Emptiness as a Negation Phenomenon

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Features of Negation Phenomena

When we have gone through the four-point analysis and we have come to the conclusion that this impossible “me” is not in either of the two possibilities of the dichotomy of existent phenomena, then we have to conclude that it is non-existent. Now, how do we focus on voidness (emptiness)? You have to focus on voidness; total absorption on voidness. And voidness is a negation phenomenon. So we have a conceptual cognition of what it is that we are refuting and then we preclude it, we exclude it – not that. Okay? Then we focus on the negation. So we have to understand negation phenomena; that’s rather complex. Let me introduce some features about negation phenomena.

A negation phenomenon may be items with several properties or qualities or qualifications. In such cases the phenomena are classified as negations as a single unit encompassing the item and its properties.

  • "No garbage" – that’s a negation phenomenon.
  • "No garbage on the street" – that’s also a negation phenomenon because what we are negating is not just this garbage; we’re negating garbage on the street.
  • "No garbage on the wide street" – that also is a negation phenomenon; what we are negating is this whole unit, "garbage on the wide street." So the object negated can have many properties, many qualifications, many qualities; it’s all as a unit being negated. Follow that?

If one element in the unit would be a negation phenomenon on its own, the entire unit is a negation phenomenon. For instance, "a city with no garbage on its streets" is a negation phenomenon because one element in this unit – "a city with no garbage on its streets" – is a negation phenomenon, so the whole thing is a negation phenomenon. Follow that?

Although negation phenomena are existent phenomenon, there may be negations of non-existent phenomenon. "No flying saucers" – that is a existent phenomenon. "Existent" means you can validly know there are no flying saucers, although flying saucers don’t exist. "Flying saucers" can’t be validly known but "no flying saucers" can be validly known; or "not a flying saucer" – this is not a flying saucer. (Or is it?) A saucer that doesn’t fly – we’re not talking about that. "Flying saucer" is a unit; it's the same thing for affirmation phenomenon – the quality and the item form one unit – "no garbage on the street" or "garbage on the street." So "no flying saucers" – that’s an existent phenomenon even though flying saucers don’t exist. Or "a street without flying saucers" – that’s a negation phenomenon even though what is absent, flying saucers, doesn’t exist.

So, similarly, we have no true findable existence. True findable existence doesn’t exist – you can’t validly know it – but we can validly know the negation phenomenon "no true findable existence;" or "no true findable existence of a person" – "true findable existence of a person" as a unit forms what we are negating, right? So we could have one part which is non-existent – the true existence – but you could have another part which is existent, like the person. But the unit is going to be characterized by if there’s a negation within that unit, then the whole unit is a negation.

So, "no true findable existence of a person" – that’s a negation phenomenon, like "no flying saucers on the street;" and "a person lacking true findable existence" – that’s also a negation phenomenon like "a street without flying saucers." This is the basic ABC of negation phenomena. We have to understand it because it’s a little bit complex.

What is the flying saucer in this case, which does not exist?

The flying saucer is true findable existence. It doesn’t exist, but we could represent it by something in order to negate it. You could represent it by a cartoon of a flying saucer, and likewise we have some sort of mental cartoon, a hologram, that represents true findable existence. But it is a way of existing, so a true findable existence of a person.

So that is just our idea?

To put it in regular language rather than Buddhist jargon, it would be our idea of a person. But there’s an idea of what the person is and that idea has two components: what the characteristics of that person is – a man or a woman or this age or that age – and then how they exist; they're mixed together. One of Tsongkhapa’s special features is that each of these two aspects could be accurate or inaccurate.

Now, we have a division here within negation phenomena known as "implicative negation phenomenon" and "non-implicative negation phenomenon." Jeffrey Hopkins uses the terminology "affirming negation" and "non-affirming negation." Anyway, I prefer "implicative" and "non-implicative." "Implicative" means implies.

Definitions (not very easy definitions):

  • An implicative negation phenomenon is an exclusion of something else – that’s a negation; exclusion of something else – in which after the sounds of the words that exclude the object to be negated have negated that object – so the words have to negate it – "not an apple," "not true existence" – so the whole unit, the negation phenomenon, after the negating words have negated, have excluded the object to be negated, they leave behind in their wake – and I will explain that word – either explicitly or implicitly something else. A "wake" is something like when you have a motor boat that is leaking oil, and it goes forward and it leaves a trace of oil behind it. Or the examples that they use without oil is that it leaves sort of a wave or something like that as it goes forward. That’s the wake; it leaves something behind.
  • A non-implicative one doesn’t leave something behind, doesn’t leave a wake.

Negating Impossible Ways of Existing of the Self

Implicative Negation

Remember, we had as an example of a negation phenomenon, a street without garbage. We have the basis for negation – that is an imputed person; and then what is the location of that imputed person? The location of the basis of negation is the five aggregates; it’s imputed on the five aggregates. And what is being negated? It is devoid of true findable existence. That is what the object to be negated is: true findable existence. And this is an implicative negation phenomenon, the whole thing: "a person, imputed on the five aggregates, that is devoid of true findable existence." What is left over in the wake of the negation is "a person imputed on the five aggregates, about which something else could be the case," such as "a person, imputed on the five aggregates, that is a dependent arising."

"A person, imputed on the five aggregates, that is devoid of true findable existence" is like the example of "streets in a city that are devoid of garbage." "Streets in the city" form a unit. Streets actually are the basis for the negation of garbage; there’s no garbage on the streets. But what’s the location of the streets? It’s in the city. So, the basis of negation and the location of the basis. And what is that basis – the streets – devoid of? It’s garbage. What is being negated from the basis, from the streets? It's garbage.

So here we have a person – an imputedly existent person.

  • What’s the location? It’s located as an imputation on the five aggregates.
  • Now, what is being negated about it? What’s being negated about that person that is an imputation on the aggregates? It is that it is has true findable existence.
  • Now, when you eliminate the object to be negated, what’s left in the wake of that negation? "A person imputed on the aggregates" and about whom something else could be affirmed, such as being a dependent arising.

When we understand that there is no garbage on the streets of the city, so we negate "no garbage" – what are we left with? We're left with the streets of the city, about which something else could be affirmed, such as having a lot of traffic.

So the only thing that’s left is imputation…

No, the only thing that is left is the self imputed on the aggregates. Imputation cannot exist by itself, separate from what is being imputed and the basis for imputation – the three spheres. Okay?

Non-implicative Negation

Voidness is not that; that’s not how we meditate on voidness. When we focus with total absorption on voidness, we are focusing on a non-implicative negation. So, we’re talking about "no such thing."

The thing that we are negating is true findable existence.

  • What is the basis for that negation? It’s the person or the self that’s imputedly existent.
  • What’s the location of that self? The location of the basis of negation is the five aggregates. The whole unit of the "true existence of the person imputed on the aggregates" – that’s what’s being negated.
  • Once we have negated that whole unit, what are we left with? Nothing; no such thing. But we understand that nothing to be the absence of this whole thing – the true existence of a self imputed on the aggregates.

When we see no apple on the table, we see nothing, but we understand that nothing to be no apple. That's a non-implicative negation. But when we look at this watch and negate this watch is not an apple, that's an implicative negation. We have refuted that it’s an apple, so it’s not an apple, but what is left over is the affirmation "it’s a watch" – a watch that’s not an apple. Likewise, an implicative negation would be a person imputed on the aggregates that’s not truly existent. That's very different from the non-implicative one, no truly existent person imputed on the aggregates. No apple on the table; no truly existent person imputed on the aggregates. But in these examples, when we negate an apple or garbage, both are existent phenomena. With truly existent persons we’re talking about something that’s non-existent. And we’re not talking about a non-existent object like flying saucers; we’re talking about a non-existent way of existing.

So, at the conclusion of the four-point analysis, when we focus on voidness, we’re focusing on no such thing as this impossible way of existing of a self that is an imputation on the aggregates. The aggregates are the location. The impossible way of existing pertains to the self. We’re not talking about the impossible way of existing of the location of the self, the aggregates. So, the basis for the negation, a self that is an imputation on the aggregates, is an affirmation phenomenon. What’s impossible, on the first level of negation, is the existence of a self, in relation to the aggregates, as being identical with them; or as sitting inside them – not changing, with no parts – and which could come out of sitting in that location and be liberated, be somewhere else without being inside a body or a mind. There is no such manner of existence of a self. That's a non-implicative negation.

Our subsequent realization after that negation is that the self only appears to exist either as identical with or totally separate from the aggregates, but that is like an illusion. That doesn't correspond to how the self actually exists. The relation of a self and the aggregates is not one of an inhabitant sitting trapped inside the mind and pressing the buttons and which can go off by itself when liberated. We come to realize that the self is an imputation on the aggregates.

But even if we understand that, nevertheless such a self appears to exist as something that can be known all by itself. It appears to be self-sufficiently knowable. That doesn’t make any sense. So next we negate that impossible way of existing: existence of the imputed self as something self-sufficiently knowable. And after that negation, we go on to negate the existence of an imputedly knowable self as having its defining characteristic findable located in its basis for imputation, for instance in mental consciousness. That too is impossible – there is no such way of existing.

So, in our total absorption on any of these three non-implicative refutations, “no such thing as these impossible ways of existing," we are not focusing on a person that doesn’t exist in some impossible way in relation to the aggregates. We’re just focusing on "no such thing," and this is like space; it appears to be nothing. You can focus on that "no such thing" conceptually or non-conceptually; the mechanism is slightly different.

Then, we have the subsequent realization, the subsequent attainment – literally, the subsequently attained realization – that can only come after this total absorption on “no such thing.” So now we’re explicitly focusing on the person in relation to the aggregates. It appears to exist in impossible ways, but we realize that it's like an illusion. That's because although it appears to exist that way, that doesn't correspond to how it actually exists. Implicitly, we realize that there is no such thing as those impossible ways of existing. So instead of explicitly focusing on "no such thing," in which "no such thing" is what appears, as we do during total absorption, during subsequent realization, we explicitly focus on the self that appears to exist in impossible ways and we only implicitly focus on "no such thing," in which "no such thing" does not appear.

So there are the two steps in the meditation:

  • The total absorption on space-like voidness
  • The subsequent attainment or realization of illusion-like voidness.

These two phases of the meditation, these two steps, are known in Jeffrey Hopkins' terminology as "meditative equipoise" and "post-meditation." To call the second phase post-meditation can misleading because we’re still in meditation; and it could be while we’re still in meditation or it could be in between meditations. But it can only follow immediately after total absorption. You have to have the total absorption first and this is what we realize subsequent to that right after.

These two terms, total absorption and subsequent attainment, are technical terms that refer to when we have the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana; and that joined pair can be either conceptual or non-conceptual. It's very specific. So this is the way in which we actually then focus on voidness: total absorption, “no such thing,” and then it’s not that what’s left in the wake after the negation that we are focusing on is subsequent attainment. It’s not that. And it's not that in total absorption we were focusing on a person that is devoid of existing in impossible ways, or even on the total absence of impossible ways of a person existing and then in subsequent realization we are focusing on a person that exists in a possible way, namely as an imputation on the aggregates.

Let’s use an example. We have an empty glass. It’s not that we have a glass and we realize that there's no water in it – it’s empty. In that case, we would first be focusing on a glass with no water in it, and then we would be focusing on "no water" in it, but what’s left in the wake is the glass with no water, but there could be something else in the glass, like juice. We haven't excluded that possibility. So it is not that we start with focusing on "a glass with no water in it" and then we focus on "no water in it" and then we focus on what was left – the glass with no water. Or to emphasize that we’re talking about something impossible: the glass never had a flying saucer in it, alright? So you focus on "no such thing as a flying saucer in the glass." So that’s what you’re focusing on. Although it’s a glass with no flying saucer in it, the negation "no flying saucer in the glass" does not leave in its wake the possibility of something else being in the glass. And what we’re talking about with the subsequent attainment is the glass with no flying saucer in it.

What we’re meditating on is "no such thing as the flying saucer in a glass." What are we left with when we understand no such thing as a flying saucer in a glass? Nothing; no such thing. So now in the subsequent attainment we’re not focusing on what was left over from the non-implicative negation because nothing was left over. Now we’re focusing on a glass that never had a flying saucer in it but it seems as though it had a flying saucer in it.

Also, it's not that there was a glass with a flying saucer in it and our refutation emptied the flying saucer from the glass. So, it's not that conventionally there is a self that exists in an impossible way and emptiness empties the self of that impossible way. Objects are not made empty by emptiness. In pointing this out, Prasangika is refuting the Svatantrika position that conventionally things exist with self-established existence, because they appear like that, but on the deepest level they are devoid of existing in that way.

So these are very very fine distinctions that we’re making, but they are very crucial for correct meditation.

Tomorrow we will try a little bit some of the steps of this meditation to get a little bit of an appreciation of what is involved. The significance here of differentiating implicative and non-implicative negations is to avoid meditating like this: 'Well yes, there is a "me" but it doesn’t exist in some strange ways.' So that could lead to an implicative negation; it's very tempting to meditate like that. It’s more secure. You know, 'I’m existent, I really do exist, but I have some strange ideas of how I exist. So I just have to clear those out and I’m left with the “me” that’s existent, that was existing there all along.' Instead what we’re doing is “there’s no such thing” as an impossible “me,” and we understand the mechanism of how the “me” is an imputation on the aggregates – this whole scheme that we had; and when we understand that there’s no such thing as the impossible “me,” then we understand imputation and mental labeling.

In the end, we understand voidness to mean dependent arising. Tsongkhapa says that’s the most difficult thing, because what we tend to do is want to first affirm the conventional self as something dependently arising and we make dependent arising as a findable mode of existence, and then we refute something else about that dependently arising “me.” That’s the Svatantrika fallacy – they assert the self to have self-established existence, but devoid of true unimputed existence. In simpler language, Svatantrika asserts that the dependently arising self is findable; it exists wrapped in plastic as a dependently arising self. And we’re just refuting that it’s not independently arising; we’re refuting "not dependently arising." So it’s sitting there wrapped in plastic all along. So what we do is we start, 'There’s no such thing as anything wrapped in plastic,' and when we understand that there’s no such thing as anything wrapped in plastic then we understand how dependent arising works. Do you see the difference? It’s rather subtle but it’s really a big difference. Okay?


Focusing on a Negation

When we’re negating the flying saucer in the glass, are we just focusing on the intellectual idea that actually it’s not true, there is no real flying saucer in the glass? Is that how we do it?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains it or describes it as just having a sword, like the sword of Manjushri, and just tzaak! – cut it – and you don’t have that image anymore; no such thing.

Stages of Meditation

When we’re speaking about those two stages of total absorption and subsequent attainment, how do we realize when we’re really ready to go from the first to the second? Is it just our urge to go from the first to the second because we feel we’ve done enough with the first?

That depends on how advanced we are in our ability to really concentrate. We can work on that now at our level, in which we do not have shamatha and we do not have vipashyana and so we don’t have perfect concentration etc. So we're going to just stay focused as long as we can and then if we have terrible mental wandering and so on it’s hopeless. So we try to do a little bit of focusing on space-like voidness and a little bit on illusion-like voidness, but it’s going to be quite difficult actually; we have no concentration skills. That’s why what we mostly are going to be doing out of the three steps of listening, thinking and meditating is the second step: thinking. We listen to the teachings on voidness, we’ve heard them and checked that we have heard them correctly; then we have to think about them and try to understand them correctly. That’s what we need to spend a lot of time on.

But once we have shamatha joined with vipashyana and we have practiced conceptually, and we get non-conceptual cognition, then the seeing pathway mind has sixteen phases – if we’re doing it just in terms of the impossible “me.” With total absorption, there are two parts: the uninterrupted pathway mind and the liberated pathway mind. The uninterrupted ones act as the opponent to get rid of what you need to get rid of – this doctrinally-based unawareness for example. And the liberated ones are free of that.

After each of the uninterrupted phases you have a liberated phase, but remember, both phases are during total absorption. First you negate the misconceptions that you have about the “me” that is experiencing true suffering and after that you are liberated from the ignorance (unawareness) you had about that aspect of the self, and the disturbing emotions you had based on that doctrinally based unawareness. Then you negate the misconceptions about the “me” experiencing the true causes of suffering and then you are liberated from that unawareness. Then the misconceptions about the self experiencing true stopping and then liberated from that unawareness. And then the misconceptions about the self experiencing true pathway minds, and then liberated from that unawareness. So there are four uninterrupted pathways of mind and four liberated pathway minds that get rid of the misconceptions and unawareness about the self. Each phase of uninterrupted path and liberated path, taken together, for each of the noble truths counts as one, and so four uninterrupted pathway minds and four liberated pathway minds make eight. All eight have to do with the misconceptions, unawareness and disturbing emotions you experience with your mind on the plane of sensory desires (the desire realm).

Then we have a parallel set of four uninterrupted and four liberated minds in relation to the four noble truths that occur with respect to our mind being on the planes of ethereal forms of the plane of formless beings. That refers to the fact that even when your non-conceptual state of shamatha joined with vipashyana is absorbed on one of the six levels of mental stability – the dhyanas and so forth – there still will be unawareness and disturbing emotions like pride associated with it. The next eight phases rid your minds of them.

In other words, even if you understand this voidness etc. with a mind that is on the plane of ethereal forms or formless beings, your body is in the desire realm; just your mind is in these higher reams, these dhyanas. When you are experiencing the four noble truths with that mind, there are misconceptions, ignorance and certain disturbing emotions that you could have about the self with those minds. So this is what you’re getting rid of. You go through those eight again with the four noble truths. So with the first set of eight pathway minds, you're getting rid of the unawareness and disturbing emotions that are associated with the mind that’s on the desire realm level, and then with the second set of eight, you're getting rid of the unawareness and disturbing emotions that are associated with these two higher levels. I have no idea how long it takes to go through those sixteen phases, and I really am not sure whether or not you do that in one sitting or you do it in several sittings, and do you have that subsequent attainment after each pair or just after some of them or after all of them. There’s undoubtedly many variants of how to do it. But that’s the seeing pathway mind; that’s the path of seeing. That’s what happens with that level of mind.

It is because of this structure of the seeing pathway of mind that I have been presenting this discussion of how to refute the false "me" in terms of the "me that experiences the four noble truths and, with the four placements of close mindfulness focuses on the aggregates as exemplifying the four noble truths – the body as true suffering and so on.