Remarks on Buddhist Philosophy
...To understand emptiness we must apply the four point analysis. The first point is to identify clearly the object-to-be-negated. The second point is to understand the 'entailment' of the argument, that is to ascertain conclusively the possible whereabouts of the object-to-be-negated. The third point is to determine clearly whether the object-to-be-negated is identical with the phenomenon being investigated. The fourth point is to establish clearly wether the object-to-be-negated is different from the phenomenon being investigated. This means that if the object-to-be-negated were to exist, it would have to be either identical with or totally different from the phenomenon being investigated. These points will be explained in detail below.
The most important task is the first point of the analysis and this means to clearly identify and understand the object-to-be-negated. Emptiness means the negation of something. For example, when we say that a room is empty, this implies that we are negating the existence of any object in the room. When we speak of an empty pot we are negating the existance of any contents, such as tea, in that pot. These are only examples and are not what I meant by emptiness. This is only to give you an idea of what is meant by a 'negation'. When we realize emptiness we are realizing the negation of something.
What is it then which is to be negated or refuted? This is what we must first determine. If we want to shoot an arrow at a target, we must first be able to see the target. In the same way, to realize emptiness which is a negation, we must first identify the object-to-be-negated. If we do not understand what is to be negated, we will be totally unable to realize emptiness. For example, if a doctor is going to remove a diseased organ from a body, he must first know what organ is to be removed. If he merely starts removing parts of the body at random, this will be disastrous! Here too, the point of primary importance is to identify the object-to-be-negated. The examples of the archer and the doctor are only meant to simplify this first point. They do not exactly parallel the realization of emptiness because an archer's target and a diseased organ are things which do exist. But the object-to-be-negated by emptiness does not in fact exist at all. It is solely a projection of ignorance.
If we do not grasp this first point clearly, we may go badly astray and negate too little. Or we may go to the other extreme and negate some aspect of being which should not be negated. To negate the real existance of everything and to say that nothing exists is a great error. Negating too little is called 'the positive extreme', negating too much, 'the negative extreme'. To recognize this object-to-be-negated we must rely on a qualified master who can explain it to us clearly, in the light of his personal experience and scriptural reference. We must then apply his instructions to our meditation and through analysis it will be possible to gain a correct understanding without lapsing into extremes. If our meditation on emptiness is to progress properly, it is essential to have a fully qualified master to correct any mistakes we may make in our investigation. When we are in danger of falling into an extreme view, he will be there to put us right.
At present, whatever internal or external phenomena appear to us, they do so mixed together with the object-to-be-negated. This is due to the ignorance in our mind which mars our perceptions. As a result of this, whatever we perceive appears to us in a manner deformed by this ignorance. Hence, the actual object appears to us mingled with a fiction projected by the ignorance in our mind. Whenever we see a form with our visual consciousness or hear a sound with our auditory consciousness, our perception of it is distorted by ignorance, so that the actual form or sound and the projection due to ignorance mingle and appear together. All our other sensory consciousness of smell, touch and taste are also pervaded by ignorance in this way. Upon the basis of these mistaken sensory perceptions, we then cling mentally to these distorted appearances as real. We hold this false mental image to be the real appearance of the object and then cling to this image as though the object truly existed in this way.
You must realize that such a brief account of emptiness will not give you a very clear grasp of the subject, but it may help you to improve your understanding. Let me give you an example to show how the actual object appears mixed with the object-to-be-negated. If we stand in front of a mirror, we see a reflection which appears to look like us. Of course, if we stop to think about it, we realize it is only a reflection. But at first glance, it is as though the form in the mirror appears solely from its own side, without depending on our body. When we first see it, we don't think of it as just a reflection. On this basis of this first glance, it seems as though the image exists independently, self-sufficiently.
When we see the moon reflected in a calm lake at night, at first sight it is hard to differentiate it as only a reflection of the moon, because it really seems to be part of the lake. Although these reflections appear to be quite real and as though they exist from their own side, as soon as we pause to consider, it becomes obvious that they exist only as a result of the combination of the actual object with the mirror or lake which reflects it. Apart from that, there is nothing intrinsic in the lake which is, in a real sense, a moon.
Appearance of the Object-to-be-Negated
When any phenomenon appears to our mind, we perceive it as if it existed solely from its own side, as though it were self-sufficient and not dependent on, or related to our consciousness. It appears to exist completely in itself. If we observe carefully the way in which we conceive the objects perceived by us to exist, we will see that we assume them to exist in this independent manner. When, for example, we look at other people, we can identify individuals and say, there is so-and-so, and here is so-and-so, and at the time these people all appear to us as though they really exist solely in themselves without depending on our perception of them at all. If you look at me, I seem to exist solely from my own side, without depending on your consciousness. It is like a mirror in which at first sight everything appears to exist from the side of the mirror only. So too, for us, everything seems to exist self-sufficiently and independently without involving us.
The object-to-be-negated appears in this way as independent and self-sufficient and, what is more, we believe that this is how it really exists. When our meals are set down in front of us, it seems as though the food actually exists from its own side; we fully believe that this is its actual mode of being. With this in mind, we eat it. In fact, there is, at that time, food in the dish in front of us and this appears to our consciousness, but it is mingled with the object-to-be-negated. True, we are not eating the object-to-be-negated, there is food there and that is what we are eating, but it appears to our mind mixed with the object-to-be-negated. We are unable to distinguish between the actual way in which phenomena exist and how the object-to-be-negated appears.
If, for example, someone has never seen snow is shown some while wearing yellow-tinted glasses, the snow will appear yellow to him and he may think he sees yellow snow. He will think that snow is something cold, wet, and yellow. He is unable to understand that although it appears to be yellow, the snow which is giving him various sensations such as coldness and wetness is, in fact, white. In a similar way, when we perceive things, we believe that they really exist as they appear to us. We cling strongly to this belief. The person in our example does not perceive the snow as yellow because it is actually yellow, but because of his yellow lenses. In the same way, objects appear to us as independent and self-sufficient, not because the objects really exist independently, but because of our misconception based on ignorance.
The Way Things Actually Exist
The actual way in which things exist is closely related to our consciousness. But when we say that things do not exist as they appear, one may think that this way of appearing is the only way in which things could exist and that if they did not exist this way, perhaps they could not exist at all. This is one of the extreme views I mentioned earlier, the nihilist extreme. If we think in this way, it would have been better for us never to have started investigating emptiness. It will be good if you think about the examples I have given of the mirror, the lake and the person wearing sunglasses. These will help you to develop an understanding of the way we believe things to exist and the way in which they actually exist. It is important to realize that this mode of appearance is not the actual way in which things exist. Second, it is important to realize that although they do not exist as they appear to us, nonetheless, all phenomena, including all of us, do exist. Although the way in which they do this is not yet clear to us, we should now be aware that the mode of appearance differs from the actual mode of being.
All objects, trees, rosaries and so on exist, but not as they appear to us, not as independent and self-sufficient entities. They exist in a state which is completely dependent upon, related to and connected with the consciousness which perceives them. They are also closely involved with the mind which labels them, the mind which labels this as a man, this as a car and so on. They exist dependently on the imputing consciousness. There is no way in which anything can exist without depending on an imputing consciousness. All phenomena exist dependently on the combination of the base of the object with that which is imputed to it by an imputing consciousness. But this is very difficult to understand clearly, because it is a profound and subtle matter. Do not worry if you are unable to see very clearly from the start.
When we look in a mirror, although we are not really present in it, still our reflection appears. This reflection exists as a combination of, or interdependent relationship between, the mirror and our form. If there were no form, there would be no reflection. In the same way, without an imputing consciousness, there is no possibility of an object existing. When there is a person and a mirror, because of their interdependent relationship, a reflection of the person appears in the mirror; the reflection cannot be denied. Similarly, when there is imputing consciousness and a base for such imputation, then phenomena can exist, and their existance cannot be denied. Once we understand this, the doubt will start to arise that the way things appear to us now and their actual way of existing must differ. Such doubts occurs gradually and although we cannot grasp all these subtle points immediatly, the fact that it arises is a sign of progress.
Of what is emptiness empty? It is empty of an object existing as it appears to our minds at present. Everything is empty of such existance. All things do exist, but only by virtue of the combination of the base of imputation and the imputing consciousness; that is, through the interdependent relationship between these two. Emptiness means this and only this, not some kind of abstruse and sacred object of veneration. It is simply the ultimate way in which all phenomena exist. Having understood this, the only way to gain a clear realization of emptiness is through meditation. The first step is to recignize clearly the object-to-be-negated. Then we will gradually become able to recogneize clearly and distinguish between the actual way in which all phenomena exist and the object of negation. By developing our meditation, we seperate these two, and then the true beauty of existence, the actual ultimate way of being, will become clearer and clearer to our minds. In our present mental state, no matter how beautiful something may appear to us, our perception of it is still pervadd by the object-to-be-negated and so this is not its genuine mode of being. One of you asked wether this meditation would help us to see the beauty of nature. If we develop our meditation and realize the ultimate nature of phenomena, only then will we see the true beauty of nature.
Because at first we are unable to realize the actual way in which things exist, we should try to understand with the help of examples of the reflection of the person in the mirror and the moon in a lake. Although these objects do not exist as they appear to our minds, there is a way in which they do exist. We need such analogies at the beginning of our investigation because e are unable to realize the actual way of existing and the way in which the object-to-be-negated appears mixed with the object. Whatever we see - people walking, trees growing, or rain falling - we must always remember that nothing exists as it appears to our mind at present. When, for example, we see a red flower, it appears to exist independently; we overlook the fact that it is related to its parts, that it is through an interdependent relationship between each petal, the stamen, leaves and various other parts of the flower, that the flower we see appears. And if we analyse this large red flower to determine wether or not it is one of its petals, we find it is not. We do not find it in any one of its parts, yet without their combination, no flower can exist. A flower exists because of the interdependent relationship between the combination of its parts and our visual consciousness which perceives them.
- What follows is the analysis of identity, the self, and the impermanence of the 5 psycho-physical aggregates...
All phenomena exist interdependently. Their being is dependent on their parts and attributes. A flower, a tree, or a human being all exist interdependently, relying on their causes, circumstances, attributes and parts. Our happiness, suffering, growth and degeneration all exist on the basis of an interdependent relationship of causes and circumstances. It is because of this that great changes can take place in things. These changes constantly reveal to us the actual nature of our existance, that it is of the nature of emptiness and not, as it appears, mixed with the object-to-be-negated. Yet we remain unaware of this.
Those Buddhist scriptures which speak of emptiness also refer to interdependent origination. Interdependent origination refers to the way in which all phenomena exist dependently. They depend on causes and circumstances, parts and qualities. A more subtle explanation refers to the way in which all phenomena exist through a combination of the imputing consciousness and the base of imputation. Yet, distorted by ignorance, things appear to exist as independent and self-supporting. These two modes, something's actual way of being and the way it appears to our mind as truly existent, are antithetical.
Although the same term is used, this meaning of 'interdependent origination' should not be confused with the twelve links of interdependent origination. These twelve links describe the process whereby ignorance causes volition, volition causes becoming, becoming causes birth and so on. The two meanings refer to two different processes and therefore should not be confused.
When I talk of the existance of things depending on the base of imputation and the imputing consciousness, you may ask what we mean by the base of imputation. This can be illustrated by catching sight of a person. When we see someone, the thought that 'this is so-and-so' arises. The form or body of the person, which is the base for this thought is the base of imputation for that person, and the base for his conventional existence. Similarly, when a feeling of happiness, sadness or indifference arises in our minds and as a result a concept of self arises, for example 'I am happy', 'I am sad', or 'Iam indifferent', that feeling becomes the base for the self. Because of this feeling, the concept of a self arises within us. This self is the conventionally existent self and not the object-to-be-negated.
For example, when we see our interpreter's face, the concept of Georges arises in our mind. At this time Georges' face is the base of imputation. This is equally true of anyone we see. When we see their body or even a part of it, this perception causes the arising of the concept of that person and is therefore the base of imputation at that time. Likewise, when a feeling arises within us it becomes the base for the concept of the 'I'. This is also true, for example, of a tree. When we see the parts of a tree, the particular part of the tree we perceive acts as the base of imputation. We must bear in mind that this is speaking from a very general point of view. Many things exist without our first having to label them. In other words, things do not cease to exist conventionally, if we have not yet labelled them.
As an example, let us imagine a country is planning to issue new banknotes. First the authorities prepare a design which then printed on small pieces of paper. Now, although we have a small piece of paper with a special design on it, it is not yet what we can call a banknote that will be recogneized as such by all citizens of that country. It is the base of imputation for the new money, but not until it is publicly announced that such a piece of paper with a particular design will in future be money, does the public label it money. Until they impute the label 'money' to it, it is just another piece of paper. Only when it has been labelled as money does it become legal tender. Hence, through the combination of the paper as the base of labelling and the label 'money'; dollars, francs, or rupees come into being. This is true of all phenomena; there must be a base and the imputing consciousness. Through the combination of the two, everything exists. Although we understand this clearly, the realization of how things exist in this way can only become fully apparent after we have realized emptiness.
This concludes my brief explanation about the conventional mode of being and emptiness, the ultimate mode of being. This combination of a base of imputation and the imputing consciousness and the interdependent relationship between phenomena and their parts suffices for the existance of all external and internal phenomena; there is no deeper or more profound manner of existing. If, for example, the parts of a car are present, and it is full of petrol and in working order, that is sufficient for there to be a car. We cannot find anything more than this.
Principles of the Path (Excerpt)
As I explained earlier, by realizing the defects of cyclic existence and developing a strong sense of detachment from it, a firm resolve to obtain liberation will arise. This renunciation is one of the key factors in our dharma practice, since without it we will never achieve our desired goal and our practice will remain impure. Also, if we do not achieve the wisdom to realize emptiness, there is no way to arrive at final liberation, and no way to attain nirvana, the complete freedom from cyclic existance. This is another key factor of the path. Thirdly, if we do not develop an awakening mind, we will not enter the mahayana path. These three, renunciation, right view and an awakening mind, are essential in the development of our dharma practice and hence are called the three principles of the path.
Tantric practices are quite well known and very popular but can only be practiced and accomplished on the basis of the three principles of the path. To enter the practice of tantra without these three is like trying to be an electrician with no previous training. Therefore, bodhisattvas who are developing along the path to buddhahood practice these three principles in conjunction with everything they do.
In advanced Buddhist philosophy the existance of any phenomenon as self-sufficient and independent of the imputing consciousness is the object-to-be-negated. Such true existence is only a name and no matter what we call it, it does not exist. Just as the passport was in neither pocket of the bag and we were left with the absence of it, so too when we investigate and analyse the possible ways in which phenomena might really exist we find only a mass of contradictions. We eventually realize that nothing exists inherently. Although phenomena previously seemed to exist in this way, we are now left with only the negation or emptiness of such existence. When we realize that complete negation of inherent existence, we must enter into this emptiness with a concentrated mind and meditate. While we are absorbed in this total absence of any true or inherent existence it alone will appear to our mind. All conventional appearances will have dissolved and there will seem to be nothing but this emptiness. It is like space. It does not meanthat all conventional existence disappears but while absorbed in meditation on emptiness conventional appearances cease to be mental objects, and as they are not perceived at that time they seem to dissolve. During that meditative concentration only the negation of any kind of inherent existence appears to the meditator's mind. It is like flying over an ocean. When you look down all you see is an expanse of water, nothing else. In this meditative state only this emptiness appears, and it is not mingled with any other forms or appearances. This state is called space-like meditation on emptiness.
When the meditator ends his meditative absorption, in the post-meditation state phenomena once more appear to his mind. Mountains, trees, people and all other conventional manifestations again appear. The difference is that the meditator does not confuse the appearance of phenomena with their actual mode of being. He is able to perceive clearly both natures, the appearance and the actual way of existing. It is like looking in a mirror knowing full well that one is seeing only a reflection, or like a magician viewing his magical creations, which he knows are not real. Likewise, the meditator sees conventional appearances yet knows they do not exist ultimately.
When a bodhisattva sees all phenomena in this way, he develops great compassion for all sentient beings who are constantly deluded by their perceptions. They believe in what appears and do not see the difference between what appears to them and what actually exists, and as a result they constantly create causes for suffering. This realization by the bodhisattva invests his compassion with tremendous energy. It also increases his awakening mind, because when he sees beings totally dominated by the power of ignorance, his determination to attain buddhahood only grows. In this way he cultivates alternatively his awakening mind and his insight into emptiness. By means of his repeated meditation on emptiness, its power of realization becomes stronger and stronger and the nature of emptiness becomes ever clearer to his mind. The more this power of his realization grows, the more the force of ignorance is weakened. At the same time objects which were previously mixed with the object-to-be-negated start to appear more clearly. It is like tarnished silver; the more we polish it the brighter it shines. In the same way, the power of the realization of emptiness grows by continuous effort, while the power of ignorance slowly decreases. After each space-like meditation session the meditator perceives a greater difference between phenomena as they are and the way they appear. At the same time he experiences the simultaneous growth of compassion and the awakening mind. His compassion imparts energy and power to his meditation on emptiness, and his meditation on emptiness strenghtens the growth of his compassion. In this way ignorance and the other delusions are progressively eliminated. (...)
It is because all these qualities and accomplishments of a fully enlightned being are a result of the practice of dharma that the dharma is so very precious. Each of us has the posibility of attaining buddhahood. There is no reason why we should not do so. It depends wholly on our effort. Our mind is composed of many factors, both positive and negative, but the essential nature of the mind is pure. It is like a nugget of pure gold covered with many layers of dirt. Our essentially pure mind is covered with many layers of delusions and in our present state we are completely dominated by them. But by practicing dharma, by meditating and developing our mind, these obscurations can be removed and our mind will gain greater and greater power. When these delusions are completely destroyed we will gain full freedom.
Anyone who makes the necessary effort can become a Buddha because each person has the potential within himself. This potential is called the buddha-nature. It is so called because it is like the seed which can become Buddha's mind. But we must not think that because we have the buddha-nature which can decelop into the buddha-mind we have a Buddha within us already. It is at present only a possibility. If it were a Buddha, one fully accomplished in so many ways, how could we remain completely ignorant? If we claim to have a Buddha's mind we are only debasing the Buddhas. This potentiality of buddhahood is not only present in humans but also in animals; even the smallest insects are potential Buddhas. Because of their negative actions, they have fallen into adverse realms of being and for the present are unable to progress. But as we have a complete opportunity to practice noew, we must start to make an effort. Starting with the undertaking of the suffering of cyclic existence, if we make a constant effort to develop our mind we will progress stage by stage, transforming our attitudes and behaviour and eventually gaining insight into the profoundest subjects. It is in this way that it is possible for each one of us to achieve buddhahood. Eventually, we will do so.
- From an edited transcript of a month long meditation course given by Geshe Rabten in Switzerland in 1974. Published in bookform under the title 'Treasury of Dharma' by Tharpa Publ./London 1988. You still can order it in our Buddhist bookshop.