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 do I exist? This is a very crucial question that is asked in Buddhism. When we are unaware of how we exist and how everyone exists, when either we don’t know or we know in an incorrect way, then 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 feel, compulsively – 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, some are neutral. For instance, the disturbing emotion of anger and hostility would be the mechanism of if I can just get certain things away from me that would make me feel secure. That leads to compulsive aggressive behavior. Or we feel that if I can just get certain things around me, or keep certain things around me, that that will make me feel secure. That 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. So, these are destructive. These lead to destructive behavior.

There are also certain disturbing attitudes which 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 which is vey 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 I’m the possessor; or onto to objects that I have to have as “mine.” Based on that, we can have either the destructive emotions or we can also have constructive disturbing ones. For example, “me,” I have to be perfect; that’s my 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 which when it arises makes us lose peace of mind and makes us lose self-control. We act compulsively. The problem is that we’re trying to make something secure which doesn’t even exist so it can’t be made secure. So, it’s futile. We’re trying to make secure an impossible self, something that just 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 will only refute the coarse one. Everybody else refutes both the coarse impossible self and the subtle one. 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 impossible ways. If we understand that, then we no longer will 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 for a self. There also are 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.

So, we have to further deconstruct the self. The Chittamatra and Svatantrika say that, 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. But, if we want to attain enlightenment, we have to understand voidness of all phenomena including the self. Prasangika disagrees, stating that that even to attain liberation we have to understand the voidness for all phenomena including the self. That is quite a difference actually.

Further Deconstruction of the Self

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, as in parinirvana; whereas, both the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika say that the self does have an end. Chittamatra says that it continues beyond when we die, even if we’ve achieved liberation or enlightenment. Chittamatra also says that the self lacks existence as a self that is externally existent. When we spoke about the five things that the self and consciousness may or may not share, then according to Sautrantika, they don’t share the same natal source; but, nevertheless, we can only know the self on the basis of also knowing simultaneously its basis for imputation. So, I can only see you at the same time as seeing a body. However, your body comes from an external source, whereas my consciousness of it comes from an internal natal source, a seed of karma on my mental continuum.

Chittamatra says that both the body I see and my consciousness of it come from the same natal source. They come from the same seed of karma; the consciousness, the body and the self. From that same seed of karma, that karmic potential, comes both the consciousness and the mental hologram of the body. And since the self is an imputation 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 of the self are coming from that same seed as the consciousness of it. All the mental factors that are involved also all come from that same seed. That self is a dependent phenomenon, like the body that is its basis for imputation. It changes from moment to moment, and its existence cannot just be established in terms of the conceptual cognition of it. We can see ourselves. But, according to Chittamatra, the self still has a barcode that establishes its existence. That barcode, exists on the side of the basis for imputation for the self.

Here in Chittamatra, instead of that basis that is there in all lifetimes being mental consciousness, they speak of something called foundation consciousness. Of course they accept that there is mental consciousness that continues; but, they’re saying that’s not the basis for imputation of the self, or what contains the barcode of the self. What contains it is this foundation consciousness which is alayavijnana in Sanskrit. Sometimes it’s called “storehouse consciousness” in English. This is the basis for imputation of the tendencies of karma, memories, and all sorts of things. But, in any case, it’s the same idea that the barcode of the self and the self itself are found on the side of this basis for imputation, which is some type of consciousness.

Chittamatra, however, says that the barcodes the self and all phenomena have are just the barcodes of being individual validly knowable objects. They don’t have the barcode information of being male, female, human, worm, dog, ghost, or the barcode for good, bad, large, small. All of that comes in conceptual cognition from the side of categories. That’s very important actually. We’re not inherently any particular life form or any particular gender or anything like that. But, 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 it 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 your hair because a man’s hair should look like this or a woman’s hair should look like that.

The Myth

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, it doesn’t establish this gender permanently as my inherent identity. Okay? So, it starts to get quite interesting from a psychological point of view here. 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 about everybody else. We have to overcome this if we want to be able to help them achieve liberation and enlightenment as well. But, remember, Chittamatrins say that there’s still is “me” findable on the side of its basis for imputation.

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. But the source of the body is external elements such as those of your parents and all of that. They serve as the circumstance for the mental hologram of them to arise. So this is in opposition to the Chittamatra assertion.

Svatantrika says that what is impossible is that we can establish the existence of the self either only from the side of the object or only on the basis of mental labeling. 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, 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. But 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, you 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. You need the concepts of cat and dog in order to regard it as a cat or a dog. But 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. You need a combination of the two – both defining characteristic features and concepts or categories 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 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 on aggregates and the aggregates, for instance the body, are going to have physical characteristics. Those characteristics, in the context of mental labeling, establish me now as a man. This brings us a little bit more into each moment of experience, doesn’t it?

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 and there is the concept of “constructive.” Together, that establishes by words as constructive. Of course, what I’m saying is changing from moment to moment to moment, isn’t it? So, 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.

Where can we locate the self? Svatantrika says the self is still a referent thing and it returns to the position that the defining characteristics of the self is in the continuity of the mental consciousness. So, what is said here in Svatantrika, gets quite subtle. Svatantrika states that conventionally things appear to be what they are and that establishes that it exists. That’s conventionally existent. In other words, when you examine and analyze conventionally, that’s what you find, the conventional “me” which is appearing with the basis for imputation like this. It appears to exist independently of names, cognition, and the mental label. But when we analyze the deepest truth of it, the voidness of it, then we can find this total absence of this impossible way of existing. You find the voidness of it. So, conventionally you can find it and on the deepest level you can’t find it. Conventionally you can find the referent thing. There it is behind what the mental label refers to sort of holding it up. There it is. And on the deepest level when you analyze, you can’t find it existing by itself.

The Prasangika Position

Of course now Prasangika comes along and says no, no, no. An impossible self, that impossible self doesn’t exist. You’re saying that just because it appears, it conventionally exists. Prasangika says that is confused, because the deceptive appearance of truly established existence also appears. Whether we analyze on the conventional level or on the deepest level you can’t find the referent thing.

So, what establishes that I exist according to Prasangika? The only thing that you can say that establishes is what the category “me” and the word “me” is referred to on the basis of the ever-changing aggregates, body and mind. You can’t find anything on the basis for labeling. You can’t find anything establishing “me” findable on the side of “me” or on the side of the basis. Nevertheless, the self has, in a sense, a barcode that makes “me” an individual. Therefore. I’m not you, I’m “me,” I’m not a table, I’m “me.”

But, 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 your existence or the existence of something because it’s like it wraps it in plastic. So, it makes it into a thing, a referent thing which is there wrapped in plastic and the barcode inside is doing that. Prasangika says no. There’s no such thing. It 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 I were in fact wrapped in plastic and all my characteristics were there, I couldn’t change, I couldn’t interact with anybody, and couldn’t do anything. I would be frozen in plastic.

So, Prasangika is taken as the most profound, most subtle understanding. In order to understand Prasangika we need to go step by step by step with the refutation in the various schools because if you don’t do that, then the Prasangika position becomes trivial. It says you can’t find the self; so, you look. Is the self under your arm? Is it up your nose? Is it in your stomach? No, you can’t find it. That’s trivial isn’t it? Of course you can’t find it. Okay? So, it’s very trivial.

But, I can understand that it’s talking within the process of mental labeling about that the referent thing inside the basis for labeling. It’s very very specific, very subtle what we’re talking about. There’s nothing on the side of this body that makes it “me,” no little barcode that says that’s “me,” that’s Alex. There’s nothing on the side of the body; Alex, the whole category of Alex the baby, the teenager, the young adult, etc, can be imputed on a basis and given a name. Is that Alex? Yes, that’s Alex. It’s not Patrick. But, there is no referent thing behind it inside that body.

This is the Prasangika position and if one understands that, one doesn’t get the disturbing emotions. One doesn’t get compulsive behavior etc. Then we understand really that there’s absolutely nothing to prove, nothing to be made secure. So, 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 merely to understand how we exist and how we’re devoid of existing in impossible ways.

The Importance of 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, those of intelligence, and so on. He didn’t teach them in order to bore people. He taught them in order to help overcome their problems. These so-called lower schools will help us to overcome certain level of problems. But, we need more subtle ones. That’s why we need to go all the way down or all the way up depending on how you look at it, and that leads to mental labeling, to the Prasangika position in order to get rid 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, you 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. You have to do work and then you’ve earned this as your 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 you win 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 if you put enough energy into ice it will eventually reach a certain critical point and then turn into water. Then you put more energy into it, it will reach a certain point when it will go over the critical level and become steam. That’s phase transition. So, it’s the same thing 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 eventually we overcome all our mental and emotional obstacles and get an new level of understanding. That’s how it works.

It makes a lot of sense if you think more deeply about it. When we’re thinking just selfishly about me, 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 mind is very closed like that and our emotions are very closed, you really can’t understand very much. It makes a mental block. But when one does things for others, in a very large scope of others, and doesn’t think of oneself, one in a sense opens up mentally and emotionally. So, 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. But, according to the teachings, we speak in terms of three zillion eons of this positive force that we have to build up. That’s the answer you won’t like. Literally the word zillion is countless but it doesn’t mean that it’s countless. It’s just the largest finite number in the Indian mathematical system. Point being that you have to build up an awful lot of this positive force and it’s going to take a very long time. So, be patient. Don’t expect instant results.

And 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 you recite this, then you build up sixteen billion eons of positive force, and if you recite that, it’s twenty-three million and gives all these incredible numbers. I don’t think that’s to be taken totally literally. But, I think it’s very helpful in guiding us to understand that we’re not talking about a day to day to day build up of three zillion of something. Certainly there are things that we can do that will build up a tremendous amount of positive force. They give a number so it offers encouragement to people that you can actually do it. By saying this one builds up thirty-two million, that is a little bit of a dent in the zillion. It’s a skillful method.

So, these three zillion are to bring us to further and further stages until we have non-conceptual cognition of it and until we have the full removal of all this obscuration. And each of the various schools will have a different opinion of how that works, so let’s not go into that. Yes?

What is the role of meditation in this?

You have to understand that we have 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 discriminating awareness that comes from listening. This is what the teaching is. It’s this, and it’s not that. We become very certain about that, confident that this is the actual teaching, this is the actual explanation. You have to have that first otherwise you don’t know if you heard it right or if it is the correct explanation or not.

Then, we have to think about it. That’s the second step. So, first we have just the words, these are the actual words of the teachings. That comes from the listening. Now, we have to have meaning to the words and we use the thinking process. The result of the thinking process is that we understand what it actually means, not just what the words are. We perceive conceptually the words through a meaning category, and work to understand what it means. The hearing was through an audio category, whether it was written in this script, or that script, or spoken, or so on. All of that is in the category of these are the words of the teaching and now everything fits into the meaning category.

Not only do we need to understand correctly what then teachings about voidness mean, but we have to be convinced that it makes sense, that we believe it, that it’s true. I can understand complete nonsense and not believe it to be true at all. We’re not talking about that. We have to be convinced that if I really could internalize this, that it would be beneficial. In addition, we have to have the aspiration, the motivation that I want to do that.

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

For example, I’m having a problem with somebody. I didn’t get my way. I wanted the interaction with you to turn out a certain way and it didn’t happen like that. So, I’m upset and I am blaming you and the organizers and this and that and the weather. I’m very upset and I’m putting the blame on everything. So, now, with meditation we sit and we analyze and we have this analysis of the self. Do I exist as some solid thing inside me, 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 conviction that there is a solid me sitting somewhere inside my head, on the basis of imputation, that exists from its own side and therefore it’s actually sitting there and thinks it should always have its own way. There is no such thing.

So, we focus in meditation on the voidness of that and that I don’t exist in that way. There is the situation. I’m certainly experiencing it, so I can label “me” in terms of this individual experience. The situation has dependently arisen on all sorts of causes and circumstances and so then there’s nothing to be upset about. I can’t place the blame on anything. So, 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. So, it makes us very flexible. If you think in terms of a solid “me,” that this is the way that I want it, this is the way it should be, it has to be this way and I didn’t get my way, then you get very angry. So, then you say things you regret that are compulsive. You lose control.

Meditation means to build up something constructive that’s a positive habit. The more that we repeat it, the more that this becomes the habit, this application and understanding, so that automatically eventually we will be able to apply it in all situations and not get upset anymore. We won’t need to sit down and settle ourselves before we can calm down by this deconstruction meditation. You can do it all the time on in any situation. You just have to remind yourself. That’s called mindfulness. Now-a-days, that word mindfulness has taken a different meaning in the West. It’s become to just sort of pay attention. It doesn’t mean that in the original. It’s the same word as to remember. It’s the mental glue that keeps you from forgetting something. It’s always remembering and we’re not talking about recalling information. We’re talking about actively holding it in our attention. That’s why I describe it as mental glue. So, always remember that I don’t exist in this impossible way. There’s nothing to be made secure, so relax. Okay?