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.
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. More on this emptiness meditation next time. 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.