China Academic Lectures
 Sponsored by
 China Institute in America. N.Y. USA
 by Dr. C. T. Shen
      Someone asked me why in the title of this talk I used the word
 "emptiness" in parenthesis after the word "self." According to
 Buddhism the answer is that "self is emptiness and emptiness is self."
 This answer, however, is too simple to comprehend. So before I explain
 the subject matter of this title, let me make two remarks:
 1) Emptiness or void, as used in Buddhism, does not mean nothingness,
    as in "the room was empty after all the people left." It means,
    actually, that the Original Nature of everything is emptiness, or
    even if the room is packed with people, it should still be
    envisioned as empty. Because human language is not adequate to
    convey such precise expression, the word "emptiness," which
    appeared to be closest in meaning, was chosen by the English-
    speaking scholars who first came into contact with Buddhism.  The
    word does create confusion, but there is no other suitable term in
    the English vocabulary.
 2) Because the truth discovered by the Buddha upon his enlightenment
    was incomprehensible by ordinary human minds, he had to rely on the
    language understandable to the people to explain what is
    incomprehensible. Buddha's teaching was therefore delivered at two
    different levels: the mundane level and the enlightened level. At
    the mundane level, the concept of self means there is an
    individual. At the enlightened level, however, individual or no
    individual, self or no self, phenomenon or no phenomenon, name or
    no name, are all merely sophisms. At the enlightened level, one
    envisions all people, including oneself, as those "seen" in a dream
    or who appear on a television screen. Such visions are therefore
    emptiness. Even the term "emptiness" is unnecessary and carries no
    real meaning. "Emptiness" is just a term arbitrarily chosen for the
    convenience of discussion among people at the mundane level.
      The concept of self at the mundane level, nevertheless, is the
 biggest hindrance to ordinary people in achieving enlightenment, or,
 to put it another way, one cannot achieve enlightenment and identify
 with Original Nature without first achieving the realization that the
 concept of self is not only an invalid concept, but also a dangerous
 concept, because with the concept of self the concept of "that is
 mine" is established, and then the attachment of both self and "that
 is mine" becomes firmly planted in one's mind; in this way one can
 never be in harmony with Original Nature, one can never achieve
 enlightenment and be rid of samsara, or recurring birth and-death,
 which is the source of suffering.
      In today's talk, I will first explain how the concept of self is
 formed and strengthened. Next, I shall try to explain, using several
 different approaches, how the concept of self is invalid. By
 destruction of the concept of self, the concept of emptiness will be
 formed. The concept of emptiness is also an attachment. Finally, we
 should destroy the concept of emptiness to enable Original Nature
 to be revealed. This concept of self has been so deeply rooted in our
 minds for so long that it is unrealistic to expect that it can be
 eliminated by the time we walk out of this room. It is my hope that
 after listening to this lecture your concept of self will not be
 strengthened further, and that this lecture will provide you with some
 leads that you may find useful in your future cultivation of Buddhism.
      According to Buddhism, the concept of self has two major
 components: one is the desire for unending life or continuous
 existence, and the other is the attachment to one's own view, usually
 expressed as "my view." The desire for continuous existence is present
 even before birth. The attachment to one's own view is gradually built
 up during one's lifetime, although such views are largely influenced
 by one's past karma. This concept of self is first conceived through
 one's sensory organs. Through them one establishes oneself, even at
 birth, as a physical body which is separate from the so-caled outside
 world. This concept of self becomes stronger and more and more
 important as one grows up. As a result, one finds that one has
 established within one's physical body a center of awareness, the
 self, with respect to the outside world.
      Secondly, because everyone establishes his or her own center of
 activity, the perception that the world is composed of different
 entities becomes sharpened.  Because each enity seeks its own
 satisfaction, conflicts of interest develop. This feeling of
 separation is further compounded when views differ and each entity
 asserts the importance or "rightness" of its own view. This is a brief
 explanation of the concept of self. Voluminous Buddhist commentaries
 have been written on this subject. What I've just said here is
 comparable to a drop of water in the vast ocean.  However, the ocean,
 as vast as it is, is basically water. So, if we study this drop of
 water thoroughly, a good foundation can be built for more advanced
 study of the ocean.
      We see, therefore, that the physical body of a person is the core
 in which the concept of self originates.  This concept of self is
 further strengthened by all kinds of identifications one encounters in
 daily life that increase the separation and isolation of one from
 others in the outside world. Some of the most common phenomena by
 which one identifies oneself or people distinguish one person from
 another are:
   1) identification by name
   2) identification by appearance
   3) identification by voice
   4) identification by fingerprint
   5) identification by sensation
   6) identification by ideology
   7) identification by fame
 By examining these factors closely, we discover one interesting fact:
 that is, they are all related to the physical human body.
      These identifications are like the branches and leaves of a tree
 with the physical human body as its root. If the root is dug out, then
 all the leaves and branches will automatically pass out of existence.
 The above statement has, nevertheless, been challenged by a friend of
 mine who is a forester.  He said to me, "Since you have not had the
 experience of taking down a big tree, you do not know that the
 branches should be cut off first, then the trunk cut down, and then
 the root dug out or pulverized." I certainly could not argue with him;
 however, I told him that according to Buddhism there are three major
 paths that lead human beings to dig out the root of the concept of
 self. These three paths are:
    Path 1- Vigorous practice; having the goal of destroying all kinds
 of habits one has accumulated, not only during this life since birth,
 but also during past lives.  The habits referred to include knowledge,
 faith, love and hatred, and all kinds of human activities. Ch'an
 (pronounced Zen in Japanese) and the example set by the Tibetan
 enlightened one, Milerapa, belong to this path. This path is analogous
 with the idea of concentrating one's efforts on digging out the root
 without cutting off the branches first.
    Path 2- Reliance upon the law of karma, whereby the concept of self
 can be gradually eliminated and Original Nature revealed through an
 accumulation of merit gained by practicing the six perfections
 (paramitas), namely, perfection of living (dana paramita), perfection
 of moral discipline (sila paramita), perfection of patience (ksanti
 paramita), perfection of energetic perseverance (virya paralrlita),
 perfection of meditation (dhyana pramita), and perfection of wisdom
 (prajna paramita). This path is analogous to the standard method in
 forestry of first cutting off the branches and trunk and finally
 removing the root.
 Paths 1 and 2 are methods of cultivation, but without a sound
 theoretical foundation, people can go astray upon reaching an advanced
 stage, as in Path 1, and may lose enthusiasm after a certain period of
 time, as in Path 2. We therefore need Path 3.
    Path 3- Establishment of a theoretical foundation for Paths 1 and 2
 through ample learning and penetrative reasoning. In this lecture,
 however, I regret to say that I will be able to introduce to you only
 very little from each path. Today let us follow Path 3 to see how the
 concept of self can be theoretically destroyed so that Original Nature
 can be revealed.  The next talk will be devoted to Paths 1 and 2, but
 also-very briefly and on a very selective basis.
      Now let us first examine the seven means of identification that I
 mentioned before, to see whether these branches of the tree of "self"
 can be removed first.
    1) A name is probably the most common identification of a person,
       but it is obvious that a name is a poor means of identification.
       Not only can a name be changed, but many people can have the
       same name, so that branch can easily be cut off.  A name cannot
       really separate one person from the other.
    2) Appearance, including the form of the body, complexion, color,
       etc., is also commonly used to identify a person. But not only
       does appearance change with age, it can also be changed by
       surgery.  It may serve a temporary purpose, but it cannot really
       be used to establish the concept of self.
    3) Scientific experiments demonstrate that each person has a
       different voice pattern. An instrument a even been devised by
       which a court may identify a person according to a vocal
       pattern. But physical damage to the vocal apparatus could change
       that pattern, and certainly this means of identification is not
       applicable to mutes. Voice, therefore, also cannot permanently
       separate one person from another so that each person could be
       justified in being called a "self".
    4) Fingerprints are commonly used to identify a person but, like
       the voice, are not perfect. One does not lose one's concept of
       self even by cutting off both one's hands.
    5) It is true that sensation, such as pain, delight, and the
       apprehension of danger, does alert one to the existence of a
       self, but such alertness is usually temporary and simply affirms
       the concept of self which one has already in the first place.
    6) Ideology is a strong identification of self. It is, in fact,
       part of the premise of one's so-called view, which is one of the
       two components that form "self." Historians have recorded that
       many religious defenders and revolutionaries even put their
       ideas, faith, or principles above their lives. Although in those
       cases the concept of self as an individual is usually
       surrendered to the concept of self as a group, the concept of
       self is, nevertheless, strengthened.  But ideology can be
       changed, and a change in one's ideology does not mean a change
       in the individual.  The concept of self remains. Thus it is
       proven that ideology is still not the core of the concept of
    7) Fame is also a strong identification of self.  Fame represents
       accomplishments, which distinguish one from other persons. Fame
       can be very deeply planted in one's mind. It is not surprising
       to learn that one of the presidents of the United States heard
       people call him "Mr. President" in his dreams.  Ego is a term
       which represents the strong attachment of a person to such
       identification by fame. Pride and arrogance are usually the by-
       products. Just like ideology, fame can change overnight.
       However, destruction of one's reputation does not,
       unfortunately, mean the destruction of the concept of self. This
       branch, fame, therefore does not last.
 With all branches cut off we are now facing the root of the tree of
 "self", that is, the reality of the human body.
      More than 2,000 years ago a famous Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tze,
 remarked, "My biggest problem is that I have a body." Buddha also
 emphasized that the body is the source of all human suffering. So, we
 go to the core of the problem.  Can the human body justifiably be
 called a "self"?
      To study this important and fundamental question, let me employ
 three analytical methods taught by Buddha. Each method leads to the
 conclusion that the physical human body is a manifestation of
 "emptiness" (sunyata) and that the term "self" is just a name
 arbitrarily chosen by human beings for the convenience of the living
 in this world.
 1) The first analytical method is by disintegration.
    Now please follow my imagination. l am now taking my left arm off
 my body. Would you call that left arm C.T. Shen? No. It is simply an
 arm.  I am now taking my right arm off my body.  Would you call that
 right arm C.T. Shen? Again, no. I am now taking my heart out. Would
 you call that heart C.T. Shen? Again, the answer is no.  It is a heart
 which can be transplantet into another person and that transplantation
 of my heart does not make the other person C.T. Shen.
    Now, I am taking of my head. Would you call that head C.T. Shen?
 No. It is simply a head. I can take every part of my body apart and
 none of the parts can be called C.T. Shen. Finally, after every part
 is removed, please tell me where C.T. Shen is. This human body is
 simply a temporary assemblage of many parts. It is an aggregate
 without permanent nature. It is, therefore, called emptiness
 (sunyata).  C.T. Shen, or "self", is simply a name arbitrarily chosen
 for the convenience of those at the mundane level.
 2) The second analytical method is by integration.
    Here in this room we have many different individuals.  Each one
 will say that this physical body is himself or herself; but way back,
 even in Buddha's time, philosophers in India and Greece stated that a
 human body is no more than a combination of four basic elements,
 namely, solid, liquid, gas, and heat.  Buddha, using the insights of
 his enlightenment, went further to declare that these four elements
 can be integrated into one element, which he called sunyata. According
 to his description, sunyata is something that is incomprehensible to
 the human mind and that is without duality and without discrimination,
 and limitless both in time and space, yet is not nothingness. Now, in
 the twentieth century, scientists also tell us that solid, liquid,
 gas, and heat are all different manifestations of energy, which, by my
 definition, as I suggested during mr first talk on the concept of
 birth and death, is quite the same as sunyata (emptiness) as taught by
    Therefore, not only those who sit here, but also other human
 beings, no matter how different they are in form, sex, color, etc.,
 can all be integrated into one, that is, sunyata or energy. All
 individuals are the same at this enlightened level. "Self" is
 therefore simply a concept arbitrarily created for the convenience of
 people at the mundane level.
 3) The third analytical method is by penetration.
    No one will deny that the physical body of any one of us is solid,
 or at least appears to be solid; but if we examine it penetratively we
 find that this concept of a solid physical body is primarily
 established through our visual organ--the eyes. Unfortunately, our
 eyes are such poor instruments that they mislead us terribly. Let us
 assume that you are seeing a handsome, young man. This is precisely
 the information your naked eyes give you in your daily life.
    Now what if your eyes are opened to the view perceived by infrared
 rays. Here the young man loses his shape as a solid body and becomes
 instead a mixture of red, yellow, and green colors in the approximate
 shape of a human body.  Whether you can still recognize him as male,
 young, and handsome is now subject to question.
    Now what if you could see the same young man through X-ray vision.
 Most likely you do not like looking at him. I certainly do not expect
 you to still have the impression that he is young and handsome.
    Or what if you could see the same young man examined
 microscopically, so that the body is in the form of a molecular
 structure.  The structure may look beautiful, but you certainly do not
 see a handsome, young man.
    Undifferentited space represents this young man in formless form,
 which is invisible to the human eyes. You may call this form Original
      May I now call your attention to this important fact: these five
 forms are not different entities.  They are the same man in the same
 spot and at the same instant, but to your eyes they appear to be very
      Now, visible light, infrared light, and X-ray vision are only a
 few wave lengths among the infinite number of wave lengths in the
 universe represented by the electromagnetic spectrum.  This young man
 can, therefore, appear in an infinite number of different forms at
 different wave lengths. That is to say, if we assume that your eyes
 are capable of seeing things at any wave length, and not only at the
 wave length called visible light, then, as you scan the spectrum, you
 are really becoming Alice in Wonderland. The form of this young man
 changes momentarily and continuously; there is no one form that is
 permanent, nor can any form be considered as real.
      Not only can this young man appear in so many different forms,
 including the formless form which is emptiness in the ordinary sense;
 but every one of us can also appear in all those forms, including the
 formless form, or emptiness. At this point, you should note that all
 the formless forms of all of us are the same. Now, if the truth is
 such, is it not foolish that we adhere so much to the physical body,
 which is just one of the infinite forms manifested by Original Nature
 and which is used to create this concept of self?
      These three analytical methods lead to the conclusion that the
 physical human body is impermanent and is a momentarily changeable
 form seen by human eyes in a very narrow range of wave lengths. Since
 this is the reality of a human body, how is it justifiable to call it
 a self, an individual entity?  Therefore, there is no self, only
      Once, I introduced this doctrine of "no self, only emptiness" to
 some of my friends. One friend cried, "If I lose myself and become
 emptiness, how can I sell! be alive?" To this question I answered,
 "The Buddha achieved this realization that there is no self, only
 emptiness, upon his enlightenment at the age of 35 and he lived a
 happy life until he was 80 years old." Therefore, the destruction of
 the concept of "self," and the realization of emptiness, do not mean
 the end of life; on the contrary, this stage is the beginning of the
 happy life. I will discuss this more fully in the next talk.
 This lecture converted from printed to digital format and included in
 the MOUNT KAILAS BBS TEACHING Library with permission from
 Dr. C. T. Shen
 Copyright and all rights reserved by Dr. C. T. Shen