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The Mere ‘I’

Teachings on the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text.
Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Jampa Tegchok gave this commentary on the Heart Sutra to Saraswati Buddhist Group, Somerset, England on August 17 -20, 2007. The commentary is edited by Andy Wistreich.

You can read the Heart Sutra,a Perfection of Wisdom text on the LYWA website, and also find many Heart Sutra resources on the FPMT website.

You may also download this teaching as a pdf.

Commentary on the Heart Sutra
1:  Introduction to the Heart Sutra
2:  Dependent Arising and Emptiness
3:  How Things Exist
4:  The Mere ‘I’
5:  Meditation on Emptiness
6:  Liberation from Cyclic Existence

The Consequence (Prasangika) School View of the "I"

The innate I-grasping mind is one to which "I" appears to be self-existent and which grasps that "I" to be self-existent just as it appears. To understand how this innate I-grasping mind works one should first understand the way the person actually exists.

Within Buddhism are four philosophical systems, each presenting differently how the conventionally existing person exists. This means they have different ideas about what comes from past lives to this life, goes from this life to future lives, engages in various types of actions and must take birth in cyclic existence, experiencing various types of suffering and so forth, as a result. Each school has its own idea but here the key proposition about the person is that made by the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) School. Within that school are two separate systems, the Middle Way Autonomy (Svatantrika) School and the Middle Way Consequence (Prasangika) School. Between these two, the key proposition to investigate and understand is that of the Middle Way Consequence School.

People are born and engage in various types of action (karma). As a result of performing particularly destructive types of action they are born in the three lower realms - the hell realm, the preta realm and the animal realm - and when they engage in more constructive or positive action, they are born as human beings, demigods or gods, thereby experiencing less suffering. There is some suffering, as these three higher realms are still in cyclic existence.

All Buddhist philosophical systems agree that it is the person who engages in action, creates karma and has to be reborn in cyclic existence experiencing the various results of their karma. However, they describe and classify that person differently.

The Consequence School assert that the "mere I" is the person that goes from life to life engaging in destructive and constructive actions, and experiencing suffering as a result. For them this "mere I" is the person and refers to the continuity of the aggregates, particularly the continuity of consciousness. Of the five aggregates, the fifth is the consciousness aggregate. "mere I" meaning the consciousness aggregate includes six consciousnesses, namely the eye, ear, nose tongue, body and mental consciousnesses. The "mere I" refers to the continuity of the sixth one, the mental consciousness.

The specific significance of "mere" in the expression "mere I" is that the "I" or the person does not exist from its own side. Therefore the "mere" negates the existence of the self-existence of the person. At the same time it indicates that the person who goes from life to life is a mere name, label, or imputation by conception.

To repeat: for the consequence school the person is the "mere I"; they usually describe it as the example or illustration of the person. For them the "mere I" is the person, but the term "mere I" refers to the continuity of the aggregates, specifically the fifth one, the consciousness aggregate. This is comprised of the six consciousnesses from the visual to the mental consciousness, and "mere I" is a name that specifically refers to the continuity of the mental consciousness. The "mere" in "mere I" negates the self-existence of the "I" and indicates that the "I" is a mere name, label and imputation by conception.

The "mere I" is both the person and its illustration. The mind grasping or apprehending that "mere I" is not the innate I-grasping mind. The mind apprehending the "mere I" is a conventional valid mind. It is the mind that thinks, “I am coming, I am going, I am sitting, I am doing this, I am doing that.” These are all conventional valid minds, grasping1 at an "I".

Although the "I" appears to those valid minds as if it were self-existent, they themselves do not think it is self-existent the way it appears. Another mind does that. The "mere I" both appears to the innate I-grasping mind - a completely mistaken wrong mind - to be self-existent, and is also grasped by it as being self-existent the way it appears. The innate I-grasping mind believes in that appearance and thus thinks there is an inherently or self-existing "I". The innate I-grasping mind is a type of true-grasping and a mental affliction.

Thus on one side is the innate I-grasping mind and on the other the valid I-grasping mind. The "I" appears to both of them as self-existent, but one grasps it as self-existent the way it appears whereas the other does not. Though the "I" appears as self-existent to the valid I-grasping mind, it does not believe in that appearance. It is not that it has realised the appearance is wrong, but just that it does not think the "I" inherently existent the way it appears to be. Therefore although the "I" appears to it as self-existent, that valid I-grasping mind does not think "self-existent". On the other hand, to the innate I-grasping mind, not only does the "I" appear to be self-existent but it also thinks 'self-existent".

The continuity of the aggregates - specifically the continuity of the mental consciousness - is the basis of imputation of the person, but is not the illustration of the person. The illustration of the person has to be something which is the person, so whereas the continuity of the mental consciousness is not the person, the "mere I" is the person. That is why the "mere I" is the illustration of the person.

Question and Answer

Student: Does the "mere I" seem relatively permanent as opposed to being impermanent and completely empty, because it exists for eons and eons, with its various manifestations? If the continuity of mental consciousness is the basis of the label "mere I" and if I say the "mere I" is the illustration of the person, that suggests that the "mere I" is something more than the continuity of the mental consciousness. It suggests that the "mere I" is something extra on top of the person, that the person has something added to it on top of the continuity of the mental consciousness. You say the continuity of the mental consciousness is not the person, but you say the "mere I" labeled on that continuity is the person. I cannot see the difference.

Khensur Rinpoche: Maybe one can explain it as follows. Take a watch for example: at first you make an object, but until somebody has labelled "watch" onto it, it is not a watch. The watch does not exist until the point of being called a watch. Could you say the watch exists before the label "watch" has been given to it, before it has ever been called a watch? Until people have decided, “Let's call it a watch,” the watch does not exist, does it? The object would be able to perform all the normal functions of a watch, but until being called a watch it is not a watch, therefore the watch does not exist. It is only a watch when the name "watch" is applied to it. This does not mean that if somebody makes a watch today it is not a watch until somebody calls it a watch. It refers to that time at the beginning when the watch was first developed and given the name "watch". Although the thing was there, it was not a watch until called "a watch".

The same applies when somebody becomes a country's president. Before being designated "president" according to the democratic system of the country, although the person has the same abilities, knowledge and so on, they are not the president.

Just as there is a sequence in these two cases, it is similar with designation of the "mere I". The continuity of the mental consciousness is already there, but until designated "I" it is not the "I" and not the person.

Student: It seems to me that in your example the parts of the watch are like the continuity of the mental consciousness, and the "mere I" is like the label "watch". However there is additionally the label "person" on top of the label "mere I". This strikes me as being like adding the label "Rolex", but "Rolex" really has no effect whatsoever on the watch. "Person" does not add anything to the "mere I" in the same way that "Rolex" just does not really support the idea of watch.

Khensur Rinpoche: When we look at the "mere I", person and so on, once the continuity of the mental consciousness has been designated "mere I", meaning that the continuity of the mental consciousness is the basis of designation of "mere I", at that point the "mere I" exists and at that point the person also exists, because the continuity of mental consciousness is the basis of designation not just of "mere I" but also of "person".

Student: Are they synonyms?

Khensur Rinpoche: Yes. They usually say that "I," self and person are synonymous. Although "mere I" and person are synonyms, "person" does not have the particular connotation that "mere I" does, of negating the self-existence. This is because in "mere I" the mere negates self-existence. Thus it has a particular connotation that "person" does not specifically have.

For example, you might be walking along and see a shape in the distance. At first you are unsure whether it is a person, a tree, a heap of bricks, or something else. As you get closer you see it is a person. Then as you get closer still you recognise who it is and think, “Oh, it is so and so who did such and such to me or helped me in such and such a way in the past.” Where does that thought, “This is so and so who hurt or helped me at such and such a time in the past,” come from? It comes through the appearance of the person's aggregates, specifically in this case their physical form. Thus through that person's physical form appearing you have the thought, “It is so and so who hurt me or helped me in the past.” The aggregates are the basis of imputation of the person, because it is through the appearance to our minds of the person's aggregates that we have the thought and imputation, “It is so and so.”

The point is that the mind apprehending or grasping at this conventionally existing "I" when thinking, “I am coming, going, doing this or that,” is a valid mind. It is neither a mistake, nor any form of true-grasping. We might think that every mind thinking "I" has something wrong with it, that it is self-grasping, true-grasping, or ignorance. But this is not the case. The mind thinking "I" when thinking, “I am going, coming and so on,” is a valid mind. It is neither true-grasping, nor the innate I-grasping mind. Nevertheless, there is an appearance to that mind of the "I" being self-existent.

Apart from the wisdom of meditative equipoise of an arya being which directly, non-conceptually realises emptiness free from the appearance of self-existence, there is an appearance of self-existence every single consciousness of a sentient being. In other words, other than that single exception, objects appear as self-existent to every kind of mind and consciousness of a sentient being, apart from that sole exception. This includes our valid minds thinking, "I this" and "I that", which means that not every mind to which things appear to be self-existent, grasps them as being self-existent the way they appear. However, the innate I-grasping mind both experiences the appearing "I" as self-existent and also believes this self-existent "I" to exist.

Regarding the valid and innate I-grasping minds, the sequence of arisal of those two is that first the valid and then the innate I-grasping mind arises. First one might think, "Oh, it is such and such a person" which would be the valid mind, and after that the innate self-grasping mind would arise.

First the valid mind thinking "I" arises, and then the innate I-grasping mind. With respect to the two types of self-grasping - at the person and at phenomena - the first to arise is the self-grasping at phenomena, followed by self-grasping at the person. However, in terms of the order of realisation, first is the selflessness of the person, followed by the selflessness of phenomena.

Although the person is a phenomenon, we distinguish between the self of the person and that of phenomena, and therefore of the selflessness of the person and that of phenomena, because generally the aggregates - the form aggregate, feeling aggregate and so on - are objects used by the person. The person is the user and the aggregates and so on are things used by that person.

Thus when meditating on emptiness the first thing one does is to meditate on and gradually realise selflessness with respect to the person who uses phenomena, namely the aggregates and so on. After that we meditate on and realise the selflessness of the phenomena used by that person.

At first, one can meditate on the selflessness of the person, through thinking of how the person is a dependent arising. It is then relatively easy to progress to the phenomena of the aggregates and so on, which are the objects used by that person, thinking about how they are empty because of being dependent.

Form is Empty…the Fourfold Purity

The essential point of this sutra is contained in the words:

Form is empty. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is also not other than emptiness.

The first point is relatively simple, since form is empty because of existing through dependence on its causes and conditions. The second point, that emptiness is form, means that when considering the emptiness of form, meaning form's emptiness of being self-existent, one cannot find this emptiness anywhere other than form itself. The third point that emptiness is not other than form is because in looking at the emptiness of form one finds just form.

The fourth point is that form is not other than emptiness. Although it says "emptiness" it means "empty". In other words, form being empty, or the empty aspect of form, is neither different nor separate from form. This is because form being empty - that empty aspect of form - is form being empty of self-existence, empty of existence independent of causes and conditions and so forth. It is that aspect of form being empty of independence, thus dependent. That aspect of form being dependent is precisely form itself, and as with form, it is emptiness.

Therefore the third and fourth points are similar, but from opposite perspectives. The third, "emptiness is not other than form," points out form's empty aspect and its not being separate from form. To understand the fourth, "form is not other than emptiness", think of form and recognise how it is not separate from or other than the empty aspect of form. This fourth point is that the empty nature or aspect of form, its aspect of being empty, cannot be established (does not exist) separate from form itself. The fourth and third are similar, but while the fourth focuses on form itself and its not existing apart from its empty aspect, the third shows how the empty aspect cannot be found separate from form.

I hope you can understand this explanation without error. When one can understand this fourfold purity with respect to form, one can understand how it works in connection with anything. The commentary states this very clearly.

Question & Answer

Student: Rinpoche stressed the difference between emptiness and empty, and now I think that is clear. What is not clear for me is where it says in our text on the first of the eight profundities, "Likewise Shariputra, are all phenomena empty."

Khensur Rinpoche: Empty and emptiness are different. Conventional and ultimate truths are different. "Everything is empty" means that absolutely everything that exists is empty of true existence, self-existence, and inherent existence, whereas not everything is emptiness, which is the ultimate truth.

Another student: Regarding what goes from life to life and the "mere I" being imputed to the aggregates and specifically to the continuum of mental consciousness, it seems to me that the potentiality for the other consciousnesses and aggregates also goes from life to life. However, potentialities" going from life to life has not been mentioned. Do those potentialities go from life to life and how do they connect with the "mere I"?

Khensur Rinpoche: In the case of karma, when an action has been completed, from the next moment onwards there is the state of having been destroyed (Tib. of that karma. The very next moment after the action has finished, comes the first moment of the state of having been destroyed, which gives rise to the second moment, which in turn gives rise to the third moment, the fourth moment and so on, in a continuity of the states of having been destroyed. That process continues, and one might say that the potential for the result to be given rise to is with or depending on the mental consciousness.

Another student: Everything that exists is dependent. The innate I-grasping mind exists, therefore the innate I-grasping mind is dependent, but on what does that innate I-grasping mind depend?

Khensur Rinpoche: The innate I-grasping mind arises through depending on the appearance of inherent existence to the earlier moments of consciousness. Therefore it comes into being or exists, depending on referring to the "I" and thinking it to be inherently existent. That is the process whereby the innate I-grasping mind manifests, because in fact it is there all the time, at least in latent form.

Another student: You said that the "mere I" is the "illustration of the self"? What proofs of illustration are there?

Khensur Rinpoche: Only once the term has been imputed can you speak of it as being the illustration. For example, up to the point that the person has been designated "president", he or she would be the basis of imputation for "president", but not an example of a president. To repeat, before the person has actually been designated "president" they would be the basis for imputation of "president". After having been designated president he or she would be not only the basis of imputation for "president", but also an example or illustration for "president". Actually this distinction between a thing being a basis of imputation, an example and so on is quite a subtle point.


The word "grasping" in this context does not refer to an ignorant mind. It refers to the normal way the mind takes hold of or cognises a conventional object. [Return to text]