Cutting the root of ignorance
Having developed the determination to be free and the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment in order to benefit others, how do we actualize these aspirations? To be free from our difficulties in the cycle of constantly recurring problems, the Buddha said we must eradicate their root cause: the ignorance that grasps at a truly-existent, independently-existent self. This is done by gaining wisdom, which is the third principal realization of the path. Lama Tzong Khapa in The Three Principles of the Path emphasized the importance of wisdom:
“Even if you meditate upon the determination to be free and the altruistic intention, without the wisdom realizing the final nature (emptiness of inherent existence), you cannot cut the root of cyclic existence. Therefore, strive for the means to realize dependent arising.”
To cleanse our mindstreams totally from all obscurations and develop our potential to become a Buddha we must eliminate the subtle stains of ignorance. This too is done by generating the wisdom realizing emptiness. In short, the realization of emptiness is not only the most effective purification practice, but also the key to knowing reality and to discriminating what exists from what does not.
The subject of emptiness is difficult to understand. To have a full understanding takes time, dedicated study and meditation. What is presented below is only a taste. It’s not meant to be a pat explanation, and it’ll probably generate doubts and questions in your mind. This is okay, for in Buddhism we’re not expected to understand and accept everything instantly.
Realizing emptiness doesn’t mean making our minds blank, without any thoughts. Some animals don’t think very much, and there’s nothing virtuous about that. The emptiness that we seek to realize also isn’t like the emptiness of our stomachs when we’re hungry. Instead, the emptiness perceived by this wisdom is the lack of all fantasized ways of existing that we’ve projected onto people and phenomena. It’s a lack, or absence, of a false way of existing.
First, we have to understand what it is that we’re negating. What is it that people and phenomena are empty of? They lack being independently, truly or inherently existent. Unfortunately, from beginningless time, we’ve been so accustomed to the seeming appearance of independently existent phenomena and have been so used to grasping at this appearance as correct, that we fail to detect that it is false. We aren’t aware that people and phenomena do not exist in the way they appear to.
Looking for the real cracker
How do things appear to exist to us? Let’s take a cracker, for rude example. It appears to us to be a real cracker. Anyone who walks in this room should be able to identify this as a cracker because there’s some “crackerness” to it. There is something about it or in it that makes it a cracker and not anything else. It is one solid cracker, which exists “out there,” independent of our minds. It was there - a cracker in its own right - and we just happened to come along and see it. This cracker is findable: it’s right there!
The cracker appears to us to exist “out there,” independent of causes and conditions, independent of parts, and independent of our minds and the concepts and labels we apply to it. But if the cracker really existed in this way, then when we analyze and search for this real cracker, we should definitely be able to find it.
We’re looking for the real, independent cracker that appears to us to exist “out there.” We’re searching for the thing that is the cracker. If we break the cracker in half, is the real cracker in one half or in the other half? Or is it in both? If we say the cracker is in both, then we must have two crackers since we have two separate pieces. That certainly is an easy way to make crackers!
If we say the cracker is in one half rather than in the other, why is one piece the cracker while the other piece isn’t? Even if we do accept the bigger piece as being the cracker, then what about it or in it is the cracker? We should be able to find the cracker and the “crackerness” quality somewhere in it. But if we continue to break it into pieces in an attempt to find the real cracker, we’ll end up with a mess, not a cracker! We’ll have a pile of crumbs, and what about that is a cracker?
The real, independent cracker that appeared to exist is unfindable when we analyze and attempt to locate it.
If there were some inherent cracker there, we should have been able to find it either among its parts or separate from its parts. But, it isn’t its parts, and it isn’t anywhere else either. If the cracker were separate from its parts, then the toasted combination of flour and water could be on this plate and the cracker could be across the room. That’s hardly the case, for apart from the toasted dough, what else could be called “cracker”?
Nor is the cracker the collection of its parts, for a collection is just a group of parts. If none of the parts by itself is a cracker, how can many parts together be an independent cracker with some quality of crackerness? Just as a collection of nonbutterflies, for example grasshoppers, doesn’t make a butterfly, a group of non-crackers - that is, a group of crumbs can’t suddenly make a real cracker that exists as a cracker from its own side.
This leads us to conclude that there was no inherent cracker to start with. In other words, the real, solid and findable cracker that appeared to us and that we grasped as existing independently, doesn’t exist. That’s not to say there’s no cracker there at all, only that the independent cracker doesn’t exist. That cracker doesn’t exist in the way it appeared to. It doesn’t exist in the way we thought it did.
However, the cracker still exists. If it didn’t, we couldn’t eat it! Although it doesn’t exist in an independent fashion, it does exist dependently. It depends on its causes and conditions: the flour, water, baker and so on. It depends on its parts: the various sections that compose it, as well as its color and shape, its smell, taste, and so on. And, it also depends on our conventionally conceiving of it and labeling it “cracker.” As a society, we’ve agreed to consider this accumulation of parts that serves a particular function as a unique phenomenon, and give it the name “cracker” to distinguish it from other things.
We searched for something that is a cracker from its own side, independent of its parts, independent of our minds with their concepts and labels. That independent, real cracker can’t be found, because it doesn’t exist. But, a dependently existent cracker is there. That’s what we’re eating.
How does the cracker exist? A group of atoms are put together in a certain pattern. Our minds look at that, conceive it to be one thing, and give it the name “cracker.” It becomes a cracker because all of us have conceived of it in a similar way and have agreed, by the force of social convention, to give it the name “cracker.” In the Questions of Upali Sutra, it says:
These alluring blossoming flowers of various colors
And these fascinating brilliant mansions of gold
Are without any (inherently existent) maker here.
They are posited through the power of conceptuality.
The world is imputed
through the power of conceptuality.
That cracker exists dependently. Apart from this dependently existent cracker, there is no other cracker. It’s empty of being a cracker inherently, independently, with some crackerness nature to it. The cracker exists, but it doesn’t exist in the same way it appears to exist. It appears to be independent, when in fact it isn’t. It depends upon its causes and conditions, parts and our minds which conceive it to be a “cracker.” The cracker is a dependently arising phenomenon.
Who are we?
If there is no essential, independent cracker, is there an independent me? Is there a real “I,” a findable person?
The Buddha’s answer differs from the Judeo-Christian idea of an eternal, unchanging soul and from the Hindu notion of “atman.” We should be able to find the soul, atman or inherent self, something that is the person, when we analyze and search for it. Can we?
Remember a situation in which you were extremely angry. How does the “I” appear to exist at that moment? It seems very solid. There is a real me that someone is insulting. That “I” has to be defended. The “I,” the self, feels findable; it is somewhere inside our body-mind complex.
If that solid, true, independent “I” exists as it appears to us, we should be able to find it, either in our body and mind or separate from them. There is no other place “I” could be.
Am I my body? If I am, then which part of my body is me? My arm? My stomach? My brain? All of my organs are composed of atoms. They aren’t me. Nor is my entire body me, for if it were, then after I die, my corpse would be me. I am something more than the atoms that compose the body, for physical matter alone, without consciousness, can’t perceive objects, and I am cognizant.
Am I my mind? If so, then am I my eye consciousness, which perceives color and shape? My ear consciousness, which perceives sound? My mental consciousness, the one that thinks? Am I a particular personality characteristic? If I were my anger, then I should always be angry. If I were my intelligence, then I should always be intelligence.
Nor am I a collection of all these various mental qualities and states of mind, because a collection of things, each of which isn’t a real and independent me, can’t become me.
Although it may feel that there is some “thinker” or some internal things that makes our decisions, when we search for that one particular thing, we can’t find it. Decisions and thoughts arise depending upon many mental factors. There is no little guy in there running the show.
The collection of my body and mind isn’t an independent self, for it’s a collection of parts. It is dependent on those parts. How could a real independent me be found in the collection of my body and mind, neither of which is me?
Nor do I exist as something separate from the body and mind. If I did, then I should be able to identify and find myself where there was neither my body nor my mind. That would mean that I could be in one place, while my body and mind were in another! That’s clearly impossible. The self, or I, is linked and related to the body and mind.
Are we some independent entity that goes from one lifetime to the next? At the time of death, our minds absorb into more and more subtle states. The subtlest level of mind goes from one life to the next. However, this extremely subtle mind is constantly changing each moment. It never remains the same in two consecutive instants, just as on the physical level the arrangement of electrons in an atom changes in each instant. We can’t point to one moment of our mind which has been and always will be us. We aren’t yesterday’s mind, we aren’t today’s mind or tomorrow’s mind. We aren’t the mind that leaves this body at death, nor are we the mind that is reborn. What we call “I” is dependent upon all of these, but it isn’t any one of them.
Remembering the example of a river can help us to understand this. The Mississippi River isn’t it’s banks. It’s not the water or the rocks or the streams that feed into it. A real independent river appears to exist when aren’t analyzing, but as soon as we question, “What is this independent river that appears to exist?” we can’t find anything to point to. Yet, there is a dependently existing river.
Similarly, our mindstream isn’t any particular moment of mind, nor is it the collection of moments. Such a truly-existent mindstream doesn’t exist. Our mind is empty of true or inherent existence. Still, there is the continuum of moments of mind that form the mindstream, and this takes rebirth.
The “I” or the self doesn’t exist independently of the body and mind. Nor can it be found within the body or mind. Nor is it the body and mind together. In other words, the solid, truly existing “I” we felt when we were angry can’t be found anywhere. Why not? Because it doesn’t exist. The “I” is empty of being independently existent. This is what is meant by selflessness or emptiness.
That doesn’t mean the “I” doesn’t exist at all. What we are negating is its independent or inherent existence. We do exist. If we were completely non-existent, then who is writing this book and who is reading it?
We dependently exist. We depend on causes: the sperm and egg of our parents, our consciousness that came from another life. We depend on parts: our body and mind. We depend on concept and label as well: on the basis of our body and mind being together, we conceive of this as a person and give it the label “I”. We exist by being merely labeled on a suitable basis, our body and mind. The Buddha said in the sutras:
Just as a chariot is designated
In dependence upon collections of parts,
So, conventionally, a sentient being
(Is designated) in dependence
upon the aggregates (body and mind).
It’s important to understand that realizing emptiness doesn’t destroy the “I” An independent, solid, real “I” never existed. What we are destroying is the ignorance which holds on to the idea that such a solid “I” exists.
It’s not the case that there used to be real things, and as soon as we meditate on emptiness, we destroy them. It’s not that things used to be independently existent, and then we take this quality away from them. We simply realize independent existence was never there, and thus we eliminate the misconception that independently existing things exist.
There is a person who attains enlightenment. This is the conventional I, which depends on causes and conditions, parts, and on concept and label. Enlightened beings don’t have the strong sense of a separate and solid “I” that we do, for they have realized that such an I doesn’t exist. The self still exists, but in a gentler and softer way. It’s merely a convention, not a real entity.
When we understand emptiness or selflessness properly, we have an extremely strong tool to subdue our disturbing attitudes. When we realize emptiness, we see there’s no solid person who is angry; there’s no real person whose reputation needs to be defended; there’s no independently beautiful person or object that we have to possess. By realizing emptiness, our attachment, anger, jealousy, pride and ignorance vanish, because there’s no real person who has to be protected, and there’s no real object to be grasped.
This importance of realizing emptiness was stressed in the The Superior Sutra of the King of Meditative Stabilization:
If the selflessness of phenomena is analyzed
And if this analysis is cultivated in meditation,
It causes the effect of attaining nirvana.
Through no other cause does one come to peace.
Realizing emptiness doesn’t mean we become inert and unambitious. If we think, “There’s no real me, no real money. So why do anything?” then we don’t have the correct understanding of emptiness. Realizing selflessness will give us tremendous space for action. Rather than our energy being consumed by attachment, anger and ignorance, we’ll be free to use our wisdom and compassion in innumerable ways to benefit others.
Having generated the determination to be free from all unsatisfactory situations and the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment, when we then meditate on emptiness, we can completely purify our minds of every defilement. Removing our limitations, we’ll be able to develop our good qualities to perfection, so that we’ll have all skillful means necessary to help others in the most effective ways. Our minds are capable of being transformed in this way. It’s possible for us to go from confusion to enlightenment, from being an ordinary being to being a Buddha, by developing the three principal realizations of the path.
It takes time, patience and joyous effort to develop the three principal realizations. We also need concentration, so that when we meditate on these three topics our insights will be stable and penetrating.