How Things Exist

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
New York, NY 1990 (Archive #655)

In this book Lama Zopa Rinpoche covers  the importance of compassion and universal responsibility and how to make life meaningful, and  offers an amazing and extensive explanation of emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality, and teaching how to meditate on emptiness. Within these teachings, Rinpoche also touches on several of the other main points of the path to enlightenment, such as bodhicitta, the three scopes and impermanence.  

See  the Related Links for each chapter to access the audio recordings and read along with the unedited transcripts. 

Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Tarzana, California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter Three: Lam-rim and Meditation on Emptiness

The essence of the teaching of the Buddha is the four noble truths, which are contained in this one verse:
Do not commit any non-virtuous actions,
Perform only perfect virtuous actions,
Subdue your mind thoroughly—
This is the teaching of the Buddha.12

Meditation on impermanence

The essence of what the next verse13 says is to remember how the self, action, object, friend, enemy, stranger, our body and our possessions are transitory in nature. They change within every second by causes and conditions, and because of that, they can stop at any time. Therefore, it’s not worthwhile to get angry, have the dissatisfied mind of desire or give rise to wrong conceptions, such as the concept of permanence. Believing these things, which are transitory in nature, to be something other than what they really are is the fundamental problem of life, the fundamental suffering in our life.

Being mindful of the nature of the self, action, object and these other things brings tranquility into our mind. It protects our mind; it protects us from disturbing thoughts, wrong conceptions. It protects us from all harmful thoughts and actions, or karma, which harm us and other sentient beings.

When we live our life with the concept of permanence and other mistaken thoughts, we look at things in a way that is contradictory to reality, a way in which they don’t exist. Living like this brings confusion and thousands of problems into our life; it’s living in a state of confusion.

Meditation on impermanence in everyday life—in other words, awareness of the reality of these things—is essential. It is the basis for happiness and peace of mind and the best protection for our life.

Meditation on emptiness

In addition to meditating on impermanence, we also have to meditate on emptiness.

Now, when we say, “I’m listening to Dharma,” we’re labeling what “I’m doing” in dependence upon what our aggregates, the association of our body and mind, are doing. By thinking of our aggregates and what they’re doing, we label, “I’m listening to Dharma.” If our aggregates are sitting on a chair, we say, “I’m sitting on a chair.” When we think of the I, hear the word “I” or talk about the I, we’re putting the label “I” on our aggregates.

When the I is doing the action of listening to teachings, since our mind is paying attention to the words, we impute, “I’m listening to teachings.” And it’s the same with the object, the teachings. The label “teachings” is imputed to the words that we hear, which were taught by Buddha.

When we think of our enemy or say or hear the word “enemy,” again it is imputed; we’ve labeled some being “enemy.” When we think of our friend, we apply the label “friend.” We also apply the label “stranger” to the aggregates of someone we don’t know.

When we see our possessions, again we apply the label “possessions” in dependence upon that particular base. It’s the same with our body: when we think of our body or hear the word “body,” again it’s a label that we’ve imputed to the base of a torso with limbs and a head. In dependence upon that base we label “body.”

From morning to night, no matter what we think, talk or hear about, we’re thinking, talking or hearing about labels. We’re labeling things every time we think. Every time we have a conversation at work or at home, we’re constantly applying labels. We’re making things exist by applying labels. Whenever we’re thinking of anything, we’re thinking about the labels, which are imputed.

Take, for example, the object that we label “clock.” Each part of the clock has a label. Each label is applied to another label, which is applied to another label, which is applied to another label and so on down to the atoms—and even “atom” is a label that is merely imputed to another label. Atoms have particles, as was mentioned in the Prasangika Madhyamaka, one of the four Buddhist schools of philosophy, and discovered more recently by modern science.

One label is placed upon another label, which is placed upon another label and so on down to the atoms and their constituent particles. Since a clock is just a pile of labels, why do we see it as so concrete?

Everything—samsara and nirvana, suffering and happiness, the things we talk about from morning to night—is labeled. Everything comes from the mind, is imputed by the mind. We can understand that a clock exists in dependence upon the particular base that performs the function of giving the time and the thought that labels it “clock.” A clock is not independent; it doesn’t exist from its own side. A clock is a dependent arising. It exists in dependence upon a base that performs the particular function of giving the time and the mind. Thus a clock is completely empty of existing from its own side.

A clock does not exist from there, from the side of the clock, but from the side of the mind. In the view of the mind, the perceiver, there’s a clock. When we hear “clock,” it means a dependent arising. A clock exists in dependence upon those two things—the appropriate base and the mind that labels it “clock.” When we hear “clock,” it means something that is merely imputed to a base by the mind. Clock itself is a dependent arising, a label, something imputed by the mind.

It is the same with the I. Again, “I” means a dependent arising. The I exists in dependence upon the aggregates and the thought that labels them “I.” When you hear “I,” it means a dependent arising, something labeled, or merely imputed, by the mind. Since “I” is a label, it comes from the mind. Thus the I is empty of existing from its own side.

It’s the same with all the different sense objects: forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tangible objects. Again, they are nothing other than that which is merely imputed in dependence upon their base. That which is called “form” is what is labeled in dependence upon a base that has color and shape and is an object of the eye-sense. In dependence upon that particular base, “form” is merely imputed. Similarly with sound: “sound” is merely imputed by the mind to that particular phenomenon that the ear-sense is able to distinguish.

Forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects—they’re all merely imputed by the mind in dependence upon becoming objects of particular senses. There’s no such thing as real forms, real sounds, real smells, real tastes or real tangible objects from their own side. They are completely empty. What exists is only that which is merely imputed by the mind, that which comes from the mind. These phenomena exist but those other real phenomena do not. The forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tangible objects that appear to us as having nothing to do with our mind, as real from their own side, are complete illusions, or hallucinations.

All of samsara and nirvana, everything that we blab about from morning to night, exists in this way. All these things are empty of existing from their own side. What exists is what came from our mind, what is merely imputed by our mind.14

Practicing the good heart

It is extremely important to practice bodhicitta, or altruism, to obtain happiness for yourself and especially to obtain all happiness for all sentient beings.

In order to generate the realization of bodhicitta, the door to the Mahayana path to enlightenment, we need to generate the preliminary realization of renunciation of the whole of samsara. To generate renunciation of the whole of samsara we first need to generate renunciation of this life, to cut off clinging to this life. Worldly desire, which clings to this life, is the main obstacle to the actions of our body, speech and mind becoming Dharma. We have to cut off this worldly concern, which clings not only to our own happiness but also to just the happiness of this life; we have to free ourselves from this worldly concern, which is the basis of all the problems we experience in everyday life. This attachment is the main obstacle to Dharma practice and the basis of all confusion. In order to overcome this obstacle we need to meditate on the graduated path of the being of lower capability.

If there’s no compassion within our mind, what we have is self-cherishing. Anger, the dissatisfied mind of desire, jealousy and all the other disturbing thoughts then arise because of that. The self-cherishing thought also interferes with our development of wisdom, our elimination of ignorance. In dependence upon self-cherishing we also follow ignorance.

Without the good heart, compassion, those other thoughts harm us and other sentient beings. From birth until now, when we haven’t practiced loving kindness and compassion, when our mind has been under the control of self-cherishing and those other disturbing thoughts, we’ve given a lot of harm to other sentient beings. When our mind has not been patient or compassionate in nature, we’ve given harm to many other sentient beings even in this life, starting with the people and animals around us.

If we had completely eliminated these disturbing thoughts in the past, there’d be no reason for them to arise in this life, no reason to have been born with them. It’s because we didn’t eliminate them in our past lives that we’ve been born with this egocentric mind, self-cherishing thought and the other disturbing thoughts. Through beginningless rebirths we haven’t eliminated self-cherishing, ignorance, anger, attachment or any other disturbing thought and with these thoughts we’ve been giving harm not only to ourselves but also to all the numberless other sentient beings. If we don’t do something to change our attitude in this life, while we have this perfect human rebirth, if we don’t do something to eliminate these disturbing thoughts, the same thing will also happen in our future lives. From life to life, continuously, we will give harm to other sentient beings as well as ourselves.

If we have the good heart, compassion for other sentient beings, all other sentient beings don’t receive harm from us, starting with our family, the people closest to us, the ones we live, eat, work and deal with in everyday life. If we have the good heart, starting with our family and extending to include all other sentient beings, no one receives harm from us and everyone receives happiness. Not receiving harm from us is peace they receive from us. This peace is dependent upon us.

In addition, by having compassion within our mind, besides not giving harm to others, we benefit them, starting with the sentient beings closest to us and extending to all sentient beings. We benefit others, freeing them from suffering and bringing them happiness. This is the product of having compassion: we benefit others with our actions.

If we have the good heart, all others receive peace and happiness; if we don’t have the good heart, if we don’t change our attitude but allow our mind to be under the control of self-cherishing and the other disturbing thoughts, everyone receives harm from us, starting with the sentient beings closest to us and extending to all sentient beings. Therefore, we are completely responsible for the happiness of all sentient beings. Each of us is completely responsible for pacifying the sufferings of all sentient beings and bringing all of them temporary and, especially, ultimate happiness.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the rest of our family practices compassion. It doesn’t matter even if they hate us and only harm us. It doesn’t matter even if the many millions of people in our country hate us and only harm us. Even if every sentient being hates and only harms us, there’s nothing much to be depressed about because we’re just one person. Even if we are suffering, even if we are born in hell, since we’re just one person, there’s nothing much to be depressed about. Even if we achieve liberation, ultimate happiness for ourselves, there’s nothing much to be excited about because we are just one person, just one living being.

However, if we, the one person, don’t have any compassion in our heart, there’s a danger that we will harm numberless other sentient beings. This is much more terrifying. It has happened many times in the world that one person has killed many millions of people. By not practicing patience, by not practicing the good heart, one person can give great harm to millions of people, not to mention the animals in ocean and on the ground that are also harmed or killed.

If we ourselves don’t practice the good heart there’s the danger of our harming numberless other sentient beings. For us, the one person, to first practice the good heart is crucial. It’s so important for other sentient beings. It’s important for the person we live with and even more important if there are five or ten other people in our family. For the millions of people in your country it becomes even more important that we practice the good heart. And it is even more important for the numberless human beings, hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, asuras and suras. Since suffering sentient beings are numberless, the need for every single person to practice the good heart becomes of the utmost importance.

We must practice the good heart. We must generate altruism toward other sentient beings. In our actions we must abandon giving harm to others and in addition we must benefit them. Even if we can’t benefit others at least we shouldn’t harm them. The very minimum practice is not to harm other sentient beings. If we can’t stop giving harm to other sentient beings, there’s no spiritual practice, no Dharma practice, left.

Levels of benefit

On the basis of not giving harm to others, we then benefit them. Benefiting other sentient beings doesn’t mean causing them only temporary physical and mental happiness in this life. It is more important to cause others to have long-term happiness, happiness in all their future lives. Bringing them this benefit is more important because it’s for such an incredible length of time—until they stop the suffering cycle of death and rebirth by generating the remedy of the path in their mind. Until then, they have to be reborn and die, continuously experiencing suffering. We need to bring others this long-term benefit, happiness in all their future lives, which is more important than bringing them temporary comfort and happiness in this life.

More important than simply bringing them happiness in all their future lives is completely ending all their suffering and its causes—delusion and karma—and bringing them ultimate happiness. This ultimate benefit is more important than the previous one, which involves bringing them temporary samsaric pleasure. No matter how much temporary pleasure we bring others, there’s no end. They will continuously create samsara as long as they don’t remove its causes—delusion and karma—including the ignorance not knowing the ultimate nature of the I, the aggregates, the mind and other phenomena. Until they eliminate their disturbing thoughts they will continue to produce karma and continuously create samsara by leaving imprints on their mental continua for the future-life samsara, the aggregates, which is the basis of rebirth, old age, sickness, death and all the many other human problems. Until they generate the path in their mind and eliminate the true cause of suffering, they will have to experience true suffering again and again. Since from their side they continuously create the cause of problems, their problems never end.

If we analyze even the temporary happiness that we bring others, we see that it is only suffering. Temporary samsaric pleasure is labeled “pleasure” and appears to be pleasure, but it is not pleasure. We label “pleasure” on a feeling that is suffering and it then appears to be pleasure. It’s not real happiness, pure happiness. If it were pure happiness, the more we worked for it, the more it would increase day by day, month by month, year by year. But this isn’t what happens—the more we work for it, the more the pleasure decreases and the discomfort increases.

Therefore, bringing others the ultimate benefit of cessation of all suffering and its causes is much more important than bringing them the happiness of future lives.

Now, the most important thing, even more important than this, is to bring all sentient beings to the perfect state of peace of full enlightenment. Full enlightenment, or buddhahood, is the mental state where all faults have ceased and all realizations have been completed. Bringing all sentient beings the ultimate benefit of full enlightenment is the most important thing of all.

In order to complete this work of bringing all sentient beings to full enlightenment, first we ourselves need to achieve full enlightenment. For that, we need to practice the lam-rim, the graduated path to enlightenment.

The three beings

The lam-rim has the graduated paths of the beings of three capabilities. The motivation of someone who practices the graduated path of the being of lower capability is that of having completely left this life behind, of having completely cut off clinging to this life. That attitude is generated by meditating on perfect human rebirth (how it is highly meaningful and will be difficult to achieve again), impermanence and death (death will definitely happen, it can happen at any moment, and at the time of death nothing—not our relatives, the people around us, our possessions nor our body—can benefit us except Dharma), and suffering. If we die without having purified our negative karma, by having created negative karma, after our death we will again take rebirth in one of the lower realms, in the hell, hungry ghost, or animal realm. If we were to be born there, we would have no happiness and no opportunity to practice Dharma. We would experience only the heaviest suffering. So, we also meditate on karma.

By generating the realizations of these meditations, we cut off clinging to this life. The aim of beings of lower capability is to achieve happiness in future lives, as a deva or human being, and in order to achieve this aim, they practice taking refuge and protecting karma. The main thing is protecting karma. We realize the shortcomings of the ten non-virtuous actions15 —how harmful they are and how they are the cause of suffering—and see the benefits of living in vows of morality, such as abandoning the ten non-virtues, which means practicing the ten virtues. In other words, we protect karma and practice morality to achieve the happiness of future lives.

Beings of middling capability, on the basis of the motivation to cut off clinging to this life, then cut off clinging to the whole of samsara, to all samsaric perfections, or happiness. They don’t have the slightest interest in samsara or in samsaric happiness and generate renunciation of the whole of samsara by meditating on the shortcomings of samsara: the general sufferings of samsara and the particular sufferings of the deva and human realms. Their aim is to achieve liberation for self, release from samsara or, in other words, from true suffering and true cause of suffering. In order to achieve liberation for self, we practice the higher trainings of morality and concentration, which means shamatha, or tranquil abiding, and then on the basis of them, the higher training of great insight. The practice of the being of middling capability is also based on practice of the ten virtues, the practice of the being of lower capability. The difference is the goal. Beings of great capability, with full renunciation of their own samsara, seeing it like being in the center of a fire, then look at how others are suffering in samsara and generate great compassion, feeling it unbearable that other sentient beings are experiencing the sufferings of samsara. Seeing other sentient beings suffering in samsara is like seeing them trapped in the center of a fire. There’s no happiness at all, not even for a second. They feel unbearable compassion when they see how others are suffering.

The compassion that sees how others are suffering in samsara becomes a reason to generate the altruistic wish to free sentient beings from all their suffering and its causes. To be able to do that, we must be able to see all the different levels of mind of sentient beings. Take doctors, for example. Doctors cannot cure patients perfectly if they don’t know all the sicknesses that they have and all the different treatments that should be given at different times, or even at the same time, to overcome their diseases. Doctors have to know every single diagnosis and every single treatment to be able to completely cure each patient. If doctors don’t have that knowledge, they can’t treat their patients perfectly. Similarly, we need to understand all the different levels of mind and characteristics of every sentient being and all the different methods needed to guide them, to free them from all their sufferings and obscurations and lead them to the peerless happiness of full enlightenment. Since only the omniscient mind can see all these things, we must achieve omniscient mind for the sake of all sentient beings, to free them from all their sufferings and lead them to enlightenment.

Compassion becomes the reason to generate bodhicitta, the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment for all sentient beings. This is the motivation of beings of great capability. The aim of beings of great capability is to achieve enlightenment, or great liberation, for sentient beings. In order to achieve this aim, they practice the method of the bodhisattva’s conduct, the six paramitas, and on top of that, those who practice tantra also practice the tantric path. In this way, they practice method and wisdom together.

Practice of the six paramitas and tantra by the being of great capability is based on both the practice of the three higher trainings of the being of middling capability and the practices of the being of lower capability, protecting karma and living in the morality of the ten virtues.

Other than these three types of beings, there are those who live just to obtain the happiness of this life. They’re ordinary beings, not beings of real capability. Ordinary beings are those who don’t attempt to obtain happiness beyond this life but just work for the happiness of this life alone. Their aim is nothing special, nothing higher than that of animals. Pigs, goats, cows, tigers, mice and even ants and other tiny insects are smart in finding themselves food and comfort and in destroying the enemies who harm them.

Such beings working just for the comfort of this life are ordinary beings. That is not the real meaning of human life. Even animals, non-human beings, can do this. The real meaning, the greatest meaning, of human life is, with bodhicitta, practicing the path of the six paramitas in order to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings. Lower than that is achieving liberation for self. Lower than that is achieving at least the happiness of future lives, long-term happiness beyond this life.

If we listen to Dharma teachings to achieve enlightenment for all sentient beings, it becomes a cause to achieve enlightenment for all sentient beings. If we listen to Dharma just to achieve liberation for ourselves, it becomes a cause of just that; it doesn’t become a cause to achieve enlightenment. If we listen to Dharma to achieve the happiness of future lives, it becomes a cause of just that. It doesn’t become a cause of enlightenment or of liberation for the self.

Now, if we listen to Dharma just for the happiness of this life, to get worldly power or a good reputation, even though the subject we listen to is Dharma, Buddha’s teaching, our action of listening to Dharma does not become Dharma. Even though the subject is Dharma, the action of listening to the teaching doesn’t become Dharma because the motivation isn’t Dharma. It’s a non-virtuous motivation of worldly concern, attachment clinging to this life.

Besides listening to Dharma, any action done with worldly concern, to obtain only the happiness of this life, becomes non-virtue. The result of non-virtuous actions is, as Lama Atisha explained, rebirth in the hell, hungry ghost or animal realm.

We can see that happiness and suffering come from our mind, not from outside. They come from our positive or negative attitudes in everyday life. It depends on how we think, on how we live our life every day. First of all, our happiness and suffering are not things that don’t have a cause. There’s no external creator who creates them. Our happiness and suffering are the creation of only our own mind in dependence upon our positive and negative attitudes.

Nagarjuna said that actions born from ignorance, anger and attachment are non-virtues and that all the suffering migratory beings arise from them. This means that all hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals arise from these non-virtues. Actions born from, or motivated by, the minds of non-ignorance, non-hatred and non-attachment are virtuous actions. From these virtuous actions, all the happy migratory beings arise.

From morning to night, twenty-four hours a day, everything depends on our attitude. When we have a positive attitude it produces the result of happiness; when we have a negative attitude it produces the result of suffering. The happiness we experience each day comes from our positive attitudes and the suffering we experience comes from our negative attitudes. Therefore, as we are the creator, we have great freedom. Since it’s just up to our mind, we have great freedom to stop experiencing suffering and to obtain happiness by abandoning non-virtue and transforming our mind into virtue.

How Chiu-Nan exists

The creator of samsara, of all suffering and its causes, karma and all the other disturbing thoughts, is ignorance, the concept of true existence. This is the very root of the whole of samsara, of all problems, of true suffering and its causes, karma and all the rest of the disturbing thoughts, such as ignorance not knowing Dharma, attachment and anger. The very root is ignorance not knowing the ultimate nature of the I, or self. The very root is the concept of a truly existent self. To recognize this precisely, without mistake, is most important. Otherwise, there’s no way that we can escape from the entire suffering of samsara. Unless we recognize the root, there’s no way we can sever it.

Take Chiu-Nan16, for example. When there are these aggregates, this particular association of body and mind, but no thought to label them “Chiu-Nan,” Chiu-Nan doesn’t exist. Even though the aggregates are there, when there’s no thought to label them “Chiu-Nan,” Chiu-Nan doesn’t exist at that time. And even if there were the thought in her parents’ minds to label “Chiu-Nan,” if there were no aggregates to label, again at that time Chiu-Nan wouldn’t exist. First we have to understand this clearly. When there are aggregates but no thought to label them “Chiu-Nan,” Chiu-Nan doesn’t exist. When there’s a thought to label “Chiu-Nan” but no aggregates, also at that time Chiu-Nan doesn’t exist.

Chiu-Nan comes into existence only when the base, the aggregates, are there and there is also a thought that labels them “Chiu-Nan.” Only at that time does Chiu-Nan exist. So, Chiu-Nan exists in dependence upon the base, the association of body and mind, and the mind of the parents (or someone else) who label it “Chiu-Nan.” In dependence upon these two—the base and the mind that labels “Chiu-Nan”—Chiu-Nan exists.

You can see that Chiu-Nan is merely imputed by the mind. Chiu-Nan exists being merely imputed by the mind in dependence upon those aggregates. Chiu-Nan is empty of existing from her own side. That is the reality of Chiu-Nan.

When we look at or think of Chiu-Nan, it is in dependence upon those particular aggregates that we label “Chiu-Nan.” We don’t see Chiu-Nan first. First we see that particular base, those particular aggregates, and seeing that makes us decide upon the particular label “Chiu-Nan.” So, we don’t see Chiu-Nan first. We see the base first and then we label it “Chiu-Nan.” It is only after we label “Chiu-Nan” that Chiu-Nan then appears to us. Before we label “Chiu-Nan” there’s no appearance of Chiu-Nan to us. The appearance of Chiu-Nan comes only after we have labeled the base.

But when Chiu-Nan appears to us she doesn’t appear to be merely imputed by our mind. When we look at Chiu-Nan or think of her, we are not aware, or we forget, that Chiu-Nan is merely imputed. After we have labeled “Chiu-Nan,” when Chiu-Nan then appears to us, she doesn’t appear to be merely imputed. Chiu-Nan appears to be something real, something more than what is merely imputed. There is something extra, an unlabeled Chiu-Nan, which is completely opposite to the reality. The labeled Chiu-Nan is the reality but when she appears to us she doesn’t appear that way.

We see an unlabeled, independent Chiu-Nan. We see Chiu-Nan, but in the aspect of not being merely labeled. Chiu-Nan is merely imputed, but on top of that merely labeled Chiu-Nan there’s something extra, like a cloth covering a table. The merely imputed Chiu-Nan doesn’t appear to us. The Chiu-Nan that appears to us is something else, something unlabeled, independent.

How Chiu-Nan appears to us is completely contradictory to the reality of how Chiu-Nan exists, as being merely imputed by our mind. This appearance of an unlabeled Chiu-Nan, a real Chiu-Nan, a Chiu-Nan from its own side, is false. Because it’s contradictory to reality, it’s false. If it accorded with reality, it wouldn’t be false; but because it’s opposite to the reality of how Chiu-Nan exists, it’s false. So, this is the object to be refuted.

Seeing a snake at dusk

Imagine that at dusk you see a coiled multi-colored rope on a road. Because of the way the rope is coiled and because it’s dusk and you can’t see clearly, when you first see this form you label it “snake.” After you label it “snake,” a snake then appears to you. You’re not aware, or you forget, that the snake that appears to you is merely imputed by your own mind. You are not aware of that because the snake doesn’t appear to you as merely imputed.

First you see a coiled unclear form in the dusk. Before you apply the label “snake,” there’s no appearance of a snake to you. Only after you label “snake” and believe in your own label is there an appearance of a snake. The snake doesn’t appear to be merely imputed. It appears to be a real snake, an unlabeled, independent snake. It appears to have existence from its own side.

This example is very easy to understand. There’s no real snake there; there’s no unlabeled, independent snake. Here in this case, there’s not even a snake. You cannot find a snake on any of the parts of the rope or even on the whole group of the parts of the rope. You cannot find a snake anywhere there. You label “snake” and it then appears to you as a snake, but that snake doesn’t even appear to be merely imputed; it appears to be unlabeled. The snake appears to you, the perceiver, to be an unlabeled, independent snake, until you shine a flashlight on it and see very clearly that it is a rope. Until that time, an unlabeled, independent snake appears to your senses, to your mind. You can see that this is completely false.

How the I exists

We can now relate this example to the I. We label “I” in dependence upon our aggregates. After the labeling of “I” is done, we believe in that label and I then appears to us. The thought that labels “I” is not the ignorance that is the root of samsara. That thought is not wrong.

First of all, it is clear that when we talk about “my body” or “my mind,” I is the possessor and the body or mind is the possession. The possessor and the possession cannot be one; they are different. Therefore, my mind is not the I—the mind is the possession and I is the possessor. Since the I is the receiver and these aggregates are what are received, they are not one; they are different.

None of the five aggregates is the I. The aggregate of form is not the I, feeling is not the I, recognition is not the I, compounding aggregates are not the I, consciousness is not the I. Even the whole group of the five aggregates is not the I. The I cannot be found anywhere on these aggregates, from the top of the head down to the toes. The I exists nowhere, from the top of the head down to the toes. It is neither inside nor outside the body. The I exists nowhere on this body and mind. We cannot find it anywhere.

But there is an I in this temple. I am in this temple for no other reason than my aggregates, the association of my body and mind, are now here in this temple. Just because of this I believe, “I am now here in this temple.” It is a concept, an idea. Because my aggregates are here, I believe, “I am here in this temple,” but these aggregates are not the I, because they are the base to be labeled “I” and the I cannot be found anywhere on them. There’s no I anywhere on these aggregates. First make that clear.

So, what is the I? How does the I exist? It becomes extremely fine, extremely subtle. There’s no I on these aggregates, but there is I in this temple. What the I is is nothing other than what is merely imputed by the mind. That is the reality. That is what is called subtle dependent arising in the Prasangika view, which is very difficult to realize. How the I exists is extremely subtle. How the I exists is so subtle that it’s easy to think that the I doesn’t exist at all and fall into nihilism. It can be very dangerous. The Prasangika view of dependent arising is very subtle. It is not that the I doesn’t exist but it’s as if it doesn’t exist. It’s extremely fine, extremely subtle.

That is the reality of the I, but the I doesn’t appear to us that way. It appears as something else: something concrete, unlabeled, independent, real. After the I is imputed, why does it appear truly existent? Why doesn’t it appear merely imputed? Why doesn’t it appear to us in accord with reality? Why does it appear as the opposite—unlabeled and existing from its own side?

The root of samsara

The thought that labels “I” in dependence upon the aggregates is not the ignorance that is the root of samsara. When the I appears to us, it appears to have existence from its own side, the complete opposite to being merely labeled. The later continuation of the thought that labels “I” starts to believe that the I, which is labeled, has existence from its own side, or true existence. The mind to which the truly existent I appears is still not the root of samsara. The root of samsara is the thought that believes, “This truly existent I that appears to me is true.” Whenever we start to believe that the truly existent I is true, this is the concept of true existence and this is the root of samsara. This thought that believes the I is not merely labeled but has an existence from its own side is the root of samsara. Just that thought that believes this to be true is the root of samsara.

The wrong conceptions that believe the I to be permanent or to exist alone or with its own freedom without depending on the continuation of the aggregates are not the root of samsara. The root of samsara is just this thought. After the label “I” has been given, when the continuation of this thought starts to believe that the I has an existence from its own side, this is the root of samsara.

What makes the I, which is merely imputed, appear truly existent? Our past ignorance left an imprint on our mental continuum and this imprint is projected, like a projector projecting a film onto a screen or a TV channel showing people fighting, dancing, or doing other things. The imprint left on our mental continuum by past ignorance projects, or decorates, true existence onto the merely imputed I. We see a concrete I, and that is what the imprint left by ignorance has projected onto the mere I. That part is a complete hallucination.

Remember, as I told you before, how the clock is labeled on another label, which is labeled on another label. That is the reality, but for us there’s a concrete clock from its own side. That hallucination of a concrete clock, a clock from its own side, is actually projected by the imprint left by past ignorance. This real I is projected by this ignorance in the same way. This real body and mind, this body and mind existing from their own side, are projected by ignorance. This temple as something real from its own side, something concrete and independent, is projected from our mind, from the imprint left by our past ignorance. True existence is decorated on the merely labeled temple and that’s how it becomes a concrete temple. The appearance of that concrete temple is a hallucination—it doesn’t exist. The temple exists but what is that temple that exists? The merely labeled temple exists but the concrete temple doesn’t. This unlabeled, concrete, real temple from its own side is decorated, or projected there, and that is a hallucination.

It is the same with any object that we see. When we see a flower, we see a concrete flower, something real from its own side. Again, that is a hallucination. The real flower from its own side is projected, or decorated, onto the merely labeled flower by the imprint left on our mind by the ignorance believing in true existence. On the mere flower, we put a truly existent flower.

We decorate all these concrete things, all these truly existent things, on all the merely labeled things. We put true existence on everything. We decorate everything, which is merely labeled, with true existence. We cover everything with true existence. This hallucination is projected by the mind, by the imprint left by ignorance. This temple doesn’t exist from its own side; it doesn’t exist independently. The truly existent car, the real car from its own side, doesn’t exist; it’s completely empty. The real I from its own side, the real car from its own side, the real road from its own side, the real house from its own side, the real shop from its own side—in reality all these things are completely empty. What exists is what is merely imputed—only that. You can now see how things are empty in reality.

How to meditate on emptiness

The way to meditate is to look at the I. Even though it appears to be a real one from its own side, this is a projection. Think, “This is a projection. This truly existent I is projected onto the mere I by my mind, by the imprint left by ignorance.” Be aware that this real I, this truly existent I, is a hallucination. Think, “This is the object to be refuted.” A truly existent I appears to you, but in your heart you’re aware that this is the object to be refuted. This is a projection of the imprint left by the hallucinated mind of ignorance. The point is to recognize that this is a hallucination and is the object to be refuted. When your mind thinks, “This is a hallucination,” the thought comes that in reality the I is empty.

It’s the same with any external object that you see. When you see a table, it appears to be something completely real from its own side, but this is a hallucination, the object to be refuted. In reality it is not there. When you look at a flower, think, “This real flower appearing from its own side is a projection, a hallucination. In reality, there’s no such thing there.”

If you practice mindfulness of how everything that appears to exist from its own side is a hallucination, you’re always practicing awareness of emptiness. It naturally becomes awareness of emptiness. The more objects you look at, the more you’re aware of emptiness; the more names you think of, the more you’re aware of emptiness; the more objects you see or have, the more meditation on emptiness you do. Meditating like this becomes very powerful, very effective meditation on emptiness.

You can now see how big a difference there is between your life and reality. It’s like the difference between earth and sky. How you live your life, how you create things and believe in them, is completely contrary to reality, which is emptiness.

Dedication

Think, “Due to all the empty merits of the three times—past, present and future—accumulated by me and by all other beings, may the empty I achieve the empty enlightenment and lead the empty sentient beings to that empty enlightenment.”

Dedicate the merits with awareness of what I have just described about the hallucination. This way of dedicating is pure, in the sense of being unstained by the concept of true existence. This merit can’t later be destroyed by anger or wrong views.

It’s very important to know how to dedicate merit. Otherwise, even though you put so much effort into the motivation and the actual action of accumulating merit, if the dedication is not done correctly, your merit can be destroyed by anger or wrong views.

Great Enlightenment Temple, New York
8 September 1990

Notes
12. This verse comes in Praise to Shakyamuni Buddha, a prayer often recited before Buddhist teachings. See Essential Buddhist Prayers, Volume 1, pp. 73–76. [Return to text]

13. This verse, from The Vajra Cutter Sutra, also comes in Praise to Shakyamuni Buddha. Rather than reciting the actual verse, Rinpoche often uses it as the basis for meditation on impermanence and emptiness. However, it goes: “A star, a visual aberration, a flame of a lamp; an illusion, a drop of dew, or a bubble; a dream, a flash of lightning, a cloud—see conditioned things as such!” [Return to text]

14. Because of recording problems, forty-five minutes of the teaching were missed at this point. Hence the sudden change of topic. (A few minutes were also missed at the very beginning of this talk.) [Return to text]

15. Of the ten non-virtuous actions, there are three of body (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct), four of speech (lying, speaking harshly, slandering, gossiping), and three of mind (covetousness, ill will, wrong views). [Return to text]

16. Chiu-Nan Lai arranged the talks at the Great Enlightenment Temple. [Return to text]