Subtlest Impossible “Me” & Refutation of the Coarse Impossible “Me”

Grasping for a Self-Sufficiently Knowable “Me” Can Also Be Doctrinally Based

First, let me add one further point. While almost all the Indian Buddhist tenet systems say this grasping for a self-sufficiently knowable “me” is just automatically-arising, according to Prasangika – I’ll just say Prasangika and not specify repeatedly that it’s the Gelugpa variant of Prasangika – there is not only the automatically-arising type, but also a doctrinally-based one. 

The doctrinally-based type, for example, is what we might have been taught from the Vaibhashika system of tenets within Buddhism. Vaibhashika does not assert this subtle grasping for an impossible “me” that we’ve been discussing. According to Vaibhashika, the self can be self-sufficiently known. That has to do with the way perception works according to the Vaibhashika system. They don’t assert that cognition works through mental holograms: they present a different explanation. According to their explanation, a self as an imputation can be cognized directly without its basis for imputation also appearing in the same moment of cognition. Therefore, Prasangika says that automatically-arising grasping for a self-sufficiently knowable “me” could also be doctrinally-based.

The Third Level of Impossible “Me” According to the Gelug Prasangika Tenet System

That being said, if we have refuted the coarse and subtle impossible “me’s,” what are we left with? We’re left with a self that is an imputation on the aggregates. It changes from moment to moment, has parts and can only be known simultaneously with its basis for imputation also appearing in the same cognition. Such a self is called “imputably knowable (btags-yod)”

But if we’ve only refuted this much, we are now left with an imputedly knowable self that seems to be truly established as something findable in its basis for imputation (bden-par grub-pa) – more precisely, a self whose existence is established by a characteristic mark findable on the side of its basis for imputation (rang-mtshan-nyid-gyis grub-pa). Another term for this impossible “me” is a self whose existence is established by a self-establishing nature (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa). It seems as if there were some findable characteristic mark on the side of the body, for instance, like a name-tag, barcode, genome or something like that, which, by its own power, makes me “me” as an individual, as opposed to being the person next to you. But this is impossible. 

The grasping for this subtlest level of impossible “me” and this subtlest level of unawareness, with which we don’t know that this is false, or believe it is true, can be either automatically-arising or doctrinally-based. We could be taught that the self exists in this impossible way from the Sautrantika, Chittamatra or Svatantrika tenet systems. Or it could arise automatically. This is the fallacy that we need to refute, that there is something findable on the side of the basis that either by its own power, or in connection with mental labelling, has the power to establish and make me “me.” 

Such type of impossible “me” is very subtle and difficult to identify. To do so, we need to understand the terminology a little more precisely. The term “grub” in Tibetan, “siddha” in Sanskrit does not refer to how something exists. It refers to what establishes that something exists – establishes in the sense of proving that something exists, not establishes in the sense of creating it. “Grub” is the same word used in logic for “prove.” 

How do we know that this is validly knowable object we see is a person? Prasangika says its existence as a person is established merely as what the concept of a person refers to, mentally labeled on what I see as its basis for labeling. Moreover, its existence as a person is also established merely as what the word “person” refers to, designated on that concept, and on what I see as its basis for designation. There’s nothing findable on the basis that establishes it by its own power alone or by its own power in the context of mental labelling with concepts and categories, and designation with words. Prasangika says that this is the case not only of persons, but also of everything.

An Example from Facebook

Let’s look at a common example of this grasping for an impossible “me” established by the power of a findable characteristic mark. For example, nowadays we have Facebook. For many, what establishes that we exist as a person that we have a Facebook page. Without a Facebook page, we don’t exist. In fact, we’re identical with our Facebook page and what establishes our existence or identity is our profile on the Facebook page. Our profile are the findable characteristic features. It is as if by its own power this establishes “me” as a person. Or we could say, this profile in conjunction with people seeing it and liking it establish my existence as a person. And then everybody relates to “me” in terms of that profile, as if it corresponded to the actual person, me, which of course it doesn’t.

It’s very interesting, that other people’s memory and way of relating to us so often are on the basis of these defining characteristics. Our profile is right there on our Facebook page. It doesn’t change and that’s who we are. That’s what makes you “you” and me “me.” We put it there; we mentally labelled ourselves, typed it in and then we’re stuck with that. This is horrible because then other people believe and interact with us as if that’s us. It’s a great example for the whole craziness of samsara. 

Imputation, Mental Labeling and Designation

We need to make a clear distinction here. There are several types of phenomena that are imputations on a basis. Nonstatic phenomena, such as persons, time and wholes, and certain static phenomena, such as voidnesses and spaces, are imputations that can be validly known non-conceptually. Categories and words, however, are imputations that can only be known conceptually, with the caveat that Buddhas know words non-conceptually. But, let’s leave that exception aside. Although in Tibetan and Sanskrit, the same term is used for the relation of all these phenomena with their basis, which I have been calling “imputation”; nevertheless, it is helpful to give separate terms for these three cases in order to highlight the differences. Let’s call persons and voidnesses “imputations” on a “basis for imputation,” categories as “mental labels” on a “basis for mental labeling,” and words as “designations” on a “basis for designation.” 

When we were an infant and saw our face in a mirror, we saw not only our face, we also saw somebody, ourselves – we saw me. That person we saw, me, was an imputation on the basis of that face; and we saw ourselves non-conceptually, even if we didn’t cognize it as being our self. We didn’t yet have a concept of ourselves. Nevertheless, we did see somebody; it wasn’t nobody, we didn’t see only a face that wasn’t the face of somebody. The same thing happens when many animals see themselves in a mirror. 

Now, when we are older, and we see our face and see somebody, ourselves, in the mirror, the next moment we mentally cognize what we see conceptually through the object category “me” – in the West, we call that the “concept” of “me” – mentally labeled on the basis of that face and of it being somebody. In other words, we fit that image of our face, together with the image of our face we saw yesterday and innumerable other times we saw it in our lives, into the category “me.” The same is the case when we look at a series of photos of ourselves throughout our lives. We fit them all into the category “me.” The person, “me,” mentally labeled on all these bases we see, refers to a conventionally existent person, me. It refers to me whether or not we voice a word for it in our minds. When we verbally think “me,” the word “me” is designated on that category “me” and through that category, conceptually designated on the person we see. 

What is important to understand is that a person is not the same as the concept of a person; and me as a person is not the same as a concept of me as a person or the word “me.” Mentally labeling “me” does not create me as a person. I’m a person, whether or not I or anyone else thinks “me.”

The Three Criteria for Valid Mental Labeling

But how do I validly know that all these pictures of myself and images in the mirror are correctly labeled as “me.” Maybe that baby picture is a picture of someone else? We can’t find any defining characteristic mark on the side of all the pictures, so how do we know that labeling them all as me is a valid labeling. 

Consider the following example. If we say something is red and someone else says it’s orange, how do we establish which one is correct? The non-Prasangika systems would explain this differently, but let’s just speak in terms of how Prasangika refutes Svatantrika. 

Svatantrika says that there has to be a findable defining characteristic on the side of a person, that establishes him as being validly labeled a king; otherwise, if it were only a matter of mental labeling, a beggar could also be validly labeled a king. Mind you, this example came from traditional India, where caste system was an important foundation of society. If there were no findable characteristic marks on the side of persons and objects, accounting for valid mental labeling them as what they are – in other words, establishing their existence as what they are in conjunction with mental labeling – then anyone and anything could be validly labeled as anything. This sounds pretty reasonable; however, according to Prasangika it’s false. 

Chandrakirti, a great Indian Prasangika master explained that mental labeling alone establishes the existence of something. In other words, the validity of a mental label with a category and designation with a word is established from the side of the mind alone, not from the side of the object labeled or designated. The conventional existence of a validly knowable object is established merely as what the mental label for it, on a basis for labeling, refers to, so long as three criteria are fulfilled. All three criteria are from the side of the mind, not from the side of the object.

Firstly, the mental label and designation – the object category and word through which it is labeled and designated – have to be general conventions agreed upon by a certain group. For example, a certain group of people, for instance English speakers, will label something “orange.” There is such a convention “orange” in English. But there is no convention “orange” in Chinese. There’s red, there’s yellow, but there’s no orange. They divide the color spectrum differently. Chinese speakers do not validly see as orange what English speakers see as orange. They see it as red and this is valid for them. 

In addition, the mental label and word must not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes the conventional truth of something. The fact that a color-blind person sees only shades of grey and at night we cannot tell what color something is does not contradict that in sunlight, English speakers who are not color blind agree that it is orange and Chinese speakers who are not color blind agree that it is red. Similarly, if I take my glasses off and see a blur in front of me, the actual existence of a blur in front of me is contradicted by what I see when I put my glasses back on. 

Lastly, the mental label and word must not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes deepest truth, voidness. A visible object does have a characteristic feature of a wavelength, otherwise its color could never be distinguished by the mental factor of distinguishing – dependent on the light in which we see it, of course. However, the wavelength itself does not have the power on its own to establish the object as truly orange or red, no matter who sees it or in what light they see it. Nor does that wavelength in conjunction with the mental label “red” have the power to establish it as truly red, no matter who sees it, or truly orange. A mind that validly cognizes the absurdity and voidness of these two positions, contradicts the two, but does not contradict the validity of English speakers labeling the color as orange and Chinese as red.

It appears as though this is truly existent, established from the side of the characteristic mark, but a mind that sees reality sees that this is false. For the labeling to be valid, it has to be not contradicted by a mind that sees deepest truth. 

By those three criteria, which all from the side of the mind and not the side of the object, then it is valid. There are defining characteristics on the side of an object. But those defining characteristics are also mentally labeled and don’t have the power by themselves or with mental labeling to establish something as what it is.

Even Defining Characteristic Marks Are Established by Mental Labeling Alone

Prasangika goes even further in the deconstruction. Even the existence of a defining characteristic of something is also established merely in terms of what the mental label for it refers to. It is not established on the side of the object having that defining characteristic, even in conjunction with mental labeling, and is not findable there. We’ve already illustrated this with the example of seeing pictures of ourselves spanning our lives, from infancy to adulthood. Let’s use another example that is perhaps clearer.

Consider the example of a dozen eggs. The twelve eggs are divisible by three into three groups of four, divisible by four into four groups of three, divisible by six into six groups of two, divisible by two into two groups of six, and so on. Those defining characteristics of divisibility by three, or by four, by six, or by two – where are they? We can’t find them in those twelve eggs. It’s mentally labelled onto the twelve eggs. Are they divisible by three and by four and by six? Yes. What establishes that they are divisible by three or by four or by six? It is by mental labels alone: the concept of numbers and divisibility and different groups. Certainly, those who like three egg omelettes and those who like two egg omelettes will perceive the dozen eggs differently. They’re both correct.

That’s how you resolve the paradox of hungry ghosts validly seeing something as pus, humans as water, and gods as nectar. Each is valid for each of those groups. What is water from its own side? It’s not any of these things. It’s not even water; therefore, it is incorrect to explain that it’s water seen as pus.

If we ask what the basis of water is, the basis is H2O molecules. What’s the basis of the molecules? The basis is atoms. What’s the basis of the atoms? Quarks. It goes on and on. There is nothing findable, because every whole object is an imputation based on parts. When we step back is there something there? Yes. But even the conventional existence of a validly knowable object is established merely as what the mental label for it refers to. There’s nothing on the side of an object, like a big line or plastic coating, that separates it from the molecules on the other side of the line or coating that makes it into a distinct knowable item. Yet, when we step back and don’t analyze on either the conventional or deepest level, we do validly perceive distinct objects.

Conventional Defining Characteristics

Conventional defining characteristic features are also established dependently in relation to other things. For instance, we are a mother, we are a daughter, we are a friend, or we are an employee. All these things are labelled in terms of different relationships with someone else and we’re all of them. But each is valid only in relation to something specific. If that relation gets confused, for instance example, when we make our child into our friend and into our equal, we create all sorts of problems. Perhaps, we try to make our child into our mother, these sorts of things. Then we get confused about these labels and these roles. “I expect my ten-year old child to comfort me when I feel sad or ill.” This is as if our child is our mother. Perhaps we confide in our ten-year old child after a divorce. This is as if that ten-year old child is our best friend or has become a substitute marriage partner. Clearly this leads to real problems.

There are conventional roles. We’re not denying that there are conventional roles, but it’s not solidly established that we’re that and nothing else, or that we’re that solid role to absolutely everybody. But, we tend to confuse these roles. We become the mother of our dog, for instance – these sorts of things.

Distinct Emotions Are Also Established Merely in Terms of Mental Labels

Consider the example of emotions, for instance compassion. What is compassion? When we feel an emotion, although in each moment we feel something slightly different, we conceptually label all these moments of emotion with the category and word “compassion.” What I feel and what you feel are not exactly the same, but we can label both of them with the same category, “compassion.” Are there defining characteristics of compassion? Yes, but people have made up that defining characteristic. This is because within the emotions there are no dividing lines on the side of emotions that sets the boundary between this emotion being love and that emotion being compassion.
Another good example is the difference between “liking” someone and “loving” someone. Where is the dividing line and where is the defining characteristic that determines on which side of the line what we feel lies? There’s nothing findable on the side of emotions. A group of scholars compiled a dictionary and made up definitions. They are conventions. 

Are there defining characteristics? Yes. Is there such a thing as love and compassion? Yes. How did the labels and words come about? Perhaps they became conventions by the fact that cavemen got together and decided on them. That’s pretty weird if you think about it, how did they evolve? We can imagine cavemen coming up with words for rock and things like that. But how did they come up with words for emotions before there were words? It is an interesting thing to think about. Somehow, they got together and decided, but it certainly wasn’t a big conference to talk about different emotions and give names to them so that they can communicate. 

Before they had names for it, did they have love? Clearly, they felt some emotion, but it’s existence as “love” could only be established in terms of the mental label and category “love” and the word “love.” But still, before that, they felt something. Think about that.

What Establishes That There Is Such a Thing as a Person, Me?

According to Prasangika, even when we have refuted the coarse and subtle impossible “me’s,” we are still left with grasping for an even subtler impossible “me.” It is a “me,” a person, as a nonstatic imputation, with parts, on the basis of an individual continuum, never separable from such a basis, and knowable only simultaneously with one or more of those aggregates. But we grasp to such a person, “me,” as being established by an individual defining characteristic mark findable on the side of the aggregates – either by the power of such a characteristic mark all by itself or in conjunction with the mental label, concept and category of a “person.” It is almost as if that characteristic mark has the power to make me a person. Vaibhashika asserts that characteristic mark is findable on the side of the network of the five aggregates as a whole; Sautrantika and Svatantrika say it is findable on the side of mental consciousness, and Chittamatra says it is findable on the side of foundation consciousness, the “alayavijnana.”

The first link of dependent arising is unawareness about how the self exists. Because of that unawareness and the grasping for an impossible “me” that goes with it, we develop disturbing emotions that lead to the second link, affecting impulses – in other words, compulsive karmic impulses – and further disturbing emotions that activate the karmic aftermath from them. This is the mechanism of samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. From grasping for a doctrinally-based coarse impossible “me,” we develop doctrinally-based disturbing emotions; and from grasping for an automatically-arising subtle impossible “me,” we develop automatically-arising disturbing emotions. With sustained non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of these two levels of impossible “me” and thus the attainment of what the non-Prasangika schools consider to be liberation, we become rid of these two levels of unawareness and these two levels of disturbing emotions. 

Prasangika, however, asserts that this so called “tenet system liberation” is not total liberation. The two levels of unawareness and disturbing emotions that are extinguished are both coarse levels from the Prasangika point of view. We still have grasping for this subtlest level of impossible “me” – a “me” or person that is established by the power of a findable characteristic mark on the side of the aggregates as its basis for imputation – either by the power of that mark alone or by the power of that mark in connection with mental labeling. Based on that subtlest level of grasping, we have what Prasangika calls “subtle unawareness,” which it still considers the first link of dependent arising and “subtle disturbing emotions,” which generate the second link and constitute the eighth and ninth links. We still have samsara. 

Subtle disturbing emotions, for instance subtle attachment, are not aimed at objects, such as persons or feelings of happiness or unhappiness; only the coarse disturbing emotions are aimed at them. Instead, subtle attachment is attachment to the misconception of the self-established existence of persons, feelings and so on. Subtle unawareness and subtle disturbing emotions are automatically arising, but in addition they can also be doctrinally-based when we have learned and accepted the assertions of one of the non-Prasangika Buddhist tenet systems.

Neither One nor Many

Now, let’s delve into the refutations of different levels of the impossible “me.” There is quite a lot of detail, so let’s see if as an introduction, we can somehow simplify it. 

To refute the conventional existence of these three different levels of impossible “me,” we need to analyze the relation between a person or self and the aggregates. There are only two possibilities, regardless of which level of impossible “me” we are examining. Either they’re the same thing or they’re two different things. The name of this line of reasoning is neither one nor many

When we say “one,” we mean totally completely identical. For example, I have two names, Alex and Alexander. Alex and Alexander are not one. Only Alex and Alex are one. In this refutation, it’s irrelevant that Alex and Alexander refer to the same person. “One” means totally, absolutely identical, okay? If we don’t understand that this is how the term “one” is being defined, then the whole argument is much too confusing.

Here, we examine if the self and the five aggregates are one – absolutely, totally the same one thing – or if they are many totally different things. If they aren’t either of these, there is no other possibility. Therefore, we conclude that there is no such thing as this impossible “me.”

The Non-Buddhist Indian Systems’ Assertions of a Coarse Impossible “Me”

In terms of the coarse impossible “me,” if the self is not an imputation on the aggregates, we consider first whether it is one and the same thing as the aggregates. The Charvakas, for instance, one of the non-Buddhist Indian schools, asserts that the mind arises from the elements of the body and that the self is essentially the mind – in other words, the self is one with the body and the mind. They do not accept rebirth, since the same self cannot arise from two different bodies in two lifetimes and therefore do not accept karma, behavioral cause and effect. Western materialists also assert that mind arises from the body and also that we are just the body and mind, because when the brain dies, we die. Western materialists also do not accept karma and rebirth. This is the position, then, that the self and the aggregates are one and the same. 

The other Indian non-Buddhist systems, for instance Samkhya and Nyaya-Vaisheshika, assert a self, an atman, with the three characteristics of the coarse impossible “me.” They believe that the self is something static, partless, separate and totally different from the aggregates: it is the inhabitant, possessor and controller of the aggregates. This view accepts karma and rebirth and that the soul or self as a separate entity can be liberated and then continue to exist independently of a body or mind. 

These two positions – either the self is identical with aggregates or totally different from them – correspond to the two types of deluded attitude toward a transitory network. That was the disturbing attitude with which we toss out the net of “me” and “mine” onto the aggregates. When we consider the self and the aggregates as one, we’re tossing out the net of “me” onto them. When we consider them as different, we’re tossing out the net of “mine” onto them.

Refutation of the Coarse Impossible “Me” and the Aggregates as Being One

Let’s examine the coarse position that the self and the aggregates are one and the same identical thing. This position would be that the self is a static, partless monolith, not affected by anything, but doesn’t include the assertion that the self is a soul that can exist separately from the body or mind. Here’s the logical refutation of that position. If the soul is static and unaffected by anything, but also, as proposed, identical with the body and mind, then the body or mind would also have to be static and not affected by anything. If this were the case, the body could never grow old or never get sick. 

We have something a little bit similar to that when, with a Western materialist view, we identify with a young, healthy body, and think, “That’s me.” When the body gets sick or old, we think, “That’s not me. I’m the young healthy body.” If we look in the mirror, we might think, “That’s not me.” But that’s completely deluded. It is impossible for a static “me” and the body to be identical and for the body to never be affected by anything. 

Remember, we discussed an extreme outlook as one of the obtainers constituting the ninth link? This deluded outlook is that the self, being identical with our present body and mind, either lasts forever, which is a denial of the gross impermanence of death, or that the self ends when the body and mind end. If a self that ends with the death of the body and mind is not affected by anything, then it can’t die and how can one then say that it ends when we die? If it is not affected by anything, then we could never get sick, because that means it’s changing and not static. Like that, the whole thing is self-contradictory.

What about the Western materialist position that the self is one with the body, and as the body changes, the self changes, and when the body dies, the self dies? 

It is correct that a self that is an imputation on a body changes as the body changes. The problem with the materialist view is that it asserts that the self is identical with the body – not merely on imputation on the body, as well as the mind, the feelings the emotions, etc. – and, on the basis of the two being identical, the self changes as the body changes. But if the self is identical with the body, what is the relation between the self, me, that was identical with my body as an infant and the self, me, that is identical with my body as an old man? Those two bodies have nothing in common – all the cells have changed and are different. So, were those two different persons; were they  two different “me’s”?

If the Self and the Body and Mind Are One, the Self Cannot Be Partless

What about the assertion that the mind and body and the self are identical in terms of being a partless monolith? If it were true that the self is a monolith with no parts, then if we lose part of our body or part of our mind, like when we become senile, we would also lose part of our self. But we couldn’t lose part of our self, because our self is a monolith and thereby, it’s partless. Also if we lost part of our self, we would be a different person?

To conclude, it can’t be that there’s a static, unchanging self with no parts that is identical with a body and mind. When we refute this deluded view, we stop throwing the net of “me” onto the body or mind. When we realize that the self and the aggregates are not identical, it will also rid us of other deluded outlooks based on this misconception as well. These deluded outlooks about rebirth and how rebirth happens and the effects on future lives are all doctrinally-based. They don’t automatically arise. A dog doesn’t worry about rebirth. It doesn’t think, “There’s going to be no consequences of my actions in future lives.” It’s not its concern.

Refutation of the Coarse Impossible “Me” and the Aggregates as Being Totally Different

The other variety of grasping for a coarse impossible “me” is the view that the monolithic, static self is separate and different from the aggregates. It just inhabits them, possesses them and controls them, but it can be liberated and exist separately. The contradiction follows, however, that if the self is static and unaffected, it couldn’t do anything. It couldn’t respond to or affect anything either, because then it would change from before it did something to after it did it. “I didn’t eat all day and now I ate.” There’s a change, isn’t there? Before we were hungry and now we’re full. How could a self that can’t change or do anything possess and use the body it lives in to do something? It couldn’t control any of the aggregates, for instance use the body to eat. It couldn’t possess one network of aggregates with the body of an infant and then possess another one as an adult or in another lifetime. How could it do that? It would have to change? How could it do anything? If we do something, we don’t remain unchanged. 

Also the self couldn’t be monolithic and partless if sometimes we’re multi-tasking, doing more than one thing at the same time. We see and hear at the same time. So, it has parts, doesn’t it?  

Another point in the classic refutations is that when we understand that the body is impure and not a source of happiness, it doesn’t make sense for the self to inhabit it and make use of it. Why would we want to inhabit this type of body or mind?

No Such Thing as the Coarse Impossible “Me”

With these refutations, we conclude that neither of the positions, one or many, makes any sense; they’re both self-contradictory. There are only those two possibilities. Either that impossible self is the same as the aggregates, or it’s totally different. If it’s neither of the two, then such a self is impossible. There’s no such thing. That’s how we refute this coarse impossible “self” having the characteristics that the non-Buddhist Indian schools assert of it being static, monolithic, and either identical with the body or mind, or separate and just living in the body and mind but can be liberated and exist without a body or mind. We can also use the same line of reasoning to refute the subtle and subtlest grasping for an impossible “me.” The logic is the same. 

When we have made this refutation, we then focus on no such thing. There is no such thing as that impossible type of self that could be experiencing true suffering. It can’t be that impossible type of self that causes more suffering in terms of the true cause of suffering: unawareness, thirsting and so on. There is no such thing as that kind of impossible self that can be liberated from the mechanism of the twelve links and exist by itself if it gets the understanding of how it exists. We need to meditate like this on the voidness of the coarse impossible self in relation to the four noble truths and the twelve links. That’s how we meditate on it.