“When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.”
Many of the traditional human philosophical systems are invariably built upon, or strive to confirm, some sense of permanent self-existence. Is it possible, however, that this sense of a continuous personal “self” actually derives from a misreading or misinterpretation of the causes and conditions of experience, mistaking what is essentially a temporary matrix of perception, or even an expedient creation akin to an avatar in a video game, to be a reliable indication of some unchanging essence?
As the great sage Tsongkhapa wrote in the profound “Lamrim Chenmo”, “When living beings experience or see a phenomenon, they do not apprehend it as being set up by the power of the mind to which it appears. Rather, they apprehend it as existing just as it appears, i.e., as existing in an essentially objective manner. This is how intrinsic existence is superimposed. The presence of such a nature in the object is what is meant by essence, intrinsic nature, and autonomous existence.”
Afraid of death and the possibility of our individual nonexistence, we tend to habitually impute the existence of (and then fixate on the belief in) an enduring “I”, when in reality such a notion may be merely symptomatic of our primal desires and fears – a hopeful coping mechanism with which to navigate the unknown. Rather than recognize ripening causes and conditions for what they are, we instead hypostatize their apparent effects (i.e. represent an abstraction as a solid reality), granting this hypostatized entity a more concrete identity than what we encounter in actual living experience.
Transcending that view by recognizing that all that comes into existence does so dependent on perpetually changing causes and conditions is to see things as they actually are. It is to see beyond our conceptual constructs that have become rigidified over time into various human philosophical systems that are employed to confirm the reality of the “I”. Since the physical body is dependent on its parts, if we try and find some self-essence within the body, we will not be able to do so.
As Buddha, in the “Samyutta Nikaya”, is quoted: “We who look at the whole and not just the part, know that we too are systems of interdependence, of feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness all interconnected. Investigating in this way, we come to realize that there is no ‘me’ or ‘mine’ in any one part, just as a sound does not belong to any one part of the lute.”
Thus, since the mind can only exist in relation to its constantly changing objects, no inherent unchanging self can be found there either. That is to see things as they are, free of any filtered and conditioned fabrication or conceptual addition to perception. The fact that so few of us are awake enough to truly see things as they are is basically a testament to the deluding power of consensus beliefs and assumptions, which are typically characterized by strategic avoidance. Avoidance of what? Avoidance of any serious and persistent inquiry into one’s actual nature and true condition. It is also an indication of how great a challenge the prospect of real awakening entails, particularly in the midst of the propaganda of this world, which cherishes the sense of an independent and enduring self-essence above all else.
What’s truly confounding is how some of us adamantly cling to our personal self-images (no matter how much pain and stress is generated as a consequence), rather than taking the time to consciously inquire into that self-sense to the point of recognizing its fundamental emptiness (no matter how much freedom and relief can result by directly seeing through it). Instead, we would rather talk about fixing or forgiving it, manipulating it to make it nicer, or modifying it in some way, as if it were an actual entity. This is exactly how suffering is habitually perpetuated — by a failure to inspect one’s self-image and really see it for what it is (and isn’t). All subsequent dysfunctionalities and pathologies are merely ramifications of that original case of mistaken identity.
More often than not, human philosophies tend to fall into fixed propositions of either “eternalism” or “annihilationalism,” or to put in other terms, “continuity” or “discontinuity.” However, things (i.e. the phenomenal world, persons, etc.) are neither continuous nor discontinuous. Neither the world nor the things in it endure unchanging and endlessly; nor is the world a random, discontinuous, fragmented event in consciousness. Things are neither reducible entirely to their specific causative conditions, nor are they ever something other than their conditions. The 20th Century Sage Ramana Maharshi perfectly described the paradox when he noted: “The ‘I’ casts off the illusion of ‘I’ and yet remains as ‘I’. Such is the paradox of Self-realization. The realized do not see any contradiction in it.”
This “middle way” of recognition (beyond the extremes of hopeful perpetuity and despairing nihilism, or any conflation of Absolute and Relative views) investigates, sees through, and discards those philosophical abstractions which have been reified to the point of seeming more real than the conditions from which they have been abstracted. However, the problem of hypostatization is not confined to the notion of self in its limited sense of an individual’s self-essence, but is apparent everywhere, since all conventional explanations of the way things are, are grounded in conceptually designated entities that are themselves ultimately unreal. All of our fundamental notions, including time, actions (karma) and the agents of action, the characteristics with which things are defined and classified, relations, and so on, all are infiltrated by the notion of “identity”.
Identity is simply another name for an imputed self-essence: a continuous, unchanging, self-identical core story of “me and mine”. However, when seen properly as a result of thorough investigation (perhaps in the form of the inquiry “Who am I?”), all phenomena, including the separate self-sense and its imaginative narrative, are revealed to be devoid of any actual self-essence, lacking autonomy, and thus are determined to be “empty” of any inherent existence.
“Emptiness” (in this sense) does not mean a cosmic void, or nonexistence. Rather it signifies the absence of something very precise – a concrete and enduring self-essence. It is the self-essence which is in question when considered within the mechanics of dependent origination – in other words, the fact that all phenomena (including the self-sense) arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions. Moreover, whatever appears must also disappear, since causes and conditions are ever-fluctuating, leaving no room for some fixed and unchanging independent entity in the process. As the pre-eminent Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna wrote: “Whatever arises dependently is explained as empty. Thus dependent attribution is the middle way. Since there is nothing whatever that is not dependently existent, for that reason there is nothing whatsoever that is not empty.”
Of course, the question that is often raised at this juncture, especially by those who have been conditioned by one of the prevalent religious indoctrinations (or even by “mystical” experiences such as near death events or “out of body” adventures), is the matter of the “soul”. This subject was addressed to some extent in my essay on Survival and Personal Continuity here, but within the context of this current exploration, the soul as it is typically understood can be appreciated as the “mindstream”.
In Buddhist philosophy, for example, the mindstream is that thread of energy, or continuum of consciousness, which moves from life to life. However, it is also dependent on causes and conditions, and so in turn exists in a state of perpetual flux. Given that it exists within such a state, there is no fixed self-essence that can be pointed to and claimed as some permanent identity. Consequently, whether on the physical plane, or in the astral, the same essential emptiness pertains.
In order to provide a clearer picture of the nature of Dependent Origination, the noted Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh employs the metaphor of the table:
“For a table to exist, we need wood, a carpenter, time, skillfulness, and many other causes. And each of these causes needs other causes to be. The wood needs the forest, the sunshine, the rain, and so on. The carpenter needs his parents, breakfast, fresh air, and so on. And each of those things, in turn, has to be brought about by other causes and conditions. If we continue to look in this way, we’ll see that nothing has been left out. Everything in the cosmos has come together to bring us this table. Looking deeply at the sunshine, the leaves of the tree, and the clouds, we can see the table. The one can be seen in the all, and the all can be seen in the one. One cause is never enough to bring about an effect. A cause must, at the same time, be an effect, and every effect must also be the cause of something else.”
What is both intriguing and yet not that surprising is that the most advanced branches of contemporary physics, such as Quantum Mechanics, are also beginning to echo this same view of the relationship between emptiness and appearance by positing reality as systems of interacting objects with inter-penetrating causes and effects, and yet empty of any permanent inherent core or fundamental essence.
In any case, it is clear that directly recognizing the cloud-like, dependent nature of the arising of all phenomena is essential to understanding the nature of reality itself, as well as our relation to it. Ultimately, however, all philosophical questions, as provocative and intellectually absorbing as they may be, must take a back seat to the matter of clarifying our immediate condition, as well as all the attendant afflictive states which we continue to fuel through our attachment to uninspected notions of a separate and substantial self and world.
Moreover, if we have been in the “spiritual game” long enough, and based on all the readings and teachings we have likely encountered on the subject of an enduring self-essence, we by now typically tend to over-think the matter, or else fall into fixed positions to which we cling, and which become our own mind-prisons when we do so. This is why it is refreshing to hear a wise teacher like Ponlop Rinpoche note:
“The mistaken ideas about the essence arise from fixated attachment that solidifies the present mind as being negative. You believe that noble and positive wisdom will be attained only if present mind is relinquished. This is a mistaken idea in the Mahamudra tradition, because there is no wisdom higher than present mind itself.”
There is only this present mind, insubstantial and omnipresent, without beginning or end, regardless of whatever phenomena come and go. Another name used to describe it is Awareness, or Buddha Nature, though it does not get better or more enlightened by assuming the form of a Buddha, or worse or corrupted by assuming the form of an ordinary sentient being. Nor do we have to jump through hoops for lifetimes trying to get to the present mind.
It is always itself, always here, always shining, regardless of the clouds that appear and disappear. Terms like existent and non-existent equally miss the mark. It cannot be grasped, but it is no mere nothingness either. As Nisargadatta once pointed out: “The person, the ‘I am this body, this mind, this chain of memories, this bundle of desires and fears’ disappears, but something you may call identity, remains. It enables me to become a person when required. Love creates its own necessities, even of becoming a person.” Yes, leave it to Love to confound even our most carefully crafted assumptions about the nature of our True Self and its play of colorful, though transient, personas!
Indeed, the Reality may be so simple that we invariably skip right over it, or end up looking for it everywhere, not realizing that it is what’s looking. That’s the big joke, the cosmic joke! Just so, we can relax and enjoy the insecurity of the unknown, of having no conclusive handle on or conceptual designation for “what is”. After all, that is our actual human condition – not knowing – though paradoxically, nothing is concealed!
“Whenever clouds gather, the nature of the sky is not corrupted, and when they disperse, it is not ameliorated. The sky does not become less or more vast. It does not change. It is the same with the nature of mind: it is not spoiled by the arrival of thoughts; nor improved by their disappearance. The nature of the mind is emptiness; its expression is clarity. These two aspects are essentially one’s simple images designed to indicate the diverse modalities of the mind. It would be useless to attach oneself in turn to the notion of emptiness , and then to that of clarity, as if they were independent entities. The ultimate nature of mind is beyond all concepts, all definition and all fragmentation.”
~Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche