Samkhya and Nyaya Assertions of Atman and Buddhist Refutation


This evening I’ve been asked to speak about the Samkhya and Nyaya schools that Buddhism refutes. We cannot refer to them as Hindu schools since Hinduism is a much more modern phenomenon that occurred in India after the period of time in which the monastic debates occurred in the Indian monastic institutions.

There were six schools of non-Buddhist Indian philosophy before Hinduism rise, and these were the schools that were the opponents in the debates that the Buddhists had. And so among those schools the ones that were the most vocal or relevant, in terms of the ones the Buddhists interacted with in debate, were these two schools, the Nyaya and the Samkhya. Actually each of those is two schools:

  • There’s the Samkhya and Yoga schools, and the main difference between them is that the Yoga school asserts Ishvara as the creator – not as a creator, but as a supreme being – and Samkhya doesn’t.
  • Whereas the Nyaya school – that’s associated with Vaisheshika, Nyaya-Vaisheshika schools, and they share a great deal in common. There are some differences. Nyaya has much more emphasis on logic.

Anyway, as representative of these two positions we’ll speak about the Samkhya and the Nyaya schools. And the question really is, what is the purpose of all of this? And the purpose is in terms of a general method which is followed in the so-called Dharmic traditions of India – that’s a general word which is used for all the Buddhist schools, Jain schools, and, for want of a better word, the Hindu schools (the non-Buddhist and non-Jain schools). And this is a method which is known by the Sanskrit name purva paksha, and purva paksha means “the other side.” And so whenever we make an assertion, the method is to then bring up any objections that you might have to it – so this is the other side – and then you want to answer it. And this is a method which of course is best used in debate, whether we’re doing it in debate with followers of a different school of Indian philosophy or we’re doing it with members of our own monastic communities – and obviously this was usually studied in monasteries in traditional Tibetan Buddhism – although one could do this in one’s own meditation, in terms of you try to focus on some aspect of the Dharma teachings and then you try to criticize it.

So this is purva paksha, this is the other side: “What would be the objections to this?” And it’s very important to be able to answer all those objections so that you have not only an accurate understanding of any point in the teachings, but very decisive. That’s very, very important in order to be able to meditate on any aspect of the Dharma teachings. If we’re going to develop single-minded concentration, absorbed concentration... I mean, these are all different technical terms in terms of levels of concentration. But if we’re going to develop that, whatever it is that we are focusing on or the state of mind that we’re generating and being in in terms of concentration – two types of meditation – then it has to be absolutely accurate, what it is, not incorrect. And there has to be no indecisive wavering about it: “Is it like this?” “I’m not quite sure,” “I have a few doubts about it.” It can’t be fuzzy like that. It has to be precise, accurate, and decisive.

The Purpose of Studying These Different Schools

And so this is the purpose of bringing up all these other objections and studying the various types of non-Buddhist schools or even, within Buddhism, the various Buddhist tenets – in order to get a very clear and decisive object of meditation so that then we can go deeper and deeper and internalize and gain the realizations and actualizations that are necessary for achieving liberation and enlightenment. So that is the purpose. The purpose is not some sort of debate club in which you’re going to engage in legal arguments or something like that.

Of course one could bring in the whole social element and economic element which was involved. And that was, in terms of these monastic debates – according to some scholars, and I think that they have a good point here – it was the equivalent of football matches between the different teams. You see, these monasteries were quite big, and they needed royal patronage in order to feed the monks and take care of all the expenses. And so whoever won these debates got the patronage of the king. And so it was a competition, in a sense. So there was another aspect to it – as I say, a socio-economic aspect to these debates. But nevertheless, the application of the method was, as I said in Sanskrit, purva paksha. Looking at the other side of any assertion that you make is very important on a practical meditation level.

Now, in terms of these two schools, Samkhya and Nyaya, I have two rather detailed articles – one on each of these schools – on my web site.  Unfortunately it’s not translated yet into German, but they’re in English. And there you’ll find all the details about these schools.

[See: Basic Tenets of the Samkhya and Yoga Schools and Basic Tenets of the Nyaya and Vaisheshika Schools.]

So I didn’t think that it was necessary to repeat all of that, because I didn’t imagine that you wanted a lecture like in comparative religion class at the university. So rather than go through all the details of each of these schools, which is a bit much for one evening’s lecture, I thought to focus on one topic. And that topic is a very, very, crucial topic, which is the topic of the atman, the self. That is very central in terms of what we need to understand correctly in order to attain liberation and enlightenment.

Common Features of All Indian Traditions

I think also it’s very necessary to realize that these Indian traditions – whether we talk about Buddhist, Jain, or, as I said, for want of a better word, Hindu (although that’s a later term) – all of them are discussing the same types of issues. It is analogous to our Abrahamic traditions, the term in comparative religion for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They are all talking about the same types of issues with God the creator, and those types of things, a common basis. So similarly in the Indian traditions – it’s very different from these Abrahamic traditions – they all share something in common.

And so they’re all talking about rebirth. Except for one, one little school, the Charvakas, that doesn’t accept rebirth and karma. But aside from that one exception, they’re all talking about rebirth. They’re all talking about rebirth under the influence of karma. That karma is generated because of ignorance about how the self exists, primarily about how the self exists. I mean, some may talk about how general reality is, but it’s primarily about how the self exists. And all of them are aiming for liberation. All of them have the practice of ethical discipline, meditation. It’s all in common. Shamatha, vipashyana – that’s in common in all these traditions; that’s not something unique to Buddhism at all. And they all are aiming to get wisdom – I mean, I don’t really like that term, but discriminating awareness, to discriminate between what is actuality and what is not, how do things actually exist and what is just a projection of fantasy. And that understanding will bring liberation. This is in common in all the Indian traditions. And then what they differ in is in terms of the details of how that works, what you really need to understand, and so on. And some have more emphasis on love and compassion, and some on others. This is a variable, but again one needs to understand that within the Indian social context. Anyway, I don’t want to go too far in that direction in our discussion.

In the Buddhist teachings, when we are aiming for liberation from samsara, samsara means uncontrolled recurring rebirth. So rebirth under the influence of basically unawareness of how we exist, how the self exists – a self being this word atman – and that unawareness is basically not knowing. In later Buddhist commentaries from... well not later really, but Dharmakirti’s commentaries, he asserts that this unawareness is actually being confused, knowing in an opposite way, an incorrect way, how the self exists. But if we look in terms of general abhidharma, Vasubandhu and Asangha, it’s simply that we don’t know. Well, this is why I don’t like the word ignorance, because it’s not that we’re stupid; we just don’t know. And this is also the assertion that we have in other Indian schools, that for them unawareness as well is just we don’t know: it’s not obvious at all, it’s not clear, how we exist.

Grasping for an Impossible Atman of Persons

So in order to attain liberation, we need to understand correctly how we exist and get rid of not knowing. And the terminology that we use is grasping for an impossible atman of persons. Now, atman – some people, myself included, sometimes translate it as a soul. That’s probably the closest that we have in our Western languages, but again soul has so many different interpretations. In Judaism and Christianity and Islam, here we have yet another interpretation of it. So some people argue that it’s best to leave it untranslated, just as atman. We can also just call it a self, and so the selflessness of persons, but then you also have the selflessness of all phenomena, and that sounds pretty strange. So, anyway, you have the atman.

And grasping for an atman of persons – grasping, this word, which is a very difficult word to translate, actually has two aspects. One means to make an appearance of some sort of impossible way of existing (in this case, of the self) and to perceive it. So to make the appearance and to perceive it, that’s one level of it. And then the other level of it is to believe in it, which means to believe that it corresponds to reality, referring to something real, which it doesn’t.

That’s the problem of it. If you get rid of believing that it refers to reality – OK, you’ve gotten somewhere. You can gain liberation that way. So you don’t believe it, and therefore you don’t have these disturbing emotions of trying to defend it and to assert it and “I’ve got to get my way” and “Everybody has to pay attention to me” and all of these sort of things. But in order to become enlightened, you have to get the mind to stop projecting this at all, that level of what’s translated as grasping. As I say, it’s a terribly difficult word to translate because it has these two separate meanings.

In any case, we have this grasping for an atman, which means that our minds make it appear, this false self, and we believe that that’s who we really are, that that corresponds to reality. And there are two levels of that. There is one which is called doctrinally based, which means that we had to learn – in this case, from one of these Indian schools – what that self is. And based on what we learned – so it’s based on the doctrine, doctrinally based – then we believe it. And if you believe it, you could imagine as well, in the West we’re taught some sort of dogma by the church, and you believe it, and then that’s the way that you identify yourself, the way that you identify the world, the universe.

So this is something that would not come up automatically. Animals wouldn’t necessarily have this. They may have it unconsciously from previous lives. That’s another discussion. But in this life we would have to have been taught it. There’s a whole discussion. And it would have to be specifically the Indian assertions from these schools. It’s very specific. Now, we could have different parts of it, but that’s not the whole thing. Different parts of it would be considered what’s called incorrect consideration.

There’s always the discussion of: “Well, what about the fact that we never studied these Indian schools. I’ve never heard of them. So how do I have this doctrinally-based grasping?” Because it says very clearly: in order to obtain a seeing path of mind, pathway of mind – that’s the path of seeing, that’s becoming an arya, non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths (which includes this way in which we exist, part of the true path) – then if you do that, if you gain that non-conceptual cognition, then you are free of this doctrinally-based grasping for this impossible self.

So you ask, “Well, but I never studied this, so how can I be free of that?” And the answer that’s given to that is that: “Well, beginningless rebirths, so you’ve had it in beginningless lives, and stuff like that. So, in a sense, unconsciously it would be there.” Whether that’s a satisfying answer or not, one has to explore. But anyway that’s the answer which is given.

And then there’s an automatically arising grasping for a self. And that automatically grasping for a self is a belief in a self… And this is a little bit of a difficult point. I only know the way that’s asserted by Tsongkhapa in the Gelugpa tradition. I’ve tried to find out the way that it’s asserted in other traditions, and I’ve had a great deal of difficulty getting a specific answer. But in the Gelugpa presentation of it, it says that it’s a self that is self-sufficiently knowable, that it can be known just by itself without a basis of imputation being known at the same time.

What does that mean? That means, the classic example: “I want somebody to love ‘me’ for myself. Not for my body, not for my wealth, just to love ‘me’ for ‘me.’” As if you could love a “me” separate from their body, their personality, their name, anything. “I know Arnie.” Well, how can I know Arnie? I mean, there’s a basis for it. I know his name. I know now what he looks like. You can’t just know a person without knowing something about them as a basis. So to imagine that we exist like that, that’s the automatically arising. And even animals have that. Everybody has that. That’s the subtle impossible self. That takes much longer to get rid of. It’s only when you’re rid of that that you attain liberation.

So now we’re talking about this doctrinally based. This is the one that you would have had to have learned, either in this lifetime or in some previous lifetime, from these Indian schools.

Now, another thing that is very important to understand is that when we talk about a self, an atman, Buddhism only is refuting an impossible way of existing of such a self. Buddhism is not saying that we don’t have a self. That’s the nihilist extreme. We do have a self; it just doesn’t exist in these impossible ways as are asserted by these non-Buddhist schools. So that’s what we’re refuting. We do have a self. So it’s very important to know what actually is the self that’s not to be refuted and the self that is to be refuted. One that actually does exist, as in I’m sitting here, I’m talking to you. You’re sitting there, you’re talking to me. It’s not that nobody is here talking to you, and you’re nobody – I’m talking to nobody. It’s not like that. So obviously we exist, and the Zen master would smack you with a stick in order to demonstrate to you that you do exist. We don’t do that in Tibetan Buddhism, but it’s a very effective method to convince you that you actually do exist.

So we do exist, but what is the problem is that we have these crazy ideas of how we exist. And based on believing that, as if there’s some little “me” sitting in my head which is the author of the voice that’s talking all the time, and judging and deciding what should I do now, and is worried: “Will people like me? Am I good enough? I’m not good enough” – that “me” is obviously false. That’s not the one. That’s the one that is the troublemaker, because when we believe that, then we get aggressive, we get greedy (I have to have more and more), this type of thing. So this is the type of “me” that we need to refute. So in order to refute it, we need to have a clear idea of what it is to be refuted. Everything in Buddhism needs to be quite precise. Then our understanding is precise. Then, as I said, we have an effective object for meditation. The mind has to be very precise and exact in terms of its concentration. Then obviously what it’s focusing on can’t be vague; it also has to be very precise. Alles klar as you would say in German.

So this is the purpose for studying these tenets. And when we study them, what I think is most important is to not study it from the point of view of: “Those ignorant, medieval people thought like that,” as if we were an anthropologist just sort of studying these primitive beliefs, but to examine in ourselves, “Do I have something similar to that? Do I have this type of thinking?” And to not just treat that very superficially – to say, “Well, of course I don’t believe like that” – but to really analyze, to try to get deeper and deeper into: What is this way of thinking? We don’t have to buy the whole package of the philosophy in order to examine in ourselves these faulty positions. So that is the way to approach this material – from the point of view of: How is it practical? How is it going to help “me” in my life? How is it going to help “me” in my meditation? Otherwise we might as well just be studying comparative religion in university, and that’s not really what Buddhism is all about.

So what I thought – I hope this won’t be too confusing – is to go through a number of points about the self, about the atman, and look at what does Samkhya say, what does Nyaya say, and what does Buddhism say to see the contrast that is there and to examine this Samkhya and Nyaya view to see: “Do I think like that at all?”

Three Characteristics of the Doctrinally Based Self

In general, this doctrinally based self that’s being refuted is one that has three characteristics:


Now, you might hear the word permanentPermanent is very misleading because it has two meanings, in at least English. Permanent can mean eternal. Well, Buddhism asserts that the self is eternal, so there’s no problem with that – no beginning, no end. So that’s not the problem. That’s not the issue.

The other meaning of permanent means that it doesn’t change, and that’s the meaning that is meant here – that it is not affected by anything, therefore it doesn’t change; it doesn’t do anything, not affected. So static is the word that I use for that. So a static “me,” not affected by anything.


We hear the word one. Well, what does one mean? Actually it’s talking about partless, that is has no parts. Everything else has parts. Well, some of the Buddhist schools assert partless atoms and these sort of things. Let’s not get into that. But in general, everything has parts, but the “me” doesn’t have any parts. It’s either the size of the universe, some of them assert, later in Vedanta thought, which is the actual philosophy that’s used in most modern Hindu schools. Then you have this “atman is Brahma” and “one with the universe” type of thing. So partless in that sense (all parts are an illusion). Or it is just some tiny little monad, like a spark of life or something like that, that has no parts. So that’s this second thing, what is usually translated as one. That’s what one means in this context.


The third aspect is that it can exist totally independent of any aggregates (in other words a body or a mind, that it can exist totally separate from that). And we’re not really talking necessarily in terms of what goes from lifetime to lifetime. Some of the schools – Nyaya does say that the atman does that. Samkhya doesn’t; it has a slightly different explanation.

So we basically think of these three aspects, since that is how it’s defined in Buddhism: static, monolithic, and can exist independently of a body and a mind. And it is that type of “me” that we imagine is the… there are three words that are used here:

  • That it’s the possessor of a body and mind. It possesses – it owns it.
  • And it lives inside it. It’s the inhabitant.
  • And it controls it. You know, the little “me” sitting in the head pressing the buttons of what to do and taking in the information on the screen coming in from the eyes and the loudspeaker coming in from the ears.

Living inside the body (the inhabitant), controlling, and owning it: “This is mine. My body. My mind. My personality. My thoughts.” This is that “me” that’s being refuted here, OK?

So now we’ll look at the specific assertions that are made concerning such a “me.”

According to Samkhya, all of these – they say that it’s immaterial, the atman. Everybody says it’s immaterial; it’s not some type of substance. And it’s eternal, everybody says, including Buddhism – has no beginning and no end, in terms of the self. And there is continuity from lifetime to lifetime, and that atman itself is the one that experiences the results of karma. Karma. Everybody asserts that: Samkhya, Nyaya, Buddhism.

The Samkhya Assertion that the Self Is Mere Passive Consciousness

Now, Samkhya says that the atman is – this is the one that they assert does exist – that the atman is pure passive consciousness, which by nature does not have any object. Pure consciousness.

Now you start to think in terms of: “Do I think like that?” You follow the Nyingma school, let’s say, and you hear of rigpa (pure awareness) and things like that. Is that me? Is that what I think of in terms of me? This is how you start to work with these things. And is that something which is passive, which has no object? Well we hear nondual. What does that mean? Nondual. Does that mean there’s no object? And we hear object and subject and these sorts of Western ways of describing it, which are not at all really Tibetan ways of describing it, but that’s the way that it’s translated, so… Then we hear nondual subject/object, and what does that mean? So does that mean there’s no object at all (it’s just pure awareness)? Well, certainly not that.

Nondual means that you don’t have truly existent, with big walls around them, mind and its object. Of course things don’t exist like that. If they did they couldn’t interact; you couldn’t know anything. That doesn’t mean that there’s just pure awareness with no object at all and that’s “me.” Buddhism doesn’t say that’s “me” anyway.

So that’s the Samkhya position: the atman is just pure passive consciousness, which by nature does not have any object.

The Nyaya Assertion that the Self Isn’t Innately Aware

Nyaya says that the atman doesn’t innately have the property of awareness – no consciousness at all, no awareness. So what is that? How could I relate to that? Do I think that there’s a “me” and then there’s a mind. Mind has awareness. The “me” – well, what’s the relation of the “me”? Does the “me” also have awareness? What’s the “me” in relation to the mind? These types of questions that this brings up when you start to look at that position.

Buddhist Assertions about the Self

One, Samkhya: it’s just pure awareness with no object. And the other one is that there’s no mind at all. And Buddhism doesn’t go to either of those extremes. What Buddhism says is that – now we’re talking about the self that’s not to be refuted – that the self does know things.

This is an interesting point. One might not be too aware of this, but when you talk about what has objects, knows objects, what knows things, you can’t say that just my eye consciousness sees the form of this person. Because if you say that only the eye consciousness sees it, that I don’t see it, that doesn’t make any sense at all.

The self in Buddhism is an imputation phenomenon, an imputation on the basis of any of the aggregates or any combination of the aggregates, so it’s an imputation on the consciousness. And you would have to say conventionally, “I see” also. Otherwise you have the Nyaya fault, that the “I” doesn’t know anything, so then how can you ever say I know anything or I see anything? That contradicts common sense, contradicts our experience, our valid experience, of the world.

So, nevertheless, the “I,” the atman, in Buddhism – and they use the same word, by the way; it’s not that they use a different word (they use the same word) – the self, if you want to put it in a Western word, the self is not a way of being aware of something. Consciousness, mind, is a way of being aware of something. Self is not a way of being aware of something, yet it knows things, because its basis, consciousness, knows.

It’s not easy to understand, but you can see how it’s avoiding these two extremes. One extreme is that the self itself is a way of knowing something, and the other one is that the self doesn’t know anything. But here the self is not a way of knowing something, but it does know things. So it’s, in a sense, like a middle way between avoiding these two extremes. So each of these things one has to think about, one has to meditate on.

According to Buddhism, How Does the Self Know Things?

According to the Buddhist view, how does the self know things?

How does the self know things? It knows things because its basis of imputation, the consciousness, knows. Therefore conventionally you’d have to say, “I know.” But the “I,” the self, is not a mind. The self isn’t a mind. It’s not consciousness either. The self is... There are three types of nonstatic phenomena. Nonstatic – it’s often translated as impermanent – that just means what changes from moment to moment to moment to moment. So there’s three kinds:

  1. One is forms of physical phenomena: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations. Then there are subtle ones as well, like what you see in dreams and so on, what you hear in dreams. There are subtle ones too.
  2. Then there are ways of being aware of something. It’s always of something. You can’t just have this extreme of just a way of being aware – aware of what? Aware is a relative term in connection to something that you’re aware of. So a way of being aware would be seeing, hearing, thinking, anger, attachment, love, concentration, mindfulness. All of these are ways of being aware of something. Being happy about something, being unhappy about something. They’re all ways of being aware of something.
  3. And then the third category is the category of things that change from moment to moment but are neither of those first two. So an easy example would be time. Time is not a form of physical phenomenon, it’s not a way of being aware of something, but time is changing moment to moment to moment.

So the self is in that type of phenomenon. It changes from moment to moment to moment, and it’s not a way of being aware of something or a form of physical phenomenon.

And it can only be known when its basis is known. It’s an imputation phenomenon, something that cannot exist and cannot be known independently of its basis. You can’t know time by itself. You know time in terms of something changing, the movement of a clock or the motion of the planets around the sun, something like that. It can’t be known just by itself. It’s not a – well, it depends on how you define thing – it’s not a thing. It depends on what you mean by thing. Thing – if you think of it in terms of a validly knowable phenomenon, you could know time; you could know “me.”

I know you. But how do I know you? I know you on the basis of what I see and what you’re saying and so on. It’s not that I just know you abstractly. That’s impossible. But you are not your mind. This is the fallacy. This is the Samkhya thing, that you’re your mind. And then we have to really examine: Is that what I identify with? That I’m my mind? And for most of us actually that is what we identify with. And that’s what we think – a consciousness that has a self-awareness of “me,” thinks of itself in terms of “me,” that that’s what goes on from lifetime to lifetime. Well, come on, that’s the Samkhya. The Samkhya say that. That’s not what Buddhism says. So we start to see the relevance of studying this material, working with it. It’s not anthropology or comparative religion. It has to do with real life.

And then one needs to analyze what are the consequences of thinking in these ways. If I identify with my mind, then what? What type of confusion, what type of problems, come up from that? How about when we get Alzheimer’s disease, we become senile? I remember very well: My mother had Alzheimer’s disease. My mother didn’t recognize people. She didn’t even know, if you put her on a bed, how to lie down. Didn’t know how to put on her glasses. Didn’t know anything. My sister’s comment, “That’s not our mother anymore.” Is that no longer our mother? She doesn’t have her mind anymore. Well, who’s our mother? Who’s the person? There are consequences of just identifying with your mind.

“I’m losing my mind.” “I was out of my mind. I was not myself.” We say that. What does that mean? “Not in my right mind.” I mean, there are so many strange expressions that we have – which are not just expressions, but they’re actually the way that not only do we think, but we feel like that. This is something to think about. We could spend the whole evening on just one of these. There’s a whole list of these things.

So shall we go on, or do you want to take a moment to think about this?

Is the “me” passive consciousness (just mind)? Or is the “me” something that doesn’t know anything (it’s totally separate from the mind)? In which case, then, I don’t know anything. Only my mind knows. And it’s not even my mind. The mind knows, then who am I?

Does a Realized Being Have Consciousness?

But a realized being doesn’t have consciousness? 

False. A realized being certainly has consciousness. Buddha knows things. He doesn’t have our ordinary level of consciousness, but certainly Buddha has omniscience. That’s one of the main qualities of a Buddha. Buddha knows everything.

Does Buddha have mind?

Buddha certainly has mind. There are levels of ways of being aware of things, and so a Buddha has only the most subtle, pure way of being aware of things. In Nyingma you call it rigpa (pure awareness). It doesn’t mean that a Buddha doesn’t know anything. Of course a Buddha knows things. Buddha has compassion. That’s a way of knowing things. But a Buddha doesn’t have this gross level of mind, conceptual level of mind, and stuff like that. It doesn’t know things in that way.

What Is Being Improved When We Practice Dharma?

If we are practicing Dharma, what is being improved? 

There’s the mental continuum, right, moment to moment to moment to moment to moment. On that mental continuum – with also subtlest energy as another way of looking at it – there can be designated the word “me,” like a name. But “me” is not the name “me.” It’s not a word. It’s what the word refers to: “me.”

I guess I should give my classic example. The classic example is in terms of a movie. You have a movie, let’s say Star Wars. And there’s each moment of the movie, moment to moment to moment to moment to moment. Now, Star Wars is not the title Star Wars. That’s just a name. That’s not the movie. That’s the name of the movie. And Star Wars isn’t just one moment of the movie. But on the basis of all the moments of the movie, the title that you give it, Star Wars, refers to the movie Star Wars. Does the whole movie Star Wars occur in one moment of the movie? No. But is there a movie Star Wars? Yes. Did I see the movie Star Wars? Yes. What did you see? You only saw one moment at a time. When you saw moment two, moment one was no longer playing. What did you see?

Well, the “I” is like that, what the word “I” refers to on the basis of every moment of our experience. And every moment of experience, from no beginning to no end, including when we’re a Buddha, is made up of five aggregates, five aggregate factors of experience, which is just a classification scheme. It doesn’t exist up in the sky in five boxes. It’s just a classification scheme. And so in each moment there’s one or more items from each of these “boxes.” There aren’t any boxes. And they’re all changing at different rates, so there’s nothing constant. Just like in the movie there’s nothing constant (we’re not talking about the film, the actual plastic film). There’s nothing constant, but there’s a movie, and the movie can be designated with the name. In our case, the name “me.” We have a different name in each lifetime, a personal name. That’s irrelevant. It’s “me” throughout the whole thing; it’s individual. Star Wars doesn’t in the middle change to Rosemary’s Baby or something like that. It stays one movie, individual.

One of the aggregates that’s always there is some level of consciousness, of knowing, whether we’re talking on a gross level (just sense consciousness), or a conceptual level, or dreaming, or the most subtle level (rigpa, whatever you want to call it, clear-light level). There’s always that. And because that always knows something, even if it is just an absence of sensory information when you’re asleep, you can say the “I” knows, the self knows, because the self’s an imputation on it.

What Is the Difference Between Self and Mind?

How is the self different from mind?

Mind is a way of being aware of things, and self is something which is neither a way of being aware of something nor a form of physical phenomenon. Mind is referring to an activity. Mind is not a thing. We think of mind like a brain or something like that. It’s not that. We’re talking about a mental activity. And that activity is going on moment to moment to moment. And that activity has three aspects to it:

  1. The arising of a mental hologram – the word is clarityClarity doesn’t mean clarity like something is in focus. It just means that something is arising, becoming clear, which again doesn’t mean in focus. So there’s always a hologram arising. The Western point of view: photons and electrons hit the retina of the eye, and it gets translated into electric impulses and chemical things, and then somehow it gets transformed into what you can only describe as a mental hologram, and that’s what we know when we see. So that’s one aspect of the activity.
  2. Another way of describing that same activity is that it’s a cognitive engagement. That is what is seen, that arising of a hologram. If it’s a visual hologram, that’s seeing. If it’s an audio hologram of a sound – hologram doesn’t mean visual necessarily (that’s only one category of it, one subclass of it) – that’s hearing. That’s what smelling is. That’s what thinking is. The hologram could be a thought. It could be emotion. Something arising. So that is what knowing is: a cognitive engagement with something. These first two aspects are looking at the activity from two points of view. 
  3. The third word is only thatmerely that, which means that there’s no separate “me” that is watching it or controlling it. And there’s no separate mind like a box, a machine that the “me” is operating and making it happen. Only that activity, moment to moment to moment to moment to moment. This is what you have to recognize in mahamudra, that mental activity, moment to moment to moment to moment to moment. And it’s always changing. And “me” is an imputation on that as its basis. “Me” is not the same as that. Nor is the “me” something that could exist totally separate from that either and not know. The first position is Samkhya, the other one is Nyaya.

Assertions about Cognition

Samkhya Assertions about Cognition

How does the atman know things? How do we know things? How do you know anything?

So Samkhya says – this is very interesting, because now it sounds like our Western position – cognition of things is purely a physical phenomenon of brain waves. Brain waves is about the closest that I could come to what they’re referring to. So when you know something, it’s just… Seeing is merely just reduced to brain waves. Knowing something is just brain waves. Seeing is brain waves. Emotion is brain waves. Different parts of the brain doing it, etc. That’s our Western point of view, isn’t it? That’s Samkhya. And out of unawareness – in other words, ignorance – the atman identifies with this physical faculty, a very subtle faculty of sentience, but the atman doesn’t actually know or experience anything.

So that’s a little bit of a strange thing. Because they said that the atman is just pure consciousness – it doesn’t know anything – but somehow it comes in contact with these brain waves, and it’s the brain waves that actually are seeing and hearing. Seeing and hearing and knowing is just a physical phenomenon. Out of ignorance the atman identifies with it, thinks: “That’s what I am.” Very interesting if you think about it.

Now we have science, right? Cognitive science reduces everything to different parts of the brain. Whether you talk about brain waves, you talk about electric impulses, an electroencephalogram, and so on… So here it is. That’s what seeing is. That’s what emotion is. And then you have the brain wave, and you can see it. So it’s just a physical phenomenon. Then there’s “me.” Where’s the “me” if this is what cognition actually is, is the brain waves? So this is the Samkhya point of view, is that the “me,” this pure awareness, not knowing anything, it’s living inside the body and it thinks that: “That’s me.”

How do I relate to all this science that we’re learning about the brain and what seeing is and what hearing is and what emotions are? Where is the “me” in relation to that? Who am I if this is what knowing is, is just a brain wave, and this is what meditation is, is just a brain wave? Well, it’s alpha waves or it’s this wave or it’s that wave, and that’s all it is. So what’s the relationship of “me” with that? “Me,” the one that controls it? The “me,” the one that’s making it happen? Does the “me” know anything?

This is how you analyze. This is how you work with this material. And you can see that these are not very easy questions. Not at all. But as Buddhist practitioners living now, in the twenty-first century, we need to deal with science. You can’t negate science. We’re not going to go to that type of position. And you look at all the meetings that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has with science and he’s saying, “Well, science fits perfectly with Buddhism. If there’s anything that science says that refutes an assertion in Buddhism, like for instance the abhidharma assertion that the earth is square and flat, we will get rid of that and drop that. Fine.”

This is Samkhya, how we know things.

Nyaya Assertions about Cognition

Nyaya says that the atman, which doesn’t know anything, cognizes things through its association with subtle particles of awareness, but by its nature it doesn’t have the property of consciousness. So here they talk about little subtle particles, whatever that could be. There’s a little subtle particle called “awareness.”

So Nyaya has a very interesting philosophy. It makes into things, these knowable entities, everything – basis phenomenon, qualities, activities, and relationships. And so I always think of it in terms of two balls and a stick connecting them. And we certainly have that way of talking about “our relationship.” Do you ever get into that? And “You’re not relating to our relationship.” “How do you relate to our relationship?” As if the relationship were a thing and then somehow there’s a “me,” separate, who should relate to that thing which is our relationship. This is really weird if you think about it. That’s Nyaya. That’s the Nyaya School, the Nyaya position.

And so it’s saying that there’s some little particle of awareness, and this “me,” this atman, doesn’t know anything. Then Buddhism says it’s like a blind man: How in the world do they make a connection with this little particle of awareness in order to know things? Like a blind man with a stick. Through the stick it knows where there’s a step. Is this how the self works, that it makes some sort of connection with a mind particle (or brain, if we find mind particles a little bit difficult)? Very interesting, isn’t it? What is the connection, then, of “me” and the brain? Did you ever think about that?

These are the objections – if we’re talking about Buddhism – this purva paksha, the objection, the other side. We’re talking about the self and the impossible self, and we’re refuting this and that, and then this little purva paksha comes in, this other opponent, and says: Well, what about the brain? What about the brain waves? How do you explain that in terms of “me”? How do you know anything? Only your brain knows things? How does your brain know things? Put it in a bottle, it doesn’t know anything. How is it activated? Is there some little mind particle that you zap into it, you inject into it, and now the brain works? Or you inject a “me” into it and now the brain works? That “me” that you insert into it, is that “me” a consciousness? Or is that “me” something that doesn’t have consciousness, and you inject it into it, and then all of a sudden it knows things by having this lifeline connected to it? These are these positions. That’s what it gets us to think about. How do we know anything?

Buddhist Assertions about Cognition

Well, again Buddhism says that the atman, the self, cognizes things in the sense that it’s an imputation on the various types of consciousness. It’s simply like that. And there’s no contradiction in having the brain and brain waves and things like that as being the physical counterpart of being aware. We describe the phenomenon of mental activity – according to the Buddhist definition – as the arising of a mental hologram and a cognitive engagement. Two ways of looking at the same event. You can also describe the same event in terms of the energy that’s involved, so the brain wave that’s involved and the basis for it – the brain and a nervous system and so on. There’s no problem with that. That’s just another part of the whole picture. But we don’t reduce the whole process of cognition to just the brain, and we don’t reduce it to just the “me” doing this.

This is cognition.

Assertions about Rebirth

Then the next point: The atman is associated with rebirth under the influence of unawareness of its true nature. All three assert that. It undergoes rebirth because it is unaware; it doesn’t know how it exists.

Now, Samkhya says that the atman itself doesn’t take rebirth. It says the subtle body – this you get in later Hinduism as well – there’s a subtle body, and the subtle body is the various types of brain waves: There’s a brain wave which is just basic sentience. There’s a brain wave which is dealing with a sense of “me” and “mine,” it identifies with this brain wave. And then there’s another type of brain wave which is actual sense consciousness. There’s the brain wave associated with thinking, interpreting. There are brain waves of emotion. There’s brain waves of information, the information in the brain waves. It’s all brain waves. And then there’s also a physical body. The physical body disintegrates, but it’s this set of brain waves that goes on. Atman doesn’t do anything – it just associates with that in each lifetime – but it’s the package of brain waves that goes on.

So how do we have that misinterpretation of Buddhism here, [the misinterpretation] that it’s the clear-light mind, the subtlest mind [that is the “thing” that takes rebirth] – whether you want to call it “rigpa” or you want to call it “clear light” – different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have different names for it. Fine, it doesn’t matter. The Buddhist position is that the subtlest energy, with the subtlest wind as its vehicle, goes from lifetime to lifetime with the “me” is an imputation on it as its basis. Well, are we going to the Samkhya extreme, that this subtlest package – that’s this Buddhist equivalent of the subtlest body – that that’s what goes from lifetime to lifetime, and the “me” is some static thing that just somehow gets associated with it? Is that how I’m thinking of it when we hear about this package of subtlest mind and subtlest energy? Especially if you’re thinking of it in terms of Buddha-nature or these sort of things. That’s what goes on from lifetime to lifetime, and that’s “me.” What is the “me” in relation to all of that? These are the questions that are brought up by that.

So it’s the subtle body, according to Samkhya. This package of brain waves that goes on from lifetime to lifetime. It is individual. And the atman doesn’t take rebirth, but it just sort of associates with it.

Nyaya does say that the atman takes rebirth, that that’s what takes rebirth.

And Buddhism would say we have the subtlest body, the subtlest mind – Kalachakra adds subtlest speech to it – some little package that changes from moment to moment to moment to moment to moment. That’s what has the continuity, is the basis of continuity, and the “me” is an imputation on it; but that’s also changing from moment to moment because its basis is changing from moment to moment.

But for all three of them, samsaric rebirth continues under the influence of karma, and the atman experiences those results.

The Buddhist Refutation of the Three Characteristics of the Doctrinally Based Self

Now, what about these three qualities of the atman that are being refuted? I mean the defining characteristics of the doctrinally based grasping for an impossible atman, impossible self or soul: static, partless, and can exist independently of a body and mind.

The Samkhya Position

Samkhya, what do they say? They say that the atman is static: It’s not affected by anything. It’s totally passive. It doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t experience any objects of cognition. It’s the body that does things; the self doesn’t do anything. It is the brain waves that experience things, because that’s what it means to know things, and so on. The self – it’s not affected by anything. It’s just this pure awareness of nothing, no object, by itself. Nevertheless – and this is always weird in these assertions – somehow it experiences the results of karma. How it does that is not very plain. They say it doesn’t do anything; it doesn’t experience anything, never changes. There it is. The body is what does things, and the brain waves is what it means to experience something, to know something.

Partless. Samkhya is the school that says that all physical matter – they have this whole classification of twenty-four different types of physical matter – they are… the technical word is perturbations. There’s disturbance of three fundamental constituents – we have this in Ayurvedic medicine as well – sattvarajas, and tamasTriguna, the three qualities. And there are many ways of defining these three. But basically all of matter – primal matter it’s called – is made up of these three things intertwined like twines of a rope. And what is happening is that they get out of balance. “Perturbations” it’s called. Little disturbances of it. And these disturbances may get out of balance, and this is what makes up the universe, all sorts of things. So that means that all physical phenomena have parts and the atman doesn’t – that’s what partless means – the atman is not like that.

So then you think, “Well, is there anything similar to that in Western thought, in science?” And there is. If you think in terms of atomic and subatomic particles, we have positive charge, negative charge, and neutral. You have that with electrons, protons, and neutrons – you have that with subatomic particles – defined. All matter is made up of positive or negative or neutral subparticles that are not in balance, because there are different combinations of them. And that’s eternal, never changes; it’s just that they are in different combinations, different ways. That’s not so alien to our Western way of thinking, is it? You want to call them rajassattva, and tamas? Fine. Those are just names. But we have something similar to that. It’s not so weird.

And the self is not like that. The self is not made up of positive, negative, and neutral particles, if you want to translate it into a Western way of thinking. Is that what I’m thinking, actually, in terms of “me”? There’s energy and brain waves? Well, sure. That also is atoms, and that’s also positive, negative, neutral. It has parts. The self doesn’t have parts: I’m not like that.

So static, not affected by anything. Just this passive consciousness. It’s not made up of rajassattva, and tamas. It’s not made up of parts. And it can exist, when liberated, totally independently and separately from primal matter and all its perturbations, these three gunas, including brain waves and material phenomena. When liberated it can exist totally separately from that. That’s what it means when it says that it is independent. Completely separate. Totally different thing. So that’s the self with these three qualities that is asserted by Samkhya. This static thing, lasts forever, is not made up (like matter) of these three components – that it can exist totally separately from that. And it’s out of ignorance that it identifies with the brain wave of, an individual stream of brain waves, of sentience, of knowing. That’s ignorance. So that’s not what it is. It’s totally separate from that.

Well, is that what we think – this is my confusion, that I’m identifying with this body and all these disturbing emotions and stuff like that, and there’s a “me” which is totally separate from that, pure “me,” pure awareness? Something to think about.

The Nyaya Position

Nyaya says that the self is static. It’s not affected by anything. It only knows and does things through a contingent relationship. Contingent means temporary. It’s not like the relationship of the whole and the parts, which is always the case. Contingent means that it’s dependent on ignorance, basically, on unawareness, that it makes this like stick between the self – which is static and doesn’t know anything and doesn’t do anything – with a body that does things and with a mind that knows things. So it’s static in that sense. It just has these temporary sticks that it connects itself with these other things.

It’s partless, which means that it doesn’t have an inherent quality of a whole and parts. It’s not like an object that has parts. So that is talking about these relationships. It doesn’t have, as one of its type of relationships, a whole and parts.

And it can exist, when liberated, totally independently of… It has nine properties that it associates with, things like happiness, unhappiness, knowing, the elements (earth, water, fire, wind), like that. There’s a list of nine of them. And that is the confusion, that it thinks that it has to have these properties. It doesn’t have to have these properties, according to Nyaya. So it can exist independently of these nine types of properties and independently of any association with a mind particle or the material particles of a body. Stop associating with it, stop making the connection, realize that you don’t have to make this connection, and you’re free.

Is that what we think?

How will I get liberation? Well, just don’t be associated with a body and confused mind anymore. And I can exist independently of that. I’m not really associated with that; that’s not really “me.” You could think that. I could think that if I really understood that properly I’d be liberated. And this is what it’s saying is false. You’re not liberated. You think you’re liberated, but you’re not. Think like that, you’ll still have greed and you’ll still get angry. “Well, I’m some transcendent thing.” Is that our way of thinking?

The Buddhist Position

So what does Buddhism say? Buddhism says the self is not static. It’s nonstatic. It’s always changing. It’s always doing things and always affecting other things, including when we are an arhat, a liberated arhat. Including when we are a Buddha.

Arhats do things. They meditate. They don’t just do nothing. They’re not just existing in some sort of limbo. There are two kinds of arhats. The arhats that are just off in Buddha-fields and basically meditate is what they’re doing. Sometimes they’re experiencing a type of bliss. Sometimes they’re experiencing some very neutral no type of happiness or unhappiness, when they’re in a super-deep dhyana state. They of course obviously don’t have any suffering, but they’re doing something – they’re experiencing something, they’re knowing something.

And Buddhas certainly do things. They help others. And they are omniscient, so they know everything. They know your karma, and they know how best to help you to reach enlightenment. So they know things.

And Buddhism says that the self has parts. Why does it have parts? Because it is an imputation on these five aggregates that are changing all the time: a body, mind, feeling happy, feeling unhappy… So there are different aspects, different parts, in that sense. And it can never exist or be known separately from its basis, the five aggregates, even when liberated, even when a Buddha.

There are different types of aggregates. So instead of the five aggregates associated with confusion that are received from karma and so on, Buddhas still have bodies. And how about the Form Bodies: the Nirmanakaya and the Sambhogakaya? They have bodies made of very subtle light and stuff like that, but it’s a body. And they have consciousness. They know things. It’s only on a pure-awareness level, a rigpa level, but they have consciousness. They’re called “pure aggregates.” They have always untainted bliss. So they have a feeling type of thing. They have the five types of deep awareness: They know the individuality of things. They know how to help. Those are aggregates. Whether you talk about it as represented by the five Dhyani Buddhas, you talk about it as the five types of so-called Buddha-wisdom, five types of deep awareness, they have that. There isn’t a self of a Buddha that exists separately from a basis like that.

So this is what Buddhism says. Changing all the time, moment to moment to moment. Has parts, because it's an imputation on a basis that has parts, the aggregates (body, mind etc.). So it has parts. And it never can exist independently of a basis, a body and mind. It can exist independently of an impure basis. That is the thing. But just because it can exist independently of an impure basis doesn’t mean that it can exist independently of any basis.

And this is where the fallacy comes in when we approach Buddhism. Because it is true that we don’t want the self to be associated with a body that is going to get sick and grow old and have to go through childhood and all of that again. And then we might think, “Well, then no body at all.” We don’t want to have a mind that’s limited and that can’t know everything and is limited to just seeing what’s in front of our eyes, and so on. So what are we thinking? That we could be liberated from that and then what? So this is the point – and then what? And the and then what is not a big nothing. And that is what we might think, that it’s a big nothing. And you might think, “Well, for a Buddha it’s not a big nothing. But for an arhat? They’re no good, so they’re a big nothing.” It’s not like that either.

The True Nature of the “I”

So liberation is attained by knowing the true nature of the atman, that it’s not the false “I.” All of them talk about a false “I.” They might not have that expression, but they have that.

So Samkhya: What you have to understand is that the atman is not the same as the brain waves of sentience. You have these brain waves, which is what knowing is, and the atman identifies with it, the self identifies with it. We think that’s “me.” And don’t just think abstract atman. We’re thinking “me.” What do I think? I have to realize that I’m not the same as these brain waves. [Out of ignorance, we think,] “Thought, that’s the ‘me.’ And the brain waves, there are many different types of brain waves, so there must be a brain wave that’s ‘me.’ The whole package of the brain waves, that’s ‘me.’” I’m not that: you have to realize this in order to gain liberation in Samkhya.

And Nyaya: What you have to understand is that the atman, “me,” I’m not innately connected with the properties of perception, happiness, suffering, or innately connected with a physical basis. These are just sticks that are being sent out, in a sense, from “me” connecting “me” with these things: happiness, unhappiness, perception, knowing things, a body and so on. But I don’t have to be like that. And I gain liberation when I realize that I don’t have to be like that and I don’t do it anymore. That’s what it is. That’s escapism. Is that what we’re doing? “I don’t want to associate with all this garbage that’s going on, samsara. I want out. So I’m just going to disconnect myself.” Is that enough, to just disconnect ourselves? How would we disconnect ourselves? To just say, “I’m disconnected”? See, that’s the fallacy. If we just say, “I’m disconnected,” you still could get angry. That’s what we have to understand.

In Buddhism, what we need to understand, then, is that the atman is not the same as the false “I.” It’s not identical with, nor totally separate from, the aggregates on which it is an imputation. We’re neither one nor many. You’ve studied this I’m sure with your study of Madhyamakavatara. It’s not identical with the body or mind or any of these five, but it’s also not something which is totally separate from it as well. Consciousness – it’s not something which is nothing.

Assertions about the Liberated Self

Now, what about the liberated atman? The liberated atman continues to exist. Everybody says this. How does it continue to exist?

Samkhya says: As pure passive consciousness without any object. It’s pervasive with the entire universe. It’s not experiencing happiness or unhappiness. It’s not doing anything. And it’s totally separate from all material phenomena.

That of course always becomes a little bit difficult. You have material phenomena pervading the whole universe. Eternal. So we can think of the material universe. It’s the whole universe, and it’s material, and there’s energy everywhere – dark energy or regular energy, whatever. There’s energy everywhere. And also there’s the “me,” the liberated “me,” which is the size of the universe as well, pervading everywhere. Liberated “me.” And they’re all of them. They’re not saying that everybody becomes one. That’s not the Samkhya philosophy. You get that in some later Hindu philosophies, but not in Samkhya, not in the old stuff. So it’s still individual, pervading the whole universe, and immaterial. So, OK, we have something immaterial and something material pervading the whole universe. But it’s totally passive, it’s totally – but it’s consciousness, it’s an awareness.

Quite interesting actually, if you think about that. Is that what I would like, to just be this pure awareness that pervades the whole universe, but yet doesn’t know anything separate from it? For some people maybe that’s attractive. But this is what the state of liberation is like according to Samkhya. It doesn’t experience happiness, no unhappiness. Doesn’t do anything. Doesn’t know anything. But it’s an awareness.

Nyaya says it exists as a self that has no properties, no consciousness. It doesn’t experience happiness or unhappiness. It doesn’t do anything. And here’s where you have a difference between Nyaya and Vaisheshika:

  • Nyaya says it’s the size of a tiny particle with no parts, sort of like a spark of life or something like that.
  • And Vaisheshika says, like Samkhya, it is pervading the whole universe, but unassociated with all material phenomena.

So basically the difference is whether or not that self that is pervading the whole universe, or just a tiny little spark of something, has consciousness or not. Samkhya says yes [it has consciousness]. Nyaya and Vaisheshika says no [it doesn’t have it.]

What does Buddhism say? Buddhism – this is very, very interesting – says that the liberated self still knows things. Right? Arhats still doing meditation, still knowing things. And still does things. Even an arhat that is in a Buddha-field is doing things.

I didn’t finish my previous statement. There are two types of arhats. There are the ones that are just in the Buddha-fields not doing anything, except meditating. And then there are the ones that develop bodhichitta and return to our type of realm and then continue on the bodhisattva path. They can do that.

Now, when you talk about the so-called “Hinayana” path, the shravaka path, of aiming for arhatship as being a selfish path, as being selfish, you have to understand that they’re not talking about the path. The path isn’t selfish. Theravadas do a tremendous amount of metta meditation (metta is the word for love). They do love, compassion, the four immeasurables. They do all of that. It’s not the path that is devoid of love and compassion – it’s the result. What they’re aiming for is arhatship that is not actively involved in compassionate acts of helping others. It’s the result that is self-oriented, not the path. There’s a lot of confusion in that because that’s not really made clear in many presentations in the classical texts themselves. This I think is necessary, to make that differentiation, otherwise we’re very unfair. And it just demonstrates our ignorance of Theravada that we say that they don’t do love and compassion meditation. Come on, they do.

So arhats, they just stay in the Buddha-fields. They’re not involved compassionately helping anybody, but they are capable of developing bodhichitta, and they can return, so they do things and they still experience. It’s not completely… Well, there are many different definitions of tainted or untainted, so let’s not go into all that variation. But they still experience either happiness or neutral, depending on what meditation they’re absorbed in. The higher dhyanas don’t have happiness or unhappiness; it’s a neutral state beyond all of that. The lower states of dhyana still have happiness. So fine, they experience one or the other. And they are still associated with a body. After they die from this body, if they’re in a Buddha-field, they have a body which is made of subtle particles. It’s not the subtlest like the body of a Buddha. It is sometimes called a “mental body,” but actually what they say is that it’s similar to a body made of subtle particles, not the subtlest, a little bit like the dream body. It’s that type of body that they have in a Buddha-field. Fine. So it is like that.

And now it’s very, very, interesting. When they become enlightened, the atman of a Buddha, the self of a Buddha (a Buddha has a self):

  • It’s individual. Shakyamuni is not Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya is not Shakyamuni. They are individuals.
  • It pervades the whole universe because a Buddha is omniscient.

So the mind of a Buddha pervades the entire universe. And because the subtlest energy that is the basis for that mental activity, the mind of a Buddha, is always with that mind – it’s just another way of looking at it – the body of a Buddha pervades the entire universe. Therefore a Buddha can manifest in a zillion forms everywhere simultaneously.

So then you go, “Whoa, what is that? Isn’t that the Samkhya or Vaisheshika or, later, the Vedanta thing of we pervade the whole universe?” This I think is one of the most difficult points to really grasp in the Buddhist presentation, how they still have the same basic theme that when you become enlightened you pervade the whole universe. But in the Buddhist sense it is in the sense that the mind of a Buddha knows everything, so it pervades the whole universe in that sense.

Knows everything. Why does it know everything? Because it knows totally dependent arising. So it sees the interconnectedness of everything. Nothing appears to a Buddha separate, self-established by itself, unconnected to anything else. Everything is connected to everything else. So it’s the complete interconnection of everything in the three times and all directions, and so a Buddha’s omniscient, a Buddha knows everything. So the mind of a Buddha perceiving everything (according to Mahayana) simultaneously – it’s not simultaneously just in the sense of they can be aware of anything, but only one or a few at a time of everything simultaneously – so then you’d have to say that the subtlest energy of a Buddha also pervades the universe, and it’s on that basis that the Buddha can appear everywhere.


These are some of the basic issues that we have when looking at just this one aspect of these philosophical systems, this aspect concerning atman. You can also look at aspects concerning causality. Is there a creator or is there not a creator? These sorts of things. These are many other issues that obviously are also treated in the Buddhist Madhyamaka texts in discussing these purva paksha, these objections.

But we can see that it’s very important to take these positions very seriously, take these objections very seriously, and not just dismiss it as what some ignorant people many centuries ago believed and that it’s stupid. A really, really good debater – there are many famous stories about that in the Tibetan monasteries – could take the position of one of these Hindu schools, and none of the other Buddhist students or geshes or khenpos could defeat them, they were so good at arguing the other position. So these are not stupid. My own teacher used to scold me and say, “It’s just your arrogance that thinks that they’re stupid.” They’re not stupid. They’re very intelligent points of view. Very consistent.

And they’re dealing with the same issues. Everybody is struggling with the same issues in Indian philosophy, including Buddhism, and each one thinks that they’ve found the solution. And what Buddhism is saying – and again you can say, “Well, maybe they [the Buddhists] are arrogant” – is that, “Well, your positions still leave you with anger and greed, and our position doesn’t.” And then all you can do is look at the result in order to really tell.

Then one has to really start to think. It’s not just who wins the contest in logic. That’s not the point. What is the point? To eliminate suffering. All of this is involved with eliminating suffering. Everybody’s concerned with that, these Indian schools as well; that’s their issue. So we have to think. If I just dissociate myself from everything, go live in a cave and, “Oh, I don’t have to associate with all these thoughts and the mind and just somehow go to some transcendent realm” – hey, what is that? That’s going into one of the form or formless realms. It says very clearly, “Hey, it might last a long time, but you fall from it eventually.” So you haven’t really found a solution; it’s just a temporary escape.

You have to examine: Would believing any of these views liberate me from not just suffering, but the causes of suffering? The causes of suffering. You can’t just say unawareness, because everybody defines what you don’t know differently. So you can’t just say that. You have to look more at the disturbing emotions: anger, greed, attachment, jealousy, these sorts of things. Does it free me from that? Does it free me from the compulsiveness of karma?

When we talk about karma, it’s very misunderstood when it’s translated as actions. It doesn’t mean actions. Not in any of the systems does it mean actions. The problem is that the Tibetan word for karma [las] is the colloquial word for actions. Therefore Tibetans translate it into English as actions because that’s the colloquial word. But it doesn’t mean that. Why doesn’t it mean that? Think logically. If actions were the cause of your suffering, then all you’d have to do was stop doing anything and you’d be liberated – including stop meditating, including stop breathing, eating, doing anything. That clearly is absurd. So it can’t be actions that you have to stop.

So what it is talking about – and I don’t want to go into a big lecture on karma – is the compulsiveness of it. It’s compulsion that drives us to repeat habitual types of behavior, repeat patterns. It’s that compulsion that we have to get rid of, a compulsion either to act in a destructive way or the compulsion to act in a positive way. “I’ve got to be good.” This whole compulsion to be a perfectionist. Very neurotic. How much suffering is involved with that? I have to be in control of everything. Compulsive – compulsive cleaning. You can never make it clean. There’s a wonderful Tibetan saying: “No matter how much you wash a piece of shit, you’re never going to make it clean.” Wonderful saying. So, like that, it’s the compulsion that we have to get rid of.

So you think, “If I just think that I am separate from everything and I don’t have to worry about anything because I’m completely above all of that, is that going to free me from my compulsive behavior? Does that free me from my selfishness, getting annoyed with things, and so on?” That’s where it all comes down to, is in our practice seeing what are the results. And obviously the practice has to be correct, not just a sloppy practice. A sloppy practice gives sloppy results. Proper practice brings proper results. That’s quite simple, isn’t it?

It’s a lot of material, I know, but this was the short version of what I had prepared, just trying to get a little bit of the essence of what’s involved. If you want to learn about all the details of the system, you can read it on my website. Many, many lists. Nyaya is really into lists of things – all the different qualities, all the different properties, all the different types of entities, and so on.

Samkhya is the main system of belief that Kalachakra structures itself according to in order to overcome attachment to that system. The twenty-four arms of Kalachakra are the twenty-four types of material phenomena, and you purify those twenty-four (and the whole body is the purification itself, so there’s twenty-five). A discussion of sattvarajas, and tamas – that’s in the system. So it structures itself in a way that the followers of Samkhya could feel a little bit comfortable, but then it says, “Look, there’s a way to transform that.”

So there are many levels of dialogue and interaction between Buddhism and these systems, particularly Samkhya. Because, remember, Samkhya is the philosophy of yoga, the Yoga Sutras. That is a very central thing that you find practiced in all Indian schools.

Original Audio from the Seminar