Strategies for Deconstructing Jealousy

Strategies for Deconstructing Jealousy by Alexandr Berzin

Contents: Session One: Overview, Session Two: No Special “Me” or Special “You”,

Session Three: Categories and Concepts, Session Four: Voidness.

Session One: Overview

Buddhism speaks a lot about disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes, and these are defined a state of mind or heart, however we want to look at it, that when we develop them causes us to lose our peace of mind and they incapacitate us so that we lose self control. And so when we’re feeling, let’s say, attachment or anger or jealousy, we certainly don’t have peace of mind, do we? And also we lose self-control in the sense that all sorts of really crazy urges come up in our mind to say something and act in a certain way that usually we regret very much later on. And so it causes us to act in a way that’s either really destructive to somebody else, you know, we hurt them, or in addition – it’s not an either/ or situation – it’s very self-destructive, we’re the losers in the end.

And when we look at different cultures we find that emotions… this is a huge big range of feelings, and different cultures are going to define and specify emotions differently. It’s like cutting a pie; we can cut a pie in many different ways, the same pie, in many different pieces, make different size pieces. And so, for instance, in Tibetan, coming from Buddhist definitions from India, we speak about jealousy, but in the West we have jealousy and we have envy.

And so when we analyze a little bit more closely what’s going on, we find that the remedies that Buddhism suggests are remedies of just a small part of a larger problem. And so we need to look more carefully at what each culture is talking about, because we might have to apply other methods from Buddhism that don’t come under their category of jealousy to deal with the larger problems that we are talking about when we talk about jealousy and envy.

Buddhism defines jealousy as a part of hostility; it’s an aspect of hostility. It focuses on other people’s accomplishments – their good qualities, their possessions, their success, their family, their position in life, something like that – and it’s unable to bear these accomplishments. It’s unable to bear, it can’t stand that they’ve accomplished these things and they have these things, due to being quite attached to our own situation. So, focusing on somebody else’s or in general on other people’s good qualities. You know, their intelligence, these sorts of things, on their good looks, their possessions, their success, that they had a son, a male child, and our family didn’t have one, and it’s unable to stand that, it can’t bear that. And the strongest emotional element in it is resentment, resent that the other person got them. Because we’re very attached to our own situation, we’re feeling sorry for ourselves basically.

And the opposite of it is rejoicing in the success of the other person. This is what Buddhism is talking about when it talks about jealousy. Obviously, our experience of jealousy is much broader than that, although this is a part. So if we say “Okay, this is one type of jealousy, let’s think of other types of jealousy,” then what you have to add to this, in order to get what we call “envy,” is what Buddhism calls another disturbing emotion, which is covetousness. And this is defined as the inordinate desire, really, you know, excessive desire for something that somebody else possesses.

So, if you look up in a dictionary what the word “envy” means, at least an English dictionary, it’s a painful and resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else, joined with the desire to enjoy that same advantage. So, it adds to this inability to bear other people’s accomplishments. Envy is the wish to have these things ourselves and often – although not necessarily – it entails something a little bit more nasty as well, which is a further wish for others to be deprived of them. They don’t deserve this. “Get it away from them; I deserve to get the job, not them!” Doesn’t it? So that’s a different disturbing emotion according to Buddhism, we have to look in a different category in order to find how to deal with that.

So, when we are experiencing some sort of disturbing emotion, that we call “jealousy,” well, we have to analyze a little bit more closely what are the ingredients of it in order to come up with some strategy of how to deal with it, to overcome it. In other words, our word it’s a little too big, it covers so many things, and you’ll see it covers even more.

Envy, as a combination of jealousy and covetousness, often leads to competitiveness. For instance, many of you are familiar with Trungpa Rinpoche’s presentation of things, as Maitri Space program, and he discusses jealousy as the disturbing emotion that drives us to become highly competitive and to work fanatically to outdo others or ourselves. And it’s connected with forceful action, you know, the karma family.

Alright, so because of being jealous and envious of what others have accomplished, we push ourselves or we push others under us to do more and more. Like with extreme competition in business or in sports – very strong in sports. Buddhism does acknowledge this aspect that is there although it would discuss competitiveness differently, but is uses the horse to represent jealousy. If you think about a horse, a horse races against other horses because of jealousy, it can’t bear that the other horse is running faster. The Buddhist thing would connect it more with resentment; it resents that the other horse is going faster; it doesn’t really speak in terms of really competition, “Why should this horse run faster? I’ve got to run faster.” That’s why they race.

So, it’s true that in Buddhism jealousy is closely related to competitiveness, but jealousy doesn’t necessarily lead to competition. So we have to think, are we competing with this other woman or this other man to get to the one that we want? What’s involved here? For instance, somebody could be jealous of others but with low self-esteem, not even try to compete. This would be the attitude of, “Well, I can’t possibly find somebody who would love me so why even try; I can’t possibly get a good job so why even try.” But of course you’re jealous of the people that do have good jobs.

On the other side we could be competitive but without necessarily having jealousy behind it; some people like to compete in a sport just to have fun and enjoy the sport, because they glorify the art of the sport or something like that, but they don’t keep score. They’re not competing with anyone. But often we do associate the two – jealousy and competitiveness – but if we look to what Buddhism has to say about that, then we find that they put the two together quite differently from what we might normally think of.

We look at the great Indian master Shantideva, he put together in one discussion jealousy toward those who are in a higher position, competition with equals, and arrogance toward those in a lower status. And the whole discussion is in terms of the context of learning to view everybody equally. That’s the whole issue that’s here, that we regard everybody equally. Quite different from how we would approach the thing, isn’t it?

So, if we look at the problem behind this, now we get to this other aspect that we wanted to speak about in these lectures, the connection with our concept of “me.” And here that problem that Buddhism is really pointing at is this feeling that “I’m special.” Either I’m better than everybody or I’m worse than everybody. Or other people think that I’m worse than everybody and they’re not right. This whole inequality thing is here, because “I am special in the sense of not the same as everybody; they’re not the same as me.”

For example, let’s look in terms of jealousy. We think and feel that “I’m the only one who can do a certain task well or correctly, by teaching our friend to drive a car,” and we become jealous if anybody else teaches him or her. Or in a class, we feel, “I’m the only one who can answer the question.” And we are very jealous and hurt if somebody else does what we wanted to do. That’s because we feel that we are special. We should do it, not anybody else. So, that doesn’t necessarily lead to competitiveness, does it?

But you can have another example, when we think and feel that “I’m the only one who should do a specific thing,” like get ahead in life, “I’m the one who should win, I’m the one that should be rich,” and we’re envious if somebody else succeeds, then we become competitive. So we have to outdo the other person even if we’re already moderately successful. There’s a big difference here, first we have to analyze it ourselves. When we don’t have anything and the other person has it, then we’re jealous. That’s slightly different in terms of how you would go about dealing with it, then when “I already have a certain amount, but I’m jealous that you have more.” There’s greed here as well. Then you have competition.

So, you would have a different strategy for dealing with it because you have to pull apart what are the elements of what’s really the disturbing thought behind this. In any case, behind all of this is a strong feeling of “me” and a strong preoccupation with me alone. We don’t consider others in the same way as we do ourselves, we’re special.

So, the remedy that Buddhism offers here, the strategy for all of these things – for jealousy, for competitiveness, for arrogance – is to see that everybody is equal. There’s nothing special about me here. Everybody has the same basic abilities, in the sense that everybody has the same Buddha nature, we speak about in Buddhism. The way that they speak about it in Buddhism, they speak about it as everybody has the same wish to be happy and to succeed, and the same with not to be unhappy or fail. And everybody has the same right to be happy and to succeed, and everybody has the same right not to unhappy or to fail. There’s nothing special about me in terms of these things.

All of this is connected with what Buddhism calls “love.” It’s the way to overcome this type of jealousy, which is the wish for everybody equally to be happy, to have the causes for happiness. So when we learn that everybody is equal in terms of this Buddha nature and love, then we’re open to see how to relate to all these different people, whether they succeeded more than we have, or haven’t succeeded, this sort of things.

So, Buddhism teaches – Shantideva speaks a lot about this – is… Somebody is successful. Even if they’re more successful than we are, if we wish for everybody to be happy, we would rejoice and be happy that they are successful. And we try to help our equals also succeed rather than competing with them. You help all the students in the class study for the exam, not just try to steal the books from the library for ourselves so they can’t read them. And toward those who are less successful than we are, we try to help them succeed rather gloat and arrogantly feel we’re better than they are.

Now, these Buddhist methods are very advanced, and they’re especially difficult to apply. Because, you see, there are two forms of disturbing emotions. There’s the automatically arising form that everybody experiences. Even dogs experience them – a new baby comes into the house and the dog is jealous. But then, there’s what’s called “doctrinally based” disturbing emotions. That means it’s based on learning from some sort of system, some sort of doctrinal system, basically propaganda from either religion or culture or something in society that teaches us to be jealous. It teaches a certain way of looking at the world that brings out more jealousy and makes jealousy even stronger.

And if you look at what’s automatically arising, almost all children automatically like to win, and they cry when they lose. So that’s almost automatically in all cultures. But, in the West, that’s very difficult for us, you know, because jealousy and competitiveness are reinforced, strengthened and even rewarded by many of our Western cultural values. Very interesting to take a look at it. Our Western cultures teach capitalism as a naturally best form of a democratic society. This infects our way of thinking even in approaching personal relationships as well. Underlying it is a theory that we assume is absolutely correct and we don’t even question it, which is the survival of the fittest, which sets competition as the basic driving force of life, rather than, for instance, Buddhism saying love and affection is the basic driving force of life. Our Western culture puts competition, survival of the fittest.

This Western cultural emphasis on survival of the fittest reinforces the importance of success and wining. And it reinforces that obsession of success and wining with an obsession about competitive sports as glorification of the best athletes and the richest people in the world. All this lists – you know, richest people and the athletes, the Olympic Games – goes way, way back in our culture. That pervades every level of society, doesn’t it? Obsession for football – those are our heroes; it’s really funny. Buddha isn’t our hero; a sports person is a hero. It’s funny if you think about it, heavy weight champion, boxing champion of the world, you don’t have compassion champion of the world. We have boxing champion of the world. World cup of compassion, that would be an interesting one.

And in addition to this, I mean it’s even more insidious if we look at our culture, the Western system – democracy and voting – is based on jealousy and competition, selling oneself as a candidate by publicizing how much better we are than our rival candidates. And it’s seen as praise worthy: “This is good, the whole world should have this.”

It’s interesting, Tibetan society on the other hand, what happens when you try to transpose these values on Tibetan society for instance? Tibetan society looks down on anybody who says that they’re better than somebody else. This is considered a very, very bad character trait. So democracy and campaigning for votes is totally alien, and doesn’t work in that society. Anybody who goes out and says “I’m better than the other one,” nobody will ever vote for him. You have to say “I’m not qualified, I’m not good,” be humble. It’s really very, very different, isn’t it? That underlines how culturally specific our values are. They’re not universal. You hear the Dalai Lama, you know, “Well, I’m just a simple monk, I don’t know anything.” It’s the Dalai Lama saying that.

So when jealousy and competition and the orientation toward success is so strongly pushed by the propaganda of our culture – going back to ancient Greeks – then it’s very difficult to just instantly go to the Buddhist methods of rejoicing in the victories of others. Or they say in the mind training teachings, give the victory to others and accept the defeat on ourselves. That’s a very difficult pill for us Westerners to swallow, a little bit too strong a treatment for most of us.

I think as Westerners we need to first reevaluate the validity of our cultural values, these doctrinally based forms of jealousy and competition. Because as I say, if we really analyze deeply, we see that it infects our personal relationships, how we deal with people. Competition, we have to succeed, we have to get the most beautiful, wonderful prince or princess on a white horse. And then everyone will admire us, won’t they? Think about it, how many of our parents would be really happy if we married somebody who is very rich. If we said, “Well, I married somebody who doesn’t have any money at all, but is really a nice person…” Welcome to the West.

So I think for us, you’re jealous that somebody got a rich marriage partner, and the parents are specially jealous if other families whose children got a rich partner. So what we really need to do first in approaching these things is to reevaluate our cultural values. Are these things that I really want to accept or are they just propaganda? Very old propaganda.

An example that may help us to see the relativity of our culturally based jealousy and competition is an Indian market, Indian bazaar. In India and in many places, you know, the Middle East and so on – and it was like this in the older times in the West as well – there’s cloth markets, jewelry markets, vegetable markets, and so on. And each of them has row after row after row of stores and stalls that sell exactly the same things. And they’re all next to each other. You have to think about the mentality that’s behind it. And the shopkeepers are mostly friendly with each other. They sit and drink tea and chat all day long, and their mentality is that it’s up to karma whether or not they do well. This is your karma, if you do well, you do well; if you don’t do well, well, that’s your karma.

So, they’re not, “Oh, how can I outdo the other one” and all of that, that’s a culturally based thing. We were discussing this before, but there’s actually a German law that you can’t put a shop right next to another one that sells exactly the same thing. You can sue you landlord for renting the other space in your building to exactly the same type of store. So all of this is very, very culturally relative – a very impotent insight to get. It’s not necessarily so, but [we think] “This is the way that the rest of the world is or that it has to be, or that we have to be.”

Of course, we all experience this type of jealousy in terms of jealousy at work and this sort of things. But in the West we talk about a slightly different form of jealousy, and for most of us it’s this other form of jealousy that gives us the most suffering. And it’s interesting, if you look up “jealousy” in the dictionary – at least the English dictionary – this is the definition that it gives, which is “an intolerance of rivalry or of unfaithfulness.” For example, we feel jealous if our partners flirt with other men or women or spend a lot of time with others. Our partner wants to go to some yoga school or something like that, and you know, the husband is jealous and wants them to stay at home. There’s an intolerance of you, “You’re being unfaithful and you’re going to somebody else.” There’s a rival.

This is the one that we see as an example of the dog when the new baby arrives in the house, the rival for the attention of the master. The master is going to throw the bones to the baby and not to the dog… Like jealousy in Buddhism, this has an element of resentment, but in addition it has a strong element of insecurity and mistrust. A whole other discussion from Buddhism, how to deal with insecurity.

So, if we’re insecure, then when a friend or partner is with somebody else, we’re jealous. We’re insecure about ourselves; we’re insecure of their love for us, or jealous, aren’t we? Insecure of our self-worth, insecure of the other person’s love for me – me, me, me! So we don’t trust our friend; we fear that I, the big “me,” is going to be abandoned. To deal with this type of jealousy, we also need to learn the equality of everyone, but in a slightly different way here. And I think this is a little bit more easy to deal with, for us Westerners, because it’s not so much culturally reinforced; it’s an automatically arising type of thing. So we don’t have to deal with the cultural baggage on top of it. Nobody has to teach us to feel insecure.

Although, we could have a big long discussion about that in terms of our child raising practices – a baby that is constantly strapped to the mother’s side or back like in Asia feels far more secure than a baby that is just left by itself to lay in a crib, and be by itself. Did you ever think about what it’s like to be a baby in a baby carriage, and rather than viewing the traffic when you’re crossing the street – when the mother is crossing the street – from behind the mother, strapped to the mother’s back, you’re there in front. What does the baby see? It doesn’t see the mother; the baby sees all these cars going by, which are much bigger than it, and that baby is supposed to feel secure? So certainly natural insecurity is reinforced by many things that our culture has. Anyway, that’s a whole discussion.

Anyway, when we think in terms of the equality of everybody here, what we have to think is about another aspect of Buddha-nature, which is that the heart has the capacity to love everybody. That helps us very much, I think, in terms of dealing with jealousy in these situations, because our friend, our partner as well, does have the capacity that’s perfectly natural to love and be very friendly toward many people, not just one person. You think that again this is “me,” special, one, exclusive. And if the other person has no room in their heart for me and now they’re with somebody else and left me or whatever… then in many ways we need to develop compassion, because they don’t realize their Buddha-nature capacity to be friendly and warm to everybody.

And this is an interesting thing. I first learned this insight from astrology, I must say. We’re always out there looking for the special one, and you look and see the astrology charts match, and which planets make, let’s say, a good aspect to your Venus. Now, if you think about that, there must be millions and millions of that, you know, hundreds of millions of people whose Venus makes a good aspect to your Venus. So what’s so special about one? And why is there only the one prince or princess out there, who’s going to be, Mister or Miss Perfect, the only one that we could love or who could love me?

So, it’s very important to learn to have our hearts open to everyone. And if our partner isn’t like that, then compassion for them, they need to learn that. But if we open up our hearts, then this one person that we’re so jealous of somebody else, they become much smaller in our lives, and they’re not the only one in the world that we could love. With an open heart we can have love for a friend, for a partner, child, for a pet, for our parents. You can love your country, your people, nature, love God, love your hobby, love your job. We can love a lot of things, can’t we?

So, we can deal with and relate to all these objects of our love. The heart is big enough for all of them. And we would express our love – and this is an important point – express our love to each of them in an appropriate way. We don’t express our love to our dog in the same way as we express it to our wife or husband, or to our parents. You never know, but we usually don’t have sexual relations with all of them. But let’s leave aside the issue of sexual unfaithfulness, that’s a much more complex issue and brings in many other issues. But in any case, if our sexual partner, especially in a marriage, is unfaithful, or even if they don’t have a sexual relation with somebody else, if they spend all their time out of the house, with other friends, with other people, it’s never a helpful emotional response to feel jealous, to feel possessive. It doesn’t help the situation.

And we have to also see that these responses – when we do respond to that with jealousy and possessiveness – that in part, that is culturally influenced. If you think of a traditional Japanese wife, and the traditional Western wife, faced with the situation that the husband goes out with other men from the office, they would experience it emotionally very, very differently. Culture is different. Again we need to see how much of our emotional response is from our culture; how much of it is a natural automatic thing. That’s especially important in marriages of mixed cultures where the two people come from different cultures. Often we tend to downplay the cultural influences in our emotions. And it’s not only when the two partners come from different cultures, it’s also when they come from two generations. There are often partnerships in which one is much older than the other and the values of that generation are often quite different.

When we think that love, and having a close friendship, can only be with one person exclusively, and if they have friendship with another person there’s no room for me, this is jealousy. We need to see that all of this is based on a feeling of a solid “me,” who must be special. But if you think of an example of, for instance, a Buddha, what’s a Buddha like, who would be all loving equally to everybody?

When a Buddha’s focused on one person or is with one person, the Buddha is a hundred percent concentrated on that person. And when you’re with the Dalai Lama, if you think of the Dalai Lama, His Holiness is with so many, so many people every year. He certainly is a fantastic example of love for absolutely everybody equally. When you’re with him – everybody expresses this feeling with him – that he’s a hundred percent concentrated on you and not in one of these intense staring ways, but his heart is just totally, a hundred percent with you. And even if he just looks around in the audience and looks at someone, you have somehow the feeling of “Wow,” it almost makes you feel special, but not in a weird, egocentric way. But it’s because he’s a hundred percent focused with his heart on each person at a time. It’s not diluted because there are many, many people. That’s where we’re aiming for. You feel almost zapped with some energy of love when His Holiness looks at you even.

This is one of the really most important points. His Holiness always emphasizes this, how you get over these things like jealousy, you know “I resent that you are loved by somebody else and I’m not loved by them,” and so on – compassion, opening up your heart. But it’s difficult to go from opening it up to just one person that we’re insecure that they’re going to hurt us, so we don’t open up too much, to open it up to all beings of the universe. That’s a bit much to go from, between those two. But if we slowly open up and realize that there’s nothing to afraid of, we could love more than just one person, then the pain that this one person over there doesn’t love me back is not so bad. Not everyone loved Buddha Shakyamuni, so what do we expect, everybody’s going to love us? That’s a very good example, by the way.

I find that example of Buddha Shakyamuni very helpful. There are all these stories about his cousin who always hated him, he was always jealous of the Buddha, and trying to harm him. That’s very good, if somebody doesn’t like me or criticizes me, well, what do you expect? Look at His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Chinese, I mean, imagine having a whole nation, a whole government, propaganda over the world, hating. So, it’s not a big deal if this person doesn’t like me. Or if this person has gone off with somebody else. Put things relatively. When you see the relativity of it, it’s not the end of the world. And our heart is open, it can be open to many, many other people. An expression in English: “Not the only fish in the ocean.”

So, there’s really nothing to fear, if we open our hearts to many people that our personal relationships will be less intense or less fulfilling. We may be less clinging and less dependent on any one relation to be all satisfying, and we may spend less time with each individual, but it’s a full involvement. It’s the same thing if our friend, in terms of, let’s say, the other person’s love toward us. No reason to think that if they have other friends that it means that their love is going necessarily to be diluted toward us. Why shouldn’t people have a lot of friends? It doesn’t mean that there’s going to be less for me, like give out all the food from the refrigerator and there’s not going to be anything left for me. Love isn’t quite like that.

And actually, again we come to a cultural thing. It’s a myth and an unrealistic expectation that any one person is going to be the special, perfect match, like our other half who’s going to complement us in all ways, and that we going to be able to share every aspect of our lives. That’s a myth. Unrealistic. Yes, it comes from Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, in which he said that originally we were all wholes. And at some point everybody was cut in half and so the thing in life it to find your other half who’s going to be the perfect match, and then you’re whole again. And this myth is behind our entire Western history of romanticism. This is our myth: that somewhere out there is going to be the other half, the special one, the only one. And if we find that perfect other half, you better hang on and we will be whole again, “I will be whole again. This person will complement me in all ways.” Myth, unfortunately, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. It’s Prince Charming on the white horse. I mean, that’s the Western concept of romanticism. It’s not the same in other cultures. It’s funny, if you think about it, it’s comic.

What happens is that we project the expectation, the hope that this other person is going to be our other half. And then, when they don’t merge with us, spend all their time with us, and share every secret, every tiny little thing with us, then we’re jealous. It’s connected with resentment, we resent that and we get angry. When they are sharing some aspects of their life with somebody else and not with us, we’re very jealous. If we think about it, it really is quite unreasonable to expect that we’re going to be able to share every aspect of our lives with just one person. Much more realistic is to find there’s a certain group that I can share my interest in sports; why should I expect my wife to share my interest in football? That’s stupid. Or I can share my interest in babies with somebody, but not everybody is interested in babies. I mean, there are so many different things. We can have a wonderful friend who’s not at all the same intellectual level or the same cultural background or anything. I mean, it’s more interesting when you don’t share, then you learn certain things. In that way, if we don’t have this myth as our expectation of what a relationship is supposed to be – all fulfilling, all satisfying, everything – then that very much lowers our susceptibility of jealousy.

There’s many, many more, I mean, I prepared little more stuff here about the analysis of jealousy, but I think that’s enough for this evening. Further topics dealing more deeply in terms of a misconception about “me” – that we can leave perhaps for the weekend because that gets into the whole topic of “You don’t deserve to get it, I deserve to get it. It’s not fair.” That gets into a whole other level of discussion. The world owes us something and it’s unfair when others get it instead. “I deserved it, you don’t deserve it.” That gets into a very heavy “me” trip, doesn’t it?

But in any case, we’ve seen here some ways to start to deconstruct our emotional problems. When we have a disturbing emotion, if we can start to see what it is rather than making a big solid thing – jealousy! – and then it becomes really heavy, as if it had a solid line around it – but when we can start to see that, well, actually it’s made up of many different parts: resentment, I’m greedy to get something more, or these unreasonable expectations from my culture, there’s competition there, low self-worth / self-esteem might be in there, insecurity might be in there, a lot of components. Well, we can start to deconstruct it. Then, it’s no longer so heavy; it’s not this big monster with a big solid line around it. And then we can start to apply different strategies for dealing with the different aspects that are involved here.

Of course, the understanding of how “I” exist and how “you” exist and the understanding of voidness, it’s called in Buddhism the strongest medicine to apply, but the other one which is extremely strong one that His Holiness emphasizes so much is this opening up your heart. As we were taking about, if you open up your heart and see that, “I have the capacity to love many, many people” – it doesn’t mean have sex with everybody, we’re talking about warm, friendly, open, fulfilling relationship with many, many people. Then, one particular relationship is not working out, okay, we can feel sad for that person, because they don’t realize that the heart can be opened to many. And our life becomes very, very fulfilling because in each relationship you’re fully there. Even though you might not be spending twenty-four hours a day with this person, sharing a toothbrush, as we say, with this person, that’s not necessary. An hour with somebody in which you’re totally there with your whole heart, much more fulfilling then a whole life with somebody in which your heart is closed, isn’t it?

We have a little bit of time for questions, if you have.

Question: How can we help a jealous person?

Alex: It depends if they are jealous with us, that we’re not giving them enough time, or if they’re jealous with somebody else. The general remedy for somebody who is jealous of us – like, “You never spend enough time with me, you’re always spending time with others” – as I said, it goes back to our remedy of having your full heart with this person. You say that, “Look, I have a lot of other things that I’m doing, but I will give you a certain time.” This is the way of saying “no,” but setting certain limits without them getting the feeling they’re being abandoned. And so you say, “Okay, I can’t spend all the time with you, that’s just not possible,” but if you’re married with somebody, we have breakfast together every day. I mean, that’s not very much, but what I’m saying is that you give them a period of time.

My sister is constantly asking me to call her all the time, and I don’t. I call her every Saturday at a certain time, and that she can count on. And I’m dependable to always call her then. And when I call her, I give her an hour, I mean, we talk for an hour. I like my sister; I’m fully with her for that hour, and even though every week she asks me, “Well, call during the week” and so on, I answer, “I’ll speak to you on Saturday.” And so she doesn’t have the feeling of being abandoned or rejected. And that’s really the way to deal with that, I found, that you give them a certain period that they can count on, you’re dependable, and during that period you’re not looking at your watch all the time, “When can I go, I’m busy.” But you’re a hundred percent with that person with your heart fully there. That helps very much. The key word is “this is our special time.” That usually gets them.

Question: In a situation where there’s competition, you don’t really want to have special time with that person, especially if I’ve been awarded something, or I’ve achieved something or I got somewhere, how do I deal with somebody who’s then jealous of what I’ve achieved?

Alex: I think that what’s important here is to deconstruct the identification of “you” with just this one thing. This is just one aspect: maybe you won an award for sport or for an intellectual thing or for something like that, but usually what I do is that I point out to somebody that well, they are a much better artists than I am, they are a much better writer or singer or… There’s always something that they can do better than me. Well, of course, I mean, there are a million different qualities, and of course it’s natural that one person is going to be better than another in one quality or another, but that’s not the only thing about me. “You know me. That’s not the only thing about me; there are many other things about me besides this one thing that I won the award for.”

Translator: But where there are snide comments…

Alex: Snide comments, because usually they have a feeling of low self-worth. So by pointing out areas in which they’re better than we are, it reinforces their self-worth. They’re putting us down because they feel attacked, that they’re worth nothing. Or you point out also the price that you had to pay in order to win this, in terms of, let’s say you had to put in it an unbelievable amount of training to win a sport event, or an unbelievable amount of study, or an unbelievable amount of work in your work, and you wish you would have time to do what they do. It’s not that you’re bragging about it, “Oh, look, I put in all the work and you didn’t.” I’m saying, “Look, it wasn’t that great. I paid a big price for that, sacrificed a lot, so it wasn’t that great to win.” You make it relative. You take it off of this high level of being so wonderful that you won; there were a lot of negative things about it. So if you show that you admire something in them that you don’t have, then that puts them more on an equal basis with you.

Participant: I find that a stronger argument than the sacrificial thing, turning yourself into a victim, “Oh, I’ve done all of these things in order to get this job…”

Alex: Yes, you can overplay, just think about the price that I made, and make yourself into a victim, “poor me.” That I don’t think is necessary in order to make the point, that there were positive things and negative things about it, and this is just realistic.

I’ll give you an example. This happened to me a number of times, which is that I’ve accomplished a great deal in life in terms of my studies and the type of work that I’ve done, and the travels that I’ve done. And often old friends, childhood friends and college friends, will say to me that, oh, they wish they could have done what I did, accomplish what I did. All they did was do a successful business and raise a family and stuff like that. And then I say to them, “Look at the price that I paid: I never married, I never had a family,” and they say “Well, you know, that’s not so important,” and I say, “Yes, hey, that is important in life.” And so, if you put all your energy into one thing, you aren’t able to put it into something else, and also I admire you that you’ve had this life experience. So I can share with you what I’ve learned, you can share with me what you’ve learned.

Then we get on an equal basis. And it’s not “poor me” that I’ve never married. I’m perfectly happy with my life. But by putting both of you on an equal level – I’ve achieved something, you’ve achieved something – then that jealousy and envy is diminished. You show that you respect them – that’s the key. It’s not that I’m a better person because of what I’ve done. It goes back to this point that we mentioned that Buddhism emphasizes here, which is seeing everybody as equal, so helping the other person to see the equality.

Participant: That’s also a healthy aspect of jealousy, which makes you work for something or which makes you question the way you did it before…

Alex: To say that there’s a healthy aspect of jealousy that causes you to work harder, competition type of thing, I suppose that could work with some people. I won’t deny that that could work with some people. But one has to be careful here because, you know the expression, “You’re playing with fire.” It could easily lead into a heavy competition trip of outdoing somebody else. You see, again I’m thinking of the example of competing against yourself, in which you’re constantly trying to do better than you did before, and this can drive you on to do better and better to reach my best. And I think that this is also very dangerous, because what it does is, it reinforces very, very strongly the sense of “me” – “I have to do better.” Why? Because of “me.”

Now, if you look at Buddhism, what Buddhism says is that there’s the aim to reach enlightenment, become a Buddha, the highest state of evolution possible; but never because, “I want to be the best that I could be.” That’s never the reason. The reason why you’re driven to improve is so that you are better able to help others, rather than in a sense jealous of yourself, competing with yourself to do better and better. This is much healthier; this leads to less disturbing emotions. And it gets rid of disturbing emotions rather than the other one, you know, “I should have done better, I didn’t do better,” and you punish yourself and you drive yourself and you don’t know when to take a rest and all these other things – that can be a very disturbing state of mind to work on improving yourself. There’s a great deal of wisdom, certainly in the whole Mahayana path of Buddhism, that you work for Buddhahood. Why? To be able to benefit others, not just because you want to reach the highest that’s possible, the top of Mount Olympus, challenge the gods. That’s Greek mythology, something else.

And it’s a very heavy emotional trip, “I’m not good enough, I should have done better,” tied up with guilt. To reach enlightenment to help others, it’s not a race. What’s helpful is having these structural ways of deconstructing our emotions, so that we can really see the emotional problems, really see what’s really involved here. But once we’ve done that, then it’s important not to lock ourselves into categories, but to just then deal with our lives.

Let me give you an example, share an example with you of a good friend of mine who is a psychiatrist. She lives in Philadelphia and she works with the absolute most violent young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, the most violent, violent cases in the most depressed part of Philadelphia. That’s her specialty and she is the most successful of anybody in being able to handle these people. And they love her, absolutely love her, these people, and they can’t wait to speak to her and be with her and really open to her help. And nobody else in Philadelphia is able to reach these people – the ones who are homeless and at eighteen already have three children and with heroin and prostitution and, as she said, you don’t even want to think about whether or not they are HIV-positive, forget about it, you know, even looking at that issue. This kind of people.

And so her colleagues of course are asking her, you know, what’s her secret, how is she successful with these young people? And what she says is, first of all, this thing that I was pointing out, which is that when she’s with them, she’s a hundred percent with them and gives them all her time; there’s no boundary on the time. These people get violent if you say, “Your time is up, you have to go,” then if they had a gun they would shoot you at that point, I mean, they really get violent. So hundred percent with that person, that’s the first rule. This is one of their big problems: nobody ever had time for us.

And the second thing which is also incredibly important is that she doesn’t fix them into categories. She says the whole system of psychiatry is all based on filling up the forms for the insurance company. And so you have to put down the category, the diagnosis – this person is schizophrenic, this person is this or that, and you have to put them into these categories. And when you start to think of them as categories that you’ve learned in school, although they’re helpful – not only for the insurance thing, but they’re helpful to give you guidelines of how to deal with this person – you have to forget about that and just deal with the person and be open to them and deal with their individual situation.

So, the same thing with dealing with your own emotional problems. We have a general analysis of what it is, we have a general strategy, but then deal with yourself as a human being. Don’t deal with yourself as category, you know, “Well, it’s category twenty-three, so I take this solution off the shelf for category twenty-three.” We’re human beings. Categories are just mental constructs which are helpful, but not the actual thing.

One last example is with alcoholics. Very important for an alcoholic to identify that, “This is my syndrome, I’m an alcoholic.” But then, often what happens is they become so locked into this identity of being an alcoholic that they become addicted to these alcoholic anonymous groups and they’re absolutely terrified to leave these groups and get on with their lives. And so they’re locked into this identity. So although it’s helpful for being able to stop drinking and may be helpful therapeutically to share with others in the beginning, eventually I have to realize that, “I’m a human being and there are many, many things about me” and go on with your life. Don’t get stuck in the category. Buddhism would say categories are not ultimate reality. So just live; deal with life.

Session Two: No Special “Me” or Special “You”

Last night we were speaking about jealousy and I thought that this would be a nice theme to carry us through into our discussion about the “self” – how we exist, how everybody else exists – since it’s very much involved in the issues of jealousy. We saw that jealousy is a part of hostility, according to the way that Buddhism discusses it. It is a state of mind, an emotional attitude that focuses on other people’s accomplishments: their good looks and their intelligence. It could be focusing on their possessions, the amount of money that they have; focus on their success, the position that they have in work; could even focus on their relationships – they have a partner, I don’t; they have a son, I didn’t have a son.

And it’s an inability to bear this accomplishment: “I can’t stand it that they have accomplished this.” There’s resentment there. And what it’s based on is attachment to our own accomplishment, to our own situation. And if we look and see, well, what does this attachment mean here – using this word “attachment” – attachment is that we’re focused on this specific area of life. Let’s say the amount of money that we have in the bank. This area in which others have accomplished more that we have, and we exaggerate its positive qualities and its importance. In our minds, we make it one of the most important aspects of life, and we base our sense of self-worth on it. This is the most important thing in life, how much money you have in the bank; this is the important thing in life, how good looking you are. And we can’t stand it that someone is better than we are in that area. That’s jealousy. And Buddhism points out that the opposite of that is rejoicing in what they have achieved.

So, we can see, that’s the first level of dealing with this problem. But underling that – that we really have to work on to make sure that we don’t become jealous in some other area with somebody else – is this whole issue of “me.” Because really, what’s the faulty or confused way of thinking is to over-exaggerate one aspect of life and to base our whole sense of self-worth and self-value on this one area. That’s what’s really confused about the whole issue. It’s only on the basis of that, that you’re jealous that somebody else has done better in that area. And that gets into the whole issue of self-identity. “Who am I?” Do we define ourselves in terms of our money, or our good looks, or our position in life. Many people do, don’t they? You know, “I am a doctor;” I am a house wife;” “I am whatever.”

And overemphasizing the “me” into some solid thing that could have one solid identity, that’s the true “me,” that’s the real “me,” it’s the only thing that counts in life. And then, forgetting about everything else in life – that’s not so important. Only this one thing, how much money I have in the bank – that’s what really counts. So my parents told me. And it’s important to recognize that this is dealing not just with material things, in terms of money or position and so on, but can also be focused on affection. Receiving affection, receiving love, this is the most important thing in life. And this other person has it, and I don’t have it. And we base our whole sense of self-worth on that. That’s much more subtle, isn’t it? And of course we are insanely jealous if somebody else has all these wonderful loving partners and I’m at home alone. So, this is something important to deal with on a deeper level in order to really make sure that we root out this problem of jealousy.

So, let’s take a few moments to just reflect on this. And I’m sure we all have had moments of jealousy, perhaps longer than just a moment. We’ve had phases in our life in which we were really miserable, because of jealousy, and let’s try to identify within our experience what is it that was underling it? What were we making the most important thing in life, and then we were jealous if somebody else had more and we didn’t have that? And reflect is this really the only thing that is important in life, and is this the only thing that really describes me, of who I am? “I’m somebody who doesn’t have a partner” – and is that the only thing, that’s it, about us? Were we to die and someone were to sum up our life in one sentence, is that what we would like for our epitaph? The only thing about us that we would like anybody else to remember us by? It’s a good way to see the silliness of the whole thing. “He didn’t have so much money in the bank;” “She was not very good looking.”

So, by making it silly, then we see the silliness of the whole thing, of focusing on one thing: “This is who I am, this is the most important and I can’t stand it that anybody else is better than I am in this.” That’s the way that we start to overcome it, is to see how comic it is. Unless you can see how ridiculous it is, then you don’t drop it. Let’s think from our own personal experience, from our own experience of jealousy.


So, we have seen, perhaps from our own experience now, what it is that – at least in Buddhism – we are talking about when we talk about jealousy. In our Western way of looking at emotions, we also speak of “envy.” In Sanskrit or Tibetan there isn’t a separate word for this. But if we look at what envy is, it adds on top of jealousy what is called in Buddhist terminology “covetousness.” And this covetousness is, not only are we emphasizing one area in life as the most important and then we can’t stand it that someone is better than we are in that area, but what it adds on top of that is that, “I want to get that for myself.” That’s envy, we’re envious.

And there can be two situations of that: either we don’t have any ourselves, and we want to get what somebody else has; or we have already some of that, which in fact could even be quite enough, and now it becomes “greed.” We want more because the other person has more. And in that second case, in which we already have a certain amount of this, but we want more because of greed – that leads to “competitiveness.” We want to outdo the other person.

So there are many associated disturbing emotional states that arise from this very basic aspect which is defined as “jealousy.” And underling that is again a problem with our concept of “me,” because we think that “I am special.” This “me” is so important. “I am special and I should be the best, I should have the most.” We don’t consider everybody as equal or, you know, wouldn’t it be nice if everybody had the same. We have to be better because of the strong feeling of “me” – different from everybody else, special.

And we discussed yesterday – there’s no need to really repeat that discussion, because it’s not so relevant here – of how this jealousy and competition is reinforced by many aspects of our Western culture. We just pointed out this whole idea of capitalism as the best form of democracy. It’s all based on doing better than others, and the whole Western analysis of the development of society based on survival of the fittest: only those who are the fittest and the strongest are going to survive, so you have to compete with everybody.

And then that spills over into our whole unbelievable obsession with competitive sports, like football, and the glorification – going back to the days of the Olympics in ancient Greece – of the sports winner as being the greatest hero. Or these magazines that list the world’s richest people. These are the ones that get the most publicity. And then there’s the whole thing about voting, and candidates – “I’m better than everybody else” – and there’s so much in our society that reinforces this jealousy and competition. And of course this, like a disease, infects our attitude toward how we lead our lives and how we deal with work, how we deal with relationships, and so on. We’re jealous if anybody does better. We have to compete, outdo them.

But jealousy isn’t always associated with competition. Because there is another issue that revolves around the whole point about “me” and how I exist, which is involved here. And this is the whole issue of self-worth. If we have very, very low self-esteem, which is a rampant problem in Western culture for many various reasons, then we can be very jealous of what others have achieved, but we feel that, “I couldn’t possibly achieve that, I’m not good enough” and we don’t even try. So that jealousy doesn’t necessarily lead to being competitive. You just give up and feel bad about ourselves; so just feel “poor me,” that everybody else is so successful and “I’m a loser.” So that is another aspect in which this overemphasis, this preoccupation on “me,” really underlies in many different ways emotional problems such as jealousy.

Now, it’s interesting that from a Buddhist point of view that we analyze jealousy in terms of the focus being on other people’s accomplishments. In this, what we’re focusing on is the other person – “They received it and I didn’t.” So we are hostile toward that person who achieved it and I didn’t. Whereas in the West, we tend to experience another form of jealousy, which has a slightly different focus. And here it’s focusing on somebody who gives something to somebody else and not to me. Different, isn’t it? Related, but quite a bit different in its focus. “You gave your affection and love to somebody else and not to me.” We’re not so angry and upset at the person that got that love; we’re really upset and angry at the person who didn’t give it to me. They gave it to somebody else. This is our form of jealousy, isn’t it, that we usually think of. It’s interesting when you analyze it and see what is the difference is here.

Now, this is really very contradictory. If you think about it, how could we expect that this person that I’m angry with – because they’ve given their love to someone else and not to me – that if I direct that anger and jealousy, that they’re going to change their mind and now love me? That’s really very contradictory; that’s very self-destructive, isn’t it, in a very naive type of way. It’s funny, if you really analyze it. But that’s our strategy. It’s doomed to failure. Nobody is going to, “Oh, yes, I’m sorry, now I’ll love you,” when we’re angry with them. And we yell at them, “Oh, why are you going out with somebody else, stay home with me.” And if they do stay home, it’s only out of guilt. And so they’re not really with us; their mind is off with somebody else, their heart is off with somebody else. And we keep on being unhappy; it didn’t solve our problem at all. They’re feeling sorry for us and so they’ll stay with us and hold our hand. How satisfying is that?

That’s a little bit heavy, isn’t it? Let’s spend a moment to try to identify that, recognize that, if in fact that’s been a strategy that we’ve followed, and how successful has it been. It’s only when you could laugh at it that you see it’s so ridiculous that you really get the idea: this is not the way to solve the problem. The point being that the solution is even if we feel jealous and angry, don’t act it out. Try to get rid of that jealousy and anger through other means. But following it out is just going to doom the success of what you want to achieve.

Now, underling this type of jealousy – and this is the definition of jealousy as given at least in the English dictionary – this is the jealousy that is defined as an intolerance of rivalry or of unfaithfulness. They’re giving something to our rival and not to us, and in this sense of not being faithful to us. That is, either they were giving it to us before and now are no longer giving it to us, or they’ve never given it to us – there’s two variations obviously. Of course it’s much more painful if they were giving it to us before and now are no longer giving it to us. And this is more what we mean here in the Western sense, this unfaithfulness. But we wish that this person could love me, even if they’ve never loved us. So both forms occur.

Now, again, it’s overestimating one aspect of life – receiving affection from somebody, making this the most important thing. And it is again based on a very strong sense of “me” and “you.” There’s the big feeling of “me” – “I want to receive it; I want to receive this affection, not somebody else.” And what’s even stronger, actually, than this solidification of “me” is the solidification of “you.” “I want it from you. It doesn’t matter if there are ten other people who love me or a hundred other people who love me. That doesn’t count; I want you to love me.” Isn’t it?

If we think about it, this is this thing, which is usually false; I mean, there is the possibility it could be true, but in almost every case it’s false that nobody loves me. We think that, don’t we? “Nobody loves me, poor me.” Think about it, there are a lot of people who love us. Our mother loves us, our friends love us, our dog loves us; there are a lot of beings who love us in one degree or another, already. That doesn’t count – this is the point – that doesn’t count. We ignore that, underestimate the value of that and overestimate – way, way beyond any sort of reason – receiving this love from you. “I want you to love me” – that’s the only thing that’s important.

That’s true, isn’t it? And that’s a little bit exaggerated, wouldn’t you say? Especially if we’ve experienced that several times in our life with different persons; “This is the one that has to love me.” What’s so special about this person? Aside from the question what’s so special about me that they should love only me, and not somebody else. There’s these are two questions: What’s so special about me, and what’s so special about you?

Let that sink in for a moment.

And is there any basis why this person should love me and nobody else? And is there any reason why it’s so important that this person love me and anybody else who loves me doesn’t matter? What’s so special? So these are very deeps questions, aren’t they? Really, one has to reconsider the way that we’re viewing the world, the way we view ourselves and the way that we view others. Is there something that is really basically confused that’s there, that is underling our emotional problems?

This is very important to recognize because then we know what really we have to work on, on the deepest level, in order to free ourselves from these emotional problems so that they don’t arise again. We don’t just get rid of them when they arise; we want to take a preventive that they don’t arise again. Ever again. And the only way to really prevent them from ever arising again is to understand how we exist, how others exist, how the world exists. And to be able to really stop our unconscious projections of myths and fantasies. What is the reality of relationships with somebody? What can we realistically expect and what is absolutely unrealistic expectations with somebody in our relationship?

Now, we can see that in this issue of jealousy, in this particular form that the West tends to focus on, what is also very much connected with it is possessiveness. “I want you to belong to me, and only me.” And there’s a very lovely image that can help with that, which I think is quite relevant – not only for the issue of possessiveness, but also for jealousy. This is the image of a wild bird. Let’s say we have a bird feeder, a little house that we put pieces of bread, or seeds, or something like that, in our garden; or maybe we put it by our window, to feed wild birds. And a beautiful wild bird comes to our feeder, let’s say to our window. Now, what’s our attitude toward this beautiful wild bird?

This is a free bird. If it comes to my window – how wonderful, how beautiful. And we can enjoy very much the beauty of the time that that wild bird spends with us. And maybe, if we’re really fortunate, that wild bird will feel so comfortable by our window that she’ll make a nest in the garden and stay for a season. And so we can enjoy the presence of a wild bird in our garden for a whole season – how beautiful, how lovely. But eventually, that wild bird either after a few minutes or after a season is going to fly away. After all it’s a free, wild bird. And if the bird returns again, well, that’s really wonderful, isn’t it? But this isn’t the only wild bird that there is, and it would be foolish to just want that particular wild bird to come back. If another wild bird came, we could also enjoy the beauty of that wild bird for the short time that he or she will be with us.

This form of jealousy: “I want that bird only to come to me and not go to anybody else, and I don’t want any other bird to come” – so we’re jealous if that wild bird goes to somebody else – that will be very foolish, wouldn’t it? It’s not appropriate for a wild bird. Actually if we really like the bird, we would rejoice – here’s the Buddhist thing – we would rejoice that, in this bird’s journeys over the year, that other people were kind enough to also feed her. And as I said, if the bird comes back, that’s a bonus. We didn’t really expect it or demand it, “You must come back next year.” We don’t say that. But, if when that bird came to our window, we try to catch it; the bird will get very frightened, wouldn’t it? And run away, fly away, wouldn’t come back. And if we succeeded in catching it and put it in a cage, which is basically a prison, how happy would that wild bird be? Because we want it for me, and would that bird feel so comfortable and will now make a nest and lay an egg in the cage? No, not at all, not at all.

So this is a very, very a helpful image with loved ones who come into our life, even our children. They’re like wild birds who come in to our life for a short time. And they are free. They go here and there; they have other friends. And if they come back to us later in life and continue to visit us and all these things, that’s really wonderful, isn’t it? We can really enjoy the time that we have with each other now, and if they come back we can also enjoy that. But if we’re jealous if they go to somebody else, jealous that they don’t give all their time to us, how does that affect that relationship? Especially if we make demands that they stay home. Always be with us, not have any other friends. Not just the children, we’re talking about loved ones, friends, in marriages also. If we try to keep them in a cage, how happy are they going to be? And if we try to catch them and put them in the cage, don’t we scare them away? And if we do succeed in locking them in the cage, and they stay there out of guilt, how happy are they and how happy are we with that?

So, it’s very helpful to view our loved ones, whoever they might be, as beautiful wild birds who have come into our life. And to enjoy the beauty of the time that we have together. And of course, this person is going to have other friends, other interests, be with other people. They might live with us, stay with us, like making the nest, but they might also go. And, if we really love this person, we will really hope and rejoice that their friends were as kind to the one that we love as we’ve been, wouldn’t we? “I wish that you really had good friends and people who really loved you in your life.”

That’s a much healthier way with dealing with our relationships that helps us to avoid all these issues of jealousy and possessiveness – much more successful in terms of actually enjoying the time. If you ever go to visit somebody that you haven’t seen in a while, and all they do is complain that you can’t stay longer, rather than actually enjoy the time that you have together. Let’s think about that and try to apply this image of the wild bird to our loved ones. Especially the ones that we feel jealousy about, if we’re jealous that they spend time with others or that they love somebody else.

Good. So, in the discussion that we’ve had so far, we’ve been speaking the last part about the jealousy which is an intolerance of rivalry or of unfaithfulness. And which we’re really upset if somebody that we focus on gives their affection or gives some of their time to someone else instead of us. And underling it are problems about the “me,” and the concept of “me” and of “you,” that “You’re special, I have to have this from you; and I’m special, I have to be the only one who gets it.”

And a further aspect of the problem with “me” that underlies that is the aspect of insecurity. We’re insecure of our self-worth, and we’re insecure of the other person’s love for “me” – a strong “me” – and we feel that this big “me” is going to be abandoned or has been abandoned, if you’re with somebody else. You spend your time with somebody else. Even if they leave us we’ve been abandoned.

And so the issue of self-worth of course very much involves our understanding of who I am, and what is the “me.” But I wanted to, just for the sake of completeness, before we go into this, finish – briefly though – what might be left over from this image that we were using in terms of the wild bird. The thing is that we have looked at this from the point of view of the person who’s trying to put the other one into the cage, and often we find ourselves on the other side, of being the wild bird; that somebody is trying to put us into a cage and how do we deal with that.

And I think that here there are several points that are involved. First of all is – and always very, very important – is to clear up the reality of the situation. Very often in a relationship, even in a marriage, but also outside of marriage, each person has a different idea of what the relationship entails, what the boundaries are. And I think that it’s really quite important to make clear. Otherwise, somebody is expecting something which is just not going to happen, or which is just not how we view things, whether we’re in a sexual partnership relationship, a marriage, or a friendship.

And this is important for both sides of the relationship; both people need to make that clear, and preferably before problems arise. However, you have to avoid the extreme of constantly negotiating the contract and renegotiating it, and always talking about “our relationship” and how are you relating to “our relationship,” rather than living the relationship. And for both sides to be honest and not keep inside, but to make it known to the other person when they feel hurt. Either because “You’re not in my cage” or “You’re trying to put me into a cage.” But to try to be skillful enough to do that without the intention behind it to make the other person feel guilty and force them into doing what we want.

Because in life it’s important to know what are the effects of our behavior. I mean, often we’re very naive about that, and we think that we can act in any way that we want and it doesn’t affect the other person or anybody else. “Nobody really has feelings except us; nobody ever gets hurt or feels being hurt except us.” So, there are certain responsibilities in terms of sexual faithfulness, these sorts of things; well, these are boundaries that maybe we want to keep. But there are other boundaries that of course can be more flexible.

And I think also that it’s important to not, if one area doesn’t work out, to throw the other person away into the garbage. “You are unfaithful, and now I don’t want to ever see you again.” You might get a divorce, that’s something else, but that’s no reason to stop loving the person, stop caring for them; I mean, and you don’t have to see them every day. But relationships don’t have to be all or nothing; they can be redefined. From a Buddhist point of view, I mean, there’s karma there. There is some karmic connection there, and you can’t just throw them to the garbage, it’s still there.

Now, we might want to say in that situation, “I’m really hurt, by your behavior and so on, and maybe we need to break up, but I don’t want to lose you as a friend, but give me time. Give me a couple of months off when I can sort of cool down and deal with the change in the situation, and then, I’d like to continue being your friend. I care for you; otherwise, I never would have gotten into these relationships to start with.” That’s a much more mature way of dealing with it. Regardless of which side we’re on, the one that’s the bird or the one that’s trying to put you in the cage. It would be a mature way of dealing with these situations. Because nobody is ever going to be in the fairy tale that we live happily ever after, I mean, that just doesn’t happen.

And if we’re not dealing here with a sexual issue, but we’re just dealing with a time issue, of how much time we spend with the other person, as I suggested last night, if somebody is demanding all our time and that’s unreasonable, that we give them a certain fixed time that we’re going to be with them or a certain thing that we’re going to do with them, and then we’re totally dependable. They can always count on this. Then they don’t feel abandoned. And then when we are with them during that weekly meeting or daily time or whenever it might be, we’re a hundred percent with that person, with our full heart and full attention and not looking at our watch.

OK, so let’s just take one or two minutes to digest this point and then we’ll go on… One last point about this. We need to also be flexible in terms of currency – how other people pay us – which is the image for how they express or give us love. We need to be flexible about that, and we can understand that with the analogy of currency. This helps us to feel more secure in somebody’s love. Because this often is the problem, we feel insecure; “Maybe they love me, they don’t love me, I’m going to be abandoned,” and so on.

We might want to be paid in euros, but this person only has dollars or they only have Swiss francs. And so they can’t really pay us, they can’t really love us in the way that we would like them to love us. But we need to be willing to accept their currency, what they’re able to give us, and to realize that this is an expression of their love. This is what they’re able to do. And the same thing if we’re on the other side – this is the currency I have, I don’t have euros, I only have Swiss franc, or I only have dollars. And also to be flexible enough when the other person says, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money now; I don’t have time now, I’m too busy. I can’t meet you this week, something came up, but we’ll meet next week. If I get some more money, then of course, I’d love to pay you, or be with you.” That we’re flexible, to be able to be understanding in terms of the other person – how much money they have, how much time they have to give us. And the same thing in terms of us; “I’m sorry; I just don’t have any money now.”

It’s a useful image. Although love and attention are not really commodities that we can pay; still, this image can help us very much with the problem of insecurity. And we’re not going to the deep root here, in terms of how we think how we exist and how you exist, but it’s a very, very helpful way of temporarily dealing with the problem – very useful, really useful.

OK? You want a moment to reflect on that? It’s OK, you get the idea. The real issue is to recognize the other currency; what is the other currency that the other person has? Often we don’t even recognize that, hey, they are giving us something, this is the currency they have; we don’t even recognize that that’s a currency. “I don’t know it in Polish zlotys; I want it in real currency.”

Translator: Very often with couples, the husband works for the wife and the wife is unhappy because he doesn’t care so much…

Alex: Right. It works both ways, the husband is spending all the time trying to support the whole show of house and the education of the children and so on, and if the husband didn’t care and didn’t love you, why would he work so hard to do this? But then the woman complains, the one at home complains, “Well, you don’t spend enough time with me; you don’t really care.” And the other way around as well – the woman is putting so much time into raising the children, taking care and making it a nice place to come home to, and all these things, and maybe even sacrificing doing a career herself. And the husband thinks, “Well, you’re just home doing nothing. You don’t have to work, you don’t have to do anything, you know, you’re just having a good time.” The husband demands that, “When I come home, you should give all you attention and everything to me,” and doesn’t recognize that maybe she’s tired; maybe she’s had a difficult day with the children. Both of these are important points.

And as I said, when we learn about voidness, learn about methods to apply it, then, first thing that we’ve been emphasizing here is to see that it really is important, but the other thing is to realize that it’s a strong medicine. And in many situations that a less strong medicine might be the preferable way to deal with the situation, and then slowly, slowly go deeper.

Now, one of the big problems that is involved here with the whole voidness issue is projection. There are two aspects here. One is that our minds automatically make things appear in a way that doesn’t correspond to reality. And it automatically does that, we don’t consciously do that. And then, on top of that, we believe that this is true; that it does correspond to reality. And the reason why we believe it is because – it’s really, really very insidious, very nasty – it feels like that. It feels as though this is what the reality is. That’s a hard thing to say in Tibetan language, but that’s how we experience it; it feels like that. That’s why we believe it, so deeply, so fundamentally, we believe that it’s true. It’s why it such a deep problem, because often we think that our feelings must be true; what I feel – that must be true. We don’t even question that.

So let’s look at our old friend here, jealousy, for example. The mind projects this dualistic appearance, of a “me” and a “you,” in solid categories. And so what happens is that here a seemingly concrete “me,” who inherently deserves to achieve or receive something, but did not. Right? Inherently. “I deserve this. And I didn’t get it. And you, over there, you didn’t deserve it, and you got it.” And it feels like that, doesn’t it? And it hurts. That’s why we believe it’s true. So this is really confused, because unconsciously we feel that the world owes us something, and it’s unfair when others get it instead of us. And that gets into a whole long other discussion about why should the world be fair. And it’s a horrible question to ask, we don’t really want to ask that. But why should it be fair? Is there such a thing inherent on the side of the universe called “justice?” It’s very Western. That’s associated with the Western idea of “God is just.” And there is justice in the universe. Not everybody on this planet believes that or thinks that.

So, this feeling of unfairness is culturally reinforced. But, I mean, there is also an automatically arising form of that. But what is behind this, on this automatically arising level, is that we divide the world into two solid categories: winners and losers – two boxes of these seemingly solid, true categories. Here is the box of winners; here is the box of losers. It’s like sinners and the righteous. It’s the same thing, Biblical thinking, this dualism. So here are the winners and here are the losers, solidly stuck in this box. And poor me, I’m in the loser box. And it feels like that, that’s what so terrible. Two boxes, dualism, they’re either in one or in the other.

And we put ourselves in a solid permanent category, and this is this whole thing of permanence, forever. We put ourselves in a solid permanent category of “loser”; we put the other person in a solid permanent category of “winner.” And not only do we feel resentment, we feel doomed; it’s as if we’ve been punished, “Someone is punishing me. It’s unfair.” And often our projection is so out of touch with reality that we start to think that “I’m the only one in the loser box.” We’re so self-preoccupied and self-centered. “I’m the only one in the loser box and everybody else is in the winner box.” Then we really feel sorry for ourselves and suffer. Something inherently about me that makes me a loser, that I’m a loser. “I’m dammed.” And even if we don’t bring in feeling dammed by some God that should be just and fair but isn’t, even without that, we are stuck in this box, the loser box, forever.

And what complicates this is that not only are we naive about how we exist and how these categories exist; we’re also naive about cause and effect. This is very much behind jealousy and envy, often. We think that the person who got that promotion at work or who is loved by this person didn’t really deserve it. They didn’t earn it; there’s nothing good about this person that would cause them to receive this thing that we didn’t receive. So we deny any cause and effect there. And from our side, we feel that we should have gotten it without having to do anything to get it. Or that, “I did a lot but I still didn’t get it. I didn’t get my reward. It’s unfair.” So, we don’t see that there are many, many, many other forces, causal factors involved, besides just what I did. The little bit I did.

And I must say that there are sometimes that this feeling that we have is reinforced culturally in a socialist state, in which just because you were born there, you feel that you deserve to get certain things from the state without having to do anything to earn it. And that infects very much our feeling that, “I should get this. I should be loved.” Very interesting, if you look at it a little bit more deeply, the whole idea of what do I deserve? Somebody deserves something and do things happen with no cause? This gets into a very, very deep issue. And often you see this in behavior, like for instance of a teenager – “How bad can I be and you will still love me?”

There are many, many issues here. I’m sorry, I throw up a lot of issues all at once. So maybe we need a little bit of time to reflect on some of these. These issues of imagining the world divided into winners and losers and all these issues of “It’s unfair that I’m in the loser box, I don’t deserve it” – this whole issue of deserving something. And “I tried so hard, why didn’t you reward me? Why am I still a loser?” And of course, what goes often with that is that, “You don’t deserve to be in the winner box.”

Let’s think about that for a few moments. Now we’re starting to get to very sensitive points about “me” and our projections, and our naivety. When we talk about voidness – and just so that you understand what the relevance is – voidness is referring to these projections don’t refer to anything real, and you pop the balloon of the fantasy. The projection is like a balloon – there’s nothing inside, it’s empty. It’s not filled with anything; it’s not referring to reality. Like the emptiness inside the balloon, although that’s not absolutely precise, but that’s a good image. So that’s the relevance of where we’re going in our discussion, just in case you start to worry that, “Oh, my God, he’s going off into another side topic.”

But first let’s recognize these projections. Winner and loser boxes. There’s three issues we’re looking at. Do I divide the world, and is it true that the world’s divided into winners and losers? That’s issue number one. And do I believe that the universe must be fair and just? And do I believe that from my own side, I inherently deserve something, like to be loved? For no reason at all; no matter how selfish I am, not matter how horribly I act. Just inherently I deserve it.

When we start to challenge our beliefs, like for instance, we ask ourselves why should the universe be fair, why should I deserve anything with no cause whatsoever? Why should that be the way that things are? It’s difficult to come up with the answer. And often we are only left with the reason “should be.” Just should be. Which is really, “I wish that it could be.” It’s like we see people who in the street at Christmas time are dressed as Santa Claus. We think that they’re really Santa Claus and that there really is a Santa Claus. Is there really a Santa Claus? “Oh yes, there must be a Santa Claus.” Why shouldn’t there be a Santa Claus? “Well, there just should be a Santa Claus.”

But unfortunately, although it seems as though there’s a Santa Claus, because, hey, there’s one in the street; it’s not so. The appearance doesn’t correspond to the reality, even though we think that there should be one. Just because we think there should be one, and it seems as though there is one, it’s no reason why there should be one. “I should be like that.” It’s fantasy. But – this is so important in the understanding of voidness – voidness of well, there’s no such thing as Santa Claus, but what is there? There’s a person dressed as Santa Claus. The person that looks like Santa Claus is still there. It’s just that the appearance doesn’t correspond to reality. The reality is it’s a person who’s dressed like Santa Claus and looks like Santa Claus. Voidness doesn’t negate everything; it negates our belief in the projected appearance. To be more precise, that just because the person appears to be Santa Claus, proves that it’s Santa Claus – that’s what it’s negating. It doesn’t prove that it’s Santa Claus just because he looks like Santa Claus.

Just because it feels like I’m a loser, doesn’t prove that I’m a loser. Even if you tell me I’m a loser, that doesn’t prove that I’m a loser. I’m a human being, trying, I’m that’s all, nothing’s negating that. I didn’t succeed, just that. Let’s digest that for a moment.


Another example. Just because you came late or you didn’t call me, that doesn’t prove that you don’t love me. Feels like that, but that doesn’t prove that you don’t love me. This is garbage. You have the perfect word for it in German: Quatsch. And that’s in many ways the useful keyword to remind ourselves when we go on these trips. This is garbage, Quatsch! It’s not referring to reality, doesn’t correspond to reality. Think about it.

Translator: That is the mantra of voidness, Quatsch.

Alex: Yes, very good one. Impossible for a Tibetan to pronounce, but good one. Think about it… This inordinate fear that comes is really comic, that the person is late, or they don’t show up – “I’ve been abandoned.” That’s complete garbage, complete Quatsch. The only reality is that they’re late, or they didn’t come. That’s the reality. And then, we try to find out what the reason is. Not “Oh, I’ve been abandoned; poor me, nobody loves me. It happened yet again, I’m such a loser. Everybody lets me down.” Quatsch, garbage.

And just because it feels like that, that I’ve been abandoned and I’m always the loser, that doesn’t prove that I have been abandoned, that I am always a loser. The only thing it demonstrates is that it feels like that. And because I think it’s true and it’s corresponding to reality, it hurts. And so, if I stop believing it, it wouldn’t hurt so much, and eventually it wouldn’t even feel like that. I would eventually just see, well, the person is late or the person has found somebody else, or whatever. This is the situation and we deal with it.

And if we have a friend who’s always late, then we deal with the reality of that. We either tell them to meet us earlier or we set the boundary. I’ll wait until two o’clock and if you haven’t come, if you haven’t called, then I’ll eat or I’ll go out. You just deal with that, no expectation. Everything is clear, and you go on with your life, and don’t make yourself miserable. “Poor me, the loser, is abandoned.” It’s garbage, Quatsch.

So, just one last moment of digesting.


So we deal with the reality of the person; we don’t make a big deal that they’re always late, about their being late. “I know that you’re always late.” I have a friend like that, always late for any appointment, and in fact, any appointment that I make with him, I never take it as definite. Because I know that person’s very busy and always something else comes up, and I just don’t make an issue out of it. I love my friend anyway. It’s not an issue, I accept the reality. It’s very important in a relationship to acknowledge what is the reality of this person and not project all these expectations that they be the way that we want them to be.

And, if I may bring up something, what often is behind this is a misconception which often is a very culturally reinforced thing, of wanting always to be in control. This is, I find, particularly a strong among German people. Everything under control. Everything is in order, everything is clear – then you feel secure. You want to be in control. This is Quatsch; this is absurd. Nobody can be in control of life. Life is much too complex; too many things are happening and effecting what’s going on. One has to recognize many, many levels of what is Quatsch, what’s garbage, what is an unrealistic expectation.

So, let us end here and think about these things, discuss them among yourselves during lunch, and after lunch, at three, then we’ll have some questions and discussion. And if you’re not here on time, I will cry. I will start to cry, because you don’t love me. It proves that you don’t love me. Or even more devious, it proves you don’t respect me, ohhh. A lot of people feel offended, feel that you don’t respect them. This is also Quatsch, it’s garbage.

Session Three: Categories and Concepts

Unedited Transcript

I thought to begin with some questions, if you have.

Question: Andrea says that she would fairly agree that she has no right to have demands, but what about a child? Doesn’t a child have a right to be loved, or does not every human being have the right to at least have the minimum that is necessary for life? In terms of what can we expect…

Alex: Well, if we want to look at that issue in an objective type of way, I think we need to look at it not just exclusively in the realm of human beings, if we want to see if there’s some inborn thing that is inherent. But if we look in the animal world, then there are many baby animals, I mean His Holiness always uses this example, the sea turtle that lays the eggs on the shore and then leaves. And they hatch and the baby turtles basically take care of themselves. So I think it would be difficult to prove that there is an inherent right.

Now, a totally different question is whether or not as parents we have a responsibility to take care of our children and to love them as best as we can. That I think we do, if we are going to take the decision to be a parent. But I don’t see how you could establish, or prove, a certain inherent right on the side of even the child. It’s our responsibility to love them as parents and take care of them, regardless of what they do. They don’t have to deserve it. But His Holiness doesn’t use the example of sea turtles in this case. He talks about this in terms of the whole issue of affection, of there being a natural affection for children. That’s why His Holiness says it would be an interesting experiment to bring the mother sea turtle together with her children after they’ve hatched to see if there’s any natural affection she shows toward them, or if the sea turtle is an exception in this case.

Now, His Holiness also uses the example that everybody wants to be happy, not to be unhappy, and everybody has to right to be happy and not to be unhappy. But I think we have to examine even that a little bit closer. I think that’s conventionally true, but if we search deeply into the issue, I think that we have to conclude slightly differently. I think that what we have to say is that in my pursuit to be happy and not to be unhappy, I don’t have the right to do that at the expense of other people’s happiness and to cause them unhappiness. It’s not so much that they on their side have to be happy, but I do not have the right to make them unhappy and to block their happiness in order to get my happiness. That I think is more fitting with a deeper way of looking at it from a Buddhist perspective. In our pursuit of being happy, which everybody wants to be happy.


Translator: So if somebody comes up saying to me, “The liberties you’re taking for yourself, they’re making me unhappy,” then, she says, perusing her own life style, of course she comes into difficulties because it’s not possible to make everybody happy.

Alex: So, first of all we have to see in this discussion that I do not have an inherent right – “inherent,” this is the underlined word – the inherent right to be happy regardless of what I do. That doesn’t mean that I have no right to be happy. And that I can’t be happy – that’s not allowed. We’re not saying that. Don’t misunderstand. Everything depends on cause and effect; on how we behave, what we do, and so on. If we only take and we expect even more and we don’t give anything in return, that’s not reasonable. Or if we’ve only given and the other person hasn’t given anything in return to us, that’s not reasonable. Now we’re not talking about little children, we’re talking about partners. And we’re referring to both ways: if I’m only giving and you’re only taking or you’re only giving and I’m only taking. It’s the same in both cases.

For example, I’m putting in my contribution to the relationship, my contribution to raising the kids, and in a conventional sense I’ve earned the right to have some time off. And you have to give something as well. So that’s fair. That’s not as an inherent law, but this is just relatively how things work. And if the other person won’t accept that, then we have to reconsider the whole arrangement. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be the martyr and the victim and give in. That’s not the ideal solution. Because “I don’t have the right to be happy; I must just be the servant all the time.” That’s not what we’re saying here, not at all. That’s easy to get the wrong idea from what we were saying, so thank you for clarifying that.

Buddhism always tries to avoid the two extremes, and sometimes when you point out one extreme, you forget to point out the other extreme. It’s like denying that this person dressed as Santa Claus is Santa Claus, but then forgetting to reaffirm that it’s a person.

Someone else?

Translator: The way you expressed yourself on democracy, she’s absolutely not in accord with that because you seem to de-evaluate it, and to her knowledge there is no better way of letting the people take part in the power. Then you seem to have put it just into jealousy and rivalry.

Alex: Well, yes. I have again pointed out one extreme without pointing out the other extreme. So thank you for bringing it up. This doesn’t mean that I’m advocating royalty or despotism or anything like that, or chaos. But what I was saying is a very difficult situation is an election campaign which is based on putting down the other person and spending all your time trying to find scandals and all sorts of completely farfetched things of how bad the other person is comparing to me. There’s a big difference between an election which is based on what we call in American English a “smear campaign” – you know, to try to make the other person look bad – as opposed to campaign which is simply based on “These are my good qualities.” And you present what your good qualities are without putting down the other person. Then the people can chose. And if it’s a society like the Tibetans, in which it would be very immodest to say what your own good qualities are, then you have somebody else do that on your behalf.

Now of course this is perhaps being a little bit – not a little bit, but a lot – idealistic about the whole system. But you were asking what I would imagine would be the ideal system. Now of course underlying all of that is the person who is running for office is totally honest about what their good qualities are and doesn’t hide their weak points. And that would be quite difficult to find out, but I mean from a totally honest point of view, this is how it would be based. Nobody’s perfect, so to pretend that you’re perfect is absurd. And to say, “Well, I smoked marijuana when I was twenty years old, thirty five years ago,” and so what? We’re not trying to hide that. OK, so I did that. I’m not doing it now.

But, you know, often these politicians running for office, even if they’re not putting down the other person, sound like one of these really sleazy untrustworthy used car dealers who’s trying to sell a used car that really is broken down and is presenting it as the most wonderful thing in the world. Completely unrealistic. If democracy is based on that, and you’re choosing between who’s the best used cars salesmen, it’s pathetic. And spend a whole year, my goodness, on this whole thing, as opposed to just do it a few weeks or one month or whatever. Then it becomes a sport. We might as well have gladiators. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with democracy; the point is how to make it ethical and not based on real disturbing emotions.

Question: Her question is how to bring out criticism in terms of making things better, not in terms of making people down or making them bad persons, but just for the righteousness of situations or to improve situations to bring on your critique. How to do that?

Alex: Well, I think that we need to first of all reassure the person that, if they’re particularly oversensitive to criticism, that, “Look, I’d like to give you a constructive piece of criticism, Is that OK?” And if you have to even say, “Of course, I still love you, I don’t think you’re a terrible person.” But I mean, you tell them what you’re doing. Then you can offer the critique.

And there’s a difference between giving it as a scolding and giving it as a suggestion of how to make your life go better, get the job done better – tone of voice and motivation. “You know, I’m really pissed off that you don’t do the job well,” and then we criticize them, that’s very different from, “OK, I asked you to do something, because I was too lazy or busy to do it myself, so it’s unreasonable to expect that you’re going to do it the way that I wanted it to be done…” However, with patience, you suggest to them how to improve. “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Could you do this?” Tone of voice and motivation, very important.

Personally, myself, I try to follow the advice that’s given in the Buddhist training sometimes called “mind-training.” I prefer “cleansing of attitudes,” improving our attitudes, which is to accept the fault of the defeat on ourselves and give the victory to the others. And what this means is to say that, “It was my fault that I didn’t explain myself clearly enough, what I wanted.” I put the blame on myself. And then explain to them, “I don’t say it was your fault; it was my fault, I didn’t make it clear enough.” Then people can accept – usually. Or at least accept more easily that they need to improve, without our blaming them. Well that’s indirect; that’s a very Tibetan way of doing it, implicitly. There’s no need to point it out, no need to point it out if the other person was the one who made a mistake. Take the blame on yourself.

Let me give an example. I asked somebody to translate some things from my website and they didn’t really have experience. That’s the first time they were going to translate. And they translated it, and after this person gave it back to me, I sent it to other people who were working on that language section and they sent it back with a lot of things that they corrected on it – lots and lots of things. And so, I can say that it was my fault. I didn’t explain clearly enough that this is your first try and that I don’t expect it to be perfect and I’m going to send it to other people to check so that you can learn. So it’s my mistake for not explaining everything clearly what the process would be. Indirectly, this new translator got the message, from my saying that this was a learning experience, that I expected that she would improve.

Question: She says she can very much accept what you said on the personal level, between two persons. What she aimed more with her question was on a broader level, like between organizations, like an environment oriented organization has to stand up against some industry companies, and especially if there are some not so clean things on the other side. Her question was then how to do that, how to bring your criticism out in a correct way?

Alex: I think there’s a difference between fact-finding and condemning the other party for the evil that they’re doing. Fact-finding is fact-finding; just present it as objective information. And then try to get people to implement that and act on that. But calling names, “You’re such terrible polluters,” and you know, the bad ones – anybody who’s on the receiving side of that is automatically going to become defensive and then more likely to attack back. What other response do you expect if you’re so aggressive?

But if you’re going to point out weak points in somebody else, what they’re doing, first of all you have to take in a large picture, not just look at one tiny little aspect of it, because they have a point also – that if you stop the lumber industry in a certain area, nobody in this town will have work anymore. And so how are these people supposed to feed their children? So you have to come up with some follow-up, of how to deal with the problem, even if all these people are involved in making weapons, and then they lose their jobs.

Well, don’t be so totally idealistic. Come up with a workable solution that will solve the consequences of what you’re proposing. Otherwise you’re going to be attacked back, if you just idealistically say, “No more weapons, and no more anything.” How would people live? So you need to then come up with a plan for them. It’s called constructive criticism. Then it’s possible for them to implement; you give them another alternative. That’s realistic. So then we see that these sorts of problems are not very easy to solve.

OK. Now let’s continue with our discussion.

We had started to get into the topic which is a very important topic, which I’d like to pursue next, which is the issue of categories – dividing the world and ourselves into winners and losers. Because this gets into the whole topic of what’s called in Buddhism “mental labeling,” which is very, very much involved with the discussion of voidness. Now, this is not at all limited to the discussion of duality – you know, dividing the world into winners and losers. That’s just a small variation of a much larger theme of, as I said, in a simple word that is the easiest for most people to relate to in the West, is the word “categories.” What are these categories in which we view the world?

Now, when we look at categories, categories are the way that basically we try to understand the world and our experience. And categories are things which are just made up by minds; it’s mentally constructed. So, let’s just use an example that I often like to use because I think it’s fairly easier to understand, is the whole issue of color. If we look in general, there’s a whole spectrum – I’m not a scientist, so please excuse me if I’m not completely accurate – but there’s a whole spectrum of wavelengths of light. Now, how we divide that spectrum of colors? It’s totally arbitrary; you could divide it any way, any way, whatsoever; it’s not fixed from the side of the spectrum. And so one particular culture decides – they make up their own definition of a category: between this wavelength and that wavelength is going to be one category of color. It’s totally arbitrary.

Whether you define in terms of this number to that number or you define it in terms of pointing, then saying, anything that’s darker than this is red and anything lighter then this is orange. It doesn’t matter; you’re making a boundary, you’re giving a definition. It’s the whole issue, “Are definitions inherent in anything, or are definitions made up by culture, by mind?” And they’re made up by culture or our mind. So, we’re setting the boundaries, this is a definition: between this point and that point I’m going to make it into a category. Or our culture is going to divide that into categories, into a color. There aren’t lines out there in the universe, or a wall dividing red from orange. So, even in terms of sensitivities, there’s still a boundary; what’s going to be in one category, what’s going to be in another category. It doesn’t matter what the basis of making the category is, it’s irrelevant. The point is the boundaries are set arbitrarily.

And then, what the culture does, is, there are acoustic patterns. An acoustic pattern would be like O, eR, Ah, eN, Ju. Now, that acoustic pattern, those sounds, have no inherent meaning in the world whatsoever. And the culture puts that together, and says “This acoustic pattern has a meaning. And it means, what we’ve set up a definition between this point and that point of a color.” Now, I don’t think people sat down and, “Aha, now let’s do that.” But if you speak in terms of a mental process, this is a mental process. We make words – these are just sounds; these are acoustic patterns. Did you ever listen to a language that you don’t understand anything in, you can’t even differentiate it into words. It’s just sounds? It’s clear. Sounds don’t have any inherent meaning in them.

So, we set up these categories, and each society makes divisions; some may make the same division, but societies don’t divide things in the same way. And so you can have one society, one culture, that has the categories “red,” “orange” and “yellow,” and another culture only has the categories “red” and “yellow.” Half of orange is in red, half of orange is in yellow. And maybe their “red” goes a little bit into what we would consider “brown.”

There were interesting experiments carried on at Harvard when I was there, which was showing people different images of colors from different cultures and asking them what color was this. And some would say “blue,” some would say “green.” There’s nothing inherent from the side of the color. Different cultures set different concepts of categories and colors; the boundaries were different, the definitions were different.

And so, what is visible to a human eye, the boundaries are different for what is visible to an eagle’s eye. It’s relative. And so, the point I’m trying to do is to introduce what is meant in Buddhism in terms of “concepts.” Conceptual thinking – what’s involved? And what’s involved is thinking in terms of categories. And categories are deeply connected with language, although not necessarily, because certainly animals think in terms of categories, but they might have not words for them. A dog has certainly formulated the category “my master,” and thinks in terms of this category when for instance it’s alone, locked up in the house, and misses the master and cries. A dog has a concept of “my territory”; a dog has a concept of “enemy” or “intruder.” But none of these are verbal categories, nevertheless they are categories, and you would have to say that a dog thinks conceptually in terms of these categories.

So, if we can understand this in terms of colors, then we can apply this to more subtle things like emotions. Certainly, what one culture calls “jealousy,” another culture could define something slightly differently. And well, maybe that wouldn’t fit into the Tibetan concept which is indicated by a different word. These don’t necessarily overlap; these are mental constructs. It’s not just disturbing emotions, any emotion – the boundaries don’t exactly overlap. And, I mean, as it came up during lunch time, even the distinction in English between “jealousy” and “envy” isn’t exactly the same distinction as the two words in German “Eifersucht” and “Neid.” You said that one was more, in German, aimed at persons and relations and one was aimed more at material things.

Question: And that’s not the case in English?

Alex: No.

Question: You’re jealous that somebody has an ice cream?

Alex: Sure.

Translator: Then it’s different…

Alex: So we’re not even talking about the difference between a European and an Asian point of view. Even within our European cultures, these categories – particularly when it comes to emotions – are defined quite differently and our words, although they overlap in many cases, they’re not exact correspondences. Even within one language, there can be quiet different understandings of words and usages of words, they’re defined differently.

And so, that means that on the side of the emotional spectrum, there are no solid lines out there, making categories. There’s something which is decided upon by – the word that’s used in Buddhist analysis is “convention.” It’s a convention, an agreed upon convention. Even we make up our own conventions, what we call something. It is a convention. It’s convenient; the word “convenient” is related to convention. It’s convenient for communication and for comprehending what’s going on.

Think about it that, that’s really true, we might even be speaking the so-called same language, but two partners in a relationship might define very differently what “faithful” means or what a “relationship” means or what “relating well” means, what “being responsible” means. And what makes our conventions more valid than somebody else’s conventions? Take a simple example like “polite.” What’s polite and what’s impolite? That is so different in different cultures. What makes our customs, our definition, correct? And the others wrong? But the mistake is thinking that these categories exist out there; that the world actually exists in categories from its own side. Inherent, that’s what inherent means – it’s established from its own side, these categories.

The image that I find useful here is a children’s coloring book. We tend to think – not consciously – but it’s as if we imagine that the whole world exists like a picture in a coloring book, with a black line, a solid line around everything, you know, and it’s this or it’s that. Did you ever have these things, paint by number? There’s a little number in it – paint this little box this color. The categories are out there, with a big line around them. That obviously is – if we use the word that we were using this morning, Quatsch – that’s garbage. The number in the box, that paint-by-numbers picture, the numbers are the example of definitions being inherent of the side of the objects. You know, there’s a definition, “This is number one,” painting this color, this meaning, into this box, because the number is inherent on the side of the page. The “defining characteristic” is the technical term.

Now this is terribly, terribly subtle, and terribly, terribly profound. So let’s take more than a moment to try to understand this. But this is certainly what’s behind this whole thing of, you know, winners and losers, isn’t it?


Now, what we are saying about there being no inherent lines around things out there, no inherent categories out there – that doesn’t mean that the whole universe is one big undifferentiated soup. That’s a common mistake, a mistaken conclusion from this. And we’re all One, you know, it’s all One. That there’s really no division between “me” and “you,” so there are no boundaries, so I can use everything of yours that I want to. That’s not the conclusion that follows from this.

So, we need to make a difference: these categories and words, they relate to the way things are; they relate to something, they’re referring to something, but the universe doesn’t correspond to these words and categories. They refer to something, but what they refer to don’t correspond to these things. There’s a difference. Because these categories, these words, are conventions. So conventionally it’s true, “This is my house; it’s not your house.” Conventionally, “It’s my partner, not your partner.” When we use these words, when we use these categories, it refers to something – a convention. So, that convention, that conventional truth, is true. However, that doesn’t mean that, like some cattle, there’s a brand on the side person over there, “Mine,” as if they came like that out of the mother’s womb; that things actually correspond to this solid, permanent, category; that it actually corresponds to that. Because categories are fixed, a category is a fixed thing. You know, “Here it is, look, in the dictionary, this word. It’s fixed, what it means.” The universe doesn’t correspond to that.

But when we use language, it refers to something, and we need it, otherwise we can’t communicate. And we couldn’t make sense of anything that we experience if we didn’t have categories; if we couldn’t recognize that this is a door, and also that’s a door, even though they look really quite different, don’t they? And that that’s where you walk through to get to the other side. How would we even function? We’re not just talking about words here; we’re talking about meanings. Buddhism differentiates “word universals” from “meaning universals” That there is such a thing as “doors,” defined in such and such a way – well, it’s a convention. I mean, the universe didn’t start with doors. Yet, we all know what a door is, regardless of what word we get for it; even a cow knows what a door is. The cow doesn’t walk into a wall when it wants to go into the barn. And a cow can recognize a door in many buildings. So we need these things; you don’t want to through them away, “Ah, it’s all conceptions,” forget about that.” It’s convenient, we need them. But the universe doesn’t correspond to them. But we need them, otherwise we really couldn’t function.

That’s a good example: the map is not a territory; the street map is not the street. I mean it’s very interesting that in many cultures they don’t have maps. And to try to explain the concept of a map to somebody from some isolated tribe in New Guinea or whatever, it’s really difficult. We take it totally for granted, don’t we? But the street map is useful; it refers to the layout of streets in a city. But it’s not the same color, it’s not the same size, it’s doesn’t have written in the middle of the street the name. Does it? So that’s a silly example, but concepts and language and categories, it’s the same. So let that sink in, understand that point. These are subtle points. We’re going quite quickly here, because it’s like, the English expression taking the carpet out from underneath somebody, it’s really quite, “Oh, I never looked at the world that way.” And you have to really make sure that you don’t misunderstand and think, “Oh, it’s all an undifferentiated soup.”

The relevance of all of this – so you don’t lose the relevance here – is that we’re putting “me” into a certain category: winner, loser, successful, unsuccessful, this sort of things. These are just categories. “Conventionally, I lost the race. You won the race.” It’s true. “You got the promotion at work, I didn’t.” “My partner is now with you and not with me.” Conventionally that’s true; it describes the situation. But that’s all what it does is describe the situation. It doesn’t mean that I’m in this solid category of “loser,” “failure,” and you’re in the solid category of “winner.” And add on top of that, “You didn’t deserve it.”

When that really, really sinks in and we really, really can see that, and we understand, “Yes, that’s true,” our emotional response to the situations is totally, totally different. We don’t have this big line between intellectual understanding and emotional understanding. It’s also made in categories. When we really understand something, we feel it; it feels like that. There is the deeper emotional understanding. There’s no a solid “Bahhh, I have to go from one to the other; and it’s only this and it’s not that; it’s only intellectual, it’s not emotional.” It’s a spectrum, just how you describe it. Understanding effects emotions, definitely.

So let’s take some last minutes here to digest these points.


Question: The difference between the thing itself and the concept, the appearance of a thing and the appearance has to do with the concept I’m making of it, and I might make better and better concepts by the time, but are there any means to get through to the thing in itself, beyond the concept to reach the phenomena itself?

Alex: Well, this is an interesting question and is an issue that’s also obviously there in Western philosophy; “the thing in itself” in German philosophy. But certainly in terms of concepts, categories, there are those which are more accurate than others; categories that are accurate, categories that are inaccurate. And there are many different criteria for seeing whether or not it’s accurate. That’s a big long discussion – validity of cognition.

And also the answer to your question, if I put it into how it would be formulated in a Buddhist way, it is, well, can you actually find the object, the thing in itself, go beyond the concept? And this is a question which is looked at very, very seriously in Buddhist philosophy, and there are different levels of explanation. So you don’t immediately jump to the most sophisticated subtle explanation; you approach it in stages, and it takes years and years. And the whole issue of voidness is, on the deepest level, dealing with this issue of whether ultimately anything is findable.

So, there’s no simple answer to your question. The issue here with voidness is what proves that something exists? And “exists” means, in the Buddhist definitions, that it’s validly knowable. I can think that there’s an invader from the fifth dimension underneath my bed, but that’s not a valid thought. You’re not going to find an invader from the fifth dimension under my bed, just because I think it exists. And then there’s a big long discussion of what it means to be “validly knowable.” So even though I think it, that doesn’t prove that it exists.

The less sophisticated explanations say – as this is the one right beneath the deepest understanding – it says, “You know, OK, I’ll accept all these things that you say about categories and so on, that it’s only, you know, conventions.” But, nevertheless, you could actually find what words and concepts refer to; the referent object is findable. That proves that it exists. I can find it. When I say “flower,” sure, it’s a category and it’s a convention, all this sort of things, and it’s universal, and like that. But when I say “flower,” this is referring to a flower, over there. Here it is. From its own side, the definition, growing from the ground, however we want to define a flower. That’s what they say it proves that it exists, it can be found, there’s the referent of the word for it.

And so, we’re not just speaking on a very simplistic level that, “I can’t find an invader from the fifth dimension under my bed, but I can find a cat underneath my bed, and if I look for where did the cat go, I can find it under my bed.” We’re not talking on that level of finding something. Otherwise we can never find our keys; we can never find our way home.

So, the point is when we analyze, are the defining characteristics findable on the side of this thing under my bed, that makes it a cat, that proves it’s a cat there? “Well, a long tail and makes this special sound when you pet it, and things like that. Well, where is that defining characteristic, can I find it? Is it in this cell of a tail, is it in that cell, where is it? And you look deeper and deeper, under an electron microscope, you can’t find it, can you?

And is there anything that you can find on the side of this thing under my bed that makes it even a knowable object? Is there a line around it that separates it from what is one atom away from it? The space in between the hairs, that’s not the cat? There’s a line around it, dividing and making it to a solid object? You can’t find the line. Where does the atom of the cat end and the atom of the air next to it begin? There’s no line. Where is the line that the energy fields of the two atoms separate? Here is the cat on this side of the wall and here’s the air on the other side of the wall.

This is going deeper than categories. Categories, that’s not the deepest level of what we’re projecting. We’re projecting that the defining characteristics on the side of the object, let alone the category, and we’re even projecting that there’s a line around it, that it’s a knowable object; that there’s something on the side of the object that makes it an individual, knowable object with a line around it, regardless of what box we put it into. Even that is mentally constructed. So it’s not enough to just stop where we normally think is a conceptual thought and think that then we’ve got it. It goes much deeper than that. So, you can’t find a thing; there’s nothing out there that makes it into an item, a knowable item, a thing.

Question: Can we not measure the concentration of cat hair?

Alex: That’s a convention, that you say, “Above this number it’s this and below this number it’s that.” It’s a convention; all of these things are conventions. We’re not saying that everything is an undifferentiated soup – remember, that was the other extreme – but this extreme is that there’s actually something findable out there, inherent on the side of the object. Not just a convention. Building the category of where the cat ends on the basis of a density of cat hair is again – we’re still talking about numbers – is it forty-six point three or forty-six point two? Where is the line? That’s exactly the thing, it’s a convention. And as a convention it functions, we’re not denying that.

So, that doesn’t prove that something exists, that it’s findable. That’s like saying, you know, what proves that I exist is that I can go to the fifth dimension. That’s a ridiculous reason, you can’t even go to the fifth dimension; you can’t even find something, so how could you say it proves that something exists. So in fact in the end you can’t say anything, what proves that something exists on the side of the object. All you can say is that we have these conventions, and it’s merely convention, that it’s the cat, and that the boundary is like this, and be satisfied with that, because on that basis everything functions. That’s what voidness is all about. Being findable is impossible. So in the end you can’t make any statement in terms of what proves on the side of the object that something exists. That’s what’s void.

The cat, well, sure, that’s a convention, it refers to what’s under the bed. But, where am I going to find this thing? In this atom, in that cell? You can’t. “I lost my partner;” “I lost my job.” OK, that refers to something, but there’s nothing on the side of “me” that I can find that makes me a loser, from its own power, something inherently is wrong with me. OK? We will explore this much more tomorrow because then, well, is “me” just a concept? What is that all about?

A cat is not just a concept. Everything isn’t literally an illusion, just in my head. But we have to be very delicate here. And language is tricky. Language is tricky. That’s why we need to go beyond language, eventually. Language always gives the wrong idea. Yet we need to work with language, otherwise we can’t communicate.

We’re not saying that everything is just a concept; concepts are useful for how we describe things. And as soon as we start to put it into language, we’re involved with concepts. And that’s why eventually we need to go beyond words. But that doesn’t forget about words, don’t ever use language again.

So, let’s end with the dedication, we think whatever understanding we gained in the beginning, may it go deeper and deeper so that eventually this really sinks in and starts to make a difference. Because it definitely will, in terms of our experience of life, especially our emotional experience. And that through that, not only we overcome our own problems, but we will be in a better position to help everyone.

Session Four: Voidness

Unedited Transcript

Let me review a little bit. We were speaking about examples of some type of emotional problems that we have and we were using, as our theme, jealousy. And without repeating the whole analysis of jealousy and envy, what is underlying it is a basic confusion about reality, about how persons exist: “me” and “you,” “me” and others.

And one of the phenomena is that we think in terms of solid categories – for instance, “winners” and “losers.” And then, we not only imagine that these categories are solid, with solid lines around them, but we also imagine the same thing about “me” and “you,” that we’re sort of, you know, solid entities with lines around us. And then, like sorting vegetables into two bins – the solid “me” into the solid “loser” box and the solid “you,” and probably everybody else, into the solid “winner” box. And freeze it in the refrigerator.

Me” and “you,” we’re not talking about them as categories, like apples or oranges. That’s getting a little bit confused here, because in a sense “me” and “you” are categories, because everybody thinks of themselves as “me” and we all think of everybody else as “you,” so those are categories. But here I was referring to individual items: an individual “me” and an individual “you.” We’re not just talking about vegetables and fruit; we’re taking about one particular vegetable and one particular fruit. We need precision when we’re talking about very delicate things like this. Otherwise, we don’t get a clear idea.

Now, we spoke about what is the issue involved with the whole discussion of voidness in Buddhism. We’ve discussed this. And what we’ve seen is that it’s really talking about what proves – or establishes, is the technical word – what proves that something exists? And it’s a delicate word; it’s not what makes it true, “prove” is really the meaning here. The same word is used in the Tibetan context to prove something.

Now the definition of something that exists is something that can be validly known; not like invaders from the fifth dimension, that can’t be validly known. We have a fantasy that there are invaders from the fifth dimension, but there are no such things. It’s not a valid mind that would see them. That would be a hallucination, or a vision of paranoia.

OK, so now the issue is how do we know that, “I’m a loser and you’re a winner?” What proves it? Not so much how do we know, but what proves it? What proves that, “I’m a loser and you’re a winner?” It’s an interesting question, I mean if we think that, “I’m a loser and you’re a winner,” well, what proves that? Or is it just a fantasy? Because obviously if we’re upset, it’s on the basis of that we believe it’s true. We believe that, “I really am a loser,” that that corresponds to reality, and everybody else are winners. Isn’t it?

And it feels like that, that’s what so terrible. I mean it feels like that, so we believe it. Because this confusion and these projections just automatically come up; it’s not that we have to think about it and decide, “Ah, yes, let me look up in the dictionary, ‘loser’, ah, yeah, that’s what it means and that’s what I am.” And, I mean, it just automatically came up. OK. In some cases it is like that – you don’t know what sort of disease you have, and you have to go to the doctor, and the doctor gives you a piece of paper, “You have this disease.” But here in this case it’s not quite like that, is it? It would be amusing, wouldn’t it, if we went to a doctor or advisor, and they gave us a piece of paper certifying that we’re a loser.

Translator: Many people look up in help books in the Internet to find out what they have, and they get into all sorts of projections.

Alex: Right, absolutely. So that’s even more a demonstration about what I’m talking about. And out of paranoia, you know, the people who look through all these medical websites, ones that go crazy in terms of self diagnosis, that they have this or that disease – that’s even more of a demonstration of what I’m trying to explain here, and what voidness is talking about.

Now, there are these categories, “loser” and “winner.” So we have to examine what has made those categories. And we see that categories which are designated by words – you know, we have a word “winner,” we have a word “loser” – categories are based on definitions, aren’t they? OK, so, where do these definitions come from? Well, somebody made it, the mind made it, didn’t it?

Now, if we look at life in general. What is going on in life? Ya? Life is made up – if we speak in a very general word – moments of experience of countless number of individual living beings. Everybody is experiencing every moment of their lives – animals, insects, everybody. And, what they are experiencing? Events, that’s what they’re experiencing. Things are happening. And these events don’t have to be very dramatic; the event could be standing up, the event could be scratching our head, the event could be moving our head and looking over there, the wall over there. This is what our moment-to-moment experience of life is all about, isn’t it, its contents.

And each moment of experience, each event, is different. Now, for any individual being there’s continuity of events, and they make sense. They follow one another; they’re not random unconnected moments. And we’re not the only ones; it’s not only one movie playing, as it were. This is going on with countless beings: countless moments of experiencing of events. And even if we look at something like motion, moving the cup from this part of the table to that part of the table, that’s made up of moments, individual moments. And those moments are different. It’s a different event. Now there’s the moment of moving my hand twenty centimeters toward the cup, and now the next moment is moving my hand, the hand is now eighteen centimeters from the cup. And the next event is moving the hand… You know, like that. Every moment is different.

Now, how do we make sense of these moments of experience? Well, we look for patterns, don’t we? So, we look for some defining characteristic. We’re talking about defining characteristics that would help us to classify and, in a sense, digest and relate to the event into some larger category of what’s happening. And how do we classify it into this category of what just took place? With the defining characteristic of the category. Now, the defining characteristics that we’re looking at here can be very varied. And the categories that we can use to apply – the technical word is “mentally label” – what’s going on, can be quite different, and there are many, many ones which can be valid, which can be accurate.

Let me try to illustrate that with an example. The example is the event, let’s not put it into words, unfortunately it doesn’t get on to the tape, but I will do an event. OK. What categories can I include this event in? OK, so first category is moving my arm. I mean of course that gets into a weird thing of who moved the arm, but let’s leave that for a moment because that’s a further complication. Let’s collect some more.

Translator: Nourishing.

Alex: Well, when we talk about an event, an action – I was nourishing. Drinking. Taking a drink. What else happened?

Translator: Giving an example.

Alex: Giving an example, right. I was giving an example. What else happened?

Translator: Having thirst, being thirsty.

Alex: Being thirsty. And also trying to eliminate the thirst. But maybe I wasn’t really thirsty, it was just habit, I want to stay more awake. And did I just take a drink or was the event also drinking some tea?

Translator: You were doping…

Alex: I was doping. What else? Being nervous. Well, we have to check is that accurate or not. That’s an interpretation.

Translator: To put the cup back…

Alex: Right. Drinking wasn’t followed by dropping the cup on the floor, for example. What else? Was I teaching the class? Was I breathing? Was I being in Freiburg? So there are many things that were going on; many categories that we could accurately use to describe the event. That’s what we we’re doing, aren’t we? We’re describing the event.

Each of these categories of activity that we use to understand the event – they are based on a certain definition, aren’t they? The words had definitions. So now the question is what proves that what was going on fits into that category? What makes it fitting to that category?

I was illustrating an event and one of the categories that we put it into was taking a drink. Now, the question is where are the boundaries in which that event begins and the event ends? So how do we form the category? That’s an additional question, but the first question – the question that immediately I can answer – the question is what sets the boundaries?

Translator: In this case you made the definition – “I make an example” – so you set the boundaries.

Participant: Because you said there is a continuity of events…

Alex: Right, there’s continuity.

Participant: And you were saying, “Now I’m giving an example,” but still it was a continuity.

Alex: Right.

Participant: So in this case you were setting a boundary that maybe most of us accepted. But actually what makes it into a category if you’re saying, “This is the piece that I want to look at?”

Alex: Right, this also is arbitrary. You know, where we parcel out an unbroken continuity of an experience. Because we saw that we could parcel it out differently in terms of moving my hand from my side to the cup – that was part of the event – or drinking – that was part of the event.

But actually drinking is just when it’s at my mouth. So, that was a smaller part of the event, or we could also include putting the glass back on the table, or we could fit it into a larger parcel of a continuity in terms of teaching the class. But I don’t teach the class all the time. So we could also fit it into a larger parcel of breathing. That’s totally arbitrary, how we parcel out the continuity.

And that’s what’s often a big problem – we focus on one small event of our lives and we blow it out of proportion. You know, “I lost my job” or whatever. Or, “This person just yelled at me,” and it becomes the biggest even of our life and we lose the larger packet of our whole life’s experiences. Seen in the perspective of a whole life’s experiences, this is just one little event. Like you’re two years old, falling down and bruising your arm. At that time it seems like the most horrible thing in the world. But in the perspective of our childhood, let alone our whole lives, it really is no big deal.

So, what fits into our definition of drinking? Does it include the intention and wish to take a drink before I moved my hand to take the cup? Did it just end after the tea was in my mouth? Or did it continue when it went into my stomach? What about the rest of the time, after it left my stomach? Is that also in “drinking a cup of tea?” So, even the boundaries of taking a drink are arbitrary. Not totally chaotic; in arbitrary, I mean that it could be set in different ways.

Question: She is stuck with the question how could she possibly know that the definition is accurate.

Alex: Thank you, that’s where I want to go back to the discussion where we left it before the question. How do we know what makes the event fit into any of these categories? What proves that it’s in this category? What proves it?


Alex: [repeats] So we made the category, and the definition fits the experience. Well, what proves that?

Participant: I made the definition…

Alex: You made the definition, so then, is there anything on the side of the object that’s going on that allows you to label it correctly? I could also label what you might call “scratching my head” as “drinking.” Wow I decide that I’m going to use the word “drinking a cup of tea” for this action, what you might call “scratching my head.”

Participant: So we have changed the language.

Alex: OK, we’ve changed the language. Or we’ve change the meaning.

Participant: That’s because we have the same language, that we say it’s not valid.

Alex: Ah, we have the same language and that’s why we say it’s not valid. Very good. I mean this is a very important point that we just sort of said like that. Are any defining characteristics findable on the side of the object? And if they are, that allows you to put it in a correct category, in an accurate category, where are they? Considering that it’s a continuity, you know, each moment is different. Not totally different because they’re related, but it’s different.

And here we’re talking about something that I think is a little bit more obvious – an event, an action. That we call “drinking” or “breathing” or “moving my hand,” stuff like that. It’s a little bit more sophisticated in terms of an object. But with an action, I think it’s a little bit more clear. Take a moment to actually reflect on that. That’s not something that you just say, “Well, ah, yeah, OK, now what?” The consequences of that are enormous.

So, was there something present on the side of the content of each moment here that made it fit into the category of “drinking?” In each moment that made up the sequence that we called “drinking,” was there something inside each moment that states the same? I mean it would have to state the same that made it a part of the category “drinking.” And then also something there that made it part of a category of “moving something.” And something there that made it part of the category of “being in Freiburg.” Something that made it into the category of “teaching,” “class.” It would be very packed, wouldn’t it? With things on its own side, in each moment. Wouldn’t it?

And if we had people observing, who spoke many different languages, uhhh, would it be packed with the different words, because how do we know a word is associated to a meaning? What makes that? From the side of the events, from the meaning side, from the word’s side, where?

Translator: She makes a point that we talk about the events like an unbroken chain as if they were coming from nowhere and going, but beforehand, this morning you mentioned the items “motivation” and “aim.” So actually she says that the chain of events has to do with the motivation and the aim.

Alex: And not only does it have to do with the motivation and the aim, it has to do with all the causes as well, as in the person who made the tea, the store that sold it and so on, because all we’re doing is drawing a line, to speak about a certain part of it. And it also has all the consequences that follow from that. From drinking this as in not dying from thirst, being able to continue to teach.

And we’re not only talking about the causes and effects that are connected with my own personal experience. Also all the causes and effects which were part of other people’s experience, as in the kind motivation and thought of the person who made it, and also the effect such as somebody in the room sees me drinking this and it acts as a circumstance for them to have the thought, “Gee, I wish I had a cup of tea.”

Translator: I hope he’s not jealous.

Alex: They could be jealous also, of course. But that’s a very good point, that’s an excellent point – and they could be jealous. It acts as a circumstance for a disturbing emotion to accompany the next moments of their experience of their life. Cause and effect – it’s not limited to any specific time period. Actually it’s endless, in both directions of past and future.

So it’s just how we make sense of each moment of our life. And we naturally make sense of it in terms of these categories and language. And it’s not just for our own sake to be able to make sense of it, but also to be able to communicate with others. We’re not the only ones in the world, and being able to communicate, share experiences and so on, is totally dependent on this.

Even on the most basic level of watching me drink this cup of tea, if each of you took a photograph of that, the photograph would look different, because each of you is seeing it from a different angle and a different distance. Yet, we are able to agree on a – here’s the key word – “convention.” Based on having a common language, that that was drinking a cup of tea. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

Some of these pictures will be in focus, some won’t. And some of you maybe weren’t paying attention. And so at that moment, if you took a picture of what went on with your eyes, maybe it was the wall, or maybe your eyes were closed. But you agree even if you didn’t really see it or pay attention, “Well, yeah, sure, I’m drinking a cup of tea.” I mean it leads even further – now I’m playing with you – what proves that I drank a cup of tea? You can come up here and in my stomach, and some tea pours out? Was that the drinking? Maybe that liquid got in my stomach a different way. How do you know?

Once you start this deconstruction process, in a sense everything starts to fall apart from the side of the objects. But it’s not now nihilism, nothing. You have to be very careful. And how do you know, when you look inside the cup and you see a certain level of different colors, white and brown in there, and you see there’s more white than brown, how do you know there was more brown tea in there before? How do you know? What proves it? It’s not there anymore. Was it ever there? How do you know?

Hmmm, you need to relate to previous experience… I mean there’s a lot of things, but nothing from the side of the object. You can’t find anything on the side of the object; it’s all proven, everything is demonstrated from the side of the mind. And conventions, but conventions are made by the mind. And language, language is made up by mind. Definitions, they’re made up by mind. And how do we know that it’s accurate? What makes it accurate?

Well, you said it before, there’s a commonly accepted language, a convention, that’s the first criteria. It fits in to the convention that we’ve all agreed upon and words. And it’s not contradicted – I mean the way it’s said in Buddhism is with a few negatives here – it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly sees conventional truth. What that means is that if you take a picture of it and your hand was shaking, or you didn’t take the whole picture and you know, you were looking at part of the wall, or you had your glasses off or something like that, so you thought it was something else, or there wasn’t enough light, but if you turned on the light and you held everything in focus, this is the conclusion that you would come to. It’s not contradicted by that. It’s in a sense reconfirmed. It was an accurate seeing; it wasn’t a blur or something like that. So you have to check.

And the third criteria is that it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. So, if you have some wild fantasy, like there was something findable on the side of the object that made it that, this is like saying there was an invader from the fifth dimension on the side of the object. When you really know what’s going on and see accurately, understand accurately – it contradicts that. So it has to be not contradicted by something that validly sees the deepest truth, what’s going on. And all of those are coming from the side of mind. Nothing from the side of the object.

Question: What you express is that somebody who would look at the deepest truth, he would not contradict on a conventional level it was drinking tea?

Alex: No. It would not contradict on the deepest level that there was nothing on the side of the object that made it into a drinking.

Question: And the other side?

Alex: Was that the mind that has the glasses on and so on wouldn’t contradict that what you saw was drinking tea?

Translator: On the conventional level.

Alex: On the conventional level. The conventional truth of what happened. It’s not that these are two separate levels, you know, in different realms; they’re just two facts about the event. Was the drinking of a cup of tea and what made it a drinking of a cup of tea – that was nothing on the side of the object. That’s what void; void of anything on the side of the object that make it a drinking of a cup of tea.

So let me apply this to what our relevant topic is here. “I lost my partner.” “I lost my job.” “Am I a loser? I think I’m a loser. What makes me a loser?” OK, now, if one were to describe the event “to lose something” – that’s pretty abstract, isn’t it? In terms of each moment of what happened. But OK, we have the convention and the word “lose.” You lost the job, and you don’t have it anymore; lost the partner, the partner went away. So it fits into the convention of losing something. That’s accurate. That’s what we’d call it, that’s what everybody would call it.

Second criteria: If I went to the office again, other people would say, “What are you doing here? You lost your job.” And so, it’s not contradicted by what they observe. I go to my old partner again, and my old partner and his or her new partner look at me and say, “What are you doing here? It’s finished.” So that’s the second criteria. Maybe I was wrong; I thought I’d lost my job, but I didn’t. So I go there, and check up. Maybe I forgot, maybe I’m confused, I’m getting a little old. This proves that I lost my job, we ask the other people.

Now, the third criteria, and this is the most important here. “I think that I’m a loser, I’m a real loser. There’s something inherent and findable on my side that makes me a loser, and something inherent and findable on your side that makes you a winner, and so I feel deeply hurt and I’m extremely jealous.” So it’s as if there’s something on my side, some findable defining characteristic on my side, made me fit into this category, this box, this word “loser,” which is just a convention, we saw, that puts me there, dooms me there forever.

So now, if we really think about it, from what I said, that’s contradicted. Because when we investigate, where do I find these defining characteristics of being a loser? It’s not anywhere. Where is it? Is it in my nose? Where is it? In my mind? Where? And what event made it there? Was it there always? From the moment I was born, where is it? It’s only a convention to describe the event. That’s all, nothing more. I’m not inherently a loser. That’s ridiculous. Then our emotional response is totally different.

Question: As I followed the discussion, the first argument was that the trees are common to any culture; they all know tress. But then you said, well, one culture or one language draws the line between a tree and a bush at a different level, at a different thing. So that proves that it’s an arbitrary category.

Alex: Right, it’s culturally and linguistically defined.

Question: Yes, because it’s culturally and linguistically defined, and we see that they define it differently, so this is the proof that it’s arbitrary. So then, her new idea is to say, but there is the recognition of a human face common to all and any human society. There’s not even one human society who would mistake a human face for an ape’s face.

Alex: Well, that’s very clear. Look at all this big scientific discussion about evolution and what point in evolution, you know, finding all these bones from ancient times, can we say that in the evolutionary process that this is in the category of “ape” and this is in the category of “humanoid?” I’m saying the boundaries, what makes it a human? Or what makes it an ape?

Now, to say that these categories are linguistically and culturally defined – and we were using this loose word “arbitrary,” which is maybe not a very responsible word to use, I must say, I will confess – it doesn’t mean that it’s chaotic. That anything can be called anything. That’s why we have these three ways of validating, of labeling. But the question is – and this is the objection that always comes up – but isn’t it really a tree? Isn’t there really a tree?

This is why we say, well, there’s nothing really on the side of that object that proves it’s a tree. Now you get to a deeper level of understanding, it’s like an illusion; like an illusion. It seems that there’s something on its side that makes it into a tree. It’s not like that. Yet it functions; yet other people who know that same language and agree on the same definition would also call it a tree. They wouldn’t call it a dog.

But this is a more subtle level to really understand, that’s why you start on an easier level, with, “I don’t fall through the chair, to the floor.” Even though on the deepest level I know that it’s not solid. I know that the chair is made of atoms and the atoms are made of subatomic particles, and that’s mostly empty space. And I know that the same thing is true of my body. Nevertheless, I don’t fall through the chair, the chair functions to support me. But the fact that it supports me, does that prove that it exists as chair, or that this thing exists as a tree? There’s a little bit of a problem with that. Because how do you know it functions as a tree? What proves that it functions as a tree? It gets complicated.

Translator: I can make a chair out of it.

Alex: Yes, but the whole question of function is getting back to this question of drinking. We’re talking about actions. Cause and effect, the connection between cause and effect, that’s a very deep, subtle question. Because there’s only one moment at a time. What connects them? What connects each of these moments, so that in the end we say they perform the function. And what perform the function?

So it’s a very complex thing, that’s why on a simpler level, on level one or two or three, you’d say what establishes, what proves that it exists is that it functions. But then we have to be careful here; “I think that there’s an invader from the fifth dimension under my bed.” Does that function? “Well, I’m scared out of my mind.” But the invader from the fifth dimension didn’t cause that; my belief that there is an invader from the fifth dimension caused it. So all these things, one has to look very carefully. And also what is it that’s functioning.

So, you can use that criterion on a simple level of “it functions,” therefore that proves that it exists, and make a division between what exists and what doesn’t exist, like the invader from the fifth dimension. But as I said, that is still a superficial understanding, not the deepest.

Question: This deconstructing of categories, as a dissolving attitude, a dissolving way to approach things, like you have the solid box of a loser and you slowly dissolve, you deconstructed. So in the end where does it lead to but to an enormous insecurity? And the second point was, like in the postmodern society there’s much been spoken about emptiness, but it doesn’t mean voidness, but it means an emptiness of meaning, of ethics, of rules and so on. This deconstruction that we have in the postmodern and he liked it to be distinguished…

Alex: Right, that’s the nihilist thing. When we talk about voidness in Buddhism, what are things devoid of? It’s devoid of anything on its own side that proves that it exists. That’s what’s absent. It doesn’t mean that nothing exists. How does that exist? Like an illusion. What proves that it exists? Well, there are words, people agree, it’s not contradicted. And be satisfied with that – that although it seems to be solid and all these other things, it’s not – so the voidness – but nevertheless, everything functions. And that’s enough. Don’t worry about it, no reason to be insecure.

But of course, when approaching this, it does make you insecure. That’s why one great master, Tsongkhapa, when one of his disciples was meditating on voidness, the disciple all of a sudden grabbed hold of his shirt collar. And Tsongkhapa said, “Ah, this is very good, you just reconfirm the conventional reality of everything.” So we need to reconfirm that. It’s not negated. What we’re negating is similar to “What proves that I exist” – well, I think what proves that I exist is that I can go to the fifth dimension. This is ridiculous.

Equally ridicules is to think that the referent objects of our words and concepts can actually be found out there. In other words, that there are findable objects with findable defining characteristics out there that correspond exactly to these boxes and categories that words and concepts imply. And that the fact that we can find them establishes or proves that these things actually exist. But in fact you can’t find the referent object, you can’t find the defining characteristic on the side of the object, and so that’s not what proves that something exists; this is something that is totally absent. The objects, which do conventionally exist, are devoid of these things that would establish them to exist, or prove that they exist.

Now that doesn’t mean that our words and concepts don’t refer to anything; they do refer to something. But what they refer to cannot be found and do not correspond exactly to the words and concepts. As if language categories existed out there. No, they’re mentally constructed. But that’s how we know the world, that’s how we describe it. So fine, it functions. We can communicate. I can understand, fine. Enough. Get on with life. The conventional truth is not a level. It’s not as though there are two levels, like a transcendental and a worldly level – no dualism there. So there’s no reason to be upset about anything.

A Zen master, in the same situation, when the disciple freaks out, “I don’t exist, nothing exists,” what then does a Zen master do? He’d hit the disciple. “Did you feel that?” “Yes.” “Did it hurt?” “Yes.” So, conventional truth.

Question: This postmodern person that for example goes to the psychiatrist and says, “Well, although I function in this world – I can go to the shop and so on and so on, I don’t have problems with reality, I do function – nevertheless, I feel this emptiness within me, this meaninglessness within me. I cannot really connect to what I’m doing, I cannot connect to persons, I feel so alienated.” So how does this correspond to what we’re speaking about here?

Alex: That’s why all this discussion about voidness is within the context of the rest of the Buddhist teachings; it’s not just by itself. So we have in Buddhism what’s called “refuge.” That’s a misleading word. It’s talking about a direction in life; a safe direction in life of working toward becoming a Buddha, basically – to getting rid of this obscuration, this confusion, realizing how things are, the way that the Buddha has done, the way that this community of people who have partially realized it and are continuing on the way. And this is the direction that I’m going in my life, and it could be either just simply because I’m disgusted with all the problems that I have – I want to get out of it and I’m willing to stop – or, in addition, because I have compassion for others and I want to help them, because they are suffering terribly. And when I’m messed up, I can’t really help them; when I’m confused, I can’t really help them as well as is possible. So the understanding of voidness is within this context in which life has a tremendous amount of meaning. It’s not just then by itself.

So, compassion by itself is not enough, because then you get discouraged, “Oh, the people are suffering” and “Oh, my God, and I can’t help.” It’s not enough just to feel compassion and love; you have to have understanding. Because compassion by itself without understanding – you get attached to the people you’re trying to help; you get greedy for affection back from them; you get angry with them when they don’t follow your advice; you get discouraged; you get depressed. Compassion and love are not enough. And the understanding by itself is not enough, because then life is meaningless. And there’s no purpose. So, Buddhism always puts these two together, within the context of having a safe direction in life; know what am I doing in life, where am I going. Putting that direction, that’s why we say “take refuge.” “Refuge” is too passive a word, it’s as if we’re going to a game reserve and now we are saved. It’s not that. Active – put a direction in your life; a positive, safe direction, meaningful.

Question: What about the voidness of the “self?”

Alex: Right, voidness of the self, thank you. “Me,” “you” – it’s a category. Same as “tree.” But not the same type of phenomenon as a tree; a tree has physical characteristics. “Me,” I don’t have physical characteristics. My body has physical characteristics. Do I have physical characteristics? “Me?” A little bit more abstract. “Me” is – to put it in simple language – it’s an abstract phenomenon. Not something with physical characteristics, not a way of being aware of something, like seeing or anger or love. That’s a way of being aware of something, of perceiving something, or experiencing something.

So, it is an abstraction. So how is it used? There’s a continuity of experiencing. I’m not speaking about experiences that are out there; there’s a continuity of experiencing, moment to moment, the experiencing of this, the experiencing of that, subjective. Experiencing, experiencing, experiencing. Content’s constantly changing. And, each moment of experience of course has contents; you can’t be experiencing without experiencing something. So there is always contents. And that’s changing from moment to moment; it’s made up of many, many parts: visual, shapes and forms, sounds, and all this sort of things; and various ways of being aware: seeing, hearing; various emotions: anger, attachment, happiness, unhappiness, concentration, attention. All these ingredients you have, made up of an unbelievably complex network – they’re all interacting with each other, they’re all interconnected. And what’s really amazing is every single part of it is changing at a different rate. And this is what makes up the each moment of experiencing. Deconstruction, getting back to our deconstruction word.

But there is continuity. What makes the continuity is a different question, a very difficult question. On the deepest level, there’s nothing on the side of the experience that provides the continuity. There is continuity, be satisfied with that. But we think that there’s something solid there, that is there all the time, like the screen on which the movie is being projected. “Me” – I’m there all the time; that’s what proved the continuity. And unfortunately it feels like that. “Here I am. Went to sleep last night, got up this morning, here I am again. Same ‘me.’” It feels like that, doesn’t it? We certainly believe it. “I’m here again. I’m still here.” It’s like an illusion, of course, but it feels like this and we believe it. And on the basis of “You just hurt me, I’m a loser” – this solid, findable “me.”

But “me” is really an abstraction, with which we can label, designate, all this

continuity of experiencing, so that it makes sense, just as we organize what we see into trees… categories, a way of organizing it so that we can deal with it. And conventionally it’s true – “me”, not “you;” my house, not your house; my experience, I experienced it, you didn’t experience it.

OK, so it’s conventionally true, but it’s just an abstraction. We’re talking about individual “me,” of course; there’s the general abstraction, with everybody’s “me” and everybody’s “you.” But even the individual members of this category of “me’s” and “you’s” – we can use that in the plural – are abstractions. So in this case, “me” is not the same as some physical thing, like a tree. In the case of trees, there’s the category “tree,” which is an abstraction, but then the individual items in that category are physical objects, individual trees. Here, in the case of “me,” not only is the category “me” an abstraction, but the individual items in that category – in other words, the individual “me’s” – are also abstractions. And of course, individual “me’s,” despite being abstractions, are changing each moment, because what the individual “me” is experiencing is constantly changing.

Now, there’s the word “me” or the concept “me.” “Me” is not the word, is it? I’m not a word. I’m not a concept. Or an illusion. OK, so what’s “me?” “Me” is the referent object, what it refers to. Our society made up and agreed upon some acoustic pattern to represent it. It was even weird that they agreed upon a sequence of lines on a piece of paper to mean that as well. That’s really weird. That means “me.” Pretty strange for the dog, or pretty strange for a Martian, but anyway.

We have the word and concept “cup.” What does refer to? It refers to a cup, a thing. Now, what is the basis for the designation? What’s the basis for a cup? This part of the handle, that part of the handle? The rim? The empty space inside, is that a cup? There’s all these parts, and of course the causes and so on – it’s on the basis of this that I apply, our society applies a terms or a concept: “cup.” What’s a cup? Is it the handle? Can you find it? No. we have “cup,” you know, a word; sound, vibration of air. That’s not the cup, obviously.

Then there’s the basis. And you certainly can’t find the defining characteristics of a cup anywhere on the basis. You can’t find the defining characteristics of a handle; you can’t find anything. So, what’s a cup? It’s like an illusion. It’s what the word refers to when it’s designated on the basis of a designation that other people would agree. I mean, it has to be valid. You can’t call this a cup, it’s a table; you can’t call the dog “table.” So it’s like an illusion, it seems as though there’s actually a cup, but really it’s like an illusion, sort of this thing almost like in between the word and the basis. Yet it functions, despite of that.

Is it absolutely unfindable? Well, it’s only when we analyze, when we really look very deeply, we can’t find it. If you relax, and we say just in general, “Where is the cup?” “Oh yeah, it’s over there.” But it functions, I mean the universe functions, it works. But when you look really deeply, you can’t find anything; devoid of anything on its own side that proves that it exists, makes it exist.

OK, so now, “me” is an abstraction to put together a continuity of experiencing. What’s “me?” Well, I’m not the word. And all of these moments of experiencing which are made up of millions of parts, that are changing all the time at a different rate, where can I find “me” in that? None of them are me. And so, what’s “me?” “Me” is what the word refers to, on the basis of a continuity of experiencing. Is there anything on the side of “me” – conventionally true “me” – that makes “me” “me?” There’s nothing on its side that makes “me” either a “me” in general, or that proves or establishes my individuality.

And it’s a big hang-up in the West, so I have to prove my individuality. “I have to prove that I’m ‘me;’ I have to establish my individuality, separate from my parents.” It’s pointless. You are an individual; nothing’s going to prove it. Of course you are an individual. So what establishes and proves the individuality is the continuity of cause and effect of the experiencing – makes sense. Is there anything on the side of the experience that connects the cause and effect sequence? No. It really is like an illusion, but you see this is a very subtle, deep level, being like an illusion, that’s why we work first on if I can grasp that and accept it on the level of “I don’t fall through the chair, when I sit down,” then slowly slowly we get ready to deal with “me” being like an illusion. So there’s nothing that makes the continuity. There is continuity; there is cause and effect. Cause and effect is a label to describe the continuity. Can’t find cause and effect anywhere.

But we need to reaffirm: there “me,” that’s true; it’s not you. And then we have to take responsibility for our behavior, that the way that we behave is going to affect what I experience next, going to have effect on others. We have to take care of ourselves in terms of eating and getting enough sleep, not walking into walls. This sort of things. But, where we get into trouble is making the “me” into a big solid thing that I’m worried about – “Nobody is going to like me and I’m insecure.” “I get angry when I don’t get my way” – “me” – “and I have to get more things to ‘me’ to make ‘me’ secure” – that’s where we get into trouble. But just be satisfied – I exist, I function. And just get on with life, in a positive direction, further and further, trying to help others more and more – without putting this seemingly solid “me” into a seemingly solid box of “loser” when things don’t go well and we lose our job or lose our partner; and putting a seemingly solid “you” into a seemingly solid box of “winner” when that person succeeds, which is of course the misconception behind our jealousy.

So the best strategy for overcoming our jealousy is to deconstruct this whole misconception that we have about “me,” about “you,” about categories, about winner and losers and so on, and in this way we can deal with life and deal with the ups and downs of life without becoming upset, without causing ourselves and others so much suffering. And as a consequence we can perhaps be of best help to everybody.

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