This false world

March 25, 2016 § 1 Comment

Morning Commute III

I wish to briefly touch upon my assertion that thought does not represent anything real.

Certainly no one should think this remark applies to simple statements like, “The sky is blue,” or “It is spring.” Such descriptions are quite proper. Nor should one think it applies to abstract thought as expressed in fields of logic, science or mathematics where thought is rigorous and precise. The remark applies to false thoughts the ordinary mind has when it attributes qualities to things that they do not properly have, qualities that ultimately result in unnecessary suffering.

We may call the world experienced via the senses primary. When we give this world qualities that it doesn’t actually possess we superimpose an imaginary secondary world upon it.

If we suffer abuse, that is a fact of the primary world. If we then conclude that the abuse arose because we are bad or unworthy, we begin to create a false world. The trauma of the abuse may lead us to further superimpose a vision on the real world that it is unsafe and lead us to conclude that we must protect ourselves at all times. This engenders life strategies to which we cling out of the belief they will keep us safe. These strategies, however, only add to our suffering as they isolate us from others and our self.

We do not have to suffer trauma or abuse to create a secondary world. Any time we attribute qualities to the world that it does not have we create a false world. In fact, the greater mass of humanity lives in a shared secondary universe that is entirely false and causes much of humanities suffering.

The very assumptions we make about our selves and the world go to create the false universe that we all share. Assumptions like, “I am this body,” or “ Things exist outside me.” These lead to beliefs and actions that the universe must be controlled and dominated lest it overwhelm and destroy us.

It is this false, secondary world that is destroyed when our true nature is realized and that is why mystics and seers say; “Everything’s different, yet nothing has changed!”

So the statement that “thought does not represent anything real” refers to the ones that create and sustain the invidious secondary universe that we all live in, and the personal one we have created for our self, alone.

Much of our thinking is of this secondary type and if we could quit it now we would know a freedom long since forgotten. But over the years it has become second nature. So rather than spend time trying to figure out which thought is true and which is not, approach all as if they are false, especially those around your core issues and habits. Do not waste time trying to figure out which part of your dream is real when the solution is to just wake up.


A Japanese Warrior was captured by his enemies

August 27, 2015 § 3 Comments


“A Japanese warrior was captured by his enemies and thrown into prison. That night he was unable to sleep because he feared the next day would bring interrogation, torture and execution. Then he recalled the words of his Zen master, “Tomorrow is not real. It is an illusion. The only reality is now.”

Heeding these words, the warrior became peaceful and fell asleep.”

Of course, the warrior represents you, captured and imprisoned by your own thoughts. When you get up in the morning you wonder what the day will hold. When you go to bed at night you wonder what tomorrow will bring. At times you cannot sleep for worry, and you know that telling yourself that tomorrow isn’t real will not help.

Buddhists know that once worry appears that there is no use trying to suppress or deny it. Trying will only drain your strength, which even then will give you no rest. So they tell you that you do not have to struggle with tomorrow. You do not have to prevent anxious thoughts from arising or prevent thoughts of anger or jealousy once they have arisen. You do not have to prevent, stop or change any of these. You need only realize that they have no real existence.

Thoughts arise in dependent origination or dependent arising, as the Buddhist would say. That means what you are thinking is dependent upon a host of other things, all of which is dependent upon every other thing. As everything depends upon everything else, nothing has self-existence or exists of and by it self. The essence of all you see, hear, feel and think is emptiness. This means that none of your thoughts point to anything real. They are all appearance-emptiness.

To the ordinary mind emptiness is seen as nothingness. Seeing thoughts arise in this nothingness leads the mind to conclude that thoughts, and the objects they point to, must be real. Having reached this conclusion the mind moves to attach itself to what it desires. Toward what it does not like it moves with aversion and denial. All this is done in the context of avoiding falling into nothingness.

Seen in this context it is understandable why you would not want to abandon your thoughts. Doing so leaves you with nothing and that is equatable to death.

The Japanese warrior of our story found himself in just this predicament. All that he had was taken from him. He’d been separated from his colleagues, lost his freedom and had no means to defend himself. He had no armor, no sword or hope. He had, in other words, come face to face with nothingness.

It was then that he recalled his master’s words and, heeding them, the nothingness dissolved into luminous emptiness. And, as the story goes,”the warrior became peaceful and fell asleep.”

The Value of a Cup is in its Emptiness

August 6, 2015 § 2 Comments

Form is Emptiness

A couple of years ago I had the bathroom redone. Part of the refit included a plastic liner placed around the walls of the bathtub that had an “L” shaped section for soap. As I looked at this the other day I was struck by how elegantly this shape demonstrated the Buddha’s words spoken to his disciple, Shariputra,

Form does not differ from emptiness,

Emptiness does not differ from form.

When I looked at the soap tray before I saw only the L-shape. But then it occurred to me that this form was not all that was there. Inseparable from it was the emptiness where the soap went. The L-shaped piece was giving the emptiness a form. Like the Yin Yang symbol that has two curved sections, one black, the other white, this “L” form was caressing and molding the emptiness into something I could use. It was as the Buddha said as he continued to instruct Shariputra,

Form itself is emptiness,

Emptiness itself is form.

Looking next at a chair I saw how it shaped the empty space of the room into an area in which I could sit. (Reminiscent of how a star curves the space about it, as described by Einstein.) Without the chair the empty space could not be used. And without the emptiness there would be no place to put the chair. The form and the emptiness were again seen to be inseparable.

I then applied this to the house. Where there was once just an empty lot the builders had placed a form turning the space into one where I could live and carry out my daily activities. I was, in fact, living in empty space as much as a house. This brought to mind Lao Tsu’s words,

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes that make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there,

Usefulness from what is not there.

Tao Te Ching. Chapter Eleven.

It is this same chapter in which Lao Tsu writes,

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

which inspired the title of this post, a Buddhist proverb that reads, “The value of a cup is in its emptiness.”

It is now even more apparent to me that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” but not in some way remote except to the enlightened few. The unity of form and emptiness is something that is evident and before me right now in my everyday experience.

Someone took clay to make a teacup and in so doing gave empty space a form I could use to drink tea. Someone else shaped wood that turned empty space into a place where I could live and sit. There is no way to separate these forms from the emptiness or the emptiness from these forms.

Buddha went on to tell Shariputra that this is the same for feelings, cognition and the sense of self. Where these are, emptiness is also, co-existing and inseparable. The thoughts and ideas that appear before us are forms that are giving shape to emptiness on a moment-to-moment basis.

Realizing this I asked myself, “If I can see the emptiness of the L-shaped soap tray, why do I not also see the emptiness of thought? Why do I not recognize the no self of the self?”

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

October 26, 2014 § 2 Comments

The Dalai Lama at UBC

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in town this past week. As my last few posts addressed emptiness when viewed with fear and avoidance, I thought I’d try to tell you what he had to say about it.

From the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, a proper understanding of emptiness must include an understanding of concepts, self-existence and dependent origination. Once understood, this knowledge can then be applied to the Buddhist notion of no self. Of course, all of this would fill many posts so I shall try to be as brief as possible.

Simply put, something has self-existence when it exists on its own or independently of anything else. For example, most would say the moon exists whether we look at it or not, so the general belief held by humanity is that the moon is self-existent. A Buddhist would tell you, however, that an analysis of this belief would lead to a different conclusion.

Through analytic meditation the Buddhist would examine his or her experience of the moon to see that it is collection of concepts, or ideas about something, and not an actual thing in itself. Different concepts of the moon include those held of it before the advent of the telescope, the moon before humanity set foot on it and the moon as seen in it’s various phases. Considering the different ways of conceiving of the moon, “Which one, is any,” the Buddhist would ask, “is the actual moon?”

It is important to note that the Buddhist is not saying the experience doesn’t exist. The experience of the moon is a real experience but one that is organized by the conceptual mind. The conceptual mind takes a collection of experiences and organizes them together under one name. That ‘somewhat’ that appears in the sky at various times during the month in various shapes or phases, that telescopes tell us has craters and our astronauts say is made of dust and rock, are all organized under the general concept that we know as the moon.

In addition to creating concepts out of a collection of experiences, the human mind assigns these concepts a sense of reality that lends the appearance of self-existence.  This assigned self-existence is a matter of convenience that gives the world a sense of stability.

Consider, for example, how efficient it is to name a file and place it in a folder of similar items stored in your computer. Having done so, you know where it is or “exists”. All you have to do to find it is to look in that file. But suppose you didn’t name your files or make any folders. As more and more items are entered into your computer, finding them becomes more and more difficult. And if you couldn’t find any particular file, you’d begin to doubt its existence. In a similar way, the human mind assigns names and words to your experiences and files them accordingly, giving them the appearance of self-existence. But whether any thing does exist independently of the mind is a matter of philosophical debate, not proven fact!

This leads us to the Buddhist notion of dependent origination.

Dependent origination is said by the Buddha to be a very deep subject so I will try to cover it here only in relation to what the Dalai Lama said about emptiness.

An example given by the Buddha was that of a flame in an oil lamp. When the oil and wick are present, the flame burns. If either is absent, the flame is not there. This is a simple example of the principle of dependent origination. In it, the flames existence is dependent upon the wick and the oil. The experience of the flame is real but in itself the flame has no self-existence.

In his talk last Thursday the Dalai Lama briefly applied the Buddha’s reasoning to himself. If we were to look for His Holiness we would not find a self-existence that we could call him. We could find an arm or face, thoughts or feelings, but eventually we would have to conclude that the Dalai Lama, himself, was like a flame in an oil lamp whose origin was dependent upon other things that, in and of themselves, too, ultimately had no self-existence. Yet, said the Dalai Lama, when he pinches himself, he experiences pain. So what is that which experiences this pain? What is this no self?

Without answering that question the Dalai Lama went on to state that through the process of analytical meditation one can see how all things are dependent upon everything else, such that no thing can be said to arise independently or have self-existence.   And that if we introduce here the Buddhist notion of emptiness, we can see that emptiness does not mean nothingness but merely the lack of self-existence. There is form, but it is empty of self-existence.

There is experience. There is the conceptual organization of experience. Yet none of this, including the self, exists independent of anything else or with permanent form. Understanding this, the Dalai Lama went on to say, we can see what is meant when it is said that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

*** Please note that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Vancouver was in association with the Tibetan Cultural Society of BC and organized in part to help the Society raise funds to sponsor the resettlement of Tibetans to Canada.  Click on the Society’s name to open a new window that links to their site if you are interested in this cause.

Change your mind.

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Alberni Street

There need be no thought that the human brain is defective in the mass of humanity. The human brain is actually quite a marvelous instrument that for the most part does what we direct it to do. If we ask it to solve a problem of life, higher mathematics or science, it works tirelessly to accomplish the matter as long as we continue to ask it to do so. Even when our attention is directed elsewhere the brain continues its efforts, sometimes producing a solution to a problem long since forgotten.

It is because we forget that the brain does what we direct it to do that we run into trouble. Take, for instance, the successive traumatic effect war has had on people over the last two hundred years. If we assume, as some do, that trauma can be handed down from generation to generation, then even those who have not been to war may suffer post-traumatic stress handed down by parents who lived through the last century’s major wars. This means the mass of humanity may be working with brains that have been taught to operate according to rules of survival in situations where survival is not an issue. If so, is there any wonder that nation upon nation makes and sells arms in the name of better protecting their interests?

I tend to the notion that as a result of past wars humanity has trained their collective brains to see life as a matter of survival. And because the brain gives a sense of reality to whatever thought it entertains, the mass of humanity have come to believe that, in essence, the “other guy” is a threat that must be defended against.

There is hope for humanity and it comes in the form of educating ourselves on the true nature of our brains and reality. We must come to recognize that just because the brain tells us there is a threat, that does not mean there actually is a threat. Just because the brain makes it appear that our beliefs are real, it does not mean that other beliefs are incompatible with our own.  As the Dalai Lama said,

“We all want happiness, not suffering, and as a consequence we have to see if the mind can be transformed. Tibetan Buddhist culture is not just about prayers, reciting mantras and performing rituals, it involves explanations of the nature of reality. We Tibetans have the most comprehensive presentation of what the Buddha taught. We should not feel deprived, but proud of the knowledge we possess. What’s more we don’t need to rely on any other language to access this knowledge because it already exists in Tibetan.  Don’t waste your time getting drunk or gambling. There’s no reason to feel low or demoralized; much better to be confident and optimistic.” (

Transforming our minds is not a matter to be completed in succeeding generations. It is something we can accomplish now. We can retrain our brains to look at reality in its true nature. One step in this process is to see that our brains tend to assign reality to whatever we imagine. Another is to accept the possibility that if we imagine our neighbor to be our enemy, this may not actually be so.

Be confident and optimistic of your ability to change your mind. Be confident and optimistic that you can see reality as it truly is.

Sangsara and Delusion

July 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

Morning mist 1890

A psychologist might tell you that the greatest challenge to mental wellness is the failure to recognize that thoughts exist only in the brain. A Buddhist might simply say that thought is empty. The Buddhist might also speak of Sangsara, or Samsara.

Sangsara is a term used to describe the consciousness of objects combined with the delusion that objects exist independently of the observer. Awakening to reality destroys Sangsara in the sense that the delusion is destroyed. In the psychological sense, this means that thought is no longer seen to exist in the world as an independent, separate thing made of concrete substance.

Most of us know delusion as the stalker who believes a public figure is in love with them. As the hypochondriac who believes they are ill when no trace of illness can be found. Or as extreme jealousy where one believes his or her partner is cheating, even though there is no evidence to support that claim. The Buddhist would tell you, however, that the belief that any thought is something real and concrete is a delusion, and one shared by most of humanity.

It is easy to see delusion acting within yourself. Simply wonder if you really did lock the car door or if you really did put that credit card back in your wallet after your last purchase, and see how quickly that thought is felt to be real!

If you take that feeling into meditation and examine it, you will begin to see that not just that thought, but all your thoughts are felt to be real whether they correspond to the physical world or not. If you examine that feeling deeply, you will begin to see how your mental world extends into the outer world. You will begin to see that you are reacting to that mental world instead of your actual physical surroundings.

In seeing this you will begin to see how, as the Buddha said, you are bound to appearance. And how deeply your attention is fixed, as if hypnotized; upon an illusion you’ve mistaken for reality.

Knowing a thought to be just a thought, frees you from bondage to that thought. Knowing all thought to be just thinking, frees you from Sangsara.



Buddhist Cartography: Uncharted Silence.

March 17, 2014 § Leave a comment


Each of us is a walking atlas of inner maps that we use to navigate through life.

We have a primary map drawn through the brain’s ability to give form to the world through the use of language and the word.  This map gives our world a sense of stability and permanence that we call reality.

We have inner maps drawn by our families, culture and religion.  Others we’ve had more of a hand in drawing, such as friendship and relationship maps.  And, of course, there is the map we call the self, the map of who we think and believe our self to be.

Our atlases are the creation of the left side of the brain.  This part of the brain has its own type of GPS, or Global Positioning System, that it uses to select the map most appropriate for any given situation.  When you walk into a crowded room, for example, your internal GPS will pick up relevant signals and then select a map that tells you how to feel about the room, whether to leave or continue in and, if appropriate, it will even direct you where and with whom to sit.

Inner maps are sets of rules and judgments that direct behavior and thought.  We are usually not aware of their influence, as they typically lie either on the periphery of consciousness or entirely in the unconscious.  But the maps selected by our internal GPS determine to a large extent how we behave, what we feel and most of what we believe to be the choices made of our own free will.

The left side of the brain evaluates every passing moment of your life, making constant references to rules and judgments picked up in childhood.  It selects inner maps that direct you how to feel and what to think.  This process is often referred to in today’s spiritual literature as your “story”.  But if you want to know your true nature, you must still the story.  You must stop judging and close your atlas.

Mindfulness and meditation allows you to become aware of the story contained in your atlas.  To still the story, it helps to see your everyday thoughts as maps drawn by the left side of the brain.  It helps to see them as automatic processing that can go on without your conscious attention.  As such, they are not really you or your thoughts, so they can be put aside without any loss.  Then your attention can be turned to the non-thinking, right side of the brain wherein lies silence.

The right side of the brain is the non-verbal side so when you disengage from thought, you open the door to silence.  This is what is meant when the mystic tells you to still your thoughts, or when the Buddhist tells you to turn your mind to stillness.

If uncertain what is meant here, use mindfulness to see how your brain constantly judges, thinks and speaks.  Then ask yourself what it would be like if your brain could not do this; if you were not able to speak or communicate verbally.  Your answer cannot be in words which means your thinking brain cannot respond.  This creates a momentary stepping back from thought.  Gently hold onto that feeling.

As the brain will want to start up again you must focus the awareness on this feeling of not thinking.  Over time you will find that you can maintain this awareness even as the left side of the brain still thinks in the background.   Your aim is to take this disengagement into meditation and deepen it.

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