Identical, Different, Contradictory & Related Phenomena

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It’s important when we deal with various things in our life to be able to relate various items that we encounter or we experience. So how are they related? How do we deal with information, basically? So 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, 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

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 “having problems.” Now 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. So 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. 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, with no matter whom it might be, there’s going to be problems. So don’t fool yourself.

These two facts (being a samsaric being and having problems), we’re looking at what attribute of others – we’re not looking at what they look like, or something like that – we’re talking about their nature and we’re understanding it from two valid points of view: being samsaric, having problems. And these two facts about the same attribute 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. But in some cases they have the same essential nature – like being a samsaric being and having problems – they’re looking at the same attribute, the nature of the person.

But we could have two inseparable facts which do not share the same essential nature. An example would be the appearance of somebody and the personality of somebody. Everybody has both an appearance (what they look like) and they have a personality. You 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. It’s not quite the same. That’s important. Why is that important? Sometimes we think that the appearance and the personality should somehow correspond, don’t we? But somebody might be very beautiful and have a terrible personality, and somebody might be very ugly and have a wonderful personality. So these are quite separate things, aren’t they? You can’t have one without the other. So 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 sort of common locus (gzhi-mthun) – there’s nothing which 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. So one has to understand that these are both factors about someone, and one needs to take that into consideration.

But 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, however. I 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 one has to think more and more deeply what it actually means to be a samsaric being, especially when we are very judgmental about ourselves.

When one is working on oneself to try to overcome various emotional problems, etc. – things like anger, or selfishness, or things like that – then one has to remember that, all the way up until being a liberated being, being an arhat, I’m not going to be rid of all of this completely. So naturally as much as I work on myself to overcome this problem, and so on, 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 not to 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 forty years I lost my temper; I still sometimes lose my temper.” So 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, one has 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, it’s that it goes up and down. So 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. These, again – same essential nature. Samsaric situation: it’s going to go up and down. It’s the same essential nature. Those facts have the same essential nature.

Identical Phenomena and Different Phenomena

What we’ve touched on here, in these types of relationships, is these two possibilities. This is known as “one and different.” That can be translated many ways. Sometimes we find in the literature “one and many,” or I prefer: what “one” means is “identical.” “One” can have a lot of meanings in our language. We’re all one. It can have a lot of different meanings, doesn’t it? It could be that we’re undifferentiated, “one.” So we’re not talking about that here. The meaning here is “identical,” okay? Identical or different.

So 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. Well 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 here. There could be different mothers – many different people could be mothers – that doesn’t mean that they’re identical, does it? But they are – 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 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. I mean she died of Alzheimer’s. But when she was in the depths of Alzheimer’s and she didn’t recognize anybody, she 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 mother is identical with her mind, her memory, her personality. Or if you become a quadriplegic you can’t move at all, so that’s no longer me? Because I’m identical with my body? There are many examples that we can think of.

But then the other possibility is, well, are they different? And how different? If that’s not my mother there in the Alzheimer’s ward, then who is it? If that’s different from my mother – my mother is identical with the one having their mind and memory – then they have to be completely different. So here we’re talking about these conceptual categories. “Mother” is either in the box of being the same with the body or something totally different from the body (if we’re thinking in terms of these boxes) and there’s no other possibility. That is our actual dichotomy, mutually exclusive. Well, anyway, let’s not jump ahead.

There’s always these two possibilities, isn’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. So one has to really analyze. This is a topic that’s analyzed very, very much. So 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. But 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. So 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. So what does it mean to be a conceptually isolated item? To conceptually isolate something means to 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. So when you exclude everything that’s not mother, you’re also excluding Mutter because Mutter is different. So when you conceptually isolate anything from everything else that’s not it, you’re left with just that item. So that’s how we specify things. You follow that?

There’s an interesting example of this, which is a medical examination. You 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 you’ve excluded all these other possibilities you’re left with what it is. And you find that method used quite a lot in medicine because they will give you 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 is the sickness. Hopefully.

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

I remember an incident where I misplaced my address book, and I spent hours looking everywhere in my house where it could possibly be and 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 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. You experienced the same thing with your car keys. 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 of the refrigerator, and I 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 – you have something left over, and that’s how we find things. Anyway, here we have this framework, this category here that is used quite a lot in the Buddhist analysis: two things having the same essential nature, but being different conceptually isolated items.

Now what are we up to? Trilemma (mu-gsum) and tetralemma (mu-bzhi). The Tibetan is much nicer – just “three possibilities” or “four possibilities,” literally.

Although I suppose that before we get into that, it’s better to speak of something else. We’re talking about set theory here. With set theory, remember, we had “identical” – two sets are identical. Identical was “mother” and “mother.” We had two sets being totally pervasive, so we could say “friend” and “friend.” “Friend” and “friend” – that’s identical. And we had two sets are mutually pervasive if every element in one is in the other, so “samsaric being” and “having problems.”

Mutually Exclusive Phenomena That Constitute a Dichotomy

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 here is that they could be mutually exclusive (contradictory) phenomena (phan-tshun spangs-‘gal; ’gal-ba). Contradictory, this is this topic of opposites.

“Opposite” is actually a subcategory of contradictory. So, “mutually exclusive contradictory phenomena that constitute actual dichotomies (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.” Two different ways of translating this. And what this is referring to is that all phenomena are divided into these two things. In other words, it forms a dichotomy of everything. In other words, there’s only two possibilities that something can be.

So, for instance, “called me” and “didn’t call me.” We’re talking about my friend calling me. So “not calling me” is everything other than “calling me,” so even “the table” is “not calling me.” That can of course be debated. The classic example would be static phenomenon or nonstatic phenomenon: everything that exists has to be either static or nonstatic. But trying to find a relevant example for us is not so simple. So either my friend called me or my friend didn’t call me. Whether they reached me, I mean that’s secondary. But the point is whether they called me or not.

Mutually Exclusive Phenomena That Do Not Constitute a Dichotomy

There’s a secondary 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 that there are two possibilities but there’s also a third possibility. So it doesn’t divide absolutely everything. Here they would be: “they called me” or “they called somebody else.” These are contradictory; you don’t have something which is both. “Contradictory” means you can’t have something that’s both. Either they called me or they called somebody else. Is there a third possibility?

They did not call anyone.

They didn’t call anyone. Right. I mean, imagine the situation: you’re waiting for your friend to call you 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 secondary 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, that’s not opposites. If it’s me or not me, those are opposites. So, again, when we have jealousy and these sort of things that can be involved: “Well, they didn’t call me! They called her! I’m jealous of her!” Whereas if they called somebody else, well, it’s a little bit more vague, isn’t it? You could still be jealous.


So now we have the three possibilities. “Not calling me” and “my phone line is broken.” Okay, there are three possibilities (mu-gsum; trilemma) here. If my phone line was broken then they couldn’t call me. Let’s put it aside that they tried but they couldn’t get through, but I mean I didn’t receive the call. We’re talking about the situation of trying to understand why they didn’t call me. So 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 some other reason. And of course the third possibility is that they did call me. Here, well, my line was broken so of course I didn’t get the call; you 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?

I mean, 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 which are neither of them, like the table. But I think it’s a little bit more helpful – it’s 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 I really feel badly that my friend didn’t call.


Then there could be four possibilities. That’s called a tetralemma (mu-bzhi); that’s just using the Greek name. This is, in set theory, 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 in which the two sets intersect. So it could be that my friend doesn’t love me anymore and didn’t call me. But it could be in one set and not the other: my friend doesn’t love me anymore, but called me anyway – to tell me, “I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” for example. Or it could be that they didn’t call me, but they still do love me – my 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.

So that’s very important for analyzing our problems, because very often we think “not calling me” and “don’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 one tries to apply these types of relationships between these logical pervasions of possibilities to analyzing these problems. It’s very helpful.

Incompatible Contradictory Phenomena

There’s another type of relationship of contradictory phenomena. I don’t even know how you translate this from German. “Incompatible,” I think. “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. And 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 you have the correct understanding, it gets rid of the incorrect understanding. They are mutually contradictory in the sense that one excludes the other, in the sense that you can’t have them at the same time. Either you understand or you 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%. So either I don’t know why my daughter is late in coming home or I do know. If I 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 you get used to this way of thinking. Is it the case that, for instance, what we had before – the same essential nature. My daughter is irresponsible. She is always irresponsible. If it’s my daughter, she’s irresponsible. Well, does that mean always irresponsible? Are we referring to the same thing? Or are there some times when she’s not irresponsible? You have to think about it, because often we are very judgmental: she’s always late; she never comes home on time! Problems. Suffering.

So we have to then analyze these two sets. “My daughter” – I mean 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. And then there’s the other set of “irresponsible person” – there could be many items. And then what’s the pervasion between these two? Are they identical – is it the same set? Are they inseparable? Are there three possibilities? Are there four possibilities? There are irresponsible people other than my daughter; but if it’s my daughter, she’s irresponsible. So three possibilities, or what? So, very useful, actually.

Original Audio from the Seminar