A Shadow Spider



Says Lama Zopa Rinpoche:

As the main aim here is to see the I as empty, you don’t have to worry about the existence of the I at all. This is because to unmistakably realize emptiness means that you realize that the I doesn’t have existence from its own side. Seeing that the I appearing to exist from its own side is empty of existing from its own side naturally results in your seeing how the I does exist. Very powerful understanding of its existence comes to your mind when you have the unmistaken view of emptiness. It’s like a balance: if you put something heavy on one side the other side immediately goes up. By definitely understanding emptiness you definitely understand about the existence of the I. So the main difficulty is realizing emptiness (the Middle Way) unmistakably. Why? Because it depends on unmistakably recognizing the object to be refuted.[1]

Here is a powerful meditation. Think:

There is a real I in the sense of an I existing from its own side. Or, on the I there is an I appearing from its own side. It is the same as when you look at the bright red and blue colors in the brocade around thangkas, red is appearing on the red and blue is appearing on the blue from their own side. So now think of the self appearing from its own side and focus your mind right on that. At the same time be aware that this is the object to be refuted. It is the object to be refuted and it is empty. In this method you put more effort into understanding what emptiness means: the way it is appearing means it is empty.[2]

It is the same with the scarecrow. From a distance, at first, you might think that there is a person there. Then somebody tells you it is not a person but a scarecrow. Now, when you look at the figure with this new understanding, even though it still appears to your mind as a person, at the same time you are trying to understand that it isn’t. After some time, doing this will help you not to even see that figure as a person.[3]


Also consider how it is the same as when, at night, the light of a candle throws the shadow of a flower onto a wall. You might believe that it is a spider or some kind of insect crawling there. Only upon checking with a flashlight do you realize that the real spider or insect is not there, right where you saw it.[4] The spider in which you believed is empty. Right there it is empty. After that, although you may still see the shadow that looks like a spider on the wall, you have the wisdom to realize it is not true. It is empty there as a spider because the concept of a spider on the wall has been eliminated due to your discovering there is no spider present on that spot. In other words, realizing that your concept of a spider being there is empty eliminates your concept of the spider being there. Your discovery of no spider eliminates your concept holding a spider to be there.

Or consider it this way: what happens after somebody tells you that the shadow is not a spider? After some time, due to this [dawning] understanding that it isn’t a spider, the shadow no longer appears as such.

According to this method you don’t focus on understanding much or using many logical reasons. Instead, what you must do is just recognize the object to be refuted: this I existing from its own side. Whether or not you use the external examples of the object to be refuted such as the brocade [the red on top of the red, the blue on top of the blue] the point is to just focus on the refuting object. Be aware that this is the refuting object and that this is empty. Put more effort into awareness that it is empty. Just continue meditating like this. From time to time you can use the logic that it is a dependent arising. But maintaining awareness that it is empty is the main thing. Due to this the I that appears to exist from its own side suddenly becomes nonexistent. This is the experience. It is like losing something you have been cherishing as very very precious. You completely lost that one right there. I think “lost” is the exact label—it is completely lost.


[1] ‘Identification of the object to be refuted’ (dgag bya ngos ‘dzin pa) is frequently translated as ‘identification of the object of negation.’ Tsongkhapa famously emphasizes how it is critical to clearly and accurately distinguish between the mere I (nga tsam) that conventionally exists (as the referent object of the validly imputing thought “I am”) and the I that doesn’t (the object of negation, in this case, the object of the innate conception holding “I” as inherently existent) even if the awareness that is the innate conception of the I does not, of itself, make this distinction. In the quoted passage below (from Instruction on Madhyamaka View: The Profound Path of the Madhyamaka Prāsaṅgika) and to immediately but necessarily complicate matters, we must also understand that Tsongkhapa’s term “the mere I that lacks attributes” does not, as Donald S. Lopez carefully notes, refer to the mere I “but to the I that is not qualified by being either correctly imputed to be nominally existent or falsely appears to be intrinsically existent.” The reason, again in Lopez’s Tsongkhapa’s gloss: “Like all phenomena, this I appears to intrinsically exist, but sentient beings do not actively assent to that appearance in all cases. When they do, this I serves as the object of the innate conception of self, the fundamental ignorance present in all beings.” See “Painting the Target,” in Guy Newland, ed., Changing Minds. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2001, 69. It is this falsely-appearing intrinsic I to the mind that assents to it, or grasps at it existing in that way, that is the object of negation. The emphasis, therefore, is on this provisional “when they do.” Italics mine. Tsongkhapa’s root text, in Lopez’s important (because preciously-rare) translation reads:

First, it is said that the mere I that lacks attributes and is simultaneous with the innate awareness thinking “I am” is not just a sound-generality but is like something established objectively, it appears to the awareness perceiving it to be intrinsically established, it appears to be established by its own entity, it appears to be established by way of its own defining characteristics, it appears to be truly established. If it were established in the way that it appears, it would be a self of persons, truly established and so forth and the awareness that awareness that conceives it to exist in the way that it appears would be the innate conception of self” (Ibid, 66-7).

Tsongkhapa then provides a vividly illuminating illustration of what we must regard as a very subtle point concerning how we “mix” appearances of validly-existent and false I’s:

When a child perceives the reflection of a face in a mirror, everything about it looks like a face; there is no differentiation of those factors of the reflection that look like a face and those that do not. In the same way, everything [about the I] appears to be established objectively, without there being some factors of the I that appear to be established objectively and some factors that are not established objectively. For someone not trained in the terminology of “reflection” and “face,” they appear to be mixed as one. Therefore, the awareness conceives of the reflection as a face. For the awareness thinking “I am,” the appearance of being established objectively and the appearance of not being established objectively are mixed into one [such that] one conceives of its appearance as established objectively (Ibid., 67).

He then appends a vital experiential meditation instruction:

When you analyze how [the I] appears to the awareness thinking I, if the way the I appears to the awareness that is the innate conception of I is shaky, do not analyze it. When the awareness thinking “I am” is produced, you should ascertain how it appears at that very time. If you analyze how it appears later, it will have become mixed with other things and you will not ascertain it (Ibid).

We can add this instruction to Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s own because the aim is to capture, not the object of some artificial construction of what the object may be (for this would be a synthetic product fabricated via a consciously-held philosophical premise or dialectical assertion), but the actual way in which it appears in terms of fresh or spontaneously-emergent (in this sense innate) or bare experience. Not as easy as it sounds as we tend to compulsively pre-guess rather than nakedly observe. When Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that this particular meditation does not require “using many logical reasons” the reference here is to reasons employed within the body of the meditation. It is not to interpreted as permission to dismiss researching and understanding the topic beyond this immediate meditational frame.

[2] It would appear that Lama Zopa Rinpoche is (implicitly) referencing verse thirteen of the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, where Tsongkhapa writes,

Furthermore, appearance eliminates the extreme of existence 
And emptiness eliminates the extreme of non-existence. 
If you realize how emptiness manifests in the manner of cause and effect 
Then you are not captivated by wrong notions holding extreme views.

See Rinpoche’s translation at LamaYeshe.com. For commentary on the same verse, see the Dalai Lama, End of Suffering, 114. Pabongka also glosses this very famous and important verse, explaining why and how it conveys a unique and rare teaching of the Prāsaṅgika: “Now all the schools except for the members of the ‘Implication’ group [Prāsaṅgika] hold that an understanding of the appearance of things prevents you from falling into what we call the ‘extreme of thinking things do not exist,’ while an understanding of emptiness prevents you from falling into what is known as the ‘extreme of thinking things do exist.’ The position of the Implication group though is that no particular object you can choose has any true existence, aside from merely appearing this way; and understanding this prevents you from going to the extreme of thinking things exist—that is, exist in an ultimate way. And because this mere appearance itself cannot exist on its own, an understanding of emptiness prevents your falling into the extreme of thinking things do not exist—that is, do not exist in a conventional way. Once something is interdependent there is no possibility for it to be anything else but something which does not exist naturally—something which cannot stand on its own. This is because it must then occur in dependence on the collection of parts which serve as the basis that receives our label. Look at the example of some feeble old man, unable to rise from his chair by himself, who must seek some other support to get up—he cannot stand on his own. Here it’s a similar case: no object can stand on its own, no object can exist just naturally, so long as it must depend on any other factor.” See Tsongkhapa, Principal Teachings, 130–31.

For further discussion of Tsongkhapa’s (only apparently counter-intuitive) point that “Through appearance the extreme of [inherent] existence is cleared away. Through emptiness the extreme of [utter] non-existence is cleared away,” see Lozang Gönchok’sShort Commentary to Jamyang Shayba’s Root Text on Tenets” in Cozort and Preston, Buddhist Philosophy, 271–72. There the co-editors footnote that “Other schools say that the extreme of non-existence or annihilation is cleared away by appearance (that is, the appearance of objects refutes that nothing exists) and the extreme of true existence is cleared away by emptiness, which is the absence of true existence. However, Prāsaṅgikas say that because the meaning of emptiness is the same as the meaning of dependent-arising, the reverse is also true. Because things are empty of own-existence, they must have a mode of existence of depending on other things. Because they depend on other things, they must be empty of own-existence” (ibid).

[3] Gyel-tsap gives the following grimly comic variation upon the uncanny scarecrow appearing-as-a-real person story: “A painter was staying in the home of a master mechanic who, as a joke, sent a mechanical woman to him. Thinking that she was a maid who had been sent for him to enjoy and with whom he could do as he pleased, he took her hand only to find it was hard wood. He felt mortified and to take revenge painted himself committing suicide on the wall. When the master mechanic saw it, he felt remorse and thought the painter had killed himself in shame after touching the mechanical device.” Hence Āryadeva’s verse,

Whoever sees phenomena as like
A collection of mechanical devices
And like illusory beings,                  
Most clearly reaches the excellent state.

Translated by Ruth Sonam in Āryadeva and Gyel-tsap, Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas: Gyel-tsap on Āryadeva’s Four Hundred. Commentary by Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1994, 181. Lama Zopa Rinpoche will return to this classical simile  more than once in other posts.

[4] There is immense significance in the words “right where you saw it.” The Dalai Lama  explains, “No matter what our mind makes appear as an object of one of our six collections of consciousness—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile or bodily sensations, or mental objects or events—we thoroughly scrutinize its mode of appearance. Our mind is making it appear as though its existence were established by virtue of itself, empowered by some truly and inherently existent self-nature—and not by virtue simply of mental labeling establishing its existence as what can be labeled as ‘this’ or ‘that’ from this side.” The Dalai Lama and Alexander Berzin, The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1997), 157–58. The application of the example (or illustration) of the spider to the way there “does appear to be something solidly there, not existing as what it is by virtue simply of mental labeling, but by virtue of itself, independently of anything else” (ibid.) is vivid because what we fear is precisely this sense of a spider existing from there—independently, not just of our projecting mind, but of any other relative contingent circumstances. As His Holiness further describes, “Our mind gives rise to an appearance of it as if its existence were established under its own power, in the foreground before us, as its appearance implies” (ibid., italics mine).He stresses that “The manner in which our mind produces an appearance of things as if existing in a fashion discordant to the way in which they actually exist is the manner of appearance-making that is to be refuted, nullified and stopped” (ibid., 316). Thus we are invited to extend the example of the spider to other phenomena: “Consider any appearance to which our mind gives rise, whether it be of mountains, fences, pastures, houses or whatever. Although our mind gives rise to an appearance of ‘this’ or ‘that,’ it makes things appear as though, from their own side, through their own power, they were establishing their own existence and identity as ‘this’ or ‘that,’ ultimately findable as such in the place where our mind makes them appear to be” (ibid., 316–17, italics mine).

The technical terms (in the Berzin translation) are useful to reflect upon here: existence established in the place where mind makes something appear to be (snang sar grub pa); existence as a substantial entity able to stand on its own (rang rkya ’dzin thub pa’i rdzas yod); existence established at the place where something is mentally labeled to be (btags sar grub pa); existence established from its own side (rang ngos nas grub pa, svarūpasiddha). Ibid., 362–63, glossary. Others have translated these terms with similar prepositional emphasis on location or site: established at the site where it appears (snang sar grub pa); established at the site where it is imputed (btags sar grub pa); established at the site where it exists (yod sar grub pa).


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