Appearing and Empty

Introduction by H. H. the Dalai Lama

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WE WERE RECEIVED into this world at birth with kindness, and we continue to live and share with others due to kindness. But sometimes our anger and resentment obscure us from seeing the kindness around us. And that, in turn, may impair us from showing kindness.

Our attitude is the key factor. Once I visited a garden in Switzerland and people were sitting on park benches scattering seeds and bits of bread for the birds. The birds flew there without having to be called. It shows that when you show kindness to others—even animals—they will automatically come. If you are fearful and suspicious, and distance yourself from others, they refrain from approaching you and you will become isolated. So an open, more compassionate attitude toward other sentient beings is helpful for both others and ourselves.

Wherever I go I smile, so people are naturally friendly in return. Paying attention to others’ well-being and having an altruistic mind is the best way to secure your own physical and mental health. Whether you believe in religion or not, being compassionate will benefit you, whereas if you think just of yourself, you are miserable. Cultivating compassion is the best way to have a happy life.

Our educational system needs to emphasize the commonalities of all beings; each of us wants happiness and to avoid suffering. No matter what people look like, where they are from, their socio-economic level, their age, or their health, we are all alike in this way. Emphasizing the differences among us breeds fear, anxiety, and suspicion. These emotions and attitudes arise in our minds, but by changing how we look at others and how we interpret situations, we can release these disturbing emotions.

In the Nālandā tradition, we emphasize reason and logic, and such analysis can help us cultivate compassion in meditation. One way to do 2this is to contemplate the disadvantages of the self-centered attitude—self-centeredness makes us sensitive to small slights; we interpret everything, even the smallest glance or mumbled words, in terms of ourselves; we become blind to the experiences of those around us, not recognizing that our indifference toward them leads to inequality in so many areas of life. When others believe their well-being is discounted, they become unhappy, and their unhappiness adversely influences us too. Being around unhappy people, be they friends, enemies, or strangers, makes us unhappy too.

Therefore I meditate on compassion and altruism, which are the opposite of self-preoccupation. When I wake up in morning, I recite a verse from Engaging in the Bodhisattvas’ Deeds by the eighth-century Indian sage Śāntideva (BCA 10.55):

For as long as space endures

and for as long as living beings remain,

until then may I, too, abide

to dispel the misery of the world.

In addition, I also investigate: Where is the I? Am I my body or my mind? I’m not either of those. Even the Buddha wasn’t his body, speech, or mind, so where is the Buddha? This investigation leads us to conclude that the feeling of a solid I—something that is inherently and really me—has no basis. The I exists—it is merely designated by term and concept—but we can’t isolate exactly what it is separate from our bodies and minds. Thinking like this helps to reduce the strong thought of self.

People and other phenomena seem to be objective entities “out there” that are not related to our minds. They don’t seem to depend on their causes or their parts—they are just “there.” But if we investigate and try to find what they really are, there’s nothing there; it is all mental fabrication. Buddhist philosophy and quantum physics are similar in this regard: nothing exists independent of our minds. Because things appear to be objectively existent entities, we grasp them to exist as such. Someone appears kind to us and we think they are an inherently existent friend. Another person says something we don’t like and we designate them as a disagreeable person and think they will always be like that. All the strangers around us don’t influence us one way or the other, so we navigate our way around them and 3forget that they have feelings. But if we investigate exactly who the friend or enemy is, we can’t find them in their body, speech, or mind. They don’t exist as self-enclosed permanent entities.

Bodhisattva practice consists of cultivating wisdom—understanding the deeper mode of existence of people and phenomena—and method—generating bodhicitta and engaging in the bodhisattva practices. From the side of wisdom, nothing exists independent of other factors, such as its causes, parts, and the mind that conceives and designates them. From the method side, compassion and altruism are the basis for virtuous actions. Wisdom and method are my main practices. If you think of these two upon awakening every day, it shapes your mind and influences how you see and experience situations the entire day.

Every day I read a portion of a text by one of the great scholar-adepts. Nāgārjuna’s writings are exceptional, and those of his indirect disciple Candrakīrti are bold. Vasubandhu, Dignāga, and others are afraid to think everything is mentally designated; they fear that nothing could be pinned down if that were the case, so they rejected that belief. I feel fortunate because the idea that everything exists by being merely designated, not by having some inherent essence, is firm in my mind. I feel like a close disciple of Candrakīrti and every day I read his Supplement to the “Treatise on the Middle Way” and its autocommentary.

The two bodhisattva practices of method and wisdom combined are very powerful; we should practice these ourselves, then share them with others. If you just study and discuss the teachings but don’t practice them, you become a hypocrite. Instead, you should be a good example for others; that is the proper way to serve sentient beings. If your speech and your actions aren’t in accord, how can others trust you? Trust is the basis of harmonious and beneficial relationships.

I’ve heard that some psychologists say that our compassion fades as we get older and are exposed to more and more tragedy. I think if we just rely on whatever feeling or mood of discouragement arises in our minds, that could happen. But if we investigate our feelings and moods, our compassion can be sustained and enhanced. If you feel discouraged, investigate: What are the causes of this way of thinking? What are its effects? You can change your thoughts and feelings by investigating which thoughts and feelings are more realistic and more beneficial and then familiarizing yourselves with them.


Although single-pointed concentration (sāmadhi) is valuable, it is not the only quality to develop in our Dharma practice. Analytical meditation is essential because it cuts down all our justifications and excuses that support our self-centered attitude. We can’t find one logical reason to cherish ourselves more than others and to ignore the well-being of others. All the emotions that bring us problems have no logical basis. Contemplation of dependent arising and emptiness destroys the ignorance that is the basis of selfishness.

When I first became interested in science and began to learn about it, some people warned me not to get too close to scientists because my faith in the Buddha would decrease. But I use logic and reasoning to discern what is true and what to believe. Maybe I’m half Buddhist monk and half scientist! Both Buddhists and scientists seek truth. So we can learn from scientists and scientists can learn from us Buddhists. With a deeper understanding of reality, we can then use our human intelligence to solve problems. Just wishing that our problems would disappear doesn’t make that happen. We created the problems, so we must develop our knowledge and ability to solve them.

The Buddha himself told us not to accept statements with blind faith, but to investigate. We should not sit back and say, “Oh, my lama said that, so it must be true.” I sometimes read the teachings of some Tibetan lamas, but when I think about what was written or spoken, I cannot accept it.

The Buddha taught according to the two truths—ultimate and conventional (veiled). Understanding the ultimate truth is the direct opposite of following ignorance. Cultivating nonattachment, ethical conduct, and altruism enables us to relate properly to the conventional world. My meditation practice is based on these two truths.

Bhikṣu Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Thekchen Choling

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