The Logic for Refuting the False “Me”

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Negation Phenomena

Now we’re ready to go onto the second point of the four-point analysis, and this is becoming convinced of the logic that refutes that there is such a thing as these different levels of impossible “me.” The logic for this derives from the definition of a negation phenomenon. We introduced that topic very briefly before, and we saw that validly knowable phenomena could be divided into affirmation phenomena and negation phenomena, either of which can be static or non-static. An example of an affirmation phenomenon is "an apple," and a negation phenomenon would be, for example, "not an apple." So in order to know "not an apple," first you have to know "an apple," and then you have to preclude that it’s that – so it is not an apple.

So, the definition of a negation phenomenon: it is a validly knowable phenomenon – so you can validly know this – and it’s apprehended; "apprehended" means that it can be known with accuracy and certitude. How is it apprehended? It’s apprehended in the manner in which an object to be negated, an apple for example, is explicitly precluded. "Explicit" means that it is obvious, it’s not something hidden; and "precluded" means that it’s not that, it can’t be that. And how is that excluded? It’s excluded by a conceptual cognition that cognizes that phenomenon. That’s not a very easy definition but that’s the definition that we have.

So, preclusion is the conceptual process whereby we formulate sets and counter-sets – sort of a mathematical conceptual process. We have a set and we have a counter-set, regardless of how many members are in each set. The set and counter-set formulated by the preclusion are not only mutually exclusive – nothing can be a member of both sets – but they constitute an actual dichotomy. "Dichotomy" means that all validly knowable phenomena must be in either one set or the other set.

We have a set and a counter-set; they divide everything. So whatever there is has to be either in one set or the other set. There’s nothing that could be in both. Further, the set and counter set constitute an actual dichotomy even if one of the sets is a null set – that is, the counter-set contains no validly knowable phenomena, like "impossible existence" and "not impossible existence." That’s a dichotomy, but there’s nothing in that set of impossible existence. So preclusion implies a previous apprehension of the object to be negated and then exclusion of it from the set of all validly knowable phenomena other than itself. So you knew the object first, before; and then you say it can’t possibly be in any other set than the set that it’s in.

Now, you might wonder how can we apprehend something that doesn’t exist – the impossible “me,” the false “me?’ The only way that we can apprehend something that's impossible is by a mental representation that represents it. So we know a mental apprehension of this “me" – it could be some sort of feeling, some sort of picture or something like that of “me,” of who I am – but that representation doesn’t respond to anything actual; it doesn’t correspond to reality. Let's take the example of chicken lips. There’s no such thing as chicken lips, but we could imagine lips on Daisy Duck or something like that; cartoon lips that are chicken lips or duck lips on this cartoon, Daisy Duck. So there is a representation but it doesn’t correspond to anything real because there are no such things as duck lips or chicken lips. We are projecting human lips onto the cartoon, onto the duck or the chicken. So the same thing in terms of “me;” when we think of an impossible “me” it’s like thinking of chicken lips. Consider for instance our self-image. We imagine something that represents our self-image, but what we imagine that that corresponds to this representation doesn’t exist at all.

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena]

So negation phenomenon can only be apprehended once a prior conceptual preclusion has been made. How do you know "not an apple?" First you have to conceptually know the apple and then conceptually exclude it and think, "Not that, not an apple." So a conceptual exclusion has to occur first. This is what we’re going to be doing in our voidness meditation; you have to exclude something.


Here we have two dichotomies. The first is existent phenomenon or non-existent phenomenon. "Existent" is defined in Buddhism as validly knowable. "Non-existent" cannot be validly known. Then, within the set of all existent phenomena, we have a second dichotomy; the standard terms for the members of this dichotomy are "one" or "many." In Tsongkhapa’s Lam-rim chen-mo, he explains that a dichotomy is formed when you separate items that are comparable to each other from an item that there’s nothing comparable to. Or to translate this sentence more literally, he says that when you separate off all the items that have comparable things to them – when you separate off into the box of many things that have other things comparable to them that exist in the same way, that are sort of in the same box – it excludes an item that has nothing comparable to it at all. So from the category of box "many," what doesn't fit would be singular – one thing – and vice versa. And that forms a dichotomy.

So when we talk about singular or plural, it’s hard to really get precise terms in our languages for this. It’s not that there are many singular items. That’s not what "singular" or "one" means here; or units – we’re not talking about many many different units that could be in that box. We’re talking about something that all by itself, there’s absolutely nothing else that’s like that. So this one thing or everything else; there are many many other things besides that one thing. So we’re basically taking all phenomenon, all validly knowable phenomenon, and we’re putting one in one box and we’re putting everything else in the other box. That’s a dichotomy.

And now we’re talking about two items: the self or “me” and the aggregates. What does the designation "me" refer to, the referent object – remember, “me” is just a name – it refers to “me,” the actual conventional “me.” There's the word “me” – that’s the designation; it’s just a word, the conventional "me" is represented by a word. So the word refers to something – the conventional “me” as an imputation on the aggregates. So now, how do we fit into this dichotomy of one or many a “me” and the aggregates, when that “me” is conceived of in any of these three impossible ways we've discussed? So how do we fit into the categories of this dichotomy, an impossible “me” and the aggregates?

Those two things can either be in one box or the other box. We’re talking about the two of them. If they exist, they are in the side "existent phenomena" of the first dichotomy. Then, if they are in this division of validly knowable phenomenon, existent phenomenon, they have to be in either one box or the other box of the second dichotomy, one or many. So, these two things have to be either only one thing, so they’re totally identical; or they are two separate things. When we say "one" in Buddhism that means totally identical, exactly exactly the same thing. "Alex" and "Alexander" are not identical. They may refer to the same person, but Alex and Alexander are two different names; they are not one. "Alex" and "Alex" is one. Do you get that? It's very very important to understand what we mean by "one." It sounds very simple but it’s not; there’s a lot of misunderstanding about just what the simple word "one" means in this logic.

So these two items (1) the false, impossible self as the referent thing of the imputation and (2) the basis for imputation, the aggregate – either they’re exactly the same thing, so they are on the side "one" of the dichotomy; or they are on the other side of the dichotomy, "many" and they are two separate items. And if that self in relation to the aggregates, that impossible self, cannot be put in either of those two boxes of "one thing" or "two things," then in this dichotomy of existent and non-existent things – it has to be in that other box of "non-existent." It can't be in the "existent" box. And remember we had laws of logic: there’s nothing that can be in both boxes of the dichotomy.

So, a self-established "me" can’t be nonexistent during non-conceptual total absorption on voidness, but when we have the subsequent realization and it’s like an illusion, it’s existent – that was the Svatantrika point of view. Because laws of logic say that if you have a dichotomy, there can’t be something that is in both boxes even if we’re talking about at different times or perceived from a different point of view or type of mind. And it can’t be in neither box. The impossible "me" can’t be neither existent or nonexistent because this is a dichotomy – it is referring to everything. That’s the logic that we’re going to use. We understand it in terms of set theory, then we actually understand logic. Otherwise it’s just too vague; 'Neither one nor many – well, so what?' But if we understand the logic a little bit more precisely, then we can gain some conviction that logically we could disprove that this impossible “me” in relation to the aggregates is on the "non-existent" side of the dichotomy of existent or nonexistent phenomena.

Tibetans describe it with very earthy examples; it’s the same thing. If you think that your goat has gone into the house and the house has two rooms and you can’t find the goat in either of those two rooms, the only conclusion is that the goat did not go into the house. That is exactly what we’re talking about – dichotomies – but just put in a very down-to-earth example.

What about Schrödinger’s cat? It’s in superposition and can be in both rooms and we don’t know.

He’s talking about the Schrödinger's cat example, in which we have a particle – or in this case a cat – and before it is perceived, you can’t say it’s in either of these rooms. You have to say that from a certain quantum point of view it’s in both rooms simultaneously; but when it’s perceived then it’s only in one room. From the Buddhist point of view, we can really only discuss things when they're actually perceived. When something is actually perceived, then it is either one or the other. Before it’s even perceived or measured by a machine (it doesn’t have to be a human), how do you know? We really don’t know, and if we really don’t know, then it’s just theoretical. So the only thing that we can know for certain is when something is measured or observed. Then it is in one place.

A Russian friend of mine wrote a paper on this. This whole discussion here of this logic is known as the "exclusion of the middle." Is there such a thing really as dichotomies? And then he brought in this whole quantum stuff, because the Buddhist logic accepts the exclusion of the middle, and he’s saying that from the point of view of quantum physics, there are likely Schrödinger cat examples. So your question is a very important question to deal with; not a very easy question but an important question.

Buddhist logic accepts exclusion of the middle?

Right. That’s why the Schrödinger cat example now challenges that – that it’s either this or it’s that; it can’t be both if it's a dichotomy.

The dichotomy itself is a conceptual construct; it comes from the side of the conceptual mind and that would imply it’s a samsaric method because it entails an appearance of self-established existence and belief in it. Therefore how can we attain liberation or enlightenment if we’re using a samsaric method?

There are two points of view here, and they may seem to be contradictory but they’re really not.

  • From the one point of view, a Buddha does not have conceptual cognition, because conceptual cognition with categories, like "one" or "many", make an appearance of self-established existence, true existence. So a Buddha doesn’t have that.
  • But conceptual cognition is not included in either the obscuration preventing liberation or the obscuration preventing enlightenment. You don’t have it as a Buddha, but it’s not something that you have to oppose, attain a true stopping of, by applying a true opponent. Because conceptual cognition is how our ordinary minds work – we think in terms of categories like "dog," like "table" – and that is the basis of our language. Therefore, the conceptual process is necessary for our communication and for understanding in terms of categories. Different people say the same word but it’s different sounds; it sounds differently. We couldn’t possibly understand it unless we had an audio category of the sound of a word that, no matter how anybody pronounces it, it fits in that category. Language and communication wouldn’t work without conceptual cognition.

The classic Buddhist example is that the finger points to the moon. When you get to the moon, you don’t need the finger anymore. That’s what you find in the text; that's what it's talking about. You can’t get to the moon without the finger pointing to it and saying, "That’s where I want to go." So these conceptual frameworks of the logic and so on are like the finger pointing to the moon; it’s a method. Once we’ve understood it you don’t need this conceptual framework. But if we want to communicate and teach it to those who are not a Buddha yet, we need to use a framework that is conceptual. We realize that it’s misleading, but nevertheless it’s a useful device because the people that we’re trying to teach aren’t capable of understanding it without this.

So the fact that a Buddha doesn’t have conceptual cognition and the fact that you need conceptual cognition in order to reach the state of a Buddha is not contradictory although on the surface it might seem as though they are contradictory – like the example of the finger pointing to the moon.