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Overview of Identical, Different, Contradictory, and Related Phenomena

Alexander Berzin
Knappenberg, Austria, March 2010

Session Two: Questions and Answers

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:34 hours)

For our last session, we will have more questions. What would you like to ask? 

Question: We have been talking about phenomena related by having the same identity. We had the example about the person who is a student, employee, and friend, and a father figure at the same time. I’m confused, and I got even more confused. What phenomena are we talking about here? What phenomena are we comparing? The same identity… it’s the same person, but what are we comparing? 

Alex: So the question is: in this discussion of phenomena related by having the same identity, I used an example (just for giving a practical example) of one person that is all four things – a friend, and a student, and an employee, and looks at me as a father figure. I was trying to give an example that actually would help to understand this, what an application of this would be. It’s probably not the most precise example, because what I was relating here was student, friend, employee, and someone who looks at me as a father figure – but those are very large categories. So there are many things included in those categories that don’t have this relationship. I was particularly looking at this person as a friend, this person as a student, this person as an employee, etc. I was specifying it in that way. It was related to the person as this or as that. 

But the classic example is “a vase” and “nothing other than a vase.” That’s absolutely the same identity. Again we’re looking at one object as a vase, and we’re looking at it as nothing other than a vase. 

Question: [missing] 

Alex: She’s asking in terms of this relationship of “identical.” As I say, literally it’s “one,” but “identical” has to be identical in absolutely every single regard. And so “mother” and “mother” are identical. “Mother” and “Mutter” are not because they’re different words. But we don’t have to have it be verbal. It doesn’t have to be verbal. I mean, I could have two glasses. These aren’t two glasses, but I could have two glasses. This glass and this glass are identical [points to same glass twice]; but this glass and the other glass in my other hand, they’re not identical. 

We have the term (do you have this term in German?) “identical twins.” From this logical point of view the identical twins are not identical, because they’re different persons. So they have many things that they share in common, but they’re not identical by this definition. “Identical” means it’s talking about the same thing – Well, no, because “mother” and “Mutter” are talking about the same person. It has to be totally identical in all aspects. These two twins, the identical twins, share the same natal source. They both come from the same womb, but they are not the same person. 

And in our languages things are very confusing. At least in English, perhaps German as well. We could say these two glasses are the same, but actually they are not the same glass. So even the word “same” is used with two different meanings isn’t it? 

We have to be quite careful because, again, if you compare the sets of what is meant by the Tibetan term and what is meant by the English or German term, often either they are totally pervasive – but that’s rare, because often they are four possibilities, things that is one but not necessarily the other, etc. The two sets are mutually pervasive: if it’s in one, it’s in the other. If an item is in one set, it’s also in the other set. 

Question: Isn’t my mother and my brother’s mother – assuming that you come from the same mother – is that identical? 

Alex: No. It’s talking about the same person. But “my mother” and “my mother” are identical; “my mother” and “my brother’s mother” are different, by this definition. Don’t think in terms of the set of the German words or the set of the English words. You have to think of the set of what is defined by the Tibetan terms. That’s why we have definitions. In fact, this is where most of the misunderstanding and confusion about Buddhism comes from – the words in our language cover sets which are different from the sets that are covered by the Tibetan term that’s being translated. And that’s where the misunderstanding comes from, usually. 

It’s very difficult to get totally pervasive sets of what’s included in a Tibetan term and a German or an English term. We can illustrate this so easily with German and English, when you have the set of what does the word “mind” mean and what does the word “Geist” mean? There’s some overlap, but there’s some meanings of – Then you have to see are all meanings of “mind” included in “Geist”? There are meanings of “Geist” that are not included in “mind,” but are there meanings of “mind” that are not included in “Geist”? And so you have to really analyze. 

Question: Are there objects which are identical at all? 

Alex: Are there objects which are identical? This glass and this glass. [points to same glass twice] 

Participant: It’s just one. 

Alex: It’s just one thing. That’s why the literal translation of the word is “one.” But “this glass” and “my glass” are different, even though it might be referring to the same object. Identical in absolutely every aspect. 

Alex and Alexander. Some people know me as Alex. Some people know me as Alexander. Different – Alex and Alexander are different. Not just the words. Remember words have objects, so words have to have a meaning, a reference. They take an object. They can both refer to... Well that becomes an interesting question. Alexander is my professional name. Alex is the name that my friends call me. So are these two different persons? Well when I’m Alexander, then I’m very formal and I don’t joke, and so on, but when I’m Alex, I can be relaxed and I joke. And Alexander has to be perfect? And Alex doesn’t live up to the level of Alexander? You could have a lot of psychological problems because of that. What actually is the relationship, then, between Alex and Alexander? I don’t want you to relate to me as Alexander; I want you to relate to me as Alex. So are those two – is it the same person? Is it identical? Is it different? Is it completely different? What is the pervasion?  

Is the basis for labeling Alex the same or different? No, the basis for labeling... Well now this becomes interesting. There’s a basis for labeling. This is the person. A person is labeled on what we call the five aggregates. So, without going into a discussion of the five aggregates, these are a classification scheme into five categories of everything that makes up each moment of our experience and which changes. So, now: analysis. What is included in these five aggregates in all these things that “me” is labeled on? There’s my body, there’s my mind, personality – all different aspects that you label “me” on top of. So “me” is labeled on the functioning collection of all of these – the functioning network, I should say, of all of these. In continuum of it. 

Now what am I labeling “me” on? Am I labeling “me” on all of them when I give the name Alexander to the “me”? Well, no. I’m labeling it on the professional aspects of it: my writing, my teaching – these aspects of my experience. When I label “me” as Alex, then the “me” is being labeled on other aspects. So now is it one person? Is it different persons? What’s the relationship? 

See? A lot of our problems stem from identifying “me” with just one aspect of what makes up our life. And that’s truly “me,” we think. Then you have to ask, well, is that identical? Or what’s the relationship? “Me” only labeled on that? And it becomes even worse if you give the “me” different names when it’s labeled on different things, which we do. Not just in terms of Alex and Alexander. It could be father, it could be son. It’s a different “me” that’s the father to my children and a different “me” who’s the son of my parents. I relate to them differently, and so on. Now it starts to become really quite interesting. And the “me” who’s at work. It gets into this whole discussion of what’s my identity, and do I have a truly established – a true identity? And Buddhism says, “No.” I mean, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to benefit from that understanding. We’re individuals, but we can be many, many different things. Are they identical? Are they different? You have to analyze. “Me” and “me” is identical. “Me as a father,” “me as a son,” that’s different. How do you relate them? 

Right, “Me, Andreas” and “Me, Andreas” – that’s identical. Yes. 

Participant: When he first says, “I am Andreas. Me, Andreas,” and then he says, “Me, I am Andreas,” those are evasive, they are not existing anymore – so it’s a different person already because some seconds have passed. 

Alex: Well that is a very good question. When we say, “Me, Andreas,” and then a second later we say, “Me, Andreas” then the basis is changed because of impermanence. Then we have this whole issue of are there commonsense objects (’jig-rten-la grags-pa) that endure over time? Remember, I mentioned commonsense objects. What we think of as my body, for example. Is there a commonsense object called “my body?” Or in every second, since it’s changing from moment to moment, is it something else? Can you actually see my body or is that just a mental construct? And what type of mental construct is it that’s putting together each moment of the continuity into a commonsense object? That’s not a very easy question to answer. 

Obviously my body when I was a baby and my body when I’m adult – you wouldn’t say it’s the same thing. How is it related? It’s derivative – derivative related phenomena. So how close together do we have to be? 

Mind you, we’re getting into here a more complicated issue. When we say “identical,” are we talking about what is not identical is the sound of the word? “Me, Andreas” that you said in second number one and “Me, Andreas” when you said it in second number two. So then is the referent object the same? What is identical here? These are things that one debates back and forth. Right? Because they are said separately. “Me, Andreas” and then a few seconds later you say, “Me, Andreas.” Are we talking about the words being identical? Are we talking about the meaning of the word, what it refers to, as being identical? How much can be identical? What if two people say simultaneously, “Me, Andreas” at the same time? Is it identical? Well, it’s coming from two different voices. So one has to really analyze. Can any two things be identical? That’s why we say, well, not truly existently identical. How can two things be one thing? It’s interesting. 

Question: How can one thing be two things? 

Alex: How can one thing be two things? “Is one plus one two ?” is what you’re asking, which is a very interesting question. Me as Andreas and me as Andreas. One plus one. Does that mean two? Think about that. 

So you see there are no easy questions. And I think you can start to appreciate the value of debating, because when you start to really analyze, then more and more questions come up. And the whole point of it is to think, to develop your analytical abilities, so that you can apply that to analyzing the cause of my problems and how to get rid of it. It’s interesting because if you follow this logically then, from what we’ve just said, one and one equals one. So then you ask, “Well, why should one and one be two? Is that a law of the universe? Is it inherent in the universe? Where does it exist? What kind of phenomenon is ‘one plus one equals two?’” Now we start to really go deep, don’t we? 

Here, by the way, you have a difference between the Tibetan approach and the Zen approach (just to point out an aside). The Zen approach is that you ask so many questions like this that you give up and stop asking questions. They just sort of settle down into the nature of things. Whereas the Tibetan approach is that this sharpens your analytical abilities so that you can then analyze reality. So both styles have their benefit. But you can see how, when we have disproved that one plus one is two, then you might want to just give up. 

Question: Is there one objective reality? We have to change our point of view and just have one final definitive way of looking at things? 

Alex: This goes back to something that I pointed out earlier in our series, which is a Western conceptual framework that says there must be one God, one truth, one way that everything is. And it’s not like that. 

So, using a very simple example, in Buddhism we speak about two truths: the appearance of things and the mode of existence of things. That’s how it’s defined in Gelugpa, Mahayana Gelugpa, the Gelugpa explanation of the Mahayana tenets. And the non-Gelugpa two truths: how things are, as perceived as Buddhas; how they are, as perceived by non-Buddhas. Is one more correct that the other? Well one really has to analyze this, too. So when we say is there one objective reality, now we have to get back to our definition of “one.” And what do we mean by “one?” Are we saying identical? What are we talking about? Are different points of view about the same object identical? Can they all be equally true? Yes. 

Now you have the different Buddhist philosophical schools, and some of them will say that yes, there are different objective things that all these words are referring to, that you can find; others will say no. This is a very central topic that’s analyzed, and you have deeper and deeper understandings of “Is there objective reality, and what does it mean?” So that is analyzed more and more deeply as you work through the different philosophical tenets in Buddhism, in Indian Buddhism. 

Remember we used the example with the Mind-Only school, the Chittamatra. If each of you took a photo of me or of Geshe-la and you looked at these photos, could you prove that this was all the same person? Because all the photos would look different. How do we know that we’re all looking at the same thing? Because what we see is different, isn’t it? The appearance that we see. Actually, when I teach this material I usually challenge my class to prove that we’re all in the same room. That’s very hard to prove, that we’re all in the same room, isn’t it? Think about it. How in the world would you prove that? Is there a room that we’re actually sitting in, the objective reality of it? These are things that we analyze. It’s very interesting. Not just interesting, helpful – in terms of dealing with our disturbing emotions. 

Question: Basically what you are talking about is: is there a reality that all of us see differently, from different points of view, as limited beings or Buddhas? There is something that we relate to, an object that we always relate to, that is the same? Or is it that what we see is not... There is nothing there to see; but what exists, exists only to our seeing? I don’t know how to explain. 

Alex: Okay, so this is the interesting question. What she’s asking is if we’re all looking at this room – we’re sitting in the room and we’re all looking at the room – is there one objective thing that it’s referring to, identical? Are they completely different things that we’re looking at? Or actually is there no objective room that we’re looking at, all looking at? Does that mean that there’s no room that we’re looking at? 

As I say, there are different explanations of this according to the different Buddhist philosophical systems, but what’s considered the deepest one is that the room that we see is devoid (now we have the voidness) of existing in any of these ways – they’re all impossible. However, nevertheless, there is a room. It doesn’t mean that there’s nothing. There is a room, but we are not all seeing truly objectively the same thing, nor are we each seeing something totally different. That obviously requires an enormous amount of time and positive energy and so on to be able to understand. 

Remember, we used a simpler example. That my body and this chair aren’t two solid things, they’re both made up of atoms; but, nevertheless, I don’t fall through the chair. The chair supports me. So even though they’re not solid things, nevertheless they function. This is a method which is used, a didactic method. If we can understand on this easier level, this – what I call in German the “trotzdem” – “nevertheless” it functions. If we can understand how something can nevertheless function. “It’s like an illusion” is the actual terminology that’s used. It’s like an illusion that it’s solid; nevertheless it functions. If you can understand that on simpler examples, then you can go deeper and deeper and understand it on, accept that, in more sophisticated examples. That’s a didactic method that’s used.

So if you could accept that everything is like an illusion but it isn’t exactly the same as an illusion, nevertheless it functions – you can agree on that, and understand that, then it’s just a matter of identifying what is the illusion. There can be deeper and deeper levels of what’s illusory. That’s the most difficult thing to understand, actually: that, nevertheless, things function. 

Question: What is an illusion? 

Alex: An illusion is something that exists in a way that is different from the way it appears to exist. It actually exists in a way that is different from the way it appears to exist. In other words, its mode of appearance and its mode of existence are different. The body appears to be solid, but actually it’s not a solid monolith: it’s made up of atoms. 

Question: Basically: I see a chair, but there is no chair there to sit on. And it suspends you, but there is no chair there? 

Alex: Oh, no, no, no. She says that I see a chair but there is no chair, nevertheless it sustains me. 

No. There is a chair. Conventionally there’s a chair, even though every moment that you’ve looked at it it’s changed. Nevertheless, conventionally there are things. This is one of the main things that one has to avoid with these deconstructions, is falling to the extreme of nihilism. That’s very important, not just in Buddhist deconstruction, but in modern philosophy there’s so much emphasis on deconstruction. Well, you have to be careful that you don’t deconstruct to the point where you become totally nihilist – that there’s nothing; nothing exists. This, as I said, is the most difficult point. That even though you can deconstruct completely, nevertheless things exist, things function. The point is how do they exist. And they don’t exist in the way that my mind makes them appear, because I have limited hardware (remember we used that image). Think about that. It’s very interesting. 

My friend didn’t call me. Aside from the fact that why they didn’t call me is something else, but with my limited hardware I forget everything else about our relationship and I only see this little portion – they didn’t call me – and I get really, really upset. Do they exist like that? Well, they didn’t call me. But how do they exist in terms of “they didn’t call me?” Is it out of the context of the whole relationship, or how is it? So it’s like an illusion, isn’t it, that we say, “Well they truly didn’t call me, so they really don’t love me.” It’s like an illusion because that’s all that we experience right now. We can’t experience right now the whole relationship over time. 

The point is that with our limited hardware we can’t be aware of the entire relationship, all its aspects over its entire time span, simultaneously. So with our limited hardware we only focus on one thing and then we identify it, my friend, with this one incident that happened. And we get very upset. Hardware problem. That’s why in Buddhism we talk about getting rid of this hardware, which means to stop samsaric rebirth. That’s the problem, is that continually generating this limited hardware. If we are applying it outside of a Buddhist context, then this is something that we have to accept – that we have limited hardware – and so one has to understand that the way things appear really is not the way that they exist. The aim here, in ordinary, non-Buddhist terms, is not to get rid of this hardware, and certainly to get rid of the hardware doesn’t mean to kill yourself. So you have to be careful. But what it means is to understand the limitations, and why there are these limitations, and don’t believe what appears to you. Don’t believe it literally. 

I mean, the consequences that follow from that… “I am confused about the appearance of this person because they didn’t call me, so I think they don’t love me anymore. So I’m confused about that. It’s not because I’m stupid.” If you think you’re stupid, then you become judgmental, then low self-esteem, and self-hatred, and all these sort of things – so it’s not like that. You identify the problem is that you have limited hardware. “Okay, so I have to deal with it. It’s not that I’m stupid. I have to learn to be able to not be stymied, not be hindered, by the fact that my hardware is limited. I can only see one thing at a time.” If you think that I’m stupid, then it follows from that that I’m no good, then you have low self-esteem, self-hatred. “How could I be so stupid? How can I be such an idiot?” You can see how that degenerates. In simple language: we learn to make the best of it. 

What else? 

Question: Who or what decides whether, or when, a being is to be considered an arhat or a Buddha? Can one do that for himself, or have other beings to do that for him? 

Alex: So the question is who or what and how and by what means is it determined, with certainty, that someone like ourselves is actually a liberated being, an arhat? And how do we confirm it? 

The first answer that comes to my mind is a quotation from one of the lojong, the attitude training texts, which is to… the line is “to take the main witness.” What that means is that oneself is the main witness of what our level of attainment is. We know ourselves: “Am I fooling myself or am I really free of anger and selfishness, and so on?” Now of course we can get feedback from other people, because sometimes we don’t recognize that I’m still being selfish. But ultimately we have to evaluate ourselves. And then there are all the qualifications, the description of what it means to be liberated. But those lists are not very easy. What does it actually mean to be liberated, especially if you think in terms of liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Well how do I know? I haven’t died yet. And even if I’m reborn, how would I know? These aren’t easy questions. 

But I don’t want to get into too technical a discussion of all the qualities of a liberated being and how we would validly know that I have attained this. But then we have to go to our list of the seven ways of knowing, of what’s a valid way of knowing, and how do you prove something, and so on. So there are methods. But ultimately we would know, ourselves. You don’t have to get a certificate at the end of the course. So that’s why we need to have understood: What are valid ways of understanding something and valid ways of knowing something? What are invalid ways of knowing something? And how do you actually prove something? We haven’t gotten into logical proofs, but that’s a whole topic in which is discussed how do you prove something. 

Question: So a mentally limited person could never be an arhat? 

Alex: Well, no. Now we have to get a little bit careful with our terminology. We have emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) and cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) – is how I translate them, these two terms; they’re translated many different ways by other translators. So an arhat is free of these emotional obscurations – all the disturbing emotions and the unawareness and confusion that underlies it, and the tendencies of these things. So they don’t repeat. But they still have the cognitive obscurations. Which means that their mind still makes things appear in impossible ways, it’s just that they don’t believe it, and therefore they don’t emotionally react to it in a disturbing way. They still have emotions – they have love, compassion, etc. – but they don’t have these disturbing emotions. 

So because they don’t have these disturbing emotions, unawareness etc., they don’t build up karma from their actions and they don’t experience suffering. However, their mind still makes things appear in an impossible way, like in boxes, independent of other things. And so they’re still limited. They’re limited in the sense that they don’t know cause and effect, behavioral cause and effect, completely. So they’re only able to see what’s in front of them, or a limited amount in the past, and what is no longer happening, and what not yet happened – there’s a limit to what they can perceive. So, in terms of helping others, they don’t know beginninglessly all the causes that are no longer happening that have affected the way the person is now, their problems now. And they don’t know what will be the effect, forever, of what they teach this person. So how do you choose what to teach this person? What’ll be the effect of it? And it’s not the effect just on this person, but it’s the effect that it will have on everybody else that this person interacts with, on the basis of what we’ve taught them. So they’re limited in this aspect. 

The analogy I use is that they’re still like being in a submarine, looking through a periscope. They see a limited amount of what’s going on. They don’t see everything. So in order to be able to understand everything about cause and effect about everybody, you have to become a Buddha, an omniscient being. And a Buddha is not a limited being. So that’s why I translate “sentient being” as a “limited being” – or beings with limited minds, literally. An arhat is still a sentient being. A Buddha is not. 

So that brings us to the end of our session. Thank you very much.