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Buddhadharma : Summer 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 9 32 you can reverse some habits related to the grosser afflictions. But wherever there is grasping at an intrinsic existence of the aggregates—the body and mind— there will always be a dan- ger of grasping at a self or “I” based on those aggregates. As Nagarjuna writes in his Precious Garland (Ratnavali): As long as there is grasping at the aggregates, there is grasping at self; when there is grasping at self there is karma, and from it comes birth. Nagarjuna argues that just as grasping at the intrinsic exis- tence of the person or self is fundamental ignorance, grasping at the intrinsic existence of the aggregates is also grasping at self-existence. Madhyamikas therefore distinguish two kinds of emptiness—the lack of any self that is separate from the aggregates, which they call the emptiness of self, and the lack of intrinsic existence of the aggregates themselves—and by extension all phenomena—which they call the emptiness of phenomena. Realizing the first kind of emptiness, Nagarjuna and his followers argue, may temporarily suppress manifest afflictions, but it can never eradicate the subtle grasping at the true existence of things. To understand the meaning of the first link, fundamental ignorance, in its subtlest sense, we must identify and understand it as grasping at the intrinsic existence of all phenomena—including the aggregates, sense spheres, and all external objects—and not merely our sense of “I.” The Relative “I” The search for the nature of the self, the “I” that naturally does not desire suffering and naturally wishes to attain happi- ness, may have begun, in India, around three thousand years ago, if not earlier. Throughout human history people have empirically observed that certain types of strong, powerful emotions—such as hatred and extreme attachment—create problems. Hatred, in fact, arises out of attachment—attach- ment, for example, to family members, community, or self. Extreme attachment creates anger or hatred when these things are threatened. Anger then leads to all kinds of conflict and battles. Some human beings have stepped back, observed, and inquired into the role of these emotions, their function, their value, and their effects. We can discuss powerful emotions such as attachment or anger in and of themselves, but these cannot actually be com- prehended in isolation from their being experienced by an individual. There is no conceiving an emotion except as an experience of some being. In fact, we cannot even separate the objects of attachment, anger, or hatred from the individual who conceives of them as such because the characterization does not reside in the object. One person’s friend is another person’s enemy. So when we speak of these emotions, and particularly their objects, we cannot make objective determi- nations independent of relationships. Just as we can speak of someone being a mother, a daugh- ter, or a spouse only in relation to another person, likewise the objects of attachment or anger are only desirable or hateful in relation to the perceiver who is experiencing attachment or anger. All of these—mother and daughter, enemy and friend— are relative terms. The point is that emotions need a frame of reference, an “I” or self that experiences them, before we can understand the dynamics of these emotions. A reflective person will then ask, What exactly is the nature of the individual, the self? And once raised, this question leads to another: Where is this self? Where could it exist? We take for granted terms like east, west, north, and south, but if we examine carefully, we see these again are relative terms that have meaning only in relation to something else. Often, that point of reference turns out to be wherever you are. One could argue, in fact, that in the Buddhist worldview, the center of cyclic existence is basically where you are. Thus, in a certain sense, you are the center of the universe! Not only that, but for each person, we ourselves are the most precious thing, and we are constantly engaged in ensur- ing the well-being of this most precious thing. In one sense, our business on earth is to take care of that precious inner core. In any case, this is how we tend to relate to the world and others. We create a universe with ourselves in the center, and from this point of reference, we relate to the rest of the world. With this understanding, it becomes more crucial to ask what that self is. What exactly is it? Buddhists speak of samsara and nirvana—cyclic existence and its transcendence. The former, as we have seen, can be defined as ignorance of the ultimate nature of reality and the We create a universe with ourselves in the center, and from this point of reference, we relate to the rest of the world. With this understanding, it becomes more crucial to ask, What is that self?