A handy introduction to some common Buddhist terms

My parents asked me for working definitions of the following terms, “an introduction to Buddhism in the simplest terms possible for the uninformed, but possibly quite bright, newcomer or beginner.”

GlossarySo I gave it a go, and they replied with some great suggestions for simplifying the language further. I also asked a good friend with much Buddhist knowledge, who helped edit Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books, to give his input. This is therefore a collaborative work in progress, and you are invited to participate as well.

Meanwhile, the actual official Kadampa book glossary is accurate and useful.

And to find out more about all these terms, download this free Buddhist book, How to Transform Your Life.

What are delusions?

delusions

Delusions are distorted thoughts or emotions that destroy our mental peace and make us act in inappropriate ways; and so they are the cause of our suffering. Examples are anger, attachment, arrogance, and ignorance. They are distorted because the way they perceive their object does not correspond to reality – for example attachment exaggerates the pleasurable aspects of its object, in effect projecting things that are not there, whereas anger and hatred exaggerate the unpleasant aspects. If we get rid of our misperceptions, we get rid of our delusions and experience lasting happiness.

What is attachment?

Attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”, is a state of mind that believes happiness inheres or can be found in things outside the mind. Attachment is the “sticky desire” that is our normal response to anything or anyone we feel is a cause of pleasure, comfort, or security for us, that wants to keep it close or wants more, or that feels a painful sense of loss when it goes. The truth is, happiness is a state of mind that depends upon mental peace, and so its real causes lie within the mind, not without.

my precious.jpgAttachment exaggerates the power of its object to make us happy by focusing on its supposed good qualities while editing out all its faults, e.g., a pizza or a partner is perceived by attachment to be an inherent, or actual, source of pleasure when in fact they can be just as much a source of suffering.

Attachment is often confused with love but they are completely different. Love is other-centered and peaceful and focuses on the welfare of the other person, whereas attachment is self-centered and unpeaceful and wants the other person simply because we think they make us feel better.

What is self-cherishing?

Self-cherishing is a mind that wrongly believes we are more important than others, andself-cherishing that our happiness and freedom matter more. Self-grasping misconceives our I to be inherently existent, the only real me; and self-cherishing misconceives this I to be supremely important, the very center of our world. These two ego minds are the source of all samsaric problems.

What is Dharma?

Dharma refers to Buddhist teachings and especially the experiences we gain by putting these teachings into practice. It literally means “protection.” Since our suffering comes from our delusions, it is our inner experience of the opposite of these delusions that directly protects us from this suffering.

For example, the experience of pure love protects us from the suffering caused by our own anger and dislike, and the experience of emptiness protects us from the suffering caused by self-grasping ignorance.

What is samsara?

samsaraSamsara is the life experience of someone with a body and mind still polluted by delusions and the negative actions and their unpleasant consequences arising from these delusions. Sometimes known as “cyclic existence”, it is life characterized by repetitive suffering.

Samsara’s very nature is problematic. The mind is not physical and it continues after death, but, for as long as our mind is governed by delusions, what it experiences will be fundamentally unsatisfactory and generally painful.

But not all life is samsaric life – if we can free ourselves from delusions by realizing emptiness, we can end samsara and experience lasting peace and happiness.

What is karma?

karma“Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions, or intentions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs. Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the “soil” of our mental continuum. Mental intentions are those seeds; experiences are their effects. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.

What is self-grasping?

Self-grasping ignorance is the underlying source of all other delusions. It is a wrong awareness that apprehends people and things as existing inherently or independently. For example, when we think of a person called Tom, there seems to be a completely real Tom out there who in no way depends upon our perceptual and conceptual apparatus for his existence.

emptinessWhat is inherent existence?

Inherent existence means independent existence. An object would be inherently existent if it didn’t depend on anything at all for its existence, such as its causes, its parts, or the mind perceiving it. No object exists like this, so no object is inherently existent. Some synonyms for inherent existence are existing from the side of the object, existing from its own side, existing in and of itself, independently existent, or objectively existent. 

At the moment, we grasp at inherent existence; it is the object of self-grasping ignorance. The world seems to be made up of discrete, objective entities that do not depend upon an observer for their existence; but, in reality, all phenomena are inter-dependent, or “dependent relationships”, existing only in relationship with a multitude of causes, parts, contexts, imputations, and perceptions.

What is emptiness?

Emptiness is not nothingness but the lack of things existing inherently. Self-grasping ignorance misconceives things as having inherent or independent existence, and emptiness 1emptiness is the total absence of this mode of existence. Because everything depends entirely upon other things, everything is empty of inherent existence.

The things we normally see – inherently existent things — do not exist. Things do exist, but as mere appearances to mind, entirely dependent upon mind, and the nature of mind.

Realizing emptiness — lack of inherent existence — is the only way to destroy the object of self-grasping and free our mind permanently from all delusions.

What is Sangha?

Sangha refers to the spiritual community practicing Dharma. In general, our spiritual friends who give us spiritual advice, support, and inspiration are our Sangha; but more strictly a Sangha Jewel is someone who has realized emptiness directly, because only such a person sees things as they really are and can be relied upon completely.

wishfulfilling jewelWhat is a wishfulfillling jewel?

 A wishfulfilling jewel is an ancient legendary jewel similar to Aladdin’s lamp that supposedly had the power to grant all worldly wishes. It is often used as an analogy for spiritual accomplishments such as full enlightenment, which not only fulfill all our worldly and temporary wishes, but also our everlasting, ultimate wishes.

Postscript ~ parents’ verdict:

“We regret that we still find several definitions too difficult and sometimes too wordy, as if you are both trying too hard to cover every aspect.”almost there

So, as we are not there yet, I invite you all to give this a go as well! Please use the comments section below. My friend and I have found that attempting to sum up these profound subjects in a few sentences, if indeed such a thing is possible, has been a very useful exercise in checking our own understanding. As this list is very far from complete, please feel free to submit other Buddhist terms and working definitions too.

And check out the Kadampa glossary whenever in doubt.

Related articles

What is Buddhism? A short, simple guide

Karma

Delusions

Attachment 

Samsara

Self-cherishing 

Realizing emptiness and destroying self-grasping 

 

Meditating on the emptiness of our body

We have the target, the body we normally perceive, the independent body. Here is my body appearing to me, existing from its own side, generating sky-2awareness of itself. It’s really there. Like a lump. A monolithic lump. Can’t miss it.

As Geshe Kelsang says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

We have a mental image of our body as something different from its parts. When we think “My body is attractive” we are not thinking “My feet are attractive, my elbows are attractive, my forehead is attractive …”, and so forth, but we apprehend an independent body.

And we believe with all our heart that this body we are apprehending does exist. Our life revolves around it. Could I point to it? Yes, of course I could, it’s right here isn’t it?!

Carrying on from this article on the four essential points.

At this point, once we have identified the negated object, we are ready to go looking for it using Steps Two to Four.

Ditching samsara

Just a couple of things first, though, before we continue. When we do this meditation on emptiness, it’s important to remember why we’re doing it. This would be because samsara sucks and we are trying to dissolve it away for everyone. How? By realizing it is empty of inherent existence.

I was thinking recently how innocent the term “samsara” might sound to the new ear. A Buddhist once ruefully told me he had named his two kids Sam and Sara before he knew better. Sweet kids, too. Samsara even has a perfume named after it. But there is nothing sweet about samsara. Monstrousara, evilara, deceptivara, sufferingara, cesspitara, crazyara, etc is more like it. A prize for the best word …

dissolving-body-4Also, when we do this contemplation, it is good to do it in our heart not our head, and not in a big hurry at first — for example after a little breathing or clarity of mind meditation, taking refuge in our own inner peace and pure potential mixed with the wisdom of Buddha.

Step Two: Ascertaining the pervasion

So if our body is as solid and real as it appears, if there is a body there appearing to me, then I will be able to find it if I look for it. In fact, the more I investigate, the clearer it’ll become. If there is mayonnaise in the fridge, for example, then a search should reveal it more and more clearly.

And if my body exists inherently or objectively — if it can be found outside the mind, existing from its own side, as it appears — then I must be able to find it or point to it without pointing at something that is NOT it. That’s only fair, isn’t it? If I’m looking for the mayo in the fridge, I can’t go pointing at the ketchup and say “Found it!”

And there are only two places where my body could possibly be — within its parts or somewhere else. No third possibility. Agreed?

(“Ascertaining the pervasion” is just a fancy way of saying that we become certain that our search pervades or covers everywhere our body could possibly be.)

So in this step we set up the parameters of our search so that we can know when to stop looking. I’m going to look for my body within its parts or somewhere else and, if I don’t find it there, I know I have looked everywhere it could possibly be and so there is no point in looking for it further.

lost-glassesFor example, if I have lost my glasses somewhere in the house, they are either in my bedroom or outside my bedroom. If I look in both places and fail to find them, I can conclude that there are no glasses in the house.

Once we are sure of this, we are ready for the next step in the meditation. We are going to look for the body within its parts and separate from its parts to find out, “Is my body really there, or is it just appearing to be really there?”

And we need to search “without prejudice”, as Geshe-la says in Joyful Path, not “Oh yeah, Buddha already told us that the body is unfindable, so I only need to go through the motions to come to that conclusion.” There is no point being half-assed about the search, but rather we can be like a child playing hide and seek — if anything expecting to find what we are looking for. Then the experience of not finding it — if that indeed is what happens — is all the more impactful, “What the heck?! Where’d it go? Are you telling me I have been grasping at an illusion all this time?! Phew, that’s actually seriously cool.”

Step Three: Ascertaining the absence of oneness

This is where we look for our body within its parts – is there anything in the parts of our body that matches up with the image of the body we’re looking for?

body-word-mat-2Is my back the body? No. It’s a back. My head? My arms? My internal organs? Etc. No. They are all just parts of the body, and the body is the part-possessor.

Each part is in fact a not-body.

What about if we add all these parts together? Eh voilà, a body?! No. We still only have a collection of not-bodies. If you collect a lot of not-sheep together, such as goats, you don’t suddenly, magically, get a sheep. You just have a bunch of goats.

(“Ascertaining the absence of oneness” is just a fancy way of saying that we become certain that our body is not one with, or identical to, its parts.)

The body is labelled on its parts, or imputed on its parts, like a forest imputed on a collection of trees, as explained here – but we can find absolutely nothing within the parts that corresponds to the body we are searching for.

Step Four: Ascertaining the absence of difference

If our body is different from its parts, then we should be able to get rid of all the parts and still be left with a body.

dissolving-body-2We can imagine our head, trunk, arms, legs, etc all dissolving away into nothingness. Is there anything left that is the body? No.

If you check, whenever we try to point to our body, we point at a part of our body.

(“Ascertaining the absence of difference just means we become certain that our body is not separate from its parts.)

Conclusion of our search

So, we’ve looked for our body everywhere it could possibly be found, as ascertained in Step Two — both one with or separate from its parts. And we have found nothing that corresponds to, or matches up with (“Snap!”), the vividly appearing body we normally cherish so much. This means that this body doesn’t exist — there is no body existing from its own side.

This absence of the body we normally perceive is the emptiness or ultimate nature of the body. It is a very meaningful absence, as explained here. It is the only truth of the body. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

It is almost as if our body does not exist. Indeed, the only sense in which we can say that our body does exist is if we are satisfied with the mere name “body” and do not expect to find a real body behind the name. If we try to find, or point to, a real body to which the name “body” refers, we shall not find anything at all.

emptiness of the car.png
Where is the car?

We should focus on this space-like unfindability or emptiness of the body – the mere absence of the body we normally perceive – for as long as we can. Every second we mix our mind with this emptiness we are reducing our ignorance that grasps at or believes in a real or inherently existent body, and are moving along the path toward permanent bliss.

It is worth it

You know, this meditation is not so difficult if you go through these steps. And when we get it right, there is nothing that compares with the relief and joy of meditating on emptiness. We can also see for ourselves how it is the truth. It might be the first time since beginningless time that we have been privy to the truth.

There is nothing abstract or airy fairy about this meditation. Emptiness is reality itself. It is going around grasping at things that are not there, things created by ignorance, which is our fantasy. The more we stop our self-grasping ignorance, therefore, the happier and freer we become. And when, for example, our body is ill, it no longer bothers us; which has got to be a good thing as I, for one, hate physical pain.

Out of space. More coming soon. If you like this subject, please download this free ebook, How to Transform Your Life, and read the chapter on Ultimate Truth – I don’t think there’s an easier explanation anywhere.

Related articles

What’s stopping us from dissolving everything into emptiness?

How to soar in the space of meditation

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible

 

 

 

Beneficial believing

To carry on from here, I want to add that conventional reality is not just a question of agreeing with each other. There is no safety in numbers. I was just reading about the odd phenomenon of presumptive nominee Trump:

The internet creates a sense of universality; it’s easy to think your bubble is more representative than it actually is. Facebook curates our feeds so we get more of the stuff we ‘like.’ What do we ‘like’? People and posts that agree with us. It’s sort of a mass delusion. ~ The Week

hallucination 1We can all be wrong about something and agree; in fact we often are. So my point about conventional reality being collective hallucination in the last article only goes that way around – collective hallucination is not necessarily conventional reality, it can just be sheer madness with no basis in any reality. For we are hallucinating both conventional truths and non-existents.

No dream, no dreamer

It is so helpful to use our dreams to delve into reality, as explained here. Geshe Kelsang gives this beautiful verse in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:

All my appearances in dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.

I often think too, when I wake up and the dream has disappeared, the dream has gone and so has the dreamer. If there was never a real dream, where was the real dreamer? So where is the I who is now awake also? Dream minds, people (including ourself), and objects are all created by the self-grasping dream mind. Waking minds, people, and objects are all created by the self-grasping waking mind.

Beneficial believing

Understanding lack of true existence is the wisdom realizing emptiness and it will set us free from samsara permanently. However, although a direct loverealization of emptiness is our goal, we also need to learn what to do with appearances for our own and others’ sake. Eventually we will come to see appearances and emptiness (lack of true existence) as one object, at which point those appearances are no longer technically conventional truths, but ultimate truth.

Ultimate truth appearing.

So, meanwhile, until we realize this union of appearance and reality directly, how are we to navigate through the false appearances, the hallucinations, and make our lives meaningful?

I think through “beneficial believing,” as Geshe Kelsang has called it — believing things not because they are true from their own side, but because they are beneficial and will lead us in the right direction. This includes toward the one and only true object, the only truth that exists in the way that it appears — emptiness or lack of true existence — realized by our very subtle mind, the clear light of bliss.

(By the way, even ultimate truth is not ultimately true – even emptiness is empty of inherent existence.)

Buddha’s teachings are divided into two: the instructions for directly realizing emptiness (wisdom practices) and everything else (method practices). Method practices such as renunciation and compassion do not apprehend ultimate truth directly, but they do apprehend the best of the conventional or relative truths, and they lead us to relative happiness, including the requisite merit or good karma for developing the Form Body of a Buddha. Method practices nurture the growth of our Buddha nature and wisdom practices free it from obstructions.

Fulfilling our two basic wishes

To reiterate, as Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

All conventional truths are false objects because the way they appear and the way they exist do not correspond. ~ p. 129

bear quiz
This may help me, relatively, up the mountain.
In other words, conventional truths are all fake. However, some conventional truths are more useful than others; so those are the ones we need to focus on to go in the direction we want to go in. Which is? We all want to be happy all the time, and we never want to suffer. Anything that takes us toward the fulfillment of those wishes can be described as beneficial believing, or even wisdom.

For example, although neither me nor you exist from our own sides and are creations of self-grasping, understanding the equality and interdependence of ourselves and all other living beings (as explained in the mind-training teachings) is far more realistic and valid, and therefore beneficial, than grasping onto an isolated or inherently existent self and other. These do not exist even relatively, do not appear to any valid mind; for no one in the universe can agree, for example, that I am the only real me.

Here is an example.

“I don’t understand it!”

If we ever wonder why we get so confused in our dealings with others, we need look no further than the fact we are all hallucinating and not all our hallucinations match up. A sad friend told me this week that someone broke up with them and they can’t understand it — they were sure they were getting on so well and that the other person really liked them too. And according to them that felt like the truth; but according to their ex-lover it did not. So where did that truth exist? Did it exist at all?

Unlike a chair that we are agreed we can sit on, what was appearing so vividly to their attachment never existed. All they had was their own version of events, total projection, and in this instance no shared reality. The ex-lover’s apparent truth, that this person was no longer love 1interesting or whatever, was also not objective but a mere reflection of her own mind. In this instance, these reflections did not coincide. Their perceptions were not in agreement, in fact they clashed, and so pain arose. It’s happening all the time with all of us.

When we manage to let go of our delusion of attachment for people, all we are losing is our illusions. Letting go of illusion, we are now free to experience a totally different and more realistic relationship. It seems that the best “truth” to be salvaged from these kinds of situation is love and compassion recognizing our equality and interdependence and wishing the other person to be happy and free. That mind is valid, for its object does have a relative truth to it. And it fulfills our basic wish, it makes us happy again.

More coming soon. Meantime, your comments are most welcome! Just use the box below 🙂

There is nothing there to grasp at

Discovering self-graspingEverything is dream-like. Anything that appears to be more than dreamlike is an inherently existent thing. And our delusion of ignorance that grasps at inherently existent things is dominating our lives at the moment, causing us to experience all our other delusions with all their pain and suffering.

(This is carrying on from this article.) For example, if something appears to us as attractive and we latch onto it as real, then what happens? We exaggerate its good qualities or power from its own side to make us happy, believing that any of its apparent good qualities are within it, intrinsic to it. If the object is real, its good qualities are real. So attachment arises.

If something is out there that is real and inherently attractive, we naturally want it – we mentally or physically try to go out to it and pull it toward us. I want this. I need it. I must have it. It’s going to make me happy from its own side. Nothing to do with the way I’m looking at it. It just is absolutely essential to my well-being. I just have to eat this pizza right now. Or I just have to get this person’s phone number right now. Or I have to climb the career ladder right now. Or whatever it is. The holy grail of happiness is always out there. I’m always going to go after it; it’s always going to feel real. And I’m going to go after it, and after it, and after it until I feel happy. Because that’s what happiness it. It’s out there.

shark circlingWhile we remain with ignorance, there will always be items of attachment appearing to our mind. As soon as anything appears nice to us, which happens because of our karma, then we want it. And we’re not happy without it. And if we lose it we suffer. So we are continually like some sort of shark circling around, never resting, trying to absorb that next juicy morsel — something, anything, that will make us happy.

I read recently about a dating site called Tinder, where people are stacked up like virtual cards – you swipe the ones you like to the right and the ones you don’t like to the left. It’s apparently addictive — you can never settle on any person because you think the next person just might be better. People get together socially and play with their Tinder app! Even if the first person is gorgeous, if you don’t swipe them to the left you’ll never know what you are missing. There is always someone better one swipe away.

I found Tinder a good example (or analogy?) for modern society having so much on demand these days – overwhelming choice means that there is always something better out there than what we are looking at at the moment. It used to take five minutes browsing the TV guide to choose what channel to watch at what time, and then you would just have to settle down to watch it! Now, thanks to Netflix etc., it takes half the evening to choose Tinderellawhat to watch, and then we’re still a little bit unsettled, “Meh, that other movie might have been better.” We’re constantly searching to find the next best thing. This is what we are like with attachment. There is always something better around the corner, so the mind is in a constant state of overstimulation, trying to find happiness out there. And why do we have attachment? Because we have ignorance. We think that everything is attractive from its own side. It has nothing to do with the way we are looking at it.

Also, from the delusion of ignorance, aversion is born. Due to our karma, something can appear unpleasant or unattractive, and because it appears that way we mistake its appearance for reality, thinking it really is that way. Things are really unpleasant. Instead of recognizing that that person who just took my parking spot right in front of me is just appearing unpleasant to my mind due to some bad karma ripening, and letting it go, the inappropriate attention of anger begins to dwell on all the faults of that incredibly annoying spot-stealing person in the car: “They must do this all the time! They think the world is created just for them. They have no idea that I have to go shopping!” The exaggeration just digs in and, before we know it, we have full-blown irritation, aversion, annoyance. We think that they exist as they appear, and they appear annoying.

stealing parking spotThis is why with anger, attachment, and all the delusions we try to get in there before we start exaggerating. In this instance, for example, we can think, “Maybe this person has a massively important doctor’s appointment or maybe they have to catch their dying mother.” We just put our mind in a different direction so we don’t see all these apparent faults that we have created and exaggerated – clearly exaggerated as we have never met this person in our life, have barely glimpsed them through the car window, and we now have a list as long as our arm about how horrific they are.

Where did that all come from? In the case of anger, we are paying inappropriate attention to all their apparent faults. We exaggerate them, we hone in on them, we make them more real. And the reason we seized on their faults is because of our ignorance. With ignorance with have “subtle inappropriate attention,” which functions in our mind all the time and focuses on things being real. So there is someone behind that appearance of someone stealing our spot. They appear annoying, therefore they are annoying. There really is someone from their own side who is annoying, nothing to do with my mind. It’s because of this subtle inappropriate attention that we develop the gross inappropriate attention of anger, attachment, jealousy, fear, selfishness, you name it.

Do you want to go around relating to a world that doesn’t exist? I don’t.

For as Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

The truth is, although things appear to our senses to be truly or inherently existent, in reality all phenomena lack, or are empty of, true existence. This book, our body, our friends, we ourself and the whole universe are actually just appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.

There is nothing there to grasp at. There is no one there to grasp at.

Next installment here. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome.

The Non-Thingyness of Things

ThingnessThe other day I was sitting among exotic plants, hearing the trickling of a small waterfall and the call of wild birds. Could this be Florida?! But a quick glance upwards reminded me that I am still in Denver —  this was not a “real” tropical paradise but a giant greenhouse at the Botanical Gardens. Rather like a virtual reality tropical forest, like Avatar the movie or something. But I was sitting there feeling just as blissful as I do when I am in the tropics, experiencing this beauty as arising from a blissful mind, beauty that could be found nowhere out there. So it got me thinking, What is the real difference? Where is the real difference? I’ll leave you to ponder that and let me know in the comments

First clear some space

When thinking about Buddha’s wisdom teachings on emptiness, it is a good idea to do so from the standpoint of some flexible wisdom and good motivation rather than graspy ignorance and self-cherishing. We can clear some space first – drop from our thinky head into our heart center and let some of our grosser conceptions dissolve away into the peaceful spacious clarity of our own mind. Imagine, if you like, that all your water-bubble-like thoughts melt back into the water-like-consciousness from which they arise and of which they are made, in the ocean of your root mind at your heart. We can invite Buddha to join us there.

Outside the greenhouse, therefore more real?!
Outside the greenhouse, therefore more the real Colorado?!

Then we can remember why we don’t WANT things to be real in the first place, and how clinging at our own thoughts & projections as if they are independent of the mind binds us needlessly to suffering, like tying ourselves in knots in the sky. We can develop a warm heart thinking how utterly wonderful it will be when our friends and everyone else has transcendent mental freedom and bliss, having let go of grasping.

Emptiness is naturally beautiful. It will free both ourselves and others. If we appreciate that beauty with admiring faith, we want to drink it in, spend time with it, rather than see it as a spiritual chore that is a struggle to comprehend.

Now we are ready to think about emptiness!

Thingy-ness

(I am carrying on from this article, Appearance and Reality.)

Thingyness 1aEmptiness has a specific meaning; it is not nothingness. Emptiness is the lack of inherent existence, not the lack of existence. This is where contemplating appearance and reality comes in handy because we can say that things do exist but they exist as mere appearance. There is nothing behind the mere appearance. There is nothing we can point to and say, “There it is!”

So what our ignorance does for us is that it grasps at a reality behind and within things. It grasps at a thingy-ness. Everything seems to have a thingyness. There is something really there. I think that “thingyness” can be a helpful way to describe inherent existence, which is the technical term.

The truth or thingyness behind appearance. There is something out there and it is appearing in a certain way.  Buddha is not arguing that there is no tree at all. Our problem is that we think there is something that is REALLY the tree. That the tree is more than just mere appearance or reflection, there is a real tree there.

The reality is that there is nothing behind the appearance of tree but what our ignorance does is grasp at a thingyness or (it)self of tree – it is called “self-grasping ignorance” and it grasps at things as if they exist in-and-of themselves. Because our mind is grasping all the time at things being real – at real bodies, real tables, real annoying people, really delicious pizza, really horrible death — we suffer. All our delusions come from grasping at things to be more solid or real than they actually are. The wisdom realizing emptiness is the opposite of self-grasping because it realizes there is no thingyness anywhere to be found, and that lack of thingyness, or that lack of inherent existence, is emptiness. The mere absence of thingyness is emptiness itself. Thingyness 2

As mentioned, emptiness does not mean a lack or absence of everything. Emptiness is not nothingness. There is still a tree, but it’s just not a real tree. Identifying what it is we are grasping at, which is inherent existence, is called “identifying the object of negation” in Buddhist meditation on emptiness. And I think considering appearance and reality helps us to make this identification.

Purple dye

For example, let’s say that at birth you’d been injected with a purple dye and because of this you saw everything as purple. You see things like doors, your house, your friends, and even yourself as purple. And always have done since birth. Then someone comes along and says, “Ahem, you’ve got some strange pollution in you and it’s causing everything to appear purple. Things are not purple.” And you think, “OH, she’s saying nothing exists. If things aren’t purple, how can they exist?” But, in fact, she is not saying that things don’t exist at all, but that purple things don’t exist, or that things don’t exist in the way that they appear, ie, purple.

Likewise, what Buddha is saying when he says that things are empty of inherent existence is not that things don’t exist at all, but that inherently existent things don’t exist, or that things don’t exist in the way that they appear, ie, inherently existent.

Thingyness 3
Ok, this has become an excuse to post my latest CO photos …

All these things still exist, but they are not purple. The appearance of purple is misleading us into thinking that things are really purple. But they are not really purple. It is distortion in the mind that is causing everything to appear purple. It is a pollutant or contamination in the mind, and to decontaminate or purify the mind we need to see things as they are. What is that pollution, that distortion? It’s ignorance, the root of all suffering.

In Modern Buddhism, available as a free download, there is a beautiful chapter on emptiness called Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta. It is well worth the time to read the whole chapter slowly, deliberately, and contemplatively and take it to heart because it is liberating wisdom from Buddha. There is a section in this chapter called What is Emptiness? (p. 104)

Emptiness is the way things really are. It is the way things exist as opposed to the way that they appear.

If we are still an ordinary being who has not yet realized emptiness …

we naturally believe that the things we see around us, such as tables, chairs, and houses, are truly existent, because we believe that they exist in exactly the way that they appear.

They are true as opposed to fake because their appearance and reality coincide, and this means that they are real because they appear real.

Due to our beginningless grasping at things as being real, at the moment whatever appears to us appears to exist Thingyness 4from its own side. It appears to be real. A bit like you’ve been injected with purple dye at birth and that is all you’ve ever seen, so you have deep familiarity with that. In the same way, through our familiarity with self-grasping, not just in this life but in countless previous lives as well, the imprints of this ignorance are causing everything that appears to us to seem to exist from its own side, under its own power. A thing unto itself. But in fact no thing exists like that.

It is our ignorance that causes us to perceive things in that way and then to grasp things in that way. There are two things going on. First off, due to our previous ignorance and the imprints of that ignorance, everything already appears to us as if existing from its own side.  I’m over here, you’re over there, stars and planets are over there. This thing we’re reading seems discrete, independent of the mind — we don’t feel our mind has had anything to do with bringing it into existence. It just IS. A minute ago, before you Thingyness 6logged onto the blog, you had nothing to do with this article – then it suddenly appeared from its own side and generated a consciousness of itself.

That’s how things appear at the moment. Even we ourselves appear that way to ourselves. We feel real. Our body and breakfast feel real. Everything appears real to us. That’s the first thing that happens

Then, instead of distrusting that appearance and wondering if things really are as real as they appear, our ignorance immediately latches onto that appearance and assents to it, “Yes. This is how things are.”

It’s just a deep-seated almost instinctive grasping — it’s not like we’re going around saying, “That’s how are they are, that’s how they are.” We are just blindly assenting because we haven’t yet examined to see if they really do exist in that way. A bit like just grasping at things being purple rather than ever examining to see whether things actually are purple.

This carries on here

Appearance and reality

When we think about appearance and reality, we think of them as two different truths. But the truth is that they are not.

treeConsidering appearance and reality helps us understand where our ignorance, and therefore our problems, lie. This is because, generally speaking, when we think of something, for example a tree, we think that the tree is appearing and that there is something there that is the tree appearing. We don’t think of the tree as just being appearance. We think there is something there appearing. There is a tree that is appearing.

When we think of our body, we don’t think of something merely appearing, like in a dream say –we think there is something there that is my body appearing to me.

When we think about ourself, we grasp so strongly at ourself — we don’t think of “myself” as just an appearance of mind, we think there is something that is really me appearing. There is something behind the appearance.

reflection of treeFor people who have not experienced emptiness, if something is not real, then we don’t trust it. We feel that something has to be there to trust it. If it was just a reflection of a tree, just an appearance in a lake, say, and there was nothing behind that appearance, we know we are being deceived because there is no real tree there. What we don’t realize is that we are being deceived all the time.

We distinguish between the appearance of a tree and a tree. We think that trees and planets and bodies and jobs are somehow real and solid and dependable — the ground of our being. And a mere reflection or appearance of a tree is utterly false and deceptive. And so, for ordinary beings who have not realized emptiness, there is a need to distinguish between things that are real and valid and things that are fake, apparent, deceptive, hallucinatory.

A famous actress recently had a lot of work done on her face and her appearance changed dramatically. Where did the actress’s “real” face go?! People are calling her fake, saying that it is not her face. But of course it is her face. Just not really her face. But nor was her previous face really her face.

We need to explore what is real and what is fake. And basically we come to see that everything is fake. Except for reality.

appearance and reality
What is really moving?!

However, reality is not what we think it is. For an ordinary being, reality means inherent existence, it is things existing from their own side. You have a tree over there, the mind is over here — the tree exists from its own side and has the power to generate an awareness of itself. In fact, it doesn’t, but that’s what it feels like because our ignorance makes us think the tree is really there. So for us the reality of the tree is the tree being a tree from its own side. That is the truth. That is the ground of our being.  Take that away and there’s nothing. We actually mistake inherent existence for reality, whereas reality is the lack of inherent existence. The truth is the opposite of what we think at the moment.

And this is why we suffer. In Buddha’s analysis, ignorance is grasping at reality, inherent existence, and truth as all being the same. Thinking that things are as real as they appear, when in fact nothing is as real as it appears. There are things we know we are not being fooled by, such as mirages, hallucinations, reflections – “I’m not fooled by that mirage! fake realOr by that Botox! Or by that fake brand name!” But, unfortunately, we are being fooled by everything else. And because of that we suffer. If we didn’t suffer, we wouldn’t need to examine the nature of reality because we would be fine. But the fact is that all our delusions and all our contaminated karma come from grasping at something that is not there. We are grasping at a reality behind the appearance of things, when there is none to be found.

Next article, The Non-Thingyness of Things, can be found here.

Why do I have no friends?

This article is part of a series on overcoming loneliness. Click here for part 1, part 2, and part 3.

I miss you!missing things

When did you last miss someone?

Missing people is of course related to loneliness. When we say we “miss” people, it seems like quite a good descriptor, because we are “missing” also in the sense of not getting it, missing the mark, not realizing that they are still in our hearts, that they haven’t really gone anywhere.

Attachment is a cover up of isolation that increases our isolation. It looks for love but blocks us as the object is outside ourself, unreachable – we’re like that donkey chasing the carrot. Futility and frustration are endemic in attachment for we’re looking for relationship while grasping at an independent, ie, unrelatable, self and other. We are holding ourself and others to be poles apart (||) as opposed to poles dependent (/\). This means we cannot be together, however hard we try.

donkey-and-carrot

Uncontrolled desire, or attachment, takes us out of the here and the now. Have you noticed how, when you are attached, you are always wanting to be someplace different or with someone else, never content or satisfied in the present moment with the people around you?

And do you not find it ironic that the less dependent we are on externals, the less needy–for example through open-hearted equanimity and love–the more others seem to enjoy sticking around?! With grasping, sooner or later we lose everything.

Try this thought experiment

We can use Chandrakirti’s verse as an object of contemplation, and see how our self-grasping ignorance sets us up for attachment, asking ourselves:

“What or who is that I or me who is lonely? How am I holding myself and the object of my ignorance and attachment apart, like the two poles (||), unable to bring them together?”

 Then, when I try to bridge that gap, ‘I need you to make me happy’, what is that sense of me?”

We can see how we yearn to be close and yet our attachment pushes us further away from others. Frustration is guaranteed. The gulf between self and other grows greater the harder we try to bridge it with attachment.

Does attachment work? It’s what we’re turning to!

We need to bridge the gap through love and wisdom instead, effectively. So we can make the determination to overcome ignorance and attachment and increase our love and wisdom – this can be the object of our meditation.

This mountain, that mountain

The title of this article is “Why do I have no friends?” But the point is, you DO have friends, lots of them.

If we understand we are poles dependent (/\), we know that we are ALREADY in relationship. We don’t have to create relationships that are already there. We can however improve our relationships enormously by recognizing them.

There are various ways to understand that we are already dependent on others, and therefore in relationship with them. One is by contemplating “this mountain, that mountain.”mountain 3

The stronger our grasping at self, the stronger our isolation. We can seek more and more lovers, drugs, extreme experiences; but we remain in a state of lack. The happiest moments are when we forget ourselves and dissolve the gap between self and others through wisdom and love.

When we feel alone, we can feel like the only point of consciousness in the universe, the one and only actual “me” surrounded by an alien sea of countless actual “you’s” or “them’s” (or on a good day “we’s”). However, whoever is me is also you, and whoever is you is also me.

Living in Colorado at the moment, I get to hike the Rockies and witness the truth of what Buddha says … that if I am standing on a mountain the West and looking at one to the East, the mountain I am standing on is “This mountain” and the one over there really seems to be “That mountain.” No two ways about it – it really feels like it, as if it is inherently or intrinsically this mountain. However, if I walk down the mountain in the west and up the mountain in the east, what happens!?

This shows that this mountain and that mountain are relative, depending entirely on our perspective, not absolute truths that have a reality unto themselves independent of perception. If this mountain was real, existing from its own side, it would remain this mountain even when I moved.

This is the same for self and other – they are relative truths, not real or absolute truths, not independent of the mind but entirely dependent on our perceptions. If I walk down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other, other becomes self and, looking back at my previous self, it now feels like other.

This is just one of many insights Buddha gave us to help us understand the relativity and interdependence of all things — an understanding that blows up the bedrock of our ignorance and self-absorption, setting us free.