Seeing How the I Exists

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Singapore (Archive #1922)

Teachings on emptiness (shunyata), given by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche at a refuge ceremony at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore, March 2013. Edited by Ven. Tenzin Tsultrim and Sandra Smith.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching in Singapore, 2010. Photo: Ven. Thubten Kunsang (Henri Lopez).
How the I is Merely Labeled

Do not commit any unwholesome action,
Engage in perfect wholesome action,
Subdue one’s mind,
This is the teaching of the Buddha.

Do not commit any unwholesome action. Buddha said this because we do not like suffering, we like happiness. No matter how much science we know, or how much university education we have, what we are looking for is temporary happiness, not ultimate happiness. What common people are looking for is samsaric happiness, temporary happiness, which is in the nature of suffering.

The objects of the five senses are impermanent, causative phenomena. They are under the control of causes and conditions, so they change, not only day by day, week by week, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second, but even within one second. This meditator in Tibet, Geshe Lamrimpa from Drepung Monastery, said that even within a second, there is subtlest impermanence. Those things are very logical, they are proven by reason.

Through logical reasons we can see, we can prove this, then we know the ultimate reality—tong-pa-nyi, shunyata, emptiness only. Emptiness in Sanskrit is shunyata, but exactly in Tibetan, it is tong-pa-nyi. Tong-pa is empty; nyi cuts off all ordinary emptiness. Whether it means the same in Sanskrit, I don’t know.

In ancient times the great, great pandits, who were extremely knowledgeable, great holy beings, translated Buddhist texts that came from India, from Sanskrit into the Tibetan language. The translators of early times, those great holy beings, who were extremely knowledgeable in Buddhism and other subjects, translated this from Sanskrit as tong-pa-nyi. In English, I’m not sure, emptiness.

Someone who never heard, who never studied teachings on emptiness, what would the person know by hearing the word “emptiness”? Would the person understand tong-pa-nyi? In Tibetan, tong-pa-nyi is very specific. By putting the word nyi, it means nothing else, only that—the emptiness of.

For example, you give a name to somebody. You give a child the name White Lotus. When you give the name White Lotus to a child, it is merely labeled by your mind. When you give the child a name, White Lotus, at the very beginning, at that time, is your understanding merely labeled by the mind? Or does White Lotus exist from its own side? How do you see it? The minute you label, is it existing from its own side, a real one, or is it merely imputed by your mind?

Does it immediately appear as real, from its own side? Does it appear immediately, at the same time you label, or after? It cannot be at the same time because without labeling you wouldn’t have true existence, a real White Lotus, because that happens after labeling. At the same time is impossible. This is something to think about. Isn’t there one or two seconds, right after the label, where it doesn’t appear as real?

After you label the child White Lotus, time goes by and after a second, a minute, an hour, we see White Lotus as real, existing from its own side, existing by nature, truly existent. As the minutes go by, especially after one hour, it appears to exist from its own side, it appears as a real one.

But right at the beginning, right at the first second after you label White Lotus, after that first second, do you see it as real? Real means existing from its own side, not only labeled by mind; the name does not appear to come from the mind at all—real means it exists from its own side. Do you get that projection, that appearance right away, right after you merely labeled? The second right after you merely labeled, do you get a real appearance? A real White Lotus. Do you feel a real White Lotus? Do you see a real White Lotus or not? Right after your mind merely labeled, right after that, you see nothing to do with the mind. Not only labeled by the mind but never labeled by the mind, existing from its own side, right in the first second. You have to check.

There is a note by Kyabje Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo, the author of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, which in my view may be correct, that sometimes we do not see true existence. This is not talking about arya beings or buddhas who have realized emptiness or shunyata. This is about ordinary beings. In the note it says: “Not seeing as existing from its own side.”

Sometimes I think when we give something a name, then immediately, right there, it does not immediately have that appearance of existing from its own side. In the note, it mentioned like that. I consulted Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche about that note. Rinpoche did not say any comment in particular. However, as time goes by—seconds, minutes — we see the child as real White Lotus. Real one means that it is ordinary, in people’s normal language. Real means existing from its own side, truly existing, existing by nature. That means not merely labeled by the mind, never coming from the mind.

When you check the appearance, it never came from your mind. Even though you labeled it just before, you are not aware, you forgot, you did not analyze that it is merely labeled by the mind. You forgot completely. You believe your appearance—a total hallucination—exists from its own side; a real one. In your view, when you check your view, there is a real one, existing from its own side. It never came from your mind, it is nothing to do with the mind. You can see more and more it is a gross hallucination if you check your view of the child, or White Lotus, or anything.

According to Prasangika Madhyamaka [Middle Way Consequence School], calling the child White Lotus is a hundred percent merely labeled by the mind. It came from the mind. Nothing exists from its own side; it is merely labeled by the mind.

Nothing exists from its own side. It is totally empty. White Lotus is totally empty from its own side from the beginning. It is completely empty from its own side from the very beginning; it never existed from its side, it never happened from its own side, it never came from its own side, it is totally empty —that is the Middle Way view of how the person exists.

The child, White Lotus, or Peter, or some girl’s name, is merely imputed by the mind—by the parents who labeled the child or the friends who labeled—even the Dharma name. You know my name, Zopa, Thubten Zopa, was merely labeled by the abbot who granted me the getsul vows, the 36 vows, the abbot of Dromo Geshe’s monastery in Tibet. For the gelong [fully ordained monk] vows I was ordained by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, the elder guru of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Bodhgaya. But the getsul vows were given to me by the abbot of Dromo Geshe’s monastery in Tibet, Dungyal Gompa. The abbot, who came from Sera Je, was named Thubten Jinpa or something like that. That abbot was a very good monk and practitioner. He merely labeled Zopa, Thubten Zopa, the valid base. My aggregrates are the valid base, so they can receive that name.

White Lotus or Thubten Zopa is devoid of true existence, but it is also free from nihilism. Thubten Zopa doesn’t exist, White Lotus doesn’t exist, but it is devoid of nihilism and devoid of the other extreme, eternalism. The mere reality is it exists in mere name, as merely labeled by the mind, but we see extra, as existing from its own side. It never began with that and it does not continue with that. It doesn’t exist from the beginning, now or in the end, but in reality, of course we get that projection, the wrong projection that it exists from its own side. It happens because of ignorance, the root of samsara. Just the name, Thubten Zopa or White Lotus, or the extra that is not merely labeled by the mind, we cannot be satisfied with it existing in mere name. Unable to be satisfied with that, it becomes something extra that exists from its own side. It truly exists, it exists by nature, real.

We ordinary beings normally say real, real, real. That is the gag-cha, the object that should be refuted, the Madhyamaka subject. We have to understand we are talking about gag-cha, the object to be refuted. In reality, things are devoid of that extreme of eternalism, existing from their own side, so they exist in mere name. This is the Middle Way view of existing, u ma, according to the Prasangika Madhyamaka School.

How things exist—Thubten Zopa or White Lotus, or anything else, samsara or nirvana, hell, enlightenment, happiness, problems, all the phenomena—when we really check how things exist, it is like this, most unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable suffering. What is I? What appears to us, to me?

Unless somebody is Buddha; unless some of you are buddhas, then it is different. Then you have no hallucination. You have purified the dualistic mind. You have no truly existent view. You have no view of the real, existing from its own side, existing by nature. You don’t have that view at all, because what produces that, what projects that, is ignorance, which leaves imprints on the mind. The eighth, ninth and tenth ground bodhisattvas, according to the five Mahayana paths, have direct perception of tong-pa-nyi, shunyata, where I, action, phenomena, do not exist from their side at all, there is the direct perception of emptiness only. Except when in equipoise meditation, they are still sentient beings. They have dual view, truly existent view, real, existing from its own side. They have this hallucination because they have this projection, projected by the imprints left by past delusions, but they have removed and ceased the delusions. They don’t have the disturbing-thought obscurations, but there are the imprints left, the subtle negative imprints that project the hallucination. When we become enlightened we don’t have that hallucination. We won’t have that hallucination that we have now. Buddha doesn’t have that.

The way things exist, White Lotus or Thubten Zopa, the whole of phenomena, is unbelievably, unbelievably subtle. Things exist in mere name, merely imputed by mind. Nothing, not even the slightest atom, exists from its own side. That is reality. That is the Prasangika Madhyamaka view.

Lama Tsongkhapa in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, mentioned:

Without the wisdom realizing ultimate reality,
Even though you have generated renunciation and the mind of enlightenment
You cannot cut the root cause of circling.
Therefore, attempt the method to realize dependent arising.

If we don’t have wisdom realizing emptiness, ultimate reality, even if our mind is trained in renunciation and bodhicitta, we cannot cut the root of samsara, ignorance, therefore attempt the method to realize dependent arising. What I mentioned before—devoid of true existence, nihilism, eternalism, existing in mere name, merely labeled by the mind, the meaning of tendrel is that—subtle dependent arising. We have to realize that the meaning of tendrel is emptiness, tong-pa-nyi. Tendrel is dependent arising, existing in mere name, merely labeled by the mind, very subtle dependent arising.

Anybody, all the phenomena, samsara and beyond samsara, that includes not only liberation, but even full enlightenment, for all the phenomena of both samsara and beyond that, cause and result are unbetrayable. Seeing cause and result is always not deceiving. If there is a cause, the result will definitely happen. There is no cheating, there is no deceiving. My thinking is, from virtue the result is happiness, and from non-virtue the result is suffering. The result is unbetrayable; it definitely happens.

First, the I from beginningless rebirths—the way the I is perceived by us, it appears to us as truly existent, existing from its own side. The real I appears like that. The real I is not in the head, not in the legs, not in the toes, not in the head, not in the brain, not in the nose, not in the ears, not in the fingers. The real I is not in the toes, not in the legs, not in the stomach, and not in the kaka. You are not living in the kaka. The real I is not living in your throat; it’s not in the beating heart. What else is there? The real I is not in the lungs. We can’t find it; we can’t find any details; we can’t find it in any detailed place. When we check, the real I is not anywhere. Normally we think it is here, we point here [to the chest]. Happy or sad, we point here. Or if somebody says: “Are you telling me? Me!” We always point there.

When we don’t examine, when we are not aware, it is like that. We are following the wrong concept, ignorance, holding I, action, object, everything, as truly existent, in particular, somewhere in the chest, somewhere there. But when we look for it; when we check in the heart, liver, lungs, the real I is nowhere to be found.

For this real I to be happy, we do all kinds of things. If we have power, we make wars and kill millions, millions, millions of people. This has happened already, many times in this world. That is in a big way. Then in a small way, we kill the enemy to get happiness for this I, for the real I. But when we look for it, if we go through an x-ray or we are in the hospital and our body is cut open, we cannot find it. But believing it is there, we kill many millions of people in the world, or we kill just one person, the enemy. Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies, all the alcohol—all this is to get happiness for this real I, which is not there. From the hair down to the toes, it cannot be found at all.

In daily life, the hallucination is there, somewhere there, in the chest, one hundred percent, no question. No question, we believe it one hundred percent. Then we do everything for that, to get happiness for that—even negative karma, anything, telling lies, cheating. Our whole life is spent like that, to get happiness for this I. Even in business, we cheat others to get happiness for this I. If somebody criticises us or blames us, then we make a court case and we put them in prison. We spend so much money on court cases, to put others in prison, we do anything we can to the person we don’t like or who harms us.

Can you imagine, how we use our whole life is like that, to get happiness for the real I which we can’t find there? This real I is not there. We can’t find it anywhere. Life is like that, a hallucination, a total hallucination. It is very interesting to really check the life.

That is why studying Dharma, learning Dharma, is very important. If we understand what is I, we can really understand true suffering, the true cause of suffering, true cessation and the true path—total peerless happiness, full enlightenment, the whole path to reduce all the obscurations. We can see all this, vast like the ocean, like the sky. If we don’t learn Dharma, if we don’t understand Dharma, constantly day and night we cheat ourselves with the wrong concept, the hallucination. We cheat ourselves constantly—amazing, amazing, amazing—we follow the hallucinated mind completely for our whole life, from birth to death. Can you imagine?

If we have a Dharma connection from our own side, we look at Buddha with continual devotion, so there is continual intense purification and collection of merits. Also, due to imprints from past lives, we heard teachings on emptiness. Many Chinese read the Vajra Cutter Sutra. That is very, very good. Even though we don’t understand the sutra at all, reading it many times over with awareness leaves so many positive imprints on the mind. Due to that, suddenly when our mind is ready, with strong devotion, we receive the blessing of the guru, then with strong purification, collecting merits, even with one or two words, suddenly we feel, we recognise what it means. We have all the time believed the I is real, but once we recognise it is not, then it doesn’t take much—a dependent arising—just a minute or second if we are fortunate enough. If we are fortunate enough, it takes a minute or a second to realize emptiness, to see there is no real I, but a hallucination. Suddenly, we see the hallucination. Suddenly, it is not there.

For example, from far away we see a tiger, but when we come near, it is just a bush, not a tiger. From far away it looks like a tiger or a man, but when we come near it is a scarecrow, not a person. Even though we have believed this from beginningless rebirth, when we receive so many blessings from the guru, with strong purification, then suddenly we discover it is not there. There is nothing there. There is no real I at all. There is nothing to grasp at. What experience we get is that there is no I to hold on to, nothing. What we have believed from beginningless rebirths, this I, is suddenly not there. This is what happens.

We continue; we don’t stop. We continue as if we are crossing over a river, as if we are going by boat across a river, no matter how much we are afraid. Bodhisattvas, intelligent ones [with sharp faculties], realize emptiness. But for less intelligent beings, so much fear comes at that time; there is really incredible fear from inside. A very, very, very important technique or point to understand is that we must go through the fear. Don’t be afraid of falling into nihilism, not at all! When we cannot hold the I, when suddenly it is not there, there is nothing to hold on to, that is the real I. That is very, very, very, very positive.

Fear arises because we have believed one hundred percent since beginninglesss rebirth that the real I exists. Can you imagine how our life has been habituated with that, from beginningless rebirth? So there is unbelievable fear. If we stop, it is a very big obstacle and we cannot realize emptiness. It will take time.

So go through the fear. Completely let yourself see the real I; there is completely nothing to hold on to. What appeared as real, or we believed as real from beginningless time, suddenly there is nothing to hold on to. We need to complete that experience. We have to go through the fear. Cause and result never cheat, never deceive at all. Then we will see the I as totally empty. The result is seeing how the I exists—how it exists in mere name, merely labeled by the mind.

In our discovery, our meditation, our experience, our realization of emptiness, if the conclusion at the end is that the I exists in mere name, that it is merely imputed by the mind, then our understanding and discovery of emptiness is correct. But if we don’t come to that conclusion—if our meditation on emptiness doesn’t help that realization of the dependent arising of the I; if it [doesn’t] destroy the [belief in the true] existence of the I—then it is not correct. It is wrong.

This I exists in mere name; it is merely labeled by mind, so if [our meditation] doesn’t help or support that realization, then it is wrong. Our belief is not correct. How we are doing meditation practice and studying emptiness is very, very, very important.

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