The Practice of Emptiness

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche
HITS( 1807)


Why do we need to talk about no-self in person and no- self in phenomena? In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha expounded a “path” which consists of “renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness (the wisdom of realizing emptiness).” We have explained the importance of renunciation and bodhicatta in other teachings. Here we shall describe the practice of emptiness.

Before completing the practice of renunciation, there is no need to talk about the practice of bodhicitta; likewise, before completing the practice of bodhicitta, there is no need to talk about the practice of emptiness. In other words, we should first explain the practice of renunciation, next put it into practice; after most people have reached a certain level in this practice, we can then explain the practice of bodhicitta; this way of undertaking one practice at a time is most appropriate and reliable. However, due to time constraints, we have occasionally given teachings on many practices in a very short period of time. When practicing, you should not take on many practices in a day or in a session; you should first cultivate renunciation – reduce your desire for worldly goods and pleasures – before moving on to the practice of bodhicitta.

After cultivating renunciation and bodhicitta, we must eventually realize emptiness to complete the path to liberation. The fundamental nature of our mind is untainted by desire, anger and delusion; it is the clear light mind of the tathagata. In this state of mind, we can attain freedom and spontaneity; but there is something that will always prevent us from being free. This thing is not outside, as no matter or spirit outside can bind us to samsara or stop us from attaining liberation. In the past, many monastics were imprisoned but lived happily and freely; having attained liberation, it did not matter whether or not they were held in captivity. What keeps us from freedom and happiness is the subtle attachment we have in our own mind. This attachment binds our mind to samsara, that is, to our body, so tightly they cannot be separated. Although in death we forego our body in this lifetime, we still have a body in our next lifetime, not to mention in bardo. Thus, even if the fundamental nature of mind is clear light, we do not recognize it and cannot attain liberation as a result. Our mind has accompanied us since beginningless time, yet to date we are still blind to its true nature; without this understanding of reality, worldly knowledge, however much we may have, is meaningless. Consequently, we must sever this attachment which has always tied our body and mind together.

Just as a kite can fly freely in the sky when its string is broken, when we utilize methods to sever the attachment that links our body to mind, we can be like the buddhas and the bodhisattvas from the first ground up−no birth, aging, sickness and death; no desire, anger, delusion and arrogance; no limitations due to mental afflictions; no hindrances from things outside (benefitting oneself). In this state, we have even more ability to help sentient beings (benefitting others). There is no end to helping sentient beings; we practice and aspire to buddhahood with this purpose only.

How then do we sever this attachment that links our body to mind? If this attachment were outside, we would be able to eradicate it from outside, but it isn’t. There are no methods on the outside that can eradicate this attachment. To people who have not yet realized emptiness, this may be somewhat difficult to comprehend; however, to those who understand and have experienced emptiness, this is quite normal, not the least bit mysterious. Once we realize emptiness, our afflictions at the coarse level will clearly diminish, even if our desire, anger and delusion are not entirely dispelled.

So the “object” is “self-attachment”; the “subject” is “realization” or “wisdom.” The object is that which we want to eradicate, the subject is the method used to eradicate the object.

To eradicate an affliction, we must first find the source of the affliction. In Buddhism, all secular and non-secular phenomena are defined by cause and result. To eliminate the result, we must find the cause. Only by locating the cause can we smash or destroy it. When the “cause” is destroyed, the “result” will naturally disappear. This is a very logical approach.

Some non-Buddhist practitioners do not seek to destroy “self-attachment”; rather they engage methods such as going without clothes or food and burning themselves to escape cyclic existence, as a kind of spiritual liberation. This practice can still be found in India today. Because they have not located the source of the problem, their solution is wrong. It is easy to destroy one’s body. But this is only a temporary elimination of the result, not an elimination of its root cause; the result can reappear at any time. For instance, taking pain killers can suppress pain, but if we do not treat the basic illness that is causing the pain, the pain will come back after the medication wears off. Likewise, if we do not resolve the basic cause of the problem, it is useless.

Are the buddhas and bodhisattvas the only ones who can resolve this problem? No, they have already cut off self- attachment and do not need to do so again, just as there is no need to kill a person who is already dead. It is precisely ordinary people like us with “attachment” who need to cut it off; moreover, there are methods. If you are willing to forego your worldly activities (though not completely) and exert effort in practice, however long or short, you can definitely let go of a lot of attachment in your lifetime. Had you devoted the same effort and time to practice that you did to your work and career, and utilized the correct method, you would have severed most of your attachment by now. Hence, this is something that everyone can do. It is not a matter of whether you can do it, but whether you want to do it. As long as you practice, you will succeed. Therefore, the practice of emptiness is really essential.

What is it that binds us? How do we cut it off?

Knowing the source of samsara

Why are we ordinary, unenlightened people wandering in samsara? The Creator did not plan this for us, nor are we in this state for “no reason.” Generally speaking, people are very unclear about their past life and future life; they only know about their present life. How life originates or where it ends is not an easy thing for us to understand; accordingly, many schools of thought and philosophers have emerged to address this question. Despite this, only the Buddha has been able to clearly reveal and promulgate the origin and destination of life itself.

What is it that binds us to samsara?

We do not transmigrate in samsara on our own will. As I have previously mentioned, some people under hypnosis say they intentionally come into this world. They may truly believe this or could be babbling. Regardless, this ought to be just their illusion. In fact, apart from the bodhisattvas who strive to deliver sentient beings, no person at the time of dying is able to dictate where he or she can take rebirth. We have been drifting aimlessly in cyclic existence with no freedom of any kind.

Nor is it anything on the outside that constrains us. People always think we are bound by circumstances outside – that we have to work and earn money in order to survive. Actually, the reason we feel this way is simply because everyone works to make a living, so we must do the same. In fact, there is nothing in this world that we are compelled to do; it’s all about letting go. As long as we think there are some things that must be achieved, we will never be able to let go.

There is just one thing that binds us to samsara. It is “self- attachment.”

With self-attachment comes desire, anger and delusion. The desire, anger, delusion, arrogance and envy that arise in our mind all originate in “self-attachment.” If there is no “self- attachment,” would desire or greed arise? Would anger arise? The answer is no, it would not be possible! The source of all mental afflictions is “self-attachment.” Likewise, external objects do not exist on their own but are a product of the mind.

As for the relationship between external objects and mind, or matter and mind, there are many interpretations. Some say external objects are a product of the mind; others say mind is a product of matter. Actually, this problem is beyond the scope of our sense perceptions. Although scholars through the ages have postulated different views on this question, most of their assertions are wrong. They cannot give us a clear answer, since the problem is basically outside the boundary of our sense and mental consciousness.

What then is the nature of this relationship? Matter is a product of the mind, not the other way around. This point can be validated, not only by way of logic but also through the actual experience of many practitioners who preceded us.

If external objects are phenomena of the mind, what is “mind”? In relative reality, from the standpoint of ordinary people, “mind” is the source of all phenomena; in ultimate reality, from the perspective of emptiness, the “external objects” do not exist, neither does the “mind.” Since neither exist, why do we transmigrate in samsara? When mind is attached to the self, this attachment can first lead to the formation of mountains, rivers and vast expanses of land, then cause people to become confused and deluded, unable to attain realization. This is the power of a tainted or defiled mind, not that of the mind’s true nature.

We know now that the source of all mental afflictions and external objects is the “mind.” There are many kinds of mind, for instance, the luminous mind, also the mind which suddenly produces attachment. The luminous mind is not the source of cyclic existence, only the mind with attachment is the source of cyclic existence. Why is that? Because, as we have already seen, desire, anger and delusion arise from self-attachment; although we are not clear how external objects are produced by the mind, we can establish external objects are phenomena of the mind through logic. In sum, all phenomena whether virtuous or non- virtuous are an attachment of the mind.

This so-called “attachment of the mind” is composed of two kinds: “attachment to self in person” and “attachment to self in phenomena.” All attachments fall within these two categories, there is no other kind of attachment. Thus, the source of cyclic existence is “attachment to self in person” and “attachment to self in phenomena.”

What is “attachment to self in person”? It is not something outside of oneself. Everyone believes in the existence of a “self”; this attachment to “self”–body and spirit combined–is inherent at birth, not instructed by our parents or teachers, or self-taught. What is “attachment to self in phenomena”? It is the attachment to the existence of all things that are outside our five skandas, such as mountains, rivers and land, buildings, money and so forth.

For example, if we think money exists, “attachment to self in phenomena” is produced; if we think “self” exists, “attachment to self in person” is produced. Since “self” and “money” both exist, a thought immediately arises in our mind: I want to make money. On this we should reflect: how do I look upon money and status? How do I regard myself? It is hard to find anyone who does not like money and status, only the extent to which we crave these things is different. Actually, “attachment to self in person” is not only inherent in all of us but also very strong. Why do we want to scramble for money? Specifically to enjoy the sensual pleasures in this world, that which we call happiness and well-being. If we can appreciate and realize that money, we ourselves, and sensual pleasures are like an illusion, and fully recognize they are all empty, would we still seek this so- called happiness and chase after power and wealth? Of course not. Since everything is empty, what is there to fight over?

There is another point that cannot be overlooked: we must clearly understand the distinction between relative reality and ultimate reality. Without an understanding of these two truths, many people will misapprehend the concept of emptiness.

Why defeating attachment to self is essential

It is very important for us to know why “attachment to self in person” and “attachment to self in phenomena” must be defeated. Because they are the source of cyclic existence. Although some people are unwilling to endure suffering, they do not want to leave the cycle of life and death either; since they only want to enjoy human and celestial blessings in each life, it is not necessary to sever these two kinds of attachment. However, if we are unwilling to transmigrate in samsara, and hope to be free of the suffering of birth, aging, illness and death, we must overcome these two kinds of attachment. Liberation is otherwise not possible.

How to overcome the two kinds of attachment

As soon as we generate renunciation, we begin to distant ourselves from cyclic existence. At this point, we are still unable to transcend samsara because one of the prerequisites of liberation is realization of emptiness. The swiftest way toward liberation is to practice the teachings in tantra, in particular Mahamudra and Dzogchen. We can also follow the teachings in sutra, but it takes a longer time; this is evident when we compare the progress of practitioners in tantra and sutra. However, from the standpoint of ordinary people, we need to first establish emptiness by way of the logic in Madhyamaka, then listen, contemplate, and practice Dzogchen, at which point the methods in Madhyamaka will be useful in realizing emptiness. Thus, to overcome our attachment, we have to rely first on the methods in Madhyamaka and eventually on the practices in tantra.

Propagating the excellence of Madhyamaka and the importance of practice

Although we can establish all phenomena are empty through the logic in Madhyamaka, the actual result depends on the strength of practice.

However, from another perspective, listening to the Madhyamaka teachings without practice is also meaningful. Why is that? It is said in the Prajnaparamita Sutras: the perpetuation of the cycle of life and death is damaged when a person has some understanding of emptiness. Although cyclic existence does not come to an immediate stop, its forward momentum has already been disrupted, so the person’s transmigration in samsara will not be for long. In other words, whether we practice or not, there is substantial benefit in just listening to “emptiness.”

The Buddha spoke of several analogies in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, among which there are two that I remember. In one analogy, Indian merchants in ancient times used to go out to sea to look for gems (most had to travel a great distance on land before reaching the sea). When the mountains started to fade away in the distance, and the plains came into sight, this was an indication the sea was not too far away (of course, this is only in certain places).

In another analogy, a person lost his way in the woods; after walking back and forth for a long while, he came upon a shepherd. This was an indication he was already at the edge of the forest, since a shepherd would only stay at the periphery and not venture deep into the forest.

Similarly, when a person comes upon the teachings on emptiness and on Prajnaparamita – like seeing the plains and knowing the sea is close by, or running into the shepherd and knowing it is the edge of the forest – this is an indication the person is already close to the edge of cyclic existence. Thus, from this perspective, hearing the teachings on emptiness is extremely useful, even if we do not realize it.

Nonetheless, from the standpoint of practice, just listening is not very useful, so we must practice! Before practicing, we need to realize emptiness, not the kind in Dzogchen and other tantras, but in Madhyamaka. By way of logical reasoning and concepts, we attain a very profound experience of emptiness called Madhyamaka realization. Whether one is a monastic or lay person, this is very important. Do we have to be a monastic to realize this kind of emptiness? Not necessarily. Anyone can attain this realization. As long as we practice after gaining realization, we can overcome “attachment to self.”

If “attachment to self” is not eradicated, it will take control over our lives and keep us in samsara indefinitely. People generally think the most terrifying thing in the world is to lose their lives; actually, death is just an end to a kind of transitory life – this lifetime only, it cannot cause us to descend into hell. We are often fearful of ghosts and evil spirits; actually, they only have the ability to make us temporarily sick, they cannot take us down the path of hell. However, if we do not wage war against these two kinds of “attachment,” they will inflict injury on us life after life and cause us to take rebirth in the lower realms with no escape in sight. If we choose to defeat self-attachment now, it will gradually weaken and lose its power. Why will it lose its power? Because there is fundamentally no basis or rationale for these two kinds of “attachment.” Notwithstanding, we have lived with self-attachment for a very long time, so if we do not examine its fault, it will continue to bind us even if there is no basis for its existence. On examination, it is very easy to discover it is a mistake. Since we know it is a mistake, it is not hard to cut off.

Theoretically, our attachment is baseless and should be very easy to sever; however, completely overcoming self-attachment by way of practice in Madhyamaka is in fact not a simple matter; it is a slow process that takes time. This is because “attachment to self” is a habit that has followed us since beginningless time; to fully overcome it is indeed not easy.

In summation, knowing the source of cyclic existence is essential. We now understand we do not come into this world on our own free will, or in accordance with a divine plan; instead, we are propelled by a very powerful force. This powerful force is “attachment to self in person” and “attachment to self in phenomena”; now is the time for us to overcome these two kinds of attachment. This is very important.

Part I: The specific practice of no-self in person

The concept of self

People generally think a person is composed of body and mind; in Buddhist thought, the body and mind are broken down into “five skandas.” The word “skanda” means to aggregate or lump together, so the five skandas are five different elements that sum up the whole of an individual’s mental and physical existence. The so-called “self in person” refers to an innate “self-attachment” to our body and mind, or the five skandas. One may ask: Who is this “self”? Who am I? We will point to our body and say, “This is who I am.” For instance, when our head hurts, we will say, “I am in pain”; when our leg hurts, we will also say, “I am in pain.” Regardless of where we feel pain, we will say, “My head (or leg) hurts” or “I am in pain”; the word “I” is always there. We not only say the word “I,” we also have “I” in our thoughts; it is because the mind carries this thought that we say what is in our mind.

In that case, what is the scope of this “self in person”? The scope of this self is our body and mind. We would never consider an external object–a house, car or appliance–to be “self”; only the body and mind are “self.” Some people believe our body is not “self” because we abandon our body at the time of death, but our mind is “self” since it perpetuates indefinitely.

The method of examining the self

How do we examine “self in person”? We can rely on the logic in Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way by Nagarjuna and Introduction to the Middle Way by Chandrakirti. Nagarjuna refuted the existence of a self through five kinds of reasoning; Chandrakirti added to this foundation by introducing two other kinds of reasoning. These seven types of reasoning in Madhyamaka are known as the “sevenfold reasoning of the chariot.” They are so called because in ancient times there were only chariots pulled by horses, no cars or trains. Why do we use a chariot as an analogy? Because the chariot and a human being are constructed the same way. The chariot is also like a car, which consists of many parts; similarly, our body is composed of skin, bones, fluid and other “parts.” In the words of mechanistic materialism, a human being is just like a machine. Although they do not understand the mind, they are correct about certain aspects of the body. Nowadays, because everyone is familiar with a car, to call these seven types of reasoning the “sevenfold reasoning of the car” is most appropriate. With the car as an analogy, we can clearly see what is “self.” (Since many people do not understand the meaning of the five skandas, only the body and mind are mentioned here.)

Firstly, let us examine whether this “self” is mind, body, or a “composite.” Many people will say this “self” is a “composite” of body and mind. Looking back, we discover: if we only recognize the body as “self,” a lot of problems will arise, it is not correct; if we admit the body is not “self,” only the mind is “self,” it is not correct either, because when our head hurts, we will say, “I am in pain.” Therefore, many people say the “self” is a “composite” of body and mind.

Taking this investigation a step further, what is a “composite”? Can we find a “composite” of a car? Actually, the assembly of all the components of a car is a so-called “composite.” However, at the time the car is put together, apart from these components, who can find a “composite” of a car? It cannot be found. The component parts after they are assembled and the component parts before they are put together are the exact same, no more, no less; however, when taken apart, a “composite” cannot be found in any of the parts. Thus, this so-called “composite” is a mistaken view, a source of confusion.

The first of the sevenfold reasoning is to establish “self” and the “five skandas,” or “self” and “body and mind,” are not one.

We often think “self” and “body and mind” are one, and that our body and mind are who we are; apart from our body and mind, there is no “self” that exists on its own.

At this point, we can take turns with the examination by first breaking down the body. A human body can be divided into at least five sections: a head, two arms and two legs. So which of these five parts is “self”? The head certainly cannot be “self!” Because if it is just the head and nothing else, who will admit this is “self”? It is no more than a skull, not a person. The arms and legs cannot be “self” either, because during amputation, we can lose a left arm, right arm, even both, also lose both legs, yet still survive and think we exist. In every physical organ of the human body, we can conduct the same investigation and not find a “self.” Thus, a “self” cannot be found in our body at all. We normally think the synthesis of the elements of the body – blood, flesh, bones, skin and so forth – is “self”; but after examination, we do not find a “composite,” let alone a “self.” (You can go back and examine if a “self” exists; there are no restrictions or requirements during the examination.)

On a hopeful note, perhaps a “self” can be found in our mind. The mind is basically non-material – it cannot be seen or touched. Can our eyes see it? Can our ears hear it? Only the mind can see itself. However, after analysis, we are able to understand the mind arises and ceases moment to moment. Like the movies which are projected at the speed of twenty-four frames per second (FPS), each frame is separate, not a collective entity; however, each frame is projected so quickly it is difficult to discern the change from one frame to the next. So, the images on the screen are lifelike. Or like the computer screen which is refreshed at least fifty times a second, our eyes cannot perceive this change; because it is happening too quickly, it can bring about an optical illusion. Likewise, we can infer our mind arises and ceases from moment to moment precisely in this way.

Assume we seize this present moment, what about the moments that precede it? Do they still exist? They have already been destroyed and no longer exist in this universe, or in any time-space. If the “past” still exists in a certain time-space, it could return; however, it basically does not exist any longer. What about the moments that come after this present moment – the moments that have not yet happened? Are they now in a different time-space, like actors waiting in the backstage ready to come on? Not so. This kind of view was held by the Sarvastivada, an early Buddhist school of the Lesser Vehicle, but it is incorrect. All other schools above it, including Madhyamaka, do not acknowledge it.

In that case, the so-called “self” and the mind of “self” are just an instant in time. But we normally think the “self” (or mind) is continuous – the “self” in the past, the “self” in the present and the “self” in the future; we do not think it is just an instant. This instant and our attachment to self are at variance; even if we exist only an instant, we do not admit an instant is the “self.” However, on further investigation, even this “instant” does not exist.

In the end, we are unable to hold on to anything; all objects outside and the mind inside disappear when they are broken down into their components, or examined from the standpoint of past, present and future. When our body and mind disappear, wouldn’t the “self,” which is one with the body and mind, also disappear along with them?

There is another method of examination. Our body can be divided into five parts; if all five parts are “self,” we would have more than one “self.” Since we normally think there is only one “self,” the five parts cannot all be “self.” If we choose only one among them to be “self,” what about the four limbs and the head which are all part of our body? Why is it only one of them is “self” and not the others? We cannot find an answer that is reasonable. Is it because we are too stupid? On the contrary, we are beginning to wake up! We cannot produce something that doesn’t exist! Not knowing that which exists is ignorance; knowing the true nature of that which does not exist is wisdom. To think something exists when it doesn’t is true ignorance. There are many methods of investigations in Madhyamaka that will not be covered at this time. In sum, the above is the first of the sevenfold reasoning: establishing “self” and the “five skandas” are not one entity.

The second reasoning is to establish “self” and the “five skandas” are not individual entities that exist on their own. The “self” cannot be like this table; it cannot exist outside of our body and mind. If “self” is not in our body and mind, we are even less likely to believe it exists anywhere else.

The third reasoning is to establish “self” does not rely on the “five skandas.” Does the “self” lean on the “five skandas” in the way a person rests against a car seat? In the sutras, this is described as “a lion resting in the forest.” Does the “self” rest in the “five skandas”? It does not because apart from the body and mind, a self cannot be found at all. Moreover, the so-called five skandas or the so-called body and mind can be deconstructed; after they are broken down, we do not find “self” in any of the parts. Therefore, “self” does not rely on the “five skandas.”

The fourth reasoning is to establish the “five skandas” do not rely on “self.” The sutras have this analogy −“the vegetation that grows in the mountain depends on the mountain for its existence.” In that case, do the “five skandas” depend on “self” to survive? They do not. Based on the same reasoning above, we do not find “self” nor do we know where “self” is! Therefore, the “five skandas” do not rely on “self.”

The fifth reasoning is to establish the “five skandas” and “self” do not possess one another. Does the “self” possess the “five skandas” or the other way around? It does not. If the “self” can be shown to exist, we can consider this possibility; however, since we cannot even find “self,” how can they possess one another?

Therefore, “self” and the “five skandas” are neither one entity nor individual entities that exist on their own; they are neither reliant on one another nor in possession of one another. Finally, Chandrakirti added two other kinds of reasoning: the sixth and the seventh reasoning.

The sixth reasoning is to establish the collective form of the human body is not “self.” For example, although a car is no longer called a car after it is taken apart, if each component occupies a special place, that is, the wheels are at the bottom, the frame is on the outside and all the parts are inside, a new form is produced. Likewise, although each part of the human body is not “self,” if the head is on top, the two arms are at the side, the chest and stomach are in the middle and the two legs are at the bottom, the entire shape of a body is produced. Some people think this form should be “self.” The rebuttal is as follows:

What is a “collective form”? The head has the form of a head, the arms have the form of arms – are you saying these forms are “self”? Or is it the new form produced by the synthesis of all the organs of the body that is “self”? We will refute the form of a head is “self,” yet believe a collective form that consists of all the organs is “self.” In that case, what is a so-called “collective form”? Apart from the form of a head, arm and leg, is there also a collective form that exists? Or is it the form of the head plus the form of the arm plus the form of the leg and so forth that is called a “collective form”? After investigating in this way, apart from the form of every organ, there is no other collective form. As an example, the wheel of a car is round; it is round before it is assembled and also after it is assembled. All of the component parts of the car have the same shape before and after they are assembled; nothing new is produced. Therefore, neither the car nor “self” can be found in this collective form.

The seventh reasoning is to establish their composite is not “self.” In his rebuttal, Chandrakirti said: if the composite is “self,” then if we dismantle all the component parts of a car and place them in a pile, is it a “car”? Certainly not. It is just a large pile of parts and a large pile of steel, not a “car”! Likewise, after our body and mind are broken down, what’s left is a pile of flesh or bones, not a person.

The stages of practice

As a monastic, I have over the years dedicated much time to listening, contemplating and debating this topic. Having tried many different methods, I still do not find a “self”; moreover, it is clear to me it does not exist in the five skandas. However, this is only a realization attained through contemplation, not through practice. Now you can all look for this self.

At the beginning of the investigation, we may have hope of finding a self, but the more we look the more we lose hope of finding it. What can we do then?

As explained in previous teachings, when we calm our mind and settle into meditation on “no-self in person,” we do not follow the Ch’an teachings to abandon all attachment; we are not at that level yet. Instead, we want to eventually attain a state that is “indescribable” and “inconceivable”– through speech and contemplation, respectively. If we begin by embracing “non- attachment,” there is no point in even starting a practice.

Nowadays, some monastics and lay people think releasing captured animals and other good deeds are all an attachment to be avoided. At the ultimate level, they are correct, but ordinary people live in an environment wherein everything is an attachment. Learning the Dharma, taking refuge, generating bodhicitta, reciting mantras, practicing the six paramitas, cultivating the four all−embracing virtues, upholding the precepts are all an attachment. In that case, are we to let go of all these practices? In general, people who are not familiar with the Dharma are even more attached to things. There is no way an ordinary person can stay free of attachment. Therefore, these views are incorrect. Dharma practice is fastidious about undertaking the practices in stages; these stages must be in the right order.

Beginners need to first develop attachment, in particular attachment to renunciation and bodhicitta, since these kinds of attachment will take us on the path to liberation and overturn our self-attachment. Like cleaning our face with soap, we first use the soap to wash the dirt off our face, then clean the soap at the end. Similarly, we first develop an attachment, then use this attachment to overturn self-attachment! It would be a big mistake to begin our practice with no attachment at all. Therefore, when we enter into meditation on “no-self in person,” we do not like in Ch’an discard all thoughts, instead we examine and contemplate. (This is not to criticize the teachings in Ch’an; the inconceivable state in Ch’an is a goal we want to attain, but it is beyond what we can hope to reach at this time.)

How do we contemplate? After our mind is still, we look for “self” using the sevenfold reasoning. With repeated investigation and contemplation, we eventually attain a profound experience of “no-self.” Like when we are looking for a thing in the house in the dark and cannot find it, no one can say this thing is not in the house; if we still do not find it when the house is lit up, we can say with certainty this thing is not in the house. Let us rely on the light of wisdom to look for “self”; when we engage in contemplation repeatedly, in the end we discover this “self” not only cannot be found, it basically does not exist.

Once we have a strong sense this “self” does not exist, interrupt the contemplation and rest the mind in this conviction or feeling for a minute, three minutes or five minutes–the longer the better. Initially, it does not last very long, only a few seconds or so. When this experience disappears, continue the contemplation as before to regain that feeling of “no-self.” It is likened to reading a book under the light; we see everything that is there or not there in the book very clearly. This strong feeling of “no-self” is called realization of no-self; it is realization at an early stage.

Sometimes we may want to take a break from our contemplation; in that case, do not think of anything good or bad, just allow the mind to settle down; this is called resting. Then resume the investigation until we gain that feeling of “no- self” again and abide once more in this state of emptiness. This is called practicing no-self.

Do you think this is all too easy? Is there a better way to practice emptiness? Yes, there are practices in tantra such as Dzogchen. However, this is not the time for Dzogchen. We still need to first cultivate renunciation and bodhicitta, then practice “no-self in person”; after reaching a certain level in this practice, we can move on to the more advanced methods. This way, we can gradually bring ourselves closer to tantra. The discussion above on the practice of no-self in person pertains entirely to Madhyamaka methods in sutra, not in tantra. May you all be diligent in your practice!

Part II: The specific practice of no-self in phenomena

Self in phenomena

To fully realize “no-self in phenomena,” we need to first understand what “self in phenomena” is. What is “phenomena”? Originally, “phenomena” referred to all the knowables in samsara and nirvana. However, with the separation of “self” into “self in person” and “self in phenomena,” the prevailing definition is less inclusive; apart from “I, me” and “attachment to mine,” all conditioned and unconditioned entities are called “phenomena.” What is “self”? The “self” in “self in person” is essentially “I, me”; the “self” in “self in phenomena” is different, it denotes true existence.

There are many complex methods in Madhyamaka that negate the inherent existence of phenomena. Here we shall only discuss the method that is most specific.

The method of realizing no-self in phenomena

In the following, phenomena are examined from three specific standpoints: first, things are examined from the standpoint of their “cause” and found to be non-arising; second, things are examined from the standpoint of their basic nature and found to be non-abiding; third; things are examined from the standpoint of their “result” and found to be non- ceasing. These three aspects of phenomena – “non-arising, non- abiding and non-ceasing”– are critical.

In the Buddha’s Prajnaparamita Sutras and Nagarjuna’s Collection of Madhyamaka Reasoning, we are told phenomena are “non-arising, non-abiding and non-ceasing.” However, we believe all things, including human beings and the world outside, undergo stages of existence – formation in the beginning, continuation in the middle and destruction in the end, that is, they “arise, abide and cease”; hence we think all things are real and truly exist.

People generally hold this simplistic view. We rely on our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body, and conclude all things that our eyes can see, our ears can hear, our nose can smell, etc. exist. For example, when we see a cicada evolve from birth to transformation and finally to death, we say, “the cicada arises, abides and ceases.” Or for example, when an instrument is played, a sound is produced which our ears can hear; when this sound continues, for a minute or an hour, we believe it still exists – this is the continuation stage; when the sound comes to an end, we think it is gone. Does this sound actually exist? We ordinary people believe it exists. We can hear the sound or see the acoustic wave through an instrument, that’s the proof; apart from that, there is no evidence. But all this originates in our ear and eye consciousness. Because we have faith in our ear and eye faculties and trust they are not deluded, we believe what our eyes and ears perceive is real, what they do not perceive is not real. This is how ordinary people think; it is our basic logic, also mankind’s simple logic. If our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body are mistaken, how do we remedy it? It cannot be remedied. Because even with very sophisticated instruments, we still need our eyes to conduct the examination. We cannot perceive or recognize things without our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body; all the evidence lies in our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body. If they are mistaken, we have no recourse. This is precisely the conventional view.

What is the view in Prajnaparamita? The Buddhist view transcends the conventional way of thinking. The Buddha once said, “I do not dispute what people say, but people take issue with what I say.” What this statement means is: the Buddha did not refute what people saw; he understood from their standpoint they saw things and believed the things they saw are real; but the things they believe are real are not necessarily real, the things they believe are not real are also not necessarily so.

As mentioned above, we believe all conditioned phenomena arise and cease; the evidence lies in our own eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body. Even when we listen to the teachings of the Buddha or our teachers, we still depend on our ears. How else would we hear the Dharma? In short, we cannot discern whether a thing exists or not without relying on our physical faculties. Now we shall investigate this question with the Buddha’s way of reasoning.

The logic of no-self in phenomena

1. Phenomena are non-arising

First, things are examined from the standpoint of their cause and found to be non-arising. This method of investigation into phenomena from the standpoint of their “cause” is called “the reasoning of refuting the arising from self or other” (also known as the reasoning of vajra fragments).

We start by examining whether things arise from self. This view is logically untenable. Ordinarily, we do not believe phenomena arise from self either. The assertion in some non- Buddhist schools of thought that things “arise from self” is based on an analogy: from the time the sun sets to dawn the following day, we do not see the sun but that is not because it doesn’t exist, the sun exists; likewise, before a sprout arises, we do not see it but in fact it exists. Since most people do not accept this view, we shall not take the time to refute it. Our primary objective is to refute “arising from other.”

Many people are of the opinion things “arise from other.” For example, we believe a seed and a sprout are two different entities, so a sprout arises from something other than itself. Let us carefully examine this argument. As mentioned previously, Buddhism is not dogma; its views should not be accepted on blind faith and can be tested.

There is an obvious flaw in thinking all things arise from other. For instance, if a sprout arises from a seed, do they exist simultaneously or sequentially?

To assert they exist simultaneously is incorrect. If they exist at the same time, it means the result exists at the time of the cause; the cause exists at the time of the result. If the result already exists at the time of the cause, what purpose does the cause serve? Of what use is it? Actually, this cause is useless; in other words, the sprout arises but not from the seed.

What is the concept of “simultaneous existence”? It is to say two entities are independent and not reliant on each other. If cause and result exist at the same time, they cannot possibly be a causal relationship. The “cause” does not bring about the “result,” so how can it be its cause? Since childhood, we have been taught to believe a result is produced when causes and conditions come together. Therefore, to assert cause and result exist simultaneously is incorrect.

Nevertheless, few people think cause and result exist at the same time. The vast majority believe: the sprout that arises next year from the seed does not exist in the seed this year; a new sprout, previously nonexistent, is produced only when all the necessary conditions like temperature and moisture are in place. In general, people have a very coarse perception of the macroscopic world, but they have no conceptual understanding of the microscopic world. When we investigate the way things exist in the microscopic world, we discover all matter arise and cease in an instant. In the second instant, the first instant has already ceased; in the first instant, the second instant has yet to arise. That is to say all matter exist in just an instant.

This is a point many scientists understand. It is the basis of indeterminacy in quantum physics. When a very small particle is examined, the speed and position of the particle cannot be determined at the same time. If its position can be determined, its speed cannot be measured; if its speed can be measured, its position cannot be determined. By definition, speed is equal to distance divided by time, distance is equal to the end point minus the starting point, time is equal to the final moment minus the first moment; since a particle only exists in an instant, not in a time continuum, its speed naturally cannot be measured. This interpretation in quantum physics is close to certain views in Buddhism, but the Buddha expounded teachings at an even deeper level.

In this microscopic world, all matter exists in an instant. If we think the cause is already present in the first instant and the result is produced in the second instant, that means when all the requirements, like temperature, moisture, seed and soil, are in place in the first instant, the result does not yet exist; when the result is produced in the second instant, the cause has already disappeared and no longer exists; at no point do cause and result meet. Such being the case, how does the “result” arise from the “cause”? If at the time of the cause, the result also exists, it is possible for the cause to bring about an effect. However, if the result does not even exist, to what or whom can the cause affect a change? Actually, when the cause exists, the “result” is like empty space. What can the “cause” possibly do to empty space? Nothing! Likewise, inasmuch as cause and result exist sequentially, if at the time of the result, the cause does not exist, how can the cause take effect? This is likened to a dead person and a living person; when one is born and the other is already dead, what can the dead person do to the living person? Nothing! Because there is basically no way for them to meet. In the microscopic world, all matter is like this; two things that exist sequentially cannot possibly exist in the same time-space. Since they do not come in contact at all, how can they be cause and result? It is not possible.

Under these circumstances, how does the macroscopic world come into being? This is called dependent arising. That is to say, all things appear or come into existence when not being examined; however, upon investigation, there is no rationale or basis for their existence. A causal relationship cannot be found. The things we normally regard as very real begin to disappear in our hands.

Based on the analysis above, “arising from other” cannot be established. However, we can only make this deduction in the microscopic world. In the macroscopic world, cause and result do cross paths just as a father and son can communicate with one another. This is the viewpoint of ordinary people. The fact is there is no real causal relationship between the so-called “cause” and “result” in conventional reality.

Since “arising from self” is refuted, “arising from other” is also refuted, “arising from both” is naturally refuted. There is no other way things can arise. Thus, all matter is “non-arising.” The cause-result relationship is not established through logic but through our sense faculties. From the standpoint of our eye, ear, nose and tongue, cause and result, transmigration in the six realms, studying the Dharma and attaining buddhahood – these all exist; but from a very microscopic standpoint, when logic is applied, all of these things do not exist.

We are accustomed to thinking all matter can be produced. In that case, how are they produced? I have already explained the practice before and after meditation; in the actual practice, follow the method of reasoning above until you come to the profound realization that phenomena do not truly arise. At that time, let the mind rest one-pointedly in this state of “non-arising.” Initially, this may only last a few seconds or a minute. Because without sufficient practice, this state of non- arising quickly disappears. When it disappears, resume your investigation into how things are produced. When you again realize all matter does not truly arise, focus and abide in this state as before. This is called the practice of “non-arising.” By way of this investigation, we can comprehend and experience what the Buddha meant by “non-arising.”

Ordinarily, we see conditioned phenomena appearing everywhere, so how is it “non-arising”? As mentioned, it is the conclusion derived from our sense faculties that conditioned phenomena are produced. “Non-arising” is a method of examination at a much deeper level; it is beyond what most people can comprehend.

Students of chemistry should find all this easier to understand. When several chemical elements are mixed together, a new fragrance or color is produced. Some of the fragrance and color does not exist in the original substance; nevertheless, when these elements are combined, a new substance is produced – where this substance comes from cannot be explained either. Actually, this is dependent arising. There is no phenomenon that does not arise through interdependence; when two or more factors come in contact, something different is produced. For example, how does an object become red when it is not red itself? How does an ingredient become odious when it has no odor of its own? Where do they come from? No answer can be found. Some say, “That is exactly how things are produced! What evidence or proof do we need?” Nonetheless, these are all an illusion of our sense faculties; in Buddhism, it is called “dependent arising.” Although phenomena do not exist in and of themselves, or inherently, we are able to perceive them through our eyes, ears, nose and tongue. The Buddha said of this, “like an illusion, like a dream.”

What is a dream? Although all appearances in a dream are very real to a person in the midst of the dream, they do not actually exist, so a dream is an illusion. Likewise, all things that our eyes, ears, nose and tongue come in contact with do not exist when examined. It is therefore said all phenomena in the macroscopic world are like an illusion, like a dream. This is not just a viewpoint but also a practice; by way of this practice, we can attain realization and subsequently take control of our surroundings. We have cited many such examples already.

To sum up, things do not arise when examined from the standpoint of their cause.

2. Phenomena are non-abiding

Second, things are examined from the standpoint of their basic nature and found to be non-abiding. In Madhyamaka, the method of reasoning that establishes “non-abiding” is called “neither one nor many.” By non-abiding, we mean the object that our eyes can see does not exist. Ordinary people will think this statement is absurd: I can clearly see that it exists, so why does it not exist? To answer this, we need to distinguish between the two truths – ultimate truth and relative truth. This is an essential point. In relative reality, the object that our eyes can see exists; our eyes, ears, nose and tongue perceive phenomena to be real. To say an object “does not exist” is not to say we do not see it, we do. For example, the things in a dream do not exist, but this is not to say we do not have dreams, we do. Likewise, it is not that we do not see the object; our eyes can see it is real, but it actually does not exist.

As an example, when a piece of fabric is taken apart and reduced successively to threads, to wool, then to dust particles and so forth, what is the smallest dust particle? By so-called smallest dust particle, we mean a particle in the microscopic world that cannot be further divided. But who is to say it cannot be further divided? If we want to establish the identity of a particle, do not continue to break it down; if we want to investigate the true nature of the particle, it is necessary to keep dividing it. Even the smallest particle cannot be established if it is divided on and on. Eventually, this piece of fabric disappears. The physical world outside, including the human body and all matter, can be broken down in the same way; in the end, all disappear. This is the Buddhist theory. Quantum physics is not yet at this level.

3. Phenomena are non-ceasing

Third, things are examined from the standpoint of their result and found to be non-ceasing. This method of reasoning is called “refutation of the arising of something already existent or nonexistent.” What is “the arising of something already existent or nonexistent?” For instance, when a sprout is produced from a seed, does the sprout already “exist” at the time of production? Or does the sprout “not exist” before its production? Our objective is to examine if the sprout is the production of an existent entity or a nonexistent entity – that is, whether the basic nature of the result before its production is existent or nonexistent. This is not a question of whether the result exists after it arises, but whether it is existent before it arises.

If the result is “existent” before it arises, it is the same as arising from self; most people do not hold this view, it is also not possible. In general, people believe the result does not exist before its production and that it comes into existence only after causes and conditions come together. That is to say, there is no result at the time of the cause; the result is a “nonexistent” entity. In that case, how does the cause bring about the result? For instance, if there is a tree, we can use an axe or saw to cut it down; if there is no tree, what would the axe or saw be cutting down? Because the tree does not exist, these tools have no function. Upon careful analysis, we discover the cause cannot in any way bring about the result, nor can the result come in contact with the cause. The result only appears when causes and conditions come together; that is how dependent arising works.

Many people think when farmers grow crops, there is only cause, no result. It is precisely because there are no crops that they cultivate the land; if the crops are already grown, there would be no need to cultivate the land. When all kinds of causes and conditions come together after the land is tilled, a “nonexistent result” is produced. However, like empty space, the “nonexistent result” is something that basically does not exist. So how does the cause bring it into existence? How does a nonexistent thing become existent? When investigating the microscopic world, one can only say this is just naturally so; there is no cause that can bring a “nonexistent result” into being. Therefore, the result is non-arising; if it does not arise, it cannot possibly exist; if it does not exist, it cannot possibly cease. It is the same with a person: without birth, there is no life; without life, there is no death.

The stages in the practice of no-self in phenomena

At the time of practice, we need to close our eyes and earnestly reflect, next fully realize all phenomena are “non-arising, non-abiding and non-ceasing” and that all things our eyes, ears and nose previously perceived to be real are empty, then rest the mind one-pointedly in this state of emptiness. As mentioned previously, this is the practice of emptiness; it is essential to beginners.

When we engage in calm-abiding meditation, we can sustain a state of non-conceptuality possibly for some time, but without analytical meditation, our practice is not very useful. Even if the mind can remain undistracted, it is meaningless if we lack the right view and understanding. When we enter into deep sleep or lose consciousness, we are also free from thought but what use is that? In the form and formless realms, celestial beings are able to abide without discursive thought, not for a day or two, but over incalculable kalpas; nonetheless, they have still not attained liberation. Therefore, there is no purpose in just pursuing mental stillness or equanimity, we must also have the right view and understanding.

For practitioners in the early stages of practice, the right view and understanding is attained through contemplation. Those who engage in the practice of winds, channels and drops in tantra or Dzogchen may be able to bypass these complex analytical methods and easily attain realization. However, this is possible only when all the requirements are met – the completion of the preliminaries, accumulation of merit and the presence of all essential conditions. If these conditions are not in place, it cannot be easy. Hence, analytical meditation is critical.

In the actual practice of analytical meditation, we initiate the contemplation when the feeling of emptiness is not present; when a sense of emptiness arises, interrupt the contemplation and allow the mind to rest in this state of emptiness; when the feeling of emptiness disappears, return to the contemplation again. After we attain a relatively good understanding and sense of emptiness through the methods in Madhyamaka, we then take up the pith instructions of Dzogchen to realize emptiness. This is because the methods in Madhyamaka are the groundwork or foundation for Dzogchen. Most people cannot realize emptiness without undergoing this process due to their strong attachment to self and things. The exception is, of course, individuals endowed with very mature capacity. We can also attain realization just by following the methods in Madhyamaka, but compared to Dzogchen, the process is very slow.

This is the Madhyamaka practice of “no-self in phenomena.” There are many methods of reasoning in Madhyamaka that negate the inherent existence of phenomena. Here we have established phenomena to be non-arising, non-abiding and non- ceasing from the standpoint of their cause, result and basic nature only. Phenomena do not on their own arise or cease – that is the reality; their manifestations and appearances arise and cease – that is the illusion. It would be a big mistake to think we need not distinguish between good and evil because everything is empty; likewise, it would be a big mistake to cling to things as real because cause and result exist. In Madhyamaka, relative truth and ultimate truth must be in accord.

As previously mentioned, some lay people, upon hearing the Ch’an teachings on no attachment, will say releasing captured animals, reciting mantras, prostrating to the buddhas, doing good and rejecting evil are activities we should not develop an attachment to (meaning they need not be taken up). “Non-attachment” is the final accomplishment on the path. How can we not have attachment now? In the past, the Ch’an monk Moheyan arrived at the Samye temple in Tibet to give teachings specifically on severing attachment to all things. Some Tibetans took these teachings to heart; as a result, the tradition of making offerings to the buddhas at the temple was suddenly terminated; the objects of offering were removed from the shrine. In protest, many among the learned invited the Indian Madhyamaka master Kamalashila to a debate with Moheyan. Why was this necessary? Because he overlooked the importance of practicing the Dharma in stages; simply instructing practitioners to forego attachment would mislead many beginners.

We can let go of attachment if we attain realization, but we need to go through a process; in the absence of realization, we have to persist in the practices. As Mipham Rinpoche pointed out in Beacon of Certainty: if problems can be solved just by way of “non-attachment,” all those people who have no attachment to their practice, why are they not liberated? Therefore, we must not fall into the two extremes of “existence” and “nonexistence.” Falling into “nonexistence” means upon hearing concepts like “non-attachment” and “inconceivable and inexpressible” in Ch’an, and words that relate to emptiness in Madhyamaka, we conclude that spiritual practice and worldly generosity are unnecessary, that doing good and rejecting evil, upholding precepts and so forth are unnecessary. Falling into “existence” means upon hearing that the Buddha, the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, samsara, and cause and result all exist, we conclude that everything is real, not empty. At first, we do not want to fall into either extreme, but stay in the middle; in the end, it is all the same – there is no clinging to a middle or side. When we reach that level in our practice, our mind is free and spontaneous; before reaching that level, we want to avoid these extreme paths.

After realizing emptiness, let the mind abide in emptiness during meditative concentration; at this point, all things are non-arising and non-ceasing, but because we have not attained buddhahood, the mind will not remain in absorption. In post-meditation, the external world exists as before; we must still accumulate merit, purify our karma and be mindful of the infallible cause and result. Through practice this way, there is hope for actualizing buddhahood.

Efficacy of practicing no-self in phenomena

Emptiness allows us to sever not only “attachment to self” but also afflictive hindrances like desire, anger and all cognitive hindrances. Generally speaking, we contemplate the impurity of the body to curb desire, and practice loving-kindness to dispel anger. However, upon realizing emptiness, these practices are no longer necessary; emptiness is the remedy for all afflictions. In Madhyamaka, the practice alternates between contemplation and calm-abiding: when we arrive at a strong sense of emptiness during contemplation, allow the mind to settle, do not continue to contemplate; focus one-pointedly on this feeling until it disappears, then start a new round of contemplation and calm- abiding; and keep repeating the process; this is the best practice of emptiness at the early stage. Unless you can achieve instant realization of Dzogchen, emptiness is practiced this way one step at a time. Through this practice, we can at least plant the seed of liberation in our mind, and substantially dispel desire, anger, ignorance and attachment.

Our discussion on emptiness is not very extensive; nonetheless, the methods of reasoning we have covered are sufficient for realizing no-self in person and in phenomena. You should all take at least an hour or two each day to practice.

In Chinese-speaking areas, many lay people like to recite the Diamond Sutra, the Heart Sutra, the Medicine Buddha Sutra and the Earth Treasury (Ksitigarbha) Sutra. This is all very good. With renunciation and bodhicitta to assist us, reciting the sutras, burning incense and prostrating to the buddhas are all excellent. You need not interrupt these practices; they can be scheduled on your own time. But most importantly, you must cultivate renunciation and bodhicitta and realize emptiness if you want to attain liberation.


I have explained all these practices in everyday language, not in Buddhist terminology, so that they may be easily understood. Please be assured, however, the contents of the teachings come directly from the sutras and treatises; they are not my own.

Taking into account all our discussions, we already have a relatively complete path to liberation. If we truly practice in this way, we should be able to reach a fairly high level of attainment. In the absence of practice, even if we study the Tripitaka in its entirety, it will not be very helpful. Practice is so critical!

Apart from the topic of emptiness, we can exchange views on the principle and practice of renunciation and bodhicitta with our classmates, associates at work and lay people; with non- Buddhists, we can also speak to the benefits of taking refuge and the purpose of spiritual practice. This is a responsibility each of us should take up. Although it is not propagating the Dharma, any discussion or conversation that imperceptibly benefits other people is meaningful and necessary. Except for renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness, nothing can solve the problem of birth, aging, illness and death. Presently, most people are at the stage of cultivating renunciation and bodhicitta; there is no rush to practice emptiness. We should first generate renunciation and bodhicitta, then realize emptiness to bring the path to completion.