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Introduction to Buddhist Metaphysics

Alexander Berzin
Knappenberg, Austria, September 2010

Session Seven: General Questions

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:34 hours)

So what questions might you have about this material on metaphysics?

Question: In which sutras does this material appear?

Alex: In which sutras does this material appear? I have no idea. This type of material, these schemes and so on, a lot of it comes from the abhidharma literature, which is not the sutras. These are texts on special topics of knowledge, one of The Three Baskets, or Tripitaka. There are various versions as to who actually wrote them down. We have one version that says that Mahakashyapa recited it at the first council. Other versions say that he didn’t recite anything and that seven arhats wrote this down later. But we find a whole evolution of this abhidharma literature through the early history of Buddhism in India, and each of the various schools, both the Hinayana and Mahayana, have their own versions. And I am not sure whether or not all of this, the basic points of all of these, are found in the abhidharma itself. I tend to doubt that. A lot of it was derived from Indian commentaries later on, and then the Tibetans would have written subcommentaries and organized the Indian materials even further. This material derives from the Tibetan sources, but things like these pervasionsset theory and things like that – that we would find already in Indian Buddhist logic.

Question: Did the mahasiddhas read these abhidharma texts?

Alex: Did the mahasiddhas read these abhidharma texts? Well, there were a lot of mahasiddhas – I mean, there’s the standard 84, but there undoubtedly were more – and it’s hard to say who had studied in the monasteries prior to going off to the jungles and cremation grounds and becoming a mahasiddha. If we look at someone like Naropa, he was the abbot of Nalanda Monastery before he went off and became an intensive tantra practitioner; he certainly had studied this material. But we shouldn’t think of this material as being contradictory with intensive tantra practice like that done by the mahasiddhas.

We have a Tibetan epithet which is used quite commonly, which is kaydrub (mkhas-grub) in Tibetan. The first syllable of that, kay (mkhas), means learned. So they have studied and integrated all this material like what we have covered, and more. The second syllable, drub (grub), is the Sanskrit word siddha as in mahasiddha. So a highly realized practitioner who has gained actual attainments; that’s the connotation. And if we look at the curriculum of the tantric colleges in the Gelug tradition, we see that they study the tantra literature, the tantra material, through the medium of debate and this type of logical analysis. So it’s fully integrated.

So if we look at our classification scheme for relationships: learning and tantra practice and realization, these are not mutually exclusive sets; they are not contradictory. How many possibilities are there between these two sets? Learned masters and tantra masters. Come on, it’s a quiz. How many possibilities? Is it totally pervasive – only one possibility? Only two, only three, or only four? You say two. Well, you can’t say “two or three.”

Participant: Three.

Alex: What are the three? Either one or the other, or both, or none. Right. So there’s four. Where does the dog fit in? The dog is in neither. That’s how you apply this type of analysis to the type of question you asked.

Question: Do symbols belong in the bag of mental labeling?

Alex: Do symbols belong in the bag of mental labeling? is the question. In a sense. I mean, a mental label can be a word or it can be a symbol. Sure, why not? Like the equals sign. It just represents a certain category, generality, whatever you want to call it.

Participant: When we read symbols. When we read signs…

Alex: Signs or symbols. Now we get into very technical terminology: What is the difference between a sign and a symbol and a representation, and so on. I’m not quite sure how you’re using your terms.

Participant: Well, the question is specifically… [unclear]

Alex: The wafer in the sacrament? In the Mass when you take sacrament, the holy sacrament. The wafer and the wine.

Question: Is this a symbol or is this…

Alex: Is it a symbol? Well, I don’t know that we really want to get into this linguistic discussion. My understanding is that a symbol is something that anybody that sees would understand what it means. Like for instance, a crescent shape; one could understand it to be a moon. But a representation is something that you’d have to be taught what it means. So the wafer in the Mass… one could just think that… I mean, certainly a Buddhist coming there who has no idea of Christianity wouldn’t have the slightest idea what it is. They would just think that they’re giving out free food, a snack at the end of the service.

Participant: So the answer to this question is, then, it belongs to a social agreement…

Alex: A social agreement would...

Participant: ...of a connotation.

Alex: Of a connotation. What that wafer represents. Certainly that is by convention. And even a symbol, like the equals sign or the crescent, is also by convention. Somebody who never studied mathematics would have no idea what the equals sign means, or the plus sign. I would have to correct that: the equals sign and plus sign are not signs by this definition; they’re a representation.

The picture of a crescent moon – the dog wouldn’t understand what it is, though it is obvious perhaps for a lot of people. But then again… I mean, if you look in Islam, the crescent moon not only stands for the moon, but it has deeper significance; it’s both a sign and a representation. The crescent moon you could say is a sign – I mean the crescent – because most people would recognize it as a moon. The crescent is a sign of a moon. Most people would identify it as a moon, but you can’t say that absolutely everybody would recognize it – all life forms. The dog wouldn’t recognize what it is. But that crescent could also be used to represent something else.

Well, there are a lot of things that are a bit confusing. You would think that a map is a sign that everybody would recognize what it is; they don’t. But that would be imputed. Here we have a relationship of an imputation on a basis. And then one has to analyze: Is that the same as saying a word and a meaning, a symbol and a meaning? What type of relationship is that? Is a word mentally labeled onto a meaning? It’s an interesting question. I won’t answer it for you. And is it the same relationship as me labeled onto the continuity of the body and mind? Or a whole labeled onto the parts? These are things to think about. I won’t answer them for you.

Participant: Words that don’t fit...

Alex: Are there any words that don’t fit into any box? This is quite interesting.

Participant: On the level of a deeper meaning, because....

Alex: Are there words that don’t have any meaning? Is this what you’re saying?

Question: Words, they have a meaning, but not on a level of a deeper meaning, which means the words exist, we use them, but we don’t know what it is because we cannot... Do we know where music is? Is it the listener or the person who produces sounds?

Alex: So he’s asking a question. He’s our orchestra leader, so he’s asking about music. When we have the word “music,” what does it refer to? What does it correspond to? Is there an object music? Is there a word that doesn’t actually mean anything? Can we find music?

Do you really want to get into the analysis? If we do then, first of all, we have to get into the whole voidness discussion in terms of mental labeling. There’s a difference between what words refer to and what corresponds to words. We’re not talking about the words; we’re talking about what it refers to and what corresponds to it. We’re talking about the object; we’re not talking about the word. Words refer to something, but there’s nothing that corresponds to words. Words imply boxes, as if somewhere out in the universe there are these boxes that correspond to words and that things just fit in this box or that box, like they fit in one entry of the dictionary or another entry of the dictionary. That’s impossible. However, words conventionally refer to things. So the word “music” refers to something. We hear music, we enjoy music, but is there something sitting out there in a box called music? No.

Now we get an interesting point. Defining characteristics. Are there defining characteristics of music? You’d have to say yes, there are defining characteristics, which could be a rhythmic pattern of different notes of different length of time. (We’re not talking about what’s good music or bad music.) Where are those defining characteristics? Are they on the side of the sound? Well, only one sound happens at a time, doesn’t it? Sound is one phenomenon. So the defining characteristics are also mentally labeled. What are the defining characteristics of noise? Disturbing set of sounds, or whatever. So you could label noise onto the music as well. Well, is it music? That’s the whole point.

Participant: That’s the question.

Alex: That’s the whole point. Is it like our blank piece of paper that you could label that is sitting there? No, it’s not.

Question: The sound itself is not music?

Alex: The sound in itself not only is not music, and it is also not noise, it’s also not sound, established from its own side.

Participant: [unclear]

Alex: Well, yes. Now he’s saying that in the field of music, if we talk about Western music or Chinese music, for those who have aesthetic taste for Western music, they might not even consider Chinese music music.

So now we get the interesting topic of categories, generality, and particulars. Can we fit what we have in Chinese culture and what we have in Western culture, and what we have in Vietnamese culture and African culture, do they all fall into the same box, music? That depends on the defining characteristics. It depends how you define it, how you define music. And then of course the logical pervasions will be different: Does it fit in my category of music or your category of music? That’s why, if we start to use words like universal for these generalities or categories, you get the impression that somehow they exist by themselves. But no, even the categories, these generalities, are dependent on defining characteristics; they don’t exist by themselves from their own side, established from their own side, as if they were, to use this image, sitting in Plato’s cave somewhere.

Within all emotions, how do you draw the lines between this emotion and that emotion? It all depends on how you define it, doesn’t it? It’s the same with colors. How do you divide the spectrum? Different cultures divide it differently. If you think in terms of the brain or a computer, in terms of electric impulses, how do you draw the border in terms of the sense divisions? What is visual digital information and what is audio digital information? Mental labeling. Convention. But it refers to something, because everything works; things function. Just because we speak in terms of mental labeling, it doesn’t mean that everything just exists in my head and you don’t exist. You only exist in my head; and if I don’t mentally label you, you don’t exist. It certainly doesn’t mean that.

These are very interesting topics. It helps one to get a little bit more flexible. Like for instance, I’m thinking of the example of those of us from the older generation might not quite consider techno as music. One group will consider that music, but for others… to just repeat three notes over and over again for ten minutes is not music. So it all depends on the definition.

Participant: Even on a labeled definition, you can’t…

Alex: Pardon? There’s a lack of complexity. So then the question is: Is this a necessary part of the.... Is there music that has complexity? Is there music that doesn’t have complexity? Again, what are the logical pervasions? There are things that have complexity which are not music. Is it pervasive that if it’s music it has to be complex?

This is a theoretical question. What’s the practical application? Is it totally pervasive that if you’re my friend, you’re always available for me whenever I want you and need you? Is that totally pervasive? Nay. No. Do we sometimes think like that? Yes. Is it totally pervasive that every time I call you on my cell phone that it’s OK for you – that you will stop whatever you’re doing and talk with me? It’s not totally pervasive, is it? We tend to think it is.

Anything else?

Question: Is it possible, as a human being, to get an understanding of the wrong idea of the self? Because she thinks that, for us, a child has to actually get the wrong understanding of the self so they can grow up and develop; and then, afterwards, we have to get rid of this wrong idea of our self. Or is it possible that the child actually in the beginning, very beginning, can devise a concept of a self that is changing, always changing, and so on?

Alex: That’s a very good point that you bring up, in terms of how you teach these ideas of voidness. We have two types of self. The impossible self, which doesn’t exist at all; and the conventional self, which does exist, which is possible. What sometimes happens is that when you refute the impossible self, a wrong understanding is that there’s no conventional self either – that I don’t exist at all.

And so for a child and a teenager, a young teenager, then, it’s very important to establish their so-called conventional identity. We can see this in the process of how children grow up, in terms of differentiating themselves from their parents and somehow… I mean, we say, “finding ourselves.” This sort of thing of establishing the conventional identity. It’s very important that a child establish this conventional identity and then learn to see the projection of the impossible me on top of that and then to refute that impossible me.

So this principle, this didactic principle – or pedagogic principle, whatever it’s called – is also very relevant for teaching Buddhism to people who are seriously mentally and emotionally disturbed. It’s not a good idea to teach voidness to such persons. You can teach “be kind and loving”; that’s something else.

Question: What are the consequences?

Alex: The consequences of teaching voidness to such persons, whether children or mentally disturbed persons, is that they fall to the extreme of nihilism: “I don’t exist at all.” And then they freak out. They feel they’re left with nothing. So some schizophrenic person who thinks that they are Cleopatra or Napoleon, you take that away from them and they’re left with nothing. So first you have to build up a conventional identity before you take away Napoleon and Cleopatra.

Question: Do you have any idea how teachers taught to make children…

Alex: In the monasteries, at what point do they start to study voidness? Madhyamaka is the topic. I’m trying to calculate. It’s not until late adolescence. Up until the age of twelve or thirteen they only memorize, without having any explanations. This takes advantage of the ability of a young brain to memorize the easiest of any age. And then – I think it differs in different monasteries – but for at least four years or more, they do all this study of these sorts of topics. What we’ve covered is in the topic of dura (bsdus-grva), which is collected topics, it’s called; it’s all this metaphysical stuff. So they study all of that for... actually I don’t know. Is it two years or three years? It depends on the monastery. Then they will study the different ways of knowing; we had a little bit of an introduction to that. Then they will study logic and debate. All of this training could last four, five years.

Then they study, for usually five years, a text known as Abhisamayalamkara (mNgon-rtogs rgyan), which is An Ornament (or Filigree) of Realizations, which is an incredibly detailed analysis of all the different insights that you gain on different levels of realization. It’s unbelievably complex. The view of voidness that you have in there is not the deepest level. So you’re still left with a little something, rather than refuting all impossible ways. It’s only after that that they study Madhyamaka, the deepest view of voidness. So they would already be in their early twenties by the time they get to the topic of Madhyamaka. There’s a lot of wisdom behind the Tibetan education system, actually – the monastic education system – although from our point of view it’s quite alien.

Question: Does it contain any sanctions?

Alex: Does this system contain any sanctions or penalties? Well, there are examinations. It’s actually only in recent times that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has started the custom of examinations every year, both written and oral. That you didn’t have before. (Before, only at certain stages there were examinations.) And if you don’t pass the exam, you have to repeat that year. This is a fairly new development.

I think what is very helpful in this system of debate is… we would say it builds character, in the sense that everybody has to participate – you can’t just be a passive student – and everybody makes mistakes and makes a fool of themselves. Tibetans are great at laughing at you, so you learn to be able to take it. This is actually very helpful for overcoming arrogance, these sort of things – developing assertiveness, etc.

Also the system forces you to develop concentration. There’s no way you can survive without concentration. It’s starting from a very early age. Traditionally you would enter the monastery when you are old enough to chase away a crow. So you have enough self-confidence that you don’t have to be with mommy all the time, that you can chase away the crow; at that point you could enter the monastery. So it’s usually around seven or eight. When they memorize the texts at night – because it will keep them up, so they have to use their energy – they recite the texts that they have memorized, all of them next to each other, screaming at the top of their voices. Everybody is screaming something different. Please don’t ever think that a Tibetan monastery is a quiet place. It’s not. So they have to concentrate from that early age. And in the debate there can be a couple hundred debates going on at top volume, screaming, right exactly next to each other, and you have to be able to concentrate to listen to what your opponent is saying. It really is very, very challenging.

Question: Are we speaking...

Alex: Are we speaking of girls and boys? Yes. Same.

Question: So it’s mixed?

Alex: Not mixed. Separate. Traditionally the nuns did not have the whole debate system, but they certainly memorized all their prayers. But since, in India, His Holiness has instituted the whole full debate system and study and degree program, etc., for the nuns, exactly the same as the monks. But they don’t mix.

This you have in all celibate traditions. In the Catholic Church, the nuns and the monks – you have a nunnery, you have a monastery; they’re not sharing their facilities. That’s just part of a whole celibate organization. There is the Dialectic School in Dharamsala, and there there are… although it’s mostly men, but it is quite mixed, in the sense that it is both monks and laymen and a few nuns and a few laywomen. But this is very out of the ordinary. But there is such a place.

Question: In this type of education, how much space is there to develop a conventional me?

Alex: In this type of education, how much space is there to develop a conventional me? I think everything depends on our concept of individuality. Regardless, we are individual. Regardless of what we do, we are individual: I’m not you. But in the West we have much more emphasis on individuality: We have to be unique. We have to be something special. In fact, in more recent times, the way that the whole generation was raised was in terms of everybody is special.

Well, from a Buddhist point of view, nobody’s special. In terms of Asian societies – and I think this is also true in terms of many traditional societies, and even perhaps medieval society – you are part of a group, whether it’s a family, whether it is a clan, whatever. Your individuality was within the context of this larger group that you belonged to. So to establish your individuality, as it were – your conventional identity – doesn’t mean that you have to do something totally different from everybody else in the monastery that has to be unique and different. In the West, this whole idea that we always have to come up with something new, unique, in art or whatever – there isn’t this concept. You do a variation on a theme, but not something completely brand new – every year a new model. But nevertheless, within a monastery, everybody has their own personality; everybody has their own set of friends; everybody has their own likes, dislikes. They’re not all the same.

There’s a certain problem, of course, that arises, which is if they leave the monastery… Or I’m thinking of children who grow up in an orphanage, in an institution. If somehow they are... This has happened in India. Children who grew up in the children’s village, this orphanage in Dharamsala, they get a scholarship to study at a college, a university in the United States or in Europe. And they go, and all of a sudden they’re by themselves. They’ve never been by themselves, because their whole conventional identity is as part of a group. That becomes difficult.

If you think that these Geshes that live their whole life in a monastery – not their whole life, but after a certain age in childhood – they were always in a group; they’re never by themselves. Then they come to West, and all of a sudden they’re by themselves; they don’t even have anybody to speak their own language to. It’s very, very difficult.

You can see all of these customs instilled even in the child-raising methods. In the West, as small children, we ask them “What do you want to eat? What do you want to wear?” An Indian family would never ask a child “What do you want to eat?” or “What do you want to wear?” – “Here is what we’re having.” From an early age, we encourage “Be unique. Do your own thing.” And then you see the difference when you go on a twelve-hour bus ride, between a two-year-old Western child and a two-year-old Indian child or a Tibetan child. Which one is able to sit quietly for twelve hours? The one that “Well, I have to do what I want!” – they have great difficulty on a twelve-hour bus ride. Well, this is interesting.

Then the West’s interest in Buddhism – how are we approaching it? Are we approaching it like a traditional Tibetan or are we approaching it like a Westerner? And we have very different approaches, very different expectations. Many Westerners feel that I should be special and they’re not treated as special. Well, maybe they are because of the expectation that they will give big donations, but that is perhaps a sign of degeneration of the times. But I come across so many young Westerners who think that they are Milarepas – that they’re going to be great practitioners and they’re going to achieve such high things, and so on. You must have seen these types in the Buddhist centers, the ones that sit in the very front row, stiff, in lotus position, totally serious face. There are others that think that they can act like various teachers when they certainly don’t have that level of attainment.

Question: This brings me to the topic of competition. Isn’t that the opposite?

Alex: Oh, the topic of competition. That becomes very relevant in debates, doesn’t it? Now certainly we can’t say that in a debate you’re not competing with the other person. Even with the Tibetans, we can’t say that that’s totally absent. But the point is that you’re debating for twenty years, and so sometimes you will be correct, sometimes you’ll be incorrect. But the point isn’t being correct or incorrect; that’s not the point of the debate. The point of the debate is to be consistent. You set an assertion, and then the other person tries to get you to contradict yourself – be inconsistent – and they win the debate if you contradict yourself. If you really understand the topic, the subject matter, then you won’t contradict yourself. So the point is to help each other get a really, really clear firm understanding, with no questions, no doubts left. All of this is intended to help with meditation later, when you meditate on all of this – that you don’t have any doubts left, that everything is really consistent; you’ve put it all together.

So it’s not really competition in that sense, although in ancient India – or medieval India, whatever you want to label it – when they did have the debates between the various Buddhist schools and the non-Buddhist schools, it was a competition, because whoever won would get the royal patronage. But it’s not like that anymore.

And on the spiritual path, it’s not competition: Who will get to liberation first? I win!

Anything else? OK. I want to thank you very much for this opportunity. I hope it’s been of some help.