Alex Li Trisoglio
Madhyamakavatara Week 3: Refuting Wrong Views
All 8 weeks
1:1 - 6:7
6:8 - 6:44
6:45 - 6:119
6:120 - 6:178
6:179 - 6:226
7:1 - 11:56
Review of Week 2 [Audio/Video timing: t = 0:00:05]
Hello and good evening. I’m Alex Trisoglio and I’d like to welcome you to Week 3 of Introduction to the Middle Way. To begin, I’d like to review what we covered in Week 2. First, as we think about what it takes to accomplish enlightenment, we realise that enlightenment is a result of elimination or result of absence, dreldré. So we think of our path as being something like cleaning a window. There are different kinds of dirt on our window that we want to get rid of, and in particular there are two kinds of defilements or obscurations. These are dendzin, which is the clinging to true existence, and tsendzin, which is clinging to marks or characteristics. And we’ll talk about that a little bit more. In particular, we can also divide these defilements into clinging to the self of phenomena and clinging to the self of the person. Now actually they’re all subcategories of clinging to the self of phenomena, as the person is just one of many phenomena, but we divide it into two for the purposes of differentiating between the path that is common to all Buddhist schools and the Mahayana path. As we saw last week (in verse 1:8), that’s a little bit like the illustrating the difference between the bodhisattvas and the shravaka arhats with the example of the baby prince and the ministers.
Dendzin [t = 0:01:42]
So dendzin is when we cling to the story of self as being real or truly existing. And when we believe that, it leads to emotion. It leads to action. It leads to the three poisons that cause samsara. Both in the moment – so for example we can become reactive, we can get triggered emotionally in the classic ‘➜amygdala reaction’ – but also over time. If we cling to the notion that a good life is based on wealth or fame or popularity, if we believe these things truly exist, then that will guide our path. That will guide our life choices. And these types of clinging to true existence, we can be unaware of them – so for example many of us aren’t even aware that we have a story of truly existing self. But in other cases we are aware of them. We hold our stories deliberately. This might be true of political beliefs, campaigns, or perhaps we can think of the people who chose to fly an airplane into the Twin Towers in New York. Clearly you’ve got to believe a view fairly strongly for it to guide your behaviour in that way. And when we overcome all the clinging to true existence, all the dendzin of all the different kinds, that is termed nirvana. Because at that point, there’s no longer any reactivity, any more of the three poisons in either the short term (i.e. emotional reactivity) or the long term (i.e. building a life around the Eight Worldly Dharmas), which means there’s no more suffering.
Tsendzin [t = 0:03:32]
Now on the bodhisattva path, we wish to go further because even after you have accomplished nirvana, you still have tsendzin. You still have clinging to some kind of marks or characteristics, some kind of dualism, some kinds of stories or labels. So even though you don’t think they truly exist, you still have these differentiations or characteristics. And when you’ve overcome the tsendzin, then you have no more dualism, no more phenomena, and that is considered complete enlightenment. And just to be clear: when we say no more phenomena, it doesn’t mean a blankness. It doesn’t mean some kind of blowing out of a candle. It means that these dualistic thoughts, concepts, language, the way we normally draw boundaries around what we consider to be a phenomenon – those no longer exist. As we see in the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness – so we deconstruct all of the form – but at the same time, emptiness is form. So in the Vajrayana we talk about the Three Kayas: we still have manifestation. It’s just that it’s no longer dualistic. Now at that point, as we saw in Week 2, it becomes very difficult for us to talk about it. Words fail us. The only real way forwards at that point is our practice.
Innate ignorance and imputed ignorance [t = 0:05:03]
The other thing we touched on last week, and we’ll talk a little more about it this week, is two kinds of ignorance. And that’s not the same as these two kinds of clinging to the self of the person and the self of phenomena. These two kinds of ignorance are innate ignorance and imputed ignorance. The innate ignorance is also sometimes known as coemergent ignorance, which is the basic dualism that arises when we forget or lose our mindfulness and awareness, and we purify that through our practice. Whereas the imputed ignorance is what we purify by logic and reasoning. And it refers to all the stories and marks, the tsendzin and the dendzin. So this is where we establish the view that none of these things exist truly, but even though at that point we may have refuted the labelling, we can’t actually get rid of the ignorance until we practice. So as we said in previous weeks, yes, it’s very important for us to establish the view, to understand that these labels that we have been clinging to are not actually truly existing labels, but even once we have that intellectual understanding, we then need to practice.
Overview of Week 3 [t = 0:06:20]
So this week, now that we know what we want to do is to deconstruct this imputed ignorance, all these different stories and wrong views, we’re going to ask a little bit about what is a view? We’re going to explore how views connect to stories. And remember, as we’ve said in previous weeks, all this does matter because our views, our mindsets, they drive our behaviours. So our view is extremely important on the path.
And in particular this week we’re going to look at views in terms of how we explain arising or birth. It turns out that all of our opponents have origin stories to explain why things exist in the world. So that’s what we’re going to be deconstructing. And in particular, we’re going to follow Nagarjuna’s approach of breaking up these different types of origin story or arising into four types – whether things arise from themselves, from other things, from both or from neither. We’re also going to touch a little on the debate between the Prasangika Madhyamika and the Svatantrika Madhyamika schools. So the question there is can we just show how our opponent’s views fall apart by pointing out contradictions and flaws in their position, or do we actually need counterarguments and views of our own. We’ll talk about that a little as well.
In terms of the text itself, we’re going to cover from verse 8 to verse 44 of Chapter 6:
• 6:8-6:13: Refuting self-arising (the Samkhya): During the first few verses, from 8 to 13, we’re going to be refuting the Samkhya. That’s one of the six orthodox Hindu schools, which held the belief in arising from the self.
• 6:14-6:22: Refuting other-arising (Buddhist schools): Then in verses 14 to 21 we’re going to be refuting truly existing other-arising, and here our opponents will be some other Buddhist schools.
• 6:22-6:44: Responding to objections: In most of the rest of the verses, from verses 22 to 44, we’re going to be responding to various objections from our opponents and reiterating the benefits of refuting theories of truly existing other-arising.
Accepting the conventions of ordinary people [t = 0:08:46]
In particular, as you know Chandrakirti does not hold any views of his own. He doesn’t believe in any views. In fact he says that we should refute all views, which then leads to an interesting dilemma. Because if indeed our behaviours are governed by views, how are we supposed to live in the world if we don’t have any views? And here Chandrakirti’s approach is to accept the conventions of ordinary people. So yes he knows we still need to attend to the basics of health, money, shelter, relationships, friendships – but he wants to do this without getting caught in attachment to samsara. And there are many famous stories of great masters who ended up just doing very ordinary jobs in the world, seemingly insignificant and unimportant jobs like working in a restaurant or being a car mechanic. Rinpoche himself ➜said that a good job for a person in the world who wishes to be a Dharma practitioner is to become an electrician or a plumber. He was being very practical there: what kinds of jobs can provide you with a steady income without taking up too much time and energy, and without pulling you into some kind of samsaric rat race? And as we head into the age where artificial intelligence is going to start replacing workers that may not be bad advice, because it turns out that electricians and plumbers are going to be among the last jobs to be automated. We’ll come back to all that in Week 8.
Let’s come back to this notion of accepting the conventions of ordinary people. We don’t want to be weird. We don’t want to stick out. There’s no point, if we’re trying to ask someone for a glass of water, in using different language. People won’t understand what we’re talking about. If we want a glass of water, we should ask for a glass of water. As Rinpoche says, the advice for living in the relative world is always “Don’t burn other people’s noses.” It’s a Tibetan saying that expresses the idea of ‘Don’t be outrageous for the sake of it’. Don’t do things just for the sake of not fitting in. And here our opponents will say, ‘you know, Chandrakirti, you say you accept ordinary people’s views, but they believe in other-arising. So why don’t you?’ And it’s true. In the normal world we tend to say that a cause and an effect are two separate things, and the cause is ‘other’ than the effect. So how will Chandrakirti answer that? His answer, and a lot of what we’ll talk about today, introduces the Two Truths: distinguishing the ultimate and the relative truth, distinguishing the view and the path, and distinguishing two different kinds of views . The view of the ultimate truth is all around the absence of any kinds of extremes. It’s about going beyond all extremes, as we saw in Week 2. And the other aspect is the relative truth or conventional truth.
Conventional truth as a means of communication [t = 0:11:53]
In the relative truth our view will be, as Chandrakirti says, just adopting ordinary conventions. And this has got nothing to do with being attached or clinging to the self of the person or the self of phenomena. It’s just things that are necessary to function in the world. For example, driving on the left rather than driving on the right. Asking for a cup of tea rather than a glass of water. We need to make these practical distinctions to function. And this is particularly important for those of us on the Mahayana path because we aspire to be bodhisattvas who are going to help sentient beings. And we can’t help someone or teach someone unless we understand their conventions. We might think of another example: the history of so much development aid in Africa and other developing countries. So often aid hasn’t worked, because the donors just have not understood the conventions of the recipients of their aid – it was inappropriate technology, and things didn’t work. And it’s a very similar idea here: we need to work with conventional truth as a means of communication, a means of understanding.
And to do that – as the saying goes, ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ – we need to understand how ordinary people think. And in particular we’ll learn that they don’t talk philosophically. They’ll say ‘please pass me a glass of water’. They won’t say ‘please pass me a collection of H2O molecules’. Likewise, when we tell stories in the relative world, we do so very naively and randomly. It’s not really a structured, philosophical approach. We might sometimes believe theories of arising from self. We might say ‘this is a picture that I painted’. Or we might sometimes have stories that believe in arising from others. We might say ‘my boss gave me some tough feedback on my work’. So much of what is going on in our everyday world is about stories. We’ll see this as we talk today. And if you think about it, so many of our problems in ordinary life are around independence versus codependence, boundaries, secure and insecure attachment, accountability, helpful and unhelpful mindsets and narratives. Yes, we can certainly work with a therapist or with a coach, but we can also apply the view of emptiness. So that’s what we’re going to spend today talking about. A lot our time today is going to be devoted to refuting the views of the Hindu Samkhya school and the other Buddhist philosophical schools, and then talking about the Two Truths.
The Hero’s Journey: entering Act II [t = 0:14:44]
As in previous weeks, I’d like to connect this to the Hero’s Journey once again.
• Act I, Scene 1: If Act I was the setup and the context, Week 1 was Scene I. Starting in the ordinary world. Some kind of catalyst. The glimpse of a possibility of something, the journey to enlightenment. And usually in Act I, one hears the Theme of the story and there’s some kind of resonance, but we don’t really understand it yet. We don’t have enough experience or enough context.
• Act I, Scene 2: In Scene 2, which was Week 2, we start to face resistance. We start to find the reasons that yes it might seem like a good idea, but we don’t have the time. We don’t understand it. We have all kinds of fears and excuses and reasons not to proceed. So then we have to gather our resolve, really make the case for the journey, and overcome our fears and resistance. And then that transitions into Act II, which is where we begin today.
• Act II, Scene 1: This is now the main journey. The adventure begins. So now we’ll start to venture into new lands. We’ll find unexpected beauty and treasure. We’ll start to meet the ‘bad guys’. We’ll engage in and overcome challenges. We’ll start to become seasoned adventurers rather than the naïve beginners we were before setting out on our journey.
So this week is really about leaving behind our familiar world and going into this world of analysis, this world of logic and philosophy, where we start to question reality. Where mountains are no longer mountains. We start to look at our world rather than just work within the world.
There’s some nice language for this that Ron Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School uses. He talks about the difference between ➜the dancefloor and the balcony. If you’re on the dancefloor what you notice is the people in your immediate surroundings. You don’t really have much context or overview of the whole. But if you leave the dancefloor and go up onto the balcony, then you can observe the whole thing. You can see what’s going on. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to meet our first opponents. We’re going to start to distinguish right and wrong views. And in the Hero’s Journey, at the beginning of Act II you usually find what’s called the ‘B Story’ in movie scripts. There’s usually some discussion about the Theme or some nugget of truth that takes place between the main character and some kind of love interest, and that gets resolved in Act III. If you ask who might be the love interest in this story? Well, for Chandrakirti, his real love is compassion for all sentient beings, and in particular for ordinary people. So I might propose that our love interest here is going to be the cowherd, which is a classic Indian example of an ordinary person in the world. And this will come up today and through the remaining weeks, and certainly at the end in Week 8 we’ll take all of our understanding and realization of the view and bring it back into our practice in the world.
The Five Paths [t = 0:17:56]
Another way we can think about where we are on our journey is the classic presentation of the Five Paths, which is another Buddhist structure to describe the stages of progress on the Dharma path. These five stages are the Path of Accumulation, Path of Joining, Path of Seeing, Path of Meditation and Path of No More Learning.
(1) Path of Accumulation: The first path describes our journey in Act I. We have a strong desire to overcome suffering, and then we decide to leave our ordinary lives behind. So on the Shravakayana path that might be renunciation. On the Mahayana path that’s taking the bodhisattva vow and starting to embark upon the path of entering bodhicitta, as we saw in Week 2. Then that moves into the second path, the Path of Joining.
(2) Path of Joining (also translated as Path of Preparation): Here we do two things. We start to practice meditation, and we really establish the view and then start to practice integrating the view into our lives. This is what we are doing right now.
(3) The Path of Seeing: This is the 1st bhumi, where we have now purified our dendzin and we actually realize emptiness for the first time.
(4) The Path of Meditation: This encompasses the 2nd to the 7th bhumis, the “impure bodhisattva stages” where we purify and remove our tsendzin, and the 8th to 10th bhumis, “the pure bodhisattva stages” where we purify the last subtle traces of dualism (nyinang), culminating in the realization of enlightenment.
(5) The Path of No More Learning: In the Shravakayana this corresponds to the state of the arhat, and in the Mahayana this is the state of enlightenment.
(*Note: there are different versions of the Five Paths in the different Indian and Tibetan Buddhist schools. Please see the Glossary entry on Five Paths for more information).
Perceiving the Bull [t = 0:19:25]
Also as in previous weeks, I’d like to recite the relevant verse from the 10 Bulls. And this week we come to Perceiving the Bull, the third of the 10 Bulls. Usually it’s intended to refer to our first real experience of emptiness, of the nature of our minds, but we might perhaps also apply it in this case to our first real experience of applying the methods of refutation. This week we’ll actually start engaging in logic and reasoning and observing and experiencing how it works.
3. Perceiving the Bull
I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?
Comment: When one hears the voice, one can sense its source. As soon as the six senses merge, the gate is entered. Wherever one enters one sees the head of the bull! This unity is like salt in water, like colour in dyestuff. The slightest thing is not apart from self.
Establishing emptiness, the subject to be explained [t = 0:20:49] [MAV PDF page 72]
So now turning the text, page 72 in the commentary. As we said, we’re going to be establishing the view of emptiness. That’s the subject to be explained. And we’re going to do this in two stages.
• 6:8-6:178: The first stage is establishing the view of emptiness that is to be realized by all vehicles of Buddhism. And that’s going to be verse 8 to verse 178.
• 6:179-6:226: The second stage is establishing the view of emptiness to be realized exclusively in the Mahayana, which is the rest of Chapter 6 from verse 179 to 226.
In the first stage, establishing the view to be realized by all vehicles, during our practice we first tackle clinging to the self of the person, and then later clinging to the self of phenomena. As we have seen, first we deal with our dendzin, the attachment to the self of the person which cases samsara. Then on the bhumis we purify our tsendzin. But in this text, the Madhyamakavatara, we’ll do it the other way round. First we’re going to refute clinging to the self of phenomena, which will take us to verse 119, and that will take us through Week 3 and Week 4. Then we’ll refute clinging to the self of the person, which is verses 120 to 178, and that will be Week 5.
Buddhist practitioners and Buddhist philosophical schools [t = 0:22:32] [MAV PDF page 72]
One important note that Rinpoche made here is that when we talk about emptiness to be realized by all vehicles, we need to be careful because we are going to be refuting a lot of opponents from Buddhist schools. And we don’t want to start looking down on other Buddhists. So the emphasis here is that all of the shravakas, pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas on the Shravakayana and Mahayana paths are all practicing emptiness. They’re all practicing to realize anatta, the non-self taught by the Buddha. As Rinpoche said, they’re all looking at the same emptiness, although perhaps one might say that some are closer and see it more clearly, and some are further away. It’s a bit like seeing the other shore as we discussed in Week 2.
Although in particular the Mahayana considers the state of nirvana, the attainment of the shravaka arhat, as being some kind of ‘island enlightenment’. So if that is where you have arrived after following the Shravakayana path, you will nevertheless need to continue on the bodhisattvayana path to take you to Buddhahood. If you read the pre-reading on the “Bodhisattva Ideal in Buddhism” by Walpola Rahula, you’ll see that even though he’s writing from a Shravakayana perspective, he points out that even the Shravakayana accepts that the bodhisattva is the highest ideal, and that the attainment of the Buddha is greater than the attainment of the shravaka arhats or the pratyekabuddhas. So in terms of the actual practitioners on the path, we all have the same aspiration. We’re all aiming at the same goal. So what is the difference here?
Well, there were actually a lot of different philosophical schools of Buddhism in ancient India and then of course in Tibet. And many of them, certainly most of the ➜18 early Buddhist schools no longer exist. And they all emerged because of a need to explain what does this non-self, this anatta, actually mean in practice? Because in particular, as we saw in Week 2, there are a number of paradoxes that seem not to make sense. For example, how can we talk about karma, how can we talk about doing something today and having some kind of consequence tomorrow if there is no self? How might we understand that? So in Buddhism there are four main schools, and we’ll look at them today: the Vaibhashika, the Sautrantika, the Chittamatra and the Madhyamaka. All of them have ground, path and fruit. And the other non-Madhyamaka schools would say that the Madhyamaka is nisvabhava, which means ‘nothingness-sayer’. In contemporary philosophy we might say this means ‘nihilist’, and we’ll need to defend ourselves against that accusation and explain why that is not the case.
Right view in the Eight-Fold Path [t = 0:25:37]
And also when we talk about the view being common to all vehicles, it’s worth emphasizing that this is actually the first aspect of the Eight-Fold Path, Samma Dittha or ‘right understanding’, which we call ‘right view’ here. And in Walpola Rahula’s book What the Buddha Taught, in Chapter 5, which is about the path, he says:
Right Understanding is the understanding of things as they are, and it is the Four Noble Truths that explain things as they really are. Right Understanding therefore is ultimately reduced to the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. This understanding is the highest wisdom which sees the Ultimate Reality. According to Buddhism there are two sorts of understanding:
• What we generally call understanding is knowledge, an accumulated memory, an intellectual grasping of a subject according to certain given data. This is called ‘knowing accordingly’ (anubodha). It is not very deep.
• Real deep understanding is called ‘penetration’ (pativedha), seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label. This penetration is possible only when the mind is free from all impurities and is fully developed though meditation.
You can see that even here in a classic Shravakayana explanation, we have the idea of going beyond name, going beyond labelling, and going beyond all kinds of impurities.
Right view in the Satipatthana Sutta and contemporary mindfulness [t = 0:27:13]
Likewise we find right view in the mindfulness teachings, although perhaps less so in the form in which they have become popular in the modern world. When mindfulness is taught even today in the West, mindfulness teachers often refer to the ➜Satipatthana-Sutta (Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness). And this sutta refers to four foundations of mindfulness:
• Body (kaya): Mindfulness of body is developed in practices like the classic mindfulness of breathing (➜anapanasati) and mindfulness of walking, which are taught all the time now in the West. And also through meditations on repulsiveness (➜patikulamanasikara) and the Nine Cemetery Meditations (➜maranasati), which are not taught so much in the West, perhaps because they focus more on renunciation and challenging our samsaric habits.
• Feelings/sensations (vedana): Mindfulness of feelings/sensations refers to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations – bare affect. It’s not really what we would call ‘emotions’, ideas like ‘he hurt my feelings’. That’s part of self-narrative. It’s not part of sensation.
• Mind/consciousness (citta): Mindfulness of mind refers to the state of mind and the quality of mental processes as a whole (e.g. clear or distracted, etc.)
• Mental objects, phenomena, teachings, truth (dhamma): This is the perhaps the most interesting of the four foundations, the mindfulness of dhammas. And if you look in the Satipatthana-Sutta you’ll see this category includes the Five Hindrances, the aggregates, the sense-bases, the 37 Factors of Enlightenment and again the Four Noble Truths.
It’s interesting because contemporary mindfulness and much of so-called ‘American Buddhism’ has developed largely out of the ➜Burmese Theravada tradition, a very simplified version of the Shravakayana path that really only focuses on the first three foundations of mindfulness. It doesn’t really teach the fourth foundation – which is where the teachings on right view appear – so it has no view as such. So ironically, even though contemporary mindfulness is called vipassana (which means ‘insight into the true nature of reality’), the true vipassana comes from the study and practice of the Madhyamaka view, which is not really present in contemporary mindfulness. Rinpoche has talked about this a lot. He talks about the kind of mindfulness that has turned into relaxation and stress-relief, the kind of mindfulness you find in five-star resorts – not at all what is intended by the Buddha’s practice of mindfulness, which is the cultivation of nondual wisdom and awareness.
The Ten Equalities [t = 0:29:47]
Now we come to page 73. As we mentioned we’re going to be proceeding through refuting birth or arising. And from the Dashabhumika-Sutra (the Ten Bhumi Sutra), Chandrakirti introduces the Ten Equalities, or ten ways in which phenomena are equal. For reference, I’d like to note that the Dashabhumika-Sutra is Chapter 26 of the Avatamsaka-Sutra (the Flower Ornament Sutra or Flower Garland Sutra), which is one of the most influential Mahayana sutras of East Asian Buddhism. Scholars are not entirely sure about its origin, but the leading theory is that the Avatamsaka-Sutra is composed of a number of originally independent scriptures of diverse provenance which were then combined, probably in Central Asia, sometime in the late 3rd or early 4th century CE. We know the Dashabhumika-Sutra was first translated into Chinese in the 3rd century, and the first Chinese version of the whole text was around 420 CE. We’ve previously said that the Madhyamakavatara is a commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, and it’s also a commentary on the Dashabhumika-Sutra. Many of the elements of Chandrakirti’s text, including the descriptions of the ten bhumis, are derived from the Dashabhumika-Sutra, and in some cases quoted directly. For example, the description of the Ten Equalities on page 73 is a quote from the Dashabhumika-Sutra. If you look at page 744 of Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Avatamsaka-Sutra, you’ll see the Ten Equalities there are almost exactly the same as here.
Out of these Ten Equalities, we’re just going to focus on one, which is the absence of birth. And we know this because it was stated by Nagarjuna in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, Chapter 1, verse 1:[1:1] Not from itself, not from another, not from both, nor without cause:
Never in any way is there any existing thing that has arisen.
Arising / Birth [t = 0:32:03]
So why are we focussing so much on arising and birth? Conventionally, because we see birth and origin stories as a validation of something’s provenance, its validity, as in ‘organic vegetables’, ‘made with genuine Italian leather’, things like that. But ultimately a phenomenon is defined as something that has birth, remaining and cessation. If you think about it, something that hasn’t have birth, you can’t really say that it’s a phenomenon. I don’t know what we’d describe it as exactly, but not a phenomenon. So when we talk about the idea of a truly existing phenomenon – and remember, that’s what we’re trying to refute here. Notions that there might be a truly existing self. What we’re saying is that would imply something that has clear characteristics and clear boundaries that we could point to.
For example, let’s imagine we ask: does a person count as a phenomenon? I might say well, I know whether someone is sitting in the chair across from me or not. They’re either really there, or they’re really not there. Surely that would count as true existence? Either they’re there or they’re not – what’s the doubt? It might seem obvious, but if you ask about origins, then it starts to become a little less obvious. If you think about debates on abortion: how long after an egg has been fertilized does it count as a person? There’s no clear cut-off, except for conception itself. But then at the point of conception, all you really have is a fertilized egg. Nobody would say that’s a fully functioning person yet. Likewise as a person ages, particularly if they get degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or other kinds of brain damage, we might say they’re no longer the same person that they used to be. Likewise, is our self of today the same person as when we were five years old? Most of us would say probably not. Maybe it’s not an entirely different person.
But once we start to reflect on what it is to be a person, we immediately see that we can’t point to something that’s unchanging. Because actually pretty much everything is changing all the time. Yes, we can trace a continuum from what we call a ‘fertilized egg’ to what we call an ‘adult’ human, but they’re not the same thing. By the way, when I say, “What we call” a fertilized egg or adult human, notice that even those terms or labels are just conventions. The notion of ‘adult’ is totally arbitrary. At what age do we grant people the right to drink, vote, and get married? It’s different in different countries. I live here in Vancouver, and we often get American teenagers crossing the border, especially in the summertime, because in Vancouver you can drink alcohol when you’re 19, but right across the border you can’t drink alcohol until you’re 21. It’s completely arbitrary. So we can’t say there’s a truly existing definition or demarcation of what it is to be adult.
But even though we might begin to understand this intellectually, that doesn’t mean we’ve internalized that knowledge. As we’ve said so many times, just because we have a view doesn’t mean it’s our Theory-in-Use. We might know that our hands are going to age and our skin is going to become less supple and radiant as we grow older. But as Rinpoche says, that has done nothing to dent the profits of the huge industry that sells us skin cream to help us in our futile attempt to preserve our youth and our beauty. And on that point, I would say for most of us, this idea of a truly existing self is not necessarily a consciously Espoused Theory. We never fully or formally established it. It’s just another assumption.
We use stories to explain our actions and our world [t = 0:36:09]
So I’d like to spend a little more time preparing for what we’re going to work on this week in terms of the verses of the root text. The verses are not actually that difficult as long as we have the right foundation. So I’m going to spend a little longer on the foundation, as I think it’s going to help us a lot when we get to the verses themselves. I want to talk a little more about view and stories. ‘Stories’ may not be the language that the text uses, but I think it might help us to understand things. In particular a large part of any view is based on a story or explanation of causality. How did things come to be? How do things work in the world? And if you think about a lot of myths or legends or religions, they’re based on origin stories. Where does the teacher or the God or the saviour come from? What is the origin of his teachings or commands? Why should we accept them and believe them and follow them? As we said, even in our ordinary world birth or origin stories serve as validation, as in ‘organic vegetables’. We’ve also seen that we have these explanations of causality, but they are arbitrary. Sometimes we explain arising in terms of self, sometimes from other, and they’re very much a partial description. So:
Self-arising: ‘I painted this picture’; ‘I was promoted because I worked hard’
Other-arising: ‘My boss gave me tough feedback’; ‘My bank pays me good interest’
We explain the way the world works with these stories. They’re very arbitrary. They’re not systematic. There’s not really any particular grand theory. They’re just ad hoc. And yes, we have stories that are backwards-looking, which we use to explain and make sense of what happened in the past. And we also rely on stories and views looking forwards, as we think about our purpose and things that we’re going to do to guide our actions. For example, we might say ‘I’m working hard. I want to be rich, because money makes you happy.’ You might believe that, and if you believe that story, it will guide your actions. Or you might say ‘I eat vegetables in order to be healthy’. You might even say ‘I practice the Dharma in order to obtain enlightenment for myself and all sentient beings’. So notice all of these stories have some kind of “because” or some kind of “in order to.” They’re offering an answer to a “why” question – why are you doing this? Why did you do that? Why are things the way they are in the world?
Stories are not necessarily bad, but the reality is that in a conventional world we explain things using stories. One thing that’s really important to understand, especially as we start to consider the ultimate truth, and whatever an ultimate story or explanation might be: all of our stories are partial or incomplete. So if I hold up this piece of paper and ask you “where does this piece of paper come from?” You might say it comes from an office supplies store. Or you might say it comes from a tree. Now, both of these are perhaps true, but these two stories are very different and would lead you in very different directions depending on which part of the story you focus on. If you follow the first, you might decide you want to become an entrepreneur who sells office supplies. That might be your way of being a bodhisattva and helping sentient beings. Perhaps if you prefer the second story, you might become an ecologist. Maybe you want to understand and fight tree diseases. But even these stories are incomplete.
Dependent arising [t = 0:39:59]
One of the things we’re going to end up concluding in this Chapter 6 is that the only way we can really explain causality is through interdependence or dependent arising. There’s a lovely ➜story to illustrate this from the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, also on the topic of ‘where does a piece of paper come from?’ Let me read it to you:
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. […] If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. So we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. […] And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
So hopefully now the problem is becoming a little bit clearer. We can’t tell even a simple story – like where does this piece of paper come from – we can’t tell it completely. It’s going to take us too long. We simply cannot include all the different causes, conditions and aspects of the story. It’s inevitable that we’ll have to simplify our stories. It’s what we do all the time. And we just have to hope that nothing important is going to be left out. If you think for example about the environmental movement, it turns out that we’ve now learned that a lot of things were left out when we were thinking about and designing our manufacturing and production processes. Economists call these things ‘externalities’ but it turns out that if you pollute, if you have toxic emissions, these come with real consequences. So now we realize we can’t leave them out of our story after all. So our story of what it takes to have sustainable production, what it takes to have a good economy, has become more inclusive but also more complicated.
Karma and personal accountability [t = 0:42:53]
Another interesting question to contemplate is: when you think about the stories you tell about your own life, what counts as a good explanation? What should you leave in and what should you leave out? I think notions of personal accountability are very important here. There’s a lovely example from Fred Kofman, who used to be professor of economics at the MIT Sloan School. He says if you’re holding an apple and you let it drop to the floor, you might ask – what caused it to fall? And yes of course we all know that what causes an apple to fall is gravity, like the famous story of the apple falling on Newton’s head. But actually if you think about it, there’s another cause here as well. The other cause is we were holding the apple, and then we let it go. Now consider: which of these two causes do we have any choice over? We don’t really have a choice when it comes to gravity, but we do have a choice about whether or not to let go of the apple. So in this way, Buddhism also focuses on karma and personal accountability. Really looking at the part of the story that we can do something about.
Our stories are like maps of the world. They encode knowledge. They allow us to navigate the world. And many or most animals survive on instinct, but we know that many animals – and we have an ever-growing number of examples – also build sophisticated models of the world. We know that chimpanzees recognize themselves in the mirror. Scrub jays will sneak back and re-hide their food if another bird was watching them hide it the first time – unless that watcher was their mate. We know that rats, when they’re doing experiments that include pushing levers to get food rewards, if they push the wrong lever and fail to get a reward they’ll gaze regretfully at the lever they should have pushed. Likewise for us, it’s useful to learn that lions are dangerous. It’s useful to know which mushrooms are edible and which ones are poisonous. And much of what we think of as experience and knowledge is about building good maps of the world. We want good stories of the relative truth, in the sense that our stories give accurate, comprehensive and relevant information about the world that we live in.
Distorted, inaccurate and incomplete stories [t = 0:45:16]
But then we also have problematic stories. It’s not as though all our stories are ‘good’, in the sense of helping us to make good choices and navigate our worlds. For example, there was a time when many cultures were very concerned about eclipses, especially solar eclipses, because they thought that demons or animals had consumed the sun. And different cultures have had all kinds of ceremonies, or songs and dances, or sometimes even sacrifices, and sometimes even human sacrifices to placate these demons and request them not to destroy the world. Now of course we have a better story, a better map. We know from science how eclipses work, which is good. We don’t sacrifice as many people in the name of preventing demons from eating the sun. But throughout human history we’ve had all kinds of dangerous and wrong views, where we have believed things that are dangerous either to ourselves or to others. For example, burning witches in the Middle Ages. It is estimated that between 50,000 to 200,000 women were tortured, burned and killed for no good reason except that some people thought they were witches. Or perhaps human sacrifice in the Aztec or Mayan cultures in Mesoamerica. Or in many countries people practiced trepanning, drilling a large hole in people’s heads supposedly to let out evil spirits. And the fact that so many people died once you drilled a hole in their head just served to show that the evil spirit had really done its damage. So we can see now with a little scientific hindsight that these stories weren’t very helpful.
At a more mundane level most of us also have many stories that are distorted, inaccurate or incomplete. They also lead us to see the world inaccurately, or to engage in behaviours that are inefficient or unhelpful and lead to bad outcomes or to suffering. And in particular, according to the Madhyamaka, the stories that are going to cause us the biggest problems are stories about the true existence or identity of the self of the person and the self of phenomena. So these are the stories that we would like to refute, by showing that they’re simply wrong. Because as long as we have incorrect stories of true existence in our maps of the world then – just as with stories of how human sacrifices will placate the sun-eating demons – our maps will be distorted and misleading, and they will lead us to suffering. As we said previously, ultimately we don’t want any stories, and relatively we’re going to follow the conventional stories of ordinary people.
And to answer concerns that we might be teaching nihilism, we’re not eliminating reality. We’re not destroying reality. What we’re doing is eliminating our stories that refer to any truly existing self or the person or self of phenomena, because those are the stories that make us suffer. Buddhism is never nihilistic. Rinpoche also said that we often think of the Madhyamakavatara as a teaching on ultimate truth, which in many ways it is, but it’s mostly about the various stories and theories of arising. It’s really about relative truth.
Irrational and rational stories [t = 0:48:12]
I’d like to return to the difference between irrational and rational stories. We’ve already touched on this in previous weeks, and we’ve seen that Rinpoche will often teach about how we journey from irrational to rational to beyond-rational. And there’s a lovely interview with the philosopher A.C. Grayling that touches on this, where he talks about rationality and belief:
Not only is there no good evidence for the existence of supernatural agency – gods and goddesses and demons and so on – but there is a very great deal of evidence suggesting that this universe is not the kind of place that has those sorts of things in it. Very often people say you can’t prove that there aren’t gods and goddesses. And I say you can, if you understand the nature of proof in the contingent case. Of course, in the formal case of mathematics and logic, proof is something completely coercive – the conclusion is entailed by the premises. But in the contingent case what we mean by proof is test. We prove a bar of steel by bending it until it snaps. That’s the test of it. This is where we get expressions like “the proof of the pudding”. Proof in the contingent, empirical sense about the world around us is a matter of testing it.
[This argument] is beautifully done by Carl Sagan with the dragon in the garage. Somebody says, I’ve got a dragon in my garage. You say, I’d love to see it. Ah, says the other person, it’s invisible. You say, let’s sprinkle some powder on the floor and see if we can see its footprints. Oh, it never lands on the floor. Well then we can hear its wings fluttering. It’s got silent wings. And so on and so on. Nothing whatever will count as a test, one way or another, for the claim that there’s a dragon in the garage. And that simple, straightforward but very deep observation applies to all claims to the effect that there are supernatural agencies or entities in this universe of ours. For that reason it’s not rational – ratio means proportion, so we’re proportioning evidence to judgements – to think that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, gods on Olympus or Poseidon under the sea.
Part of what we will be doing is using rationality in our logic and our arguments, but a complete rational explanation is impossible. And as we progress towards nonduality, as subject and object are transcended and begin to break down, then even rationality will break down.
Prasangika and Svatantrika [t = 0:51:03] [MAV PDF page 76]
Starting on page 76, there’s an extended section which I won’t go through in detail on the difference between the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka and the Prasangika-Madhyamaka. These are two schools that were both present in India, but they didn’t really have those names until the Tibetans later gave them those names. They both share the same ultimate view of the Middle Way of emptiness beyond all extremes. However they have differences when it comes to how they establish the view of ultimate truth and how they approach conventional truth. Essentially the followers of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka, which include Chandrakirti, would argue that we don’t need logic or positions of our own. We don’t want or need our own views. All we need to do is show that all other views collapse when they are investigated and analysed. But the followers of the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka wish to establish a theory in the relative truth, because they don’t just think it’s enough to deconstruct the opponent’s view. There’s a very good book I’d recommend to you if you want to understand more, which is called Moonshadows. It’s by a collective of contemporary Madhyamaka scholars who call themselves The Cowherds, and in Chapter 1, Guy Newland and Tom Tillemans talk about Chandrakirti’s Prasangika view and the reason it is challenged by his Svatantrika opponents:
One way to look at the Prasangika-Svatantrika debate within Indo-Tibetan Madhyamaka is in terms of allegiance to or rejection of the unschooled world’s opinions on conventional matters. Some Prasangikas, styling themselves as “Madhyamikas who accept [as conventionally true just] what the world acknowledges [to be true]” (‘jig rten grags sde dbu ma pa), seem to advocate a kind of extremely pure conventionalism in which a Buddhist should just read off the surface and acquiesce in the world’s opinions and epistemic practices as they are. The rationale they invoke is as follows: That all things are empty of intrinsic nature implies that there simply can be no more sophisticated or defendable truths than what the world offers us. If such deeper truths were possible—so the argument goes—they would have to be grounded in real facts, and real facts are precisely what Madhyamikas’ philosophy of emptiness must rule out.
Svatantrikas, like the eighth-century Indian thinker Kamalashila, strongly argue against this deliberate adoption of the world’s stance. Their argument is essentially that when truth loses normative force and collapses into simply what is widely accepted, criticism and growth of knowledge become impossible—a dismal consequence indeed and one that Svatantrikas rightly perceive to be unacceptable.
That’s a very powerful argument, and indeed there’s a lot of debate involving theories of knowledge and Buddhist epistemology which go into that in a lot of detail. We’re not going to do that here, but I encourage you to read that book if you’re interested in learning more.
Why is Chandrakirti writing and teaching if he has no view? [t = 0:53:44] [MAV PDF page 80]
Now let’s turn to page 80. We’ve established that we accept the view of emptiness that is beyond all extremes. Well, it might be better to say that we accept Nagarjuna’s four statements that phenomena don’t arise from self, other, both or neither. In fact, if we’re being precise, even this way of expressing the Madhyamaka view is incorrect. We should be more careful with our language, and say “no phenomena arise from self, other, both or neither” rather than “phenomena don’t arise from self, other, both or neither” These two statements might sound very similar, but as logical statements they’re very different. When we say, “phenomena don’t arise from self, other, both or neither”, that might be read as suggesting that we do accept there are phenomena, but that they don’t arise in the four ways outlined. Whereas if we say “no phenomena arise”, we’re not making any positive statements at all about whether or not there are such things as phenomena. It’s like the difference between the two statements “dragons don’t live in garages” and “no dragons live in garages”. I hope you can see the difference, as it’s fundamental to understanding the correct expression of the Madhyamaka view.
There’s a classic counterargument from our opponent, who challenges us: ‘you say you have no view. So why on earth are you teaching? Why are you writing these extensive texts? It sounds an awful lot like you have some kind of view’. And indeed, what about the Buddha’s teachings, like the Four Noble Truths? If you have no view, then obviously you can’t accept teachings like that either. So how can you even call yourself a follower of the Buddha?’ Here the Prasangikas have two answers. First, Chandrakirti says ‘I accept these teachings, but only as conventional teachings. I don’t accept them as ultimately true. I accept them only as a path, a means of communication, something illusory, something paradoxical, something untrue but nevertheless valid as a path that will lead you to the truth.’ And secondly he’ll say, ‘I’m doing it out of compassion. I want to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment, and I can’t do that unless I communicate with them in some way.’ Rinpoche quote His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who always recites this verse of homage before he teaches, even before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize:
To the lord Buddha,
Who taught us the view-less teaching,
In order to destroy all views,
Not getting attached to the view [t = 0:55:21]
As we’ve seen before. We have no view, and that is our view. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, our view is a view-less view. And yes, Chandrakirti accepts the Buddha’s teachings, but just like a raft. As we saw in Week 2, they are for crossing over and not for holding onto. The teachings themselves are not the ultimate truth. They are not the ultimate goal. They are like a finger pointing to the moon. The Buddha used the analogy that the Dharma is like medicine for treating a disease. If you look at the dictionary definition of health, it’s interesting as it also has the connotation of dreldré, the result of absence:
Health: the state of being free from illness or injury.
synonyms: well-being, healthiness, fitness, good condition
Just like the Dharma path, to become healthy we get rid of our illness. So for example, we might take antibiotics if we need to get rid of a certain kind of infection. But once we have got rid of the disease, you don’t want to keep taking antibiotics, just like you don’t want to take the boat with you once you have reached the other shore. Because if you keep taking antibiotics, as we know, over-prescription of antibiotics has led to a crisis in modern medicine where there are now all these super-bugs that are resistant to antibiotics. I’m reminded of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on ‘spiritual materialism’, which we mentioned in Week 2. Our ego is a very clever adaptive system that has evolved to its current robustness over the course of human evolutionary history. And just like bacteria evolve to ensure their survival when faced with antibiotics, we have to be careful that our ego doesn’t simply evolve by incorporating the Dharma to become part of our self-narrative, as in ‘I’m a student of this great teacher’ or ‘I’m a bodhisattva’ or ‘I practice exotic tantras from ancient Tibet’. These kinds of narratives all too easily become spiritual adornments that essentially allow us to continue our samsaric lives without any genuine transformation taking place.
So yes, we have the view of the Middle Way and the Buddhist path, but they’re purely conventional, purely a means to lead sentient beings to the other shore, and we shouldn’t become attached to these views. As Rinpoche says, our goal is to become buddhas rather than to become Buddhists. We shouldn’t reject the path, as Shantideva reminds us, because it is the means to accomplish our goal. But we also have to be careful not to lose sight of the goal when we’re immersed in our practice and our worldly life. And that is why we need the view.
View language and path language [t = 0:56:55]
Another thing that’s very important, and we touched on this in Week 2 already, is the difference between view language and path language. In terms of view language we say we have no views, and indeed there’s ultimately nowhere to go. But in terms of path language, we’re not at our destination yet, so we need the right view. While we’re on the path, we talk about right view and wrong view, we talk about right direction and wrong direction. Because although ultimately we want to get beyond all views, and we want to get to action that’s not limited or driven by dualistic narratives, we’re not there yet. So in the mean time we need relative views, especially a view of the right path.
However path language is very different from the view language that we’re studying here. View language is very precise. We talk about logic and refutation. We establish the lack of true existence of the self and of phenomena. By contrast, path language can be incredibly varied. There are many classic stories that illustrate the diverse ways that great masters work skilfully with their students, teaching through words and actions that are perfectly suited to their students’ needs and temperaments, and even to the particular time and place. For example, the great mahasiddha Tilopa awakened his student Naropa to the ultimate nature by hitting him on the head with his sandal. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche tells the story in Meditation in Action:
At that very moment the teachings of mahamudra, which means “the great symbol”, came like a flash into Naropa’s mind and he attained realization.
Another classic story is the way that Patrul Rinpoche introduced the nature of mind to his student Nyoshul Lungtok, which is beautifully told by Sogyal Rinpoche in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
It happened when they were staying together in one of the hermitages high up in the mountains above Dzogchen Monastery. It was a very beautiful night. The dark blue sky was clear and the stars shone brilliantly. The sound of their solitude was heightened by the distant barking of a dog from the monastery below.
Patrul Rinpoche was lying stretched out on the ground, doing a special Dzogchen practice. He called Nyoshul Lungtok over to him, saying: “Did you say you do not know the essence of the mind?” Nyoshul Lungtok guessed from his tone that this was a special moment and nodded expectantly. “There’s nothing to it really,” Patrul Rinpoche said casually, and added, “My son, come and lie down over here: be like your old father.” Nyoshul Lungtok stretched out by his side.
Then Patrul Rinpoche asked him, “Do you see the stars up there in the sky?”
“Do you hear the dogs barking in Dzogchen Monastery?”
“Do you hear what I’m saying to you?”
“Well, the nature of Dzogchen is this: simply this.”
Nyoshul Lungtok tells us what happened then: “At that instant, I arrived at a certainty of realization from within. I had been liberated from the fetters of ‘it is’ and ‘it is not.’ I had realized the primordial wisdom, the naked union of emptiness and intrinsic awareness. I was introduced to this realization by his blessing, as the great Indian master Saraha said:
He in whose heart the words of the master have entered,
Sees the truth like a treasure in his own palm.
At that moment everything fell into place; the fruit of all Nyoshul Lungtok’s years of learning, purification, and practice was born. He attained the realization of the nature of mind.
Just that invitation to look and to listen – that moment – completely shifted Nyoshul Lungtok’s worldview. Slapping someone with a sandal, or inviting someone to look at the stars and listen to barking dogs – these methods of the path seem to have very little in common with the dry logic of establishing the view. But as we may already be starting to see, and as we shall increasingly see in the weeks ahead, view and path are a perfect and necessary complement to each other.
Sudden and gradual teachings [t = 0:58:20]
Rinpoche gives the example of how a view is like a pair of coloured sunglasses. If we put on a pair of orange sunglasses, the world looks orange. We know that’s not ‘real’, and we also know that to see the ‘true’ colours we can simply take off our sunglasses. In this case, once again, the truth is a result of elimination. And in some cases, seeing the truth can be as instantaneous as taking off a pair of sunglasses. But more typically we have a gradual path, as we saw in Week 2, and our gradual accumulation of practice will lead to sudden results. Let me give an example. Perhaps your son is unhappy, as he’s not enjoying his new school. And he says ‘everyone hates me. I don’t like my school.’ And so might say to him ‘that’s not true. They don’t really hate you.’ And maybe just that is enough and your son will calm down and say ‘I suppose that’s true’. More likely though, he may not be satisfied with that, and so you’ll probably have to engage in a longer conversation. You might say ‘didn’t you say you like your friend Adam? Doesn’t he spend time with you and help you with your homework?’ And he might grudgingly admit ‘I guess so’. Then you might say ‘and what about your friend Stephen? I know you like to go and kick a football around together.’ And so slowly but surely you teach your son with a gradual path and you help him to get rid of his wrong view, in this case his view that everyone hates him – a wrong view that is causing him suffering. You help him to get closer to the truth. But it may be that even after you have given him all these different examples of how he has friends at school, maybe nothing works.
So what counts as a good path teaching, as opposed to a view teaching, is really determined by what we can hear and absorb at any given time. This is why it is said that the Buddha taught 84,000 different teachings. In Week 2 we saw how Chandrakirti set out (in verses 6:4 to 6:7) the kinds of students to whom the Middle Way should be taught, and we learned that the ideal audience for the Madhyamaka is students whose eyes well up with tears and whose hairs on their skin stand up on edge when they hear these teachings. But other teachings might be more suitable for students who aren’t ready to hear the Madhyamaka, and Chandrakirti recommends very different approaches for different kinds of audiences. Similarly, Rinpoche gives a lovely example of how three different kinds of student can hear the same teaching very differently:
• There’s one kind of student where you’ll give them a teaching, they’ll hear it once, and immediately they’ll act on it.
• There’s a second kind of student. You’ll give them the teaching but they won’t do anything. And you’ll repeat the teaching over and over, perhaps over many years. And then eventually at some point they’ll finally hear you, and they’ll take action.
• Then there’s a third kind of student. You can teach them again and again until you’re blue in the face, and nothing is going to shift. They’re never going to get it until they have some sort of life experience, some sort of crisis or catalytic event that wakes them up. And then maybe at that point they can hear it.
So the encouragement for us is: how do we engage in our practice and listen to our teachers so that we become that first kind of student?
How our understanding and realization matures [t = 1:01:57]
I was reading a lovely ➜NPR interview from 2014 with the American hip-hop artist and producer J. Cole, which offers some great perspective on the sufferings of samsara, wrong views, freedom and liberation – as seen through the eyes of one of hip-hop’s superstars. It’s not a Buddhist interview per se, but it’s very Buddhist in its outlook. In particular there’s a lovely section that sounds just like Rinpoche’s story about the three kinds of student. The interviewer Frannie Kelley asks J. Cole about how he thinks his music and his message can influence people:
[Kelley]: You were talking about evolving and sort of figuring it out. Do you think that you can tell people that and they’ll just believe you and, like, change what they’re doing? Or do you think that everybody has to figure it out on their own?
[Cole]: You leave breadcrumbs for kids, or for whoever at whatever point in their life. So I could explain it somebody right now. […] Let’s say three people.
• One, I can tell them my story and what I understood about life. And one person might hear that and be like, “Oh my god. That hits me perfectly right now at this point in my life. That’s what I needed, because I’m going through this and I wasn’t sure. And this gives me perfect clarity. Ah, I was putting importance on the wrong things.” And that person gets it.
• The second person might hear it, like it — not totally understand, but like it — and it still doesn’t change their life. Not right then. But you give them a year, two years, five years, ten years? They’ll come back and hear that differently. With new life experiences, they’ll come back and be like, “Oh my god. That’s what he meant.” And then it’ll change them then, later. It’ll help them change then.
• Then you have […] the third person, who might never get it. They might not ever get the life experience […] for that talk to ever get through to them. You know what I’m saying?
I realized that listening back to Pac who I always loved. But the more I live my life, the more I understand more what he was saying. Every year I go back to Pac and — I mean, I’m on him more every year — but every new year of my life I have a new level of understanding.
So here J. Cole is talking about the rapper 2Pac, but it could just as easily be us describing our relationship to our understanding and our realization of the Madhyamaka and the Buddha’s teachings.
Nothing Exists [t = 1:04:35]
I’d like to offer one more example to illustrate the difference between view and path language, a Zen story called Nothing Exists (in Paul Reps’ collection Zen Flesh, Zen Bones):
Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.
Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”
Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”
I love this story, and I’d like to offer it as an invitation to make sure we actually practice the Dharma, and don’t just get caught up in how well we might think we can understand and talk about the view intellectually.
What is the view that we wish to establish? [t = 1:05:49] [MAV PDF page 82]
Turning to page 82: what is to be established?
• In the ultimate truth: that all phenomena are free from extremes, and in this case ‘extremes’ include the extremes of existence, non-existence, both and neither.
• In the relative truth: that all appearances are like illusion.
And for both we need to negate clinging to all appearances as truly existent. And notice here about how view and path mutually reinforce.
On page 83, we’re talking about refuting wrong views on the part of others. How are we going to establish this view that phenomena are ultimately free of extremes, and appearances are like illusion? Well, the path is going to purify delusory appearances, so delusions like anger are refuted by love and compassion, things like that.
But here we’re going to refute these wrong stories or views by the Buddha’s words and logic. And we’re not going to use the word ‘defilements’, as Rinpoche said, because that’s path language. So here you’ll notice that the text uses very precise, almost surgical language. View language. We say what we’re going to do here is we’re going to refute the labelling created by imputation and innate ignorance. Imputed ignorance refers to concepts and conceptual ignorance, which includes explicit and implicit views and beliefs. Whereas we also have labelling created by innate ignorance, which is the unconscious and pre-conceptual dualism of ‘self’ and ‘other’, where implicit notions abide.
The Sanskrit word for innate ignorance is sahaja, which is also translated as co-emergent ignorance. This is defined as the ignorance which is co-emergent with our innate nature and remains present as the potential for confusion to arise when meeting with the right conditions. Whereas imputed ignorance is parikalpita, which refers to concepts or stories that are invented, or contrived, or settled.
There’s a nice definition of these two kinds of ignorance in Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s book Vajra Speech, where he says (page 82):
There are two types of ignorance: co-emergent and conceptual ignorance. In the moment after seeing our essence, it almost immediately slips away. We get distracted and we start to think of something. Co-emergent ignorance is simply to forget. Conceptual ignorance comes in the moment after forgetting, forming thought after thought. As one thought follows after another, a long train of thoughts can develop. Forgetting and thinking – that is the twofold ignorance, co-emergent ignorance and conceptual ignorance. If these two were purified, we would be buddhas. But as long as the co-emergent and conceptual aspects of ignorance are not purified, we are sentient beings.
The reasoning by which we will refute our opponents [t = 1:08:59] [MAV PDF page 85]
How then are we going to do this refutation? In the Prasangika we use the four methods of: pointing out contradictions, using the inferential logic of our opponents, reductio ad absurdum, and circularity. So basically, we don’t use any of our own arguments or our own statements, we just show that our opponents’ views fall apart when analyzed.
Ultimate truth is independent and unfabricated [t = 1:09:27]
As we are now going to get into a debate with our first opponent, we need to talk a little about what do we mean by true existence. This is where a lot of the confusion originates. As we saw earlier, a lot of the time we’ll talk about things in the relative world, we’ll say things are there, we’ll say ‘yes, I’m here, you’re over there’. We’ll talk about phenomena in the world as if they’re real, as if they’re true, but we’re not doing it analytically. This isn’t a philosophical position. Because, for a phenomenon to be truly existing, you’d need to be able to define and demarcate its boundaries, as we saw earlier with the example of the embryo and the baby.
Conventionally we’d say an embryo and a baby are two different things. So if we had such a thing as a truly existing human, or a truly existing baby, we’d need to be able to draw some kind of boundary around it. In other words, it must be unchanging. We can’t have these boundaries shifting all the time, otherwise it’s not a fixed, identifiable, ultimate thing. And once we know it’s unchanging, or that it has to be unchanging, it must also be independent. Because as we also know, as soon as something is dependent on other causes and conditions, it will be changeable, it will be impermanent.
So we’ll often use the words ‘independent’ and ‘unchanging’ to talk about the absolute or the ultimate truth. I find it helpful to think about ultimate truth as being almost like the old atomic model of matter, where an atom was imagined to be something like a billiard ball or a marble. Physics and chemistry were based on theories like this for over 2,500 years – from ancient India and ancient Greece right up to the end of the 19th century. Here the idea is that matter is made up of particles that are much like solid billiard balls or marbles – they are independent and unchanging, with hard edges and clearly identifiable boundaries. We know from everyday experience that objects in the world can be broken down into parts, and then into smaller parts, and eventually into dust. So it feels intuitively right that this process would end with some tiny particles that are the ultimate constituents of matter – truly existing or ultimately existing particles like infinitesimally small marbles. So it’s hardly surprising that atomic theories were widespread in the ancient world, especially around the time of ‘Greek Buddhism’, and we shall discover that a couple of our Buddhist opponents have views that are very much like that.
Having a trustworthy foundation for our path [t = 1:11:19]
Going back to the dictionary, we sometimes use ‘absolute truth’ and sometimes ‘ultimate truth’, and it’s worth reflecting on their meaning (there is detailed information in the Glossary).
Ultimate: being or happening at the end of a process; final (“Their ultimate aim was to force his resignation”)
synonyms: eventual, final, concluding, terminal, end
So although we use the word ‘ultimate truth’, I think ‘absolute truth’ is perhaps closer to the meaning of independent and unfabricated:
Absolute: viewed or existing independently and not in relation to other things; not relative or comparative. (“Absolute moral standards”)
synonyms: universal, fixed, independent, nonrelative, nonvariable, absolutist
And as you know, for our path, we obviously want to base our path on something we can trust. For any path there’s needs to be a foundation, something that we can take refuge in. And if this source of refuge is changeable, it means we can’t trust it. If today, our path tells us to take the left-hand path and tomorrow it tells us to take the right-hand path instead, it’s not reliable. It’s not consistent. We can’t follow a path that’s changeable.
So if you think of the navigators of old, they would use the Pole Star in the sky, Polaris, because it’s a fixed star. So similarly, what are we going to use to guide our ethics, to guide our practice? What is the foundation? And if it’s variable or changeable, we can’t trust it or rely on it. For example, for someone who is trying to lose weight, a couple of decades ago all the guidance was that fat is bad, so people gave up fat. But now we know it’s not fat that’s bad, it’s carbs that are bad. So now the focus is on low-carb diets. The view changed, so the recommended practice changed. And in this example, the obesity epidemic that is now turning into one of the leading global health challenges is based in no small part because for several decades we didn’t understand what actually causes people to become overweight.
Another important thing to bear in mind is the implications of true existence – or ultimate truth – for our practice and our everyday life. Religions will typically say, “We need to pay homage and pray to the ultimate cause” – which is usually some kind of God – because the object of refuge is the object of prayer. Because if God created the universe, and God is responsible for all things, then it’s rational and it makes sense to pray to God, because He’s the source. He’s the only one who can actually change your circumstances. So if you believe that God is the truly existing source, that all things arise from God, then your rational path would be to pray to God. So, it does actually matter that we have the right understanding about what – if anything – truly exists, because that determines the path that we should follow.
The use of reasoning to refute the four extreme theories of genesis [t = 1:14:02] [MAV PDF page 89]
So we turn now to the verses, as all the preliminaries are now complete. We start with the first two lines of Chapter 6 verse 8 (on page 89). This contains Nagarjuna’s famous four statements that set out the view of the Middle Way:
[6:8ab] Not created by itself, How can it be created by another?
Not created by both, What exists without a cause?
At this point in the commentary Rinpoche termed these four statements as ‘affirmations’, although I’d suggest that perhaps he misspoke here, because they’re not actually affirmations but rather negations. As we saw above, there’s a difference between the two statements “dragons don’t live in garages” and “no dragons live in garages”. We’ll come back to this but if you’re interested in understanding the philosophical logic, I strongly recommend an article in the background reading. There’s an article “Negation” by Laurence Horn and Heinrich Wansing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which makes the point that just because you’re negating something, that does not mean you are affirming its opposite.
So what we’re going to do next is negate the four different possible forms of arising: from self, other, both, and neither. Traditionally, at the time of Chandrakirti, these four positions were related to four schools of classical Indian philosophy:
• Samkhya: Arising from self is the Samkhya. It’s a Hindu school, strongly dualistic, where on the one side there’s consciousness, on the other side there’s mind and matter. Both truly exist.
• Chittamatra (Yogachara): Arising from others is the lower Buddhist schools and also the Chittamatra. They have theories of truly existing matter or consciousness.
• Jainism: Arising from both self and others is Jainism, which has arising from both the self or soul, and from matter. And interestingly both the soul (jiva) and matter (pudgala) are considered active ontological substances, which in their theory corresponds to true existence, while the other three of the five substances in their theory are inactive. It’s an unusual theory, where there is indeed arising from both self and other.
• Charvaka: Arising from neither self nor others is the Charvaka, a now extinct school of non-Hindu atheist materialists in ancient India.
There’s a brief introduction to the Samkhya here in the commentary (on pages 89-90), and the background reading has a lot more detail in the article “Sankhya” by Ferenc Ruzsa. If you really want to understand the Samkhya philosophy and view, I’d encourage you to read that.
Introduction to the Samkhya view [additional material not in audio recording]
I’d like to include the introduction from Ruzsa’s article, as it sets out the Samkhya view very well:
Sankhya (often spelled Samkhya) is one of the major “orthodox” (or Hindu) Indian philosophies. Two millennia ago it was the representative Hindu philosophy. Its classical formulation is found in Ishvarakrishna’s ➜Sankhya-Karika (ca. 350 C.E.), a condensed account in seventy-two verses. It is a strong Indian example of metaphysical dualism, but unlike many Western counterparts it is atheistic.
The two types of entities of Sankhya are Prakriti and purushas, namely Nature and persons. Nature is singular, and persons are numerous. Both are eternal and independent of each other. Persons (purushas) are essentially unchangeable, inactive, conscious entities, who nonetheless gain something from contact with Nature. Creation as we know it comes about by a conjunction of Nature and persons. Prakriti, or Nature, is comprised of three gunas or qualities. The highest of the three is sattva (essence), the principle of light, goodness and intelligence. Rajas (dust) is the principle of change, energy and passion, while tamas (darkness) appears as inactivity, dullness, heaviness and despair.
Nature, though unconscious, is purposeful and is said to function for the purpose of the individual purushas. Aside from comprising the physical universe, it comprises the gross body and “sign-body” [Sanskrit: Liṅga Śarīra, also known as ➜”subtle body”] of a purusha. The latter contains among other things the epistemological apparati of embodied beings (such as the mind, intellect, and senses). The sign body of a purusha transmigrates: after the death of the gross body, the sign-body is reborn into another gross body according to past merit, and the purusha continues to be a witness through its various bodies. An escape from this endless circle is possible only through the realization of the fundamental difference between Nature and persons, whereby an individual purusha loses interest in Nature and is thereby liberated forever from all bodies, subtle and gross.
Much of the Sankhya system became widely accepted in India: especially the theory of the three gunas; and it was incorporated into much latter Indian philosophy, especially Vedanta.
Dualism [t = 1:16:27]
In many western philosophical traditions, philosophers have typically equated mind with consciousness and seen mind/consciousness as separate from matter. In the 4th century BCE, Plato held that the soul was not dependent on the physical body, and he believed in ➜metempsychosis, the migration of the soul to a new physical body. As Wikipedia notes, perhaps the most famous articulation of ➜mind-body dualism in the western tradition is Cartesian dualism:
Dualism is closely associated with the thought of René Descartes (1641), which holds that the mind is a nonphysical—and therefore, non-spatial—substance. Descartes clearly identified the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and distinguished this from the brain as the seat of intelligence. Hence, he was the first to formulate the mind–body problem in the form in which it exists today.
Until the development of computers and the rise of cognitive science in the second half of the 20th century, there were few attempts to explain mind in physical terms, and thus most dualistic theories were mind-body rather than consciousness-body. The Samkhya viewpoint is a little different, as they draw the dualistic line not between mind and matter but between consciousness and matter, where ‘matter’ for them includes ‘mind’.
We might perhaps understand this with the example of memory. Memory is part of mind, and we can be conscious of a memory, but that doesn’t mean that memory itself is conscious. In the language of contemporary neuroscience, we might say that our memories are physically stored in the neuronal material of the brain, much like data is stored on a computer’s hard drive. And using Samkhya language, we can then say that matter (brain) includes mind (memory), and so our opponents can argue that the Samkhya explanation makes sense. We can verify in our experience that we are subjects who are conscious of memories, and these memories – which we now understand to be physical – are therefore objects of our subjective consciousness or self-awareness.
The Samkhya way of explaining this subject-object relationship is in terms of purusha and prakriti, which are two irreducible, innate, independent realities. Prakriti is matter: body and mind. There is a single prakriti, which is the material substrate underlying all experience. Purusha is consciousness, and there can be multiple purushas in the world, corresponding to multiple sentient beings. Prakriti is unintelligent, unmanifest, uncaused, and yet ever active. Whereas purusha is the conscious principle, but it doesn’t interact with the prakriti. As you can see, their philosophy is a very strong dualism. Because the purusha cannot interact with prakriti, it cannot affect it, so it is termed a passive ‘enjoyer’ (bhokta), whereas the prakriti is what is ‘enjoyed’ (bhogya). So it’s interesting that in terms of arising, the consciousness (purusha) is not regarded as the source of anything in the inanimate world.
Consciousness and matter [t = 1:17:40]
I find this view quite interesting. I know it might seem to be ‘just’ ancient Hinduism, but in the contemporary philosophy of consciousness, we still have the question of how does the material, physical mind and brain give rise to consciousness? There still are a lot of people nowadays, including many Buddhists, who take an anti-materialist dualistic stance and argue that surely matter cannot give rise to consciousness, which is something the Samkhya would agree with.
If we agree with these contemporary philosophers who don’t accept that consciousness can emerge from matter, and who argue that we need something separate – in other words, a separate non-physical consciousness – we also have to face the challenge of explaining how things work in the world. If we say that matter doesn’t cause consciousness, what then would we say about causation in the opposite direction – can consciousness affect matter? If we hold that matter and consciousness are truly separate, how can consciousness influence the material world, if the material world cannot give rise to – and therefore presumably cannot influence – consciousness? If you’re interested in exploring this further, I strongly invite you to look at the pre-reading for Week 5 and contemplate how you might answer the central question: How might we understand the relationship between subjective consciousness and the material world?
This question is also at the heart of Buddhist explanations of karma and rebirth, which we’ll be coming back to. And of course the dualistic relationship of consciousness and the phenomenal world is also at the heart of the view of the Buddhist Chittamatra or “Mind-Only” school, and we’ll be meeting these formidable opponents in Week 4.
Living with the Samkhya view [t = 1:18:48]
And so, in the Samkhya model of causality, the causes are all already in the prakriti. For example when a potter who makes a clay pot, they would argue the pot is already in the clay. This must be the case, because since there is no way for the conscious individual (purusha) to influence the material world (prakriti), then the causes of all phenomena in prakriti must already be in prakriti. This is why Chandrakirti classifies the Samkhya as an example of self-arising. The Samkhya analysis of causation is called sat-karya-vada, literally the “existent effect theory”. In summarizing the Samkhya view, Rinpoche says that all you really need to know is that in their view the cause already contains the result.
And as we have seen from Ruzsa’s introduction in the background reading, because we know that purusha and prakriti are independent of one another, the Samkhya believe that escape from the endless circle of samsara is only possible through realizing the fundamental difference between Nature (prakriti) and person (purusha). When this difference is realized, an individual purusha loses interest in the prakriti, and is thereby liberated. I find this fascinating, because if you think about why the ancient Hindu schools renounced samsara, and why they practiced transcendental meditation – and the practice of TM is still very much alive today, after becoming famous when the Beatles met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh in 1968 – it’s because their philosophy and their practice is really about abandoning and transcending the samsaric world. And if you hold the Samkhya view, that makes sense. Because if you can’t influence the world, if your consciousness is just an observer, then it makes no sense to stay engaged and caught up in the world of samsara that is completely beyond your control. You might as well seek to expand your consciousness with mind-altering drugs and chant “Jai Guru Deva”.
Similarly in Christianity, if God who created the world is all-powerful, the only path that makes sense is to submit to Him and His will, to pray to Him and so on and so forth. Likewise, if we believe money is the root of happiness, we’ll devote our lives to making money. And if we believe money is the root of all evil, then we’ll become renunciate monks. As we have discussed in previous weeks, our view matters – because it is the foundation for our path.
Now you might think this Samkhya view seems a little outrageous, but as Rinpoche said, it’s very important, because a lot of us might think we’re more sophisticated than this, but actually our understanding of Buddhanature might well be a lot like this. A lot of us might think, especially if we have studied the Uttaratantra teachings on Buddhanature, that we already have the Buddhanature within us, and all we’re doing on our path is removing the defilements that are covering this Buddhanature and blocking its full manifestation. This sounds an awful lot like saying the result is already present even now, even though we can’t perceive it at the moment. And a lot of the Third Turning teachings use language like that. Even our preferred term for enlightenment as a ‘result of elimination’ (dreldré) – which even the Madhyamaka accepts – sounds an awful lot like unwrapping a birthday present, where the birthday present is already there underneath the wrapping. If we don’t understand this properly, we could very easily get confused about Buddhanature and enlightenment, and our view could easily become indistinguishable from the Samkhya view.
Separately if there are any interested philosophical scientists out there who don’t much like the theory of self-arising, then what about radioactive decay? There’s seemingly no external cause, but from nothing, randomly, a radioactive nuclide emits radiation – alpha particles, beta particles, neutrinos and so on. How do we explain this? We know Einstein famously said, “God does not play with dice”. So how can you explain that kind of self-arising?
Untenable consequences of truly existing self-arising [t = 1:22:13] [MAV PDF pages 91-103
The verses where Chandrakirti points out the untenable consequences of belief in truly existing self-arising are almost absurdly simple. They seem so child-like that it’s almost hard to believe that any philosophical school could hold the view that he’s refuting in these verses. Perhaps it’s easiest to understand if you just remind yourself that if we say prakriti is truly existent, which the Samkhya do, then they can’t be referring to the whole of prakriti, because we know that prakriti changes. And we know that if something truly exists it must be unchanging, as that’s part of the definition of true existence.
So you might conclude the Samkhya must presumably be referring to individual phenomena within prakriti. In which case, as we saw previously, these must be like billiard balls if they are to be truly existent. So when we talk about the pot coming from clay, we can’t talk about a half pot, because a truly existing pot doesn’t emerge gradually. If it changes then then it wouldn’t be truly existing. It would be emerging. It would be a process like the embryo to the baby to the adult. Things are similar with the seed and the sprout where, according to the Samkhya, the sprout doesn’t develop because it is already there in the seed. But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves and making things too complicated in trying to make sense of their view.
The problem with the Samkhya position is more basic. The Samkhya insist both: (1) that the prakriti truly exists as a singular phenomena, and (2) that the effect already exists in the cause (sat-karya-vada). In other words, the Samkhya are saying both (1) the cause and result are both part of prakriti, and so both truly exist (in other words both are unchanging), and (2) the result already exists in (i.e. at the same time as) the cause. This explanation of causation makes no sense, as Chandrakirti doesn’t hesitate to point out.
Now we come to the verses. I won’t read them all, but for example Chandrakirti says in verse 8:
[6:8cd] There is no purpose in something already arisen arising again.
What is already arisen cannot arise again.
And verse 9:
[6:9ab] If you truly believe something already created could recreate,
Production such as germination could not occur in ordinary experience.
As this verse points out, if we believe in self-arising, then the cause would just keep recreating the cause. You’d just have seed after seed after seed, and you’d never get a sprout because a sprout is different from the seed, and a seed giving rise to a sprout cannot be considered self-arising. And so on up to verse 13. I think all these verses are actually fairly straightforward.
[6:9cd] Or a seed would continue to recreate until the end of existence –
What [sprout] would ever cause it to cease?
[6:10] A sprout different from its instigating seed – with a distinct form,
Colour, flavour, potency and ripening – could then not exist.
If the self-substance of the previous vanishes,
As it assumes another nature, what remains of its suchness?
[6:11] If in ordinary experience seed is not different from sprout,
You could have perception of neither seed nor sprout.
And, if they were the same, when seeing the sprout,
You should also see the seed. Thus, your thesis is unacceptable.
[6:12] Because a result is seen upon disappearance of the cause,
To say they are the same is not accepted even in ordinary experience.
So-called creation from a self, when properly investigated
Is impossible, in suchness as well as ordinary experience.
[6:13] If creation arises from a self, it follows that the created, the creator,
The act and the agent all are the same.
As these are not one, this ascertation is impossible,
As there will follow the shortcomings already extensively explained.
So we conclude that, well, yes there may well be arising in the Samkhya theory, but we cannot hold to the idea that it’s true arising. There’s no truly existing self-arising. It doesn’t make sense. It falls apart as a theory of causality. Which then means we say okay, we reject the Samkhya theory of truly existing self arising, and see that it’s just more speculation, another wrong view. It’s not something we can take refuge in as an explanation of ultimate truth. In the background article on the Samkhya philosophy, the author Ferenc Ruzsa writes:
The Sankhya analysis of causation is called sat-karya-vada, or literally the “existent effect theory,” which opposes the view taken by the Nyaya philosophy […] In the commentaries it is normally explained as the view that the effect already exists in its cause prior to its production. Understood literally, this is not tenable—if the cause existed, why was it not perceived prior to the point called its production?
Like Chandrakirti, a contemporary commentator cannot find a way to make sense of the Samkhya view in the Samkhya’s own terms. And the Nyaya, which was another Hindu school that was flourishing at the same time as the Samkhya, basically held the opposite view of causation from the Samkhya. The Nyaya said an effect does not pre-exist in its cause. The cause has to come before the effect. And as we’ve just seen from Chandrakirti’s brief refutation of the Samkhya, that makes a lot of sense, because if the cause and the effect are (1) both truly existing and (2) both present at the same time, then the whole logic of causation breaks down.
In any case, as Rinpoche said, the self-born is not really a big problem for most of us. We mostly don’t believe in that. It’s really more something found in the ancient Vedic religions. For most of us nowadays, like the Nyaya in ancient India, we intuitively explain causation in terms of the cause preceding the effect and also the cause being different from the effect. Seed comes before sprout, and seed is different from sprout. Here we would refer to this as ‘other-arising’.
Other-arising [t = 1:25:19] [MAV PDF pages 103-104]
So this takes us to the Buddhist schools that accept other-arising, from the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika schools all the way up to the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka’s explanation of other-arising in the relative truth. Let’s start with the dictionary definition of ‘other’:
Other: Used to refer to a person or thing that is different or distinct from one already mentioned or known about.
We’ll see that in the Madhyamaka, one of the aspects of the definition of ‘other’ is that cause and effect must be present at the same time. Now why would that be? Because if they’re not both present at the same time, there can be no interaction. Back to the billiard balls colliding. You might have a billiard ball yesterday and a billiard ball today, but unless they’re there at the same time, the same day, you cannot say that they collide. There’s no way you can make yesterday’s billiard ball hit today’s billiard ball unless they’re there at the same time. The whole idea of a ‘collision’ means an event where cause and effect make contact at a point in time.
The problem of how to explain the mechanism of causality is central to all these theories of other-arising in the Buddhist schools. In particular, the problem is how to explain causation over time, in other words when the cause (such as working hard for your exams) gives rise to a result (getting into university) at a later time. Because if you believe in other-arising, as we’ve just seen, you need both cause and result to be present at the same time. And if that’s not the case, then you need some kind of ‘connection’ to explain how cause and result are connected over time. So a lot of the Buddhist schools talk about how we might understand such a connection.
The verses themselves are not actually too difficult, because once you accept that cause and result are truly ‘other’ – in other words, that they’re separate and distinct like two billiard balls or two marbles – then the logic is easy to follow. Verse 14:
[6:14ab] Were something to be created based on something other than itself,
You could have deep darkness arising from a flame.
Chandrakirti’s point here is why would a flame necessarily give us illumination rather than darkness? Why couldn’t darkness come from a flame? They are equally ‘other’. Now to our everyday conventional intuitions, this makes no sense. We know from our experience that a flame gives us light rather than darkness. It’s obvious. So we have to slow down a little and remember that we’re establishing the view, so we need to be careful and logical with our language. We can’t simply jump to the intuitively obvious answer. And here the key word to pay attention to is ‘other’. As we’ve seen, ‘other’ means different or distinct, like apples and oranges. So other-arising means that the cause and the result are different, which is what our everyday intuition accepts. We accept that a seed (small, hard, brown, oval-shaped) gives rise to a shoot (tall, soft, green, combination of stem and leaves) that is different from the seed. Likewise, we accept that the cause (flame) gives rise to a result (light) that is different from the cause.
However, there is nothing in the definition of other-arising that says cause and effect have to be similar in any way at all – only that they’re different from each other. So Chandrakirti points out that just as ‘light’ is different than ‘flame’, it’s also true that ‘darkness’ is different than ‘flame’. So why can’t we have darkness arising from a flame? He continues:
[6:14cd] Anything could arise from anything,
As anything [that is] not the creating agent would be equally other.
Disposing of the idea that cause and effect are part of a continuum [t = 1:27:26] [MAV PDF pages 105-107]
Our opponent says yes, he agrees that cause and effect are certainly ‘other’, but Chandrakirti’s objection doesn’t apply because cause and effect are part of a continuum. We know full well that rice seeds only grow into rice plants, not barley plants. Verse 15:
[6:15] Perfectly capable of being created [by other], it is certainly called the effect,
Capable of creating, although other, it is indeed the cause.
Contained within the same continuum and created by its creator,
It is not as if rice could sprout from barley.
Chandrakirti is unimpressed with this argument. He points out that the opponent has actually proved nothing, since he has produced a circular argument to support his position. Our opponent is saying the reason that cause and result are linked is because they’re part of the same continuum – but that’s the same as saying “they’re linked because they’re linked”, which isn’t offering any kind of logical reasoning at all. So in verse 16, Chandrakirti rejects the objection, and indeed he rejects the whole idea of a “continuum”:
[6:16] Barley, lotus, the kimshuka flower, and so forth,
Are neither regarded as creators of the rice sprout, nor as having that potential,
Nor being of the same continuum, nor as being similar –
In that same [fourfold] manner, a rice seed too is other.
Structural outlines and commentaries [t = 1:27:54] [MAV PDF page 106]
On page 106, Rinpoche drew our attention to the ‘structural outline’ (sabché) that is part of the commentary. For contemporary readers, we’re familiar with the idea of a outline since we’re used to seeing a book organized into chapters, headings and sub-headings. Likewise, if we’re writing a document using word processing software, we’re familiar with the idea of different levels of heading that are indented on the page. The structural outlines in Buddhist texts are organized along similar lines for similar purposes, namely to help the reader make sense of how the content is structured and arranged, thus enabling the reader to follow the flow of the text. For those following along with the text of Rinpoche’s commentary, you’ll notice that in the back of the book (pages 431-442) there are several pages showing the detail of structural outline, which structures the text into a sort of tree structure. For example, we’re have just finished Chapter 6 verse 16, which can be found in tree #8 on page 438:
Structural outlines were not part of Chandrakirti’s original text, but were added later by the commentators. In the original Sanskrit, the Madhyamakavatara does not contain any headings or sub-headings, so each commentator proposed a logical organization of the text according to his own commentary. Indeed, this is one of the reasons there are so many commentaries, because there’s no single reading of the text suggested in the original. And even though Chandrakirti wrote an auto-commentary – in other words his own commentary on his text – in the 7th century, subsequent commentators also wanted to take account of arguments that emerged in the centuries following Chandrakirti, so their commentaries and structural outlines do not follow Chandrakirti’s.
In Rinpoche’s commentary on the Madhyamakavatara, the structural outline is from the commentary by Gorampa, a 15th century Sakya scholar. As Rinpoche says, Mipham’s outline is quite similar to Gorampa’s, so for those of you who are reading the Padmakara translation of the Madhyamakavatara with Mipham’s structural outline, you will see that the chapter headings and sub-headings are fairly similar to those used here. When Rinpoche continued teaching this text, in the second year of the teachings in 1998, he said he was also using the commentaries by Sakya Chogden and Rendawa. Sakya Chogden was a 15th century Sakya scholar, who is considered one of the “Six Ornaments” of the Sakya school, alongside Gorampa. Rendawa was a 14th century Sakya scholar, who was one of the teachers of Tsongkhapa, the great master who founded the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Tsongkhapa’s presentation of the Madhyamaka is actually very different from the Sakya presentation, and unfortunately we don’t have the time to explore how the interpretations of the Madhyamaka differ among the Tibetan schools.
For those of you who are interested in the Khyentse lineage, Rinpoche also said that Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö mainly used the commentaries by the Dzogchen Khenpo Shenga (1871-1927), who was a Rimé master known for his mastery of the Seven Treasuries of Longchenpa. He was also one of the teachers of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö. Rinpoche explained that Khenpo Shenga’s approach is admired because he “doesn’t have any Tibetan fabrication.” So in summary, there are many different commentaries one can draw upon when studying the Madhyamakavatara. And in his commentary, Rinpoche is going to draw upon several different commentaries, particularly those by Rendawa (14th century), Gorampa (15th century) and Khenpo Shenga (20th century).
Refutation of other-arising in terms of time [t = 1:29:36] [MAV PDF pages 107-112]
Now we come to the refutation of other-arising in terms of time. We talked earlier about the necessity for things that are other to be co-existing, in other words to both be present at the same time. As we have seen, we can only speak of causation when cause and effect are in contact at a moment in time, as with two billiard balls colliding. But that gives rise to a different set of problems, because if they’re both there at the same time, how do you differentiate cause and effect? You can’t say that the cause caused the effect, because the effect was already there! So you can’t say the cause is necessary or that it is actually playing the role of a cause. And if the opponent objects by saying that cause and effect are not simultaneous, then we cannot say they are truly ‘other’. Chandrakirti anticipates this objection in Verse 17:
[6:17] Since the sprout and the seed do not exist simultaneously,
There cannot be otherness. So how can the seed be other?
Thus, as creation of sprout from seed is not established,
Reject this premise of production from other.
Our opponent objects and says maybe we should think of cause and effect acting like a pair of scales, where one rises as the other falls. It is a good objection, as the example of the scales comes from the Rice Seedling Sutra and therefore carries the force of the Buddha’s words:
[6:18abc] Like the arms of a pair of scales,
Rising and descending simultaneously,
Creation arises as the creator ceases.
But as Chandrakirti says, the Rice Seedling Sutra is a provisional teaching, and in any case it was used to teach dependent arising, not truly existing other-arising where a truly existing cause gives rise to a truly existing effect. If you talking about a truly existing cause then, as we have seen, we should think about truly existing phenomena as being independent and unchanging, in other words like billiard balls or marbles. There’s no half-marble or sort-of-marble-in-the-making. You either have a marble or you don’t. Chandrakirti uses this logic to point out the problem with the opponent’s use of the pair of scales as an example:
[6:18d]: If simultaneous, but this is not the case.
[6:19] When arising, still in the process of production, it is non-existent.
When ceasing, although in the process of disintegration, it still exists.
How does this compare to the movement of a pair of scales?
And with no agent of creation, this makes no sense at all.
As long as something is arising, it hasn’t yet arisen. So as long as the baby is still an embryo, the baby hasn’t yet arisen. But likewise, when something is still ceasing, it still exists until it has ceased. So we might say that a tree is growing old or or dying, but until the tree has ceased, we still have the tree.
We might think that our understanding of time is more sophisticated than our seemingly naïve opponents, but if you look in contemporary philosophy there’s a big challenge to our everyday intuitions with what’s called ‘The Arrow of Time’ in science. Now we know that time is relative. In fact, we know now that Einstein’s theory explains it very precisely. Our naive intuitions about simultaneity don’t actually hold. So for example we know our GPS is run by satellites, and the time on the Earth is different from the time on a satellite, because it’s moving quite quickly around the Earth, sufficiently quickly that the theory of relativity predicts a significant difference. And actually if we didn’t correct these relativistic effects between the time on the satellite and the time on Earth, you’d have a navigational error of 2 km/day, which is really very significant. As the Wikipedia page on the ➜Arrow of Time explains:
The Arrow of Time, or Time’s Arrow, is a concept developed in 1927 by the British astronomer Arthur Eddington involving the “one-way direction” or “asymmetry” of time. It is an unsolved general physics question […]
Physical processes at the microscopic level are believed to be either entirely or mostly time-symmetric: if the direction of time were to reverse, the theoretical statements that describe them would remain true. Yet at the macroscopic level it often appears that this is not the case: there is an obvious direction (or flow) of time.
And we know from contemporary physics that when relativistic effects predominate, our intuitions about ➜causality no longer hold. So what does all of this mean? What if time itself does not truly exist? And, by the way, in Chapter 19 of the Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna himself refuted that there is truly existing time. He also refuted truly existing causality, which is what we are also going to do here in our study of the Madhyamakavatara. As we journey further into the world of Madhyamaka, we shall find many things that challenge our habitual assumptions and everyday intuitions about how the world works.
The next verse is quite similar. If cause and effect are there at the same time, we can’t say the cause gives rise to an effect. Why do we need the cause if the effect is already there? But if we say that the effect is not present at the same time as the cause, then we run into the problems we have already explained (in verse 17):
[6:20] Eye consciousness existing simultaneously with its creators:
Eye and [form] along with consciousness and [perception],
[Does indeed] exist as other. Then what is the need for the arising of the already existent?
It is not yet existent. In that case, the defects have already been explained.
Refuting other-arising in terms of the fourfold classification [t = 1:33:07] [MAV PDF pages 112-113]
Next we refute other-arising in terms of the fourfold classification. Here we ask our opponent: if you say an effect comes from a cause, do you say this effect exists, that it doesn’t exist, both or neither? Because if you say it doesn’t exist, then you can’t say the cause actually caused anything. But if the effect is already there, then you don’t need a cause. So we end up with the same problem as in the previous verses. Verse 21:
[6:21] If a creator is the cause of creating something other,
Is [the effect] existent? Non-existent? Or both? Or neither?
If existent, why a producer. If non-existent, what is created?
If both, or neither, what could create it?
This verse is an expression of the absurdity of the view of truly existing other-arising. And hopefully by now you are really starting to think, ‘well, yes, I guess as long as we are thinking in terms of true existence, in terms of true phenomena that are like billiard balls or marbles, truly existing other-arising doesn’t make sense. How could this work?’
Disposing of objections based on ordinary experience [t = 1:33:53] [MAV PDF pages 114-118]
But now our opponent says, ‘well, Chandrakirti, you know that ordinary people accept other-arising, and you say you’re going to follow the conventional beliefs of ordinary people. So why are you still trying to refute other-arising?’
[6:22] Whoever holds a normal viewpoint, accepts ordinary experience as valid,
What is the need here for analytical view?
Creation from other is commonly accepted.
Therefore, creation from other exists, what need for reasoning?
With this, we now introduce one of the big ideas in the Madhyamaka, namely the concept of the Two Truths, which we will now use to answer our opponent’s objection. Chandrakirti will answer our opponent in three steps.
(1) First he’ll introduce the idea of Two Truths, namely relative truth and ultimate truth. He’ll explain that when he says he accepts the conventional beliefs of ordinary people, he does so only as relative truth, as a means of communication. He does not accept their conventional beliefs as ultimately valid, in other words he does not accept them as ultimate truth.
(2) Therefore he’ll show that ordinary people don’t contradict the Madhyamaka, because they are talking about relative truth whereas the Madhyamaka is seeking to establish the view or the ultimate truth.
(3) Finally, he’ll show that the people who actually run into problems with ordinary people are our opponents, because their theories about the ultimate truth also include theories about the relative truth, and these relative theories interfere with the conventional beliefs of ordinary people.
Rinpoche said something in passing here, and I like this quote on page 115: “Whenever there’s agreement or disagreement between two people, the two truths are functioning.” Any time we have different ideas of what is real or what is actually the case – when we’re perceiving different parts of the picture and drawing upon different facts and different evidence, or we’re deriving different conclusions – all of this is the two truths in action, in the sense that we have different relative views, perceptions and experiences even though we’re both looking at the same reality.
Rinpoche returns to the example of wearing a pair of sunglasses at the end of the 1996 teaching. If you’re wearing some green sunglasses and you’re looking at a white tent or white wall, you might see it as green. It’s a mistake. So your perception and your experience, that’s relative truth. You would swear it’s what you’re genuinely experiencing here and now, but irrespective of your conviction, your experience doesn’t actually correspond to the truth. But as Rinpoche says, the good news is that we are wearing sunglasses, not that we are the sunglasses. So like the dreldré that have we talked about before, this means we can remove our obscurations. Our distortion is not permanent. And the sunglasses are a good example, because we’re emphasizing the subjectivity of the Two Truths – in other words that they’re based on the subject, not based on the object as in other Buddhist schools. And as we’ll see, this is a crucial distinction.
If you analyze relative truth, it will fall apart [t = 1:36:08] [MAV PDF pages 119-120]
Rinpoche started the 1998 teachings by reminding us that even though we’re establishing the view, we shouldn’t expect to find anything. There’s a lovely quote on page 119, it’s one of my favourites, from Jigme Lingpa (also known as Khyentse Öser, “radiant wisdom and compassion”), the great Dzogchen master after whom the Khyentse lineage takes its name. He said:
As soon as we talk it is all contradiction;
As soon as we think it is all confusion.
This is very much an expression of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view: we can use everyday thoughts and language to navigate the world, but there will always be an irreducible amount of approximation, vagueness, over-generalization and therefore miscommunication. There is no perfect description, no final truth. There’s no point trying to rely on thoughts or on language, because it’s all going to fall apart after a certain point. All our traditional tools of rationality just will not serve us in our attempt to realize the ultimate truth. The thing about relative truth is that once you start to analyze it, it will collapse.
To take a classic example: You might ask ‘what is my hand made of, what its true essence?’ We might say ‘it’s made of fingers, it’s made of skin, it’s made of bone, it’s made of blood.’ But once you start to analyze your hand, once you’re talking about skin and bones and blood, you don’t have the hand anymore. It falls apart as a concept. Indeed, this kind of meditation is a classical Buddhist meditation that we can practice in order to deconstruct our concepts of self and phenomena, and thus undermine the foundation for our clinging. But as Rinpoche says, if you deconstruct and analyse, and then at the end of your analysis you find something that’s truly existent, then you have a problem. Because that means you’ve found something ultimate, and then the whole system of relative truth will collapse. And this is precisely what Chandrakirti is going to demonstrate to our opponents.
Besides, ordinary people don’t think that way. We don’t talk about theories of other-arising. If you ask a cowherd where do the cow’s horns come from or where does milk come from, he’ll say that it comes from the cow. In the ordinary world, we use simplified narratives and stories. We don’t explain things in terms of an analytical theory of arising. Maybe a scientist might say things come from atoms or molecules, but any scientist who knows a little about the philosophy of science would understand that any scientific theory is just a working hypothesis that explains regularities in the world. It isn’t an ultimate view. And as we said previously, if a scientist is thirsty, she will ask for a glass of water rather than a glass of H2O molecules.
Introduction to the Two Truths [t = 1:38:00] [MAV PDF pages 121-122]
So let’s talk a little about the two truths. We’ll see that for the other schools, a big part of their challenge is they actually define the two truths objectively, based on phenomena “out there” in the world. This is a mistake. Because once you’ve done that, it means there must be some actual phenomena in the world, which you then deem to be true or untrue. You are now committed to an underlying dualism with respect to the self of phenomena, because you have asserted that there are some truly existing phenomena. According to the Madhyamaka, as long as you have this kind of dualism, you still have tsendzin, the cognitive obscurations that stand in the way of enlightenment. Whereas for Chandrakirti, the two truths are differentiated based on the subject. He therefore isn’t committing to any kind of underlying dualism, which allows him to establish the path that removes all obscurations including tsendzin, and that leads to complete enlightenment. As in the example of green sunglasses or no green sunglasses, reality itself doesn’t change. What changes is our perception, the way we view reality. That determines whether or not we see things correctly, whether it’s relative truth or not.
On page 122, Rinpoche made a provocative statement that only in Buddhism is truth differentiated based on the subject rather than the object:
For the Madhyamika, the two truths are distinguished subjectively, so they are based on you. This is very important. I sometimes feel that it is perhaps the difference between eastern and western philosophy. When western philosophy talks about ‘truth’, the distinction between two truths is made objectively. I think this is true for all western civilizations. What do you think? I am trying to provoke you a little bit here!
It might perhaps be interesting for us to reflect on the ➜observer effect in quantum physics, because that seems to be a situation where the subject, the observer, actually changes the truth that we observe in the world. So that’s an interesting example too. Indeed, ever since the 1970s many popular books on the philosophy of science – like Fritjof Capra (1975) The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav (1979) The Dancing Wu Li Masters – have suggested that 20th century physics is perhaps better understood in terms of eastern philosophy rather than western philosophy.
I’d also like to make a note on terminology. In terms of translating the philosophical terms from Sanskrit, we use the words ‘relative truth’ or ‘conventional truth’, but Rinpoche doesn’t like these words as they don’t capture the essential meaning in both the Tibetan and Sanskrit, namely that our ordinary everyday words and concepts are obscured or deceptive. For a Madhyamaka philosopher, conventional truth should not simply be a positive statement about where people agree on things in our conventional world. It should also convey the idea that the truth has been hidden, distorted and interfered with – and that what we see as conventionally ‘true’ is actually deceptive, and from an ultimate perspective it is false. Hence in verse 23 you’ll see the term “all-concealing truth”:
[6:23] All entities can be seen truly or deceptively,
So, whatever there is has two natures:
The domain of perfect seeing is suchness;
False seeing has been termed all-concealing truth [by the Buddha].
The Two Truths according to the different Buddhist schools [t = 1:39:37] [MAV PDF pages 122-126]
So let’s look at how our opponents approach the Two Truths. Rinpoche goes through this fairly quickly in his commentary, and if you would like a more complete explanation, there’s a great piece in the pre-reading – a really excellent overview of “The Theory of Two Truths in India” by Sonam Thakchoe in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I don’t have time to go through the views of these different schools in detail right now, so if you would like to understand this in more depth, please read Sonam Thakchoe’s article.
Here is a short overview of how the four Buddhist schools approach the two truths:
• Vaibhashika (Abhidharmikas / Sarvastivada): this Shravakayana school believes the ultimate reality comprises two phenomena: irreducible spatial units, like small atoms; and irreducible temporal units, point moments or instants of consciousness. In other words, they believe the ultimate constituents of reality are atoms of material and atoms of consciousness.
• Sautrantika: this is another Shravakayana school, similar to the Vaibhashika in many respects. They also have believe in the true existence of fundamental atoms of mind and matter, but they say that something to count as ultimate truth, it must be ultimately causally efficient. In other words, they determine ultimate truth in terms of function. If something doesn’t have a causal function, then it isn’t considered an ultimate truth. And, as Rinpoche points out, both the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika are schools that accept physical realism. For them, it is possible in principle to see and touch the ultimate truth. Which intriguingly means just seeing the truth won’t liberate you. Why? Because for them the truth is based on the object. So they are very different from the Madhyamaka, where the 1st bhumi and the Path of Seeing begins when the bodhisattva has his or her first direct experience of emptiness. That seeing is already a form of liberation. But for the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika schools, you can see the ultimate nature and it won’t necessarily liberate you.
• Chittamatra: we’re going to spend a lot more time with them in Week 4. But just briefly, they have three natures, one of which is ultimate reality. The three natures are:
• Dependent nature: zhenwong (Sanskrit: paratantra). The dependent nature, alayavijñana, substantially exists and is conventionally real. It is a ‘storehouse consciousness’, ‘mere clarity mere awareness,’ that is the base for the second of the three natures, namely projections.
• Projections and labelling: küntak (Sanskrit: parikalpita). These are the dualistic appearances of our everyday experience. We look at the dependent nature, the alaya, and based on our projections, we see different things depending on what we project onto this underlying reality. This process of projection functions in much the same way that a movie projector projects an image onto the blank screen in a movie theatre. The screen itself substantially exists, but it is blank. Everything that we see on the screen is projected from the movie projector. In many ways, the Chittamatra view is reminiscent of contemporary phenomenological theories, and we’ll see a lot more of their view in the following weeks where it comes in quite handy in explaining how the mind works.
• Wisdom: this is nondual wisdom, yongdrup (Sanskrit: parinispanna). This is ultimate reality.Their basic argument is that all the appearances that make up our conventional reality are actually just creations of the mind. There are no real objects outside the mind. If you’ve seen the movie The Matrix, this is a very similar idea. It’s almost as if we’re living inside a simulation. And you might think that’s completely crazy, but if you follow Elon Musk, he has been saying for a couple of years already that he actually thinks it’s more likely than not that we are living inside a computer simulation. Last year he ➜said, “There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality” – in other words, ‘real’ reality rather than a simulation. So we might like to think that these Chittamatra views have long since been refuted, but we have people like Elon Musk and a lot of contemporary cognitive scientists and researchers in artificial intelligence holding what seem to be very similar views. And even among the Tibetans, many of them were not really convinced the Chittamatra school was ever really truly defeated. So, as we said last week, we Prasangikas might like to say that we’re victorious, but maybe we shouldn’t be so sure.
• Madhyamaka: as we saw on page 82, the Madhyamaka view of the Two Truths is:
• Ultimate truth: all phenomena are free from extremes (including the extremes of existence, non-existence, both and neither)
• Relative truth: all appearances are like illusions.Here the two truths are distinguished in terms of the subject. Ultimate truth is the nondual wisdom that knows phenomena are free from extremes, in other words that they have not arisen or been produced from self, other, both or neither. Relative truth is a deluded mind that perceives that things arise or have a beginning.
Introduction to valid and invalid relative truth [t = 1:43:48] [MAV PDF pages 126-133]
In verse 24 we introduce valid and invalid relative truth. Within the relative truth, there are two kinds of subjects: subjects with clear faculties and subjects with impaired faculties. And what they see corresponds to valid and invalid relative truth. So valid relative truth is the findings of senses that are working, and invalid relative truth is the findings of impaired senses. So we can all think of examples: if we drink too much or if we take drugs, then we experience things that are not actually there. There are a couple of classical examples from ancient India. One is jaundice, where supposedly if you have jaundice you see things as yellow. Another is a disease called rab rip in Tibetan, which is an eye disease where you supposedly see hair falling in your visual field, something like ‘floaters’ perhaps.
So when you have this eye disease rab rip, or when you have jaundice, or when you’re under the influence of drugs and alcohol, your experience and your perception at that point is considered invalid relative truth. If you talk to someone else who does not have this disease or impaired faculties, for example if you go up to someone and ask “Can you see the falling hair?”, they would not see it. Your perception of the falling hair does not correspond to a valid relative perception, a valid conventional reality. Verses 24 and 25:
[6:24] Again, for deceptive seeing one considers two:
That of clear faculties and that of impaired faculties.
Perception by impaired faculties is considered mistaken,
Compared with that of healthy faculties.
[6:25] Whatever the six unimpaired faculties
Perceive in [unanalyzed] ordinary experience,
Are true for ordinary experience alone; other perceptions
Are deluded in terms of ordinary experience.
And Chandrakirti intends to show us that all the views of these other schools – their conclusions, their findings, their philosophies – are likewise findings of an impaired mind. They’re just as invalid as seeing falling hair where none exists. Because if you were to talk to an ordinary cowherd, he does not talk about the alaya. He does not talk about the dependent nature or other-arising. He doesn’t have any theories like that. Nor would he talk about the atomic moments of mind. All of these views are false, invalid relative truth. Verses 26 and 27:
[6:26] Also in ordinary experience there are neither a
Fundamental nature as construed by the
The tirthikas (who are severely afflicted by the sleep of ignorance);
Nor phenomena such as illusions and mirages.
[6:27] What is seen by someone with dimmed eyesight,
Cannot contradict what is seen by someone with good eyesight.
Likewise, a mind lacking immaculate wisdom,
Cannot contradict a mind possessing immaculate wisdom.
The example of the mirage [t = 1:45:56]
There’s another lovely article from the Week 3 pre-reading, “Taking Conventional Truth Seriously” by Jay Garfield, where he gives the example of the mirage. We’ll use this example quite a lot in later verses, and Garfield’s explanation is particularly clear and helpful:
Among the many similes for conventional truth that litter Madhyamaka texts, the most fruitful is that of the mirage. Conventional truth is false, Chandrakirti tells us, because it is deceptive. Chandrakirti spells this out in terms of a mirage. A mirage appears to be water but is in fact empty of water—it is deceptive and, in that sense, a false appearance. On the other hand, a mirage is not nothing: It is an actual mirage, just not actual water.
The analogy must be spelled out with care to avoid the extreme of nihilism. A mirage appears to be water but is only a mirage; the inexperienced highway traveller mistakes it for water, and for him it is deceptive, a false appearance of water; the experienced traveller sees it for what it is—a real mirage, empty of water. Just so, conventional phenomena appear to ordinary, deluded beings to be intrinsically existent, whereas in fact they are merely conventionally real, empty of that intrinsic existence; to the aryas, on the other hand, they appear to be merely conventionally true and hence to be empty. For us, they are deceptive, false appearances; for them, they are simply actual conventional existents.
We can update the analogy to make the point more plainly. Imagine three travellers along a hot desert highway. Alice is an experienced desert traveller; Bill is a neophyte; Charlie is wearing polarizing sunglasses. Bill points to a mirage up ahead and warns against a puddle on the road; Alice sees the mirage as a mirage and assures him that there is no danger. Charlie sees nothing at all and wonders what they are talking about. If the mirage were entirely false—if there were no truth about it at all, Charlie would be the most authoritative of the three (and Buddhas would know nothing of the real world). But that is wrong. Just as Bill is deceived in believing that there is water on the road, Charlie is incapable of seeing the mirage at all and so fails to know what Alice knows—that there is an actual mirage on the road, which appears to some to be water, but which is not. There is a truth about the mirage despite the fact that it is deceptive, and Alice is authoritative with respect to it precisely because she sees it as it is, not as it appears to the uninitiated.
This example beautifully illustrates the way Chandrakirti approaches relative truth:
• Invalid relative truth: Seeing the mirage as water is invalid relative truth, a wrong view.
• Conventional truth: Seeing the mirage as a mirage is valid relative truth (conventional truth).
• Nihilism: Seeing no mirage is nihilism, a mistake, because you’re denying relative truth.
The example of magic [t = 1:48:43]
There’s another lovely quote on this same topic of valid and invalid relative truth from the cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett, where he talks about magic, which is another of the classic examples used in the Madhyamaka:
There is a wonderful book by Lee Siegel, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India (1991), about the history of Indian street magic, the source of much if not all of the rituals and adornments of stage magic […] There is a passage in that book which I have very much taken to heart. Indeed it has become a sort of talisman for me. He says (on page 425):
I’m writing a book on magic, I explain, and I’m asked, “real magic?” By real magic, people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts and supernatural powers. “No,” I answer, “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.” Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.
I love this example, because again, it’s a beautiful example of the paradoxes that are at the heart of understanding nonduality. We’ll come back to the example of magic in Week 5 when we talk about self and we’ll also come back to Daniel Dennett, who has done a lot of wonderful work in refuting dualistic theories of self that are from philosophers and cognitive scientists who take very different, non-Buddhist perspectives on the philosophy of consciousness. But after his refutation of their positions, he ends up in a place very similar to Chandrakirti’s Middle Way.
Refuting the validity of ordinary experience [t = 1:50:03] [MAV PDF pages 133-138]
We talk a lot about how we use valid relative truth or conventional truth as a method. And I’d like to clarify why we say this. It’s because we need the conventional truth as a means of communication, as we said before. If I want to teach you the Dharma, if I want to teach you the path to liberation, I need to be able to relate to your world and speak your language. If everyone in the world calls an implement a fork, and I call it a spoon, nobody’s going to understand what I’m saying, so I can’t teach a path. So this is why having the correct understanding of relative truth really matters for us, as bodhisattvas. Any theory that gives us an incorrect relative truth, that’s a problem. (See the Glossary entry on Two Truths for more information).
On page 130, we return to this point about valid relative truth using the example of the mirage. When we say, ‘well, can we use mirages and dreams as a path? Aren’t they invalid relative truth?’ Here we need to be clear, as Rinpoche says, that we’re not using the dream or the mirage as the path. We’re using the idea that the dream is false, that the mirage does not truly exist. And as we just saw in Jay Garfield’s example, that idea is true.
In Verse 28, we’re sort of going over the same content again using different language. Here Rinpoche gave the example of a magician performing a trick. For the audience who doesn’t know that this is a magic trick, they’re just ordinary sentient beings, they see the magic and think it’s real, which is dendzin. The magician sees the magic – he still has to see what he’s doing if he’s going to do the trick correctly – but he knows it’s magic. He isn’t attached to it, so he doesn’t have this problem of clinging to the trick as real, as truly existing, so he’s not hooked. For him, it’s just tsendzin:
[6:28] Because of obscuring ignorance, the nature [of all phenomena] is concealed.
What makes the artificial appear true
The Muni named all-concealing truth.
Thus, artificial entities are mere all-concealers.
Verse 29 gives the example of the disease where you see falling hair. So for somebody with this disease, Rinpoche asks us to imagine that they might be collecting the falling hairs in a plate, and they ask Chandrakirti ‘Can you see all this hair in my plate?’ He sees no hair. And as we said before, this is not nihilism. He’s not denying the hair, because in reality there is no hair. This verse is very often quoted because it’s a great analogy. When we say ‘there is no self’ we’re not denying the self, because in reality there is no self. Now just because the person with this eye disease experiences the falling hair, and just because we experience the self, that doesn’t mean that it’s really there. This is really important, because that’s where a lot of us get confused, because we think that the Buddhist teachings on non-self are being nihilistic, and hopefully now we can see why they’re not.
[6:29] Due to disease of the eye, hairs and so forth
May be perceived erroneously.
With a healthy eye, the actual nature is seen,
You should know suchness in this way (here).
What is contradicted by ordinary experience? [t = 1:52:54] [MAV PDF pages 138-143]
In this way then, the Madhyamaka neither contradicts nor is contradicted by ordinary experience:
[6:30] If ordinary experience was valid,
One could perceive suchness within ordinary experience.
What need for Superiors? What need for the path of Superiors?
Thus, to rely on the foolish is senseless.
[6:31ab] In no aspect is ordinary experience [ultimately] valid,
Therefore, ordinary experience does not contradict ultimate truth.
So what then does contradict ordinary experience? Anything that’s a denial of relative truth. For example if someone steals your vase, a philosopher like an atomist, like a Vaibhashika, might say ‘well, there’s no vase. The vase does not really exist. It’s only a collection of atoms’. Well then of course as an ordinary sentient being, you’d be pretty unhappy with this philosopher, because as far as you’re concerned someone stole your vase. You’re looking for empathy and maybe help in getting your vase back, not a lecture about how you never had a vase in the first place. That’s an example of denial of the relative truth. Verse 31:
[6:31cd] The phenomena of ordinary experience are accepted by ordinary experience,
Any denial of these would be contradicted.
Most of the other verses in Week 3 are pretty straightforward. Verse 32 points that even though ordinary people sometimes explain things in terms of other-arising, at other times they explain things in terms of self-arising. In other words, they don’t have a consistent philosophy that can be used to refute Chandrakirti even in the conventional truth:
[6:32] An ordinary [person] who merely has sown his seed,
Will exclaim: “I created this child!”
People also think: “I planted this tree!”
Hence, even in ordinary experience is there no creation from other.
The benefits of refuting truly existing other-arising [t = 1:53:46] [MAV PDF pages 143-149]
We now discuss the benefits of refuting truly existing other-arising. Verse 33 points out that once we’re no longer holding to views of true existence, we then don’t fall into the extremes. Because we don’t have a true sprout and we don’t have a true seed, then they’re not truly ‘other’ than one another. So we don’t the problem that the seed is destroyed when the sprout emerges, which would be nihilism. Nor do we have the problem of eternalism, where the seed continues to exist even when the sprout is present – which is what a truly existing seed would have to do.
[6:33] Because a sprout is not other than the seed,
At the time of the sprout, there is no destruction of the seed.
Because they are also not one,
At the time of the sprout, you cannot say a seed exists.
Verse 34 is another very important verse. If indeed phenomena did truly exist, then emptiness meditation would become the destroyer of phenomena. As we know this would be a big problem for us as Buddhists, since we practice emptiness meditation. This is intended as a real criticism of the Chittamatra, because they are Buddhists, they practice the Prajñaparamita, and indeed a lot of the early Chittamatra texts were commentaries on the Prajñaparamita. Yet they hold to the true existence of the “Mind Only”, so their emptiness meditation ends up becoming a destroyer of phenomena. By contrast, the benefit of the Madhyamaka view is that it is not a destroyer of phenomena.
[6:34] If inherent characteristics were the basis [of phenomena],
[Phenomena] would be destroyed through refutation [of their inherent characteristics]
And emptiness would become the cause of these entities’ destruction.
As this is absurd, entities do not inherently exist.
Verses 35 to 38 go over material that we have already discussed. Verse 35 says that if anything is found as a result of analysis, we have found an ultimate truth. Because the reality is that if you analyze conventional truth, it is destroyed. In Verse 37, our opponent is complaining that it doesn’t make sense to refute other-arising. How can we even explain anything if we don’t have some sort of theory of existence? How can seeing relative phenomena as illusions explain things? And here Chandrakirti gives the example of using a reflection in the mirror. We all know that reflections don’t truly exist, but if you’re a woman putting on makeup using a mirror, you’re using an illusion.
[6:35] Were you to analyse these objects,
Apart from the actual entity of the absolute,
Nothing enduring is found; thus the truth
Of conventional ordinary experience is not to be analysed.
[6:36] With the analysis of suchness
Neither creation from self nor from other is possible;
It is not feasible even conventionally.
Now what happens to your creation?
[6:37] Empty things such as reflections,
Namely composites – are [generally] accepted.
Likewise, from something empty, such as a reflection,
Consciousness of its characteristics may be created.
[6:38ab] Similarly, while all entities may be empty,
They are fully created from [their] emptinesses.
Verse 38 closes this section with a concise conclusion, noting once again that because there is no inherent nature in the two truths there is neither eternalism nor nihilism.
[6:38cd] Because in the two truths there is no inherent nature,
There is neither eternalism nor nihilism.
The effects of action are not lost [t = 1:55:50] [MAV PDF pages 149-152]
Verse 39 says the effects of action are not lost, because just like the earlier Thich Nhat Hanh story about the origins of the piece of paper, it’s all part of our story of how things came to be. We’re not thinking in terms of an atom-like structure of true existence made up of specific collisions between billiard balls. Instead we have an extended web of causality, where one thing affects another thing, which affects another thing, and the effects of causes continue to ripple forwards through time.
[6:39] Because [an action] does not inherently cease,
And although there is no all-ground, an action is able [to produce a result].
A long time may have passed since the completion of an action,
Yet know that it will still manifest a result.
Verse 40 offers an analogy, saying that even though phenomena do not truly exist, they can still have effects, just like a dream. Even though the dream is over, a person may wake from a dream and still think of the dream objects. It’s very similar. You may have a past event that was not real, that did not truly exist, that can still manifest results in the present.
[6:40] After seeing objects in a dream,
Upon awakening, a fool is still attached.
Likewise, actions terminated and without self-existence,
Still manifest results.
How do we explain karma? How do we explain rebirth? Some of the schools struggle to resolve this dilemma. For example the Vaibhashika resort to the notion of some kind of connector or continuum to explain how truly existing causes are linked to their truly existing effects. But Chandrakirti he does not have this problem, because he has no theories of true existence that are established by reasoning and logic. So he has nothing to explain.
Rejecting two extreme consequences [t = 1:57:05] [MAV PDF pages 152-153]
Verse 41 is very interesting. It says just as someone with diseased eyes sees only floating hairs but not other forms, similarly we only see the things that are a consequence of our particular delusion. I must say when I first read this verse, and the next one as well, I struggled with it, because I have a strong everyday rationality, and this idea that you cannot explain things seemed very unsatisfying. It reminds me of the circular argument about the continuum of cause and effect in verse 6:15, except here in verse 41 no justification at all is offered. But I think this just says how much we – or at least I – rely on some kind of explanation of the relative world.
[6:41] While objects may be as non-existing,
Someone with diseased eyes may perceive floating hairs,
But not other [non-existent] forms.
Similarly, know there is no repeated maturation.
Verse 42 also has a very strong message. We think that if we don’t have true existence, surely everything will become random and incoherent. But in this verse, Chandrakirti reminds us that the Buddha rejects that conclusion, and in fact he discourages speculation about the consequences of action. The famous Story of the Chinese Farmer makes this point beautifully, as told here by ➜Alan Watts:
Once upon a time, there was a Chinese farmer, who lost a horse. Ran away. And all the neighbours came round that evening and said “That’s too bad”. And he said “Maybe”.
The next day, the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it. And all the neighbours came round and said “Why, that’s great isn’t it!”. And he said “Maybe”.
The next day, his son, who was attempting to tame one of these horses, was riding it and was thrown and broke his leg. And all the neighbours came round in the evening and said “Well, that’s too bad, isn’t it”. And the farmer said “Maybe”.
The next day the conscription officers came around looking for people for the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And all the neighbours came around in the evening and said “Isn’t that wonderful”. And he said “Maybe”.
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it is really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad, because you never know what will be the consequences of the misfortune. Or you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
This is a story of complexity, much like Thich Nhat Hanh’s story about how the piece of paper includes the cloud, the sunshine, the logger, his family and so forth. And in the same way that we cannot fully explain causality looking backwards, we also cannot fully predict how things will turn out. Our predictions may be close, or they may be way off. And yet we still want to make the best of our lives in the world, so we keep looking for ways to ‘optimize’ our careers, our relationships and all our worldly experiences. This is samsara: as futile as it is endless.
Instead of attempting to come up with ‘better’ theories of causality in the world – theories which may indeed help us to better predict the consequences of action and become more successful, famous, or powerful – perhaps it might be good to remind ourselves of how we get caught in the Eight Worldly Dharmas and the purpose of our Dharma practice. If we’re simply attempting to improve our lives in samsara, then we’re not putting energy into practicing the path to attain enlightenment. So yes, we should speculate less about consequences of action. This is very good practice advice, but not a very satisfying worldly philosophy. But I think that just shows how much we’re attached and addicted to finding ways to help us explain, make sense of, and predict the consequences of action in the world. By contrast, as Rinpoche said, in reality the Madhyamaka has no philosophy for us. It is a philosophy of non-philosophy.
[6:42]: Although seeing the non-virtuous ripening [that arises from] black deeds;
And the virtuous ripening [that arises from] virtue [as empty],
Liberation is achieved by a mind free from good and evil.
Speculation about the consequences of action was discouraged [by the Buddha].
And actually this Verse 42 is one of Rinpoche’s favourite verses from the Madhyamakavatara. He quotes it all the time, often paraphrased slightly as follows:
Those who are ignorant engage in bad deeds and go to hell.
Those who ignorant engage in good deeds and go to heaven.
Those who are wise go beyond good and bad and attain liberation.
So once again, Chandrakirti is really encouraging us not to think in terms of good and bad, and not to engage in all this analysis of the relative truth, because all it’s going to do is just fall apart.
The Ground of All is an expedient teaching [t = 1:59:15] [MAV PDF pages 153-155]
Verse 43 asks why did the Buddha teach all these things? Well because, as you know, it’s an expedient or provisional teaching – a means of communication. As we saw earlier, when it comes to path teachings, different beings need different paths. And not everyone is ready to hear the profound teachings on emptiness.
[6:43] “Existence of an all-ground”; “an existing individual”;
“Merely the skandhas exist”, –
Such instructions address those for whom the profound teachings
[6:44] Although free from the view of transitory collection,
The Buddha still would say “I” and “my teaching”.
Likewise, while things have no inherent nature,
In the context of expedient truth, he spoke of a [relative] existence.
And finally after verse 44 there are some lovely quotes from the sutras. I’ll leave you with just a couple:
If the buddhas do not act according to ordinary people’s acceptance, then ordinary people will never have a chance to understand who is the Buddha and what is the teaching that he taught.
Things have never arisen, things have never dwelled and things have never ceased to exist. Yet, for the sake of sentient beings, he said that things arise, exist and cease to exist; that they are impermanent, and so on. That is also for the sake of ordinary people, and in accord with their experience.
So this brings us to the end of week 3. We have started our adventure, and we have defeated our first opponent. I hope you feel good about it! Next week we’re going to meet our toughest opponent, the Chittamatra school. So, again, I encourage you to read ahead and really get a sense of what are they trying to say, and I look forward to seeing you again next week.
[END OF WEEK 3]
© Alex Li Trisoglio 2017
Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio
With gratitude to Rick Scott for help with transcription
Page last updated January 21, 2021