We have been making one crucial error since beginningless time. An error that is responsible for every bit of our suffering. And Geshe Kelsang sums it up with astounding concision in his latest book:
What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp at our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I, I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly. ~ Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra
We are not our body – we say “my body”, it is our possession. We are not our mind – we say “my mind”, it is our possession. We are neither a body nor a mind, we are a person.
Yet whenever we perceive our body or our mind we think we are totally in there. We conflate or identify ourselves as them. So when the non-me-body gets sick, we get unhappy, “I’m sick!” and when the non-me-thoughts get unhappy, we get unhappy, “I’m unhappy!”
We have thoughts, ideas, memories, etc; but we are not these. You’ve heard of all that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that’s around these days? A lot of it is based on Buddha’s wisdom that we are not our thoughts. When we observe our thoughts at the beginning of the clarity of mind meditation, for example, there is space between us and them. I don’t have to follow them, I don’t have to be helplessly swept up by them, I don’t have to identify with them, I don’t even have to think them. I can let them all go. Why? Because they are not me and I am not them.
I think we could also say “when” in the quote above, ie, “when there is no I, or self”. This is because there has never been an I or self to be found anywhere, ever – in the body, in the mind, in the collection of the body and mind, or anywhere else.
There is also no body to be found. Or mind. Or other people. Or Trump world for that matter. Try pointing to it — you can only point at a version, your subjective version.
There are no inherently existent or real things. When we look, we can’t find anything anywhere ever. We are left looking at space-like emptiness. This is because nothing exists from its own side.
Carrying on from There is nothing out there out there.
The emptiness of our body
To understand and believe this, we need to go looking for things ourselves. This doesn’t have to be too difficult if we know how.
And the way we can do this is through what is called “the four essential points” or steps, of the traditional meditation on emptiness, by which we can come to understand the true nature of our self, our body, and everything else. These are:
- Identifying the negated object
- Ascertaining the pervasion
- Ascertaining the absence of oneness
- Ascertaining the absence of difference
It is easiest to do this contemplation first with our body, perhaps because, as a physical object, it generally feels chunkier than our self or our mind and so is easier to examine.
Step One: Identifying the negated object
We start by ‘identifying the negated object”, setting up the target carefully so that we can then shoot it down with the arrow of wisdom. No target, no point shooting any arrows. In the case of the body, we need to bring to mind the body that we normally perceive.
Our body takes up an inordinate amount of our attention at the moment. We don’t like it when it is stiff, or puts on weight, or is sick. We like it when others say nice things about it, even if they’re not strictly accurate. We are a little bit obsessed with our own body, to be honest, and sometimes someone else’s as well, especially if there is any hope or fantasy of it commingling with ours. Attachment to bodies is one of the three main attachments of samsara (the other two being places and enjoyments).
(I’m not saying we shouldn’t take care of our body, of course. Please keep eating and showering 😉 But we can stop being quite so preoccupied with our body, abandon attachment to it, enjoying enormously the space, ease, and confidence that opens up when we do.)
What exactly is it that we are so attached to? What comes to mind when you think “My body”? You can use an exaggerated version first – for example, someone tells you, “Whoah, you’ve put on weight!” The fat-seeming body suddenly feels very real and solid, existing from its own side. Get a sense of that.
Then what comes to mind when you think, “My body that is just sitting here”?
This is a real body, my real body. It seems to be really sitting here, a solid, singular, monolithic entity, independent of everything, including its parts, including thought. And I cherish and protect it above all else. I don’t want it to have the slightest pain or ugliness or insult. This particular body is very important, more so than anyone else’s. If a neighbor’s body is sick, “Oh, they’ll get over it.” But my body?!
You can also check out this first article, Body image: a Buddhist perspective for more on how to identify our body.
Okay, that’ll have to do for now. This meditation carries on here.
Meanwhile, your comments are welcome, and you might also want to check out Introduction to Buddhism where these four points are explained very clearly.
Also, contemplating the dreamlike nature of reality (as described more here for example) helps tremendously in loosening us up and preparing us to think about emptiness logically, to reason our way into reality using analytical wisdom.
Aging is a constant wake-up call. At some point, with wisdom, we can acknowledge the losing battle against the deteriorating body and invest our energy and concern, more and more, in what will not let us down and will not eventually abandon us entirely: our eternal Buddha nature. In a wonderful way, recognizing our inability to fight the deterioration of our body can redirect us instead to the nourishing of our indestructible potential. As time goes on, the reprioritizing becomes easier and easier.
So true Chuck. And in some ways, I agree, it does get easier as we get older. Thank you for this 🙂
Thank you for the insightful article. When you say “Yet whenever we perceive our body or our mind we think we are totally in there.” but isn’t everything, including the self, literally inside the mind? I’ve had other teachers say that we can keep asking “is this outside my mind or inside my mind?” as a way of training in clarity of mind and also emptiness. So isn’t the self inside the mind even though the mind itself is not the self? Could you please clarify?
Thank you so much.
I am not my thoughts but “I” itself is a thought. I’m confused 🙁
Everything is the nature of the mind, but there is the mind (formless, cognizing) and its object (which can be anything). An object, such as the self, is mere aspect of mind, you can’t find it outside the mind in that sense — however, it is not mind itself.
“I” itself is not a thought, it is the object or imputation of a thought.
Hope this helps.
Thank you, it’s clear now that self is not a thought, it’s the object or imputation of a thought. This is such an important discrimination that I’ve been missing all along, thank you yet again for your sharp wisdom!
It does seem a bit absurd though that the mind imputes an “I” that possesses the mind itself and that functions as an agent of all our thoughts and actions. The agent of all actions and thoughts should be the mind itself and not the self and the mind should be the possessor of “I” as the mind is creating it, instead of the “I” being the possessor of the mind! It’s like a king creating a minister and the minister then owns the king and rules the kingdom. The mind should be the possessor of all phenomenon, including “I”, and the agent of all actions. Why is it not so?
Mind is also created by mind, mere imputation of mind.
Got it! Thank you for your wisdom and your patience with me!
Pleasure 🙂 Thankyou for the questions. x
if i may add, “mind” is like any other 5 senses. For example, vision is vision…it is not “mine” or “not-mine” (in terms of its nature). That kind of subjective logic just does not apply. Same goes for mind…there is no such thing as self(“I”), or “not-self”, or both, neither.
This does not mean we all do not have a sense of being…we obviously do. We all have our own nature, self, attitude/personality etc…but that is all a result of prior “self”/actions
We all form our own selves based on our prior actions (karma)…all of this is due to ignorance…thinking there is “not-I”, or “I”.
Make your mind like vision…kind of like a “3rd eye” so to speak. You will “see” dukkha, its causes, its end, the way to end it.
You’ve covered a few things in here, so to address a couple of them …
I agree that the mind is neither I nor not I.
We do have a sense of self, or being — this is merely imputed by mind, but not the mind itself. It does depend on karma, I agree, and it also depends on its parts, its basis of imputation, and imputation by conception. When we believe that our I is inherently existent, more than just imputation, this belief is ignorance.
Wasn’t quite sure what you meant in your third point?
Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂
I was trying to simplify by comparing the function of mind(the thoughts and sense of being) with any other sense. Vision is an excellent choice for that, for its vivid nature.
3rd point is to say , just as when eyes sees a flower it sees a flower..There is no imputing, to use your word. Similarly, one has to make their sixth sense, the mind, clearly “see” the reality as-is. If it helps, visualize your mind as a hypothetical physical sense organ ,perhaps a “3rd eye”. Try to see reality as is with that 3rd eye. Only then, ones true “living” begins… absolute freedom, true free-will are its properties. Otherwise one’s life is one big Maya, under Mara’s sway day-in-day-out…the samsaric cycle.
I like analogies, parables…I hope this “sense” comparison thing is helpful.
The parables in Buddhist literature one of the most effective techniques to explaon.
Thank you for this wonderful blog, and sharing your thoughts/wisdom.