The absence of an independent I is a delicious phenomenon that does exist!

Mar 7, 2024


The word emptiness really throws us, so let’s look at it. 


When you first learn Buddhist philosophy, you learn in the text called Collected Topics that there are five or so synonyms for that which exists: phenomenon, existent, established base, object, object of knowledge. 


Before we get anywhere near learning about emptiness, shorthand for the ultimate nature of things, we need to first establish their conventional existence.


Each of these five terms has its own definition, slightly different ways of referring to the same thing. The definition of an existent is: that which can be cognized by mind. That which can be cognized by mind: wow! This establishes something as existing. Pretty tasty. It shows the centrality of mind in Buddha’s view of the world.


We use the word emptiness in our everyday life. My cup is empty, we say. The room is empty. My bank account is empty! These are simple examples, but they’re very helpful.


I’ll go to my cup and I’ll start to drink, and I’ll go, “Oh, my cup’s empty.” We know perfectly well what I’m saying is, “My cup is empty of tea.” We say it: “It’s empty.” Of what? Not an elephant! It’s empty of tea. 


A really crucial point here is that the only person who will notice that the cup is empty of tea is the person who expects tea. The absence of tea in the cup is only noticed, cognized by the person who thinks there should be tea there. 


When you go into the crockery shop, the cups don’t have tea in them. You’re not surprised – “Oh, the cups are empty!” – because you don’t expect tea in the cups in the crockery shop. 


Let’s say you’re convinced that you have five thousand dollars in your bank account – you put it there, you saved it; you know with absolute certainty there’s five thousand dollars there. Then you go to your account online and what you’ll see is $27. You’ll be so shocked! What’s happening is that you will see the $27, but what actually appears to your mind, vividly, is the absence of your precious five thousand dollars.


Again: the only person who will cognize the absence of five thousand dollars is the person who expects five thousand dollars – if you ask me to look in your account for you and tell you how much is there, I’ll tell you the truth: $27.


In other words, the absence of something is abstract. You can’t taste it or touch it or smell it; it’s an abstract phenomenon. But that absence of tea and absence of five thousand dollars are very vivid phenomena that do exist.


The absence of tea and the absence of money in the bank are disappointing absences, but let’s say you thought you had cancer, and you’re getting ready to say good-bye to your beloveds, and your pension plan, and all the rest. Then you go back to the doctor and she says, “Oh, Robina, I gave you the wrong x-rays, darling. You haven’t got cancer.” 


Now, that is a very delicious emptiness to discover: the absence of cancer. It’s like you’ve just won a million dollars! You were convinced of the presence of cancer, and now you’ve discovered its absence: the emptiness, the lack, of cancer.


I don’t have cancer either, but it’s no big deal. But if I think I’ve got cancer, and then I’m told there’s no cancer, the object I cognize is the “absence of cancer” and I’m over the moon with happiness. It’s a very obvious thing, though we don’t talk like this. 


Two points here. One, as we’ve discussed, is that the only person who will notice the absence of something is the person who expects it to be there. 


Second: As soon as we hear that Buddha says there is no independent I, we can’t help but hear there is no I; it’s so instinctive. We chuck the baby out with the bathwater. We just can’t hear it properly.


We go to the two extremes, the neurotic views, both of which are wrong. Our usual view, which is just there all the time, is that there’s a big fat concrete I. And then when we hear Buddha say that there’s no inherent I, we panic and, as Lama Tzongkhapa says, fall into the abyss of the great mistake, nihilism, and think there’s no I at all. 


In fact, what Buddha is saying is there is no inherent I, no independent I. It’s way more nuanced, more subtle.


But another way of saying that an independent I does not exist is that there does exist the absence of an independent I.


Another way of saying that tea does not exist in my cup is that there does exist the absence of tea.


In other words, the absence of something, the emptiness of something, the lack of something exists. It’s a phenomenon, an existent, an established base, an object, an object of knowledge. It exists. It can be cognized by mind.


I like to say that mind cognizes everything as nouns. It cognizes phenomena: an action, an event, a thing, a person. If there is tea in that cup, the thing the mind cognizes is called “tea.” But, when I’m expecting tea and notice there isn’t any, the name of the phenomenon I just cognized is the “absence of tea.” Tea is a thing that exists; the absence of tea is a thing that exists.


So, here we are since beginningless time totally, utterly believing in the presence of an independent I right inside here somewhere, an inherent I, an intrinsic I, a self-existent I, which is a fantasy, a fabrication, an elaboration, a lie – an utter nonexistent. No wonder we suffer!


So we have to realize it, and the only way finally to get the direct experience, the nonconceptual experience, of this reality, this absence, is in the subtlety of single-pointed concentration – on the basis first, of course, of masses of thinking and analyzing and purifying.


Finally, at some point we will cognize with crystal clarity the absence, the emptiness of this fantasy I. And, of course, to whom would the emptiness of an inherent I appear? Someone who expects there to be, believes in, an inherent I — all of us! We will make the shocking discovery that there never has been, isn’t, and never could be that kind of I. Wow.


Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that the regular yogis will have incredible fear when they see this emptiness, this absence. But the greatest yogis experience ecstatic joy. Finally they’ve discovered what’s real!


I’m certainly looking forward to discovering that absence!

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