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Introduction to Buddhist Metaphysics

Alexander Berzin
Knappenberg, Austria, September 2010

Session Six: Relationships between Phenomena

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:45 hours)

We’ve been speaking about the various areas or topics of analysis that we have in the Buddhist presentation of metaphysics. And we’ve seen that all of these systems of analysis can be used on a very practical level to help us to deconstruct – first of all to understand, and then deconstruct – the seeming solidity of the difficult experiences that we all encounter. Because everything that Buddha taught, he taught for the sake of liberation. And so, although it might not seem obvious on the surface level how any of these teachings apply to the process of gaining liberation, nevertheless it’s important to investigate them and to see how in fact we can apply them.

It’s very important not to get discouraged by the complexity of the material, but to work with it with confidence that actually it is intended to be helpful. Life is complicated, the universe is complicated, so we shouldn’t imagine that a way of understanding it will be less complicated. Or perhaps we could say it a little bit nicer – that it is proportionately complex. Hopefully it makes the complexity a little bit easier to handle.

The last topic that we’ll deal with here is about various types of relationship, the relationship between various phenomena. Because everything is related in one way or another; nothing exists totally isolated from everything else. And so in order to understand how everything goes together, we need to understand the different types of relationships that things can have among themselves. Let us go through some of this material; it’s a little bit more than what you have been handed out here.

Two Things That Are Identical

First of all, we have the topic of one and many. The term here literally is one (gcig) and that means the same, but actually it is much more precise: it means absolutely identical. Either two things are the same thing (gcig) or they are different (tha-dad), basically. But when we say two items are the same, that doesn’t mean one item referred to by two different names (ming-gi rnam-grangs, synonyms). What we have to understand here is that we’re talking about words or names and they refer to something. And actually when we say one, we’re referring to one and the same name referring to one and the same thing. That’s what identical actually means.

It’s quite obvious that two separate things, like the table and the chair, are clearly different; they’re not the same thing. But if we use the example from this hypothetical situation that we’ve been analyzing – that I picked up the wrong computer bag at the airport, and I’m very upset about myself (that I’m so stupid and so on), and I want to get my computer back – if we use that example, then what would be identical would be my computer and my computer. Those are totally identical: the same word, the same object. OK? Now my computer and Alex Berzin’s computer, those are different. Right? Although they might be referring to the same object, these are two different things.

Let’s see the application of this: I call the airport lost and found and I ask them, “Do you have my computer?” Does that help? No. “Alex Berzin’s computer” is what I have to say; I can’t say “my computer,” although they’re referring to the same thing. So although it might seem a little bit silly, actually it’s quite different here between one and many, even if we’re talking about the same object.

This is used very much in our analysis of voidness, this difference between one and many. When we talk about the relation between me and my mind, or me and my body, we tend to identify with our minds or our body, or our profession or our role in life, like mother. But then we analyze: Are these two exactly the same – identical? Me and mother. If we were totally identical, I would have to have been mother from the moment I was born. Or if me and mother were totally separate, then who’s the mother if it’s not me? And so in this way, we see that me and mother, if we think of them as two solid things encapsulated in plastic, they are neither totally identical nor are they different.

The only conclusion with that is that something is wrong with the whole way that I’m conceiving of me and mother, that they cannot possibly exist as isolated entities encapsulated in plastic. Because if there were two like that… I usually refer to them like ping-pong balls; that gives us some kind of idea of isolated individual things…either we have one ping-pong ball or we have two ping-pong balls; there’s no other possibility. When we talk about me and mother, or me and my mind, or me and my body, either it’s the same ping-pong ball or there are two different ping-pong balls. If they are ping-pong balls – if they are like ping-pong balls – there can only be either one or two. And they’re neither, so the conclusion is that they are not like ping-pong balls. So this is a very important aspect of voidness analysis, one of the main lines of reasoning.

So we saw that even if we’re not analyzing about voidness, that just on very practical level my computer and Alex Berzin’s computer are not identical. Those are different. And if we want to get our computer back, we’re going to have to not just say “my computer.”

Two Things Having the Same Essential Nature

Now we have another term; it is usually translated as two things having the “same entity” (ngo-bo gcig). I prefer two things having the “same essential nature,” or “sharing the same essential nature.” That’s usually translated as having the “same entity.” The reason why I don’t use it is because it gives the connotation of something solid – it’s an entity – and I don’t think it’s actually referring to anything solid here. But obviously in your German it doesn’t have that connotation, which is much better. But, anyway, same essential nature. These are two facts about the same aspect of a phenomenon considered from two cognitive points of view.

For instance, the conventional nature of my computer: From one point of view, it is something that is conditioned or affected by causes and conditions. From another point of view, it’s impermanent; it’s going closer and closer to its end. These two facts about its conventional nature we would say share the same essential nature. Or in terms of the two truths about the computer, when we talk about two truths in Buddhism: From the conventional point of view, it’s my black Dell computer. And from the deepest point of view, another truth about it, a true fact about it, is how it exists: it’s devoid of existing inherently, forever, as this solid thing, my computer, as if it belonged to me even before I bought it.

If I know one of these two facts, I don’t necessarily know the other. I could understand that my computer was built in the factory, probably by Chinese workers, underpaid, in some province of China. And I could understand that it is made of all sorts of parts. But I might not understand that it is impermanent and will inevitably break. Right? Or I know that it appears to be my black Dell, but I might not understand at all that it doesn’t exist from its own side, by its own power, as mine, inherently as mine. When I know that this is my black Dell, I don’t necessarily know that it doesn’t exist from its own side, by its own power, as inherently mine. If it did, it would have to have existed like that before I bought it as well; obviously it didn’t. Absorb that for a moment.

(Here we’re talking about) two facts about the same aspect of something, because (understanding something) from two different points of view, cognitive points of view, is very helpful. This is because we get a lot of insight, a lot of understanding, if we can see the same aspect of something from various points of view. We understand more. But these two things that share the same essential nature can’t be identical; otherwise they’re the same fact. They’re two different facts about the same thing.

But two facts about different aspects of the same object don’t share the same essential nature. For example, the appearance of the computer (the black Dell), and what happened to it (it was lost in the airport). That’s quite a different relationship, isn’t it? It was made by causes and parts, and it’s going to eventually fall apart; that’s quite a different relationship, between it’s a black Dell and I lost it at the airport, even though all of these things are talking about the computer, aren’t they? OK?

Two Things That Are Inseparable

Inseparable: If two things share the same essential nature, they’re inseparable (dbyer-med). Inseparable means if one is the case, so is the other. Arising from causes and conditions and eventually falling apart: If one is the case, so is the other case; if one is true, so is the other true. What about these two facts about two different aspects of the computer – are they inseparable or not? It’s a black Dell and I lost it at the airport. If one is true, is the other necessarily true? No.

This actually becomes quite helpful about our possessions, about me, or about whatever. If I’m born, what is necessarily the case? I’m going to die. Something that is made eventually is going to break apart. But being born and being successful in life, that doesn’t necessarily follow, does it? Or having a happy marriage. I think it’s quite helpful to know what are inseparable things in terms of our life, our expectation of life, and what aren’t. Think about that for a moment. Because often we expect that certain things are going to happen, as in: I meet this partner, I have this partner, and what we expect will happen is that we will live happily ever after. Is that inseparable? Nay. No. So we need to understand which facts about something share the same essential nature and which don’t. Try to think of some examples.

Right. I go for a holiday and I expect that it will be wonderful. Do those share the same essential nature? No. I go for a holiday and the holiday will come to an end. That shares the same essential nature. I mean, obviously you could stay on holiday forever and decide never to go home, and spend the rest of life on Majorca or whatever, but then it’s no longer a holiday.

Right. Feeling healthy now – or being young now – that I’m going to be healthy and young forever. Those obviously do not share the same essential nature. What about I’m young now and I will experience old age? No, because you could die young. My daughter and my son’s sister, with the same mother and father, share the same essential nature. Right. What about my husband and my best friend? Hmm, well…

What about the front and the back of my computer – the front part and the back part? Or the two sides of a coin? They are inseparable (you can’t have one without the other), but they don’t share the same essential nature because that’s just looking at it from two visual points of view, not two ways of understanding or cognitive points of view. Those are two aspects of its appearance, not two facts about its appearance.

Participant: The coin.

Alex: The coin? When we say cognitive point of view, I suppose that’s a little bit misleading – or unclear, I should say. It’s with a different understanding. So we understand something being made of parts and causes and conditions, and another way of understanding it is in terms of it being impermanent. Those are different ways of understanding.

Like for instance, I lost my computer. From one point of view, I could look at it as a tragedy and be very upset. From another point view, I could look at it as a wonderful opportunity to practice patience. These are two different ways of understanding it, two different attitudes we could have about it. That’s quite different from the front and the back of the computer; those are just two parts of it. The front and the back of the coin are inseparable. You can’t have the front of a coin without having the back of the coin.

Question: Can they share the same nature?

Alex: No. They don’t share the same nature, because it’s not from two different ways of understanding; it’s just two different ways of looking at it, two different parts of it – the front part and the back part. What if it’s on a string and rotates? Well, the front and the back of the coin are usually designated in terms of what is stamped on it. The front of it usually has some sort of picture, and the back of it has a different picture, different writing. That’s how we designate the front and the back of a coin, don’t we? At least where I come from, we do. Heads or tails. Do you have that expression?

Participant: A sheet of paper.

Alex: Well, if we number pages...

Question: What’s the nature then? I mean, I understand it needs to have two sides. There has to be a side A and side B, because otherwise, if there were more pages [sides], it would not be a piece of paper.

Alex: Let me just repeat that for the recording: If we have a piece of paper, there has to be a side A and a side B of that same piece of paper. If there were more sides of paper, it would not be one sheet of paper. Right. But side A and side B are not identical, of course; they’re different.

Question: If they are empty...

Alex: If there’s nothing written on them?

Question: Is that then a perception of my mind, what I call side A and side B?

Alex: Oh, that’s very good. He said that if it’s a blank sheet of paper and there’s nothing written on it: from the side of the sheet of paper, does one side exist? Can one side be established as side A and the other side established as side B? Absolutely not. That’s a very good example. You’ve just opened the door into a large topic. Well, let me explain, because this is… You’ve understood what I’ve said, but I cannot resist, now that the door is opened, to explain the implications of what you said. Since although voidness is not a topic here, it’s a very essential aspect of the Buddhist teaching, so let me explain a little bit here, because also it’s my favorite topic.

Establishing the Existence of Phenomena

When we talk about voidness, we’re talking about what establishes things. Not so much about how it exists, but what establishes what it is. What establishes that this is side A and side B of two sides of a blank sheet of paper? Anything on the side of the sheet of paper (if it’s blank)? No. It is established as side A or side B merely by the power of mental labeling: I’m going to call this side A and call that side B, and I’ll put a little A and a little B on it, perhaps, to help me remember. So that’s how everything works. What establishes that this is a table? Right? It’s a piece of wood on legs. What’s that? It’s established as a table because we have a concept of what a table is and what a table should do. Is it a table for the ant or for the fly? For the ant or the fly, it’s quite different. But the difference here, in terms of voidness, is that things aren’t just like the blank piece of paper, sitting there waiting for us to label it as this or that. But everything is established in terms of mental labeling.

If we think of… Well, first of all, let me explain a little bit more clearly what establish means. Establish (grub, Skt. siddha) doesn’t mean made by mental labeling; it is not that my mental labeling makes it into a table. How do we know that this is a table? What is a table? There’s nothing on the side of this object here that makes it a table, that by its own power makes it a table. If you take it apart, is the table in any of the parts under a microscope? What’s a table? The only thing that we can say is that we have this word or concept table, and it’s what it refers to, on the basis of all these parts and causes, and so on.

If I didn’t label it as a table, would it still be a table? Well, that’s interesting. There’s a convention of this whole group of people that have agreed that this is a table. I mean, they have that concept, and so on. Then OK, you can say that it validly is a table. Whether I know it as a table or not doesn’t matter. So for the termites, it’s a meal. Termites.: the little insects that eat wood. For us, it’s a table; for termites, it’s food.

So there’s a convention that is agreed upon and validly known by a group, and it can function like that for a group. But even just being a thing is established by mental labeling. It’s not that things are sitting there like a blank piece of paper waiting to be mentally labeled. Even just being a thing is mentally labeled. Because if we go down deeply enough, we see that everything is made up of atoms and particles and subatomic particles, and fields of energy and gravity, and all these sorts of things. So where is there a solid line, like plastic – that’s why I use the image of plastic – that separates this from another thing, that makes it into a thing, like a ping-pong ball? There’s nothing like that, is there? Again, mentally labeled; it’s established by the way that it’s perceived. But it functions. It’s not that everything is an undifferentiated soup; it’s not.

So what makes this my computer? I bought it? Well, I can also lose it: it’s their computer. What makes it a computer? To the fly, is it a computer?

So these things are a little bit helpful to not become so attached to things existing so solidly.

Participant: If I put it to the extreme… [unclear]

Alex: Table and wholeness?

Participant: Yes. The concept of an idea.

Alex: Well, are concepts and objects (or ideas and objects) the same things? Well, no. Remember, we had our whole discussion of generalities and particulars. A concept is a... When we talk about concept, we don’t have that word in Tibetan; we have these generalities or categories. A category, or generality, is used in order to organize things. And yes, that is what is involved with mental labeling. Absolutely, it is what is involved with mental labeling.

Now this is very, very important. With mental labeling we have three things. We have the mental label (btags), which is a name. Remember, a name can represent a category (those aren’t quite the same). And we have the basis upon which it’s labeled (gdags-gzhi, basis for labeling). And then what we have is what the name or word refers to (btags-chos, referent object).

So we have the mental continuum – body and mind, and all of that – that’s a basis for labeling. We have a general category, me, with a mental label associated with it, the word “me,” the word or concept “me” (we would say concept in the West). Right? Quite specific, in terms of “my me” not “your me.” Individual. And that is labeled on top of every moment of experience – body and mind. And what the word “me” refers to is the conventional me. But what the word refers to and the basis are not identical, and this is where our discussion of relation between things becomes absolutely important. It’s a special type of relation, that the me, the conventional me – what the word refers to – is established in terms of mental labeling. There’s nothing in terms of the basis; there’s no little me sitting inside that basis (the mental continuum) that establishes me.

Let’s think of an easier example. The whole and the parts. A whole is what is labeled on the basis of parts. Does the whole exist somewhere inside the parts? No. So we have the whole and the parts; they’re not identical. In the West, we say, “the whole is the sum of the parts.” So that’s a relationship. In Buddhism, we would express it: “the whole is what is labeled on the parts.” It comes to the same point. Almost the same point; I shouldn’t say exactly the same point.

So, anyway, without taking up the entire class about this topic, here we’re just introducing some of the fundamental tools for understanding relationships between things. But ultimately this becomes really, really important in our discussion and analysis of voidness and cause and effect; that’s the application of this. So this whole process – mental labeling, and the relationship between what is labeled and the basis for labeling – that’s another type of relationship. It’s not actually mentioned here in this presentation at this point, but in more advanced presentations that’s where it’s going.

But the whole and the parts, they’re not identical. There are many parts; the whole is just one. But they’re not totally separate and different. You can’t have parts without a whole. They don’t exist separately from each other.

Totally Pervasive and Mutually Exclusive Phenomena

Let’s get back to inseparable facts. Two inseparable facts sharing the same essential nature – they can either be totally pervasive (don-gcig) with each other or mutually exclusive (’gal-ba). Totally pervasive means that everything that belongs to set A also belongs to set B. So if two facts basically mean the same thing… Conditioned or affected by causes and conditions and parts, and being impermanent. These are two inseparable facts – different – about the same thing, about the same aspect of things; they share the same essential nature, and they’re totally pervasive. Everything that is dependent on causes and conditions and parts is impermanent. Everything that’s impermanent is affected by causes and conditions. OK? This is basic set theory – it’s used very, very much in Buddhist analysis – the relation between two sets, two groups.

So we have two sets. Either everything that’s in one set is also in the other set. Or in our case here, we’re talking about these inseparable facts sharing the same essential nature. Right? So the other possibility for this group is that these two facts are mutually exclusive (that’s getting into our term here that is translated as contradictory). But mutually exclusive means that there’s nothing that is in both sets. Nothing that’s in both. So for instance, the two truths about anything. The appearance, the conventional truth – my black Dell. And its voidness – it doesn’t exist, by its own power, as mine. There’s nothing that’s both, but these are inseparable facts sharing the same essential nature.

Dichotomous and Nondichotomous Mutually Exclusive Phenomena

Now we get into this topic of… it’s called here contradictory phenomena(phan-tshun spangs-’gal; ’gal-ba),and there are various types. Now we have here... the way that these terms are translated is as a direct logical contradiction (phan-tshun spangs-’gal-gyi dngos-’gal; dngos-’gal, dichotomous mutually exclusive phenomena) and an indirect logical contradiction (phan-tshun spangs-’gal-gyi rgyud-’gal, nondichotomous mutually exclusive phenomena). What we’re talking about is contradictory phenomena that either form a dichotomy (that’s the one that’s translated here as direct) or those that do not form a dichotomy. So let’s understand what this means.

A dichotomy means that everything that exists is either in one category or in the other. Like my computer and not my computer. Can everything fit into those two categories? Where does your computer fit in? Which box? Not my computer. What about the table? It’s not my computer, is it? No. The dog, anger – it’s not my computer. Right? So it’s a dichotomy. Everything can be divided into these two boxes. There’s only two possibilities.

What about three possibilities (mu-gsum, trilemma)? Let’s say if we make the two boxes my computer and your computer. Right? There’s a third box, there’s a third possibility, neither my computer nor your computer, and we would put the dog into that box. But there’s nothing that could be… there’s no fourth possibility. There’s nothing that could be in two of these boxes, my computer and your computer [unless, of course, we have joint ownership of the computer and it is both mine and yours. But] the dog couldn’t be put in more than one box.

Now my computer and your computer – well, are they really opposites? My computer, your computer, and somebody else’s computer. There’s not quite… I mean, what really is an opposite? What’s really an opposite?

Participant: The concept of ownership.

Alex: The concept of ownership is an opposite of what?

Participant: It makes the difference.

Alex: A concept of ownership makes a difference here between my computer and your computer, but it (i.e. a difference in ownership does not make two things) exact opposites, (although being my computer or your computer) are mutually exclusive. It’s not like hot and cold. There’s hot, there’s cold, and there is everything else – it’s neither hot nor cold. Like the dog? Well, dog is hot, cold, and blue. Well, there’s nothing that can be both hot and cold.

So anyway, what about four possibilities (mu-bzhi, tetralemma)? My computer and lost items at the airport. There are things that are… There’s my computer, right? Lost items in the airport. Things that are neither – the dog. But there’s something that could be both. My computer could be both in the category – in the box – of my computer and lost items, can’t it? But if it’s my computer, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the lost items at the airport, does it? And there could be things that are in the lost items room that are not my computer.

So when we understand all the possibilities that are involved here, then, it helps us to deal with the situation, to analyze it. So we look for our computer. Is it in the lost and found? You call everybody that was on the plane – did somebody take it? You have to look at all the possible boxes that it could be in, in terms of these possibilities. So again, this system of analysis is something which is applied very, very widely in Buddhism.

Incompatible Contradictory Phenomena

Then we have incompatible contradictory phenomena (lhan-cig mi-gnas ’gal), and this is referring to one that breaks the continuity of another. So for instance, my unhappiness at not having my computer, and then my happiness at getting it back. The happiness at getting it back ends the unhappiness of not having it anymore, or you could remember that unhappiness.

Applying This to the Example of the Lost Computer

So with our example of the lost computer, we see that there are many different applications here. Like for instance, there’s somebody that was with us in that airport and we accused them of having taken our computer. So what are the relationships here? Either I took it myself or… I mean, we think that “If I didn’t take it, you took it,” as if there were only two possibilities. But that’s faulty isn’t it? Because there’s a third possibility (somebody else took it). But often in situations, we don’t think that there are other possibilities. We think there’s only one or two ways that it could be, and then we get really, really upset in this situation, don’t we?

This is very, very important, very basic Buddhist advice. When we want to do something, don’t only have plan A; always have a backup plan B and plan C. Because if you think that plan A is the only possibility and that doesn’t work out, you’re completely lost. Let’s say we are applying to go to a university, and we only apply to one university – because that’s the one I really want to go to – and you don’t get accepted, then we’re left with only working in a McDonald’s, because we only considered one possibility here. But if you apply to several universities and if you don’t get into one, you have a possibility of getting into another. That comes from all this set theory. The outcome can be in this set or that set or that set, but don’t just make it either this or nothing.

So when we face this situation, when we have this type of training, then we analyze: What are the possibilities here? Is it only two possibilities? Is it only one possibility? Are there three possibilities, four possibilities? That helps very much in being able to logically deal with various situations, solve different problems.

I can either go here and there on my vacation, or I can go to just one, or I can go to both, or I can go somewhere else. When we plan our holiday, we have these possibilities, don’t we? So we’re planning to go to two places. One place it’s raining all the time, so we go to the other place. If it is raining there as well – well, you don’t just say “Oh, how horrible!” We think we have another place that we can go to. And if it was really nice in the first place, we don’t have to go the second place; we could stay there the whole holiday. So you have different possibilities. When we are open to different possibilities and we see all the permutations that we could have, it gives us great flexibility. It makes life much easier.

Phenomena Related by Having the Same Identity

The last group of relations that we have here – I don’t even know how to translate these from the German names – phenomena that are related by having the same identity (bdag-gcig-tu ’brel), and I think you have causal relation (de-byung ’brel), phenomena that have a causal relation.

Phenomena related by having the same identity would be my computer and nothing other than my computer. “I want my computer back. I don’t want anything other than my computer. I don’t want another computer, a new one, because all my data was on the old one. I like the old one.” So these have the same identity: my computer and nothing other than my computer. But if we are insisting on nothing other than my computer, that’s a little bit stronger than just saying, “I want my computer,” isn’t it? “I’m not going to settle for anything else.”

Derivative Related Phenomena

And this causal relation (de-byung ’brel) – I would call it a derivative relation. And this would be, for instance, my computer before I get it back and when I get it back, or my computer before I lost it and now when I get it back. We certainly would check it out to see if anything was disturbed in it – tampered – wouldn’t we? We want to compare it with before we lost it. Did somebody delete some files? Did somebody add some virus into it? What happened with it? So it’s derivative; it derives from the previous time of that object.

Using This to Analyze and Understand Our Problems

You see, actually we deal with all these relations – whether we give them names or not – in our lives, don’t we? And it’s interesting how we sometimes confuse these last two relations, types of relations. Like our child when he or she is twelve and when he or she is twenty. We tend to think, falsely, that they are identical – they have the same identity – whereas in fact it’s derivative. The twenty-year-old is a later evolution of the twelve. And to treat the twenty-year-old as if they’re still twelve causes a great deal of trouble. OK?

That brings us to the end of this material. There are obviously many other types of relationships between two objects or two sets of objects that we could discuss, but perhaps this is enough. The main end point of all of this is that it is not just theoretical metaphysics, but actually they’re all intended to help us analyze what’s going on and overcome problems and difficulties.

Categories: Friend. Are all items in friend one? Are they totally identical? Sometimes we think that they are; our friendship should be exactly the same in this new relationship. But it’s not, is it? They fit into the same category – they are particulars, in terms of the same category – but what’s the relationship between them? These are the type of things for which one needs to apply this type of analysis to understand, and to understand where the problem is in our relationship: I’m treating my twenty-year-old child as if they were twelve. I’m treating this friend as if they were identical with this other friend. Wrong. It’s mistaken.

And what puts this person into the box of friend? It’s mental labeling isn’t it? Are they only in this box? Are they going to be in this box forever? What are the possibilities for this person? They can be my friend or my enemy, or neutral, or what? That becomes very interesting when you have a divorce, actually. Very, very interesting. Is there any possibility that this person (who probably you loved when you married) could, after the divorce, not be thrown only into the box of my enemy but could be thrown into the box of my friend? There will be two possibilities, or three possibilities, or what?

Participant: Another is to go and live in a cave and separate.

Alex: Well, you suggested the fourth possibility, which is go off to the cave and have no relationship with this person. They’re not my enemy, they’re not my friend, they’re not my partner; I have no relation with them. However, to be more precise, I don’t have a presently-happening relationship, but there is a no-longer-happening relationship, and that you can’t deny, especially if there are children involved. So that affects the number of possibilities now, in a causal way. So we see what type of cause is that: The fact that we have children. That complicates the whole equation, doesn’t it?

So all these types of systems that we’ve introduced, all of them get woven together to deal with a difficult situation. Like for instance, a divorce and what kind of relation are you going to have with the person you divorce.

OK, thank you very much.