Deconstructing Jealousy: Understanding Emptiness

Jealousy and other disturbing emotions are symptoms of a larger problem: our basic, fundamental ignorance of how phenomena actually exist. Here, we look more deeply at convention, categories, and how things exist, and how we can use an understanding of it all to overcome jealousy, deal with problems, and get on with life.

Brief Review

We’ve been speaking about emotional problems with the theme of jealousy. We saw that underlying it all is a basic confusion about reality, about how people exist, and about others and ourselves.

One aspect of this confusion is that we think in solid categories where we’re always “winners” or losers,” for instance. We imagine that ourselves and others are solid entities with lines around us and we stick solid “me” into the solid “loser” box, and solid “others” into the solid “winner” box. Then, we freeze it all in the freezer.

With “me” and “you,” however, we’re not talking about general categories like apples or oranges. It’s more confused because “me” and “you” are categories, as everyone thinks of themselves as “me,” and others as “you.” Here I was referring to an individual “me” and an individual “you.”

What Establishes That Something Exists?

We’ve seen that voidness is basically talking about what proves that something exists. In Buddhism, the technical word for this is “establish,” as in, “what establishes that something exists?” This is a delicate word because it not referring to what makes something true or makes something exist, it’s what proves something exists or proves it is true. Prove is really the meaning here, and the same word is used in the Tibetan context to prove something.

The definition of something that exists is something that can be validly known. It’s not like invaders from the fifth dimension, because they can’t be validly known. We might have fantasies of such creatures but there are no such things. A valid mind wouldn’t see them. It would be a hallucination or a vision of paranoia.

When we apply this to our lives, the issue is how do we know that “I’m a loser and you’re a winner”? Actually, the real issue is not how we know but how we prove it? What proves it? It’s an interesting question because if we’re upset, it’s on the basis of being upset that we believe the statement to be true. We really believe that “I’m a loser” corresponds to reality. But is it a fantasy? Everybody else is a winner but not us. It feels like that and that’s what’s so terrible. It feels like it and we really believe it. This confusion and these projections automatically come up, because it’s not as if we think about it and decide, “Let’s look up loser in the dictionary or, even worse, let’s Google it. Ah yes, that’s me!” It’d be quite funny if you went to a doctor or advisor and they can give you a piece of paper certifying that we’re a loser!

So, we have these categories of “loser” and “winner,” and we need to examine what made these categories. We’ll see that they’re designated by words. Categories are based on definitions, and these definitions come from our minds.

Making Sense of Moments of Experience: Patterns, Defining Characteristics, and Mental Labeling

Now we can look at life in general. In very simple terms, life is made up of the moments of experience of a countless number of individual living beings. Animals, insects, humans, everybody is experiencing every moment of their lives in terms of events. Things are happening. It’s not always very dramatic, because the event could simply be standing up, or scratching our head. This is what the moment-to-moment experience of life is all about, isn’t it? This is the content of life.

Each event is different, and for any individual being there’s a continuity of events that makes sense. They follow one another, and they’re not just randomly unconnected moments. We aren’t the only ones with our movie playing, as it were. There are countless beings and countless moments of experiencing events. For example, if we look at the motion of moving a cup from one side of the table to another, it’s made up on individual moments. Each of the moments is a different event, from when we pick the cup up, till when we move it and place it down. It’s like this with every moment.

How can we make sense of these moments of experience? We look for patterns, and for defining characteristics that help us to classify and, in a sense, digest and relate to events by fitting them into some larger category of what’s happening. How do we classify it? We do it with the defining characteristics of the category, and these characteristics can be very varied. The technical term for this is “mentally label,” and many of the mental labels we create can be valid and accurate.

We can illustrate it with an example of drinking some tea. What categories can I include this event in? Well, the first category is moving my arm. I also had a drink. Maybe I was thirsty? Or maybe I wanted to be able to stay awake. The cup didn’t drop to the floor so I put the cup down. At the same time was I breathing? Was I in a certain place? There are so many things and categories that could accurately describe the event.

Each of these categories of activity that we use to understand the event are based on a certain definition. The words have definitions. The question is, what proves that what was going on fits into a certain category?

What Sets the Boundaries?

I took a drink as an example of one of the categories I could fit the event into. Where are the boundaries for where the event begins and ends?

Well, it is arbitrary where we parcel out an unbroken continuity into a certain experience. In this example, we saw that we could also cut it up into chunks of “moving my hand to the cup” and so on. But actually, drinking is just when it’s at my mouth, which is a smaller part of the event. We can also include putting the glass back on the table or include it in the continuity of teaching this class. But, that’s a limited period, since I don’t teach all the time, so we could fit it into a larger parcel of breathing. The event was breathing and, while, breathing, I drank a cup of tea. How we parcel out the continuity is totally arbitrary.

Blowing Things Out of Proportion

The way that we cut bits of this continuity is often what creates big problems. We focus on one small event of our lives and we blow it out of proportion. For example, we focus on “I lost my job” or “that person just yelled at me” and make it the biggest event of our life. We lose sense of the large continuity of our whole life’s experiences, which if we keep in mind, anything that happens will just be one little event. It’s like when we’re two years old and we fall down and bruise our arm. At the time it seems like the most horrible thing in the world, but in the perspective of our childhood, let alone our whole lives, it really is no big deal.

What Makes Something Fit into a Category?

What fits into our definition of drinking? Does it include the intention and wish to drink before I even moved my hand to take the cup? Did it end after the tea was in my mouth or does it continue to the point when it went into my stomach? What about once it’s left my stomach? Is that also in “drinking a cup of tea?” Even the boundaries of drinking are arbitrary. By this I don’t mean it’s chaotic, but that it can be set in different ways.

How can we possibly know that a definition is accurate?

How can we know what makes an event fit into any of the categories? What proves that it’s in a category? We set the category, and the definition fits the experience. Well, what proves this?

We have agreed on the definition and set the category, but is there anything on the side of the object that will allow us to label it correctly? We could also decide to label what you call “drinking a cup of tea” as “scratching my head.”

Then we’ve changed the language.

Or have we changed the meaning?

Is it because we have the same language, that we can say it’s not valid to call “drinking a cup of tea” “scratching my head?’

Good! This is an important point. We speak the same language and have agreed on the definitions of words and what they refer to. But, are any defining characteristics, corresponding to these definitions, findable on the side of the event? If they are what allows us to put the event in a correct category called by words with definitions that we or some people who made the dictionary have decided upon, where are they? Remember that an event is a continuum, and each moment is different but related.

Here, we’re talking about something a bit more obvious when we speak about an event or an action we call “drinking” or “breathing” or “moving my hand.” It becomes a bit more complex when we’re looking at an object., but with an action or event, it’s a bit clearer. Please think about it.


Is there something present on the side of the content of each moment that makes each of them fit into the category of “drinking?” In each moment that makes up the sequence we call “drinking,” is there something that states the same thing? It would have to state the same thing that made it part of the category “drinking.” We can do this with everything, from moving our hands, to scratching our heads, to being in a certain place. It would be packed with things from its own side, wouldn’t it?

If we had people who spoke many different languages observing the event, would it be packed with all the different words? How do we know a word is associated with a meaning? Does it exist from the side of the events, from the side of the meaning, or from the side of the words? Where?

Cause and Effect Affects Each Experience

We talk about events like an unbroken chain as if they were coming and going from nowhere. Earlier you mentioned motivation and aim. Doesn’t the chain of events have to do with motivation and aim?

Not only does it have to do with motivation and aim, but it has to do with all the causes as well. In the case of drinking tea, the causes include the person who made the tea, the store that sold the tea, the farmer that grew the tea, and so on. In addition there are all the consequences that follow from drinking the tea, as in not dying from thirst or being unable to continue teaching. All we do is draw a line, to speak about a certain part of it.

We’re not only talking about the causes and effects that are connected with our own personal experience, but also the causes and effects that are part of other people’s experience, as in the kind motivation of the person who made the tea. Also, it could lead to the effect where someone in the room seeing me drinking tea becomes a circumstance for them to have the thought, “Gee, I wish I had a cup of tea.” It could act as a circumstance for the disturbing emotion of jealousy to accompany the next moments of someone else’s life.  Cause and effect is not limited to any specific time period. Actually, it’s endless in both directions of past and future.

We draw these lines so that we can make sense of each moment of our life, and we naturally make sense of it in terms of these categories and language. Being able to communicate with others depends totally on this. Even on the most basic level of watching me drink this cup of tea, if each of you took a photograph of me it would look different, because you’re seeing me from different angles and distances. Yes, we all agree on convention, and that is the key word. Based on having a common language, we can all agree that I was “drinking a cup of tea.” Quite amazing, isn’t it?

Some of the pictures you took might be in focus and some might not be. Some of you might not have been paying attention and didn’t even take a picture. So then how could we prove that I was drinking a cup of tea? We can take this further! Could you come up here and check my stomach and see the tea? Was that the drinking? Maybe the liquid got in my stomach a different way, how could you know?

The Deconstruction Process

Once you start this deconstruction process, in a sense everything starts to fall apart from the side of the objects, but that doesn’t mean we fall into nihilism, where absolutely nothing exists. We need to be very careful.

So, how do we know, when we look inside an empty white cup and see different colors, and there’s more white than brown, that there was tea in there before? How can we prove it? It’s not there anymore, so was it ever there? How do we know?

Well, we relate to previous experiences, but there’s nothing from the side of the object. Everything is demonstrated and proven from the side of the mind. Conventions too are made by the mind. Language is made up by the mind. Definitions are created by the mind. What makes it all accurate?

Criteria for Determining the Validity of a Convention

As we said before, there’s a commonly accepted language, a convention, that is the first criteria. We all agree upon the words and their meaning, and then secondly, it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly sees conventional truth. This means that the picture we have isn’t blurry or dark but is in focus, and we would come to a conclusion that it is what we agree it is. In a sense it is reconfirmed. It was an accurate seeing.

The next criteria is that it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. So, if there’s some wild fantasy that there is something findable on the side of the event that establishes it as “drinking a cup of tea,” it would be like claiming that we found something on the side of the invader from the fifth dimension that proved that he came from the fifth dimension. When we really understand reality accurately, our mind will contradict that. So, it has to not be contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. All three of these criteria are still come from the side of the mind, not from the object.

Let’s apply this to our lives where we have lost our jobs or partners or whatever. Are we losers? We might think we are but what makes us losers? If we were to describe an event where we “lost something,” then that’s pretty abstract, isn’t it? Especially when we break it down into each moment of what happened. But still, let’s analyze.

The first criterion: we have the convention and the word “lose.” So, we did lose our job and don’t have it anymore; we did lose our partner and they did go away. So it does fit into the convention of losing something. That’s accurate, because that’s what everybody would call it.

Second criterion: If I went into the office again, other people would say, “What are you doing here? You lost your job.” So, it’s not contradicted by what they observe. I go to my old partner and they, with their new partner, look at me and say, “What on earth are you doing here? It’s finished!” So we can see that this hasn’t been contradicted by a mind that validly sees conventional truth.

But the third criteria is the most important one. I might think that I’m a loser, a real loser with something inherent and findable on my side that actually makes me a loser, and others have something inherent and findable that makes them winners. So I feel hurt and get jealous. We feel as if there is some findable defining characteristic on my side that makes me fit into this concrete category of “loser,” and we’re doomed to stay there forever.

But, from a mind that validly sees the deepest truth, this is contradicted. When we investigate, where do I find this defining characteristic of being a loser? Is it in my nose? My hair? My toes? My mind? Where is it? What event made it be there? Was it always there? Was it there from the moment we were born? Actually, it’s not anywhere. It’s only a convention to describe the event but that’s all, nothing more. I’m not inherently a loser, because that would be ridiculous. When we understand this, our emotional responses are totally different.

Trees are common to all cultures, because we all know trees. Different cultures might draw the line between a bush and a tree at different levels, which proves that it’s an arbitrary category. Ok, I can accept that. But we have the recognition of a human face, common to any human society. There’s not even one human society that could mistake a human face for an ape’s face.

Yes, that’s very clear. But when you look at scientific discussions about the evolutionary process and we have categories of “ape” and “humanoid,” where is the boundary of what makes something human?

To say that the categories are linguistically and culturally defined, or arbitrary, doesn’t mean that it’s chaotic. It’s not that anything can be called anything, which is why we have the three ways of validating of labeling. The question that always comes up is, “But isn’t it really a tree? Isn’t there really a tree?”

Like an Illusion

This is why we say that on the side of the object, there is nothing that proves it’s a tree. We get to a deeper level of understanding, where the tree is like an illusion. It’s like an illusion, which is very different from it actually being an illusion. It seems to us as though there is something on the side of a tree that makes it a tree, but it’s not like that. Yet, it still functions, and other people who speak the same language agree on the definition and also call it a tree. They wouldn’t call it a dog.

This is a more subtle level, and that’s why we start with the easier levels. We say, “I don’t fall through the chair to the floor,” even though we know on the deepest level that the chair is not solid, but it’s made up of atoms, which themselves are made of subatomic particles, and that it is mostly empty space. We know the same thing is true of our bodies. Nevertheless, we don’t fall through the chair to the floor, but the chair functions to support me.

Does Functionality Prove Existence?

Does the fact that the chair supports me prove that it exists as a chair, or that the thing over there exists as a tree? It gets complicated because how do we know that it functions as a tree, and what proves that it functions as a tree?

When we talk of cause and effect, there’s only one moment at a time, and we connect them to say that something performs a function. But what performs the function? It’s a very complex thing. So, on a simpler level we say that what establishes that something exists is that it functions. We can provisionally establish that drinking a cup of tea existed because it functioned to quench my thirst. Again, we need to be careful because we could say, “I think there’s a monster under my bed,” but does that function? It might scare us out of our minds but the monster doesn’t cause that, our belief that there’s a monster caused it. So we need to look carefully.

So, at a simple level we can say “it functions,” and that proves that something exists.

Voidness Is Not Nihilism: Don’t Worry

When we deconstruct categories as a way to dissolve things like “loser” and “winner,” doesn’t that just lead to an enormous insecurity in the end? Also, in this postmodern society we talk a lot about emptiness not in terms of voidness, but in terms of emptiness of meaning, ethics, rules and so on. Can they be distinguished?

Yes, that’s the nihilist thing. When we talk about voidness in Buddhism, what are things devoid of? It’s devoid of anything from its own side that proves that it exists. This is what’s absent. It doesn’t mean that nothing exists. It means that things exist like an illusion. What proves that it exists? We have words and people agree on them, so it’s not contradicted. Things seem to be solid but they’re not, yet everything still functions. That’s enough right now; don’t worry about it, because there’s no reason to be insecure.

Of course, when you approach this stuff, it can make you insecure. When one of Tsongkhapa’s disciples was meditating on voidness, all of a sudden he had to grab hold of his robes. Tsongkhapa said, “Very good, you just reconfirmed the conventional reality of everything.” So, we do need to reconfirm conventional reality as it’s not negated, because that would be ridiculous.

Equally ridiculous would be to think that the referent objects of our words and concepts can actually be found out there as referent “things” with findable defining characteristics that correspond exactly to the categories that the words and concepts imply. Then we think that we can find them, and that establishes that they exist. We can’t find referent things, or any defining characteristic on the side of objects, so finding such thing can’t prove an object’s existence. They’re totally absent. The objects do conventionally exist but are devoid of these things that would establish that they exist.

Get On with Life

This doesn’t mean that our words and concepts don’t refer to anything. They do refer to something but what they refer to cannot be found and doesn’t correspond exactly to the words and concepts. Language categories don’t exist out there, they’re mentally constructed. It’s how we get on in the world, and know it and describe it. It’s fine because it functions. Then we get on with life. The conventional truth is not a level, as though there is a transcendental and a worldly level. There’s no dualism here. No reason to be upset about anything.

A Zen master in the same situation, when a disciple freaks out thinking that nothing exists, would hit the disciple. “Did you feel that?” he’d say. “Yes.” “Did it hurt?” “Yes.” So, conventional truth.

Refuge, Compassion and Understanding

What about those who go to a psychiatrist and say, “Well, I function in the world, I don’t have any problems with reality, but I feel this emptiness within me, this meaninglessness within me. I can’t really connect to what I’m doing, I feel so alienated.” How does this correspond to what we’re talking about?

This is why the discussion of voidness is within the context of the rest of the Buddhist teachings, not just by itself. In Buddhism we have what we call “refuge,” where we mean a direction in life where we work toward becoming a Buddha. Basically we want to get rid of all of our confusion the way that Buddha did, and the way that the community of people who have partially done so are continuing to do. We choose to go in this direction, and one reason could be that we’re disgusted with all the problems we have and want them to stop, or it could be that we have compassion for others and want to help them because they’re also suffering terribly. When we’re messed up ourselves, we can’t really help them can we? The understanding of voidness is within this context in which life has a tremendous amount of meaning.

Compassion alone is not enough because it’s easy to get discouraged, “Oh, people are suffering so much and I can’t help.” It’s actually not enough just to have love and compassion; we also need to have understanding. Compassion on its own without understanding makes us attached to those we’re trying to help, and we get greedy for attention back from them, we get angry with them when they don’t follow our advice, and we become discouraged and depressed. Understanding by itself is also not enough, because then life is meaningless, there’s no purpose. Buddhism always puts these two together, within the context of having a safe direction in life where we know what we’re doing, where we’re going. That’s why we call it “taking refuge.” But “refuge” is too passive of a word. It’s as if we’re an animal going to a game reserve and now have refuge and are saved. It’s not passive. It’s active: we’re actively putting a positive, safe, meaningful direction in our lives.

Voidness of the Self

What about the voidness of the “self?”

“Me” and “you” are categories, just like “tree.” But “me” is not the same type of phenomenon as a tree. A tree has physical characteristics but “me” doesn’t; my body has physical characteristics. “Me” is an abstract phenomenon, to put it in simple language, not something with physical characteristics and not a way of being aware of something, like seeing or anger or love.

How do we use this abstraction? There’s a continuity of experiencing subjectively, moment to moment, this and that. And it always has content. You can’t just experience, you always experience something. The content constantly changes moment to moment, from visual content to audio, to all sorts of stuff. Then we have various ways of being aware: seeing, hearing, emotions like anger, attachment, happiness, attention and so forth. All of these ingredients make up of an unbelievably complex network and are interacting with each other. Every single part is changing at a different rate.

But there is continuity. What makes this continuity? That’s a very difficult question. On the deepest level, there’s nothing findable on the side of each moment of experiencing that provides the continuity. But we think that there’s something solid there all the time that ties it all together and provides this continuity, and we call this “me.” It feels like that. I went to sleep last night and woke up this morning and now I’m here, the same “me.” It really feels like that and we certainly believe it. Of course, it’s like an illusion but on this basis of “You just hurt me, I’m a loser,” we believe we have a solid, findable “me.”

This “me” is really an abstraction. In Buddhism, we call it an “imputation” on this continuity of experiencing. It’s like “motion” is an imputation on an object in slightly different locations in a sequence of moments. “Motion” isn’t just something made up by our imaginations, and neither is the conventional “me.” Conventionally there is a “me” because I’m not “you,” and there is “my house” and “my experience.”

Now we have the word and concept or category “me,” with which we can fit the “me” that is an imputation on each moment of experience. Like the individual “me’s” in each moment, it too is an abstraction, but with a big difference. The “me” in each moment changes from moment to moment, because in each moment I do something else or think or say something else. The category or concept of me doesn’t do anything. So, it’s important to understand that “me” isn’t just a word or concept. We aren’t just words, and we aren’t just concepts. We are what the words and concepts refer to. And we aren’t just illusions, either. Our society made up and agreed upon some acoustic pattern to represent “me” and then we agreed on a sequence of lines to represent the sound in written form. Those sounds and lines refer to and mean “me,” but they are not me and it’s not that they don’t mean anything.

Let’s use another example. We also have the word “cup,” and that refers to a cup. But what is the basis for this designation, what’s the basis for calling it a cup? The rim, or the handle? The empty space inside the cup, is that a cup? There are all these parts and all of the causes, and on this basis, society applies the term “cup.” Can we actually find the cup? No. We have the word “cup” but that is obviously not a cup.

We certainly can’t find the defining characteristics of a cup anywhere on this basis. So what actually is a cup? It’s like an illusion. It’s what the word refers to when it’s designated on the basis for designation that other people would agree on. It has to be valid, too because we can’t just call a table a cup. It seems as though there is actually a cup, but really it’s like an illusion, even though it functions. It is absolutely un-findable? Only when we analyze very deeply will we see that we can’t find it. If you relax, stop analyzing and ask just in general, “Where is the cup?” We can answer quite correctly, “It’s over there.” And it functions as a cup. The universe functions. But when you look really deeply, you can’t find anything; it is devoid of anything on its own side that establishes its existence as a cup.

So, “me” is an abstraction, an imputation that puts together a continuum of experiencing, like motion is an abstraction, an imputation to put together a continuum of something being consecutively in slightly different places. I’m not just a word or a concept, just as motion is not just a word or a concept. The moments of experience of this “me” are made up of millions of parts that change all the time at different rates. So where can I find the “me’ in all of this? None of them are me. Is there anything on the side of “me” that make “me” “me?!” No, there is nothing that makes “me” – either as a “me” in general, or one that establishes my individuality.


We have this big thing in the West where we always want to prove our individuality. I have to prove that I’m “me” and establish my individuality, separate from my parents. But it’s pointless, because we are individuals, yet nothing is going to prove it. Of course, each of us experiences our own moment-to-moment life, with its continuity of cause and effect.

Even cause and effect is an abstraction, an imputation on a continuity of events and experiences. Although we can’t find cause and effect anywhere, cause and effect happen, it functions. So, we need to reaffirm that there is a “me,” which isn’t you that does causal actions, and then we need to take responsibility for the effects of our behavior. The way that we behave is definitely going to affect what I experience next, and will have an effect on others. We need to take care of ourselves in terms of eating and getting sleep, and not walking into walls or bumping into others.

The problems come when we make this “me” into a big solid thing where we worry that others won’t like us, becoming insecure, or we don’t get our own way and get angry. Then we want to get more and more things to make this “me” secure. We should be satisfied with the knowledge that we exist and function. We get on with life with a positive direction, trying to help others more and more, without putting this seemingly solid “me” into a seemingly solid box of “loser” when things don’t go well, or a seemingly solid “you” into a seemingly solid box of “winner” when they succeed. This is the great misconception behind our jealousy.


We’ve looked at the different types of jealousy that are possible to feel, and the ways in which some of these are even encouraged by our society or culture. The best strategy for overcoming jealousy is to deconstruct this whole misconception that we have about ourselves and others, and about categories that we create. Despite things seeming solid and findable, no matter how much we think that we’re a loser, that doesn’t make it real. Similarly, just as much as we think others might be winners, it’s equally nonsense. When we free ourselves of these conventions and categories, to see events and life for exactly what they are, we can overcome jealousy and a wide range of other disturbing emotions. In this way we can deal with the ups and downs of existence without becoming upset and without causing ourselves and others so much suffering. Then, perhaps, we can be of best help to everyone else.