Teacher: I'm holding a cracker. It's a real cracker. It's an ordinary cracker. It seems to exist “out there,” independent of our Mind. If it really exists like that, then when we analyze and search for what the cracker is, the “cracker-ness,” we should be able to find it. I'll break off a piece. Here, is this piece I'm now holding a cracker?
Teacher: I'll break off another piece and hold it up. Is this piece I'm now holding a cracker?
Teacher: I'll crush everything in my hand. What is this I'm now holding in the palm of my hand?
Student: Crumbs. A mess.
Teacher: So there's no cracker now? What happened to the cracker I was holding. If this was a real cracker with some cracker-ness quality to it, where is that cracker now? What we have now are the same atoms—but we call it crumbs and not a cracker.
If there were some inherent cracker-ness we should be able to find it either in the pile of crumbs or parts that I hold in my hand or we should find it separate from its parts, but it isn't anywhere.
Student: The cracker is a collection of atoms. It is all the parts together.
Teacher: But a collection is just a group of parts. If none of the parts by themselves are a cracker, then how can many parts together be an independent cracker with some cracker-ness quality? If you put many non-butterflies, such as grasshoppers together, does that make a butterfly? How can a group of non-crackers or crumbs make a real cracker?
Student: So there is no cracker at all? What am I eating?
Teacher: What we are searching for is something that is a cracker independent of its parts. That real independent cracker can't be found because it doesn't exist. But a dependently-existent cracker is there. What you are eating is still a cracker.
The cracker exists as a group of atoms put together in a certain pattern. Our Mind looks at it and conceives it to be a thing and calls that thing a cracker—it becomes a cracker because all of us together have conceived it in a similar way and agreed, by the force of social convention, to call it a cracker. That cracker exists dependent on its causes and conditions—the flour, the water, the baker, and so on. It depends on our minds conceiving it to be a thing and labeling it “cracker.” Apart from this dependently-existent cracker, there is no other inherently- and independently-existent cracker with some cracker-ness quality to it. It exists, but not in the same way it appears to exist. It appears to be independent when it isn't.
The same is true for our “self” or “I.” Remember a time when you were very angry. How did “I” appear then? It seems very solid—as if there is a real me that someone is insulting. That “I” feels real, as if it were independent, yet still somewhere inside our body and Mind. We get angry in order to defend that “I” that seems so real. If that solid, independent “I” exists as it appears to us, we should be able to find it, ether among our body and our Mind or separate from them. There is no place such an “I” could be. Let's see. Are you your body?
Teacher: Which part of your body are you? Are you your arm? Are you your back? Are you your little toe? Are you your brains? It's clear we aren't any of the parts of our body. Let's try again. Are you your Mind?
Student: I must be.
Teacher: Which Mind are you? Are you your visual consciousness? Are you your auditory consciousness? Are you your mental consciousness? Are you one particular characteristic? If you were your angry self, would you always be angry?
Student: “I” am what goes from one life to the next.
Teacher: But what goes from one life to the next is constantly changing. Can you point to one moment of your Mind that has always been and always will be you? Are you yesterday's Mind? Are you today's Mind? Are you tomorrow's Mind?
Student: I'm all of them together.
Teacher: But that's a collection of parts, none of which are “I.” To say the parts are “I” is akin to saying a group of grasshoppers are a butterfly.
Maybe you're completely separate from your body and Mind. That is, can you take away your body and your Mind and you (“I”) still remain independently? If the “I” is separate from the body and the Mind, my body and my Mind could be here and I could be across the room. Is that possible?
The “I” or self doesn't exist independently of the body and the Mind. It is not the body and it is not the Mind. Neither is it the body and the Mind together. In other words, the solid “I” that we felt when we were angry doesn't exist at all. This is what is meant by selflessness: there is no ultimately existent or independent self. That doesn't mean the “I” doesn't exist at all. What we're negating is its independent or inherent existence. There is a conventionally existent “I” that is angry and that “I” does not exist independently.
The “I” depends on causes and conditions: the coming together of the sperm and the egg of our parents and our sensual experience. The “I” also depends on the parts which compose it: our body and our Mind. The “I” also depends on concept and label. That is, on the basis of our body and Mind being together, we conceive of a person and label it “I.” We exist by being merely labeled on a suitable basis—our body and our Mind.
Student: How does knowing and understanding Dependent Origination help us?
Teacher: When we understand Dependent Origination we see there is no solid person who is angry. There is no real person whose reputation needs to be defended. There is no independently beautiful person or object that we have to possess. By realizing Dependent Origination our attachment, anger, jealousy, pride, and other disturbing attitudes vanish, because there is no independently-existing person that has to be protected, and there is no independently-existing object to be grasped.
That doesn't mean we become inert and unambitious like vegetables, thinking, “There's no me, no goal. So why should I do anything?” Realizing selflessness (emptiness) gives tremendous space for action. Rather than our energy being consumed by attachment, anger, and ignorance, we are free to use our Wisdom and Compassion in countless ways to benefit all species, all things.