Identical, Different, Contradictory & Related Phenomena

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It’s important when we deal with various things in our lives to be able to relate various items with each other that we encounter or experience. So, how are they related? How do we deal with information, basically? Let’s go through some of the types of relationships between items that are discussed in Buddhism. We’re going to find as we study more deeply that all of this is used very much in logic and debate. This is one of the major tools that we use for analysis.

Let’s go through some terms here. 

Same Essential Nature 

The first one is same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig). Two things are of the same essential nature if they are two facts about the same attribute of a phenomenon. An example that we can use would be “being a samsaric being” and “someone having problems.” I’m trying to use examples that might be quite relevant to us, rather than classic examples. 

All the beings that we encounter, other than arhats and Buddhas, are samsaric beings. For most of us, that’s pretty much everyone that we meet, and being a samsaric being, they have problems. They’re not going to be ideal, and they’re not going to be perfect. So, what do we expect from somebody else? What do we expect from ourselves? This comes down to a very useful statement: “What do you expect from samsara?” That everything is going to go well? Of course not. No matter what relationship we get into, no matter with whom it might be, there are going to be problems, so we shouldn’t fool ourselves. 

These two facts (being a samsaric being and being someone with problems) are two facts about the same attribute of others. They’re both talking about their nature – not that one is about their nature and the other is about some other attribute of theirs, like what they look like. And we’re describing that attribute, their nature, from two valid points of view: their being a samsaric being and their having problems. These two facts about this same attribute share the same essential nature and are always inseparable. 

Inseparable Phenomena 

So, inseparable (dbyer-med) – that type of relationship means that one cannot be the case without the other also being true, or one can’t exist without the other. In some cases, they have the same essential nature – like being a samsaric being and being someone having problems – and so they are two facts about the same attribute, the nature of the person. In other cases, there can be two inseparable facts that do not share the same essential nature. An example would be the appearance of somebody and their personality. Everybody has both an appearance (what they look like) and a personality. We can’t have one without the other. They both occur together, inseparably, but they’re not referring to the same attribute of the person. They’re referring to two different attributes. 

That’s important. Why is that important? Sometimes we think that the appearance and the personality should somehow correspond, don’t we? Somebody might be very beautiful and have a terrible personality, and somebody might be very ugly and have a wonderful personality. These are quite separate things, aren’t they? Although we can’t have one without the other, it’s important not to judge one on the basis of the other. 

Mutually Exclusive Phenomena and Totally Pervasive Phenomena 

When we have inseparable facts about something, they can be mutually exclusive (’gal-ba), or they can be totally pervasive (don-gcig). The appearance and the personality are mutually exclusive; they don’t have any common locus (gzhi-mthun) – there’s nothing that is both. In other words, there really isn’t a correlation between appearance and personality. Again, this is something that most of us don’t really realize. Very often, we will base our relationships with others on what the person looks like, don’t we? At least, initially. We need to understand that these are both quite different facts about someone that don’t necessarily correlate with each other. We need to take that into consideration in any relationship we have with someone. 

Two facts, on the other hand, can be totally pervasive if they have the same meaning. “Being a samsaric being” and “having problems” have the same meaning, so they are totally pervasive. Basically, we have two sets here, and the two sets are talking about the same set. Everything in one set is also in the other set. Even though we might know one of these totally pervasive facts, we might not really know the other one. For example, I might know that you are a samsaric being because it says so in the texts, but I didn’t really realize that, of course, you were going to have problems. So, the relationship can’t possibly be ideal. That’s why we have to think more and more deeply about what it actually means to be a samsaric being, especially when we are very judgmental about ourselves. 

When we are working on ourselves to try to overcome various emotional problems – anger, or selfishness, or things like that – we need to remember that, all the way up until being a liberated being, being an arhat, we’re not going to be completely rid of all our emotional problems. Naturally, as much as we work on ourselves to overcome this or that emotional problem, it will recur. It might recur less frequently, it might recur less intensely, but until we’re a liberated being, it’s going to recur. 

So, do not be surprised and discouraged, especially if we’re following a spiritual path. “I’ve been working so hard for so long and meditating so long, and after 40 years, I lost my temper.” Don’t be discouraged. It doesn’t matter whether we are following a spiritual path, or we are following a course of psychotherapy, or whatever it is, we have to understand this point. Or if we are running a business and we think that we have fixed everything. Well, it’s not ideal. Of course, there are going to be more problems that come up. 

The other point that I should make is in terms of progress. Remember, we have this Western concept of linear time. The implication of linear time is that everything is going to get better, so-called “progress,” getting better and better and better as time goes by. From a Buddhist point of view, if we look at the characteristic of samsara, one of them is that it goes up and down. If it’s a samsaric relationship, it’s going to go up and down. We are a samsaric being; we are going to go up and down. Sometimes we will be acting in a more positive way, but then sometimes it’s going to be more negative. It’s always going to go up and down. 

That doesn’t mean that there can’t be progress. I think we need to combine these two views that there can be gradual progress, but the progress is not in a straight line. It’s going to go up and down, up and down, up and down as it progresses. I think this is very important in terms of dealing with any sort of samsaric situation. So, a situation being samsaric and it going up and down – these two facts have the same essential nature and are totally pervasive. 

Identical Phenomena and Different Phenomena 

What we’ve touched on here, in these types of relationships, are these two possibilities, known as “identical and different.” That can be translated in many ways. Sometimes we find in the literature “one and many.” “One” can have a lot of meanings in our languages. It could mean we’re all “one,” an undifferentiated “one.” We’re not talking about that here. The meaning here is “identical,” okay? Identical or different. 

Two facts about the same attribute of a phenomenon, even if they’re totally pervasive – being samsaric and going up and down, or being samsaric and having problems – even if they’re totally pervasive like this, they must not be identical (gcig). They must always be different (tha-dad) facts; otherwise, they’re the same fact; they’re not two facts. I’ll speak about the relevance of this in a minute. 

“Mother” and “mother” are identical. “Mother” and “mom” are different. “Mother” and “mom” are two different words. They could have the same meaning – if someone is a mother, she’s a mom; if she’s a mom, she’s a mother – but they’re not identical. They are called synonyms (ming-gi rnam-grangs). Here, again, we’re talking about one phenomenon. There could be different mothers – many different people could be mothers – that doesn’t mean that they’re identical, does it? However, when we’re talking here about “mother” and “mother,” we’re talking about one thing, the same thing. 

What is the application of this? What comes to my mind, of course, is the application that we have in the Buddhist analysis, which is very significant. And that is the relationship between the self, “me,” and the basis for “me,” like the body. Are they identical? Or “me” and “my mind.” Because what happens is, for instance, I can think of the example of my mother when she had Alzheimer’s. She died of Alzheimer’s, but when she was in the depths of Alzheimer’s and didn’t recognize anybody and didn’t know how to do anything – you put her on a bed, and she had no idea how to lie down, or anything like that – my sister (I think it was my sister) said, “That’s no longer our mother.” So, this is thinking that our mother is identical with her mind, her memory, her personality. Or if we become a quadriplegic in an accident, we can’t move at all, so is that no longer us, because we’re identical with our body as it was before the accident? Not at all. There are many examples that we can think of. 

Then the other possibility is, are they different? How different? If that’s not my mother there in the Alzheimer’s ward, then who is it? If that person is different from my mother – my mother is identical with the one who, before she was sick, had her mind and memory – then they have to be completely different, unrelated persons. Here we’re talking about conceptual categories that are somewhat like boxes. “My mother” is either in the box of being the same with the body or in the box of something totally different from the body. There’s no other possibility. That is our actual dichotomy, mutually exclusive. Well, anyway, let’s not jump ahead. 

There are always these two possibilities, aren’t there? They’re either the same or they’re different, if we’re thinking in terms of boxes. “One or many,” it’s usually called. This is a topic that’s analyzed very, very much. This idea of “identical or different” is important to understand when we read about or hear about these arguments of “one or many,” which is how they’re usually called. “Mother” and “mother” are the same. “Mother” and “Mutter” (the German word for mother) are different. 

All of these have great applications. You’re just now getting a whole list of possibilities, so you get a little bit of a taste of what’s involved. However, as you go deeper in your studies, these are the tools that we’ll use for analysis, for understanding things. 

Different Conceptually Isolated Phenomena Having the Same Essential Nature 

Two things can have the same essential nature, but they can be different conceptually isolated items (ldog-pa). This is a very difficult term. We have two things that share the same essential nature, but they’re different, not identical. How do we describe that difference? We call them “different conceptually isolated items.” What does it mean to be a conceptually isolated item? To conceptually isolate something means to conceptually exclude it from everything other than itself. In simple language, “This is nothing other than (ma-yin-pa-las log-pa) …” Mother is nothing other than mother. Mutter is nothing other than Mutter. When we exclude everything that’s not mother, we’re also excluding Mutter because Mutter is different. When we conceptually isolate anything from everything else that’s not it, we’re left with just that item. That’s how we specify things. Do you follow that? 

There’s an interesting example of this, which is a medical examination. We have all the possibilities of what the disease might be, and one way of identifying it or specifying it is to test for all things that it could be, and when we’ve excluded all these other possibilities, we’re left with what it is. We find that method used quite a lot in medicine because they will give us so many tests for different things, and through these tests, they exclude all sorts of possibilities, and eventually, they are able to isolate what actually the sickness is, hopefully. 

I’m thinking of a funny example of misplacing our keys. We look in every place where they possibly could be, and we’re not so fortunate to find them quickly, so we exclude every possibility (they’re not there), and then we try to think: What is left over? Where could they possibly be? They have to be somewhere. When we’ve excluded absolutely every possibility, and there’s only one possibility left of where they could be, then we find them there. However, sometimes we don’t even consider all the possibilities. 

I remember an incident when I misplaced my address book, and I spent hours looking everywhere in my house of where it could possibly be. I couldn’t find it at all, so I gave up. Then a little later, I went to the refrigerator, and I found the address book there in the refrigerator. That was a little bit frightening. “An Alzheimer’s moment,” we call it. 

I experienced the same thing with my car keys. 

Right. I had gone to the refrigerator earlier. I had my address book in my hand. I put it down in the refrigerator when I took something out, and I must have left it in the refrigerator. It was a logical explanation. 

Anyway, to conceptually isolate all sorts of possibilities – so it’s not this, it’s not that – we have something left over, and that’s how we find things. Anyway, here we have this framework, this category that is used quite a lot in the Buddhist analysis: two things having the same essential nature but being different conceptually isolated items. 

Mutually Exclusive Phenomena That Constitute a Dichotomy 

We’re talking about set theory here. With set theory, remember, we had “identical” – when two sets are identical – for instance, the set of “friends” and the set of “friends,” they are totally pervasive. Whatever is in one set is also in the other. “Friends” and “friends” are identical, but there can also be two sets that are mutually pervasive, but not identical – the set of “samsaric beings” and the set of “those having problems.” Whatever is in one of the two sets is also in the other, but they are not identical.

When we have two sets of things that are not identical or mutually pervasive, then we have other possibilities of how they’re related. One possibility in terms of being different is that they could be mutually exclusive (contradictory) phenomena (phan-tshun spangs-‘gal; ’gal-ba). Contradictory phenomena may or may not be opposites. Two things are contradictory if there is nothing that can be both. Some contradictory phenomena are opposites, like “at home” and “not at home,” and some are not opposites, like “cat” and “dog.” “Opposite” is actually a subcategory of contradictory. 

One variant of contradictory phenomena is, literally, “mutually exclusive contradictory phenomena that constitute an actual dichotomy (phan-tshun spangs-‘gal-gyi dngos-‘gal; dngos-‘gal)” or “dichotomous mutually exclusive phenomena.” In the terminology that you have here in the German handout, it’s “direct logical contradiction.” Regardless of how we translate the technical term, what this is referring to is that all phenomena are divided into these two things. In other words, they form a dichotomy of everything, and there are only two possibilities that something can be. 

For instance, “a friend” or “not a friend.” We can divide all phenomena into two sets, “friend” and “not a friend.” There is nothing that is not in one or the other of these sets. Table, for instance, and even impermanence are in the set of “not a friend.” The classic example would be static phenomena and nonstatic phenomena: Everything that exists has to be either static or nonstatic. 

Mutually Exclusive Phenomena That Do Not Constitute a Dichotomy 

There’s a second type of mutually exclusive contradictory phenomenon; nondichotomous mutually exclusive phenomena (phan-tshun spangs-‘gal-gyi rgyud-‘gal.) That is called in your German handout “indirect logical contradiction.” This would be when there are two mutually exclusive possibilities, but there’s also a third possibility. So, it doesn’t divide absolutely everything. An example would be: “my friend called me” or “they called somebody else.” These are contradictory and the opposite of each other; there isn’t any possibility that is both. Either they called me, or they didn’t call me, they called someone else. Is there a third possibility? 

They didn’t call anyone. 

They didn’t call anyone. Right. I mean, imagine the situation: We’re waiting for our friend to call us, and they haven’t called. Well, either they called, or they didn’t call. Maybe they called somebody else. We’re trying to analyze. How do we understand this situation? 

In the second type of mutually exclusive contradictory phenomenon, those two things could be opposites or not opposites. “Calling me” and “calling someone else” are opposites of each other like hot and cold. But calling me or calling Corinna, those aren’t opposites, right? My friend either called me or called Corinna or called somebody else. If it’s me or Corinna, those are not opposites. If it’s me or not me, those are opposites. Again, when we have jealousy, these sorts of things can be involved: “Well, they didn’t call me! They called her! I’m jealous of her!” Whereas if they called somebody else, it’s a little bit more vague, isn’t it? We could still be jealous. 


Consider the case of “not calling me” and “my phone line is broken.” There are three possibilities (mu-gsum; trilemma) here. If my phone line was broken, then they couldn’t call me. Let’s put aside that they tried, but they couldn’t get through; I didn’t receive the call. We’re talking about the situation of trying to understand why they didn’t call me. If my phone line is broken, then they didn’t call me. So, if it’s in that set of “the phone line is broken,” it’s also in the set of “I didn’t get the call.” But if they didn’t call me, it’s not necessarily that my phone line was broken; it could be for some other reason. Of course, the third possibility is that they did call me. Here, my line was broken, so of course, I didn’t get the call; we don’t even worry about any other possibility. But if there was nothing wrong with my phone, then there must be some other reason why they didn’t call, right? 

More classic examples would be “animal” and “dog.” If it’s a dog, it’s necessarily an animal; if it’s an animal, it’s not necessarily a dog. And there are things that are neither of them, like the table. Trilemmas are easier to understand in that example of the animal and the dog, but it’s helpful to see how would we apply this in a real-life situation: that we really feel badly that our friend didn’t call. 


Then, there could be four possibilities. That’s called a tetralemma (mu-bzhi), which is using the Greek name. In set theory, this is represented by two intersecting sets. What are the logical pervasions between these two sets: “my friend not calling me” and “my friend doesn’t love me anymore”? We think about it. There’s what’s called a common locus (gzhi-mthun), which means that it could be both, a shared locus, in other words. One area of these two sets where the two sets intersect could be that our friend doesn’t love us anymore and didn’t call us. However, it could be in one set and not the other: Our friend doesn’t love us anymore, but called us anyway to tell us, “I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” for example. Or it could be that they didn’t call us, but they still do love us, or our phone line was broken, or they were busy, or sick, or they forgot. Or it could be something else, the table, something which is neither of the two. 

That’s very important for analyzing our problems because very often we think “not calling me” and “doesn’t love me anymore” are totally pervasive, don’t we? Or the parent waiting for the child to come home: They’re late; therefore, they must have been in an accident. Classic. So, we try to apply these types of possible logical relationships to analyzing these problems. It’s very helpful. 

Incompatible Contradictory Phenomena 

There’s another type of relationship of contradictory phenomena. “Incompatible contradictions (lhan-cig mi-gnas ‘gal),” I call that, literally. The thing is that they can’t occur in the same thing simultaneously. Contradictory phenomena that cannot simultaneously exist – and we’re talking about simultaneously existing in a mental continuum, so one overpowers the other or excludes the other. The example that is usually given is “unawareness of reality (confusion)” and “the correct discriminating awareness of reality.” When we have the correct understanding, it gets rid of the incorrect understanding. They are mutually contradictory in the sense that one excludes the other so that we can’t have them at the same time. Either we understand, or we don’t understand. That has to be qualified. 

When we say “understand,” that means completely, 100%. It’s either 100% or it’s not 100%. Either we don’t know why our daughter is late in coming home, or we do know. If we do know, that will exclude not knowing, doesn’t it? If we want to get rid of not knowing where she is, we have to know. Otherwise, we have indecisive wavering (the-tshoms). Could she have had an accident? Could she have forgotten what time it is? Or who knows what happened? 

All these things are very, very useful as we get used to this way of thinking. Our daughter is irresponsible. She is always irresponsible. If it’s our daughter, she’s irresponsible. Are they mutually pervasive? Well, does that mean “always irresponsible”? Are there times when she’s not irresponsible? Is that the only characteristic of our daughter? We have to think about it, because often, we are very judgmental: “She’s always late; she never comes home on time!” Problems. Suffering. 

We have to then analyze these two sets. “My daughter” – in that set, there’s only one item. Again, we’re talking about categories and particulars. Here’s a set, a category, “my daughter,” and there’s only one item in that. Then, there’s the other set of “irresponsible person.” There could be many items in that set. What’s the pervasion between these two? Are they identical? Are they the same set? Are they inseparable? Are there three possibilities? Are there four possibilities? There are irresponsible people other than our daughter, but if it’s our daughter, she’s irresponsible. So, three possibilities, or what? Very useful, actually. 


Although we could look at all these different types of relationships between objects that we’ve covered today (and there are even finer distinctions that can be made), and we can look at them in a very sort of mathematical, abstract type of way; but actually, they are very useful in terms of analyzing the problems that we face and that’s the whole purpose of learning about them. Remember everything that Buddha taught – whether he thought it up himself or, in this case, these are things that are common to Indian logic – was intended to benefit us and help us to eliminate problems, suffering.

Original Audio from the Seminar