Samkhya, Nyaya and Buddhist Assertions of an Atman, a Self


There were six schools of classical Indian philosophy, and these were the schools that were the opponents in the debates that the Buddhists had. Among those schools, the ones that were the most vocal or relevant in terms of the schools the Buddhists interacted with in debate were the Nyaya and the Samkhya. Actually, each of those is two schools:

  • There are the Samkhya and Yoga schools, with the main difference between them being that the Yoga school asserts a supreme being, Ishvara, while Samkhya does not.
  • The Nyaya school, associated with Vaisheshika, is often referred to as the Nyaya-Vaisheshika school because the two share a great deal in common. There are some differences, however. Nyaya has much more emphasis on logic.

As representatives of these two positions, we’ll speak about the Samkhya and the Nyaya schools, and the question really is, what is the purpose of learning about them if we are studying Buddhism? The purpose is to gain certainty about the Buddhist philosophical assertions and confidence in their validity. We gain this confidence by employing a method followed by the so-called “Dharmic traditions” of India, which include all the Buddhist schools, the Jain schools, and, for want of a better word, the Hindu schools, referring to the non-Buddhist and non-Jain schools. This is a method that is known by the Sanskrit name purva paksha, which means “the other side.” 

The purva paksha method is, whenever we make an assertion, to then bring up any objections that there might be to it – so this is the other side – and then to answer them. It was used in many of the texts written by the Nalanda masters in India and later adopted in Tibet as well. There it was applied to the dialogue among the various Tibetan traditions that developed and even among different masters within the same Tibetan tradition. It is found in almost all the philosophical treatises written in Tibet and Mongolia.  

As a didactic method, it is best used in debate, whether we’re using it in debate with followers of a different school of Indian philosophy, a different tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, or we’re using it with members of our own monastic communities. It could even be used in debate with non-Indian systems of thought, such as those of Western or Chinese philosophy. Although traditionally this method has been studied and applied in a monastic setting, it can be applied in secular settings as well, such as in schools. It is also very useful to use it in our own analytical meditations by focusing on some assertion of the Dharma teachings, then criticizing and trying to find fault in it by presenting an alternative position, and then answering the criticism, refuting the other position and clarifying our own assertion. This is the purva paksha method – looking at a teaching from the other side. 

Whenever we learn something in the Dharma, we need to ask, “What would be the objections to this?” It’s very important to be able to answer all those objections so that we not only have an accurate understanding of any point in the teachings but also are very decisive about its meaning and confident that it corresponds to reality. That’s crucial for being able to meditate correctly and effectively on any aspect of the Dharma teachings. If we are aiming to develop single-minded, absorbed concentration on any aspect of the teachings, like non-self, or on a state of mind, like bodhichitta, our identification of our object of focus must be absolutely accurate and decisive. 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 

The purpose, then, of bringing up all these purva paksha objections and studying the various types of non-Buddhist schools and, within Buddhism, the various Buddhist tenet systems is get a very clear and decisive object of meditation so that we can go deeper and deeper and gain the realizations and actualizations that are necessary for achieving liberation and enlightenment. That is the purpose. The purpose is not to have some sort of debate club in which we’re going to engage in legal arguments or something like that.

Of course, we could bring in the whole social and economic element that was involved in these classic debates held in India at monastic universities like Nalanda. According to some scholars – and I think that they have a good point here – these debates were the equivalent of football matches between different teams. The monasteries were quite large, and they needed royal patronage in order to feed the monks and take care of all the expenses. Whichever school won these debates got the patronage of the king; it was a competition, in a sense. So, there was another aspect to these debates, as I said, a socio-economic aspect. Nevertheless, this purva paksha method of looking at the other side of any assertion that we make is very important on a practical meditation level.

Now, concerning these two schools, Samkhya and Nyaya, I didn’t think that it was necessary to go through all their assertions because I didn’t imagine that you wanted a lecture like in a comparative religion class at the university. Instead,  I thought to focus on one topic. That topic is a very crucial one, it is the topic of the atman, the self. It is very central in terms of what we need to understand correctly in order to attain liberation and enlightenment.

Common Features of All Dharmic Traditions 

I think it’s also 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 – are all discussing the same issues. They can be called “the Dharmic traditions.” It is analogous to our “Abrahamic traditions,” the term used in comparative religion for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Abrahamic traditions are all talking about the same issues – God, creation, judgment, an afterlife, and so on – those types of topics as thier common basis. Similarly, the Dharmic traditions, which are very different from these Abrahamic ones, also share certain topics in common.

The Dharmic traditions are all talking about rebirth, except for one, the Charvakas, which doesn’t accept rebirth. All the others say rebirth occurs under the influence of karma. They call such rebirth “samsara.” Although each Dharmic tradition may explain karma differently, they all agree that karma is generated because of ignorance, primarily about how we as persons, as “selves,” exist. 

The Sanskrit word that all these schools, including the Buddhist ones, use for a self is “atman.” Some schools may also speak about ignorance concerning how all phenomena exist, but the ignorance that drives rebirth is primarily about how we exist, and all of them are aiming for liberation from rebirth, although they differ concerning what that liberation is like. Further, all of them have the practice of ethical discipline and the three-step method of listening, thinking and meditating. The meditation practices for attaining shamatha and vipashyana are also found in common in all these traditions, so they’re not unique to Buddhism at all. All that’s held in common.

Also, they are all aiming to get wisdom. I don’t really like that term “wisdom”; more accurately, it’s discriminating awareness – the awareness that discriminates between what is actuality and what is not, between how things actually exist and what is just a projection of fantasy. Such discrimination and understanding will bring liberation. This is in common in all the Dharmic traditions. What they differ in are the details of how that works, what we really need to understand, and so on. This is a variable that we need to understand within the Indian social context of caste and so on. 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 uncontrollably recurring rebirth – so, rebirth under the influence of unawareness of how we as persons, as “selves,” as “atmans” exist. That unawareness is basically not knowing how the atman exists. Dharmakirti, however, asserts that this unawareness means being confused, knowing in an opposite way, an incorrect way, how the self exists. However, if we look in the texts of Vasubandhu and Asanga, it’s simply that we don’t know. This is why I don’t like the word “ignorance” because it’s not that we’re stupid; we just don’t know. This is also the assertion that we have in other Indian schools – for them, as well, unawareness is that we just don’t know – it’s not obvious at all, it’s not clear how we exist.

Grasping for an Impossible Self of a Person 

In order to attain liberation, we need to get rid of our not knowing how we exist. To rid ourselves of not knowing and, specifically, of knowing in an opposite way, we need to rid ourselves of what can be translated as “grasping for an atman of persons.” The connotation is “grasping for an impossible atman of persons.” But the translation “impossible atman of persons” is misleading because it doesn’t mean that there are persons, “selves,” but they do not possess some impossible atman that doesn’t exist at all; they possess, instead, an atman that is possible and that does exist. If that were the case, there would be two separate things – a self and an atman. That’s not what Buddhism is saying. The expression means “an impossible atman that is a person.” When we translate like that, then we can also understand that the related term “grasping for an impossible atman of phenomena” means “grasping for an impossible atman that is a phenomenon.”       

But then how to translate the word “atman?” Most translators translate it as “self,” and then we get the terms “selflessness of persons” and “selflessness of phenomena,” which are jargon to most people. I have often translated “atman” as “identity” and then we get the admittedly awkward expressions “identitylessness of persons” and “identitylessness of phenomena.”  Some people, myself included, sometimes translate “atman” as a “soul.” But this too is problematic because “soul” has so many different interpretations in the Abrahamic traditions, and to say that people are soulless can easily give the wrong impression. Also, to say that persons do not have an impossible soul implies that they do have a soul. In many ways, it may be best to leave the word untranslated, just as “atman.”

Another point is that the non-Gelug Tibetan schools understand “grasping for an impossible atman that is a person” to mean grasping for something that ultimately doesn’t exist, because all conventional phenomena are conceptual constructs. The Gelugpas understand it to mean grasping for a person that exists as an impossible atman. These two understandings are quite different. But here, let’s speak just about the Gelug understanding and leave the term in its more usual rendering as “grasping for a self of persons” or “grasping for an impossible self of persons.”  

The term “grasping,” here, is another very difficult word to translate because it entails two aspects. It literally means “taking” in the sense of taking something as an object of cognition. One aspect is our minds making an appearance of some sort of impossible way of existing – in this case, an impossible way of existing of the self – and taking it as our object of cognition. That’s one aspect of grasping. The other aspect is, when taking this appearance as our object of cognition, considering it as corresponding to reality, which it doesn’t. But, with incorrect consideration, we believe that it does correspond.

That’s the problem. If we can get rid of not knowing that this appearance of how we exist is deceptive and get rid of believing that it is correct and that it corresponds to reality – and get rid of it so that this belief never arises again – then we have attained liberation. When we don’t believe in this deceptive appearance, we don’t have the disturbing emotions of trying to defend and assert such a self, as in: “I’ve got to get my way” and “Everybody has to pay attention to me,” all these sorts of things. However, in order to become enlightened, we have to get the mind to stop projecting this deceptive appearance, that first aspect of grasping. As I said, “grasping” is a terribly difficult word to translate because it has these two aspects.

The Doctrinally Based Impossible Self and the Automatically Arising Impossible Self

In any case, we have this grasping for an impossible self, which means that our minds make an appearance of this false self, and we believe that that’s who we really are, that that corresponds to reality. There are two levels of this mistaken belief. One is a doctrinally based mistaken belief, which means that we had to learn – in this case, from one of these non-Buddhist Indian schools – what that self is – namely, that it is an atman – and what its characteristics are and how it exists. Then, based on what we learned – so it’s based on some doctrine, it’s doctrinally based – we believe it. We could imagine something similar as well in the West. We’re taught some sort of dogma by the church concerning the soul, we believe it, and then that’s the way that we think about ourselves. 

This doctrinally based belief is something that would not come up automatically. Animals wouldn’t have this manifest during their lives, although Buddhism asserts that they would have it unconsciously from previous lives. That’s another discussion, but in this life, we would have had to have been taught about the atman and what we were taught would have to be specifically the assertions of one of these non-Buddhist Indian schools. It’s very specific. 

Now purva paksha comes in. Suppose we object, “I never studied these Indian schools. I’ve never even heard of them, so how do I have this doctrinally based grasping?” This is a relevant question because the texts say very clearly that in order to attain a seeing pathway of mind (a path of seeing) we need to rid ourselves of doctrinally based grasping for an impossible self of persons. We attain such a pathway of mind and become an arya by gaining non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths, which includes non-conceptual cognition that there is no such thing as this doctrinally based atman.  

So, it is reasonable to object, “I never studied this, so how can I be free of that?” The answer that’s given is: “Because of beginningless mind, we’ve had beginningless rebirths. So, in some previous lifetime we were taught these false doctrines and believed them to be true. Unconsciously, that false belief is still there.” Whether that’s a satisfying answer or not, we could debate further. Anyway, that’s the answer that’s given.

In addition to this doctrinally based grasping, there’s also an automatically arising grasping for an impossible self of a person. The Gelug tradition defines such an impossible self as one that is self-sufficiently knowable – one that it can be known just by itself without a basis for the self, such as the sight of the body, being known first and then simultaneously. The non-Gelug Tibetan traditions define such an impossible self as one that is cognized dualistically, as if the self and the mind cognizing it existed independently of each other. Again, let’s stick to the Gelug assertion.

What does a self-sufficiently knowable self mean? A common example is: “I want somebody to love ‘me’ for myself, not for my body, not for my wealth, just to love ‘me’ for ‘me.’” It’s as if someone could love a “me” separate from their body, their personality, their name, or anything. “I know Arnie.” Well, how can anyone know Arnie? There’s a basis for knowing Arnie. We know his name. We know what he looks like. We can’t just know a person without knowing something about them as a basis. To imagine that we as persons, as atmans, exist like that, is the automatically arising grasping for an impossible self. Even animals have that. Everybody has that. Such a “me” is the subtle impossible self, and that takes much longer to get rid of. It’s only when we’re rid of belief in that that we attain liberation.

But first let’s talk about this doctrinally based impossible self, which is the one that we would have had to have learned, either in this lifetime or in some previous lifetime, from one of these non-Buddhist Indian schools.

The Buddhist Assertion of Non-Self Is Not Nihilistic 

Another thing that is very important to understand before we proceed is that when we talk about a self, a person, an atman, Buddhism is only refuting an impossible self, a self that exists in an impossible way. Buddhism is not saying that there are no such things as persons. That’s the nihilist extreme. Conventionally there are persons – all the Indian Buddhist tenet systems and both the Gelug and non-Gelug interpretations of them agree. It’s just that the conventional self does not exist in the impossible ways that these non-Buddhist Indian schools assert, so that’s what we’re refuting. 

Gelug emphasizes that it’s very important to recognize and differentiate the self that is not to be refuted from the self that is to be refuted. What’s not to be refuted is that I’m sitting here, and I’m talking to you. You’re sitting there, and you’re talking to me. It’s not that nobody is here talking to you, or that I’m here talking to nobody. It’s not like that. Obviously, we exist. A Zen master would smack us with a stick in order to demonstrate to us that we do exist. We don’t do that in Tibetan Buddhism, but it’s a very effective method to convince us that we actually do exist.

So, we do exist, but the problem is that we have these crazy ideas of how we exist. They are based on believing that there’s some little “me” sitting in our heads that is the author of the voice that’s talking all the time, and judging and deciding what we should do now, and is worried: “Will people like me? Am I good enough? I’m not good enough.” Such a “me” is obviously an illusion. That’s the one that is the troublemaker because, when we identify with it, we get aggressive, we get greedy, we have to always get our way – these types of things. This is the type of “me” that we need to refute. 

In order to refute it, we need to have a clear idea of what is to be refuted. Everything in Buddhism needs to be quite precise, and if it’s precise, then our understanding will be precise. When our understanding is precise, then, as I’ve already mentioned,  we have an effective object for meditation. What we’re focusing on can’t be vague; if it’s vague, our minds won’t be sharp and clear, and any meditation we do will be ineffective.  

To be able to identify precisely what is being refuted is the purpose for studying these non-Buddhist tenet systems. This is because each of them presents an alternative explanation of the characteristics of the self that we all are dealing with – for instance, what is the relation between the self and the mind and does the self cognize anything? They challenge the Buddhist positions on these issues and so we need to differentiate the Buddhist understanding from theirs and ascertain which is correct. 

When we study these non-Buddhist Indian systems, what I think is most important is not to study them from the arrogant point of view of: “Those ignorant, medieval people thought like that,” as if we were an anthropologist just studying some primitive beliefs. These non-Buddhist systems were very sophisticated, and the masters who asserted them were not at all stupid. We need  to examine in ourselves, “Do I have something similar to that? Do I have this type of thinking?” and not just treat that very superficially – to say, “Well, of course, I don’t believe like that” – but to really analyze and go deeper and deeper into this way of thinking. 

We don’t have to buy the whole package of these non-Buddhist philosophies in order to examine their positions in ourselves. 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.

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 Samkhya says, what Nyaya says, and what Buddhism says. We will then examine ourselves to see whether we think of ourselves like some of these Samkhya and Nyaya assertions. 

The Three Characteristics of the Doctrinally Based Self 

In general, the doctrinally based self that is being refuted is one that has three characteristics:


We might hear the word “permanent” to refer to this first characteristic. This translation of the term can be misleading because “permanent” has two quite different meanings, at least in English. 

  • “Permanent” can mean eternal. Buddhism asserts that the self is eternal; it has no beginning and no end. That’s not the problem. That’s not the issue.
  • The other meaning of “permanent” is that it doesn’t change, and that’s the meaning that is meant here. It’s not affected by anything and, therefore, it doesn’t change. It doesn’t actually do anything; it doesn’t affect anything else. 

“Static” is the word that I use for that meaning: a static “me,” not affected by anything.


The second characteristic is “one.” Well, what does “one” mean in this context? It means partless; the self has no parts. Everything else has parts. Some of the Buddhist schools assert partless atoms and these sorts of things. Let’s not get into that. In general, everything has parts, but the “me” that these schools assert doesn’t have any parts. It is a monolith. 

Some schools say it is the size of the universe, for instance in Vedanta thought, which is the actual philosophy that’s used in most modern Hindu schools. Then, we have this “atman is Brahma” and “one with the universe” type of thing, so partless in that sense and all parts are an illusion. Or the self is just some tiny little monad, like a spark of life or something like that, and as a tiny monad, it has no parts. That’s what “one” means in this context.


The third characteristic is that the self, the atman, can exist totally independent of any aggregates – in other words, independent of a body or a mind – when liberated. This characteristic does not refer to what goes from lifetime to lifetime. Some of the schools, Nyaya for instance, say that the atman is what reincarnates. Samkhya says it doesn’t; it has a slightly different explanation. So “independent” here means when the self is liberated.

In addition, this static, monolithic atman or self that can exist independently of a body and a mind when liberated has three additional features when it is associated with a body and a mind: 

  • It’s the possessor of that body and mind. In a sense, it owns them.
  • It lives inside them as their inhabitant.
  • It makes use of them and controls them. It’s as if there is a little “me” sitting in the head taking in the information on the screen coming in from the eyes and on the loudspeaker coming in from the ears and then pressing the buttons to control the body to do what it decides.

Living inside the body and mind as their inhabitant, owner and controller, this self thinks, “These are mine – my body, my mind, my personality, my thoughts.” This is the atman, the “me” that Buddhism refutes. 

What Buddhism shares in common with these non-Buddhist Indian schools, however, is the assertion that the self – according to Buddhism, the conventional self, not the false self – is immaterial and eternal. It’s not some type of material substance. It continues from lifetime to lifetime, and it has no beginning and no end. 

Let’s look at some other features of the atman, the self and how Samkhya, Nyaya and Buddhism assert them. Specifically, let’s examine the issue of the relation between the self, the mind and consciousness. Does the self know anything?

The Samkhya Assertion that the Self Is Mere Passive Consciousness 

Samkhya asserts that the atman, the self, is passive consciousness. It is passive, never active, in the sense that, by nature, it is unable to cognize any object. It’s merely consciousness.

We need to examine, “Do I think like that?” Let’s say, for example, we follow the Nyingma school, and we learn about rigpa and that it is “pure awareness.” It’s immaterial and has no beginning and no end. Is that “me?” Is that what we think of as “me?” This is how we start to work with these non-Buddhist purva paksha assertions.

Being pure awareness, is rigpa just passive consciousness that has no object? Well, we hear that rigpa is nondual. What does that mean? Does that mean there’s no object? Then we hear the terms “object” and “subject, which are not really what the Tibetan terms mean. “Subject” in English means a person, whereas the Tibetan literally means “a possessor of an object” and refers to consciousness, a mind. And then these terms are used in the expression “nondual subject/object.” What does that mean? Does that mean that there’s no object at all – rigpa is just pure awareness, like the passive consciousness that Samkhya asserts as being the atman? Well, it’s certainly not that.

“Nondual” in this context means that an object of cognition and a mind or consciousness that takes it as its cognitive object do not exist as two independently existent things. They don’t have truly established, self-established existence, with big walls around them, as unrelated, independent things. Of course, mind and its objects don’t exist like that. If they did, they couldn’t interact; we couldn’t know anything. But just because mind and its object are not totally different and unrelated, they are also not identical. It’s not that there’s just rigpa, pure awareness, with no objects at all, and that’s “me.” Buddhism doesn’t say that’s “me.” The Buddhist assertion of rigpa, pure awareness, then, is not the Samkhya position of an atman or self that is just passive consciousness and that, by nature, does not have any object.

The Nyaya Assertion that the Self Does Not Innately Have Awareness 

Buddhism asserts that the self and the mind are not identical. Then we need to consider the purva paksha assertion of Nyaya on this point. Nyaya says that the atman doesn’t innately have the property of awareness – no consciousness at all, no awareness. What is that? How could we relate to that? Do we think that there’s a “me” and then there’s a mind, which has the property of awareness, and that the “me” uses the brain in order to have a mind and to know things? Does the “me” also have awareness? What’s the relation between “me” and the mind? These are the types of questions that we need to be able to answer when we take into consideration the Nyaya position.

The Buddhist Assertion about the Self and Awareness

Samkhya says that the self is just passive consciousness with no object; Nyaya says that the self has no awareness at all. Buddhism doesn’t go to either of those two extremes. What Buddhism says is that the self – and now we’re talking about the self that is not to be refuted – does cognize objects.

This is an interesting point. We might not be too aware of this, but when we talk about what has objects, what cognizes objects, what knows things, we can’t say that just our eye consciousness sees the visible form of something. Because if we say that only the eye consciousness sees it and that we don’t see it, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Nevertheless, the self, the atman as accepted in Buddhism, is not a way of cognizing something. Consciousness, mind, is a way of cognizing something – cognizing something with a type of consciousness. Despite not being a way of cognizing something, yet the self is aware of things, we know things.  

This is not easy to understand, but we can see how it avoids the two extremes. One extreme is the Samkhya position that the self itself is just passive awareness, but it is not actually a way of cognizing anything because it neither cognizes nor is aware of anything. The other extreme is the Nyaya position that the self is not a passive awareness and so it is not a way of cognizing anything and it is not aware of anything. According to Buddhism, the self is also not a way of cognizing anything, but neither is just passive awareness; it is aware of things. It’s, in a sense, like a middle way that avoids these two extremes. We need to think about this. 

How the Self Is Aware of Things According to Buddhism

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

To answer that question, we need to understand first what type of phenomenon the self is. There are three types of nonstatic phenomena – phenomenon that change from moment to moment: 

  1. One is forms of physical phenomena: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and the physical sensors associated with each, such as the photosensitive cells of the eyes. There are subtle forms as well that can only be known by mental consciousness, like the sights and sounds that appear in dreams. 
  2. Then, there are ways of being aware of something – that's usually how I translate the terms for these. But it means ways of actively cognizing something if we can make that distinction between actively cognizing something and just being aware of something. Both cognition and just awareness are always of something. We can’t just have this Samkhya extreme of just a way of being passively aware – aware of what? “Awareness” can only arise dependently on there being something that it is awareness of. Ways of cognizing something include eye consciousness, ear consciousness, mental consciousness, anger, attachment, love, concentration, mindfulness, being happy about something, being unhappy about something, and so on. All of these are ways of cognizing something. We cognize something by being angry with it, for instance.
  3. The third type are things that change from moment to moment that are neither of those first two. An easy example is age. Age is not a form of physical phenomenon, nor is it a way of being aware of something, but nevertheless it changes from moment to moment.

The self is in that third type of nonstatic phenomenon. It changes from moment to moment and it’s not a way of cognizing something or a form of physical phenomenon. As such, it is an imputation phenomenon. An imputation phenomenon is one that cannot exist or be known independently of a basis. For instance, age cannot exist or be known independently of its basis, what it’s the age of. Likewise, a person, a self, cannot exist or be known independently of its basis, The basis of imputation of the self is an individual continuum of aggregates – body, mind and so on. Some of the Indian Buddhist tenet systems are even more specific than that. Sautrantika and Svatantrika, for instance, assert that, since mental consciousness is present in every moment, the self is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of mental consciousness and that the self cannot exist or be known independently of mental consciousness. 

These two tenet systems go further and say that the defining characteristic of the self is found on the side of mental consciousness. In other words, mental consciousness has the defining characteristics of both mental consciousness and the self. This makes a lot of sense. Most of us automatically identify ourselves with our minds, don’t we? It’s probably because of the voice in our heads talking all the time – we think that’s “me.”

So, because the basis of imputation of the self, mental consciousness, actively cognizes things, the self is aware of what the mental consciousness cognizes. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain how the self knows anything.  And if the self doesn’t know anything, we’ve fallen to the Nyaya extreme that the self has no awareness. Then how could we ever say that we know anything or that we see anything. That contradicts common sense; it contradicts our experience, our valid experience, of the world. But because the self is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of mental consciousness, it is not some separate entity merely observing what mental consciousness cognizes. 

Although Buddhism, as represented by these two tenet systems, asserts that the self is aware of things because its basis of imputation, mental consciousness, cognizes things and has the defining characteristic of the self, that doesn’t make the self a way of cognizing something. The self is not identical with mental consciousness. If it were, then we’ve fallen close to the Samkhya extreme, that the self is passive awareness – except that we would have to concede that just as mental consciousness always has an object, so too does the self.

We have to really examine: Is that what we identify with – that we’re our mind? As I said, for most of us, actually, that is what we identify with, and that’s what we think. We think and believe that there’s a consciousness that has self-awareness of being “me,” that thinks of itself in terms of “me,” and that’s what goes on from lifetime to lifetime. That’s not what Buddhism says. It’s close to what the Samkhyas say. So, we start to see the relevance of studying this purva paksha material, working with it. It’s not anthropology or comparative religion. It has to do with what we believe in real life.

Then, we need to analyze what the consequences are of thinking in these purva paksha ways. If we identify with our mind, then what? What type of confusion, what types of problems, come up from that? How about when we get Alzheimer’s disease or when we become senile? I remember very well: My mother had Alzheimer’s disease. She no longer recognized anyone. She didn’t even know how to lie down if you put her on a bed. She didn’t know how to put on her glasses. She didn’t know anything. Since seeing that was so distressful, my sister would say, “That’s not our mother anymore.” But is that really no longer our mother? Does she no longer have her mind and so she’s now a nobody? That doesn’t make sense. Well, who’s our mother? Who’s the person? There are consequences of just identifying with our mind.

We sometimes say, “I’m losing my mind.” “I was out of my mind. I was not myself.” We say or think such things, but what do they mean? “I was not in my right mind.” 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 also feel like that. This is something to think about. We could spend the whole evening on just one of these strange expressions. There’s a whole list of them.

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

Is the “me” passive awareness and is that the same as mind? Or is the “me” something that is not aware of anything and doesn’t know anything, and so it’s totally separate from the mind? If that latter is the case, then we don’t know anything. Only the our mind knows, and it’s not even our mind, so then who are we?

Does a Realized Being Have Consciousness? 

But a realized being doesn’t have consciousness. 

If you’re thinking in terms of a Buddha only having rigpa, pure awareness, and not ordinary consciousness, OK. A Buddha doesn’t have ordinary consciousness. But, nevertheless, a Buddha knows things. A Buddha has omniscience. That’s one of the main qualities of a Buddha. A 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 subtlest, purest way of being aware of things. In Nyingma, we call it “rigpa, pure awareness.” In other Tibetan tantric traditions, we call it “clear light mind.” It doesn’t mean that a Buddha doesn’t know anything. Of course, a Buddha knows things. A Buddha is omniscient and has compassion for all sentient beings. Compassion is a way of knowing things. However, a Buddha doesn’t have these grosser levels of mind that we have, such as the conceptual level. A Buddha’s omniscient rigpa or omniscient clear light mind doesn’t know things in that way.

What Is Being Improved When We Practice Dharma? 

If we are practicing Dharma, what is being improved? 

You would have to say that both the mental continuum and, by extension, the self, the person, “me,” that is an imputation on the basis of that mental continuum are being improved. 

The mental continuum, composed of not just mental consciousness but the five aggregates, goes on from moment to moment with no beginning and no end. It continues even into Buddhahood – the endpoint of its improvement, so to speak. On the basis of that mental continuum as a basis for imputation, there is a self, “me.” If we consider the “me” in each moment, in each moment the aggregates that are its basis for imputation change and so, in a sense, the self also changes. 

The self is a nonstatic phenomenon. When we think about all those moments of “me,” we do so conceptually through the category of “me” mentally labeled on the basis of all those “me’s” as its basis for labeling. And that category “me” and, through it, each moment of “me” can serve as a basis for designation of the word “me.” But  the self, “me,” is not a word “me. It’s what the word refers to, namely “me.”

I guess I should give my classic example. The classic example is a movie. We have a movie, let’s say, Star Wars. 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. However, on the basis of all the moments of the movie, the title that we give it, “Star Wars,” refers to the movie Star Wars. 

Does the whole movie Star Wars occur in one moment of the movie? No. Is there a movie Star Wars? Yes. Did we see the movie Star Wars? Yes. What did we see? We only saw one moment at a time. When we saw moment two, moment one was no longer playing. What did we see?

Well, the self, “me,” is like that. It is what the word “me” refers to on the basis of every moment of our experience. Every moment of experience, with  no beginning and 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 the form of five boxes. In each moment, there are one or more items from each of these five aggregate groups, and each of the items in each of these aggregates are changing at different rates. So there’s nothing static and constant, just as in the movie, there’s nothing constant – we’re not talking about the plastic film. Although there’s nothing constant, but still there’s a movie, and the movie can be designated with the name “Star Wars.” 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 beginningless and endless continuum; 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 of just sense consciousness, or on a subtle level of conceptual thought and dreaming, or on the subtlest level of rigpa or clear light. There’s always that. Because that subtlest mind always has an object, we can say the self knows, “I” know, because the self is an imputation on the mental continuum as its basis.

What Is the Difference Between Self and Mind? 

How is the self different from mind?

As I explained, mind is a way of cognizing things, and the self is something that is neither a way of cognizing something nor a form of physical phenomenon. Mind is not a thing. We think of mind like a brain or something like that. It’s not that. Mind refers to  mental activity as described from a subjective, experiential point of view, and that activity is going on moment to moment to moment. That activity has three aspects to it:

  1. The arising of a mental hologram – the word for that is "clarity." Clarity doesn’t mean being in focus. It just means that something is arising, becoming clear, which again doesn’t mean in focus. There’s always a mental hologram arising. The Western point of view is that photons hit the retina of the eye, they trigger neuroelectric impulses and chemical things, and then somehow they get transformed into what we can only describe as a mental hologram, and that’s what we know when we see. That’s one aspect of the activity.
  2. Another way of describing that same activity is that it’s a cognitive engagement. That arising of a mental hologram is what cognizing something is. If it’s a visual hologram of an image, that’s seeing. If it’s an audio hologram of a sound, that’s hearing. “Mental hologram” doesn’t necessarily mean visual or even sensory. The hologram could be a thought – that’s thinking. It even could be an emotion. That’s what cognizing something is: it’s the mental activity of the arising of a mental hologram of something, which is the same as a cognitive engagement with something. These first two aspects are just two different ways of describing the same mental activity from a subjective point of view. It doesn’t contradict the objective description of the same activity in terms of the brain, neurons, brain waves, hormones and so on. 
  3. The third word is “only that” or “merely that,” which means that there’s no separate “me” that is watching this mental activity or controlling it. Also, there’s no separate mind like a machine that the “me” is operating and making it happen. There’s only that mental activity, which is changing moment to moment as its object changes from moment to moment. “Me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of that mental activity; it's defining characteristic mark is located on the side of that mental activity, but “me” is not the same as that mental activity. Nor is the “me” something that has its defining characteristic located on its own side and so could exist totally separate from that mental activity or from any basis and not be aware anything. The first position is Samkhya, and the other is Nyaya.

There are some significant differences, however, between how the mind cognizes things and how the self is aware of things. Mental activity – what we call “mind” – cognizes things by giving rise to a mental hologram of an object, which is another way of describing cognitively engaging with that object. The self, “me,” on the other hand, knows things merely in the sense of being aware of things by only cognitively engaging with them. The self does not give rise to mental holograms, only ways of cognizing give rise to them. This is a big difference. 

Another difference arises with what is known as “subliminal awareness.” When we are asleep, for instance, only ear consciousness hears the ticking of the alarm clock, we are not aware of it. The self doesn’t actually hear the sound of the ticking. It only has subliminal awareness of it – perhaps what we in the West would call “unconscious awareness” of it. But when the alarm goes off, both ear consciousness and we hear it. So, mental activity, the mind, is always manifest, whereas the self’s awareness of objects is sometimes only subliminal. This is another difference between mind and the self according to the Buddhist explanations.