Meditations on Selflessness in the Four Buddhist Tenet Systems

Vaibhashika

According to Vaibhashika,

  • The coarse selflessness (identitylessness, lack of an impossible “soul”) of persons is the fact that persons – me and you – are not static, partless entities that can exist independently of a body and mind and which inhabit, possess and control the body and mind. In other words, they are not the atman asserted by non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems. Persons are imputations on the entire collection of the five aggregates. They are superficial phenomena, however. When mentally dissected into their parts (their individual component aggregates), persons lose their conventional identities.
  • The coarse selflessness of phenomena is the fact that objects are not the possessions of a static, partless, independently existing atman that is using them.

Unawareness of this coarse selflessness of persons and phenomena is doctrinally-based: it is based on learning and accepting the teachings of a non-Buddhist Indian school of philosophy concerning the atman. This unawareness is of the atman as a whole, with all its features. Although this is so, we can have both doctrinally-based and automatically arising incorrect consideration regarding each of the features of such an atman – for instance, incorrectly considering something nonstatic as static. 

Each of the following exercises is based on incorrect consideration and unawareness concerning each of the features of such an atman – it being static, partless and independently existing. Although the features are in fact intertwined and interrelated, it is helpful to consider them individually.

[1] Recall thinking of yourself as a static entity that has never changed and never will change and being unaware that you are nonstatic – changing all the time and capable of more change.

  • Identify (a) disturbing emotions, such as rigidity, that have come from this unawareness, (b) destructive physical, verbal and mental behaviors that have come from these disturbing emotions, and (c) sufferings you have experienced that come from such behavior.
  • Think of the happier state of mind you would have from realizing that you are nonstatic – that you change and are capable of more change.
  • Generate determination to be free of the suffering that this unawareness brings you and to be free of its cause, that unawareness.
  • Focus on yourself as being nonstatic, remembering in what ways you have changed over your life, and understand that you will continue to change in the future.
  • Practice tong-len (giving and taking) directed at yourself, taking away from yourself that unawareness and that suffering, and giving yourself the correct understanding that you are nonstatic (changing all the time).
  • Think of the suffering others experience from the same problem and how they would be happier if they were rid of it.
  • Generate the compassion for them to be free of it.
  • Practice tong-len directed at them.
  • Repeat the entire procedure in terms of first you thinking of others as static entities, and then others thinking in the same mistaken way.

[2] Recall thinking of yourself as a one-dimensional, monolithic, partless entity – identifying with just one facet or one stage of your life or one relationship in it – and being unaware that you have parts (many facets and stages to your life).

  • Identify disturbing emotions, destructive behaviors and sufferings you have experienced that come from this unawareness, such as cutting yourself off from other facets of life or other relationships.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercise.

[3] Recall thinking of yourself as a self-contained entity – existing independently of a body, mind, feelings and emotions and just inhabiting them as their possessor and user – and being unaware that you exist dependently on a body, mind, feelings and emotions as an imputation on them as a basis.

  • Identify disturbing emotions, destructive behavior and sufferings you have experienced that come from this unawareness, such as alienation from your body or feelings.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises.

[4] Although in this moment you can see yourself only as you appear right now, think of the suffering that comes from not viewing yourself as an imputation on your entire life – and lives, if you can think in terms of rebirth – such as identifying exclusively with being sick, old, unemployed, someone whose partner just broke up with them, etc.

  • Think of the happier state of mind you would have from viewing yourself as an imputation over your entire lifespan.
  • Think of all the changes you have gone through and see that they integrate into the basis for imputation of who you are now. Integrate into that basis for imputation, as well, all the changes that you will undergo in the future, such as growing old and dying.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises.

[5] Although at the moment you might be engaged in just one aspect of your life – for instance, your spiritual life or your relationship with one person or one group of people – think of the suffering that comes from ignoring and not acknowledging other aspects of your life – for instance, your family life, your sport life, your student life, etc. and the other relationships in your life, both present and past, and their influence on you.

  • Think of the happier state of mind you would have from viewing yourself in terms of all the aspects of your life.
  • Think of all the aspects and influences on your life, past and present, and see that they integrate into the basis of imputation for who you are now. Integrate into that basis for imputation, as well, all the aspects and influences that will occur in the future.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises.

[6] Although at the moment it might seem that you are engaged with just one aspect of the basis of imputation of yourself – your body, your sensory perceptions, your emotions, your intellect, etc. – think of the suffering that comes from thinking that you exist independently of the rest of your bases of imputation – for instance, ignoring taking care of and training your body while taking care of and training your mind and emotions.

  • Think of the happier and healthier state of mind you would have from viewing yourself in terms of all five aggregates that are the basis for the imputation of you as a person and from working on yourself as a whole.
  • Think of all five of your aggregates – your body, your sensory perceptions, your mind, your memory, your concentration, your intellect, your emotions, your feelings of levels of happiness and unhappiness, etc. – and see that they integrate into the complete basis of imputation for who you are.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises.

[7] Think of objects or things – such as your home, your occupation, your partner, the condition of your body and mind – and recall considering them the possessions of yourself as a static person, i.e. identifying with them and thinking that you will always have them just as they are now.

  • Recall being unaware that as you change, they also change and your relationship with them and your attitudes toward having them also have changed and will continue to change.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises.

[8] Think of objects or things – such as the activities you do, the locations where you do them, the persons and things you do them with – and recall considering them the possessions of yourself as a partless, monolithic person, i.e. identifying with just one of the things you do as being “your occupation,” just one of the places where you do that as “your place” and just one of the persons or one of the groups of persons as the ones you share everything with.

  • Recall being unaware that as you have many facets, you also have many different things you do, places where you do them and people you share them with.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises.

[9] Think of things – such as your health, your sight and hearing, your memory, the speed of your thinking, your capacity to learn – and recall considering them the possessions of yourself existing independently of your body and mind, dissociated and alienated from them.

  • Recall being unaware and not accepting that when your body and mind age, you age as well. You do not exist dissociated and alienated from them.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises. 

Sautrantika

According to the Gelug interpretation of Sautrantika:

  • The coarse selflessness of a person is that there is no such thing as a person existing as a static, partless entity, independently of a body and mind.
  • Likewise, the coarse selflessness of phenomena is that there is no such thing as something that exists as the possession of such an impossibly existing person.
  • The subtle selflessness of a person is that there is no such thing as a person existing as a self-sufficiently knowable entity – knowable without simultaneously some aspect of its basis for imputation also appearing and being cognized.
  • Likewise, the subtle selflessness of phenomena is that there is no such thing as something that exists as the possession of such an impossibly existing person.
  • All phenomena have the individual defining characteristic marks that serve as the basis for not only establishing their existence as validly knowable phenomena, but also as belonging to appropriate categories and being the meaning and referent of appropriate names and words.

[1] Recall thinking of yourself as a self-sufficiently knowable entity – a person that could be known all by itself, without also simultaneously thinking of some aspect of your five aggregates that are the basis for the imputation of yourself – and recall being concerned about what people think of you, about what you should do in the future, about what kind of person you are, etc.

  • Identify the disturbing emotions, destructive behaviors and suffering that you experience from such concerns – such as worry, stress, feeling all alone, and so on.
  • Recall being unaware that such concerns only make sense if you think about yourself in terms of the present situation of your body, mind, emotions and so on. It is impossible to deal with these issues just in terms of “me.”
  • Think of how much better you would be able to deal with such concerns if you thought of yourself together with some aspect of your aggregates, such as your behavior. If you are worried about what people think of you, you can change how they consider you by changing your behavior with them. It is impossible to change yourself without changing something about yourself, such as your behavior.
  • Generate determination to be free of the suffering that this unawareness brings you and to be free of its cause, that unawareness.
  • Focus on yourself as being imputedly knowable together with some aspect of your aggregates, remembering that to deal with yourself, you need to deal with the various aspects of your aggregates.
  • Practice tong-len (giving and taking) directed at yourself, taking away from yourself that unawareness and that suffering, and giving yourself the correct understanding that you are imputedly knowable
  • Think of the suffering others experience from the same problem and how they would be better able to deal with their lives if they were rid of it.
  • Generate the compassion for them to be free of it.
  • Practice tong-len directed at them.
  • Repeat the entire procedure in terms of thinking of others as self-sufficiently knowable people.

 [2] Identify the conventional categories into which you factually fit – for instance, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age group, birth family, marital or relationship status,  nationality, residence, native religion, present religion, occupation, etc. – and recall basing your entire identity on just one or two of these categories.

  • Identify the disturbing emotions, destructive behaviors and suffering you experience as a result of thinking of yourself in this limited way – for instance, being aggressive or defensive in asserting this as your identity.
  • Recall being unaware that you have the defining characteristics that factually fit you into many categories.
  • Identify the disturbing emotions, destructive behaviors and suffering you experience as a result of denying, devaluing, ignoring or rejecting any of the categories that you factually fit into.
  • Differentiate the categories that you accurately fit into from those that you just imagine you fit into, but which do not correspond to objective reality.
  • Identify the disturbing emotions, destructive behaviors and suffering you experience as a result of fitting yourself into inappropriate categories – such as someone that nobody loves.
  • Dismiss considering yourself as fitting into the inappropriate categories. Think of them as nonsense.
  • Think of all the categories that you accurately fit into and see that they integrate into who you objectively are.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises, including tonglen and considering others who have the same unawareness. 

Chittamatra

According to the Gelug interpretation of Chittamatra:

  • The coarse and subtle types of selflessness of persons are the same as in Sautrantika.
  • The coarse selflessness of all phenomena is that when dependent (nonstatic) phenomena appear in the form of mental holograms in non-conceptual cognition, it is impossible to establish their existence in that cognition as coming from external natal sources separately from the karmic seed that is the natal source of the consciousness and mental factors cognizing them.
  • The subtle selflessness of all phenomena is that when dependent (nonstatic) phenomena appear in the form of mental holograms in conceptual cognition, it is impossible that the defining characteristic mark that establishes them as knowable objects also has the power to establish them as belonging to the categories with which they are mentally labeled and as being the meaning and referent of the names and words with which they are designated. They are established as such merely by the power of being mentally labeled and designated as such.

[1] Recall hearing the sounds of what someone was saying to you and assuming that the person was hearing the same sounds as you were, because it was objective reality.

  • Recall being unaware that what was appearing to you and to the other person – in this case, the sounds of what they were saying, your ear consciousness hearing it and the accompanying emotions – were all coming from a seed of karma on your own mind when, for instance, because of being distracted, tired or upset, you were hearing something different from what they later reported they were saying.
  • Identify the disturbing emotions, destructive behaviors and suffering you experienced as a result of such unawareness – for instance, being upset and having an argument about whether or not the other person said what you heard.
  • Think of how the sounds that were appearing in what each of you were hearing had their own subjective validity, that there was no one objective reality, and that if any misunderstanding and conflicts are going to be realistically resolved, each of these appearances need to be taken into consideration.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises regarding tong-len and others having the same unawareness.

[2] Recall thinking that the sounds of what someone was saying to you were such and such words, with such and such meaning and had such and such intention and emotions accompanying them, and assuming that the other person understood them the same as you did. Recall also fitting some of those sounds of words into such categories as “criticism,” “insult” and “rejection” and assuming that the other person fit them into the same categories.

  • Recall being unaware that the other person meant and understood them differently: they thought that what they said were different words or had a different meaning and fit into different categories, such as “playful joke.”
  •  Identify the disturbing emotions, destructive behaviors and suffering you experienced as a result of such unawareness and misunderstanding.
  • Think of how the words and meanings that you and they assigned to the appearance of the sounds that you each of you heard – and the categories that you and they fit these appearances into – were merely conceptually labeled. Although the sounds had the defining characteristics that made them sounds and specifically the sounds of words having meaning; nevertheless, those defining characteristics didn’t have the power to make the sounds be understood as the sound of certain specific words, with a certain specific meaning and as fitting into certain specific categories like “insult” or “joke.” Consider how even if the other person fit the sound of the words into the category “insult,” you could have avoided being hurt and getting angry by having fit them into the category “nonsense.”
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises regarding tong-len and others having the same unawareness. 

Svatantrika

According to the Gelug interpretation of Svatantrika, specifically Sautrantika Svatantrika:

  • The coarse and subtle types of selflessness of persons are the same as in Sautrantika.
  • The selflessness of all phenomena is that it is impossible that their individual defining characteristic marks have the power by themselves to establish their existence as validly knowable phenomena or as belonging to a certain category or as being the meaning or referent of a certain name or word and it is likewise impossible to establish these by the power of mental labeling alone.
  • The existence of all phenomena as validly knowable phenomena, belonging to certain categories and being the meaning and referent of certain words, can only be established in terms of their being the referent objects of conceptual cognitions that validly label them with these categories and validly designate them with these words on the basis of their having the appropriate characteristic marks to be validly labeled and validly designated as such.

Recall a task that you had to do and how you regarded it as a truly horrible problem or thought that its being a problem was purely a figment of your imagination and it was not a problem at all.

  • Recall being unaware that the task had the characteristic mark of being either a horrible problem or a challenge that would help you grow; it all depended on your attitude toward the task and how you labeled and approached dealing with it.
  • Identify the disturbing emotions, destructive behaviors and suffering you experienced as a result of such unawareness – for instance, being paralyzed and unable to deal with the task because either you believed it really was a horrible problem from its own side or because you trivialized the task and did not take it seriously because you thought that its being a horrible problem was just in your head.
  • Because the task had the defining characteristic of what some people would consider a horrible problem and what others would consider a challenge for growth, think about the benefit of labeling and dealing with it as a challenge for growth.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises regarding tong-len and others having the same unawareness. 

Prasangika

 According to the Gelug interpretation of Prasangika:

  • The coarse selflessness of persons is the same as the subtle selflessness of persons asserted by Sautrantika.
  • The subtle selflessness of persons is the same as the selflessness of all phenomena.
  • The selflessness of all phenomena is that it is impossible to establish their existence as validly knowable phenomena or as belonging to a category or being the meaning or referent of a word by the power of their defining characteristic mark. Such a mark merely enables the mental factor of distinguishing to differentiate one phenomenon from all others. The conventional existence of all phenomena, including persons can only be established by the power of mental labeling with categories and designation with words.
  • More specifically, the conventional existence of all phenomena as validly knowable phenomena, belonging to certain categories and being the meaning and referent of certain words, can only be established in terms of their being the referent objects of conceptual cognitions that validly label them with these categories and validly designate them with these words – as corroborated by accepted conventions and so long as not contradicted by valid cognition of conventional truth (what something appears to be) and valid cognition of deepest truth (how something actually exists). 

Recall a task that you had to do and how you regarded it as a truly horrible problem because you thought it had the characteristic marks of a horrible problem and, based on that, you labeled it with the category of “horrible problem” and named it as a “horrible problem.”

  • Recall being unaware that it is impossible to find any characteristic mark on the side of the task that has the power to establish it as a “thing,” or as fitting it into a certain category or as being the meaning and referent of a word – even in conjunction with mental labeling and designation.
  • Identify the disturbing emotions, destructive behaviors and suffering you experienced as a result of such unawareness – for instance, becoming overwhelmed and stressed, because you believed that the task was inherently impossible, and being angry with your boss for asking you to do it.
  • Deconstruct the task and see that it has arisen dependently on many causes and conditions and that it relies on many parts and is merely the referent object of the mentally labeled category “task” and the word “task.” There is no findable, self-established referent “thing” – “THE TASK” – backing up this referent object.
  • Without making a big solid “thing” out of the task, consider how much happier and at ease you would be if you just dealt with it part by part, step by step.
  • Then repeat all the steps of the previous exercises regarding tong-len and others having the same unawareness.
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