Negation Phenomena: How to Focus on Voidness (Emptiness)
Berlin, Germany, March 2004
Session Two: Exclusions
We’re speaking about affirmations and negations, and this is a very important topic. This topic touches another very important topic, which is the topic of words, and the meanings of words, and how do we actually, through words, mean something, feel something. This is crucial for meditation. It’s like, for instance, with the seven-part prayer that we do in the beginning. We could have the words correctly and just recite them. We could know the meanings of all the words and recite them with the meanings, but still not have very much of an effect. We need to apply that meaning and actually feel it, generate what we are talking about. And in order to generate it, we have to know what our minds need to focus on and how they need to take that object. Otherwise our recitation of the prayer, it doesn’t really have very much effect; it might have a little effect because we are saying sacred words, but it doesn’t have the same effect as when we know how to do it properly. Same thing with the praises to Manjushri that we also do. You can say the words; you can know what the words mean, but how to apply that? Well, there we are thinking of these qualities, Manjushri as a Buddha. These are the qualities. You think of how fantastic that is, what the causes are, how I want to achieve that, how I want to bring about the causes that will bring that, and I am inspired by the example of those who have done it. Then saying the prayer with that conviction has an effect.
So when meditating on voidness, which is a negation, it is very important not just to have the words, not just to know what the words mean. We have to also be convinced that the meaning is correct, that it actually corresponds to reality. Then we have to know how to actually apply the mind in focusing on it. And this topic of negations and affirmations is crucial for all of that.
There is one more point that I want to make as an introduction, which is to underline and to show how important negations are in the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. Precious human life – what are we focusing on? We’re focusing that I do not have these worst states. It’s a negation. You have to know what those worst states are, where I would have no freedom to study the Dharma. Meditation on death – I am not going to live forever. I don’t know when the time of my death will come. All these other things that I might do, like making a lot of money, that’s not going to help at the time of death. All of those are negations. Think of the worst rebirths. I don’t want to have that; I don’t want to experience that. It’s a negation. Refuge has to do with I don’t want to experience these worst rebirths, and also has an affirmation that going this direction will help – there’s both. The discussion of karma: all these negative actions, they produce suffering. I don’t want to do them. I am going to restrain myself from acting in this way – a negation. Renunciation – I don’t want rebirth, uncontrollable rebirth. We reject it. It’s a negation. The whole discussion of ethical discipline – reject harmful behavior. Concentration – reject mental wandering, reject dullness. We want a state that does not have that. It’s a negation. The whole Mahayana discussion also has many negations. Equanimity – I don’t want to be attached to anybody, not angry with or repelled from anybody, not indifferent to anybody. It’s a negation. Not think that I have no connection with anybody. Everybody’s been my mother; we want them to not have suffering. It is clear in the giving and taking (tonglen) meditation, first you take away so that they don’t have suffering then you give them happiness. We want to not have self-cherishing. Don’t want to be unable to help others reach enlightenment. All of these. We don’t want just an arhat’s peaceful nirvana. And voidness? Definite negation – of true existence. So you can see that all of these are negations, and it is very important to know how the mind focuses on these. What is a negation? So that’s my introduction.
Just to review, since we have two new people and also the material is difficult, we were speaking about various phenomena that we know, we cognize. That’s the whole issue in Buddhism, because we are working with the mind in order to get rid of suffering. What are the various things that our minds can cognize? There are some that are existent and some that are not existent. Existent things are those things that we can validly know, validly cognize. Nonexistent things are things we might cognize, like a blur when we take our glasses off, but it is a nonexistent object; we can’t know it validly. We can validly know that it is a blur, that’s something else. But to think that a blur is actually what’s out there, reality, then that’s a nonexistent – we’re focusing on a nonexistent thing. So we need to know the difference between those two in our experience.
Now within what we can validly know (existent phenomena), we saw that some were static and some were not static. Nonstatic ones are affected by causes and conditions; they change from moment to moment; and they can affect other things. This is why I sometimes use the term “affecting variables,” because they affect things, and “functional phenomena,” they perform a function. Those are nonstatic. Static phenomena are the opposite of that. They are not affected by causes and conditions; they don’t change from moment to moment; they don’t affect anything; they don’t produce any effect, such as a category. And we saw that it makes absolutely no difference how long any of these occur or exist, that’s not the distinction that is being made here. In either set of phenomena, they can have any of the four possibilities: they exist for a limited time, have both ends: have a beginning and an end; or they could exist with no limit on either side, no beginning and no end; or they could have a limit on one side but not the other side – no beginning but an end, like samsara, or ignorance, or unawareness; or it could have a beginning but no end, like a true stopping of our suffering.
Now within existent validly knowable phenomena, in both these categories, static and nonstatic, some of them are affirmations, some of them are negations. Existent phenomena can be divided either into static or nonstatic, or into affirmations and negations. This is like a horizontal cut of a pie or the vertical cut of the pie. We are looking at the Gelugpa interpretation of this, and we’re looking at, within Gelugpa, the Jetsunpa interpretation as the main one.
Now we get to the definitions of an affirmation, and the definitions are given in terms of how these phenomena are conceptually known – when we think them. Both types of phenomena can either be known conceptually or nonconceptually; you can either think them or you can see them. I can see that Simon is here today – that is an affirmation, the presence of Simon. I can also see the absence of Brigitte; I can see that Brigitte is not here. Both of those are nonconceptual. I can also think, “Simon is here” and I can also think, “Brigitte is not here.” That is conceptual. So now the definitions are given in terms of how we think them, because we want to be clear in terms of the relation between words and meanings, and words are only involved with how we think. I mean even when we just speak words, that’s involved – a conceptual process to know these words.
And remember we are talking about things that are validly knowable. Negations are not nonexistent. They can be validly known. The absence of Brigitte in the room can be validly known, that’s not a fiction, that’s not nonexistent.
Now, affirmations. Validly known phenomena, and we’re talking about how they’re validly known conceptually. That’s how the definition is phrased, and it talks about how we conceptually know them, how we think them. So there are two parts to the definitions. The first part makes a very clear distinction. The first part is that an affirmation is one in which an object to be negated has not already been previously precluded or actually cut off (“precluded” is a better word). In a negation we did previously preclude, actually preclude (the word “actually” is very important here), actually preclude something to be negated. For an affirmation, it’s not derived from previously – doesn’t matter how long ago – previously, we precluded, we cut off, cut out… It’s like we made a set; we made a set, and in order to make this set for negation we excluded something from that set – “this thing is not in this set.” You can see that obviously you have to know what you are excluding, what you have precluded, and it has to be actually precluded from that set. So this part of the definition is very clear in making a dichotomy, an actual dichotomy. “Actual dichotomy” means that something that we can validly know has to be in either one or the other category. We are not talking about two poles of an axis, like black and white. That is not an actual dichotomy, although they are the opposite of each other. It’s not that something is only black or only white, or either black or white, nothing in-between. Here this is an actual dichotomy: there is nothing in-between.
The first part, an affirmation, it’s derived from previously having not cut off, not precluded something that you want to negate to derive this, like we were saying “apple” to get the concept of “apple,” to think “apple.” We didn’t previously have to preclude “orange” or “dog” or anything like that in order to derive “apple.” We just think “apple.” With a negation, we did have to preclude something previously. To get “not apple,” we had to preclude, we had to exclude “apple” in order to derive “not apple.”
Participant: You cannot preclude something that you haven’t affirmed before. We have to know an apple in order to exclude it.
Alex: That’s right. That’s exactly right. You have to know an apple in order to exclude it.
Participant: They are the same. An affirmation and a negation, that’s the same process. It’s a process of differentiation between things. If you differentiate between “this” and “that,” you have to know “this” is “this” and not “that.” So you have to know both of them.
Alex: Well, this is a very good point. Because when you know “apple,” do you also know “not apple?” We touched on that a little bit, before, and it has to do with how we specify something. How do we specify something? We have to specify it with “it’s not anything else” – it’s not anything other than itself. That is a different type of negation. I think you have this even in Western philosophy – can you know the “Ding an sich,” can you know the thing in itself, or do you have to define it in terms of excluding what it is not. Which comes first – knowing what it is or excluding what it’s not? But that’s a very deep discussion, and one that I would certainly have to think about a little bit more, and we would have to debate it. These are the types of thing that we need to debate in order to really understand how the mind works.
Participant: When you learn a language, and you learn first what it is: “This is a pencil.” “Is it?” “Yes, it is a pencil” – you learn first the affirmation and then you differentiate what it is not.
Alex: Right. In learning something, first you learn a word. We learn an acoustic pattern. If you want to think about it, that’s all that it is; it’s an acoustic pattern of sounds. One could question whether animals even consider acoustic patterns of sounds as words. But, anyway, we learn a set of acoustic sounds. We learn that it is a word. Then we have to learn a meaning of the word. A baby can say “mamamama” – is that a word? Does the baby know what it means? So, as you were saying, in cognition theory you’d first learn a meaning for it. The baby didn’t have to know all the other possible sounds and exclude them in order to be able to say “mamamamama,” did it? It’s only later, when the baby knows all the sounds of words and language that the baby specifies – I want to say “ma” and not “da.” The baby didn’t even know that “da” existed, that he could make that sound. The baby learns “mother” first. The baby didn’t have to know “refrigerator” or “computer” and exclude that in order to know “mother.” But in order to know “not mother,” the baby had to know “mother.” Interesting, isn’t it?
The second part of the definition is more tricky. The second part of the definition is talking about: what is it that has the power to make this preclusion or previous exclusion? What is it that does that? Is it the word, is it the sound of the words? Or is it the mind? Well, this is the interesting part of the definition because in the definition of an affirmation it says that – and now we are talking about an actual elimination. So, of course, the important word here is – what do we mean by “actual?” The definition of an affirmation has that the actual rejection is not made by the sounds of the words. And in the definition of a negation, that exclusion or preclusion is done by the power of the conceptual thought, of the mind. You had to remember what “mother” was in order to know “not mother.” Well, you didn’t have to know anything else. The baby just knows “not Mama,” “Mama isn’t here”; it doesn’t know anything else – it doesn’t know “computer” or “refrigerator” in order to think “not Mama,” “Where is Mama?” Because this is the question: Do words make an actual exclusion or does thought (the cognition) make the actual exclusion? That’s the real issue that needs to be explored, and where you have different interpretations. And the important thing in that discussion is: does a word automatically exclude a meaning or does it only exclude a sound? And does it exclude only a sound, or does it exclude a sound and a meaning? And which one is an actual exclusion? Because that gets into the whole philosophical discussion of: do words have meanings inherent in them? You can see that it’s a discussion that has many, many ramifications.
Participant: There are some words whose sound entails a negation but they are so frequently used as an affirmation that it’s no longer relevant. Like, for example, “atom.” “Atom” is a negation because “a” means “non” and “tom” means “breakable.”
Alex: This is a wonderful, wonderful example. “A” in “atom” is a negation and “tom” means breakable – “temnein” is Greek for “to cut,” “to separate.” When we think “atom,” are we thinking a negation or are we thinking an affirmation – even though there is a negating word, a negating prefix in it? And that is exactly the point that is so crucial in understanding that when we focus on nonstaticness, it’s actually an affirmation, like “atom,” even though it has the prefix “non” static. And that to focus on “nonstatic” is very different from “not static,” in which case, “not static” is a negation based on knowing what static is and negating it. So it’s a very good example. It’s very clear that to derive the phenomenon, the concept of the word “atom,” we didn’t have to know what “tom” was, what something cuttable was, and negate it, actually negate it, although the sound of the word negates it. So a very good example.
Participant: If you don’t have this explanation, you might see it differently. And Greeks might also conceptualize the word “atom” differently.
Alex: Right. So this is exactly the point, and we will get to that with an example. If the person, the Greek, actually knew the word “tom” and knew all that meaning, and thought “atom,” does that make “atom” a negation? Then we would contradict our rule that it’s an actual dichotomy, either an affirmation or a negation. So here “atom” is both. And I think that we can understand this better with an example, an easier to understand example.
Go back to our definition of a negation. For a valid cognition actually to preclude an object to be negated, it has to be based on a previous apprehension of an object to be negated. An apprehension is a cognition… I don’t know what word we’re going to use in English, “apprehension” isn’t the greatest English word, either. Its definition is a cognition that – two things – it correctly and (secondly) decisively cognizes its involved object. It’s not only correct, but it’s decisive about it. And so for a valid cognition actually to preclude an object to be negated, it has to have known that object correctly and decisively. And our example will show the difference between these two.
Suppose I want to point out a picture of Tenzin in my photo album from my visit in India to my new friend, who doesn’t know any people in the photo album. My friend does not even know if Tenzin is a man or a woman, or even if Tenzin is a Tibetan. Tenzin is a common name that Tibetans give to both men and women, and there are many Western people who also go by the name of Tenzin. So it could be anybody. Your friend has absolutely no idea. That’s the situation. Now we thumb through the pages of the photo album and we come to a page without a photo of Tenzin. I look at a photo on that page and I think “not Tenzin,” and my friend also thinks “not Tenzin.” Both thoughts are correct but there is a difference, isn’t there? We’re not talking about a photo of scenery with no people in it; obviously that’s not Tenzin. But even then, that’s different.
Question: How did he know the name?
Alex: I told him, “I’m going to show you Tenzin in my photo album.” And I didn’t tell him anything at all about – I didn’t say anything else.
Participant: So the friend associates only the name. But you, having the name in mind, you see a person who is absent.
Alex: That’s right. That’s very right. My friend is only thinking of a name, and I am thinking of a person – the meaning of the name. That’s correct. We’ll get to that; let’s not jump ahead.
Let’s just talk about from the point of view of the cognition itself. They’re different. My thought is valid. My friend’s thought, if he meant by “not Tenzin” a person and didn’t just mean a name, if he thought that this really was not Tenzin – because maybe he thought that there are no women called Tenzin (in fact there are a lot of women called Tenzin) – then his was just presumption. It was a correct guess; it wasn’t a valid cognition. That’s from the point of view of the mind, the conceptual mind. Then the question really is: what about the object? If by “not Tenzin” he meant a person, then the object was the same. If by “not Tenzin” it was just words – his “not Tenzin,” of words; my “not Tenzin,” of a person – they are not the same phenomenon. They are not the same thing; we weren’t thinking of the same thing. It’s not decisive. It was a correct guess, but it wasn’t decisive.
This is the thing. What is it decisive of when you just think the words “not Tenzin?” It’s decisive about the word; it’s not decisive about the person, the meaning of the word. The words, the sound of the words “not Tenzin” decisively exclude “Tenzin,” but they don’t necessarily exclude a person, the referent object of “Tenzin.” And to verbally think “not Tenzin,” of course we had to know the word “Tenzin” before. So is that simply the distinction that we want to make in our definitions or do we want to make a meaning distinction? You can see how you can interpret the definitions several ways.
Question: So you only exclude verbally?
Alex: Right. So this is the point. Verbal. An exclusion of sounds and words. An exclusion of words, or an exclusion of meanings of words – referent objects of the words. That’s the big issue. It obviously has a lot of relevance when we talk about meditating on voidness: not true existence. What in the world are we focusing on? It’s not just a theoretical question here. We heard “not true existence” and we have no idea what’s really meant by true existence. And then we sit down and we try to meditate on “not true existence.” We try to figure out “not true existence”; so we’re thinking about “not true existence,” so it is not “true existence.”
Now it’s obvious that we know that the “not” is the opposite of “true existence,” but we have no idea of what true existence is. We have made an exclusion just by the power of the word, of the sound of the acoustic pattern “not,” which our society has arbitrarily decided means a negation. It doesn’t necessarily mean that to somebody who doesn’t know our language. So, by its own power, the acoustic pattern “not” doesn’t even necessarily exclude the word after it, let alone the meaning of the word after it.
Remember the example that I gave. Perhaps the friend thinks that Tenzin is only the name of a man and doesn’t know that it can be also the name of a woman, and so every woman that he sees in the photo, that person thinks “not Tenzin.” So here, this a further example where he gives a wrong meaning to the word “Tenzin.” So there are many variations of what is “not Tenzin.” Is it just the words? Is it excluding something that is incorrect, like any woman being called Tenzin? Or does he have a different Tenzin in mind? He knows somebody called Tenzin and thinks “not Tenzin.” And that’s the question: is the “non-Tenzin” the same thing that they are thinking – is that one phenomenon or are we talking about different phenomena?
Participant: The friend who has no information about Tenzin – but he does have some information: he knows Tenzin must be a human being, not a dog, or a plant, or mountain, or something else in the picture. So he has some information: he’s looking for a human being. So the other person says, “No, Tenzin is not in the picture” and has in mind the full person that he knows, his friend Tenzin. He knows that Tenzin’s a man, and a certain age, etc. So the difference between the two viewers of the photo is the difference in information of the topic in question: Tenzin. The friend only has very little information; he’s looking for a human. And the other, who knows Tenzin, has a lot of information.
Alex: So to really negate something – well, this is a very interesting question. “Not Tenzin” – this we had with the example yesterday. It’s not exactly the same example. Your example is that the person knows that Tenzin is not the name of a mountain. Maybe it is the name of a mountain – Mount Tenzin. Or the name of a dog. I had a dog in India, and the name of that dog was Tsultim, which is also a human name. This person doesn’t know!
Question: So then he has no information?
Alex: Well, you can’t be certain. You can’t be certain. This was the example that we used yesterday: I bring my friend to India and I want to show him a mongoose. My friend has absolutely no idea of what a mongoose is. And so we see a cat. I think “not a mongoose” and he thinks “not a mongoose.” He thinks it’s “not a mongoose” because he knows that that’s a cat, and if it were a mongoose, he would see something different. But because he doesn’t see something different then, because of that nonperception of something else, he knows it’s not a mongoose. Now according to one Indian non-Buddhist school of philosophy, the Mimamsaka, they would say that his way of knowing is correct and a separate valid way of knowing. And Buddhism would say no, because how does he know? Maybe “mongoose” is the Indian word for cat. Maybe mongoose is a type of cat. He doesn’t know. So how much information do you have to know in order to exclude something? Do we have to just know the thing that we’re excluding (a mongoose), or do we have to know absolutely every other knowable phenomenon, to know that every possible knowable phenomenon is “not Tenzin.” You can’t know every other possible knowable phenomenon; you just have to know Tenzin.
Well, if you exclude everything can you really get the meaning? It’s only in the sense of a specifier. Who is Tenzin? The “Tenzin” that I’m thinking of is “nobody other than Tenzin.” So that specifies it. That is all that it does. That’s enough – for the word to be combined with the meaning. That is the heart of the discussion of the more advanced level of the discussion of negations that we really can’t go into this weekend.
Question: You could try to describe Tenzin just by using negations by saying, well, he’s not female; he’s not got black hair, etc. But then can you actually get a picture of what Tenzin actually is just by using negations?
Alex: It all depends on how much you specify. And if you try to specify everything that Tenzin is not, when could you ever really, really specify Tenzin? You can get an approximation but it would be endless. You might forget the point of no earring – he never wears an earring.
Question: So if it’s endless, would it also be endless with “not true existence”?
Alex: No, no, it’s not endless with “not true existence”; that’s a different thing. The point is that to specify that something is nothing other than what it is – it’s not anything else – that exclusion doesn’t require actually going through everything else and individually excluding them. So that is a slightly different type of exclusion. Do you actually have to go through everything else that it’s not? In other words, to know “not Tenzin” and then exclude it, what did you have to know about “not Tenzin”?
But that, as I say, is a much more advanced level of this whole topic, and not what I want to jump into because I really haven’t prepared that. I really, personally, have to think much more deeply on the topic because it’s very much involved with how do you define a category. A category is, basically, you draw a circle around a certain set of phenomena, and you have to exclude what is not in the category in order to specify the category. And then of course there’s a big discussion: are there actual lines around things making categories and items? And this was our big discussion, remember? Findable existence – that there’s something on the side of the object that makes that line, that makes it into an item, excluding it from everything else that it is not. And Prasangika saying, “No, that’s just mental labeling; it doesn’t exist on the side of the object; you can’t find anything like that.”
You can see this discussion is very central to our whole understanding of what in the world is meant by mental labeling – that you can only establish the existence of things by merely mental labeling, by just the fact that it’s mentally labeled. There is nothing on the side of the object that proves that it exists, that establishes its existence, not even as an item that can be known. I’m sorry that I just started talking about it, but I really don’t want to jump to an advanced level of this topic before we have really covered the basic level of the topic.
That’s exactly the point. How much are you going to exclude before you give up? If you are looking for true existence, a truly existent “me,” and you don’t find it – up your nose, or in your mind, or anything like that – when do you finally conclude that there is no such thing? Or do you have to examine every single atom of your body, and then every single atom of the universe, in order to try to find it, before you finally decide to give up – that it doesn’t exist. It’s a very important question.
Let me give a good example. How does a baby learn the concept of food? What’s edible? A baby doesn’t know that concept. So now a baby tries eating everything. So does the baby actually have to try to eat absolutely everything in the universe before the baby gets the concept of food and what’s edible? But food is a specific category that excludes everything that is “not food.” Yet there’s nothing on the side of food that sort of puts them in that category of all the possible things that are food, like a line around it, like a tag, a findable characteristic; it’s like a stamp that says “I am food.” There is no such thing, yet food has a definition. So then we get into the whole discussion of… Well, I wanted to stop this, didn’t I? We get into the whole discussion of where do definitions exist. Do they exist on the side of the object or not? I couldn’t resist that. I’m sorry!
Prasangika says the definitions aren’t even on the side of the object. The defining characteristics, that’s also made by the mind – arbitrary. Just choose defining characteristics and choose categories defined by them. So if that’s true in the case of food, for sure it’s true in the case of good and bad, and these sort of judgmental words.
Let’s take our break and then we’ll continue.
We had a very good example during the tea pause of how do we know who’s here? Did we have to know everybody who is not here in order to know who’s here? We certainly didn’t. But we do know that everybody who’s here is not somebody who is not here. The logical pervasions here work like that.
Let’s go back to trying to show a picture of Tenzin to my friend in my photo album from my visit to India. So we are both looking, and we went through many pages, and I was thinking “not Tenzin” and I turn the page and “not Tenzin.” I turn the page – “not Tenzin” – and eventually my friend expected that the next page that I looked at would also not be Tenzin, and so he thought “not Tenzin” as well. Then we looked at it and it was correct – it wasn’t Tenzin. But my thought was valid; his thought was just a correct guess.
So now what happens if we come across a photo of Tenzin, but I wasn’t paying attention and I think “not Tenzin” and my friend also thinks “not Tenzin?” That’s an error. An error message comes up! But I had a correct idea of Tenzin. My mistake was that I knew “not Tenzin,” but I applied it to the wrong object; I applied it to Tenzin. That’s an example of actually knowing what “not true existence” is, but applying it to the wrong thing, applying it to the wrong meaning because I really wasn’t paying attention, which very often happens in meditation – you’re really not paying attention. I know what it means, but I’m not paying attention, so I apply it incorrectly.
Let me think of an example. We can think of it in another system, not in Madhyamaka. Remember we had three kinds of phenomena in Chittamatra. One was totally conceptual, like categories. There are dependent phenomena, like the table. And there are thoroughly established phenomena, like voidness. According to Chittamatra, both the table and voidness have true existence – by their definition – and categories don’t have true existence. So categories don’t have true existence. That means that for them, true existence is that it does have a line around it, so that it is not just labeled. So we think, well, that also applies to table and voidness. But we’ve applied it incorrectly, because it doesn’t apply to it in that system. So that’s an example.
Question: Nothing has a line around it?
Alex: According to Chittamatra, even though there’s no external phenomenon (this is not coming from outside), still, table has a line around it, from its own side, as a knowable item and so does voidness, but categories don’t. We’re a little bit confused. Okay, no external existence – how could table not have external existence but still have a line around it? And Chittamatra says, yes, it does have a line around it. So within the Chittamatra system, if we think that the table doesn’t have a line around it, just the category of “table,” but this individual table doesn’t have a line around it, we have over-applied “not true existence” to an object that it does not apply to.
In our example here of the photo album, it was more an example of we just weren’t mindful of it, we were inattentive, and we applied it to the wrong object. And so that could also be the case in our meditation, that we were inattentive, we forgot what the meaning was. Or it could be because we didn’t know the meaning sufficiently well. In other words, we knew the category “non-truly existent” – it’s like we had a box, but we put too much in it of what doesn’t really belong, into the box. We have the definition, so we knew what the box meant, but we put something into the box that didn’t really fulfill the definition. So that’s different – that’s making a mistake – that’s different from knowing that this thing doesn’t belong in the box, but putting it in by mistake because we weren’t paying attention.
But all these things come up in meditation. You have to be able to identify what you are doing wrong in order to correct it. If you do not correctly identify what you are doing incorrectly, how can you correct it? It’s a very good point of negation, isn’t it? You don’t recognize correctly what you are doing incorrectly. How can you correct it and not do that? How can you know “not that,” if you don’t know precisely and decisively and correctly what you are doing wrong in order to know “not that.”
That’s why they make such a big point about subtle dullness in the meditation texts, because subtle mental dullness is very, very difficult to identify, and it is very easy to think that you have perfectly correct concentration, but you still have subtle dullness. So the texts make a big, big point about really being able to distinguish it in your meditation, otherwise you can never get rid of it. And if you only know the words “subtle dullness” and that perfect meditation doesn’t have that, it doesn’t really make a big difference in your meditation. So that’s merely an affirmation: that perfect meditation doesn’t have mental dullness. The word negates “subtle dullness,” not subtle dullness itself; but we really haven’t excluded the meaning of it – we’ve affirmed that it’s not subtle dullness, that it doesn’t have subtle dullness, but we haven’t really negated subtle dullness.
Does anyone remember what subtle dullness is?
Participant: When you are dull without being mindful of it.
Alex: Wrong. See? So he has a word, but he gives the wrong meaning to it, and he eliminates that from his meditation. Has he eliminated subtle dullness? He’s eliminated something else that he calls “subtle dullness.” This is a perfect example. His “subtle dullness” that he has removed is not the subtle dullness that we are talking about. They are two different phenomena, his subtle dullness and my subtle dullness, even though the words are the same.
Subtle dullness is lack of freshness; you’re not fresh in each moment. Being fresh is not being stale. It’s like the intention. I established the intention at the beginning of the class, but it is not fresh anymore. It has to be fresh in each moment, freshly established in each moment, doesn’t get stale. That’s subtle dullness. It is continuously established, and established freshly. It’s not that you have to go through a line of reasoning every time, every moment. So it has nothing to do with whether or not your object is in sharp focus; that’s a more gross level of dullness.
Or even on voidness, you meditate on voidness – when you started, you knew what it was, you understood. But after you’ve been concentrated for five minutes, your understanding isn’t really fresh. It’s very weak; it’s dull. It’s not that you’ve lost it completely, that’s a grosser form of dullness. It’s really not… “vivid” is another word that’s used. But it’s very easy, I mean, because that happens all the time. You just sink into a trance. So, words and meanings. Very important. Especially if you want to exclude something from our meditation in order to meditate correctly.
Can I give another example, an example of what you just said. You just said, Mark, “It was a half hour ago when you said that.” Now it certainly was not a half hour ago, but you applied the concept of “half hour,” and you know what a half hour is, and how long a half hour is. You applied it incorrectly to a period of, let’s say, ten minutes. And you know what a half hour is. I mean we do this all the time.
Participant: But it could be a different convention.
Alex: Yes. You could have a different idea of what a half hour is.
Participant: It’s a social convention to use it in that way.
Alex: Right. It’s like saying a dessert is “really bad” or “wicked,” when in colloquial American English that means “good.” But if I didn’t know what you meant, let’s say I was a German, and as an American you said, “Wow, this chocolate pudding dessert is really bad!” I’d get very insulted; whereas you meant that it was great.
So what we’ve understood is that regardless of whether this knowable phenomenon “not Tenzin” applies or not, is correctly applied, the “not Tenzin” that I think when I know who Tenzin is, and the “not Tenzin” that my friend thinks when he doesn’t know who Tenzin is – they are different. So then the question is are they both negations? And it depends on how you understand the definitions.
So now we get to the meaning of the word “preclusion.” My Tenzin was based on the preclusion of a specific referent object of the word “Tenzin,” of a specific person. So that’s a meaning or the referent object of the word, and that’s how I derived “not Tenzin.” So mine is a negation, that’s an actual negation. My friend, his concept of “not Tenzin” was not based on actually excluding a referent object of the word “Tenzin.” He didn’t know who Tenzin was, so he didn’t reject a person.
So we look at the definition of an affirmation: no actual rejection of an object to be negated. But he was thinking “not Tenzin” There was a negating word there, so is it still a negation or not? The sound of the word “not” negates the sound of the word “Tenzin.” Actually the answer is, according to Jetsunpa, that actually the “not Tenzin” that he’s thinking is just an affirmation of the two words “not” and “Tenzin.” He is thinking two affirmations, two words. One happens to verbally exclude the other, but that is irrelevant. The “not Tenzin” that he is thinking is an affirmation of “not” and “Tenzin.” The “not Tenzin” that I am thinking of is a negation of a person, of a meaning, a specific referent object of Tenzin. So I can think “not true existence” and have no idea what that means. It is an affirmation of the words “not” and “true existence,” “true” and “existence.” There’s nothing else. That is not really a negation.
Question: But if I think “not true existence,” isn’t it like rejecting some totally abstract phenomenon?
Alex: Well, if you are thinking of something abstract like, for instance, “no impossible ways of existing,” although you could say that “no true existence” would be included within the larger category of “no impossible ways of existing,” but, nevertheless, if you haven’t a clear idea of a meaning of “impossible ways of existing,” then thinking abstractly like that is much too vague. And I think it would have to fall back into the category of thinking an affirmation phenomenon with respect to the precise meaning that we want to negate here, namely “true existence.” And the same thing is true in terms of thinking abstractly “no true existence.” If we don’t have a precise meaning for that, I think that still would have to be an affirmation phenomenon.
Words themselves are affirmation phenomena. Even collections of words like, for instance, in a long definition – they’re just affirmations. The conceptual mind that knows these words didn’t have to reject anything else in order to be able to know them. I can memorize the words of a definition, for example, and know them, but not have the slightest idea of what they mean. And also the words, from their own side, don’t have inherent in them a meaning. The meaning is something which is mentally labeled by the conceptual mind that takes these words as objects through which to cognize the meaning or a referent object of these words. And it’s only when that mind, in using these words to think conceptually, actually rejects something in order to know the meaning of these words, then the words become negations or, more precisely, “negatingly known phenomena.” So that means that words or phrases that contain a word of negation can be either affirmingly known or negatingly known, depending on whether or not the mind understands the meaning of the word.
And then we have to get into the whole issue of understanding it correctly, and also mentally labeling that word with even the accurate meaning onto an appropriate object to which it applies. And sometimes the same words are given different meanings. They have different referent objects. Like, for instance, there could be two different people called Tenzin. That doesn’t make them into the same person, even though they have the same name. And there could be two different people who are “not Tenzin.” That also doesn’t make them into the same person. And so, similarly, there can be the term “true existence” and the term “no true existence” and, depending on the mind that understands them and uses them, they could be referring to two different things. And now I’m talking about minds that actually give it a precise meaning; I’m not talking about giving it a vague meaning. If there’s only a vague meaning, then there’s no decisiveness to that mind, so it’s not a valid way of knowing. And when it’s thinking with those words conceptually, then it’s thinking an affirmation phenomenon; it’s not thinking a negation phenomenon. So, to be more precise, it could be a valid way of thinking the words “no true existence” as an affirmation phenomenon. In other words, it’s thinking those words accurately and decisively, but it certainly is not a valid way of conceptually thinking of the meaning of these words as a negation phenomenon.
That’s very important, especially when we study Buddhism and these tenet systems, and we find out that each tenet system has quite a different definition of “true existence.” They’re all using the same word, the same set of words, and many of them say that certain phenomena don’t have that – are not truly existent. Are they all talking about the same thing? It is a big mistake to try to understand the Prasangika definition “no true existence” with the Chittamatra definition of “no true existence” or vice versa. We know what “not true existence” is from the Prasangika, and we think that’s what the Chittamatras are talking about. They’re not. The words are the same. And it’s interesting, because you have these expressions – this we find in Shantideva all the time, that he’s saying the same words, and in two verses there’s “not truly existent,” but the two verses have completely different meanings, based on how you define “not true existence,” and the words of the verse communicate both. This is the elegance of Buddha speech: with the same words you convey many different meanings. And people understand differently; in different levels of their development, they understand differently, by the same words – that’s Buddha speech. That is why these root texts are so extraordinary. That’s why it’s called a root text; it’s a root from which different levels of meaning can grow.
I just wanted to give another example, which is that we’re an English speaker and we listen to German (or German listening to Dutch) and we hear a word which is also a word in our language, and we think it means the same thing in their language as it does in our language, and it doesn’t. So that’s also a very good example. And what they say makes perfectly good sense, both with the meaning of the word that we think it has in our language, and the meaning of the word that it has in their language. But what we think it means is not what they think it means, but it was expressed by the same words. “Aktuell” in German means “current,” and “actual” in English means “real” – the same word. So you read about the “aktuell Nachrichten,” the current news, and I think this is the “real” news and everything else is trivial. Or an actual sale, that’s even better, because you see that as well. It’s like that. There are many examples.
I have a concept of what peace is, and President Bush talks about peace. He can give a whole speech about peace and have a completely different concept of what peace means from what I think. And I could read his speech, or hear his speech, and think, “Oh, wonderful. He’s all for peace.” That’s a type of propaganda. They think that you mean what they want it to mean, but they really have quite a different idea. “If you accept all this surveillance equipment, you’ll be safe!”
And so whatever understanding we’ve gained, may it go deeper and deeper, so we can really apply it. Help us in our meditation to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all. Whatever understanding I have, it might not be the most precise one. Your understanding might not be your teacher’s understanding, and his understanding might not be his teacher’s understanding. All of them could be useful, though; each level could be useful. So, again, you don’t throw out completely what’s not the most precise meaning, but you always try to improve it. That’s like trying to describe the person only by the negatives – that they don’t have brown hair, and they don’t have this, and they don’t have that. It’s correct that they don’t have brown hair, and it’s correct that they are not Tibetan, but you could be more precise.
Question: When did Jetsunpa live?
Alex: Jetsunpa lived about 100 years after Tsongkhapa. He lived in the late 1400s, beginning of the 1500s. He was about two or three generations after Tsongkhapa. He and Panchen were the two big people – Tendarwa, as well, who was a little bit younger. But Panchen basically interpreted the older way. And Jetsunpa was a contemporary and he came up with rather different views. And then Tendarwa was a little bit younger, but still was around at the same time. And he took some of one, some of the other, and then added some of his own. And Kunkyen lived about two or three hundred years later, and he took a combination of some of those three and something else.
[Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) (1357 – 1419)
Jetsunpa Chokyi-gyeltsen (rJe-btsun-pa Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) (1469 – 1544)
Panchen Sonam-dragpa (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa) (1478 – 1554)
Kaydrub Tendarwa (mKhas-grub dGe-‘dun bstan-pa dar-rgyas) (1493 – 1568)
The First Kunkyen Jamyang-zheypa Ngawang-tsondru (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa Ngag-dbang brtson-‘grus) (1648 – 1721)]
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