9 mins read.
We are making all of this up as we go along. Always have been. Always will be.
That’s the thing I admire the most about Buddhism – it explains so clearly that the only truth is that nothing is really true. Nothing exists inherently. We are creating everything with our thoughts — there is nothing out there existing from its own side. Yet, at the same time, right here right now we have not just the potential but also the option to realize this—and, if we do that, we are finally free. It’s epic.
The phenomena that I normally see or perceive
Are deceptive – created by mistaken minds.
If I search for the reality of what I see,
There is nothing there that exists – I perceive only empty like space. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages
The things we normally see — inherently existent things or things outside the mind — do not exist at all. This applies not just to mental constructs such as shared myths, but to our biological reality such as our body or our physical reality such as radioactivity. If we go looking for anything with wisdom, as explained for example in this article about the emptiness of the body, we will find nothing. Emptiness, or ultimate truth, is the mere absence of the things we normally see. As Buddha pointed out in the shortest Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, called the Heart Sutra:
There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, not tactile object, no phenomenon.
Not only that, but there is no inherently existent suffering being, no samsara, no Buddhas, no liberation, no enlightenment.
There is no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance and so forth up to no ageing and death and no exhaustion of ageing and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; no exalted awareness, no attainment, and also no non-attainment. ~ Heart Sutra
That means, does it not, that there is even no Buddhism?!
Even emptiness doesn’t exist inherently, from its own side, outside of thought. There are no absolute truths — not even emptiness, not even awareness, not even Buddhas, not even the path to liberation itself.
Which doesn’t leave us with much of a leg to stand upon. But this turns out to be a very good thing, actually the most extraordinary thing, for, as I like to say:
Samsara sucks for everyone
But luckily samsara is not real.
The things we see do not exist, and yet things hang together due to collective agreement or convention. According to Buddhism, everything, whether a corporation or a chair, exists only as mere appearance, via convention or collective agreement.
So corporations and money etc can function because we collectively allow them too. And because of the huge power of human imagination, we have invented all sorts of useful and not so useful things that, for example, have allowed our societies to grow in size and complexity. As it says in the book Sapiens by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari that I mentioned in this last article:
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
The book gives some excellent examples of imaginary constructs – companies such as Peugeot, various world views over the millennia, the American declaration of independence, money, empires, even evolutionary biology itself. People invented all these systems and then got enough people to believe and participate in them for them to moreorless work.
When the agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands, and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links …. The human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation.
Everything from myth to religion to nations to moral codes to money are inter-subjective realities according to Harari. They have force for as long as people believe them, and cease to exist the moment people no longer believe them. This explains how people could cooperate in groups larger than 150, giving them a military and security advantage, and encouraging specialization which eventually gave them a technological advantage.
The term Harari uses is “inter-subjective;” and he distinguishes between “objective” and “inter-subjective”:
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals … Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
Harari has a brilliant mind; but I don’t think he goes quite far enough. So I would just like to add, kinda crucially, that Buddha said nothing is objective. I think of the term “inter-subjective reality” as a synonym for existing by agreement or existing by convention. And everything is therefore inter-subjective, existing by convention, including radioactivity! But I agree with Harari on how things you cannot see or sit on have nonetheless had enormous impact on the world.
As it says in Lord of all Lineages:
When I search with my wisdom eye,
All the things that I normally see disappear
And only their mere name remains.
These numerous human narratives, myths, legends, religions, and evolutionary and scientific theories all tell a story, but only ever part of a story, and not an entirely true story. And whether a narrative succeeds in getting us all cooperating and communicating depends entirely on how many people can be persuaded to believe it and thus buy into it.
With this mere name I simply accept everything for the purpose of communicating with others.
Homo sapiens have been hands down the cruelest of species, entrapping and torturing and murdering vast numbers not just of other species but our own. We have used our extraordinary imaginations over millennia to become the dominant species on this planet, getting to the top of the food chain despite our relatively puny bodies, using ever more creative ways to indulge our self-cherishing and profit-driven attachment, even making virtues of them along the way.
But what has been our undoing — for example our own species now being on the verge of extinction on this planet — can also be our saving. Our imagination can be used for evil, but it can also be used to transcend.
Conspiracy theories are not helpful
I was talking to a conspiracy theorist the other day – for sure, these days everyone seems to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, even me. These stories of victimhood and blame can be convincing and there may be some relative truth to them sometimes. However, these narratives often involve so much mental elaboration in pursuit of the deep perpetrator of all that ails us – and if not careful, far from becoming more free, people fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit holes of hallucination, paranoia, and blame.
The only conspiracy a Buddhist really has to uncover and blame is that of our self-grasping, the one that underlies every other conspiracy there has ever been, that fabricates all deceptive appearances. If we had all the time in the world, maybe we could spend weeks and months contemplating other possible evil conspiracies as well. But we don’t have much time, so we need to focus. At least that is what I think, and probably some of you do too. Now we only need to persuade everyone else of that 😁
Until we rid our mind of self-grasping and other delusions, it remains impure. And it seems as if nothing we have created with our impure imaginations has ever had the power to make us happy, at least not for long – whether that be politics or technology or sports or even medicine. Something cannot be real happiness if its cause is not a real cause of happiness, can it? So because politics, science, medicine, and so on can also cause problems, they are not real causes of happiness, and therefore any happiness we derive from them is not real happiness.
Plus our grasping at all these things – including religions — as inherently existent (self-grasping ignorance) and as inherently existent sources of happiness (attachment) has led us to huge suffering. Real happiness comes only from real causes of happiness, inner peace and wisdom.
We have also been kept very busy at justifying our attachments. For example, as we domesticated more and more other species, it must have become convenient at some point to develop the belief that we were somehow of a different order of special (despite our tail bone) and that animals were put on earth just for our benefit. Of course, therefore, we can treat them however we want.
The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueler with the passing of the centuries.
To this day that exceptionalist world view lingers such that we feel our cruel treatment of animals is justified – but what reasonable justification do we have for this behavior, really?
It’s reasonable to assume, for example, that bulls prefer to spend their days wandering over open prairies in the company of other bulls and cows rather than pulling carts and ploughshares under the yoke of a whip-wielding ape.
And where has this subjugation of animals led us? To the burning of the Amazon and our own potential mass suicide, for one thing.
Not just another invention
Instead of inventing just another imagined order for us to believe in as if it really existed from its own side, outside of our minds, Buddha basically — right out of the door — said that this IS all imagination; that we are making it all up. Everything is emptiness, ie, the mere lack of inherent existence.
The whole methodology of the Buddhist faith is then designed to get us to that understanding so that we can walk through the door of emptiness to lasting freedom.
Everything in Buddhism starts with that — or sometimes with the other side of the same coin which is that everything depends upon thought. That is Buddhism 101. You’ll hear something along those lines the moment you walk in the door of a Buddhist Center. Geshe Kelsang for example has said that he has put emptiness teachings in all of his books in the hope that people will therefore find them; and that the main reason for his appearing in this world is to reveal emptiness to us.
Countless enlightened beings have appeared to say these things in countless world systems, leading countless people like you and me through that door to join them. There may be more enlightened beings than samsaric beings by now, for all we know.
As it says in The New Heart of Wisdom, a commentary to the Heart Sutra:
Although we need to strive to develop a new realization of emptiness, it is important to understand that emptiness itself is not a new development or creation. It is not a product of philosophical analysis or an invention of Buddha. Emptiness has been the actual nature of all phenomena from the very beginning. Our body, for example, has always been empty of inherent existence; there has never been a time when our body, or anything else, existed inherently. Although emptiness has always been the true nature of phenomena, we need to receive instructions to realize this; and for this reason Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.
If you are interested in emptiness, and haven’t had a chance to read The New Heart of Wisdom yet, I strongly recommend it! I wouldn’t have a clue what I am talking about without reading that book for the first time decades ago, and many times since.
I do hope I’m not confusing anyone – please go now read The New Heart of Wisdom if I am! But I suppose what I am trying to chat about in this long article is how Buddha came along and blasted all imagined realities, including religions and other belief systems, out of the water by saying that nothing is actually out there, our minds are making the whole thing up – always have been and always will be. Some imagined realities work better than others — some lead us to hellish suffering and some to the bliss of enlightenment — but everything is equally unfindable and illusion-like. That is what we need to realize.
I am going to let Buddha have the last word. In the Heart Sutra, he says:
Therefore, Shariputra, because there is no attainment, Bodhisattvas rely upon and abide in the perfection of wisdom; their minds have no obstructions and no fear. Passing utterly beyond perversity, they attain the final nirvana.
Over to you. What do you think about all this?!
There is another installment here, called Evil monkeys.
There is nothing out there out there
Buddhism 1-01 and Buddhism 9-99!
I really loved this article, Luna… especially this comment: “The only conspiracy a Buddhist really has to uncover and blame is that of our self-grasping, the one that underlies every other conspiracy there has ever been, that fabricates all deceptive appearances”… I often say that if Steven Spielberg wanted to produce the ultimate horror movie a true documentary on Homo Sapiens would be it! Your article would serve well as a general guide for the scriptwriter. Tantra is the Lithium for all the psychotic homo sapiens running rampant on this poor planet. Maybe the Zen Be Here Now mindfulness practices ( a la Thich Nhat Hahn) would be the sutra brand?
… Still am of the opinion that ‘tactile’ should read ‘tangible’….. Just sayin’…..🌞
I’m trying to find the sentence …
… Oh Dear, I should have counted down and supplied the line number : fairly near the beginning……
Haha, weird, I just can’t find it. Blind spot.
… Must have been in one of the sidetracks…. 🌞…. Just let it go. I have, til it arises again….. 😂… Thanks tor trying…🤗.
Thank you for a wonderful teaching Luna
Thank you Luna, I think this is all brilliant,as Kelsang Khyenrab recently said ‘Buddha is the best scientist ☺️
A total genius on every level. Especially because he shows us, seemingly regular people, how to become totally limitless and free.
This is super helpful! Good to be reminded that if we change our mind, we change everything – even the mess the planet is in right now. Thank you for making it practical and immediately relevant ✨
I am glad you like this Colinda 😍I find it so fascinating and liberating to understand Buddha’s teachings on how we create our reality.
I think once we start to see the emptiness we can pick up the Harry Potter wand and start to bring things into being. Its slow and Im sure i wield it incredibly clumsily but it does manage to transform the phenomena with enough practice and regular visits back to the remembering of emptiness. Thanks for that article. It came just at the right moment when i forgot about my magic wand and was looking at my $2000 car insurance and ranting in my mind about how ‘the system’ is all kinds of insane.. It is.. But best not let the queen of hearts cut off my head with my own grasping at her realness. Calm Down Alice .. its time for Tea..
haha, what a great comment! Calm down Alice, indeed.
This article is truly wonderful! Thankyou so much! These articles really inspire me to keep wielding my wisdom sledgehammer to bring down this house of illusion!
I’m so glad to hear that, thank you! 😊 I’m about to put another one up …
I’m impressed by your post! Thank you for sharing. I’ve been wondering all my life why I couldn’t change my acts despite all the efforts I was putting into. Today, I know I need to change first my thoughts and the way I think so that my acts change as well.
That’s a perfect conclusion 😁
Thank you 🙂
For countless living beings – no Buddhism is their reality. For me, this article helps me develop some wisdom fear that I need to realise and hold these pure teachings in my heart – now – soon – before this also becomes my reality (rebirth with no Buddhas, no Buddhism, no Sangha). I need strong conviction in karma – obviously I did some really pure things in my past lives but not exactly right as I am still in samsara experiencing suffering. What am I doing in this life to make sure I get out this time and experience a pure mind, pure world, and engage in pure deeds to benefit all my kind mothers?
Emptiness is the truth and yes, emptiness is empty – but things function – what do I want to experience – what functions, worlds, experiences do I want appearing for myself and others? A mere pure land please …
Thank you for this great comment. Because things are empty, they can function and, in particular, arise in dependence upon causes and conditions. No causes, no effects. No practice of Buddhism, no Buddhism in the future.
The NKT is an inter-subjective reality. Next month more than 3,000 people will converge in Arizona and work together to create a Fall Festival that will feel very “real,” but will be nothing more than mere name … thankfully, all the people who have been planning, organizing and breaking their backs to build the new Temple in time probably already realize the dream-like nature of the whole experience, thanks to Venerable Geshe-la. He has inspired many of us to buy in to his presentation of Modern Kadampa Buddhism, but we need to always remember that it, too, is nothing more than a mere appearance to our minds. We can’t grasp at him, his books, temples, festivals, centers …. absolutely nothing to hold on to. We can all be on the lookout for the second profundity while we’re in Arizona … everything appearing before us, a mere manifestation of its emptiness. Ultimate truth. Pure freedom! Long live the Heart Sutra!!!!!
Brilliant! I totally agree. Grasping at it just gives rise to tight minds, business as usual; yet the whole point of Geshe-la is to stop us being tight and graspy.
I remember, as a child, thinking something along the same lines. I wondered where I had come from, how could I know, and such. With time, I realized we don’t know where thoughts are coming from, but that we have them. Thoughts are thoughts. We all have them.
But I started with something simple. I know I exist, so someone created me (I didn’t. That would be a contradiction in terms.). I also know there is reality. 2+5=7 anywhere you go (i.e. the dessert, on the moon, on Pluto, anywhere….). I also have something called understanding. Understanding is knowing without knowing how you know. But that understanding has to be coming from somewhere. I believe my Creator gives me this.
We are not islands. But if people dwell too long in the abstract, it can start to seem all real. But for some of us, we realize something wrong with living purely in the abstract.
Also, one can never say there is no reality. That’s a contradiction in terms. To state there’s no reality would be a statement of reality, and one can see how quickly this breaks down.
In the same way, one can never be an atheist. To say there is no god is to say one is god. Why? Because only one who knows everything can make that statement, again, a contradiction in terms.
Also, one cannot state there is no right and wrong. Again, a contradiction in terms.
Then, once one realizes we were created, that can be troubling because we then realize we know things, but we don’t know a lot. But that’s okay. My not knowing everything means someone much more knowing, one who made me, knows more and knows what my future holds, and that’s okay with me.
But, having gone through this line of observation and questioning, I get it. It’s like runaway thinking.
I read your comment with interest, thank you. I had conversations about who created everything with my Christian Grandfather some years ago — we both agreed that mind created everything, the question is, Whose mind?! More about that here https://kadampalife.org/2011/10/05/what-are-blessings/ if you’re interested.
Brilliant article, been thinking about it most of the night! One thing, is karmic appearance the same as or distinct from existing by convention?
Where in Geshe la’s books can I find more info on existing by Convention.
Thank you 🙂
Glad this is helpful. I would say that the best place to read more is in The New Heart of Wisdom, the section on the last three profundities.
I enjoyed Sapiens, and I admit, I did think of Dharma when I read about the ‘constructs’ of civilisation that only exist because we agree to them. Also, in American Gods (Neil Gaiman’s story about the New gods replacing the old ones brought to America from the old countries), there’s an episode called ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’, which is about Money, that people worship it but it doesn’t even exist, a story we agree to. Also made me think of Dharma! It can be found everywhere if you know what to look for.
Yes, Dharma is everywhere. Is that a show, is it worth watching?
Wonderful 😍. Thank you for sharing these thoughts…
My pleasure, thank you for reading.
I would be interested to hear what you think about the sun and the moon. For example, the sun is coming up everyday at a certain, well-determined time, and it doesn’t seem to have any input from my mind.
Enjoyed the read, thank you. And yes it was thought provoking. One thing I keep thinking about is the issue of “belief”. You used that word a couple times. Belief is a deep thing, not always a choice. Like I feel like I don’t believe in inherent existence, I can walk around and say out loud “I don’t believe you exist” to any object, yet it still appears as inherently existent. And I know there are thousands of people, Buddhists, Hindus, Shaman practitioners of Latin America, etc, who all are taught that what appears doesn’t exist, but with all these people not “believing” I guess it’s not enough, maybe we need a critical mass of minds that “don’t believe” in order for it all to disappear. But it seems we need to do more than just not believe, seems like not believing is not enough, we need to have a “direct realization” right? So believing or not believing seems like just the first step on a very steep staircase. And that’s why we’re taught to meditate, concentrate, on the meditations on emptiness, repeatedly, for a long time, to break the “spell” of belief that’s seeping into our deeper consciousness.
Reminds me of a story I heard about Sigmund Freud, hypnotized a guy, a study subject, planted the suggestion to pick up umbrellas and be obsessed with them. He had some other Psychiatrists come and observe to prove hypnosis was real. Planted umbrellas around his house all over the place, hypnotized the subject. Told the subject then, to make himself at home. The subject walked around and picked up the various umbrellas, opened them up, turned them upside down, did all kinds of weird things with the umbrellas, and when Freud asked him, “Why are you doing those things with the umbrellas?” the subject expressed a rational reason for each of them, “Well that one looked broken I had to check if it was, that one was interesting wanted to see how it worked, that one I thought would be good to use if I needed it, if it starts raining” etc, on and on like that. The subject was de-hypnotized, woken up so to speak, and could remember everything but was at a loss as to why he did those things and found it hard to believe he had succumbed so strongly to the suggestion. So I guess that’s all of us, hypnotized, programmed, by the man behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz, who in reality is a guy named self-grasping ignorance!
What is is, no matter what anyone thinks.
Would you care to explain a bit more? What is anything without thought to experience or know it? Can you point at anything that is not known?
You are absolutely right. Thank you so much for this comment.
First of all we have correct belief. Then we make that into valid knowledge through inferential cognizers and eventually direct valid cognizes. Thank goodness for How to Understand the Mind, where Geshe-la clearly explains (in the second half) Buddha’s teachings on how we go from ignorance to doubt to correct belief and finally through to incontrovertible realization, profound knowledge that arises in our own experience and liberates us permanently.
Love that Sigmund Freud illustration — thank you for sharing that too.
Thank you. The sun and the moon are really good examples of the numerous things that seem to have nothing to do with us but nonetheless are just as much mere appearance to mind as the things that are more obviously created by thought.
The best way to test out this truth of emptiness is to go looking for things … including the sun and the moon, trying to point to something that is the sun without pointing at something that is not the sun, for example, using the four essential points as you would do for the body or the self.
Check out The New Heart of Wisdom:
“The universe appears to consist of discrete objects that have an existence from their own side. These objects appear to exist in themselves as stars, planets, mountains, people, and so forth, ‘waiting’ to be experienced by conscious beings.”
… and in particular what Geshe-la goes onto explain after this bit!
You mention the sun and the moon but really – we feel this way about everything we normally see.
Two thoughts immediately spring to mind. First, is the analogy of the dream. In our dreams everything appears as substantial and real. They obey their own rules, within that particular dream. We can test the validity of what appears within the dream and phenomena pass all the tests. More commonly, we simply just go along with what appears in the dream as though it were real. Then we wake up and realise that everything was a mere appearance to mind. Buddhas have woken from the sleep of ignorance and recognise all phenomena in the same way. The second point, is that Buddha Shakyamuni explained that if we look for the sun, to find what is actually the sun, we can look for it as one of its parts, the collection of its parts, or separate from its parts. If we can not find it in any of these places we must conclude that the sun, even though it appears vividly, is empty like space. The sun is composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, so if we focus on just those two, is it hydrogen or helium? Lets say we conclude it is hydrogen, because that is the dominant element. Do we conclude that hydrogen in a test tube is the sun?
So, generally we think that the sum of the parts is the sun – with all its components, such as elements, heat, mass, size & motion etc. Geshe la explains that anything that depends on something else is not the independent entity that we normally see: the sun that you are talking about. Finally, no-one would ever think that the sun can exist separate from its parts. So the sun exists as mere name, imputed by mind, because if we look for a sun that exists in any other way, we cannot find it.
All phenomena, even though they appear clearly, are empty like space.
9 minutes to read and a lifetime to digest. Thank goodness that there are so many ways Geshe-la finds to remind us of what is really going on, which is nothing, I guess.
I love that final quote. Thank you.
Haha, yes, true, he is very patient. He’ll never give up till we get it.
That gives me great comfort Luna. x