Alex Li Trisoglio

Madhyamakavatara Week 5: Emptiness of Self

Week 5: Emptiness of Self
5 July 2017 / 117 minutes
Question: What does it mean that self is empty? How can we explain our experience? What is the difference between ‘self’ and ‘person’?

Reference: Madhyamakavatara verses 6:120 – 6:178
Transcript / Pre-reading / Audio / Video

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Introduction  [Audio/Video timing: t = 0:00:03]

Good evening and welcome to Week 5. I’m Alex Trisoglio, and this is the fifth week of Introduction to the Middle Way. I’d like to start with a brief review of what we covered last week. We finished the refutation of the true existence of the self of phenomena, and this week we’re going to turn to refuting the true existence of the self of the person. According to Gorampa, the Sakya master who wrote a famous commentary on the Madhyamakavatara, the order in which we are doing this refutation is very important. Because until you have a firm understanding of the selflessness or lack of true existence of phenomena, you can’t abandon attachment to the self of the person. And as we’ll see this week, an important reason for that is because phenomena are the substantial base – basically, what we point to when we say ‘what is the self’ or ‘what constitutes the self’. And as we’ll find out, most of our opponents – actually, all of our opponents – have some kind of substantial truly existing base, based on some kind of phenomena, which is the base for their clinging to self. So that’s what we’re going to refute.

In terms of our aim on the path, as you know we want to overcome self-clinging, because that is the root of samsara. And so from a view perspective, we want to refute the view of the truly existing self of the person. Most of what we’re going to spend our time on this week is talking about the relationship between the idea of the self and the base of imputation. We’re going to go through this several times, and I’d like to try to explain what this means. The idea is that our clinging to self is based on an idea of self, which in turn is based on some kind of base, according to our opponents.



So as an example, if a crow comes to a field, and sees a scarecrow, what it’s actually seeing is some pieces of wood and some cloth which the farmer has put together to look like a person. And the base – this wood and this cloth – is used by the crow intuitively, based on habitual patterns, to create the idea of a person. So we say that the idea of the person is based on this substantially existing base of the wood and the cloth. And because the crow now has this idea that there is a person in the field, it becomes afraid and flies away, rather than eating the grain in the field. So we have a base, the wood and the cloth – the idea of the person that is imputed upon that base – and then that leads to self-clinging, the emotions, and all of samsara.

BASE (wood & cloth) ➜ IDEA OF SELF (looks like a farmer) ➜ SELF-CLINGING (I’m afraid, so I’m going to fly away)

And what Chandrakirti is going to show as he refutes the true existence of the self of the person is that there is no base that underpins the idea of self. Unlike the example of the scarecrow, our idea of self is completely imputed, without a base. It’s ungrounded. It’s unconstrained. Which is part of the reason that Dharma practice is possible. Part of the reason that we can change our view of self is because it’s not founded upon anything real. We’ll be returning to this central insight quite a few times this week.

Ten Bulls #6: Riding The Bull Home

Concluding our refutations and coming home to rest in blissful serenity  [t = 0:04:02]

As usual, I’d like to include the relevant verses from the Ten Bulls. This time, we have verses 6 and 7:

6. Riding the Bull Home
Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Comment: This struggle is over; gain and loss are assimilated. I sing the song of the village woodsman, and play the tunes of the children. Astride the bull, I observe the clouds above. Onward I go, no matter who may wish to call me back.

Ten Bulls #7: The Bull Transcended

7. The Bull Transcended
Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

Comment: All is one law, not two. We only make the bull a temporary subject. It is as the relation of rabbit and trap, of fish and net. It is as gold and dross, or the moon emerging from a cloud. One path of clear light travels on throughout endless time.

I love these verses. We’re really getting the sense here that we’re going to conclude all our refutations and then reach home. And that’s hopefully where we’ll get to at the end of this week’s verses: we will have transcended the bull. In this case, we will have transcended any kind of clinging to a base for ideas of self or consciousness or anything like that. So we can rest.

From the perspective of the Hero’s Journey, we’re now coming towards the end of Act II. This is Act II Scene 3, our third week in Act II. And traditionally in the Hero’s Journey this is called “Approaching the inmost cave”, where the Hero gets everything that he thinks he wants, and the final challenge will come next week. And indeed, by the end of this week we will have used what established in Week 4 – that all phenomena are empty – and show that the self of the person likewise does not truly exist. So there is no longer a root for attachment, the cause of suffering. Nothing truly exists. Subject and object are equally empty.

View and path language  [t = 0:06:50]

In this week’s reading, one of the first things Rinpoche talked about was language, and he reminded us that, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, we have different language for view and path: different terms for different times. In particular when we’re establishing the view, we use words like ’emptiness’, and when we’re on the path we’ll use words like ‘Buddhanature’ as well. But this doesn’t mean something different from emptiness. And likewise, when we talk of the result, we will talk of dharmakaya. And that means the same thing as well. So just to be clear, we’ll hear all these different words like emptiness and Buddhanature and we might think they refer to something very different. One word feels like a tremendous absence, and another feels like almost the ultimate presence in terms of qualities. But actually they are the same.

Another thing Rinpoche mentioned is that he wants to re-introduce some of the important terms that are used by the Prasangika Madhyamika, so that the tradition is not lost. He touched on several that are used while establishing the view, including:

tawa ten mabepé kab (Wylie: lta ba bstan ma ’bebs pa’i skabs, Tibetan: ལྟ་བ་བསྟན་མ་འབེབས་པའི་སྐབས་), which means ‘the time of establishing the view’

matak machépa (Wylie: ma brtags ma dpyad pa, Tibetan: མ་བརྟགས་མ་དཔྱད་པ་), which means ‘not analysing using [the] reasoning [of any particular doctrine]’

We’ll come back to these terms later, when we ask what does it mean to analyze the conventional truth? As we saw last week, if we apply analysis to conventional phenomena, they fall apart under analysis. We cannot find anything that truly exists. And yet we also know that we need to analyze things to get by in the ordinary world: we need to figure out how to do our taxes, how to buy the right food at the grocery store, and so on. So there are many aspects of everyday life that require some thinking and some analysis, but that is a different kind of analysis. It’s analysis within the conventional truth rather than analysis seeking to establish the ultimate truth. If our analysis is merely conventional and we’re not trying to establish the ultimate or true existence of phenomena, then it doesn’t cause us to become opponents of Chandrakirti. We’ll come to this in more detail later as well, when we talk about whether car mechanics or scientists might be opponents of Chandrakirti.

In Week 4, we eliminated the four possibilities for true arising. We saw that phenomena could not arise truly from either self, or other, or both, or neither. So we concluded that there’s no arising in the ultimate truth. And yet, of course, in the conventional truth we all see objects in the world. We see people, we see objects, we see phenomena. And of course Chandrakirti needs to be able to communicate with other people in the world. So as we discovered last week, when we talk about arising in the conventional world, we talk about it in terms of dependent arising.

Rinpoche also wanted to emphasize: Let’s be precise with our language, otherwise the Dharma will become degenerated. So he said, let’s be clear that Chandrakirti is not establishing emptiness, he’s establishing dependent arising. And indeed he’s explaining dependent arising based on the selflessness of phenomena and the selflessness of the person.

It is also important for us to remind ourselves that the ultimate truth, the ultimate view, is completely nondual, beyond any words, beyond any concepts. We can’t say anything about it, there’s no point in trying. You can point your finger at the moon, but you can’t say anything about it. And yes, relatively, we need to speak, we need to teach, we need to function in the world. And that’s when we speak of dependent arising. As we saw, in the same way that Thich Nhat Hahn sees the cloud and the rain in the piece of paper, it is actually part of our conventional way of thinking to explain that phenomena arise from lots of different causes. So although the ordinary cowherd wouldn’t necessarily use the Buddhist term ‘dependent arising’, that is how he would explain how things function in the ordinary world. And this is in keeping with Chandrakirti’s approach, because he is a Prasangika Madhyamika that accepts conventional truth.

Rinpoche also reminded us that when His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches, he doesn’t say ‘the view is emptiness’. He says ‘the ultimate view of Buddhism is that things are dependent arising and the action is non-violence’.

Verse 6:120

]Refuting that there is a base for the idea of self  [t = 0:11:46] [MAV PDF pages 246-249]

Let’s start with the text, verse 120:

[6:120] Understanding that all afflictions and defects
Arise from the view of the transitory collection –
Realizing self is the object of this [view],
The yogi terminates such a self.

Just a reminder: what we’re going to do is differentiate the habit of self-clinging – which is the problem we’re trying to solve – from the idea of self, which is the object that self-clinging refers to. It’s important to remember that our self-clinging refers to an imputed idea of self, and not the self itself. And we shall meet various opponents that define this idea or concept of self in many different ways. And finally, there is some kind of substantial base upon which the idea of self is founded. Our opponents have many different explanations and views of what that base might be, but Chandrakirti says that the idea of self is not based on anything. He says that it’s baseless.


Chandrakirti’s view that there is no base for our imputed ideas of self is actually very similar to what we talked about in Week 4 (in verse 6:71), when we talked about how beings in the six realms would perceive the object that humans call ‘water’. Fish might see it as a home, humans might see it as something to drink, pretas might see it as pus and blood and excrement, and so on. But it’s not as if any one of those perspectives is correct. There’s no privileged view of what is the underlying phenomenon. In fact, as we saw last week, according to Chandrakirti there is actually no underlying phenomenon or base upon which these incorrect projections are made. According to him, the problem is not that we see the base wrongly, and that if we somehow purify our defilements we will be able to see the base correctly. The real problem is that we see any dualistic phenomena at all, because there is no truly existing base. So it’s not as though there is something there that we might one day be able to see correctly. That same idea – that all our imputed dualistic phenomena are baseless – is very much behind what we’re going to do this week, where we’ll show that all our imputed ideas of self are similarly baseless.

Empty self

The idea of self is baseless, so we can change it  [t = 0:13:29]

We’re not going to attempt to refute self-clinging directly, we’re going to refute the idea of self. So like a good doctor, we want to look for the root cause, we’re not just going to treat the symptoms. And as we’ll see, all of our opponents, the substantialists, have some kind of truly existing base, and even the Svatantrika Madhyamika say that the idea of self is based on the five aggregates in the conventional truth. So this is why we were so focused on eliminating clinging to the true existence of the self of phenomena in Week 3 and Week 4, because all our substantialist opponents are going to ground their ideas of self on some kind of phenomenal foundation or base. And already we can feel confident as we enter these refutations, because now that we have shown that phenomena do not truly exist, we know that any supposed foundation or base that our opponents might propose also cannot truly exist. And that in turn means their imputed ideas of self do not have a solid foundation.

And as we said already, because for Chandrakirti, the idea of self is baseless, it is arbitrary. It’s only because of our habits that the idea of self seems to have a certain stability or a certain identity. So you might then ask, what is the origin of these habits that shape our ideas of self? It’s from our acculturation – family, tribe, society, nation, language, Facebook, newspapers, Hollywood, advertising. All of these things give us ideas, and once we’ve been swimming in that water for long enough, it becomes our habitual way of thinking about our ‘self’. But because it’s arbitrary, because it’s not founded on anything truly existing, we can tell a different story. We can invent or create or author a completely different idea of self.

So for example, we take Refuge, and we change our idea of self from being an ordinary samsaric being to someone who is now relying on the Three Jewels. We take the Bodhisattva Vow, and we change our idea of self once again. We no longer see ourselves as the kind of selfish economic rational optimizer that economic theory describes, and instead we choose to define ourselves as bodhisattvas who are motivated and have the aspiration to liberate sentient beings. In the Vajrayana, we change our idea of self again. We no longer see ourselves in our ordinary human forms with our ordinary human limitations, and instead we choose to visualize ourselves in the form of a deity. We are free to completely change the idea of self that we are using as the foundational view that governs our action in the world. Now this may seem fairly radical, because we are so used to a certain habitual idea of who we are – a certain limited idea of our ‘self’. But this is what Chandrakirti is going to help us realize. And indeed, and we will eventually be able to tell a story that is completely without an idea of self, which is really what the nondual view of the Middle Way is all about.

As we saw last week, the extent to which a path is considered a higher path or a more direct path is the extent to which it teaches emptiness and nonduality directly. And similarly, some paths will proceed very slowly and gently in inviting us to change our idea of self – for example refuge and bodhicitta. Others will proceed more quickly – for example, the Vajrayana with its deity practices, sadhana, visualization. And some will move extremely quickly – for example Mahamudra and Mahasandhi, which are always paired as a nice complement to the Madhyamaka. Eventually we will go completely beyond needing any kind of reference for self. And until then, depending on our aspirations and our capabilities, we can choose to change our idea of self, and this new idea of self will become the basis for our path and our practice, which will take us to enlightenment.

“Drawing Hands”, M. C. Escher, 1948

The base for the idea of self in Buddhism: realism and representationalism  [t = 0:17:38]

I’d like to spend a bit of time talking about the various kinds of base for the idea of self that are outlined in different traditions. An important distinction that we shall need to understand is the difference between realism and representationalism(indirect realism). Here’s ➜Wikipedia:

The question of direct or naïve realism, as opposed to indirect or representational realism, arises in the philosophy of perception and of mind out of the debate over the nature of conscious experience; the epistemological question of whether the world we see around us is the real world itself or merely an internal perceptual copy of that world generated by neural processes in our brain. Naïve realism is known as direct realism when developed to counter indirect or representative realism, also known as epistemological dualism, the philosophical position that our conscious experience is not of the real world itself but of an internal representation, a miniature virtual-reality replica of the world.

Indirect realism is broadly equivalent to the accepted view of perception in natural science that states that we do not and cannot perceive the external world as it really is but know only our ideas and interpretations of the way the world is. Representationalism is one of the key assumptions of cognitivism in psychology. The representational realist would deny that “first-hand knowledge” is a coherent concept, since knowledge is always via some means. Our ideas of the world are interpretations of sensory input derived from an external world that is real (unlike the standpoint of idealism, which holds that only ideas are real, but mind-independent things are not). The alternative, direct realism, holds that we sense the world mostly as it is; the real, mind-independent things are part of our sensory experience.

With this in mind, let’s briefly review how the various Buddhist schools propose different ideas of the truly existing base. You may recall that we first learned about their different views of the Two Truths in verse 6:23. In his article “The Theory of Two Truths in India“, Sonam Thakchoe explains their views in terms of the realism/representationalism distinction:

The Vaibhāṣika’s realistic theory of the two truths and the Sautrāntika’s representationalist theory of the two truths both affirm the ultimate reality of physical objects constituted by atoms. The Yogācāra rejects physical realism of both the Vaibhāṣika and the Sautrāntika, although it agrees with the Sautrāntika’s representationalist theory as far as they both affirm representation as the intentional objects in perception and deny in perception a direct access to any external object. Where they part their company is in their response to the questions: what causes representations? Is the contact of senses with physical objects necessary to give rise to representations in perception? The Sautrāntika’s reply is that external objects cause representations, given that these representations are intentional objects there is indeed a contact between senses and external objects. This affirmative response allows the Sautrāntika to affirm reality of external objects. The Yogācārin however replies that “subliminal impressions” (vāsanās) from foundational consciousness (ālayavijñāna) are the causes of the mental representations, and given that these impressions are only internal phenomena acting as intentional objects, the contact between senses and external objects is therefore rejected even conventionally. This allows the Yogācārin to deny even conventional reality of all physical objects, and argue that all conventional realities are our mental representations, mental creations, cognitions etc.

In summary:

Vaibhashika: for the Vaibhashika and the other realist schools of early Buddhism, the truly existing base that grounds the idea of self is irreducible spatial units (e.g. point-like atoms of matter) and irreducible temporal units (e.g. point-instances of consciousness). These external objects can be experienced directly.

Sautrantika: all later Buddhist schools, including the Sautrantika, are representationalist. Like the Vaibhashika they believe in physical realism, in other words that the ultimate truth of all phenomena lies in point-like atoms of matter and of mind. However, unlike the Vaibhashika, the external objects cannot be experienced directly. Instead, the external objects cause representations that are intentional objects (i.e. what thoughts and feelings are about, even if they are not about anything real) in perception.

Chittamatra/Yogachara: like the Sautrantika, the Chittamatra are representationalist. But unlike the Sautrantika view, these representations are not based on physically real external objects. The Chittamatra believe they are based on “subliminal impressions” (vāsanās) from foundational consciousness (ālayavijñāna) that truly exists. They deny that external physical objects exist even conventionally, and argue that all conventional reality is “Mind Only”.

Madhyamaka: in the Madhyamaka view, ultimately there are no truly existing phenomena, so there is no truly existing base for the idea of self. The Svatantrika accept the five aggregates as a base for the idea of self in the conventional truth, but for Chandrakirti and the Prasangika Madhyamaka, the idea of self is completely baseless.

γνῶθι σεαυτόν (‘Know thyself’)

The base for the idea of self in the modern world  [t = 0:18:22]

Although contemporary ideas of the self are obviously not part of Chandrakirti’s text, I’d like to spend some time here because my sense is that for most of us, when we have an idea of self, it is perhaps more likely to be based on contemporary ideas from psychology than on ideas from philosophical schools in ancient India. If we wish to apply the Madhyamaka teachings in our own life, we need to examine our own beliefs, ideas, attachments and wrong views, not just the views of Chandrakirti’s opponents. As Rinpoche said on page 2 of Introduction to the Middle Way:

Please remember that the philosophy of Madhyamaka is not just an idea, but is also something very practical. Although at times you will wonder whether these arguments between philosophical schools are of any practical value, they can actually be very helpful if you think of Chandrakirti’s opponents as representing your own emotions, rather than philosophical schools. If you then read their arguments, the sharpness of your own ignorance will amaze you!

I want to acknowledge the inherent dangers of over-generalization when speaking to a global audience. These teachings are now being followed by more than 3000 people in 68 countries across the six continents of Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa and Australia (we don’t yet have any followers in Antarctica!). People in different parts of the world will inevitably have different ideas of self based on their cultural, religious and educational backgrounds – and also, of course, on their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and whether or not they have disabilities or medical or psychological conditions. I am not going to attempt to speak to all of these differences, but I’d invite you to consider which of these aspects are most significant when it comes to your own idea or narrative of self. What do you feel defines you? What is core to your identity? What parts of your personal narrative are you most attached to? Chandrakirti would say that this is precisely the imputed ignorance he would like to help you overcome.

I’d like to offer a brief summary of some different views or ideas of self, and unsurprisingly this will also overlap with ideas in psychology given their respective definitions:

Self: a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action. (“our alienation from our true selves”)
synonyms: ego, I, oneself, persona, person, identity, character, personality, psyche, soul, spirit, mind, (inner) being (“listen to your inner self”)

Psychology: (1) the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context.
synonyms: study of the mind, science of the mind (“a degree in psychology”)
(2) the mental characteristics or attitude of a person or group (“the psychology of Americans in the 1920s”).
synonyms: mindset, mind, mental processes, thought processes, way of thinking, cast of mind, mentality, persona, psyche, (mental) attitude(s), makeup, character; informal: what makes someone tick (“the psychology of the motorist”)

“Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean”; from Gustave Doré’s illustrations to the Divine Comedy, 1892

A brief history of the idea of the self  [t = 0:18:37]

This review of Western ideas of the self is necessarily incomplete and limited to a few milestones in the development of the idea of the self in Western thought. For additional resources, see the Wikipedia pages on ➜History of Psychology➜Self➜Soul➜Philosophy of Self➜Psychology of Self and ➜Philosophy of Mind. See also the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy pages on ➜Dualism➜Consciousness and ➜The Mind-Brain Identity Theory.

I’d like to emphasize that this review of Western ideas of the self is not necessary if your only interest is establishing the view of nonduality and understanding Chandrakirti’s refutation of his opponents in the Madhyamakavatara. If you do not wish to read this section, please continue to the section “The implications of the baseless idea of self for our path” [t = 0:35:24]. However, as noted above, if your interest is in applying the Madhyamaka to uproot your own wrong views, you may find it helpful to understand some of our contemporary ways of (mis)-understanding self.

Philosophy & religion (pre-1870s)  [✚ Additional material not in audio recording]

Until the 1870s, psychology was a branch of philosophy, and theories of self were largely borrowed from religion or philosophy, as is the case with most of the ideas of self held by our Buddhist and non-Buddhist opponents in the Madhyamakavatara. Plato, who is considered the most influential figure in the history of Western philosophy, proposed his theory of Forms in 5th century BCE. This theory is perhaps the first expression of a philosophy of Two Truths, and he argues that world we perceive is not the real world, but only an ‘image’ or ‘copy’ of the real world. As the Wikipedia article on ➜Plato notes:

“Platonism” is a term coined by scholars to refer to the intellectual consequences of denying, as Plato’s Socrates often does, the reality of the material world. In several dialogues, most notably the Republic, Socrates inverts the common man’s intuition about what is knowable and what is real. While most people take the objects of their senses to be real if anything is, Socrates is contemptuous of people who think that something has to be graspable in the hands to be real. In the Theaetetus, he says such people are eu amousoi (εὖ ἄμουσοι), an expression that means literally, “happily without the muses” (Theaetetus 156a). In other words, such people live without the divine inspiration that gives him, and people like him, access to higher insights about reality.

Socrates’ idea that reality is unavailable to those who use their senses is what puts him at odds with the common man, and with common sense. Socrates says that he who sees with his eyes is blind, and this idea is most famously captured in his Allegory of the Cave, and more explicitly in his description of the divided line. The Allegory of the Cave (begins Republic7.514a) is a paradoxical analogy wherein Socrates argues that the invisible world is the most intelligible (“noeton“) and that the visible world (“horaton“) is the least knowable, and the most obscure.

Socrates says in the Republic that people who take the sun-lit world of the senses to be good and real are living pitifully in a den of evil and ignorance. Socrates admits that few climb out of the den, or cave of ignorance, and those who do, not only have a terrible struggle to attain the heights, but when they go back down for a visit or to help other people up, they find themselves objects of scorn and ridicule.

Building on this view of reality, Plato sets out his dualistic idea of the self as described here in the ➜Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

In dualism, ‘mind’ is contrasted with ‘body’, but at different times, different aspects of the mind have been the centre of attention. In the classical and mediaeval periods, it was the intellect that was thought to be most obviously resistant to a materialistic account: from Descartes on, the main stumbling block to materialist monism was supposed to be ‘consciousness’, of which phenomenal consciousness or sensation came to be considered as the paradigm instance.

The classical emphasis originates in Plato’s Phaedo. Plato believed that the true substances are not physical bodies, which are ephemeral, but the eternal Forms of which bodies are imperfect copies. These Forms not only make the world possible, they also make it intelligible, because they perform the role of universals, or what Frege called ‘concepts’. It is their connection with intelligibility that is relevant to the philosophy of mind. Because Forms are the grounds of intelligibility, they are what the intellect must grasp in the process of understanding. In Phaedo Plato presents a variety of arguments for the immortality of the soul, but the one that is relevant for our purposes is that the intellect is immaterial because Forms are immaterial and intellect must have an affinity with the Forms it apprehends (78b4–84b8). This affinity is so strong that the soul strives to leave the body in which it is imprisoned and to dwell in the realm of Forms. It may take many reincarnations before this is achieved. Plato’s dualism is not, therefore, simply a doctrine in the philosophy of mind, but an integral part of his whole metaphysics.

Aristotle was the first to describe direct realism (in De Anima, c.350BC), and most early Western psychology was regarded as the study of the soul (in the Christian sense). Representationalism became popular again with René Descartes and John Locke in the 17th century. They held a view of mind/body dualism, where there are separate material and immaterial substances.

Mind/body dualism is compatible with most theologies (including Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Taoism) that claim the immortal soul occupies an independent “realm” of existence distinct from that of the physical world. For religions that believe in a soul, most (including most of the Judaeo-Christian religions) believe that after death the soul goes to Heaven or Hell. Taoism has a tradition of soul dualism where the yang soul (魂, hún) leaves the body after death, while the yin soul (魄, pò) remains with the corpse of the deceased. The ideas of self/soul remain popular today: ➜over 70% of Americans believe in heaven, as do ➜over 90% of Muslims.

Wilhelm Wundt

Birth of psychology (1870s-1890s)  [t = 0:18:39]

In the 1870s, psychology developed as an independent scientific discipline in Germany (under Wilhelm Wundt) and the US (under William James). Starting in the 1890s, the Viennese physician Sigmund Freud developed and applied the methods of hypnosis, free association, and dream interpretation to reveal putatively unconscious beliefs and desires that he argued were the underlying causes of his patients’ “hysteria.” He termed this approach psychoanalysis.

These pioneers distinguished the approach of psychology from the natural sciences, religion and metaphysics, and also gave us many ideas we still use today when talking about the self:

Wundt: the human being is a “motivated and thinking subject” (psychology is categorically different from the natural sciences), and mental/psychological phenomena are changing processes of consciousness that can only be determined in actuality (psychology gives categorically different explanations of mind/consciousness from metaphysics or religion)

• Freud: the unconscious mind, depth psychology, ego/id/superego, libido, Oedipus complex, repression, anxiety, neurotic guilt

• James: stream of consciousness, emotion (as consequence rather than cause of bodily experiences), habit formation, will (as effort of attention)

Over the next hundred years, psychological ideas and therapeutic methods developed and spread to a point where they are now almost ubiquitous in the contemporary world in the form of therapy, coaching, self-help, emotional intelligence and personal development. Although psychoanalysis is in overall decline as a diagnostic and clinical practice, and although Freud’s theories fell out of favour scientifically because of their poor predictive ability, his work has suffused contemporary Western thought and popular culture.


Behaviourism (1910s-1950s)  [t = 0:19:02]

In the early 20th century, from roughly the 1910s or 1920s to the 1950s, the main thrust of psychology research and theory-building turned to behaviourism. Put simply, behaviourism is the view that all behaviours are either reflexes produced by a response to certain stimuli in the environment, or a consequence of a person’s individual history, especially what has been reinforced and punished over the course of their life. It is a theory that stimulus leads to response:


Behaviourists believe that learning and change come about because of reinforcement and repetition: people will change their behaviours if the ‘new’ or ‘desired’ behaviors are rewarded and ‘undesired’ behaviors are punished. In the behaviourist view of learning, the ‘teacher’ is the dominant person in the classroom and takes complete control, evaluating how students are progressing and ensuring that the correct behaviours are followed. The learner does not have any opportunity for evaluation or reflection within the learning process, they are simply told what is right or wrong. This so-called ‘rote learning’ influenced an entire generation of teachers, and spread beyond the classroom to help define the mid-20th century view of a good manager in the workplace, as well as supporting the growth of hierarchical organizational structures.

From a contemporary perspective, behaviourism can seem almost inhuman. So why did it become so popular? As we saw earlier, Freud’s theories of depth psychology were intuitively appealing but they were unscientific – they struggled to produce predictions that could be tested experimentally. Meanwhile, experimental psychologists were exploring how animal behaviours could be influenced through environmental stimuli. In the 1910s the Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Ivan Pavlov conducted a famous series of experiments to show that if a dog is presented food at the same time as an auditory stimulus (like the sound of metronome), after a few repetitions the dog will salivate in response to the stimulus even in the absence of food. This training process is termed ‘classical conditioning’. In the 1930s, B. F. Skinner built on Pavlov’s work in another famous series of experiments to show that rats and pigeons can be trained to learn certain behaviours through repetition and reinforcement with rewards and punishments, a process termed ‘operant conditioning’. From a Buddhist perspective, the behaviourist idea that habitual behaviours are stored and reinforced is very similar to the Chittamatra idea of the alayavijñana as a storehouse consciousness. In both cases, the more we do something, the stronger our habits become.

Skinner’s theory of ‘radical behaviourism’ became very influential not just because of its experimental success, but also because it had strong overlaps with the philosophical tradition of American Pragmatism that became popular in the early 20th century. Pragmatism sees thought as a tool for prediction, problem solving and action, rather than as a means to describe or represent reality. Likewise, Pragmatists are skeptical of metaphysical speculation, and they believe philosophy is best viewed in terms of its practical uses and successes.

Although behaviourism fell out of favour in the 1950s, it has recently regained popularity as ‘nudge theory’, where reinforcement is used to help influence behaviour change towards public policy goals, and even more so with Silicon Valley’s use of behaviourist techniques to build ‘habit-forming products’ and encourage people to spend more time on websites and buy more things online. The idea that external environmental influences are the primary cause of behaviour is also related to mainstream economic theories and the idea of homo economicus, the narrow rational optimizer that somehow takes in all the signals from the environment and figures out the ‘optimal’ thing to do. Our public policies draw on theories about market-based incentives, and most people believe in the power of economic incentives at work – that if you pay people for accomplishing their objectives and give them bonuses for exceeding them, then they’ll work harder. And even though it turns out that this isn’t true, most companies still hold a behaviourist view of how people should be motivated and rewarded.

I’d encourage you to reflect on how much you are influenced by behaviourist ideas in your own life. For example, how do you motivate your children, your friends or your partner to do what you want? To what extent do you use rewards and give people treats for when they’ve done something ‘good’? It’s a very behaviourist way of thinking. And on a more philosophical level, what is the difference between influence and manipulation? When are incentives and hierarchical structures good, and when are they bad? When should we tell someone what to do, and when should we let them discover the consequences of their actions for themselves?

Mind as machine

Cognitivism (late 1950s- )  [t = 0:21:40]

Behaviourism began to decline after World War II, when its reinforcement-based theories of learning turned out to be near-useless for training soldiers to use new technologies and to deal with stress. Behaviourism also suffered an important intellectual defeat in the late 1950s. Skinner developed a behaviourist theory of how people learn and use language, which he explained in his 1957 book Verbal Behaviour. But in 1959, Noam Chomsky wrote a scathing critique of Skinner’s book, pointing out that children acquire their first language without being explicitly ‘taught’ in a way that would be consistent with behaviourist theory, and also that Skinner’s theories of ‘operant conditioning’ and behavioural reinforcement cannot account for the fact that people can speak and understand sentences that they have never heard before. Chomsky’s refutation of behaviourism had a decisive influence in the fields of linguistics, philosophy and cognitive science, and it has come to be regarded as one of the catalysts that started the ‘cognitive revolution’ in psychology. The 1950s also saw significant growth in the fledgling field of computer science, and it became clear that relatively simple rules and programs can generate complex behaviours. So all of a sudden psychology woke up to the idea that mental models might be responsible for a lot of what we do.

Behaviourism – at least the versions prevalent in the 1950s – tends to see the inner workings of the mind as some kind of impenetrable ‘black box’ that we need not concern ourselves with, and that are outside the realm of psychological science in any case because they are unobservable. By contrast, cognitive psychology takes a diametrically opposite approach with its explicit study of mental processes such as memory, attention, perception, language use, problem solving, creativity, thinking, and meta-cognition. Put simply, we can say that cognitive psychology believes that mindsets drive behaviors. That’s a very Buddhist view as well, because when we say ‘view, meditation, action’, we are very much holding to the idea that our view drives our behaviour. Indeed, this has been one of our central claims throughout our study of the Madhyamaka – the reason that we place such importance on establishing the view is that it serves as the foundation for our practice and action. The view-based approach of Buddhism is essentially a cognitive approach. And in cognitivism, it’s not just that stimulus leads directly to response as in behaviourism. Behaviour is now explained in terms of a three-step process where an external stimulus is received as an input, it is then processed, and that leads a to response:

Behaviourism:  STIMULUS ➜ RESPONSE


If you’re familiar with computer programming, you’ll recognize that this process is the same as the ➜input-process-outputmodel widely used in systems analysis and software engineering. Although of course when we’re triggered emotionally, our amygdala is hijacked and we engage in reactive fight/flight responses that bypass this kind of cognitive processing. As we now know, we’re not the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves to be. But in cognitive science, as in Buddhism, it’s generally considered a good thing to have more mindfulness, more awareness, and more wisdom – and in the conventional truth, this means better mental models, better conceptual maps and narratives, and fewer defilements and wrong views.

Mind as network

Post-Cognitivism (1970s- )  [t = 0:23:25]

As you might imagine, cognitivism itself encountered challenges. Starting in the 1970s, critics argued that the algorithmic or rule-based approaches to cognitive psychology could never allow us to understand how humans really make decisions, because we have unconscious intuitions, attitudes, and knowledge about the world. We don’t just use sets of rules of programs. There’s always a context or a background, or what Heidegger called the Dasein. An important articulation of this view may be found in Hubert Dreyfus’ 1972 book What Computers Can’t Do. These views became increasingly influential as early progress in artificial intelligence stalled, and the rule-based expert systems of 1970s and 1980s were found to be useful only in very specific situations and domains of knowledge.

Building on his earlier work, Dreyfus wrote Mind Over Machine in 1986, where he argued that our unconscious knowledge could never be captured symbolically. So in the mid-1980s, many people said there’s no way we’re ever going to be able to find a conceptual way to describe our intuitions. More importantly, we’ll never be able to build artificial intelligence with intuition or creativity, as all algorithms are limited by rationality and linguistic constraints. Chandrakirti has shown that all imputed ideas, all concepts and language, are at best only an approximation to reality. Perhaps the reification of conceptualization and the artificial precision of language – in the sense that we’re referring to phenomena that do not truly exist – leave the world of intuition forever beyond our grasp? And indeed, computer languages are perhaps the most precise and least poetic languages in human cultural history.

But starting around the 1990s and especially in the last decade, artificial intelligence researchers have found a way to respond to the post-cognitivist critique. Using techniques such as ‘deep learning’ based on a computational approach called ‘neural networks’, researchers have learned to teach our computers to process information in much the same way that the human brain does. And unlike a traditional computer program, the way that a neural network represents knowledge about the world is completely beyond our rational understanding. Unlike the clear and precise mathematical logic of an algorithm, with deep learning we can no longer tell a ‘true’ story of ‘this is why the program reached this decision’.

All such ‘explanations’ of the workings of neural networks are at best approximations, an attempt to simplify the non-linearity and complexity of the neural network into simple linguistic and conceptual terms that humans can understand. And as we have seen in previous weeks, this is starting to sound much more like Chandrakirti’s world of dependent arising. Just as Thich Nhat Hanh’s story of the cloud and the rain in the paper illustrates the complexity of the causes and effects interacting in the natural world, the number of interacting causes and effects that are part of a neural network is far too great to capture in any simplistic narrative. Indeed, it’s not even possible to say what is a ‘cause’ and what is an ‘effect’, only that they arise in mutual dependence. Artificial intelligence is therefore confirming the Madhyamaka insight that none of our stories are true anyway – they’re all just simplifications, justifications, and imputations.

When we program computers to engage in deep learning, they can understand context, background, and things that we would normally associate with intuition. But it’s impossible for a neural network to explain to us how it reached a decision. This goes back to Rinpoche’s notion of irrational / rational / beyond rational. Now for the first time we’re actually seeing technologies that are implementing ‘beyond rational’ decision making. We know they are able to give us answers, and they’re good answers, but we don’t understand how they do it. They cannot explain themselves. And actually, if you were going to push this analogy a little bit, you could perhaps say that neural networks and deep learning are the technological equivalent of the Madhyamaka idea of dependent arising. They produce a result, but the way the causes and conditions come together to create the result is beyond any rational, linguistic, or conceptual explanation.

Deep Blue – Kasparov, Game 1, 1996

Playing games rationally and beyond-rationally: Chess and Go  [t = 0:26:40]

The difference between rational and beyond-rational is a bit like the difference between the first chess-playing computer and the first Go-playing computer. You may recall that in 1996 IBM’s computer Deep Blue beat the then-reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov. After the games, Kasparov said that he felt that the computer was at times showing deep intelligence, but the programmers knew that really it was just brute force. The computer was looking six to eight moves ahead, and examining every possible that move it could make and that Kasparov could make. It had a complicated evaluation function to assess the strength of any position, so after it looked at all the different moves it chose the move that led to strongest position in six to eight moves time. So it’s actually quite a traditional form of optimization. There’s a lovely story that in one of the games the program Deep Blue made a mistake as there was a bug in the code, and it caught Kasparov so off-guard that he attributed it to the superior intelligence of the machine. So much so, that in the next game he really wasn’t playing his best, because he’d been emotionally knocked off his centre. So it’s interesting that even a world champion might attribute intelligence to a machine like this, but really there wasn’t anything approaching human creativity or intuition.

Not let’s fast forward to 2016 and the story of AlphaGo, which is a Go-playing computer built on principles of deep learning by the company DeepMind (which was subsequently acquired by Google). For many decades, Go has been considered a much more difficult game than chess for computers to play, because there are so many positions on a Go board. A chess board has just 8×8 squares, whereas a Go board is played on a 19×19 grid; and while chess pieces can only move in highly constrained ways, in Go, stones can be placed essentially anywhere on a Go board. So the number of possible positions even just a few moves ahead rapidly exceeds the brute force kind of computation that IBM’s Deep Blue used for chess. Many people thought we wouldn’t ever be able build a computer that could play Go, in the same way that Hubert Dreyfus and the post-cognitivists didn’t think artificial intelligence would ever be able to demonstrate intuition. They were right in thinking that Go is simply too complex to ‘solve’ rationally – but they were wrong in assuming that no beyond-rational solution could be found.

As it turns out, DeepMind was able to do just that with the deep learning approach. In October 2015, the first version of AlphaGo beat the European Go champion and 2nd Dan master Fan Hui by five games to zero. In March 2016, just a few months later, AlphaGo played the 9th Dan master Lee Sedol (Korean: 이세돌), ranked number six in the world, and ➜beat him by four games to one. In May 2017, AlphaGo defeated the world champion Ke Jie (simplified Chinese: 柯洁; traditional Chinese: 柯潔)  by five games to zero, and it also won every game that it was playing in parallel against 60 other Go masters. Part of what I find interesting about this is simply the speed at which AlphaGo improved. In Go, a player is rated using the Elo system. A 1st Dan master is rated around Elo 2100, a 9th Dan master is rated around Elo 2940, and the current world champion Ke Jie is rated Elo 3675. At the end of 2015 AlphaGo was rated Elo 3000, by 2016 it was as good as the world champion, and in May 2017 it was rated Elo 4750. This is remarkable. In just two years, a computer has progressed far beyond human performance, in a game that is considered to be the most subtle and intuitive of all board games – so much so that in ancient China, Go was considered one of the four cultivated arts of the Chinese scholar gentleman, along with calligraphy, painting and playing the musical instrument guqin (Chinese: 古琴). If you’ve seen the 2013 movie Her where Scarlett Johansson is the voice of an artificially intelligent computer that evolves beyond its human ‘owner’, the similarities are striking.

Lee Sedol – AlphaGo, Game 2, Move 37, 2016

How artificial intelligence will challenge our ideas of self  [t = 0:30:44]

There are many interesting philosophical questions around the emergence of artificial intelligence, as for many centuries we’ve taken pride in the fact that our rationality and intelligence is something uniquely human. And even once computers were able to out-compute us and demonstrate superior rationality and thinking speed, we could still take pride in the confident knowledge that our intuition and creativity are uniquely human. But now even these ideas of what defines our uniqueness are slipping away. When AlphaGo played Lee Sedol, the Go champions watching the matches said ‘Wow, this AlphaGo program is doing beautiful, amazing, creative, intuitive things.’ In their ➜commentary on Game 2 [PDF], the masters Fan Hui, Gu Li and Zhou Ruiyang wrote about how their experience watching AlphaGo play had shown them just how much human Go had become limited and bound by tradition. AlphaGo was able to approach the game with more of a Beginner’s Mind than the greatest human player:

As we walk the path of improvement, we must study and experience all aspects of the game: josekifuseki, shape, and direction, just to name a few. After we absorb this knowledge, we learn over time to apply it flexibly. But to reach the level of grandmasters, even this is not enough! As we gain experience, our knowledge fetters our creativity. To truly throw off these shackles and liberate ourselves from what we have learned, we must discard labels of “right” and “wrong.” In their place, we must consider the essence of Go: the role of each stone, and the relationships between them. Only in this way can we reach the level where invention prevails over tradition. AlphaGo began from the same fundamentals as humans, but the rigid attachment to knowledge is simply not in its nature. Thus, it is only natural that AlphaGo possesses a talent for creativity.

So according to the consensus of the world’s leading Go masters, a machine intelligence is now showing creativity and intuition. Maybe from a Madhyamaka point of view that’s actually a good thing? After all, it means there’s less for us to cling to. There’s less opportunity for us to tell ourselves a story about how ‘special’ we are.

DeepMind took AlphaGo out of competition in May 2017, because the idea of a human-machine Go competition no longer makes sense. And in refutation of the pessimists who said that humans would no longer want to play Go once computers could out-play us, global interest in Go is now at an all-time high. But our relationship to AlphaGo has changed – from being a parent/teacher (in 2015), to being a colleague/peer (in 2016) to being a humble student (in 2017).


Some more examples of representationalism  [t = 0:32:20]

I’d like to give just a few more examples of representationalism, since this is the view of most of our opponents. One example is the difference between analogue and digital movies.In an old analogue movie, each frame of the movie has a picture. There are typically 24 or more frames for each second of the movie, so a feature length movie has well over 100,000 frames – and each one is an image. Whereas in a digital video there are no images and no physically separate frames – there is only a long stream of zeroes and ones. It’s a very representationalist approach, and the representation doesn’t look anything like the reality that it’s representing.

We might that that representation refers only to mental representation and higher-order cognitive theories of self, but as we said even animals have innate selves. And if you go down to the level of biology, it turns out that even our immune system is able to distinguish self from other. It has a representation of ‘self’ and ‘other’. And when that distinction breaks down, that’s what we refer to as auto-immune disease. It’s fascinating to see how self/other dualism can work at a purely biological level. The immune system distinguishes cells that are ‘self’ based on protein markers called ‘antigens’. Your immune system can look at these antigens of different cells and say ‘This cell is part of self, this cell is not part of self’. And so it knows what it has to protect and what it has to defend itself against and destroy.

Even single-celled organisms, the simplest forms of life, need to make this distinction between self and non-self. When they ingest food through their cell walls that they then want to digest, they need to know whether they digesting the food or part of their own cellular structure. So even the most simple, the most primitive form of life needs some kind of dualism. It needs some kind of distinction between self and non-self. So we can see that there’s dualism and representation all the way down.

We’ll also have a lot more to say about the notion of the base for the idea of self. When we say a forest is based on trees, is that true? Is the idea of ‘car’ based on its parts? Is the idea of the ‘whole’ based on the sum of the parts, or is it something separate? When we say we have a computer, what is the idea ‘computer’ based on? Is it the chips? Is it the underlying machine code? Is it the hardware or the software? Most users nowadays have no idea what is going on inside their computer. They’re dealing with windows, they’re dealing with folders, they’re dealing with icons – all of which are highly representational. Actually a lot of cognitive science would say that our theories of self are quite similar in the way that they function.

“Beauty looking back”, Hishikawa Moronobu, Japan, 17th century

The implications of the baseless idea of self for our path  [t = 0:35:24]

In the text, in the readings this week, a lot of what Rinpoche talked about was to do with practice. We’re going to talk about practice in Week 7, but there’s quite a lot in this week’s material, so I’d like to touch on what Rinpoche said here. For example when we say the Prasangika view is that there is no base for the idea of self, but the other schools believe there is some substantial base, this means that for the Prasangika there is no point in refuting the five aggregates. Since for them the the idea of self is baseless, it makes no difference whether you have the five aggregates or you don’t have the five aggregates. The aggregates aren’t creating this idea of self.

This reminds me of a story Rinpoche likes to tell about doing retreat. Just because you go to the mountain to do your retreat, it doesn’t actually mean that you’ve left samsara behind. You could be continually distracted with thoughts of your worldly life. The base of your distraction may have nothing to do with your physical location, whether it’s being in the busy samsaric world or being in some beautiful remote mountain hideout.

There’s another lovely Zen story that captures this idea, called Muddy Road (from Paul Reps’ collection of 101 Zen Stories):

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

I love that story. What are we holding onto as the base for our self, for our identity, for our self-clinging? And when we do our practice, when we go on retreat, are we really confronting that base? Or are we just changing some superficial aspects of our external surroundings? That’s very important to bear in mind when we practice.

From “Five Donkeys” by Huang Zhou

Emptiness in practice  [t = 0:37:57]

On page 250, Rinpoche also said that when we meditate, many meditators like to say that they’re meditating on selflessness, but actually, he said, ‘I’m sure they are attacking the more gross aspects.’ And indeed, in a lot of our practice we think about purifying the emotions. We work on a gradual path. We attempt to practice the paramitas without having any realization of the nondual view. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Several of you asked questions during the past week about what does emptiness or nonduality mean for practice? To answer this, I would like to offer a lovely story that Rinpoche taught in the Uttaratantra teachings. This is from page 343 in the transcript (which you can download):

Horse practice and donkey practice

Padampa Sangye said this. You pray to the Buddha thinking that he’s in front of you, like an object and subject, with tears in your eyes, whining, complaining, and all that. And then suddenly you remember Buddha is emptiness, Buddha is your mind, and there is no truly existing Buddha. All this information comes to your mind. Then […] you don’t know what to do, as your devotion disappears, tears stop, yearning and longing stops. Padampa Sangye said when that is happening it’s like riding a horse.

And then you think, “Oh, I want to get back to my old mode of devotion.” So Buddha is there again. You are here. And then you cry and all that. And Padampa Sangye says that is like dismounting the horse and riding the donkey. I think the conclusion is that you should try to ride the horse as much as possible, and have the donkey nearby. So when you fall, at least you have a donkey! It’s better than nothing!

This is the Buddhist path. […] Although the path is so holy and precious, it needs to exhaust. If the path does not exhaust then you are not really practicing. When you sharpen your knife, you have a stone and a knife and you rub them together very quickly. And a so-called sharp knife is actually nothing but the exhaustion of the stone and iron. There is no new phenomenon called a ‘sharp knife’ that comes from somewhere. It’s basically an exhaustion of the stone and iron. The path is like this. When you practice devotion and compassion and all this, which is like the iron, and the stone that is like your defilements, you rub them together and both have to exhaust.

This is such an important teaching. So many of us practitioners get attached to our practice, to the idea that we bodhisattvas, the idea that we are Buddhists. We feel that we have a special connection with our sadhana, our deity practice, our mantras. We have a strong ego identification, a clinging. All of that has to go. And also as Rinpoche said, it’s not just the practice, but the experiences that arise during practice, they also have to go. Only then can we say we are really bringing the view of emptiness to our practice. Only then are we really riding the horse.

Let’s go back to the Chandrakirti’s conclusion that the idea of self is baseless. As we said earlier, it’s because there is no base that we can freely choose a different idea of self. We can practice mindfulness in the Shravakayana. We can practice lojong in the Mahayana. We can turn happiness and suffering into enlightenment because there is no reason for us to interpret a situation as good or bad. We can choose to see what happens differently. We can reinvent ourselves as bodhisattvas. In Vajrayana, in deity practice, we can re-imagine ourselves as a deity. And all of these practices work because the base of the idea of self has nothing to do with our five aggregates. They’re not in any way causing or constraining our idea of self.

Rinpoche talked a little bit about the Dzogchen perspective, he said ‘You know if you have certain great faculties, then maybe establishing the view is not necessary, because at the very moment that your master introduces the nature of phenomena, then you have a glimpse of emptiness. And based on this glimpse you stabilize recognition. And then you get rid of all your clinging and fixation. But most of us don’t have these kinds of superior faculties.

Rinpoche gave another example on page 251. He said that if your guru tells you to do something totally ridiculous as your path, your mind will start to have all kinds of doubts. That shows we lack superior faculties. For someone devoted to the guru, who understands emptiness, everything is acceptable. As we’ve seen before, we’re not constrained by rationality.

There’s some more lovely practice advice on page 252. Rinpoche said ‘Our masters tell us that understanding is like a patch on clothing. Experience is like a mist in the morning. We should not be attached to them. But no matter how many times our masters say this, we are nevertheless very attached to our understanding. We’re very fixated on our experiences, so that’s how we know we don’t have superior faculties, because we’re not listening to our masters.’ As we saw in Week 3, it’s like Rinpoche’s example of three kinds of students or J. Cole’s story about the three kinds of listeners. How do we cultivate that ability to hear what our teachers are telling us?

Sigmund Freud

The baseless idea of self and therapy  [t = 0:44:23]

Rinpoche also said something quite interesting about the implications of the baseless self for therapy. A lot of our approaches to therapy are based on understanding how the way we are today is based on our history – what happened with our childhood, our parents, our experiences in life. How did all of that come to construct an idea of self? So the therapeutic model is not that the idea of self is baseless, but rather that it is based on our entire psychological history, that our present is somehow overdetermined by our past. Here on page 253 Rinpoche said:

I don’t know very much about Freud, but I think that if he had read Chandrakirti, his theory would be different. For instance, my parents are very compassionate, and they have really taken care of me very well. But several months ago, I went to a Freudian psychoanalyst, pretending to be a patient […] I could find many reasons to brood about my life, such as ‘in the past I have been wronged by my parents’. But upon hearing Chandrakirti, we realize that this ‘unconscious’ or ‘subconscious’ mind is all imputed.

Our narrative of ‘self’ is all imputed. Here’s another way of thinking about this, it’s a lovely story, it’s a true story actually, about a pair of identical twins. They both grew up in a family with a very abusive father, and they were interviewed by some researchers. They had very different life experiences. One was happily married, and was a very devoted, loyal, kind and gentle husband. The other one was himself quite abusive. He’d had an unsuccessful marriage which had ended in a very messy divorce. A lot of psychology looks at twin studies, and these researchers were really curious: How was it that these two twins had ended up with such different approaches to their marriage, and such different outcomes? And so they interviewed the twin who had got divorced and they said ‘tell us your story, why did you get divorced?’ And to cut a long story short he said, ‘well, with a father like mine, what do you expect?’ So for him it was very clear that his history, his psychology, his upbringing had basically conditioned him so that it was almost inevitable that he would play out the same patterns. And so they interviewed the other twin, who had a wonderful happy marriage, and they asked him ‘well, why are you like that?’ And the amazing thing is he said, ‘well, why do you think? It’s because of my father.’ So both of the twins gave the same explanation, the same reason. Their narratives and life stories both referred to the same root cause – namely their abusive father – but they had interpreted and responded to that in completely different ways.

So even in the realm of psychology we can see that the way we choose to interpret our life experiences is not deterministic. We get to choose what story we tell based on what has happened in our lives. So this is very much aligned with Chandrakirti’s approach. Whatever we choose as our self narrative, as our story, our identity – we can’t make excuses based on our past. It’s a baseless story, a baseless idea of self. We are entirely responsible for that choice. So this is very useful practical advice for all of us. Whenever in your life you find yourself justifying who you are, justifying what you do, justifying what works about your life and what doesn’t work about your life and trying to blame it on your parents or something else – just be aware that whole attempt to impute some kind of causality, that is your wrong view. Because our narrative of self is a completely baseless narrative. If you wanted to, you could change the story you’re telling. Now, we know that’s not easy, because our habits are very strong. But let’s be clear, it’s just our habits. There is no actual, ultimate, truly existing reason that you are the way you are. There’s nothing you can’t change. This is very liberating, because it means the Dharma path is possible. It means that practice does make sense.

One more example. When we think of true love, there are two very different ways you can think about it. One way is unconditional love: you love someone unconditionally. It’s baseless. It is not dependent on what they say, what they do, who they are. You’re holding that idea of them, you’re choosing to be in a relationship with them based on your baseless idea of what it is to be in love. Whereas somebody else could say ‘I choose to love you if you treat me well, if you’re kind to me, if you don’t cheat on me’. Or maybe ‘I choose to love you because you’re rich, or young, or beautiful’. But all of those ideas, they’re clearly conditional. And just as we saw with our narrative of self, if we are attached to stories like that, we are saying that our notion of love, our story of ourself and our identity in this relationship, has some kind of basis. There’s some kind of base. And as Chandrakirti would tell us, you’re just making excuses. None of that is real.

Milarepa, Kagyu, Tibet, 17th century

The baseless idea of self and Dharma practice  [t = 0:50:08]

This is also important as we think about our Mahayana practice. When we think about the four immeasurables, when we think about the six paramitas, many of us struggle with ideas like: Can I really be generous? Can I really have patience? My goodness, there are these people in my life that are so difficult. I don’t have very much, how can I possibly give to others? We have all these stories, these excuses, these narratives. And just to be clear, from Chandrakirti’s perspective we are trying to impute a base for our story of self when actually it’s completely baseless. So just be aware that any of these excuses we’re making, they are excuses, they’re justifications. And if we wanted to, we could choose a different story.

I say that primarily to be really empowering and emphasize the possibility here, and also just to encourage us to be honest with ourselves. As we said last week, Rinpoche’s practice advice comes from Milarepa: Practice is not fooling oneself. We’re so tempted to make excuses in our lives, but actually we have the freedom, we have that accountability, because there’s nothing about our story of self, our idea of self that is based on anything.

Rinpoche also said on page 248 that many theoreticians, our other schools, feel that we need a base for talking about rebirth or karma. But similarly this is a big misunderstanding of self. It’s not based on the body, it’s not based on the five aggregates. In the Forum there’s been quite a debate around rebirth. Let’s be clear: if we are trying to base our ideas of rebirth on any kind of base, we are going to be refuted by Chandrakirti.

Review of where we are in the structural outline  [t = 0:52:08]

Now we start our refutation with verse 121. Traditionally when texts like this are taught in the shedras (the Buddhist monastic colleges), students will refer to the sabché (the structural outline, which we first met in Week 3), to get a sense of the structure of the argument in the text. In our case, the sabché is presented as a set of logic trees at the back of the text (on pages 431 to 442). The logic tree that contains verse 121 is tree #4 (on page 434):

If you look at this tree, you will see there are three main high-level sections to our argument:

• (1) First we’re going to refute that the person is substantial (verses 121-149)
• (2) Next, we’re going to present the person as dependently imputed, which includes the famous seven-fold analysis of the chariot (verses 150-165)
• (3) Finally, we’ll apply the same logic to all existing things (verses 166-178)

The first of these three sections has more detail, which is in tree #10:

Within verses 121-149, there are two subcategories. First we’re going to refute the self as existing with five aspects. Within that there are four subcategories, and the approach we’ll take is very reminiscent of the way we refuted self of phenomena. As you may recall, we first refuted truly existing arising from self, other, both, or neither. And then once we’d excluded all those four possibilities, we concluded that there was no truly existing arising, and so we were left with dependent arising. We’re going to do something very similar here. We’re going to set out the four ways that self could be substantially existing, in other words the four ways that self could be related to the aggregates:

• Are self and aggregates different?
• Are self and aggregates the same?
• Do self and aggregates exist as support and supported?
• Do self and aggregates exist as possessor and possessed?

We’re going to examine these four possibilities, and we’re going to refute all four. We’re also going to refute the indescribable idea of self. Once we’ve done that, we’ll conclude the self is dependently imputed. So that’s an overview of the structure that we’re going to follow.

Verse 6:121

(#1) Refuting the idea that self and aggregates are different  [t = 0:54:05] [MAV PDF pages 249-253]

Our first opponents are the Samkhya, one of the original Hindu schools. We met them before, in week 3. Chandrakirti starts with a quick review of what they believe.

[6:121] The tirthikas assert a [self] to be an experiencer, permanent substance, non-creative,
Non-possessor of the [three] qualities, and inactive.
Based on minor differences,
The tirthikas themselves have different traditions.

They distinguish the purusha and the prakriti, where the purusha is the person or the self, and prakriti is nature. Persons are multiple; the prakriti is singular. They’re both truly existing, eternal, and independent of each other. The purusha, the person, the self in this case, is essentially unchangeable, inactive, yet conscious. Whereas nature, prakriti, includes all the usual material aggregates, but it also comprises the gross body and what’s called the ‘sign body’ of the purusha. Among other things, that is how the purusha knows the world, its epistemological apparatus. But also it’s the part of the purusha that transmigrates, that goes from rebirth to rebirth. So the physical and mental aggregates are all part of the prakriti, but the awareness – the self – is the purusha. And as you may recall, according to the Samkhya, the only way that we can escape samsara is when the purusha realizes that the prakriti and the purusha are different, and then the purusha loses interest in the prakriti. So this is a strongly dualistic theory in which self and aggregates are different and also truly existing.

Verse 121 list five aspects of the Samkhya view that Chandrakirti has summarized from their teachings, and which he intends to use to refute their view.

• Purusha is an experiencer. It is powerless to influence prakriti; in only experiences it.
• Purusha is permanent.
• Purusha is not a creator. It is unchanging. All change and creation happens within prakriti.
• Purusha has no qualities. Only the prakriti has the qualities of rajas, tamas, and sattva.
• Purusha does nothing.

Now you may hear this and think this is a completely crazy theory. How can anyone believe such a thing? And yet, intriguingly, as we will see later on, some philosophers in contemporary cognitive science believe that our consciousness is an epiphenomenon, and they describe it in terms much like purusha. They believe that consciousness is an epiphenomenon because it is a by-product of what happens with the material processes in the brain, and it doesn’t actually do anything itself. It’s a powerless experiencer, just like purusha. So it appears that some of these seemingly ancient and outlandish theories like the dualistic view of the Samkhya are still alive and well – or perhaps we should say they have taken rebirth – in our contemporary world.

Verse 6:122

Refuting its nature  [t = 0:56:32] [MAV PDF pages 253-255]

[6:122] Uncreated like a barren woman’s child,
Such a self is non-existent.
Not acceptable as basis for I-fixation,
It cannot even be considered an all-concealer.

We’re going to refute the Samkhya view of purusha in three ways. First, it can’t exist because it doesn’t arise. Anything permanent doesn’t arise, as we’ve seen before. Secondly, it can’t be a base for innate ignorance. And thirdly, even in the relative or conventional truth we can’t say this kind of self exists, because we can’t see it.

We had a conversation at this point in the teachings about what is the right word to describe the Samkhya purusha: is it ‘permanent’ or is it ‘eternal’? Here are the dictionary definitions:

Permanent = lasting or intended to last or remain unchanged indefinitely (“A permanent ban on the dumping of radioactive waste at sea”).
Synonyms: lasting, enduring, indefinite, continuing, perpetual, everlasting, eternal, abiding, constant, irreparable, irreversible, lifelong, indissoluble, indelible, standing, perennial, unending, endless, never-ending, immutable, undying, imperishable, indestructible, ineradicable, ineliminable. 

Eternal = lasting or existing forever; without end or beginning (“The secret of eternal youth”).
Synonyms: everlasting, never-ending, endless, perpetual, undying, immortal, abiding, permanent, enduring, infinite, boundless, timeless

As you can see, ‘permanent’ has the connotation of lasting for a very long time, whereas ‘eternal’ is almost beyond time. There was an interesting conversation during the teachings in France about how in Christian theology, eternal and permanent are seen quite differently. Only God is eternal, as in beyond time, whereas the individual soul is considered within time. So the soul may be permanent, but it is not eternal. We didn’t reach a conclusion about which is true for purusha.

Verse 6:123

Refuting its particularities  [t = 0:58:00] [MAV PDF pages 255-256]

A lot of the verses here are not really very complicated once you understand this problems of having a truly existing base for the idea of self. In verse 122 we refuted the nature of the purusha, and in 123 we refute its particularities.

[6:123] The characteristics [of self] mentioned in the various scriptures
Of the tirthikas,
Are contradicted by the tirthikas themselves with their reasoning of non-creation,
Rendering non-existent these characteristics.

If we say that the self has five aspects, or three aspects, or nine aspects – there are many different Samkhya sub-schools, which have slightly different theories of self – all these views are similarly refuted. The particularities or aspects of the purusha cannot exist, because if they are indeed part of a permanent self, they must also be permanent and therefore non-arising.

Verse 6:124ab

The self is not truly different from the aggregates  [t = 0:58:28] [MAV PDF page 256]

[6:124ab] Thus a self distinct from the aggregates cannot be,
Because apart from the aggregates, there is nothing to fixate on.

If the self and aggregates are truly separate, then why couldn’t the idea of self arise from looking at something other than the aggregates? Why would we have to look at the aggregates to come up with our idea of self? Why couldn’t we look at something different like a tree? It’s a problem we’ve seen before: for this kind of explanation to work, our opponents need some kind of connector. And we know from our previous encounters that any time our opponents start invoking a connector, we know they don’t really have an answer.

Verses 6:124cd-6:125

The Samkhya idea of self is not a basis for innate ignorance  [t = 0:59:11] [MAV PDF page 256]

[6:124cd] Ordinary beings do not accept it as the basis of fixating on I,
Because although they do not perceive it there is still view of a self.

[6:125] Those born as animals for many aeons,
May never have seen this uncreated permanent [self].
Nevertheless, it is clear they cling to a self,
Therefore, other than the skandhas there can be no self.

We know this purusha can’t be conventional truth, because even animals have an innate self-clinging, but they clearly don’t have any kind of imputed self.

Verse 6:126

(#2) Refuting the idea that self and aggregates are the same  [t = 0:59:26] [MAV PDF page 257]

In verses 121 to 125, we defeated our first opponents, the Samkhya, who believe that the person (purusha) is separate from Nature (prakriti), which includes the entire physical and mental world. They therefore represent the view of a truly existing self where self and aggregates are different. Now we come to our second opponents, who believe that self and aggregates are the same.

[6:126] As a self other than the aggregates is not established,
The focus of the view of self is solely the aggregates.
For the view of self, based on the skandhas,
Some see it as five-fold while some see it as a single mind.

Our opponents here are the Sammitiya (Tibetan: Mangpö Kurwa, མང་པོས་བཀུར་བ་), one of the early Buddhist materialist schools. I’d like to say a little about the early Buddhist schools, and if you’d like to learn more, the Wikipedia page on the ➜Early Buddhist Schools gives a very good introduction. There were supposedly some 18 or 20 different schools, which held a variety of different views. The Sammitiya claimed that the person (pudgala in Sanskrit) is the carrier of the skandhas and truly exists. As we have seen previously, the early Buddhists wanted to deal with the problem that the Buddha taught two seemingly contradictory things – both that there is no self, and also that there is karma and rebirth. But if there is no self, who is reborn? And if there is no self, who will receive the future karmic consequences of our actions today? Without the idea of a self, the early Buddhists felt that the ideas of karma and rebirth would collapse. So to deal with this problem, a number of early Buddhist schools called the Pudgalavada proposed that there is a truly existing entity, the pudgala, which transmigrates and carries the essence of the self from life to life. The pudgala is like some kind of bank account that stores and transfers accumulated karma, and we can perhaps see similarities to the Chittamatra idea of a storehouse consciousness (the alayavijñana) that we discussed in Week 4.

According to the Sammitiya, the pudgala exists both substantially and physically. As we have already seen, subsequent Buddhist schools didn’t accept that the person is physical, and even other early Buddhist schools like the Sautrantika said ‘yes we believe in these atoms of matter and consciousness, but the person only exists as a label’, that is, as an imputed reality. They didn’t accept that the self is actually a material substance like the pudgala. Whereas for the Sammitiya, the pudgala is made up of the same stuff that everything else is made of, these smaller-than-atom constituents called the paramänu, and when they combine, they become the skandhas. And this is why Chandrakirti classifies this view as a belief that self and aggregates are the same, because the pudgala exists materially and therefore belongs to the form aggregates.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that this school was also an outlier within Buddhism, strongly criticized by the Theravada, the Sarvastivada, and the Madhyamaka. And indeed, lots of scholars both ancient and modern have found there was no support in the Pali Nikayas for the Sammitiya idea of the pudgala as the essence of the person. And despite this, the Sammitiya were very popular. They were the most populous non-Mahayana sect in India, with double the number of followers of the next most popular school of early Buddhism. And although the supposedly more intellectual and sophisticated schools of early Buddhism had refuted their views, their popularity was not dented one little bit. And of course we see similar things all the time in our contemporary world, in everyday situations in political, religious and social life. Just because an idea is proven to be wrong does not mean that it can’t still be very popular.

I say this in part so we become more curious about our own ideas about self. When it comes to our own intuitions about self, we may think something is right because it’s intuitive, it’s simple, and it’s popular. The Pudgalavada schools like the Sammitiya were popular because people found it very intuitive to hear that the pudgala goes from life to life. It’s a nice simple story to explain how karma and rebirth works. Now, what about the fact that it had been refuted as a theory? That didn’t seem to matter. Similarly for a lot of us – and you can see this when contemporary Buddhists talk to each other about self, mind and consciousness, for example in some of the conversations that are happening in the Forum – we can find some things to be more intuitive and others to be less intuitive, and we’ll very often promote a concept that is intuitive, something that fits with our understanding, rather than something that is actually correct. So we really need to watch out, because we all have that tendency.

Gold bodhi leaf, Khyentse Foundation

The early Buddhist schools  [t = 1:03:13]

I’d like to give a little more background on the early Buddhist schools. The Second Buddhist Council took place in 334 BCE, approximately one hundred years after Gautama Buddha’s parinirvana, and virtually all scholars agree that it was a historical event. The overall result was the first split in the sangha or monastic community, between the Sthavira nikāya and the Mahasamghikas. They had different views on the rules governing the Vinaya, which comprised the regulatory framework for the sangha or monastic community. One of the sects, who then became known as the Sthaviravada, split away from the conservative majority, the Mahasamghika, because they wanted to add some additional rules to the Vinaya whereas the Mahasamghika did not want to modify the original Vinaya. Here’s a brief overview:

(1) Let’s look first at the Sthaviras. The word sthavira means ‘elder’ in Sanskrit, and the later Sthavira school called the Theravada school took its name from the word thera, which likewise means ‘elder’ in Pali. The various Sthaviravada subschools fell into three main groups:

(1a) The Pudgalavada (‘personalist’) group of schools included the Sammitiya school that will be Chandrakirti’s opponent here. They all shared a belief that the self is the material pudgala, as noted above, and they all died out when Indian Buddhism died out in the 12th/13th centuries.

(1b) The Vibhajjavada included the school that evolved into what we today know as the Theravada; so that actually survived as a school.

(1c) The Sarvastivada was the third group of schools, and its two main subschools were the Vaibhashika and the Sautrantikathat we commonly include in lists of the four major Buddhist schools in India (alongside the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, for example in Sonam Thakchoe’s “The Theory of Two Truths in India“). The name ‘Sarvastivada’ basically means ‘someone who affirms the existence of the dharmas of the three times’, in other words all that exists. And indent-30pxactually their teachings include subjects like the six paramitas and the bodhisattvayana, which many of us nowadays think of as exclusively Mahayana teachings. The two subschools were:

• The Vaibhashika held that a text called the Mahavibhasha-Shastra was authoritative. It is a big abidharma treatise that has lots of affinities with Mahayana, and the name of the school comes from the name of the text. They disappeared in the late 7th century, although it’s not quite clear what happened to them. Potentially they were absorbed into the Sautrantika.

• The Sautrantika were the second subschool of the Sarvastivada. Unlike the Vaibhashika, they did not uphold the Mahavibhasha-Shastra; instead, they emphasized the Buddhist sutras, and their name ‘Sautrantika’ means one who upholds the sutras.

All these schools were part of the first group, the breakaway group known as the Sthaviravada.

(2) The second group, the Mahasamghika, were the original conservative majority. Interestingly, a lot of scholars now say they were the originators of the Prajñaparamita Sutras and the Tathagathagarbha doctrine (the Buddhanature teachings), so they were probably the proto-Mahayanists. They believed in the Two Truths, they believed in transcendental and beyond-worldly qualities of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and they also saw Arhats as being fallible. So you could really say they accepted the Mahayana. I hope that gives you a bit of a sense. And within all of those schools, Chandrakirti is not actually going to be debating the more advanced early Buddhist schools. Instead, we’ll meet the Sammitiya, who were among the very early Pudgalavada schools that subsequently died out. And the reason they are Chandrakirti’s opponents is because they held a strongly materialist view that the self is the pudgala, which exists materially and substantially.

Verses 6:127-6:128

Seven extremely fallacious implications  [t = 1:06:41] [MAV PDF pages 257-259]

Chandrakirti finds many problems with the Sammitiya view, all stemming from the fact that they believe the self is the pudgala, which is both truly existing and part of the form aggregate.

[6:127] If the aggregates were the self,
Being multiple, there should be multiple selves,
The self would be substantial,
And being substantial, [self] would be unmistaken.

[6:128] At the time of nirvana there certainly would be no self.
Before nirvana, there would be creation and cessation [of self],
And without agent, there would be no consequence [of action],
And [action] accumulated by one [person] would be experienced by another.

These seven fallacious implications are all fairly easy to understand.

(1) Multiple selves: because there are multiple aggregates, and each of them supposedly truly exists, there should be multiple selves corresponding to these truly existing aggregates. Even within the form aggregate there are multiple forms such as two ears, two eyes and so forth, so there should be multiple selves corresponding to each of these.

(2) Substantially existing self: if the aggregates are substantial, the self should therefore also be substantial, since the pudgala is part of the form aggregate. But all Buddhist schools hold that any transitory collective, such as a gross physical body that is made up atoms, is just an imputation (similarly to the relationship between trees and a forest). And as we know from the Four Seals, “all composite phenomena are impermanent”. So the Pudgalavada self is both substantially existing and an imputation, which is a contradiction.

(3) Why abandon clinging to self? If the self truly and substantially exists, it would be ‘unmistaken’. It would be ultimate truth. Why would you abandon clinging to something that truly exists? And by the way, this is part of the reason why the ‘self of phenomena’ became much more of a concern in the Mahayana schools than in the early Shravakayana schools, like these Pudgalavadins. Unlike Chandrakirti, they weren’t worried about refuting the true existence of phenomena, because they actually accepted truly existing phenomena.

(4) The self will cease to exist upon enlightenment: since you become free of your aggregates upon attaining enlightenment, then enlightenment would be like a sudden disappearance or destruction of the self. This is nihilism, which is not a consequence that any Buddhist can accept. We’ll see this same argument later when Chandrakirti points out that if a yogi manages to realize selflessness, he is therefore ‘killing’ someone; he is ‘destroying’ a truly existent self. This takes us back to debates about rebirth, where a lot of the confusion comes from the claim made by some Buddhists that Western philosophers – and especially Western scientists – are saying there is a truly existing end to a person. And indeed, if we thought that the person was truly existing while they were alive, then death or enlightenment would present the same problem as it would to the Sammitiya. But, you know, is that true? When Western philosophers and scientists are talking about the person, are they really talking about its true existence? I don’t think so.

(5) The self would have to change with each rebirth: with each rebirth, a person supposedly takes on a new form with a new form aggregate. But if the self is the pudgala, which is part of the form aggregate, then the self would have to change with each rebirth. Then we shall once again have the problem of explaining how karma functions.

(6) There will be no enlightenment: Since the aggregates cease when you die and the body decays, and since the Sammitiya believe the self is part of the form aggregate, there will no longer be a self that can become enlightened. This is a great question we can all reflect on. We all think that we have a self, and we all think that this self is practicing the path. We also have the narrative that one day we will attain enlightenment, but if there is no ‘me’, how can there be a ‘me’ in the future that gets enlightened? It’s a very paradoxical story, back to where we were in Week 1. Once we start to look at it, a lot of the Buddhist path really starts makes no sense at all.

(7) Karma will not function: the self is based on aggregates and the aggregates keep changing, so the person who receives the consequences of karma will no longer be the same person who created that karma. This is why the substantialist Buddhist schools needed to come up with ideas of a ‘connector’ like the pudgala. You could actually say that a lot of the different theories and explanations of the conventional truth proposed by the various substantialist Buddhist schools are actually an attempt to give a plausible explanation for how the connection between karmic causes and karmic results might actually work. And Chandrakirti refutes all of them.

Verse 6:129

Rejecting the idea of a continuity  [t = 1:10:19] [MAV PDF page 259]

Our opponents say that there is no problem with asserting a truly existing connector like the pudgala to link the present self and future self and thereby ensure the functioning of karma.

[6:129] [You hold] there is no fault having a continuity in the absolute,
[But] when earlier examined, the faults of a continuity were all explained.
Thus, that skandhas and mind should be a self is not feasible,
Because the end of the world and so forth was/were not discussed.

But Chandrakirti rejects this because, as we have seen before (in verse 6:16), this is a circular argument. In the last line of verse 129, Chandrakirti also points out that in the famous 10 or 14 unanswered questions, the Buddha did not discuss if the aggregates and self are identical or not, or whether the world is eternal or not. But if the Sammitiya view were correct, then surely the Buddha would have been able to say ‘yes, the self is the same as the aggregates’; so the fact that he didn’t do that is another reason not to accept their view.

Verses 6:130-6:131

Refutation from the subjective standpoint of the yogi  [t = 1:11:00] [MAV PDF pages 259-262]

As we’ve already seen, from the yogi’s perspective, when he realizes non-self, the aggregates disappear. But if the Sammitiya view were true, that would mean he would accumulate the bad karma of killing someone.

[6:130] For a yogi who sees selflessness,
Entities will certainly disappear
If it is a permanent self that is abandoned,
[In that case] your mind or aggregates cannot be the self.

If, in seeing emptiness, the yogi only sees the emptiness of the imputed self, then he’s not seeing the empty nature of form; so he could still feel desire upon seeing a beautiful form.

[6:131] [Therefore] when a yogi sees selflessness,
He will not realize the suchness of form etc.
Observing a form, desire and so forth will arise
From not understanding its essence.

As Chandrakirti says, this is like keeping a poisonous snake in your house, but telling other people ‘hey, there’s no elephant’. You might be refuting the non-existent imputed self, but what about all the real problems of self-clinging and emotion? You haven’t begun to deal with the poisonous snake!

Verses 6:132-6:133

There is no scriptural support for their position  [t = 1:11:52] [MAV PDF page 262]

The next two verses say there is no scriptural support for the idea of the pudgala.

[6:132] You may consider the skandhas to be the self,
Because the Teacher taught so,
[But] that was to refute that self is other than skandhas.
Other sutras state that form is not a self.

[6:133] Self is not form, nor feeling, nor perception,
Nor formation, nor consciousness,
Because of the negations in various sutras,
It is simply not taught skandhas are the self.

As we have already seen, the sutras don’t have this notion of the pudgala.

Verse 6:134

A mere collection of aggregates cannot be a protector, tamer or witness  [t = 1:12:07] [MAV PDF pages 262-263]

Now we’ll talk a little about the idea of the self as the gathering or collection of the aggregates. Is the self the gathering of the aggregates, or not? And in verse 134 we say, well, no, it can’t be, because the Buddha taught that the self is the protector; it is the tamer, it is the witness. And a mere gathering could never do this. There needs to be some higher-order subject that can relate to the rest of the aggregates as an object if it is to be able to protect, tame or witness them. In other words, if everything is at the same level – if everything is just aggregates – then it is not possible for some aggregates to somehow be a subject in reference to the others as an object.

[6:134] When it is said skandhas are the self,
It is the skandhas as a gathering, and not the individual skandha.
Not a protector, not a tamer and not a witness.
Not being these, the gathering cannot be [a self].


Whole and parts, complexity and emergence  [t = 1:12:47]

So already we don’t trust this idea of the gathering of aggregates. But I think this topic is actually really important, because for most of us – and I’ve seen so many questions on this over the years – a lot of the problem in understanding the relationship between self and aggregates is related to the idea of whole and parts. In particular, how do we explain the seemingly magical property of what it is to be a conscious self?

I want to talk about this a little because, as you may know, we are regrettably very linear creatures whose brains evolved to function on the African savannah ten thousand years ago. Our brains and minds are not very good at dealing with complexity and nonlinearity; and consciousness is a complex non-linear phenomenon. We’ve seen this before. If you look at the history of science, there are so many seemingly mysterious phenomena in the natural world that people could not explain, and so invoked ‘magical’ explanations. And then with progress in science we understood that all of these ‘magical’ explanations were not only untrue, but unnecessary. Perhaps you can see a similarity with the way the Madhyamaka refuted the ‘magical’ explanations of a continuum or connector that were conjured up by the substantialist Buddhist schools. So for example:

Phlogiston: there’s little doubt that the control of fire by early humans some 600,000 years ago was a turning point in human social and cultural evolution. If you look at fire, it seems magical. You light a piece of wood, and then fire comes, as if from nowhere. What is the nature of fire? Until the 18th century, scientists used to think you needed something to explain the phenomenon of fire, so they proposed a special fire element called ‘phlogiston’. Before modern physics and chemistry, people could not accept that fire can be explained in terms of ordinary material properties. In their ignorance, they felt they needed to invoke something magical, something special, something extra.

Evolution: until the 19th Century, nobody knew how to explain the diversity of life. How can there be so many forms of life? How could something as complex as an eye evolve from a creature without an eye? Nobody could imagine it. We thought we needed a creator God, until Darwin came along with the theory of evolution. Indeed, even in the 21st century, resistance to Darwin’s ideas is alive and well. Creationists in the US state of Kentucky have built a $100m replica of Noah’s Ark in their attempt to prove that the Biblical story of the flood can be interpreted literally. Magical thinking is not so easily defeated.

Aether: Similarly, until the 19th century, people could not explain how light is transmitted. People knew that light has to travel from the Sun to reach the Earth. It must be transmitted in some way, but we know that space is more or less a vacuum. So how does light travel? For literally thousands of years, people resorted to the notion of ‘aether’ to explain the propagation of light. Then in the 19th century we discovered that this too is false.

Élan vital: Likewise, until the 19th century, people thought that there was something special about living things, which we explained in terms of an ‘élan vital’ (or ‘vital force’). People felt there was something special that marked out the difference between a living phenomenon and a non-living phenomenon. The idea that life could be an emergent property of something material seems outlandish. I think for many of us even today, it still feels very counter-intuitive. Life feels very special. It feels more than just something material. And we all know that when someone dies, all their material elements are still present, and yet this magical extra thing – this life, whatever it is – is no longer present. There’s a seeming absence of something magical, and no doubt this is a big part of why people came up with ideas like ‘soul’. It seems clear that something leaves the body upon death, because it looks and intuitively feels like life has a special quality. But as with all these other seemingly inexplicable phenomena, we now know there is no élan vital. We do not need magical explanations.

Detail from “Mosaic II”, M. C. Escher, 1957

And of course, Chandrakirti would be completely in agreement with all these refutations of magical thinking. He does not believe that we need any base to explain these seemingly mysterious phenomena. And now that we’re talking about the supposed mystery of consciousness in the 21st century, a lot of people feel the need for some base to explain consciousness. They want some extra element. They want something to explain the seeming mystery or the magic. And yet, in all likelihood, it’ll be just like all these previous theories. Just like phlogiston, aether, the élan vital and the idea of life itself, we do not need something extra. We do not need something magical to explain consciousness.

Let’s return to the idea of a collection of aggregates, which we can think about as the idea of the parts and the whole. There are two quite different ways that parts could make a whole, and to illustrate this I’d like to distinguish the example of a jigsaw puzzle from a computer.

• Jigsaw puzzle: For any of you who have ever assembled a child’s jigsaw puzzle, you will know that the puzzle is made up of many little pieces that are cut up into irregular little interlocking shapes, and when you assemble them correctly, they come together to form an image. If you’ve got a couple of pieces missing, you still basically know what the image looks like. You can take out a piece, and you can still see the whole picture. So this is the first example of how the parts come together to form a whole – like a jigsaw.

Computer: There’s a different example where the whole/parts relationship is more like a computer and its circuitry. If you have all the different pieces of circuitry all properly assembled together, then you have a functioning computer. But unlike the jigsaw, if you take out even one piece of the circuitry, the computer no longer functions. Whatever this ‘magical’ essence of a ‘functioning computer’ might have been, we lose that. Once we take out even a single chip – or even part of a chip – the phenomenon of a ‘functioning computer’ is gone.

In summary, if you lose a piece from your jigsaw puzzle you can still very clearly see the image, and you have an almost-perfect jigsaw puzzle. But if you lose a piece of circuitry from your computer, you no longer have a computer. You have a useless chunk of metal and plastic.

Flock of birds

Complexity and emergence  [t = 1:18:24]

So there are two quite different ways that parts can combine to make a whole. In the first one, the parts make a whole that is of the same order as the parts. It is at the same level of function. The parts come together in a way that is essentially additive, or what a mathematician would term ‘linear’. No new type of phenomenon is being created. It is what Chandrakirti refers to as a ‘gathering’ or ‘collection’ of parts, albeit in a particular ‘shape’ (in verses 6:155-6:156, he will refute the idea that the self is the shape of the gathered parts).

Whereas in the second, for example when the parts of a computer are properly assembled, there is a new level of function, a new order. The parts come together to produce new properties in a way that a mathematician would term ‘non-linear’. This is called ‘➜emergence‘. One definition of emergence comes from the economist Jeffrey Goldstein:

Emergence is the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns, and properties during the process of self-organization of complex systems.

This is really important, because our contemporary understanding of self is that it is an emergent property: it’s like the computer, it’s not like the jigsaw. But as the definition of emergence makes clear, any emergent property is self-evidently dependently arisen: it isn’t truly or independently existing, and thus cannot be an object of Chandrakirti’s refutation.

This is a little problematic, because Chandrakirti’s refutations are directed towards opponents that hold a reductionistic view, a very jigsaw-like model of ‘self’. So we may find that this kind of refutation might not be so helpful against potential opponents in contemporary philosophy of consciousness. I just say this as a warning, not to say that his argument is not still valid in its conclusion; it’s just that his opponents, compared to our contemporary opponents, were very unsophisticated and simplistic.

Going back to emergence, it turns out that there are two different kinds of emergence:

Weak emergence: the first kind of emergence is termed ‘weak emergence’, and it describes situations where the parts produce an emergent whole in a way that can be modelled or predicted, for example the movement of a flock of birds. If you’ve ever watched a flock of birds in flight, you might perhaps have wondered how the individual birds coordinate their movements so as to maintain their collective shape, their flying formation. If we saw this in humans, we might assume that someone is in charge and there is some kind of centralized control. But in fact it turns out that with some very ➜simple rules about how the individual birds maintain similar speed, heading, and distance from each other, you can predict the shape of a flock.

Strong emergence: by contrast in the second kind of emergence, ‘strong emergence’, you cannot simulate or predict what will emerge when you combine the parts. A reductionistic explanation of the system is not possible. Here, a classic example is the water molecule H2O. The great experimental scientist Henry Cavendish discovered in the early 1780s that a water molecule is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and an atom of oxygen. We know the parts that combine to make the whole. But although we have known this fact for more than two centuries, and even though we now understand the physical and chemical properties of individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms in great detail, we are completely unable to derive or explain or predict the properties of water just by looking at its parts – the individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms. There’s something emergent that happens when hydrogen and oxygen atoms come together to form a water molecule. There are new properties – emergent properties – that simply cannot be predicted in terms of what we know about the level below. Water is not amenable to reductionistic explanation.

Given that we see strong emergence even in one of the simplest and most common substances in the inanimate natural world, it seems inevitable that an understanding of emergence will be even more important when we talk about the complex phenomena of mind, consciousness, and self-awareness.


Is consciousness an epiphenomenon?  [t = 1:21:32]

I don’t want to go into too much detail here, and the contemporary philosophy of mind and consciousness merits an 8-week program all of its own. But there is an interesting unresolved debate in the contemporary philosophy of consciousness and the mind-body problem that will take us back to the views held by our Samkhya opponents more that 2000 years ago. While strong emergence is intuitively attractive as an explanation of mind and consciousness, some philosophers seek to refute the idea of emergence, notably the Korean-American philosopher ➜Jaegwon Kim. He argues that all these supposed emergent properties such as consciousness are epiphenomena. In other words, ➜they don’t truly exist. The dictionary definition is:

Epiphenomenon: a secondary effect or byproduct that arises from but does not causally influence a process.

In philosophy of mind, ➜epiphenomenalism is the view that mental phenomena including consciousness can be caused by physical phenomena, but cannot cause physical phenomena. They’re mere side-effects or by-products of physical processes in the body and the brain, and they have no independent causal efficacy. We might describe our stress response by saying that fear makes the heart beat faster, but if we could describe our heart rate purely in terms of the state of the nervous system then nothing would be added by referring to the additional concept of ‘fear’ – it would be an epiphenomenon. That’s not to say that we don’t experience fear. But if fear is indeed an epiphenomenon, then we don’t need the concept of fear in order to explain why the heart beats faster.

This explanation is remarkably similar to the Samkhya view of purusha and prakriti. As we have seen, the Samkhya believe that the functioning of the material world can be explained entirely in terms of prakriti. Consciousness or purusha doesn’t actually do anything to affect the material world. So the Samkhya describe consciousness as epiphemonenal in the same way as some contemporary philosophers of mind.

When we were refuting the Samkhya, we may well have thought of their view as remarkably strange and unscientific. And yet it turns out that there’s a lot of evidence from neuroscience that seems to support the idea that consciousness is an epiphenomenon. Some of the first evidence comes from experiments conducted in the 1960s to study the Bereitschaftpotential or ‘readiness potential’ in the motor cortex of the brain before muscle movement. You can measure the nervous impulses associated with voluntary actions like flexing a finger, and it turns out that the nerves are already sending impulses up to two seconds before we have conscious awareness of choosing to make the decision to move our finger. This is remarkable: if our brains know what we’re going to do two seconds before ‘we’ choose to do it, in what sense can we say that we are making a conscious choice? Our consciousness doesn’t seem to be doing much.

More recently, in the 1980s, ➜Benjamin Libet conducted some very famous experiments showing that it can take approximately half a second before a stimulus, like somebody pricking our finger with a needle, becomes part of our conscious experience. So conscious awareness of the stimulus takes about 500 milliseconds, but we can react to that stimulus in only 200 milliseconds. So we now have a rich set of examples where we are able to do things that we are completely unconscious of. And so a lot of cognitive scientists say, well, you know, if our consciousness only arises after we have already chosen to act, and we have already responded in some way, then what is consciousness adding? Is it actually doing anything, or is it just a story that we are telling ourselves? And if we are telling ourselves a story, then why might we be doing that? It’s a fascinating question, although I’m not going to go into it any further right now, as it would take us too far from our refutation of the truly existing self of the person. But there’s a lot of really interesting evidence that challenges our intuitive ideas of ‘free will’ and forces us to reconsider what exactly do we mean when we talk about ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’. If you’re interested in learning more, please refer to the pre-reading, especially the pieces by David Chalmers, Daniel Dennett and Thomas Metzinger, to whom we turn next.

David Chalmers

Mind/body dualism is real: David Chalmers  [t = 1:24:45]

Even this very brief survey of some of the issues in contemporary philosophy of mind would be incomplete without mentioning the ongoing debate between Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers, two of the most famous contemporary philosophers of consciousness. I have included several articles in the pre-reading that introduce their perspectives, as well as those of the philosopher Thomas Metzinger who has built on their insights and taken them forwards in a way that is of great interest to a follower of the Middle Way. I have also written a blog post on “Contemporary philosophy of consciousness and the self” that discusses some of the contemporary issues in terms of our concerns of the Madhyamaka.

David Chalmers is well known for articulating the ➜”Hard Problem of Consciousness”, namely the problem of explaining how we have subjective (1st person) conscious experiences. He contrasts this with the “easy problems” where cognitive science has made rapid progress in explaining (3rd person) how our minds function in doing things like discriminating, integrating information, reporting mental states, focussing attention, etc. He is an avowed dualist: like the Samkhya, he sees consciousness as ontologically distinct from the physical and mental aspects of the brain and the mind. As the Wikipedia article on ➜David Chalmers notes:

[Chalmers believes that the] essential difference between the (cognitive) easy problems and the (phenomenal) hard problem is that the former are at least theoretically answerable via the standard strategy in philosophy of mind: functionalism. Chalmers argues for an “explanatory gap” from the objective to the subjective, and criticizes physical explanations of mental experience, making him a dualist. Chalmers characterizes his view as “naturalistic dualism”: naturalistic because he believes mental states are caused by physical systems (such as brains); dualist because he believes mental states are ontologically distinct from and not reducible to physical systems.

He also believes that our subjective experiences are epiphenomena. In the same way that the Samkhya believe the purusha is a passive observer, Chalmers doesn’t see consciousness as having any function whatsoever. And yet he still believes there is some special magical quality associated with consciousness. He invites us to imagine that Pierre and a robot are both eating a cupcake. Unlike the robot, Pierre is conscious that he’s eating a cupcake. His subjective experiences are called ‘qualia’; and they describe the private feeling, the subjectivity, of what it is like to ‘be’ a sentient being. Pierre and the robot are doing the same thing, but only Pierre has any inner conscious experience – although as we have just seen, this doesn’t make any difference in the world. This is an example from Chalmers’ work on the ➜’philosophical zombies’: from the outside, they are indistinguishable from normal human beings, but they lack conscious experience or qualia. If a philosophical zombie is poked with a sharp object, it would have no experience of pain, but it would nevertheless behave like a human (for example it might say “ouch” or recoil from the stimulus).

With rapid progress in the field of artificial intelligence over the past few years, questions about the possibility of artificial sentient beings are taking on new urgency, especially regarding whether these beings could suffer pain. During the Madhyamaka teachings in France, Rinpoche said that if we succeed in creating an artificial intelligence that can truly be considered sentient, then it will experience suffering, and we should teach it the Dharma path.

Daniel Dennett

Mind/body duality is an illusion: Daniel Dennett  [t = 1:25:46]

Opposed to Chalmers are philosophers who argue against epiphenominalism and the strongly dualistic view that it implies. Firstly, if epiphenominalism were true, the mind should not have any effect on the physical world. So how could our brains ever know about our minds? After all, if the mind were detectable or knowable in any way, then it would have to leave some kind of imprint on a physical detector in the world – and that would contradict the strictly dualistic view that it has no effect on the physical world. This is the same argument Chandrakirti used against the Chittamatra in verse 6:72:

[6:72] Without an object, and free from a subject –
If a dependent nature free from duality were to exist [inherently],
What could recognize its existence?
Not being an object [of a mind], its existence cannot be claimed.

Perhaps the strongest critic of Chalmers’ dualistic view is Daniel Dennett, who rejects both epiphenomenalism and the existence of qualia. He uses the same refutation that Gilbert Ryle levelled against the Cartesian idea of a ➜”ghost in the machine”; where Ryle says that comparing mind and body is actually a category mistake, because they belong to different logical categories. The ‘qualia’ that supposedly make up conscious experience do not belong to the category of ‘objects of reference’ but rather to the category of ‘ways of doing things’, so Ryle concludes that the supposed mind/body duality is therefore just a “philosopher’s myth”.

In the book chapter “The Self as a Centre of Narrative Gravity“, Dennett presents a brilliant deconstruction of the truly existing self of the person, and like Chandrakirti he concludes that our idea of self is a baseless “theorist’s fiction”:

A centre of gravity is just an abstractum. It’s just a fictional object. But when I say it’s a fictional object, I do not mean to disparage it; it’s a wonderful fictional object, and it has a perfectly legitimate place within serious, sober, echt physical science. A self is also an abstract object, a theorist’s fiction. The theory is not particle physics but what we might call a branch of people-physics; it is more soberly known as a phenomenology or hermeneutics, or soul-science (Geisteswissenschaft). The physicist does an interpretation, if you like, of the chair and its behaviour, and comes up with the theoretical abstraction of a centre of gravity, which is then very useful in characterizing the behaviour of the chair in the future, under a wide variety of conditions. The hermeneuticist or phenomenologist — or anthropologist — sees some rather more complicated things moving about in the world — human beings and animals — and is faced with a similar problem of interpretation. It turns out to be theoretically perspicuous to organize the interpretation around a central abstraction: each person has a self (in addition to a centre of gravity). In fact we have to posit selves for ourselves as well. The theoretical problem of self-interpretation is at least as difficult and important as the problem of other-interpretation.

His thought experiment of Gilbert, an artificially intelligent novel-writing robot, beautifully illustrates the process of self-authorship that we all engage in, consciously or not. And he concludes that the robot will end up creating a baseless fictional self-narrative just as we do:

We can still maintain that the robot’s brain, the robot’s computer, really knows nothing about the world; it’s not a self. It’s just a clanky computer. It doesn’t know what it’s doing. It doesn’t even know that it’s creating a fictional character. (The same is just as true of your brain; it doesn’t know what it’s doing either.)

As you can perhaps sense, there is a rich debate about consciousness and subjectivity – what Chandrakirti would term “the self of the person”. Contemporary philosophy of mind can certainly help us to see that a lot of our intuitive ideas about ourselves and our minds are mistaken; but even some of our contemporary philosophers are just reinventing old ideas – such as Chalmers’ Samkhya-like dualism – that have already been defeated by Chandrakirti.

Verse 6:135

A self that is a mere gathering of aggregates is like the example of the chariot  [t = 1:27:12] [MAV PDF pages 263-264]

If the self is merely a gathering or collection of the five aggregates, then it’s like the example of a chariot. The chariot isn’t something truly existing. It is the name that we give to the correctly-assembled parts of the chariot. This example of the chariot goes back to the Pali suttas, and it was already popular when Chandrakirti wrote the Madhyamakavatara. We’ll discuss its origins when we come to Chandrakirti’s additions to the example of the chariot in verse 6:151. But in verse 135, he simply refers to the example, as it would already have been familiar to his readers:

[6:135] Because a variety of parts
Make up a chariot, the self is comparable to a chariot.
The sutras teach [imputation of self] is based on the skandhas,
Therefore, [self] is merely a gathering, not a [true] self.

As we have seen with the example of the computer, the sum of the parts does not create a new truly existing higher-order phenomenon. Rather, these higher-order phenomena – such as a self, a computer or a functioning chariot with parts correctly assembled – are names that we give to something dependently arisen. There’s a baseless idea of the whole. Just like hydrogen and oxygen – you can put together all these atoms, and that will not create this new idea, this baseless idea of water.

Verse 6:136

]If the skandhas have a shape, they cannot be mind  [t = 1:27:54] [MAV PDF page 264]

Shape cannot be mind, because shape is part of the skandha of form, and so mind cannot be self, as mind has no shape.

[6:136] Because shape exists in [the skandha of] form,
You call this a self;
But the mental skandhas cannot be a self,
Because they do not possess shapes.

As we’ve said before, this doesn’t really work with our contemporary ideas of self because it’s very reductionistic in terms of how it thinks about our aggregates and physical form, whereas our contemporary ideas of self and consciousness are much more like the computer than the jigsaw puzzle. They are much more based on emergence and complexity, and they are therefore examples of dependent arising.

Verse 6:137

Agent and action cannot be the same  [t = 1:28:28] [MAV PDF page 264]

But here we’re not refuting contemporary ideas of self. We’re refuting the early Buddhist Sammitiya school that believes the self is the physical pudgala. And since the pudgala is part of the form aggregate, we have the problem that agent and action would be the same.

[6:137] That perpetuator and action should be one is illogical,
Were it so, action and agent would be identical.
If you think there can be action without agent,
This is not so. Without actor, there is no action.

We would have the form aggregate possessing the form aggregate, and that makes no sense.

Verses 6:138-6:139

Summary based on scriptural authority  [t = 1:28:47] [MAV PDF pages 264-268]

There is also no scriptural authority for the Sammitiya view.

[6:138] A self depends on earth, water, fire,
Wind, consciousness and sky,
The six faculties, the [senses such as] the eyes, and the bases of contact,
This the Sage clearly taught.

[6:139] [A self bases itself on] mind, mental events and dharmas –
[This the Buddha] ascertained. [A self] is not other than these,
It is not the same, neither is it their gathering.
Thus, fixation on I is in neither of these minds.

The Buddha’s teachings tell us that the eighteen factors are not self. And by the way, these eighteen factors are not the same as the ➜eighteen dhatus, which comprise the six external bases, the six internal bases, and the six consciousnesses. Whereas here we have six elements, six sense organs, and six consciousnesses, so it’s actually a slightly different list. But nevertheless, these eighteen factors are not the self. The gathering of the eighteen is not the self. And the eighteen factors are not a base for self-grasping. This is also very much what we will cover in the sevenfold analysis of the chariot.

On page 266, Rinpoche makes a lovely point that we might have a romantic idea that the self is some kind of gathering, or perhaps some kind of unity. We like to have some kind of basis for our idea of self. Maybe we are clinging to the notion our self is the defined by our consciousness, or maybe we are clinging to the idea that our self is reborn from life to life. But don’t forget that for Chandrakirti, the idea of ‘self’ has no base. Any story we tell about the self is just an imputation.

One other really important thing, as Rinpoche says on page 267, is that Chandrakirti doesn’t have any problem with explanations or theories of how things function on the relative level. After all, Chandrakirti functions in the world. He accepts the conventions of ordinary people. If he’s a car mechanic, he wants to understand why your car’s not working. If your car has a flat tire, he is happy to tell you that’s why your car can’t move. Or, if he were a Prasangika neurosurgeon, he would want to understand the complexity of how the physical structure of your brain actually functions, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to do his job as a neurosurgeon. He’d want to be able to analyze your brain scans, correctly diagnose the problem, decide on what needs to be done, and develop a strategy for how best to conduct the surgery. The point is that none of these kinds of knowledge or analysis are theories seeking to establish the ultimate truth, so none of these are problematic for Chandrakirti. So – we’ve said it before, we’ll say it again – science is not our opponent. Science does not establish true existence, as we saw last week, and we’ll see it again this week. Nothing Chandrakirti says goes against our ability to function in the world. He’s not against science or technology or the modern world. I want to emphasize this because it seems there are some Buddhists who don’t much like science or modernity, and they like to point to the Madhyamaka to support their view. Chandrakirti might be curious about the origins of their strong preferences and bias, but he would not agree with their conclusions.

On page 268 there is an interesting conversation about language. We know that particulars like ‘trees’ exist whereas universals like ‘forest’ do not, although of course even a tree is made up of its parts – its branches, its cells, and so forth – and if we continue to analyze, we will eventually conclude that no entities truly exist. And indeed this is what Chandrakirti has already concluded in refuting the truly existing self of phenomena. This leaves us with a very interesting problem when it comes to language, namely that words do not correspond to entities, because there are no truly existing entities. So any word, in any language that we use, is not referring to anything real. It can be helpful just to remember that from time to time. Many of us can get attached to our language and to our words. We think our words and our concepts are precise. And yes, of course, in the conventional truth, it’s better to be more precise rather than completely inaccurate, but as Jigme Lingpa said:As soon as we talk, it’s all contradiction;
As soon as we think, it’s all confusion.

Verses 6:140-6:141

Confusing what to refute and what to uphold  [t = 1:31:46] [MAV PDF pages 268-269]

If the self is the same as the aggregates, we face another problem: what are we refuting and what are we keeping? Because if the Sammitiya are refuting the self of the person, they’re only refuting the imputed self, not the pudgala. They’re keeping the pudgala.

[6:140] Realizing a selflessness that refutes a permanent self,
Cannot be considered [refuting] a basis for I fixation.
That such cognition of egolessness
Should uproot the view of the transitory collection as a self is indeed an astonishing statement.

[6:141] As when discovering a snake’s nest in the wall of one’s home,
And comforting oneself that it is not an elephant,
Besides relieving fear of the snake
Alas! One is the laughing stock of others.

The translation here is a little unclear, but Mipham’s commentary in the Padmakara translation of the Madhyamakavatara clarifies the meaning:

To assert the above is to be like someone who discovers a nest of snakes in the wall of his house and thinks that by telling himself that there are no elephants there, he can overcome his fright as well as remove the danger of the snakes! Alas, those who understand can only laugh at such an idiot. For indeed, snakes and an elephant are completely different objects of reference.

Furthermore, just as ego-clinging cannot be removed simply by knowing that there is no such thing as a permanent self, the same is true of the mere refutation of true existence. If one leaves vivid phenomenal appearances as they are and is content simply with the refutation of their true existence, considered as something extraneous to the phenomena themselves, the innate apprehension of the conceived object, namely, a truly existent pot, is not eradicated. The remaining object, which we continue to think of as a pot, for example, will still act as the basis of desire and aversion, of help and harm. Such an inferior kind of emptiness avails us little.

Black swans

Science and the Madhyamaka  [t = 1:32:22]

When you’re reading this text, please bear in mind that these teachings were given in 1999, and at that time Rinpoche’s views on science were a little bit different from how they are nowadays. In 1999, he was quite openly challenging or questioning whether science would be contradicted by Chandrakirti, but more recently he has been speaking about science quite differently. I don’t know if you read the blog post I wrote earlier this week, so I’ll just quote what Rinpoche said:

When Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche taught the ➜Two Truths in Bodh Gaya in October 2014, he said that we should not see scientists as enemies of Chandrakirti, and instead we should understand the scientific notion of ➜falsifiability as part of the definition of valid relative truth.

That’s a very important statement. Also:

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has also said, we need to accept that conventional truth in the scientifically literate 21st century is very different from conventional truth in pre-scientific India and Tibet, and there is no conflict between science (correctly understood as a falsifiable attempt to describe and explain regularities in the conventional world) and Buddhism (correctly understood in terms of the Two Truths).

There should be no conflict between science and Madhyamika. Again, this is very important to ensure that we don’t develop wrong views of the Madhyamaka. Especially when we talk about things like self and consciousness and karma and rebirth, some of us start to attack science as an opponent. But remember, science is not an opponent of Chandrakirti. So if our ideas of self and consciousness and karma and rebirth become anti-scientific, that means we are imputing some kind of base to ground our concepts of self – and that is not something Chandrakirti would accept. He does not believe there is a base for these concepts such as self, karma, rebirth. All of these ideas are imputed. They are baseless. Bear that in mind.

Rinpoche said that if Einstein says the ground of labelling does not substantially exist (which he probably would say), and he can produce a path to understand that, then “no more is necessary”. In other words, if western science has both a correct understanding of ultimate truth and a correct path in the conventional truth, then it could also be considered a path to liberation. There was quite some discussion on this point in 1999, and we concluded that this is perhaps the biggest challenge for contemporary science and philosophy.

The view that is held by Western science and much of contemporary Western philosophy is actually the same view of emptiness as the Madhyamaka. There is no real conflict when it comes to the ultimate truth. The problem is that these contemporary Western traditions don’t have a complete understanding of the Two Truths. Science offers the conventionally accepted explanation of how phenomena function in the natural world, but it doesn’t offer a path of practice that can lead us to realize the view of emptiness. As a scientist, you can study science. You can even study the philosophy of science. But that does not mean you are applying it in your own life, to overcome your own self-clinging and emotions. So as we’ve observed in previous weeks, we may have an Espoused Theory of emptiness, but unless it becomes the Theory-in-Use that is driving our action, it’s of little practical use to us. So scientists are not our opponents; they’re just ordinary, conventional sentient beings who need a path just like the rest of us.

Verse 6:142

(#3) Refuting the idea that self and aggregates exist as support/supported  [t = 1:35:31] [MAV PDF page 275]

Let’s take a moment to review where we are in the structural outline or sabché. We are refuting the various ways in which the self of a person could exist substantially, and specifically we are refuting the four ways in which self and aggregates could be related:

Refuting that the person is substantial [6:121-6:149]

1) Refuting that self/aggregates are different (Samkhya) [6:121-6:125]

2) Refuting that self/aggregates are the same (Sammitiya) [6:126-6:141]

3) Refuting that self/aggregates exist as support/supported [6:142]

4) Refuting that the self possesses the aggregates [6:143]

We refuted the Samkhya view earlier, and we have just finished refuting the Sammitya view that self and aggregates are the same. Now we’re going to refute the third possibility, which is that self and aggregates exist as ‘support’ and ‘supported’. The refutation in verse 6:142 is very simple.

[6:142] Neither does the self dwell in the skandhas, nor is it in the self
The skandhas dwell. For this reason,
Were they different this could be conceivable,
But not being different, this is a [mistaken] notion.

The self and aggregates are not other, because if the pudgala is part of the aggregates, it can not be said to be truly other than the aggregates. If two phenomena are to exist in a support/supported relationship, or indeed, in a possessor/possessed relationship, then we need these two phenomena to be truly ‘other’. Something can not support itself.

Verse 6:143

(#4) Refuting the idea that self possesses the aggregates  [t = 1:36:32] [MAV PDF page 275]

Verse 143 is also very straightforward. Because the self doesn’t exist, it cannot possess anything. As we have seen in previous weeks, something unreal can not possess something real.

[6:143] The self cannot be considered to possess form, because a self
Does not exist and hence the idea of possession does not apply.
[It would apply if] they were different, as in possessing a cow; or identical, as in possessing a body.
The self is neither form nor different.

Verses 6:144-6:145

Summary: refuting the twenty wrong views of self  [t = 1:36:42] [MAV PDF pages 275-276]

Verses 144 and 145 are a summary of the twenty wrong views of self. There are five sets of four, one for each of the five aggregates. Let’s take one of the sets: “form is not self”, “self does not possess form”, “form does not exist in self”, “self does not exist in form”. If we multiply these four statements by five aggregates, we have these twenty views of self, the twenty ‘wrong views’.

[6:144] Form is not a self and self does not possess form;
Form does not exist in a self and self does not exist in form.
The four [other] skandhas too are like this,
These are the twenty views of a self.

[6:145] The mountain [-like] view [of an inherently existing self] is destroyed by the [wisdom]-vajra of realizing selflessness.
Simultaneously with this are also destroyed
The strong mountains of the view of the transitory collection,
The towering peaks [of the twenty views of transitory collection].

Nagarjuna adds five more, for a total of twenty-five wrong views of self. He also includes “self is independent from form” as a wrong view, and so on for the rest of the five aggregates.

Verses 6:146-6:149

Refuting the idea of the person existing as something indescribable  [t = 1:37:15] [MAV PDF pages 276-278]

We have refuted the four ways in which self and aggregates could be related. The final possibility is that the self and aggregates are related, but in a way that is indescribable. Here our opponents represent the views of another early Buddhist Pudgalavadin school, the Vatsiputriya, which later evolved into the Sammitiya that we met previously. The Vatsiputriyasupposedly hold the view that aggregates substantially exist, but that the self is inexpressible.

[6:146] Some [hold] an indescribable substantial person
With identical or different, permanent or impermanent self and skandhas.
[Such a self] can be seen as an object of the six consciousnesses,
And is regarded as the ground of I-fixation.

The refutations are very straightforward. In verse 147, if our opponents are saying that mind is other than body, it’s no longer indescribable. But if they don’t say this, how are they supposed to prove that this self truly exists if they can’t describe whether or not it’s separate from the aggregates?

[6:147] Because the difference between form and mind is not indescribable,
And [something] real and existing is not perceived as indescribable.
Were someone to prove a real self,
Being a proven reality like the mind, it would not be indescribable.

Likewise, in verse 148, if our opponents hold that the ground truly exists, but the self based on the ground is indescribable, then they can’t say if this self is actually different from the ground. And this means that we can’t say whether or not it’s truly existing.

[6:148] Because you [claim] the nature of a pot does not exist substantially,
As one cannot describe its form and so forth [as different or identical],
A self and skandhas being [equally] indescribable,
[Does not allow you to view] self as inherently existing / You cannot view self as inherently existing.

Our opponents say that the pudgala is a truly existing entity that is different from the skandhas, but in order to be considered a truly existing entity, a phenomenon needs to be describable. Entities are truly existent, and they have hard boundaries, like a marble. But if the pudgala is inexpressible, our opponents cannot say that it has this kind of distinct boundary. They can’t express whether it’s the same or different from the skandhas, so they can’t say it is an entity.

[6:149] You do not regard consciousness as different from itself,
But you do regard it as an entity different from the skandhas.
Because entities are regarded as having these aspects [of identity or difference],
[But here] not having these [two] characteristics of entities, there is no self.

Verse 6:150

Presentation of the person as dependently imputed  [t = 1:38:37] [MAV PDF pages 278-279]

So with this we’ve refuted the various ways that the self could be based on aggregates, so we’re left with the conclusion that the only option left is that the person is dependently imputed – not imputed based on a truly or substantially existent base.

[6:150] Therefore the basis for fixating on a self is not an entity,
It is not other than the skandhas, nor is it the skandhas themselves;
It is neither based on the skandhas, nor does [it] possess them.
[Rather, self] is established in dependence on the skandhas.

John Maynard Keynes

We are all slaves of some defunct theoretician  [t = 1:39:01]

On page 278, Rinpoche reminded us that we all have views; let’s not start to get arrogant and think we’re so smart that we’ve suddenly got beyond them. The problem is that even if we’re philosophically well-trained scientists and we know the ground doesn’t exist, we still have the habitual pattern of thinking the ground exists. We still have clinging to self. As Rinpoche said,

Although you may be a so-called ‘free thinker’, saying you do not believe in any doctrine or philosophical system, you still have beliefs. And these beliefs are very much influenced by these doctrines.

This really reminds me of a lovely quote from John Maynard Keynes in 1936:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.

This is the part I particularly love:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

This is exactly what Rinpoche is saying. We may like to think that we don’t have theories or views, but we are slaves to these various schools in ways we don’t even know.

Verse 6:151

The simile of the chariot  [t = 1:40:09] [MAV PDF page 280]

Now in verse 151 we come to the famous simile of the chariot:

[6:151] Similarly, we cannot consider a chariot as being other than its parts;
Nor identical; nor possessing these;
It is not in the parts; nor are the parts in it;
It is not the mere collection; and it is not their shape.

The use of a chariot as a simile for the self first appears in the Vajira-Sutta (SN 5.10), where the Buddhist nun Vajira is confronting Mara, and she says:

Why now do you assume ‘a being’?
Mara, have you grasped a view?
This is a heap of sheer constructions:
Here no being is found. Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates are present,
There’s the convention ‘a being.’ It’s only suffering that comes to be,
Suffering that stands and falls away.
Nothing but suffering comes to be,
Nothing but suffering ceases.

Isn’t this beautiful? Next we come to a much later text from about 100 BCE which includes the classic analogy of the chariot. This text is The Questions of King Milinda (Milindapañha), which records a dialogue between the Buddhist monk Nagasena, and the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Pali: Milinda) of Bactria. The Milindapañha is included in the Burmese edition of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, but it does not appear in the Thai or Sri Lankan versions of the Pali Canon. The original text is very beautiful, and the translator, T.W. Rhys Davids, says it is “undoubtedly the masterpiece of Indian prose, and indeed is the best book of its class, from a literary point of view, that had then been produced in any country”. That’s quite high praise.

Chapter 1 of Book II introduces the simile of the chariot, and Nagasena is asking King Milinda a series of rhetorical questions about his chariot:

‘Is it the axle that is the chariot?’ … ‘Is it the wheels, or the framework, or the ropes, or the yoke, or the spokes of the wheels, or the goad, that are the chariot?’ … ‘Then is it all these parts of it that are the chariot?’

He says to the King:

‘I can discover no chariot. Chariot is a mere empty sound. What then is the chariot you say you came in?’

The King accepts Nagasena’s refutation, and concludes that the chariot is just a conventional designation. It cannot be said to be a truly existing phenomenon.

So, based on this simile of the chariot, Chandrakirti goes through his sevenfold analysis to refute the imputed self. There are five statements that were popular before his time, and he added two more. The five are:

1. The chariot is not other than the parts of the chariot.
2. The chariot is not the same as or one with the parts of the chariot.
3. The chariot is not endowed with the parts of the chariot.
4. The chariot is not the contents that are contained within the parts of the chariot.
5. The chariot is not the container that contains its parts as contents.

These might seem a little abstract if you think in terms of a chariot, but if you substitute “self” / “aggregates” for “chariot” / “parts”, it’s a lot easier to see how we can fall into these wrong views:

1. The self is not other than the aggregates (e.g. “my true self is transcendental wisdom”)
2. The self is not the same as the aggregates (e.g. “I am my mind and my body”)
3. The self is not endowed with the aggregates (e.g. “I have a mind; I have a body”)
4. The self is not the contents that are contained within the aggregates.
5. The self is not the container that contains the aggregates.

Chandrakirti added two more wrong views:

6. The chariot is not an assemblage of the parts of the chariot.
7. The chariot is not the shape of the parts of the chariot.

By the way there’s a typo on page 280. The seventh statement should read as above, “The chariot is not the shape of the parts of the chariot.” In the following verses Chandrakirti will only go through the last two of these seven statements, as the previous five had already been refuted by other Buddhist masters. The verses are fairly straightforward.

Verse 6:152

The mere collection of parts is not the chariot  [t = 1:43:28] [MAV PDF page 281]

If the chariot is a collection of its parts, it should still be a chariot when the parts when disassembled, but it’s not.

[6:152] If a mere collection [of the parts] were the chariot,
The disassembled parts should too be the chariot.
But that the parts, without a part-possessor,
Or even the mere shape should be the chariot, is absurd.

We can go back to the example of the jigsaw puzzle, which is indeed still a jigsaw puzzle when you disassemble it into its parts. Whereas you cannot take apart a computer without losing its computer-nature.

Verses 6:153-6:154

The shape of the unassembled parts is not the chariot  [t = 1:43:49] [MAV PDF pages 281-282]

Is the chariot to be found in the shape of the individual parts when they have not been assembled? No, because for example the chariot’s wheels are round; there are some long, thin parts; there are some spiky parts; there are some flat parts – but when you put all these parts together, the resultant shape of the chariot is not the same as the shape of any of the parts.

[6:153] You claim the original shape is still in the individual parts,
Even [now] when the chariot is assembled.
Thus, as it did not exist when the parts were unassembled
The chariot does not exist now either.

Our opponent might claim that the parts change their shape during assembly. For example, the wheels would change shape to become the chariot. But we can see they do not do that.

[6:154] Now, when there is a chariot
If the wheels etc. exist differently,
This should be perceived, yet it is not.
Thus, the chariot cannot exist in mere shape. 

Verses 6:155-6:156

The shape of the assembled parts is not the chariot  [t = 1:44:22] [MAV PDF page 282]

Is the chariot the shape of the assembled parts? Here we point out to our opponent that the chariot is a transitory collective, like a forest made of trees, and they don’t believe that transitory collectives truly exist. So, the chariot likewise doesn’t exist. And if it doesn’t truly exist then it cannot have properties and characteristics, so how could it be said to have a shape?

[6:155] Because your [substantial] collection is non-existent,
Shape is not a collection of parts.
Therefore, based on nothing,
How can you have a shape?

[6:156] According to your own thesis
Of the manifest result being untrue,
You should know it must be based on a false cause,
And that all creation is likewise.

In response, our opponent says that the imputed result, the shape, arises based on an imputed cause, the imputed transitory collection. Chandrakirti says, yes, exactly: this is how dependent arising works. Unreal results come from unreal causes.

Verse 6:157

Using the proof for other related examples  [t = 1:45:03] [MAV PDF pages 282-283]

The same is true for all other phenomena, like a vase. The vase is also not truly existing because it is merely a collection of atoms, and so the same refutation applies.

[6:157] Consequently, it applies to all those ascertaining the eight atoms,
That their thought of vase is absurd,
Since without creation, the eight atoms also cannot exist,
And therefore [objects] cannot exist as the shape.

Verse 6:158

The chariot is imputed conventionally without analysis  [t = 1:45:15] [MAV PDF page 283]

This verse is very important. Here Chandrakirti says the chariot is imputed conventionally, without analysis. That is his conclusion.

[6:158] Indeed, neither in suchness nor in ordinary experience, is such [phenomena],
Established according to the sevenfold analysis.
Yet in this world without analysis,
Based on their parts, things are dependently imputed.

He does not say it ‘exists conventionally’. He says it is ‘imputed conventionally’. Now this is really, really important when it comes to our language and the way we talk about conventional truth. We may fall into the habit of talking about phenomena ‘existing’; we talk about the self ‘existing conventionally’. That’s very dangerous, according to Chandrakirti, because we will just fall back into habits of thinking that it’s really there. It’s much better to be precise, and say we ‘impute phenomena conventionally’ and we ‘impute the self conventionally’. I strongly advise you to not use the word ‘exist’ even in the conventional truth.

Verse 6:159

Conventional phenomena can be said to possess their parts  [t = 1:46:02] [MAV PDF pages 283-284]

We can say this imputed idea of a chariot ‘possesses itself’; and in the same way, we can say imputed idea of beings ‘possess themselves’. This allows us to communicate in the conventional truth. Just as the King can say “bring me my chariot”, Chandrakirti can say “bring me a glass of water”. We can refer to these imputed phenomena. We can infer that they have an imputed identity, that they ‘possess themselves’.

[6:159] Having parts which again have details,
A chariot is regarded by everyone as possessing itself.
Beings exist as possessing themselves.
Do not demolish the all-concealer accepted in ordinary experience.

Verses 6:160-6:161

The benefits of the sevenfold reasoning  [t = 1:46:32] [MAV PDF page 284]

What are the benefits of this sevenfold analysis? Well, firstly, it introduces the true nature. Here verse 160 says that the yogi realizes there is no base, and then he can easily enter suchness. As we were saying earlier: once you realize there is no base for your narrative, your story of self, it’s then easy to change the story, because you know that the story is arbitrary. You don’t need to rework it or undo it in some sort of painful way. You don’t need years of therapy in order to ‘undo’ your story. You can just change it and invent a new one. And likewise, you don’t need to be like the ascetics who feel they need to undo the aggregates through physical privations and so forth. You don’t need that, because the idea of self has no basis. Neither the story, nor the aggregates, none of that is the basis for this idea of self.

[6:160] How can something not existing in this seven-fold way then exist?
The yogi not finding anything,
Will easily enter suchness.
However, understand it [also] exists just [unanalyzed].

Yes, we know that changing the story is hard. We know that coming up with a new baseless story of self is not easy, because the story of self that we tell ourselves and others is a habit, and changing habits is hard. But the really good news is there’s nothing else that we need to change. It’s just habit. There’s nothing holding the habit in place. We can change it if we choose to. This realization is very, very empowering.

[6:161] When there is no existence of a chariot,
Without the whole, the parts also do not exist.
For example, if a chariot burns up there are no parts,
When the fire of knowledge incinerates the whole, the parts [are burned] too.

Similarly, we can refute the notion of things with parts. If there’s no whole, then, we cannot speak of the parts. It’s a bit like saying that if you don’t have children, we cannot speak of you as being a parent, because you’re not a parent until you’ve had children. Likewise, if there’s no truly existing whole, then there are no parts.

Verse 6:162

The car mechanic is not the enemy  [t = 1:48:13] [MAV PDF page 285]

Similarly, during the conventional truth we talk of dependent arising, and during that time we talk of agent and action and so forth. Verse 162 says we can conventionally talk about the five aggregates, the eighteen dhatus, and so forth. We could say the self possesses them.

[6:162] Likewise as in accepted ordinary experience, based on the aggregates,
The elements, and the six sense-spheres,
The self is considered the proprietor.
The appropriation is the action while [self] is the agent.

We talked earlier (in verse 6:138) about what we mean by ‘unanalyzed’, and as this verse makes clear, when Chandrakirti is talking about the unanalyzed state, he’s perfectly happy to about the dhatus and aggregates and all the rest – even though this is definitely not language that an uneducated cowherd would use.

So we’re not saying that ‘unanalyzed’ means you have to be an ignorant, uneducated being. You can still have theories about the way the conventional world works. You can have ideas about the aggregates. You can talk about the dhatus. You can be a modern Westerner with theories of how to be a good neurosurgeon. All this is fine. You can be a scientist, as long as you’re not seeking to establish the ultimate truth. So when we use this word ‘unanalyzed’, we’re not saying you can’t have a theory, or that you can’t use analysis in the conventional truth – of course you can. It’s just that you can’t use any analysis that is seeking to establish the ultimate truth or true existence of something. I hope I’ve made that clear.

This topic came up again on page 290, where there was a question about whether we should consider a car mechanic to be an opponent of Chandrakirti. Someone pointed out, ‘If I go to a mechanic, he’ll analyze my car and he’ll find what’s wrong with it. He has a theory of how the car works. And there’s a result of his analysis’. Rinpoche agreed, but noted, ‘The mechanic would not say it’s a truly existing problem. He won’t speak in terms of ‘self-arising’, ‘other-arising’, or anything like that. As long as you do not fall into those extremes, you are innocent.”

Chandrakirti will engage with the car mechanic in the same way as he will engage with the scientist we discussed previously (in the section “Science and the Madhyamaka” following verse 6:141). The mechanic is an ignorant sentient being suffering in samsara, so he’s an object of Chandrakirti’s compassion, and Chandrakirti wants to teach him the path. As with the scientist, it’s only if the mechanic has developed a view that there is something truly existent that he will become an opponent of Chandrakirti. And in that case, as we saw in Week 2 (see verses 6:4-6:7), Chandrakirti will first engage him with logic and reasoning to refute his wrong views, and then Chandrakirti will establish the view of the Madhyamaka for him to practice as his path.

During this conversation, a student said, ‘imagine the mechanic did actually discover a truly existing problem. Then he could stop working as a mechanic and instead become a famous professor who could explain the ultimate car problem that cannot be fixed because it’s a truly existing problem’. But of course we know that’s never going to happen, because there are no truly existent problems. So the mechanic can analyze what is wrong with your car, and we can be confident that he won’t find any truly existing problems.

Verses 6:163

When we analyze, all elaborations are stopped  [t = 1:50:31] [MAV PDF page 285]

At the time of analysis, all elaborations are stopped. This is a beautiful verse:

[6:163] Not substantially [existing], [self] is not unchanging,
Not arising and ceasing, not changeable,
Not [characterized] by permanence or any other extreme,
Not identical, and not different [from the skandhas].

Once we have established that our idea of self doesn’t truly exist, then, as we’ve already said, we can’t say anything about it. All our language and concepts break down at that point, and verse 163 uses language that is very reminiscent of the language used in the Heart Sutra:

In emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas; no eye dhatu up to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment.

Verses 6:164-6:168

Ideas of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are refuted  [t = 1:51:27] [MAV PDF pages 285-287]

These verses are self-explanatory. Belief in self arises from ignorance:

[6:164] In reference to [the ground]
Which sentient beings always strongly grasp as an I,
Arises the self of the mind fixating on ‘mine’,
It arises from ignorance [in terms of] unanalyzed accepted [ordinary experience]

Similarly, there is no belief in ‘mine’, and when there is no grasping to self or objects, the yogi is liberated.

[6:165] Because without agent there is no action,
Therefore, with no self, there is no ‘mine’.
And therefore seeing self and mine as empty,
The yogin is fully liberated.

All objects are similarly dependently imputed.

[6:166] Vases, cloth, tents, armies, forests, garlands, trees,
Houses, carts, inns and so forth, whatever things there may be,
Accordingly, [as these things appear] to ordinary persons, accept them as such,
Because the Lord of the Sages did not argue with ordinary experience.

[6:167] Parts and whole, qualities and qualifiers, passion and the impassioned,
Description and described, firewood and fire, all such objects –
When subjected to the analysis of the chariot, in all seven aspects, have no existence.
Otherwise, in terms of accepted ordinary experience, they do exist.

I find the translation in verse 167 to be a little unclear. The Padmakara translation is clear, and the meaning is explained in Mipham’s commentary:

Whenever mutually dependent objects — whether fragments (like potsherds) and wholes (like pots); qualities, like the colour white, and the thing thus qualified, like the conch; passion and its basis, namely, the passionate person; the bulbous, vaselike shape and the vase thus characterized; firewood to be burned and the fire that burns it — when all these things are examined in the same way that a chariot is analyzed according to the sevenfold method, all are found to be non-existent.

So what Chandrakirti is saying in verse 167 is that any mutually dependent objects – like the parts and the whole of the chariot – are similarly found to be dependently imputed and therefore nonexistent. So this analysis applies to all phenomena.

[6:168] [Only] if you see a cause creating something is it a cause;
When no result is created, there cannot be a cause.
If the result has a cause, it exists, therefore
Tell us, which gives rise to which, and which is first?

If you have no truly existing chariot, then you have no truly existing result. So you cannot speak of a truly existent cause, since it has not produced anything (this analysis is the same as in verse 6:21). Since we have established that all mutually dependent objects are equally nonexistent, there are no truly existing causes or results, so there cannot be truly existing causation.

Verses 6:169-6:170

Does the cause meet the effect?  [t = 1:52:43] [MAV PDF page 287]

Chandrakirti then analyzes cause and result in terms of whether there is contact between them. These verses are straightforward, and follow similar reasoning to verses 6:17-6:21.

[6:169] According to you, if a result is created from meeting the cause,
With identical potential, cause and result would not be different.
With different potential, causes and non-causes would not be distinguishable.
Therefore, with these two refuted, there can be no further alternative.

[6:170] If your cause does not create a result, the result cannot exist as an object,
A cause without a result, not being a cause, is even non-existent.
Because these both resemble illusions
I am not at fault, accepting the entities of ordinary experience as existent.

Verses 6:171-6:172

An objection: does Chandrakirti’s refutation meet his opponent’s thesis?  [t = 1:52:54] [MAV PDF page 288]

Our opponent jumps on Chandrakirti’s conclusion that there is no truly existing causation, and he tries to refute him by asking whether Chandrakirti’s refutation meets his opponent’s thesis or not.

[6:171] Does this refutation meet with what it refutes or not.
Doesn’t the [refuted] fault apply to you?
Whenever voicing [such refutation] you merely defeat yourself,
And your refutation has no power to refute anything.

[6:172] Because the consequence of your words is deceptive,
They are absurd. And as they negate things real
You will not be accepted by the holy.
As you have no position, your refutations are random confrontation.

Verses 6:173-6:175

Dispelling the objection by having no position  [t = 1:53:02] [MAV PDF pages 288-294]

In his reply, Chandrakirti says he has no view of his own. And then he offers two counterexamples to prove that a cause does not have to be truly existing in order to give rise to an effect.

[6:173] Whether or not the refutation touches
What is to be refuted – the fallacy in question
Befalls those taking the positions of true [existence],
But not myself, as I have no position.

The first example is that you can look at the sun indirectly during an eclipse by looking at its reflection. In this case there’s obviously no actual contact with the sun, and the reflection arises dependently. But nevertheless still we see the result, namely the reflected image of the sun.

[6:174] Just as you may perceive the sun
Reflected during an eclipse,
[Thinking of] whether or not sun and reflection touch,
Is absurd, as [the reflection] arises as a conventional dependent.

The second example is how we use a mirror to put on make-up or shave. It’s a lovely example, one that Rinpoche uses frequently when he gives teachings on topics like emptiness, the Heart Sutra, and the Two Truths. The reflection in the mirror doesn’t truly exist, and yet we can use this non-existent phenomenon very practically in the everyday world to put on make-up or make ourselves attractive. It is a very clear example of something that does not truly exist, but that nevertheless functions in the world.

[6:175] While a reflection [in a mirror] is not real,
You rely on it to make yourself attractive.
Likewise understand that although unusual, [Madhyamaka] reasoning
Will clean the face of wisdom, bringing realization of the goal.

In the last two lines, Chandrakirti offers a nice poetic touch by using the same image of the reflection in a mirror to explain the benefit of the Madhyamaka teachings. If our mirror is covered with dirt, we cannot see our reflection clearly. Likewise, if our minds are covered with the dirt of ignorance, we cannot see the face of wisdom. So we should apply the Madhyamaka teachings to clean away the dirt of ignorance, and we will then realize our goal of enlightenment.

Verse 6:176

Chandrakirti has no truly existing reasoning, so he is not at fault  [t = 1:53:48] [MAV PDF page 295]

Chandrakirti replies that if he had truly existent reasoning, then the opponent’s objection would be valid. But he doesn’t.

[6:176] If our predicate and its reasoning – the means for understanding – were established as real,
And likewise the nature of our predicate— the object to be understood—
The [above] logic of contact would apply [to ourselves].
This is not the case, so you are merely exhausting yourself.

Chandrakirti also doesn’t want anyone to become attached to his reasoning. Once he has used this reasoning to refute his opponent, he will dispose of it. As we’ve said in the previous weeks, the Dharma is like a boat for crossing over, not for holding on to. And this is a good reminder for all of us who love to study these teachings, and who love to debate with our friends or in the Forum online and so on. Just remember: if you find yourself holding too strongly to a particular view or position, you might be getting attached. And as Chandrakirti says very clearly, we should not get attached to these views.

Verse 6:177

There is no need to prove true existence  [t = 1:54:40] [MAV PDF page 295]

Now Chandrakirti is almost taunting his opponent. He asks him, why are you even trying to prove true existence? Ordinary people don’t believe in it, and it’s hard work to try to convince them of your views. Why are you going to all this trouble, when it can only make ordinary beings suffer?

[6:177] Making [others] realize that all entities have no reality is easy,
However to make us believe in an [inherent] nature
Is not simple at all.
Why entangle ordinary people in webs of false logic?

Verse 6:178

Concluding summary  [t = 1:54:57] [MAV PDF pages 295-296]

In the final verse for this week, Chandrakirti points out that his arguments are not just random refutations. He does this in order to refute wrong views, as an expression of his bodhisattva aspiration.

[6:178] Understanding the refutations given above,
You should then forget [these arguments] about contact, [made exclusively] for the opponent,
And not mere random confrontations.
These statements should be understood by the opponent.

So we have now completed our refutation of the two different kinds of truly existing self:

Self of phenomena: in Week 3 and Week 4 we refuted the truly existing self of phenomena, by refuting the four possibilities of truly existing arising from self, other, both, or neither.

Self of the person: in Week 5 we refuted the truly existing self of the person by showing that self and aggregates are neither the same, nor different, nor do they exist as support / supported, nor as possessor / possessed.

I’d like to end this week’s teaching with some lovely practice advice from Rinpoche, on page 291. He said let’s remember that all of the path is conventional truth: Buddhanature, paths, the tenth bhumi bodhisattva, compassion, even enlightenment. And let’s also remember that this includes all meditation experiences – even if we have some incredible meditation experience, some vision of the Buddha, some vision of pure realms – none of these things, none of the path, none of these experiences truly exist. We’ve been taught by our masters that we should never cling to experiences. We should leave them behind like spit in the dust. Perhaps you have received practice instructions like this and found them a little confusing. But now we can understand why this advice makes sense: none of these experiences truly exist, so if we cling to them it will only be a cause of suffering and becoming more deeply trapped in samsara.

And so, like Padampa Sangye’s story of the horse and the donkey, hopefully now you really understand why non-clinging is the heart of our Madhyamaka practice. The practice of the Middle Way is the horse practice. But, as we have seen, it’s very, very difficult because we’re so attached to our path, and we’re so attached to our experiences and our devotion and all the rest. As Padampa Sangye said, we’re going to find ourselves falling off our horse all the time. So let’s always take the donkey with us, for those times when we fall off the horse.

With that, I wish you a good week of practice. I aspire that you will be able to practice riding your horse this week, but if not, I aspire that you will at least ride your donkey! And I look forward to seeing you again next week.


[Week 6: Emptiness of Emptiness]

© Alex Li Trisoglio 2017
Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio

Page last updated January 18, 2021