness.

As my teacher always pointed out, we shouldn’t think that these systems are stupid. They are very sophisticated, very complex, and provide a complete worldview. If we examine ourselves, we see that many of the aspects of this type of impossible “me” are what we think about ourselves. We don’t have time to go into a deep analysis of how we hold some of these Indian non-Buddhist views. but it is a very helpful and useful thing to contemplate. 

But we do think like that. It seems like there is some sort of independently existing “me” inside us that’s talking in our head. After all, who’s the author of the voice in our head and who makes use of the various things that we have. We think, “I possess an intellect, so I’ll use my mind to try to figure this out.” That’s like, “I possess a cow, so I’ll use it to get some milk.” 

That type of “me” is impossible. There is no such thing, there never was, and there never will be. In the Buddhist training, we work through a tremendous amount of logical reasoning to identify the logical inconsistencies of all the aspects of this type of belief, whether from the side of it being a passive awareness or the side of it not having any awareness at all. 

We can develop all sorts of disturbing emotions based on a belief that we exist in the manner of this impossible “me.” We might think, “I am the whole universe, so I own everything, and I can make use of whatever you think is yours, because actually, it’s mine.” 

Such an atman having these three characteristics is what’s called the “gross or coarse impossible ‘me,’ or the impossible ‘soul’ of a person” and it is doctrinally based. Someone had to teach us that and we had to accept it as true. The first step of our understanding of self-voidness – if we may ascribe it to Gelug just for the sake of our discussion – is to understand that there’s no such thing as this type of “soul,” or “person,” or “me.” There is a total absence of such a thing. That’s what self-voidness means – a total absence. There is no such thing as this manner of existence of a person. 

Automatically Arising Impossible “Soul” of Persons 

Then, we also all have a subtle level of unawareness and confusion about how we exist. Nobody had to teach us this; nobody had to train us or indoctrinate us in this type of “me.” Whether we still have this doctrinally-based unawareness and grasping for a coarse impossible “me,” or we realize that there’s no such thing, still this automatically arising unawareness will be there. 

The technical term for this subtler type of impossible “me” is a “self-sufficiently knowable ‘me.’” That means a “me” that can be cognized all by itself without first cognizing its basis for imputation, followed immediately by simultaneously cognizing “me” and its basis. For the benefit of our Tibetan scholar here, this is the term “rangkya tubpe dze-yokyi dag” (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod-kyi bdag), a very difficult term. 

When we grasp for this subtle impossible “me,” we look at ourselves in the mirror, for instance, and see a face that is perhaps a bit fat, old, wrinkled, with gray hair, and we say, “That’s not me. That’s not who I am,” as if there were a “me” that exists and can be known separately from this body. When we grasp for a coarse impossible “me” on top of this, we grasp for ourselves to exist instead as the ever-youthful person we looked like when we were young. 

Alternatively, when we look at the reflection of our face in the mirror, with grasping for this subtle impossible “me,” we think, “I see myself.” Now, we don’t think, “I see a face, and on the basis of the face, I see the imputation phenomenon ‘me.’” We don’t think that. We think, “I see myself in the mirror,” as if we existed self-sufficiently, all by ourself, “I see myself.” Or with respect to somebody else, I can think and say, “I know Sasha,” as if I could know a Sasha all by himself. It’s not that I know a personality, I know the sight of a body, I know experiences of conversations, and on the basis of that, I know Sasha. No. Simply, “I know Sasha.” Or. “I see Sasha. There he is.”

If we analyze speaking on the telephone with anybody – now, this becomes really very, very strange, because we say, “I hear Sasha on the telephone. I’m speaking with Sasha.” Well, what are we hearing? We’re hearing a vibration of some membrane in some device that’s activated by some electronic impulse that was somehow transmitted by a voice vibration in some other device, and on the basis of all that, we say, “I’m speaking to Sasha.” 

We can get a little bit more intimate than that in terms of our emotional well-being. Most of us will have the experience of thinking, “I want you to love me for me. Don’t love me for my looks, don’t love me for my money, don’t love me for my intellect. Love just me. Love me for myself,” or “You don’t really know me.” “Love me.” Then, of course, we have all sorts of disturbing emotions associated with that. “You don’t really love me,” etc. We get angry and experience lots of suffering. “You don’t appreciate me.” We can come up with more and more examples as we start to really think about it. 

All of this automatically arises. Nobody had to teach us this. The horrible thing about it is that it feels like we exist like that, and because it feels like that, then we believe it to be true. It feels like that because the mind gives rise to an appearance of us existing like that. “Appearance” doesn’t necessarily mean visual; it makes an appearance of just feeling like that. It feels like there is some “me” that somehow either is inside me, “Hi. Here I am!” or is something that can be known and loved all by itself for itself. “I’m expressing myself.” 

There are a lot of disturbing emotions that are either doctrinally based or automatically arising, and as we work with this material, we discover more and more. Like, for instance, “I’m alienated from my body,” “I’m alienated from my feelings.” That’s implies a “me” that exists and can be known independently from a body and feelings and that feels alienated from them. That’s pretty strange, actually. Or we get all sorts of strange dualistic ideas as well: “I’m going to India to find myself.” Right! or “I’m sorry, last night I was not myself. I was drunk. I was not myself. That wasn’t really me. Now I’m going to give myself a scolding, ooh, you were bad yesterday!” It’s dualistic, isn’t it? There’s a “me” that was bad, and then the “me” that is the judge, the parent. “Ooh, I’ve been too hard on myself. I have to treat myself better.” 

All of this automatically arises. Nobody had to teach us to think like that. We have a tremendous number of disturbing emotions and amount of suffering that comes from these distorted views. There are no such things as these two types of impossible “me,” although, of course, conventionally, we do exist. 

Why don’t we take a moment to digest that before we go on? “I have to stretch my legs,” as if we own the legs, and now we’re going to get up and stretch them. 

I think perhaps this is a good moment to ask if there are any questions about what we’ve been discussing so far. 


The movie we were talking about, does it exist separately from the watcher – from the one who goes to the movie? Can we speak of a movie without talking about the subject seeing it? 

Does the movie exist without the watcher, the person who sees a movie? Well, this gets a little bit complex, because we could, of course, have a movie playing in a theater with nobody sitting there watching it. This is too simplistic an answer. Is there a movie playing? Well, we don’t know; somebody would have to go into the theater to check, and if they check, then the existence of the movie is established by a relation to a mind. If nobody went into the theater, there would be no way of establishing that there was a movie playing in it or not. Or we would have to check with the projector, or with the electricity meter, or something like that, to know whether or not it played. 

In terms of our lives, there should also be someone to watch the experiences and perceive them, because if you liken it to a movie, the analogy of a movie, there should be watchers or a watcher who perceives them, in order to say, “me.” 

The question is, if we use this analogy for our lives, then there should be a watcher or observer that experiences what’s going on. Well, certainly a conventional “me” does experience our lives, but that conventional “me” is not something that is separate from our lives, watching it, like sitting in a theater in our head and watching what comes up on the screen of our eyes. It’s not separate from it. It’s not identical with it either. It’s not that it goes into one body and then exits and enters another body and watches the movie that’s playing in each. It can’t be known separately from the whole experience, but there certainly is someone that experiences things and does things. 

If I were a traditional Zen teacher and I had been asked a question like that, I would have gotten up and hit you with a stick. And then my question would be, “Did anybody experience that?” in order to have you reaffirm that there is a conventional “me” that experienced being hit. But I am not a traditional Zen teacher. 

The question is about the Buddhist faith or belief or trust and confidence. You said earlier that only aryas perceive the truth or the validity of those statements we’ve been talking about here. We can’t perceive them, we can’t verify them, so we have to only believe them or take them for granted or have faith in them. So, some people, unlike us, not Buddhists, don’t have faith in those postulates, those truths. How can we convince them or prove those truths, or prove ourselves right, and so forth? 

The question is only aryas know the four noble truths to be true – this is what they perceive as true, based on their non-conceptual cognition of them. We, as ordinary beings, do not perceive them and don’t know that they are true based on seeing them. Therefore, we have to accept that they are true on faith or some sort of belief, so trust, and so on. Then, if that’s the case with us, how could we convince somebody else who is not receptive to these views? 

First of all, I should point out that the Indian non-Buddhist schools assert suffering, its causes, its stopping or cessation, and a pathway mind of understanding that brings about this stopping. Buddha saw that these were not truly the deepest levels of suffering, its causes, its stopping and the pathway of understanding to bringing about a true stopping. He taught another set of these four, and aryas see these as true. Therefore, they are called “the four arya truths,” the four noble truths. When we believe that the Indian non-Buddhist versions of the four are true, we have doctrinally-based grasping for them to be true. But since most of us have not even heard of the Indian non-Buddhist versions of the four, we simply need to be convinced that the four that Buddha taught are true. So, the question concerns us ordinary Western people who have not studied and accepted these Indian non-Buddhist views in this lifetime.  

Well, it’s very hard to convince somebody else of anything if they are not open-minded and receptive. Even if we debate with them with logic, they might not accept what we say. This was stated by Shantideva, actually, that we can really only have a debate or discussion with somebody if we have certain things shared in common. One of the things that must be shared in common is an acceptance of logic, and that logic proves or disproves assertions. That means if what we believe is refuted by it being shown to be illogical, then we agree not to accept it anymore. If a person doesn’t accept logic and says, “I don’t care what you say. This is what I believe. This is the way it is because it’s beyond what anybody can comprehend,” then it’s hopeless. There’s no way of convincing the person, unless they then accept miraculous powers, and we pull a rabbit out of a hat, or something like that, and then they believe us. 

However, when we say that these four noble truths are facts that are known as true by aryas, and ordinary folk would not think that they are true – like, for example, that there can be an end to suffering forever, not just that we can suppress it for a while, but it’s going to come back, so the best we could do is to learn to live with it and make the best of it – we mean that, despite this point, we can, as practitioners, have confidence in these four facts, these four noble truths, before we become an arya. It’s just that our level of conviction in them will not be based on non-conceptual cognition of them. It will be based on logic and be conceptual.

There are many stages of becoming convinced of the truth of something, and it all starts with being receptive. We start by being curious, I suppose, and listening with an open mind to some Buddhist teaching. Then, we have what’s called “indecisive wavering” – “I don’t really know if it’s correct or not. I wonder, maybe it’s correct, maybe it’s incorrect, but I’m interested, so I’ll investigate further.” Then, we have presumption, which is basically that we don’t really understand why this is true, but we will presume that it is true and then see what follows. 

Next, we use inference; based on logic, we infer that something is correct. There are many valid lines of reasoning that we can use to gain an inferential understanding, so we would start with the line of reasoning used to gain conviction that the Buddha is a valid source of information. If Buddha is a valid source of information, and this is based not just on faith, or “I like the Buddha,” or something like that, but if we are convinced through logic that there’s no reason why Buddha would lie or make something up because the only reason he was able to become a Buddha was compassion to help others, then we gain conviction that what he said is true. 

We shouldn’t think of this in terms of faith or something like that, because we can validly know things that way. For instance, how do we know when our birthday is? How do we know? We have conviction that our mother is not lying to us, and so when our mother tells us we were born on such and such a day, or we see it written on some certificate in a hospital, we take this as a valid source of information. There’s no way we could have known when our birthday was just by ourselves, right? This inference that something is true because the source of information is reliable is very basic. “What’s my name?” Somebody had to tell us. 

Then there is valid inferential understanding based on logic and reasoning. All these discussions about voidness are based on logic. Long before we become an arya, we could become convinced that it is possible to get rid of suffering forever such that it will never return if we’ve understood the logical reasons for it – namely, the logic proving self-voidness. At first, we will have to go through these lines of reasoning, the logic, in order to renew our conviction that voidness is true and that it is correct that it is the direct opponent to unawareness, ignorance. Our understanding of voidness at this stage is very much dependent on going through a line of reasoning. 

Eventually, with enough familiarity, we don’t have to directly rely on the line of reasoning. We don’t have to go through the line of reasoning every time we want to meditate or focus on voidness, but still we would focus on it conceptually through a category like “no such thing,” or any of the categories of this is a “true stopping” or a “true cause of suffering.” With enough familiarity with the conceptual cognition and enough buildup of positive force, our cognition of voidness and our conviction that the understanding of voidness is the true pathway mind that leads to a true stopping of true problems and their true causes will be non-conceptual.

Let’s use a simpler example of how we become convinced that there is no chocolate in the house. If we think about it logically, if there were chocolate in the house, it could only be here, or there, or there, or there. If we look in all the possible places where it could be and don’t find any chocolate, then we have to logically conclude: if it’s not in any of these places, there is no chocolate in the house. We focus on “there is no chocolate” by going through the line of reasoning, “It wasn’t here, it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there, so there is none.” 

It’s not so easy because we really don’t want to believe that we don’t have any chocolate in the house or that we actually lost our keys when we can’t find them after looking everywhere in the house where we could have left them. We don’t want to accept that, and so again we look everywhere in the house for some chocolate; we look through every pocket and drawer for the keys. Eventually, we have to give up and decide, “There is no chocolate” or “I lost my keys,” but we don’t want to do that. It’s the same issue with looking for this impossible “me” – it’s very hard to give up our belief that this is who we are. We don’t want to give it up, even though we know logically that there is no such thing. 

At the next stage in our search for chocolate or our keys, we don’t have to continue to look everywhere in the house for the chocolate or to look through all our pockets for the keys. We don’t have to rely on the logical reasoning: “If it’s not there, we don’t have it.” Nevertheless, in order to focus on this conclusion, we still need to recall it through the category no chocolate or no keys. So, it’s the middle of the night, we really did want some chocolate, but we looked before and we know there is no chocolate, so we don’t have to look again in order to convince ourselves. Nevertheless, when the craving comes up again, we have to remind ourselves and think, “Oh, no chocolate.” So, it’s the same category, “no chocolate.” As we would say in America, “Tough luck, baby. No chocolate.” 

Eventually, we might reach the point where we don’t really have to think in terms of this category; we just know there is no chocolate. We don’t have to search; we don’t have to think in terms of this category, this concept of “no chocolate,” we just know it. That would be the non-conceptual cognition of it. So, we just eat something else while being fully aware that there is no chocolate. We don’t have to think again, “no chocolate,” and we don’t have to look again. 

Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but I think that this gives at least a little bit of an idea of what we’re talking about here when we talk about conceptual and non-conceptual cognition, logic, and so on, and how we know something is true. However, through all these stages, the level of conviction is different: “I think maybe there’s some chocolate in the house.” “Well, I think there’s no more chocolate left.” “I will presume that there isn’t any, but I’ll look anyway to just make sure.” Then, “I didn’t find any, so there isn’t any.” The conviction gets stronger and stronger. 

Excuse me for taking a little bit long to answer your question, but it reveals another aspect of this teaching, which is, how do we know anything or be convinced of anything? These are stages that apply to understanding voidness, whether we’re speaking about self-voidness or other-voidness. How do we know there’s such a thing as a clear-light, subtlest level of mind? “I don’t know from my own experience, but Buddha spoke of it.” We start there and then reason, “Why would Buddha lie?” We could be convinced logically that there is such a level of mind, but until we actually experience it, and not through thinking, “Ah, yes, a clear-light mind,” but actually experiencing it non-conceptually, then our level of conviction will not be 100% full. 

The clear-light mind is, by nature, non-conceptual. If in meditation we think, “Ah, this is the clear-light mind,” then that’s a very obvious indication that it’s not, because that thought is conceptual. We could experience the clear-light mind and not know what it is – the term is usually we don’t “recognize” it – and that happens at the time of death. That’s no big deal. In order to be convinced of it, we have to not only experience it, but recognize it for what it is, but not conceptually. This is quite difficult. There are many stages to that, of course. When I see Sasha, do I have to think “Sasha” in order to recognize him? Do I need a concept of “Sasha” in order to know who he is when I see him? Do I need to fit the Sasha I see now into the category Sasha that includes all the other times I’ve seen him to know that it is still Sasha. But doesn’t that give the impression that he is static and hasn’t changed at all? These are interesting questions. 

That’s why we have to be very careful about our Western terminology. In English, we could say that we recognize Sasha non-conceptually by just seeing him and not necessarily conceptually through fitting him in the category and concept we have of Sasha. In Buddhist terminology, we would only use “recognize” for the conceptual cognition of him, since there we are cognizing him again, having cognized him before, and comparing what we cognize now with all the times we have cognized him before. Afterall, “recognize” literally means to cognize something again. 

When we hear terminology like “recognize the clear light mind,” that’s a misleading translation. It’s “to know the face of it.” We know it by distinguishing it from what is not it. That doesn’t have to be a conceptual process; it could be non-conceptual. Like, for instance, a baby or an animal can distinguish light from dark, or hot from cold. They don’t have to have any words, any concepts for them, but they can distinguish between the two. That just underlines the need to learn and understand definitions. 

Let’s end here for this evening, and tomorrow we’ll go further in our discussion of self-voidness and look at the impossible ways in which we imagine and project that all phenomena exist, and then we’ll get into the discussion of other-voidness. 

Please dedicate in your own words and thoughts the positive force built up from this to the attainment of enlightenment for everyone.

Now, after the dedication, we can pick ourselves up and take ourselves outside. Do we think like that? This is the question, right? The alarm clock goes off in the morning and we talk to ourselevs, “Oh come on, Alex. Get up. Get up, Alex.” I’m going to get myself up and start the day. This is the impossible “me.”