Fine Points about Categories
There was an interesting question Ulla brought up this morning that I thought about. That is: how do we know a double negative? We were speaking in terms of specifiers. How do you know that something is not anything other than itself? Let’s say you wanted to know the negation of “not Alex.” Would we have to know everything that’s not Alex? And, no, I don’t think that’s true, because in order to know “not Alex,” all I had to know was Alex. Now, based on knowing Alex, I know “not Alex”; so to know “not not Alex,” all I need to know is the original Alex that was being negated. In order to know “not an apple,” we had to know what an apple was. Then in order to know “nothing other than an apple,” all we had to know, actually, was the apple. In other words, to specify something, actually all you really had to know was the thing itself. That, I think, is the solution; otherwise it is impossible. But this is my guess. This is just my line of thinking.
Question: But would this be an affirmation or a double negation?
Alex: No, that’s a negation. It’s based on a negation, on the original negation of knowing Alex. It does not matter how many times you further negate that. I think. This is my guess. That is how you specify something. That’s all that it is used for – how you specify categories and how you specify items – there are two things, two different types. Otherwise a child couldn’t learn what an apple is. And it’s the same for categories – the child has to know all the possibilities of what’s an apple, doesn’t have to know all the possibilities of what’s not an apple. You’d have to know that there was such a thing as “not an apple.”
Question: This can be used in artificial intelligence?
Alex: Recognizing something. Recognizing categories. This type of thing could be very difficult for artificial intelligence
Participant: One could argue whether a category is subject to change over time.
Alex: Is a category subject to change? If you could replace it with a different definition, but replacement –
Participant: I don’t mean nonstatic. Of course a category is static.
Alex: A category is static. And here we have a good example of what I was explaining to you – a separation. Separate it from the old meaning and you make a new meaning. Like we replace our less precise understanding of “not true existence” with a more precise understanding of “not true existence.”
Please remember that categories are defined in terms of words or concepts, and so that means that a category – or let’s speak in terms of categories defined by words – that words don’t have inherent in them, from their own side, a meaning. The meaning that any word (and therefore any category) has is something which is mentally labeled by a mind that is thinking with it and using it. Conceptual thought uses categories in order to be able to focus on individual items that it would include within that category. For instance, we think conceptually of a particular apple in terms of the category “apple.”
So let’s consider the case of the category “true existence.” The meaning of the term “true existence,” and therefore the meaning of that category, is something which is ascribed to it, or mentally labeled to it, conceptually by a mind that would have some understanding. That mind would use whatever understanding it has of what it thinks is true existence and mentally label it as the meaning of “true existence.” Now, no matter how many different meanings different minds are going to ascribe to the term “true existence,” or even the same mind ascribes to “true existence” as it develops along the spiritual path, that category itself – of “true existence,” that word – doesn’t change. And its having a different meaning, according to different minds that use it, and so on, isn’t something that is organically changing, moment to moment, affected by causes and conditions. One meaning can be replaced by another meaning that’s mentally labeled, but that’s a very different process from our understanding ending, and then changing into something else. That understanding is an organic process; it’s nonstatic; it’s affected by causes and conditions. When one understanding ends and another arises, that’s something which is a nonstatic process. That’s something which is changing and developing, moment to moment to moment. But when a category itself is separated from one meaning, and another meaning is ascribed to it, that separation is not something which is organically growing from moment to moment and developing over time. It just is a “static separation,” we would call it. It occurs under the circumstance of a different meaning being mentally labeled to the category or to the word. But that separation is just a fact, and facts are things which are static; they’re not affected by causes and conditions.
And remember when we’re talking about a separation here, we’re talking about the state of being separated. We’re not talking about the action of separating something. A state of being separated from something is a static phenomenon. An action of actually separating it is, of course, nonstatic; it arises from causes and conditions. The state of being separated, itself – although it is occasioned by, or begins with that action of separation – it itself is nonstatic. You can’t say, technically, that it is organically caused by that action of separating something. For example, the state of an apple being separated from the table, parted from the table, or absent from the table, is something which doesn’t change from moment to moment. You can say that it is occasioned by somebody taking the apple off the table, but that state of being absent or parted from the table isn’t something that develops slowly, organically, from moment to moment.
So building up more and more positive force, collecting merit, as it were, will be the conditions that will bring about a change in our understanding. But it doesn’t affect the object that we understand, it affects the mind. It doesn’t affect the object that we understand with the mind.
Do you understand a meaning category? A meaning category is: whenever I use the word, now this is what I know it to mean. Or every time that I remember the word, or hear someone say it, or read it in a book.
Question: This is also constantly replaced, isn’t it?
Alex: It all depends on how open-minded we are. If we are very stubborn and think, “I’ve got it and I don’t want to hear anything more,” we are not going to replace it very quickly. The category itself, even if we don’t think about it for five years, it doesn’t slowly die; the power of our mindfulness of it again, remembering it – that’s weakened.
Further Points about “Not Tenzin” in Relation to Categories, Individual Items, and Specifiers
Now let’s go back to “not Tenzin.” What if my friend thought that the Tenzin I meant referred to some other person called Tenzin whom he knew? He looked at the photo in my album of either one of my “not Tenzins” – or even at the person who is not my “not Tenzin,” namely my Tenzin – and he thought “not Tenzin.” The concept of “not Tenzin” that he thought, was derived from having precluded his Tenzin, not mine.
That’s a good example, if you can follow it. I’m thinking of my Tenzin and I want to show my friend the person in the book. He is thinking of another Tenzin that he knows. So, while he is looking through the book, he is looking for a picture of his Tenzin; maybe this Tenzin is also in my book. And so regardless of whether he looks at a picture of somebody who is not my Tenzin, or he looks at a picture of somebody who is my Tenzin (which means somebody who is not “not my Tenzin”), and he thinks “not his Tenzin,” it is different isn’t it? What he has precluded in order to derive his “not Tenzin” is a different Tenzin from the one that I precluded to get my idea of “not Tenzin.”
So both of these “not Tenzins” are items in the general category of “not Tenzin,” but they’re referring to two different items. This is very important to understand in order to be able to understand how we specify different items in a category. For example, we have the word category “not Tenzin.” Now the person who uses that word category in order to think something may or may not ascribe a meaning category to that name category. If they don’t ascribe or label any meaning category onto that word category, then what they are thinking with that word category is merely an affirmation phenomenon; it’s merely the affirmation of the words “not” and “Tenzin.” But if they mentally label a meaning category onto it, which is a preclusion of a particular person, a particular Tenzin, then the word category that they are thinking of and the meaning category that they are ascribing to it, they are referring to a negation phenomenon, a negation of a particular person, Tenzin.
And we could preclude various people who are called Tenzin and accurately specify, from that preclusion, a particular “not Tenzin,” and then we could label it onto various people. And of course our labeling that “not Tenzin” onto different people could be either accurate or inaccurate, depending on whether or not that person actually is the “not Tenzin” that we had in mind. If I labeled my “not Tenzin” onto your specific Tenzin then it would be an accurate labeling from the point of view of the specific Tenzin that I was precluding (to derive my “not Tenzin”), but obviously it wouldn’t be an accurate “not Tenzin” from the point of view of the specific Tenzin that you were precluding (in order to derive your “not Tenzin”). So it’s a little bit complicated.
We have to be very precise here. In fact, we could even derive a “not Tenzin” by precluding somebody who isn’t even Tenzin. But that “not Tenzin” would not be an item that validly belonged to the category of “not Tenzin,” because if you went to corroborate the Tenzin that we precluded in order to derive that “not Tenzin,” we would find out that the person that we precluded was not a Tenzin. In other words, to derive “not Tenzin,” we have to preclude a specific Tenzin. If we preclude a Tashi in order to get a “non-Tenzin,” then that Tashi that we have precluded is not a Tenzin, so we haven’t actually gotten an accurately defined “non-Tenzin.”
Now if we could understand this explanation that I just gave, which I must admit is very difficult because there’s so many negative words or negation words in the formulation, but if we can understand this, then we can start to understand how various items are, like glasses, are included in the category of “glass.” And the way that works is in terms of specifiers (ldog-pa), which are double negations – “nothing other than a glass.”
Participant: In such a situation, there are not enough words to have terms for every appearance or phenomenon. Our language contains only a few words, fewer than would be necessary to give a term to every phenomenon. And in such a case, where there are two Tenzins in mind, it is necessary to develop a new term, for instance “Alex’s Tenzin” and “Simon’s Tenzin,” or “the black-haired Tenzin,” or “the old Tenzin” and “the young Tenzin,” and so on.
Alex: Do we have to develop new words or do we use specifiers? There are two Christians in the room. The specifier is that this Christian is “nothing other than this Christian.” And that Christian is “nothing other than that Christian.” Then we have specified it.
Participant: You didn’t deliver any information there!
Alex: Ah, we didn’t deliver any information, but it has been specified – without having to have a separate name for every single apple that exists, or a separate name for every single ant that exists.
Participant: It only worked, Alex, because you pointed at the Christian. If you’d said, “This Christian is nothing other than this Christian,” I wouldn’t have had a clue which one you were talking about.
Alex: Right. But it would allow me to know this particular Christian and that particular Christian both by the same name, “Christian,” and not confuse them.
Participant: The point is when you know the context.
Alex: When you have the context – you have to know the object. How do you specify it? I know many people who are called Tenzin; I know many people who are called Christian. How do I know the difference between all the people that I know who are called Tenzin when I call them by the same name? What is it that I am thinking of?
Participant: A special quality he has.
Alex: That gets into a big topic which is discussed in Prasangika philosophy, which is, basically, that there is nothing on the side of the object which is its special quality, or a special defining characteristic, that makes it a unique item. That’s the thing; there’s no findable anything on the side of an object which establishes it as an object, as an individual item. Everything is specified in terms of these double negations: it’s nothing other than what it is. And that’s not something on the side of the object. That’s something that is established merely by the power of mental labeling, which is conceptual.
What we were thinking of, the Tenzin, that specific Tenzin, that specific item Tenzin that I am thinking of when I use the word “Tenzin,” is specified by it being not anything other than this person. When I use the word “Tenzin” to mean him, I use it to mean him; I don’t use it to mean somebody else. That is how it works, isn’t it? So that’s clearly just a process of mental labeling. And the fact that he has the name “Tenzin” is also just a process of mental labeling: his parents gave him the name “Tenzin.” There’s nothing on his side that makes him Tenzin, is there, that we can find, that was there before he got the name “Tenzin.” Otherwise, how can we apply the word “apple” to many different apples?
Participant: You could associate the name with a special picture of this person, the appearance of this person, with his voice or with his shape.
Alex: That’s just what represents him. That represents him because, obviously, we can know the person when they were a baby, and we can know them when they are a young person, and we can know the person when they are an old person as well. The shape has changed. What happens when I see you, I haven’t seen you… I go to a high school class reunion after forty years (which I did) and I saw many people that I didn’t know who they were. But then they told me that they were Roger, and I said, “Oh my goodness. I didn’t recognize you!” But I know who Roger is – Roger is nobody other than Roger, but the physical form has totally changed. I never would have recognized this person. So what’s the “Roger” that I am thinking of? This is very interesting because this is a negation which is nonstatic. But this is getting far too advanced. We need to go back to our level of discussion.
If the item is changing moment to moment, anything other than the object has also to be changing from moment to moment. Otherwise, you think that the phenomenon that is changing from moment to moment is always the same. It’s not static, otherwise you would have to have a different name for the person every moment of their life. Now we get into really mental labeling. They don’t exist on the side of the object.
I look at the leftovers on the table from lunch, my leftovers, and I think “not edible.” My friend looks at it, who’s still hungry, and doesn’t apply “not edible” to it – “not edible” is the paper napkin. But certainly the leftover food isn’t “not edible.” So is “not edible” from the side of the object? Certainly not. Do you follow? So it’s the same thing with the word – is the meaning on the side of the words, inherent in the word? Certainly not. Is the definition inherent in the word? Certainly not. A word is just an acoustic pattern. As in the example that I like, when you listen to a language that you don’t know, you can’t even divide the sounds into words, into meaningful units. It gets even more far out: how do we know the voice of somebody? I listen to an acoustic pattern and I think “Simon’s voice,” and somebody else listens to it and doesn’t know that it’s Simon’s voice; they think it’s somebody else’s voice. That happens to us all the time on the telephone. Is there something inside it, inside that acoustic pattern, that makes it Simon’s voice, that indicates who produced it?
Participant: You have people who imitate other’s voices.
Alex: Right. So this gets into the whole relation between cause and effect. But I am getting very far off the field.
Participant: The thing with language… You were talking about a language that you don’t know, where you can’t even make out the words. With the language that’s your mother tongue, you can’t stop.
Alex: You can’t stop making out words. That’s right. I mean that’s very difficult. I know that experience very well. When you’re in a place where people are speaking a language that you don’t know, it is very easy to tune out and not be distracted by it at all. But if somebody is speaking a language that you do know, it’s almost impossible not to pay attention to and listen to it and assign meaning to the words. But all of that is coming from the side of the mind, not from the side of the words. As in the example of whose voice is it? How is it affected by the person who produced the voice, the sound? And now, after the person has stopped producing it, that no longer producing it – is that Christian no longer saying this? Where is that? Is that inside the sound? Is it totally nonexistent? No. I can know perfectly well that Christian is no longer speaking. These negations are very, very important for understanding so many things.
Do you understand how a word is also a category? It doesn’t matter who says it, what kind of voice says it; it is the same word, a sound category; static. I mean it’s really weird that a word can be represented both by a sound and a picture – a squiggly line – and that squiggly line, which is totally arbitrary, is a word and has a meaning no matter whose handwriting it’s in. That’s really very, very strange.
Okay, it’s important to understand the basics. If you don’t understand the basics it’s hopeless. And what I really want to convince you of, want to get you to start thinking about all of this, and I want to convince you of how important it is to really study and understand this in order to really understand on a deeper level almost everything in the Buddhist teachings. If you come away with just that much – a sincere interest to work further with this – then the weekend is worthwhile.
Defining Things in Terms of Negations
Question: When Nagarjuna spoke about voidness, didn’t he speak in terms of these negations like, for instance, “not one,” “not many,” “not both,” and “not neither?” And what can we say about these types of negations?
Alex: Well, this gets us into a very complicated topic, namely the topic of voidness and what type of negation phenomenon voidness is. When we analyze whether or not there’s such a thing as true existence, then if there were such a thing as true existence, if we had two items that were truly existent – either they would have to be the same item; they would have to be totally different items; they would have to be either both the same and different; or neither. There are only these four possibilities. And so then we negate. We say they are neither one, nor are they many – in other words, nor are they different, two individual truly existent items – nor are they in some way both, nor are they neither. And in this way, we say that there’s no such thing as true existence. And so we negate true existence.
Now, if we negate it in the manner of saying “there’s no such thing as true existence,” that’s based on the belief that there’s no other possibility. And so, having excluded all the possibilities, the only conclusion we can come to is that there’s no such thing. This is the position that the Gelug school follows in terms of voidness. But there are others who say that, well, actually all we’ve excluded are certain possibilities in the conceptual realm but, actually, voidness is not referring to just “no such thing as this” – what it’s referring to is a state which is beyond this, beyond these categories. And “beyond” is also, in a sense, a negation phenomenon; it’s “not all of these,” but it’s affirming something which is beyond. And this is the position that we find in one of what’s called the “other-voidness” views.
But this gets into a very complicated topic and I don’t think that it’s really appropriate for us to go into it in too much depth here. But I think perhaps that you can start to understand the complication here. Voidness is a negation phenomenon. Now how do you specify a negation phenomenon of “no such thing as true existence?” Just as when we specify an affirmation phenomenon, like an apple, by excluding everything that’s not “apple” – so it’s “nothing but the apple” – it’s a similar process when we try to specify a negation phenomenon – it is what we have when we exclude everything that is not the negation phenomenon. So then that starts to get very complicated because have we, in specifying a negation phenomenon, actually ended up with an affirmation phenomenon or a negation phenomenon? But, as I say, this is incredibly complicated, so we will leave that for now. But it is true that Buddhism explains the way that things exist in terms of a negation of impossible ways of existing in which things do not exist.
Question: If you want to explain something very difficult, is it easier to understand if you explain it with negations than with affirmations?
Alex: In a sense, yes. That it’s easier to understand something in terms of negations rather than affirmations. And I think you have this even going back in the Upanishads, before Buddha. “Niti, niti. Not this, not that.”
Participant: In language, often you have a choice to make a –
Alex: A negation or an affirmation.
Participant: If the Buddha says, “Healthy is not hatred,” he doesn’t say, “Healthy is love.” He says “not hatred.” He had the choice to use the word “love” as the opposite.
Alex: Right. This was my introduction this morning, of why I said that, look, in Buddhism almost everything is specified in terms of negations.
Participant: So he was convinced that by expressing his teachings in negations, it makes sure that the pupil understands the meaning.
Alex: Right. And so when we look at the four noble truths, what Buddha actually taught, how he presented his teachings, he presented it with the main emphasis being on negating phenomena. You have the first two noble truths: you have true suffering and true causes of suffering. And when we look more closely at them, in terms of true suffering, there’s the suffering of gross suffering. That type of suffering is a feeling which, when it occurs, you want to be separated from it; you don’t want it to continue. So there’s a negation there. When we speak about the suffering of change, this is our ordinary happiness, but how is it described? It’s described as a feeling which doesn’t last, which doesn’t bring satisfaction, about which there’s no certainty what’s going to follow it. These are all negations. These are ways of explaining it or describing it in terms of it not being this and not being that. And when we talk about the true cause of suffering, the ultimate true cause of suffering is unawareness. Lack of awareness, cause and effect, and how things exist. And so that too is a negation phenomenon.
And what’s the aim? The aim is to achieve a true stopping of them. This is the third noble truth. That’s a negation. That’s a negating phenomenon. And how do we achieve those true stoppings? We achieve them through true pathway minds, that’s true understandings – the fourth noble truth – which are delineated in terms of those understandings that will bring about a true stopping. So again the emphasis is on negating, removing, separating – namely, bringing about a true parting, a true separation, a true stopping, or true cessation of the two obscurations from our mental continuums: the obscurations that are preventing liberation and the obscurations that are preventing omniscience.
And when we speak about these true pathway minds (the fourth noble truth), we can speak about them in terms of the pathway level of them – the ones that will actually bring about these separations – and we can also speak of them in terms of the resultant level of what a Buddha actually achieves, which is the thirty-two qualities of a Buddha’s enlightening mind. Now those thirty-two qualities are described as separational results. They are the results of a separation; they’re not caused by the separation, but they are the understandings that are free forever of the two obscurations.
Even if we look at the word “yon-tan,” the word for “good qualities,” what’s usually translated as “good qualities,” my teacher Serkong Rinpoche explained it as meaning “a correction of inadequacies.” And so this is very close to our specifier; it’s a double negation, isn’t it? These separational results – which are the qualities of a Buddha’s mind, of an omniscient Dharmakaya mind – are explained in Uttaratantra. This is a text by Maitreya, The Sublime Continuum, it’s called Gyulama (rGyud bla-ma) in Tibetan. These qualities of mind are static phenomena, in the sense that they are unaffected by anything, they don’t decline, and they last forever. So if you look at the list of these thirty-two, they’re defined in terms of negations: lack of fear – a Buddha has no fear to proclaim in front of everybody that he has separated himself from all the obscurations.
And when we look at the qualities of the speech of a Buddha, these also are mostly explained in terms of negations: Buddha’s speech is without faltering, without unnecessary words, and so on. It’s specifically the thirty-two qualities of a Buddha’s body that are affirmation phenomena. These are known as ripening results. They have ripened from the network of positive force, the so-called “collection of merit.” But even these are corrections of inadequacy of having a limited body.
So negation phenomena are totally crucial to the whole presentation that Buddha gave of his teachings.
Implicative and Non-implicative Negations
Question: Can you describe voidness in terms of affirmations?
Alex: No. I mean then we have to get into one of the divisions of negations. There are some negations that the words of it – after they have negated something, what do they imply? And one type of negation, they imply both negations and affirmations. And one of them implies only negations. Voidness is the kind that only implies negations.
Once their words have negated what they need to negate, do the words themselves, do they imply only negations, or do they imply both negations and affirmations? When you say the negative expression “a table without a tablecloth,” when those words have negated “tablecloth,” the words themselves still imply a table and no tablecloth – they imply both, the words, the sounds of the words. If I say, “There’s no tablecloth,” after those words have negated “tablecloth” the sound of the words only imply no tablecloth, they do not imply any affirmation.
So voidness is the second kind; that’s called a “non-implicative negation.” The first kind is an implicative one. And then, of course, there are four different ways in which the words can imply either negations or affirmations: explicitly, implicitly, both, or an elimination of a choice where there can only be one or the other. You’ve specified that it can be only “this” and not “that.” And so when you hear the words “it’s not that” you imply that it is “this.”
The sound of the words has negated something. We’re talking here about the sounds of the words, because all negations have negating sounds. What do the sounds of the words, the expression itself, imply? The technical term literally means what does it “toss in its wake” after it’s done its work of negating. The wake is like the wake of a ship, what’s left behind it after it’s gone on. Those are the words that are used, literally: what does it throw in its wake.
We are talking about the entire phrase. We’re not just talking about what the negating word in it negates, but the whole negation, it’s the whole phrase. A negation phenomenon, a “not Tenzin,” is that whole unit, a “not Tenzin”; it’s not just the “not.” It forms a unit. The unit is a unit which is established. A “not Tenzin” is established by negating Tenzin, but “not Tenzin” itself is a unit. That unit is a negation, just like “there’s a table without a tablecloth.” These make a very big difference when we focus on a non-truly existent table, or the non-true existence of the table, or “there is no such thing as true existence.” Three very different things that you are doing with your mind when you focus on three very different objects that are present in your focus.
Participant: Going back to Tenzin. Actually what it is, is a page of photographs without Tenzin.
Alex: What is this thing? This is a photo album without Tenzin. It’s not that these are two separate phenomena. Here’s “photo album” and here’s “without Tenzin.” That’s pretty weird, isn’t it? But we can talk about the absence of Tenzin from the photo album.
Participant: The problem is that “not Tenzin” is something different than “without Tenzin.”
Alex: Yes, of course. We are saying “without tablecloth.” “The absence of a tablecloth of the table” is something different from “a table without a tablecloth.” We can just talk about “the absence of a tablecloth from the table”; that’s quite different from talking about “the table without the tablecloth.” And there’s quite a difference between “no tablecloth on the table,” and “there is no tablecloth” – “I was looking for a tablecloth and there is no tablecloth.” These are all quite different. You have to know that difference in order to not confuse meditation on, as I said, “a non-truly existent table”; “the non-true existence of the table”; and “there is no such thing as true existence.” These are three very different meditations.
That was what we’re not going to cover! But actually this is good because we get a little dose of some of the topics that are involved. Obviously we would need to go much more deeply into each of these.
The Four Ways in Which the Words of an Implicative Negation Can Imply Something
Question: Please explain the four ways in which the words of a negation, taken as a whole unit, can imply things. Or, to use the technical term, how they can throw things in their wake.
Alex: First I should say that the sound of the words of the negation phenomenon can throw in their wake affirmation phenomena or negation phenomena. And not only that, they can throw either one or more affirmation phenomenon or negation phenomenon. But let’s just stick to a simple example. The sentence is: “The fat man does not eat during the day.” So, from that, the fact that he is fat, within that sentence, that whole sentence, one of the things that it explicitly throws is (1) the negation of thin – because he’s fat; he’s not thin – that explicitly implies that. “The fat man doesn’t eat during the day” implicitly implies that (2) he does eat at night, because he’s fat. And actually, in this case, the sound of the words of the entire negation phenomenon “the fat man doesn’t eat during the day” (3) both explicitly and implicitly imply things. It implies “not thin” explicitly, and implicitly it implies that he eats at night.
And then the classic example is you know that Siddhartha Buddha was either a brahmin or a kshatriya, in terms of the two castes (there are obviously other castes). So when we know that and somebody says that Buddha Shakyamuni was not a brahmin, then we know by that situation – of it being a choice: only one or the other – we know that (4) he was a kshatriya. So those words “Buddha is not a brahmin,” that negation implies that he is a kshatriya.
So those are the four kinds. And either affirmations or negations could be implied, in any of these ways, by the words of a negation – or the situation, by the situation. Because it’s only by the situation – that I know that Buddha could only be a brahmin or a kshatriya – that we know that the negation “Buddha’s not a brahmin” implies that Buddha is a kshatriya. In other situations, where it could be any caste, “That he’s not a brahmin” hasn’t implied the affirmation of what caste he is. So these are subcategories of negations.
The Two Meanings of “Unawareness”
Okay, let’s begin. Let me just answer you a question briefly, but not go into it in detail. The question was what about the word “unawareness,” “ignorance.” With unawareness, there are two ways of defining it; it’s two different types of negation that are involved. One is just simply not knowing; and the other one is knowing it in an inverted way, not knowing it correctly, knowing it backwards. There is a difference between “I don’t know your name” and when I think that you are Mary. The not knowing what your name is when I think it’s Mary, and the not knowing when I just don’t know your name at all, those are two quite different definitions of “not knowing.” Prasangika takes it to mean, like the example, “I didn’t know your name when I thought your name was Mary.” And all the other schools take it as “I just don’t know your name.” That’s a big discussion, in terms of getting rid of which type of unawareness will actually bring about a true stopping of suffering. This is a very important question. Do you have to get rid of just not knowing, or do you have to get rid of knowing incorrectly?
The Two Ways of Focusing on Voidness: During Total Absorption and During Subsequent Attainment
And there were two other things that came up during the tea break, to illustrate a little bit more clearly the difference here between when we know “table without a tablecloth” and when we know “there is no tablecloth of the table.” Perhaps an easier example of that, grammatically, would be that there is a difference, in terms of an object, of “me without my glasses” and “these are not my glasses.” “Not my glasses” is different from “me without my glasses.” “Me without my glasses” implies both “me” and “not my glasses.” “Not my glasses” just implies “not my glasses”; it does not imply “me.” We are talking about the words. That’s a clearer grammatical example, I think, than the table and the tablecloth, but the principle is the same.
So this makes a big difference in terms of voidness meditation because there is a big difference between focusing on “a table without true existence” and “no truly existent table.” These are two steps in voidness meditation. The total absorption, space-like absorption, is “no truly existent ‘me.’” It’s not affirming “me,” we’re not focusing on a “me,” a “no truly existent” me. There is no truly existent “me.” There’s no such thing as a truly existent “me.” That’s very different from the subsequent period, subsequent attainment, or post-meditation in which what we are focusing on is a “not truly existent ‘me,’” in other words, a “me” that is not truly existent, a “me” without true existence, which is like an illusion, in the sense that it appears to be truly existent, but it actually isn’t. There, we know both “me” and we know “not truly existent.”
A “table without a tablecloth,” so a “table without true existence,” is very different from “there is no truly existent table.” “There is no truly existent ‘me.’” “No such thing as a truly existent ‘me.’” So we’re not focusing on a “me” there; it doesn’t imply a “me,” although we had to negate a “truly existent ‘me’” in order to know “no truly existent ‘me,’” but that was before. That’s why we have the word “preclude,” what happened before; it’s in the past tense.
So, to get to the other Christian’s question, there is a difference between focusing on the non-true existence of dependently arising phenomena and focusing on dependently arising phenomena that are not truly existent. It’s the same thing as before. In the non-true existence of dependently arising things, we’re only focusing on a negation. In focusing on the non-truly existent dependently arising things, we’re focusing on the dependently arising things; it’s an affirmation of that, and a negation of “not truly existent.”
And then of course the question arises, how do you focus on the two? When we’re focusing on “no such thing as truly existent dependently arising things,” then the absence of true existence, this is what is appearing to the consciousness; and the basis for that negation, the dependently arising things, is not appearing to that cognition. And when we focus on “dependently arising things that are without true findable existence,” then the only thing that appears to our minds are the dependently arising phenomena; their being without true existence (in other words, their lack of true existence) doesn’t appear to the mind. So what we would say is that when we focus on the non-true existence of dependently arising phenomena, we know explicitly the non-true existence because that’s what appears to the mind. But that cognition that explicitly knows the absence of true existence (or the voidness) of the dependently arising phenomena doesn’t cognize, even implicitly, the basis for that voidness – in other words, the dependently arising phenomena themselves.
An implicit cognition would be one in which the cognition decisively and accurately knows an object, but that object doesn’t appear to that cognition. So in this case, with the total absorption on voidness, the basis for that cognition is not known even implicitly by that same cognition. On the other hand, during the subsequent attainment – in other words, the realization that we obtain subsequently to this total absorption on voidness – then at that time, the dependently arising phenomena are known explicitly by that cognition. And that same cognition knows implicitly the voidness of those dependently arising phenomena. That voidness doesn’t actually appear to that cognition.
Now if we ask: during the total absorption on voidness, is the basis for the voidness known at all at that time? Then we have to distinguish between the conceptual cognition and the non-conceptual cognition of voidness. And we also have to make a distinction in the two sets of explanations that we find in the Gelug tradition. In the textbooks by Panchen, which are used in Drepung Loseling Monastery and Ganden Shartse Monastery, it’s explained that during the conceptual cognition of voidness, at that time there is also a second cognition which is occurring simultaneously. And in that second cognition there is the explicit cognition of the basis for voidness. However, there is not terribly much attention paid to that second cognition; the attention is focused on the conceptual cognition of voidness, the conceptual absorption on voidness. Now according to the other set of textbooks, the Jetsunpa textbooks, which are used by Ganden Jangtse Monastery and Sera Je Monastery, it explains that at that time of the conceptual total absorption on voidness, there is a subliminal cognition of the basis of voidness. A subliminal cognition is one in which the object appears to that subliminal cognition and is known by that subliminal cognition, but the object does not appear and is not known by the person. The person is only aware of and cognizing the object of the manifest cognition – in this case, voidness.
Now in the case of the non-conceptual total absorption on voidness, then the Panchen textbooks would say that there is no second cognition occurring at the same time which would take as its object the basis for the voidness. And the Jetsunpa textbooks would say that at that time of the non-conceptual total absorption on voidness, there is no simultaneous subliminal cognition of the basis for voidness. Although the Jetsunpa textbooks do assert that simultaneously with this non-conceptual total absorption on voidness there is a subliminal cognition of true existence – in this case, the true existence of voidness. But we don’t have to get into the technical details of that.
So it’s only the case in the omniscient awareness of a Buddha that we can have the simultaneous non-conceptual cognition manifestly of the two truths, in which the two truths both are known explicitly. Prior to that, when we know manifestly and explicitly voidness, deepest truth, then we could only know the conventional truth or superficial truth with either a second cognition that’s occurring at the same time, or subliminally, depending on which textbook explanation we follow. And when we know voidness explicitly and non-conceptually then we cannot be aware, at the same time, of the basis for that voidness.
And in the case of subsequent attainment, when we know explicitly the conventional or superficial truth of phenomena – in other words, the appearance of dependently arising phenomena – at that time, we can only know implicitly, with that same cognition, simultaneously, the voidness of the dependently arising phenomena. This is because during the subsequent attainment the appearance of dependently arising phenomena is with an appearance of true existence. And so you can’t have explicitly the appearance of true existence and the absence of an appearance of true existence.
These points are very important to know so that we appreciate what it means to achieve Buddhahood and have the simultaneous cognition of the two truths. The simultaneous cognition of the two truths that we’re aiming for is to have, non-conceptually, the manifest explicit cognition of the two truths simultaneously in one cognition.
When we talk about the levels of mind, which is the topic exclusively of anuttarayoga tantra (the highest class of tantra), then we speak about the subtlest level of mind, which is known as the clear light mind. And it’s only that clear light mind that can have that simultaneous cognition non-conceptually of the two truths with both of them being manifest and explicitly known. This is because that subtlest level of mind, the clear light mind, does not make an appearance of true existence. All grosser levels of mind, which sutra limits itself to speaking about, these grosser levels of mind, when they make an appearance of the superficial truth or the conventional truth or the appearance of phenomena, can only make an appearance of them as being truly existent. And so, because of that, when one cognition explicitly cognizes the superficial truth of things, the appearance of things, it cannot simultaneously have explicitly the understanding of voidness, because the appearance of the conventional phenomena will be with true existence and voidness is the absence of true existence, so they preclude each other. And, correspondingly, when there is the explicit cognition of voidness, the absence of true existence, you can’t have in that same cognition the explicit cognition of conventional phenomena, because they would appear truly existent.
Now even if we can achieve the simultaneous cognition explicitly, manifestly, non-conceptually of the two truths with the clear light consciousness, in terms of our total absorption on voidness with the clear light mind, that is not something that we can sustain all the time before Buddhahood. It’s only with the attainment of Buddhahood that we can sustain it forever without any break. So we have to be careful not to confuse these types of simultaneous cognition of the two truths with the type of simultaneous cognition of the two truths that a Buddha has, which is what we’re aiming for.
Now let’s tie this back together with our discussion of implicative and non-implicative negations. When we have been describing the total absorption on voidness, whether it’s conceptually or non-conceptually cognized, in that case we’re talking about a non-implicative negation – “there’s no such thing as the true existence,” in this case the true existence of dependently arising phenomena or any specific dependently arising phenomenon: a person, or something like a table. The sound of the words of the negation, after they have negated what is to be negated, leave in their wake only a negatingly known phenomenon, only a negation.
Whereas when we’re talking about the subsequent attainment (or subsequent realization) cognition of dependently arising phenomena that are without true existence, then we’re talking about an implicative negation. We’re talking about a negation in which when the sounds of the words of the negation have negated or eliminated or precluded the object to be negated, they leave in their wake both an affirmation phenomenon and a negatingly known phenomenon. In this case the affirmation, the dependently arising phenomenon, is known explicitly in that cognition, and the negatingly known phenomenon is known implicitly. That negatingly known phenomenon that’s known implicitly, namely voidness, is itself, of course, a non-implicative negating phenomenon.
And when we have been focusing with total absorption on voidness as a non-implicative negatingly known phenomenon, then when the sound of the words of that negatingly known phenomenon leaves in its wake just a negatingly known phenomenon (namely the absence of true existence), which in this case is explicitly cognized, then even though we could have another cognition which is cognizing the basis of that voidness, or a subliminal cognition that is explicitly cognizing the basis for the voidness, nevertheless that basis for voidness (that affirmingly known phenomenon) has not been left in the wake of the sound of the words of the non-implicative negation “no such thing as true existence.” And this is the case even in the situation of an omniscient awareness of a Buddha, in which the basis for voidness is cognized simultaneously, explicitly, manifestly, non-conceptually by that same cognition that cognizes explicitly voidness.
How to Focus on an Absence of True Existence
Now you might ask, how do you focus on the absence of true existence? Let’s say the true existence of the table. According to Prasangika, the first moment you would have to focus on the table, which is the basis for voidness. And of course whether we’re focusing on the table conceptually or non-conceptually, according to Gelugpa that appearance of the table is going to be an appearance of true existence of the table. Now if beforehand we have gained certainty through logical analysis that there is no such thing as true existence, then we have to apply that certitude about “no such thing as true existence” to that appearance of the truly existent table. When we apply it, what happens is that certitude cuts off or precludes or eliminates true existence; and because it does it in the manner of a non-implicative negation, then what happens next is that we have a cognition in which only the absence of true existence is cognized, in the sense it’s cognized explicitly – it appears – and that cognition does not know even implicitly the basis for the voidness, the table.
In the case of this cognition of voidness being conceptual, then it explicitly knows that voidness, that absence of true existence, through the conceptual category of “voidness”; and because it is a conceptual cognition, it’s going to make that voidness which appears appear to have true existence. If, on the other hand, it’s a non-conceptual cognition of voidness, then that voidness that explicitly appears, and is known, is going to not have any appearance of true existence. Furthermore, in the case of the conceptual cognition of voidness, then the basis for that voidness (the table) could still simultaneously appear either to a different cognition, a separate cognition which is occurring simultaneously, or to a subliminal cognition, depending on how we analyze this situation. But it is certainly not appearing (and cognized) to that cognition of voidness itself, and we’re not paying terribly much attention to that cognition of the basis for the voidness. And, as we’ve seen, in the case of a non-conceptual cognition of voidness then the table isn’t known even to either another simultaneous cognition or to subliminal cognition.
Now if we ask, when we are focusing explicitly on voidness (whether conceptually or non-conceptually), what does it look like, what is the appearance? Then we have to turn actually to the explanation that we find in anuttarayoga tantra. There that appearance is described as the absence of moonlight, the absence of sunlight, and the absence of total darkness. And so it would look like the very, very deep dark blue color of the sky when the moonlight is gone and the sunlight has not yet arisen, the sun hasn’t started to rise and turn the sky red, and there’s also not the absolute blackness of night, either. So that very, very deep dark blue that occurs at that moment, this is what voidness would appear like. And in a conceptual cognition it would appear like that through the general category of this “voidness,” which would be having some sort of pictorial form, but not necessarily a pictorial form, and it would be with an appearance of true existence; whereas if it were non-conceptual, then we would just have this appearance non-conceptually. And, mind you, it isn’t that the appearance is existing somewhere out there established on its own, by some characteristics on its own side, but rather this appearance is something which is the mental hologram that the mind gives rise to as what actually occurs when there is cognition. And the understanding of that appearance, of that mental hologram, is the understanding of “no such thing as true existence.”
So you can see you have to really answer these questions precisely in order to meditate correctly; otherwise, you really have no idea what in the world am I supposed to be focusing on when I’m focusing on voidness in my voidness meditation. Not so simple. The point is how do you meditate on voidness in order to overcome the causes of suffering that are causing us samsara and causing us inability to help others? How do we focus on it, even if we know what it means? What comes to our mind when we think “voidness?” I want to sit down and mediate, what do I do? I’ve read the meaning; I’ve heard what it is; I think I understand what it means. Now I’m sitting down; I want to meditate on it. What do I do? Do I just repeat the definition? What are you thinking about? How do you focus on voidness?
If you don’t know how to focus on it, it’s like having the medicine and I know what the medicine is, but I have no idea how to take it – am I supposed to inject it, am I supposed to drink it, am I supposed to make an enema out of it? What am I supposed to do with this? I’ve no idea. And you don’t know how much of it to take. And you don’t know when to take it, how often to take it, and all these things. You have to go to the doctor (have to go to the teacher) to find out. But I know what it is and I know that it will cure my sickness. A very good example.
There are many, many things that we have to know in order to meditate correctly on voidness. What are the stages? Well, for the first few days I take it every so many hours, then the next days I take it less. There’s instructions along the way, isn’t there? So that’s why this topic is very, very important. That’s the point of this whole discussion. We need to know this, despite it being difficult to understand. It doesn’t matter that it’s difficult to understand; it’s not impossible. Serkong Rinpoche always used a wonderful example. He loved to go to circuses. He said if a bear can learn how to ride a bicycle, as a human being you can learn a lot more.