Validly Knowable Objects Are Not Self-Established

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We’ve been speaking about conventional objects, which are things that can be validly known as this or that: as a teacher, as a student, as a given activity such as learning or teaching, as a given object such as a table or a chair, and as an adjective as well, such as long or short.

We’ve been considering the question: how do you account for the fact that conventionally there are such things and that you can validly know them? After all, if there are no such things as teachers and there is no such thing as learning, what are we doing here? If there’s no such thing as Buddhism and no such thing as any of the teachings – what are we studying, what are we actually doing? This is not just a theoretical abstract topic. It has to do with how we deal with our conventional reality.

If there is no such thing as Buddhism, then what am I studying? What is it that I want to learn? If there’s no such thing as learning, what can I do? What am I doing? If there’s no such thing as teachers, who can I learn from? Or can just anybody say that they are a teacher? These are essential questions in terms of how we deal with our lives.

Validly Knowable Objects Are Not Self-Established

We’ve asked the questions: what establishes that there are these things? What accounts for the fact that there are these things? What explains the fact that there are these things? Are they just self-established all by themselves, or do they arise dependently on other factors?

We’ve seen that it’s impossible that they are self-established. We haven’t gone through all the logical reasons to demonstrate that, but that is an important facet of the study of voidness. We need to become convinced logically that there are certain ways of establishing things that are just impossible, and one of them is that they are self-established all by their own power, independently of any influence form anything other than themselves. The total absence of an actuality that corresponds to self-established existence – that’s voidness, emptiness.

We also saw that everything has two essential natures.

  • The superficial one is what they appear to be – conventionally this or that– and their deceptive appearance of being established by a self-establishing nature, despite there being no such thing.
  • Their deepest essential nature is the total absence of an actual valid way of establishing their conventional existence that corresponds to this deceptive appearance.

When we say something appears to be established in an impossible way, I think we can understand it more easily as being a subjective experience – it feels like that, it seems like that. We’re talking about how things are experienced. It feels as though there’s something solid there inside the object or phenomenon that makes this one inherently good and that one inherently bad, for example.

Like, for instance, when we’re in a bad mood, what does it feel like? It feels as though there’s some big solid bad mood sitting inside me that establishes that I’m in a bad mood. We make a solid thing out of this bad mood, and then we act on that basis: “Don’t bother me, I’m in a bad mood.” Like a dog, we bark at anybody that comes near.

But there’s no self-established bad mood sitting inside me, like some sort of monster, is there? A bad mood has arisen dependently on other factors: what happened to us at work, what’s happening to us physically – we have a headache, we didn’t sleep enough – we might be having problems in our family, our psychological history, all sorts of things.

Under-Refutation and Over-Refutation as the Two Extremes

It’s not that we’re not in a bad mood, conventionally we are in a bad mood, so we don’t want to go to the nihilist extreme of just ignoring it and not doing anything about it. That’s the over-refutation: we refute not only the monster sitting inside of us that’s establishing this bad mood, but we tie together with that the conventional truth that I’m in a bad mood, and throw both of them away. When we do that, we don’t deal with the fact that conventionally we are in a bad mood. We don’t apply any further opponent forces to change the mood that we’re in. It’s a gross denial.

When we understand that the bad mood has arisen from all sorts of causes and conditions – there’s nothing solid there – then we can go further and realize that if we change the causes and conditions, change what’s going on, that will affect our mood. So, we take steps to deal with and alter the bad mood by applying our understanding of cause and effect – dependent arising.

The other extreme that we could go to is the under-refutation: “I’m in this solid horrible mood, but it’s arisen by causes and conditions, and it’s dependent on other things; but still there it is, sitting inside me, solid.” This is the absolutist extreme. So, we refute it just a little bit, we refute that it’s there by itself and conclude, “Okay, it arose from causes and conditions, but still there’s something solid there.” If we under-refute and conclude like that, we’re left with the conclusion that there’s nothing we can do. Over-refutation is that I don’t have to do anything, it doesn’t exist. Under-refutation is that there’s still nothing that I can do to change this mood, because although it’s arisen from causes and conditions, it’s still solid.

This is the general idea of the relevance of this topic: dependent arising, the understanding of voidness, and the understanding of voidness as implying dependent arising – it’s actually very practical in terms of how we deal with anything in our lives.

Let’s just spend a few minutes to digest that and to see if we really understand this most general idea, even more general than how we were discussing it up to now.

Examine yourself. How do you account for being in a bad mood? Is it just that “Well, that’s just the way it is, I’m in a bad mood” – or has it arisen from causes and conditions? And have those causes and conditions just produced this bad mood that we’re in, and now we’re really solidly locked into this bad mood, or is there nothing solid holding it up and we can affect how we feel by altering the causes and conditions affecting it? If we think like the latter, then without denying we’re in a bad mood, we do something to change the causes and conditions that affect how we feel. To change our attitude, we might try going out and getting a breath of air, or taking a nap, whatever. We don’t just identify with this solid “Oh, I’m in a horrible bad mood” and just bark at anybody who comes near us.

Let’s think about this for a few minutes, and reflect on how we deal with being in a bad mood. I’m sure we all experience bad moods. As Tsongkhapa emphasized, we need to recognize the object to be refuted – so this feeling of there being some solid bad mood that we’re in, as if it were self-established, just sitting there.


Popping the Balloon of Our False Projections

Once we recognize this object to be refuted, this solid bad mood – what seems to be a solid bad mood established by its own power within us – and we understand that this is impossible, there’s no such thing, then we realize it’s as if there’s a balloon that’s been inflated around this situation, around this bad mood, making it into a solid thing. And now our understanding that there’s no such thing, that this is impossible, pops the balloon. This is one way of imagining this understanding of voidness. There’s just no such thing, and this fantasy is gone. But don’t do it in a dualistic way of a “me” separately with a pin popping the balloon. Just “pop!” there’s no such thing.

Once we pop the balloon, then we can focus on dependent arising, that the bad mood has arisen from causes and conditions that can be changed, and so on. But first, we need to recognize the fantasized balloon that we’ve projected and felt and believed that it was there, and then we need to have our understanding pop it. The balloon has to pop before we focus on dependent arising – otherwise, we have the under-refutation that the balloon is still there and we merely accept that it has come from causes and conditions, and our understanding goes no further.

This also gives a bit of an indication why I prefer, in English, the word “voidness” to “emptiness.” Emptiness could imply in this image that we still have the balloon, but there’s nothing inside it, it’s empty. But it’s not that. We want to pop the balloon, there’s no such thing as this balloon. That’s why I prefer “voidness” over “emptiness.” It’s not that conventional reality is sitting there – “there it is!” but there’s nothing inside it. And this word “voidness” doesn’t deny, either, conventional reality, that there’s this and that, and that I’m in a bad mood. There’s nothing solid there; it’s not that there is a solid thing there that has nothing inside it holding it up.

This is why Madhyamaka, the “middle way” is so difficult to understand correctly; it’s really very subtle to avoid these two extremes: that’s there’s a solid conventional reality that has nothing inside it – the absolutist extreme – or that there’s no conventional reality – the nihilist extreme. We want to avoid the two extremes. And it’s not that from one point of view it’s one, and from the other point of view, it’s the other. Or that it’s neither; it’s something transcendental, that if we get rid of all this and see everything pure like a mandala, that then we transcend everything and escape into some pure realm. That’s also not the case.

The Four Extremes

These are the so-called “four extremes”: not this, not that, not both (just from one point of view it’s this, and from the other point of view it’s that), and not neither, which means that somehow there’s an alternative.

It’s quite interesting – I’m not sure whether it’s worthwhile to pursue this, but I think it’s relevant – Tsongkhapa points out the difference between either/or and neither/nor. Those are very different. When I say, “This is either a table or a chair,” it has to be one or the other; there’s no other possibility. But if I say, “This is neither a cat nor a dog,” then it leaves open the possibility that it’s a table. Neither/nor implies an alternative. Either/or doesn’t imply an alternative. These are quite different.

Think of the example in physics – it’s beautiful if we think about this: either a wave or a particle. What are things? It’s not that it’s only a wave, and that’s truly what it is, because in other situations it’s a particle. It’s not that it truly is a particle, because in other situations it’s a wave. And it’s not truly both, but just looked at from this way or that way. And it’s not neither, which would mean that it must be something else. And it’s not nothing, either. Then we get into dependent arising in a much more sophisticated Madhyamaka way.

Conventionally, if we measure it with limited equipment, like our limited bodies and minds, then it comes up either as a wave or a particle, so conventionally it’s like that, and others would agree if they looked at it with the same type of instrument. And it seems as though it’s really only one of these two, self-established, but it’s not. It’s dependent on the equipment that it’s this or that – dependent arising.

With that example, then we apply it to things that are relevant to our lives. Am I a mother? Or am I a scientist? Am I only a mother? Am I only a scientist? Am I truly a mother when I’m home, and when I’m at the office I’m truly a scientist – that’s either/or. Am I neither of them, and then I’m something else? Am I nothing? How is it that, conventionally, I’m a mother, and also I’m a scientist. What establishes that? If you’re going to try to deal with these two roles, you need to understand how they’re established. Otherwise they seem conflicting, or you just don’t know how to handle it. So, this topic is very practical, actually. You go to the office, “Oh, but I’m a mother!” and you identify with one or the other, and feel frustrated, thinking things are self-established. And there’s the problem, because it feels like that.

Now it becomes even more sophisticated, because now if conventionally you’re a mother, and conventionally you’re also a scientist, you need individualizing deep awareness. “In one situation, I’m a mother, and in the other I’m a scientist. If I’m with my children, it’s inappropriate to be with my children and still be the scientist and regard my children as an experiment. But on the other hand, these two roles don’t exist with big walls between them. I’m still rational with my children, I still care about everybody at the office, but I don’t mother my co-workers.” How do you balance these different roles without making them self-established? Pop that balloon.

Are the children an experiment? Are you the mother in the office and you have to make everybody coffee and make sure everybody has a good chair to sit in, and stuff like that? Wipe their noses? What are you going to do?


Questions about Being in a Bad Mood

If were in a bad mood, its helpful to try to recognize which disturbing emotion I am under the influence of: attachment, aversion/anger, or ignorance/naivety, isnt it?

Yes, when we are in a bad mood, then of course we need to try to recognize what are the causes of it, how has it arisen, and so on. The bad mood could be mixed with one of these disturbing emotions, or it may not. The disturbing emotion could simply be the naivety of thinking, “I am really, solidly, in a bad mood.” But it could be a bad mood mixed with anger, or a bad mood mixed with attachment, “I am missing somebody so badly,” so we’re in a bad mood. Or we could be a bad mood simply because we don’t feel well. By analyzing, we have an idea what to work on.

When Im in a bad mood, I have a problem to identify what the cause of the problem is. Its not because of the surroundings; its not because of some specific problem with my relationship, or in my work. If I could identify whats causing my bad mood, then I could deal with it. But if there are no problems and everything is fine, yet still Im in a bad mood, how do you deal with it?

This is an important question. In some situations when we’re in a bad mood, we can identify the trigger that has caused it – somebody said something, or something happened at work, or I didn’t get enough sleep, whatever it might be. But in other situations, the bad mood just seems to arise from no particular cause at all – as we say in English, “I woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”

What is a bad mood? This is the first question. I think that the main characteristic of it is our being unhappy. Happiness and unhappiness, how are they defined? They are defined as the ways in which we experience the ripening of our karma ­– more specifically, the ripening of our karmic potentials. What we experience during the day, like being in this situation or being in that situation, that’s something ripening from karmic potentials, in addition to many other causes. What ripens from karmic potentials is our experiencing something.

For instance, if somebody yells at us, our karmic potentials ripened in experiencing somebody yelling at us. They didn’t ripen in causing the other person to yell at us – that came from their history, their disturbing emotions, and all that. Our karmic potentials just ripen in what we experience. Then, how do we experience this ripening happening? – that’s either with happiness or unhappiness, somewhere on the spectrum.

For instance, I eat the same meal every day for breakfast. That’s coming from some sort of tendency – I always have muesli for breakfast. Sometimes I experience being happy while eating the muesli and sometimes I’m not happy while eating it. How do I experience the ripening of that tendency to always have the same thing for breakfast? If I experience it with unhappiness, I could describe that experience as being in a bad mood.

This unhappiness that I experience while eating my breakfast is not self-established – it doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s a ripening of karmic potential, so there are certain causes that bring it about. It’s very difficult to really understand why during this specific karmic ripening in the form of my experiencing eating breakfast does something else ripen, the feeling of unhappiness. How did these two go together, how does one trigger the other? Or is the eating of breakfast just the context for this ripening of a bad mood, and there are many other circumstances and conditions that are triggering the ripening of a different karmic potential into my experience of being in a bad mood? That’s quite difficult to ascertain. Only an omniscient Buddha knows all the details of karmic cause and effect.

The point is how to deal with that unhappiness that seems to have come from nowhere? We need to understand that the unhappiness we experience of being in a bad mood is a ripening from some destructive behavior in the past, whether this lifetime or a previous lifetime. But this is samsara, and the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. Sometimes we feel happy, sometimes we feel unhappy – nothing special, so what? It’s not that we ignore feeling unhappy, but we see it as nothing special and just eat our breakfast. “I’m unhappy, so what?”

We acknowledge it, it’s not the nihilist extreme. We realize it’s not that “Oh no, the whole day is going to be horrible” – we realize that it can change. Now comes the understanding of impermanence. Impermanence doesn’t mean that things are always going to get worse, it can also get better. Especially when we’re talking about feeling happy and unhappy – it goes up and down. Again, we pop that balloon that “Oh, I’m unhappy, I’m in a bad mood, now the whole day is going to be horrible.”

It’s also very interesting if we analyze very deeply, when I’m in a bad mood, is there some sort of low-grade or subtle disturbing emotion that’s there – “I’m annoyed about something” or “I’m missing someone” and thinking “poor me” or something like that? Because when we have a disturbing emotion, we’re not really happy – it’s disturbing, it’s disturbed. We can look in that way to give us an idea of what to work on. Even if we can’t identify what we feel annoyed about, we’re just annoyed – I’m sure we’ve all experienced that. Or “I want something” – “I don’t know what I want, but I want something.” Then we think, “What can I eat,” or “What can I find on the internet, or what song can I listen to,” whatever it is that we turn to. “I just want something” or “I’m just annoyed about something” or “I’m bored” – which means that I want something interesting, some satisfaction. Interesting, uninteresting, dissatisfaction, dopamine – however we want to analyze it.

Understanding dependent arising, we understand that effects don’t exist independently of causes and circumstances. So, we look at the causes: if disturbing emotions are the circumstance for unhappiness arising, then we work on our disturbing emotions. If we realize that unhappiness arises from the karmic aftermath of our destructive behavior as their so-called “obtaining cause” – they are that from which we obtain the result – then we work on ridding ourselves of any further destructive behavior, and act constructively as much as we can. Destructive behavior is motivated by disturbing emotions, so it’s all connected. If I don’t want to be in bad moods all the time, I try to be engaged in constructive behavior and work on my disturbing emotions.

Then we find examples of people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with all the protests and the Chinese, and all these other things, he’s always happy and laughing. How is that? Is it self-established? Or is it the result of a tremendous amount of work on himself, over many, many lifetimes. And it’s possible to become like that, or even more, to become a Buddha. But for most of us, if we could become like His Holiness, we would be satisfied!