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