The Subtle False “Me” Refuted by All Buddhist Tenets

Other languages

Review of the First Level of Recognizing the Object to Be Refuted: The Coarse Impossible "Me"

We were working on the first point of the four-point analysis, which is to recognize the object to be refuted. We saw that there are many levels of the object to be refuted, and we have discussed the first level: the coarse impossible “me,” which is doctrinally-based, that was taught to us at some lifetime, and we believed in at some lifetime, by one of the non-Buddhist Indian traditions or a master from that tradition. We saw that the self that was described by this type of system had three characteristics:

  • It was static in the sense that it never changed, and it was un-affected by anything. When we talk about something which is static, which doesn’t change from moment to moment, that means that it’s not affected by anything;
  • It has no parts, so it's a monolith.
  • It can exist separately from a body and mind, specifically when it is liberated.

We need to recognize this in ourselves, whether we have the full package of this belief or we have certain parts of it. And in order to recognize it we have to really spend a great deal of time in trying to analyze and to understand just who do I think I am. We all think in terms of "me," "me," "me," but how often do we really try to analyze what do I mean by “me?” We may think in terms of, "Well, I’m like this" and "I’m like that." "I am fat" or "I am intelligent" or "I’m stupid"; "I’m a man," "I’m a woman," "I’m Russian," "I’m American." But then we have to analyze, really what are we talking about? Is there a “me” and "man" or "intelligent" or "stupid?" I mean, what am I calling “me?” Is that who I am now so that we’re identifying the “me” with a man or a woman? Well that's the aggregate of form, isn’t it?

Are we identifying me with "I am a man," "I am Russian," or "I am American"; and "I am good-looking" or "I am fat" or "I am intelligent?" If I’m identifying “me” with all of these, well, is that the same “me?” Are there parts? Is there part of “me” that is a man, part of “me” that is intelligent, part of “me” that is a certain age? What actually am I thinking of when I’m thinking of “me?” Let alone when we think, "I have to find myself"; "I have to figure out who I really am" in terms of what do I like and what do I dislike? Well, then what’s the relationship between "me" and what I like and what I dislike, or what I’m good at and what I’m not good at? Who is that “me” that I’m thinking of that I’m trying to figure out what it likes or what it dislikes, and does it exist separately from these things and now it’s choosing on a menu? Or how does it exist?

So you have to really go quite deeply and try to figure out just what is our concept of “me.” And then try to understand how my anger and my attachment, for example, arise based on this conception of who I am. These are the things that are so important to think about, to try to figure out, as part of this first step of the four-point analysis. What is the object to be refuted? And not just have this be a very superficial practice, but really go in depth; not just say, "Well, there are some theories of some Indians that are totally irrelevant so let’s go onto the really good stuff."

Especially when we read – if we do read – refutations of these positions, and they are made to look ridiculous as positions, then our arrogant attitude it is that, "Well, they’re all stupid, the people who thought that." My teacher Serkong Rinpoche pointed this out very strongly. He said don’t be so arrogant into thinking that these people who believed like that were stupid. These are very very intelligent, well thought-out positions, and you have to try to understand them. They were all presented and evolved as a way to help people basically to overcome their problems. The point was that Buddha saw that they didn’t go deeply enough.

The Second Level: The Subtle Impossible "Me"

So now we’ve dealt with the first level of the impossible “me:” the coarse impossible “me” that’s doctrinally-based, which is accepted in common as something to be refuted by all the Buddhist tenet systems. Now let’s go to the subtle impossible “me,” which is something to be refuted as discussed in all the tenet systems except Vaibhashika; Vaibhashika doesn’t speak of this (and we’ll come back to that). As I indicated, in order to go to the next step, we need to take a survey to see what are we left with when we have refuted this coarse impossible "me."

We are left with a “me” that is

  • Non-static – it changes from moment to moment
  • It has parts – it’s not a monolith
  • It cannot exist independently of a body and mind.

So we have to understand that even if we become a liberated being – an arhat – or we have become a Buddha, still we have a body and a mind. It might be quite a different type of body and mind than what we have as a limited being, a so-called "sentient being" before we are liberated; then as an arhat you have a certain type of body; and then when you become a Buddha you have yet another type of body and mind. But still we have a body and mind. And what is the type of type of non-static phenomenon that changes from moment to moment that a person or “me” is, the self?

  • It is an imputation on a body and mind – or more fully, on an individual continuum of five aggregates
  • And it is something that is neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something.

So it’s not for instance like a forest, a form of physical phenomenon that is an imputation on a group of trees. And it is not a way of being aware of something – like with many moments of anger, on which you then impute the whole emotion of anger. It is neither of those two.

Understanding Imputation

So, a person or "me" is a non-congruent affecting variable. This is something that we have to understand; it's not so simple. There are two levels of understanding imputation. We can speak in terms of the Prasangika or let’s say Madhyamaka point of view in general, in which everything is imputably existent. But then we can speak on a more common level that is accepted or shared by everybody – all the tenet systems. In terms of that common assertion, that shared assertion, then there are two types of phenomena that are imputed.

  • Some are non-static – change from moment to moment;
  • Some are static – they don’t change, and are not affected by anything.

Those that are non-static – examples of that would be things like time, motion, and the conventional “me.” Examples of things that are static and imputed would be categories – the category of "dog," the category of anger; these are static. They don’t do anything. It’s a category that’s imputed on individual members of a set basically. Voidness and space also belong to this type of phenomenon because these are basically facts about something that don’t change. No such things as impossible ways of existing – that’s what voidness is talking about – a total absence of that – that’s just a fact. It doesn’t change.

But there is a big difference here that we need to understand. Nonstatic, non-congruent affecting variables, like persons, can be validly known both non-conceptually and conceptually. We can see a person. The same is the case with static voidnesses and static space; they can also be validly known in both ways. Static categories, however, can only be known conceptually.

So, now, when we talk about the self, we’re talking about one of these imputedly existent phenomenon that changes to moment to moment to moment; and can be validly known both non-conceptually and conceptually; and it is an imputation on a basis. Let’s give an easier-to-understand example of a non-congruent affecting variable: motion.

What is motion? Well, you have an object which is here and then the next moment it’s here and then the next moment it’s here and here and here and here. And what is the imputation on that? The imputation is "motion;" it’s moved. In one moment you don’t see motion, do you? You need more than one moment in order to see motion, but only one moment happens at a time, doesn’t it? But on the basis of something being in a different position in each moment, there is the imputation "motion." But we didn't make up and project the motion on the object. It's not that if we did not project "motion" on the object, it wouldn't move.

Can you see motion? Isn’t motion something that you can see, that exists? Is it only a concept? No, it’s not only a concept, right? You can see something is moving, but you can’t see motion separately from something moving, can you? So, it is imputedly knowable. It can only be know while the basis is also being known. So you agree that we can see motion, and to see it you’d have to see an object moving even though it might be very very fast.

Now, a person. A person is an imputation on aggregates. Remember we had the five aggregates – body, consciousness, feeling, distinguishing, various emotions, and so on. In particular it is always accompanying mind, consciousness – that seems to be the most prominent thing that it is imputed on. Now, there are various characteristics of the self, of the person, and it is a non-congruent affecting variable, which means that it’s not congruent with a consciousness, primary consciousness. It doesn’t share five things in common; it shares some things in common but not five things in common. Mental factors, which are ways of being aware of something, do share five things in common with consciousness. The self doesn’t.

When I see something, and I have concentration on it and perhaps desire for it – like the piece of cake outside – then consciousness is just aware of it as a sight. And the concentration and the desire – all of them are sharing the same focal object; all of them are arising dependent on the visual sensors – the photo-sensitive cells of the eyes. All of them – like the way of being aware of something – give rise to the same mental hologram, because that’s how we perceive things; there's light and the photons fire with the neurons; and then there’s electrical and chemical stuff going on – transmission; and then there’s the production of a mental hologram that is what we actually see, what we experience subjectively. So they're all together giving rise to this mental hologram, same mental hologram. They are occurring simultaneously. And they all are the same in that each arises from its own natal source, its own tendency.

Now, the self doesn’t share all these five things in common with the consciousness in each moment, although it is an imputation on the consciousness in each moment. The self takes objects; it knows things. Remember, we had in the discussion of Indian philosophy, is the self some sort of passive consciousness that uses a brain or uses the mind, or is it something that has no ability to know anything by itself and then uses and brain and a mind? What is the relationship? Because conventionally you say 'I know something,' 'I see something.' So the self does take objects and can know things, but it doesn’t give rise to a mental hologram; only a way of being aware of something gives rise to a mental hologram. It's not the same. And the self doesn’t always know what is going on.

We have something called subliminal awareness. "Subliminal" – underground, like for instance when you are sleeping then the sound of the clock is appearing to your ear consciousness, otherwise you’d never be able to hear the alarm clock in the morning. So it is appearing to the ear consciousness but not to the self. If you think of it graphically, the sound waves are coming in, they are hitting the sound-sensitive cells of the ear, so the ear in a sense is hearing it, but “I” don’t hear it. That’s subliminal awareness. But if that sound is loud enough as with the alarm clock, then both the ear consciousness and the self will hear it. Subliminal awareness – everybody accepts that; all the tenet systems.

So, the self doesn't share five things in common with the consciousness:

  • It’s non-congruent
  • It’s not a way of knowing
  • It’s not a form of physical phenomenon.

This is commonly accepted by everybody; those are the characteristics of the self. It can only exist imputedly on a basis, five aggregates; so very simply body and mind. Now we have to look at this imputation more carefully in terms of how do we establish that such a thing as my self, "me," exists. This can only be established in terms of mental labeling of the category "me" and designation of that category with the word "me" and through that category, designation of the conventional "me" with the word "me." Let's just speak first in terms of mental labeling with the category "me" – the static category that we project and through which we conceptually cognize our selves, on the basis of any moment of our experience, whenever we think of ourselves.

With mental labeling we have three pieces. There is the mental label “me” – the category "me." And we have the basis for labeling it – the five aggregates. And that mental label refers to something. There’s an object that it refers to – that’s the actual conventional “me,” an imputation on those five aggregates.

Motion is an imputation, right? It’s an imputation based on an object being in different places from moment to moment. Every time we see something move, we conceptually fit its motion into the category "motion" and what we call it, "motion." "Motion" is a word; it’s a designation. It refers to something; so what does it refer to? It refers to motion – conventionally existent motion that you can see. Likewise, the word “me,” refers to something. It refers to the actual conventional “me” that exists as an imputation and can only be validly known on the basis of the five aggregates, just as conventional motion is an imputation that exists and can only be validly known on the basis of the ball being in different positions form moment to moment. Now there’s this moment of experience, then the next moment of experience, next moment of experience; and all the pieces in that moment of experience are changing at different rates, and the conventional “me" is the imputation on top of that, mentally labeled with the category "me" and designated with the word "me."

The example that I always use – though I’m trying not to always use the same example – is a movie. Moment to moment to moment, different things are happening in the movie. There’s a designation – the name of the movie. The movie is not just the name; the name refers to the movie. The movie is not the same as one moment of it. It’s not the same as all the moments of it, because they couldn’t all happen at the same time, could they? Only one could happen at a time. But is there a movie? Yes, there is a movie. There’s the designation, the name, the basis and what the name refers to on that basis. Okay? So there’s the conventional “me;” there’s every moment of experience; and the mental label and designation “me” refers to the conventionally existent “me.” And I see, and I go, and I do – on the basis of the body doing things and the mind seeing things and understanding. This everybody accepts.

What is to be refuted here? What’s to be refuted is that the conventional “me,” the referent object, is self-sufficiently knowable; that it can be known without the basis for imputation appearing simultaneously. That would be like imagining that you could see motion without seeing the ball when it's moving. You can’t see the motion that is an imputation on the moving ball separately from seeing the ball, because the motion of the moving ball is imputedly knowable. The ball itself is self-sufficiently knowable in this commonly accepted scheme. You don’t have to see anything else to see the ball. We’re not talking on the more sophisticated level of imputation that you can’t see the ball without seeing the parts of the ball. We’re not talking on that level; we just see the ball. But you can’t see motion without seeing the ball moving in different places at different times.

So similarly you can’t see the self or know the self without a basis also appearing. However, automatically it arises – you don’t have to be taught this – that it seems as though you can know the self self-sufficiently. Alright? We say, "I see Yura," as if I could just see Yura without seeing a body. "I want to call Yura on the phone"; well, what am I calling? That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Well, I’m calling a body and a mind and aggregates and so on and that’s Yura. Or is that Yura? But it seems as though I could just call Yura. Or I’m hearing Yura on the phone, well, what am I hearing? I’m hearing the vibration of something inside this mechanical device and labeling that "Yura." It’s very interesting.

The classic example that I love: "I want you to love me for me; not for my looks, not for my intelligence, not for my body, or my money. I want you to love me just for me" – as if the “me” could be loved separately from some basis of imputation. And on the basis for thinking that that’s how we exist, then we have automatically arising disturbing emotions. "Nobody loves me, I’m so lonely"; you get angry if somebody ignores “me.” Ignoring “me;” what are they ignoring? The body, and the imputation "me" on the body – no, no, "They're are just ignoring me." We think that it’s like that, that they are ignoring “me,” as if they could ignore me separately from a basis of “me.” They're ignoring my body – well, I don’t’ think that. They are ignoring what? My emotions, my personality – what are they ignoring? "They’re just ignoring me, and they don’t love me."

Doctrinally-Based and Automatically Arising Disturbing Emotions

So that’s a whole different level of disturbing emotions – these automatically arising disturbing emotions – from that spectrum of disturbing emotions that are doctrinally-based. Doctrinally-based – "I am eternally young. I look in the mirror; that’s not me. It’s an old person." Or you look at the scale and it gives a number and you say "That’s not me. I can’t possibly weigh that much," as if there’s this static “me” – that’s doctrinally-based. So we have doctrinally-based unawareness, and doctrinally-based disturbing emotions, and we have the automatically arising ones.

The doctrinally-based ones are coming from imagining that we exist as this coarse impossible “me;” and the automatically arising ones arise from believing that we exist as this more subtle impossible “me” – the self-sufficiently knowable one. This automatically arises. Everybody asserts that it automatically arises except the Vaibhashika system. Prasangika comes along and says that actually you could have this misconception about the self doctrinally-based if you learned and accepted the Vaibhashika view. You could have this idea of a self sufficiently knowable “me” either doctrinally-based or automatically arising. So to understand this you have to know the Vaibhashika explanation of cognition that we need to have studied and understood.

How does cognition work? ("Cognition" is the most general word for being aware of something.) Everybody, except the Vaibhashikas, say that cognition works indirectly. This is a technical term. People use these words – "direct" and "indirect" – to cover at least three completely different meanings and then it all gets confused. So we need to be much more precise in our use of terminology. Everybody else except Vaibashika says that cognition works through mental holograms. In fact that is part of the definition of mind, a more general definition: to know something is to give rise to a mental hologram of something. So, in moment one there is contacting awareness, photons reach the eyes, the photo-sensitive cells of the eyes. Then there’s a slight time lapse, isn’t there, with the firing of the neurons and the chemicals and so on, and then that it somehow translated into a mental hologram, which is what we see – although you can’t actually find the mental hologram inside your head.

We have a mental hologram of the aggregates – a body for instance or the sound of a voice; and the mental hologram is actually a composite of that basis with the self imputed on it. Well, can you have a mental hologram of just the self? That’s an interesting question. No, you can’t. That’s very interesting: can you just think of yourself without thinking “me" – a mental word that is representing the self or a mental picture or feeling? How can you think of "me"? It's an interesting questions, isn't it? These are the type of things that one investigates. How do I think of "me," of myself?

Everybody except Vaibhashika says that this process of cognition is indirect because there’s a mental hologram. That word that I am translating as "mental hologram" is usually translated as "aspect" – when you read the word "aspect" you have no idea what it’s talking about. But that’s what it’s talking about – a mental hologram. Vaibhashika does not assert mental holograms. It asserts that cognition works just directly, not through a mental hologram. We just see the object; it’s not represented by a mental hologram, because when I see a person I don’t actually see all five aggregates that the person is imputed on. Therefore I can see a person directly, self-sufficiently. That’s the Vaibhashika position. And if we believe that – we’ve learned that and believe that – then this misconception about a self-sufficiently knowable me is doctrinally-based.

For everybody other than the Prasangikas, doctrinally-based unawareness, ignorance, is just talking about what you learned from the non-Buddhist Indian systems. Prasangika says that you can also have doctrinally-based disturbing emotions and unawareness based on the less sophisticated Buddhist schools as well. So, this self-sufficiently knowable “me," belief in that, and the disturbing emotions that come from that according to Prasangika can be either doctrinally-based or automatically arising. Whereas the doctrinally based unawareness and disturbing emotions and so on – that one in terms of the static, partless, independently existing self – that one is only doctrinally-based. That’s referring to the whole package – a whole package of a self, an atman, that is static, partless, and can exist when liberated all by itself.

You had to learn that whole package. But even in this lifetime, if we haven’t studied that, we could have little pieces of it left over that are manifest. I’m explaining this because there could be a lot of confusion about that. These little pieces of it would fall into the category of "incorrect consideration," which is not a disturbing emotion but is another mental factor – how we consider things either correctly or incorrectly. So, correctly would be that the body is non-static. Incorrectly would be that it’s static; it never changes. That you could have doctrinally-based or automatically arising; that little piece. Or, the body actually is suffering of old age, sickness etc.; but you incorrectly consider it as happiness – the body is beautiful, the body is so wonderful; worship the body. That little piece could be doctrinally-based from advertising or whatever, or could automatically arise. The body is actually tainted; it’s impure. What’s inside the stomach, what’s inside the intestines, what happens when you put food in your mouth and chew it a few times and spit it out? The body is actually a machine for producing urine and feces. Put food and liquid in, and the body manufactures urine and feces out of it. But incorrectly we consider it as so clean and wonderful; that could be either doctrinally-based or automatically arising. But that whole package with the self, which is static and has no parts and can exist independently of a body and mind – that is only doctrinally-based. So, don’t get confused here about this doctrinally-based thing here and "I’m forever young" and these problems that we have.

Let’s take a moment to just digest this self-sufficiently knowable “me”: "I want to take time out to get to know myself," as if you could know yourself independently of knowing the body or your personality or whatever. "I want to know myself"; "Now I know myself." So it automatically arises. Nobody had to teach you that. But that type of "me," we understand that it is non-static, it’s changing from moment to moment, it has parts, it can’t exist separately from a body or a mind. You understand this, but nevertheless we still think that it can be known by itself. That’s this more subtle level.

Working Through Refuting the Coarse "Me" and Subtle "Me"

This is what I’m trying to emphasize and teach you: to just think and refute a self-sufficiently knowable “me” trivialize this point – even though it’s really quite sophisticated even on this trivialized level – because what we are really talking about here is a non-static, having-part self that is imputed always on a body and a mind, which can nevertheless be self-sufficiently known. So it is much more subtle. It is what is left over after we have refuted the coarse impossible “me,” and then refuting something more subtle with what’s left over. That’s the object to be refuted.

If you don’t understand it you have not done the first point of the four-point analysis of what is the object to be refuted. It may take time to identify it – it should take time to identify it – in your own experience; but you can’t really understand and identify this subtle self to be refuted unless you have worked with the coarse one and refuted that one. If you skip that first point then your understanding is very superficial and it tends to trivialize the whole refutation. So take a moment to digest that.


The Buddhist Principle of Exclusion

All of this discussion is within the context of the general Buddhist principle, which is that you know things through exclusion. In other words, to specify something, know it precisely, the way that you do that is you narrow in. It’s not this, so you exclude that; you see what’s left, and then within that, well, it’s not this, you exclude that; and it gets more precise; and then you exclude something that’s wrong in that. That way you narrow down to be able to specify exactly what it is by excluding what it’s not. That is the general principle here, the general approach.