Beware of Labels

One of my favorite Buddhist concepts is the concept of “emptiness“. It’s a central teaching in Buddhism and yet it’s often misunderstood. [mks_highlight color=”#eeee22”]Emptiness does not mean nothingness[/mks_highlight]. In fact, the proper understanding of emptiness is so vital that the great Buddhist philosopher/poet Nagarjuna wrote:

“Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.”

Emptiness means that things (ALL things) are void of intrinsic existence on their own. In other words, everything comes into being because of causes and conditions (sometimes referred to as dependent origination). Things only exist because of their interdependence on the things that make it exist.

You can take a look at anything and look for it’s causes and conditions. For example, a table exists because of the materials and processes that make it a table (the causes and conditions). It wouldn’t be a table without wood, nails, glue, the hands of a carpenter, hammer, staples, and on and on… Then break each of those down: the glue is a combination of ingredients, the person who invented glue, the people who made the person who invented the glue, the machine that forged the shape of the head of the hammer, etc… then break each of those down and you’ll see that you end up with countless combinations of causes and conditions that allow your table to exist as a table. Another example of this is to imagine a cake; we think of a cake as this “thing” that exists because it’s there. I’ve seen a cake, I’ve eaten a cake, I know that a cake is a real thing, and yet a cake does not exist as an intrinsic thing because it only exists as the culmination of all the things that make it a cake: eggs, flour, sugar, heat, a baker, etc… You can analyze anything and come to the same conclusion; things only come into being as a result of their causes and conditions, and the causes and conditions have their own causes and conditions, and this goes on and on and on… So what does this have to do with labels?

“Once you label me, you negate me” Soren Kierkegaard

Consider the way we use labels in our society: I’m a Republican, I’m a Democrat, I’m a Christian, I’m a Buddhist, I’m Smart, I’m Dumb, etc… we use labels as if they were permanent “things” that make us who we are. We, like everything else, exist because of causes and conditions. We are who we are because of the countless things that make us who we are (like the cake). We inherit genetics from our parents, beliefs and ideas from our family and society, and these things are part of HOW we are but not WHAT we are.The problem with our labels is how we use them: as nouns instead of adjectives. When I use a label like “I’m a Buddhist” as a noun, it separates me from everything that is not a Buddhist, it divides and separates. Now consider the label “I’m a Buddhist” as a adjective, it becomes about how I am in life and not what I am. The reality is that no matter how hard I try, I can’t “be” a Buddhist, or a Christian, or an anything, because those aren’t “things” to be. [mks_highlight color=”#eeee22″]We already are something; we’re human[/mks_highlight]. When we learn to view our own labels and perhaps more importantly, the labels we assign to others as adjectives instead of nouns, it will be like talking to someone and realizing that “I am wearing a blue shirt” and “you are wearing a red shirt” but the color of our shirts doesn’t make us who we are, it’s just part of how we are right now at this specific moment of being human. Try to start viewing labels (yours and others) as adjectives rather than nouns and see how that changes the way you view yourself and others. How else can labels be detrimental? Share your comments below.