In the Samyuktagama Sutra, it is said:
If it were not, it would not be for me; it will not be, it will not be for me.
WHAT IS “SELF”?
As we all know, Buddhism is a doctrine that asserts the absence of self. We need to know what “self” is, in what way the “self” does not exist, and why it is inherently empty.
Firstly, what is self?
In Buddhism, “self” can be divided into two kinds: one is “self in person”; the other is “self in phenomena.” Here, self is called “bdag” in Tibetan. Although the Chinese written word for “self” is the same for “I, me,” it does not necessarily mean “I,” as in “you and I,” but things having real and substantive existence.
In the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) school, there are two modes of existence: one is true existence, that is, things really exist; the other is nominal existence, that is, things exist from a conventional standpoint but not inherently. That which truly exists is called “self.”
The “self” in “self in person” connotes “I, me” to some extent, for instance, “I want to make money,” “I want to go to work,” “I want to have a good life,” “I want to have a long and healthy life,” etc. The “self” in “self in phenomena” is entirely different; it only denotes true existence.
WHAT IS “SELF-ATTACHMENT”?
What is “self in person”?
Since birth, every sentient being has held on firmly to the belief that a “self” exists. Whether a person is illiterate or learned, a newborn baby or animal, every living being has this attachment. This attachment to the self that we are born with is the innate self-attachment.
Another kind of attachment is acquired in life and is said to be imputed. It is based on views from the wrong literature and on incorrect reasoning. This misapprehension can be traced to many non-Buddhist religions and certain philosophical schools of thought.
For instance, in Descartes’ famous quote “ I think, therefore I am,” the implication is we can think, question, and investigate whether things outside exist, but we cannot doubt the existence of the “self.” Since the “self” is doing the thinking, e.g., investigating the structure of buildings, flowers, plants, and so forth, the thinker or investigator must exist. Otherwise, how can the thinker or investigator think and investigate? Therefore, it is without a doubt that I exist. For a long time, this proposition has been held up as a standard by many followers and supporters, and has served as proof of the existence of the “self.”
This mistaken imputation in the teachings and in logic strengthens self-grasping. As we are already born with the innate attachment to self, lacking the necessary knowledge and training, the attachment to self becomes even more entrenched and difficult to overcome.
UNCOVERING THE ENEMY – “SELF-ATTACHMENT”
People usually believe an “enemy” is someone outside, a certain animal, a particular organization, etc. Buddhism asserts our real enemy is not outside; the most fearsome enemy is inside – it is our self-attachment.
The ancients say: “Fortune and misfortune do not come through the door; only we ourselves invite them.” The happiness and suffering we experience are entirely of our own choosing. If not for one’s innate attributes, nothing can harm us – not the raging fire in hell, the hunger and thirst in the hungry ghost realm, or the evil spirits and wild beasts in this world. Our foremost enemy is self-attachment. It is this attachment that gives rise to greed, anger, delusion, and arrogance.
Ordinarily, people think victory is success in a conflict or struggle involving the defeat of an opponent. However, this cannot be true victory since the victor is actually the victim and the loser.
The conventional view is that if I defeat or kill an enemy, I have won. But I do not know with this action I have actually created the cause for taking rebirth in hell, so am I not bringing injury upon myself? If today’s triumph leads to suffering in hell, am I not the victim and the loser?
Sakyamuni Buddha always instructed his disciples not to seek victory by challenging others, but to find everlasting victory by contesting oneself – specifically, one’s self- attachment. As a true Buddhist practitioner, we must do battle with our afflictions and with our self-attachment.
In sum, we have to first establish what self-attachment is, then know that it is self-attachment which is our real enemy.
Once we have affirmed self-attachment as our foremost enemy, we need to focus our effort entirely on eradicating it.
To be sure, this is from the standpoint of exoteric Buddhism; the Vajrayana view and practice is somewhat different. However, when we only have a very basic understanding of exoteric Buddhism, it is pointless to discuss the Vajrayana view. There is nothing fundamentally incorrect about the exoteric position, so we should first rely on this method in the early stages of our practice.
In the past, we have never doubted or investigated whether the “self” exists; we have always taken its existence for granted. If you are in a crowd of people who have never heard the Dharma before and exclaim “I am not sure I exist” or something to that effect, others are certain to question your state of mind.
People often say this is superstition or that is superstition; actually, believing in the existence of “self” is the utmost in superstition. It is an extremely blind form of belief, but we ordinary people have yet to realize it.
If not for the Buddha’s teaching, we would never apprehend this truth, however intelligent, clairvoyant, or knowledgeable we might be. The philosophical schools in the East and West cannot give us an answer to this question, nor can modern science. Most of the objects of examination and the scope of Buddhism are completely different from that of science. Other religions have not really addressed this question either, because they all recognize the existence of self on different levels and conduct all their practices and charitable works from this conviction.
Only in Buddhism can practitioners cut through the root of self-attachment and see this as the goal in their practice.
Although we cannot completely uproot “self-attachment” at the start, we must, like the archer, know our target — the object at which we are going to take aim. Only then can we shoot the arrow of no-self at “self-attachment” and eliminate it.
Normally, the “self” is that which we cherish and like the most. Regardless of our rank in life, we all think we ourselves are the most precious. Apart from me and my life, there is nothing more important in this world. This mindset is “self- attachment.”
LET US LOOK FOR “SELF”
It is our intent now to eradicate the “self” and our attachment to “self.” How do we eradicate it? “To shoot a man down, first shoot the horse; to capture the bandits, first catch the leader.” To cut through self-attachment, let us uncover its source.
The source and external factors in self-attachment are the five aggregates, or skandhas.
The concept of the five aggregates in Buddhism is quite elaborate and will not be discussed here. In everyday language, the aggregates can be classified into three categories: physical body, mental factors, and their respective activities. These three categories comprise the entirety of aggregates that make up an individual.
The activities of the body are relatively easy for everyone to understand; the activities of the mind include all kinds of thoughts, views, beliefs, etc. In the twenty-four hours each day, everyone experiences a variety of thoughts that come and go, arise and cease. These are the activities of the mind.
All of us believe in the existence of a “self.” This so-called “self” pertains to the three categories mentioned above. No one would dispute our body is the “self”; other religions and certain branches of study acknowledge our mind is the “self”; the activities of the body and the mind are also considered part of the “self.”
Is there anything apart from these three categories that can be called the “self”? No, all other things are external matter. We would never think this flower is me or this house is me; because of this mindset, these things have never concerned us in our investigation of the “self.” If the “self” truly exists, it must exist in the three categories or the three combined. If we do not find a “self” in any of these three categories, the so- called “self” cannot possibly exist.
We have always believed: I am independent. To be independent means wherever I go, I see myself as distinct and separate from others; although I have parents, siblings, and relatives, I am not they, they are not me. Aside from this, we also believe: I am permanent. To be permanent means, for instance, I believe I lived as a god in my previous life, I now live as a human, and I will continue to live in my next life, possibly as a god, a human, or even an animal; regardless, I will always live on.
When we begin to examine and understand the “self” along these lines, we run into difficulty. The problem is that we discover none of the categories – physical body, mental factors, and their respective activities – correspond with our idea of the “self.” In fact, they all contradict what we think the “self” is.
1.Is Our Body the “Self”?
Firstly, our body is not a distinct entity. Just from a macro perspective, everyone knows the body is a complex mechanism, like a car which is made up of many different parts. There is nothing independent about the body, so how can we call it the “self”? The body cannot possibly be the so- called “self.”
2.Is Our Mind the “Self”?
Secondly, our mind is not a distinct entity either. It is a collection of discursive thoughts, conceptual fabrications, feelings, etc., like a building constructed from steel, cement, glass, and other materials. There is nothing independent about the mind; hence, the so-called “self” also cannot exist in the mind.
3.Are the Activities of the Body and Mind the “Self”?
Next, what about the activities of the body and the mind? We should know that apart from the body, physical activity does not exist independently or on its own. For instance, when we go from one room to another, we call this physical activity. During the process, the body has neither gained nor lost anything; still the same entity, it has merely moved to a different place. Similarly, the activities of the mind are not separate from the mind. The arising and cessation of good and bad thoughts are called mental activity. When thoughts of kindness, compassion, faith, etc. come and go, there is no independent arising or cessation that is separate from these thoughts. When they come, we call it arising; when they go, we call it cessation. That’s all. Accordingly, the so-called “self” does not exist in the activities of the body and the mind either.
Aside from these three categories, we cannot find anything in or outside our body that corresponds to the so-called “self.”
The Buddha taught that if we hope to find a “self,” we can forgo our investigation and continue to cling blindly to this “self.” To pamper and satisfy it, there is a lot we can do – seek fame, acquire wealth, etc. However, to do so would be a great disappointment, since we have already looked for it and discovered the so-called “self” cannot be found anywhere.
Most people in the world, like Descartes, have never questioned whether they exist or not. They take their existence for granted: “How can I not exist when I am clearly right here? This is nonsense!”
Here I wish to remind everyone again that Sakyamuni Buddha never denied the conventional existence of the “self.” The conventional “self” certainly exists. Because of its relative existence, we have to work to support it. However, does it truly exist? Is this concept correct? Our objective now is to examine and analyze its existence at the absolute level, not relative level.
Resisting change and following what others do and say are signs of ignorance. Even if it is common knowledge, inculcated by family and society and in school, we can all reexamine its premise. In regard to matters of life and death, and liberation, we should be even more careful about checking it out. Do not attempt to reach conclusion hastily. Instead, examine carefully and arrive at an answer on our own so as to cut through self-attachment.
This investigation is not undertaken in depth here, but will be explained in detail later in the actual practice.
Although a lot of Buddhist practitioners are vegetarian, nine out of ten have all had seafood in the past and have committed substantial negative karma. In just this lifetime, over tens of thousands of lives have been killed to satisfy people’s appetite. Who did these living things die for? Why did we pay to eat seafood in the first place? Why did the restaurant owner ask the chef to kill? And why did the chef consent to kill? It’s all because of this “self.” Because of the “self,” the proprietor of the restaurant, as well as the employees, have committed the same karma; because of the desire of this “self,” they were all accomplices. That being the case, what is “self”?
Once we come to the realization from our practice that there is no “self,” no living thing will have to die to satisfy our craving for certain foods; not only that, we will no longer create negative karma or take rebirth in hell. It is our attachment to the existence of an inherently empty entity that so many lives have been sacrificed, that so many have paid a heavy price.
Who Goes to Hell If There is No Self?
Perhaps some will ask: if there is no “self,” how can the so- called “self” descend into hell?
Although the “self” does not truly exist, as long as we remain attached to it, we will perpetuate in a cycle of rebirth, so will the hell realm continue to exist. Therefore, we will still suffer the torments there.
Eating seafood is just one example. There have been endless positive and negative retributions in our samsaric existence since beginningless time — we have experienced innumerable cycles of birth and death, incalculable lifetimes in hell and in the animal realm, and inconceivable suffering. Some of our lives have ended so pitifully it is shocking and frightening. This is entirely because of the “self.” To satisfy and sustain it, we have created all kinds of karma. With every action, there is always a consequence which we alone have to bear.
This “self” that brings us great suffering deserves to be purged; accordingly, we must examine, analyze, and expose it. Questions as to whether there is life or water in other planets are not important. Mankind has since time immemorial always inhabited its own planet; living beings in other planets have never disrupted or interfered in our everyday life. This “self” on the other hand has a direct impact on our entire cyclic existence and has given us endless trouble. Hence, we must uncover its true face, examine whether it really exists or not, and determine if our attachment is blind or in accord with logic.
This extraordinary insight is attributed to Sakyamuni Buddha. Apart from the Buddha, no philosophy, religion, or science has looked for the “self” in this way. Even the most intelligent people in the world have not considered this point; it is unique to Buddhism. Sakyamuni Buddha did not give teachings on science, philosophy, and other disciplines. It is because he considered these branches of study to be useful, but not necessary. However advanced or precise their knowledge and technique, they cannot resolve the basic question of birth, aging, sickness, and death.
What is “self”? It is like pointing to the sky and saying “this is me” or “that is me” — there is nothing in empty space. Similarly, there is nothing that is substantial, independent, and permanent in any of the places we believe the “self” can be found.
For this reason, Sakyamuni Buddha instructed us to first cultivate renunciation and bodhicitta, then realize emptiness in order to eradicate the “self.”
“Self” and “Self-Attachment” Are Not the Same
“Self” and “Self-Attachment” are two different concepts. For instance, when we see a bunch of flowers, the flower is the object outside; our eye consciousness is the subject inside. Like the flower, “self” is the external object; like eye-consciousness, “self-attachment” is internal, subjective, and of the mind.
Everyone has “self-attachment” – “I want to release captured animals,” “I want to go to work,” etc., but apart from this attachment, where is the so-called “self”? As an example, when we see a flower, our eye consciousness, that is, a sense perception that we experience, exists; the flower outside also exists; thus both exist. However, the object of “self-attachment”– the “self,” which in Buddhist terms is called perceptual object condition — is nowhere to be found. Since it cannot be found, our attachment is basically a misapprehension.
Consider the following: if I think the book in my hand contains English or Chinese words, I can flip through each page to check; if I do not find any English or Chinese words in the book at all, can I still insist they are in the book? Certainly not. I would say to myself, “I have made a mistake! There are no English or Chinese words in this book.”
Similarly, it is our belief all along the “self” exists and that undertaking activities such as acquiring wealth and killing animals to sustain its existence is a matter of course. Due to this self-attachment, we are still ordinary people.
To sum up, the three main points of our discussion are: first, what is “self”; second, what is “self-attachment”; third, establish “no-self” via analysis.
Although it is easy to discuss and accept the concept of “no- self,” this understanding is only of limited use to us at present.
A lot of people have asked this question: if I already know for certain the “self” does not exist, why do I still have these afflictions?
It is because our afflictions cannot be eradicated if we only understand the concept but do not engage in practice. In The Way of the Bodhisattva, this point is also made: “When the tendency of cognizing emptiness is weak, desire will still arise; if one persists in practicing emptiness, the habit of seeing phenomena as real will end.” Without practice, we cannot really grasp the concept of “no-self”; we cannot quickly overturn the attachment to self that has been deeply ingrained in us since beginningless time. To cultivate the wisdom to overcome this attachment, we must practice. As we gain strength and power in the practice, our attachment to the self will gradually weaken.
Having said this, however, the Treatise of Four Hundred Verses states: “Human beings with few blessings will not raise doubt; those who have doubts can destroy the three worlds of existence.” That is, the cause of our cyclic existence can be damaged if we are able to entertain reasonable doubt about emptiness — Do I lack true existence? Do all phenomena lack inherent existence? It is possible the self does not exist! It is possible all phenomena are empty! When the cause is impaired, we will not remain in samsara for long. If harboring doubt alone is of such great significance, then comprehending and accepting the Middle Way doctrine is even more remarkable.
Nevertheless, from the standpoint of actual practice and eliminating afflictions, we cannot overcome our problem just by understanding the doctrine alone.
The discussion above pertains to self in person; the following is an introduction to self in phenomena.
WHAT IS “SELF IN PHENOMENA”?
Apart from oneself and sentient beings, all things in the world, including the sun, moon, stars, earth, etc. are called “phenomena.”
The Chinese character for “phenomena” and “dharma” is the same, but has different meaning. “Phenomena” is interpreted in various ways; in Chinese, the term “things” is a close approximation — except that part of “things” relating to sentient beings, classified as “self in person,” is excluded. Other terms such as “physical matter” or “mental events” cannot fully capture its significance.
Strictly speaking, among sentient beings, only the person himself or herself can be considered self in person because the “self” does not form an attachment to any other being. However, since sentient beings are all classified in the same category, insentient things are generally called “phenomena,” sentient beings are called “self in person.”
What does “self” mean? Ordinarily, we think the circumstances in a dream are not real while experiences during the day are real. If we perceive the world outside to be truly existent, i.e., real and not illusory, this belief in true existence is called “self.” In the Middle Way doctrine, the “self” is clearly defined as a distinct and permanent entity which exists in its own right and does not depend on other things to come into being.
WHAT IS “ATTACHMENT TO SELF IN PHENOMENA”?
In general, when we see a flower, we believe the flower that is here today was also here yesterday, and that it exists even if it is replanted elsewhere. We would not entertain the idea that it is not a flower, as it would only be a pile of particles after being broken down into molecules, atoms, etc. This kind of attachment is “attachment to self in phenomena.” And the object of this attachment is the flower.
The question then is whether this flower exists or not.
Based on the method of analysis described above, this flower cannot possibly exist. Although it does not exist, we nonetheless cling to the appearance of the flower as real.
To cut through this attachment, we must use logic. Although we cannot overcome attachment entirely by logical thinking, the Buddha recommended it as a start.
Why is that? Because the first step is to transform the way we think; at present, logic is still very effective in bringing about this change.
LET US LOOK FOR “SELF IN PHENOMENA”
Why do we want to look for the self in phenomena? Why do we want to follow this logic and thought process? How is the flower’s existence connected in any way with our liberation? Certainly, if we think this flower is real, the desire to acquire it arises; to pay for it, we must then go to work. In so doing, a lot of things will start to happen. However, if we see the flower only as a cluster of atoms or as energy and, moreover, know that it appears to us as a flower only because our eye consciousness is mistaken in its perception, we will suffer far less anxiety. Without attachment, karma will not be created.
Because we form a strong attachment to ourselves and everything outside, including the flower, and perceive them as truly existent, desire arises for things we covet and anger at things we find repugnant. When thoughts of desire, clinging, and enmity pervade our minds, we create karma; once karma is created, we are bound in samsara, unable to free ourselves from cyclic existence. This is why Ch’an Buddhism places constant emphasis on “non-attachment.”
However, some lay people have misinterpreted this exhortation. The principle of “non-attachment” is the core concept in Ch’an which many topics and discourses in this school are based on. Having read selected Ch’an teachings and heard the case stories of a few Ch’an masters, a number of people assume the supreme path to liberation consists of just staying detached. Hence, at the start, they refrain from forming any kind of attachment – neither releasing animals from captivity nor practicing the preliminaries; they continue to smoke, drink alcohol, eat meat, and even order live seafood to consume without misgiving. Because they claim that upholding the precepts, releasing animals from captivity, practicing the preliminaries, protecting life, etc. are all forms of attachment that obstruct the attainment of liberation. Actually, these are all misconceptions.
If problems could be solved just by staying detached, it would make life easy for everyone. However, things are never that simple. Although ultimately we want to cut through attachment and abandon all such activities that are undertaken due to ignorance, we hold on tightly to the concept of not forming attachments even when we do not yet have a method to eradicate attachment. This too is a kind of attachment – we are in fact attached to the concept of “non-attachment.” Thus, until we have a method at hand that effectively cuts through our attachment, we must not be detached.
In areas where the Chinese now populate, there are many transgressions and misconceptions of this kind. In earlier lectures, I have already mentioned some of the problems that are more serious or commonplace, and shall not repeat them here.
NOT FINDING THE “SELF” ≠ FINDING “NO-SELF”
The section above deals separately with concepts of the self in person and attachment to self in person, self in phenomena and attachment to self in phenomena, and how these things are harmful to us.
A number of people have come to me with a specific question: although we look for the “self” and do not find it, does it imply the “self” does not exist? Many things, like electromagnetic waves for instance, can neither be seen nor heard. Without the aid of instruments, we cannot possibly count on our five senses to know where to look for them. However, this does not imply these things do not exist. In the same way, we cannot conclude the “self” does not exist simply because it cannot be found.
This kind of reasoning is both logical and understandable. Nonetheless, there is a very important question which is raised not only in discourses on the emptiness of self but even in Dzogchen, i.e., what constitutes the realization of no-self? Does it mean that by way of simple reasoning and analyzing the physical and mental aspects of self, as long as the self is not found, it is considered realization of no-self? No, not finding it does not answer the question.
In the process of realizing no-self, we should distinguish between two stages: the first is not finding the self; the second is not only failing to find the self but also recognizing with certainty it does not exist. It is realization of no-self only when the non-existence of self is directly perceived.
Among Dzogchen practitioners, this is also a problem. Although some can abide in a meditative state that is free from mental discursion, they have not gained realization of any kind. This is not the state of realization of emptiness.
The sutras are very clear on this point: many people are afraid of snakes; if we see a snake enter our room in the daytime, can we feel safe in the evening when there is no light in the room? Even if we have checked every corner of the room for the snake and do not find it anywhere, we would still be afraid. We are inclined to think: I saw the snake enter the room and did not see it leave; although I did not find the snake, that’s only because I have not found it yet; it should still be there!
What should we do at that time? It would be best to light up every corner of the room, as in daytime, then examine and ascertain the snake is nowhere to be found. In so doing, we can relax and think: actually the snake is not in the room; perhaps it left when I was not noticing. Only then will our fear of the snake disappear.
Similarly, we cannot solve our problems simply by not finding the “self” in the body or mind. Only after clearly and directly realizing there is just no “self” can we claim to have gained realization of no-self in person. This view on no-self in person is also asserted by Mipham Rinpoche.
The same can be said of the absence of self in phenomena.
In the Middle Way doctrine, the investigation into the absence of self in phenomena is similar to the analysis we just conducted on the flower. This kind of analysis is easy to understand, even when explained according to the principles in physics. Matter can be broken down successively into its components; ultimately what is left is a large pile of infinitely minute particles – called dust, in Buddhist terminology. We will find the flower appears in its form and color only at the macro level; in reality, the so-called flower does not exist apart from dust.
Consider, for example, a gathering of people which is called a crowd; within the crowd, individuals can be grouped by family. After the groups are formed, the so-called crowd is just an assembly of families; apart from these families, the crowd does not exist as a distinct unit. But the so-called family is also a relative concept; apart from the individual members that comprise it, the family does not exist as a separate entity. If a family consists of five people, each of the five people is distinct; without these five people, there is no family to speak of.
In the same way, apart from dust, the so-called flower, vase, etc. do not exist. At that juncture, it is not that we do not find these things but that we are fully aware they don’t exist at all. In other words, as we look at the flower and analyze it, the flower is at once non-existent.
Not finding the self and not having true existence are two very different things — a point that can easily be mistaken. We must understand that no-self is realized only after clearly recognizing no part of self exists.
If we examine each brick or steel beam in a building and do not find anything substantive there, it does not mean we have realized no-self. Many philosophers and scientists cannot find the “self” either. Can we infer they have realized no- self? Actually, the “self” does not exist in and of itself, so no one can find it whoever he or she may be. Descartes would not have found the “self” if he had looked for it. Be that as it may, philosophers and scientists still have this attachment and stubbornly believe the “self” exists, whether it can be found or not; they do not believe there is no “self.”
We should be concerned, not so much with not finding the “self,” but with knowing there is no “self.” Hence, at the beginning of our practice, we should not set our sights too high — on practices such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra. The first step is to clearly investigate where the root of samsara, afflictions, or the so-called “self” is.
Because the “self” does not truly exist, no one can locate it; a person who hears the teaching for the first time and contemplates on its meaning after returning home will not be able to find the so-called “self” either. But this will not cut through afflictions right away. Only with further investigation can one conclude with certainty – it is not that there is a self that cannot be found, but that there is actually no self at all.
Having established the view of no-self at that point, no further examination is necessary. The subsequent step is to practice.
As in taking a walk, if we have a clear view of the road, we can walk briskly ahead without worrying what is in front or behind us.
THE RATIONALE BEHIND “NO-SELF” – A CLOSER LOOK
Strictly speaking, it is best to realize emptiness before one undertakes the practice of all phenomena lacking self- existence; however, realizing emptiness is not easy since there are many basic requirements such as the preliminaries that have to be completed.
Regardless, one who practices emptiness must at least understand the underlying concept; only then can emptiness be practiced. If we do not even know what no-self or emptiness means, we will not know how to practice emptiness. Hence, prior to teaching the practice of no-self, I shall first explain the principle of “no-self” — why there is “no-self,” that is, why the “self” does not exist. With this understanding, the practice can then proceed.
The concepts of self in person, self in phenomena, attachment to self in person, and attachment to self in phenomena have already been discussed up front. We have also explained why we should cut through attachment, and given a simple introduction to the Buddhist concept of five aggregates – defining the aggregates as body, mind, and the activities of the body and mind which people today can more easily understand, and establishing at the outset there is no self in any of the three categories. Next, we shall take a closer look at no-self.
Indeed, the concepts of no-self and emptiness are difficult to comprehend because ordinary people have since beginningless time always believed that the self exists, moreover, that all sentient beings, the world outside, etc. exist. This notion is firmly entrenched in us and hard to change; only through repeated exposition of emptiness and practice of no-self can emptiness be understood.
If properly explained, teachings on precious human birth, impermanence, etc. to generate renunciation can be expounded at any time to anyone. However, the concept and practice of emptiness is profound and cannot be comprehended by everyone. Not only that, some people upon hearing the teaching develop a mistaken view of Buddhism – a lot of people have the bad habit of refuting that which they do not apprehend. Hence, these people who cannot understand the doctrine of emptiness consider it to be a misconception.
The Buddha recognized this problem and specified that teachings on emptiness be given only to a selective audience. To receive the teachings, one must have the right disposition. There are rules on who can listen to the teachings and who cannot.
WHO IS QUALIFIED TO RECEIVE TEACHINGS ON EMPTINESS?
In Introduction to the Middle Way, it is said everyone is endowed with two kinds of root virtue or capacity: one is the wisdom of emptiness, the other the accumulation of merit – also known as the roots of wisdom and skillful means. One can receive the teachings on emptiness only when his or her wisdom capacity is mature.
What are the perceptible signs of mature wisdom root in a person? If upon hearing the teachings of emptiness, a person exudes great confidence with tears running down the face and the hair on the body standing up – these are signs of mature root of wisdom. A person of this capacity will quickly realize emptiness when he or she receives the teachings. So it is necessary to give the teaching in this case.
What about a person who on hearing the teachings of emptiness and no-self has no reaction at all and appears dull, displaying neither confidence nor repugnance? On this point, the great master Tsongkhapa said in his commentary on Introduction to the Middle Way that without clairvoyant power, a teacher cannot ascertain a person’s capacity nor know the extent to which the teachings on emptiness can be expounded. Nonetheless, a person who has genuine respect for a spiritual friend or guru and adheres strictly to the guru’s every word is also qualified to receive the teachings on emptiness, even if the person does not exhibit the kind of reactions mentioned above.
Why is that? Although the wisdom capacity of this type of person is not yet mature, they have deep faith in their spiritual friend; they accept whatever the spiritual friend says and whatever is taught by the buddhas and bodhisattvas. In their minds, there cannot possibly be any mistake in the teachings of the guru and that of the buddhas and bodhisattvas; even if they do not understand emptiness at the moment, they can accept the concept. Hence, it is also fine to teach emptiness to this kind of person.
There is also a type of person of inferior capacity who does not respond to the teachings on emptiness and has no faith in the spiritual friend. Not only that, these people find the teachings to be repugnant and misconceived: “Clearly the mountains and rivers exist, my own existence cannot be denied either; how can we say these things are non-existent and empty?”
Seriously mistaken views arise as a result. Thus, one cannot in general expound emptiness to this kind of person.
Nonetheless, the sutras also say we should all listen to the teachings on emptiness whether we have faith in it or not. Why is that? Even if a person rejects the teachings and declines into hell, it is but one rebirth in hell. Having listened to the teachings on emptiness, the person has planted the seeds of emptiness which will ripen in the not too distant future. Hence, after leaving the hell realm, the person’s journey in samsara will come to an end at some point just on account of this seed of virtue. Without hearing the teachings, there can be no end to the cycle of rebirth, no opportunity for liberation. Hence, Bodhisattva Manjusri believed this type of person should also listen to the teachings on emptiness.
EMPTINESS IS THE ESSENCE OF THE BUDDHAS’ TEACHINGS
The Buddha once said that among his teachings on various topics, many do not reveal the complete meaning because they are directed at educating people of certain mental dispositions. However, there is one teaching which is definitive and invariable, a core concept repeated time and time again by the buddhas not only of the present but also the past and future– that of emptiness. Emptiness is ultimate truth. It is the essence of Buddhist doctrine, the underlying substance of the teachings of Buddha Sakyamuni as well as the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions and three times.
Why is emptiness the essence of Buddhadharma? Because all buddhas and bodhisattvas have but one goal in mind, that is, to help sentient beings attain liberation. How can this be achieved? We cannot resolve the question of birth, aging, illness, and death, or obtain liberation by way of clairvoyant powers, etc. There is only one root cause of cyclic existence and only one method that can eliminate it. The root cause of cyclic existence is ignorance. All afflictions such as greed, anger, and delusion stem from ignorance or from self- attachment which arises from ignorance.
How do we overcome ignorance? Only wisdom can cut through ignorance, since wisdom and ignorance directly oppose or contradict one another. There is no such contradiction between ignorance and other methods like generosity, moral conduct, patience, and meditative absorption.
The wisdom herein refers not to worldly knowledge; it is the unsurpassed wisdom propagated by Buddha Sakyamuni, the realization of emptiness of self in person and in phenomena. The essence of the teachings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions and three times is none other than the wisdom that realizes emptiness.
HOW TO ESTABLISH EMPTINESS OF SELF
How do we realize emptiness? There are many different methods for realizing emptiness; these are all covered in Basic Concepts of the Middle Way and Practicing No-Self which I have discussed in the past. Because the actual practice of no-self shall be taught this time, the methods and view of selflessness must be restated before the practice.
Emptiness is a very profound concept which cannot be clearly understood in one teaching. When we first came upon the teachings on emptiness in the shastras such as Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Introduction to the Middle Way, and Treatise of Four Hundred Verses, we would listen to them multiple times. If we had skimmed over it, we would not have apprehended its true significance. I therefore think you will not be able to understand much either with just one teaching. The key to fully apprehending and realizing emptiness is repetitive hearing, contemplation, and practice.
Buddha Sakyamuni spoke here and there in the sutras of methods which employ logic to support the validity of his words. Later Nagarjuna carried the Buddha’s logical reasoning further and established the fundamental doctrine of the Middle Way. Although the methods of reasoning in the Middle Way school are vast and precise, I shall only mention two of the five great reasonings that are most important and easiest to understand: one is “Neither One nor Many”– through the process of disassembling, the parts that make up the self, that is, the body and mental factors, are found to be empty; the other is “Dependent Arising” – based on the principle of dependent arising, all conditioned phenomena are relative phenomena and, as such, lack true existence.
1.Neither One nor Many
This topic was addressed earlier and is further explained here.
(1)Investigating Physical Matter
Emptiness of self in person is not difficult to understand. The three components of the self in person are the body, mind, and activities of the body and mind; apart from these, there can be no other self in person. Using the logical reasoning of the Middle Way, we can establish these three components are empty.
To start, let’s investigate the body, not the mind. To establish the emptiness of self in person, we do not need to examine the body at the microscopic level; it is sufficient to just break the body down to a certain point.
Why is that? Because attachment to self in person is formed on the basis of the five aggregates at the gross level. When we know the gross body, mind, etc. do not exist, the foundation of attachment to self in person is damaged; once it is damaged, the attachment cannot survive on its own.
How do we investigate this? The conventional view is that our body and mind are distinct entities. Actually, the body, as well as the mind, is just a composite term.
For instance, the word “people” does not refer to a specific person but to all persons. Similarly, the word “body” is only a general term, since the body can be broken down into many different parts – skin, skeleton, muscles, etc. Each of the parts can be further broken down, for example, the skeleton into a skull, shinbone, calf bone, etc. This is not just the standpoint of anatomy, it is also common knowledge. As such, we can be certain the body is not something that cannot be taken apart, but like a car that can be totally disassembled.
All of us think a car is an assembly of car parts. When all the components are put together, a car is produced; however, if we take the components apart, down to the tiniest of screws, can we call these parts a car? No, we can only call it a huge pile of parts or a huge pile of metal, rubber, etc. At that point, we cannot say what a car is or recognize which part is the car. We cannot find traces of the car in any of the parts.
As mentioned, at that point, not only is there no car to be found, we can be very certain, aside from the parts, the so- called car has ceased to exist. Moreover, each assembly of the car is also made up of still smaller parts. A pile of parts that make up the assembly cannot be called an assembly either; it is no more than a large pile of metal, plastic, etc. It is not possible to say where the so-called assembly is; no one can tell in which screw or scrap of metal the assembly can be found. In other words, just the notion of an assembly is also groundless.
We can apply this line of analysis even to a tiny screw. The screw can also be broken down into metal chips; each chip can be further reduced to uncountable metal powder. When we continue to dissect things in this way, we’ll end up with an elementary particle called quark in physics.
The scriptures mention a similar concept like quark from very early on and call it “dust.” The so-called “dust” is a minute particle. Actually, quark and dust are the same thing.
Currently in physics, the quark is said to be the smallest unit and the fundamental constituent of matter. It has no form or color and does not occupy any space; it has none of the properties attributed to physical matter. We also know that its existence is supported by substantial research and evidence.
However, physicists have hit a bottleneck and are not able to move forward. Whether the final answer is a quark or energy, they still ascribe to the view that it is a truly existent thing. But from the Buddhist viewpoint, be it quarks or dust particles, all have been completely broken down; nothing remains in the end. Thus, the so-called car just disintegrates in front of us. Where does the car go? Whether a car or a house, everything that undergoes investigation eventually disintegrates into emptiness before our eyes, a state which words cannot describe. This outcome is reached after extensive analysis based on the Buddha’s logic.
Such a realization can be overwhelming: all along, I think the car exists; as it turns out, not only the car but all physical matter, even if perceptible to the eye, lack inherent nature. What we see on the outside is just an experience produced by our eyes; apart from this feeling, things do not truly exist and cannot be found at all. This is called emptiness.
The above is an analysis undertaken on physical matter; in investigating this area, quantum physics offers a very good method. This is not to imply the sutras do not have better methods of analysis. The scriptures contain very precise and clear methods for establishing emptiness; however, explaining the doctrine in the ancient terminology of Madhyamaka, Abhidharma, etc. employed over 2,500 years ago requires some effort. To a well-educated audience, the Dharma can be easily understood if terms like atoms, neutrons, and quarks are used.
Nevertheless, I believe most people do not know what a quark is, much less what lies beyond quarks. Actually, it is not important to know what a quark is; we just need to transcend it. Using Buddhist doctrine, we can get beyond it. In the teachings, something as minute as a quark also needs to be invalidated.
Some people may ask: how can a quark, which has no form or color and does not occupy space, be invalidated?
We form attachment even to minute and subtle things. If we have this kind of fixation, even if we have invalidated the “self” at the gross level and nullified the essence of matter, we must still find a way to destroy it. In Abhidharmakosa, it is said the state of the heavenly beings in the form and formless realms is already a very subtle one; although it does not occupy space, this state is still classified as matter.
How can it be destroyed? With the same method employed above. If we continue to use this method of investigation, all things eventually become empty of self-existence.
At the stage of investigating matter that has no color and does not take up space, it may become difficult to continue with the investigation because there is no object for us to grasp. If so, we can use the Madhyamaka method of reasoning that refutes the arising of something already existent or non- existent.
By way of this reasoning, we will know all phenomena and matter are neither born nor annihilated. Since they are not born, they cannot exist. These analytical methods are both convincing and easy to use. With these methods, it is not a difficult matter to establish emptiness.
Ordinarily, we think all things exist; there is a self, an external world, a body, and mind. However, upon examination, we now discover that these things cannot be found at all.
Some scientists also have the same experience, but they conduct their analysis only from the standpoint of things being matter. As long as this is the case, their investigation is incomplete. One must know physics and Buddhist doctrine can never be the same; they only have certain conceptual similarity. In the end, only Buddhist logic can help us overcome attachment completely.
Some people will ask: if all things do not exist, why are we able to perceive them? This is because we perceive them incorrectly. Why is that? Our eye consciousness is also tainted by ignorance and is therefore subject to error.
This point can easily be established. For instance, apart from motion which is readily apparent in a fire, river current, etc., our eyes see all things as basically motionless. Actually, all matter is composed of very small particles. These particles are in a constant state of flux, arising and ceasing each instant, even if measured in only one millionth of a second. There is nothing that stands still in this world. As such, why do we not see it? This illustrates the problem we have with our eyes. They are obstructed by ignorance and thus cannot see the true face of matter. If they cannot perceive the truth at this level, the more profound nature of reality is even harder to discern.
There are countless other examples you can take time to think about. We will not mention these examples individually. Nonetheless, a great deal of evidence tells us our eyes cannot be counted on. We cannot place trust in our eye, ear, nose, and tongue; we cannot think things exist simply because we see them. This way of thinking has already been invalidated here. If this reasoning were valid, we would say our eyes tell us this object is still; hence it is not in motion, it is still. However, we now know this is not the case.
Even if our eyes can see, our ears can hear, there is nothing special about that since neither the eye nor the ear can apprehend the true nature of reality. Sound waves also change moment to moment. For instance, when we hear the two words “yan jing (eyes)” pronounced, we do not hear the arising and ceasing that take place within the sound, however hard we may try. We hear a continuous sound “yan_ _ _ jing_ _ _ ” but, in fact, what we hear is not one continuous sound, just instants of sound connected together.
Consider another example. If we light up a candle and make a circle in the dark with the candle, we will see a bright circle of fire. Actually, there is no circle to speak of. A circle does not exist at all. Because our eyes cannot capture each instant and step as the candle moves, we mistake all of these instants for one motion that is concurrent, continuous, and indivisible.
Similarly, when the two words “sheng yin (sound)” are pronounced, they too can be separated into many instants, each one thousandth of a second or one ten-thousandth of a second. These two words are not one continuous sound, but instants of sound that are pronounced in sequence. However, our ears are not able to make the distinction.
Also, a lot of people know that cosmic radiation, an electromagnetic radiation brought on by energy particles in the sky, is something very subtle which the eye cannot perceive. It penetrates our body all the time, including our heart and brain, yet we do not feel it at all. Although we do not feel it, it nonetheless exists. Hence, our sense of touch, that is, our tactile consciousness also cannot be relied on.
To sum up, even without Buddhist logic, the laws of physics have refuted what the eye, ear, nose, and tongue recognize or feel. Our experiences are all mistaken. If an object can be seen, this does not necessarily mean it exists; if an object cannot be seen, this does not necessarily mean it does not exist either.
The real truth is the Buddha’s method of reasoning.
Of course, our mental activity is dictated by the sixth consciousness which itself is also a mistake. Nevertheless, at the stage we are now, we can only rely on the sixth consciousness to guide us, to lead us to a certain stage whereat our speech, thought process, etc. lose their former effectiveness and functions and must be discarded, like a pair of worn-out shoes that has outlasted its usefulness.
What state is the mind in after mental fabrications are discarded? At that point, it’s just direct cognition. Whose cognition? It’s wisdom’s cognition, not that of the sixth consciousness. At that point, our sixth consciousness has already transformed into wisdom. Although not yet the wisdom of the buddhas, it is the wisdom of the bodhisattvas. This is just what we need. When wisdom appears, ignorance at the gross level is immediately eliminated; we instantly comprehend the true nature of life, phenomena, and the universe. This is what’s been pointed out in Ch’an Buddhism and Dzogchen as sudden enlightenment.
But before we attain this final result, we need to contemplate. We cannot cultivate wisdom without contemplation; to contemplate, we need to learn the doctrine of the Middle Way and emptiness of self. The Buddha expounded a way of reasoning that directly contradicts conventional thinking; if we follow the common view, we will stay in samsara forever. What we seek is the uncommon wisdom that frees us from samsara, that is, realization of emptiness.
The above discussion pertains to investigating the body.
(2)Investigating the Mind
There is a certain degree of difficulty in any investigation of the mind, since it is an entity, unlike the body, that cannot be seen or touched. The body is the first of the aggregates explained in the sutras because it represents external and substantial matter; consciousness, on the other hand, is placed at the end because it pertains to mental phenomena which are the most difficult to examine.
For most of us, the best way to investigate the mind is to analyze it in relation to time. In the case of physical matter, we are not limited to the use of time to establish emptiness. For instance, to conclude a house is empty of self-existence, we can analyze and break it down by direction, i.e., east, south, west, north, up, down, and so forth. However, we cannot use this method with the mind.
How is time used in the investigation? By examining the mind in three stages – the present, past, and future.
The past is already gone and will never come back. Einstein believed if the speed of light is surpassed, time can be reversed, the past can reappear, but this is not possible. For instance, our childhood no longer exists; whether it is with the speed of light or greater, we cannot be transported back to our past. How can something that does not exist appear again? It is not possible. The future refers to an event that is about to happen; from the present standpoint, it has not happened yet and hence cannot exist anywhere within the one billion world systems. In other words, if there is anything that can possibly exist, it is the present.
However, the past, present, and future are only a relative concept. There is no absolute past, present, or future.
As an example, if we consider the daytime to be the present, then the time before that is the past, the time that has yet to come is the future; the present consists of 12 hours. If we consider this month to be the present, then the month before is the past, the following month is the future; this present is a full month. If we say this year is the present, then the previous year is the past, the next year is the future; this present spans 365 days ……
That being the case, how long is the present? Some people think the present is just this instant.
Notwithstanding, if we divide time even more minutely and examine the present moment, we will discover things are not what we think. As with the outcome in analyzing matter, when time is broken down into its smallest unit and we try to divide it further, we will find nothing left. Why it that? Because time is finite, not limitless; divided over and over again, eventually there is nothing that remains. On this point, philosophers differ: some think time can be divided indefinitely; others believe time can no longer be divided after a certain point. But these are all misconceptions. Time can only get shorter and shorter, not longer, when it is broken down; as such, we can be certain nothing is left to be divided at the end. Moreover, who is to say time cannot be broken down after a certain point? Who sets the rules on this? The truth is not subject to limitation or manipulation, nor established through subjective evaluation.
On the concept of time, physicists also maintain different positions; however, from the Buddhist perspective, time is not physical matter. For instance, when we plant a flower seed and watch it sprout, grow, blossom, and finally wither, we can set a time table for its progression. Apart from the seed ripening into a flower, this so-called time does not exist on its own.
Even though we believe a watch represents the passing of time, this is only our imputation or designation. Actually, it is just mechanical motion which is not connected in any way with time.
Time is essentially a concept of nominal existence, not true existence. Since time is nominally existent, we cannot find the real present.
The analysis above tells us neither the body nor mind has true existence. As such, their activities are even less likely to exist.
We should also think this way during practice. By way of meditation, let the mind rest first, since all realizations and positive feelings are attained when the mind is in a state of equanimity. We cannot experience realization of any depth if we are preoccupied with thoughts. Although renunciation and bodhicitta can be maintained and cultivated by contemplation, realization of emptiness can only be experienced when the mind is calm.
Here, being calm is only in the relative sense, that is, to focus only on the examination of whether there is body, mind, self, etc. When the examination is much more thorough, one can clearly realize: everything I see and hear is only an illusion, with no basis at all.
In one of the commentaries on the Middle Way, there is a good example: a certain kind of yellow flower grows on the surface of lakes; from afar, the flowers are a resplendent golden hue, but up close, one sees that the flowers are not rooted in the ground but floating on the lake. The root of the flower reaches a certain length and disappears. No one can find the roots.
What does this example tell us? Prior to undergoing examination, the body, mind, world, universe, etc., these things all exist; but if we examine every solid object individually and look for its origin, we will find that at some point it disappears into empty space, like the flower in the example.
What does this disappearance signify? We should not think — like when a switch is turned on, light appears, and when a switch is turned off, light disappears — that brightness denotes existence, and darkness denotes disappearance. Such is not the case. Rather, we see light, but the light and the particles that make up the light at the very same moment do not actually exist. This effect is the inseparable union of appearance and emptiness. If we interpret disappearance to be the nonexistence of light when it is turned off, that would be nihilism. This method of investigation establishes emptiness of true existence by adopting the reasoning “neither one nor many” as the primary argument, and the reasoning “refuting the arising of something already existent or non-existent” as supplement.
Another method of investigation is dependent arising. All things that are relative do not have inherent existence and do not truly exist. This principle is very easy to understand with the following example.
Prior to or at the time of Buddha Sakyamuni, there were many magicians in ancient India who performed amazing feats of all kinds. Certain matter could also produce an illusion, for instance, the skin of a snake could be removed and rolled up into a light fuse; once lit, the people around would see that everything in the house where there was light had turned into a snake. This was an optical illusion that relied on the power of a certain matter to manifest. Another kind of magic derived from the power of the mantras; by chanting the mantras, the magicians could change a stone, a piece of wood, etc. into an animal and even a human being. Although these physical objects were not actually transformed into a human being or animal, an optical illusion was produced because of the substantial power of the mantras.
Why do I bring up these examples? So everyone can understand all things that are relative and impermanent lack inherent or true existence.
If gathered here today we chanted the mantras and thereby changed a flower into an apple, everyone would agree this is just an illusion, that there is no apple to speak of. No logic would be needed to make this point. However, please consider why we think this way. It is because we saw a flower when we first entered the room, not an apple – it was originally a flower and only became an apple when we chanted the mantras – so we do not believe it is an apple. This I believe would be the extent of everyone’s reasoning.
Let me then ask whether this flower was originally a flower? Certainly not. The flower originated as a seed; it did not originate as a flower! The person who planted the seed in the ground had to regularly water and fertilize the seed, loosen the soil, etc.; as a result of this effort, the seed became a flower, emerging as a root, stem, bulb, and so forth. When a seed becomes a flower, we acknowledge it is a flower; but when a flower becomes an apple, we do not consider it an apple. Why is that? You may say it’s because we chanted the mantras that the flower became an apple; but, in the same way, it was the effort placed in growing the flower that the seed became a flower.
Why is chanting the mantras considered magic, whereas placing effort in growing the flower is not?
Perhaps some people will reply: we have never seen or heard a flower can be transformed into an apple; even children know, as well as many people who have seen it first-hand, that only the fruit of an apple tree is an apple.
But who is to say an apple can only come from an apple tree, and not from a flower? You will answer this is what our eyes tell us. Yet we have already shown our eyes cannot be counted on, that our sense perception is mistaken and cannot qualify as evidence!
Actually, these are all our attachment since we have a habit of thinking an apple comes from an apple tree, and that an instant transformation from a flower to an apple cannot be anything but magic. We are accustomed to thinking this way, but there is no real basis for it. We see that the flower is there for a relatively longer time, that there is a process by which a flower grows from a seed, so we believe it exists; the apple on the other hand appears in an instant, so we do not think it is real. Apart from the length of time in which they exist, is there any other difference between the two? No!
For this reason, the Buddha said all relative phenomena which depend on other things to come into being are empty in and of themselves.
The term “relative” means not absolute, not permanent. It refers to something that can be changed or transformed, and arises in dependence on causes and conditions. When causes and conditions come together, something is produced, which we say is relative. Simply speaking, all things that come into being due to causes and conditions are called relative phenomena; all relative phenomena do not have self-nature.
What does it mean to have no self-nature? For example, everyone believes the apple that comes from a flower lacks self-nature. Why does it lack self-nature?
The Buddha responded in this way, “It is you yourselves who say the apple lacks self-nature.”
When did we ever say that?
“At the very moment you determined the apple is not real.”
Actually, in our minds, we have already accepted this viewpoint; we just don’t know it.
Sakyamuni Buddha was consistent in that he never used his own logic to refute anything; instead, he used the confusion in our own reasoning to invalidate our own viewpoint; he allowed us to discover our own mistake by seeing the contradictions in our argument. The Buddha did not make assertions of any kind.
This is not simply a question of overturning or refuting a point, since the theory of emptiness as taught in the Middle Way is extremely profound. We should keep in mind that many of our arguments cannot withstand analysis.
Rangzom Pandita, the great Ningmapa master, once told a very interesting story: a long time ago, there was a group of workers who made weaving their livelihood. One day, to build a loom, one of the workers had to go up the mountain to cut down trees. Inside the forest, he discovered that the trees were all very healthy – tall and straight. He thought it would be a shame to cut down the trees just for a loom. As a result, he abandoned his original plan and searched everywhere in the forest for suitable material to use. Unable to find any and exhausted after a long time, he lay down under a big tree and fell asleep.
At this time, the tree spirit was very pleased to learn what the worker had in mind. The spirit thus came to his side and asked, “It is most unusual that you cherish and want to protect the forest! To reward you, I can grant you a wish. Is there anything you want or wish for?” The worker pondered for a while but could not think of anything. He then told the tree spirit, “I would like to go back and consult with my partners before giving you a reply.” The tree spirit quickly agreed.
After the workers debated this question back and forth, they finally came up with a wish: we are all weavers; it would be great if we could weave from both sides of the body, the front and back! Go back and just ask for this siddhi (accomplishment)! The worker went back into the forest and asked the tree spirit to grant him this wish. Upon hearing it, the tree spirit executed the wish. In an instant, the worker was transformed into a person with a face and hands in front, and a face and hands in back.
When he returned to the village, the terrified villagers shouted, “A ghost is here! A ghost is here!” In the end, the poor worker was stoned to death by the “brave” villagers.
After he died, the villagers slowly got up the courage to approach his dead body. Everyone was shocked to discover that his body was the same in front as in back. There was basically no difference at all. Reasonably speaking, only the face and hands in front should be real; the face and hands in the back ought to be an illusion; there should have been a difference. But after his death, people could not tell the two sides apart.
What does this story tell us? Unlike what people think, the illusion produced from magic can be the same as the real thing. We used to believe an apple which is produced from a flower is not real and cannot be eaten. Actually, it is possible to eat this kind of apple; things created by magic can be just as real. We no longer have reason to think the way we used to.
If there is no reason to think so, why have we held on to the belief? It is our habit. This habit is formed by what our eye or ear perceives, since we have either witnessed or have heard this kind of phenomenon: a flower seed can grow into a flower after it is cultivated.
Now the truth is out that all misconceptions stem from the mistaken perception of the eye or ear. From beginningless time, we have placed great faith in our sense perceptions, which have trapped us in samsara. What we need to do now is to overturn all points of view that are based on these perceptions and reject any additional information they provide. In so doing, we can stay clear of samara and follow the path of liberation.
When we are conscious of our mistake, it is definitely a start towards realization of emptiness. Like a stream of light that appears at dawn, even though it cannot compare with the sunlight during the day, it is nonetheless not too far from it.
Everyone must take time to contemplate since we develop attachment to all different kinds of thought in our everyday life. For instance, we do not regard the images of people we see on a TV screen to be real. If we are asked why they are not real, we will generally say these images appear only after we plug in the TV and turn on the switch, and after the TV receives the signals from an antenna transmitted via electromagnetic waves. Thus the image is not the person.
On what basis do we say the image transmitted by electromagnetic waves is not a real person? After all, a person also comes into being from other things. We all know a person is an embryo before birth; it is a fertilized egg before the embryo; it is a sperm and egg before the fertilized egg. What is it before the sperm and egg? No one knows. If we acknowledge a person is real, even if it is transformed from other things, why do we feel differently about the image on the TV screen? There is no basis for it, merely our habit at work. These habits are a product of ignorance. Due to ignorance, we discriminate between what is real and not real.
The concepts in the Middle Way are explained in great depth, the two mentioned above are comparatively easy to understand. There are also many concepts which are complex; just learning the special Dharma terms in each requires great effort and time. Hence, they will not be discussed this time. If interested, one can read up on other commentaries on the Middle Way.
You should all take time to think about these two methods of reasoning, sometimes by investigating yourself, sometimes by investigating the outside world. I believe, through this kind of examination, we can diminish our attachment, even control and repudiate it. To what extent attachment can be repudiated depends on our practice.
Although we now understand the concepts, our afflictions, self-attachment, etc. will still remain. If we persevere in our practice, our wisdom will grow and we will eventually be able to eradicate our afflictions and self-attachment; without practice, we will not be able to progress beyond an intellectual understanding of the concepts. We cannot blame the Dharma, only ourselves. Absent the practice, how can one progress? No result can be had without making an effort.
Although the object is different in the case of no-self in person and no-self in phenomena, i.e., one is an examination of the world inside, the other an examination of the world outside, the two are in essence the same. There is no difference at all in the method of investigation and the result.