Buddhist Analysis: Types of Phenomena

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We are going to begin our discussion of Buddhist metaphysics. This is a large topic that covers an enormous amount of material, and all of this material is quite difficult; it is very complex, with many, many different items involved. However, I think the important principle for studying this is to remember that all of this is intended to serve as an analytical tool. 

As you perhaps already know, the whole Buddhist training is intended to help us gain liberation from suffering and unhappiness and its causes. Our suffering and problems arise because of our unawareness of reality – how we exist, how everything exists. Unawareness (ma-rig-pa) means either we just don’t know, or we know or understand incorrectly, and so we are very confused. The problem is that our mind makes things appear in all sorts of impossible ways, and we believe them to correspond to reality. 

One of the confusing appearances that our minds make is that things exist in a sort of solid, concrete type of way. For instance, we experience something, and we think, “Oh, there’s this horrible problem.” We make it into a big thing, and we get all upset about it. In colloquial English, we say, “We make a big deal out of everything.” What we need to do is to be able to deconstruct what appears to exist solidly and so horribly to us, and if we can deconstruct it, then we understand a little bit better its reality. The understanding of voidness (stong-pa-nyid, emptiness) is clearly the deepest way of deconstructing that these impossible ways of existing that our mind produces are not corresponding to anything real, but we can do less deep deconstructions, which also help. That’s because whatever we experience is going to consist of various parts, various causes, various conditions, and so on; there’s nothing solid about it at all. 

These metaphysical topics that we’ll be discussing are analytical tools to help us deconstruct what we’re experiencing and help us to overcome problems and difficulties we’re having. In the traditional Buddhist training, one works with this material for several years – not just five short lectures, but several years through the medium of debate. What I’d like to do is present this material in terms of a specific type of experience, troublesome experience, that we might be having, and show how these various topics that we’re talking about here – existent, nonexistent, static, functional, etc. – how we could apply them in analyzing and deconstructing this experience. 

The example that I’ve chosen – now this didn’t actually happen to me, but as a hypothetical experience – when I was coming here, when I was collecting my luggage at the airport, I took the wrong computer bag. The computer bag was sitting on the ground, and I took somebody else’s. I wasn’t really paying attention. Now I arrive here, and I’m really depressed. I think I’m a complete idiot, and I’m very angry with myself. I’m very unhappy. How would we deconstruct this situation (because obviously, I am suffering)? 

Existent and Nonexistent Phenomena 

We can, first of all, talk about topics or subjects of a debate (rtsod-gzhi). This would refer to things that we can analyze, and this includes nonexistent items or subjects (med-pa) and existent subjects or topics (yod-pa). A nonexistent one cannot be validly known. A complete idiot – someone who is totally, in absolutely every aspect, every moment of their life, an idiot – that’s nonexistent. Nobody exists like that. However, it is a topic that we can analyze. We can say, “What I think is ‘I’m a total idiot.’” It is a topic, but it is nonexistent. Now what exists can be validly known (shes-bya, validly knowable phenomena and gzhi-grub, something established as a basis for a valid knowing of it), like me, I who am a total idiot. Well, I can be validly known, I exist, but a total idiot doesn’t exist. The computer exists; it’s an existent phenomenon and can be validly known. Validly means accurately and decisively. 

We have another division, called – I call it – valid phenomena and invalid phenomena. Before we go into this, I’d like to do this a little bit slowly, perhaps. Let’s take a minute or two to digest each of these groups that I am introducing; otherwise, it’s just going to be one point after another point after another point, and that’s too much. 

We have topics that can be analyzed or discussed. Some of them are existent, like me or my computer. They can be validly known. Some do not exist at all, they’re nonexistent, like a total idiot, what I think I am, because there is no such thing as a total idiot. 

For example, a monster is a nonexistent phenomenon. We can think “I’m a monster.” However, are there any monsters, real monsters? Can we validly see a monster? No. Can we talk about monsters? Yes.

Valid and Invalid Existent Phenomena 

Within existent phenomena, we have things that are valid (srid-pa) and things that are invalid (mi-srid-pa). I’m using this term like, for instance, milk; now it’s valid, and now it’s expired, it’s no longer valid. For example, like my U-Bahn ticket, my subway ticket in Berlin. The September one is now valid. The August one is invalid; it’s no longer valid, as it’s expired. 

A valid phenomenon is one that is happening now. An invalid one is one that is either no longer happening (das-pa) or not yet happening (ma-’ong-pa). What’s valid is what I’m experiencing right now. I’m sitting and thinking what an idiot I am. What is no longer valid is invalid, as it is the no-longer-happening of my picking up the wrong computer bag; that’s no longer happening now. What’s not yet happening is, hopefully, getting my own computer back. However, what I have to deal with is what’s happening right now. What’s happening right now, what is valid at this moment, is my sitting here and thinking what an idiot I am. OK? Digest that for a moment. 

Can we validly know something that’s no longer happening? Yes. I can know that I did not pick up my correct computer bag. That’s no longer happening now, but I can know it correctly. It’s an existent phenomenon. Not yet happening is if they find my correct computer at the airport, I will get it back. That’s not happening yet. I can know that, especially if I call and they say, “Yes, we have it,” so I know I will get it back. Nonetheless, it’s not yet happening now. 

Did you get that? It’s like the year 2010. That’s valid; that’s happening now. The year 2009 is no longer happening. Is it an existent phenomenon? Yes. There was such a thing as the year 2009, but it’s not happening now. We can remember it. The year 2011, is it an existent phenomenon? Yes, we can plan for it. Is it happening now? No. Is the year 2011 happening somewhere else now? No. Where could it be happening? We can have a count of 2011 from a certain point in another universe, but it’s not going to be the year 2011 that will happen next year here. My old age is not happening now, and it’s not happening somewhere else either, is it? I’m not eating tomorrow’s breakfast now, am I? It’s not happening somewhere else. However, we can think about it; we can plan it, etc. 

Affirmation and Negation Phenomena 

We also have what’s known as affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa) and negation phenomena (dgag-pa). An affirmation phenomenon is something that we can know just, in a sense, by itself, without having to negate anything else. For instance, my computer. I can just say, “This is my computer.” I didn’t have to know anything before. 

A negation phenomenon is “not my computer.” I look at this other computer, somebody else’s computer – it’s a different color, it’s a different model – and I understand, “This is not my computer.” That’s a negation phenomenon, “not my computer.” How could we know that this is not my computer? How would we know that? Would we have to have known something before? My computer, right? We have to have known my computer before in order to know this is not my computer. That’s the difference between an affirmation and a negation phenomenon. An affirmation phenomenon would be the presence of someone else’s computer, and an absence negation phenomenon would be the absence of my computer, “not my computer.” 

Implicative and Nonimplicative Negation Phenomena

There are different types of negation phenomena. There is what I call an implicative negation phenomenon (ma-yin dgag). I’m not quite sure what it’s called in German. Jeffrey Hopkins calls it an affirming negation. Implicative here means that there’s something left over when we negate. When we say “something left over,” what we’re referring to, the term that’s actually used is... You know when we have a boat, and the boat is going through the water, and after the boat has passed through the water then what we call in English the “wake” (bkag-shul) of the boat is left behind; it’s sort of a dip, an impression in the water. Another example is a footprint left after walking in soft earth. That is the term that’s used for what’s left behind. 

An example would be “This is not my computer.” What is left behind, what is implied by that – implicative – is that it is somebody else’s computer. Another example is “My computer is not here.” What’s left over from that? My computer must be somewhere else. We know that when we see this computer, don’t we, we see it’s somebody else’s computer? It’s not mine, so it must belong to somebody else. My computer isn’t here, so it must be somewhere else. That’s how our understanding works, doesn’t it?

A nonimplicative negation (med-dgag) is something that doesn’t leave anything behind. “My computer is absent. My computer is gone.” That doesn’t leave anything behind it, does it? It’s just gone. It’s absent. It doesn’t imply that it’s somewhere else. We’re just saying it’s absent, or “I don’t have my computer.” Here it’s not that we’re leaving me behind; that’s not what we mean here. “I don’t have my computer” doesn’t imply that I have something else, just that I don’t have my computer. Or we look for milk in the refrigerator and there is none. “There is no milk.” It doesn’t imply anything and doesn’t leave anything over. It’s just a statement – absence, gone. 

With this nonimplicative one – something’s absent, something’s gone – it could be either an existent phenomenon or a nonexistent phenomenon. “There is no milk in the refrigerator.” There’s also no monster in the refrigerator. It could be an absence of something that does exist, could exist, and an absence of something that doesn’t exist, could never exist. There’s the absence of my computer. That’s something that does exist, but an absence of a total idiot is an absence of something that doesn’t exist; it could never exist because there is no such thing as a total idiot. 

So, let’s review. An existent phenomenon could either be an affirmation phenomenon or a negation phenomenon. An affirmation and negation phenomena can be either valid (presently happening), or invalid (they’re not happening any longer or they haven’t happened yet). “I don’t have my computer,” it’s happening now. “I didn’t pick up my computer yesterday,” that’s not happening now. It’s a negation phenomenon. That’s not happening now. 

All these different subdivisions can be considered together. That’s why we get into this whole topic that we’ll have later of relationships between – it’s set theory, basically – between two sets of things. Then it becomes much more complicated. However, this is what one works on within debate. 


Static Phenomena 

The next division within existent phenomena is static phenomena (rtag-pa), also called nonfunctional (dngos-med) or unconditioned or unaffected phenomena, and nonstatic phenomena (mi-rtag-pa), also called functional (dngos-po) or conditioned or affected phenomena.

When we talk about a static phenomenon, we’re talking about something that does not change from moment to moment. I think in the definition, it is something that is not momentary. We have to understand what momentary means. Momentary means that it changes from moment to moment. Some of them are eternal – they can last forever – and some of them are temporary.

Let’s use our example, the computer. The category computer is a static phenomenon. We’ll discuss what is sometimes called generalities (spyi, conceptual category), and one aspect of them is categories. The category of a table is just a category. It doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t change. It’s just a category. It’s what I’m, in a sense, thinking of. “My computer,” I’m thinking of a computer, the category computer, but this is a temporary static phenomenon. Was there the category computer before computers were invented? No. During the Stone Age, there was no category computer. And way, way in the distant future when there’s no such thing as computers anymore, and there are none in museums, and nobody has heard of them, there will also no longer be a category computer. Right? So, it’s temporary. 

However, the category knowable phenomenon, from a Buddhist point of view, has no beginning and no end; it’s eternal. There’s always a category knowable phenomenon. There are always knowable phenomena. We’re not talking about us having to think this. Since mental continuums (sems-rgyud) also have no beginning and no end, then we can always think in terms of the category knowable phenomenon. OK? 

I don’t want to get into tremendous detail here – it will get very complicated – but we can have static phenomena that are negation phenomena and some that are affirmation phenomena. 

Have you got this idea of static phenomena? That’s something that doesn’t change, whether it lasts forever or it just lasts a short time. As long as it lasts, it doesn’t change; it doesn’t do anything and doesn’t change.

Functional (Nonstatic) Phenomena 

Now, we have functional phenomena. These are nonstatic phenomena; they change from moment to moment, they arise from causes and conditions, and they do something (they affect other things, they produce effects). Some of them are eternal and some are temporary. What’s temporary would be, for instance, the computer – this individual computer – or my body, something that arises at a certain point and at a certain point it’s going to disintegrate, fall apart, and moment to moment it is degenerating, going closer and closer to its end. Then there are other functional phenomena, nonstatic phenomena, changing from moment to moment that last forever, like the mental continuum – an individual mental continuum – no beginning, no end, but moment to moment, it changes, because moment to moment we are aware of different things; the consciousness, the mind, is aware of different things. 

My computer is a nonstatic phenomenon. It’s falling apart. Eventually, it’s going to break; eventually, I’m not going to have it any longer, whether I lose it or somebody steals it or it just breaks. It’s falling apart from moment to moment. Gross impermanence (mi-rtag-pa rags-pa) is when it actually breaks. Subtle impermanence (mi-rtag-pa phra-mo) is that moment to moment it’s getting closer and closer to its end. 

Follow that? It’s like this class. It will end. It’s temporary, but moment to moment, something different is happening. When the class is over, it’s finished. Each minute, it’s getting closer and closer to the end. What is the reason for the class ending? The reason for it ending is because it started. If it never started, it couldn’t possibly end. 

Now that may seem funny, but let’s apply it to the computer. What is the reason the computer breaks? Because it was built. It was built and therefore – since it was built dependent on parts, and so on, which aren’t constantly being renewed – it’s going to fall apart; it’s going to come to an end. What is the cause of death? Birth. The sickness that we die from is just the circumstance. The actual cause is that we were born. If we were born, what do we expect? We’re going to die. Buy a computer, what can we expect? At some point, it’s going to break. OK? 

Is there anything else besides a mental continuum that is eternal and changes from moment to moment? An individual person, “me.” When we talk about there being no soul (bdag-med, Skt. anātman, lack of an impossible “soul”), it’s not that we’re denying that there is some sort of eternal thing here. The “me,” the self, is eternal; there’s no beginning and no end, but it doesn’t exist as some sort of unchanging thing that could exist separately from a body and a mind and could be known all by itself. Buddhism does accept a self – whether we want to call that a soul or a “me” or an individual or a person – Buddhism does accept that. But the conventional “me” is eternal, and it changes from moment to moment because now we’re doing this, now we’re doing that. That’s why I prefer to translate as no impossible self, no impossible soul. It’s not that there’s no self or no soul, but what Buddhism is negating is an impossible one, right? 

An impossible self doesn’t correspond to anything. What would be an impossible self? It would be a self that can be known separately from a body and mind and is unaffected by anything; it never changes from moment to moment, and it just jumps into this body and mind and, in a sense, drives it, like driving a car, and then leaves it and goes into another car. That’s impossible. That doesn’t correspond to anything real, so that absence of anything real corresponding to it is its voidness. It’s the absence of anything actual that corresponds to this. It’s impossible. That’s why these negation phenomena are important to understand. There is no such thing. When we say the self doesn’t exist like this, what’s left over is, it exists in some other way. OK? Digest that for a moment, please. 

Functional phenomena do things. They arise from causes and conditions. They change from moment to moment. Some last forever; some last just a short time, and while they last, they degenerate. There are many other kinds of nonstatic phenomena, but I really don’t want to go into that because that gets very complicated. 

Forms of Physical Phenomena

Within functional phenomena, we have three types. That’s one way of dividing them. There are many ways of dividing, but here we’ll divide into three, the most common way of dividing them. In German, the first type (gzugs) is called material phenomena. I prefer forms of physical phenomena, but whatever we call it, the point is to understand what we’re talking about, and what we’re talking about is, well, there are 11 types. We’re talking about sights, visual sights (gzugs), sounds (sgra), smells (dri), tastes (ro) and physical sensations (reg-bya). That’s five. Tactile, physical sensations include rough and soft, hot and cold, and a physical sensation of motion. There are a lot of physical sensations. We can feel motion, can’t we? I mean, we would say feel, but this is such a vague word in our languages. However, that’s a physical sensation of moving, isn’t it?

If we want to be technical, according to the Buddhist analysis, each of these sensory objects is made of particles, but this becomes quite difficult to understand. 

We have another set of five. These are the sensors, the cognitive sensors (dbang-po). These are the types of tiny little cells that we have as parts of the body that are photosensitive, sensitive to sights (mig-gi dbang-po), sound-sensitive cells of the ears (rna’i dbang-po), smell-sensitive of the nose (sna’i dbang-po), taste-sensitive of the tongue (lce’i dbang-po) and physical sensation-sensitive of the body (lus-kyi dbang-po). 

Then we have a third type, which can only be known by mental consciousness (chos-kyi skye-mched-pa’i gzugs, forms of physical phenomena included only among the cognitive stimulators that are all phenomena); we can’t actually know them in a sensorial sense, a sensorial way. Like for instance, what we perceive in dreams. There are what appear to be sights and sounds, etc., in dreams, but those aren’t actually objects of the eye consciousness or ear consciousness, are they? They’re objects of the mental consciousness. We have other examples as well, such as particles, atoms; we can’t actually see them, but they’re a form of physical phenomenon. 

In our discussion here of thinking, “I’m a complete idiot,” what are the physical phenomena in connection with my body? “I took the wrong computer,” the computer. These are forms of physical phenomena. The visual sight of the computer, the tactile sensation of the computer if I hold it in my hand, the sound of the computer when I type, these are all forms of physical phenomena. Then, of course, we can factor in these other divisions that we’ve spoken about. What we’re seeing now, what we’re no longer seeing. The visual sight that we’re seeing now, a visual sight that we’re no longer seeing that we saw yesterday. The sight of someone else’s computer that I’m seeing now and the sight of my computer which I’m no longer seeing, for example.

Ways of Being Aware of Something

Thus, we have forms of physical phenomena, then the second division of nonstatic phenomena is ways of being aware of something (shes-pa). There are many different ways of being aware of something. 

We have something called consciousness, primary consciousness (rnam-shes). In Buddhism we don’t just speak about consciousness in general; we speak specifically of visual consciousness (mig-gi rnam-shes), sound consciousness (rna’i rnam-shes), smell consciousness (sna’i rnam-shes), taste consciousness (lce’i rnam-shes), physical sensation consciousness (lus-kyi rnam-shes) and mental consciousness (yid-kyi rnam-shes), what would be involved with dreaming or thinking. What primary consciousness does is it cognizes; it’s aware of what’s known as the essential nature (ngo-bo) of something. The essential nature of something is what general type of thing it is. Visual consciousness is aware of something as being a sight. Audio consciousness is aware of something as being a sound. It’s just this general category of what type of information it is. Is it visual information or audio information? If we think of the example of a computer, we have a digital representation of something, and there has to be some sort of processor that can be aware that this is visual information or that this is audio information. This is what primary consciousness does. OK? That’s primary consciousness. 

Then we have mental factors (sems-byung, subsidiary awareness), and mental factors help us to deal with that information. Some of these factors are things like attention (yid-la byed-pa), concentration (ting-nge-’dzin, mental fixation), interest (don-gnyer), feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness (tshor-ba). Then, we have all the various emotions that also color our experience of an object, both constructive (dge-ba) or positive emotions, and destructive (mi-dge-ba) ones, disturbing emotions (nyon-mongs). 

We have a whole cluster here of primary consciousness and all the accompanying mental factors, and they’re all focused on the same object, and they’re occurring at the same time, and so on; they have five things in common (mtshungs-ldan lnga). We can think of the image of a chandelier, with one bright light – a big light in the middle – and all these little lights around it, all going on at the same time and illuminating the same thing. 

Thus, we have ways of being aware of something. For example, I’m looking at this bag, I’m distinguishing it’s not my computer, and I’m feeling unhappy about it, and I’m angry with it, and all of these things are happening here.

Noncongruent Affecting Variables

Then we have a third category (ldan-min ’du-byed, nonstatic abstraction, noncongruent affecting variable), which is difficult to translate. It is something that is nonstatic – it’s changing from moment to moment – but it is neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. For instance, “me,” the self, is something that is an imputation phenomenon, we would say, on a stream of continuity of all sorts of changing factors, both physical and ways of being aware. It can’t exist independently or be known separately from that continuum. Another example is age.

So, what’s happening every moment? What’s happening every moment is that there is a different type of consciousness operating. Sometimes they’re operating several at the same time, both seeing and hearing, for example. Some are manifest. Some are subliminal, for instance, feeling the sensation of our clothing next to our body. I mean, there is that tactile sensation, that consciousness, but we’re not aware of it, so it’s subliminal; we’re not paying attention to it, the physical sensation of our clothing. How about the physical sensation of our tongue in our mouth? How often are we aware of that? However, if we paid attention to it, we could feel our tongue in our mouth, couldn’t we? Which is really quite weird if we think about it. 

There are all these sights and sounds and smells, and all these consciousnesses, and there are all these mental factors, and they’re all changing at different rates. Sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re unhappy; sometimes we have this emotion or that emotion; our attention is changing, the level of it, and our level of interest is changing, all the time at different rates. As an imputation phenomenon on all of this as its basis there is me. Are we seeing? Are we thinking? Well, yes. However, we’re not thinking by ourselves. We’re not seeing by ourselves. It’s the eye consciousness, the eye consciousness is seeing. Therefore, we say, “I am seeing,” though it is an imputation on the eye consciousness. The “I” can’t see by itself; it cannot exist separately and cannot be known separately from a basis – here, the consciousness. 

The self, “me” cannot be known separately, and it can’t see or function or do anything separately on its own, but only in terms of its being an imputation phenomenon on the basis of what’s happening. It’s not something separate from everything that’s going on in our experience, sort of as a distant observer watching it or pressing the buttons and making it happen. This, one has to think about quite a lot. 

Who is the author of the voice that goes on in our head? Who is talking? We’re talking, not somebody else. Is there a separate little me sitting somewhere in a little box in a control room with a microphone talking? Obviously not. It’s getting information in on the video screen and from the audio equipment, coming from the ears, and has this control board there and is worrying, “Oh, what should I do now? Oh, I’ll do that. I’ll lift my hand,” and it presses the button and the hand lifts. It’s not like that, is it? It feels like that, but this is the deceptive appearance. This is confusing, isn’t it? It feels as though there’s somebody inside there talking, but that’s impossible; it doesn’t correspond to anything real. There isn’t actually something sitting inside us like in the movie “Alien,” some sort of alien thing sitting inside us, possessing our body and manipulating it. 

Nevertheless, such an independently existing me seems real – that’s the problem – and we believe it’s real. If we stop believing it, then we’re a liberated being. When our mind stops producing this deceptive appearance, then we’re a Buddha. That’s the difference. Liberated being: our mind still produces this garbage, but we know it’s garbage and don’t believe it, so we don’t react to it. When we’re a Buddha, our mind doesn’t make this appearance at all.


We have these three types of functional phenomena: forms of physical phenomena, ways of being aware and things that are neither. 

Another example for the third would be time. Time is passing moment to moment to moment; it’s nonstatic, but it’s not a form of physical phenomenon, and it’s not a way of being aware of anything. As I don’t have my computer and time is passing, the longer that I leave it and don’t do anything about it, less are the chances that I’ll get it back, for example. 

Again, there are many permutations of what can be a negation phenomenon – there’s static, there’s some that are nonstatic, there are many, many different variations here, many possibilities. I don’t have my computer. The not having my computer, well, I don’t have it for one minute, then I don’t have it for two minutes, then I don’t have it for three minutes, then I don’t have it for four minutes, then I don’t have it for four days. It’s a changing phenomenon, isn’t it? It’s a negation phenomenon, not having it. Thus, there are many possibilities of how these different divisions intersect. The not having it is changing from moment to moment.