The Refutation “Neither One Nor Many”

Other languages

Review: First and Second Point of the Four-Point Analysis

First Point: Identifying the Object to Be Refuted

We have discussed the first two points of the four-point analysis. The first point was identifying and recognizing within ourselves the object to be refuted. In order to know something we need to be able to distinguish the defining characteristic features; and to apprehend it, it has to be accurate and it has to be decisive. So we have to sure of what the object to be negated is – this impossible “me” – and that has to be accurate. But just to understand that intellectually is not enough. We’re going to need to distinguish that within our own experience or perception of ourselves because what we want to do is discredit that appearance and our belief that that false appearance or deceptive appearance refers to something actual. Unless we’re able to identify it within ourselves and recognize it within our own perception of ourselves, then the refutation of it is not going to affect very much our own experience. We can't just say, "Well, those stupid people believed in that and that was wrong." This first step can take quite a while to try to recognize within ourselves – how do I actually experience this in my perception of myself.

Second Point: Refuting the Impossible "Me" Through Negation

Then we need to understand negation phenomena in order to be able to do the second point of the analysis, which is this the refutation that this feeling, the mental representation of this impossible “me,” doesn’t refer to anything real, doesn’t correspond to reality. We can understand this negation phenomenon in terms of, for instance, the people who are in this room this morning – it seems as though there are some people who are not here, who were here in the morning. How do we know who’s not here? The only way that you can say that this person or that person is not here is only if you had perceived that person before. Then you can perceive that they're not here, otherwise, you don’t really know; I mean just vaguely, "Well, it doesn’t seem to be as many people here as there were this morning but I don’t know precisely who’s not here."

We have to check: if they were here they would be sitting this side of the room or that side of the room. So we look in this side of the room; they’re not in this side of the room. That side of the room, they’re not in that side of the room. They're not here. They can only be in one side of the room or the other side of the room. There is no other possibility. That person who’s missing can’t be sitting on both sides of the room and they can’t not be sitting on either one or the other side. So you can follow the logic that is going to be employed.

So here we were speaking about one thing or several things; we were talking about the impossible “me” and the aggregates – body and mind. And by the “me” we’re talking about the impossible “me,” each level one at a time of what’s impossible. That impossible “me” and the aggregates taken together, do they constitute just one thing or do they constitute separate several things? Those are the only possibilities. And if they are not either of them then they are in the other side of the dichotomy: that impossible “me” in relation to the aggregates is non-existent.

And remember, when we’re talking about the aggregates we are understanding the aggregates in terms of the four noble truths and the four placements of close mindfulness.

  • Placement of close mindfulness on the body as an example of true suffering deals with the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena.
  • Placement of close mindfulness on the feelings as an example of the true causes or origins of suffering deals with the aggregate of feeling a level of happiness.
  • Placement of close mindfulness in the mind as an example of the true stopping of suffering and its causes deals with the aggregate of consciousness.
  • Placement of close mindfulness on the mental factors, specifically discriminating awareness, as the true pathway to true stoppings deals with the aggregates of distinguishing and other affecting variables.

So what we’re analyzing here is the "me" that experiences these four noble truths and the relation of that "me" with the aggregates that we focus on with the four placements of close mindfulness as representing the four noble truths.

The Third and Fourth Points of the Four-Point Analysis

Now, the third and fourth points of the four point analysis are going to examine whether that impossible “me” and the aggregates constitute one unit by themselves – like "Alex" and "Alex," totally identical – that’s the third point; and the fourth point is, well, are they separate units?

Becoming Convinced of Something in a Way That Leads to Change

I don’t want to go into a tremendous amount of detail on the absurd conclusions that would follow from each of these possibilities – if the "me" and the aggregates are identical or they’re totally different. It’s very easy to just state the absurd conclusions that would follow, but you really have to spend time thinking about each of them to recognize how we might think that way and how absurd it is, how impossible it is; and recognize within ourselves when we mistakenly thought like that even though it’s absurd. This is a very interesting and difficult point.

When we act in an illogical manner or we perceive and believe something that’s quite illogical just to demonstrate logically to ourselves that this is absurd, that it doesn’t make any sense – this is just the first step, isn’t it? Because the next step is really, well, how do you stop believing that, and how do you stop acting on the basis of that mistaken belief? And more difficult is not only how do you stop acting on the basis of that belief but how do you stop the disturbing emotions that arise based on that mistaken belief?

That’s not an easy topic and not one that is our topic for today; we don’t really have time. But it is the topic of how do you actually become convinced of something such that you actually change. That’s a very very difficult point, as for example logically I’m convinced that smoking is bad for my health, nevertheless I don’t stop. That’s a strong example, but I think you know what I mean. So one has to start to analyze what are the various causes for not changing despite the fact that you realize that this is ridiculous, this is incorrect, as in smoking because it’s going to damage my health. So just knowing that is not enough.

In the end, what it comes down to is willpower. Willpower is a way of understanding a specific mental factor, which Tsongkhapa discusses in Lam-rim chen-mo concerning his presentation of shamatha and the topic of how to develop mindfulness and alertness. As we know from the lam-rim teachings – and Shantideva has this very clearly in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior – you have to develop a caring attitude (bag-yod). We care about what we’re experiencing and our suffering and want to get rid of it. So we get a correct understanding; and we want to be able to stay focused on it, concentrate on it with mindfulness and alertness. We start to do that in terms of how we act and we speak; and if we train to be able to correct how we act and speak, we can then work on our minds.

Mindfulness, Alertness and Willpower

Mindfulness (dran-pa) is the glue, the mental glue. Once you are able to bring up some understanding in your awareness, then mindfulness is the glue that keeps it there and prevents you from forgetting about it. You don’t want to forget about the fact that this makes no sense, what I believe. How do we maintain that mental glue? Tsongkhapa points out, quoting Kamalashila, that every now and then we have to remind ourselves with a key word. And we shouldn’t think that some key word that we repeat, either out loud or in our minds, is getting to the fault of discursive thinking, going blah, blah, blah, blah, blah in our minds.

So, while we’re trying to keep that understanding – now we’re talking about the understanding that this false "me" is impossible – then what we need to do is every now and then, if we start to forget about that, to remind ourselves: absurd, impossible, ridiculous. And then alertness (shes-bzhin), it comes from that mindfulness, so it's part of it, which is monitoring that hold on the object. And monitoring the hold on the object – Tsongkhapa points out, again quoting from Kamalashila – that the mental factor that we use to be able to maintain that alertness is a mental factor sems-pa, which I usually translated as an "urge," a mental urge. In its tainted form, that’s mental karma; but we can use it in a positive constructive way.

Then Tsongkhapa quotes Asanga’s definition of an urge in Abhidharmasamuccaya, Anthology of Topics of Knowledge. From the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit quote, it's really, I must confess, not very clear what they’re talking about, what Asanga’s getting at in the definition. So you have to go back to the Sanskrit original, take it back into the Sanskrit, and from the Sanskrit terms you can understand more clearly what is being described here. This is the mental factor, this urge, that brings together or gathers together all the other mental factors that are going to be used to go toward an object, to cognitively engage with the object.

Each moment of our experience is made up of many many different mental factors. There’s primary consciousness, there’s attention, interest, concentration, various emotions – a whole network of mental factors. And it’s not that these factors are sitting in different boxes in our head, but this "urge" is the mental factor that in a sense composes the network, the combination of mental factors, that will be cognitively engaging with an object.

When we think of this in terms of mental karma, what we’re talking about is the compulsiveness. It’s a compulsive urge that puts together thinking of this person with anger, etc. etc. That’s what mental karma’s talking about, that compulsiveness that puts together a network of factors with which you engage and think about an object. The mental karma to think about somebody that you’re angry with, it will compose; it is the compulsiveness that puts together all the factors with which you’re going to engage with that object.

So here, when we’re working on this four-point analysis, what we want to overcome is that compulsive belief that how we are perceiving ourselves is correct. Out of habit and so on, compulsively this mental urge is going to put together a combination of mental factors that will engage in thinking about myself with this unawareness and confusion and belief that it exists in some impossible way, which is mistaken. So, we want to overcome that compulsiveness, that mental karma, and consciously somehow compose our mental factors together so that we are alert of when I’m starting to believe in this garbage again, I correct it and say 'This is ridiculous. This is like an illusion; it’s not referring to anything real.'

So, think about it. Try to understand what they are talking about, try to recognize it in yourself. My conclusion is we’re talking about willpower. It’s just willpower. With willpower, we put all the factors together to understand that it’s like that – there is no such thing as the false, impossible "me." And then with willpower, we try to perceive ourselves with correct understanding – just do it without this dualistic view of there’s a “me” separate from the aggregates that is the controller, the one who is observing, and is controlling and pressing the button and now correcting it. That’s this “me,” the impossible “me” as something separate from the aggregates, and that the impossible "me" and the aggregates are two separate existent things. That is really the art; to do it without thinking of a separate “me” that’s doing this. That’s what we need to practice.

Anyway, I just explained something that I introduced by saying I was not going to explain it. But I find that really very profound, trying to apply Tsongkhapa’s explanation based on Kamalashila and Asanga of how we work with shamatha to correct our concentration. But obviously we want to apply that to everything.

Refuting that the Self Is Either Identical to or Separate from the Body and Mind

The Coarse Doctrinally-Based Impossible "Me"

Okay, so now the refutation. We need to refute each of the levels of impossible self one by one, and really work through the whole four-point analysis etc. with the coarse impossible “me” first – this doctrinally-based one: static and partless and can exist independently without a body and mind. Refute that first, and then understand what is left, before we then go on to the next level of refutation to refine what’s left after we’ve gotten rid of, excluded, the coarse impossible “me.”

Now, a static partless self that can exist independently of a body and mind; well, let's take the first position, that it is identical. Now you have to not really think in terms of that it can exist by itself in a liberated form. The Charvaka system of Indian philosophy does not assert liberation. The impossible “me” – if we learned it from that system – only has the characteristics of static and partless, so that’s how we get the possibility of that soul, that atman, being identical with a body and mind. Obviously if we thought that the atman could exist in a liberated form separate from a body and a mind, it couldn’t be identical with a body and mind. So that doesn’t make any sense.

If the atman or the soul of a person is static and unaffected by anything and it was identical to the body or mind, then the body or the mind also would have to be static and not affected by anything. You could never get sick; you could never get old. So you think, how do we think like that? One of the clearest experiences that we have for being able to identify some of these levels of impossible “me” is when you’re sick. When you’re sick, don’t you experience the thing that 'I don’t want to be sick? That’s not me; that’s not the way that I am. That sick body – that’s not me.' We have this static view; the “me” is a healthy body. It’s a very wonderful opportunity to examine and identify the self to be refuted when you are sick, when you have a cold. A cold is perfect.

Okay; if the static “me” were identical to the body, the body could never do anything because then it’s changing. The body is changing and the self is doing something – now it’s over here, now it’s over there – then the self that’s identical would have to be changing. And the mind couldn’t see different things, couldn’t know different things because it would have to be static and partless, so you couldn’t have it one day doing this and one day doing that – that’s parts and that’s non-static. And if the self were identical to the body and the mind then the body and the mind would have to be identical with each other; but subjective experiencing – which is what mind is – subjective experiencing of things and then chemical and electric counterpart of that – they would have to be the same. The firing of neurons is not subjective experiencing. They would have to be identical.

If the self were partless then the body would have to be partless or the mind would have to be partless if they were identical. So, if you lose your arm, that’s no longer “me;” you lost a part. Or if you get Alzheimer’s disease and you lose your memory, so now you’ve lost part of your mind, so that’s no longer “me.” I remember very clearly, my mother had Alzheimer’s disease and died from it, and when she would no longer recognize anybody, my sister’s view of her was that this is no longer our mother. So who is she then? So that would be the absurd conclusion if the self was partless and identical to the body or the mind.

If now we take the other non-Buddhist views that the self – static, partless – can be liberated and can exist independently of a body and mind – so now they’re in this category of "many" – then, still, that static self couldn’t do anything because it’s static, so how could it control the aggregates or possess them and do anything – in one moment do this, in one moment do that? And the fact that we can multi-task and do many things at the same time – not even talking about doing different things at different times – the fact that we can multi-task means again: parts. So it can’t be partless if the self and the body or the self and the mind were identical.

Those are the things we think about in terms of refuting the coarse doctrinally-based impossible "me."

The Self-Sufficiently Known Impossible "Me"

Now, in terms of refuting the next level: a self that is non-static, has parts, is imputed on the aggregates, can only exist imputed on the aggregates but nevertheless can be known by itself, can appear by itself. If that self-sufficiently knowable “me” were identical with the body or mind, it would be pointless to assert that I have a body, because when I see or know myself by itself, I should also know the body; we should also know all the aggregates.

If I could see you by yourself, then there’s no point to say that you have a body because if the self is identical to the body, I should see the body as well. But we have already said that you can know the self without seeing the basis. If we think that we can see the self without seeing the body, so therefore it’s pointless to say that you have a body because when you see the self you should see the body. Seeing yourself should equal seeing the body. So that’s self-contradictory. How do you prove that something is illogical? By demonstrating that it is self-contradictory.

And if that non-static “me” – so changing from moment to moment – is identical with one set of aggregates – one continuum of aggregates – then it couldn’t be imputed on the next set in another lifetime. It’s identical with this changing set, because we’re accepting rebirth here. So when you’re reborn as a mosquito that’s not “me” anymore. And we think like that. It really is very very interesting. When you think “me,” that I’m going to be reborn as this or that, we tend to think in terms of myself. Well, Alex is going to be reborn as Fifi the poodle or whatever; but now it’s Alex in the body of Fifi the poodle. This is the fallacy here: that’s it’s the same Alex that was imputed on human aggregates that now is inside Fifi the poodle.

"I will be reborn as..." – we start to think in those terms of a self-sufficiently knowable “me” that now is going to be reborn as something else. [But] that couldn’t be if that self-sufficiently knowable self was identical to the aggregates of that human rebirth; then that would be a human inside the aggregates of a dog. And we think like that – that is what’s so scary – that’s our simplistic understanding of rebirth, isn’t it? These are really very funny [things] if you start to think about it; and that when you think deeper it's quite sad, because you’re never going to get liberated thinking like that. If they were totally separate, you should be able to take away all the aggregates and still see “me.” So those are the lines of thinking that we use to refute a self-sufficiently knowable “me.”

A Self Whose Characteristic Features Are Found Inside the Basis

Then, once we’ve excluded that, negated that, what are we left with? We're left with a self which I understand is an imputation – can only exist as an imputation on the aggregates – and like the aggregates it’s non-static and has parts, and it can only be known simultaneously with a basis for imputation. But our fallacy here is that the characteristic features of the self are found inside the basis for imputation, and they are in a sense wrapping in plastic a "me” inside the basis, either by their own power by themselves or by the power themselves when lit up by my mental labeling.

Tsongkhapa quotes then the three objections to this position that we find in the texts of Buddhapalita. When Tsongkhapa finally understood what Buddhapalita was talking about, he got his non-conceptual cognition of voidness. So, Buddhapalita points out three fallacies:

(1) It would be pointless to assert a self since the self and the aggregates would be synonymous. In other words, since the mental consciousness has the defining characteristics of both mind and a person, then they're talking about the same thing; they’re identical. If they’re identical, then when you cognize a person, the person should have all the same defining characteristics as the mind. In other words, whether it’s the mind or the person, they should both have the identical set of the defining characteristics.

If they are identical, and here’s the basis and it has two defining characteristics - if we simplify it – then you can’t say that one is the defining characteristic of one and the other is the defining characteristic of the other; both of them would have to have the same two defining characteristics because they are identical, they're the same thing. Then it would be pointless to say that there’s such a thing as mind because a person is the same as the mind. Subtle, isn’t it? Very interesting actually.

(2) Just as for one person there are multiple aggregates, there would also have to be multiple persons. So even if we’re thinking in terms of mental consciousness as having the defining characteristic of a person, then, well, sometimes you have conceptual mental consciousness; sometimes you have non-conceptual mental consciousness; sometimes it’s consciousness of this, sometimes it’s mental consciousness of that. So each of them would have to be a self. There would be many many selves then, if they're identical.

Or because there’s just one self, then whether it’s conceptual, non-conceptual, knowing this or knowing that, it would have to be always knowing the same thing because it could only be one. [In order words,] then the consciousness would only know one thing: every time that the consciousness is different, it couldn’t be different; it would have to be the same because there’s only one self. That’s the second fallacy.

(3) The third fallacy is that – I will translate literally here – if the self and the aggregates (meaning the mind) were identical by essential nature, then it would make simultaneous arising and perishing to have fallacies in terms of cause and effect. It would make the fact of simultaneous arising and perishing to have fallacies; there’d be some problems with that. If the two were identical there would be problems in asserting that you have simultaneous arising and perishing of non-static phenomena. Things arise and perish simultaneously. It’s not that objects are off stage and then they come on stage, so they’re arising and they do their thing, and then they go off stage and they perish. It’s not like that. Things arise and perish simultaneously; the example is writing on water.

So that is a characteristic of non-static phenomena. And the aggregates – all the mental factors – the non-static phenomena; they arise and fall simultaneously in each moment. So, since the self arises and perishes simultaneously in each moment, the same as the aggregate that the mind that it's imputed on arises and perishes simultaneously in that same moment; then, if the self of each moment, if they’re all equal... Then you analyze: okay, so it’s arising and falling in each moment, like the aggregate that it’s identical to. So if that self is one then the arising and falling in each moment of the aggregates would also have to be totally identical. So that makes remembering anything very difficult because in each moment they should be identical, so you should be able to remember absolutely everything all the time. If each moment were totally different then you couldn’t remember anything because the self arises and disappears in this moment and then it arises and disappears in that moment like the aggregates do, so they’d all be different and unrelated.

Tsongkhapa, like Buddhapalita, discusses this in terms of past and future lives. If these are identical, arising and falling simultaneously, then the self in the past life with these aggregates and the self in this life with these aggregates would be identical, and so you have absolutism, which actually makes it static – "born from self" is what he says. If the arising and falling itself of the aggregates in this lifetime are identical with the arising and falling aggregates in the next lifetime, then you have the fallacy of the self in this lifetime arising from itself from the past lifetime. That’s absolutism. If the self arises from itself, then there’s no point in it arising at all, so it’s absolute.

And if they’re totally different from each other, then the self can arise from anything. So then you couldn’t remember anything because the self could arise from something else. You couldn’t experience the effects of your previous actions because cause and effect wouldn’t work; and you could experience the effects of actions that you didn’t do because the self of this lifetime could arise from something that’s totally different from the self in a previous life.

So, these are the three types of fallacies if they were identical. And if the self and the aggregates were established as different by essential nature, then the self could not have any of the defining characteristics of the aggregates. So either it would have to have all the defining characteristics or it couldn’t have any. So, one of the characteristics of the aggregates is that an aggregate arises and perishes; arises, endures, and perishes – non-static. So, if the self were different from the aggregates it couldn’t have that same characteristic and so you contradicted yourself: that makes the self static, unchanging. And if it had no defining characteristics whatsoever of the basis – they were totally separate – and had just its own defining characteristics sitting on its own side, then it would be self-sufficiently knowable. You should be able to know it by itself, which contradicts your own assertion that it’s not that.

So, these are the various lines of reasoning that are used for points three and four of the four point analysis to refute three levels of impossible “me.” They require quite a lot of thinking. We need to try to

  • Recognize in ourselves how we actually think in these illogical ways
  • And refute that – that this is impossible.
  • Then, when we find ourselves thinking that way and acting that way and emotions arising because of that – disturbing emotions – identify what the problem here is: my unawareness and ignorance; I think this is true.
  • Then remind ourselves with key word: nonsense.
  • And in order to monitor all the time how we are thinking, use your willpower, based on understanding that the more that I believe like that, the more my disturbing emotions are going to arise, and that’s going to cause me unhappiness and problems.