Our bodies barely exist

“It’s a good day to have a good day”, said the sign on the side of the carpet van I just saw in Charlotte, NC. I couldn’t agree more. But it’s not always easy because our delusions keep interfering with us, destroying our inner peace and happiness. As ignorance underpins all good day to have a good day.jpegour delusions, the best way to have a good day today — and every day — is to break free from ignorance and stop going round and round in circles. How? By realizing the true nature of things. So, with the wish for you all to have a really lovely day, I’m going to continue these articles on the emptiness, or true nature, of our body. And please bear with the new terms if you are not yet used to them, it’s worth it.

That experience of not finding our body, as explained in this last article, is the experience of emptiness. We are experiencing the non-existence of the body we normally perceive, the non-existence of the inherently existent or objectively existing body. We are not looking at nothingness, but at the mere absence of inherent existence of the body. This is a deeply meaningful absence and the most profound object of knowledge.

So, what is my body?

Our body does not exist in the way that it appears, which is findable and real and outside the mind. This does not mean that our body does not exist at all, but that it “barely exists”, as Geshe Kelsang has said – it exists as mere appearance or projection of mind. We normally don’t think of our body as mere appearance — we believe it is really there, just as we believe that objects in a dream are really there (until we wake up). And that wrong belief or wrong conception is ignorance.

And we don’t just do this with our body – we are doing it with everything. It is absurd. And it is causing all our suffering.

We think there is a reality out there, existing from its own side, appearing at us, solid. And so we grasp with ignorance – when things appear attractive we have to have them, for example, and when they appear unattractive we want rid of them. In dependence upon these three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and anger, and their subsidiary delusions, we create karma that causes us to keep circling in dream-like samsara. We are failing to recognize that we are creating our whole reality with our thoughts.

“Look, everyone!”

It’s like believing there’s something real out there when watching a movie, as if there really are people there, as if something really is happening, as if there is something coming from the side of the screen. Whereas in reality everything little-boy-at-moviecomes from the mind — is dependent upon conceptual imputation or label or projection. 

A small boy standing in the gangway at a movie was looking at the screen and then back at the projector and then back at the screen again, with a growing expression of surprise on his face. Then, pointing at the screen, he yelled happily, and loud enough for all of us to hear, “Look, mommy! The movie isn’t coming from out there!” Then, practically jumping up and down with glee, he pointed at the projector: “It’s coming from over here!!!” We all laughed. He may have ruined the magical illusion of the movie for some, but to me he seemed like a little Buddha emanation granting the relief of realizing that things do not exist from the side of the object but are projected by our mind.

A lot of Western scientists believe that consciousness is a by-product of matter, even if they haven’t quite figured out how. But it is in fact the complete opposite – our body and the entire physical world are created by our mind, like a dream.

Pile of stones

pile-of-stones

Although it is beyond wonderful that Buddha explained all this, we don’t have to take his word for it. We can see the truth for ourselves, using our own wisdom.

In Step One, identifying the negated object, we get to the point when we think, “If this body is not real, what is real?! This is the body I’ve cherished my entire life. Whenever it feels uncomfortable or sick or fat or rejected by someone, I feel sad. Are you telling me I have been wasting all this energy, all these moods!, on a mere figment, a mental elaboration?

In the remaining three steps we try to find something that matches exactly this vividly appearing real body. But when we look for our body, we find nothing that corresponds to the vividly appearing body that we normally perceive. We look everywhere that it could possibly be, so, if we don’t find it, we have to conclude that it doesn’t exist. It is like mistaking a pile of stones at dusk for a man, as Shantideva says:

Therefore, there is no body, but out of ignorance
The thought of “body” arises through perceiving hands and so forth;
Just like developing the thought of a man
Through perceiving a pile of stones. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Within the parts of the body we think there is a real body — but if we go looking for it we cannot find it anywhere. It is an hallucination, like being startled upon seeing a man out there in a pile of stones, only to relax by realizing we made him up.

Maybe if I just look a little deeper?! …

But maybe, we think, if I just looked a little deeper I would find something out there. For example, maybe we think that the parts of the body are real, so there is some sense after all in imputing a body onto them and holding onto it. There is something out there on which to pin my body. My arms and legs, for example, must be real, or my hands. Of course stones are not a suitable basis for thinking “body”, but the parts of my body surely are!!!?

emptiness-quote(By the way, we need to bring our contemplation on the non-existence of the real body to a conclusion and meditate on that emptiness before we delve further into looking for its parts. These are different contemplations — emptiness of the body, emptiness of the hand, etc.)

To be continued in the next exciting article, when we’re going to look for the very building blocks of the universe … !

Once again, if you are enjoying this subject, please download this free ebook, How to Transform Your Life, and take your time reading the chapter on Ultimate Truth, where it is explained clearly and perfectly.

Related articles

Appearance and reality

The Non-Thingyness of Things

There is no depth other than emptiness

Subtle impermanence

(Carrying straight on from Living in the moment.) We can ask ourselves how many of the decisions etc we make are truly new and how many are just impermanence 3recreating the past? Let’s say someone was critical of us yesterday and we became defensive. Then we see them again today. They are a completely different person — today’s person, not yesterday’s —  but we see yesterday’s person and so interact with them edgily and uncomfortably again.

Relating to yesterday’s person and not today’s gives rise to problems as the assumptions we make about them, and the ways we then interact with them, are completely false. And we can end up perpetuating the negativity for days, weeks, or longer. A grudge is a perfect example of this. We sustain anger in the present about a person who has long gone. And it doesn’t help them, or us. Resentment is, as the saying goes, like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Two ways to address the problem

There are 2 ways to address the problem of being stuck in the past illustrated in this example. The first is wisdom, cultivating insight into the nature of impermanence and change. The second is determination, combining this insight practically into our daily activities by deciding strongly to stop grasping at the past.

First, wisdom

this too shall passI’m going to spend this article and the next exploring the wisdom of subtle impermanence as explained by Buddha and my teacher Geshe Kelsang (in his books and oral Mahamudra teachings), and incorporating insights from a wise friend called Gen Samten, whom I find to be an expert on this subject.

In general, wisdom is defined as a virtuous intelligent mind that understands a meaningful object. It is not the same as just being smart. We don’t need to know everything to be free and happy — we need to know what is meaningful to be happy. Buddha illustrated this by picking up a handful of leaves in a forest, saying to his disciples that the numerous leaves in the forest represent all that can be known in the world, but the leaves in his hand represent all that needs to be known to attain liberation.

For example, when a king asked his Buddhist teacher for advice that would both lift his mind in adversity and prevent over-excitement and distraction when things were going well, his teacher taught him the simple phrase: “This too shall pass.”

Two different models of change

time lapse 2Do you agree that things change? I think pretty much everyone agrees that everything changes — we even say things like, “Things are changing all the time! Things are changing so fast!” That much is true, but our understanding of what change actually is is wrong.

There  are 2 different models of change, one coming from confusion and one coming from wisdom.

Suppose you walk past a house on way to work every day. That house undergoes changes, cracks appear, masonry falls down, and so on. Why does it change? The bigger changes are happening because moment by moment the building is changing. We can’t perceive that with our eyes, but moment by moment it is changing and we notice the more obvious results of this. We’d all agree with this and this is correct, BUT generally we feel that it is the same basic building that is changing from moment to moment. It has changed a bit but it’s the same house.

It’s the same with the relationship with our significant other. We can acknowledge that the relationship changes but we still feel it’s the same relationship – it’s the same as yesterday’s relationship but has changed slightly.

This thought is confusion because it isn’t true that it is the same building. It is not the same building. It is a completely different building. And the same is true for the relationship — no part of yesterday’s relationship carries over into today’s relationship.

What about us? We woke up, we had coffee, now some time later we’re here reading this, and we feel that I’m the same basic person who woke up this morning and had that coffee. I’ve changed a little bit, but I’m the same basic person.time lapse 3

But this is not true. We are a completely different person. The person drinking coffee and the person reading this now are completely different. Not even an atom of the person drinking coffee exists now. If they did exist, if the previous me had not ceased, where is it, and why are there not two me’s wandering around, one drinking coffee and one reading this?

We are a continuum of moments that are causally related but completely different. So, yes, the person who drank coffee this morning is the cause of the person who is sitting here now, but is completely different. The person sitting here is not that person who drank coffee — that person has completely finished, gone, not even an atom of them remains.

In How to Understand the Mind, page 134, my teacher says:

In reality we do not remain the same for one moment without changing, let alone for one life. Without the I of the previous moment ceasing, the I of the next moment could not arise. The I of one moment is the cause of the I of the next moment, and a cause and its effect cannot exist at the same time. A sprout, for example, can develop only when its cause, the seed, disintegrates.

seeds sprouting
Five replacement sprouts

This is the real meaning of change. The person who begins the sentence is not the one who ends it – every single atom has gone by the end. The person who begins a thought is not the same as the one who finishes a thought. Moment to moment to moment we are changing and not even a tiny trace of one moment is carried over into the next. The next moment is completely new, the previous me has completely gone, the person who drank coffee has completely gone. 

Yesterday’s weather has completely gone, we accept this, we know not a trace of it remains today. Heck, the whole of yesterday is like that – it has all completely gone, including yesterday’s me. 

So why hold onto the past, to something that has completely gone?

weatherUse bigger than smaller chunks of time

It can be helpful to begin relating to this truth with bigger chunks of time and then making them smaller. Where is the child we were? Completely gone. Where is the person we were ten years ago, five years ago, one week ago, one minute ago …? Completely gone. “But it is still basically me!” Only it is not. If it was, the five-year-old you would still be wandering around. But not one atom of that child remains. Not one atom of the you who started reading this sentence remains.

Today is your first day.

Continued here.

Mere karmic appearance of mind

There are two complementary ways to approach this subject of emptiness (carrying on from here). One is understanding that things don’t exist from their own side. Things lack inherent existence. Things lack thingyness. Mere absence of inherent existence is emptiness.

nature of realitySo, then, the complementary point to this is, if things don’t exist from their own side, if things don’t exist independent of our mind, yet they appear, how do they exist? What is that appearance?

It is mere appearance to mind, it depends entirely upon perception. Geshe Kelsang uses “appearance” and “perception” interchangeably – he has gone so far as to say we perceive things or we appear things. There is nothing out there to perceive; our mind appears things. (Even itself.)

Emptiness and appearance are like two sides of the same coin. They are in fact the same truth.

So why do things appear to us in the way that they do, and so differently for everyone? Our appearances or perceptions come from our karma and from our conceptual imputations or discriminations.

I can take my current city, say, which is Denver. The appearance of Denver to my mind is arising as a result of my previous karmic intentions; I am experiencing the results of previous thoughts that sowed karmic potentials or seeds on my mental continuum which are now ripening. (Quite nice seeds ripening today in fact — I must have done something good to be enjoying 79 degree sunshine in March and an array of half-naked people throwing Frisbees in Cheesman Park…) Cheesman Park

Denver is also the nature of my mind – arising simultaneously with the awareness apprehending it from the same karmic seed, like a wave arising from the ocean of my root mind. It doesn’t exist outside my mind any more than a dream of Denver. (Dream minds and their objects also arise simultaneously from the same karmic seeds.)

In so far as me and my fellow Denverites have created similar karma in the past, we are experiencing a collective appearance or perception of Denver and can agree that it is Denver. It’s like a shared dream. However, it doesn’t exist outside our minds – we cannot point at any objective Denver outside of our experiences of it. Some of those experiences we have in common, eg, “Look, there are mountains!”, “Look, it is sunny (again!)” — but if we were all questioned on what exactly Denver was or how it appeared, we would all come up with our own answers. None of us have identical karma so none of us have identical Denver.

cat looking at Denver
What is she actually looking at?

Denver also depends on mere imputation by mind. Denver is Denver because we came to an agreement that it was. Why do I hold this city to be “beautiful Denver” as opposed to “ugly Denver”, or even “Denver” at all? There is nothing from its own side that I can point to and say, “This is Denver”. Without me labeling or conceptually imputing “Denver” on its parts, it would not appear to my mind, not even to my eye awareness. Both my foster cats live in Denver as far as I’m concerned, but not as far as they are concerned — they discriminate it entirely differently, they don’t even know its name, and they are having an entirely different experience as a result.

For example, let’s say someone says, “Come and see my forest!” But you get there and there are only 10 trees – “You can’t call that a forest!” you might protest. So then our friend adds a tree, and then another, asking, “Got a forest?” Maybe we have some interested onlookers joining us. “Yes”, someone says after, say, 15 trees, “Now there is a forest!” Others agree, others are not so sure. More trees are added, and one by one, or group by group, people agree there is a forest, until everyone is agreed, “Yes, there is a forest!” (Except for the squirrels, who couldn’t care less about the concept of the forest, though might agree amongst themselves that they’ve discovered a useful food store.) squirrel

So where did that forest come from?! Which tree made the forest!? The very existence of the forest came about only through agreement, through convention; and that is why it is conventional reality, rather than ultimate truth. Where do agreements occur? In the mind. So the forest depends on the mind. Likewise, which house or road made Denver?

The point of all this is that we are constantly creating our own reality with our intentions and with our thoughts, so we may as well create the best one.

If we understand how everything is mere karmic appearance of mind, we know the importance of creating the best intentions or karma possible to bring about the lives we want.

If we understand that everything is the nature of the mind, we know the importance of purifying and transforming the mind.

If we understand that everything is mere imputation, we can also understand that in any given moment we can choose how we discriminate or impute our world to the most beneficial effect — denver capitol building lit up whether we discriminate others as annoying or as our kind mothers, for example, or whether Denver is an ordinary city or the Pure Land of a Buddha. Even though things appear and exist due to karma, we can change our imputation of them. Nothing is fixed.

(This is a profound subject, I am only touching on it in passing here. More coming soon. But hopefully, if your curiosity is piqued, you’ll check out that chapter on emptiness in Modern Buddhism that I was telling you about.)

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.