How Things Exist

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
New York, NY 1990 (Archive #655)

In this book Lama Zopa Rinpoche covers the importance of compassion and universal responsibility and how to make life meaningful, and offers an amazing and extensive explanation of emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality, and teaching how to meditate on emptiness. Within these teachings, Rinpoche also touches on several of the other main points of the path to enlightenment, such as bodhicitta, the three scopes and impermanence.

See the Related Links for each chapter to access the audio recordings and read along with the unedited transcripts.

Chapter Five: Merely Labeled

Recognizing the object to be refuted

To us, this I always appears inherently existent, or real. Everything always appears inherently existent. Everything always appears as the object to be refuted. Even saying “this I” is enough to make the object to be refuted appear. We don’t need to describe true existence or anything else. For most of us, when we simply say “I,” what appears to us, and what we believe it to be, is the truly existent I.

The aggregate of form is not this I, the aggregate of feeling is not this I, the aggregate of recognition is not this I, the compounding aggregates are not this I and the aggregate of consciousness is not this I. The term compounding aggregates, or compositional mental factors, refers to all the fifty-one mental factors21 apart from feeling and recognition. What they compound is their own result, their own continuation. For example, since today’s consciousness produces tomorrow’s consciousness, it compounds the result, tomorrow’s consciousness.

Even the whole group of the five aggregates is not the I because it is the base to be labeled “I.” This makes it clear that it is not the I. The I exists nowhere on these aggregates, neither on the body nor on the mind nor even on the whole group of the aggregates. This is a clear way to meditate on emptiness, enabling us to understand the base and the label.

However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no I. There is I. The reason there’s I is that there are the aggregates, the association of body and mind. Simply because of that, we believe that there’s I.

Another way to meditate on emptiness is to ask yourself, “What am I doing now?” You reply, “I’m sitting.” Then ask yourself, “Why do I say that I’m sitting?” “There’s no other reason at all to believe that I’m sitting except that my body is doing the action of sitting.” And when you say, “I’m thinking” or “I’m listening to teachings,” why do you believe you’re thinking or listening to teachings? There’s no other reason at all except that your mind is thinking or listening to teachings.

This way of meditating helps us to recognize the object to be refuted. It is only because the aggregates are sitting, standing, eating, drinking or sleeping that we believe “I’m sitting,” “I’m standing,” “I’m eating,” “I’m drinking” or “I’m sleeping.” The I is merely imputed in dependence upon the aggregates and the actions of the aggregates.

With this reasoning, there’s suddenly a big change in your view of the I. The concrete I, the real I, suddenly becomes empty right there. The real I from its own side that appeared before is not there. When you don’t think of this reasoning, everything comes back, and the I, which is merely imputed, appears as real.

Analyzing the nature of the I by using the reason of the existence of the aggregates and its actions helps us to see more and more clearly what the emotional I is. The I that appears to be real from its own side is completely empty; it doesn’t exist. When your mind becomes distracted, look again at how the I appears and apply the reasoning. When you analyze, again you won’t find that real I, that emotional I. Not being able to find the emotional I is a sign that it doesn’t exist.

You are unable to find the I on these aggregates. None of these aggregates is the I and on these aggregates there’s no I. But that doesn’t mean that the I doesn’t exist. The I exists. There is I in this temple. During this time that the aggregates are in this temple, we believe “I am here in this temple.” Just by that, we believe “I am in this temple.” And we believe “I’m listening” or “I’m talking”—or “I’m feeling tired” or “I’m sleeping” as this never-ending talk goes on and on!

Recognizing the hallucination

The different meditations I have mentioned can be used to meditate on emptiness, to see the nature of the I. Look at how things appear to you. They appear as real, as existing from their own side. The most important point is to then think that this is a hallucination, a projection. A camera records various activities, such as fighting, and if you have power and a projector you can then project the film onto a screen. But what you see there on the screen is not real. You might see thousands of people fighting on a TV screen but there’s nobody really there on the screen. What appears is not real; it’s not true. Exactly like a camera recording images on a film, ignorance leaves imprints on our mental continuum and we then project true existence onto the things we experience.

The main point to meditate on is that the projection of true existence is a hallucination. When you think of hallucination, the understanding should come in your heart that these things are empty; they don’t exist. It’s not that the building doesn’t exist, but the truly existent building, the building that appears to exist from its own side, doesn’t exist. That’s completely empty. That is the emptiness, or ultimate nature, of the building.

Everything else—self, action, object, all the department stores, the whole city—is also like this. Everything that exists is covered by this hallucination of true existence. When you recognize that it is a hallucination, the understanding should come in your heart that everything is empty. You should then practice awareness of that emptiness. In your everyday life, not only during meditation but also when you’re at work, remember again and again to practice this awareness. Look at how things appear to you: they all appear as unlabeled, which means that they are projections, hallucinations. They are empty. You don’t have to actually say the word “empty” because when you say that these unlabeled things are hallucinations, the understanding that they are empty naturally arises in your heart.

With this awareness, you can then go shopping. You stand up, put on your shoes and with this awareness go out in your car. When you are walking in the street, you also do it with the recognition that the truly existent things appearing to you are hallucinations. After recognizing that the I that appears to be real is a hallucination, you understand that it is empty. This empty I then walks along the empty street to the empty shops. In reality, everything is like this.

Everything is merely labeled

“I” is merely imputed to these aggregates. None of the five aggregates is the general aggregates. Even the whole group of the five aggregates is not the general aggregates, because it is the base to be labeled “general aggregates.” So, “aggregates” is also merely imputed to them.

With respect to the aggregate of form, no part of the body is the aggregate of form and even the whole group of the parts of the body is not the aggregate of form. “Aggregate of form” is merely imputed to this body.

In the same way, each of the aggregates is merely imputed to its own base. For example, “aggregate of consciousness” is merely imputed to the particular mental factor whose main function is to see the essence of an object and which continues from one life to another, carrying the imprints left by karma. That phenomenon is labeled “consciousness.”

With respect to the head, the mouth is not the head, the nose is not the head, the brain is not the head, the ears are not the head. No part of the head is the head. Even the whole group of the parts of the head is not the head; it is the base to be labeled “head.” Each part of the head—mouth, nose, brain, ear—is merely labeled on another label, and that label is given to another label.

“Arm” is labeled on this particular object, but each part of the arm is not the arm and even the whole group of the parts is not the arm. Since the whole group is the base to be labeled “arm,” it’s not the arm. Again, each part is also labeled on another label. It is the same with the leg. Each part of the leg, such as the thigh, is not the leg, and even the whole group of the parts is not the leg. The whole group is the base to be labeled “leg.” Each part is labeled on its own base.

This is how it is down to the atoms, and even the atom is labeled. Each particle of the atom is not the atom, and the group of the particles is the base to be labeled “atom.” And even the particles of the atoms are labeled on their own base.

From the I and the aggregates down to the atomic particles, everything is labeled on another label. Something is imputed to one base, which is labeled on another base, and that base is labeled on another base. Everything exists being labeled. Everything is a label, starting with our aggregates. So, from the I and the aggregates down to the atomic particles, everything is completely empty of existing from its own side. The concrete things that appear to us are hallucinations. The real, concrete, truly existent I and aggregates are hallucinations.

It is the same with this temple. None of the parts of the temple is the temple. Even the whole group of the parts is not the temple; it is the base to be labeled “temple.” So, the temple is completely empty of existing from its own side.

With respect to the ceiling, each part of the ceiling is not the ceiling, and even the whole group of the parts is not the ceiling, because the whole group is the base to be labeled “ceiling.” With respect to the windows, each part is not the window, and even the whole group of parts is not the window, because it’s the base to be labeled “window.”

The reality of the temple, ceiling and windows is something completely different from what we normally think of as the temple, ceiling and windows. When we analyze we find that how they really exist is completely something else. All the time we talk, talk, talk and think, think, think and write, write, write, but when we analyze we find that reality is actually something we have never talked about, never thought about and never written about. It is something that has never appeared to us.

Everything is like this. Even the floor is like this. Each piece of the floor is not the floor, and even the whole group of pieces is not the floor, because they are the base to be labeled “floor.” When we again analyze each piece, down to its atoms, it’s also the same with the atoms and their particles. Because they are particles of the atom, it means the particles are not the atom. And even the whole group of the particles is not the atom; it is the base to be labeled “atom.” So, from the temple down to its atoms, everything is labeled. We put one label on this label and then put another label on that label. We put one name on another name.

Even though this is the reality, what appears to us is a concrete temple with a concrete ceiling, concrete windows and a concrete floor. What appears to us is something existing from its own side. This is a projection by ignorance; this is a hallucination. In reality it’s empty.

It is like this from morning until night. We build a house, which is empty, and eat food, which is empty. We marry a wife or husband, who is empty, and have a child, who is empty. We work in an office, which is empty. We get empty money and go to the empty supermarket to buy empty food then go back to our empty house.

The merely labeled I is born from merely labeled parents and goes to a merely labeled school to get a merely labeled education from a merely labeled teacher to get a merely labeled degree, then get a merely labeled job as a merely labeled professor, then marries a merely labeled wife or husband and has a merely labeled child. With merely labeled money, the merely labeled I goes to the merely labeled shop and buys merely labeled things. The merely labeled I wears merely labeled clothes and eats merely labeled food. It is like this from birth to death, from the merely labeled birth to the merely labeled death. The whole thing—beginning with birth and ending with death and everything in between—is merely labeled. This is how it is in reality.

Remembering emptiness in everyday life

Sometimes you might think, “What’s the use of teachings on emptiness? How does this philosophy help me when I have problems in everyday life?” However, if you can think like this, it’s the most powerful meditation to shatter the hallucinations. It’s like an atomic bomb. Problems happen in your daily life because you believe the hallucinations to be real. The most powerful, immediate way to stop problems is to remember emptiness. You should especially remember emptiness when you are in situations where there’s a danger of giving rise to strong anger or uncontrolled desire and creating heavy negative karma and causing great harm to others.

When you have a very dissatisfied mind and don’t succeed in getting what you want, you experience depression. Even though you might not remember the particular reasons you are depressed, most of the time there are reasons. Depression happens because you didn’t succeed in getting what your desire or selfish mind wanted. Depression happens when you not aware of the emptiness of the I and other things. When you are aware of emptiness, when you’re meditating on emptiness, there’s no depression. There’s no way depression can be there at that time. Depression happens when you believe the hallucinations to be real.

It is especially important to remember emptiness in those situations in your daily life that create a lot of confusion, where there is danger of great harm to you and other sentient beings. It is very important to remember that the things that look real from their own side are projections, hallucinations. Then meditate strongly that they are empty.

One way to meditate on how everything is empty is to meditate on dependent arising, looking at how everything—self, action, object—is merely imputed. This is one way of practicing awareness of emptiness in everyday life. Do this while you are at work, talking to people or having meetings, or at home with your family. Do it especially when you are having a conversation with someone who is complaining about or criticizing you or when somebody is praising you, which causes the delusion of pride to arise. Again meditate on emptiness; again practice awareness of either dependent arising or emptiness. Anyway, they’re the same; it’s one meditation.

Fear of losing the I

If fear of losing the I, the self, or external phenomena arises during meditation on emptiness, it’s a very good sign, but while bodhisattvas of lower intelligence may feel afraid when experiencing emptiness, when bodhisattvas of higher intelligence realize it, they feel incredible joy, as if they’d found a precious treasure they’d never had before.

If fear arises when you do analysis on emptiness, it means that your connotation of emptiness is hitting the right point, the concept of true existence. It means that your meditation is harming the object that this ignorance apprehends. You mustn’t run away from that fear. It’s a very good sign; it’s what is needed. It’s a sign that your meditation is working on the right point. You should experience the fear and go beyond it. If you allow this fear to arise and then go beyond it, you will be able to realize the emptiness of the I without any obstacles. But if you stop the fear when it arises you cannot completely realize the emptiness of the I. This is an extremely important point.

You can experience emptiness with just a little meditation on it at times when you’re accumulating much merit and doing intensive purification, and when you have strong devotion to your guru while training your mind in the meditations on seeing your guru as buddha. At such times you can experience it by concentrating on the meaning of just two or three words on emptiness.

So when the fear comes, the most important thing is not to run away from it but to go beyond it. Fear arises because you feel you are losing the I, but in reality there’s no way to lose the I because the continuity of consciousness always exists—it goes to enlightenment and always continues. Therefore the I, which is imputed to the consciousness, always exists. There’s no way for it to cease. There’s no need to worry about falling into the extreme of nihilism, about the I completely ceasing. Even though it appears that you’re losing it, there’s no need to worry that the I will actually cease.

Feeling that you’re losing the I means that you’re losing the truly existent I and is the start of seeing the emptiness of the I, its emptiness of true existence. This is a very important point. When you experience complete loss of the I, you see the path of the Madhyamaka, the Middle Way.

You’ve been holding on to something for beginningless rebirths but when you experience complete loss of the I, suddenly there’s nothing to hold on to. Since beginningless time you’ve been holding on to the false I, the truly existent I, which doesn’t exist, and that’s why you’re still in samsara. As a result, not only have you not achieved enlightenment, as you’ve been clinging on to the truly existent I, you haven’t even achieved liberation, ultimate happiness, for yourself. And you will continue to circle in samsara—in the hell, hungry ghost, animal, human and god realms—until you let it go.

Until you realize emptiness and cut off this ignorance that is the root of samsara, you will have to wander in samsara as you’ve been doing since beginningless time, continuously experiencing suffering without end, such as the human problems that you experience over and over again.

After you’ve realized emptiness, if you haven’t done so before you should then try to actualize single-pointed concentration. Study the methods of overcoming the distractions of scattering and sinking and establishing concentration. By learning and practicing22 those techniques you can achieve stable single-pointed concentration. Through this you can then generate great insight and derive the rapturous ecstasy of the extremely refined body and mind that comes from analysis on emptiness.

Everything comes from the mind

Everything comes from our own mind. Since everything is merely imputed and all imputation comes from our mind, everything comes from our mind. All appearances happen by labeling; whatever appears to us happens by labeling. Again, all the appearances of life come from our mind.

The appearance of a friend comes from our mind. Before we label “friend,” there’s no appearance of friend. Because someone loves us or does something good for us, we label her “friend” and she then appears to us as a friend; because another person doesn’t love us or harms us, we label him “enemy” and he then appears to us as an enemy. These appearances come from our own mind. When our enemy appears, an unpleasant feeling arises in our mind; when our friend appears, a pleasant feeling arises in our mind. All this is created by or originates from our own mind.

Without labeling “snake,” there’s no appearance of snake; after labeling a piece of rope at dusk “snake,” a snake appears. It’s the same with a person who doesn’t know that George Bush is the president of America. At first she sees just the appearance of a man. After somebody tells her that he’s the American president, she then also labels “This is the American president.” After she has imputed this and then believed in her own label, the American president then appears to her.

It’s like this from morning to night, from birth until death. It’s like this with the whole of samsara and nirvana. It’s like this with everything that appears to us: with my seeing you and your seeing me and this temple and everything else, including the American president. Everything that appears to us comes from our own mind.

This is also an important point to remember in our daily life, especially when we’re in situations where there’s a danger of creating confusion and problems and heavy negative karma. If we think like this, there’s no way to blame other sentient beings. First we make our own interpretation of a situation and then apply the label “good” or “bad” to it. We label what appears to us as bad, get angry and then blame other people—it’s illogical; it doesn’t make any sense.

With this reasoning, since everything that appears to us comes from our own mind, we don’t find anything for which to blame others. How things appear to us depends on how we look at them, how we interpret them. We then label them.

Hearing that our friend doesn’t love us any more is not the problem. We hear that our friend doesn’t love us any more and interpret that as bad, but that’s still not the problem; labeling that situation “bad,” is not the problem. The problem comes when we start to believe in our own label, “This is bad.” That’s when it becomes a problem and makes our life difficult, not before.

You can see that simply labeling a situation “bad” is not the problem. The problem is that after we label we start to believe in our own label. That’s what makes life difficult. Thus you can see how problems like this come from our own mind, are a creation of our own mind.

Produced by ignorance

The ignorance holding the concept of true existence is like a farmer; karma, the action motivated by this ignorance, is like a field in which various types of crops can grow; and consciousness, on which karma leaves all the imprints, is like the seed. One tiny seed carries all the potential to grow a huge tree with many billions of branches that cover a huge area. Like a seed, the consciousness, on which karma left all the imprints, contains all the potential. The consciousness continued from your past life to this life and will continue from this life to your next life, carrying all these imprints.

The imprint left by karma on the consciousness is then made ready to bring its own rebirth, its own future samsara, the aggregates, by craving and grasping, which are like the minerals. That is called becoming, which is like a seed becoming ready to produce its sprout. The next life, or rebirth, starts with name and form, which is like the sprout grown from the seed. After that come the sense bases, contact, feeling, then old age and death.23

The conclusion is that from morning to night, from birth until death, whatever happiness and suffering we experience and whatever good or bad objects appear to us, they all come from our consciousness, which carries all the imprints. Everything that appears to us from birth until death comes from our own consciousness. All the different experiences we have of people, places and sense objects come from our consciousness, which carries the imprints. It is not only that everything that appears to us today and from birth until death comes from our consciousness but also that the whole appearance of samsara comes from consciousness, which is our own mind. Not only that, but it comes from karma, which is also our own mind. The definition of karma is “the intention arisen from the principal consciousness.” So, karma is our own mind. Everything comes from our own mind, from karma. Not only that, but everything that appears to us comes from our own mind, from ignorance.

It is like this with everything in our daily life, including desirable and undesirable objects and people helping or harming us. It all comes from our own mind. Past karma leaves imprints on our consciousness—then, while we’re driving comfortably in our car, an accident suddenly happens; or when we step out of our car somebody we’ve never met before suddenly shoots us for no apparent reason; or while we’re walking along the street somebody suddenly appears and beats us up. At such times the imprint left by past karma on our consciousness actualizes, or manifests—it produces the appearance of somebody suddenly shooting or beating us.

It’s the same in our family. Whenever somebody is giving us a hard time—scolding, complaining about or beating us—it’s all coming from our own mind. It’s very good to remember this when somebody is disrespecting or criticizing us; it’s very good to recognize that it’s coming from our consciousness, our own karma, our own ignorance. This means that there’s nothing to get angry about and nobody else to blame.

It’s the same with the sufferings of the hell, hungry ghost and animal realms. The heaviest sufferings of heat in the hot hells and the heaviest sufferings of hunger and thirst in the hungry ghost realm all manifest from our consciousness, our karma, our ignorance. They’re all produced by ignorance.

We don’t know what karma we have created. Since we can’t see all the karmas we’ve ever created we can’t say that we won’t ever experience leprosy, cancer, AIDS, years of living in a coma or other serious problems. We can’t say for sure that we won’t experience the problems we see others experiencing.

Therefore, it’s extremely important to practice Dharma while you’re healthy and possess all the necessary conditions to meditate on the graduated path to enlightenment. You’ve met the right path and qualified masters—and even if you haven’t met qualified masters yet, you still have the opportunity to do so. This is the right time to practice, the right time not to waste your life. This is the time to practice listening to and reflecting and meditating on the path to enlightenment and to purify negative karma, the cause of suffering. The most important thing is to try as much as you possibly can to purify the negative karma accumulated in the past and not to create any more. You should stop creating negative karma again by taking vows and living in them. In that way you accumulate merit all the time, purify past obstacles and do not create further obstacles to developing your mind in the path. Free of obstacles, you then become enlightened and can then guide all sentient beings to enlightenment.


Please dedicate the merit [of reading this book] to generating bodhicitta in your mind and in the minds of all sentient beings and to the increase of bodhicitta in the minds of those who have already generated it.

Think, “Due to the merely labeled merits of the three times accumulated by me and others, may the merely labeled I achieve the merely labeled enlightenment and lead the merely labeled sentient beings to that merely labeled enlightenment.”

Great Enlightenment Temple, New York
9 September 1990

21. For a description of the fifty-one mental factors, see Meditation on Emptiness, pp. 238–68. [Return to text]

22. See, for example, the relevant sections of The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment or Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand. [Return to text]

23. In the preceding two paragraphs, Rinpoche is describing the twelve links of dependent arising, which illustrate how ignorance is the root of samsara. The twelve links are: ignorance, karma, consciousness, craving, grasping, becoming, rebirth, name and form, the six sense bases, contact, feeling, and aging and death. See The Meaning of Life for a detailed teaching on this topic. [Return to text]