The Coarse False “Me” of the Non-Buddhist Indian Systems

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Review: The Context for Meditating on the False "Me"

Yesterday we began our discussion of how to meditate on the voidness of the false “me” experiencing the four noble truths. We looked at the general context within which this is studied and meditated upon. We saw that this done in the context of working to attain liberation or both liberation and enlightenment. And we were looking specifically at the context of how this meditation is done in relation to the four noble truths: true suffering, true origins or causes of suffering, true stopping of suffering, and the true pathway mind or understanding that will lead to that stopping. What we are dealing with is “me” as person who is experiencing true sufferings because of the true origins of suffering; and the “me” who will attain the true stoppings of suffering by developing the true pathway minds. How do I exist? This is the real question, because if we trace down to the root of what is the cause of true suffering – it is our unawareness of how we exist. Either we don’t know how we exist or we imagine in an incorrect way how we exist – different ways of analyzing this situation.

Types of Unawareness

Now if we look at the so-called Hinayana tenet systems, they are teaching methods for attaining liberation. That is the primary goal. In addition to the basic unawareness of cause and effect – behavioral cause and effect – is unawareness about we, as persons, exist; we and others. There are two levels or topics of unawareness when we talk about unawareness. We’re not talking about general unawareness or know incorrectly how to drive a car. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about two specific topics:

  • We're unaware of behavioral cause and effect – we’re unaware that destructive behavior is self-destructive and leads to our own suffering;
  • Unawareness of reality, which causes us to act in compulsive karmic ways, which generates rebirth, uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

Within unawareness of reality, we can speak just in terms of the unawareness of how persons exist – us and others – or all phenomena exist. In the Hinayana systems as studied by the Nalanda tradition, we have Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. They are actually sub-divisions of Sarvastivada, which is one of the eighteen so-called Hinayana schools. Theravada is one of the other eighteen and that was not studied – well, I don’t know whether it was studied actually or not in Nalanda, but at least the Tibetan tradition doesn’t carry on any study of Theravada. It’s just these two sub schools of Sarvastivada. Those were schools whose texts were written in Sanskrit. The Theravada schools, their scriptures are written in Pali – a slightly different language. These two Hinayana schools, Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, assert that in order to attain liberation, which was the only thing they are really describing in full how to do, we need to get rid of the unawareness of how persons exist. Vaibhashika asserts only one level; Sautrantika asserts two levels of what is the impossible “me" – an impossible way in which persons exist.

Then in the Mahayana schools, which are Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, they are teaching in more detail methods for attaining not only liberation but also enlightenment. Within Madhyamaka, the Tibetans have made a division of Svatantrika and Prasangika. It was not so clearly delineated in India. We will just follow the Gelugpa presentation of this. Various other Tibetan traditions will sub-divide within Madhyamaka in a whole variety of ways. Now, within these Mahayana schools, we find that Chittamatra and Svatantrika – we’ll just say Svatantrika rather than Svatantrika-Madhyamaka – Chittamatra and Svatantrika assert that in order to attain liberation you just need to understand and get rid of your unawareness of how persons exist. So you have to understand two levels of what’s impossible about how persons exist. And to attain enlightenment you have to understand how all phenomena exist. You have to get rid of the unawareness about how all phenomena exist. All phenomena will include persons; and that is yet a further level of what is an impossible way of existing. But you don’t need to understand that in order to gain liberation; just refuting those first two levels of impossible "me" is enough.

Prasangika – remember we’re talking about Gelug Prasangika – Gelug Prasangika says that, 'No, in order to attain liberation you have to get rid of the unawareness about how all phenomena exist.' So it’s the same for attaining both liberation and enlightenment – your understanding. So if we speak about three levels of what you need to refute, the two levels of what’s an impossible “me” as asserted by everybody other than the Prasangikas as being the only thing that you need to get rid of to attain liberation. Prasangika says that just refuting those two levels is not enough; you have to refute the third level, the more subtle level, as well, about persons and about all phenomena in order to attain liberation or enlightenment.

Strength of Mind and Motivation

The only difference in terms of the mind that we use for gaining that understanding of the voidness and absence of these impossible ways of existing corresponding to reality is the strength of the mind. The strength of the mind is going to give the amount of force that will cut through the obscurations that are preventing us from attaining liberation or enlightenment. For the understanding of voidness to cut through these two levels of obscuration – the emotional, which prevents liberation; and the cognitive, which prevents enlightenment – the understanding is the same. It’s just a matter of how much energy, how much force, is behind it. That is dependent of whether the motivation, the force, behind it is determination to be free or renunciation – that's what you would need for gaining liberation; or, in addition, bodhichitta – that would be what we need for attaining enlightenment. But the understanding is the same.

With that motivation – renunciation or bodhichitta – we’re doing positive things, whether we are just meditating or we are also actively helping others. And even if we’re meditating to attain liberation, you need to meditate on love and compassion – the four immeasurable attitudes: love, compassion, joy, equanimity. So we’re building up positive force, so-called "merit," so that we can understand. In the sutra teachings it says that you have to build up three zillion eons of positive force, of merit, in order to attain enlightenment. In order to attain non-conceptual cognition of voidness – that requires the first zillion eons of positive force, a tremendous amount. The second zillion will get us to liberation. The third zillion will get us to enlightenment. So, if you have just that determination to be free, you can build up the first and second zillion eons of positive force but you won’t have enough energy to build up the third zillion eons. For that you need bodhichitta. So we can understand the difference between determination to be free and bodhichitta in terms of this presentation of the three zillion eons. It helps to understand. A zillion by the way is the largest number in the presentation of the number system in Indian mathematics. That’s why I use zillion.

Levels of Impossible Ways of Existing of "Me"

We have three levels of impossible ways of “me,” of persons, existing. The Hinayana systems and the Chittamatra and Svatantrika only refute the first two in order to gain liberation; Prasangika refutes all three levels in order to attain liberation. The mistake that many people make when they are studying at Dharma centers is that they learn the Prasangika system, usually quite prematurely, and they only learn the refutation of this third level – that there’s no findable "me," to put it in very simplistic terms. They do not refute the two grosser levels of what’s impossible concerning “me.” And because they skip those first two steps, then that third level – that there’s no findable “me” – becomes trivialized. To put it in childish language: where is the self? 'Well, I’m not up my nose, I’m not under my arm' – so there’s no “me.” And then the conclusion is so what? Of course “me” is not up your nose or in your stomach. So, it gets trivialized, this understanding, and the fault is that you have not worked progressively in the stages of refutation in order to understand how subtle that Prasangika refutation is. It’s not just saying that there’s no findable “me.” So we need to follow a graded path refuting the gross level, subtle level, and then even subtler level of what is impossible concerning a way of existing of “me.”

Refuting Impossible Ways of Existing of "Me" and of All Phenomena

It very important to refute the impossible way of existing of “me” first, before all phenomenon. That is the way that it is presented in the classic fashion and that is very significant. Why? Let’s say you have a problem with anger. If you are just focusing on refuting impossible ways of existing of phenomena, then you are focusing on the object of your anger. 'I’m angry with this person because they said this and that to me and acted like this and that to me.' So, we deconstruct; 'Well, they’re acting like that because of causes and conditions and maybe it was something that I did' and so on. You deconstruct it and, 'What is it that I’m getting angry at? Who is it that I’m getting angry at?' So, very nice and you feel, 'Well, now I’m not angry anymore.' But you’re going to get angry again. Why? Because you have not refuted the impossible ”me” who is getting angry. That’s what you have to refute first; 'Who am I that I have to get this away from me in order to feel the “me” secure?' So, you ignore refuting the impossible “me,” basically misunderstanding – 'Oh, well, oh, I’m Prasangika, I’m Mahayana; I’m going to just refute all phenomena.' You skip the refutation of the “me;” it’s easier to deconstruct the object of your anger rather than, 'Ooh, “me,” I don’t want to deconstruct “me.”' So that’s what you have to focus on first – the deconstruction of the “me,” the self – and then all phenomenon.

Now, when you have meditated and become very familiar with both of these – the refutation of “me” first and then of all phenomena – then the order gets reversed but not to start with. Then you refute the impossible way of existing of the aggregates, of what you’re experiencing; and then the “me” who is experiencing that. But that is the second level of meditation and this is the problem: people skip the initial levels, just as in lam-rim they skip over the initial and intermediate levels and think, 'That’s not so important, let’s just get to the advanced one because I’m such a special person, I’m so advanced.' So it is really really important, if we're taking our spiritual development seriously, to do it in the stages, the way that it has been outlined. It has been outlined in these progressive stages that build one on the next. Why? Because it works.

The Relationship between The Self and What We Are Experiencing

Now, we saw that we need to understand the relationship between the self and what we are experiencing; and what we are experiencing in each moment is made up of five aggregates. The aggregates are just a conceptual framework for organizing all the various components of each moment of our experience. They don’t exist in some boxes up somewhere; these are just conceptual categories. And this is only are talking about the non-static phenomena – things that change that make up each moment of our experience. In each moment there’s going to be at least one if not more members of these five sets. They’re like a set, a mathematical set; but don’t think that they are sitting somewhere in my head in five different compartments and then one is going to come out and then go back in, so they’re just sitting there and waiting. It’s not like that.

We have forms of physical phenomenon; sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations; subtle forms that only appear to mental consciousness like in dreams or visualizations; and the sensors – the photo-sensitive cells of the eyes, sound-sensitive cells of the ear, and so on. If we change the traditional order of presentation to make it a little bit easier, then there is a consciousness, primary consciousness, which is just aware of the essential nature of what something is – that it is a sight or a sound or a smell.

There is distinguishing – that’s usually called "recognition" but that is not precise. It’s distinguishing; you distinguish some sort of characteristic feature within a whole sense field, for instance, so that you can focus on this particular object in that sense field as distinguished from everything else in the sense field. Otherwise, for sight, it’s just either pixels or colored shapes. Without distinguishing you wouldn’t be able to cognize any objects.

Then there is feeling. Feeling is a level of happiness, of how you experience that object – some level of happy or unhappy on a big spectrum. It is one of the primary ways or forms in which karma ripens in terms of how you experience objects – some level of happiness or unhappiness.

Then there are other affecting variable, which is everything else that is going to contribute to the mechanical processing of how you are aware of something. So, attention, concentration – all these sort of things; and then all the emotions, both positive and negative.

So we’re talking about the relationship of the “me” – which is also in that aggregate of other affecting variables – its relationship with the rest of the aggregates. And the way in which we did this meditation or do this meditation is focusing on the body – that’s the aggregate of forms – with the understanding that it is true suffering – the first noble truth. Then we focus on the feelings – the aggregate of feelings – with the understanding of it being the true origin of sufferings. Then we focus on the mind – that’s the aggregate of consciousness – and we understand that as representing the true stopping of suffering.

Then we focus on discriminating awareness. The definition of discriminating awareness is that it adds certainty to distinguishing. Distinguishing is 'It’s this and not that;' discriminating awareness adds certainty: 'It definitely is this and not that.' So, this is the aggregate of distinguishing and the aggregate of other affecting variables because discriminating awareness is one of those.

And we focus on this discriminating awareness as representing true pathway leading to a true stopping.

So, we have shuffled together five aggregates, four noble truths, and the four placements of close mindfulness. That is the meditation, and in that meditation what we’re focusing on is the actual content of this. So conventionally what it is; 'It’s this aggregate and this noble truth and has this characteristic," because the noble truth each have four characteristics of what it is, four distinguishing features that you can distinguish; and four that aren’t there, because when you know what something is definitely then you also know what it is not. This is a dog; it’s not a cat. So, what are the actual distinguishing characteristics and what it isn’t.

Bringing Emptiness (Voidness) into the Analysis

So, we can focus on what is the content here – what aggregate, what noble truths, what characteristic features – that’s just the simple placement of close mindfulness. Or in addition, we focus on some aspect of voidness of this aggregate and noble truth. So first the voidness of the self who is experiencing it. That would be in terms of these three levels about the self – impossible ways of existing. Then we would go onto understanding and analyzing the voidness of content here – the aggregate or the noble truth, or combination of aggregate understood as the noble truth. That’s done through the four gateways to liberation. (It’s important to know all of this so that you have some idea of what actually you need to do.)

So the actual voidness of the aggregate or of the noble truth – it’s made of parts and so on; it is not some sort of solid existing thing. Then the voidness in terms of cause. In cause and effect we have true suffering and the true cause of suffering. It’s not that the cause is sitting inside of the result and waiting to pop out. Or in the true stopping – the purity of the mind – enlightenment is already sitting there, or the cause – that understanding – is already sitting there and it just has to pop out, or that it will happen from no cause. So you have to understand the voidness of causality.

And then the voidness in terms of result. The results – liberation or enlightenment – doesn’t first exist as a nothing and then becomes a something. How can a nothing become a something? And it’s not already existing as something; then it doesn’t have to come about. The result can’t already be existing before it happens, otherwise how could it happen? It’s already happened. So you understand the voidness in terms of result, in terms of the four noble truths.

And then the voidness of the three spheres involved: the self who is attaining this, what it is that you are understanding or attaining, and the whole process of how it happens. We can focus then, in this meditation, on just what the aggregates and noble truths are; or the voidness of the self experiencing it in terms of three levels; or the voidness of the object here in terms of the four gateways to liberation. And having already analyzed and understood this, then we can focus on it with just shamatha – stilled and settled state of mind; or a combination of shamatha and vipashyana – vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. That is what we do to start with, with unlabored determination to be free, or in addition unlabored bodhichitta that is behind the mind that is meditating on this with either shamatha or working to attain shamatha and working to combine it with vipashyana.

Conclusion: the Five Paths

So that’s what we’re doing on the first of these five paths. You got it? It is quite a package, isn’t it? But what we’re doing now is trying to gather the pieces that need to be put together here and all the things that we need to understand in order to even develop this determination to be free, like the twelve links of dependent arising – you have to really understand that, etc. And not only intellectually be able to put all the pieces of this puzzle together, but in our experience of practice, of meditation, repeating over and over again so that it really becomes familiar and becomes part of us, to be able to actually put it together in experience.


And what is so important is to overcome the type of laziness which is the laziness of saying "I can’t do it. It’s too much." For that we need the far-reaching attitude (paramita, perfection) of virya. That is a difficult word to translate. It is usually called "joyous effort" or "enthusiasm" – there are so many different ways of translating it. Let's analyze the Sanskrit word. Virya comes for the same word which we have in Latin – we have it in many languages – virile. Vir means man. In Sanskrit, vira is a hero. So it means a very heroic, masculine – not in a macho type of thing, but a strong, masculine, heroic, courageous type of thing that "I’m going to do it" and "I don’t care how difficult it is and how long it’s going to take to do it, I’m going to do it." And then you just do it; you get yourself under control and just do it with a realistic idea of how it can be done, with the strong intention that 'It's what I’m going to do it.' That’s very important. Obviously you need to have a motivation of why; but this is the far-reaching attitude that we need to develop very very much to attain liberation or enlightenment. You have these paramitas – these far-reaching attitudes – in Hinayana as well as Mahayana. The only difference is whether it is determination to be free as the energy behind it or bodhichitta as well.

Positive Force and Deep Awareness

Why don't we take a moment to digest a little bit of what I’ve said before I started what actually I intended to start with today. If you really have the strong motivation and some understanding of how we can do it and that, "I’m capable of this on the basis of the Buddha nature factors, these two networks," then do it, with positive force and deep awareness. How do you know that you have positive force, the so-called collection of merit? You look at the definition; everything depends on definitions. You have to learn the definitions. What is positive force or merit? It's something that comes from constructive behavior and ripens into a feeling of happiness. If we have ever in our lives experienced even one moment of happiness, that demonstrates that we have a network of positive force. And if we’ve ever understood how do anything including tying our shoes, including how to go to the toilet, we have a network of deep awareness. So we have the two networks and we’re able to learn, we’re able to be stimulated and grow. So we have the working materials and precious human rebirth; so we just do it because it has to be done, because of all the suffering that either I have or everybody has.

So we decide, "I’m going to try to build up all the different pieces so that I can put them together. And I understand that all the different aspects to the Dharma teachings are like the pieces of the puzzle, and they all do go together. They go together in many different ways. It's difficult and it's an adventure and it is fun, in a sense." It is like going a fitness club doing physical training, which I do. The workouts that I do are very very strong, strenuous, difficult; but, it is fun. It’s very enjoyable despite the fact that it is difficult; despite the fact that my muscles hurt at the end, because you see that you are getting stronger, you are getting more fit. It’s the exact same thing with Dharma training. So that’s one aspect of this virya – that it is joyful. So, as you understand from the analogy of physical training I think you can appreciate that it’s not contradictory that a lot of hard work and courage in doing something difficult can actually be fun, despite the fact that your muscles hurt or your legs hurt or whatever.

The Four-Point Analysis

Now, not a simple topic to get into, not at all simple – the four-point analysis: how are we going to refute this impossible way of existing of “me,” who’s experiencing the four noble truths? I know that some of you have been studying this four point analysis, so what I’d like to do is go into more depth. We need to identify the object to be refuted – that’s the first point. Then, we need to be convinced of the logic to refute it. And what we’re talking about is the relationship between the self and the aggregates. We saw the context of how we focus on the aggregates in terms of the four noble truths and the four placements of close mindfulness.

Either that impossible “me” and the aggregates are the same thing, or they’re two different things. So we refute that they’re the same thing. We refute that they’re two totally different things. And by understanding set theory and logic, we come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing – that’s the conclusion of the four point analysis. So you really need to understand each of these points.

First Point: Recognizing the Object to Be Refuted

The first thing that we need with – and this is always emphasized as what you have to put the most work into – Tsongkhapa emphasizes this – is recognizing the object to be refuted. For this Tsongkhapa uses a referent from Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, which is paraphrased as saying, "If you can’t see the target you won’t be able to hit it with the arrow." Also, we can understand the necessity for understanding and recognizing the object to be refuted from the definition of a negation phenomenon.

Existent phenomena, which are phenomena that can be validly known, are divided into affirmation phenomena and negation phenomena. We can know a table – that’s an affirmation phenomenon – and we can also know "not a chair," "not a dog;" it’s a table. So, not a dog, not a chair, is a negation phenomenon. There are many many different varieties of negation phenomena, and voidness is a negation phenomenon. When we speak about voidness, it is an absence of something. It’s an absence of an impossible way of existing.

And when I use the word "voidness" I am purposely not using the word "emptiness." Emptiness maybe is okay for the Svatantrika understanding. It’s not okay for the Prasangika understanding. It also would be okay for the Chittamatra understanding as well. Empty – a glass is empty. There’s the glass and the glass is devoid of something that was inside it; so you get this idea of something findable, conventionally there, and on a deeper level it’s empty of something. That is totally to be refuted from the Prasangika point of view.

It’s not that you have something there and it is empty of something else. It’s simply no such thing. That’s why I call it voidness. It’s the same word as zero – nothing; not that there’s something and it’s devoid of something else because it doesn’t exist. But we understand that that nothing is not just nothing; that nothing is the absence of impossible ways of existing. When you see that there is no apple on the table, and there’s no elephant on the table, in both cases what do we see on the table? We see nothing on the table, but we understand what that nothing is. So here we understand that the nothing is an absence of impossible ways of existing. That is voidness. So I make a big difference between emptiness and voidness, and if you use "emptiness" for the Prasangika understanding, even if you don’t think in terms of what the implication of the word "emptiness" is, it implies the Chittamatra or Svatantrika position – that there is something that’s empty of something else.

Another piece of the puzzle that you really need to add is the understanding of the various tenet systems and what they assert. I think you start to appreciate that the geshes study for thirty years. So, in any case, negation phenomenon; there is an extremely complex definition of a negation phenomenon. You have to have conceptually cognized what it is that is to be refuted and then precluded, excluded. You have to know "apple" in order to know "not an apple;" you have to know "elephant" to know "not an elephant." And that’s part of the whole learning process of a baby. The baby first thinks that everything can be eaten; it puts everything in its mouth. And it has to learn, "not edible." So, like that we have a negation phenomenon. We will get into more precise understanding of negation phenomenon later when we deal with the logic – the second point of the analysis.

Refuting the Coarse Impossible "Me"

Let us start with the first level, the grossest level, the coarse level of the impossible “me” that we have to understand conceptually in order to understand 'It’s not that' – there's no such thing. So, the coarse “me, “ the coarse impossible “me,” is the one which is asserted by the non-Buddhist Indian philosophical systems. That unawareness of that or confusion about that is therefore doctrinally-based. We had to learn about it from a non-Buddhist teacher. Let’s say somebody teaches us about atman, the way that it is asserted in the various Indian traditions – atman is the self or the soul – and we need to have believed it, obviously. And if we believe that we are this atman, then we could have all sorts of doctrinally-based disturbing emotions: "Me," as this atman – 'I want things' and 'I get angry' and so on. So you get these doctrinally-based disturbing emotions. These doctrinally based disturbing emotions and attitudes all come from identifying ourselves with an atman that we have learned about. Somebody taught us that; the dog doesn’t’ think like that.

In our first non-conceptual cognition of voidness, what we’re getting rid of are the doctrinally-based unawareness and disturbing emotions. That’s with the seeing pathway mind, path of seeing. So everybody gets rid of these doctrinally-based beliefs and so on first, of the seeing pathway mind. So you can ask, 'Well, how can I get rid of that because I never studied it? I don’t believe that garbage.' It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?

Tsongkhapa and his disciples answer that: remember, we have no beginning – no beginning to the mental continuum. So, no beginning to our unawareness; there was no first Buddha from a temporal point of view, and there was no first teaching of these non-Buddhist philosophies either; and we have had countless rebirths. So at some time we studied this. It might not be very active in our memories – like in the case of the dog – but everybody has these doctrinally-based unawareness and disturbing emotions.

What we want to get rid of is the whole package of assertions of this incorrect view. And of course there are several variants of that Indian view. Now, though, we know that we have a little bit of it because we have little pieces of that package that manifest in terms of incorrect consideration – doctrinally-based incorrect consideration. Consideration is another aspect of the mental factor called "attention" – how we pay attention to something is how we consider it; that's one aspect of it. And it could be correct or incorrect. The body is non-static; it’s changing form moment to moment – that would be correct consideration. Incorrect consideration would be to think that it is static, that it never changes – eternally young. So you try to be eternally young and dress young and have a face lift etc. So it’s incorrect consideration of the body. That’s part of the package of this doctrinally-based view. So although nobody maybe taught us that, nevertheless that is an indication of this doctrinally-based unawareness because we have a piece of it. We have to really look quite deeply within ourselves to see, 'Well, actually do I really think in terms of this type of atman that is asserted by these non-Buddhist schools of India?' And it’s very very interesting to really reflect on that.

This impossible “me” has three characteristics. It’s the whole package – these three characteristics aren’t separate things; they’re interrelated.

  • The first characteristic is that the body is static. Very often people just translate this word as "permanent" but that’s a very misleading word, at least in English, because it has two different meanings. One meaning is eternal and the other meaning is that it never changes. So here we’re only talking about not changing. Buddhism asserts that the self is eternal – no beginning and no end. That’s not the problem. The problem is whether or not it changes from moment to moment. That’s a very important distinction to understand when we hear the word "permanent." So this is the objection – that the self doesn’t change. So our incorrect view is that it’s static.
  • Then, the next characteristic is translated by the word "one." So what does one mean? In this context it means that it is monolithic. Now you have to understand the philosophical system that this comes from – the Samkhya system. Samkhya asserts that you have primal matter, and primal matter is made up of three constituents. These are called in Sanskrit the triguna; most people know them by the Sanskrit name rajas, sattva, and tamas. And so you have food that is divided into these three, and you have moods that are divided into these three, and medicines. It’s very difficult to define these three, but everything is made up of some combination of these three. So the whole Vedic system and many other later Indian philosophies adopt this. And the atman, the self, is totally separate from that, and is not made up of these three constituents. So the aggregates are made up of all sorts of parts and so on but that self is not; the body and mind are made up of all sorts of parts but the self is not. And then that self is either the size of the universe – this whole later development of atman as Brahma, partless – we’re all one; or in the Nyaya philosophy, it is like a tiny little spark, a monad, partless. So that’s the second characteristic: no parts, monolithic.
  • The third characteristic, which is really the most important one, is that the "me" can exist separately from are and mind – that you have to understand correctly. The emphasis is not really that there's an atman like a soul that flies out of the body and then can go into another body, even if that happens instantaneously. We’re not talking about that. What we’re talking about is the liberated self. What are we aiming for? We are aiming for moksha, liberation, in these non-Buddhist schools – in Buddhism as well, we’re aiming for liberation – and there is a self that will exist liberated, free of any body and mind, just by itself, either in some transcendent realm or identical to the whole universe or whatever; but no body and mind – that the self can exist by itself.

This is the doctrinally-based coarse impossible “me.”

A Deluded Outlook Toward a Transitory Network

We have disturbing attitude, which is called – I have a horrible translation for it but it is, I think, deriving the meaning for the term – a deluded outlook toward a transitory network. "Transitory network" – that’s exactly the word that’s used in Tibetan. "Network" is the aggregates, and "transitory" means that it’s constantly changing – each element in it is constantly changing at a different rate – and we have a deluded outlook toward it. The disturbing emotions, you could divide them into disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes. Even those words in the English are not really adequate.

Basically we have these disturbing factors that are associated with a view or an outlook, which is a way of considering something; and then some disturbing factors that don't have this association. The ones that don’t have it are

  • desire,
  • anger,
  • naivety,
  • arrogance,
  • and indecisive wavering about not just what should I have for dinner but about the correct view, basically – about cause and effect and about how things exist.

So those five. And then there are five with a view, which means that they have a way of considering the object. The one that is relevant here, with this deluded outlook toward a transitory network – toward our aggregates, is to consider the aggregates

  • either “me” – so we're are identical with them;
  • or separate – so they’re "mine."

So in a sense I conceive of it – just to try to work with it in meditation – as it’s like throwing out the net of “me” and "mine" onto everything that I’m experiencing.

Then we have grasping for true existence, for instance; so that is what throws onto –

  • I think of this in terms of "mine" – "My camera," "My notes." Grasping for true existence interpolates, projects onto it some impossible way of existing conceptually.
  • And unawareness – "I don’t know that that is false" or "I think it’s true."

So these work together. This deluded outlook is just throwing “me” and "mine" onto things in the aggregates.

  • “Me” is in terms of “me" being identical with the aggregates: “me” – "I’m my body," and “me” – "I’m my mind." Or “me” as separate, and 'It's mine.'
  • Either “me” as the controller, so I am in a sense sitting inside here controlling things – controlling the body.
  • Or I possess it – I own it, like I have a cow. So I possess it, I own it, I can control it.
  • Or I inhabit the body. I live inside here. The atman lives inside “me.” 'I’m living inside my head, and wow, ooh, now I have a body and I have a mind and have this and that and I can use it, control it, press the buttons.' Like a baby discovering that it has toes and it has this or that and now it can use them.

So, these four possibilities: “me,” possessor, controller, or inhabitant. And each of these four can be with each of the five aggregates. So you get twenty deluded outlooks for the transitory network, and that only occurs with doctrinally-based unawareness. This is the first package that we have to refute. It's quite a package, but something that you need to work with and actually it becomes very interesting in terms of, 'Do I think that there’s some “me” inside my head pushing the buttons' and so on that is always staying the same? And do I think of liberation in terms of, "Well I won’t have the body, I won’t have a mind, I won’t have anything. I’ll be free."

It’s very interesting – the attitude toward death. Let’s say you don’t believe in rebirth, but you think in terms of well, you just go to nothing. Then, if you really think about it, what is the implication of "I’m dead, now I’m dead. I’m going to be dead forever." There’s still “me,” isn't there? This “me” now is a “me’ that’s dead, with no body and no mind, to this big frightening nothing. If you analyze, that actually is what is behind this whole thinking that there’s a big nothing after we die and why it’s frightening. In the "me" actually stopped it wouldn’t be frightening; but you think 'Well then what? Now I’m dead.' So it is not so strange, not so alien, to think that there could be a “me” that is separate and continues to exist, static, partless, with no body and no mind.

So we really have to think about it. You can’t refute it unless you actually recognize it, and you can’t recognize it unless you actually look in terms of our own attitudes: Do I somehow – maybe not the whole package, but somehow – have this way of regarding myself. And on that basis of conceiving myself to exist in this way, do I have disturbing emotions, like for instance now I’m afraid of death because I’m going to be a nothing?

Think about that a little bit, so that we recognize this first level of the object to be refuted. You have to refute that first before you can go onto the next level. To think about it you have to remind yourself of the characteristics:

  • Never changing
  • Partless
  • Can exist by itself without a body and mind when it’s liberated or dead
  • And “me” is just coming into this body and mind and either identical with it or possessing it, controlling and using it, and living inside but it wants to get out. "I want to get out of my body" – like somebody with cancer; "I just want to get out of this suffering body and be dead already." That is this doctrinally-based disturbing emotion, isn’t it?


When you were speaking about atman, did the term atman itself imply certain constancy and self-existence?

No, not really. I mean the word atman is translated as the word "self," and Buddhism uses that term for the conventional self – it’s a synonym. So the problem isn’t really atman; the problem is the assertion of how that atman exists, and the different Indian systems asserted it differently. Within those three characteristics that I mentioned,

  • The Samkhya School says that atman is like a passive consciousness, so when it is liberated, it itself is an awareness without an object – which of course Buddhism says is impossible.
  • The Nyaya and Vaisheshika Schools say that the atman has no consciousness whatsoever. The self comes in and sort of plugs into a brain and mind and uses that, and when it is liberated it doesn’t know anything.

So, there are variants. Samkhya says the atman is just passive consciousness, but it has to plug into an body and mind in order to be aware of specific objects; and the other one says that it doesn't have any consciousness, and it still has to plug into a body and mind in order to know things.

These are interesting points of view, actually, to think, "What are the characteristics that I think of 'me' and the relationship of 'me' and my mind, the brain?" As in "Use your mind to try and figure it out, use your brain" – is that a separate "me?" Does that “me" have any consciousness at all that is using the brain or the mind as its possession, and is sitting inside my head, inside my mind, as the inhabitant living there? Interesting, isn’t it?