Chittamatra, Svatantrika and Prasangika: The Self

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Unawareness of How We Exist and Disturbing Emotions 

We are talking about the self, “me,” how we exist and how we establish that we exist. This is a very crucial question that is asked in Buddhism. When we are unaware of how we and everyone exists, when either we don’t know or we know in an incorrect way, we have all sorts of disturbing emotions. The way that we experience being unaware or confused is that we feel insecure and, because we feel insecure, we compulsively feel – and now the karma or habit comes in – that we have to somehow try to make ourselves secure. 

Actually, first comes the disturbing emotions, and these disturbing emotions are mechanisms with which we feel that we can somehow make ourselves secure. Some disturbing emotions are destructive and some are neutral. For instance, the disturbing emotion of anger and hostility would be the mechanism of wanting to get certain things away from us that would make us feel secure. That leads to compulsive aggressive behavior. Or we feel that if we can just get certain things or keep certain things around us, that will make us feel secure. This leads to longing desire to get what we don’t have. We have attachment, that we don’t want to let go of what we have and greed, we want even more. We’re never satisfied. These are destructive emotions, which lead to destructive behavior. 

There are also certain disturbing attitudes that underlie both destructive and constructive behavior. That’s why they’re considered neutral, or more specifically, unspecified; they can go in either way. For instance, there is one that is very dominant. It’s a very technical term: a deluded attitude toward a transitory network. What that’s referring to, in a sense, is that we throw out this net of “me” and “mine” onto everything. That transitory network is referring to the network of our aggregates, body and mind and so on. We’re always throwing out this idea of “me,” as in we’re the possessor, or onto objects that we have to have as “mine.” Based on that, we can either have the destructive emotions or the constructive disturbing ones. For example, “me,” we have to be perfect; that’s our body, that’s “me,” and it has to be perfect. Muscle building and so on can be neurotic and compulsive because we’re identifying “me” with a body and always on how we look – this type of thing. 

The definition of a disturbing attitude or emotion is that when it arises, it makes us lose peace of mind and self-control. We act compulsively. The problem is that we’re trying to make something secure that doesn’t even exist, so it can’t be made secure; it’s futile. We’re trying to make secure an impossible self, something that doesn’t exist at all. We don’t exist like that. This is the reason why this topic is so important. 

We have covered the coarse impossible self and the subtle impossible self. In Buddhism, the Vaibhashika only refute the coarse one. Everybody else refutes both the coarse and the subtle impossible self. The gross one is something that we had to be taught. The subtle one automatically arises, although we could also have learned it and been taught it from Vaibhashika. 

The Understanding Needed to Attain Liberation and Enlightenment 

Now, except for Prasangika, all the other Buddhist tenet systems say that this is all that we need to understand in order to gain liberation. We just need to understand that the self is devoid of existing in these coarse and subtle impossible ways. If we understand that, we will no longer have disturbing emotions or disturbing attitudes. Therefore, we will not have compulsive behavior; we will not have any more karma. We won’t build up more karmic tendencies and potentials. We won’t have any disturbing emotions or attitudes that would trigger these tendencies and attitudes at the time of death and, therefore, we won’t have uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara.

That whole mechanism is described by the “twelve links of dependent arising.” The Mahayana schools state that there are not only these impossible ways of existing of a self, but there are also impossible ways of existing of all phenomena. That needs to be refuted as well. When we come to the Mahayana tenets, if we want to attain enlightenment, we need to refute and understand the voidness of all phenomena, including the self. 

Thus, we have to further deconstruct the self. Chittamatra and Svatantrika say, for attaining liberation, we still need only the same understanding that we had before with Sautrantika. The self is devoid of existing as this coarse or subtle soul. That is sufficient for attaining liberation. However, if we want to attain enlightenment, we need to understand the voidness of all phenomena, including the self. Prasangika disagrees, stating that even to attain liberation, we have to understand the voidness of all phenomena, including the self. That is quite a difference actually. 

Further Deconstruction of the Self in Chittamatra

Let’s look at Chittamatra. First of all, what they add here, refining the Sautrantika view, is that the self does not have an end to it, whereas both Vaibhashika and Sautrantika say that the self does have an end. Chittamatra says that the self continues beyond when we die, even if we’ve achieved liberation or enlightenment. 

Chittamatra also says that the self lacks objective, external existence independently of and prior to cognition of it. The existence of the self cannot be established outside of the context of a cognition of it. Vaibhashika and Sautrantika assert that the aggregates of a person and a person arise from external natal sources – for instance a body arises from material elements as its natal source. The consciousness and mental factors cognizing the body and cognizing the self as an imputation phenomenon on it arise from their own individual internal natal sources – tendencies, or seeds, that are imputation phenomena on the basis of the mental continuum.  

Chittamatra says that both the body we see, which is actually a mental hologram of a body, and our visual consciousness of it come from the same natal source, an internal one. They both come from the same seed of karma. Since the self is an imputation phenomenon on the body, the hologram will also be a hologram of the self, of you or me. For example, when I see myself in the mirror, or I look at you, or I think of somebody, a mental hologram of the body and the self comes from that same seed as the consciousness of it. All the mental factors that are involved also come from that same seed. 

Chittamatra also asserts that, like the body, the self has truly established existence. Its existence cannot be established just in terms of the conceptual cognition of it. We can see it ourselves. In this, Chittamatra agrees with Sautrantika and Vaibhashika. In addition, according to Chittamatra, the self also has a barcode that establishes its existence. That barcode exists on the side of the basis for imputation of the self. Here in Chittamatra, instead of that basis that is there in all lifetimes being mental consciousness, as Sautrantika asserts, they speak of something called “foundation consciousness.” Of course, Chittamatra accepts that there is mental consciousness that continues; however, they’re saying that’s not the basis for imputation of the self, or what contains the barcode of the self. What contains the barcode of the self is this foundation consciousness, which is alayavijnana in Sanskrit. Sometimes it’s called “storehouse consciousness” in English. This is also the basis for imputation of the tendencies of karma, memories, and all sorts of things. In any case, it’s the same idea as in Sautrantika that the barcode of the self is found on the side of its basis for imputation, which is some type of consciousness.

Chittamatra, however, says that the barcodes of the self and of all phenomena are just the barcodes of being individual, validly knowable objects. They don’t have the barcode information of being male, female, human, a worm, a dog, a ghost, or the barcode for good, bad, large, or small, which Sautrantika asserts that they do have. All of those features come in conceptual cognition from the side of categories. This is very important actually. We’re not inherently any particular life form or any particular gender or anything like that. However, the self goes on lifetime to lifetime in whatever body it is associated with, and that is generated from karmic tendencies. There’s nothing inherent on the side of the barcode itself that makes the self any particular life form or gender or quality of good, bad, large, small, etc. 

This is very important. When we don’t understand that, then we throw out this net of “me” onto some aspect that we identify with, like “I am a man” or “I am a woman.” “A man must act like this” or “a woman must act like that,” and then we get really quite neurotic with compulsive behavior trying to prove it. We feel we have to prove it. We have to establish it by what we do and how we act, but we never feel secure, so we’re always neurotically trying to prove something. That can lead to destructive behavior, compulsive constructive behavior, or some neutral behavior such as just paying attention to our hair because a man’s hair should look like this or a woman’s hair should look like that. 

It’s all based on myth. That’s what we have to understand. There’s nothing here to prove. Conventionally, I’m a man, everybody would agree, and although now I have characteristics of a man or if I were a woman, those of a woman, those characteristics don’t establish this gender permanently as my inherent identity. Okay? It starts to get quite interesting from a psychological point of view. This insight from Chittamatra explains quite a lot about compulsive behavior. If we want to become an enlightened Buddha and help everybody, we have to overcome this type of incorrect view about ourselves and everybody else. We have to overcome this if we want to be able to help others achieve liberation and enlightenment as well. 

The Svatantrika View of the Self

Now we go to Svatantrika, which has two branches: Sautrantika Svatantrika and Yogachara Svatantrika. Sautrantika Svatantrika says that the natal source of the self and the body as its basis for imputation is external, not internal. Although consciousness and the mental factors give rise to the mental hologram, that’s just mental activity, how mental activity works. Nevertheless, the source of the body is external elements such as those of our parents and those of the body itself. They serve as the circumstance for the mental hologram of them to arise. This is in opposition to the Chittamatra assertion. In contrast with Sautrantika Svatantrika, Yogachara Svatantrika accepts and also asserts the Chittamatra position here.

Both branches of Svatantrika say that what is impossible is that we can establish the existence of the self either only from the side of the object or only in terms of mental labeling. The former is the Vaibhashika, Sautrantika and Chittamatra position of truly established existence. The latter is the Prasangika position. Svatantrika asserts that the existence of all phenomena can only be established in terms of mental labeling, but only in conjunction with something findable on the side of the object. It has to be a combination of the two. 

To put it in very simple language, objects have individual defining characteristics on their own sides. Unlike the Chittamatra assertion, they have not only the characteristics of being individual knowable objects, but also specific characteristics, like the physical features of a body. Cats have certain physical features and dogs have others. However, these features by themselves cannot be cognized as cat or dog features independently of the concepts or categories of cat and dog. Only in the context of the mental labels of the categories “cat” or “dog” can they be established as cat or dog features. 

Physical features are just shapes of flesh. Just seeing them, without the concepts of cat or dog, we wouldn’t cognize them as establishing an animal as a cat or a dog. A baby, for instance, just sees the creature as some living thing. We need the concepts of “cat” and “dog” in order to regard it as a cat or a dog. Just the concepts of “cat” and “dog” on their own, with no physical features on the side of a living creature, also cannot establish the creature as a cat or a dog. We need a combination of the two – both defining characteristic features and concepts or categories applied with mental labeling.

So, how do I establish that I am a man? Svatantrika says it’s not that we have just some sort of neutral self, and then in this lifetime, I’m living as a man. There’s never a blank self. The point here is that there’s never a time when I’m a blank self. When would there be a time when it’s blank? There is no time like that. Always in each moment, the self is going to be an imputation phenomenon on the basis of aggregates, and the aggregates, for instance, the body, are going to have physical characteristics. In the context of mental labeling, those characteristics, like a barcode, establish me now as a man. It’s a little bit like a barcode on the side of a package and a scanner. Only in combination with each other do they establish that the package is a box of cereal and what it costs. 

Now I am a man with the characteristics of a man, and what establishes that I am a man are these characteristics and the label “man,” the category “man.” Now I am talking, so there is the characteristic on the side of what’s going on with my body, the sound coming out, and the concept of talking and communicating. I’m not just making sounds. Hopefully, now I’m saying something that is constructive. On the side of the sound of my words and their meanings, there are features that can be validly labeled as constructive with the concept of “constructive.” Together, they establish my words as constructive. Of course, what I’m saying is changing from moment to moment to moment, isn’t it? Sometimes I’m saying something constructive and sometimes something that is sheer nonsense. In each moment, it’s like that. The same analysis is true for the self. There are findable characteristic features of a self, and these, in combination with the concept or category of a “self,” establish the existence of a self. 

Like the lower tenet systems, Svatantrika also asserts that the self has inherent, self-established existence. The self is a findable referent thing that is holding up what the mental label and word “self” refers to. Where is this self located?  Svatantrika says that the basis having the defining characteristics of the self is the mental consciousness, the same as what Sautrantika asserts. are in the continuity of the mental consciousness. 

What is said here in Svatantrika is quite subtle. Svatantrika states that conventionally things appear as what they are and that establishes that they exist, that they’re conventionally existent. In other words, when we examine and analyze conventionally, that’s what we find, the conventional “me” that is appearing with its defining characteristics findable in its basis for imputation, mental consciousness. It appears to have truly established existence, established independently of mental labeling with concepts and designation with words. However, when we analyze the deepest truth of it, we realize its voidness, the total absence of this impossible way of existing. Conventionally, we can find the self, and on the deepest level, we can’t find it. Conventionally, we can find the referent thing. There it is behind what the mental label refers to, sort of holding it up. There it is. On the deepest level, when we analyze, we can’t find it existing by itself. 

The Prasangika Position 

Of course, now Prasangika comes along and says no, no, no. What you Svatantrikas assert as the self doesn’t exist at all. You’re saying that just because something appears, it conventionally exists. But that is confused because the self that appears does so with the deceptive appearance of having self-established existence. Whether we analyze on the conventional level or on the deepest level, we can’t find a referent thing.

Then, what establishes that I exist according to Prasangika? The only thing that we can say that establishes our existence is what the category “me” and the word “me” refer to when conceptually labeled on the basis of the ever-changing aggregates, body and mind. We can’t find anything on the basis for labeling, not even the defining characteristic of a self. We can’t find anything establishing “me” findable either on the side of “me” or on the side of the basis. Nevertheless, the self has, in a sense, a barcode that can be distinguished so that we can see it’s me and not you, and not the table either. But this barcode is not findable and doesn’t have the power to establish the existence of “me.” 

The self, just like anything else, doesn’t have its existence established by the barcode. Remember, all the other schools say the barcode, in a sense, establishes our existence or the existence of something because it’s like it wraps it in plastic. It makes it into a “thing,” a referent thing that is findable there, wrapped in plastic. It’s the barcode inside it that is doing that. Prasangika says no. There’s no such thing. The conventional self has a barcode because it is individual, and the only thing that the defining characteristic does is it makes it individual so that I’m not you. It doesn’t make a solid boundary around things, around “me.” This fits into the whole discussion of dependent arising, because if we were in fact wrapped in plastic and all our characteristics were there, we couldn’t change. We couldn’t interact with anybody and we couldn’t do anything. We would be frozen in plastic. 

Prasangika is considered to be the most profound, most subtle understanding. In order to understand Prasangika, we need to go step by step through the refutations of impossible ways of establishing the existence of the self and of all phenomena in the various less sophisticated schools because, if we don’t do that, then the Prasangika position becomes trivial. It says we can’t find the self, so we need to look. Is the self under our arm? Is it up our nose? Is it in our stomach? No, we can’t find it. That’s trivial, isn’t it? Of course, we can’t find it. 

The Prasangika refutation is very specific and very subtle. Within the context of valid mental labeling with categories and designation with words, there’s nothing on the side of this body that makes it “me,” no little barcode that says, “That’s ‘me,’ that’s Alex.” In a collection of photos of Alex the baby, the teenager, the young adult, etc., the category “Alex” and the name “Alex” can be validly labeled and designated on each of them, but we can’t find any shared, common defining characteristic in each of them that makes these photos all photos of Alex and not of Patrick. There is no referent thing, called “Alex,” inside each of these bodies in the photos.

This is the Prasangika position, and if we understand that, we don’t trigger the disturbing emotions. We don’t get compulsive behavior, etc. Then, we understand really that there’s absolutely nothing to prove, nothing to be made secure. Basically, we can stop worrying. There’s nothing to worry about. Just get on with life, do it. 

That, of course, is not so simple; however, the solution to understanding and overcoming all the various problems that we have is to understand how we exist and how we’re devoid of existing in impossible ways, and to keep mindful of that all the time.

The Importance of Studying All Four Schools 

All of these four tenet systems originate from the Buddha according to the traditional Buddhist explanation. Buddha taught many different methods, many different explanations to suit different mentalities, different levels of intelligence, and so on. He didn’t teach them in order to bore people. He taught them to help people overcome their problems. The teachings of these so-called “lower” schools will help us to overcome a certain level of problems. However, we need more subtle explanations to rid ourselves of them forever. That’s why we need to go deeper and deeper through the explanations of each of these tenet systems, step by step, in order to understand fully the Prasangika position and rid ourselves of the most subtle misunderstanding. 


How long does it take to really understand this?

You’re not going to like the answer. In order to understand it, we need to build up a tremendous amount of positive force. Positive force is usually translated as “merit,” but I find that a horrible word. It sounds like a business transaction, like we have to do the work and then we’ve earned this understanding as our reward. It absolutely has nothing to do with that. We’re certainly not talking about a collection of merit either. I don’t know if you have that here in Austria, but elsewhere, you can go to the supermarket and every time that you buy something you get these little stamps. You collect them in the book, and when you collect a certain number of them, then you win a toaster oven or a prize. It’s not like that. 

We’re talking about a network. A network is a very useful term here. If we use the example from physics, it’s like we’re talking about a phase transition. A phase transition, for example, is what happens when we put enough energy into ice. It will eventually reach a certain critical point and turn into water. Then, we put more energy into it, and it will reach a certain point when it will go over the critical level and become steam. That’s a phase transition. It’s the same with our minds, our understandings. The positive force from acting in constructive ways network with each other and build up stronger and stronger potential, so that eventually we overcome all our mental and emotional obstacles, and we reach a new level of understanding. That’s how it works. 

It makes a lot of sense if we think more deeply about it. When we’re thinking just selfishly about “me, me, me, me,” our mind is closed. We’re very fearful and suspicious like, for example, the dog growling about his bone, feeling that somebody is going to take it away. When our minds and our emotions are very closed, we really can’t understand very much. There’s a mental block. However, when we do things for others, in a very large scope for others and don’t think of ourselves, then, in a sense, we open up mentally and emotionally. We become more open mentally and emotionally, and if that openness builds up strongly enough, we will get over our mental and emotional blocks that prevent us from really understanding something.

It does make sense. However, according to the teachings, we need to build up three zillion eons of this positive force. That’s the answer you won’t like. Literally, the word zillion is countless, but it doesn’t mean that it’s literally countless. It’s just the largest finite number in the Indian mathematical system. The point being that we have to build up an awful lot of this positive force, and it’s going to take a very long time. Be patient. Don’t expect instant results. 

When we read in the Mahayana sutras – I don’t know if any of you read any of them – but at times it says, for example, that if we recite this sutra, we build up 16 billion eons of positive force, and if we recite that one, it’s 23 million. They give all these incredible numbers. I don’t think that’s to be taken totally literally. Nevertheless, I think it’s very helpful in guiding us to understand that there are things that we can do, like recite a sutra, that will build up a tremendous amount of positive force. The Mahayana sutras give a number to that amount so it offers encouragement to us that we can actually do it. By reciting this sutra, we will build up 32 million eons worth of positive force, which is at least a little bit of a dent in the zillion. It’s a skillful method. 

These three zillion eons of positive force are needed to bring us to further and further stages until we have non-conceptual cognition of voidness and, further, until we have the full removal of all this obscuration. Each of the various schools will have a different opinion of how that works, so let’s not go into that. 

What is the role of meditation in this? 

We need to understand that ridding ourselves of our obscurations is a threefold process, three steps. First, we have to listen to an explanation, a correct explanation and, on the basis of that, we will get the discriminating awareness that comes from listening. We discriminate correctly that this is what the teaching says. It’s this and it’s not that. We become very certain about that, confident that this is the actual teaching, that this is the actual explanation. We have to have that first, otherwise we don’t know if we heard it right or if it is the correct explanation or not. 

Then, we have to think about it. That’s the second step. First, we have just the words; these are the actual words of the teachings. That comes from listening. Now, we have to ascertain the meaning to the words, and we use the thinking process. The result of the thinking process is the discriminating awareness that comes from thinking. We discriminate correctly and understand what the words actually mean, not just what the words are. We cognize the words conceptually through meaning categories, putting all the words together to understand what they mean. 

Not only do we need to understand correctly what the teachings about voidness mean, but we also have to be convinced that they make sense. We believe them, that they’re true. We also have to be convinced that if we really could internalize their meaning, it would be beneficial. In addition, we have to have the aspiration, the motivation that we want to do that. 

Then, we can meditate. That’s the next step. Meditation is a repetitive process that we do over and over again. Usually, we use the word practice, like practicing the piano. Over and over again we try to generate the understanding and confidence that this explanation is correct and apply it to some situation in life. We try to discern that situation in the light of this understanding with the discriminating awareness that comes from meditating.

For example, we’re having a problem with somebody. We didn’t get our way. We wanted the interaction with the person to turn out a certain way and it didn’t happen like that. We become upset and blame the person or the weather or whatever. With meditation, we sit and analyze. We make this analysis of the self. “Do I exist as some solid thing inside my mind that somehow should always have its own way? Why should I always have my way? Who says that I should always have my way? What makes me the most important person in the world that things should always go my way?” That’s absurd. That’s impossible. It’s all based on this mistaken conviction that there is a solid “me” sitting somewhere inside our heads, inside our minds as its basis for labeling. We imagine that its existence is established from its own side, and therefore it’s actually sitting there and is so important, it should always have its own way. There is no such thing.

Thus, we focus in meditation on the voidness of that impossible type of self and that we don’t exist in that way. There is the situation. We’re certainly experiencing it – the self, “me,” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of  this experience. The situation has dependently arisen based on all sorts of causes and circumstances, so if we can deconstruct it, we can see that there’s nothing to be upset about. We can’t place the blame on anything. Realizing this, we’re not upset about it – that it didn’t go the way that we wanted it to – and we just deal with the reality of the situation and make the best of it. It makes us very flexible. If we think in terms of a solid “me,” that this is the way that we want it, this is the way it should be, it has to be this way, and we didn’t get our way, then we get very angry. Then, we compulsively say things we regret. We lose control. 

Meditation means to build up a constructive, positive habit. The more that we repeat this understanding of the voidness of the self and its application, the more it becomes a habit so that eventually we will be able to apply it automatically in all situations and not get upset anymore. We won’t need to sit down and settle ourselves before we can calm down by means of this deconstruction meditation. We can deconstruct all the time in any situation. We just have to remind ourselves and remain mindful of it and not let go. Mindfulness is like having a mental glue, so we don’t forget this understanding. We need to always remember that we don’t exist in this impossible way. Because of that, we realize that there’s nothing to be made secure, so we can relax, accept reality and just deal with it in the best way we know how  hopefully in a way that will be of maximum benefit to all others.