Integrating Our Life: The Relevance of Emptiness

We have been looking at methods for integrating the various aspects of our lives. We’ve seen that in order to deal with the various things in our lives and in order to follow the spiritual path in a more whole-hearted way, it’s very important to have a clear idea of all the factors that are the basis of the imputation phenomenon “me,” so as to have a realistic basis for our conceptual labeling of “me” in terms of who we consider ourselves to be.

Unawareness: The True Source of All Our Problems

When we speak about the true sources or causes of our problems, dealt with in the second noble truth, we always speak in terms of ignorance, though I think a better translation for this term is “unawareness.” This unawareness is about both people and about all phenomena in general and we have this unawareness about reality and also about cause and effect, specifically behavioral cause and effect in terms of karma. 

When we speak about unawareness about persons, that includes both ourselves and others. A person is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of an individual continuum of aggregate factors – it’s usually called the five aggregates – the body, mind, various emotions, levels of happiness, unhappiness, and so on. As such, a person is something that can be known non-conceptually – we can see or listen to someone – and that is factual. As an imputation phenomenon, a person, me, is tied to this basis and can only exist and be known together with this basis. Based on the unawareness of how we exist like this, we have all sorts of disturbing emotions. If we speak in very general terms, we regard ourselves as some sort of solid thing, existing and knowable independently of our body, our mind, our emotions, causes and circumstances, others, etc., and because that doesn’t really corresponding to reality, it creates a feeling of insecurity.

It’s interesting to investigate what is the emotional equivalent, or tone, of this unawareness. When we talk about unawareness, it’s a cognitive thing: either we don’t know reality or we know it in an incorrect way. So that’s cognitive. But, obviously, we can look at the same phenomena from an emotional point of view. There’s the emotional component of it, and I think – just from my own contemplation about it – that this component would be both confusion and insecurity. Then there’s also naivety, although it’s a little bit tricky to say whether or not we would call naivety a disturbing emotion, a disturbing attitude or what. Where does it actually fall? In any case, confused about how we exist, we imagine that we’re some sort of solid entity, we feel insecure about it and then try to make that “me” secure. On this basis arise various disturbing emotions.

I wasn’t questioning whether naivety was disturbing or not; it is disturbing. It’s a question of whether it’s an emotion or an attitude. We could spend a lot of time discussing the classification schemes here. The problem is that there are very fine distinctions made in the classification schemes used in Buddhism, and different Buddhist masters have defined some of the items in them differently. In any case, the difficulty is that we have no similar classification scheme in our Western terminology that covers what the Buddhist scheme includes as “kleshas” in Sanskrit, so it’s not clear in our Western terminology whether we are talking about emotions or attitudes. The Western and Buddhist classification schemes don’t mix very nicely.

In any case, the disturbing emotions that arise from our unawareness of how we exist as persons include either longing desire or attachment, which is to get things to us, or not let go of what we have, in order to try to make that “me” secure. Then we also have repulsion, hostility and anger, which is to get things away from that “me,” again with the hope that it will make that “me” secure. Or, we remain naive about things because, again, if we don’t consider something or we deny the existence of something, somehow we think that will make everything okay, we’re secure. In other words, it’s too threatening to really look more deeply into reality. Of course, all of these are futile attempts, because when we act them out, they don’t make us more secure at all.

Doctrinally Based Unawareness

When we analyze this unawareness about how we exist, we find many levels of subtlety. We may have unawareness based on having been taught certain doctrines of non-Buddhist Indian religions or philosophies and we believe them. This doctrinally-based unawareness imagines that the “me” is an atman – that’s the Indian term. These systems accept rebirth and what takes rebirth is the atman. It goes on and on, from lifetime to lifetime, and what it experiences is under the influence of karma. These are very Indian systems. 

This atman, or soul – perhaps that’s the closest that we have in our Western terminology – has three characteristics. Such a soul is something that is static; it never changes; it’s not affected by anything. Its second characteristic is that it is partless, which means that it’s a monolith – either, according to some schools, the size of the universe, so we just have to recognize our identity with all the universe partlessly; or it is some tiny little partless spark of life. Because it is partless, it doesn’t have different aspects. And the third one is that this atman can exist totally independently of any body or mind, specifically when it attains liberation from rebirth. The different Indian philosophical schools will differ according to whether or not they ascribe to this soul a quality of consciousness or not, but this is what Buddhism calls “doctrinally based unawareness about the self of persons.”

As Westerners, we may have learned from our upbringing or religious education a belief in a soul that has one or another of the components of this description. But that would be classified as something else: a type of incorrect consideration, not the whole package. The whole package of a soul having these three characteristics is what is being discussed here as doctrinally-based unawareness.

The Eternal Soul or “I”

What we have to be aware of is that assertions, such as the fact that there is an eternal soul, a self that has no beginning and no end, is accepted by Buddhism as well. The question is what are the characteristics of such an eternal self, the “me,” or the soul, whatever you want to call it. Buddhism also uses the same word, atman. When we speak in Buddhism of what’s often translated as, “no-self,” selfless, or selflessness, or identitylessness, what it’s really saying is there’s no such thing as an impossible soul, one with the three characteristics we just mentioned – one that is static, partless and can exist independently of a body and mind. It doesn’t mean there is no such thing as a soul whatsoever. Buddhism does accept a conventionally existent “me” or self or person or soul. If we fully believe that we have no self, that there is no “me” whatsoever, we know from our Western psychology that such a person can’t deal with life at all. If we have no sense of “me,” then why would we get up out of bed? Why would we take care of ourselves? Why would we do anything? So, our work in integrating our life is focusing on the basis for the conventional “me,” the one that actually exists.

A deeper level of confusion – and this automatically arises – is that the “me” is self-sufficiently knowable, which means that it can be known by itself, not simultaneously with some aspect of its basis. We say, “I see Gabi,” as if I’m just seeing Gabi. But how can I see Gabi separately from seeing a body that we have named Gabi? How can I know Gabi without knowing something about her? If not the name, at least a mental picture or something about her personality or something like that. However, the way it seems to us is that I know Gabi, I know myself, whatever, and this automatically arises. The emotional and psychological syndromes that derive from this or are based on this are things such as, “I want you to love me for myself, not for my body, my mind, my money, but I want somebody to love me just for me,” as if there were a “me” that could be known and loved separately from the basis. 

Perhaps we can all recognize that this arises automatically. But for the idea that the “me” is the size of the universe, that would have to be something taught to us. I don’t think that it would just automatically come to our heads. But, this feeling of, “I want somebody to love me for myself,” or “I want to know you,” that comes automatically.

Mentally Labeling the “I”

Before I get to the next step in our exercises, let me explain “mental labeling” a bit more deeply. As we discussed before, the conventional “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of an individual continuum of five aggregates. Such a “me” is something factual, it exists and can be known non-conceptually. I see you, I see me, I walk, I talk. That’s not in doubt. The question is how do we establish that the “me” exists? What proves or demonstrates that the “me” exists? This is where mental labeling comes in. The only way we can establish that the “me” exists is in relation to the mental label “me,” which is a concept, or they word “me,” which is merely a word.   

There is a basis – so we have the everchanging aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience – and on the basis of them, we can conceptually label “me” or we can conceptually designate them with the word “me.” “Me” is not the word “me” or the concept “me.” I am not a word or a concept. The “me” is what the concept and word “me” refer to on the basis of all these things that are changing, the aggregates. The deeper confusion is that there’s something on the side of the aggregates in each moment, some findable defining characteristic there, that makes me “me.” Either it makes me “me” by its own power, by itself, or it makes me “me” in connection with labeling it as the basis for “me.” 

Thinking that there is something in each moment that makes me “me” or makes you “you,” our minds automatically give rise to certain strange thoughts – that “I have to find “myself”; I have to know “myself.” Well, what are we knowing in terms of “knowing myself” or “finding myself?” It’s some sort of special characteristic that makes me “me.” If we analyze, “Why do I love you? Well, there’s something special about you, that makes you special, the object of my love, and I have to have it.” And so, there is this automatically arising misconception that there is something special on the side of this person that makes them special, and that’s why I like them or I dislike them. This is considered the most subtle form of confusion.

Another way of expressing it is that there is something solid and findable backing up the basis here; some backing support that, when we focus on the person, that’s what is holding it up. Like the example of something behind a screen that’s casting a shadow.

Looking at Reality at the Atomic Level

We can understand this on a very simple level, just in terms of a chair, or our body. If we look at them under an electron microscope, they’re made of atoms, and the atoms are made of electrons and force fields and so on. There’s nothing solid there that is making it a chair or a body, findable on its own side, by its own power. Staying on the level of the analysis of atoms, which is a beginner step in our understanding of reality – what’s most important is the “nevertheless.” So, even though my body is made of atoms and force fields and electrons and all these things and there’s nothing solid about it, and the same thing is true of a chair; nevertheless, I don’t fall through the chair. Somehow the chair supports me. So, that “nevertheless” is very important and that is the key to understanding reality; it’s the “nevertheless.” Nothing is findable: nevertheless, things function.

Shantideva says it very nicely. To paraphrase what he says, only when we understand this “nevertheless” on the simplest level – that while everything is made of atoms, nevertheless we don’t fall through the floor – if we understand that these two aspects are not contradictory, then we are ready to go onto the next, more subtle level of understanding. If we don’t have this foundation, we’re going to be in deep trouble trying to go deeper: the deeper we go, the more we’ll fall into nihilism. I think we can see that even on this level of atoms, it’s not so simple to really understand the “nevertheless.”

This is becoming a long exposition on voidness, which I didn’t really quite intend; but perhaps it’s helpful. The reason I raised this in the first place was that usually our focus is on the unawareness about the self. To get our first understanding of voidness – voidness means an absence of impossible ways of existing – we first come to understand it in terms of a person, or self, because it’s easier to understand. Then, we look at it in terms of all phenomena. When we talk about all phenomena, we’re talking about things that are static and nonstatic – that’s referring to whether or not they change, whether or not they’re affected by anything. When we talk about the aggregate factors of our experience, these include only everything that changes, that’s nonstatic. In other words, every component of our experience in this particular scheme is something that is affected by something else; it’s brought about by causes and conditions. Although static phenomena are also involved in our experience, they’re not included in the scheme of five aggregates.

When we have a basic understanding of voidness, then the order in which we focus on voidness in our meditation is the reverse. First, we think primarily in terms of the five aggregates – the things that are changing; in other words, the voidness of the basis of labeling “me.” When we see that each moment of our experience is changing, everything is affected by other things and changing at different rates, and there’s nothing solid there that remains moment-to-moment in terms of the basis, then, it follows quite naturally that you couldn’t have some sort of solid findable thing, that “me,” labeled on it. Everything is changing, everything is affected by a million other things, everything is made up of parts and so on. Thus, there’s no solid “me” riding on top of all this. 

The Three Times

With this basis of labeling “me,” our continuum of experiences, there’s the past, what’s already happened. There’s the present, what’s currently happening. And there’s the future, what’s not yet happening. But we don’t call them “past,” “present” and “future” in Buddhism, as those are very different conceptualizations of time. In a sense, the conceptual framework is the reverse because first you have “not yet happened,” then you have “presently happening,” and then you have “no longer happening.” That’s a huge discussion about the Buddhist concept of time and a very important one. Actually, it’s extremely crucial for being able to understand and meditate on bodhichitta. Remember how Tsongkhapa explains how to specify a state that you’re trying to generate in meditation: you have to know what it’s focused on and how the mind relates to it.

Bodhichitta has two moments to it – when we say “moment” in Buddhist analysis, that means a phase, it doesn’t last just one instant. The first phase is focused on all limited beings, that means absolutely everybody, with love and compassion, the wish for them to be happy and to be free from their suffering. The exceptional resolve is that I’m definitely going to do something about it – lead them all the way to liberation and enlightenment, not just help them superficially. But then, the main focus of bodhichitta is on our individual, not-yet-happening enlightenment, which can happen on the basis of Buddha-nature, way further down on our mental continuum. The way that the mind takes that is with the intention to attain it, so that we would have a presently happening enlightenment, with the intention to help everybody by means of that attainment. 

Of course, we have to understand exactly what in the world we are focusing on when we’re talking about a not-yet-happening enlightenment. For sure, it’s not some package that’s sitting further down the temporal line of our mental continuum, coming closer and closer to us on a conveyor belt of time, so that eventually it becomes a presently happening enlightenment. It’s not like that. 

This explanation is just to indicate the importance of understanding the Buddhist presentation of the three times. It’s very, very significant. Otherwise, our bodhichitta meditation can be very, very vague. And in fact, many people don’t really understand what bodhichitta is focused on, and they call meditation on compassion “bodhichitta meditation,” and it’s not. Actually, it’s a stepping stone to bodhichitta, but it’s not equivalent to bodhichitta. It’s a basis of bodhichitta, but not bodhichitta itself.

As I was saying, in meditation, we first understand the voidness of the basis for labeling “me,” the aggregates. Then the next step in the meditation, that of understanding the voidness of the “me” labeled on it, becomes easier. We need to have a proper basis for labeling “me.” We can speak about all the problematic aspects that are part of each moment of our mental continuum, each moment of our experience: disturbing emotions, our confusion, and so on. We can analyze all the causal factors that have influenced that and reinforced it. That is certainly part of the basis for labeling “me.” Often, we just focus on that in our Buddhist practice, because we always analyze in terms of true problems and their true causes. However, also part of that basis for labeling “me” are all the more positive aspects that can be harnessed for achieving a not-yet-happening enlightenment. All of these positive aspects have also arisen by causes, conditions, the influence of other people, and the influence of where we live and various things in our life.

“I” Exist, But the Impossible “I” Doesn’t

Now I’ll join up all the different pieces of what we’ve been discussing. Remember, we were saying that we ordinarily think of ourselves in terms of an impossible “me,” but that there’s no such thing as an impossible “me.” But we do have, nevertheless, a conventional “me” that functions. So, what would be the healthiest basis for labeling “me?” Obviously, we need to label “me” on the totality of the basis, both the problematic aspects and the aspects that can increase and help us to reach enlightenment – the not yet-happening enlightenment that can be attained later on, on our mental continuum. How will the attainment of the not-yet-happening enlightenment come about, so that we have a presently happening enlightenment? The process for that is to get rid of the negative aspects and increase the positive ones. In other words, we want to eliminate all the problematic aspects for the basis of labeling “me,” and just have the positive ones. So, what do we do? We apply the understanding of voidness. These impossible things are impossible. There’s no such thing, they don’t correspond to reality.

And now we come back to our “nevertheless.” As long as we stay with an understanding of voidness, all these problematic aspects can’t arise anymore. When we don’t understand voidness, then of course they will continue to function. But if we understand voidness, we realize that there is no supporting basis for them, like some object casting a shadow on a screen, there’s nothing supporting them, and they will not arise again. But our “nevertheless” is that it doesn’t destroy positive qualities, because the positive qualities are based on a correct understanding of reality. We reinforce and strengthen those positive qualities by gaining inspiration from the people and things in our life that have shown or given those positive qualities to us.

Tantra and Voidness

For those who are engaged in tantra meditation, this is the whole basis for what we do in tantra meditation. We have all these different conflicting, problematic aspects. We think in terms of voidness, with a total absence of all of these problematic aspects, and then we imagine ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure, which is basically labeling “me” on all the positive aspects rather than on the negative aspects. This is part of the theory behind the tantra transformation. But it needs to be accompanied with the realization that what we are imagining and visualizing is just a similitude of the not-yet-happening enlightenment; it certainly isn’t a presently-happening enlightenment. I’m not just presently enlightened because I think I am. 

If we focus on a “me” labeled on compassion and correct clear understanding, that is not contradicted or eliminated by an understanding of voidness. Whereas if we think in terms of “me” on the basis of anger, when you focus on the understanding that these impossible ways of existing do not exist, that eliminates the anger. You can’t have anger and the understanding of voidness at the same time. I mean, you can understand voidness and anger, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking in terms of what is consciously happening, what you’re experiencing. So the understanding of voidness reinforces and doesn’t eliminate the positive qualities, but it’s mutually exclusive with the negative qualities. They are incompatible. So, this tantra method is not just the power of positive thinking, but it is based firmly on the understanding of voidness.

Now, dealing with these Buddha-figures –  Chenrezig representing compassion and Manjushri representing clear understanding, and so on – they can be quite difficult to relate to, because they’re a very idealized perfect form of compassion and understanding. Here is where our practice of integrating the positive aspects of our life can be helpful. 

The Buddha-figures are related to the different Buddha-nature aspects. When we speak about Buddha-nature, we’re talking about those factors that are part of our mental continuum that will allow or transform into the various bodies of a Buddha, the various aspects of a Buddha. So, when we talk about these Buddha-nature aspects, we’re talking about the very same aspects with which the mind works. The mind works in terms of many, many different aspects: The mind is capable of understanding things; the mind is capable of taking care of things, of feeling compassion, and so on. This is what we call the “basis level.” On that basis, it’s possible to achieve the resultant level, which is represented by the Buddha-figure.

The Basis, Path, and Result

In the Buddhist analysis we speak of the basis, and the pathway mind that leads to the resultant level. So, we always speak in terms of these three aspects: basis, path and result. Let’s look at the path, or pathway mind. We have all these various Buddhist meditations on compassion and voidness, many of which are very elaborate, which will help us to attain that not-yet-happening enlightenment, the aspects of which are represented by these different Buddha-figures. However, in the present moment, especially for those of us who are not terribly advanced on the path, we have various good qualities that we have gained through the influence of various members of the family, from the country that we live in, from the various occupations that we’ve had, from our friends, and so on. And this is where the exercises come in.

So, the basis for labeling “me,” is every moment of experience of all the problematic and the positive aspects – it’s the whole thing. If we look in terms of a mental continuum from another point of view, then also the basis for labeling “me” is the basis, pathway and resultant phases of the mental continuum. That’s not a temporal line, because it isn’t like “at the beginning there was the basis and then the pathway.” Pathway is beginningless. But that pathway is going to entail getting rid of negative aspects, the problematic aspects, and strengthening the positive ones. It’s difficult to relate to the basis, the Buddha-nature aspects, and it’s difficult to relate to the resultant aspects, these idealized forms of these qualities. What is far easier is to relate to the positive qualities that we have now on a pathway level.


If we can recognize all these positive things that we have gained from all these different aspects of our life and integrate them so that they become a harmonious basis for labeling “me,” then we are in a much better position to be able to pursue the Buddhist path. We recognize our pathway level of positive factors. This is one step, probably a preliminary step – a “Dharma Lite” step – for being able to follow the Buddhist pathway, to have a positive basis for labeling “me.” It gives us the strength to engage in the various Buddhist practices of “Real Thing” Dharma, to achieve the resultant level. And as a side benefit, we have a much healthier sense of “me,” the conventional “me,” for dealing with things in this lifetime. This healthier sense of a positive “me” is very important further on in tantra practice, so that we don’t get into some sort of weird ego inflation or trip into total fantasy.

Although in this session we have not taken the time to do further practice, I wanted to present a much wider  scope of where this type of practice can fit into the general Dharma path, and the theory behind how it works and how it would be beneficial both on a “Dharma Lite” level and a “Real Thing” Dharma level.

Perhaps this analysis also illustrates a point that I made at the beginning, which is that as we study and practice Dharma more and more and learn all sorts of different aspects of the Dharma, what we need to try to do is to “integrate” them, put them all together, see how everything connects to everything else. And when we start to put more and more things together, in many different ways, then we reap more and more treasures from the Dharma.