Samkhya, Nyaya and Buddhism on the Characteristics of an Atman, a Self

Let’s compare the Samkhya, Nyaya and Buddhist explanations of the various characteristics of the atman, the self. 

Assertions about Cognition 

Samkhya Assertions about Cognition

Samkhya says – this is very interesting because it sounds like our Western scientific position – that the cognition of things is purely a physical phenomenon, sort of like just entailing the brain and brain waves. According to Samkhya, there is a physical faculty of sentience that enters the gross body with rebirth and, in a sense, activates what we in the West would call the brain and nervous system. Cognition is the physical activity of the brain and nervous system and they are now functioning to cognize things because of being activated by this subtle physical faculty of sentience. 

Inhabiting the body, the atman comes in contact with this physical faculty of sentience. Although having the quality of awareness, the atman is incapable of cognizing anything by itself and so, out of ignorance, it identifies with this physical faculty of sentience and uses it to cognize things. But the cognition of objects is still a purely physical phenomenon. 

As I suggested, this Samkhya explanation of cognition as a purely physical phenomenon sounds a bit like the Western scientific explanation of cognition. Cognitive science reduces everything to the functioning of different parts of the brain, whether they talk about brain waves or neuroelectric impulses or whatever. 

How do we relate to this scientific description of what mental activity is? Is cognition merely this type of brain wave or that type of brain wave, produced by different parts of the brain, and that’s all it is? What’s the relationship of “me” with that? Who are we if this is what knowing is? Do we think that we are identical with this mental activity? Even Samkhya says that although we usually think like that, it’s not correct. Are we the one that controls this activity, the one that’s making it happen? Or is the “me” just the passive observer of this physical activity of the brain? Does the “me” know anything? Is there a subjective component of cognition or is it just mechanical like the functioning of a computer?

This is how we analyze and work with this purva paksha challenge of the Samkhya position. We can see that the questions it raises are not very easy, not at all. However, as Buddhist practitioners living in the twenty-first century, we need to deal with science. We can’t negate science. Look at all the meetings that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has with scientists, and he says, “Buddhism and science fit well together. If there’s anything that science can prove 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, we will drop that from Buddhism.”

So, this is how we know things according to Samkhya. As atmans, we have passive awareness that doesn’t know anything by itself. We only know things by inhabiting a body and associating with its physical faculty of sentience, like a brain and brain waves.

Nyaya Assertions about Cognition

Nyaya says that the atman, which lacks awareness and 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. Here they talk about little subtle particles, whatever they could be. There’s a little subtle particle called “awareness.”

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

Buddhism says that if there is a “me,” this atman, that is unaware of anything and some separate little particle of awareness, then this “me” is like a blind man: How in the world does the atman make a connection with this little particle of awareness in order to know things? Is it like a blind person with a stick? Through the stick, the blind person knows where there’s a step. Is this how the self knows things – it makes some sort of connection with a mind particle or brain, if we find mind particles a little bit difficult to accept? Very interesting, isn’t it? What is the connection, then, of “me” and the brain, and how is that connection made? Have you ever thought about that?

These are the objections from the side of Buddhism, the purva paksha, the other side. We’re talking about the self in Buddhism and we’re refuting some impossible self, and then this little purva paksha comes in. This other opponent, a Samkhya or Nyaya opponent in the debate, challenges us and says: “Well, what about the brain? What about brain waves?” Then we have to explain the brain and brain waves in terms of “me?” How do we know anything? If only the brain knows things, how does the brain know things? Put it in a bottle; it doesn’t know anything. How is it activated? Is there some little mind particle that we zap into it, we inject into it, and now the brain works? Or we inject a “me” with the property of consciousness into it, and now the brain works? That “me” that we insert into it, is that “me” a consciousness? Or is that “me” something that doesn’t have consciousness, and we inject it into it, and then all of a sudden it knows things by having this lifeline connected to it? 

These purva paksha questions arise from these Samkhya and Nyaya positions. These issues are what they get us to think about. How do we know anything?

Buddhist Assertions about Cognition

As I explained before, Buddhism says that the atman, the self that is not to be refuted, is aware of things in the sense that it’s an imputation phenomenon on the basis 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 counterparts of cognition. Buddhism describes the phenomenon of mental activity – according to the Buddhist definition – as merely the arising of a mental hologram and a cognitive engagement. These are two subjective ways of describing the same event, the cognition of something. We can also describe the same event objectively in terms of the matter and energy that are involved, so brain waves and the basis for them: the brain, 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, nor do we reduce it to just the “me” doing this.

Assertions about Rebirth 

The next point: The atman is associated with rebirth under the influence of unawareness of its true nature. All three system assert that – Samkhya, Nyaya and Buddhist. We undergo rebirth because we are unaware; we don’t know how we exist, or we know it in an incorrect way.

Samkhya says that the atman itself doesn’t take rebirth. It says the subtle body takes rebirth –Hinduism, for instance Advaitya Vedanta, which developed later, asserts something similar. According to Samkhya, the subtle body is made up of a physical faculty for sentience, a physical faculty for self-awareness, a physical faculty for a mind, five physical faculties for sense perception, five physical faculties for actions, and five subtle elements of mere sensory information. So, in a sense, the subtle body is made up subtle elements and various physical faculties that somehow activate the gross physical elements of the body that it inhabits when it takes rebirth. At death, the gross physical body of the rebirth disintegrates, but these physical faculties for cognition and subtle elements go on and enter a new gross body. The atman is static and so it doesn’t do anything. It just associates with this subtle body in each lifetime and, out of ignorance, identifies with its physical faculty for sentience, but it’s the package of the subtle body that goes on.

This sounds a bit like the Buddhist explanation of rebirth in the highest class of tantra, doesn’t it? According to general anuttarayoga tantra, what goes on from lifetime to lifetime is the package of the clear light subtlest mind and the subtlest energy-wind as its physical mount. Kalachakra adds subtlest speech and the subtlest energy-drop, which contains traces of the subtle elements. At rebirth, this package connects with the gross elements of a sperm and egg, if the rebirth is as a human or animal, and then these grosser elements serve as the basis for the mental activity, which correspondingly gets grosser. 

Well, are we going to the Samkhya extreme here, that this subtlest package is the Buddhist equivalent of the subtlest body asserted in Samkhya and 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 we’re thinking of rebirth when we hear about this package of subtlest mind and subtlest energy-wind going from lifetime to lifetime – especially if we’re thinking of this package in terms of Buddha-nature? Are we thinking that that package that goes from lifetime to lifetime is “me.” If not, what is the “me” in relation to all of that? These are the purva paksha questions that are brought up by the anuttarayoga tantra explanation.

The difference between the Buddhist position and the non-Buddhist ones is that the atman, the self that is not to be refuted, is not identical with this package, nor is it some static phenomenon, either with or without consciousness, that merely attaches itself to this package, but is a totally separate entity from it. Rather, the self, the atman that is not to be refuted, is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of this package and then, during each rebirth, an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the aggregates that develop with that rebirth. Even when liberated or enlightened, it is still an imputation phenomenon on the basis of this package.

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

What about the three defining characteristics of the atman that are being refuted in the context of doctrinally based grasping for an impossible atman, an impossible self or soul – static, partless, and existing independently of a body and mind when liberated. What are the Samkhya and Nyaya positions and the Buddhist refutation of them?

The Samkhya Position

Samkhya asserts that the atman is static: It’s not affected by anything; it’s totally passive. Being static and therefore passive, it can’t do anything and can’t cognize anything, since doing something or knowing something entails being nonstatic and changing each moment. The atman is just this static, passive awareness that has no object. It’s not aware of anything. Nevertheless, because of its association with this physical faculty of sentience, and because that physical faculty activates the gross elements of the brain to generate brain waves of happiness and unhappiness, which arise as the result of karmic potentials, Samkhya asserts that the atman, the self, experiences the results of karma. Samkhya resolves the apparent contradiction between the atman, the self, being static and yet experiencing the results of karma by explaining that this experience of happiness and unhappiness as the result of karma is merely an illusion. 

What about the quality of being partless? Samkhya asserts primal matter, “prakriti,” and says that all physical matter, which they classify into 24 different types, are “perturbations” – that’s the technical term – of primal matter. Primal matter is made up of three constituent qualities – sattva, rajas and tamas – the so-called “triguna,” the three qualities, intertwined like strands of a rope. These three are found in Ayurvedic medicine as well. There are many ways of defining the three. In any case, the three get disturbed and out of balance; the disturbances are called “perturbations,” and the 24 types of them are what constitutes the physical universe. That means that all physical phenomena have parts. By way of contrast, the atman, which Samkhya calls “purusha,” is not made up of these three constituents. It is partless. 

Then, we think, “Well, is there anything similar to that in Western thought, in science?” There is. If we think in terms of atomic and subatomic particles, we have positive charge, negative charge and neutral. These occur with electrons, protons and neutrons, as well as with subatomic particles. All matter is made up of positive, negative or neutral particles and subatomic particles and they are not in balance because there are different combinations of them. The three constituent charges never change; it’s just that they are in different combinations. When we think of that analogy, then the Samkhya assertion about primal matter is not so alien to our Western way of thinking, is it? If you want to call the three “rajas, sattva and tamas,” fine. Those are just names, but we have something similar to that in Western science. It’s not so weird.

The self is not like that. The self is not made up of positive, negative and neutrally charged particles, if we want to translate it into a Western way of thinking. Is that what we’re thinking, actually, in terms of “me?” Are there brain waves? Well, sure. Quantum mechanics tells us that something can be both a wave and a particle, so even brain waves could be considered as having positive, negative and neutral parts. But the self doesn’t have these kinds parts – it doesn’t have an electric charge. We’re not like that.

Not only is the atman, the self, static passive awareness, not affected by anything and not made up of rajas, sattva and tamas parts, Samkhya also asserts that, when liberated, it continues to exist totally independently and separately from primal matter and from all its perturbations, these three gunas, including brain waves and material phenomena. When liberated, it exists totally separately from that.  

That’s the atman, the self with these three qualities as asserted by Samkhya and refuted by Buddhism. The static self lasts forever without ever changing, it’s not made up of these three constituents that constitute all matter, and it can exist totally separately from matter. It’s out of ignorance that it identifies with the physical faculty of sentience that is part of the subtle body, but that’s not what it is. It was never identical with this subtle physical faculty; that was an illusion.

Well, is that what we think? Is that our confusion, that out of ignorance we’re identifying with this body and all these disturbing emotions, but that’s an illusion and that there’s a “me” that is totally separate from that and that is just awareness? It’s something to think about.

The Nyaya Position

Nyaya also asserts that the self is static. It’s not affected by anything and lacks any awareness. 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 this relationship occurs dependent on ignorance. Because of the influence of ignorance, this self, this atman, which is static and doesn’t know anything and doesn’t do anything, is connected, like with sticks, with a list of nine properties – sensory awareness, happiness, unhappiness, desire for something, aversion from something, endeavor, habits, moral force for happiness, and immoral force for unhappiness. 

The self, the atman, is also 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. This refers to the five types of inherent, invariable relationships, one of which is the relationship between a whole and its parts. These relationships are like sticks connecting two balls, and so the self is not connected with such a stick to these nine contingent properties. 

Further, when liberated, the self exists totally independently of these nine properties. It doesn’t have to have these properties, according to Nyaya. It can exist independently of them and independently of any association with a mind particle or the material particles of a body. We just need to stop associating with these properties and particles. We stop by realizing that we don’t have to make this connection, and then we’re free, we’re liberated.

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 them. I’m not really associated with them anyway; that’s not really ‘me.’” We could think that. We could think that if we really understood that properly, we’d be liberated. 

This is what Buddhism refutes. With the Nyaya understanding, we’re still not liberated. We think we’re liberated, but we’re not. We’ll still have greed, and we’ll still get angry. “But, I’ve transcending all of that.” Really? Is that our way of thinking?

The Buddhist Position

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 liberated and become an arhat, and including when we become enlightened and are a Buddha.

What do arhats do? They meditate, for instance. They don’t just do nothing. They’re not just existing in some sort of limbo. There are two kinds of arhats. There are arhats that are off in Buddha-fields and basically meditating; that’s what they’re doing. Sometimes they’re experiencing a type of bliss. Sometimes they’re experiencing some sort of neutral feeling that is neither happiness nor unhappiness when they’re in a super-deep dhyana state of concentration. They obviously don’t have any suffering, but they’re doing something; they’re experiencing something, knowing something. The other type of arhat develops bodhichitta, returns to our realms and works to attain enlightenment.

Buddhas, as well, certainly do things. They help others. They are omniscient, so they know everything. They know our karma, and they know how best to help us to reach enlightenment, so they know things.

Buddhism says that the self has parts. Why does it have parts? Because it is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of an individual continuum of five aggregates that are changing all the time: a body, mind, feeling happy, feeling unhappy, and so on. So, there are temporal parts since, in each moment, it is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of a different network of components of the five aggregates. The self also has different aspects, different parts, in the context of each of these networks of aggregates – like the self in the context of a family life, a business life, a sports life, and so on. 

Also, the self can never exist or be known separately and independently from its basis, the five aggregates, even when liberated, even when a Buddha. There are different types of aggregates. Instead of the five aggregates tainted with confusion that are received from karmic potential and so on, Buddhas have pure, untainted aggregates. They still have bodies. How about the Form Bodies, the Nirmanakaya and the Sambhogakaya? They have bodies made of very subtle light, but these are still bodies. They have consciousness; they know things. It’s only on a pure-awareness level, a rigpa level, or a clear light level, but they have consciousness. They always have untainted bliss, so they have a pure type of feeling. They have the five types of deep awareness: They know the individuality of things, and they know how to help. Those are parts of pure aggregates. Whether we talk about them as represented by the five dhyani Buddhas, or we talk about them as the five types of so-called Buddha-wisdoms, the five types of deep awareness – they have those. There isn’t a self of a Buddha that exists and can be known separately from a basis for imputation like that.

This is what Buddhism says. The self is nonstatic, changing from moment to moment as it does and knows things. It has parts because it’s an imputation phenomenon on a basis that has parts, the aggregates – body, mind, etc. It can never exist independently of a basis for imputation, a body and mind. It can exist independently of an impure basis. However, just because it can exist independently of an impure basis doesn’t mean that it can exist independently of any basis – namely, a pure one.

This is where the danger 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, then we might think, “Well, then better to have no body at all.” We don’t want to have a mind that’s limited and can’t know everything, 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? This is the point, then what? The “then what” is not a big nothing like what Samkhya and Nyaya says happens to the self when liberated. But we might think that it’s a big nothing once we become liberated as an arhat or enlightened as a Buddha – we’re off in some transcendent nirvana. But it’s not like that, so we have to watch out for that possible purva paksha fallacy.

Refuting an Impossible Self in Order to Attain Liberation 

For Samkhya, Nyaya and Buddhism alike, liberation from the suffering of samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, is attained by refuting that the self, the atman, exists as a false, impossible self. All of them talk about an impossible self that is to be refuted. They might not have that expression, but they all have that feature. 

For Samkhya, to attain liberation we need to understand that that although the atman has the quality of mere passive awareness, and it is not the same as the physical faculty of sentience that allows for the cognition of objects and that passes from lifetime to lifetime as part of the subtle body. But, out of ignorance – just not knowing that this is incorrect – the atman, the self, identifies with this faculty. We think that’s “me.” We need to realize that that’s false and then, when liberated, we’ll continue to exist without a body or mind that cognizes objects. 

So, if we think we’re our minds, because some of the Buddhist tenet systems say that the defining characteristic of the self is found in its basis for imputation, mental consciousness, we need to be careful that we don’t fall to the Samkhya position. We could run that danger if we think that all we need to realize is that the defining characteristic of the self is not located in mental consciousness and then we’ll continue to exist as a self that is independent of a body or mind, but that retains the defining characteristic of passive awareness with no object. 

For Nyaya, we need to understand that the atman, the self, is not innately connected with the properties of perception, happiness, suffering, and so on, nor is it innately connected with a physical basis. The relationships that connect us with these properties and matter are just like sticks connecting blocks of wood. They are contingent, temporary, and not necessary. We gain liberation when we realize that we don’t naturally have those relationships linking us to these properties and physical matter. Then we dissociate from them. 

But isn’t that escapism? Is that what we think renunciation entails? “I don’t want to associate with all this garbage that’s going on, samsara. I want out. 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?” That’s the fallacy. If we just say, “I’m disconnected,” we could still get angry. 

In Buddhism, what we need to understand is that the atman is not the same as the impossible self. It’s not identical with, nor totally separate from, the aggregates on which it is an imputation phenomenon. The self and the aggregates are “neither one nor many.” You’ve studied this, I’m sure, with your study of Madhyamakavatara, Engaging in the Middle Way. The self is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the body and mind, the five aggregates. It cannot exist or be known independently of its basis, and so it is neither identical with its basis nor something that is totally different and unrelated to its basis. 

Assertions about the Liberated Self 

Now, what about the liberated atman, the self that is not to be refuted? The liberated atman continues to exist forever. Everybody says that, but how does it continue to exist?

Samkhya says the self, the atman, continues as mere 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.

So, according to Samkhya, there are primal matter and the material phenomena that are its perturbations pervading the entire universe and that is eternal. Western science says that as well, whether it speaks of particles, energy, radiation or whatever. But Samkhya adds that there are also immaterial liberated atmans also pervading the universe forever. It’s not saying that everybody becomes one. That’s not the Samkhya philosophy. That assertion comes in some later Hindu philosophies, but not in Samkhya, which predates them. These liberated atmans are individual and not all one. So, there are both material phenomena and individual immaterial atmans pervading the entire universe. The atmans are merely passive awareness without any objects, while the material phenomena on their own have no active awareness at all.  

It’s quite interesting, actually, if we think about that. Is that what we would like, to just be this passive awareness that pervades the whole universe but yet doesn’t know anything? For some people, maybe that’s attractive, but this is what the state of liberation is like, according to Samkhya. We don’t experience happiness or unhappiness. We don’t feel anything, do anything or know anything, but we still have awareness. It sounds a bit like being drugged.

Nyaya says that the liberated self has no properties, no consciousness, nothing. It doesn’t experience happiness or unhappiness. It doesn’t do anything. Here’s where we have a difference between Nyaya and Vaisheshika:

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

Basically, the differences among Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaisheshika concern whether the liberated self pervades the whole universe or is just a tiny little particle. If it is just a tiny particle, it has no awareness, but if it pervades the whole universe, does it have consciousness or not. 

What does Buddhism say? Buddhism says that the liberated self still knows things. Right? Arhats still are doing things – they’re still meditating even if they are just residing in a Buddha-field – and they’re still knowing things. and doing things. 

As I mentioned before, there are two types of arhats. There are the ones that are just in the Buddha-fields not doing anything except meditating. Then, there are the ones that develop bodhichitta and return to our realm and continue on the bodhisattva path. They can do that.

When we hear about the so-called “Hinayana” path, the shravaka path, of aiming for liberation as an arhat as being selfish, we have to understand that this is not talking about the path of meditation that Hinayana practitioners follow. The path isn’t selfish. Theravadins, for example, do a tremendous amount of metta meditation – “metta” is the Pali word for love. They meditate on the four immeasurable attitudes – love, compassion, equanimity, and joy. They do all of that. 

It’s not the Hinayana paths of meditation that are devoid of love and compassion; it has more to do with their result. What they’re aiming for is arhatship, which is just peaceful and not actively involved in compassionate acts of helping others. It’s this goal that is self-oriented, not the path. There’s a lot of confusion regarding that point because it’s not really made clear in many presentations, even in the classical Mahayana texts. I think it is necessary to make that differentiation; otherwise, we’re being unfair to the Hinayana traditions like Theravada. It just demonstrates our ignorance of Theravada that we say that they don’t do love and compassion meditation. Come on, they do.

As I said, one type of arhat just stays in the Buddha-fields. They’re not involved in compassionately helping others, but they are capable of developing bodhichitta, and they can return to our realm, so they can do other things besides meditating, and they still experience feelings. Whether those feelings are tainted or untainted – well, there are many different definitions of these terms, so let’s not go into all those variations. In any case, arhats still experience either happiness or a neutral feeling that is devoid of either happiness or unhappiness, depending on what meditation they’re absorbed in. The higher dhyana absorptions don’t entail happiness or unhappiness; they entail a neutral type of feeling that is a state beyond both. The lower states of dhyana still have happiness. Arhats experience one or the other of these two feelings. 

Arhats are still associated with a body. After they die from this gross body with which they attained liberation, then if they opt to go to a Buddha-field, they have a body that 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, but a little bit like the dream body. It’s that type of body that they have in a Buddha-field. 

Now, it’s very, very interesting. When they become enlightened, the atman of a Buddha, the self of a Buddha, still retains its individuality. Shakyamuni Buddha is not Maitreya Buddha, and Maitreya Buddha is not Shakyamuni Buddha. They are individuals. Moreover, their minds – their mental activity – each pervades the whole universe because a Buddha is omniscient. Because the mental activity of a Buddha pervades the entire universe and because the subtlest energy-wind that is the basis for that mental activity is inseparable from it, then the body of a Buddha, which is made up of the subtlest energy-wind, also pervades the entire universe. Because of that, a Buddha can manifest in a zillion forms everywhere simultaneously.

Then we go, “Whoa, what is that? Isn’t that the same as the Samkhya or Vaisheshika assertions of a liberated atman pervading the universe?” No, it’s not the same as those assertions. The liberated selves, according to Samkhya and Vaisheshika, may pervade the entire universe, yet they are dissociated from the universe. They are unaware of anything in the universe and do not do anything or interact with anything or anyone in the universe. The omniscient mind of a Buddha, on the other hand, is simultaneously aware of everything and everyone in the universe, and the bodies of a Buddha interact with all beings, showing them the path to enlightenment. So, there is a big difference. 


These are some of the basic issues shared in common between Buddhism and the Indian non-Buddhist systems, but with different interpretations, that we find when we examine just this one topic discussed in all these systems, the topic of the self, the atman. There are other topics that they all discuss, such as karma and causality. Is there a creator or not? All these topics are discussed in the Buddhist texts using the method of purva paksha, objections from the other side.

We can see that it’s very important to take the positions voiced in these objections seriously, and not just dismiss them as what some ignorant people many centuries ago believed, and that they’re stupid. A really good debater – there are many famous stories about them in the Tibetan monasteries – could take the position of one of these Indian non-Buddhist 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 positions are not stupid. My own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, used to scold me, saying, “It’s just your arrogance that thinks that they’re stupid.” They’re not stupid. They’re very intelligent points of view, very consistent.

They’re all dealing with the same issues. Everybody is struggling with the same issues in Indian philosophy, including Buddhism, and each school thinks that they’ve found the solution. So, to understand Buddhism fully, we need to understand it within the context of all the other Indian systems of thought and the purva paksha debates between them.  

Now, we might say that maybe the Buddhists are arrogant when the say, “Well, your positions still leave you with anger and greed, and our position doesn’t.” But, then, all we can do is look at the result of following the teachings and methods of each system in order to really tell.

We need to really start to think seriously about all these purva paksha positions. The debates are not just about who wins a contest in logic. That’s not the point. What is the point? To eliminate suffering. All of these discussions are involved with eliminating suffering. Everybody’s concerned with that, these Indian non-Buddhist schools as well; that’s their issue. We have to analyze how to achieve that goal. We might think that we just need to dissociate ourselves from everything and go live in a cave and absorb ourselves in higher states of concentration, thinking, “I don’t have to associate with all these sense objects of desire and with these disturbing thoughts about them. I’ll just go to some transcendent realm in my meditation.” But, hey, what is that? That’s going into one of the form or formless realms in meditation. The texts say very clearly, “being in such a state might last a long time, but you fall from it eventually.” So, we haven’t really found a solution by going into a deep trance-like meditative state; it’s just a temporary escape.

We have to examine: “Would believing any of these views liberate me from not just suffering, but from the causes of suffering?” We can’t just say their understandings eliminate unawareness because everybody defines what we don’t know differently, so we can’t just say that. We have to look more at the disturbing emotions: anger, greed, attachment, jealousy, these sorts of things. Does their understandings free me from them? Does it free me from the compulsiveness of karma?

When we talk about karma, it’s very much 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 our suffering, then all we’d have to do was stop doing anything, including meditating, eating, and even breathing and we’d be liberated. That is clearly absurd, so it can’t be actions themselves that we have to stop.

What karma is talking about – and I don’t want to go into a big lecture on karma – is the compulsiveness of our behavior. It’s compulsion that drives us to repeat habitual types of behavior, to 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 is very neurotic. How much suffering is involved with that? We think that we have to be in control of everything. For instance, although we might compulsively clean, we can never make our bodies or our homes clean enough. There’s a wonderful Tibetan saying: “No matter how much you wash a turd, you’re never going to make it clean.” It’s a wonderful saying. Like that, it’s the compulsion that we have to get rid of.

Then, we need to 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 it all, is that going to free me from my compulsive behavior? Will that free me from selfishness, getting annoyed with things, and so on?” That’s where it all comes down to, in our practice, seeing what the results are. Obviously, our 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?

One other point, we shouldn’t think that, by following these Indian non-Buddhist systems and their practices, they are of no benefit and that they do not help us to rid ourselves of suffering at least to some extent. The question really is, how far can they help?

We’ve covered 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 Samkhya and Nyaya systems, you can read about them on my website. There are 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 in accord with since that was the most popular non-Buddhist system of thought at the time. It is structured like this in order to help people overcome attachment to that system. The 24 arms of Kalachakra are the purified forms of the 24 types of material phenomena, and so on. There’s even a discussion of sattva, rajas and tamas in the Kalachakra system of astrology. Kalachakra structures itself in a way that the followers of Samkhya could feel a little bit comfortable with it, but then it says, “Look, there’s a way to transform that.”

There are many levels of dialogue and interaction between Buddhism and these systems. Paying attention to their purva paksha positions will help us gain my accuracy and certainty about the Buddhist assertions about the same issues.