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Negation Phenomena: How to Focus on Voidness (Emptiness)

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, March 2004

Session One: Negations and Affirmations

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:36 hours)

Introduction

This weekend we are going to be speaking about negations (dgag-pa) and affirmations (sgrub-pa). And although there are quite different explanations of this in the different Tibetan traditions, we’ll present here only the presentation that we find in the Gelug tradition. And within that Gelug tradition what I will explain is the majority opinion as is formulated in the textbooks by Jetsunpa. There is a minority view in another set of textbooks, the textbooks by Kunkyen, but everybody else follows the view that Jetsunpa elaborated on, so that’s what I’ll explain here since that’s what I studied. And also, before we get into this material, I must tell you that although I had a rough understanding of this in teachings on this since long, long ago, I got more instructions on this this summer, when I was in India, from Serkong Rinpoche and his teacher, Geshe Tenzin Zangpo – he’s considered the top debater of all the Gelug monasteries. And I must say that I am still working with this material, so I can’t guarantee I have the deepest understanding of it. It’s quite challenging material when you study it in the in-depth level that they do in the full Geshe program. So we can work on it together. I will explain it to the best of my ability, according to my present understanding.

Now this topic, although it was announced that we would deal with many different aspects of it, as I’ve been preparing and working out the material it’s obviously too much material for one weekend. And I haven’t really worked it all out from the very, very complicated teachings I got this summer concerning the points that we undoubtedly do not have time to cover on the weekend. These are the points that deal specifically with karma, and with past and the future, and what a Buddha knows – what anybody could know – about the past and the future. Both of those, to understand them in depth require understanding negations. Such negations as the no-longer-happening of an action and how that transforms into a happening-again of the action. And things like passed-happenings of something, and the not-yet-happening of something. And how does the not-yet-happening of something come about? And how do we stop the no-longer-happening of something from repeating? These are all very, very interesting and important questions, but that will have to be put off to the future. What we will cover here is the basics. So these are, as I say, really very crucial questions, but we need the basics first.

The basics are dealing with what are negations and affirmations and how do our minds think of them, or know them, validly. These are very crucial in terms of how we meditate on nonstaticness (that’s impermanence) – that is a negation of something, or is it? And how do we meditate on voidness? What do we think of when we think of voidness, which is also a negation? And how do we think of it? Because unless we know these things in precision, it’s really, really difficult to meditate on either nonstaticness or voidness correctly. We may try in just some sort of way, but we don’t really know what we are doing.

The same is true in terms of bodhichitta, which I will not go into either. Which is, if we are focusing on our future enlightenment and we want to achieve it, well, what are we focusing on? Because that future enlightenment has not yet happened. The not-yet-happening of the enlightenment – that enlightenment itself – does it exist somewhere out there? What actually are we focusing on? What is in front of our mind when we’re focusing on bodhichitta? That also will have to wait, but it is all based on understanding what is a negation and a negation phenomenon, and how do we focus on one. It’s very crucial for most of the meditations that you might want to do.

In our discussion of nonstaticness and voidness we won’t go into what actually voidness means or nonstaticness means; we’ve discussed that previously. So what we are going to be discussing here is how you focus on it; not so much how you meditate on the meaning, but how you actually think of it in order to analyze it, in order to understand it, in order to focus on it, once you have understood it. That’s what we will be dealing with. So although this material might sound very intellectual and theoretical, it’s not. It deals very, very directly with meditation and how we meditate. So don’t get thrown off the aim of why we need to study this by the technical details.

Existent and Nonexistent Phenomena

Okay, so let’s jump in. First we have to know what kind of phenomena there are. First of all, there are existent phenomena. Existent phenomena (yod-pa) are defined as those phenomena that are validly knowable. If it exists, it can be validly known. If it’s validly knowable, it exists. And they include both static (rtag-pa) and nonstatic phenomena (mi-rtag-pa). And the reason why I prefer “static” and “nonstatic” is because, at least in English, the words “permanent” and “impermanent” are a little bit misleading.

Both static and nonstatic phenomena, either of them, can be of four types: they can either have a beginning and have an end; have a beginning but no end; have no beginning but an end; or no beginning and no end. Some only last a short time, some last forever – in both categories. Some have no beginning but then end. Others have a beginning but then no end: they go on forever after they begin. So because of that I prefer “static” and “nonstatic.” What it implies is that, so long as it exists, if it is nonstatic it changes every moment: it’s affected by causes and conditions. If it’s static, for however long it exists it doesn’t change, it doesn’t do anything.

And we’ve spoken quite a bit about some of these static phenomena, things like categories with which we think things. Categories don’t do anything – categories like “table,” through which we can identify many different items as tables. Both of these types of phenomenon, static and nonstatic, exist: they can be validly known. Also, nonstatic phenomena, not only change from moment to moment, not only are they affected by causes and conditions; but they themselves affect other things, they produce effects – they function. Static phenomena don’t function. That is why sometimes we have the synonyms “functional phenomenon” (dngos-po) and “nonfunctional phenomenon (dngos-med).”

Now nonexistent phenomena (med-pa) are those that cannot be validly known, either conventionally or ultimately, by a mind that’s focusing on superficial or deepest truths. Take, for instance, a nonexistent phenomenon like rabbit horns (that’s the classic one that they always use), or chicken lips or turtle hair, anything like that. It cannot be validly known by a mind that is focusing on superficial truth – in other words, appearances. It could be nonvalidly known; you could have a hallucination of turtle hair – that can occur. But it’s a nonexistent phenomenon because it can’t be validly known. And, similarly, another nonexistent phenomenon would be true existence, truly established existence; it can’t be known by a mind that validly focuses on the deepest truth. Nevertheless, it could be nonvalidly known, distortedly known, because due to our habits of grasping for truly established existence we think that we see it. We think that that’s how things exist, but that’s not validly known, so it is nonexistent. It’s not validly knowable. It cannot be known by a valid mind that validly focuses on deepest truth of things.

So we do cognize – cognize is the most general word, in English; it’s not a very common word, but that’s the word that’s usually used – we do cognize both existent things and nonexistent things, but we only validly cognize existent things. So the discussion of nonexistent things is – it’s incredibly relevant. As is the whole discussion of what is valid cognition.

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena: Gelug Presentation.]

The whole issue of what causes our suffering and how we get out of suffering depends on the distinction between existent phenomena and nonexistent, and between valid cognition and invalid cognition. Normally we have invalid cognition of nonexistent ways of existing; that’s what causes our problems and suffering, that’s the cause. We have to get valid cognition of what actually exists and how things actually exist.

Superficial truths are what exist, deepest truths are how they exist – or, more technically, what establishes that they exist, what proves that they exist. If you think about it, the causes for cognizing something that doesn’t exist – in terms of seeing something or imagining something – it could be an internal, physical cause: something wrong with the brain; it could be some external thing that we take, like LSD, or we are drunk; it could be because of the intense sun, or whatever. Or in the case of perceiving truly established existence, that comes about from the cause of the habits of grasping for truly established existence. Neither of them come about because of actual pink elephants that we see when we are drunk or hallucinating, nor do they come from actual truly established existence. It’s not like seeing a table, in which the focal object is actually a table and actually exists. So when we talk about negations we are not talking about nonexistent phenomena. Negations can be validly known.

Question: What about disturbing emotions that cause us to see someone as an idiot?

Alex: Yes, but idiots exist. To see somebody as an idiot is confusing one existent thing with another, that’s like confusing a dog with a cat. There is a difference between confusing a dog with a cat, and confusing a dog with an invader from the fifth dimension. Those are different. The cat exists. The invader from the fifth dimension doesn’t exist. The most common example is for people who wear glasses. You take your glasses off, you see a blur. That doesn’t exist. The blur isn’t existing out there, is it? It’s caused by a physical defect.

Nonstatic and Static Affirmation and Negation Phenomena

Existent validly knowable phenomena may be either affirmations or negations, and both affirmations and negations can be either nonstatic or static. So it’s a different way of dividing existent phenomena. There are nonstatic affirmations and static ones. There are nonstatic negations and static negations. So it’s a different division.

Could we give an example? An affirmation which is nonstatic would be, for instance, the table. The table is affected by things, it can affect other things, it has a beginning, it has an end, it changes from moment to moment, and from moment to moment it is coming closer to its end. An affirmation phenomenon which is static would be the Essential Nature Body of a Buddha; that’s an affirmation, it’s static – Svabhavakaya – that’s a static affirmation.

Now for negations. A nonstatic one would be, according to Prasangika, the not-yet-happening tomorrow. The not-yet-happening tomorrow is getting closer and closer and can change into a happening tomorrow. It would be a happening today, actually; that’s what it would change into. Or, let’s say, not-melted can change into melted. A static negation would be “no such thing as an invader from the fifth dimension.” Yes, that’s a static negation. It’s never going to change – unless they come into existence. Or another nonstatic one would be “Simon is not here.” The not-present Simon can change into the present Simon – he can come here – that’s not static. The past year, it’s getting further and further passed, would be a nonstatic negation. It has passed; it’s gone.

Nonconceptual and Conceptual Cognition of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena

Now the definitions. These are the definitions of affirmations and negations that Serkong Rinpoche gave me out of his textbooks, which are written by a master named Purchog. And he wrote the textbooks that are used in the Jetsunpa tradition. Now although both affirmations and negations can be validly cognized, either conceptually or nonconceptually – that’s also a point; you can know both of them validly either conceptually or nonconceptually – the definitions are formulated in terms of the manner in which they are validly known conceptually. The reason why the distinction between an affirmation and a negation phenomenon is drawn here in terms of how they are known conceptually, despite the fact that both can be known either conceptually or nonconceptually, is because when they are known conceptually they are known through the medium of words. And words have a lot to do with the definition and how we understand what’s a negation phenomenon and an affirmation phenomenon.

Actually, the role of language and words here is a point of contention that is debated among the different textbooks used in the monastic universities, and we’ll get into that a little bit later. Also I should mention that in the definition here, the word “validly” known conceptually or nonconceptually has to be added (I mean the word “validly”); because although it’s not actually explicitly mentioned in the definition, it is implicitly understood.

Now let’s give some examples of how an affirmation phenomenon and a negation phenomenon could be known either nonconceptually or conceptually. I can see Christian is here, nonconceptually, and I can think conceptually, “Christian is here.” I can also see nonconceptually that Simon is not here, and I can also think conceptually, “Simon is not here.”

Participant: How can you see it nonconceptually?

Alex: Nonconceptually. Don’t you see that Simon’s not here?

Participant: Maybe that’s conceptually.

Alex: No, that’s when you think. You just see it. You just see that he’s not here. Don’t you? Conceptually is thinking. Seeing, by definition, is nonconceptual. Through your eyes, through the power of the eyes – that’s seeing.

Participant: So nonconceptually, it’s just dots?

Alex: No, no, no. That’s something else. That’s into something else. That gets into a non-Gelugpa theory, that actually we only see pixels; that’s Shakya Chogden’s position. That’s another thing of – what do we actually see. There are three positions. One is that we see pixels. One is that we see just colored shapes. The other one is that we see forms. When I look at you, according to Shakya Chogden, I see pixels. It’s conceptual that puts it into colored shapes, and then puts the colored shapes into a body, and then puts that into “Christian.” Gorampa’s view – that’s the Sakya view and most of the Nyingmas and Kagyus – is that I just see colored shapes, and the body is conceptual. According to Gelugpa, I actually see a whole body – I see a body, I see an object – and Gelugpa would say you also see the person.

I think the confusion has arisen here because when I see Christian is here, I see a body and also I see a person. Now that person happens to be Christian. When I see the person, I don’t think “Christian”; in fact I don’t even know that this is Christian. But what I am actually seeing is Christian. To know that this is Christian, I would have to think, “This is Christian” – that’s conceptual. So to be more precise, we can say I nonconceptually see a person, who happens to be Christian, and I conceptually think “this is Christian.” Similarly, I can nonconceptually see Simon is not here; there is no Simon here. What I am seeing is an absence of Simon, that’s the object. In order to know that the absence of an object here, who happens to be Simon, is actually an absence of Simon, I would have to think conceptually “Simon is not here.” So nonconceptually we see objects and we see the absence of certain objects. And conceptually we know that it is the presence of Christian, for example, and it is the absence of Simon.

The Definition of an Affirmation Phenomenon

Now let’s get to the definitions. The definition of an affirmation type of phenomenon: a validly knowable phenomenon that is conceptually known in a manner in which an object to be negated has not already been actually rejected by the sounds that express the phenomenon. In other words, validly thinking this type of phenomenon does not entail having first actually rejected an object to be negated, and it doesn’t entail that rejection having first actually been made by the sounds of the words that express the phenomenon.

There’s two points in the definition. That to know it doesn’t require first rejecting something, cutting it off. And the sound of the words that express it don’t cut off anything – they are not negating sounds. When we talk about affirmation, we are not talking about the mind that affirms something; we are talking about a phenomenon. You can call it “affirmative” and “negative,” but I don’t like that – “negative” is too moral, it has other usages in our technical vocabulary.

So what’s an example? An example is an apple. An apple is something we can think of with the term and meaning categories “apple.” There is a term category “apple” – you find it in the dictionary. When we think “apple,” there is also a meaning category of “apples” – we think of it.

Now when validly doing so, we do not need first to think “non-apple” or “orange” or “dog” and then actually reject it, or cut it off, in order then to think “apple.” We don’t have to reject anything. There is no rejection here of “not an apple” or “orange” or anything in order to think “apple” – you just think “apple.” And there is no sound of a negating word such as “not” that needs first to reject or cut off something, like the sound of “not” rejecting an orange in the sound of the words “not an orange,” and only then can we think “apple” – we just think “apple.” I don’t have to know what an orange is and then have to reject that “this is an orange” in order to think “apple.” And there is no negating word when I think “apple.”

The Definition of a Negation Phenomenon

The definition of a negation type of phenomenon is: a validly knowable phenomenon that is conceptually known in a manner in which an object to negate it has already been actually rejected by the conceptual cognition that cognitively takes the phenomenon. Validly thinking of this type of phenomenon does entail having first rejected an object to be negated, and it does entail that rejection having actually first been made by the conceptual cognition itself.

We note that these definitions are very tricky here. Because in the first part, the difference is quite clear – there’s been an object to be negated, actually rejected or actually rejected before. That’s quite clear. Then in the case of an affirmation, it’s talking about the sound of the words not actually rejecting it – the word “actually” is very important there. And the second one, in the case of a negation, the cognition actually has rejected it. We’ll get into that after a little while, but that difference is very, very significant.

So let me give an example of a negating type of phenomenon. A negating type of phenomenon is “not an apple.” When we validly think conceptually “not an apple,” it has to have been preceded by the cognitive sequence of first thinking “apple,” then actually rejecting it, and only then can we think “not an apple.” That’s the conceptual process. You can’t think, “This is not an apple” without first thinking “apple,” rejecting it – conceptually, with the mind – and then thinking, “This is not an apple.” Obviously you have to know what an apple is in order to correctly think, “This is not an apple.”

How do you see if there is no milk in the refrigerator; you have to know what milk is first – think it, reject it, and then you know, “There is no milk in the refrigerator.” Otherwise you can’t know that there’s no milk in the refrigerator – you see an empty refrigerator. You don’t see “no-milk” in the refrigerator.

Question: Right. But that’s the same with Simon?

Alex: Yes. You have to know Simon in order to know that he’s not here. It’s conceptual. We are talking conceptual. The definition is conceptual. Because the question about all of this is words and the role of words. Words are only conceptual.

No Common Locus between an Affirmation and a Negation Phenomenon

So there is no common locus between an affirmation and a negation. “Common locus” (gzhi-mthun) means one item that is both. No validly knowable phenomenon is both. Remember we are not talking here about a way of knowing that could know things in both an affirming way or a negating way. Because, obviously, conceptual cognition can know things either in an affirming way or in a negating way. But, rather, we’re talking about the objects that are validly knowable or validly known. These must be either an affirmingly known phenomenon (or an affirmation) or, on the other hand, they have to be a negatingly known phenomenon (or negation). The object has to be one or the other. There is no object which can be both.

Affirmations and negations form an actual dichotomy. Existent phenomena are either affirmations or negations. There is nothing that is both and there is nothing that is neither. This is Gelugpa. Other schools would say, well, voidness is beyond all affirmations and negations – we’re not talking that. For instance, black and white don’t form an actual dichotomy, because there’s gray. Although one might think that it’s a dichotomy. A lot of people think like that, don’t they: it’s either black or white. But that’s not an actual dichotomy. Whereas affirmation and negation is an actual dichotomy. There’s nothing sort-of halfway that’s a little bit of one and a little bit of the other. What’s not an actual dichotomy would be two ends of a pole, of an axis; they’re the opposite, but they’re not a dichotomy; they don’t form an actual dichotomy. All of this, by the way, is what Tibetans study when they are nine years old. Just to put us in our places!

Validly Knowing the Basis for the Negation and the Object Negated

Before we stop for the evening, let me just introduce the topics that we’re going to be getting into tomorrow. Just as a teaser:

Concerning a negation phenomenon, the object to be refuted or to be negated has to be actually rejected. I have a nice example here. What’s the difference? I want to introduce my new friend to my mother. My friend doesn’t know what my mother looks like. We go to my house and my aunt opens the door. I think “not mother” and my friend also thinks “not mother” – what’s the difference? Both conceptual cognitions are correct, but are they the same? Which one is the actual rejection? Which one is a verbal rejection and which one is an actual cognitive rejection? One is a verbal rejection – just to think “not the mother.” The other is a cognitive rejection, because I know what my mother looks like. That’s very important when we talk about no true existence – it’s the same thing.

Look at the example again. Consider both my friend and I look at this woman (that happens to be my aunt) and I think “not the mother” and he also thinks “not the mother.” And I am using here the terminology “not the mother” because I don’t want to get into the whole complication of the pronoun – not my mother, not his mother – it’s the same. From the point of view of the principle involved, both of us are thinking the same object, “not the mother.” But it’s the same object only in terms of the words that express it – “not the mother.” But here we have to look at the definitions of affirmations and negations to know whether or not we’re actually thinking the same object in terms of it being a negation.

Are both of these negations that we’re thinking of? That’s a more difficult question. Our ways of knowing it are completely different. In the case of me, I know what my mother looks like, and so my thinking “not the mother” is a valid cognition, it’s a valid thought. Whereas my friend has no idea what my mother looks like, and so he’s thinking “not my mother” – that’s just a correct guess. That’s not a valid cognition. That doesn’t have any sort of certainty to it. It’s not an “ascertainment” (nges-pa) we would say, in the Buddhist terminology. What I know, through valid cognition, is “not the mother.” That’s a negation phenomenon that I validly know. But what my friend is thinking is just the words “not the mother.” That’s not a valid cognition of “not the mother” as a negation phenomenon; it’s actually a cognition of an affirmation phenomenon, the words “not the mother.” But because it doesn’t ascertain its object, it’s not a valid cognition. It’s just a correct guess. It’s what we would call “presumption” (yid-dpyod) in Buddhism.

Now a very similar thing could happen when we’re focusing on voidness. We can either focus on it with valid cognition as a negation phenomenon, “no such thing as true findable existence,” based on actually knowing what true findable existence is and rejecting it. Or we could focus on it with presumption, just thinking the words “no such thing as true existence” but not really ascertaining it, because we don’t understand what “true existence” actually means. And so we haven’t actually rejected it.

Also there’s another point with this example that I’ve used here, in terms of seeing the aunt and thinking “not the mother.” I know that this is the aunt, whereas my friend doesn’t know that this is the aunt. And this is also parallel to when we are focusing on voidness. There’s a big difference between somebody who knows what it is that appears in front of their eyes, namely an appearance of true existence – they recognize what it is correctly – and somebody who doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t recognize what it is. Both of them can think, on top of that, “no true existence,” but their cognition is also affected by how they cognize what does appear, what is the basis for this negation phenomenon.

Since both these points are relevant here, in terms of the analogy with focusing on voidness – namely, my friend not knowing both what my mother looks like and that this is my aunt – I’ve rejected the following example that I was thinking earlier: I bring my friend to India, and my friend doesn’t know what a mongoose is. And we both see a cat. And I think “not a mongoose” and he thinks “not a mongoose.” But I rejected that example because it’s slightly different. Do you know the difference? Okay, so you have no idea what a mongoose is, what it looks like, and you see a cat. I know what a mongoose is. I think “that’s not a mongoose” and you think “that’s not a mongoose.” How is that different from my seeing my aunt and knowing “that’s not mother” and my friend seeing the aunt and thinking “that’s not mother”? What’s the difference?

The difference is we both know what a cat is. So in the case of the mother and the aunt, my friend sees someone or something and doesn’t know what it is and he guesses that it’s not something else, which also he doesn’t know. Whereas in the case with the mongoose and the cat, my friend sees something that he knows what it is – he sees a cat. And then, by means of knowing something – which the Mimamsaka, another school of Indian philosophy, calls “nonperception” – he knows that he’s not seeing a mongoose, even though he has no idea what a mongoose is, but he knows he’s not seeing something else – he knows that he’s seeing a cat. And so based on this not-seeing of something else, which if it were present he would see, he knows that the something else is not present – in this case, the mongoose. The Mimamsaka school calls this a valid way of knowing a negation phenomenon – namely, through nonperception – and Buddhism doesn’t accept this as a valid way of knowing something. And so to avoid that confusion, I rejected this example of the cat and the mongoose. The example of the mother and the aunt is much clearer for illustrating a valid knowing of a negation phenomenon.

Okay, so we will go further into that tomorrow. You can start to see the ramifications once you start unpacking this topic. It’s enormous. And actually it’s very important in terms of how do we know anything.

So we think whatever understanding we’ve gained, may it go deeper and deeper, and may it act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.