Deconstructing Jealousy: Concepts Color Relationships


Is There an Inherent Right to Happiness?

Do beings have an inherent right to happiness?

Do parents have a responsibility to take care of their children and love them as much as possible? I would say yes, if we make the decision to become a parent. However I can’t see how we can establish or prove a certain inherent right on the side of the child. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often uses the example of sea turtles who lay their eggs on the shore and then leave, with the babies hatching and having to take care of themselves.

So, it’s difficult to say that it’s something inherent in all beings. Still, as parents, it’s our responsibility to love and take care of our children, regardless of what they do. They don’t have to earn or deserve it. Here, His Holiness often talks in terms of there being a natural affection for children among humans. That’s why he says it would make an interesting experiment to bring a mother sea turtle to her children once they’ve hatched to see if there is any natural affection toward them, or if the sea turtle is the exception in this case.

His Holiness also uses the example that everybody wants to be happy and not to be unhappy, and that everybody has the right to be happy and not be unhappy. If we examine it closely, then yes, it’s conventionally true, but if we go deeper then there’s a different conclusion. In our pursuit to be happy and avoid unhappiness, we don’t have the right to do so at the expense of other people’s happiness, or if it’s making them unhappy. It’s not so much that people on their side have the right to be happy, but that we don’t have the right to make others unhappy or block their happiness in order to get our own. That is more fitting with a deeper way of looking at it from a Buddhist perspective. Inclusive in our own pursuit for happiness, then, is the point that everybody else also wants to be happy.

What if someone says that the liberties I’m taking for myself are making them unhappy? Looking at our own lifestyles, of course we can run into difficulties because it’s not possible to make everybody happy.

Firstly, we’re saying we don’t have an inherent right, with “inherent” being the key word. We simply do not have the inherent right to be happy regardless of what we do, but that doesn’t mean that I have no right to be happy. It’s not that our happiness isn’t allowed, so don’t misunderstand this. Everything depends on cause and effect, so if we only take and accept more and more without giving anything, then that’s not reasonable. Here I’m talking about partners, where we both have to give and take equally for the relationship to work well.

For example, one person contributes to a relationship by raising the children, so in a conventional sense they’ve earned the right to some time off. Both partners have to give something for it to be fair. This isn’t an inherent law, but how things work relatively. Of course, if the other person doesn’t accept this, then the whole arrangement needs to be reconsidered. It’s not that one becomes the martyr or victim and gives in, because that’s also not an ideal solution, acting as if we have no right to be happy and being a servant all the time.

Buddhism always tries to avoid the two extremes, and sometimes when you point out one side, it’s easy to forget the other. It’s like denying that this person dressed as Santa Claus is Santa Claus, but then forgetting to reaffirm that there is a person there.

Clarification on Points about Democracy and Capitalism

I don’t agree with your opinions on democracy, because you seem to devalue it. To my knowledge there is no better way of letting the people take part in the power. You seem to just equate it with jealousy and rivalry.

Yes, I pointed out one extreme without pointing out the other, sorry. I am not advocating royalty or despotism or anarchy or anything like that. But I am saying that it’s difficult when an election campaign is based on putting down the other candidates and searching for scandals and so on, just to show how bad the other side is. There is quite a difference between an election based on a smear-campaign, and one based on a discussion of issues and the stating of good qualities and qualifications for the position. It is most certainly possible to present our good qualities without putting anyone else down. Then, the people can choose. And if it’s in a society like the Tibetans, in which it would be immodest to state your own good qualities, then someone else can do it on your behalf.

Of course, this is being idealistic about the whole system. But actually, if we were to imagine an ideal system, wouldn’t it be one where the person running for office were totally honest about their good qualities and didn’t try to hide their weaknesses? From an honest point of view, this is how it would be. Nobody is perfect, so trying to pretend to be perfect is absurd. We could admit that yes, we smoked marijuana when we were twenty, thirty-five years ago, and so what? We’re not trying to hide it. It happened then, and it’s not happening now.

However, politicians running for office, even when they’re not putting down other people, often sound like one of those sleazy, untrustworthy used car dealers trying to sell a broken car, presenting it as the most wonderful thing in the world. If democracy is based on that, and we’re choosing between who is the better used car salesman, then it is pathetic. To spend a whole year or even two campaigning is unnecessary, and it becomes like a sport. We might as well have gladiators! I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with democracy itself, I’m just talking about how we can make it ethical and not something based on disturbing emotions.

Constructive Criticism in Personal Relationships

How does one offer criticism in terms of making things better, without putting the person down or making them into a bad person?

Firstly, we should reassure the person, particularly if they’re oversensitive to criticism, that we’d like to offer a piece of constructive criticism and ask whether it’s ok for them. You might even have to mention how much you like or love them, and that they’re not a terrible person. Then you can offer the critique.

There is a huge difference between giving a scolding and giving a suggestion regarding how to make life better, or how to get a job done better. It’s also affected by the tone of voice we use, and our motivation. To say, “I’m really upset that you didn’t do the job well,” going into detailed criticism of the task, is very different from saying, “I asked you to do this because I was too busy to do it myself, and it’s unreasonable for me to expect that you’ll do it exactly the way I want.” With patience, we can then suggest ways to improve, such as, “This isn’t exactly what I had in mind. Could you do this?”

Buddhist “Mind Training”: Giving the Victory to Others

I try to follow the advice given in the Buddhist training called “mind training,” although I prefer the term “attitude training,” where we accept the fault or defeat on ourselves and give the victory to others. This means that we say that it’s our own fault for not explaining what we wanted clearly enough. That makes it a lot easier for others to improve when no one is blaming them. This is an indirect and very Tibetan way of doing it implicitly. There’s no need to point out that others make mistakes, we can take the blame upon ourselves.

An example is when I asked someone to translate something for my website, but they didn’t really have experience. It was their first time and after the translation was sent to me, I sent it to others working on that language section. They returned it to me with a large number of corrections; there were basically lots of incorrect stuff. With Buddhist attitude training, I could say that it was my fault. I didn’t explain clearly enough that this was a first try and that I didn’t expect perfection, and that I intended to send it to others to check over so that this person could learn and improve. It was actually my mistake. Indirectly, the new translator got the message and learning and improvement could take place without any sense of invalidation.

I can accept this on a personal level between two people. But what about a broader level, like when an environmental organization has to stand up against some industrial companies. How can we criticize in the right way?

There’s a difference between fact-finding and condemning the other party for the evil that they’re doing. With fact-finding, we’re presenting objective information. We then try to get people to implement policies to act on the information. Calling names, or labeling them as evil or bad, makes those on the receiving end automatically defensive and more likely to attack back. What other response can you expect if you’re so aggressive?

If you’re pointing out weaknesses in what others are doing, you have to take in the large picture and not just focus on one tiny aspect. They also have a point; if you stop the lumber industry in certain areas, nobody in that town will have work anymore. How are they supposed to feed their children? You also need to address these concerns with ideas of how to deal with them, even if it involves people making weapons who would lose their jobs.

We can’t be so totally idealistic. We need to come up with a workable solution that will solve the negative consequences that would come from what we’re proposing. Otherwise we’ll be attacked back. If we just idealistically say, “No more weapons, no more anything,” how would people live? There needs to be a viable plan for these people too. Then that’s constructive criticism, and it’ll be possible for them to implement some change because there’ll be an alternative.

Mental Labeling: Dividing the World into Categories

We already looked at this important topic of categories and I want to continue it with the example of how we divide the world into winners and losers. Here, we’re getting into the Buddhist topic of “mental labeling,” which is also involved with the discussion of voidness. This duality of winners and losers is just a small variation of a much, much larger theme, and the word “categories” is a simple word that most people in the West seem to be able to easily relate to. So, let’s take a look at these categories.

Categories are basically the way through which we try to understand the world and our experiences. Thus, they are totally made up by our minds, they are one hundred percent mentally constructed. We can use an easy to understand example with colors, but I’m not a scientist so please excuse me if I’m not accurate. There is a whole spectrum of wavelengths of light. How do we divide this spectrum of colors? Well, it’s totally arbitrary. We could actually divide it in any way whatsoever, because there’s nothing fixed from the side of the spectrum dividing one color from another. Each particular culture decides by making up their own definition of a category, stating that the area between this and that wavelength constitutes one category of color.

Whether we define in terms of “from this to that number” or in terms of “anything darker than this is red and anything lighter is orange,” it doesn’t matter. We are making the boundary and giving it a definition. This is the issue that we need to examine: Are definitions inherent in anything, or are they made up by culture, by our minds? Buddhism will say that they are most definitely made up by our minds. We set the boundaries and definitions stating that this is this and that is that on the color spectrum. There are no lines out there in the universe dividing red from orange. What the basis of making the category is, is irrelevant. The point is that these boundaries are set arbitrarily.

Language: Setting Acoustic Patterns

Culture also involves acoustic patterns, which could be anything, for instance “Oh, Er, Ah, En, Ju.” These sounds have no inherent meaning in the world whatsoever, but cultures put them together and say that they have meaning, “orange.”

It means we set up a definition between certain points in the color spectrum. We don’t sit down and plan it this way, but this is how our mental processes work. We make words and sentences when the acoustic patterns are strung together, but they are just sounds. If you ever listen to a language that is completely unfamiliar, you might not even be able to differentiate it into words. It’s just sounds, and sounds don’t have any inherent meaning in them.

Societal Differences in Categories

So, we set up these categories, and each society makes divisions. Some may make the same divisions, but not all societies divide things in the same way. One culture might have the categories “red,” “orange” and “yellow,” whereas another one will only have “red” and “yellow.” Half of orange is in red and half in yellow. Maybe their red goes a little bit into what we would consider brown.

When I was at Harvard there were interesting experiments, where people from different cultures were shown different colors and asked to identify them. For the same picture, some would say “blue” and some would say “green.” There’s nothing inherent from the side of the color. Different cultures set different concepts and boundaries of colors and categories. Even among people within one culture, there can be differences.

Conceptual Thinking

Here I’m introducing what we mean in Buddhism by the term “concepts.” With conceptual thinking, we think in terms of categories, and although these are deeply connected with language, it isn’t always necessarily so. Animals certainly think in terms of categories, even if they might not have words for them. A dog formulates the category “my master,” and thinks in terms of this category when it’s alone, locked up, or misses the master. Dogs have concepts of territory, enemy, intruder and so on, and even though none of them are verbal categories, they are nevertheless categories. We would have to say that a dog thinks conceptually in terms of these categories.

If we understand this in terms of colors, then we can apply it to subtler things, like emotions. So, what one culture calls “jealousy,” another culture might define as something slightly different. As we’ve seen, it might not fit into the Tibetan concept that is indicated by a different word. They’re mental constructs, and so don’t necessarily overlap. It’s not just disturbing emotions, but with all emotions, the boundaries don’t always exactly overlap. Even the distinction between “jealousy” and “envy” isn’t exactly the same as the distinction for the two German words “Eifersucht” and Neid.” In German, one is aimed at persons and relations, while one is more for material things. So, we’re not just talking about a difference between a European and an Asian point of view, because even within European cultures, the categories in regard to emotions can be defined quite differently. Although the words overlap in many cases, they’re not exact correspondences. Then of course, even within one language, there can be different definitions, understandings, and usages of words.


This means that regarding emotions, there are no solid lines making categories on the emotional spectrum. It’s something decided upon by what Buddhist analysis calls “convention.” We have agreed upon conventions. We make up our own conventions for what we call something. It makes everything convenient. In fact, the word “convenient” is related to convention. It’s convenient for communication and for comprehending what’s going on.

Think about it, it’s really true that even though they might be speaking the same language, two people in a relationship might define very differently what it means to be “faithful,” or even what “relationship” means. What makes our conventions more valid than somebody else’s? Take a simple example like politeness, what is polite and what is impolite. It differs greatly in different cultures. What makes our customs, our definition correct, and all others wrong? The mistake is to think that these categories exist out there and that the world actually exists in categories from their own side inherently. “Inherent” means something that is established totally from its own side.

Defining Characteristics: Helpful Images of a Coloring Book

I find it useful to use the image of a children’s coloring book, because while it might not be conscious, we do tend to think of the world as existing like a picture with solid lines delineating everything as “this” or “that.” Did you ever have one of those paint-by-number pictures, where you have a little number in the divided parts telling you what color to apply? It’s as if the categories are out there with a big line around them and a number assigned to them. But this is obviously garbage. The numbers are an example of this false way of thinking that the definitions are inherent from the side of the objects. There’s this number, this definition, and so we have to paint that area a certain color, because that is inherent on the side of the area. The technical term for this in Buddhism is “defining characteristic.”


Not One Big Soup

Just because we’re saying that there are no inherent lines or categories out there, it doesn’t mean that the whole universe is one big undifferentiated soup. It’s a common mistaken conclusion to think that we are all one and that there is actually no distinction between “me” and “you.” If there are no boundaries then I can use everything of yours without asking. This isn’t the conclusion that should follow from this.

We need to differentiate. The categories and words relate to the way things are. They refer to something, but the universe doesn’t correspond to these words and categories. What they refer to doesn’t correspond to the actual references. The categories and words are conventions, so conventionally it’s true: “This is my house, it’s not your house. It’s my partner, not your partner.” When we use these words and categories, it does refer to something, but it’s just a convention. This conventional truth is true.

This doesn’t mean that like cattle, there’s a brand “mine” on the side of everything that a person has, as if it were like that when we came out of our mother’s womb, and that things actually correspond to solid, permanent categories. Categories seem like fixed things that we can look up in the dictionary and so it must follow that objects are fixed to the word and meaning. The universe, however, doesn’t correspond to this.

The Convenience of Language

When we use language, it does refer to something. Of course we need language, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to communicate. We wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything that we experience if we didn’t have categories. We couldn’t recognize that this is a door, and that is also a door, even though they look quite different. How could we even function without these categories? This isn’t just about words but about meanings too. Buddhism differentiates “audio categories” from “meaning categories.” That there’s such a thing as “doors” defined in such and such a way is a convention. The universe didn’t start with doors. Still, we all know what a door is regardless of what word we have for it. Even a cow knows what a door is, because they don’t walk into the wall when they want to get into the barn. A cow can recognize a door in many buildings.

Clearly, we need these things and don’t want to throw them away. We shouldn’t think that it’s all just conventions so we can forget about it. These conventions are convenient and we need them to function, but we should know that the world doesn’t correspond to them.

A good example is a map. The map is not the territory, and the street map is not the street. In many cultures they don’t have maps and it can be difficult to explain the concept of a map to someone from some isolated tribe, even if we take it totally for granted. A street map is useful, because it refers to the layout of streets in a city. But the map is not the streets. It’s not the same color or size or anything. It’s the same with the concepts and the language and categories we use. These are subtle points!

Relevance: Putting “Me” into a Category

It’s important not to lose the relevance of all this, which is mainly that we put “me” into a certain category of winner, loser, successful, unsuccessful and so on. They’re just categories. Conventionally, one person does win the race and the others lose. That’s true: “You got the promotion at work and I didn’t. My partner is now with you and not with me.” Conventionally this might be true and describe the actual situation, but all it does is to describe the situation. It doesn’t mean that any of us are in this solid category of “loser,” or “winner.” It also doesn’t mean, on top of this that, “You didn’t deserve it.”

When all of this really sinks in and we really, really understand that it’s true, our emotional response to situations becomes totally different. We don’t have a big line between intellectual and emotional understanding, as that’s also categories. When we really understand something, we feel it. We won’t switch from one way of looking at things to another. Understanding will really, definitely affect our emotions.


Further Questions

How to Go Beyond the Conceptual

What’s the difference between the thing itself and the concept? The appearance has to do with the concept I’m making of it, and while I might make better concepts over time, is there any way to get to the object itself, beyond concepts?

It’s a good question and an issue we also have in Western philosophy of “the thing in itself.” Certainly in terms of concepts and categories, some are more accurate than others, and some are totally inaccurate. There are different criteria for determining accuracy, but that’s a long discussion about valid cognition.

If I formulated the question in a Buddhist way, it would be whether we can actually find the object, the thing in itself, and go beyond the concept. This question is looked at very seriously in Buddhist philosophy, and we find different levels of explanation. It’s difficult to jump to the most sophisticated, subtlest explanation, so we can approach it in stages. It takes many, many years! The whole issue of voidness is on the deepest level dealing with the issue of whether anything is ultimately findable or not.

Accordingly, there’s no simple answer. What proves that something exists? In Buddhism, the word “exist” is defined as something that is “validly knowable.” I might think that there’s an invader from the fifth dimension underneath my bed, but that’s not a valid thought. It’s not there, no matter how much we think it exists. Then, we also have a long discussion about what it means to be “validly knowable.” Anyway, just because I think something, that doesn’t prove its existence.

The less sophisticated explanations accept all of this stuff about categories and conventions, but say that nevertheless there is a findable object that the words and concepts refer to. If one can find it, then that proves it exists. When we say “flower,” well yes, it’s a category and convention, but there is that flower there growing from the ground, all on it’s own. That’s what they say proves that it exists. What can be found is the referent of the word for it.

We’re not just speaking on a simplistic level where we can’t find an invader under our bed but we can find a cat. We’re not talking about this level of literally finding something. Otherwise we’d never find our keys or our way home.

We analyze whether the defining characteristics findable on the side of the thing under the bed that make it a cat actually prove that there’s a cat there. There’s a long tail and it makes a special sound when you pet it, and things like that. Where is the defining characteristic and can I find it? Is it in this or that cell? Is it in the tail? Or the paws? Where is it? As you look deeper and closer, even under a microscope, you’ll see that you can’t find “cat.”

Is there anything on the side of the cat that makes it a knowable object? Is there a line around it that separates it from what is one atom away from it? What about the space in between the hairs that’s not the cat? Is there a line around it making it a solid object? You can’t find any line. Where do the atoms of the cat end and the atoms of the air next to it begin? There’s no line. Where is the line that separates the energy fields of the two atoms? Is it findable?

This goes deeper than just thinking about categories. We project that the defining characteristic is on the side of the object, generating a line around the object, making it a totally knowable “thing.” We project that the object has something to it that makes it an individual, knowable thing, regardless of what category we put it into. All of this is mentally constructed. We shouldn’t think that when we understand concepts like “cat” and “invader” we’ve understood it all. It goes much deeper than this. There’s the deeper category of knowable “thing.” We can’t find a “thing.” There is nothing out there that makes anything into a knowable “thing” with a line around it.

Convention Doesn’t Prove an Object Findable

Can’t we measure the concentration of cat hair?

That’s also a convention, where we’re saying, “Above this number it’s this and below the number it’s that.” All of these are conventions. We’re not saying that everything is a big soup either, which is the other extreme. The extreme we usually think in terms of is that there’s actually something findable out there, inherent on the side of the object, which isn’t a convention. Building the category of where the cat ends on the basis of a density of cat hair is again still talking about numbers. But where’s the line? It’s still a convention, but we’re not denying that conventions function.

To say that something is findable doesn’t prove that it exists. It’s like saying that what proves that I exist is that I can go to the fifth dimension, which is a ridiculous reason. First of all, the fifth dimension doesn’t exist as a findable place, so how could you go there. We can’t find something like that. In the end we can’t say that anything findable on the side of an object proves that it exists. All we can say is that we merely have conventions, that we have a cat, and that the conventional boundary between a cat and a dog is like this or like that. Be satisfied with that, because on this basis everything functions. This is what voidness is all about. Being findable is impossible. Ultimately, we can’t make statements in terms of what proves on the side of the object that something exists. This is what is void.

The cat is a convention, and it refers to the thing under the bed. But where can we find this thing? We can’t. Is it in this atom or that cell? Well, we can’t find it.

It’s the same with “me.” We say, “I lost my job” which obviously refers to something, but there’s nothing on the side of “me” that can be found that makes me a loser all from its own power. There is nothing inherently loser-ish about us! So is this “me” just a concept? We’ll cover this more in the next part. A cat is not just a concept, because not everything is just an illusion in our heads. Language can be tricky so we need to be delicate. Eventually we have to go beyond language, because it gives us the wrong idea. But right now, we need to work with it, otherwise we can’t communicate.