We Are Like Children Howling With Despair




We are like children howling with despair.

We should analyze what is the I; what are the body and mind; what is action; what is an object of action; what is a sense object?

By analyzing (the nature of) what we think and talk about from morning till night makes us aware that they are empty. Nothing else but empty. Of course they are not nonexistent, but they are empty.

The I is not nonexistent because it experiences happiness and suffering. It can also create the cause of happiness and abandon the cause of suffering. The I can benefit and it can harm others. So the I exists—but it is empty.

Every other phenomenon is the same as this example of the I. Twenty-four hours a day, everything we think about, believe in, talk about, apprehend, hear and so forth is empty of existing from its own side. Therefore, there is no reason at all to have the unhappy, continually dissatisfied minds of desire, anger, ignorance or any of the disturbing thoughts. It is nonsense.

This world (of disturbing thoughts), in other words, is only there during those times when our mind listens to and believes in ignorance. When, instead of following ignorance, we follow wisdom, things are the complete opposite. In the sense of our way of perceiving things it is another world. Another life.

It follows that there is no basis at all for the dissatisfied mind of desire, anger or the ignorance apprehending things as real from their own side. So if you get angry, it is as though you are getting angry with someone you see in a dream. Clearly, to do this makes no sense because the dream person doesn’t exist. What’s the point of getting upset about such a person? What’s more, there is no point in believing that they exist because, in reality, they don’t. It doesn’t make any sense at all.[1]

It’s like a child who cries when someone destroys their sandcastle or makes it collapse. The child thinks, “Oh, you’ve destroyed my sandcastle” and gets very upset, as if a real castle had been destroyed.[2] Like this, there is no real basis at all for the arisal of all these disturbing thoughts. To follow these wrong conceptions of permanence and true existence is suffering, endless suffering in saṃsāra. Not following them is peace and results in liberation and the state of omniscient mind: full enlightenment.







What is this ignorance? How does it arise? Concentrate now on the thought that labels “mug”.

When you first enter a house you don’t label “mug” to anything but only by seeing a particular base that does the particular functions of a mug. For that reason the mind merely imputes mug on this one.

As far as the mug being merely imputed, depending on the base, there is nothing wrong. But due to the ignorance grasping at true existence, the mug is appearing as unlabelled, as though existing from its own side. So the continuation of the same thought that labelled mug  comes to believe in the existence of the mug from its own side.

It believes the mug’s existence in that way is true.

So the previous mind which labelled mug is not ignorance but this mind believing it as truly existent is an example of the concept of ignorance.

Its object does not exist.




As it was with the mug, so is it with the person!

First of all, depending on the aggregates, the thought merely imputes I. That thought is not ignorance. This I merely imputed in this way is therefore empty of existing from its own side. Due to the imprint of ignorance left on the consciousness by past life ignorance, true existence is then decorated on this merely labelled I. True existence is projected there. The merely labelled I now appears as truly existent whereas, in reality such an existence is false: a total hallucination.

So this consciousness decorating true existence onto the I is the continuation of the thought which labelled I. Once decorated, you start to believe that this appearance is true. Only at that time does it become the ignorance grasping and believing in a truly existent I.

It is as though this ignorant mind is not satisfied with existence being merely imputed. This concept holding in an I existing from its own side and believing it in as existing in this way is the root of samsara according to the Prasangika view.


For your convenience these meditations are also found in Meditations






Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Śāntideva in a verse from his chapter on Patience in Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicaryāvatāra) says:

All things, then, depend on something else.
On this depends the fact that none are independent.
Knowing this, we will not be annoyed at objects
That resemble magical appearances.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama glosses: 

This is why we say that all beings are influenced by other things, meaning their own emotions, and are thus not independent. The process of cause leading to result is due to the coming together of conditions. Nothing is independent. If we understood this, then the happiness and suffering we normally perceive as real and solid will be seen as something insubstantial, like magical illusions. In light of this, we should try not to be angry with anyone. 

Some people might ask, if everything is an illusion, what is the use of getting rid of illusory suffering with an antidote that is itself illusory? The answer is that illusory suffering is the result of causes and conditions that are also illusory. Even though pain is illusory, we still suffer from it, and we certainly do not want it. The same is true of happiness. It is an illusion, but it is still something we want. Thus, illusory antidotes are used to get rid of illusory sufferings, just like a magician uses one magical illusion to counteract another. This is, in fact, an important point, which is explained in greater detail in the ninth chapter of the Bodhicaryāvatāra.

See The Dalai Lama, A Flash of Lightening in the Dark of Night, 61-2. The analogy of a dream is frequently given (as an equivalent) alongside  a magician’s illusions as they bear the same import. For example  the King of Concentrations Sūtra says:

Like a mirage or a celestial city,
Like a magical illusion or a dream,
Signs that are meditated on are empty of essence. 
You should understand all phenomena are like this. 

Quoted Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 490. Therefore the pertinence of Śāntideva’s verse in our current context: why get upset, worked up, or angry at something not in the slightest solid or real? The folly is obvious. For one of Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche’s direct meditations on how to recognize a dream as a dream see Two Short Profound Meditations on Emptiness Suitable for Everyday Life

[2] This is a classical analogy, again drawn from Śāntideva. The verse reads:

When their sandcastles collapse,
Children howl in despair;
Likewise, when my praise and reputation decline,
My mind becomes like a little child.

Guide, ch. 6, v. 93.

Geshe Sopa dismisses any claim that we (as ordinary beings) might not ourselves be howling children by placing this verse into its deeper context:

Internal and external things conventionally exist, but they do not exist exactly as they appear to ordinary beings. They appear to exist inherently but are in fact empty of inherent existence. Hence we say that they have an illusion-like nature. There are many analogies for this illusion-like nature in the sutras, such as a celestial city, a face reflected in a mirror, a moon reflected in water, an echo in a cave. None of these are even conventionally real as they appear. Ārya beings understand everything to be like reflections because they have directly realized conventional and ultimate truth. When they see conventional things, they know that those things do not exist as they appear. Based on this understanding the mental afflictions naturally do not arise so strongly. So they have less attachment, hatred, and so on. Ordinary beings, on the other hand, have not directly realized śūnyatā, they are like children who naturally think things are real, just as they appear. Śāntideva says:

When their sand castles collapse,
Children howl in despair.

Ordinary beings are not so different from little children who cry when their sand castles fall down because they think they are really their own houses. Thinking that everything is real, just as it appears, is a spiritually immature view. Candrakīrti asks and then answers the questions, “What is reality? How does one enter into realization of it?” The general situation is that internal and external things do not exist as they are held by the egotistical view. Conventional things appear to ordinary beings to be inherently real, but that is not their final nature.

See Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 57.

The Dalai Lama traces the trajectory of how such intensely egotistic self-preoccupied obsession arises, or rather, springs from ignorance:

When our own self is involved, we emphasize that connection: now it is ‘my body,’ ‘my stuff,’ ‘my friends,’ or ‘my car.’ We exaggerate the object’s attractiveness, obscuring its faults and disadvantages, and become attached to it as helpful in acquiring pleasure, whereby we are forcibly led into lust, as if by a ring in our nose. We might also exaggerate the object’s unattractiveness, making something minor into a big defect, ignoring its better qualities, and now we view the object as interfering with our pleasure, being led into hatred, again as if by a ring in our nose. Even if the object does not seem to be either agreeable or disagreeable but just an ordinary thing in the middle, ignorance continues to prevail, although in this case it does not generate desire or hatred. As the Indian scholar-yogi Nagarjuna says in his Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning:

How could great poisonous afflictive emotions not arise
In those whose minds are based on inherent existence?
Even when an object is ordinary, their minds
Are grasped by the snake of destructive emotions.

How to See Yourself, 33–34.

This analogy of the snake has its own profound meaning, one that reflects directly back on Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche’s discussion of how we are immersed in a world of disturbing thoughts that finally, are nonsensical. Or rather, they always were. As Geshe Sopa details:

Eliminating this wrong view that grasps at the self depends on generating the wisdom that understands emptiness. We must recognize that what this egotistical view holds as its object–an independent, inherently existing self–is in fact not there. We have to see that no such self exists at all, In order to see this, we must study various logical proofs that demonstrate that there is no such independent, absolute self. The egotistic view is a wrong understanding that holds its object incorrectly, It is like confusing a coiled piece of rope in the corner to be a big poisonous snake, As long as we believe that there is a large snake in our room, we experience fear. To get rid of that fear we have to see the object clearly; we must see that it is a piece of rope. It is completely empty of being a snake. Until we recognize that, we will not be able to get rid of the view that it is a snake, and we will have problems until we get rid of that view.

Sopa, Steps, Volume Five 55.

Of course that fear can be that we are about to lose our life because we have just been diagnosed with an aggressively galloping terminal cancer. In this case, an independent, inherently existing cancer (held or grasped egotistically by an apparently self-existing me) appears, snake-like, in or on some corner of our body. It is right there, looming from its own side, just as our poor afflicted or besieged body appears (according to our wrong view) to really, absolutely, be.

For further treatment of the snake analogy, see also my posts: 

Pinpointing Root Ignorance  

 The Role of Analysis where His Holiness the  Dalai Lama’s gives a succinct account in note 8..






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