Analyzing Voidness with Examples from Daily Life
There was a very loud buzzing sound and I thought that it was the fluorescent light but then Andrey turned off the water cooler over there and the sound was no longer being produced. So now we have an interesting inference. For instance, I could have scratched my head at the same time that he turned off the cooler; so I could have thought that scratching my head eliminated the sound. How do we know that the sound was eliminated by turning off the water cooler? An interesting question. So inference – you have to have some information about it. And I thought that the fluorescent lights were making the sound and they weren’t; so that was a projection onto the fluorescent lights. Now, fluorescent lights can make that sound, can’t they? Still, when he turned off the water cooler, it could be that something happened with the fluorescent lights and that switch caused the florescent lights to stop making the sound. So how do we know?
It becomes a very interesting question, doesn’t it? And that characteristic feature of making a sound, does it exist on the side of the fluorescent lamps, and was it the case that we were doing something that was making the fluorescent lamps make that sound and if we weren’t doing that something, it wouldn’t make the sound? You turn the electricity on and that makes the sound, and you turn the electricity off and it doesn’t make the sound, but that characteristic of making of sound – not by itself – now we’re doing Svatantrika, so it’s not by its own power – but when we turn on the electricity, then it makes the sound. But still that characteristic feature of making the sound is sitting inside that fluorescent lamp. Is that the way that things exist? Where is that characteristic feature of making a sound, of being able to make a sound when the electricity is on?
You take apart the fluorescent lamp, you can’t find it. But does it have a characteristic feature of being able to make a sound? Yes, when the electricity is on. But, in this case, even when the electricity was on, it didn’t make a sound. But maybe we didn’t hear it. Maybe the dog has better hearing; the dog could hear it. So these are the type of things that you start to analyze and work with when you try to understand voidness. In other words, you don’t really restrict your meditation just to a meditation session where you’re sitting nicely and there’s a proper cushion and maybe there’s incense and a candle and all this sort of Hollywood setting.
But in daily life, you try to understand from regular examples your misconceptions. You analyze when you feel, "These horrible fluorescent lamps, they make this horrible sound when they’re on," and you get really angry with these fluorescent lamps. You walk into the room and you see that there are fluorescent lights and you don’t even know whether they make the sound or not, but you already assume that they're going to make some horrible buzz and go, "I hate that kind of room – a terrible place." So, you understand from these examples how disturbing emotions arise based on that type of misconception of how something exists.
Meditation on Emptiness (Voidness)
Anyway, we wanted to do some meditation. We don’t have terribly much time. For meditation on the voidness of the self in the context that we were discussing it, we need to understand first – remember yesterday we were speaking about how the self is imputed on a basis of imputation, and we saw that the context that we work with is the understanding of the aggregates in terms of the four noble truths. And our discussion of the self is the self in relation to body and mind – if we simplify it.
So, first we need to understand and focus on the basis for imputation. That is what we need to establish first in our meditation. We don’t have time to go through the four noble truths and each of the five aggregates so we will just deal with the first: the body. Remember, we said that each of the four noble truths has four characteristics that is has and four that it doesn’t have.
Again, we don’t have time to go through all four, but with the body, let us start with the first characteristic, which is that the body is nonstatic. We need to understand that "nonstatic" has two levels of meaning: that the body changes from moment to moment – that’s gross or coarse impermanence; and subtle impermanence or subtle nonstaticness is that the body is from moment to moment going closer to its end. It’s falling apart like that bottle of milk. It is slowly, moment to moment, getting to the point where it will turn bad.
- When we focus on our body, it’s going to be conceptual – so there’s the category "body."
- And there’s going to be some sort of mental hologram, that represents our body in our meditation, whether we are visualizing it in front of us or just imagining our own body. I mean obviously it is a hologram: it is not that we are aware of every cell in our body simultaneously, are we? We represent it by a hologram and that refers to our body; that’s how you’re focusing on your body.
- What we’re distinguishing is the characteristic feature of it changing from moment to moment and every moment getting closer to its death, closer to its falling apart.
- And we understand that as true suffering. That’s really a drag; it's terrible that it’s like that. Okay?
That's the start of the meditation; that will be the basis of imputation if we’re going to think in terms of what’s the relationship of the “me” with that. Let's spend just five minutes focusing on this. In meditation, what we do is:
- First analyze is this the way that the body is? Is it nonstatic? You have to understand that.
- Then we focus on your body while discerning this characteristic feature of it.
We call that "analytical meditation" – what does that really mean? It means that we discriminate that it’s like this and not like that on the basis of two mental factors. You investigate roughly and then you discern very specifically.
To analyze, we can use all sorts of lines of reasoning. Everything that is affected by causes and conditions changes from moment to moment, so the fact that I eat different things at different times every single day and I sleep and I do different types of exercise and so on – that obviously affects the body, therefore the body is nonstatic, changing from moment to moment. And everything that is produced by an original combination of causes and conditions, in other words things that arise from a specific cause and condition – like the meeting of the sperm and egg of our parents – if that initial cause that gives rise to it doesn’t continue to renew it each moment, then it is slowly going to degenerate. It will degenerate, it will go downhill, fall apart, just by nature. It has to, because there’s nothing sustaining it to renew it in each moment. Therefore, based on that line of reasoning, we conclude that my body is nonstatic.
Then we try to observe that in the body with investigation, which means to just look at it roughly – so to see that in a rough way – and then to observe it with discerning – that’s the same word as "analytical." You discern it in detail, very specifically. So that’s a very active type of mind. The energy is slightly going outwards.
Then you have stabilizing meditation, in which the energy is a little bit more withdrawn, so that you’re not actively discerning these details; you’re just staying focused on the fact that that’s the way that the body is and it is suffering. And if that becomes weak – that way in which you’re holding it, that object, that this is true suffering because of its nonstaticness – then you have to either go through that line of reasoning again if you don’t remember it; or if you do remember it, just discern it in that way.
So you have to know:
- The object that you’re focusing on – the body and that you are focusing on it through the category "my body" and a mental hologram representing that category
- The distinguishing characteristic that we’re focusing on – the body's nonstaticness
- The way in which our attention is engaging with it – with the understanding that this is true suffering, and it really prevents us from always being able to be at our best to be able to help others.
That’s how you meditate. As I said, before we do any particular phase of the meditation, you quiet down by focusing on the breath to get the mind into a more neutral state so that then we can generate a more constructive state.
Next we try to recognize the “me” to be refuted. In relation to this body that’s changing all the time and has its limitations, do we think that I am always the same “me.” Do we think, "This body is changing, but I don’t change. It’s always “me,” and I’m somehow trapped inside this body which has all these limitations and somehow I have to use it, but I really wish I could get out of it and not have to be bothered with some sort of body. It’s such a drag." Do we think like that?
Try to identify if you feel like that. I think that most of us do. As I said, the classic example that’s very good for this is when you have a cold, how do you relate to how your body feels when you have a cold? Your nose is running and you're coughing and all this horrible junk that’s going on with the body. 'That’s not 'me.' I don’t want to be like that." Our concept of “me” is healthy – always healthy, always great. 'This isn’t 'me' and I don’t want this," as if that body and that "me" with a cold were somebody else and that the healthy "me" could jump out of that bad scenario. So, try to recognize the object to be refuted.
Having identified this false “me” – this static "me" that can exist all by itself and just wants to get out, be free – then we have to think of the two possibilities: it either is identical to the body or it’s completely separate from the body. Or, in the more technical way we were discussing before, if we think of two sets: the set of existent phenomena being divided into the dichotomy of two subsets: multiple items and non-multiple items, then this false me is in either one or the other of these subsets if it is included in the set of existent phenomena.
- If it’s identical to the body – in other words, it is in the subset of non-multiple items – then the body couldn’t change. The body would always be the same; it would always feel the same, but it doesn’t. So that doesn’t make any sense.
- If it were totally separate from the body – in other words, in the subset of multiple items – then how could we feel anything from the body? "I feel hungry" or "I feel sick" – how could it really be connected to the body at all? That doesn’t make any sense.
We go through that type of line of reasoning and understand that both these possibilities are ridiculous; they don’t make any sense.
- The conclusion that we draw is that, there’s no such thing as the existence of a "me" that is established as a static entity separable from a body. The false "me" is not in the set of existent phenomena.
- Then we just cut off completely imagining that, and we just focus on “no such thing.”
Remember, for this meditation on a non-implicative negation, we must be careful not to focus on an implicative negation. An implicative negation would be:
- The set of existent impossible "me"s that is devoid of any members
- An individual impossible "me" that doesn’t exist
- An impossible "me" as a member of the set of nonexistent phenomena.
Further, although when you meditate your eyes are open, just looking at the floor, in the Mahayana manner, we’re not paying attention to the floor. So when they say "Nothing appears when focused on voidness," well obviously your eyes still see the floor, but you’re not focused on that at all; you’re just totally absorbed in “no such thing." Eventually we don’t pay any attention to what we see in front of us. It’s like for instance, there is the physical sensation of the clothes on our body, but we haven’t been paying attention to that. If we wanted to pay attention to it, we could; but as we’ve been sitting here, we haven’t been paying attention to that. So the same thing: you don’t pay attention to what your eyes see on the floor in front of you.
Let me point out a few more things in the last minutes that we have together. To meditate successfully on voidness here, we had to have understood the location of what’s to be negated – that was the nonstatic body. The basis for negation was the conventional self. What we were refuting was this impossible way of existing – existence as a static "me" that can exist by itself and get out of the body and be in some paradise.
Now, when we are focusing on voidness, what’s very difficult of course is to focus on “no such thing.” So nothing appears, but we understand that it’s an absence of this impossible type of existing. We need to train ourselves to be able to have that type of understanding without saying in our heads "No impossible 'me’" or whatever. So, we can look at the table: no dog on the table; or no chocolate in the refrigerator – to try to get that way of perceiving an absence as being an absence of something specific. Otherwise you just space out and you’re just focusing on nothing with no understanding.
You have to be quite careful here not to make it an implicative negation, and the example for that would be like we’re in the swimming pool and we have jumped into the water, but we’re still holding on to the side. So, it’s not that we first affirm, "Well yes there is a 'me,' but I don’t exist that way, in this crazy way;" and then while holding onto "But there is a 'me'”' – so holding on to the side of the pool – we’re focusing on "But I don’t exist in this crazy way." You’re not holding on to the side of the pool. We’re not starting with the self existing like this and like that, but it’s not like that. Do you see the difference? It’s quite a difference in the meditation. It’s simply “no such thing.” Okay?
For further meditation then, we need to work with
- The feelings as the true cause of suffering, referring to happiness or unhappiness. Feelings are the true cause of suffering because we thirst for them: "I don’t want to be parted from that happiness." "I want to be parted from that unhappiness." And we desire for that object that we were feeling happy about; and we reject that object that we felt unhappy about. And then we grasp for this impossible “me:” "I don’t want to be unhappy." "I don’t want to lose my happiness." So our whole attitude toward happiness and unhappiness – that’s the cause of our suffering, the true cause of our suffering.
- Then the relationship of the “me” that’s experiencing that: who is the “me” that wants to be happy, that doesn’t want to be unhappy, and has all these attitudes towards it?
- Next we meditate in terms of the mind and its natural purity – that’s true stopping.
- And then the relationship of “me” and the mind.
- And then discriminating awareness – our correct understanding of voidness and then the relationship of “me” with that.
- Then you work through each of the three levels of the impossible “me” in relation to each of these four. So you go through all four with one level of impossible “me;” then all four with the next level; all four with the next level. And obviously that’s far too much to do in one session, so we accustom ourselves to each little piece, one at a time.
So, this is a basic introduction to how we meditate on the voidness of the self in relation to the four noble truths.