Vaibhasika – Buddhist Philosophy Quiz

The Vaibhasika are the first of the four Buddhist schools recognized by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. They are seen as a Hinayana school, i.e. they don’t aim at becoming a Buddha but ‘merely’ an arhat. The result is that one does attain liberation, but can’t help all sentient beings do the same.

In some ways the Vaibhasika philosophy is relatively easy to understand, but in others it’s alien to our modern perspective on things.

Aside from the quiz, which deals with the philosophy of the school, I’ve also added some historical perspective as this is usually missing from Tibetan Buddhist teachings. In that they follow their Indian teachers quite faithfully, unfortunately.

I’m creating this quiz as part of my study of the Buddhist Tenets through the FPMT Basic Program online. In that program Jetsün Chökyi Gyaltsen’s Presentation of Tenets is taught by Geshe Tsulga.

Mistakes are my own. Do let me know.

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Essential Vaibhasika Philosophy

The quiz above was made, for technical reasons, as a multiple choice quiz. That determines the sort of questions one can ask. The following are the main issues to be thought about when contemplating the Vaibhasika position on Buddhist philosophy.
  • Permanence vs Impermanence:
    Impermanent things are things that change in dependence on causes and conditions.
    Anything that doesn’t change in dependence on causes and conditions is called permanent.
  • Ultimate vs Relative Truth
    Anything that ceases to exist in the mind when divided into parts is a relative truth. Ultimate truths are those things which can’t be divided. This means most things are relative truths, but directionally partless atoms, temporally partless moments of consciousness and non-compounded objects are ultimate truths.
  • Selflessness
    The self is seen as consisting of the 5 aggregates or (in case of non-embodied beings) or mind alone. What should be meditated on is the fact that there this self changes, can be divided up into parts and is dependent on external factors.
    In Buddhist terminology: the self is not permanent, not indivisible and not independent.

Vaibhasika Philosophy on TIME

When I made the quiz, I based myself solely on the FPMT Basic Program module about the Tenets. The one question I was not certain about, was the one where I say that time is not permanent. Based on the Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy, specifically the entry on the Vaibhasika by Chris Bartley, I am now pretty confident I was right. However, the Vaibhasika position on time is a bit strange and my question approached it from an angle that they would not have taken. In order to understand the following quote, you have to know that the word ‘dharma’ here is a singular and it stands for any particular thing. In fact, I suspect that when Geshe Tsulga defines a ‘thing’ he is really defining a ‘dharma’. Since things come in singular and plural, you also have dharmas. Dharmas = things.

(p. 548) “On this view, past, present and future are different designations of dharmas with persisting, immutable identities. Thus there is the basis of a real continuum. Temporal sequence is a phenomenon relative to human experience. Accordingly, the Vaibhashikas do not include time as an independent category in their taxonomies of reality, temporal stages being reductively identified with the occurence of conditional events (samskaras).”

What’s more:

“While in respect of essence the fundamental entities exist immutably and eternally, they are actualized in the present.”

These fundamental entities are what we would call atoms. In the words of Geshe Tsulga: Directionally partless atoms.

Defining Vaibhasika

It’s no wonder Etienne Lamotte doesn’t talk about the Vaibhasika much. When you look at the definition of Vaibhasika in ‘Tenets’ there is nothing there that you could not also say of the Sarvastivada school of which it was a subschool, as was the Sautrantika, btw.

The definition of a Vaibhasika: one who propounds Hinayana tenets, and asserts external objects to be truly existent but does not assert self-cognizers. (From the FPMT material)

Vaibhasika in the context of the larger Buddhist Tradition

I have struggled with this for ages, but the following seems to be the long and short of it:

  • When Tibetan Buddhists talk about ‘Hinayana’, what they really mean is ‘Sarvastivada’.
  • Both Vaibhasika and Sautrantika are subschools of the Sarvastivadin school, according to Wikipedia

Note that the current Theravada school, the one existing Hinayana school, was split off from the Mahasangika, so it does not derive from the Sarvastivada. source: wikipedia

What is Vaibhasika?

The Vaibhasika are a school of Buddhist philosophy, as taught in Tibetan Buddhism. Their main source for this is probably Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosa and the commentary on it (the Bhasya), combined with what schools of philosophy still existed when Buddhism came to Tibet. (4th century CE) As one of the two main subschools of Sarvastivada, Vaibhasika may have been as prominent in Indian Buddhism as Tibetan Budddhism suggests. From my perspective the Vaibhasika label is convenient from the point of view of trying to understand emptiness – emptiness of self (aka anatta in Theravada) in this case. The Vaibhasika don’t accept emptiness of external phenomena. Any explanation shorter than a 1000 words is going to lack nuance, but let me try anyhow:

What is the Vaibhasika philosophy on emptiness of self or anatta?

According to Jetsün Chökyi Gyaltsen (as explained by Geshe Tsulga) Vaibhasika philosophers believe that the five aggregates (skandhas) are the (only) self, the only person that can be found.

The five aggregates are: form (rupa), feeling (vedana), discrimination (samjna), compositional factors (samskara) and consciousness (Vijnana). In other words: According to the Vaibhasika the self consists of a body (rupa) and various aspects of what we would call consciousness (the other four skandhas). The crucial point is that this self is not permanent and changes continually. The sense of ‘I’ that we instinctively feel, is an illusion, it cannot be found outside the 5 aggregates, but it can also not be found in any of the skandhas individually. In the words of Guy Newland (translated from the Dutch Translation back into English) in his Appearance and Reality (Schijn en Werkelijkheid):

Proponents of the Vaibhasika school recommend meditating on the non-existence of a permanent, indivisible and independent self of persons. Of the 18 subsystems of Vaibhasika 13 state that this is only the most course form of anatta. The subtle absence of self that must be realized is the absence of a concretely existent or independent self of persons. (p. 29)

Note that this assumes the Vaibhasika are identical to a collection of 18 schools of Hinayana philosophy. However, there’s no reason to think those 18 schools thought they could be grouped together like that. The very fact that 13 of those schools disagreed on subtle absence of self with 5 others makes it even more clear that the unity of Vaibhasika is a scholarly invention. However, this doesn’t mean it’s not a USEFUL scholarly invention for our purposes. The Hinayana schools disagreed on things we don’t think of as important. And if we do, we’re likely to disagree with all of them in one swoop, because we look at the world through the eyes of 20th and 21st century science. See: Appearance & Reality: The Two Truths in the Four Buddhist Tenet Systems

About Vasubandhu and the Abhidharma Kosa

Given that the Abhidharma Kosa is such a central text – the source in fact for all the Indian and Tibetan philosophical debates on emptiness from the 9th century on, probably – a bit of information should be given. The Abhidharma Kosa is a philosophical text that is as concentrated as the works by Spinoza. Of course Vasubandhu didn’t write math in prose the way Spinoza did, but he does come quite close. This fits in the tradition of Indian sutra writing: composing texts short enough to memorize. The result typically needs a LOT of background knowledge to be understood. Fortunately Vasubandhu wrote a commentary on the Abhidharma Kosa: the Bhasya (literally ‘commentary’). The Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy has this to say about the importance of these works:

A great number of texts of the Theravada Abhidharma tradition are extant in Pali, and a great number of Sarvastivada Abhidharma texts exist in their Chinese translations. In Sanskrit and Tibetan, however, nearly all of the “Sravaka” Abhidharma texts that remain are the works of Vasubandhu and the commentarial traditions stemming from them. It is tempting to take this as evidence of Vasubandhu’s philosophical mastery, to have so comprehensively defeated his foes that his tradition dominated from the 9th century on. Yet we may equally take this as evidence not of the victory of Sautrantika, but of the influence of the rising popularity of Yogacara in India and Tibet. Vasubandhu, a great systematizer of mainstream Abhidharma, provided arguments and doctrines, and a life story, that paved the way to, and justified, the later dominance of Mahayana.

For a compilation of Abhidharma kosa translations and relevant extracts from the Bhasya see the Abhidharma Kosa Blog More about Vasubandhu

Did the Vaibhasika and Sautrantika schools of philosophy really exist?

This page was originally skeptical of the existence of the Vaibhasika.
It turns out History of Indian Buddhism. E. Lamotte, by a classic Buddhologist, is my source for my scepticism. Etienne Lamotte says:

Throughout all Buddhist literature, there is no systematic attempt to explain or prove, as a whole and in detail, the doctrines professed by a given sect. The great authors display absolute freedom in the choice of theories they describe, and reveal themselves in general to be eclectic. They are not sectarians working for a school, but scholars giving their personal opinions. Tradition makes Asvaghosa a Sarvastivadin and pupil of the Vaibhasika Parsa; but Asvagosha himself asserts, in the Saundarananda XVII, 18, that “Existence succeeds non-existence” a thesis that was formally condemned by the Sarvastivada.

And – about the greatest authority we have about the Vaibhasika in particular, Vasubandhu, he notes (and my teachers in Tibetan Buddhism concur)

The great Vasubandhu was, in principle, a Sarvastivadin-Vaibhasika, but in his Abhidharmakosa he frequently adopts the Sautrantika point of view. (all on page 522)

Still, if you look at the Abhidharma Kosa and the corresponding Bhasya, it really is quite clear that Vasubandhu himself wrote about existing Vaibhasika and Sautrantika positions. He was philosopher enough to include both points of view, but that doesn’t mean he made the traditions up.

All in all I think Lamotte is being overly skeptical here. It’s a scholar’s job, perhaps. Still, the Abhidharma Kosa gives voice to the existence of both schools as subschools of the Sarvastivada school of philosophy. Given it’s importance to later Tibetan Buddhist scholastics, it’s not surprising the two schools ended up so important in their debates.

It’s also, I think, historically significant that no non-sarvastivadin Hinayana philosophy survived in Tibet. We must suspect they weren’t taught in Nalanda either. These ideas came from somewhere. A historically existent school is the most logical explanation. 

A definition of Vaibhasika in historical perspective

Most people who write about the Vaibhasika follow tradition more closely. For instance the Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy says in it’s introductory paragraph about the Vaibhasika (p. 548)

“Vaibhasika is a Buddhist school belonging to the Sarvastivada (Everything Exists) tradition, which basis itself not only on the canonical sutras of the Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidharma Pitakas but also on the comprehensive Sarvastivadin taxonomic work from Kashmir, the Mahavibhasha (second century CE), which is in turn the model for Vasubandhu’s (fourth century CE) Sautrantika works Abhidharmakosha and Abhidharmakoshabhashya.”

It continues to give a full explanation of the philosophy of this ‘school’.

Guy Newland notes, in his Appearance and Reality: The Two Truths in the Four Buddhist Tenet Systems, that although Tibetan authors talk about Vaibhasika and Sautrantika as encompassing all the Hinayana schools of philosophy, Vaibhasika as they teach it is basically the Sarvastivada school from Kashmir. The Sautrantika’s started out as a subschool of the Sarvastivada. (p. 134, 135 Dutch edition – the afterword)

Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy is a great – if expensive – reference work. I turned to it when I was doubting my own doubts and it’s reference to the Vaibhasika included the reference to Etienne Lamotte – quoted above.

More Buddhist philosophy

Sunyata, Void, Emptiness: Buddhist philosophy

Articles on Sunyata. The terms Sunyata (or Shunyata), void and emptiness are synonyms in Buddhist philosophy. They are ways of expressing the sense that all we see, feel and observe is relative, in fact non-essential and not self-sustaining.

Atman in Sunyata and the Sunyata of Atman [Buddha’s World]

A scholarly attempt to reconcile the difference between Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta on the nature of the Self Learn more about the four schools of Buddhist philosophy as taught in Tibetan Buddhism.

See also: Books about Buddhist philosophy I can personally recommend.

Best Books on Emptiness / No-Self doctrine in Buddhism

I have studied Sunyata (emptiness) for over a decade. I have received teachings, read transcripts and meditated on the topic. Emptiness is a topic that I find deepens with time. Each time I look at the topic, I find new levels, new nuances and more application to my daily life. The books that follow are the ones that I would recommend to get a full view of the topic from various perspectives. Amazon will help find related books within the tradition of each. 

Appearance And Reality: The Two Truths In The Four Buddhist Tenet Systems by Guy Newland.

I have a Dutch translation of this book and I have returned to it again and again as I studied the Gelugpa interpretation of the ‘Four Schools’ of Buddhist philosophy. 

Unlike traditional teachers on the topic, Guy Newland doesn’t let metaphysics or visions on the path distract him from the main philosophical meat. This book is a great introduction.

When I studied for the FPMT Basics Program Tenets course final exam a few months ago, I found that while Guy Newland was great to get me started, he does leave out a lot of the details I was expected to know. 

However, in a way that is a recommendation. Most people aren’t ready for that kind of detail. 

The Essentials Of Buddhist Philosophy

Junjiro Takakusu follows the outlines of a 13th century Japanese text on the same topic. The book is aimed at beginners, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple.

In fact, I don’t know how much of it I got on my first read more than a decade ago. However, judging by my notes, I did go through it all. I am sure it helped me read Guy Newland’s book from the perspective of general Mahayana Buddhism, instead of from a more culturally naive perspective. 

For me, as a Western Buddhist, I think it is very important to find the essence of topics like this. It is too easy to let the details of the way it is taught in a particular tradition get in the way of the gist of the topic. This book definitely helped me avoid that problem. 

The Power of an Open Question: A Buddhist Approach to Abiding in Uncertainty

As you can perhaps tell from the books I started with, my approach to emptiness was originally very intellectual. From reading the above books I had no idea that it could become personal and transformative. I had in fact no idea that it should. 

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel changed that. 

Perhaps that is enough to recommend it. Read my original review. Although at the time my review was tentative at best, in this list it is the most easily legible for an ordinary reader. 

Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih Lun

I read Dan Lusthaus’ book in an illegal version on Scribd. 

Like the next book it is primarily aimed at scholars and very expensive. 

However, it helped me understand the Chittamatra philosophy more easily and has made that philosophy one of the schools of Buddhist philosophy that I most identify with. 

The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism

Peter Harvey was recently recommended to me by one of my teachers at Leiden University. His book takes a fresh and well argued look at the Pali Sutras and the early Theravada commentaries. 

However, he doesn’t draw from those sources to give a classic Theravada view. Instead he uses it as a window into early Buddhism and tries to answer the question: what did the Buddha actually mean? 

This is the only book on my list that I first read recently as well as the only book that is non-Mahayana. However, in terms of content it is surprisingly familiar. My main conclusion from the first half is that many of the themes that became prominent in the later Mahayana interpretations of Buddhism, were already present in the Hinayana sutras. 

This is a stronger claim than the one the Mahayana tradition itself usually makes! Of course the tradition claims that Mahayana Buddhism is real Buddhism. And of course it goes back to the Buddha, but mostly the difference between the two traditions is stressed and that starts with the Mahayana sutras. 

For me, and I suspect many modern Buddhists, the similarities are really more interesting. It turns out that the main perspectives of both Chittamatra and Madhyamaka are already present in the Pali sutras! I will let the reader decide on the differences. 

In the Selfless Mind Peter Harvey gives a convincing view of Buddhist psychology and the anatta (no-self, anatma) doctrine. He helps clarify the 5 aggregates (skandhas, personality factors), citta, vijnana etc. 

I think this book will prove to be a major force in Buddhist philosophy of the 21st century. Claims (as made by one reader on Amazon) that the book uses The Magic of the Mind: An Exposition of the Kalakarama Sutta by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda more than acknowledged makes the author less respected, but only strengthens its conclusions. 

Dependent-Arising and Emptiness: A Tibetan Buddhist Interpretation of Madhyamika Philosophy, Elizabeth Napper

Emptiness has all kinds of interpretations. In order to understand how they link together – where the differences are, and how those differences came to be – a historical perspective is often useful. In Dependent-Arising and Emptiness Elizabeth Napper gives us just such an overview, explaining the context of Lama Tsong Khapa’s interpretation of the Madhyamika philosophy. However, she does more. She has also provided a translation of the first part of Lama Tsong Khapa’s chapter on emptiness in his Lam Rim Chenmo and of the commentatory literature around that book in the Gelugpa tradition. 


When I started reading the introduction it felt like coming home. Finally someone who gives the Indian and Tibetan context of these ideas. Finally someone who gives both the transliterated Tibetan and Sanskrit terminology. Finally someone who stays close enough to the teachings as the geshes give them, to make them actually accessible on paper. And yet, through all that, Elizabeth Napper also helps with the cross-cultural divide that is the eternal backdrop to such studies. 

This is not a book for everybody. However, if you want to understand how emptiness and nihilism are mutually exclusive, this may just be the book for you. 


The Buddhist philosophy of emptiness is not for the intellectually fainthearted. These books are listed in the order in which I read them. Depending on the intelligence and inclination of the reader, the order may work for them as well.

For those without my philosophical bent, I definitely recommend starting with The Power of an Open Question by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. It is the only book on the list that deals with emptiness as a living reality in our lives. As such, it is perhaps the most important one. After all, it may change your life, if you let it. 

However, if philosophy doesn’t scare you, do start with Guy Newland’s Appearance And Reality. He does a good job of summarizing traditional views of emptiness without getting history involved. 

Ultimately, I recommend not only reading books, but also attending classes and meditating on the topic. This is the traditional approach and does help to make the topic more real as well as relevant. 

Why Leave Cyclic Existence – and Emptiness (some questions)

Is suffering something to be avoided? Do we have to want to leave cyclic existence as Buddhists?

Most people aren’t really driven to leave cyclic existence. Traditionally most Buddhists were only invested in getting a good next rebirth – you know, by ethics and generosity. So if you can live with that option, you’re still a Buddhist in my book.

If my ‘self’ is empty, does that mean that helping people is useless too?

I can tell you that a proper understanding of emptiness doesn’t deny the conventional self. It merely addresses the story-telling self, the Ego if you will. That voice in you that interprets reality according to how your desires want it to be and sets itself up as an authority on your life – that self is definitely denied by Buddhism. That is: it isn’t what it seems. It doesn’t even have to be killed or anything. It really just doesn’t exist the way it appears. When you see that fact, realizing it deeply, the Ego loses much of it’s power.

The self that buys groceries? That self is totally fine. In fact, it exists the way it appears and it is necessary.

Don’t feel pressured to believe in something that is beyond you. Emptiness has always been an elite thing. Most Buddhists throughout time were illiterate farmers. They did not think about selflessness. They thought about how to get their rice to grow.

And hey – if it turns out you’re not really a Buddhist – as long as you make sure to guard your karma, you’re still fine from a Buddhist perspective.

The basic instruction in the Gelugpa interpretation of Emptiness (which includes 4 different interpretations in it’s turn) is that when you come upon an interpretation of emptiness that makes you doubt cause and effect, back-paddle. Cause and effect (which includes working for a better world) is more important than emptiness.You’re questioning your understanding of emptiness because you feel doing actual good in the world is more important. Which it is. It only interferes with selflessness if you start thinking ‘hey, look at me doing good’. However, if you notice that in yourself, don’t stop doing good. Just use it as a tool to remind yourself that you’re not quite a bodhisattva/arhat yet.

Emptiness is a very complicated topic. Do take other people’s interpretations of it with a grain of salt. I studied for over a decade and I still don’t have more than a grasp of the basics.

I grew up on a farm. My neighbors were great. They were real altruists and definitely selfless.

Selflessness in the ethical sense has very little to do with selflessness as in emptiness. It’s great when people are altruistic, of course. Great karma for them and great blessings for those around them. However, that doesn’t mean they have realized emptiness. So don’t get your terminology mixed up: people being altruistic is another topic than selflessness in the Buddhist philosophical sense.

In Mahayana Buddhist terms there are two things: (1) the method side of the path: things like ethics, kindness, generosity etc. That’s what those farmer neighbors of yours had and what you are probably doing fine on as well.

(2) The other side is the wisdom side – this is where Buddhist philosophy comes in. And on that side it really takes quite a lot of work. Not that living an ethical life isn’t work – but it’s a very different story. To realize emptiness fully is to have both an intellectual understanding AS WELL AS using that understanding to clean up your own personality. When that realization occurs, that is when the end of cyclic existence comes into view.

But why bother with wisdom at all?

From a traditional Buddhist perspective – Mahayana or Theravada – Without wisdom we’re stuck in cyclic existence. The Tibetan tradition would add that without wisdom kindness is often counter productive. These are two very different reasons. Many people are more ready for the second type than the first. Which is fine.
Why is wisdom important for me personally? Well, meditating on emptiness and applying it to my personality has helped me deal with a few self-delusions.

Kindness without wisdom leads to all kinds of problems. People giving unsolicited advice, for instance. Giving help short-term that only creates problems long-term. This is a very common mistake among amateur bodhisattvas (as one teacher of mine called us).

Buddhists I know often seem to use Buddhism to escape their situation. This denial of the inevitability and importance of suffering feels like a denial of the first noble truth of Buddhism.

In my experience, allowing myself to suffer helps me learn. When I cover it up, I stagnate.

Buddha too wanted to escape suffering. So in itself that is not a problem. What happens is that when people use the dharma to escape suffering, they are just covering it up, instead of using the dharma to deal with it. The story is that the Buddha rooted it out completely. You can’t root something out without confronting it.

When thinking about the path to enlightenment, I get confused. It feels like there is this huge distance between my situation now and Awakening. I like the idea better that I already have everything it takes and need only see it.

You are coming up on one of the things that differ between various traditions within Buddhism. The ‘you need only see it’ approach is very much Zen (also Dzog Chen). The path approach is more classical, so most Tibetan traditions as well as Theravada are on that line. It is just a preference, not an essential difference. You would not deny, for instance, that you still have personal problems, I think. So there is a path in the sense that you’re not a saint just yet and yet you have the potential to become one (using very Western terminology for once). 

So why should I want to leave cyclic existence anyhow? Do you honestly want to leave cyclic existence?

If you think the system through consistently, you will see that – once karma and rebirth are accepted – the urge to leave cyclic existence is really quite rational. If you take people in poverty, dealing with disease without proper healthcare, in war zones etc. into account, most of them would probably think it a nightmare to be asked to return again and again. 

However, from the position of relative wealth still prevalent in the West, this urge is definitely not one that comes naturally. That is the Buddhist answer.

As one of the topics of meditation in the Lam Rim I have trained to try and get a feel for it. I can’t honestly say I have internalized it. However, I do see that if karma is true, and rebirth is true, then the chances of being reborn as favorably as I was this time aren’t that good. I may be building enough good karma to prevent an unfortunate rebirth, but I can’t be certain. 

Why would you meditate on such a depressing topic?

Good question. Because if karma and rebirth are facts, then cyclic existence is a problem waiting to be solved. Just because my current life is too comfortable to make that too deeply felt, doesn’t make the problem less real. 

However, as I started out saying: nothing is mandatory. Meditating on cyclic existence isn’t mandatory either. You are completely free not to be a Buddhist, and if you are, to be your kind of Buddhist. 


The above is clearly only a summary of the doctrines of emptiness and cyclic existence. It may be enough to meditate on, but it certainly doesn’t replace the libraries of books written on each in Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism divides the philosophical interpretations of emptiness into four schools. However, each of these is separated into at least two others – with often diametrically opposed viewpoints. Japanese Buddhism made no attempt to simplify the topic into a mere four schools. Instead they have about a dozen main interpretations. 

If you haven’t been confused by emptiness, you haven’t even begun to understand it. 

Some emptiness terminology

 Anatma (Sanskrit) = Anatta (Pali) = literally NO (an) SELF (atma)

The no-self doctrine. As you can see above, the translation of anatma with ‘selflessness’ ads to the confusion about the topic. I prefer the translation ‘no-self’. This doctrine is common to all types of Buddhists, though the precise interpretation varies. 

Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Sunnata (Pali) = literally ZERO (sunya) NESS (ta – merely a suffix). 

Emptiness. In Mahayana discourse ’emptiness’ has come to refer to the lack of a ‘self of phenomena’. In other words: it refers to the fact that nothing exists the way it appears to us, not merely the Ego. 1) Phenomena don’t exist the way they appear to our senses and 2) we don’t really look with our senses all that clearly. Instead we see the world through the filter of our conditionings. 


I am using the word Ego here the way it is used in common discourse. Don’t get Jung or Freud involved when thinking about Emptiness. 

When we say ‘he has too much Ego’, we mean that he takes himself too seriously. The male Tibetan gurus who came to the West were quite confused by their, often female, students. Instead of having too much ego, they didn’t have enough: they lacked self-confidence despite all their accomplishments. In time the teachers found a way of fitting it in with their worldview as follows: the Ego of a lack of self-confidence. 

I think this is quite useful. Lack of self-confidence is a sense of ‘poor me’. We tend to see it as humility, but the effect isn’t good. Lack of self-confidence makes us avoid trying things we may be able to do. Humility on the other hand can co-exist with achievement quite peacefully. It merely means that we don’t make our accomplishments an Ego-thing. 

With this addition, Ego becomes something everybody has. Everybody has a story-line about themselves that is off from the reality. In my understanding, that is the ‘conceit of I’ that the realization of no-self will get rid of. 

[This is adapted from a Facebook group discussion. The Question-parts are rewritten from the original to respect their copyright.]

[Shown here is my amateur version of 4-armed Avalokiteshvara]