Measuring Progress in Wisdom Practice

To the extent that afflictive emotions exist,
ego grasping exists;
and to the extent that ego grasping exists,
emptiness has not been realized…


It’s helpful from the beginning of the study and practice of Buddhist Wisdom Teachings to have a way to tell if they are having the intended effect, of first reducing and then freeing the mind completely from suffering. Without any standard in mind, we may engage these teachings on just an intellectual level, or not be relating them directly to our own experience and gaining their full benefit.

The standard I use comes from the Historical Buddha’s teachings, and that of his accomplished followers. Even for someone hearing these teachings for the first time, it’s useful to know their purpose.

To the extent that afflictive emotions exist,
ego grasping exists

The clearest sign that delusion is present is that we suffer from the afflictions, of craving, anger, fear and sadness, pride and jealousy. This is only on the surface, but just as a plant or a tree always has a root, these difficult emotions are all based on wrong view, defined in Buddhism as ego grasping:

We take ourselves and others and our world to be independent, unitary, fixed in nature. This falls apart upon investigation, but the believed in wrong view persists, and can be recognized.

When we dream, we are convinced that what we are seeing is real. When we wake up, or even just begin to wake up, the emotion goes out of our responses to the dream.

It’s also not just that self grasping is either there, or not, but there are degrees to it, which is why I begin this thought with ‘to the extent that…’

Ego grasping can be subtle. It can manifest lightly, or for a brief time, or it can exist in us as a tendency.

Lama Zopa taught on one phrase, Remove dirt, and smell, referring to the tendency of the mind that can be felt to form an idea of self or another, and in ignorance to take hold of it as who we are.

In the Buddhist teaching on how we either get caught or find freedom within, after basic ignorance comes karmic formation, which is represented as a person at a potter’s wheel, an image I find very useful. We can identify what it feels like to shape an idea, and then to fixate upon it. This is what it’s like to produce, and then mistakenly grasp what is only a concept of self, and take it to be who we are.

It’s said:

Things exist differently than the way they appear

The guideline I use then goes a step further than identifying merely ego grasping as the cause of the afflictive emotions, in saying,

to the extent that ego grasping exists,
emptiness has not been realized

This makes it clear to my mind that ego grasping itself is in turn a result, or an effect. It has a cause, which is a-vidya, or ignorance, not seeing. On account of this ignorance that does not perceive the way things exist, ego grasping arises.

The opposite of and the antidote to ego grasping has been variously described as: the direct knowledge and vision of things as they really are (yatha-bhuta-ñana-dassana) as perceiving emptiness, or annata, that the self we conceive of and take hold of is not what is here in truth. This leads to letting go, we can say, in a sense, or the cessation of grasping, because we see there is nothing to attach to, in actuality.

Appearances, thoughts and ideas still arise, of course, and we can make use of them to serve our purposes, but there is this crucial difference: with wisdom we see through our concepts, transparently, and are not caught by them.

In a recent teaching on Mind Training, the Dalai Lama said that:

Because of wrong view, self grasping, the destructive emotions such as anger and attachment arise; If you are able to reduce this clinging to an I, it will help reduce your anger, attachment, and so forth…

We can say that to the extent that emptiness is realized, or the true nature of how we and all others, objects, places and events exist, then self grasping ignorance lessens and is removed, and the afflictive emotions also come to an end. This is the Third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering.

Again this can go from a brief recognition, to one that lasts longer, and goes deeper, removing both the cause and the result of suffering.

From the outset this much at least should be known, so that we each can monitor our own progress, cultivating insight and freedom.

To the extent that emptiness has been realized,
naturally, ego grasping does not exist
and to the extent that ego grasping does not exist,
the afflictive emotions are pacified, and removed

Like this, through Wisdom, one attains liberation.