Uncompromising Truth for a Compromised World
by 5th Samdhong Rinpoche, Lobsang Tenzin
Today when we talk about the Buddha’s teaching of selflessness or the not-self or Shunyata, people mostly cannot comprehend the real connotations of these teachings. And they always fall into the error of negating the relative self. When you speak of selflessness, they take it to mean that they are completely devoid of self, that self does not exist at all.
It is only in Buddhism and in some non-Buddhist Indian traditions that the Truth is classified into two levels: the Ultimate Truth and the Relative Truth. And these two need to be understood at their respective levels. They are two sides of one coin, yet they differ vastly. The key point is that, if you deny the relative truth, then you cannot realise Shunyata, but will fall into nihilism instead: the negation of everything.
The Buddha does not negate the relative existence of anything, but teaches that whatever exists in the relative or conventional sense, exists interdependently and the common-sense of the interdependent nature of things cannot be denied by anyone. It is truth; it is a fact. Things do not exist as we view them in this moment, we who do not realise the true nature of existence. The ordinary person views phenomena as existing by their own nature, complete and independent in themselves. They impute the quality of inherent existence to these phenomena, as they do to the self. But the fact is that relative phenomena, including the self, exist in interdependence on each other and on a myriad bases. This quality of interdependence does not imply that relative phenomena simply do not exist at all, but only that their existence is not inherent to themselves. In simple terms, if you remove the interdependent factors of which phenomena consist, the phenomena themselves would disappear because they have no inherent existence of their own, or from their own side. So unless you clearly recognise what is to be negated and what is to be affirmed, there is every chance of descending into nihilism. In this case, what is to be negated is the notion that relative phenomena exist absolutely. On the other hand, it is equally important to affirm that they exist relatively or conventionally. It is important to take care and be very cautious about this; that you should not negate the relative existence of self. But the self which we conceive of now as an absolute entity having independent existence from its own side is to be negated.
So, unless you very profoundly see how you conceive yourself, you will fall into the error, either of absolutism or of nihilism. But if your understanding of self is profound, then you can very easily negate the notion of an inherently-existent “I,” and that negation is Shunyata.
The simple negation of inherent or independent existence is Shunyata. The way we conceive of self, the way we conceive of phenomena, need to be very precisely and clearly recognised. Then you will realise that it is completely different from the real nature of the existence of self. So, it is quite a difficult process of analysis. But unless and until you realise what is to be negated, it is very dangerous to negate anything. You might negate the whole thing, and then you would fall down into nihilism.
So, it is very difficult to verbalise; but through meditation, through observation, you will realise how you conceive the self. It is not yourself which you negate, but that self of which you have formed a conception: that conception is to be negated.
At this moment, if somebody calls you or addresses you, you immediately conceive a self which is almost identical with body, mind, and speech: the gross combination. But you never conceive of self as something very subtle or very different than your conception of it.
Somebody hits you, and you feel that he has hit you, he abused you, he oppressed you: and at that time your conception of “I” is so gross, so monolithic, and so singular. There is the perception of the singularity of “I” which comes forward—a sense of the singular existence of “I,” and that is a misconception, and that misconception is to be negated.
After negating that mode of existence, then you will automatically understand the transitory and interdependent existence of the relative self — and when you realise the relativity of self, it will cease to create attachment or hatred — and it will see, since it is in the right view of self-existence, and it will automatically give you the right view of the existence of others, and then compassion arising from that profound understanding of the equality of all beings will come out naturally.
So, the negation is not negation of the relatively existent self, but the negation is the negation of how we view ourselves right now. That view is to be negated.
In the Canon and in the teachings the self as a whole, as an entity per se, is negated — but at that time the teacher is addressing you directly, attacking, as it were, the way you perceive yourself. It is a method for finding that which indeed is to be negated. So it sometimes seems as though the teachings are negating the total relative self. But we need to separate the teaching technique from the object which it seeks to accomplish. We need to separate these two and identify the object which is to be negated. Only then can the reality of selflessness be realised.