The primordial purity of the ground completely transcends words, concepts, and formulations.
- JAMGON KONGTRUL, Myriad Worlds, translated and edited by the International Committee of Kunkhyab Choling
The definition of emptiness as “infinite possibility” is a basic description of a very complicated term. A subtler meaning, which might have been lost on early translators, implies that whatever arises out of this infinite potential - whether it’s a thought, a word, a planet, or a table - doesn’t truly exist as a “thing” in itself, but is rather the result of numerous causes and conditions. If any of those causes or conditions are changed or removed, a different phenomenon will arise. Like the principles outlined in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, quantum mechanics tends to describe experience in terms not simply of a single possible chain of events leading to a single result, but rather of probabilities of events and occurrences - which, in an odd way, is closer to the Buddhist understanding of absolute reality, in which a variety of outcomes are theoretically possible.
Whatever depends on conditions is explained to be empty. . . .
- Sutra Requested by Madropa, translated by Ari Goldfield
To use a simple example, imagine two different chairs: one that has four sturdy legs and one that has two good legs and two cracked ones. If you sit in the chair that has four good legs, you’ll be very comfortable. Sit in the other one and you’ll end up on the floor. On a superficial level, they can both be said to be “chairs.” But your experience of each “chair” will be unmistakably different because the underlying conditions are not the same.
This coming together of different causes is known, in Buddhist terms, as interdependence. We can see the principle of interdependence at work all the time in the world around us. A seed, for example, carries within itself the potential for growth, but it can only realize its potential - that is, become a tree, a bush, or a vine - under certain conditions. It has to be planted, watered, and given the proper amount of light. Even under the right conditions, whatever grows depends on the kind of seed planted. An apple seed won’t grow into an orange tree, nor will an orange seed become a tree that suddenly sprouts apples. So, even within a seed, the principle of interdependence applies.
Similarly, the choices we make in our daily lives do have a relative effect, setting in motion causes and conditions that create inevitable consequences in the domain of relative reality. Relative choices are like stones tossed in a pond. Even if the stone doesn’t go very far, wherever it falls, concentric ripples will spread out from the area where the stone hits. There’s no way for this not to happen (unless, of course, your aim is really bad and you miss the pond altogether and send a stone sailing through your neighbor’s window, in which case a whole different set of consequences will occur).
In the same way, your ideas about yourself - “I’m not good enough,” “I’m too fat,” or “I made a horrible mistake yesterday” - are based on prior causes and conditions. Maybe you didn’t sleep well the night before. Maybe someone said something you didn’t like earlier in the day. Or maybe you’re just hungry and your body is crying out for vitamins or minerals that it needs to function properly. Something as simple as a lack of water can cause fatigue, headaches, and an inability to concentrate. Any number of things can determine the nature of relative experience without changing the absolute reality of who you are.
When I was being examined by neuroscientists at the laboratory in Wisconsin, I asked a lot of questions about how modern scientists understand perception. Buddhists have their own theories, but I was curious about the Western scientific point of view. What I learned was that from a strictly neuroscientific standpoint any act of perception requires three essential elements: a stimulus - such as a visual form, a sound, a smell, a taste, or something we touch or that touches us; a sensory organ; and a set of neuronal circuits in the brain that organize and make sense of the signals received from the sense organ.
Using visual perception of a banana as an example, the scientists I spoke with explained that the optic nerves - the sensory neurons in the eye - first detect a long yellow curved thing, which maybe has a brown spot at either end. Excited by this stimulus, the neurons start firing off messages to the thalamus, a neuronal structure located at the very center of the brain. The thalamus is something like a central switchboard, like the kind portrayed in old movies, where sensory messages are sorted before being passed to other areas of the brain.
Once the messages from the optic nerves are sorted by the thalamus, they’re sent to the limbic system, the region of the brain chiefly responsible for processing emotional responses and sensations of pain and pleasure. At this point our brains make a sort of immediate judgment on whether the visual stimulus - in this case the long yellow curved thing with brown spots at either end - is a good thing, a bad thing, or something neutral. Like the feeling we sometimes get in the presence of other people, we tend to refer to this immediate response as a “gut reaction,” though it doesn’t occur entirely in the stomach. It’s just a lot easier to use this shorthand description than to go into details like “a stimulation of neurons in the limbic region.”
As this information is processed in the limbic area, it is simultaneously passed “higher up” to the regions of the neocortex, the mainly analytical region of the brain, where it’s organized into patterns - or, more specifically, concepts - that provide the guide or map we use to navigate the everyday world. The neocortex evaluates the pattern and arrives at the conclusion that the object that stimulated our optic nerve cells is, in fact, a banana. And if the neocortex has already created the pattern or concept “banana,” it offers up all sorts of associated details based on past experiences - for example, what a banana tastes like, whether we like the taste or not, and all sorts of other details related to our concept of a banana, all of which enable us to decide how to respond with greater precision to the object we see as a banana.
What I’ve described is just a bare outline of the process of perception. But even a glimpse of the process provides a clue to how even an ordinary object can become a cause of happiness or unhappiness. Once we’ve arrived at the stage where we recognize a banana, we’re really not seeing the original object anymore. Instead, we’re seeing an image of it constructed by the neocortex. And this image is conditioned by a huge variety of factors, including our environment, expectations, and prior experiences, as well as the very structure of our neuronal circuitry. In the brain itself, the sensory processes and all these factors can be said to be interdependent in the sense that they continuously influence one another. Because the neocortex ultimately provides the pattern by which we’re able to recognize, name, and predict the behavior, or “rules,” associated with an object we perceive, it does, in a very profound sense, shape the world for us. In other words, we’re not seeing the absolute reality of the banana, but rather its relative appearance, a mentally constructed image.
To illustrate this point, during the first Mind and Life Institute conference in 1987, Dr. Livingston described a simple experiment that involved presenting a group of research subjects with the letter T, carefully drawn so that both the horizontal and the vertical segments were exactly equal in length. When asked whether one of the two segments was longer than the other or equal in length, three different responses were given, each based on the subjects’ backgrounds. For example, most of the people who lived or had been raised in mainly flat environments, like the Netherlands, tended to see the horizontal (or flat) segment as longer. By contrast, people living or raised in mountainous environments, and therefore more likely to perceive things in terms of up and down, were overwhelmingly convinced that the vertical segment was longer. Only a small group of subjects was able to recognize the two segments as equal in length.
In strictly biological terms, then, the brain is an active participant in the shaping and conditioning of perception. Although scientists would not deny that there is a “real world” of objects beyond the confines of the body, it’s generally agreed that even though sensory experiences appear to be very direct and immediate, the processes involved are far more subtle and complex than they appear. As Francisco Varela commented later on in the conference, “It’s as if the brain actually makes the world come through in perception.”
The brain’s active role in the process of perception plays a critical part in determining our ordinary state of mind. And this active role opens the possibility for those willing to undertake certain practices of mental training to gradually change long-standing perceptions shaped by years of prior conditioning. Through retraining, the brain can develop new neuronal connections, through which it becomes possible not only to transform existing perceptions but also to move beyond ordinary mental conditions of anxiety, helplessness, and pain and toward a more lasting experience of happiness and peace.
This is good news for anyone who feels trapped in ideas about the way life is. Nothing in your experience - your thoughts, feelings, or sensations - is as fixed and unchangeable as it appears. Your perceptions are only crude approximations of the true nature of things. Actually, the universe in which you live and the universe in your mind form an integrated whole. As explained to me by neuroscientists, physicists, and psychologists, in a bold effort to describe reality in objective, rational terms, modern science has begun to restore in us a sense of the magic and majesty of existence.
SUBJECTS AND OBJECTS: A NEUROSCIENTIFIC VIEW
Dualistic thought is the dynamic energy of mind.
- JAMGON KONGTRUL, Creation and Completion, translated by Sarah Harding
Armed with a bit more information about physics and biology, we can ask some deeper questions about the absolute reality of emptiness and the relative reality of daily experience. For example, if what we perceive is just an image of an object, and the object itself, from the point of view of a physicist, is a whirling mass of tiny particles, then why do we experience something like a table in front of us as solid? How can we see and feel a glass of water on the table? If we drink the water, it seems real and tangible enough. How can that be? If we don’t drink water, we’ll be thirsty. Why?
To begin with, the mind engages in many ways in a process that is known as dzinpa, a Tibetan word that means “grasping”. Dzinpa is the tendency of mind to fixate on objects as inherently real. Buddhist training offers an alternative approach to experiencing life from an essentially fear-based perspective of survival in favor of experiencing it as a parade of odd and wonderful events.
The difference can be demonstrated through a simple example. Imagine that I’m holding my mala (a string of prayer beads similar to a rosary) in my hand with my palm turned downward. For this example, the mala represents all the possessions people usually feel they need: a nice car, fine clothes, good food, a well-paying job, a comfortable home, and so on. If I hold my mala tightly, some part of it always seems to escape my grasp and hang outside my hand. If I try to grasp the loose part, a longer bit of the mala falls through my fingers; and if I try to grasp that, an even longer piece slips through. If I continue this process, I’ll eventually lose my grasp on the entire mala. If, however, I turn my palm upward, and allow the mala to simply rest in my open palm, nothing falls through. The beads sit in my hand loosely.
To use another example, imagine you’re sitting in a room full of people looking at a table at the front of the room. Your tendency is to relate to the table as a thing in itself, a completely whole, self-contained object, independent of subjective observation. But a table has a top, legs, sides, a back, and a front. If you remember that it’s made up of these different parts, can you really define it as a singular object?
In their exploration of the “conductor-less” brain, neuroscientists have discovered that the brains of sentient beings have evolved specifically to recognize and respond to patterns. Among the billions of neurons that make up the human brain, some neurons are specifically adapted to detect shapes, while others are dedicated to detecting colors, smells, sounds, movements, and so on. At the same time, our brains are endowed with mechanisms that enable us to extract what neuroscientists call “global,” or patternlike, relationships.
Consider the familiar example of a little group of visual symbols, called emoticons, often used in e-mail messages: :-). This group is easily recognized as a “smiley face,” with two eyes “:,” a nose “-,” and a mouth “).” If, however, these three objects were rearranged as ) - :, the brain wouldn’t recognize a pattern and would merely interpret the shapes as random dots, lines, and curves.
Neuroscientists I’ve spoken with have explained that these pattern-recognition mechanisms operate almost simultaneously with the neuronal recognition of shapes, colors, and so on through neuronal synchrony - which, in very simple terms, may be described as a process in which neurons across widely separated areas of the brain spontaneously and instantaneously communicate with one another. For instance, when the shapes :-) are perceived in this precise formation, the corresponding neurons signal one another in a spontaneous yet precisely coordinated fashion that represents recognition of a specific pattern. When no pattern is perceived, the corresponding neurons signal one another randomly.
This tendency to identify patterns or objects is the clearest biological illustration of dzinpa I have so far encountered. I suspect it evolved as some sort of survival function, since the ability to discriminate among harmful, beneficial, and neutral objects or events would be quite handy! As I’ll explain later on, clinical studies indicate that the practice of meditation extends the mechanism of neuronal synchrony to a point where the perceiver can begin to recognize consciously that his or her mind and the experiences or objects that his or her mind perceives are one and the same. In other words, the practice of meditation over a long period dissolves artificial distinctions between subject and object - which in turn offers the perceiver the freedom to determine the quality of his or her own experience, the freedom to distinguish between what is real and what is merely an appearance.
Dissolving the distinction between subject and object, however, doesn’t mean that perception becomes a great big blur. You still continue to perceive experience in terms of subject and object, while at the same time recognizing that the distinction is essentially conceptual. In other words, the perception of an object is not different from the mind that perceives it.
Because this shift is difficult to grasp intellectually, in order to develop some understanding, it’s necessary to resort once again to the analogy of a dream. In a dream, if you recognize that what you’re experiencing is just a dream, then you also recognize that whatever you experience in the dream is merely occurring in your own mind. Recognizing this, in turn, frees you from the limitations of “dream problems,” “dream suffering,” or “dream limitations.” The dream still continues, but recognition liberates you from whatever pain or unpleasantness your dream scenarios present. Fear, pain, and suffering are replaced by a sense of almost childlike wonder: “Wow, look what my mind is capable of producing!”
In the same way, in waking life, transcending the distinction between subject and object is equivalent to recognizing that whatever you experience is not separate from the mind that experiences it. Waking life doesn’t stop, but your experience or perception of it shifts from one of limitation to one of wonder and amazement.
THE GIFT OF UNCERTAINTY
When the mind is without reference point, that is mahamudra.
- TILOPA, Ganges Mahamudra, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
If we return to the example of looking at a table, we can say that even on a normally observable level, a table is in a constant state of change. Between yesterday and today, some of the wood might have broken off or some of the paint may have chipped. If we look at the table from the perspective of a physicist, on a microscopic level we’d see that the wood, paint, nails, and glue that make up the table are composed of molecules and atoms made up of rapidly moving particles that fluctuate through the vastness of subatomic space.
On this subatomic level, physicists encounter an interesting problem: When they seek to measure the precise location of a particle in subatomic space, they can’t measure its velocity with 100 percent accuracy; and when they try to measure a particle’s velocity, they can’t precisely identify its location. The problem of simultaneously measuring the exact position and velocity of a particle is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, named after Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics.
Part of the problem, as explained to me, is that in order to “see” the position of a subatomic particle, physicists must shine a brief pulse of light at it, which supplies the particle with an extra ‘‘kick” of energy and changes the particle’s rate of movement. On the other hand, when physicists try to measure the velocity of a particle, they do so by measuring the changes in frequency of light waves beamed at the particle as it moves - similar to the way traffic police use the frequency of radar waves to measure the speed of a car. Thus, depending on the experiment scientists are performing, they gain information about one or the other property of the particle. Put very simply, the results of an experiment are conditioned by the nature of the experiment - that is, by the questions asked by the scientists who set up and observe the experiment.
If you consider this paradox as a way of describing human experience, you can see that just as the qualities ascribed to a particle are determined by the particular experiment scientists perform on it, in a related fashion, everything we think, feel, and perceive is conditioned by the mental habits we bring to it.
Modern physics has indicated that our understanding of material phenomena is limited to some extent by the questions we ask of it. At the same time, the uncertainty of predicting exactly how and where a particle may appear in the subatomic universe represents a certain freedom in determining the nature of our experience.
CONTEXT: A COGNITIVE PERSPECTIVE
Our life is shaped by our mind. . . .
- The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran
Buddhist practice guides us very gradually to let go of habitual assumptions and experiment with different questions and different points of view. Such a shift in perspective isn’t as difficult as it might seem. During a conversation I had in Nepal with a student of mine who works in the field of cognitive psychology, I learned that the ability to shift our way of seeing things is a basic function of the human mind. In cognitive psychological terms, the meaning of whatever information we receive is determined in large part by the context in which we view it. The different levels of context seem to bear a striking resemblance to the different ways of observing reality in terms of quantum mechanics. For example, if we look at the words:
it’s possible to interpret their meaning in a variety of different ways, including the following:
- an arrangement of lines and spaces
- a group of letters
- just a name
- a reference to a specific person we know
- a reference to a specific person we don’t know
There are probably more levels of interpretation, but we can stick with these five for our example.
What’s interesting is that none of the possible interpretations invalidates any of the others. They simply represent different levels of meaning based on context, which, in turn, is based largely on experience.
If you happen to know me personally, for example, you can look at the words “Mingyur Rinpoche” and think, Oh, yeah, he’s that short Tibetan guy with glasses who goes around in red robes telling everyone that tables don’t absolutely exist.
If you didn’t know me or anything about me, but only saw the words in a magazine or newspaper article about Tibetan Buddhist teachers, “Mingyur Rinpoche” would just be the name of one of those short Tibetan guys with glasses who go around in red robes telling everyone that tables don’t absolutely exist. If you were unfamiliar with the Western alphabet, you might recognize “Mingyur Rinpoche” as a group of letters, but you wouldn’t know what they meant, or whether they referred to a name or a place. And if you had no familiarity with alphabets at all, the words would just be an odd, possibly interesting collection of lines and circles that might or might not have any meaning.
So, when I’m talking about abandoning everyday logic and applying a different perspective to our experience, what I’m suggesting is that as you start to look more closely at things, you can begin to appreciate how very difficult it is to pinpoint their absolute reality. You can begin to see that you’ve invested things with permanence or self-existence as a result of the context in which you’ve viewed them; and if you practice seeing yourself and the world around you from a different point of view, then your perception of yourself and the world around you will shift accordingly.
Of course, changing your perceptions and expectations about the material world requires not only effort, but also time. So, in order to get past this obstacle and truly begin to experience the freedom of emptiness, you have to learn to look at time itself in a different light.
THE TYRANNY OF TIME
The past is imperceptible, the future is imperceptible, and the present is imperceptible. . . .
- Sutras of the Mother, translated by Ari Goldfield
If you look at your experience from the point of view of time, you can say that tables, glasses of water, and so on do indeed exist in time - but only from a relative perspective. Most people tend to think of time in terms of past, present, and future. “I went to a boring meeting.” “I’m in a boring meeting.” “I have to go to a boring meeting.” “I fed my children this morning.” “I’m feeding my children lunch right now.” “Oh no, I have to make dinner for my children and there’s nothing in the refrigerator, so I have to go to the store as soon as I get out of this boring meeting!”
Actually, though, when you think of the past, you’re merely recalling an experience that has already happened. You’re out of the meeting. You’ve fed your children. You’ve finished your shopping. The past is like a seed that’s been burned in a fire. Once it’s burned to ashes, there’s no more seed. It’s only a memory, a thought passing through the mind. The past, in other words, is nothing more than an idea.
Likewise, what people tend to call “the future” is an aspect of time that hasn’t yet occurred. You wouldn’t talk about a tree that hasn’t been planted as though it were a solid, living object, because you have no context for talking about it; nor would you talk about children who haven’t yet been conceived the way you would about people you’re dealing with here and now. So the future, too, is just an idea, a thought passing through your mind.
So what are you left with as an actual experience?
But how is it even possible to define “the present”? A year is made up of twelve months. Every day of each month is made up of twenty-four hours. Every hour is made up of sixty minutes; every minute is made up of sixty seconds; and every second is made up of microseconds and nanoseconds. You can break down the present into smaller and smaller increments, but between the instant of present experience and the instant you identify that instant as “now,” the moment has already passed. It’s no longer now. It’s then.
The Buddha intuitively understood the limitations of the ordinary human conception of time. In one of his teachings he explained that from a relative point of view the division of time into distinct periods of duration such as an hour, a day, a week, and so on, might have a certain degree of relevance. But from an absolute perspective, there’s really no differencce between a single instant of time and an eon. Within an eon there can be an instant; within an instant there can be an eon. The relationship between the two periods would not make the instant any longer or the eon any shorter.
He illustrated this point through a story about a young man who came to a great master in search of a profound teaching. The master agreed, but suggested the young man first have a cup of tea. “After that,” he said, “I’ll give you the profound teaching you’ve come looking for.”
So the master poured a cup of tea, and as the student brought it to his mouth, the cup of tea transformed itself into a broad lake surrounded by mountains. As he stood beside the lake, admiring the beauty of the scene, a girl stepped from behind him and approached the lake to gather water in a pail. For the young man, it was love at first sight, and as the girl looked at the young man standing beside the lake, she fell in love with him, too. The young man followed her back to her home, where she lived with her aged parents. Gradually the girl’s parents grew to be fond of the young man, and he of them, and it was eventually agreed that the two young people should marry.
After three years, the couple’s first child was born, a son. A few years later a daughter was born. The children grew up happy and strong, until one day, at the age of fourteen, the son fell ill. None of the medicines prescribed for him cured his illness. Within a year he was dead.
Not long afterward, the couple’s young daughter went to gather wood in the forest, and while she was busy with her task, she was attacked and killed by a tiger. Unable to overcome her sorrow over losing both her children, the young man’s wife eventually decided to drown herself in the nearby lake. Distraught over the loss of their daughter and their grandchildren, the girl’s parents stopped eating, eventually starving themselves to death. Having lost his wife, his children, and his parents-in-law, the young man began to think that he might as well die himself. He walked to the edge of the lake, determined to drown himself.
Just as he was about to jump into the water, however, he suddenly found himself back in the master’s house, holding his cup of tea up to his lips. Though he had lived an entire lifetime, hardly an instant had passed; the cup was still warm in his hands and the tea was still hot.
He looked across the table at the teacher, who nodded, saying, “Now you see. All phenomena proceed from the mind, which is emptiness. They do not truly exist except in the mind, but they are not nothingness. There is your profound teaching.”
From a Buddhist perspective, the essence of time, like the essence of space and the objects that move around in space, is emptiness. At a certain point, any attempt to examine time or space in terms of smaller and smaller intervals finally breaks down. You can experiment with your perception of time through meditation, trying to look at time in smaller and smaller increments. You can try to examine time in this way until finally you reach a point where you can’t name or define anything anymore. When you reach that point, you enter an experience that is beyond words, beyond ideas, beyond concepts.
“Beyond ideas and concepts” doesn’t mean that your mind becomes as empty as an eggshell or as dull as a stone. Actually, quite the opposite occurs. Your mind becomes more vast and open. You can still perceive subjects and objects, but in a more illusory way: You recognize them as concepts, not as inherently or objectively real entities.
I’ve spoken to many scientists about whether ideas parallel to the Buddhist view of time and space could be found among modern theories and discoveries. Though many ideas were suggested to me, nothing seemed to fit quite precisely until I was introduced to the theory of quantum gravity, an examination of the fundamental nature of space and time that explores such basic questions as “What are space and time made of? Do they exist absolutely or do they emerge from something more fundamental? What do space and time look like on very small scales? Is there a smallest possible length or unit of time?”
As it has been explained to me, in most branches of physics, space and time are treated as though they were infinite, uniform, and perfectly smooth: a static background through which objects move and events happen. This is a very workable assumption for examining the nature and properties of both large bodies of matter and subatomic particles. But when it comes to examining time and space themselves, the situation becomes very different.
At the level of ordinary human perception, the world looks sharp, clear, and solid. A plank supported by four legs appears on the level of ordinary perception quite obviously to be a table. A cylindrically shaped object with a flat bottom and an open top appears quite obviously to be a glass. Or, if it has a handle, maybe we’d call it a cup.
Now imagine looking at a material object through a microscope. You might reasonably expect that by gradually increasing the microscope’s level of magnification you’d see a sharper, clearer image of the object’s underlying structure. Actually, however, the opposite occurs. As we approach a magnification where we are able to see individual atoms, the world begins to look more and more “fuzzy,” and we leave most of the rules of classical physics behind. This is the realm of quantum mechanics, in which, as described earlier, subatomic particles jitter about in all possible ways and pop in and out of existence with increasing frequency.
Continuing to increase the magnification so that we can see smaller and smaller objects, we eventually find that space and time themselves start to jitter - space itself develops tiny curves and kinks that appear and disappear inconceivably fast. This happens at extremely small scales - as small compared to an atom as an atom is compared to the solar system. This state has been called “spacetime foam” by physicists. Think of shaving foam that looks smooth from a distance but close up is composed of millions of tiny bubbles.
Perhaps a better analogy for this state is rapidly boiling water. At even shorter distances and time scales, the water itself boils away, and space and time themselves lose their meaning. At this point, physics itself begins to jitter, because the study of matter, energy, and motion, and the way they relate to one another, cannot even be formulated without an underlying reference to time. At this point, physicists admit, they have no idea how to describe what is left. It is a state that literally includes all possibilities, beyond space and time.
From a Buddhist perspective, the description of reality provided by quantum mechanics offers a degree of freedom to which most people are not accustomed, and that may at first seem strange and even a little frightening. As much as Westerners in particular value the capacity for freedom, the notion that the act of observation of an event can influence the outcome in random, unpredictable ways can seem like too much responsibility. It’s much easier to assume the role of the victim and assign the responsibility or blame for our experience to some person or power outside oneself. If we’re to take the discoveries of modern science seriously, however, we have to assume responsibility for our moment-by-moment experience.
While doing so may open up possibilities we might never before have imagined, it’s still hard to give up the familiar habit of being a victim. On the other hand, if we began to accept responsibility for our experience, our lives would become a kind of playground, offering innumerable possibilities for learning and invention. Our sense of personal limitation and vulnerability would gradually be replaced by a sense of openness and possibility. We would see those around us in an entirely new light - not as threats to our personal security or happiness, but as people simply ignorant of the infinite possibilities of their own nature. Because our own nature is unconstrained by arbitrary distinctions of being “this way” or “that way,” or having only certain capabilities and lacking others, then we would be able to meet the demands of any situation in which we might find ourselves.
Nothing ever lasts. . . .
- PATRUL RINPOCHE, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group
Most people are conditioned by the societies in which they live to apply conceptual labels to the constantly changing stream of mental and material phenomena. For example, when we looked closely at a table, we still instinctively labeled it as a table - even though we saw that it was not a single thing but was actually made up of a number of different parts: a top, legs, sides, a back, and a front. None of these parts could actually be identified as “the table” itself. In fact, “table” was just a name we applied to rapidly arising and dissolving phenomena that merely produced an illusion of something definitely or absolutely real.
In the same way, most of us have been trained to attach the name “I” or “me” to a stream of experiences that confirm our personal sense of self, or what is conventionally referred to as “ego.” We feel about ourselves that we’re this single entity that continues unchanged over time. In general, we tend to feel we’re the same person today as we were yesterday. We remember being teenagers and going to school, and tend to feel that the “I” that we are now is the same “I” that went to school, grew up, moved away from home, got a job, and so on.
But if we look at ourselves in a mirror, we can see that this “I” has changed over time. Maybe we can see wrinkles now that weren’t there a year ago. Maybe we’re wearing glasses. Maybe we have a different hair color - or no hair at all. On a basic molecular level, the cells in our bodies are always changing, as old cells die off and new ones are generated. We can also examine this sense of “self” the same way we looked at the table, and see that this thing we call “I” is really made up of a number of different parts. It has legs, arms, a head, hands, feet, and internal organs. Can we identify any of these separate parts as definitely “I”?
We might say, “Well, my hand is not me, but it’s my hand.” But the hand is made up of five fingers, a front, and a back. Each one of them can be broken down even further as nails, skin, bones, and so on. Which of those components can we uniquely identify as our “hand”? We can keep up this line of investigation down to the atomic and sub-atomic level, and still find ourselves faced with the same problem of being unable to find anything we can definitely identify as “I.”
So, whether we’re analyzing material objects, time, our “self,” or our mind, eventually we reach a point where we realize that our analysis breaks down. At that point our search for something irreducible finally collapses. In that moment, when we give up looking for something absolute, we gain our first taste of emptiness, the infinite, indefinable essence of reality as it is.
As we contemplate the enormous variety of factors that must come together to produce a specific sense of self, our attachment to this “I” we think we are begins to loosen. We become more willing to let go of the desire to control or block our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and so on and begin to experience them without pain or guilt, absorbing their passage simply as manifestations of a universe of infinite possibilities. In so doing, we regain the innocent perspective most of us knew as children. Our hearts open up to others, like flowers blossoming. We become better listeners, more fully aware of everything going on around us, and are able to respond more spontaneously and appropriately to situations that used to trouble or confuse us. Gradually, perhaps on a level so subtle we might not even notice it’s happening, we find ourselves awakening to a free, clear, loving state of mind beyond our wildest dreams.
But it takes great patience to learn how to see such possibilities.
In fact, it takes great patience to see.