Unwittingly Entrusting Ourselves to Ignorance

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The practices of the three capable beings[1] form the sequential structure of the lamrim (graduated path to enlightenment). The person of low capability (scope) is one who motivates to completely cut off clinging to this life. Such an attitude is generated by meditating upon the perfect human rebirth by contemplating how it is meaningful, rare and difficult to achieve again. One also meditates on impermanence and death, realizing how death is definite, can happen at any moment and that neither possessions, relatives nor surrounding people can help at the time of death. Only the Holy Dharma is then of benefit.[2] Next, one realizes that if one dies without having purified the negative karma one has created, at death time, one will take rebirth in the lower realms such as the hells, hungry ghost and animal realms. No opportunity to practice Dharma arises in such states and there is no happiness. Only the heaviest suffering is experienced.

By meditating on the above one realizes that one must cut off clinging to this life and achieve instead the happiness of the upper realms of the humans, demigods or gods in future lives. One can do this by taking refuge and protecting one’s karma. Recognizing the shortcomings of the ten nonvirtuous actions and how they are harmful, one decides to abandon them.[3] By seeing the benefits of living in the vows of morality, such as the ten virtues, one decides to adopt these instead.

Middle capable beings develop on the basis of the lower capable being’s decision to cut off clinging to this life. However their motivation is to cut off clinging not just to this life but to renounce completely all saṃsāric perfections and happinesses. In order to do this they meditate on true sufferings by considering the general suffering of saṃsāra as well as the specific sufferings of the human and deva realms. To achieve self-liberation they practice the three higher trainings of morality, concentration and, in dependence upon that, great insight.[4] Although their practice of morality is based on that of the lower capable being, they differ in terms of motivation and goal: to achieve liberation from all of saṃsāra rather than just the lower saṃsāric realms.

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Higher capable beings also develop full renunciation, not just to the lower realms but to the whole of saṃsāra, living in which is seen as similar to being in the center of a fire.[5] Then, by looking at how others are also suffering in saṃsāra, they generate great compassion. Such compassion has the aspect of feeling how unbearable it is that sentient beings are trapped as though in the center of flames. Due to seeing them in this plight there is no happiness for even one second. Compassionate realization of how others are suffering becomes the reason for the generation of altruism. Think:

Therefore I must free them from suffering and its causes. In order to do that I must be able to perceive all the different beings’ individual levels of mind. Just as a doctor must understand the disease in order to diagnose, treat and cure the patient, so do I need to know completely the characteristics of each person as well as all the different methods with which to guide them in order to free them from all the obscurations and lead them to the peerless happiness of the highest enlightenment. Only an omniscient buddha can see all these things, including the nature of each being’s mind, and therefore know all the suitable methods with which to guide them. Therefore, for the sake of all sentient beings, I must myself achieve the enlightened mind in order to lead them to this highest goal.

You can see in this way how compassion becomes the reason to generate bodhicitta: the altruistic wish to become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings. To achieve this aim you therefore practice the bodhisattva’s conduct: the six pāramitās, or perfections.[6] On top of that, you also practice the tantric path. Both method and wisdom are included in these practices. The higher capable being’s practice is based on the middle capable being’s practice of the three higher trainings, which, in turn, is based on the lower capable being’s practice of living in morality and the practice of the ten virtues.




It is now possible to see that those not included within this classification of the three capable beings are just ordinary capable beings, because they are living just to obtain the happiness of this life. Apart from this they don’t work or attempt to gain any happiness. There is nothing that would especially distinguish them as higher than animals in this regard. Pigs, goats, cows, tigers, mice and those tiny insects for example, are also very smart and destroy enemies who harm them. They also kill as a means of finding food for living. But the real and greatest meaning of human life is not just to work for this life’s comfort, as even these nonhumans can do that. It is to live the human life with bodhicitta: to practice the path of the six pāramitās in order to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings. The lesser meaning is to wish to achieve liberation for oneself and the lowest is to achieve happiness in the lives beyond this one.

Listening to Dharma teachings with the motivation of achieving enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings creates the cause to achieve that goal, whereas listening with the motivation of achieving liberation for oneself becomes the cause to achieve that goal. It is similar when listening with just the aim of achieving future lives’ happiness. But when we listen with the wish to achieve reputation or worldly power, it does not even become Dharma. Even though what you are hearing is Dharma, the motivation is not. Instead, it is a nonvirtuous motivation of worldly concern preoccupied with attachment clinging to this life. We can extend this to any action performed, day or night: if it is done with only worldly concern, it becomes nonvirtue. As Lama Atiśa explained, it will result in rebirth in the three lower realms. Understanding this, we can see that happiness comes from our mind, not from the outside. It depends on our attitude, whether it is positive or negative. No outside creator is determining whether something is happiness or otherwise. Nor is there happiness or suffering without a cause. Our happiness and suffering are creations of our own mind and mental attitudes.

As Nāgārjuna also explained, nonvirtues that result in all the evil migratory beings’ rebirths are born from actions motivated by ignorance, anger and attachment. From non-ignorance, non-anger and non-attachment arise virtuous results and the happiness of happy migratory beings. Twenty-four hours a day, depending on whether our attitude is positive or negative, we are creating the causes of happiness or suffering.

Now we can see that the creator of saṃsāra and the very root of the whole entire suffering is the root ignorance not knowing the nature of the I, the ultimate nature of the self. All karma and disturbing thoughts such as anger and attachment arise from this. To recognize this root exactly, without mistake, is the most important thing we can do. Without it we cannot be liberated from saṃsāra because there is no other way to cut off its root. By actualizing the true path, which is wisdom directly realizing emptiness, we can cease all defilements, disturbing thought obscurations and karma.[7] By achieving the sorrowless state, we gain liberation from these forever. But in order to do this, we must clearly recognize the nature of the object held by this ignorance apprehending the I and the aggregates as independently and truly existent.[8]





In Tibetan we refer to this object as gag cha—the object to be refuted.[9] In Western psychological terms and in ordinary language terms we refer to it as the emotional I.[10] From the Tibetan [technical] perspective it is referring to the I appearing as not merely labeled by the mind. To this ignorance it appears as existent from its own side and is believed by this ignorance to exist in this way. One might say that this ignorance entrusts the I with this true independent existence one hundred percent. It has no doubts that it exists in this (false) manner. All other phenomena, not just the I, are also grasped as existing in this way.[11] In actuality, the object held and believed in as existent by the ignorance is one hundred percent nonexistent.

When you generate the opposite of that ignorance holding and believing things to be truly existent—which is the wisdom realizing emptiness—you suddenly realize that what ignorance has entrusted us to is totally nonexistent.[12] Yet it is not the case that it goes out the window or the door! You realize it is totally nonexistent right there. You discover that which isn’t there from the beginning is nonexistent! This is because the I that has appeared to be truly existent from beginningless time has never been truly existent. Even for a second it has never existed in that way. Yet due to having followed ignorance you haven’t seen this. From beginningless rebirths you haven’t been aware that, in reality, this “I” has been always empty and has never come into existence as truly existent. Only now do you discover this.

Upon realizing the emptiness of what ignorance has entrusted, one enters the path that pleases all the buddhas. Why? Because this is the first step toward liberation, toward the cessation of the sufferings of the oceans of hell, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings suras and asuras. In realizing emptiness you have realized the heart of Buddhadharma. The Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life says that all the teachings are presented for the sake of this realization.[13] When your own experience of this realization comes, no one can cheat you of its experiential validity. You understand it as the Buddha explained, as Nāgārjuna, Milarepa and Lama Tsongkhapa explained. Your personal discovery of this insight is exactly in concordance with their teachings.[14]





Rather than giving in to the desire to harm others or ourselves we should think:

This is a projection. These things that look real from their own side are hallucinations. Then meditate strongly that they are empty.

If we don’t generate aversion to anger, we’ll be more easily disturbed when we encounter difficulties. Also, when we get angry we destroy our accumulated positive karma. We can destroy a vast amount of positive karma in just an instant, a second, a split-second. What we have to understand is that anger arises from the self-cherishing attitude.[15] Its causes don’t come from outside but are inside, in our own mind. So what we must do when anger arises is to dissolve it back into the self-cherishing attitude from which it arises. All the obstacles are dissolved back into the self-cherishing attitude so that it disappears.


All the negative karma that ripens as anger and the other disturbing attitudes is dissolving back into its cause—the self-cherishing attitude—and is disappearing. Now it has completely disappeared.

At the same time also think:

All the objects held by the self-cherishing attitude as very important, as the most important, appear to exist from their own side. But they are empty of existing from their own side. They are empty of existing truly. Those obstacles ripened by the self-cherishing attitude are mere emptiness.

See them in this way. What you must do is think about emptiness at such times and meditate on that. Make it empty. In this way that obstacle will become a cause of happiness and peace for the mind. It is not just a matter of bodhicitta. In such moments we must recall the correct view of emptiness. Maybe it is like that. Think:

I shall eliminate the self-cherishing attitude from the point of view of reality and strive for enlightenment. This is why I am doing this activity, this meditation.




Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography


[1] The three ascending scopes, or categories, of a person (skyes bu gsum). In his Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, Atisha writes,

Understand there are three kinds of persons
Because of their small, middling and supreme capacities.
I shall write clearly distinguishing
Their individual characteristics.

Know that those who by whatever means
Seek for themselves no more
Than the pleasures of cyclic existence
Are persons of the least capacity.

Those who seek peace for themselves alone,
Turning away from worldly pleasures
And avoiding destructive actions
Are said to be of middling capacity.

Those who, through their personal suffering,
Truly want to end completely
All the suffering of others
Are persons of supreme capacity.

See Rinchen, Atisha’s Lamp, 151–52.

[2] Geshe Doga points out that “Holy Dharma” in this context refers to “the Dharma Jewel, which is the Mahayana truth of cessation and truth of the path. The Mahayana truth of cessation consists of that which is free from adventitious stains and which is naturally pure. ‘Free from adventitious stains’ refers to the cessation of the deluded obscurations, and ‘naturally pure’ refers to the obscurations to omniscience. Thus cessation includes being free from both the deluded obscurations [obscurations to liberation] as well as the obscurations to omniscience.” Unpublished edited transcript of commentary on Śāntideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Tara Institute, Melbourne, 2013.

[3] The ten unwholesome, or negative, actions (mi dge ba bcu, daśākuśala). While it is usual to talk of the ten nonvirtuous actions, more formally, and as Tsongkhapa notes, “The seven actions of body and speech are actions, yet they are also paths of action since they are also the basis of operation for the intentions. The three, covetousness and so on, are paths of action but not actions.” Middle Length Lam-Rim, 88. As Quarcoo glosses, “the last three of the ten non-virtues do not constitute actions. Thus action should often be understood more loosely as a term that only requires specification in certain contexts” (ibid., footnote 113). This qualification requires we understand the need to abandon not just the actions but their intentional pathways as well.

[4] The three higher trainings (lhag pa’i bslab pa, adhiśīla). Also translated as higher conduct, higher concentration and higher insight. As Richard Sherburne notes, “The latter two are the equivalent of Calmness [zhi gnas, śamatha] and Higher Vision [lhag mthong, vipaśyanā].” See Atiśa, Complete Works, 571, glossary. Calmness is more usually translated as calm abiding and higher vision as special or penetrative insight. Tsongkhapa notes that “The nature of the three trainings is as the Sūtra requested by Brahmā states:

Ethical discipline has six branches;
Concentration is the four blissful abodes;
The four aspects of the four noble truths
Are always pure sublime wisdoms.

He then gives an extensive account. See Great Treatise, Volume One, 341–53.


[5] Employing this famous fire analogy, Tsongkhapa writes:

When you have come to understand the characteristics of cyclic existence in detail from the point of view of the two, sufferings and their origins, just the desire to abandon them and the desire that arises to attain their complete pacification is indeed the thought to definitely emerge. However, that alone is not sufficient. Therefore you should generate that mind to the same extent as the mind of someone who does not want to be stuck in a house ablaze with fire or stay locked up in prison and to the same extent that it desires liberation from them. Then it will still be necessary to increase it.

Middle Length Lam-Rim, 124.

[6] Perfection (phar phyin, pāramitā). The six perfections (phar phyin drug) are the perfections of generosity (sbyin pa), ethics (tshul khrims), patience (bzod pa), joyous effort (brtzon ’grus), concentration (bsam gtan) and wisdom (she rab). For a comprehensive account see Sonam Rinchen, The Six Perfections (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1998). For two etymologies of pāramitā see Lopez, Heart Sūtra Explained, 21–22.

[7] True path refers to the fourth noble truth, the path to the cessation of suffering (lam bden). As Dhargyey notes, in order to attain liberation and enlightenment we need four things:

A. The path (lam).

B. Awareness of the path (rig-pa) as the means of counteracting the Kleśas.

C. Practice of these means (sgrub-pa) with exertion and endurance, motivated by the wish to attain a high state of existence.

D. Knowledge of the method to eliminate the Kleśas so that they will never again return (nges-’byin).

Tibetan Tradition, 31 (37 in 1978 edition). The fourth involves/requires knowing how to generate the wisdom directly realizing emptiness. The Sanskrit word kleśa (Tib: nyon mongs) refers to mental afflictions. For definition see Sopa, Steps, Volume 2, 267–68. For their classification or types (anger, pride etc.), see ibid., 267–75.

[8] The Dalai Lama, discussing the first of the twelve links (ma rig pa), notes, “Thus, the basic ignorance is not just the absence of knowledge of the real status of phenomena but the active conception of the opposite—that is, the conception of inherent existence whereas in actuality phenomena do not inherently exist….Here in the twelve links of dependent arising, ignorance refers to the misconception of the person, specifically oneself, as inherently existent, and to the misconception that phenomena that are part of one’s continuum, such as mind and body, inherently exist….The other form of ignorance—the type that is involved only in nonvirtuous, or negative, actions—is a misconception about the effects of actions.” The Meaning of Life, 10. Thus, this root ignorance may be considered as two: “obscuration with respect to actions and their effects and obscuration with respect to suchness.” See Hopkins, Meditation, 257–58.

Note: both are not necessarily present (or causally involved) when a formative action (or throwing karma) is created. Geshe Sonam Rinchen explains: “Ignorance precedes the second link, formative action, functioning in a causal capacity, and it is also present with the action. This ignorance can be of two kinds: ignorance regarding the fundamental nature of things and ignorance regarding the connection between actions and their effects. Both may accompany formative action, but when a virtuous action is performed, the second type of ignorance regarding the connection between actions and their effects is absent. The contemporaneous motivating ignorance pushes the action through to its conclusion. If ignorance about the connection between actions and their effects is present, virtuous action will not occur. ” See Rinchen, How Karma Works, 59. See also Hopkins, Meditation, 257–58 and Tsongkhapa, Great Treatise, Volume One, 315–16.

[9] As mentioned previously, gag cha (dgag bya) is translated variously as the object of negation, object of refutation, object to be refuted and refuted object. It refers to the “self” – the object to be refuted. Regarding the necessity of understanding its significance and to what it is referring, Khöntön Peljor Lhündrup succinctly explains:

First of all, we accept that the object to be refuted−the self that, when refuted, we accept as bringing about the realization of no-self−is “existence by virtue of own-nature,” or “intrinsic existence.” As the Commentary on the Four Hundred Stanzas states:

“Self” refers to an essence whose nature is such that it makes things independent of other things. The nonexistence of that self is “no-self.” That self is understood in two ways, being divided according to whether it is a self of phenomena or of persons, and so there is a no-self of phenomena and a no-self of persons.

And Buddhapalita states:

When he teaches that all phenomena have no self, the words “no-self” mean “no self-nature. This is because the word “self” is a technical term referring to self-nature.

It is necessary to identify such a self, the object to be refuted. For example, in order to ascertain that Devadatta does not exist at the site where Devadatta is not perceived by a valid cognition, it is necessary to know the Devadatta who does not exist. Likewise, to understand the meaning of “no-self” and “no essences” it is necessary to properly identify the self and essences that do not exist. This is because unless the generic image of the object to be refuted appears to one, one does not ascertain the meaning of the no-self that is the refutation of that self. As the Entering the Bodhisattva Practice states:

Without some sense of the thing being imagined,
there is no apprehension of its unreality,

We apprehend each and every person or phenomenon as a concrete thing, as existing from its own side, as existing in such a way that, rather than being merely posited by the internal mind, it is something that exists from its won side based on the object that is the basis of its imputation. That [false apprehension of the nature of objects] is how innate ignorance reifies things as intrinsically existing. That self-existence of phenomena that has been apprehended in this way by that innate ignorance is the “self that is to be refuted,” or the “intrinsic existence” that, regardless of how unlikely it is, is to be identified. As the Four Hundred Stanzas states:

None of these are independent
and therefore self-nature does not exist. 

See The Dalai Lama, Khöntön Peljor Lhündrup and José Ignacio Cabezón, Meditation on the Nature of the Mind, 132-3. Regarding the measure (or hypothetical extent) of this “self-nature” Hopkins writes: 


Hypothetically (since it does not exist), it is the objective existence of a phenomenon through its own entity without being posited by thought. This mode of existence is the referent object of a consciousness conceiving self; it is the “measure” of true existence, the estimate of self or inherent existence in this system. It is self in the view of selflessness in the Consequence School.

See Emptiness Yoga, 86. Kensur Yeshey Tupden similarly expresses:

What is the measure of something truly existing? If the referent object of the conception of true existence existed, then [true existence, or a truly existent object] would exist. Otherwise it does not. Even though true existence does not exist, it is imputed there by the conception of true existence. That conception of true existence apprehends and adheres to it and thinks that it does exist. Nothing, however, exists in accordance with how it is thought to exist. If it did, it would have to exist by way of its own entity, by way of its own character, by way of its nature. In Prāsaṅgika, except for being posited by the mind, the object itself has no capacity (nus pa). It exists because of the three forms of dependency: dependence on causes and conditions, on parts, and on being posited by the mind. In itself, it has no potency at all. Thus, the measure of existence is something left over from [the denial of existence from] an object’s own side.

See Path to the Middle, 137. 

Further concerning the estimation (or hypothetical measure) of the ‘self” that is to be refuted, the Prāsaṅgika consider the following terms as synonyms: appearing to exist truly established, truly existent, ultimately existent, existent by way of its own reality, naturally existent by way of its own character, substantially existent, existent by being able to establish itself, existent from the object’s own side, objectively existent, existent through its own power, existence in the object that receives designation, existence right in the basis of designation, inherently existent, existence through its own entitiness, existence in the manner of covering its basis of designation and existence from the side of the basis of designation. See  “Some Reflections on Terminology” in About (in this blog) for further discussion of this important topic. See  also Hopkins, Meditation, 35–40; Elizabeth Napper, Dependent-Arising and Emptiness (Boston: Wisdom, 1989), 46–50.

[10] The notion of a false I to be refuted by a wisdom consciousness has no easy or ready equivalent in either Western philosophical or psychological traditions. Anne Klein, for example, alerts as to how the “self” that Buddhism “denies is neither the modern psychological self nor the unique individual of common Western understanding.” Anne Carolyn Klein, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 124. She further observes:

The unthinking attribution of inherency to others, as well as the appropriation of it for oneself, is considered to be the lived ontology that underpins all other experiences of selfhood, including the modern psychological selves about which Westerners are more accustomed to reflect. But it is important to understand that ‘self’ does not mean ‘ego’ or ‘pride’ in the Freudian or Western psychological sense (ibid., 129).

Thus appreciating cultural context is critical (as it was with Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s earlier reference to “ego”). Speaking generally, the I can be apprehended in three ways: as existing from its own side, as merely labeled and as neither merely labeled nor as existing from its own side. See Tegchok, Insight, 132–33.

When Rinpoche talks of the “emotional I” he is therefore specifically referring to the first: the I appearing to exist from its own side. This is the “false I” that appears with pronounced vividness when one is emotionally upset or excited. Hence he adds the adjectival qualifier “emotional.” Yet, by deliberately invoking the object-referents of “Western psychological terms” and “ordinary language,” he appears to be deliberately exhorting us not to begin searching for this “object of negation” somehow apart from our ordinary appearances: our commonplace everyday sense of things. The problem is incredibly close at hand. Indeed, so close we can’t see it. Pabongka Rinpoche, also recommends invoking an intensely-wrought emotional scene:

It’s just the same when we investigate this idea of ‘me.’ Suppose someone comes up and calls you out by name. At first the ‘me’ that appears to you is simply the conventional one: you think to yourself, ‘He’s calling me.’ But then he says to you, ‘So you’re the thief!’ or something like that. Then your ‘me’ starts getting stronger and stronger; you start thinking to yourself ‘Why is he pointing the finger at me? It wasn’t me who stole it. They can’t blame ME!’ You start saying ‘me’ ‘me’ and the ‘me’ starts looking like a ‘me’ that can stand on its own, a very vivid ‘me.’

See Tsongkapa, Principal Teachings, 124–25.


[11] Grasp at or apprehend a self (bdag ’dzin). The schools of Buddhist tenets differ on this point of whether or not the root ignorance grasps both persons and phenomena (other than persons) as existing in a false way. It is a unique feature of the Prāsaṅgika (Consequentialists) that the mode of misapprehension is the same in both cases. Writes Hopkins, “Thus, the Consequentialists differentiate the two selflessnesses by way of the objects with respect to which self, inherent existence, is negated, not by way of what is negated.” Emptiness Yoga, 63. Tsongkhapa explains:

The mode of apprehending true existence—the object of negation—is to conceive [that objects] are not posited through the force of beginningless conceptuality but are established objectively by way of their own entity. The conceived object of that apprehension is called ‘self,’ or ‘inherent existence.’ The non-existence of that with a person as the substratum is called a selflessness of a person, and the non-existence of that with [other] phenomena such as an eye, ear, and so forth as the substratum is called a selflessness of phenomena. Thus it is implicitly understood that consciousnesses apprehending inherent existent with respect to persons and [other] phenomena are consciousnesses apprehending a self of persons and a self of phenomena.

Hopkins, Final Exposition, 40. For additional commentary, see Nyima, Crystal Mirror, 62.

[12] Hence the term “found to be non-existent by a reasoning consciousness” (rigs shes kyis med par rnyed pa). Writes Yeshey Tupden:

Prior to understanding selflessness, one sets out many correct signs, or reasonings, and extensively analyzes whether the thing in question truly exists or not. Once selflessness is validly established, that analysis is complete. When one analyzes a pillar, for example, one finds its lack of true existence. However, having this lack of true existence as an object is not what is intended by the phrase ‘coming to be an object for the analytical, investigative mind.’ [The point is that] having completed analysis and investigation in searching for a truly existent pillar, the truly existent pillar should be there. However, the analyzer finds the pillar’s lack of true existence, not the pillar. It is the same with all phenomena.

Klein, Path, 107.

[13] In the first verse of the ninth chapter, which deals with wisdom, Śāntideva writes,

All of these practices were taught
By the Mighty One for the sake of wisdom.
Therefore, those who wish to pacify suffering
Should generate this wisdom.


[14] Likewise, Tsongkhapa joyously affirms this essential experiential concordance:

Through the kindness of lama, When I see
The illumination (of Nagarjuna’s texts) by garlands of white light,
The elegant explanations of glorious Chandrakirti
My mind found relief and rest.

See Gyatso, Harmony, 94. In an earlier verse he likens Nāgārjuna’s texts to a radiant “night lily garden.” As Gyatso notes, the “first part” of Candrakīrti’s name also means moon—thus further poetically evoking the illuminative and soothing resonance between text and realization. Ibid., 95–96.

[15] Self-cherishing (rang gces/rang gces par ’dzin pa) refers to the self-centered or egotistical attitude of considering our own happiness to be more important than that of others. The main obstacle to the realization of bodhicitta, it is to be distinguished from self-grasping (bdag ’dzin): grasping at or apprehending a self of persons or phenomena [as inherently existent]. Writes Pabongka Rinpoche, “You will stop your misdeeds associated with self-cherishing when you pursue the meditation topic on the development of bodhicitta. You then train in the meditation topic of selflessness, until the topic of self-grasping.” Liberation in the Palm of your Hand (Boston: Wisdom, 2006), 69. He further describes their relation: “Self-cherishing and grasping at the self are two quite distinct things, but they are discussed in this [seven-point] mind training as if they were the same, for there are some resemblances. To be brief, both are at the root of all problems. One of them operates by taking the ‘I’—your feeling of ‘I’—to be established as true. The other operates by not giving up ideas of ‘I’ and then assiduously cherishing it” (ibid., 541). 147683


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