Introduction to Four Hundred Verses
Session Four: Overcoming Incorrect Views Concerning the Deepest Truth (Voidness) of Things
Berlin, Germany, 24 June 2007
[The relevant verses from the text have been added for the sake of clarity.]
We started going through the second half of the text, the chapters that deal with voidness, (specifically the topic is refuting or overcoming the incorrect views regarding voidness and the deepest nature of how things exist). And we finished chapter nine, which was “indicating the meditations for refuting static functional phenomena,” and now we’re ready to begin chapter ten, which is “Indicating the Meditations for Refuting a Static Impossible ‘Self’ or ‘Soul.’”
And, as we did with chapter nine, what I’ll do is just briefly go through some of the major points of argument or lines of reasoning that Aryadeva uses to refute the various wrong positions from the Prasangika point of view, without going into too much detail about this. And, again, the method that is going to be used here is to point out the absurd conclusions that follow from everybody’s assertions. We did see in chapter nine, if you recall, Aryadeva was showing the inconsistency within logic—there was the argument that if something is not produced, that means that it’s permanent. And Aryadeva pointed out that just because something is not produced, that doesn’t mean—it’s not logically pervasive—that it is permanent, because nonexistent things also are not produced. So this is going more in the direction of Svatantrika, trying to actually prove or disprove something in terms of logical pervasions; whereas the actual Prasangika method is just showing the contradictions and absurd conclusions that follow from the other person’s assertion, rather than actually going through fallacies in logic. To work with fallacies in logic is the Svatantrika method.
Question: Things that don’t exist are, nevertheless, concepts, and concepts are permanent. So isn’t this a problem with this example that we just mentioned?
Alex: No. There is a difference. You can have a concept of something that doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean that the thing that doesn’t exist exists. There’s a difference between a concept or an appearance of true existence and actual true existence.
Now the big question comes: How could a nonexistent thing actually appear? And a nonexistent thing doesn’t actually appear. (This is an objection, actually, that is raised, I believe, by one of the Karmapas to Tsongkhapa’s explanation of dealing with nonexistent phenomena. I have an article on this on the website.) And it’s not that true existence itself is appearing; it’s something that represents or seems like true existence, but not actual true existence that is appearing when the mind makes an appearance of true existence. And so when we have conceptual thought about a rabbit’s horn, it’s not actually… I don’t want to get into a complicated explanation about conceptual thought and permanent phenomena and nonpermanent phenomena, or static and nonstatic—they’re involved in that—so let’s leave that aside. That’s also discussed quite thoroughly on my website, and it’s quite complicated. But, in any case, you would have an appearance, let’s say, of a rabbit and goat horns—or cartoon horns, or something like that—on the rabbit, but you couldn’t have actual rabbit horns, an appearance of rabbit horns, on the rabbit. Or the example that I often use is chicken lips. There is no such thing as chicken lips. You can picture some cartoon lips on a chicken, but not actual chicken lips on a chicken.
Question: The concept is impermanent?
Alex: Concept—I will not go into that. There are permanent and impermanent aspects, and there is no equivalent of the word “concept.” Because we’re dealing with, here, categories and the images that are involved with thinking in terms of categories, and so on. Far too complicated to go into. Let’s simply say that categories are static.
Participant: But that’s the problem. You have the category of rabbit horn.
Alex: You have a category of “rabbit horn,” but you don’t have rabbit horn.
Participant: And the category exists.
Alex: The category exists.
Participant: But then this example doesn’t fit.
Alex: Why not? The category isn’t the same as an individual member of the group. You can have a word “rabbit horn” and you could have a category “rabbit horn.” It doesn’t necessarily refer to actually existent phenomena; it can refer to nonexistent things which are represented or mistaken for existent things. Let’s really not get into this. This is going to take far too long. There isn’t time. I would suggest reading the article on cognition of nonexistent phenomena on my website, and then we can discuss it.
Logical pervasion is what we’re talking about in the example. If something is static, it is pervasive that it is not produced; if it’s not produced, it’s not pervasive that it is static. Simply logical pervasion. If it’s a dog, it’s pervasive that it is an animal; if it is an animal, it’s not pervasive that it’s a dog. If something is static, it’s pervasive that it’s not produced by causes and circumstances; but just because something is not produced, it’s not pervasive that it is static.
Okay. Chapter ten. As I said before: every single point here, one could probably spend one or two (if not more) classes on. This really does require a year-long course to study, if not longer. Remember how long it took us to do even the ninth chapter, just by itself, of Shantideva? It took us five years to do that. And that was only—I forget exactly the number—a hundred and something verses. This is four hundred verses.
Okay. So let’s go into this tenth chapter, which is about the refutation of a static impossible “self” or “soul.” “Self” or “soul.” This is struggling to translate the word “atman”; this is what is being translated here. Is it a soul? Well, in many ways it is a soul. Or is it a self? Or what actually is it? But that’s the word. Certainly in the non-Buddhist systems, I think, it’s closer to our Western concept of a soul.
In any case, the assertion of a permanent, static, truly existent “self” or “soul” leads to many further logical inconsistencies. For example, such a “self” or “soul” cannot be a male one, or a female one, or a hermaphroditic one, as Vaisheshika asserts. Because, if it were, then everybody would always be reborn as the same gender, and that’s not the case.
Moreover, since the elements of the body—earth, water, fire, and air—have no gender, a “self” that relies on them couldn’t have gender.
They say that a “soul” or a “self”—some of them are male, some of them are female, and some of them are hermaphrodites. There are certainly some people in the West who identify very, very strongly with their gender; and for them the gender issue is the most important issue of them all. So this is a relevant discussion. And some who also say that everybody has a male and a female part; I mean, look at Carl Jung, type of thing. So one shouldn’t ever think, in terms of these Indian systems—as I tried to emphasize so much when we studied Shantideva—that they’re just talking about some weird things that have absolutely no relevance to our Western way of thinking. You just have to look a little bit more deeply and you find out that they are talking about issues that we talk about as well, but perhaps in different terms and different contexts.
Then the next point is: If a “self” were truly existent as “THE self,” it would have to be the “self” of everyone. And therefore your “self” should be the object of my self-preoccupation too. But it’s not.
Also, a “self” can’t change aspects in each rebirth and still be static.
And a static “self” couldn’t incite the body’s movements, because a static object can’t do anything. So it can’t be that there’s some sort of static “self” inside you and then it activates and works the machinery of the body.
And if you assert that a static permanent “self” can’t be harmed, why bother to do any actions to prevent suffering or pain?
Do you understand that first example here—the first point—a “self” can’t change aspects in each rebirth and still be static? That would be the idea that now Alex is reborn as Fifi the poodle. You know, that there’s Alex, static, and now I am a poodle, now I am a worm, now I am a woman, as if it’s the same Alex now as this or that. That’s false. That doesn’t make any sense. But that’s a common misunderstanding of rebirth. That it’s “me” still, but I’m something else.
If, like the Nyayas, you say that the “self” is not conscious on its own but gains consciousness by connecting with a physical mind—sort of plugs into a mind and now it’s conscious—how could you say that it’s static and permanent if it changes by connecting with a mind?
And if, like the Samkhyas, you say that a static permanent “self” is inherently conscious, then what’s the need for it to rely on cognitive sensors, like the photosensitive cells of the eyes, to have sensory cognition of a physical object? It should be able to do that without having to rely on anything else.
And also, if a conscious “self” is static and permanent, it should not ever stop being conscious of something that it’s conscious of. That was an argument that Shantideva used. If it’s conscious of something and static, that means it never changes, so it should be conscious of the thing forever.
Also, a “self” that pervades the whole universe all of the time—as asserted by the Nyaya-Vaisheshikas—that’s illogical, because then it couldn’t come here or go there. You know, this idea that the “self” is the whole size of the whole universe—I’m the whole universe. This idea doesn’t make any sense, because then how could you go from here to there if you’re pervading the whole universe?
And also the Vedanta assertion is illogical—to say that a non-liberated “self” is an illusion. They say the atman is maya, in terms of (in samsara) illusion, and not truly existent; but a liberated “self” is truly existent. How can an illusion turn into something truly existent? And all of this, you’re saying, is on the basis of a static “self.” So your system is completely illogical.
Also, of course, they don’t really address the issue of some systems answering back and saying, “Well, of course our system isn’t logical; it’s beyond logic.” But that is a very difficult issue to debate. This is why Shantideva, in the beginning of his ninth chapter, says that in order to engage in a debate between two systems there has to be at least some commonly-accepted ground. The minimum is that you both have to accept the validity of logic, and the same system of logic, in order to engage in a debate. That actually is an issue that is debated between Svatantrika and Prasangika. Is there such a thing as inherently existent logic? Is the universe inherently, from its own side, logical? It’s an interesting metaphysical question.
Just as a comment on that: There are many different ways that a mind could explain the universe. And one way is through logic, but that is only established through mental labeling and concepts. That would be the Prasangika answer. There’s nothing on the side of the universe, findable, that would be the laws of logic—or the laws of physics, for that matter—it’s just the attempts of a mind to make sense out of what it perceives. That’s an important point for the philosophy of science. Is there really only one law which is correct that explains the universe?
Chapter eleven is “Indicating the Meditations for Refuting Truly Existent Time.” This is perhaps the most difficult chapter.
If the past, present, and future were static and truly existent, as the followers of Vedanta assert, then the no-longer-existing vase, the presently-existing vase, and the not-yet-existing vase would all exist forever and there would be no need to produce anything.
These are actually really very, very interesting questions because, at least from science fiction, they somehow have the view or opinion that you could travel to the future. Well, if the future is happening now but just in some sort of different dimension, then why would you have to do anything to bring the future about? So it becomes very, very interesting and complicated. In fact we’ll have a weekend here in September about “Time.”
Question: Like time-traveling?
Alex: About the whole analysis of time. And try to bring in relativistic time from Western science as well.
Question: You’re not talking about Star Trek then?
Alex: Just a little about Star Trek.
If, like the Nyaya-Vaisheshikas and the Vaibhashikas, you assert that past, present, and future are impermanent and yet also truly existent, then how could anything change from being a truly not-yet-existing vase into a truly presently-existing vase and then into a truly no-longer-existing vase?
Also it’s illogical to assert, like some Vaibhashikas do, that there is a common denominator of the three times. In other words, the not-yet-existing vase and the presently-existing vase and the no-longer-existing vase are truly existent and identical with the truly existent vase itself—it’s the same vase that’s in the past, present and future (not-yet-happened, happening, and already-happened). If that were the case, then all three times would be identical and nothing could disintegrate and pass away.
I warned you this is the most difficult chapter to understand. One has to always keep in mind, in the discussion of time in Buddhism—and I think in the Indian schools as well—we don’t talk about “the past” and “the present” and “the future”; we’re talking about “not yet happened,” “presently happening,” and “no longer happening.” If you recall (some of you might have been here for the weekend that we had on negation phenomena), it all involves negation phenomena—“not yet happened” and “no longer happening.”
And this position in the Vaibhashika that we just mentioned—a lot of us have that. It’s the concept that there is a “me” that stays the same and moves through time. Like it’s “me” in the past, “me” now, and “me” in the future, but it’s the same “me,” so there’s a common basis there, a common denominator. That’s the conception of time that they’re talking about here.
The next point Aryadeva makes is: If what did not yet exist already existed as a truly existent future, there’d be no need for it to arise—it would already be happening.
And the example that he uses is: If your not-yet-existing vows already truly existed, why bother to make any effort to take them?
Participant: Yes, I agree. But your first sentence says “if what did not yet exist already existed as a truly existent future,” not as a truly existent present.
Alex: It will arise as the present. You have the future truly exists. As I said earlier this morning, let’s not get into debates about each of these points of logic, otherwise we will need to spend a whole day on each point.
The next point: If, like the Sautrantikas, you assert that your not-yet-happening suffering existed as a truly existent static metaphysical entity, which they say doesn’t truly exist—I think we have to fill that in here in the written form—then you would already be liberated, and there would be no need for Dharma practice, since it could never become a presently-happening suffering... No. Forget what I said. Forget what I said. I got a little bit complicated here.
If, like the Sautrantikas, you assert that your not-yet-happening suffering existed as a truly existent static metaphysical entity—let’s leave aside this issue of true existence…
Participant: But you’re saying it is truly existent.
Alex: That why I said “let’s leave it aside.” Because there’s two different opinions on this, Panchen and Jetsunpa. So there would be two different ways of interpreting the verse. If you do it the Panchen way, then the way that it’s written here in my outline—“truly existent metaphysical entity”—would count. If you wanted to explain it by Jetsunpa then you’d have to change that to “not truly existing,” which means... Anyway, let’s leave it.
And, in any case, truly existing—now I’m getting a little bit more clarity on that—is being defined here in the Prasangika way, not the Sautrantika way. So, regardless of the two positions in Sautrantika, both of them assert that things have true existence—the metaphysical entities have true existence—the way that it’s defined in the Prasangika way.
That is why I don’t want to go into deep discussions of each point.
Of course I love this stuff, and His Holiness loves this stuff. That is one of the characteristic features of somebody who should be taught voidness—is somebody who loves this stuff. If you don’t love this stuff, you’re not a proper vessel for learning about voidness. And that’s very true. If you say, “Oh, this is too much. This is ridiculous. This is absurd!” you’re not ready yet to study voidness. Good point. Thank you.
Question: If we find ourselves not to fit into this definition of being sufficiently receptive to understanding this type of depth of argument yet—so, in a sense, not ready yet to be a proper vessel for these deepest teachings on voidness—because, as Aryadeva says, we haven’t built up enough positive force to be open-minded enough and relaxed enough to be able to deal with this, then is it best not to go to the teachings on this?
Alex: No, that’s not the case. Because Tibetans always say that it’s good to lay the instincts of hearing about this, even if you don’t understand it, because perhaps that will have some sort of contributing force in gaining the positive force. That’s why Tibetans bring babies and bring their pet dogs to initiations and teachings—why you walk your dog around a stupa—to lay the instincts. “Seeds for future lives,” the Tibetans would say. However, one shouldn’t use that as an excuse for not trying to understand and not trying to follow.
Participant: Just sleep through the teaching.
If time had a truly existent occurring, then no moment of time could ever change from the state of occurring; it would always be occurring. And if time truly existently had no occurring, there could be no end to its not occurring, and so nothing could ever occur or happen. That’s classic Prasangika. Absurd conclusions that follow from both possibilities—whether time truly existently occurs or truly existently doesn’t occur. Is time happening? That’s the question. The clock is ticking. Does that mean time is happening? Time is passing. Is there something that’s passing? Interesting questions.
Chapter twelve: Indicating the Meditations for Refuting Attraction to Distorted Views. Here Aryadeva speaks particularly about the view of voidness and people’s attitudes towards voidness.
And he starts by explaining, with a very important line, a very famous line: A proper vessel for receiving the teachings on voidness is someone who is upright and unbiased. That means that they’re not prejudiced to one view or another view, so they’re open-minded. And they’re honest; they’re willing to evaluate things honestly. Has common sense (discrimination). So just general common sense—can discriminate between what’s correct and incorrect. And takes keen interest in voidness. You have to be really, really interested in it. This is what I was referring to with the aspect of really loving this type of stuff. And this verse is taken as the general definition for anybody who’s receptive for any aspect of the Dharma, not just concerning voidness.
And, by way of contrast, those who are improper vessels for voidness say that the fault is Buddha’s if they can’t understand the four noble truths or voidness.
It’s like—I recall with Serkong Rinpoche that sometimes people, including myself, would complain about the way that the root texts were written, that it was really vague and difficult to understand, and so on. And so first he scolded me saying that “Don’t think that Nagarjuna was stupid and a bad writer. If he wanted to write more clearly, he certainly was capable of doing that. It’s written in this way for a specific purpose. And the problem is not the teachings—that it was Buddha’s fault or Nagarjuna’s fault and they didn’t explain more clearly—it’s your own fault that you’re not able to understand it.” This is obviously in reference to great masters, like Buddha and Nagarjuna. We’re not talking about some teachers who are in fact bad teachers and can’t explain things clearly. That’s something else. Ordinary teachers.
It’s important, Aryadeva goes on, to rejoice in the teachings on voidness, to be happy about them, not grumble about them—that “Oh, this is so difficult. Let’s get to easier stuff.” Only by understanding them can you actually liberate yourself from suffering.
And then a point which is elaborated upon and considered a very important point in other aspects of the Buddha’s teachings. This is that by gaining confidence in Buddha’s teachings on voidness, you can become confident that Buddha is a valid source of information about extremely obscure phenomena as well, such as karma.
There’s the division of phenomena into obvious things (like objects that you can see or hear), obscure things that you can only know about by logic, and extremely obscure phenomena, which you can only know by relying on a valid source of information. And then there is this big discussion in Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarttika proving that Buddha is a valid source of information about extremely obscure things such as karma. And so an earlier discussion of this point, which is that if Buddha taught about voidness, which is obscure but can be established by logic, and if you gain the confidence that what he said about voidness is correct—and the only reason why Buddha was able to reach the point where he could explain and understand this was because of his compassion, then there’s no reason for a Buddha to lie about karma, about extremely obscure phenomena—therefore you can rely on Buddha as a valid source of information about it. That is, in brief, the line of reasoning that is used in Pramanavarttika.
Only those who know very little about voidness are afraid of it. That’s very true in general—what you are afraid of is usually something that you don’t really know very well.
This is because they’re unaccustomed to voidness. But because such people are very accustomed to ignorance and confusion, which leads them to further suffering, they are unafraid of that. So if we’re afraid of voidness, that is simply because we’re not used to it.
And if somebody is not used to it and afraid of it, Aryadeva says it’s better to teach them that there are truly existent selves, for those who are not fit vessels for teachings on voidness. Because if you teach them voidness prematurely, they might turn away from Dharma altogether. I forget where the quotation comes from, but the quotation that comes to my mind is that there isn’t anything which doesn’t become easy with familiarity.
Question: In Shantideva?
Alex: I think it’s in Shantideva, but I can’t remember exactly the verse. It’s in the patience chapter.
Also, Buddha didn’t teach voidness just for the sake of debating. But, still, it is able to burn off distorted views of opponents.
But when you see holders of distorted views, whose distorted views just give them more and more suffering in samsara, they are appropriate objects of compassion, not to be seen as enemies to be defeated in debate “battle.” Good advice for people studying debate in the Buddhist monasteries.
Also, these teachings on voidness are far superior to the teachings of the brahmins and the Jains.
The Jains, in their final stages of their path to liberation, basically starve themselves to death. This is because to do anything—to eat—you’re going to kill something. And even to walk or to move, you’re going to step on something. And so, in the end, they don’t do anything like that. And Aryadeva points out that the suffering that the Jains impose on themselves for the sake of gaining liberation, like going naked in the winter and starving themselves, is the result of their karma—in the sense that they are imposing suffering, and so they experience this suffering as a result of karma—it’s certainly not a path to liberation. And being born as a brahmin and reciting the Vedas as your caste duty is also not a path to liberation, because that too is the result of karma—that you were born as a brahmin, and just doing your duty by reciting it.
So, by contrast, Buddha taught that the practice of Dharma is simply two-fold: do no harm and understand voidness. Those are the two main points that Buddha taught. So “do no harm” goes in the area of discipline and also compassion; and understanding voidness goes into the area of wisdom. So, therefore, Aryadeva concludes that everybody needs to try to develop interest in voidness.
You might be a little bit surprised about this point, that Aryadeva says “don’t do harm” as one of the two most important aspects. But if you think about how His Holiness, citing other sources, explains a similar point—he says that one of the main things in Dharma, if you boil it down to its important points, is to try to help others; but if you can’t help, at least don’t do harm. So that’s the bottom line—don’t do harm.
Chapter Thirteen: Indicating the Meditations for Refuting (Truly Existent) Cognitive Sensors and Cognitive Objects
Now for chapter thirteen: Indicating the Meditations for Refuting Truly Existent Cognitive Sensors and Cognitive Objects. Cognitive sensors are referring to the various physical cells, like the photosensitive cells of the eyes, the sound-sensitive of the ears, the smell-sensitive of the nose, and so on. Those are cognitive sensors; they’re a form of physical object, and cognitive objects. That term “cognitive sensor” (dbang-po) most translators translate it as “sense power.” I find that is not a clear translation, because “sense power” sounds like something much more abstract. We’re talking about tiny little physical cells in the organs.
Aryadeva begins: you don’t see all qualities and aspects of a vase when you see its visible form. So how can bare visual cognition of a form establish the true existence of an object possessing other qualities as well, such as a touchable, tactile sensation and a smellable odor?
Let us go over that. According to some assertions (some explanations of Sautrantika, for example), seeing something, the fact that something can be seen—can be an object of nonconceptual sense cognition—establishes that it truly exists. And so if you can see, let’s say the vase, or we see an orange—the fruit—an orange, well, actually what you see is a colored shape; you don’t see the smell of the orange, and you don’t see the taste of an orange. But if just seeing the colored shape of an orange establishes that it truly exists—well, but it truly exists with all its other qualities. So if all of that comes in one package, then when you see the orange, you should also be able to know its smell and taste.
And then the second part of that argument is: And if it doesn’t truly cognize all the qualities of the vase or the orange when it sees it, then it can’t truly cognize any of them, including the visible form, if seeing it establishes that it truly exists, and if it truly exists it has all its qualities. So, if you see it, you see all the qualities. And if you don’t see all the qualities, you can’t see any of the qualities. That’s real Prasangika logic. This is because all the qualities are equally qualities present in the object if it truly exists.
Next: If the shape and color of a vase are truly existently different, how could a visual cognition of the color of a vase also cognize the shape of the vase? So, if they’re different, truly different, then when you see the color of the vase, you shouldn’t also be able to see the shape of the vase; those should be separate things. If they’re identical, truly existently identical, then when you hold a vase in your hand in the dark and you know the shape of the vase like that, why don’t you also know the color—if they are truly identical?
Earth, for example—you can both see earth as something which is firm and solid, and you can also know it by tactile sensation, holding some earth or touching the earth, that it’s firm and solid. But if earth truly existed as an object of visual cognition, then it would have to exist only as that; it couldn’t also be an object of tactile cognition.
Now what about eye sensors? Truly existent eye sensors can’t cognize truly existent visible forms that are truly different from them. In other words, if you assert that the photosensitive [cells] of the eyes truly exist as one thing, and colored shapes or visible forms truly exist as something else, then they couldn’t be connected in any way; you couldn’t cognize them. And if you say that a visible form, a truly existent visible form, can be perceived by something which is truly totally different from it, then it could be perceived by ear sensors as well, because they also are truly different.
Do you follow that? If the two are totally different—the cells of the eyes and the visible form—as if they were encased in plastic, and you say that one can cognize the other, then you have something totally different and unrelated cognizing something else which is totally different and unrelated. So there’s no relationship, which means that anything could cognize anything.
Now, for a large part of the discussion of this chapter, you have to understand the Indian analysis of sense perception, which you find in not only the Buddhist teachings but in the various non-Buddhist Indian teachings as well. According to this view of sense perception, the power of a cognitive sensor travels out to the sense objects in order to perceive them. That is something very difficult really to understand and to work out. It’s not that the sense information comes from outside in; it’s that somehow sense perception works from the inside out.
This allows for Indians to live, a thousand of them, on the floor of an Indian railway station and not go crazy. Because you just don’t see the people that are on the cloth on the floor next to you, because your sense power doesn’t go out or your sense force or energy doesn’t go beyond the boundary. Or if you’re on a crowded train and you put a cloth over your head, you’re not there, and so you can go to sleep like that and nobody will talk to you or bother you. If you don’t have something over your face, they will talk to you and bother you all night long. Or, on an Indian bus, they will be playing the video all night long, the same movie over and over and over again—or very loud music—because it’s a video coach, and if you complain they say, “Well, don’t listen to it.” So you have to understand the Indian concept of sense perception, then their reply makes sense.
Now there are many logical fallacies, however, if all of this is based on true existence. But let’s first get the explanation of the general theory.
This is not so weird, actually, if you transpose the discussion from the energy of the cognitive sensors going out to our Western concept of attention. Does your attention go out to the object and you notice it? Or does the information come into your eye, and only then do you notice it and pay attention to it?
Alex: Well, not really. The difference here is how you conceptualize and mentally label the process of cognition. It’s not that it actually occurs differently in Indians than it does from Westerners; it’s just that they explain it differently. So that’s mental labeling. It’s a good example of mental labeling. And a Western person, with a belief in “one God, one truth” etc., insists, “But how is it really?” wanting to find one true explanation of how it really exists. And this is a faulty way of thinking, according to all that we have been studying here. Everything is in terms of mental labeling. How you conceptualize something. And I think it’s very important to understand how our Western way of thinking is conditioned very strongly by the Abrahamic traditions—that’s the modern term for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The Abrahamic traditions have this idea of “one God, one truth.” That influences very much—we want to know, “But how is it really?”
Buddhism is not objecting here to this conceptualization of how sense perception works. They agree that the energy of the cognitive sensors goes out to an object, but it can’t be based on truly established existence, according to Madhyamaka. They say if the power of a truly existent eye sensor had to travel out to an object in order to look at it, then it should take longer to see a distant object than it does to take a nearby object. And if it takes the same time, then why is the nearby object clearer than a distant one? They should be the same, on the basis of truly existent eye sensors.
Participant: They should be equally clear.
Alex: They should be equally clear. You should be able to see them at the same time and see them clearly with the same clarity; it should be exactly the same. This is assuming that you don’t need glasses.
We don’t need to bring in here the idea of the speed of light, and so on, in terms of how that affects our perception of information from light coming into the eye. But you can see this is in fact a very profound problem and discussion when we start talking about seeing stars, astronomical distances, and the amount of time it takes for the light to reach us. And then that starts to affect the whole concept of time—Do you see the past?
Now, if the eye sensor travels out to an object after having noticed it, what is the need to see it? You have already seen it if you noticed it. And if it travels out without having noticed the object, then it’s traveling out to look at an object without knowing that it’s going out to look at anything; it’s just going out blind if it didn’t notice something and then looks at it.
But if the power of the eye sensor didn’t have to travel out to its object, then it should be seeing everything all the time whether nearby or distant. Because all the light is coming in, whether it’s obvious or obscured.
And also it should be able to see itself.
Aryadeva starts out with a very general point: that a truly existent functional phenomenon could not come about from relying on anything else, since it should then exist totally independently by its own power. That’s Prasangika. Something truly exists and something on its side establishes its existence by its own power. So how could it be a functional phenomenon? It should exist encapsulated in plastic, the example that I usually use, with something inside it making it and establishing that it exists. So it wouldn’t have to have depended on causes and conditions to establish it.
His Holiness may then go into the whole discussion of dependent arising. Things are established—their existence is established—by dependent arising, the fact that they dependently arise. On a conventional level, functional phenomena dependently arise from causes and conditions; and, with reference to the deepest truth, they dependently arise in terms of what words and concepts refer to. Two levels of dependent arising, in terms of explanation of conventional truth and explanation of deepest truth.
Then Aryadeva goes on to refute the Nyaya-Vaisheshika type of assertion. For them, they assert that there are all sorts of various types of phenomenon that exist truly existently and they sort of connect; there’s connectors that put them all together. And so they say, for instance, that there is such a thing as a “vase”; that’s one type of truly existent phenomenon. And then there is a universal category called “existence,” and that also truly exists. And so then Aryadeva points out that if “vase” and the universal category “existence” were both truly existent as separate types of truly existent phenomenon, then your assertion of a “vase” truly existing as a separate category from “existence” makes no sense. The vase would have to be truly nonexistent. How can you assert that there is a separate category called “existence” from a “vase”? You say that there is such a thing as a “vase,” which truly exists, but there’s also another category called “existence”. If they’re two separate things, then how can you posit something called “vase”? It would have to be nonexistent. That only because it’s connected with a stick, or something like that, to this other ball over here called “existence,” it exists. This is absolutely absurd.
And these are not so wild ideas. Sometimes we speak in terms of “something has come into existence,” as if existence were sort of a place or a thing that something could come into. And then that gets into a whole big discussion, which we had in Shantideva: Does something exist or not exist before it comes to exist? Can a nonexistent thing turn into an existent thing?
Let me just add something to that, because it was, I thought, a very important and interesting point. Remember, we related that to the whole discussion of abortion. Is it that before a certain period of time the human being doesn’t exist? And then, after a certain number of weeks, it does exist as a human being? And so how can you have a nonexistent thing turn into an existent thing? This is behind a lot of the discussions about abortion. It doesn’t exist yet as a human being—it’s not a human being—before a certain period of its development.
So these are not just weird metaphysical abstract discussions. They have application.
Then Aryadeva begins a long discussion with many examples with the example of a vase. They always love this example of the vase they use. The example of a vase being truly… You see, according to most Buddhist theories—and here he’s pointing particularly to Sautrantika—there are eight types of particles that constitute physical matter. This is from abhidharma, actually. And to say that—this is the whole discussion of one and many—if the vase, as a truly existent thing, is made up of eight truly existent different types of particles, if it’s the same then all these different types of particles have to be one and the same, and if it’s many then there has to be eight different vases, because there are eight different types of particles. So this gets into the whole discussion of “neither one nor many,” which is a very detailed discussion—we don’t have time to go into it—but then Aryadeva applies it to many, many different examples, and the rest of the chapter is basically devoted to that.
And Aryadeva concludes that this line of reasoning—neither one nor many—needs to be applied to refute all extreme views concerning either existence, nonexistence, both, or neither.
Chapter Fifteen: Indicating the Meditations for Refuting Grasping at Affected Phenomena as Ultimately (Truly Arising)
Chapter fifteen: Indicating the Meditations for Refuting Grasping at Affected Phenomena as Ultimately Truly Arising. So this is discussing the whole issue of the arising of phenomena. Affected phenomena or functional phenomena are those that arise having been affected by causes and circumstances. So now Aryadeva analyzes these arisings—are they ultimately truly existing? And the basic argument that’s being used here is that things can’t arise from something that is either the same as themselves or something different from themselves—neither the same nor different.
So something truly nonexistent at the time of the cause can’t arise at the time of the result. If it truly doesn’t exist, it can’t ever come to exist. But if a truly existent result already exists at the time of the cause, there’d be no need for it to arise again; it already existed. So the result can’t be either truly existent or truly nonexistent, in terms of at the time of the cause.
And, likewise, a truly existent cause can’t give rise to a truly existent result that’s either the same as itself or different from itself.
Also, you can’t say that there are a truly existent arising, abiding, and ceasing, all three of these—this gets back to our problem in terms of the three times—since at the time of one of these happening the other two would be truly nonexistent and either could never happen or could never have happened. In other words, if they only happen one at a time, and when they happen they truly exist, then when they’re not happening, or the arising has not happened, or the ceasing has not yet happened—or whatever—the other two would be nonexistent. So they could never come to happen or never be the case that they already happened.
Also, if something that arises is truly new, it could never become old.
And so Aryadeva goes on with various lines of reasoning to show that truly existent arising, abiding, and ceasing can’t occur either separately and independently of each other, and they can’t occur simultaneously with each other. And so the question is: When do they happen? When do they occur? They don’t occur as truly existent things separately from each other, unrelated to each other, or all at the same time.
And then Aryadeva goes into a big discussion about how does something change from not yet arising into arising, or from arising into abiding, or from abiding into ceasing. Is there an interval in between the two? In between any of these two? For instance, is there an interval between when a truly existent result does not yet exist and when it truly exists? And during that interval it half truly exists and half truly does not exist?
Then he analyzes when does the process of a truly existing arising occur. How can a truly existent arising exist before an object that truly arises? What’s the connection? If you make arising into a truly existent thing, what’s the connection between that and the object that arises?
Also, how can an arising truly exist before it’s occurred and then become connected to a truly existent object that is not yet arisen and, by that connection, make that object arise? In other words, is arising an actual “thing,” like the Nyayas make out (they had existence as some sort of separate little “thing” encased in a plastic ball). So what about arising? Is that something in a plastic ball by itself and then it connects to an object? How can you have an arising existing separately from an object that arises? And when does the arising occur?
This historical event hasn’t happened yet, and now there’s this thing called “arising,” and the arising comes—and how does that sort of connect to this event which hasn’t happened yet and, by means of that, then this event happens? This is absurd. It’s not that you plug some sort of not-yet-happened event into the wall and then, based on that, it arises, is it?
Okay, last chapter. Sixteen: Indicating How to Cause Teachers and Disciples to Gain Certainty about Voidness. And this is the chapter in which, basically, Aryadeva refutes truly existent logic. In other words, you gain certainty about voidness through logic—whether we talk about standard logic or Prasangika type of logic—but it’s not through truly existent logic.
So Aryadeva explains that all these chapters that he’s written, he’s written them in order to refute any reason somebody might give for grasping at things to not be void the way that Prasangika says. In other words, for them to be truly existent.
But even the author, the subject matter, and the words of the text are void of truly established existence.
But to counter another person’s position, or to prove your own position, you need to rely on logic and logical reasoning.
And when, through logic, what you assert is not found to exist, then you must understand that what you assert does not exist at all. So he is explaining here that you need to use logic and, with logic, you can refute the existence of certain things.
And then he says: we Prasangikas don’t use faulty lines of reasoning that even other Buddhists use. And he gives some examples of faulty lines of reasoning, which we won’t go into.
When you do this searching in a Prasangika sense, you are searching: is it findable? All of this is dealing with truly established existence. So when you show that truly established existence, let’s say truly existing aggregates and a truly existing “self,” that they’re neither one nor many, then you have to give up. If these two things exist truly, then they have to either exist as truly the same thing or truly different things. There’s no other possibility. And if they can’t be found as either of those, then your whole basis for understanding this, the assertion of true existence, doesn’t exist. He’s referring to that.
And when it is said that, in Prasangika, that truly established existence can’t be found, not only when you analyze deepest truth, but when you analyze conventional truth, please remember that that’s a refutation of a Svatantrika point of view which says that, from a conventional point of view, things are established by self-nature (in other words, there’s something on its side that establishes it in connection with mental labeling), but from the deepest point of view, there’s nothing that can be found. That’s one aspect of Svatantrika. You can say, “Okay, on the deepest level you can’t find truly established existence. But conventionally things are truly established.” That’s the Svatantrika position. And they [the Prasangikas] say that even conventionally you can’t find truly found existence—that’s not a reference to the actual conventionally existent phenomenon.
Also we Prasangikas, Aryadeva says, don’t even assert that voidness has truly established existence, the way that the Chittamatrins do. Because if voidness, as a logical position to be proved, had true existence, then the counter-position (which is non-voidness) would also have to be truly existent, because the two components of a line of reasoning depend on each other. This is part of the structure of Indian logic. And so, since voidness is not truly existent, neither is non-voidness.
So it makes no sense, like the Chittamatrins do, to divide some phenomena into truly existent and some not truly existent, some void of true existence and some not void of true existence. It’s because of that that you can’t say that there are two divisions—of things that truly exist and things that don’t truly exist. So things that are void and things that are not void.
And if you accuse Prasangika as asserting that everything is totally nonexistent, then how is it that our logic is able to refute your position?
And if you say that our Prasangika logic is absurd, then why can’t you find any faults in it?
And if you can’t establish your position of non-voidness by logic, and it were correct simply because you say it is correct, then any position would be correct merely by saying that it’s correct.
Aryadeva concludes the text by saying: if phenomena had truly established existence, what benefit would there be in understanding voidness (because voidness would be incorrect)? The Buddha taught voidness of truly established existence because it is correct, and it actually does get rid of suffering forever. It brings about a true stopping of suffering.
So whether you assert truly established existence, truly established nonexistence, both, or neither, voidness refutes them all. And with that he concludes the text.
So this is a brief summary, then, of the sixteen chapters of Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses. And we will just have to wait and see how His Holiness explains this, where he puts his emphasis, what he goes into detail about or not. But if we really want to study this text, we need to go through a long course of study, because each point in it is very deep, very profound, and, as we’ve seen, requires quite a lot of background knowledge in order to be able to understand it more fully.
And we have to be very careful during these teachings not to feel frustrated, not to get annoyed, and not to get discouraged. Because, as Aryadeva himself said very clearly, Buddha taught all of this, he taught all of this to eliminate suffering, and if you really want to gain liberation from suffering you have to understand this. Therefore, it is all taught for this purpose. Therefore, if we really want to achieve liberation, it’s this type of material that we will need to understand, in one way or another. Therefore, one develops great admiration for it, great intention to try to understand it, and inspiration from His Holiness and from Aryadeva etc. to be able to understand it. And then of course everything depends on the motivation. Do we want to understand it because of renunciation of suffering and determination to be free of it ourselves? Or, in addition to that, bodhichitta (we want to be able to help everybody else overcome suffering as well, through the understanding of this)? So, throughout the teaching, motivation is very, very important. Thank you—and dedication at the end.
Well, let’s end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has been built up by this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (35%)