Although we see an unusual situation which is causing people to be worried and to suffer, I would like to suggest that through using our wisdom we try to make ourself happy and everyone happy, which means we should stop worrying.
I will personally pray for you all and your families.
With much love and blessings
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
April 4th 2020
(As relayed by Gen-la Dekyong during her worldwide NKT Day Talk.)
While working on an article filled with your ideas on how Buddhists can (and need to) help in the current world turmoil, someone sent me this:
In a recent retreat, after teaching on emptiness and how the appearances in this life are like dreams, Gen Losang went on to say that a compassionate way to help people is to skilfully reduce the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it. He meant skilfully, not shutting them down with, “Oh, it’s all emptiness.”
What do you think about this? It reminded me of this analogy (below) for helping people on different levels and in accordance with their needs that I hope you might also find helpful.
To help anyone, we need compassion. And true compassion, or deep compassion, arises from renunciation – we develop renunciation for ourselves and for everyone else.
Renunciation is when we stop buying into samsara, hoping that things in samsara will one day work themselves out – they will not. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say. For as long as our minds are impure, our worlds will be impure.
“Reducing the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it” depends on the degree of suffering and crazy appearances the person is experiencing.
If we are helping someone who has a little space in their lives, and who is suffering, for example, from a relationship problem – yes, this advice can really help.
For someone whose home and country have just been washed away or burned to the ground, maybe not so much. (Unless they already have experience of this deep spiritual truth and just want reminding.)
Imagine living beings are trying to navigate a huge, deep swamp that happens to be full of alligators and other monsters with very big teeth and hungry bellies. It is dusky — hard to see clearly or far. There are stepping stones, but it’s challenging to see how to tread safely. Here and there are small patches of dry land where people can catch a bit of a breather, and some of those patches even seem relatively pretty or interesting.
Imagine that we are also in that swamp, but that we know, at least intellectually, something profound – this swamp is false, merely an appearance to mind, like a dream or a movie.
The need for renunciation
In that scenario, we need renunciation ourselves, wishing to get out of this swamp of samsara entirely and forever rather than remaining intrigued by it. We need to know that for as long as we have delusions, we’re going to keep projecting monsters wherever we look.
Speaking for myself, I know that the times I feel anxious, overwhelmed, heavy, or graspy is when I have forgotten my renunciation, which is a light, joyful, and confident wish for liberation. My compassion then is far less effective. I have thoughts like, “There are so many people, including animals, needing help! So many people demanding the attention that I’m not giving them – it’s coming from all sides. How am I going to save them all from the alligators?! Especially when I’m feeling trapped or overwhelmed myself?” I feel like going back to bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or distracting myself with Netflix. It also doesn’t help if we are bound to our own selfish attachments needing things or people to go our way.
If we don’t have the non-attachment of renunciation, we have only momentary relief when a plan pans out – but it is short lived, whereas the disappointments can seem to pile up effortlessly. This is because of attachment. It leads to the suffering of change, not to deep satisfaction or solutions.
The need for wisdom
We also need some wisdom understanding the illusory nature of the swamp or we will soon be joining in the collective panic, “Aarggh, I’m freaking out over here! We’re going to be swallowed whole.” We will be part of the problem, swept up in the drama, overwhelmed by appearances or the 24/7 news cycle.
Without wisdom, compassion fatigue sets in because it is exhausting to try and solve “real” problems — it is like wading through treacle with no end in sight. It can also make us feel guilty as we can never do enough.
With the compassion born of renunciation and wisdom, we won’t get discouraged. The context is different – we have set it up differently. We therefore can “try and not worry”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We are “only trying to help people”, he also says, “so why worry?”
Back to the analogy … Let’s say we are lucky enough to have a flashlight. The flashlight is the teachings illuminating the path — we don’t know how long we have this flashlight, but it is very effective. How strong it is depends on the strength of our experience. Perhaps we understand the dream-like nature of reality and — even though for now things may also still seem real to us — we know we have to get ourselves and others to the firm ground of wisdom.
What we need to do, if we care about the people around us, is to stop them being eaten by swamp monsters. The first thing we need to do is encourage them to get to the patches of dry land … tread here, avoid those jaws, hold my hand, look at the light. You’ll be ok, let me help.” Although there are no real dangers there, they are not necessarily ready to hear us say so: “Stop being an idiot! There are no swamp monsters! This is just a dream! It’s all empty!” We understand how it is all appearing to them as real, and so we give them the relevant advice for their situation. We empathize with their hopes and fears. We give them material help, “Here, have some water.” They need water.
Once they reach dry land, and have had a chance to rest up, we can then tell them:
“Believe it or not, this is all just a bad dream. You are in no real danger. And now let me explain how.”
We can explain how it is possible for them to stay on firm ground forever, and help get everyone else out as well.
We may not be able to do this with everyone straightaway, of course — for example all I can do with these foster kittens is give them food, shelter, love, temporary safety, and entertainment. But we never give up trying until everyone is permanently safe and free. That is a Bodhisattva‘s mentality.
Calm the waters
I’ll finish by sharing what my friend wrote about Gen Losang’s advice:
The key for me here is genuine compassion. I say that because if we try to practice this without genuine compassion as a motivation then we just end up unskillfully minimising people’s feelings. It can be very hurtful to be feeling pain and have someone tell you, “It’s all emptiness.” Unless you have high realisations, that pain exists for you, just as a child’s fears exist even if the nightmare doesn’t.
Within that, I try not to draw attention to the awful things that are happening. Also, when people are sharing their worries with me, I try to reduce the drama rather than adding to it, whilst still being sympathetic. I point out possible alternative explanations for the actions they have witnessed, or suggest a better possible outcome. In a way I try to steer their dream in a more positive direction. If a mother comforts a child after a nightmare, she doesn’t do this by agreeing the monsters were just horrific and are probably still there …
If we are not careful, we can just spread the hype (and there is also no shortage of “fake news” out there). We can end up pointing out the monsters in their nightmares that they missed the first time, instead of shining the flashlight under the bed and saying, “Look, there is no one there!”
A parent comforts their children when they have been terrified or upset by a dream by sympathising with their pain but skilfully reducing the sense that what they experienced was the truth. Then, once they are comforted to some extent, they can move their attention to something that will soothe or comfort them, rather than harping on about their own horrific nightmares or asking them for more details.
What I am working on now is responding in the way Losang suggested, calming the waters, not swirling them around.
“I feel like I’m losing control of my life! I have to go! Let me go! I need to go to my house!”
And Jim gently replied:
“I’m so sorry. That is what it feels like when we are dying. But please don’t worry, you are here with us now. You are too confused to leave; it is not safe to let you go. We are going to take care of you.”
With that, he turned on the prayer playlist Aubree always wanted by her side – nowadays it was on pretty loud all night at her request to remind her of her Spiritual Guide when she fell unconscious, because her greatest fear was forgetting him when she died.
Jim and his wife Karin have been taking extraordinarily good care of Aubree for well over a year now, day and night – it used to be just weekends but towards the end they kindly took her into their house full-time because hospice was not a possibility. (The reason it was not a possibility is because her disturbed sister would not release the name of her oncologist and, despite calling every hospital in town, Jim was not able to locate him. It was maddening.)
Jim offered her the anti-seizure medicine she has been taking for two years, but she gagged and choked and said she couldn’t swallow any pills. “Don’t worry”, he said again, as he crushed her Ativan and put it in her food, which for the past year has amounted to approximately a tiny bit of mush per day. She had to eat something, and the meds were to help her with the seizures. But this time she was really freaking out. She was very confused, it seemed, and she snapped at them uncharacteristically, “Let me go! You have kidnapped me!!!”
A modern-day Upala
Aubree’s story is incredible. Here are some of the salient details she wrote herself when requesting prayers:
“I was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago, am an epileptic, and will likely die very soon. My seizures have been so bad that I have been resuscitated 3 times recently, my breathing is very labored, I am usually unable to eat more than a tablespoon a day, and I have a lot of physical pain. I have had nightmares and fearful flashbacks most of my adult life, ever since a violent attack in College, but these lessened considerably when I met dharma 2 years ago. However, with my illness, it is hard for me to have a formal meditation practice and I struggle to keep a peaceful mind, but I am trying to keep you at my heart at all times. Please be with me when I die and guide me through death and rebirth.
I want everyone to be happy and not to suffer. I feel so lucky and know there are many other living beings with more suffering. I especially want my family to be happy, but they are having a difficult time letting go. Please pray for my mother who is struggling with losing me. She is unhappy and responding to the situation poorly and recently tried to kill me 3 times out of delusion, once by kicking me in the stomach while I was unconscious, once by pushing me down stairs, and once by stabbing me in my side. My sister also is struggling with me dying and needed to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. My brothers are very sad and are unable to accept the situation and let me go. I want them all to be happy and to find peace. Please keep them all in your prayers.”
And it is not just her mother, sister, and brothers. A little while ago Aubree went missing for a week, at the end of which time she texted to say that her father had been keeping her locked up at his house and wouldn’t let her have her phone nor read any Dharma books. She said she was now terrified of him as well.
A few months ago her best childhood friend was on her way to visiting her when she went missing for 4 days. It was a scary 4 days, at the end of which time her friend’s body was tragically discovered by a state trooper in Texas – she had gone off her meds and committed suicide. So sad. She was supposed to be getting married next month.
Something dramatic happened pretty much every week – including too many brinks of death to count. Aubree was a modern-day Upala (see Joyful Path of Good Fortune). We all hoped that this was Aubree’s incredible purification too, and that she was swiftly earning her place in the Pure Land.
It was painful for all of us to watch Aubree dying like this, experiencing so many epileptic or PNES seizures lying clenched and shaking on the floor, so many night terrors, so much head-banging pain, some of which Jim successfully treated with acupuncture –needles stuck in an inch and a half, up to 50 at a time, because she said she couldn’t feel them. This treatment would take hours, and she would look like a pin cushion. When we first met her, she would have hellish-sounding night terrors every single night, reliving the trauma of her abduction and rape, and she’d wake up very frightened. It felt as if she was living in both the human world and an occasional hell at the same time – but at least these terrors largely subsided a few months after meeting Dharma.
And so many trips to the ER, where we watched them pump her full with Ativan or resuscitate her and then send her home with another big bill. Her grueling chemo treatments causing her to vomit and lose her hair, her arm in a sling for weeks after her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, the bruises from falling into walls, the mini-strokes and increasing confusion, the stab wounds inflicted by her alcoholic mother (now thankfully in jail). She could not walk without support, she needed constant attention. She could hardly talk by the end, barely a whisper, and she weighed 90 lbs; but still through all of this she smiled radiantly and inspired us all with her courage and good humor. She bought out a good deal of compassion in her spiritual community, and no one felt like complaining when she was around because, frankly, compared to her what did any of us have to complain about?! And she never complained – in her quavering voice she would call herself “the luckiest person in the world” and all she ever said she wanted was for us to pray for her poor, deluded, suffering family.
It was also amazing how many Festivals, teachings, and retreats she managed to get to, and how many NKT luminaries she managed to meet. Plus her story captured the heart, and she had hundreds of people praying for her.
It was not just us caring for her. Her brother in law, Tom, was a deaf mute and busy traveling, but for months he was able to arrange her visiting schedule all the way from Houston and the road. I texted and emailed back and forth with him several times, and Karin and Jim had hundreds of communications with him and Aubree’s sister. I also was in communication with her full time caregiver Matt, and a couple of other friends. They would keep us informed with messages like:
“Aubree has had severe seizures and breathing issues. She is confused and upset. Please pray.
Aubree’s sister here! Let’s plan on a visit Friday at 11. We will confirm with you. Aubree has been unwell and I am hoping we do not have any issues that cause us to be at hospital again. She is looking forward to seeing you.
Aubree thinks she is actively dying. Her experience of her body has changed significantly, she wasn’t able to get out bed at all today (was at our house), and has been having very long and difficult seizures and intense pain. She was with her brothers this last week and was admitted into the hospital (against her wishes) and was resuscitated (her brothers ignored her DNR because they were scared). That would have been it, but the CPR brought her back, however she doesn’t want CPR again, and says she is ready to die.
Aubree is with her friend Kayla, who thinks she is dying. Aubree has stopped breathing and is changing color.
By yesterday evening she didn’t even know who she was. I would call her name and she would look at me and say “Aubree?” while touching her chest then say “am I Aubree?”
Her pain increased alarmingly last night. She has had intense liver area pain. At midnight we woke up to her screaming (I didn’t think she had such a strong voice left) “HELP ME, HELP ME!” while crying and curled up in a ball. She is not on pain meds now because they interfered with her seizure meds.”
I was surprised and frankly a little relieved that Aubree never had a seizure on my watch, and, even though she did choke and go blue a couple of times, she rallied before I had to call an ambulance. And I am even more relieved that I never had to obey her end of life care document. This slightly spooky manifesto was drawn up recently by her medical power of attorney, Jim, after she pleaded for no more medical interventions; and it called for her visitors to just hold her, turn up the playlist, and let her die right there and then.
We wrote to tell Venerable Geshe-la she was dying, perhaps would die that very day, and could he give her a message. A couple of leisurely days later he wrote back and told her to read and contemplate Modern Buddhism.
That was a surprise. She was lying on her deathbed and couldn’t read at all! And Modern Buddhism is a long book!
Clearly she was not as close to death as we had thought. But her visitors duly took turns reading her Modern Buddhism for the next several weeks. Which she loved, though her health continued to decline.
The kidnapping accusation was a dilemma because last Friday Karin and Jim felt obliged to let Aubree go back to her empty house and wait for her brother-in-law to fly in and take her back to Houston. We did see her on Saturday, after Tom had dropped her off at her house to pick up some things, and she seemed a bit better, though still weak and confused. We then spent the weekend texting Tom back and forth, trying to meet up with him to figure out what was best to do, but we never managed to meet. Then her disturbed sister Jude flew into town and all hell broke loose. It seemed that Tom was the only sane member of the family left, and the only hope for Aubree, and it was frustrating that we couldn’t talk to him on the phone because of his deafness.
Some extracts of messages from Tom sent last Monday:
“Hi! Tom here. I need to reschedule the time. I can’t leave Aubree and Jude to meet you. Aubree is not doing well…. Do either of you sign? Jude is falling apart. … Things with Aubree are spiraling quickly… Jude is struggling. Feeling like I can’t leave them right now…. Family is being weird. I want to shoot for 4 but Aubree is really not doing well and Jude has fallen apart.”
Then something strange happened.
One of Aubree’s work colleagues happened to get in touch, and Jim sent her one of Tom’s health updates. This was what she replied:
“Tom has not emailed so thank you. It is very strange. I see her and talk to her occasionally at work and she is 100% Aubree. Lucid and clear and intelligent and focused. If I hadn’t seen her in the late afternoon/evening those couple days, I wouldn’t believe that report on how she is doing. It is really hard to believe. She is still working during the day and that is a bit strange but probably good for her. I am trying to arrange to meet her for lunch one day so I can check in with her. She absolutely will not acknowledge that anything is wrong while she is in work mode so I can’t talk to her or see how she is feeling or even offer her support. That is hard but I’m trying to respect her need for compartmentalizing.”
When, Jim asked, was she last at work?!!!?!!!@!
“On Monday” was the reply. She drove there, apparently. And on Friday evening she had two drinks at the bar, to which she had walked completely unaided as usual, and then she wolfed down a huge Mexican meal. (Yes, she must have been pretty hungry after a whole week of mush at Karin and Jim’s.)
The web of deception
With a sinking feeling, Jim started to contact other people whom Aubree had mentioned in passing. Her ex-roommate Lindsay, whom we’d never happened to overlap with at Aubree’s house, surprise, surprise, said: “I lived with Aubree for 2 years, and not once did I see her have a seizure.” Matt the caretaker doesn’t exist — Lindsay had never heard of him, his number was listed as 000-0000.
What about all those emails and texts, I asked Karin in confusion as all this was slowly coming to light — how could Aubree go to work while Tom was with her, he would have noticed?!
“That’s the point. I don’t think there is a Tom.”
That was one of the spookiest moments of my life.
The gig was up, but we still didn’t know the extent of it. We got online and managed to find real emails for Tom and Jude, as opposed to the ones created by Aubree, and even a phone number. Late as it was, Jim called them straightaway.
They were fast asleep in bed in Houston.
And they knew nothing about any of this.
They called the parents to go pick up Aubree and take her to their house, worried that she would try to kill herself now that it was all over. Turns out her mother is not a murderer nor her father an abuser. Her colluding brothers turn out to be rather innocent as well.
Since then we have all been putting together the pieces, or rather unravelling the web of deception. It has been by turns spooky, surreal, and desperately sad, but also at times absurdly, darkly humorous. Aubree is brilliantly intelligent; we always knew that, even with all her stroke activity. And this was the performance of a lifetime. Did she have spreadsheets; how did she keep all these lies together?! Aubree had every single person she met duped. Everyone, that is, except Geshe-la.
For sure, all of us probably wondered once or twice, “Could this really all be happening to her at this pace? Is she really that ill, how come she hasn’t died yet?” Someone gave her a pain-relieving massage, for example, and was surprised her tumors were not more noticeable. But we pushed these thoughts aside as uncharitable – she only weighs 90lbs for goodness sake, and those seizures are ghastly! And yes, she had some good days where she rallied remarkably to get to things and talk weakly to people – but that must have been all our prayers! Poor brave girl.
Meeting the family
At dinner we sat in a booth at Racines with her murdering mother (supposedly in jail), her psychotic sister (supposedly in a psych ward), and her abusive father. (The only person missing was her deaf-mute long-suffering brother-in-law, who was on a lecture tour.) And these were three of the sweetest people you could imagine. I’d hang out happily with any of them.
With a family like this, and with several loyal old friends, Aubree has no need to crave attention. Clearly her self-hatred is not rational. I suppose which of our delusions is?
We wondered how the seizures had been so convincing, and her dad explained the time he took her to Yale epilepsy clinic when she was 22 (the last time he saw her have a fit) and they stressed to her that she must never take Ativan as it brought on the seizures. She had been eating it like candy, at least with us, though clearly not at work.
We wondered how she managed to choke and turn blue from not being able to breathe. Her mom, a nurse (somewhat the opposite to a killer), said that Aubree must have been holding her breath.
Impressive willfulness, we all agreed.
But her dad said, “This is so confusing for me. I hate to say this but I think I’d prefer it if she had cancer. At least we could understand that.” And “She is my daughter but I cannot protect her; this is the hardest thing in my life.”
It was her own dad who suggested grimly that this would make a very good 10-part miniseries. I have included only the salient details in this already long article – there is enough material for it. And the weekly suspense has certainly kept a lot of people on the edges of their seats for two years.
Her sister said: “What you showed her, that love, that part was all true, pure. We are so grateful to you.”
We had a good evening – it was helpful for all of us. We even laughed quite a bit. They were so relieved with our reaction, said we were cool. I think Dharma is cool. Knowing about Buddha nature is cool.
And, hey, our prayers worked!!! Aubree is cancer-free! She is no longer dying! What a miracle. And her family have all magically recovered and become loving, reasonable people!!
Also, btw, remember that friend who committed suicide? Happily oblivious to the fact that she is dead, she is getting married next month, and Aubree has been invited to the wedding.
Our road of caring for Aubree has come to an end, and her family are taking it from here. She has confessed to lying. They have hopefully found a good place for her to receive help. I wish them all the best.
Echoes of “Misery”
See, go back to the first paragraph of this article and read it again, and perhaps you will understand why Aubree was panicking 😉 She was out in the middle of nowhere, far from her house. Two days of pretense was one thing, but this was a week already and she had to get to work, she was ravenous, she was being force-fed pills, and she couldn’t sleep at night because of her medicine-induced seizures and full-volume playlist.
Some lessons learned on this crazy train
Lesson #1 ~ What can we rely on?
At dinner, her sister commented that we must be angry, and we replied truthfully that we were not because we haven’t lost anything, not really, and we gained a great deal from Aubree. And inside there is definitely a dear, lovely person with potential, one that did shine through, despite her desperate need for attention, despite her mental illness.
Jim put it this way yesterday when he spoke to the Sangha:
“Although everything we knew about Aubree was wrong, the love and compassion she brought out of me was true. I had no idea I had these reserves of patience in me and could, for example, survive happily on so little sleep! And therefore I don’t regret it. For me, Aubree was an emanation of all the stages of the path from precious human life, death, and the fears of lower rebirth all the way through to love, compassion, and patience. And now I am learning the greatest lesson of all, the hallucinatory, deceptive nature of samsara. Dharma now is also what is healing any hurt I have.”
Both Jim and Karin have emerged as Bodhisattvas in my book. Their Sangha is impressed with them.
Buddhas emanate whatever we need, and Aubree did bring out the best in us so who knows who she is. Jim quoted the verse from the mind-training teachings:
Even if someone I have helped
And of whom I had great hopes
Nevertheless harms me intentionally
May I see him as my holy Spiritual Guide.
We have lost nothing, even if Aubree has. She has taught us much. As one friend puts it, Aubree was “for us”.
So, other than the wisdom that sees right through it all, including the “polluted memories” as someone sadly put it, what can we rely upon in this crazy mixed up world of illusion? (I address that a bit in this article.) We can rely upon love and compassion. And honesty (see below). We can rely upon the Dharma Jewel of Lamrim.
As Aubree earnestly texted me herself a few months back:
“If negative actions occur in this life despite trying to go for refuge and show compassion, can a precious human life be maintained?”
Even if this is the weirdest route to finding a Spiritual Guide and Dharma that I have ever seen, I am praying that some of the Dharma Aubree professed and seemed to love really did go in, and that it will help her now.
How could you be so stupid? …
… someone at his work asked Jim. Were we duped? Yes, most heartily. Are we embarrassed? Yes, maybe a little. But that was an Oscar-winning performance. She had actual seizures for hours on end. She went blue in the face. She was skin and bone. She held her body differently for days on end, faltered on her legs, talked in a strained way, and so on. Fifteen years ago she pulled another stunt and managed to dupe a whole team of care-workers including a psychologist. And embarrassment doesn’t hurt us. But being mistaken is okay if our hearts are true and we come to realize our mistake. Now we can all work on our wisdom.
In Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang talks about someone driving in the wrong direction to London and suddenly realizing he has been wrong all along. Finding out about Aubree was one of those heart-stopping moments, WHAT??! Have we really been on this crazy train for two years?
But in fact we have been on a crazy train since beginningless time. As Geshe-la says, when this man realizes he has made a serious mistake, he turns back, and:
… hopefully follows the correct road to London. In a similar way, before realizing emptiness we are following incorrect paths… At present we believe that whatever appears to our mind is truly existent and then we follow the paths of cyclic existence.
It is past time we all got off this crazy train. As Geshe-la says:
We shall know that hitherto we have been completely misled and mistaken. We shall realize that what appeared to us, what we apprehended, and the attitudes we developed were all completely wrong. Then, hopefully, we will begin to follow the path to liberation, the path that really does lead to peace and happiness.
Lesson # 2 ~ Hold space
This drama has increased my will to get into my heart every day and let all the elaborations fall away. Ideally we can learn over time to abide in our very subtle mind mixed with the nature of ultimate truth — bliss and emptiness, Mahamudra. There’s a beautiful line about this in Vajrayogini Tantra:
Then the youth of my mind, exhausted by its elaborations,
Came to rest in the forest hut beyond expression.
Do we not live these days in an overstimulated world of so many false appearances bombarding us daily? Special effects, political echo chambers, virtual reality, video games, all those iSomethings, AI robots, Pokémon Go, self-seeking lies, idle gossip, FOMO, etc, etc, etc. These days, we apparently spend 10+ hours on our screens, much of that precious time sucked into a made-up world one way or another.
But we need peace. We can’t be happy without it. Excited, maybe… but happy? No. We need to hang out at least some of our time in that forest hut. At the very least we need to allow our otherwise endless distractions to subside through breathing meditation to access the natural peace, clarity, and stillness of our own minds. We need to identify with and enjoy our vast and profound true nature, our Buddha nature. For this to happen, at least a little meditation regularly is crucial.
And this is not just for ourselves. As one friend puts it, we need to “hold space” for everyone. Become a refuge, a Sangha Jewel.
Why instead use the few remaining months we have left to seek out more confusion and trickery? What’s the point?
Lesson # 3 ~ Be honest, always
It is not worth adding extra elaborations to samsara. Better to be scrupulously honest, not deliberately deceiving others by lying. We are all already in a web of deception, so please let’s not make it worse.
Our self-protective minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing already have a tendency to weave little lies just to sustain the illusion of a non-existent self, both for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we know we are doing it, sometimes we don’t. Aubree just took this fake identity to a whole new level.
Gotta stop stirring. Some slander is true to utter, and some is false (see Joyful Path). Either way, if our words turn people against each other they are to be avoided. We need to talk about others’ good qualities rather than their faults, see the best in them, bring out the best.
So much of our conversation is gossip and hyperbole! We don’t need to keep talking nonsense with no wish to help others (namely, idle chatter.) We are already wrapped in nonsense.
I find it interesting that these 3 of the 4 non-virtuous actions of speech explained by Buddha (see Joyful Path) — lying, slander, and idle gossip – all have something to do with deceiving or at best distracting each other. Harmony is key to happiness, and distrust kills it. Avoiding these negative verbal actions is especially important in our spiritual communities.
Thank you for getting this far. As Aubree once requested: “If you guys want to post photos some place, please do not tag me and if you use names, please be careful. As you know, my family is crazy and I can’t have things on my webpage.” For different reasons, to really protect the innocent, I have changed all names and withheld all photographic evidence. And, not for the first time, I request your prayers for poor Aubree and her confused and reeling family. But these are different prayers.
This is the seventh article in a row on this subject of emptiness, and p’raps you’re thinking, “Hey, this is all well and good, and interesting and such, but rather than sitting around on our butts trying to get to the bottom of things (or not, as the case may be, seeing as there is no bottom), shouldn’t we be out doing more stuff to help others practically?!!”
I have just been stopped on my bike in the King Sooper’s parking lot to sign a petition for the Environmental Protection Agency. And yes, I believe that man-made climate change is a problem that needs addressing. I have lost track of the amount of petitions and good causes I have been asked to sign up and pay for, especially since last November. My in-box and mail box have never been this inundated – how did everyone find me?!
And I do my best. But it is drops in the ocean compared with changing our minds and getting rid of our ignorance and selfish intentions, which alone will lead to lasting good results — a purification of the entire ocean.
Taking time out to ponder the bigger picture and master the mind is the opposite of Me Time because, when we don’t, our old habits naturally lead us to self-cherishing and wasting time yet again trying to make this non-existent real me happy. Which in any case is impossible, so it’s frustrating even just trying. As well as leading to a Them and Us mentality, and self-centered actions.
We remain part of the problem, ie, deluded. So, if that is the case, if delusions are the problem for each one of us, the question would seem to be, “What can I do to be part of the solution?”
The answer is to increase our wisdom. Wisdom is the way to destroy our common enemies of the delusions once and for all.
Just look at this video to see the scale of human and animal suffering in this world. How are we going to even make a dent in this without becoming a Bodhisattva and increasing our wisdom?
In any case, if recent studies are anything to go by, we are not running around helping each other all the time; we are spending something like 40 hours a week just stuck to our Smartphones!
So, if you find yourself too glued to your screens these days, can I make a little practical suggestion? I like to have one or two Kadampa Buddhist books on the go at any time, and I keep one next to my bed. Twenty minutes reading one each day = 20 minutes less time on the internet. Not saying we have to stop Netflix and Instagram altogether, just 20 little minutes?! Go to bed a little earlier and spend the last 20 minutes of the day all tucked up reading?! We’ll definitely sleep better as all studies show that we need to turn off our screens earlier; and we’ll likely get enlightened a lot quicker as well 😁
Normally we think that the physical world and everything in it comes first, and that we are conscious beings who then arrive and bump into everything – enter stage left, move around for a lifetime, depart stage right. But it is the other way around. The world and everything in it, including ourselves, is a projection of mind, like a dream, arising simultaneously with our awareness.
Wherever and however hard we look, we cannot find anything existing from its own side, independent of our consciousness. Our hand, for example, exists only as the object of an idea, an imputation. No imputation, no hand. Our hand functions as a hand, we can call it a hand, and many people will agree that it is hand. (Maybe not the wild boar I was warned about the other day when I was wandering in South Carolina, who bit someone’s fingers off, presumably imputing something like “Rare meat sticks”.)
So by agreement or convention we can say this is a hand – this is conventional reality. But it is a mere label created by conceptual thought. It is mere appearance — nothing more than appearance. If we look behind the label, we’ll find nothing.
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.
Hands in dreams also work as hands and can be called hands. It doesn’t mean they are real. This is true for the body, self, living beings, mind, planet, stars, everything. Things appear and perform a function, but they don’t exist from their own side. Everything is imputed by thought. A dream object only appears for as long as the dream awareness appearing it exists, then, Poof!, it’s gone.
We shall realize that we can cause all the unpleasant things that we dislike to cease simply by abandoning impure states of mind, and we can cause all the good things that we desire to arise simply by developing a pure mind. In this way, we shall be able to fulfill all our wishes. ~ Understanding the Mind
When we realize that we are creating our world with our thoughts, we understand at the deepest level what Buddha is always telling us — that if we want happiness and freedom from suffering we have to change our mind. For if we change our thoughts, we literally change our world. This is utterly radical and utterly mind-boggling — but also utterly true.
It’s also a good idea to get into practice this meditation on the emptiness of our body before our body gets too sore or unhealthy, because we’ll be delighted to have this knowledge when it does. I had a splitting headache the other night and I was able to remember that there was no head there to grasp at. It really helps.
“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 our 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.
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 comes 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.
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!!!?
(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.)
This is continued in this next exciting article, when we 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.
I thought I’d look at some examples of the ghosts in the cellar, especially those we thought we had already dealt with but then they raise their spooky heads again (carrying on from Dealing with our demons).
For example, I was talking to someone recently who thought he had totally gotten over an ex-boyfriend. He was feeling very content, but then, out of the blue, just idly swiping through Instagram, an image of a grinning man with a new lover jumped out and hit him in the solar plexis. WHAM!, he was back to relating to that attached person who needed this person to be complete and happy, so feeling bereft and jealous all over again.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of people reading who can relate to this, me included. Life is full of separations for all of us until we have unconditional love for all living beings, or deep faith in the omnipresence of holy beings, or an understanding that no one ever existed outside our mind in the first place.
He told me, “I haven’t been happy since he left and I won’t ever be happy again, not really.” I reminded him that this was in fact nonsense as he had been contented many times since the break up, and blissfully happy and free on occasion, not to mention stronger and wiser.
(NEWSFLASH: Not to put Tinder and Hollywood out of business, but we don’t in fact need a romantic relationship to be happy, as countless monks and nuns will testify, including Buddha himself, as well as lay or ordained Yogis, Yoginis, and Mahasiddhas galore. Plus a whole bunch of regular folk. Whether we are in a relationship or not, the only thing that can bring us actual, deep happiness is cultivating our innate capacity for mental peace. Neglecting this truth to chase happiness elsewhere can be exhilarating at the time but has a habit, sooner or later, of coming back and biting us in the butt.)
But this friend’s current mood was affecting his perception of the past and the future. It always does. And, overpowered by appearances, we grasp at these perceptions as true.
The painful, limited self is back! It is as if a pathetic, rejected, mournful ghost crawls back up the cellar stairs, rattling its rusty chains to demand our attention, and we think, “Man, not this one again!” But, as Geshe Kelsang says, there is no need to panic.
There is also no need to feel like a “bad Buddhist” as one commentator said in the last article. “I’m a Buddhist, I shouldn’t feel this way, I’m hopeless, I’ve been doing this for years, there is no point even trying!” This is succumbing to the laziness of discouragement, wherein that delusion has now crawled up the stairs as well, and put his gnarly hands around our throat, “Just give up! Join us! For you know you’ll never defeat us.” It is only if we identify with our delusions and shortcomings that we will feel like failures when they arise, when in fact we are not failures at all.
Instead, within the vast space of accepting ourselves — and feeling the deep acceptance of enlightened beings too if we can — we can eye this strange creature with curiosity, and then shine the bright flashlight of our Buddha nature straight onto him. It is a good time to remind ourselves of the love we do have for others, of our renunciation, of our faith, and so on; to feel our way into it by tuning into, for example, the affection we have for our brother or the gratitude we have for our teachers and precious human life. And we will find that before very long the ghost of the limited self evaporates, POOF!, and the Hero is back with all his retinue. At which point, the past doesn’t seem so bad any more, “Wow, I learned such useful lessons from this relationship, I’m grateful!” and nor does the future, “I have so many good things I want to do with my life.” The heavy spirit of attachment has gone. We can identify with being an unpainful, unlimited being. We are free.
And we know what to do next time.
Object of annoyance
I think in some ways objects of annoyance are easier to deal with than objects of attachment as we KNOW we don’t want them around, whereas with attachment we are not so sure. That may be partly why attachment is said to be harder to remove, like oil soaked into cloth, whereas anger is more like dust. But when a supposedly dealt-with object of aversion does come charging up those stairs again, we can remember the forgiveness we have felt for them, for example, and that “I am so much bigger than you!” Perspective gives us space so that we don’t feel cornered – and the whole of Dharma gives us perspective. Huge perspective.
We can do something similar when Jealousy, Boredom, Anxiety, Pride, and Lack of Self-Worth, not to mention Self-satisfaction, Complacency, and Pride, or indeed any of the merry tribe creeps back up the stairs.
Remember there is nothing really out there
By the way, if you have some familiarity with emptiness, it is well worth turning to that straightaway whenever the painful, limited self appears.
I like to remember that the more real it appears, the less real it is.
Last night I dreamt that I witnessed a violent crime and then had to flee for my life – only I had no idea where to go. Then I realized there was nowhere to flee, and no one to flee. There was no one or nowhere to flee from, and no one or nowhere to flee to! And there was no one to flee. The only thing to do was to wake up.
In a similar way we need to wake up from all dream-like appearances by remembering that they are utterly unfindable.
If you have wisdom, you can use it to shine a light on any problem, “This person whom I normally see does not exist.” Dissolve them and us away and start again. Physical problems too. They seem real and fixed, eg, tinnitus, headache, even cancer, but they are not.
All of us are floating around in dream-like bubbles.
I know what I want to do – pop my own and others’ bubbles and be fully alive in groundlessness. Our karma has been blowing insubstantial, impermanent bubbles since beginningless time. We get caught up in one after another, as if they are actually important, but in samsara, as Ven Geshe-la says, all our dreams are broken in the end. I want us all to wake up and STAY awake.
More next time… meanwhile, please comment, including sharing any experiences of banishing your painful, limited self.
(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 recreating 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.
I’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
Do 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.
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 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.
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?
Use 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.
The 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.
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.
Emptiness 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.
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.
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.
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 from 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 logged 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.
When we think about appearance and reality, we think of them as two different truths. But the truth is that they are not.
Considering 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.
For 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.
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! Or 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.
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.