Accounting for the Conventional Identity of Things

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We’ve been speaking about voidness or emptiness, and we’ve seen that voidness is the total absence of impossible ways of accounting for, or establishing the existence of validly knowable objects. It deals with the issue of how to account for the fact that there are validly knowable things, and they can be validly known as this or that. How do we establish that something is long or short, or that somebody is a teacher of a student, or that some activity is teaching or learning, and that we can validly know those things?

Validly Knowable Conventional Objects

Voidness, then, is negating an impossible way of establishing this. To understand that a little bit more precisely, we need to go further with definitions. What is a validly knowable object, such as a teacher or a student, or long or short? It’s defined as something that holds its own essential nature, and it’s equivalent to a conventional object. “Essential nature” is the way I translate the Tibetan word “ngowo” (ngo-bo).

Then we need to look at what do those words in the definition mean. What’s a conventional object? It’s something that, for the ease of communication and other practical purposes, is agreed upon by custom as being something – like a teacher. A validly knowable object, then, is something that can be validly known as this or that – as a teacher or a student, as studying or as teaching. And it’s based upon what has been agreed upon, by custom.

By custom or convention, a society has agreed upon what a teacher is, and has agreed upon a certain set of sounds to be the word that is used to communicate what this is. Think in terms of cave people who thought up these categories of things and somehow made words for them. That’s how you need to approach this whole topic – where did this all come from? People had to agree that certain sounds were words, and they had to agree upon certain things, like teachers, a tool, danger, love; they had to agree upon them and make concepts and words for them. This is true not only for humans, but even many kinds of animals have a concept of “danger” and have the accepted convention of a sound they make that communicates it to warn other members of their species.

If you think about that, it’s quite extraordinary. Think of the word “dog.” There are so many animals that look really quite different. How did it come about and what established that a group of them are all called dogs? What established that they were all put in the same category, and that there’s a word assigned to that category and that covers all its members? That’s really quite amazing, if you think about it. Who’d have thought that up? They all look quite different.

These are conventional objects, like “dogs.” Their existence as dogs and being validly knowable as dogs arise dependently on custom, conventions, context, definitions, and so on. Remember, we’re not just dealing with general knowledge about objects, such as dogs. We’re also dealing with things like stupid, ugly – these types of things that are emotionally charged. These emotionally charged categories and words clearly have arisen dependently on social convention, a context and many other things. These are conventional concepts – dumb, stupid, ugly and their meanings are agreed upon by custom. They can be validly known, but of course, they are each relative concepts and terms. Like we’ve seen, we’re old to our children, we’re young to our parents. Both are valid, relative to many things, such as the age of the person who’s looking at us, culture, etc. “I’m stupid compared to Einstein” or “I’m very smart compared to the dog.” These relative words and concepts make communication possible.

Validly Knowable Conventional Objects Have Two Essential Natures

A conventional object, a validly knowable object, is something that holds its own essential nature. What does that mean? Well, actually, validly knowable conventional objects have two essential natures. Now, of course, everybody will translate these terms differently, but I would suggest calling them a “superficial essential nature” – what something appears to be, this or that, like on the surface. This superficial essential nature conceals something deeper, and that's the “deepest essential nature,” the object’s absence or lack of being established as this or that in impossible ways.

The more commonly used terms for these two essential natures are conventional nature or relative nature, and ultimate nature, but I don’t think they convey the exact meaning. They are the essential nature that’s on the surface – it’s superficial, it’s on the surface, it’s what it appears like – and the deepest essential nature.

The Superficial Essential Nature of Objects

The superficial essential nature of objects is what validly knowable phenomena conventionally are – it’s what objects conventionally are: a teacher, a student, long or short, smart or dumb. It’s superficial, it’s what something appears to be, but obviously, what it appears to be to someone.

Then the question is how to account for these superficial natures? What’s confusing and deceptive is that these superficial natures appear to be accounted for by inherent natures; in other words, by something findable on the side of the objects, conventional objects, that has the power to make them what they are. For instance, it seems like there’s something inside me that makes me stupid – there’s something wrong with me. And we believe that. “I’m really, really stupid” or “I’m really, really so beautiful” or “I’m really the teacher.”

Another way of translating the Tibetan word for “inherent nature,” “rangzhin” (rang-bzhin) is a “self-establishing nature,” which is the translation I prefer. It’s a nature findable inside a validly knowable object that all by itself establishes it as being what it conventionally is. Somebody could conventionally be a teacher; that’s valid. Or they can conventionally be a student; that’s valid. But, it appears as though I’m just a natural teacher, there’s something inside me that makes me a great teacher, or that makes me a great student – that’s false. It appears like that, but that’s not true. Ignorance, or unawareness, is when you believe it to be true.

Please note that this Tibetan term, rangzhin, is also sometimes used as a synonym for this superficial essential nature. In that case, it needs to be translated and understood as a “self-nature.” But, the self-nature of things is not a self-establishing nature. In other contexts, such as in some dzogchen texts, when ngowo and rangzhin are differentiated, ngowo is somethings superficial essential nature – what something is – and rangzhin is its functional nature – what it does. It’s important to differentiate these different meanings and usages of these terms; otherwise, we can get very confused.

The Deepest Essential Nature

The deepest essential nature of objects is their voidness of self-established existence. There’s no such thing as a self-establishing nature findable on the side of validly knowable objects. Their self-natures do not function as self-establishing natures. Therefore, when we talk about voidness, it’s impossible that the conventional existence of something is accounted for by a self-establishing nature. Why? Because there’s no such thing as a self-establishing nature.

A simple example: on your computer screen, or on your mobile device, you see a little person. How do you establish that there’s an appearance of a person there? The superficial essential nature is the appearance – it looks like there is a little person there on the screen of our smartphone. And it’s valid, that’s correct. Anybody who looked at the screen would agree, “Yeah, that looks like a little person.” The superficial nature is that that’s a person; it’s an appearance of a little person, of a human being.

How do we account for the fact that there’s this appearance on the screen of my smartphone? Can it be accounted for by the fact that there’s actually a little person inside the phone that’s looking out of the screen at me? That would be a self-establishing nature. “Hi, I’m inside your smartphone, hello!” – that’s impossible, there is no such thing. It’s only established by some sort of computer program, and internet, and all sorts of things, but not by some little person sitting inside your smartphone. Voidness means that it’s impossible that it’s established by something inside, inherent and self-establishing, that “Here I am” – to put it in a very simple example. But it is valid, conventionally, that this is what appears, and it seems like there is someone there, but not really, if you really think about it.

You could take this to a very profound level. It seems as though there’s a little “me” sitting inside my head talking, the author of the voice that’s talking like somebody inside the smartphone. It appears like that, but there’s actually no little “me” sitting inside my head talking. But it is valid that it’s me – it’s not you. How do we account for the fact that this is me? Is it because there’s a little me sitting inside my head, talking? No. It’s dependent on many other things. But it’s still validly me – it’s not you.

This is very deep, very profound, when we apply this analysis to “me,” but this is where the analysis is leading to, starting from a silly example like a smartphone. That’s how we approach this material; we can understand it by easy examples, and then go deeper and deeper. The smartphone, I think is a good example. In earlier times, it would have been a television.

This is quite important to understand. Conventionally knowable objects have two essential natures: superficially, what it conventionally is. But it also appears as though there’s some self-establishing nature on the side of the object that holds it up, that accounts for it, all by its own power. Its superficial essential nature, its self-nature, appears to be a self-establishing nature. But that is a false, deceptive appearance. There’s no such thing inside any object propping it up. Its existence as what it conventionally is and its existence as a validly knowable object cannot be accounted for by something findable by analysis inside it. The absence of such a manner of establishing its existence is its deepest nature, its voidness or emptiness. Its conventional existence as what it is and even its conventional existence as a validly knowable object can only be established dependently on many other things. This is known as “dependent arising.”

Let’s take a few minutes to try to reaffirm our understanding of that. It’s very basic; its fundamental in our Buddhist training. This is the source of all our problems: we believe that the way that things appear to exist is the way they actually do exist. It appears like there’s a little person inside my smartphone – well this is absurd. It appears like there’s something inside of “me” that makes me dumb or stupid, as if that’s my inherent nature. Well, being dumb is only relative to someone else, like Einstein. I may be stupid in a certain area, but smart in another area. Everything is relative.

Look at myself. I’m really stupid when it comes to how to use mechanical devices. I’m hopeless, stupid. But I’m very smart with Sanskrit grammar. Am I inherently stupid or am I inherently smart? “I’m such a smart person” or “I’m such a stupid person?” I can only be established as smart or stupid dependent on the context and subject matter. Are we talking about how to repair a bicycle or about how to recognize what case a certain Sanskrit noun is in? There’s nothing on the side of “me” that makes me inherently smart or stupid. But when we identify with one or the other, then we get real emotional problems. We think, this is the true “me”: “I’m smart.” Or the true “me” is “I’m stupid.” That’s the real “me.” That’s absurd. Try to apply that to yourself – think about it.


Questions about a Self-Established “Me”

As part of our developmental process, we become self-aware. Cats, for instance, dont recognize themselves in a mirror, but children, about the age of three or four, can recognize themselves as being separate from others. How is that possible?

The interesting question from that is: before young children have a sense of self-recognition, do they have grasping for an inherently established self? You’d have to say, yes. Otherwise, when babies feel the discomfort of being hungry, why do they cry? Don’t they have an automatic sense of “me,” as in: “I want this hunger to go away?” Very small toddlers can be very self-willed and stubborn even before they can talk. They can even be possessive and selfish: “This is my toy, mine.” Even cats have a sense of a self-established “me”: “This is my bowl of food, not the other cat’s bowl of food; this is mine.”

It becomes interesting how our grasping for a solidly-existent “me” gets stronger and stronger as we get older. A preverbal infant doesn’t think verbally, but like the cat, still has the concept of a solid, self-established “me.” But when the toddler reaches a certain age and learns language, it starts to talk in its mind. That helps to solidify a sense that there’s some solid “me” inside there, talking. Then as they get older, there are all sorts of things that make that grasping stronger and stronger, for instance the number of “likes” their posts get on their Facebook page.

When deconstructing the solid sense of me, how do you avoid the danger of losing self-confidence?

We lose our self-confidence when we go to the extreme of nihilism, the extreme of denying our conventional existence. Then we need to analyze, what would establish my self-confidence? Is it something inside me that makes me strong from my side? Or is self-confidence dependent on many, many other things? For instance, what I’ve studied, what I’ve trained in, whether I’m tired, whether I’m alert. There are all sorts of things that our self-confidence would depend on in any specific situation or with respect to any specific task. This is realistic; it’s conventional reality.

When we have a sense of self-confidence, what is the conventional reality of that?

Conventionally, we might feel that we’re self-confident. That’s how we feel, and other people might even perceive us that way. For instance, we might speak with great self-confidence, and that could be true, we do speak self-confidently.

Now, we need to make a differentiation here. There are two aspects of conventional truth: there is the conventional truth of what something is and there is the conventional truth of how something appears to be established. It seems to me that what being self-confident is based upon, what accounts for it, and what supports it, is that inherently, by the power of my own inherent self-nature, I’m really great. After all, I can work seven days a week without taking any days off and without ever taking a vacation. It seems like I can do anything and that my abilities are established by the power of my self-nature of being so great. But this feeling of self-confidence is not established by something like that. It’s established by the fact that I’m doing something that I’m good at and that I like. But there are other things that I’m not good at and that I don’t like having to do. So, although it might feel as though I could do anything and that might give me a sense of self-confidence, it is not valid.

For self-confidence to be healthy, it needs to be based on reality; it needs to be realistic. To feel self-confident that we can do things that we’re not really able to do just leads to making mistakes. For instance, to feel so self-confident that even though we’re absolutely exhausted, we can still drive our car can easily lead to having an accident. On the other hand, if we’re a brain surgeon, we’d better feel self-confident that we know what we’re doing. But we could be very confident in doing brain surgery, but not at all self-confident in fixing our car if it breaks down. Being self-confident, in this case, in doing brain surgery is conventionally true and is based on conventional reality. And it is conventionally true that our ability seems to us to be self-established by our nature of being so great, but that’s deceptive. The deepest truth is there is nothing inherently on our side that, by its own power, makes us so great. If we understand that, then we can use our talents and abilities in a realistic way, and not feel arrogant by identifying solidly with what we’re good at.