The Basics for Understanding Emptiness

Voidness or emptiness refers to the fact that our projections of impossible ways of existing onto ourselves, others and everything we encounter do not correspond to reality. There never was and there never can be an actual reality corresponding to them. Understanding and meditating on voidness, then, are the keys to dispelling the problems we create for ourselves by being out of touch with reality.

Why Is There Ignorance?

People often ask, “Why is there ignorance in the world? Is it that somebody created it? Did it come because Adam and Eve ate a forbidden apple from a tree or... where did it come from?”

In Buddhism, we say that unawareness has no beginning. The reason we are unaware and don’t know how things actually exist is because the way things appear is not how they exist. That’s referring to ordinary, conventional things. It appears to me, for instance, that I am the center of the universe and to everybody else it appears that they themselves are the center. When you close your eyes to go to sleep, it seems as though the rest of the universe is not there and we are the only ones who exist, doesn’t it? But that’s not how the world exists. Yet, when we believe that the world actually does exist in that mistaken way, we create all our problems, both for ourselves and for others.

This is a very simple example, but it’s true about everything that we normally experience. Our minds make things appear in very confusing, strange ways and we believe that they’re true. We don’t really understand how reality exists. It’s like that even for animals; it appears to them as though they’re the center of the universe too. We’re not talking about some intellectual mistake. The way things appear in our everyday experience is incorrect, even for animals.

It is possible, however, to get rid of the confusion and ignorance that is the cause of our problems, if you think about it. Not knowing how things exist, or having an incorrect understanding of it, cannot exist in our minds at the same time as a totally correct understanding. In between, we have indecision, when we’re unsure and are weighing, “Maybe it’s like this; maybe it’s like that.” But if we’re totally convinced about the correct way in which we, others, and everything exist, we don’t have an incorrect understanding or a not-knowing at the same time. If you know that the earth is round, you don’t think that it’s flat anymore – you know that it’s round. Because correct understanding can totally replace incorrect understanding, and can replace it to the point at which the incorrect understanding will never arise again – because we’re fully convinced that the correct one is right – then we’ve gotten rid of the causes of the problems. And so the problems themselves won’t arise anymore. When we think like that, we become convinced that it is possible to actually get rid of our problems. It’s actually quite an important thing in Buddhism to become convinced that we can accomplish this goal. Otherwise, why are we trying?

The Five Aggregate Factors of Experience

Confusion about Them

The fundamental confusion we have about reality concerns the relationship between “me” and the body and the mind. To eliminate this confusion, we need to have some clear understanding of the five aggregate factors of experience – the so-called five aggregates. “Aggregate” is an adjective meaning “made up of many parts.” What it’s talking about is our everyday experience from moment to moment. Our experience is made up of many parts, which are all continuously changing. However, it doesn’t appear like that to us. We wake up in the morning and feel depressed, for instance, and so we think that this mood is one solid, heavy thing and it’s going to last all day. We’re not mindful of the fact that, in each moment, we’re seeing something different, hearing something different and so on. We don’t consider what’s actually happening in each moment. If we have a headache, it seems as though nothing else is happening except for the headache. This is another example of how the way things appear are not the way things exist.

It’s the same thing in terms of “me.” “I am fat.” It doesn’t matter that we’re experiencing all sorts of things every moment, we identify with one thing: being fat. That’s the way it appears to us when we look in a mirror. What we’re doing is identifying with some aspect of our experience, namely the weight of our body. But, there’s much more to us than just the weight of our body, isn’t there? We need to understand all the things that make up our experience – the five aggregates.

The Buddhist Classification of Phenomena

Buddhist philosophy differentiates between things that exist and things that do not exist. What exists can be validly known. What does not exist cannot be validly known. Chicken lips do not exist. We can imagine human lips on a chicken, but we cannot imagine chicken lips on a chicken because there is no such thing.

What exists can be divided into the two broad categories of “static” and “nonstatic.” These terms are usually translated as “permanent” and “impermanent,” but that’s misleading. The difference is in whether or not a thing changes while it exists. It could exist for a short period of time or forever. I don’t really want to go into examples of static phenomena, but in just one sentence, they are things like mathematical qualities, facts that never change. “One plus one is two” doesn’t ever change.

The five aggregate factors refer to only the nonstatic phenomena that make up our experience from moment to moment. Some are connected with our mental continuum and some are not. There are three basic categories of nonstatic phenomena: forms of physical phenomena, ways of being aware of something, and affecting variables that are neither of these (nonconcomitant affecting variables).

Forms of physical phenomena make up the first aggregate factor of our experience – the aggregate of forms. They include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations and so on. There are also certain forms that are not material, like the objects that we see and hear in dreams.

What I’m translating as “ways of being aware of something” is usually translated as “mental phenomena,” but that way of rendering the term is unclear. They are ways of being aware of something: to hear, see, feel or think something, to be angry at something, to like something, etc. All of these are ways of being aware of something. They are quite different from a form of a physical phenomenon, aren’t they?

Then, there are things that affect our experience that are neither of these two. An example is time. Time passes and it affects us: we get older. But time is neither of the previous two.

Primary Consciousness and Mental Factors

There are two types of ways of being aware of something: primary consciousness and mental factors. Primary consciousness makes up the second aggregate and it is aware of merely the essential nature of something. The essential nature of something is it’s being a sound, a sight, a smell, a thought. Seeing, for example, cognizes merely the essential nature of a sight as being a sight.

A simpler, but very profound example involves knowing an orange. What is an orange? It’s an interesting question. Is it the sight of an orange? Is it the sound of an orange when you squeeze it? Is it the smell or the taste of an orange? Is it the sensation of it in your hand? What is an orange? Are all of them inside the orange? With primary consciousness, we’re aware simply of which of these fields of information are we cognizing. We’re really talking about what channel we’re on – the seeing channel, the hearing channel, the smelling channel. Are we dealing with sights, with sounds, with thoughts? What are we dealing with in respect to this orange?

Question: I cannot differentiate between the physical form and the awareness of a physical form. I have to be aware of something.

That’s a very good point, because there always has to be something that we’re aware of. Subject and object, or consciousness and object, are called “non-dual.” That’s a literal translation and can be misleading. It doesn’t mean that the two are identical. In very simple terms, the two always come in one package. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot have an experience without experiencing something. You cannot have a thought without thinking a thought. They are different, not identical, but they always come together.

Now, around that primary consciousness come all the mental factors or subsidiary types of awareness – liking the object, disliking it, paying attention to it, interest in it, and all the various possible emotions. And each type of primary consciousness works through a specific sensory power. “Sensory power” is not a good word either. What we’re talking about here are the cognitive sensors and, for the five physical senses, these are forms of physical phenomena, part of the aggregate of forms. There are the photosensitive cells of the eyes, the sound-sensitive cells of the ears and so on. Each type of primary sensory consciousness works with its own specific type of sensitive cells. Primary consciousness, working through sensory cells, is doing nothing but putting a channel on the television.

Feeling a Level of Happiness

The mental factors go together with the channel. Once we’re on a channel, we have to play with the other dials to get it into focus and adjust the volume and all these other things. That’s like the mental factors or different types of subsidiary awareness. There are a lot of them.

Of the most important ones, first there is feeling a level of happiness. That’s usually just translated as “feeling,” but that’s misleading because it has nothing to do with emotions. When you read the word “feeling” in a Buddhist text, the only meaning that it has is “feeling a level of happiness.” Although it’s usually translated as “feeling,” it’s not emotion or intuition, and not feeling a sensation like hot or cold.

In every moment, we’re on some channel: we’re dealing with something, with sights, for example, and that’s happening on the basis of the photosensitive cells of the eyes and on the body in general. That’s happening all of the time. Together with that, in every moment, we’re feeling something on the scale between happy and unhappy – it could be neutral, it could be anything – and that’s giving an experiential tone to each moment. That mental factor by itself constitutes the third aggregate factor, the aggregate of feeling a level of happiness.


Another important mental factor is distinguishing, usually translated as “recognition,” which is a totally misleading translation. “Recognition” means that you’ve seen something previously; you compare some new thing to it and thus recognize the new thing as being in the same category. We’re not talking about that.

For example, we’re on the seeing channel, so we’re seeing a field of vision. In order to do anything with that, we have to be able to distinguish something in that field of vision from everything else in that field. To look at you, I have to distinguish the colored shape of your head from the colored shape of the wall behind you in order to be able to look at you, experience you, and have some emotional response to you. Without that, we really couldn’t survive; we couldn’t function in this world. It’s the same thing in terms of distinguishing somebody’s voice from the background noise of traffic. That’s “distinguishing,” which is an aggregate factor all by itself.

The Aggregate of Everything Else

Then there is “everything else” that’s nonstatic and changing all the time. That constitutes the fifth aggregate factor. “Everything else” includes paying attention, interest, anger, desire, love, compassion – all the emotions and all the things that enable us to concentrate and so on. It’s a big category.

Does one of these last three aggregates happen first or are they all together at the same time?

Actually, all five aggregates go on at the same time. It is not that thought happens first and then you notice it and then think it.

The five aggregate factors are five groupings or like five bags. Each moment of our experience is made up of one or more items from each bag. These five are:

  • the aggregate of forms, so that’s our body and all these sights and sounds and so on
  • the aggregate of consciousness – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling a physical sensation and thinking
  • the aggregate of feelings – feeling a level of happiness
  • the aggregate of distinguishing
  • the aggregate of other affecting variables, sometimes called “the aggregate of volition.”

That last one was the one I was referring to as the “aggregate of everything else.” It includes an urge, as in “I have the urge to scratch my head.” According to some Buddhist systems, that’s karma. Since urges or karma are the most outstanding factor in that category, some translators call the aggregate “the aggregate of volitions.” To call it “will” is much too strong. But, volitions and emotions are all in one big bag.

Identifying the Conventional “Me”: The Example of a Habit

Now we can work with this scheme of the five aggregate factors of our experience. What we will want to do is to identify the conventional “me” included within this last factor, the aggregate of other affecting variables, and understand its relation with all the other members of the aggregates.

The conventional “me” is a nonstatic phenomenon and, from among the three types of nonstatic phenomena that we discussed, it’s an example of the third type – those that are neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. All of them are included in the aggregate of other affecting variables. To begin with, let me give you some other examples of items in this third category of nonstatic phenomena, so that we get a better idea of what type of things we’re talking about. We already had “time” as an example, but there are some others that are important, for instance habits.

What is a habit? Let’s give an example: the habit of smoking cigarettes. The habit is not the actual physical act of smoking – that’s the smoking, not the habit of smoking. The habit is not the desire or impulse to have the cigarette – that’s a way of being aware of something: you see the cigarette and you want it.

But John, the smoker, is not conscious of his wanting to smoke because he has chemical substances in all of his cells which compel him to smoke.

Those chemicals are the physical basis for the habit of smoking, but a habit is not the chemicals themselves. If you have a bottle full of that chemical, it’s not going to cause that bottle to smoke a cigarette, is it? Therefore, a habit is not the chemical support for a habit. It’s not even a “well-lubricated” pathway of neurochemical impulses in the brain. A dead brain having that pathway also won’t smoke a cigarette.

So, what is the habit of smoking cigarettes? There is a sequence of frequently repeating similar events. Every hour, let’s say, we compulsively smoke another cigarette. On the basis of that repetitive sequence of similar events, we can objectively say, “There’s a habit of smoking.” The habit of smoking is, in Buddhist technical language, an “imputation” on the basis of these similar events.

What is an imputed phenomenon? An imputed phenomenon, like a habit, is something that depends on other phenomena as its basis for existence and for being validly known. A habit of smoking, for example, is dependent on acts of smoking in order to exist and be validly known. The habit does not exist independently of those acts. Likewise, motion is an imputed phenomenon on the basis of a physical object being sequentially in slightly different locations. There can be no motion without there being something that’s moving.

A habit, then, like motion, is not something made up by conceptual thought. If we stopped all conceptual thinking, that wouldn’t make all habits and motion stop existing, would it? Habits, then, are validly knowable nonstatic phenomena, affected by many things. Habits can change: they can grow stronger or weaker and so on. That’s a habit. It’s in the third category of nonstatic phenomena, the “neither” category.

The Conventional “Me”

The conventional “me,” which is going to be quite important in our discussion, is another example of this category of “neither.” For example, an individual sequence of subjective experiencing of something occurs, which we can analyze in terms of the five aggregate factors that constitute each moment of that experiencing. There is a seeing of someone, a hearing of something, a going here, a doing this, a doing that. These all form an individual sequence of subjective experiencing of something, because one moment follows another. The conventional “me” is an imputed phenomenon on the basis of this sequence of experiencing something. It only exists and can be validly known dependently on this basis. Because this is the case, we can validly say, “It’s ‘me’ – I’m doing this, I’m saying this, I’m hearing this.” Our statements are not just based on a figment of our imagination. It’s not that someone else is doing this or that no one is doing this. I am doing this; I am experiencing this.

Just as a habit is not some little devil sitting inside our heads saying, “Smoke a cigarette now,” similarly the conventional “me” is not some little controller inside our heads saying, “Now do this; now do that.” It is an imputation that is neither some form of physical phenomenon nor a way of knowing something. The problem is that it appears as though there is this little controller in our heads, because we experience a voice saying, “Now I’m going to do this or that.” It appears that way and we believe it’s true; but that’s not the way that it actually exists.

In Buddhism, we do talk about a conventional “me,” which does exist. We do exist. We don’t just say, “This body is sitting in the chair.” We would say, “I’m sitting in the chair.” Conventionally, we are sitting here. And conventionally, we are experiencing everything: we’re seeing, feeling and so on. But there is not some little concrete devil or angel sitting in our heads who is the real “me” doing the experiencing.

We can, of course, discuss this in much more detail, but that’s the general situation. When we think that we’re this little controller in our heads, we’re very self-conscious and we start to worry about what people think about “me.” We become very worried and we develop all sorts of neurotic problems. We can become paranoid and think everyone is looking at us and judging us.

Isn’t it necessary to think about what other people think of me?

That’s why we differentiate between the conventional “me” and the false “me.” The false “me” is like chicken lips. The conventional “me” is like the beak of the chicken. But we imagine that the conventional “me” exists like a false “me”; we imagine that there are lips on this chicken. The false “me” would be like this controller in my head. Believing in that is like imagining lipstick on the beak of a chicken. We say, “Oh, I have to be like this and I have to be like that.”

Conventionally, it is important what other people think of us. As part of Buddhist ethics, we refrain from hurting others because of our consideration for what others think, what others experience, how our actions reflect on others, and so on. It is important. That’s dealing with the conventional “me.” But, if we confuse the conventional “me” with the false “me,” we base our whole sense of self-worth on what the other person thinks. For instance, somebody doesn’t approve and now I think I’m a bad person and I have no self-worth. We get all sorts of psychological problems. There’s quite a difference between the two. The conventional “me” is a little bit impersonal. If somebody criticizes us, we can learn from it – all on the basis of the conventional “me.” If we think in terms of the false “me,” we take their criticism personally: “They think I’m a bad person, I’m no good! They don’t love me anymore.” There’s a big difference.

Now we’re speaking about a conventional “me” among other things that exist. But, in Buddhism, there is anatma, no self, which means there is absolutely no “me,” not even a conventional “me.” How do we come to claim, among other things that exist, there is a conventional “me”?

This is the most common misunderstanding of the Buddhist teachings of no self or anatma. What we’re denying is the false “me.” We’re not denying the conventional “me.” The chicken has a beak. We’re not denying that. We’re denying that it has any lips.

Brief Summary of the Conventional “Me” and the Five Aggregates

We’ve been talking about the five aggregates, the factors of our experience, which is a classification scheme of all nonstatic phenomena. All nonstatic phenomena can be included in five bags. But those five bags, the five aggregates, are just a classification scheme; they don’t exist concretely somewhere in the sky or findable in our heads. But, one or more items from each of the five bags are going to make up every moment of our experience. In each moment, we’re on some channel – seeing, hearing, thinking, etc. – and we’re distinguishing some object in that field; we’re dealing with something – a sight, a sound, etc. – and we’re feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness about it. Then we have everything else – there’s some emotion involved, some level of paying attention, some interest and all of these sorts of things. And then also in this bag of everything else is the conventional “me,” which is an imputed phenomenon based on the ever-changing aggregates of each moment: “I’m experiencing this, I’m seeing this, I’m doing this...”

Mental Labeling with Categories and Designation with Words

Habits and the conventional “me” actually do exist; but because, like motion, they depend on a constantly changing basis for imputation, we can’t pinpoint them or know them all by themselves. So what actually are they and how do we establish that they exist? We can establish that they exist in terms of mental labeling with categories and designation with words and names. I should add that imputation, mental labeling and designation are all the same word in Sanskrit and Tibetan. Because of that, they’re sometimes used interchangeably in our languages; but I find it helpful to differentiate the three usages of the original term with three different expressions.

Let’s look once more at habits. We have many types of repetitive behavior – we may not only repeatedly smoke, we may also repeatedly eat breakfast at a certain time, read the news while eating, take the same route to work, and so on. On the basis of each of these types of repetitive behavior, there exists, as an imputed phenomenon, a habit of acting that way. But what establishes that there is such a thing as a habit? What establishes that there is a phenomenon that we call a “habit”?

Well, there’s a category “habit” that we use in conceptual thought and which we mentally label on each of these types of repetitive behavior, and there’s the specific category “habit of smoking” that we similarly mentally label onto individual instances of smoking. There are also the words “habit” and “habit of smoking” – we designate the categories “habit” and “habit of smoking” with those words. By extension, we designate all sorts of repetitive types of behavior also with the word “habit” and repetitive smoking with the words “habit of smoking.” These are conventions that we all agree on.

So, how can we establish that there is such a phenomenon as a habit? Or, in simpler terms, what is a habit? Let’s make it simpler and just analyze in terms of designation with words, specifically the words “habit of smoking.” A habit is not a word. It’s not the sound of the words “habit of smoking.” Those words are the designation. A habit of smoking is also not any of the individual actions of smoking. Those individual actions are the basis for the designation of a habit. But everyone would agree that, objectively, we have a habit of smoking, despite the fact that our habit is not these words and it’s not any of the individual actions or collection of actions. But the words “habit of smoking” do refer to something, on the basis of those individual actions. They refer to the actual habit, but we can’t point to the habit as if it were findable in the words or in the actions. So, a habit is a little bit like an illusion: it’s not something concrete. It’s just what the word “habit” refers to on the basis of each changing moment of similar types of repetitive action.

What establishes that there is a habit of smoking, then, is merely the fact that the words “habit of smoking” designated on the basis of repetitive smoking refer to something that is agreed upon by convention and not contradicted by valid cognition. Further, that habit of smoking produces effects – it brings about further instances of smoking. So if we have to say what a habit is, it is simply what the word “habit” refers to on the basis of the repetitive actions of smoking.

Let’s apply that understanding now to the conventional “me.” We have the word “me.” It could be further designated with a name, like “Alex” or whatever your name is, but let’s leave it simply as “me.” So, who am I? I’m not the word “me.” I’m not a word. What are we applying the word to? We’re applying it to an individual sequence of moments of experiencing something, in which the experiencing is made up of components from the five aggregates. There’s a sequence of moments of walking, talking, seeing and doing things. That’s the basis for the designation “me.” And note that the basis has to be an appropriate, valid one. We’re not giving the word “me” to something completely weird. We’re not calling a rocket going to the Moon “me.”

What does the word “me” refer to? The word refers to the conventional “me.” But who, or what, is this “me?” It’s something that cannot be pinpointed; it’s simply what the word “me” refers to on the basis of an individual sequence of five ever-changing aggregates of experience. It appears as though it’s a little controller in our heads, but it’s not; it’s just what a word refers to on the basis of this individual sequence of moments of subjectively experiencing something. That conventional “me” is like an illusion, it’s not the same as an illusion. It is like an illusion, because it appears to be concrete, whereas it is not.

Now, when we say that the existence of something is established in terms of mental labeling or in terms of designation with words and names, we’re not saying that something is created by mental labeling or designation. The baby doesn’t exist only if I see this small creature and think or say “baby.” Whether we actively label this creature with the category “baby” or designate it with the word “baby” makes no difference. Labeling or designating it as a baby doesn’t create a baby. It isn’t that when no one is actively labeling the baby, then the baby doesn’t exist.

The baby does exist. We’re not questioning that. But what is a baby and what establishes that this small creature exists as a baby? What establishes its existence as a baby is that the mental label and designation “baby” applied to a valid basis for labeling one actually refer to something that does not contradict convention or valid cognition. This is what it means when we say it exists as “baby” or as “baby Maria” on the basis of mental labeling. It also exists as “breakfast” for the mosquito. The mosquito doesn’t have to know the word “breakfast,” but it can see this baby Maria as something nice to suck some blood from.

Voidness as an Absence

That brings us to “voidness,” shunyata in Sanskrit, which most people call “emptiness.” Excuse me, but my background is as a translator and I find that most of the misunderstandings about Buddhism in the West are because of the translation terms giving wrong ideas. “Emptiness” implies that there is something findable present, like a glass, but it’s empty: it has nothing inside. It’s an empty glass. That’s not the meaning according to the Gelug Prasangika view. Voidness is simply a negation of something impossible and it does not affirm the existence of anything, for instance the existence of an empty glass. So, although “voidness” also may not be the best translation, it’s more accurate that “emptiness” for a Prasangika discussion. But keep in mind, we’re not talking about nothingness here. The meaning of the word shunyata is much closer to “an absence.” More specifically, it’s an absence of impossible ways of existing. In Sanskrit, shunyata is also the word for “zero.”

First of all, does an absence exist? Yes, it exists. Can we see an absence? Yes, we can see that there is no elephant in this room. We can all see that absence of an elephant very clearly. With voidness, however, we’re not talking about the absence of something that could exist, like there could be an elephant in the room. We’re talking about the absence of something that doesn’t exist at all. We can also see that there is no pink elephant in the room. It doesn’t exist at all. It never existed and never will exist. It’s not that the pink elephant was here and walked into the other room and it could come back! It’s not that type of temporary absence. It is a total, complete absence, like the absence of a pink elephant. It was never in the room.

With voidness, we’re talking about an absence of something totally impossible that doesn’t exist at all, and never could. The mental concept or fantasy with which we imagine a pink elephant does exist, however, and it can make us afraid. We could be afraid that there’s a pink elephant in the room or a monster. What’s absent is what the fantasy is referring to – something real, a real pink elephant or a real monster. We can have the false idea of one, but it’s not referring to anything real. There are no such things as real pink elephants or real monsters.

But here, we’re not just talking about the absence of some impossible thing, like a pink elephant. We’re talking about the absence of an impossible manner of existing. With voidness, we’re not saying that there’s no monster in this room. We’re saying this room is not haunted by a monster; we’re talking about how the room exists. It never existed as being haunted by a monster. Of course, if the child believes that the bedroom is haunted by a monster, it’ll be very frightened and won’t be able to go to sleep. But that misconception and the accompanying fear don’t refer to anything real in terms of how the bedroom exists. When we put on the light, we can show the child that the room doesn’t exist this way.

When we talk about voidness, then, we’re talking about an absence of impossible ways of existing. That’s wordy, but that’s what voidness is talking about.

There is the conventional “me” – that exists: it’s what the word “me” refers to on the basis of the ever-changing aggregate factors that make up an individual sequence of moment to moment experiencing of things. But we project or superimpose on the conventional “me” the misconception that it exists in the manner of a false “me,” the little controller in our heads, which is impossible. That misconception doesn’t refer to anything real. We think that this controller in our heads is the real “me,” the true “me.” But it’s not true; because there’s no such thing as a little controller sitting in our heads.

For example, we say something to someone and that person gets angry, and we have an exchange of strong words. Our speaking of the original words, the other person’s reaction, and the verbal exchange that followed – all of that is the basis for labeling the category “me.” We experienced all that. The valid description of this incident in terms of the conventional “me” would be: “I said something and the other person responded with anger, and we then exchanged heated words.” That’s really all that happened.

Believing in and projecting the false “me,” however, onto the conventional “me” who participated in this incident, we would think, “I’m a real idiot! I did it again! I’m always saying the wrong thing! I’m such an idiot! I’m no good!” What is absent is that this idiot “me” is actually real. We have the concept of an idiotic, no good “me” – that concept exists. But what that concept refers to – a “me” that actually exists as a real idiot – that’s absent; there’s no such thing. We merely imagine that the conventional “me” exists as this false “me.” That’s an impossible way of existing. We may, conventionally, have said something stupid, but nobody can exist as just totally stupid and nothing else.

You really are getting away now from this old, forever puzzling thing that is said in Buddhism, that there is no “me” at all.

Buddhism doesn’t say that. It never says that anywhere.

But that’s what we’ve heard and read for generations. The “me” is what the Hindus say they have, this real “me” that they call the “atman” and then the Buddhists deny that.

I’m sorry, but I think there’s some misunderstanding here. Buddhism denies the atman that the various schools of Hinduism assert, but it does not deny that there’s a conventional “me.” That’s very clear in the Buddhist texts. The conventional “me” or “person,” pudgala in Sanskrit, does not exist as an atman, as a “soul,” but persons do exist. We have to understand what that means.

First, we need to get a general idea of what is absent and then, once we stop projecting that, we see what’s left. Then we realize that, well, it’s not exactly that and then we have to get rid of some more. We do that several times with several levels of understanding. In this way, we get to the most precise understanding of how the “me” that is not to be refuted is like an illusion. That’s said by all Buddhists – the conventional “me” is like an illusion, they don’t say that it doesn’t exist. When they say “no self,” what they’re referring to is no such thing as the false “self.”

The conventional “me” that does exist is dependent on and affected by what’s happening; it is changing all the time. It is like an illusion, because it appears to be concrete, but is not concrete at all. But because there is such a thing as the conventional “me,” we can validly refer to an individual sequence of subjective experiencing of things as “my life.” And because there is such a thing as the conventional “me,” we experience the effects of our actions. If that weren’t true, then there would be no cause and effect and it wouldn’t matter what we did. All the Buddhist teachings on ethics and karma would be nonsense. And that is certainly not the case.


Correct understanding and meditation on voidness are the strongest opponents for dispelling the deepest source of all our problems in life – our ignorance of how we, others and everyone exists. Each moment of our experience is made up of many ever-changing components – some physical, some mental and some that are neither. One of these components is the conventional “me.” As an imputed phenomenon that is neither physical nor mental, it does exist. But it cannot exist or be known independently of a body and mind and these moments of experience. We imagine, however, that our conventional “me” exists in an impossible way, as a little controller sitting in our heads. Such a “me” – the false “me” – cannot possibly exist. It doesn’t correspond to reality. When we realize that our conventional “me” is devoid of existing as a false “me,” we gradually stop trying to make that non-existent false “me” secure. We stop acting compulsively out of longing desire, anger or naivety in futile attempts to make it secure. In this way, we liberate ourselves from our self-made sufferings.