Things appear as truly existent when we fail to analyze them, but when we do analyze them we can see that everything is created by our mind. There is nobody else who has come and created our problems for us—“I’m creating your problems”—they are all created by our mind. We are the creator. That is why in his teachings the Buddha said,
You are your own enemy
And you are your own guide.
You are the creator of your own suffering
And you are the creator of your own happiness.
As I have mentioned, we are the creator of our day-to-day life’s problems, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second, and we are also the creator of our day-to-day life’s happiness, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second.
We need to go beyond this life, however, to past and future lives. We have been born as a human being this time but we are also the creator of all our past and future states, whether as a hell being or a god or whatever. Just as we are the creator of our own samsara, we are also the creator of our own nirvana—the blissful state of peace for ourselves, freedom from the oceans of samsaric suffering—and our own ultimate happiness, the total elimination of all obscurations and the completion of all realizations, the peerless happiness of enlightenment.
Everything depends on our mind. Everything, whatever we want, is in our hands. If we don’t want nirvana, if we want samsara, it’s in our hands. If we don’t want enlightenment, if we want hell, it’s in our hands. If we want happiness instead of problems, it’s in our hands; it’s all up to us. It depends on how we use our mind. With our body and speech we do actions that lead to happiness or problems, but it all depends on the creator, our own mind.
Thinking in the correct way brings happiness; thinking in the incorrect way brings suffering. Thinking in a healthy, virtuous way brings a healthy life. We want others’ help; we do not want harm from them. Similarly, numberless others want our help and do not want to be harmed by us. We are one; others are numberless. Whether we help or harm them is up to us, so we are responsible for their happiness or suffering.
Every day, every hour, every minute, we have total responsibility for all living beings. Not only human beings but also nonhuman beings: hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, insects, gods, demigods—all living beings, all sentient beings, are our responsibility. It is like that in reality. We are not only responsible for the happiness of our family, our parents, our spouse and our children, we are responsible for all living beings.
In that way, our life is not meaningless, not at all. It is not at all hopeless. That is totally wrong. If we think like that, intellectually we may know the Dharma but we are not practicing, we are not thinking, we are not using the Dharma for our mind. Were we to understand the Dharma and practice it we would know that life is neither hopeless nor meaningless.
Our life is so important, so precious. We have the responsibility of freeing the numberless beings from the oceans of samsaric suffering: not only the suffering of pain but also the suffering of change.
Dharma happiness lasts, it increases. It is something we can complete when we achieve enlightenment. That is the big difference; that is why it is worthwhile dedicating our life to it. We have already experienced every samsaric pleasure numberless times. What other people are experiencing now, including the worldly gods and other humans, we have experienced numberless times from beginningless rebirths. This includes all the suffering experienced by other beings. There is no new samsaric happiness left to experience and no new suffering. As long as we are in samsara, it is always like that. It is only because you and I have neither an omniscient mind nor even ordinary clairvoyance and are unable to remember past lives that we cannot see this.
The room before it is named
In the Vajra Cutter Sutra the Buddha explained we should look at causative phenomena as like a star or a visual aberration.27 The example often given is that of hairs appearing to float in front of the eyes or dropping into our food where there are no hairs. It can also happen that we seem to see an animal running where there is no animal, or we see worms that aren’t there. These are temporary defects in our vision. Sometimes it seems to happen more to me, sometimes less. I can’t say why.
The Buddha explained we should look at all causative phenomena in this way, like a hallucination, but especially any object of our attachment or aversion, such as our own body, our friends, our possessions and other desirable and undesirable objects.
Defective view means we ordinary people see things that don’t exist and don’t see things that do exist. There is ultimate reality, emptiness. It exists—there is such a thing—but for ordinary people like me, it is like it does not exist. On the other hand, while what is true seems not to exist to us, the hallucination, what is false, seems to exist. Here “false” means the projection of our hallucinated mind, our ignorance that holds the I, the aggregates and so forth as truly existing from their own side or existing by themselves.
It is not like that at all. It has never been like that at all from the beginning, even for one second. It has never been as it appears to us, as we believe. Reality means how things exist. They exist because they are empty; because they are emptiness only, tong-pa-nyi in Tibetan or shunyata in Sanskrit. The nyi, the “only” of the term, makes it clear, not just “tong-pa” but tong-pa-nyi.
Because things are tong-pa-nyi, because their nature is emptiness, they exist. That is why they exist. That is why they exist, why you exist, why we exist, why everything exists. That is why there is birth, existence, cessation, why all actions happen. The objects exist in mere name, the actions exist in mere name and the effects exist in mere name.
It is this ignorance, this projection of our hallucinated mind, that fails to see this but creates the real I, the real action and the real object. All the six senses’ objects—forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles and mental objects—are projected as real; they have the appearance of being real to our hallucinated mind.
This is how they appear to us one hundred percent and we totally accept this. We don’t doubt it at all. We believe that all these things are one hundred percent real.
This is the foundation of our suffering. This concept, this ignorance, is the biggest problem in our life. All other problems are built on that foundation. Attachment arises for the real desirable object, because it not only appears to us as real but after appearing that way we believe it to be real, that this is the truth. Anger arises toward the real undesirable object. It appears to us as a real undesirable object, a real dislikeable object, then on the basis of that appearance we believe it to be real. And ignorance arises toward real indifferent objects. In that way, all our problems build from that foundation.
For ordinary people like us, everything that is false in life appears true. Whether something exists or is a fantasy, we believe it to be one hundred percent true. On the other hand, for our mind, for us, ultimate reality, emptiness only, shunyata, does not exist at all.
It is like stars in the daytime. Because the sun is too bright, even though the stars are there, we cannot see them. In reality, nothing has real, true existence from its own side. The I, action, object—nothing is real from its own side. It has never been real. Right from the beginning, from beginningless rebirths, it has never happened that anything has ever come into existence from its own side, for even a second.
Maybe I should give a few examples. Say, we want to rent a house. When a house is built there are many empty rooms. As we are shown about the house by the owner he names the rooms, “This is the bedroom. This is the kitchen. This is the office.” Like that, we learn the names of the different rooms.
Before the name was given, we have the appearance of an empty room but after the owner has given it a name, such as “office,” we then have the appearance of an office. Then later we move stuff in, like a desk and a computer, whatever we need to make that room into an office. That doesn’t mean we can call any place we have our computer, such as outside or in an airplane, our office. But it is like that with this room we call the office and it is the same with the kitchen, the bathroom and so forth.
First the name is given and then, immediately after that, we have the appearance of the office or the kitchen. Being introduced to each room by the house’s owner, we are “taught” the names of the rooms and the rooms appear to us as just that and we believe in that appearance.
It should appear to us as merely labeled by the mind, which is exactly what has just happened—the empty room was labeled by the mind. Now the big question is this: why doesn’t the room appear like that? We don’t remember, or we don’t know, that it was merely labeled by the other person’s mind and then our mind accepted the way it was labeled.
When it appears it should appear as merely labeled by our mind. That is the correct view, but that is not how it appears to our mind. It appears to be not merely labeled by our mind; it appears as a real one, existing from its own side, as a real office, a real bedroom, a real kitchen, a real toilet—each room existing from its own side, not merely labeled by our mind. Even though our mind, or the other person’s mind, merely labeled that empty room right now, we do not remember.
That is totally, completely the wrong view; it is the opposite of reality. Appearing as merely labeled by mind, that is correct. That is according to reality. But, what appears to us is totally the opposite of reality, of how things actually exist. It is totally false. In our life there is what is true and what is false, and that is false.
That wrong view is the basis for all the other delusions: for ignorance, attachment and anger, for the six root delusions and the twenty secondary delusions28 and then all the 84,000 delusions that are branches of ignorance, attachment and anger. Those wrong concepts are the basis for all the karmic actions we create and they in turn create samsaric suffering. That is how it works. We continuously create the oceans of samsaric suffering through this wrong way of thinking, this wrong belief.
Illusioned by the magician, ignorance
What appears to a buddha? A buddha has totally ceased all obscurations, both the disturbing-thought obscurations and the seeds of those, the subtle obscurations to knowledge. Even the trace of ignorance, the negative imprint left by ignorance, has been totally abandoned, totally ceased. So what appears to a buddha? A buddha has no projections of the hallucination of true existence at all but still sees what we, the six realm sentient beings, see. A buddha sees mere existence, merely labeled by mind.
When arya Sangha—arhats or arya bodhisattvas—are not in equipoise meditation directly perceiving emptiness only, when they are in post-meditation break-time, they have the hallucination of truly existent appearance. Their bodhicitta has this hallucination; their compassion has this hallucination, but, unlike us, they do not believe it. Unlike us, they do not have the belief that the hallucination is real.
It is like having crossed a hot, sunny desert and looking back to see a mirage—the appearance of water. Because we have just come from there we know that, although the rays of the sun reflect off the sand to give the appearance of water, there is no water there at all.
Or it is like when we are dreaming and we are able to recognize the dream as a dream while it is happening. There is the appearance but no belief that the dream is real. There might be a sharp object in our dream but we are not afraid because we know it cannot hurt us and so we touch it. Of course it doesn’t hurt; it’s just a dream.
Usually we don’t have that sort of dream and while we are dreaming we think that whatever we are dreaming about is real from its own side. This is not how arhats and arya bodhisattvas, who are much more advanced than us, see things. When they are not in equipoise meditation they have the hallucination of true existence but no belief in its being real. They see true appearance as like a mirage.
When we awaken from a dream we understand that what we thought was real was just a dream and not real at all. Unfortunately, in the daytime when we are no longer dreaming, we still believe that which is not real to be real. Can you imagine that?
Our whole life is like a mirage. We have a vision of water where there is none. It is like a dream, an illusion; it’s as if a magician has used some mantras or some substances and illusioned the audience. I’m not sure of the English, but the audience is illusioned. What the audience sees appears as real and they believe it to be real.
For us it is like that all day and all night. Past ignorance has left a negative imprint on our mind. After the mere imputation, ignorance immediately projects the appearance of a real object, which makes things appear to us as real. This has come from our mind, just as a film put into a projector is projected onto the screen. Past ignorance has left negative imprints, and right after the mere imputation, the next second, our mind projects the hallucination of a real object existing from its own side. Then, if we fail to analyze it, we don’t know that it has just come from our mind; we believe it to be real, to be true. We hold it as true. Among the delusions, that is the king of the delusions.
As those who have studied Madhyamaka philosophy know, there are many lines of logical reasoning to prove emptiness, but because dependent arising states that things are empty of inherent existence because they are dependent, it is considered the king of logical reasoning. Conversely, among all the delusions, the wrong concept that things exist from their own side is the king of the delusions.
Understanding the real I
From time-to-time in the world, great wars like the First and Second World Wars happen. With so much destruction and the deaths of millions of people with millions more being burned and injured, this is the most intense kind of suffering we can experience. As I have mentioned, such wars can be due to one person with power and influence. Because of that person’s ignorance, he totally believes in the wrong concept and totally fails to comprehend that the I is merely labeled by the mind. He wants this I, this real I, to be happy, to have power. He takes what he likes and destroys what he dislikes in order to attain happiness for that real I, which is not there, which has never been there at all, from beginningless rebirths.
The I is merely imputed by our mind right now. Then follows the projection, the hallucination by our mind, by past ignorance that has left a negative imprint on our mind. The real I is a total projection, a hallucination. But we completely, one hundred percent, believe it to be true, real. First the imputation; then the appearance; then, in the third moment, complete belief in that appearance.
Believing in the real I is like believing we have a billion dollars in our hand. Like that dictator, we take what we like and destroy what we dislike for the happiness of our real I, which does not exist at all.
This wrong concept cheats us. It has been cheating us completely from beginningless rebirths up until now. If we don’t study, meditate and realize ultimate reality—emptiness, tong-pa-nyi, shunyata—we’re completely cheating ourselves. Right now in this life we have all the chances, all the opportunities. We have great teachers who are always teaching emptiness, particularly the emptiness taught by the Omniscient One, the kind, compassionate Shakyamuni Buddha, and the many pandits, Nagarjuna, Lama Tsongkhapa and so forth. If we are totally distracted by mundane pleasures, which are only suffering, and fail to take this opportunity, we have completely cheated ourselves.
We will realize this as we are about to die, but at that time it will be too late; there will be no time to do anything about it. No matter how sad we are, realizing we have wasted our life, that’s it, it’s time for death.
We have met the correct teachings
People who have the opportunity to take teachings, study and meditate are extremely lucky. Both correct teachings and a perfect, qualified teacher are needed. There are many, many teachings and just because the subject of a particular teaching is meditation does not necessarily mean it is correct. Actually, it all depends on an individual person’s karma. If we have good karma, then we will meet the correct teacher, receive correct teachings and everything will happen correctly. If we do not have good karma, then we will meet the wrong teacher, receive wrong teachings and everything will go wrong. It is very rare to meet the right teacher and receive correct teachings.
We need to not only listen to the teaching but also reflect on everything we hear, analyzing the base, the path and the goal. As we have seen, the base is the two truths: ultimate truth and the truth for the all-obscuring mind. The path is wisdom and compassion. The goal is the dharmakaya, a buddha’s wisdom body, and the rupakaya, a buddha’s form body. We reach this goal by analyzing the base and developing through the path of study and debate. We do not attain the goal through belief but by studying with learned teachers and investigating their teachings for the whole of our life.
Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, the head lama of the Nyingma tradition, wrote a religious history about the different traditions within Tibetan Buddhism. In it he said that Lama Tsongkhapa was the teacher who wrote the clearest commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings, both sutra and tantra. We are so fortunate to be following his tradition.
In the end, it all comes down to how much positive karma we, the students, have created. Having studied meditation and received teachings does not necessarily mean that what we have received is correct, but if we diligently follow Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings we will surely develop on the path. Therefore, we are so fortunate. We should feel great happiness, rejoicing all the time, day and night. There is no time for depression. Not even for an hour, a minute.
As I have mentioned, whether we practice Dharma is up to us, but the more Dharma we learn, the more wisdom we get and the more we are able to discriminate right from wrong. Then we have the wisdom eye to see what to abandon—that which harms ourselves and others—and what to practice—that which benefits ourselves and others.
The king of delusions
I’ll give you another example. You have a child and you have to think of a name. You decide to call him “George.” Whoever decides the name, you both agree and so the thinking is that this is “George.”
When you first saw the baby there was no appearance of George. You didn’t see George. After that, you decided on George. You are the main person to decide this name. Your mind not only labeled the aggregates of the baby “George” but merely labeled them. If your mind hadn’t labeled those aggregates “George,” George would not have existed.
Before the baby was conceived, before the aggregates came into existence, even though you might have already decided on the name for the baby, that name has no valid base. George does not exist, even if there is a mind that has given the name.
Therefore George only comes into existence by depending on the aggregates, the valid base, being there, and depending on the labeling valid mind that merely labels “George” onto those aggregates. Only then does George come into existence. So George exists in mere name.
In that first moment it is just the merely imputed George, but you do not know that, you do not realize that. Then, the next moment, the real George appears from there. A merely labeled George should appear—that is the reality—but that does not happen. What happens in the next moment is that George appears to exist from its own side. This George that didn’t come from the mind, is not merely labeled by the mind, has never been labeled by the mind and totally exists from its own side is totally false.
So, the first moment there is the merely labeled George and then, the next moment, the negative imprint left by ignorance projects a real George. That is the hallucination. Then, in the third moment, you believe that real appearance. It appears real and you believe it to be real. You believe this is real George, but there is no real George. There is no real George existing from its own side at all. That never happened. That is the king of delusions, the basic problem. That is the root of all the delusions. All other delusions such as attachment arise on the basis of that wrong object.
Attachment arises on the basis of believing a real George to be there, but the object of attachment is not there.
In the Lamrim Chenmo there is a very good explanation of how delusions are all built on the basis of the wrong concept. There is no object of attachment or anger. It does not exist. The mind has projected it; the mind has created it. We have totally made it up and we have created the suffering ourselves.
The real George is a good example of this. It is totally false but on the basis of it there is so much attachment. We think, “My child,” then when something disturbs our attachment, we get angry. Like that, all the other delusions arise. In that way, we live our whole life completely in the hallucination.
There is no real Lama Zopa. There is no real Jamyang Centre appearing from its own side. There is no real teaching appearing from there. All this is totally empty. There is no real home appearing from there. There is no real car that you drive, existing from its own side. There is no real shop, no real shopkeeper, no real money, no real coming and going. There is no real university, no real degree, no real job. There is no real cancer. Maybe that example is better. There is no real cancer, no real AIDS.
The emptiness of the Z
I want to end by mentioning this example for you to get a better idea. You might have heard it before because it is a common example I give, but I think using it again here will make this clearer.
Go back to your childhood before you knew your ABCs. Your teacher draws three lines on the blackboard, a Z. Before she teaches you what those lines mean, you see them but you have no appearance that this is a Z. You do not see those lines as a Z. Then the teacher introduces you to the name for that: “Z.” Before that, you didn’t have the appearance that this is a Z, there were just three lines. That is clear.
Once the teacher has introduced you to the label “Z” you believe in that. Following what the teacher says, your mind merely imputes Z and then, the next moment, you have the appearance of the Z. But the big question is this. It should appear as merely labeled by the mind if that is how you apprehended it the moment before, but you do not see that at all. Why is that?
The next moment, for you, there is this wrong projection, a real Z from there, a Z that never came from your mind, that was not merely labeled by your mind. That is so totally wrong; that is a hallucination.
In that second moment there is the appearance of a real Z and then, in the third moment, you totally believe this to be true, to be real. As it appears real, you believe it to be real. This is the fundamental wrong concept that gives rise to all other delusions. Seeing the merely labeled Z, seeing it as truly existing and then believing in that not merely labeled, truly-existing Z, those are the steps. I hope that makes it a little clearer. Thinking back to when you were a child, the first time you saw these three lines, helps to clarify this.
Another thing is to look for the real Z. Where is the real Z? Is it on the top horizontal line? Or the diagonal line? Or is it the bottom horizontal line? Or even all three lines? There is no real Z there, even on all three lines.
It is exactly the same as the valid base, the five aggregates of form, feeling, cognition, compounding aggregates and consciousness that we have. These are the basis to be labeled, the basis on which the mind merely imputes the I. Thus the I exists in mere name.
That is the reality. None of the aggregates separately is the real I nor are all the aggregates as a whole. These five aggregates are the possession and the I is the possessor of those aggregates, so how can the possession also be the possessor? They are not separate but different. For example, if we own a car we are the possessor and the car is our possession. How can it be possible for the possessor, we ourselves, to also be the possession, our car? It is not possible for possessor and possession to be one.
The aggregates are the possession and the I is the possessor, therefore they are not one. There are other logical arguments that prove the aggregates are not the real I; for example, because the real I is one, singular, then all the aggregates would have to be one, singular. That dangerous mistake can arise.
And if the aggregates are the real I, then what is the purpose of calling this thing “I”? If there is already a real I why place the name “I” on the already existing I? If the label “I” is needed for the already existing real I, then that I would also need to be labeled in the same way. We would need yet another label and so it would go in an infinite regression, creating numberless I’s. That is pointless.
So, with the Z, none of the lines separately nor all three lines as a whole are the real Z. Thinking they are, mistakes like that occur.
Time to stop the tyranny of the real I
In our life, we have this ignorance, this wrong concept, believing in the real I and the real aggregates, which are in fact totally empty, which have never existed in the past, from beginningless rebirths. With this false concept we are always so worried and afraid. When can this real I that our ignorance believes in, which has never existed, ever be happy? When can it be happy? All the time, day and night, we worry about the happiness of this real I.
All through our life we worry about this—through kindergarten, primary school, high school, college, university, getting a degree and then a job. We try to earn a good salary, then we marry and have children. We feel that once we have accomplished all this, with a job, a partner and children, we’ll be so happy! Yesterday, when I asked a student what he really wanted in his life, he said he wanted to see grandchildren. I asked if he wanted to see his grandchildren enlightened. I put it that way.
Because of believing in this real I, when somebody cheats us, lies to us, steals from us or blames us, we get angry. We get angry for this real I. We sue that person, bringing a court case against him, spending thousands of pounds or dollars—hundreds of thousands, or millions, I don’t know—all for this real I to be happy, to harm and defeat its enemy. For the happiness of the real I we want to put that person into prison.
Perhaps we have to kill that person to make the real I happy. But then his friends get angry at us and so we have more enemies and have to kill them too. Because of this real I that doesn’t exist we give much harm to others. This real I creates great confusion, so many problems in life. We see examples of this in newspapers and on TV all the time. But there is no real I there at all. It’s all a joke—in reality, it’s not there. We create all this negative karma for something that is not there at all, a total hallucination.
This ties in with what I said earlier about the tyrant with power and influence who can start wars and cause the deaths of millions of people. He does this because he has been completely cheated by this wrong concept. In the same way, we ourselves are completely cheated too.
It is very important to end this tyranny now. For beginningless rebirths we have been experiencing the sufferings of the hell beings, the hungry ghosts, the animals, the human beings, the gods, the demigods and the intermediate stage beings. As human beings we have the sufferings of rebirth, old age, sickness, death, meeting undesirable objects, not meeting desirable objects and losing desirable objects that we’ve found. Even if we manage to get what we want, we are still unable to find satisfaction. Never being able to find satisfaction is the greatest problem that affluent humans and gods face. No matter how many desirable objects we are able to acquire, we can never find satisfaction, but we try and try and try.
This is not the first time we have been like this, with all these sufferings. This has been our experience for countless lifetimes and if we fail to do something about it now, while we have the opportunity to realize emptiness, we will suffer in samsara endlessly.
All phenomena are empty; they do not exist from their own side, especially the I, the body, aggregates and possessions—the objects of our attachment and anger.
A star, a visual aberration, a flame of a lamp,
An illusion, a drop of dew or a bubble,
A dream, a flash of lightning, a cloud—
See conditioned things as such! 29
I explained defective view before, how everything—I, action, object, everything—appears to be truly existent. The way that things appear, as truly existent, rab-rib, relates to that. Causes and conditions exist and therefore I, action, object and all other phenomena exist.
This is totally the opposite of what most people in the world believe. What most people in the world believe is not according to reality, that is why they suffer so much, why they have so much emotional suffering, depression and so forth.
If we can meditate on this every day, even though we might be far from attaining realizations, having a degree of familiarity will help very much; it will bring a lot of peace and happiness into our life, our mind. Then we will be able to practice Dharma more and more, and gain more and more freedom for ourselves. We will be able to attain the blissful state of peace, liberation from samsara, and enlightenment. Practicing Dharma every day means giving ourselves happiness every day. Especially by practicing lo-jong, thought transformation, any problem that we experience can bring us the best happiness.
27 Tib: rab-rib. [Return to text]
28 Buddhist philosophy lists three main causes of suffering : the three poisons of ignorance, attachment and anger. The six root delusions consist of those three plus pride, doubt and deluded views, and, from these six, the twenty secondary delusions, such as envy, laziness, dullness and so forth, arise. See The Mind and Its Functions, pp. 137–62. [Return to text]
29 From Praise to Shakyamuni Buddha. Some translations say “defective view,” some “mirage” for rab-rib. Taken from Essential Buddhist Prayers, Volume 1, p. 76. [Return to text]