Understanding Emptiness

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[ Lama Yeshe gave this teaching in Geneva, Switzerland, in September 1983, his last teaching in the West. Edited from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive by Nicholas Ribush. ] 

What is the self-existent I? The self-existent I does not exist; do not think that it does. In this way, we first try to educate you with words: “There is no dualistic I.” We try to push you. “There’s no self-existent I.” We try to push you intellectually. But at the time of death, this understanding is not pushed intellectually; it comes naturally. You lose your self-existent identity naturally.

Some people experience losing their identity in meditation and get scared. That’s good. You should be scared. Tibetan monks want to make you afraid. Westerners don’t like to be scared but we have the skills to make you afraid! Many people have this experience. That’s good.

Why are you afraid? Why are you afraid to lose something? What you’re losing is your self-existent or concrete preconception of yourself. That’s what’s shaken. Your own projection of yourself is what shakes; it’s not your own nonduality that’s shaken. Your own true nature isn’t shaken.

Once Lama Je Tsongkhapa was giving a discourse on emptiness. During the talk one of his close disciples experienced emptiness right at that moment and suddenly grabbed his lapel because he felt he was disappearing. He completely lost himself and was totally shaken by the experience, so grabbed himself to make sure he was still there. That’s how it should be: experiences and realizations should come during a teaching. So, the way to discover your own true nature is to break the fantasy, or preconceived ideas, of yourself.

Perhaps there can be misunderstandings because the English language may have many different ways of interpreting the words “self” and “losing the self.” I’m using the word preconception. That means you fix your reality: “I am this, I am that, I am the other. This is me.” You create a strong preconceived idea of who you are, what you are. That’s what I mean by “self.” That self is non-existent. It’s merely a projection of your own ego.

For example, a man identifies himself as such and such a woman’s husband. In this way he gives himself the flavor of a self-existent husband. When he’s decided that he’s this concrete, self-existent husband, he immediately projects onto his wife that she too is a concrete, self-existent wife. These concrete preconceptions lead to misery. “My existence depends on my wife. If she disappears, so do I.” He identifies himself as a concrete husband and her as a concrete wife, and then his life becomes impossible. Because the truth of the situation is that both he and his wife are impermanent, transitory, changing from day to day. In other words, he overestimates reality.

These days we see a lot of confusion among young people. “Society wants me to be someone: an engineer, a scientist.” They feel they need a profession with which they can identify themselves. Part of them believes it; another part does not. So they’re confused. Nevertheless, they do want some kind of identity so they create their own. They drop out, take drugs and become hippies. That doesn’t mean they don’t have ego. They already have an ego but they want another layer on it with which they can identify. They already have a self-existent I; they want to add an extra flavor to that.

It’s quite easy to experience the self-existent imagination of yourself I’m talking about. It’s not difficult. Right now you can observe and analyze your self-imagined identity. And because you have preconceptions about this self you get into trouble. You always criticize yourself: “I’m not good enough.” If you analyze this way of thinking you will understand how you’re deluded and not in touch with reality. You can understand right now.

Because you hold such a limited projection of yourself, such a limited self-image, this becomes the root of all your other limitations. You have limited love, limited wisdom and limited compassion. You’ve already decided that fundamentally, you’re narrow. So your whole life becomes narrow, your wisdom becomes narrow, your love becomes narrow-all because of your fundamentally narrow projection of yourself.

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