Review of the Four Noble Truths and Voidness
We've been speaking about the importance of understanding the four noble truths:
- true suffering,
- true origins or causes,
- true stopping,
- true pathway-mind that will lead to that stopping,
Although we didn’t list them or explain them, to understand these four in detail, in precision, we need to understand the four characteristics that each of them have and the four characteristics that each of them don’t have. So these so-called sixteen characteristics of the four noble truths is something that I highly recommend that you study in the future.
In addition to actually being able to know in precision what these four noble truths are, we need to understand the voidness of the person who experiences these four noble truths; so primarily the voidness of ourselves and others. But we start with the voidness of ourselves. We experience suffering and their causes – the first two noble truths – and we want to experience the second two noble truths – the true stopping of the suffering and the understanding that will bring that about.
We also need to understand the voidness of the four noble truths themselves, particularly in terms of they themselves; the causality involved; and the three spheres of what we are realizing, the person who realizes it, and the procedure or activity of realizing it. We need to understand these with a mind that has of course refuge – safe direction – in it; determination to be free – that’s renunciation; love; compassion; the exceptional resolve; bodhichitta; the six far reaching attitudes:
- ethical self-discipline;
- this courageous heroic perseverance;
- mental stability, specifically in the form of shamatha – a stilled and settled state of mind
- discriminating awareness, specifically in the form of vipashyana – an exceptionally perceptive state of mind.
To get that type of mind that combines all these different features, and to have it be the type of mind with which we perceive the conventional truth and deepest truth of the four noble truths, is quite an accomplishment, isn’t it? Therefore we need to build up and start to network together each of these components. To network them together as we build up more and more of them, we need to understand how they fit together; not to have them be totally unrelated to each other. This is what I try to convey with the image if bringing together the various pieces of the puzzle.
Now, in working to get the correct understanding of voidness, we saw that we need to understand the voidness of persons and the voidness of all phenomena. The voidness of all phenomenon of course includes the person, but there are levels of what is to be negated with our understanding of voidnes; what is to be refuted. This means to understand that there’s certain ways of existing that are just impossible; we have to refute and reject and clear away and achieve a true stopping of any belief that we might have in these impossible ways – that they correspond to reality.
Review of Impossible Ways of How Persons Exist
There's a coarse and a subtle impossible way of existing for persons; so persons don’t exist in either of these ways. And there is a third impossible way that nothing exists in that way, either persons or all phenomena. What we need to understand, in relation to persons for example, is that all these three impossible ways of existing – the appearance of it and our belief in it going on simultaneously. So when we refute the coarse level, we’re still left with the two subtle levels underneath it; and when we refute the second level, then we’re still left with the third level. In that way these three impossible ways of existing sort of mix together in our ordinary experience. When we gain more precision in our understanding, then we can disentangle them and get rid of them on progressively deeper levels. And we saw that if we try to just refute the deepest level without getting rid of the two other levels, it doesn’t work.
Now, just to review very quickly, the four point analysis – to be able to refute and attain a true stopping of our belief in these impossible ways of existing –
- It starts out with recognizing or identifying the object to be refuted.
- The second step is to understand and be convinced that that the logic that we’re going to use will disprove that there is such a thing as this object to be negated.
- Then the third and fourth points are the actual logical analysis.
- And then at the end of the four you come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as this impossible way of existing with reference to persons – what we’re focusing on in our seminar.
The coarse level of false, impossible “me” is the one that is doctrinally-based; in other words we had to be taught it, and we would have been taught it either in this lifetime or previous lifetimes by one of the non-Buddhist Indian schools of philosophy. Such an impossible self has three characteristics:
- it’s static, so it doesn’t change from moment to moment; it’s not affected by anything. The fact that it’s eternal is not a problem because Buddhism also says that the self is eternal. The question here is, does it change form moment to moment or not?
- The second characteristic is that it is a single unit – a monolith without any parts.
- The third characteristic is that it can exist independently by itself, specifically when it’s liberated, without a body or a mind, because all of these Indian philosophies except for one are asserting liberation. They also all assert karma, but they assert karma in relation to this type of impossible self, and Buddhism finds that quite self-contradictory: how can you have a static self experience cause and effect without there being change?
When we are discussing the self – the way that Buddhism is refuting it – we have to understand that Buddha was speaking to an Indian audience, and all the Indian philosophies were dealing with the same issues. Except for one [system], which is sort of the materialist system, they all are talking about rebirth and an atman, a self, that goes on forever; and that self is undergoing samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth; and we want to gain liberation from it. And that samsaric rebirth is under the influence of karma; everybody’s talking about that issue. Even when we talk about liberation, in those schools that accept that there’s going to be some sort of relationship between the liberated self and the whole universe – either you’re one with the universe, with everything; or you’re omniscient, you know the whole universe; or you’re totally separate from the whole universe. But they're discussing this issue of the relation of the liberated self and the universe.
Buddha tried out some of these other systems and he found that they didn’t really bring true liberation because they didn’t identify really what the true problem, the true cause, and what a true stopping of it would be; and what would actually be the understanding that would bring about that true stopping. Therefore he asserted the four noble truths. Therefore Buddha refined the understanding of all these commonly discussed issues by refuting the misconceptions that these various schools had concerning these points, and also the automatically arising misconceptions that would be there. It’s helpful to understand this broader historical context of why Buddha taught what he taught in the form in which he taught. Therefore, it is important to discuss first these doctrinally-based incorrect views.
First Level: Refuting the Coarse Impossible "Me"
So, first understand and refute the coarse impossible “me” as asserted by these non-Buddhist Indian schools. Buddhism understands that the self is imputed on the aggregates; in simple language, body and mind. It can’t exist independently of a body and mind even when liberated or in the state of enlightenment; the body and mind might be quite a different type from what we have as an ordinary being, but still the self cannot exist independently of a body and mind. It is imputedly existent.
Second Level: Refuting the Subtle Impossible "Me"
Then we saw there is the imputation “me,” and there is its basis for imputation – the five aggregates. And just as the five aggregates change from moment to moment, so does the self that is an imputation on them. The five aggregates have parts and they are all changing at different rates, so the self that is an imputation on them would also have parts. Now, in order to cognize the self, then first the aggregates have to appear, and then one micro-second after that, the aggregates and the person appear. The person is an imputation on the aggregates and you can see, non-conceptually, both the aggregates, specifically a body, and the person simultaneously.
The self cannot be cognized independently of the aggregates appearing first and then simultaneously. However, it doesn’t appear like that to us. Automatically it appears to us as though you could see that “me” without the basis appearing. "I see Tenpa," "I know Tenpa," "I’m speaking to Tenpa." It seems like that; that’s how we understand it, and not that "I am seeing a body and as an imputation on the body is Tenpa, and Tenpa is just a name." That arises automatically. That is what is to be refuted on the next level. That’s the subtle self to be refuted, which arises automatically. But the Vaibhashika school of Buddhist tenets says that the self can be self-sufficiently known. So we could also have this wrong view doctrinally-based.
Third Level: Refuting "Me" as a Referent Thing
The third level is discussing, within the understanding that the self, as an imputation, can only be know simultaneously with the basis for imputation, the five aggregates. So we understand that; and now the issue is, how are we able to distinguish a person when perceiving the aggregates?
In each moment there’s going to be, in this basis for imputation, according to the various Buddhist tenet systems, either alayavijnana or mental consciousness or some sort of subtle mental consciousness. So it seems as though that basis – that is always going to be there when you perceive a person – must have the defining characteristics of a person that you can distinguish so that you could perceive the imputed person on that basis. So the characteristic features – whether it’s a genome, whether it is whatever; what makes “me” “me” – that is in this mental consciousness – we’ll speak from the Svatantrika point of view – along with the defining characteristics of it being a mind. And that is how we are able to cognize the self that is an imputation on the aggregates, with the mental consciousness being the more stable basis.
Now, if the defining characteristics are on the side of the basis for imputation then either (1) by themselves, by their own power, they are able to establish that there’s a person – which would be how the Sautrantikas and Chittamatrins assert it – or (2) they have to be in some sense sort of activated by the imputation, to think in a very simplistic way, sort of lit up by the imputation in order to establish that it’s a person that you’re seeing, not just a body. Nevertheless, the assertion is that these defining characteristics are sitting there on the side of the basis for imputation. So, something with the defining characteristics on its own side – a “me” with defining characteristics on its own side, on its own side of the “me” – that’s a referent thing.
That constitutes a “me” as a referent thing of the imputation. It has its defining characteristics on its own side, making it an individual – it’s like that those defining characteristics are wrapping this “me,” into a thing, wrapped or encapsulated now in plastic. It's as if there are defining characteristics that just make something a thing that’s just separated from everything else like there’s boundary around it, and that is how the individuality is established by a characteristic inside that does the wrapping in plastic. It makes our whole world like a child’s coloring book, with lines around everything separating them into individual items, and our minds can then do the coloring – the imputation and projecting the various qualities and so on. But from the side of the object, it’s a coloring book. That’s how it seems to us.
And also those characteristics on the side of the object make it what it is; make “me” “me” and not you. So it encapsulates it and puts a little barcode on it – what it is. And by the power of these defining characteristics, it makes “me” a findable thing, a referent thing – where? Inside the basis for imputation, inside the aggregates; specifically inside the mind. That is very very subtle: that there is “me” sort of encapsulated in plastic in my mind somewhere. 'I understand that it can’t be liberated and go to some transcendent realm; I understand that it’s not like that. It’s not static; I’m affected by all sorts of things. I have many parts. I can only be known by my body being known as the same time; I can only think of myself when I’m thinking of the mental word “me" or an image or a feeling. I understand that. But still, there’s "me" as some sort of thing located inside my mind, and that will go onto enlightenment and it will be “me” in mind or clear-light mind (or whatever system we want to use to describe it). Even as a Buddha – that’s “me” and what makes “me” “me” is the defining characteristic on the side of the consciousness making it a thing; wrapping it in plastic as “me” putting the stamp on it. That’s “me,” not you.'
This appearance of such an impossible “me” – really really subtle one – and belief in it, either is something that simply automatically arises or it could in addition be supplemented by the doctrinally-based misbelief in such a self that we learned from the Sautrantika, Chittamatra or Svatantrika systems. This is the subtlest object of refutation and that pertains not just to persons but to everything. Everything seems as though it’s existing in the basis; the characteristic features are found in the basis that wraps what is imputed on it into a thing, a findable thing. When we talk about findable, that’s what we’re talking about.
When we’re recognizing the world as you’re describing and instinctively wrapping our things into separate findable somethings, is that procedure of cognition happening automatically from the side of the object, as if jumping at us; or is it initiated by the mind that cognizes?
It’s initiated by the mind that is projecting this onto the object. That is the whole thing to be refuted: that it’s coming from the side of the object; that from the side of the object it has the power by itself to project that, to make that so.
Then how to explain the fact that small babies, for example, do react when they are stimulated in some way, because they do not seem to possess the consciousness that would be equally sophisticated to what we possess?
This whole process is unconscious. It occurs with the minds of animals as well. As I said, this automatically arises and it can be supplemented by what you learn. Modern science I think would have to agree with this Buddhist position. Think about it: all physical objects are made of atoms and the atoms are made of particles and you go down further and further and further – energy fields, quarks etc.; there's nothing solid there. There is nothing on the side of the body, which is just this incredible field of atoms and energy, that puts a line around it and wraps it in plastic and makes it into a thing separate from the very definite defining line between what is, let’s say, the hair, and what is the molecules of the air next to it.
There's no definite boundary there, no findable boundary, when you really really examine closely. But just in our ordinary perception, because of the limitations of our hardware – of our eyes and our brain and so on – we don’t see the body and the hair like that. It seems as though there’s a very clear boundary between hair and the air around. But when you analyze, when you examine really really closely, you can’t find it. You can’t find something inside hair that is generating and making that boundary around it. It’s our mind that's doing that because of our limited abilities of perception.
So, is there a body in front of me? Is there a person? Yes; that's the conventional “me.” Is there anything on the side of the body that is making the boundary between the body and the air, and making it into a body and making it into a person? No. But I’m not just seeing colored shapes; I’m not just seeing pixels either. On the basis of that I’m seeing a body, but what am I actually seeing? I’m just seeing pixels really. You take a photograph, and what is on the photograph? It’s pixels, colored shapes. And you point to the photograph and you say, 'Oh, that’s me.' It’s not so different from pointing to the photograph and saying 'That’s me.'
Or having a series of photographs from let’s say each five years of your life and saying, “Oh yeah, all of that, that’s me' – as if there’s a static “me.” 'The body changed but I didn’t change; all of them are me.' Then you start to analyze: how do I know that’s “me?” How do I recognize that each of these photographs – when I was a baby, five years old, ten years old, twenty years old – that they’re all “me?” Is there something on the side of pixels that allows me to identify that that’s “me?” Or even if they’re holograms of “me” from each of these periods or just looking at myself in the mirror, how do I know that’s “me?” These are the questions that we need to investigate when we are trying to understand this.
How do I know that’s “me?” How do I identify what makes that “me?” Well, there’s the convention of “me;” others who knew me over this time would agree that that was “me;” and looking at it at the deepest level, we understand that there’s nothing there that makes “me” “me” from its side. But just on that basis, from the mind, it’s correct that that was “me” – that’s "me." Nothing on the side of the pictures or the body establishes it by its own power or in conjunction with calling it “me;” they don’t have that power to make it “me” – to establish, to prove, that it was “me.”
On a very practical level I think it would be very helpful for voidness meditation to lay out a series of photographs of yourself over different periods of your life, and try to figure out what makes each of them “me.” I think that would illustrate quite clearly what we’re talking about here. How do I know? Is it because on the back of the photograph it’s written that it’s “me” at this age? How do I know? And if there’s a picture of a baby – I don’t know what I looked like as a baby – so how do I know that that was “me?” Somebody who knew us had to tell us – our mother or father – somebody had to say that was “me.” That’s how we knew. It’s not obvious from the photograph. Babies – most of them look almost alike when they’re born, like all the penguins in Antarctica.
What carries karma if we refute the existence of alayavijnana [foundation consciousness] again.
According to Prasangika the mere “me,” imputed on five aggregates from moment to moment. They’re imputed on the mere “me” imputed on the aggregates. The karmic tendencies are imputed on the “me," the conventional “me,” which is imputed on the aggregates. Or if we speak in terms of anuttarayoga tantra, karma imputed on the mere “me;” and the mere “me” imputed on the network or the combination of clear-light mind and the subtlest wind.