Discover more from The Dalai Lama's Cat & Other Intrigues by David Michie
Where do I end and the world begin?
Plus related context about the Dalai Lama controversy
I had been working on another post for today, but after the controversy about the Dalai Lama’s encounter with a young boy in Dharmashala this week, I decided to bring forward this idea. It’s one that I’ve been mulling over for a while. The subject of how all people - including His Holiness - and phenomena seem to us is very relevant in explaining the controversy, about which I also share some context later.
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‘Generally all phenomena are mind itself.
Your guru arises from this very mind.
There is nothing other than mind.
Whatever appears is all the nature of mind.’
At what point do ‘I’ end and the rest of reality begin? This is not a question most people ponder very much – if at all – believing that they learned the answer when still in diapers. ‘I’ end at my fingers and toes and the crown of my head, right? What happens beyond that is outside and entirely separate from me.
This subject is at the heart of Buddha’s most important teaching of shunyata, and understanding his reality-shifting perspective points the way not only to removing the causes of our unhappiness, but also to creating the causes for our greatest flourishing.
What Buddha showed was that far from me, myself or I ending at our fingers and toes, what we perceive to be the world outside us is also part of me in the most unexpected way - because it is a projection of my mind. One that, contrary to appearances, has no fixed reality and is, instead, more like a constantly changing alphabet soup of labels that we place on things.
If this truth seems subtle, it is - but you don’t have to be especially academic or intellectual to get the gist of it. In this post I’d like to share a simple and quite ingenious approach I have learned from my precious teacher, Les Sheehy, during the meditation retreats he leads on exactly this subject.
Labels come from us
‘Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence.’
Erwin Schrödinger (Physicist)
During the course of these retreats Les produces, from beneath the teaching throne, an object that none of us have ever seen. The object he showed us in January was this one:
I hope that this is not an item you’re familiar with either. I expect that one or two readers may have encountered one, in which case you will have to imagine some other mysterious, unknown object. On retreat, we all had a chance to hold this item, to turn it over in our hands and inspect it, trying to make sense of it and figure out what is it for? What does it do? I invite you to do the same thing now, looking at the picture above.
As Les pointed out while we were doing this, at no point did the object itself indicate what it was. From its side, it had no self-evident purpose or identity. It wasn’t inherently one thing or another.
Les invited suggestions for what it might be. I wondered if it may be used to skim algae off pond surfaces. Someone else proposed a dog poop-scooper. The cognitive process happening at this point, whether we were aware of it or not, was that we were interrogating our mental database of qualities (the fundamental aspects of things) and characteristics (the details of those fundamental aspects) and coming up with nothing. Zero.
The revelation of what the thing is, was of far less interest than exposing how our minds work. Les told us that it is a berry picker. Instantly we could see how it functions in that way. From its side, it wasn’t anything at all until we labelled it, at which point it became a thing and we could form an opinion about it – like how fit for purpose it is, etc. But first came the labelling, and this was something that came not from the object, but from our minds.
Everything that we perceive in the world is like that. “Can you point to anything that you aren’t labelling with your mind?” lamas often ask us. To which the answer is a resounding ‘no!’ We may believe that there is a reality out there that has nothing to do with us. But the more subtle truth is that we are projecting qualities and characteristics onto everything out there. If we weren’t doing this, eveything in reality would be as much of a mystery to us as the berry picker was before we had a label for it.
I could have bought the ‘berry picker’ at a backyard sale believing it to be an algae-skimmer, just as someone else could have bought it to use as a poop-scooper. Because it is not inherently any one thing, how we label and use it depends on us. This gives rise to the crytpic, Zen-like statement we sometimes hear from teachers along the lines: “It is is only because it isn’t a berry picker that we can call it a berry picker” - meaning that it’s only because it isn’t, inherently anything at all, that we can call it whatever we like.
De-labelling in three simple steps
‘Relativity and quantum theory have shown that it has no meaning to divide the observing apparatus from what is observed.
David Bohm (Physicist)
There would still be a berry picker, you may be thinking, even if we didn’t have a label for it. Well yes, but how do things exist for us without label? It may help to look at this process in reverse.
Step 1 – Choosing an item
The Dharma offers a simple, three-step process to illuminate what we find when we remove labels. The first step is to choose the object we wish to explore – let’s say a pen. It is conventionally correct to call a pen, a pen. Or put differently, in an unanalysed way we may call it a pen.
Step 2 – Seeing how different kinds of minds label the item
Step two is to look at the object through the eyes and minds of a being completely different from ourselves – one who doesn’t have our own basis for labelling things. A dog may label a pen as an item to be chewed. A cat may perceive it as a plaything that can be flicked off the table. Both beings are apprehending the same item, but applying different labels because pen-ness is not one of their frames of reference. They don’t have the karma to perceive pen-ness.
We can be as specific as we like in our exploration. For example, I really like Montblanc ‘writing instruments’ as the manufacturers call them - using a more elevated label to define them as entirely superior to your garden variety ballpoint, and therefore much more expensive! My wife, however, can’t see the point in spending a whole lot of money on an item which does the same thing as one you can buy for just a fraction of the price.
We share the karma to see the same quality of pen-ness about a Meisterstuck LeGrand. But while I have the karma to see characteristics of artistry, cachet, and magnificence, her karma is to see extravagance and showboating. The characteristics aren’t in any way inherent to the pen, or we’d both have to see the same thing. The characteristics are coming from our minds, a projection of our own individual karmas.
Step 3 – Removing all the labels and identifying what remains
Having looked at all the different labels that may be applied by different kinds of minds to the same thing, step three is to take away all the labels projected by the variety of consciousnesses, and see what we are left with.
What happens when we remove the qualities of chewy-ness, plaything-ness or pen-ness, or characteristics of magnificence or extravagance? We are not left with nothing. Merely something that has no label. Something that is not inherently a this or a that. It has no characteristics of its own. Everything about it is arising from the minds that see it.
This short, and relatively straightforward analysis has revolutionary implications because most of the time we not only assume that there is an objective, external world outside us, but that the people and phenomena in that world have qualities and characteristics all of their own. We see ourselves as the passive receivers of what’s going on rather than the active projectors of our own particular reality show.
From time to time I’ll share an aphorism on social media to this effect, saying how ‘Everything is a projection of mind.’ Quite frequently there will be some disdainful, apparently slam-dunk response along the lines: ‘Tell that to people in Bakhmut!’
Facebook is no place to engage in a sane and measured discussion and I don’t even try. But for my part, I’d be very happy to talk about people in Bakhmut. I grew up during a civil war and I know from firsthand experience that what brought destruction and grief for some people brought purpose and glory to others. Some of the boys I went to school with were killed during military service. Others came into their own, pushed beyond what they believed were their physical and mental limits, and imbued with a burning sense of purpose they’d never felt before - or since. Even war has no inherent qualities. All depends on the mind of the being perceiving the war.
The superstition of subject and object
‘The common division of the world into subject and object, inner world and outer world body and soul, is no longer adequate and leads us into difficulties.’
Werner Heisenberg (Physicist)
Where all this leads us is to the view that it is an error to believe in an objective reality ‘out there’ that has nothing to do with us. A phrase sometimes used in Buddhism to describe this is ‘the superstition of subject and object’ – a perspective shared by quantum physicists. As Erwin Schrödinger puts it so succinctly, ‘Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist.’
In a future post I will explore the subject of how it’s not just the ‘external world’ that’s a product of our labelling, but also, intriguingly, me, myself and I. For now, the key take-outs are that:
Our body may end at our fingers and toes, but what we take to be external to us is anything but. In fact we can’t point to a single thing outside ourselves that we aren’t engaging with our mind and labelling. We are all constantly projecting our own personal reality onto the outside world.
Qualities and characteristics of the people and phenomena out there aren’t, as much as it seems, coming from them, but from our own minds, arising from our karma. Group karma means that there may be many shared projections, but no one else is creating exactly the same reality that we are.
What happens when we take away the labels that we are constantly applying to things? We aren’t left with nothing – but simply no independently, or inherently-existent things. All things exist, in part, dependent on our minds.
Our minds, propelled by karma, are therefore the true drivers of our reality. By changing our karma, we can transform our reality, perceiving both ourselves and what appears to be outside us in an extraordinary way. Nothing ‘external’ has to change for this to happen. Our move from samsara to nirvana doesn’t involve a physical relocation, but a transfiguration of our minds and hearts. This, in essence, is our life’s true purpose.
If you have found this post stimulating, you may also like to watch a twelve minute video in which I introduce the concept of shunyata explaining how all things depend on parts, causes and minds participation - the last dependency being the subject of this post.
I am guessing that most readers of my newsletter are fans of the Dalai Lama, and may well have been dismayed and distressed by the video that circulated on social and mainstream media earlier this week about his encounter with a young boy in Dharamshala.
The following video provides some very useful context.
For those of you who don’t have the time to watch the whole video, key points are:
The video that was circulated on social and mainstream media was a very short and deliberately edited version of an incidental encounter His Holiness had with a boy during a graduation ceremony in Dharamshala, attended mostly by Tibetans.
When the young boy approached the Dalai Lama asking for a hug, it required two translators to explain to His Holiness what he wanted.
The boy’s mother was sitting two chairs away from the Dalai Lama and witnessed the whole thing.
It is a Tibetan tradition that when kids ask their elders for hugs or cuddles, they kiss their elders first on the cheek and also on the lips. There is also touching of foreheads. If an older Tibetan person has no sweets or gifts to offer a child, he or she may stick out their tongue and say “eat my tongue.” This was what the Dalai Lama, who is not a native English speaker, would have intended when he said “suck my tongue.”
We may consider these customs bizarre. But many Asians think Westerners have bizarre customs such as “trampling dog poo all over your the house” as I was once told, because we don’t take off our shoes before going inside.
Apart from the tongue thing, which lasted a couple of seconds, there was also hugging, some tickling, and a little teaching from the Dalai Lama to the young boy about following the example of compassionate leaders, not those always seeking to harm and kill others.
An official took a photograph to record the encounter.
The event at which His Holiness spoke lasted an hour and a half and was broadcast live online over a month ago. Nobody paid any attention to it, apart from those who had some involvement with the ceremony.
This short video, which seems deliberately edited to harm His Holiness, appeared this week. Could the timing have had anything to do with his recognition, only days before, of a US-born Mongolian boy as the Buddhist head of Mongolia - a step which infuriated China? China invests massively in online disinformation and has been relentless in its demonisation of the Dalai Lama for the past 70 years.
So: where did this video emerge and what were the motives of its producers? From whose mind is the idea arising that what happened was anything other than a tender and innocent encounter?
I have spent very little time looking at online responses, but what I’ve seen has saddened me. Not only because of the damage being done to the Dalai Lama’s reputation. But much more because of the minds of those who, without any of the above context, now project onto him negative and even perverse motivations. From his side, the Dalai Lama is neither a this nor a that. It is the minds of those perceiving him who are projecting their own reality.
This week I suspect that for many people a beacon of kindness, compassion and integrity has been tarnished or lost, and their world that has become a darker place for it. That is the real tragedy.
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