The king of logics to prove emptiness

Jan 6, 2022


Paraphrasing Lama Tsongkhapa, Lama Yeshe says that dependent arising is the “king of logics” to prove emptiness.


All of Buddha’s teachings, right from the beginning, are based upon the assumption of emptiness, and are leading us to emptiness. Emptiness is implicit in all the teachings. This is the unique characteristic of Lord Buddha’s view.


And so, the point of it all is, as always with Buddha, we need to make it experiential. I mean, we can read all about emptiness, we can squeeze our brains, as Lama puts it, we can get all very excited when we hear about emptiness, but unless we understand how to internalize it, it’s just filling your head with words.


Let’s try to unpack it, demystify it, and see how it applies to our daily life. Because if it doesn’t, it’s completely useless.


One way of describing what Buddha’s saying is that everything in our mind is a viewpoint, an opinion, an attitude, an interpretation of the people and things and events that fill our lives.


Things exist, and we can even agree on their bare existence – cups, toilets, love, omniscient mind – but it’s how we interpret them, understand them, their causes, etc., etc., that distinguishes the different views. There are the samsaric views, the Christian views, the scientific views – they’re all viewpoints. And, of course, Buddha has his own very specific views about how things exist.


What Buddha is saying is that we do not see correctly how things exist. There’s a disconnect between how things are and how we see them. We get things right to the extent that we can say, “I’m Robina and you’re Fred,” “That’s a cup and not a knife.” That’s cool. Correct. But we don’t get much right, other than that. We get it wrong, he says.


Things do exist in the world. Things exist. But as Lama Zopa Rinpoche puts it, the delusions in our mind, the neuroses, the misconceptions, the wrong views, the negative states of mind, what they do is decorate on top of what does exist layers upon layers upon layers of characteristics that simply don’t exist there.


And the point of all this? Buddha says that all these wrong views in our head are why we suffer. And correcting these views, cultivating the correct views about how things exist, is the method to stop suffering.

We hear a lot about “wisdom” in Buddhism, but it’s not some special holy word, all high and fancy. “Wisdom” simply means being correct. If there’s one cup on my table and I say there are two, that ain’t wisdom, honey, that’s ignorance.


Of course, the wisdom Buddha’s saying we can accomplish is a pretty outrageous level of wisdom: seeing the universe as it exists without mistake. That’s the level of wisdom we can accomplish; he calls it omniscience. I mean, my Catholic mother was shocked by that! It’s quite radical.


What sees how things exist is the mind, and that’s Buddha’s expertise. According to the Buddha’s model of the mind in our mental consciousness we have positive, negative and neutral states of mind; there’s no fourth category. And these are technical terms, not moralistic.


The negative states of mind have two main characteristics: they’re disturbing and they’re delusional. They’re liars, they’re not in sync with reality. The virtuous states of mind have the characteristic of being peaceful – just check the last time you were loving, kind, generous; you felt peaceful. And, there’s a sense of interdependence there. You’ve got a sense of connectedness with others, which means you’re in sync – to some extent – with interdependence, which is reality.


When you’re caught up in anger, depression, jealousy, it’s a nightmare, isn’t it? It’s like hell. These states of mind are deeply disturbing and they’re delusional. You’ve got this vivid, vivid sense of a separate, unhappy self-pity me, as Lama Yeshe calls it – lonely, bereft, not fair, poor me, things are done to me, me. Hungry, needy, wanting something more, resentful, angry, hurt, low self-esteem – this is samsara, being caught up in this junk, that’s samsara.


And the root, the mother, of all these lies in the mind, these neurotic emotions, these wrong views, is simply called “ignorance.” Like all these words, it’s got a very specific definition. “Ma-rig-pa” in Tibetan; “unawareness.”


Unawareness of, finally, how things actually, finally, exist. This ignorance causes us to be utterly blind to this reality. As His Holiness the Dalai said recently, this ignorance has two functions: the first one is the mere ignorance of how things are, just merely not knowing; but that’s not the main problem. This ignorance also has an added problem of having made up its own fantasy story, and that’s the one we’re believing in now, which is the story, the belief, that everything exists in and of itself, from its own side, intrinsically, which is precisely the exact opposite of reality. This is so abstract for our minds.


Before we even go into the meaning of what ignorance is – you know, what ignorance thinks: that everything exists out there, from its own side, in and of itself, without depending on anything – let’s just look more broadly at how things do exist conventionally, because that leads us to understand their ultimate reality.


Buddha talks about how things exist in two ways – well, many ways, actually. But this particular way of presenting it, he calls the two truths: conventional truth, the way things exist conventionally; and the way things exist finally, or ultimately. Initially when we hear these, they seem totally contradictory. But in reality, they are like flip sides of the same coin, and our job is to get to see that, to understand that, first intellectually.


The shorthand for how things exist conventionally is “dependent arising,” or “dependent origination.” Things exist interdependently. Things exist in dependence upon this and that, conventionally. And then ultimately, the shorthand is “emptiness”: “emptiness” is the nature of reality ultimately. 


In the Buddha’s teachings, there’s different levels of understanding emptiness, and each of them removes a little bit more of what they think doesn’t exist until eventually you get to the highest view, the Middle Way, and within that the view called the Consequentialists, or Prasangika, which is Buddha’s actual intent. His Holiness talked about this recently: when we finally have the true view, according to Nagarjuna, who clarifed this hundreds of years ago – I don’t remember when – it sounds so radical, so scary: that there is nothing from the side of the cup, the I, the table, the mala, the flower, there is nothing from the side of a thing that makes it that thing.


We think there is, and we desperately cling to there being something inherent – something in the “thing” that makes it the thing. That’s what we think. That’s what this ignorance thinks, and we desperately want this. We cling to this, because our deep instinct is to think that there being nothing from the side of the thing means nihilism. And that’s why it’s so tricky.


The moment we hear that there is nothing from the side of the thing that gives it its thingness, we immediately hear it as, “Oh, there’s nothing there.” Nihilistic. We chuck the baby out with the bath water. Instantly, we hear it this way. We can’t help but hear it this way.


As Tsongkhapa says, we fall into the abyss of the great mistake.


And then as soon as we hear about dependent arising, that things exist in dependence upon this and that, we don’t hear that properly either. We hear it as, “Ooh, what a relief!” and grasp. “Thank goodness there is something there after all!” We reify it. We put too much onto it.


These are the two extreme views that our mind lunges between like drunken sailors a thousand times a day.


What Lama Tsongkhapa says we need to do, is every time we hear “emptiness” – that there is nothing from the side of a thing that makes it a thing, there’s nothing in and of itself that is making it that, there is no I from its own side, there is no intrinsic, inherent me in there that makes me, me – instead of instantly going to the nihilistic view and chucking the baby out with the bath water, we need to consciously bring ourselves toward the Middle Way and say to ourselves – which is counter-intuitive for us – “Aha, Robina. My “I” being empty means it is a dependent arising I. There is an I: there is an I that exists in dependence upon this and this.”


And then every time we hear about dependent arising, that there is an I existing in dependence upon this and that, instead of clinging onto it and exaggerating it and reifying it, we will again go towards the Middle Way and say, “Aha, Robina, that means it is empty of existing from its own side.”


Right now, these are opposite to us. Because what Buddha’s saying and what Tsongkhapa really runs with is, that when you think “emptiness,” it should remind you it means “dependent arising.” And when you think “dependent arising,” it should remind us that that means “emptiness.” They in fact are the two sides of the same coin. In fact that’s the true Middle Way. That when you think “emptiness,” you think “dependent arising,” and when you think “dependent arising,” you think “emptiness.”


When we have realized the emptiness of that fantasy I, as Lama Zopa says, “Then there is no fear.” Fear is finished, because fear is the main emotion of all the delusions, in particular ego-grasping. This ignorance is known colloquially as ego-grasping, and its main job is fear. Fear and panic.


Rinpoche is a Sherpa and was recognized when he was very small as the reincarnation of a previous yogi called Kunsang Yeshe up in the mountains in the Mount Everest region of Nepal. He was a lay meditator called Kunsang Yeshe. Eventually he left home and went to this little hole-in-the-wall in the mountains, which is now known as Lawudo. I think it was where they stored the radishes or the onions; “Lawudo “ means “radish” or “onion,” I can’t remember which.


Anyway, he pulled out the radishes and moved in, and that became his little home for the last twenty-five or whatever years of his life. He got to be known as the “Lawudo Lama.” And so when he died, like all the 


great yogis he had complete control over the process and could choose his rebirth.


From the time Rinpoche was a tiny boy, apparently, when his mother would go outside to chop the wood, little Zopa (he wasn’t 

called that then; I can’t remember his name) would be gone, you know. He’s crawling up the hill towards the cave. And from the time he could talk, he’d always be going up that hill, always. He’s relentless, very determined. And his mother would say, “Come home!” He’d say, “No! That is my home,” pointing up to the cave.


From the time he could play games, his sister said, he’d always play the role of being a lama, sitting on a throne and having a pretend bell and dorje, and leading pujas and making mud pie torma offerings.


He’d say, “All my benefactors are coming” and he’d mention the names of his benefactors from his past life!


His mother, of course, decided she’d better check with the local lamas, who decided, yes, he seems to be the reincarnation of Kunsang Yeshe. Then he became known as a Rinpoche, “Precious One.”


Anyway, years later Rinpoche told the story about when he was eight years old and up in the mountains with his manager at a monastery. There was this big river and on the other side of the river he could see these “strange, pale-faced people with straw-coloured hair” – Anglo-Saxons! He really wanted to meet these people. There was this little rickety bridge, it seems, and his manager kept saying, “No,” but he insisted. There he was, holding a little bowl of potatoes – being a Sherpa, you know, you bring your gift of potatoes – and when he was halfway across the bridge he fell in the water – they don’t learn to swim up there!


In retelling the story Rinpoche said, “The head was bobbing up and down.” Not even “My head” – “The head”: a very objective statement. He said he noticed his manager running along the river bank, shouting and yelling. Then, Rinpoche said, “Hm, the thought occurred to me, ‘the person known as the Lawudo Lama is about to die’” – this very clear, rational observation as he’s going up and down for air. And then he told us, “I didn’t know anything about emptiness, but there was no fear.”


What we can deduce from this, in my opinion, is that he already had in his mindstream the realization of emptiness: that’s why there was no fear, that’s why he would think, “the person known as the Lawudo Lama. . .” instead of the huge massive panic-stricken thought of “I!!!” that normal people have.


Of course, in our culture, we would find this utterly inconceivable. You’d be called mentally ill if you proposed this possibility to Western psychologists! Because Western psychology is based – like I said, not just the religious teachings but the materialist teachings as well – based on the assumption of a self-existent I. We say it is natural to have fear. We call it “instinct for survival.” We assume fear, jealousy, anger, paranoia, upset, depression, all the rest are normal behavior. Animals have it. Humans have it. Everything is based upon the assumption of this as reasonable mental health.


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