Emptiness of the Various Levels of an Impossible “Me”

Three Layers of Unawareness

Voidness (stong-pa-nyid, Skt shunyata; emptiness) is a total absence of impossible ways of existing: impossible means there is no such thing. Here, we are speaking specifically about the voidness of impossible ways in which the conventionally existent self (“me,” a person), either ourselves or others, could exist. The impossible ways it might exist are as

  • a coarse impossible soul (atman) as asserted by the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems
  • an impossible soul that, according to the Gelug explanation,  the non-Prasangika Buddhist systems classify as subtle and the Prasangika system classifies as coarse
  • an impossible soul that the Prasangika system classifies as subtle.

We grasp for our conventional “me” to exist in these three impossible ways, which means

  • our minds give rise to the appearance of a false “me” (one that couldn’t possibly exist) as being the one who experiences true sufferings, true origins of suffering, true stoppings and true pathway minds
  • simultaneously, we cognize them as corresponding to reality.

Certain forms of grasping for an impossible way of existing may be doctrinally based (kun-btags), which means based on having learned and accepted a non-Buddhist Indian tenet system in either this or some previous lifetime. Thus, it is not necessary that we have learned and accepted this system in this lifetime. We retain tendencies for doctrinally-based grasping even when we are reborn in some other life form besides human. This grasping may not manifest in this lifetime as adherence to one of the full-blown non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems, considering that we might never encounter any of them in this life. But certain aspects of these doctrinally-based assertions may arise even without studying and accepting one of these systems. An example is belief in a static, unchanging self (“me”) that we might have been taught and accepted as who we are from a Western self-help system for discovering “your real self.” 

Doctrinally-based grasping, however, arises only intermittently, just when supporting conditions are present for it to arise. Certain forms of grasping, on the other hand, may automatically-arise (lhan-skyes). That means they accompany every moment of our cognition, conceptual or non-conceptual, except when are focused non-conceptually on the voidness of any of the three levels of these impossible ways of existing.

But there is a voidness of those impossible ways of existing – there is a total absence of any way of existing that corresponds to them. In other words, they do not correspond to reality. No person can exist in any of those ways. We need to understand and cognize the voidness of each of these three levels of impossible ways of a person existing. 

Presently, our minds give rise to a deceptive appearance of the self that is a complex composite of these three levels or layers. To understand this composite, we need to understand several technical points:

  • The word “grasping” (‘dzin-pa, Skt, graha), occurring in both the terms “grasping for an impossible soul” (bdag-‘dzin), whether of persons or phenomena, and “grasping for truly established existence” (bden-‘dzin), is the term for “cognitively taking an object of cognition.” It simply means to cognize something, and that means merely giving rise to an appearance (a mental hologram) of something, which is the same as having a cognitive engagement with something.
  • Both types of grasping are accompanied by incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-byed) of them, which takes (cognizes) what does not correspond with reality as if it did correspond.
  • Such cognitions are also accompanied by unawareness, with which we either do not know that they do not correspond to reality or we believe that they do correspond.  

Thus, our incorrect consideration and unawareness about these three are like three layers, each one deeper and underlying the ones above. When we remove belief that the top layer corresponds to reality, we might still have unawareness about the two other layers appearing underneath.

The Three Layers of Impossible Souls of Persons

The Non-Prasangika Assertions

The Coarse Impossible Soul of Persons

According to the non-Prasangika traditions, the coarse impossible soul of a person has three characteristics:

  • It is a static, unaffected phenomenon, which means that is not affected by causes and conditions and never undergoes change.
  • It is partless, which means a monolithic monad, unlike composite matter or composite ways of being aware of things. Depending on the non-Buddhist Indian tenet system, it is either the size of the universe or a tiny spark.
  • It exists as an entity independently of a body and a mind, and not as an imputation on them. Consequently, it can be separated and liberated to a state in which it continues to exist all by itself, without a body or mind. In relation to any body and mind it might take, it temporarily inhabits that body and mind, possesses it, controls it and makes use of it to experience and understand things and to enjoy pleasures.

Grasping for a soul or self that has all three of these characteristics is purely doctrinally based. There is no automatically-arising variant of it, although incorrect consideration of something nonstatic to be static or something imputed to be unimputed has both doctrinally-based and automatically-arising forms. 

On the basis of doctrinally-based grasping for the coarse impossible soul of persons (ourselves and others), we experience doctrinally-based disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs kun-btags) as the ones that bring on affecting impulses (link two) and thirsting and obtainers (links eight and nine). For instance, we thirst for a parting from unhappiness for “me,” mistakenly believed to exist as a static, partless, independently existing “me” inhabiting our body.

The Subtle Impossible Soul of Persons

The subtle impossible soul of a person is one that is self-sufficiently knowable (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod), which means it can be cognized by itself alone, without its basis for imputation also simultaneously appearing. 

When we grasp for ourselves to exist in this impossible way when we still have grasping for a coarse impossible soul, we grasp for ourselves to exist as a static, partless, independently existing “me” that is self-sufficiently knowable. 

But, even when we have achieved a true stopping of this doctrinally-based grasping for a coarse impossible soul of a person, we still grasp for ourselves to exist as a self-sufficiently knowable “me” that is

  • an imputation on the aggregates as a noncongruent affecting variable (ldan-min ‘du-byed), which means it does not share five things in common (mtshungs-ldan lnga) with the consciousness and mental factors that accompany it – the same focal object, mental hologram, cognitive sensor, time and having the same slant
  • unable to exist on its own, independently of a body and mind
  • nonstatic, and therefore affected by causes and conditions
  • and has parts, since it is an imputation on five different aggregates.

Grasping for a subtle impossible soul of a person automatically arises. There is no doctrinally-based form of it. On the basis of grasping for a subtle impossible soul of persons (ourselves and all others), we experience automatically-arising disturbing emotions (nyon-mongs lhan-skyes) as the ones that bring on the links of affecting impulses, thirsting and obtainers. For instance, we thirst for a parting from unhappiness for “me,” mistakenly believed to be self-sufficiently knowable.

The Prasangika Assertion

The Coarse Impossible Soul of Persons

According to the Gelug tradition, all tenet systems except Prasangika assert a lack of coarse and subtle impossible souls of a person as above. Prasangika is unique in asserting that grasping for the non-Prasangika subtle impossible soul of a person (one that is self-sufficiently knowable) is still grasping for a coarse type of impossible soul. 

Moreover, Prasangika uniquely asserts that not only persons, but also all phenomena are devoid of being self-sufficiently knowable: all phenomena are imputations on a basis for imputation and all phenomena are imputedly knowable. Therefore, the lack of this type of coarse impossible soul of persons and the lack of this type of coarse impossible soul of phenomena are equivalent: they both have “being self-sufficiently knowable” as their objects of negation (dgag-bya). They differ merely in their basis of negation (dgag-gzhi).

  • The object of negation in what the non-Prasangikas regard as the lack of a coarse impossible soul is “existence as something static, partless, unimputed on a basis, and existent independently of a body and mind.” Although persons are appropriate bases that are devoid of this object of negation, all phenomena, such as categories, are not appropriate bases, since categories are static and imputations on bases.
  • Although Prasangika accepts that it is necessary to gain a true stopping of what the non-Prasangika schools call “grasping for a coarse impossible soul of persons,” the attainment of a true stopping of it automatically occurs when we gain non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of all phenomena being self-sufficiently knowable. If no phenomenon, including a person, can be known by itself without its basis for imputation also appearing simultaneously, there can be no such thing as a static, partless, unimputed soul of a person able to exist independently of a body and mind.

Two Types of Grasping for a Self-Sufficiently Knowable “Me”

Automatically-arising 

In common with the non-Prasangika Buddhist tenet systems, Prasangika asserts that grasping for a self-sufficiently knowable soul (self) automatically arises.

  • The non-Prasangika systems assert that this grasping automatically arises with respect only to persons. According to these systems, when we cognize as self-sufficiently knowable appearances of forms of physical phenomena, such as our body, or ways of being aware of something, such as anger, these cognitions are unmistaken regarding those items being self-sufficiently knowable. They are not accompanied by the incorrect consideration of taking something imputedly knowable to be self-sufficiently knowable and thus are also not accompanied by unawareness of this facet of how things exist.
  • Prasangika asserts that grasping for a self-sufficiently knowable soul arises in the same way with respect to all phenomena, including persons. Namely, this grasping arises accompanied by incorrect consideration and unawareness.

Doctrinally-based

Moreover, also unlike these non-Prasangika systems, Prasangika asserts that this grasping can also be doctrinally based – based not on non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems, but on the Buddhist Vaibhashika tenet system.

  • The non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems assert that all phenomena can be cognized without that cognition simultaneously giving rise to something else, for instance a basis for imputation.
  • Nevertheless, because these non-Buddhist systems do not assert a division of phenomena into self-sufficiently knowable and imputedly knowable phenomena, we cannot have grasping for a self-sufficiently knowable person that we developed based on learning and accepting the doctrines of those systems.

Thus Gelug Prasangika explains that there are:

  • what the non-Prasangika Buddhist systems call the “doctrinally-based coarse impossible soul of a person” (one that is static, partless, independent, and unimputed, as asserted by non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems), and  
  • a doctrinally-based coarse impossible soul of a person asserted by the Buddhist Vaibhashika tenet system. Vaibhashika asserts that all noncongruent affecting variables, such as a person, are imputed phenomena that are self-sufficiently knowable.

According to the Vaibhashika tenets, a person is the mere collection (network) of the five aggregates upon which it is an imputation. As such, a person is self-sufficiently knowable because, when we see a person, we do not simultaneously see the entire collection of the five aggregates upon which he or she is an imputation.

More fully, Vaibhashika asserts direct cognition (dngos-su rig) of phenomena, which means cognition of an object requires direct contacting awareness of it, and not cognition of it through the intermediary of a mental hologram (rnam-pa, aspect) of the object as all the other Buddhist tenet systems assert. Thus, although a person is an imputation on the mere network of the aggregates, when we have cognition of a person, the consciousness just has direct contacting awareness of the person and not of the entire network of five aggregates that are the basis on which he or she is imputed.

Stages of Ridding Ourselves of Grasping for a Coarse Impossible Soul of Persons According to Gelug Prasangika

First, we rid ourselves of the grasping for the impossible soul of a person (a person that is self-sufficiently knowable) that is doctrinally based on the Vaibhashika assertions and which Prasangika calls “coarse.” In doing so, we also rid ourselves of grasping for what the non-Prasangikas call the “coarse impossible soul of a person,” which is a soul that is doctrinally based on the assertions of the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems. This is a soul or self that is static, monolithic, and unimputed on the aggregates.

Secondly, we rid ourselves of the automatically-arising grasping for the impossible soul of a person (a person that is self-sufficiently knowable) that non-Prasangika calls “subtle grasping” and Prasangika calls “coarse grasping.”

The Subtle Impossible Soul of Persons Asserted Exclusively by Gelug Prasangika

When have rid ourselves forever of both these levels of what Prasangika calls coarse, we still have grasping for a subtler impossible soul of a person – a subtle level of grasping that had underlain both these levels. In other words, even if we have realized that a soul of a person is nonstatic, has parts, is an imputation on the aggregates and is only imputedly knowable simultaneously with its basis for imputation (and not self-sufficiently knowable), yet we grasp for such a soul to be truly established (bden-par grub-pa, truly existent), self-established (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, inherently existent), established by characteristic marks (rang-gi mtshan-nyid-gyis grub-pa) findable on the side of the self and of its basis for imputation, the aggregates.

Two Types of Grasping for a Self-Established “Me”

Unawareness of the lack of this subtler impossible soul of a person, which is also equivalent to the lack of the impossible soul of all phenomena, can also either automatically arise or be doctrinally based on either the Buddhist Sautrantika, Chittamatra or Svatantrika tenet systems. On the basis of this mistaken belief that such an impossible “me” corresponds with reality, we experience subtle disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs phra-mo), either doctrinally-based or automatically-arising. These still constitute links eight and nine (thirsting and obtainers), and bring on link two (affecting impulses). For instance, we thirst for a parting from unhappiness for “me,” mistakenly believed to be self-established.

Which Levels of Unawareness Are Included in the Link of Unawareness

All Buddhist tenet systems consider the link of unawareness in the twelve links of dependent arising to be included in the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) preventing liberation. Emotional obscurations refer to the disturbing emotions and attitudes, as well as their tendencies (sa-bon). According to Gelug, the non-Prasangika schools consider unawareness of the lack of both coarse and subtle impossible souls of persons, as they define them, as emotional obscurations. Thus, they include these two levels of unawareness as the first link of dependent arising.

  • Although unawareness of behavioral cause and effect is also a disturbing emotion and is also included among the emotional obscurations, it is not included in the link of unawareness.
  • Although we need to rid ourselves of unawareness of behavioral cause and effect in order to attain not only better rebirths, but also liberation, just ridding ourselves of this unawareness alone is not sufficient for attaining liberation.

Out of unawareness concerning the impossible soul of persons and the impossible soul of all phenomena, the non-Prasangika schools consider only unawareness of the impossible soul of persons to be a disturbing emotion. Thus, of these two types of unawareness, we only need to rid ourselves of the coarse and subtle levels of unawareness concerning the impossible soul of persons in order to gain liberation. 

To gain enlightenment, we need also to rid ourselves of the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib), which do not include disturbing emotions but, according to the non-Prasangika Mahayana systems, do include unawareness concerning the impossible soul of all phenomena, including persons.

  • Vaibhashika and Sautrantika do not even assert cognitive obscurations preventing enlightenment. So there is no place in their system for subtle disturbing emotions and attitudes.
  • Chittamatra and Svatantrika do assert cognitive obscurations preventing omniscient enlightenment, and they assert that they include unawareness of the lack of impossible soul of all phenomena, including persons. They each define the impossible soul of all phenomena in their own unique ways. But they assert that this unawareness is non-disturbing (nyon-mongs-can min-pa): it is not counted as a disturbing emotion. It is not included in the first of the twelve links. They do not assert any subtle disturbing emotions that are based solely on grasping for the impossible soul of all phenomena in the way that they define such grasping.

According to Gelug Prasangika, unawareness of the lack of an impossible soul of all phenomena, including persons, is a disturbing emotion and is included among the emotional obscurations preventing liberation. Thus it is also included in link one of the twelve links. Based on that subtle unawareness, there arise subtle disturbing emotions. Because of that, to attain liberation from the all-pervasive suffering of the tainted aggregates of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, we also need to rid ourselves of the subtle disturbing emotions, including subtle unawareness.

The Lack of a Coarse Impossible Soul of a Person Asserted by Non-Buddhist Indian Tenet Systems

In every moment of cognition other than when non-conceptually cognizing voidness, the self appears to be established as a static, partless, unimputed, independently existing entity that can be cognized by itself alone, with its existence established by the power of its individual defining characteristic mark findable on its own side. We need to deconstruct and abolish, layer by layer, our belief that this deceptive appearance refers to and corresponds to reality.

First, we need to refute the coarse impossible self of a person asserted by non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems – a self of a person that is static, partless, unimputed, and independently existent. All Buddhist systems assert that such a self is impossible and doesn't exist at all. It is a soul that is not an imputation on the aggregates, but is either

  • identical with one of them, usually the mind or the body, and consequently such a soul has no rebirth: when the body ends, the soul or self ends
  • or separate from the aggregates and is its inhabitant, possessor, and controller, and thus it takes rebirth and can be liberated as a separate entity independent of a body or mind.

According to the Buddhist analysis, then, a deluded outlook toward a transitory network (an obtainer) casts out the net of a coarse impossible soul onto the conventional “me” and considers it to be either identical with one of the aggregates or totally different from them as their inhabitant, possessor and controller. Thus, we have the situation of the self and the aggregates being either one or many – in other words, either identically the same thing or totally different things.

Analysis of the Self and the Aggregates Being Identical

The assertion that the coarse soul of a person is identical with one or more of the aggregates is the Charvaka (rgyang-‘phen-pa, also known as Lokayata) view, which does not accept karma, rebirth or liberation. It just asserts a static monolithic soul as an essential feature of the mind, and the mind is something that arises from the material elements of the body. Because such a self is identical to the mind and body, it cannot exist independently of a body and a mind.
The refutation of such a soul is as follows: Since the soul is static and unaffected by anything, the mind or body would have to be static and not affected by anything – it could never get sick or grow old. This is impossible. Non-conceptual cognition of this fact, with the force of mind described before, rids us of

  • the doctrinally-based obtainer extreme outlook (link nine) that either (1) our present body and mind will last forever, which is a repudiation (skur-‘debs) of the gross impermanence of death; or (2) the static, unaffected self ends when the body ends, which is a repudiation of there being any continuity of the self after death
  • a doctrinally-based obtainer distorted outlook that either (1) repudiates that in a next life we will experience the effects of our behavior in this life, because the self is unaffected by what it does; or (2) repudiates rebirth, because since the self is unaffected by what it does in this life, there are no results of it.

If the self is a monad with no parts and identical to the body and the mind, then the body and mind would have to be identical with each other as a partless monad. But subjective experiencing is not the same as the chemical and electrical processes in the nervous system and brain. If the self is identical only with the body and we lose part of the body, for instance an arm, then losing a part of the body would mean losing a part of the self, but that contradicts the assertion that the self is partless. If it is identical with the mind and we lose part of our minds, for instance our memory, again that contradicts the assertion that the self is partless.

When we refute this view of the self and the body and also the mind being identical, we rid ourselves of

  • the aspect of the doctrinally-based obtainer deluded outlook toward a transitory network with which we cast the net of a static, unaffected “me” onto the aggregates (the non-Prasangika Buddhist assertion) or onto the conventional “me” in relation to the aggregates (Prasangika);
  • the doctrinally-based disturbing emotions, such as thirsting not to be parted from happiness and longing for desirable sensory objects that are based on believing that the static, unaffected self is identical with the body. For example, by identifying ourselves as “I am my body,” we are so attached to it as true source of happiness that we become angry if someone causes it injury, which of course contradicts the belief that the self is static and is not affected by anything.

Analysis of the Self and the Aggregates Being Totally Different

Other non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems, such as Samkhya (grangs-can-pa) and Nyaya (rigs-can-pa), assert that the self is separate and totally different from the aggregates and just inhabits, possesses and controls them; but it could be liberated and then exist independently of a body or mind. If this were so, then the following contradiction arise:

  • If the self is static and unaffected by anything, it couldn’t do anything or respond to anything, and so it couldn’t control any aggregates and couldn’t possess one network of aggregates and then another, or a network that is constantly changing.
  • The self couldn’t be monolithic and partless, if sometimes it is multitasking for example, like seeing and hearing at the same time.
  • When we understand that the body is impure (dirty inside) and not happiness (it can hurt) (these are aspects of the true suffering), then it doesn’t make sense for a “pure” self to inhabit it and make use of it.

Non-conceptual cognition of this last point rids us of:

  • holding a doctrinally-based obtainer deluded outlook as supreme, with which we think that by realizing that our aggregates, our bodies, and so on, are totally pure, clean, and a source of true happiness, this is the supreme view that will bring us to liberation from them
  • a doctrinally-based obtainer holding of deluded morality or conduct as supreme, with which we believe that if we indulge the body as the source of true happiness, it will lead to liberation. Or we think the body is horribly unclean and a source of suffering, so if we purify the body in the Ganges River or mortify it with extreme ascetic practices, we will attain liberation.

When we refute this view of the self and the body and mind as being totally different, we rid ourselves of:

  • the aspect of a doctrinally-based obtainer deluded outlook toward a transitory network with which we cast the net of an impossible “mine” (non-Prasangika) onto the aggregates or the net of a static, monolithic “me, the possessor” (Prasangika) onto the conventional “me”
  • doctrinally-based disturbing emotions such as thirsting not to be parted from happiness and longing for desirable sensory objects, when both are based on believing that the self is totally separate from the body and mind. We become so attached to them as “my” possessions, we become angry if someone causes them injury. We cling to happiness as a possession, something for a separate “me” to enjoy and we thirst not to be parted from it.

Meditation on the Voidness of the Coarse Impossible Soul

With meditation on the voidness of a coarse impossible soul (self) of a person, we need first to identify correctly and decisively what is the object to be refuted, namely the existence of the conventional “me” as a static, monolithic, independent, unimputed soul. Then we need to analyze such a self with the line of reasoning “neither one nor many.” If such a self exists, it must constitute, together with aggregates, either just one static monolithic entity or many separate static monolithic entities. If neither is the case, then such a self does not exist.
Total conviction that there is no such thing as such a self cannot occur simultaneously with belief in such a self. Thus our total conviction cuts off our grasping for it, which means it cuts off as well both our incorrect consideration that it corresponds to reality and our unawareness about it. We cognize accurately and decisively that there is no such thing that it refers to or corresponds to: nothing. 

When we focus on this nothing, nothing appears, not even the appearance of such an impossible “me.” But when we focus on this nothing, we need to understand it to be the absence of this impossible way of existing. This eliminates the extreme of total nonexistence: that this absence actually is a nothing or that it is the total absence of the conventional “me” as being impossible and nonexistent. 

When we arise from total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) on such a total absence, we appear to ourselves like a seemingly static, monolithic, unimputed, independent self that is self-sufficiently knowable and self-established by the power of findable defining characteristic marks on its own side. With subsequent realization (rjes-thob, “post-meditation”), we realize at this stage of our understanding of voidness that one layer of this appearance of the impossible self is like an illusion. The aspect of this appearance that the self is static, partless, unimputed and independently existent does not refer to or correspond to anything real. 

But we must differentiate what the self appears to be from how it appears to exist. What it appears to be is “me,” and this is conventionally true. It appears to be me and not someone else or not nobody. Thus the appearance of what it is does refer to reality. It is just the appearance of how it exists that doesn’t correspond to reality. Therefore, the appearance of “my self” during subsequent realization eliminates a coarse level of the extreme of total concrete existence.

The Lack of an Impossible Soul of a Person That the Gelug Non-Prasangika Buddhist Systems Assert as Subtle and Gelug Prasangika Asserts as Coarse

Here, “non-Prasangika” includes only Sautrantika, Chittamatra and Svatantrika, but not Vaibhashika. This is because Vaibhashika does not assert a lack of a subtle impossible soul of a person, though it does assert automatically-arising unawareness of the lack of what the others call the “coarse” impossible soul of a person. With that unawareness, although we might understand that non-Buddhist Indian assertions of a soul do not refer to anything real, yet according to Vaibhashika we still do not know how the self exists, we are still unaware.

Whether or not we realize that the conventional “me” is nonstatic, has parts and is imputedly existent on the aggregates as its basis for imputation, we automatically grasp for it to be self-sufficiently knowable, with its existence established by the power of its individual defining characteristic mark findable on its own side. Therefore, next in this sequence we need to deconstruct the second layer of this deceptive appearance and rid ourselves of the belief that the self is a self-sufficiently knowable entity. We need to realize that, as a nonconguent affecting variable, the conventional “me,” as a nonstatic imputation, can only be imputedly known.

The Object to Be Refuted

As a noncongruent affecting variable, the conventional “me,” as a nonstatic imputed object, can only be cognized with first its basis for imputation appearing (one or more of the aggregates) and then immediately after that the conventional “me” appearing simultaneously with its basis for imputation. But automatically we think, “I see myself, I hear myself, I know myself,” when we see our body, hear our voice or think the mental word “me.” We do not think, when seeing, hearing, or thinking “me,” that we are cognizing something that is an imputation on the basis of the sight of a body, the sound of a voice, or the mental sound of a word that we are cognizing simultaneously with that seeing, hearing or thinking. When we think, “I want you to love me for ‘me’ and not for my body or my money,” we imagine that someone could love us without simultaneously loving our body, mind, personality or something about us that is the basis for focusing on “me.”

The Refutation

Again, there are two possibilities: either the self-sufficiently knowable “me” is identical with the aggregates or totally separate from them. If they are totally identical, then when someone sees the dead body, he or she would see “me” and the “me” could not be an imputation on the next set of aggregates (since here we accept rebirth). If they are totally separate and separable from each other, then we should be able to take away all the aggregates and still see “me.”

What Non-conceptual Cognition of the Lack of This Impossible “Me” Rids Us of

The non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of a self-sufficiently knowable “me” rids us, in stages, of automatically-arising unawareness of the lack of a subtle impossible soul of a person, the automatically-arising grasping for a subtle impossible soul of a person and the automatically-arising disturbing emotions and attitudes based on them. 

Note that there is only doctrinally-based indecisive wavering, since it is indecisive about the correct view of a coarse lack of an impossible soul of persons. Once we have non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths and the correct view, we are no longer indecisive about whether the non-Buddhist view is correct or the Buddhist one is correct. So there is no automatically-arising indecisive wavering, since such wavering is indecisive about the correct view of how we exist as a person, which we experience because of an incorrect view that we have been taught and have believed to be true.

There are only doctrinally-based variants of:

  • a distorted outlook (of a view that was doctrinally-based),
  • holding a deluded outlook as supreme
  • holding deluded morality and conduct as supreme (that these will lead to the liberation of a coarse impossible soul, which is based on what we were taught).

Now our non-conceptual cognition of voidness rids us of:

  • automatically-arising thirsting for a self-sufficiently knowable “me” not to be parted from ordinary happiness and other such automatically-arising disturbing emotions such as longing desire and attachment to desirable objects
  • an automatically-arising deluded outlook toward a transitory network, which casts on the conventional “me” either the net of a self-sufficiently knowable “me” as identical with the aggregates or the net of a self-sufficiently knowable “me, the possessor of the aggregates,” and thus totally separate from them;
  • an automatically-arising extreme outlook (according to Mahayana, Sautrantika says this too is only doctrinally-based), which is to automatically believe that the self-sufficiently knowable “me” or “me, the possessor of the aggregates as mine” will either last eternally or end totally at death, with no continuity.

When we focus on an absence of a conventional “me” established as something self-sufficiently knowable, again nothing appears. However, we realize that it is not just “nothing,” but is the total absence of the object to be negated. During subsequent realization, when we focus on our conventional self that appears, it still deceptively appears to be a static, partless, unimputed, independently existent, self-sufficiently knowable, self-established entity. However, we realize that two layers of this deceptive appearance are like an illusion and do not correspond to reality. These are the layers of being:

  • static, partless, unimputed and independently existent
  • self-sufficiently knowable.

But we do not yet realize fully that a nonstatic, imputedly existent, imputedly knowable self lacks self-established existence. In other words, even though we may understand that the self, “me,” is an imputation on the aggregates and can only be cognized simultaneously with the aggregates, we do not yet realize fully that it is impossible that it is cognized like this and exists like this by the power of findable defining characteristic marks on its own side and on the side of the aggregates.

The Prasangika Assertion of a Lack of a Subtle Impossible Soul of a Person 

Prasangika asserts that not only persons (conventional “me”s), but also all phenomena are imputedly knowable and further, both persons and all phenomena are merely imputedly existent. Thus, just as the lack of a coarse impossible soul of persons is equivalent to the lack of a coarse impossible soul of phenomena, the same is true of the lack of a subtle impossible soul. Thus, according to Gelug Prasangika, all phenomena, including persons, are imputedly knowable and merely imputedly existent: all phenomena are devoid of being self-sufficiently knowable and of being self-establshed.

It is important to understand the difference between imputedly knowable and merely imputedly existent.

Imputedly Knowable Phenomena

Prasangika asserts three types of imputedly knowable phenomena, those that are:

  • imputedly knowable as something imputed on a basis (rten-nas btags-pa’i btags-yod)
  • imputedly knowable as something set by names and labels (ming-dang brda’i bzhag-pa’i btags-yod)
  • imputedly knowable as something imputed by conceptual cognition (rtog-pas btags-pa’i btags-yod).

Names and Categories Are Actively Imputed by the Cognitions of Them

Consider the case of names and categories as imputedly knowable phenomena and consider the use of names only in the case of limited beings, not Buddhas. In such cases, names, labels and categories are involved only in conceptual cognition. The act of cognition “imputes” (‘dogs-byed; labels, designates) them on a basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi). 

More fully, sounds (sgra) on their own do not constitute names (ming; words). Sounds only constitute names (words) when, through some convention (tha-snyad), they are designated on a significance (meaning/object) (don). Then, as names (words), they mean something. Sounds cannot be names (words) unless they are the names (words) for something. Thus, if we know that a sequence of sounds constitute a name (word), we know that they must mean something, although we might not actually know what the word means or what or whom the name signifies. 

Names (words) are designated not just on one sound, but on audio categories (sgra-spyi) and on all members of those categories. For example, the audio category of the sound “table” is imputed on the sounds “table” vocalized in any voice, accent or volume. No matter in what voice, accent or volume, the sound “table” is vocalized, they all are sounds of the name (word)  “table.” The name (word) “table,” then, is imputed on both the audio category “table” and on all its members. 

A similar situation is the case with the meaning of the word “table” and the objects it signifies. The meaning category (don-spyi, object category) of the meaning or significance of the word “table” is imputed on all objects that appropriately fit into the meaning/object category “table.” And the name (word) “table” is also designated on the meaning/object category “table” and on all members of that category.

Individual objects do not naturally have names (words) imputed on them. They may be cognized, however, through the media of names (words) and their significances. In such cases, the names (words) are known as tags (brda). For limited beings, when a name (word) is imputed on an individual object as its basis for imputation, it is with conceptual cognition. This means also imputed on the object are the audio and meaning (object) categories on which the name (word) is itself imputed. Thus, conceptual cognition actively imputes names (words), significances (meanings, objects), audio categories and meaning (object) categories on individual objects. 

In conceptual cognition, a name (word), and an audio category or meaning (object) category can only be known simultaneously with their object of imputation (a member of one of these categories) appearing simultaneously with the cognition of them. In this sense, names, labels, and categories are imputedly knowable.

Phenomena Imputedly Knowable on a Basis Are Not Actively Imputed by the Cognition of Them

Phenomena that are imputedly knowable on a basis include:

  • nonstatic noncongruent affecting variables such as the conventional “me” imputed on a network of aggregates
  • certain static phenomena, for instance voidnesses imputed on validly knowable phenomena and space imputed on material objects,
  • such things as wholes imputed on parts or sequences and commonsense objects, such as a table, imputed on the sense data of one of the senses (the colored shapes of the sight of one).

Although such phenomena may be cognized either conceptually or non-conceptually, the cognition of them does not actively impute them on their basis for imputation. According to the Gelug assertions, they naturally occur imputed on a basis, whether or not anyone actively cognizes them. Thus, a person naturally is imputedly existent on the basis of five aggregates, and can only be cognized, either conceptually or non-conceptually, with one or more of the aggregates simultaneously also appearing in the cognition. This fact is like the fact that a whole is imputedly existent on the basis of parts, and can only be cognized, either conceptually or non-conceptually, with one or more of its parts simultaneously also appearing in the cognition.

The Components Comprising Cognition of Imputedly Knowable Phenomena

In the case of the imputation of names and labels imputed on categories and on members of the categories, and in the case of categories labeled on individual members belonging to the categories, three components are involved:

  • the name or category,
  • the basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi),
  • the referent object of the imputation (btags-chos, imputed object).

In the case of the name or category “me,” the basis for imputation is the network of aggregates. The referent object of the imputation (the imputed object) – in other words, what the name, label and category “me” refer to – is the conventional “me.”

In the case of the imputation of the conventional “me” on the network of aggregates, there are only two components:

  • the imputed object,
  • the basis for imputation.

Here, the imputed object is the conventional “me” and the basis for imputation is the network of aggregates.

To differentiate these distinctions more clearly, we may adopt the terminology that names are designations on a basis for designation, categories are mental labels on a basis for mental labeling, and noncongruent affecting variables, such as the conventional “me,” are imputations on a basis for imputation.

Two Varieties of the Lack of a Subtle Impossible Soul of Persons

The lack of a subtle impossible soul of a person, as asserted by Gelug Prasangika, also has doctrinally-based and automatically-arising varieties, as is the case with the Gelug Prasangika assertion of the coarse variety. The doctrinally-based one is based on the non-Prasangika assertion (Sautrantika, Chittamatra and Svatantrika) of the mechanism for how the self, as an imputation on the aggregates, is only knowable simultaneously with the aggregates as its basis for imputation also appearing.

Grasping for a Subtle Impossible Soul of a Person

Let us look more closely at this subtle impossible soul of a person, “me.” Suppose we have realized that the conventional “me,” our “self,” is nonstatic, non-monolithic, cannot exist independently and unimputedly separate from the aggregates (a body and a mind) and can only be cognized simultaneously with the aggregates that it is an imputation on also appearing. Nevertheless, either doctrinally based or automatically arising, we might still grasp for our conventionally existent “me” – an imputed object that is the referent object (bdags-chos) of a conceptual cognition of one – to exist as an actual findable referent “thing” (bdags-don), (the real “me”). A referent “thing” is an entity that is self-established by the power of its uncommon defining characteristic mark (what makes me “me,” what makes “me” a unique individual) being findable in its basis for imputation (in the aggregates). It is like grasping for a “me” that is findable within the aggregates that are its basis for imputation, imputed there and knowable only with that basis for imputation containing it also simultaneously appearing.

To understand this, we need to look at imputation itself more closely than before. As a noncongruent affecting variable, our conventional “me” occurs naturally as an imputation on a network of aggregates and is imputedly knowable, both conceptually and non-conceptually, simultaneously with one or more of those aggregates. But what establishes that there is such a thing as a person, that there is such a thing as “me”? Can we point to something on the side of some object of cognition, for instance a body, that, by its own power or in conjunction with something else, establishes that this is a person? 

The Chittamatra tenet system asserted that dependent phenomena (gzhan-dbang), equivalent to nonstatic phenomena such as a body and a person, when cognized non-conceptually and when cognized conceptually are different. Both Madhyamaka systems, Svatantrika and Prasangika, refute that and assert that they are the same. Thus, according to them, (1) the conventional “me” cognized non-conceptually as an imputed object naturally imputed on a network of aggregates is the same as (2) the conventional “me” cognized conceptually as the referent object of both the name “me” and meaning/object category “me” imputed on a network of aggregates.
But the non-conceptual sensory cognition of a body, for instance seeing one, does not establish that there is such a thing as a person, “me,” as a natural imputation on it as its basis. 

Upon analysis, there is nothing findable on the side of the body that, by its own power, or in conjunction with sensory cognition, makes it a person, “me.” When the name (word) “me” is designated through a meaning/object category on a body, there is still, upon analysis, nothing findable on the side of the body that by its own power or, in conjunction with conceptual cognition, makes it “me.”

What establishes that there is such a thing as person, then? All that anyone can say is that a person, “me,” is merely what the name (word) “me” refers to on the basis of aggregate factors such as a body on which it is designated. The existence of such a thing as “me,” then, is established merely by the fact that it is the referent object of the name “me,” designated by conceptual cognition through a meaning category on aggregates such as a body.  

If, upon analysis, we could point to something findable on the side of a body, for instance, that makes me “me,” then I, as a person, would be truly established (truly existent). This means that the “me” would be self-established (inherently existent), established by the power of a self-establishing nature (rang-bzhin) on its own side. It would be findable as a referent “thing” (bdag-don) that corresponds to the referent object (imputed object) “me.” But, although the word “me” refers to someone, namely the conventional “me” as its referent object (what it refers to), yet it does not correspond to some findable referent “thing” that we can pinpoint on the side of its basis, in this case a body. 

If a category (the category of persons in a population) is like a box, a referent “thing” would be something that exists as if it were in a box (a person as a statistic), independent of everything else. Nothing exists like that. Nobody exists just as a statistic. So it is important to differentiate between a referent object (the conventional “me”) and a referent “thing” (a truly established “me,” the “me” to be refuted), which would be like a solidly existent prop holding up the appearance of a conventional “me” from behind. 

The technical term is a “focal support” (dmigs-rten), as some findable “thing” at which the cognition is aimed and focused. We feel that what supports or substantiates my being an individual person is that I am a concrete number in a population chart. It’s as if being in the population record makes “me” a real person. Or to use a more modern example, what substantiates that I am a person is that I am a person in Facebook.

In short, there is nothing findable on the side of the referent object (the conventional “me”) or its basis for imputation (the body or mind) that by its own power or in conjunction with designation with words establishes the existence of “me” and makes “me” a person. The only thing that we can say establishes the existence of my self is merely designation itself – I am what the name (word) “me” refers to, based on a basis for designation (a body and a mind). There is no findable referent “thing” (me) inside a body and mind that from its own side establishes that the referent object of the label “me” exists.

Two Varieties of Grasping for a Subtle Impossible Soul of a Person

This grasping for the referent object, the conventional “me,” to exist as a referent “thing,” a false “me,” arises automatically or it can be doctrinally based. It arises automatically because the constant habits of grasping for truly established existence cause our mental activity to make the mental holograms, through which we cognize objects, appear to exist that way.

But this grasping could also be doctrinally based from having been taught and having accepted the assertions of the Sautrantika, Chittamatra or Svatantrika tenet systems. All three tenet systems accept the fact that we cannot cognize an imputed phenomenon without also cognizing simultaneously its basis for imputation. So it is impossible that anyone could cognize a person by itself. Yet, because each of these tenet systems asserts that the defining characteristic mark (mtshan-ma) of a person is found as a self-defining characteristic mark (rang-mtshan) in the basis for imputation of the person, belief in this reinforces the automatically-arising grasping for a person to be their basis for imputation – their body, for instance. 

A defining characteristic mark is what distinguishes something from everything else. In any cognition, the mental factor of distinguishing (‘du-shes) cognizes such a mark, otherwise we would be unable to distinguish anything from anything else. However, although defining characteristic marks are conventionally existent, they cannot be found on the side of what is characterized by them (mtshon-bya) or on the side of the mind that cognizes them. If they were findable, then the object characterized by them would have existence established by the power of its individual self-defining characteristic marks (rang-mtshan-gyis grub-pa). Prasangika asserts that such existence is equivalent to truly established existence and self-established existence. 

Suppose that there were findable characteristic marks that had the power to establish that persons exist. Such a mark would be like a bar code or an individual genome; it would be what makes us an individual.

  • Sautrantika asserts that the characteristic mark of a person is in mental consciousness.  In technical jargon, mental consciousness is the common locus (gzhi-mthun) for the characteristic marks of both mental consciousness and a person.
  • Chittamatra asserts that foundation consciousness (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, Skt. alayavijnana) is the basis having the defining characteristic mark (mtshan-gzhi) of a person. When we cognize a person non-conceptually, as when seeing someone, all the components of the cognition – the object, the consciousness of it and the accompanying mental factors – arise simultaneously from the same natal source (rdzas), a karmic “seed” (sa-bon). When we see a person as an imputation on a body, then, there is also present in the cognition the characteristic mark of a person and the basis that contains it – the foundation consciousness underlying the five aggregates.

When we cognize a person conceptually, although the body and person that appear and the categories mentally labeled on them lack any defining characteristic marks on their own, nevertheless they have them on their own sides merely when the categories are mentally labeled on the body and person that simultaneously appear with them in the conceptual cognition. The self-defining characteristic mark of the body is findable on the side of the body and the self-defining characteristic mark of the person is findable on the side of the foundation consciousness underlying the mental consciousness of the conceptual cognition.

  • Svatantrika asserts that the self-defining characteristic mark of a person is findable on the side of “mental consciousnesss as a basis having the defining characteristic mark” (mtshan-gzhi yid-kyi rnam-shes) that also makes it an individual person. So even in combination with imputation, the basis for labeling must also appear since that is the locus of the characteristic mark. The mental consciousness pervades the other aggregates, so when we see a body, we also cognize the mental consciousness. So we cannot cognize the person by itself.
  • a truly established “me” as identical with its basis for imputation, for instance “I am mental consciousness,”
  • or a truly established “me, the possessor” as being totally different and separate from the aggregates, which are things that it inhabits, possesses and controls.

Thus, each of these non-Prasangika systems explains that the self, a person, has a findable self-defining characteristic mark on the side of its basis for imputation and that this mark has the power on its own (or Svatantrika asserts in conjunction with imputation) to establish the existence of that person.

Self-Defining Characteristic Marks

What are these self-defining characteristic marks? Perhaps we can understand this from the example of a Facebook page as a basis for imputation of a person. The self-defining characteristic mark that would establish the existence of a person would be the findable presence of them on their own Facebook page. It is almost like, “I have a Facebook page; therefore I exist.” If we’re not on Facebook, we don’t exist as a person. 

Then we add other self-defining characteristic makes, namely the profile, for instance a name, gender, age, work, education, and other qualities. Readers of our Facebook page then take our “self” to exist as an imputed person on the basis of this Facebook page, and even further on the basis of the profile we put of ourselves on the Facebook page. In fact, however, we do not exist simply as a person on a Facebook page; we are an actual person with many more qualities and aspects as the ones we chose to put on our page. 

Although the Facebook page refers to us, and not to someone else; nevertheless, there is no such person as one that corresponds to the Facebook page profile. But on the basis of identifying with that made-up person as “me” – casting the net of a truly established “me” onto that Facebook person – we experience the disturbing emotions of longing desire for “Likes” and anger when we do not have “Likes.” Others just relate to that imaginary Facebook person as if that were the real us, but in fact it isn’t “me” at all.

A Facebook page, astrology chart or numerology chart are not appropriate bases for the imputation a person. However, if we understand this presentation in terms of Facebook, then we can extend that to understanding the presentation in terms of mental consciousness or foundation consciousness as the locus of self-defining characteristic marks supposedly establishing the existence of a person.

Subtle Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes

Even if we have rid ourselves of the doctrinally-based and automatically-arising disturbing emotions and attitudes as defined by the non-Prasangika Buddhist tenet systems (what Prasangika calls the “coarse disturbing emotions and attitudes”), Prasangika asserts that we are still left with subtle disturbing emotions and attitudes. These are based only on grasping for a person to be truly established as a findable referent “thing,” self-established by the power of its own self-nature and by the power of self-defining characteristic marks findable on its basis for imputation. These subtle disturbing emotions are not aimed at persons or objects. They are aimed at this impossible way of existing. We grasp for this impossible way of existing despite realizing that the self, a person, is nonstatic, non-monolithic, an imputation on the aggregates, cannot exist separately from a network of aggregates as its basis for imputation and knowable only simultaneously with the aggregates.

Because of this grasping, we still have thirsting and obtainers like a deluded outlook toward a transitory network, which casts onto the conventional “me” the net of either

Again, the same analysis of neither one nor many applies here for gaining the understanding of the voidness of such an impossible soul of a person.

Summary

In short, we need non-conceptual cognition of the lack of all three types of impossible soul of a person in order to rid ourselves of the three levels of unawareness of how persons exist that constitute the first of the twelve links of dependent arising, and thus stop forever the tainted aggregates of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

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