According to Buddha, the way to attain true and lasting mental freedom is to realize ultimate truth, emptiness. What does this mean? We have to stop what binds us to suffering — our self-grasping, which is a deep ignorance grasping at a real or inherently existent self in objects and people, including ourself. We do this by cultivating a wisdom that realizes the lack (or emptiness) of inherent existence of everything that exists.
All that can sound a bit complicated or technical, but over the last few decades Geshe Kelsang has been making Buddhism more and more accessible to Westerners, and a few years ago I believe he put a realization of emptiness within reach of many people with the surprisingly simple but radical description:
The things we normally see do not exist.
This includes ourself. He also says:
The self we normally see does not exist.
That’s because the self we normally see or perceive is the inherently existent self. But it is also the self we normally perceive, the living, breathing, neurotic, sad, or happy “me” of any given moment, ie, it is not some abstract concept. “The inherently existent self” can be harder for us to get our heads around, it can feel a bit theoretical.
The mere absence of the self we normally see is the way our self actually exists. The self we normally perceive, grasp at, and cherish does not exist at all. The non-existence of the self we normally grasp at is the emptiness of our self, the true nature of our self.
(This is not the same as saying that the self does not exist at all. Emptiness is not nothingness. Things do exist as mere imputations or projections of the mind, like objects in a dream.)
Who are you?
The first thing to do when meditating on the emptiness of our self is to identify the object of negation, which means we have to figure out what it is exactly that does not exist – what is the inherently existent self as seen in our own experience, not in an abstract way, and how are we grasping at it.
Before Geshe Kelsang came up with his brilliant way of describing it, it was only too easy to be theoretical rather than practical about it.
For example, after receiving my first teaching over 30 years ago on identifying the inherently existent self based on the instructions in Meaningful to Behold, the resident teacher asked us to describe what we thought it was. The instructions had been good and entirely accurate, but it was hard to equate these with the self that I normally relate to, and nor did I really know I was supposed to. The self is a slippery thing when you try to pin it down, and when, as advised, you try to think about how it would look if it was inherently existent, it is only too easy to start making things up. Nonetheless, in meditation I thought I had found what might be it, so I put my hand up. Although it took longer than a sentence to describe, more like a rambling paragraph or two, this was the jist of what I said:
“If I think about it, my “self” feels like something in my heart, like something small, dark, and solid.”
Not the right answer. My teacher replied: “So, you’re a piece of coal?”
It may sound daft, but I know from talking to many people over the years that they too basically make up the negated object, and then try to realize its non-existence, which means they don’t end up focusing on emptiness at all. Then meditation on emptiness is no fun and doesn’t feel liberating, and they prefer to stick with seemingly easier meditation practices instead. If you find this happening to you, it probably means you have not yet identified the self you normally perceive clearly enough to get rid of it in meditation. In traditional parlance, you have not found the target, so any arrows of logic you shoot toward it, however sophisticated, will miss their mark.
It’s easier than you think
What I think is that once you have identified the self you normally perceive, the rest of the meditation on emptiness is not hard at all – with even just one or two considerations, such as trying to find it, you can see that it does not exist. This understanding is wisdom, and directly opposes self-grasping. It is exceedingly liberating, and on the spot pulls the rug out from under a host of regular, everyday problems coming from self-grasping (and also self-cherishing, which piggy-backs on self-grasping). Do this meditation enough — let the non-existence of the self you normally see become clearer and clearer — and in time you will dissolve away all your own samsara, which after all is only a product of your own self-grasping and self-cherishing.
It is my go to meditation when things come up (which is daily). Without any personal experience of seeing that the self we normally grasp at does not exist, teachings on emptiness can sound to us like dry, arid, logical arguments at a remove from our everyday reality, even though they are not. But when you do get it right, there is nothing better. And you can get it right early on, avoiding the mistakes many early students made before we had it explained in ways that were much easier for us to understand. Once you get it right, all the teachings you hear on emptiness, however seemingly complicated (such as those on Ocean of Nectar currently being received by those lucky students in New York City) are like butter soaking into hot toast. They click. They enhance our existing experience in very profound and exciting ways.
When Geshe Kelsang wrote Modern Buddhism, he proffered some encouragement to read the chapter on realizing emptiness:
I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta.” Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.
I personally think there is no better chapter to read on emptiness, and hope you get a chance to read it lots of times, each time getting more out of it. The book is a free gift from the author.
Turn on the light
While we’re on the subject, I just wanted to say something more about how much Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of Kadam Dharma, stressed identifying the negated object, using our conceptual mind, as opposed to finding liberation by stopping conceptual thoughts altogether.
If you think there is a boogey man under your bed, how are you going to overcome your fear of it? The only really effective way is to turn on the light and see if the boogey man is really there. It might take a bit of courage, but when you discover an absence of boogey man, you can really relax. You have to start with an idea of what you are looking for, and how it makes you feel, or you won’t know when you haven’t found him and have that incredible relief.
If instead you decide to stop thinking about anything at all in order to overcome your fear of the boogeyman, you’ll gain a temporary release from fear at most. But you’ll never be convinced he isn’t under the bed still – as soon as conceptual thoughts arise again, so will your fear.
This is why the Kadampas emphasize Nagarjuna’s view over other views that suggest meditation is just the absence of conceptual thought.
Turning on the light of wisdom by meditating on the emptiness of ourself, we see the absence of the boogey man “self” we normally see – we will see that it doesn’t exist at all, not under the bed nor anywhere else. If we do this over and over, we will gain more and more freedoms from the deep habit we have of grasping onto the boogey man self. It is like turning up the light in our room brighter and brighter until we cannot fail to see with our very own eyes, directly and vividly, how that boogey man simply is not there. Then all our samsaric fears shrivel up, never to return.
Yes!! You are so right, he put a realisation of emptiness within our grasp. The ultimate kindness of Venerable Geshe La, I am sure this is why he appeared for us.
‘All that can sound a bit complicated or technical, but over the last few decades Geshe Kelsang has been making Buddhism more and more accessible to Westerners, and a few years ago I believe he put a realization of emptiness within reach of many people with the surprisingly simple but radical description:
The things we normally see do not exist.
This includes ourself. He also says:
The self we normally see does not exist.’
Mind boggling really.
Thank you for your wisdom and clarity. Your articles are extremely helpful. The best, john
I am glad you like them, thanks 🙂
Great article! I love the example of the boogie man. We need to have the correct object of negation and as you say, once we find it, it will be easy. Je Tsongkhapa’s wisdom is unsurpassed!!!
Great advice about really making sure we hit the right target. I’m gonna check carefully now to see if I’ve spent too much time negating a non existent lump of coal!
Also it’s so true what you say about Geshe-la’s amazing way of explaining emptiness. I remember when I first heard that – and I’m sure I saw a multitude of vultures up on the hill :))
I’m guessing that the self that I cling to is the story that I’ve made up and tell myself and use to describe myself to others. As an example, I’m short and have brown hair and I am a good person who is of course always right. I go to work each day and I’m punctual. Then, what happens if I do something unkind, or if I get laid off, or I show up to work late for 2 weeks in a row. Let’s say I dye my hair red, or I read a map incorrectly, and challenge that sense of self. I find that if someone contradicts what I hold my self to be, then I find it upsetting and cling onto it even more tightly as if I keep repeating this false story, that it will be true and appears more solid to by mind, reinforced by my own though. But why? None of those things are really who I am. In fact, there is no true description of who I am because it is changing all of the time. The person I am today is surely not the same person that was yesterday, yet I stubbornly cling onto this self as if it was a real, solid thing. Is this a correct way of identifying the self that is to be negated for meditation or am I incorrectly identifying the object of negation?
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I understand Nagarjuna’s view regarding conceptual thoughts refers: mainly to not eliminate conceptual thoughts that are the method practices; and of course, to the fact that we first perceive and realize anything even emptiness through conceptual thought (i.e. generic image) before realizing it directly. Perhaps the method practices could be summarized in refuge, renunciation and bodhichita. These are the doors to Buddhism, liberation and enlightenment, the basic Buddhist view and intention. I think these make our meditation on emptiness blessed and meritorious, so it can ripen our potentials of wisdom and compassion, giving the power to liberate ourself and others.
The inherently existent self?! A slippery fish to be sure.
Thanks for this article, I do look forward to more!
* I love the Heart of Wisdom and Ocean of Nectar texts on negating the self, but they’re the nearest I’ve got to it. Any and all extra intell on it is greatly appreciated.
So Luna what is the Image of the Self that we normally see ? Like you to i conjure up the image of something small dark and solid that I grasp at and call myself but this is not correct ?
Is the Self we Normally see the imputation of Self upon Body and mind ? Have I been trying to negate a Non existent ?
Thanks for these questions, Zach. In a later article i’m going to try and give some practical examples of the self we normally see to make it clearer. For the time being, the self we normally see is just the sense of self you have about yourself today, for example. If you are feeling sad, it is the self-who-is-sad.
The self we normally see is not the self merely imputed on body and mind, which is a conventional truth and exists. The self we normally see is our real, solid sense of self, and it doesn’t exist.
So if it is not as you previously alluded to and not what I think, Perhaps I have phrased my self incorrectly, The Self I normally see is as I know an imputation upon body and mind but I grasp at this Self as being Inherently existent and this is the object I need to negate but it is difficult to find a generic image of it, As the Image that appears is always something that seems to be separate from body and mind I’ve always taken this as the strong manifestation of my Self grasping that I try to negate, is this incorrect and am I being fooled by my delusions ?
The self we normally see is the inherently existent self, not the merely imputed self (or else, it would be incorrect to say that the self we normally see does not exist.) The inherently existent self appears to us to be independent of yet also *within* our body and mind. It does not appear to us to exist in one place whilst our body and mind exist in another.
Okay, So it is incorrect to be trying to negate a Inherently existent self that appears to be independent of the collection, But rather we need to be negating the Self that normally appears as the entire collection is this right ?
The self we normally see, if we look at it, is bound up with an idea we have of ourself eg, I am depressed (as opposed to just having a thought of depression), or I am in pain (as opposed to our thumb being sore). It shifts and changes with our thoughts and ideas about ourself.
We rarely, if ever, see ourself as the whole collection of our body and mind.
It appears that you “get” the lack of a self. This is a fantastic accomplishment! It means that you intellectually understand that the self is mere imputation. The self you normally see is that imputation, but it is slippery. When you try to look for it it hides even more than the forest hides in the trees. In teachings recently at Kadampa Meditation Center Texas, we students were asked to spend time meditating on the object of negation (the body or self) to clearly identify the object. It seems so easy to overlook clearly identifying the object… because, after all, it doesn’t really exist!
Geshe Kelsang suggests that when our “I” manifests strongly we use that opportunity to look at it. Usually when our I is manifest, we are too uncomfortable to remember to examine at it. That is a practice to help identify the self. When you are embarrassed, ashamed, anxious look for “who” is embarrassed, etc. That is the self you normally see. Frequently we are not in a position to meditate on the self at those times but we can recall those feelings. Hopefully you have a dharma friend who, when you are embarrassed, will ask you, “Who is embarrassed?”
Thanks for this practical comment on identifying the self we normally see.
Just want to point out that the self we normally see is not the merely imputed self but the inherently existent self, which is the object of negation (or negated object) in our meditation on emptiness, and doesn’t exist at all.
We’re probably too afraid to look ‘directly’ under the bed, so we start off by shining the light of wisdom at the mirror across the room and see if in the mirror there is a reflection of a boogey man under the bed. This ‘reflection’ of there being no boogey man under the bed is like an indirect or conceptual realization of emptiness. Once our fears are allayed by looking at that again and again, we can then forgo the generic image in the mirror and look directly under the bed, which would be like a direct realization of its emptiness.
Ha, i like it! I’ll think more on your analogy.
Some days I feel so far away from this and when I read this I realize that it will happen.
It will, no doubt.
Dearest Luna, this enlightened description on, ‘what emptiness is’, has made a most profound acknowledgement on me. I now know ‘why’ it is, i have been ‘avoiding meditating’! It is the ‘realization’ that it is not, the ‘bogey man under the bed’, (something outside of self), that needed meditating on, rather, ‘the bogey man of self’!! No matter how much i have meditated on ‘other, outside of self’, it has brought little ‘peace of mind’. I began with just a ‘brief meditation’ this morning on your instructions, and discovered ’emptiness of existent self momentarily’, sheer bliss!!! The *focus* for meditation has been found, the results thereof, will gradually reveal what i believe to be, ‘ultimate truth’. _()_Tayatha Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Soha.
I’m really glad this article has helped in a practical way. Thank you.