Just as the depth of an ocean cannot be measured by shooting an arrow, if we investigate the aggregates with wisdom we cannot find them. ~ New Heart of Wisdom, p. 46
(“Aggregates” means our body and mind.) And indeed, in this last article, we investigated our body to see whether it was within its parts, and we couldn’t find it.
So then maybe we concluded that at least I’ll find its parts if I go looking, and they are something real that I can pin my body upon.
Meditation on the emptiness of our hand
So, let’s go looking for our hand, for starters. Check out your hand. What are you seeing when you look at it? Due to ignorance, we think there is a real hand here. Where is this hand?
We can do the same analysis – if it is real or independent, and nothing to do with my perception, I can find it, and it must be within its parts or separate from its parts. Then we go looking.
As mentioned here, when we meditate on emptiness we don’t assume from the get go that we are not going to find stuff. Better to think, “I am really going to find this thing. I am so attached to my hand; I want to see if it is really there.”
We need to look within its parts first – is my finger my hand? My palm? We can ask the same for the knuckles, tendons, skin, etc. But none of these is the hand. And when we put them together, we still just have a collection of not-hands.
So maybe the hand exists somewhere else and possesses these parts. In which case we should be able to point to it without pointing to any of its parts. But imagine all your fingers fly off, and the palms dissolves. Where is the hand? It is not there.
We acknowledge the emptiness of the hand before we move on to the next bit …
But maybe the parts of my hand exist?! What about my finger, maybe that exists? But no, the finger too depends upon its parts but is not its parts. Maybe my knuckle?! Or the joint? Or the molecules of my joint?! Or, or, or …
What’s the smallest thing in the universe?!
We can take this search as far as we want, maybe to atoms, or even quarks, or whatever scientists say is the basic building block of the universe these days. But there is no point at which we can terminate this analysis. The arrow will never hit its mark. Even the tiniest particle depends upon its parts.
In Meaningful to Behold, Geshe Kelsang explains this meditation on establishing the non-true existence, or emptiness, of the parts of the body, and says:
The individual parts of the joint are merely imputed upon the collection of particles that make it up and so they also have no true existence. The particles in turn are merely imputed upon their directional parts – north, east, south, and west – and are therefore not truly existent. And likewise even the parts of the directions can be further divided. Thus a lack of truly existent parts, empty like space, is revealed. ~ p. 325
Once upon a time people thought visible lumpy things were the building blocks of the universe. Then, with sophisticated equipment, the atom was discovered, and for a while it was thought to be the indivisible bottom line, before it was split to reveal protons, neutrons, and electrons. These subatomic particles too seemed to be the fundamental building blocks of everything, until scientists discovered that they too are made up of quarks.
There will be no end to this process – even the most sophisticated equipment in infinite world systems will never reveal an ultimate constituent of the universe. However small we go, we will never find an indivisible building block because there isn’t one.
There is no such thing as a partless particle. Everything depends upon its parts, and those parts depend upon their parts, and so on, ad infinitum. And if something depends upon parts, it is not independent or inherently existent.
Even the smallest discernible particle will have directional parts, for example, or else it could not sit next to, or “meet”, another particle. As Geshe Kelsang puts it in Meaningful to Behold (where you’ll find this analysis of partless particles in detail):
Simply stated, if two things are partless, how could they ever meet? ~ p 329
There are no building blocks of reality. And even the mind depends upon its parts — for example its thoughts — and cannot be found.
What does all this mean?!
IT MEANS THERE IS NOTHING REALLY OUT THERE!!!
So what are we doing believing that everything is really out there?! Is it any wonder we have problems?
Patti Joshua has “brought hope, freedom, and inner peace to minds that didn’t believe that hope and freedom were possible,” according to a Buddhist monk in South Africa. She helped supply clean water to many rural communities over many years, and in the last year alone created 280 meditation classes at 27 rural schools all around Zululand, holding 2,100 sessions with 225 educators and no fewer than 11,039 learners. I hope you have a few minutes to watch this powerful video.
This video has been shown to principals at other schools in South Africa and opened the door for the healing power of meditation to be also introduced at those schools. ~ Kadampa teacher in South Africa
Patti has inspired me since I first learned about her work. I want to become a Bodhisattva like her, I really want to be like her. A devoted disciple of Geshe Kelsang, she said of the book Transform Your Life, especially the chapter on Accepting Defeat and Offering the Victory:
I tried to practice it and it worked. Incredible patience, love and compassion came out of it.
She then “used these amazing teachings from Geshe-la on Transform Your Life” in schools, rural communities, prisons — discovering that even with those “very ill with HIV, they realized they can still be happy, happiness from within.”
According to the same Buddhist monk: “The results of the school project have been swift and encouraging, with teachers, students, headmasters, and district officials all deeply inspired by what they have learned from the precious Dharma appearing in their lives in the form of Mam Patti and the beautiful Kadam Dharma from Venerable Geshe Kelsang in Transform Your Life.”
After a teaching on the Life of Buddha miles from anywhere, one little boy put his hand up … and, wanting to know more, he asked urgently,
Where can I find you?
Can you imagine having a life of such meaning, where you bring so much hope to others that they want to know how they can find you again? Spectacles held together with a paper clip, Patti’s life has been yet infinitely rich.
And the thing is, I have the same Spiritual Guide and exactly the same teachings, and there is no reason why I cannot do what Patti has done. I believe the same is true for you.
Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East.
“My heart will grow and grow until it fills the whole world.” ~ Ntuthuko
On September 28th, Patti was killed in a tragic road accident on her way to Richards Bay.
Here is another powerful video showing just what we have lost. Like Tessa, however, another of Venerable Geshe-la’s incredible disciples taken from our world too soon, I believe that Patti will now always be a light for the path.
Pay it forward
At her transference of consciousness puja on Friday, a teacher in South Africa told beautiful stories of her life, and said:
Patti is greatly admired, respected, and loved by so many people in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, and around the world. She was a kind mother, daughter, wife, grandmother, mentor, teacher and Sangha friend to thousands of people. Her passing away is a poignant reminder that we all have to die and have no idea about when our death will come. The best way to honour Patti’s life is to embody the principles of joyful and loving kindness that she lived by, and to keep in mind “I may die today.”
And, as her family put it:
Yesterday we lost our mom…. Our hope is that you take the love she shared with you and pay it forward.
I realized earlier that I have no idea how old Patti is, and I couldn’t care less. She is timeless. Age can neither defy nor define a Bodhisattva, any more than can the sufferings of sickness, death, or rebirth. For she or he is a hero at any age, always a son or daughter of the Buddhas in line for the throne of enlightenment.
A true Bodhisattva
Here is what one good friend of Patti told me:
Mama Patti Joshua, a true Bodhisattva Heroine, a beautiful example of the practice of Dharma, an unwavering dedicated friend to everyone, especially the communities in rural Zululand and beyond, her inspiration lives on in all the thousands of hearts she touched, nurtured and guided.
Anyone who had the good fortune to meet Patti would understand from just a little time spent with this very special lady that she was there for others. Her kind, wise and compassionate ways had a depth that could pacify, heal, encourage; and in a just a few words, or a gentle look from her, there would be hope and strength in the hearts of those she was touching. Whenever we spoke of Patti in our Centres here in South Africa, our minds would turn to Mother Tara — swift, kind, selfless, a liberator from sorrow, Patti is all the above and we are all deeply inspired and our hearts touched by the actions of our own venerable lady.
Patti worked tirelessly under the most uncertain of conditions with very little external resources, rural Africa is no playground for us spoilt urbanites, we would snap, turn to jelly. With her tremendous faith in Geshe-la and her teachers, and the power of Kadam Dharma, nothing was an obstacle for her. Her patient acceptance could absorb any situation, transforming it into a beautiful smile on her face, her eyes shining brightly through her glasses held together by a paper clip, she always had a plan. She had to, with hardly any money to pay for things, she depended on the kindness of others, such faith, and through her ocean of inner wealth she accomplished so much in her community and beyond. Quiet, yet everyone knew about her, gentle yet everyone appreciated her power, loving and determined. When you were with Patti, you could feel she was focusing on your potential, drawing that out of you, gently, peacefully creating a vision together – you were always encouraged by her graceful presence.
She always had space in her heart for one more — one more community, one more person, one more class, one more child to hold, one more person to try to feed, one more person to encourage — her heart could take them all, almost naturally, without a huff or a puff, or a what about me, it wasn’t about her. Everyone was a part of her family.
We pray that this work may continue in some form, for Patti’s presence here is deeply missed.
Always space in her heart for one more
If we exchange our self with others, we will always have space in our heart for one more. And we will get good things done. Compare this to self-cherishing, where we are consumed with one person, ourselves, and which has got us precisely nowhere since beginningless time. There is a beautiful verse in Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, which Patti seemed to exemplify:
Since throughout beginningless time until now, the root of all my suffering has been my self-cherishing mind,
I must expel it from my heart, cast it afar, and cherish only other living beings.
As another friend put it:
She always seemed to be doing everything for others all at once, and all of it effortlessly, without any drama or fuss.
The object of both our self-grasping ignorance and our self-cherishing is the same – the self that I normally perceive. Self-grasping grasps it as existing, and self-cherishing thinks that it is most important. But that self does not exist! Which explains why self-grasping and self-cherishing are doomed to failure, every time. Far better, and far more sane, to follow Patti’s example instead.
So I made myself a promise today. Whenever I notice that I am starting to feel sorry for myself, for whatever reason, I am going to try to remember Patti and the thousands of people who loved her with good reason. That is one way to pay it forward. And then one day all of our epitaphs might also say:
Where can I find you?!
Patti’s funeral was held on Saturday in Eshowe, and the obituary is now in the comments below. A website is going to be set up for tributes and I will link to it. Please feel free to write in the comments of this article too.
Thank you to the 2 close friends of Mam Patti in South Africa who co-wrote this article with me.
By guest writer TT, who says he “is in his second year of university studying philosophy, politics and economics, working out how to unify student life with Kadampa Buddhism.”
At the moment, as during most moments in recent years, I am suffering from attachment… When attachment becomes very strong, I find it hard to let go of using the traditional opponents to attachment such as meditation on emptiness, death and renunciation. If I meditate on these, then my attachment may be gone by the morning but back by midday because my mindfulness is not strong enough to hold onto the opponents and oppose my mind’s tendency to focus on objects of attachment. This article is an explanation of a slightly different way in which I have recently been dealing with my attachment.
What is attachment and what are its faults?
An experience of attachment is the perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment – how it makes us pathetic and foolish, causing us great pain and anxiety. By believing that a source of our happiness exists ‘out there’ in that person or enjoyment, we effectively put our happiness there, and therefore make ourself deeply emotionally vulnerable and deprive ourself of any stable happiness – we actually make it the case that we can only be happy if so-and-so likes us by believing that we can only be happy if he or she likes us; we believe that we need them for our happiness. It is this belief that is the real demon. It sucks out any joy from our life, stops us living in the moment, and causes an underlying pain that means we can never quite feel truly happy. When it is strong, it means that we are constantly walking around with an uncomfortable feeling in our stomach.. My teacher once said that we need to learn about the faults of delusions from our own experience and deeply understand them, so that when we contemplate the faults of attachment we are not just reciting a list or reading from a book – we are basing our understanding of the faults of attachment on our own experience. That way, our understanding of the faults of attachment will be strong, stable, and not merely intellectual.
When strong attachment arises I like to sit down on my meditation cushion and to look directly and unflinchingly at the mind of attachment. What is it exactly? What is it telling me? Where is it coming from? What are its faults? See for yourself precisely what this mind is, and what it is telling you. Don’t take anyone’s word for it that attachment means that you have actually put your cause of happiness in someone or something else – actually see how this is happening in your own experience. When we see attachment for what it really is, we see its absurdity and how it can cause nothing but pain for us. Seeing this, it naturally begins to drop away, like realizing how the magic trick works: once we know how the trick works, we are no longer sucked in by it.
Become an inner scientist: investigate the nature of your delusions
I think that there is so much to be said for not just watching our mind in an abstract way, but really looking deeply at our delusions – where they come from and what they’re saying. The same is true for all delusions I think, not just attachment – if we’re experiencing anger, for example, I believe it can be very valuable to sit down on the cushion and look directly at precisely where the anger is coming from (from what views and thoughts) and what it is saying to us. Once we do that we begin to see how absurd it is, and as we see the truth the delusion immediately begins to drop. I find this especially useful and if delusions are very strong – if we can’t seem to breath them out or let go of them in the usual way, we have a unique opportunity to sit down and really look, really learn deeply about where our delusion is coming from. Therefore we can attack it right at the root: we can challenge our deluded views and beliefs from which our delusions arise, such as ‘My cause of happiness is over there’, with the truth, by directly and unflinchingly seeing the absurdity of our delusion.
Why let go of attachment? Isn’t that letting go of our happiness?!
Now, this practice is unlikely to rid you of all attachment overnight! I have suffered from strong attachment for many years, and continue to do so. But gradually, as my understanding of attachment and its faults increases, attachment decreases. You may find that attachment soon creeps back after you try this meditation – but that is ok, because then you can just do it over again! So I try to remember repeatedly the faults of attachment: how it makes us pathetic, foolish, unhappy, emotionally dependent, vulnerable, and deprives us love and virtue, the only source of true meaning and happiness in our life. I simultaneously contemplate the benefits of letting go of attachment: the mental freedom, spaciousness, relaxation and happiness we experience. Wow!! The happiness and freedom that non-attachment has to offer is truly incredible. In Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 170), Geshela writes:
In the past, great Indian and Tibetan yogis such as Milarepa spent much of their lives in seclusion. Compared with us, who spend our life in comfortable houses surrounded by luxuries, who has the greater happiness? Without a doubt yogis like Milarepa experience bliss that is a thousand times greater than anything we ever experience. Their unsurpassed happiness is due to their inner calm and their complete lack of attachment to external objects while our suffering and dissatisfaction is due to our complete submersion in attitudes of attachment and aversion for external objects.
If we get a heartfelt feeling for any Buddhist, or Dharma, practice whatsoever, it will bring us incredible joy and freedom. The experience of letting go of attachment and turning inwards to find the joy inside ourselves that comes from this, will bring incredible happiness and meaning to our life, and free us from so much of our everyday pain and dissatisfaction. Without attachment, we can just enjoy whatever arises, every moment, without grasping onto it. We have no pain about what has gone, and no fear about what is coming. We simply enjoy every moment, deeply, engaging fully with the world around us. The thing is, there is absolutely no problem with enjoyments. There is nothing wrong with surfing, spending time with friends, having sex or drinking lots of mango smoothie. The object to be abandoned is not the object(s) of our enjoyment, but grasping onto these objects – it is the clinging, the craving, THE ATTACHMENT, that causes us pain, dissatisfaction and keeps us chained to the prison of samsara. But if we let go of our attachment then we can enjoy all these objects without pain, without feeling like we need them for our happiness. And then we can see all our experiences of enjoyment as in the mind, and offer them to the guru at our heart, giving us a taste of liberation; or if we have had a tantric empowerment then we can recognize these feelings of bliss and emptiness as the nature of our guru’s mind and from there we can self-generate as the deity and impute ourself upon bliss and emptiness.
As Geshela says in Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 176-177):
… the person who is content with what he or she has does not experience the pain of dissatisfaction and instead receives inexhaustible happiness. Of all forms of wealth, that of contentment is found to be supreme…
… A person who feels no attachment to beautiful, external objects will find a beautiful mind within. Remaining content is the best wealth; not to grasp at what is attractive is the best of all possessions.
How amazing is that?!
Licking honey off the razor’s edge…
Usually we focus on the initial good feelings of attachment like, as Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 67 of the latest edition), the taste of honey as we lick it off the razor’s edge–the excitement, the buzz, the rush, the thrill–without really thinking about its faults. And then, before we know it, it’s too late: we’re on the razor’s edge. Instead of this, I am trying to spend my time thinking repeatedly about the faults of attachment, not being deceived by the initial pleasant feelings that tend to come as we first develop attachment. I think we need to do this again and again and again, continually. We need to contemplate the rottenness, the anxiety, the pain, the vile nature of attachment, the way it causes us so much pain and suffering, keeps us trapped in samsara, and turns a person into an object of our selfish enjoyment, over many, many hours. As Geshela says in his new book How to Understand the Mind on page 116:
When attachment arises in our mind it does not feel harmful; on the contrary, it usually feels beneficial. Therefore, it is important to contemplate repeatedly the faults of attachment and to recognize it as a delusion whose only function is to cause us harm.
I have to admit that recently I have become a bit suspicious of ‘falling in love’. For people with a close friendship, perhaps, there is a genuine mix of love in with the attachment. But for me, I think that most of my experiences have not been of ‘falling in love’ involving love at all. I used to think that they were a mix of love and attachment, and that all the good feelings were coming from affectionate love, but now I’m not so sure… The good feelings seem to me like the initial stages of attachment; I value the person and ‘love’ them because they make me feel good. But this is not real love – it is not based on renunciation, cherishing them or recognizing their kindness and good qualities, but only on them making ME feel good right now; it is based on self-cherishing. Furthermore, it’s clear that there’s not really much if any love there when they tell me that they’re not interested, heh heh – if I love them, then why does that cause me so much pain, and no mix of pain and joy at all, just pain….?!! I am tending to think that falling in love, and the joy it brings, is more like a temporary drug trip that makes everything seem wonderful due to rose-tinted spectacles and not at all due to love or wisdom which see things as the truly are.
But, that said, there is nothing wrong with falling in love! Another mistake that I have made over the last few years is to really beat myself up when attachment arises, thinking ‘I’m such a bad practitioner’, and ‘Oh no, I’ve got attachment!’ But how can wisdom arise from such attitudes? Such feelings are based entirely on self-cherishing, I think – it does not bother us if someone else, who we do not much care for, is suffering from attachment, does it? Yet if it is us, then it seems terrible. We need a realistic attitude that sees attachment for what it is and applies the opponent of wisdom with the calm and clear-sighted approach of the surgeon who applies the knife. We do not feel overwhelmed, guilty or exasperated; on the contrary, we have is a perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment and overcome it from the root, so we should rejoice! One of my teachers recently explained to me that dharma is not about denial – if we have attachment to someone, for example, dharma is not about pretending to ourself that we do not have this attachment and supressing it. Not at all. Of course, it is not always appropriate to follow our attachments externally; for example, if we are ordained then we probably should not ask that person out to dinner with us…(!) But if we are a lay practioner, then that’s fine! And if (s)he says ‘yes’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment; and if (s)he says ‘no’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment. Either way, we are working on our mind, trying to decrease our attachment and increase our love, and therefore we are heading towards the city of full enlightenment. As one Kadampa teacher often exclaims: ‘If a delusion comes up, great!’ We can use our experience of delusion to overcome that delusion – if we have strong attachment then great: this is the perfect time to see its faults and overcome it.
What are we chained down by?
Think about an attachment that you have right now. Ultimately, we have to make a choice between happiness and this attachment. As soon as we pick up an attachment our heart is thrown off beat, and we lose the ability to live a joyful, relaxed life. (NB. This is a choice between our happiness and the attachment, nor our happiness and the object – externally abandoning the object of our attachment does not necessarily mean that we have abandoned our [internal] attachment to it; but if we let go of our attachment then we will be happy regardless of whether or not we have the object.). Just realizing this is extremely liberating. We feel like we have to choose attachment because that is where our happiness is – but that is completely false! Look at how many people are not attached to our object of attachment, simply getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves! It is only the belief that we need someone for our happiness that makes us unhappy; and it is only the complete abandonment of this belief that allows us to be truly and utterly happy. At the time, our attachment object seems like the most important thing in the world – and letting go of it seems like an impossible task. But think about how many people or things we have been attached to in the past, and which now we hardly think of at all. We have managed ok without those people and things after all, haven’t we? And the same is true of our present attachment – if we develop a sense of perspective, we can easily see that our attachment is not important at all, it really is just a triviality. So what are we so worried about letting go of? The key to happiness lies within us, in letting go of this mind of attachment!
How to let go of attachment
We can look around and see how many people are engrossed in attachment, falsely believing that they need someone or something to be happy; deeply contemplating its faults, we begin to feel repulsed by the mind of attachment. With this complete disgust for attachment, we can actually let go of it by realizing that the object of our attachment is just an illusion, an idea, a false projection – it does not actually exist, at all. NOTHING and NO ONE has the power to make us happy. As Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 142 of the revised edition):
We are like the thief who entered Milarepa’s cave one night, looking for something valuable to steal. Hearing him, Milarepa laughed and said, ‘How do you expect to find anything valuable here at night, when I cannot find anything valuable here during the day?’ How can we expect to find happiness in the empty cave of samsara while obscured by the darkness of our delusions, when all the Buddhas with their omniscient wisdom have been unable to find it?
Indeed, this person does not even exist from his or her own side! Let alone do they exist as a true cause of happiness for us… So then, remembering that the object of our attachment, the attachment, and we ourself, are impermanent and illusory, we can let go of attachment, because there is nothing to hold onto – the object of our attachment does not exist. A beautiful analogy that one of my teachers once gave is that of a moth that had got ‘stuck’ to his finger that morning when he was trying to take it out of the kitchen – it refused to let go and fly off. We are like that moth: when we experience the smallest sense of enjoyment or happiness from some person or enjoyment, we cling onto it soooo desperately and tightly, thinking that if we let go of it then we letting go of our source of happiness – what is left? But in fact, it is this clinging mind that deprives us of any happiness – it stops us from enjoying the object of our attachment, and everything else. Only by letting go of our attachment can we truly enjoy the object, and everything else, without pain. When we let go of our attachment, our mind will be filled with joy and freed of fear. This is the indication that we have let go of our attachment. We can now truly enjoy the object without any pain, and we can enjoy everyone and everything else in life. Non-attachment has freed us from pain and allowed us to discover the joy and happiness in all aspects of life.
Much help for me has come from a book called The Way to Love by, believe it or not, a Jesuit priest called Anthony De Mello. There is some fantastic advice on letting go of attachment in there, a lot of which I have largely repeated in this article. The guru can manifest in many forms!!
So anyway, I wanted to share some of that beautiful advice that I have received from my teachers. Now it is time to put it into practice, otherwise I will remain miserable and will be like the man that tells his son every day ‘Do not walk outside after dark, it is dangerous’ but then walks out at dark and gets killed. If I’m here regurgitating wonderful advice but not practising any of it, then there is none more foolish than me!!
In many ways, I am the least qualified person possible to give advice on overcome attachment, hehehe. But I have 100% confidence that the instructions on letting go of attachment work, if only we put them into practice. The key to happiness is within us – it is within our grasp. All we have to do is let go of our clinging attitude and completely abandon the utterly false belief that we need any external thing or person for us to be happy. And if we do this – then we shall finally find the happiness we seek.
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.