Accounting for Something Being Validly Knowable

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Accounting for Validly Knowing Objects as Being This or That

How do we account for something being validly knowable as this or that? We can’t account for it by means of some self-establishing nature inside something that makes it this or that. We can only account for it dependently on other factors. That fact about things is known as “dependent arising.” The object arises and is known as this or that dependently on other factors, not just independently by itself, by its own power.

For instance, in Buddhism we have a great emphasis on the spiritual teacher. We need to rely on a spiritual teacher and we need to be a proper disciple or student. What makes somebody a spiritual teacher? And what would make us a student?

How do we account for someone being validly knowable as a teacher of Buddhism? First of all, they need to have students – how can a person who has no students be a teacher? Someone can advertize that they’re a teacher, but if they have no students, what makes them a teacher? This is a clear indication of this false way of thinking, that something inside of them makes them a teacher by its own power, even without their having any students. But nobody can be a teacher without students – student and teacher are dependent on each other. The person might have had students in the past, and dependently on that, they were previously a teacher. But if they have no students now, they aren’t presently a teacher.

Even if they have students now, if they’re not teaching them anything, are they still a teacher? No, they need to actually be teaching something. But do they need to be teaching that every moment of the day and night to still be a teacher? What about when they’re sleeping, are they still a teacher? And even if they are teaching something to other people at the moment, if the students don’t learn anything, are they still a teacher? These are questions we need to analyse in meditation.

Validly Knowable Objects Arise Dependently

Being validly knowable as a teacher arises dependently on presently having students and fulfilling the function of being a teacher. We need to teach something and the students need to learn something. Independently of those things, how can somebody be established as a teacher?

It doesn’t matter if people are learning from someone’s books or website – even if their author is dead, that person is still validly established as a teacher. There’s a teaching and people are learning from it. And what the teacher is doing can only be established as a teaching if somebody learns something from it. Even the way the teacher is eating, if somebody learns something from it, the teacher is teaching; if nobody learns anything from it, it’s not teaching, it’s just eating.

In the Eight Verse Mind Training, it says when people give us a hard time, we should regard them as our teachers. What establishes them as a teacher then?

If somebody does something that somebody learns something from, that establishes them as a teacher. Whether they think of themselves as a teacher or not is irrelevant. A dog can be our teacher. We can learn something from a dog. A dog can lie down and go to sleep anywhere; it teaches us something. The dog isn’t picky about where it lies down, is it? The dog isn’t fussy. We’re fussy. We can learn from the dog to not be so fussy.

It’s impossible that there’s something on the side of the dog, or on the side of my Buddhism teacher, that establishes them as a teacher. We can only account for them as being validly knowable as a teacher if they are teaching something and somebody learns something – so they are fulfilling the function of a teacher. To validly be a teacher, someone needs to perform the function of teaching. And being a teacher is also dependent on whether anyone learns anything from us.

Now, it becomes very interesting when we apply this analysis to ourselves, “Am I a student of Buddhism?” How do we establish that it’s valid to call ourselves a student of Buddhism? We can only be a student of Buddhism if we have a teacher of Buddhism – we can’t exist independently as a student unless we are studying with a Buddhism teacher and learning something. We can see this point from the fact that standard lam-rim graded path texts start with the instructions for relying on a spiritual teacher. We can understand why it’s there at the beginning in many different ways, but if we understand it in terms of dependent arising, then it’s quite clear. We can only exist as students dependently on having a teacher; otherwise we’re not students.

Now the teacher could be the one who wrote the book that we’re reading, the author of the website we’re viewing, or the person giving the lecture we’re attending. There could be many different forms of teachers, many different media. But we can’t be students without a teacher. That answers the question: “Do I need a teacher?” Of course, we need a teacher. How can we learn anything without a teacher, without somebody who tells us something, who shows us something, even if just in their behavior?

If we say, “I have a teacher” but we’re not studying anything with them, then we’re not a student. What about if we’re in the classroom, but we’re texting all the time during the lecture and we don’t learn anything, are we a student at that time? No. To be a student, we need to fulfill the function of being a student, which means we are presently learning something. Then of course, this raises the whole issue of what does it mean that we are learning something?

It’s very interesting, the more that we investigate. Let’s say I don’t go to a Buddhism teacher’s teachings, I don’t read any Buddhist books, I don’t look at any Buddhist website. And even if I do, I don’t learn anything from them. Can I still validly consider myself a student of Buddhism? No. Can I consider myself to be a Buddhist? Well, what does it mean to be a Buddhist? These are interesting questions. Does wearing a red string around my neck make me a Buddhist?

If we were born as a Christian, does that make us a Christian? It’s an interesting question – if we don’t practice anything of Christianity, or whatever religion we were born in, what accounts for us validly being known as a Christian or a Buddhist? Well, it arose dependently on factors other than ourselves. For instance, it depended on us having been born in a family where our parents were Christian. That would make us a Christian by birth. When an infant comes out of the womb, there’s nothing inside of the infant that makes it a Christian from its own side, does it? Even if we think in terms of previous lives – “well there’s the instinct” – but that arose dependently upon something else, a previous life. Everything arises as what it is dependently on factors other than itself. Think about that.


Establishing What Can Be Considered as Validly Knowable

How do we account for the fact that we can be validly known as a student of Buddhism, or a Buddhist? “I consider myself a Buddhist” – well, why? Just because I call myself a Buddhist, does that make me a Buddhist? If I call myself a Tibetan, does that make me Tibetan? Even if I dress in Tibetan clothes and speak Tibetan and eat tsampa, does that make me a Tibetan?

It’s very interesting actually. You move to another country – for instance, I moved to Germany. Well, what could make me German? And if being German means that I live there a certain length of time and I gain citizenship – it’s like taking refuge and becoming a Buddhist – then being German has arisen dependently on that. There’s nothing on my side by its own power that made me a Buddhist, or a German, or a Tibetan, or a doctor, or whatever I am. It arose dependently on other factors.

And if I don’t practice being a Buddhist, I just call myself a Buddhist, but I don’t actually do anything Buddhist – I say I take refuge, but they’re only words – if I don’t actually implement it in my life, am I a Buddhist? Well, that’s questionable, isn’t it? Think about that.


The more we think about it, the more amazing this whole thing becomes. How do we account for our being a student of Buddhism, or for our being a Buddhist? What we’ve seen is that there are many things that need to be present, that it’s dependent on. Not just one thing. Or is it? It depends how we define things, doesn’t it? In the case of being a Buddhist, do we define it just in terms of “I participated in a ceremony, in a ritual in which I took refuge, and chose to participate in that ceremony.” Is that sufficient to say that I’m a Buddhist? If I never study anything about Buddhism, I haven’t learned anything about Buddhism, and I don’t practice anything about Buddhism, but I participated in this ceremony and got a Tibetan name, and I wear a red string around my neck, am I a Buddhist? If I wear a cross around my neck, does that make me a Christian? If a dog wears a cross around its neck, does that make the dog a Christian? How do we establish validly that anything is this or that?

Avoiding the Two Extremes When Establishing Validly Knowable Phenomena

We need to avoid the two extremes. The absolutist extreme is “It’s just this that makes me a Buddhist” – something on my side, or just this aspect. The nihilist extreme is that “I’m nothing, I’m not even conventionally a Buddhist.” We need to avoid the two extremes.

A lot depends on the context of how things are defined. To save ourselves from being slaughtered as an infidel, for instance, we might need to say, “I accept Jesus Christ as my savior” or “I accept Islam.” And if we say that, we’re spared; we’re not going to be burned at the stake or have our heads chopped off. Well, in that context, that makes us a Christian or a Muslim to our inquisitors. But are we actually practicing the religion? What does it really mean to be a Christian or a Muslim? It arises dependently on a context, on a definition, on how the function is defined. But, in that context, we said that we were a Christian, we said that we were a Muslim, and it was valid. It was correct and we weren’t burned at the stake. Interesting, isn’t it?

When we consider ourselves a student of Buddhism, or a Buddhist, what accounts for us being that? Is there something findable inside me, on my side, something that others would agree with? What establishes it? What accounts for it? If we answer and say, for instance, what accounts for it is that we recited the refuge formula, is that sufficient? What may be sufficient for one group may not be sufficient for other groups.

These are just various things to consider, but we need to apply this questioning to relevant things in our lives. Think about it. Try to figure it out. What are the implications of this discussion in terms of “Who do I think I am?” … “Who am I?” … “What am I?” There’s my profession, my role as a mother, a father, my gender as a man or as a woman, there’s this country or that country, this religion or that religion – what establishes who I am or what I am? What accounts for it? What is the context? “Am I nothing?” – that’s nihilism. “Am I just this in every context, in every situation?” – that’s absolutism. These are the extremes; we need to work with these points and avoid these extremes.

Why don’t we think about this for a couple of minutes, and then, if it’s not clear, please ask questions. To put it in the classic form, there is a superficial nature – what we are, what somebody is, a teacher or a student. It has a conventional validity. It seems as though there’s some self-established nature there that establishes it, but there’s no such thing. The absolutist position is that there really is a self-established nature there. And the nihilist position is not only is there no self-established nature there, there’s not even a superficial conventional nature either – we’re nothing.

Think about that for a few minutes. Am I a student? Am I really, truly a student? Or am I nothing?


Questions about Identities

From my experience, I was having difficulties with my wife, and at one moment, she said something to me and I understood something from that and resolved something. In that moment, was my wife the teacher and was I the student? In another situation, I said something about meditation to somebody else and it clicked with them. In that situation, was I the teacher? Does that make me a student or a teacher?

Yes, we can validly say that in one situation you were a student and in the other, you were a teacher. But I think it’s important to recognize that conventionally being a student arose dependently on many other factors besides just the words that your wife spoke. There were many other things going on in your life so that you were receptive, so that what you heard clicked and you learned something from them. Otherwise, if she had said the same thing, but at a different time, it might not have made any difference. For instance, your wife may tell you something and it doesn’t make any impression upon you. But when your friend tells you the same thing, it does make an impression. So, when we speak of dependent arising of cause and effect, we need to understand that things arise from many, many causes and conditions coming together, and not just from one cause.

If somebody says something and we learn something from it, and from our side we regard that person as a teacher, does it make any difference whether they regard themselves as a teacher in that situation?

It doesn’t depend on what they consider themselves as. The dog didn’t consider itself a teacher when it taught us to be more flexible and not so fussy. Our computer taught us impermanence when the hard drive crashed. Did the computer intend to do that? No. But we learned something from it.

We need to consider what is necessary to account for somebody being our teacher in this example. What is needed, and what is extra? This becomes relevant when meditating. What do I need to have in my room for meditating? What’s necessary, and what is extra? Do I need candles, do I need incense? What do we need to establish it as our place of meditating? If we start to think about that, we become much more flexible. If we insist that it must have incense and we don’t have incense, “Oh, I can’t meditate” – well, come on.

It’s very interesting, the more we start to think about this. We just put up a new website, and what we put up [] is what’s known as a “minimum viable product.” What needs to be there in a website for it to validly be called a minimum viable product? What has to be there to be the minimum viable product for being a Buddhist? What has to be there, and what is extra? It’s all dependent on how being a website or being a Buddhist is defined, and what function we expect the website or ourselves to fulfill.

What’s the minimum viable product for being a good person? What’s the minimum viable product for being an intelligent person? What’s the minimum viable product for being a pretty or a handsome person? Now we start to think. It really is relative, isn’t it?

What’s the minimum viable product for being a real man or a real woman? The minimum viable product for being a mother or a father – just giving birth to somebody? What do we need to do to really be the parent? Just be a sperm or an egg donor? These are quite relevant questions nowadays.

When talking about identification, is there some sort of identification that is not samsaric?

That’s a wonderful question. In the case of an identification with being truly self-established as a student for instance ­– this is really who I am, truly established from my own side – this is not valid. It is samsaric in the sense that believing we have a self-established identity makes us inflexible and often defensive, and brings us uncontrollably recurring rebirth. But there’s a conventional identity or superficial identity, a dependently arisen identity, such as being our mother’s son and our daughter’s father. These are valid conventional identities and believing them to be correct and accepting the responsibilities that go with these identities do not bring about uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. We need to differentiate the two.

And even with superficial identities, some are valid and some are not. For instance, pretending to be a doctor when we’re not is certainly a false identity. And believing we have that identity, even just conventionally, not truly, and then performing a brain operation would cause major problems, wouldn’t it?