The Conventional “Me”: An Imputation on the 5 Aggregates

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We were speaking about voidness (emptiness) and we saw that voidness is a negatingly known phenomenon, it’s a negation. We know it by negating something. If we put the word voidness into different terms, then we could say that it is an absence of something. There are many different types of absences. We could talk about the temporary absence of the dog from the room, in which case the dog could come back; it’s just not present here now. But voidness is not talking about that type of absence. We could talk about the absence of a monster in the room, in which case the monster is something that never existed and never was in the room and didn’t go outside and is waiting to come back in. There was never a monster in the room and there never will be a monster in the room. So there is that type of absence. Voidness isn’t speaking about that either. But rather, what is absent is an impossible way of existing. When we speak in terms of an absence of an impossible way of existing, then there is a basis for that. In other words, this is the object that is devoid of existing in an impossible way. There are many different ways of existing that are impossible.

Increasingly Subtler Objects of Refutation by Emptiness in the Tenet Systems

When we look at the Indian schools of Buddhist tenet systems, philosophical systems, they can be studied in a graded way, in which, going from one to the next, we refute more and more subtle impossible ways of existing. Although it’s not clear that people in India studied these schools of philosophical positions in this way, the Tibetans do. They study them in a graded way. You start with the grosser descriptions of how things exist and you work your way to the more and more subtle and the more and more sophisticated versions. This is a very helpful way of studying, because what we are doing is basically narrowing in on a more and more precise understanding. We discover a certain way that we imagine things to exist in, and we realize through logic and so on that this is impossible, and then we see what is left over when we exclude this projection of this impossible way of existing, what’s left over.

What is important is to see is that although a certain impossible way of existing is absent, never was there, nevertheless, with what is left over, things still function. Then, with what is left over, we see there is still another more subtle level of impossible way of existing that I am projecting onto this. Then we have to refute that and see what is left over next. Like this, we get deeper and deeper, and more and more subtle in our understanding of voidness. It is a very big mistake to just jump, at the beginning, to the very most sophisticated explanation of voidness without working through these steps. Because then, if we do that, we look at the most subtle and profound assertion, and without having the context within which we would understand it, it seems trivial. “Where is the self? Can you find the self?” “It’s not in my head. It’s not in my foot. It’s not up my nose. Where is the self? I can’t find the self.” So what! There is no context to it and it seems trivial. It seems obvious and it seems trivial. That certainly is not the understanding of voidness.

We have this step-by-step study and progression into the understanding of voidness to get to the most profound understanding. The great Indian master, Shantideva, in his text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, makes the very large point that the deepest understanding – what is known as the Prasangika-Madhyamaka school of Indian Buddhist thought – that its explanation of voidness is the most profound and the most necessary. In fact, without that understanding, there is no way to gain even liberation, let alone enlightenment.

We have four schools of Indian Buddhist philosophy and one of them is divided into two: Madhyamaka has two divisions. There is no opportunity now, no time to go into a detailed discussion of all these different schools, the positions of these schools. That’s quite a complex and deep study. But one point that I think is important for us to realize is that if we look at the four Tibetan traditions of Buddhism, we find that they have, each of them, different explanations of these four Indian positions. It’s not that there is only one understanding of what the Indians were saying. So that makes it even more complex. If we look at these positions in general, what we can say is that the older schools within Tibetan Buddhism: Kagyu, Sakya and Nyingma, have one general explanation, although they have slight variations within that. And then Tsongkhapa was a radical, radical, revolutionary thinker. He understood these positions in the Indian schools in quite a different way.

Fitting Together the Explanations of Emptiness in the Different Tenet Systems

When we read books in our own language of the different authors, and different modern lamas as well, explaining these positions, it is very important to identify which Tibetan tradition this is coming from, in order to not get confused, because a Kagyu or a Sakya explanation of Prasangika would be very different from a Gelugpa explanation. One of the things that His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes to do very much is to get an overview of all the different positions of all the different schools. When you have this larger knowledge of all the different traditions, then you can see how actually they fit together and that they are not really contradictory. They are looking at things from different points of view with slightly different definitions, and so on. Just as the scientists are trying to look for the grand unified theory to explain everything, His Holiness is always looking to develop the grand unified theory to be able to fit all the different Buddhist explanations together.

Conversely, when we face this situation of so many different explanations and so many different systems, it is important not to get discouraged, but just to work step-by-step, trying to understand one system at a time. And, depending on our capacity, we can learn many systems or not so many systems. What also is important is to avoid arrogance when we study these systems. Arrogance manifests itself in the attitude that: “This is a lower explanation; this is childish; this is stupid; only Prasangika is really correct.” After all, Buddha taught all of these systems, and the various Indian commentaries that were written that explain the systems were written by great masters, who, as my teacher Serkong Rinpoche said, were not idiots. These were not stupid people. Each of these systems is useful for lessening our suffering, our problems, our confusion. That’s why Buddha taught them.

The “less sophisticated” systems might not be able to rid us of everything, of all the deepest level of the confusion, but they are able to help us to eliminate certain levels, which will lessen our suffering and be helpful. Don’t be arrogant about this and say, “Oh, who needs to think like this? Why should I bother?” Shantideva pointed out the method for going deeper and deeper with these systems. If we can understand a certain example within a system that gives a very simple explanation, if we can understand that example there, then we can understand that same example in a more sophisticated system. I will explain that giving you an example. The example Shantideva used is the example “everything is like an illusion,” which all the different Buddhist systems accept. Now, Buddha is not saying that everything is an illusion, not everything is the same as an illusion. He is saying “everything is like an illusion.” Things are like an illusion in the sense that they appear to exist in a certain way, but they don’t actually exist that way. But Shantideva says quite clearly, killing somebody in a dream and killing somebody when we are awake are quite different.

The Vaibhashika Presentation of What Is Like an Illusion

So, let me give an example. If we look at the first system, the so-called simplest system within the Buddhist tenet systems, this is the position of the Vaibhashikas. The Vaibhashikas point out that objects, like this table or this chair, appear to be solid, but actually they are made up of tiny particles. So our mind makes them appear as if they were solid. “This chair appears to be solid, my body appears to be solid, but actually both of them are made of atoms, electrons and quarks and a tremendous amount of empty space, so it’s like an illusion that they appear to be solid, so that’s impossible, it’s impossible that they are solid.”

These things are devoid – although the Vaibhashika does not use this terminology, we can understand it in this way – they are devoid of existing as something solid. Coming from Western science, we would agree that this chair and my body are certainly not solid objects. Now that’s not so difficult. The difficult part is the nevertheless that comes after that – “...and nevertheless, I don’t fall through this chair. Although my body is not solid and the chair is not solid, and it’s tiny particles and energy fields and so on; nevertheless, in spite of all of that, I do not fall through this chair, and it supports me.” That is difficult to really understand.

If you think about it, “How in the world am I supported by this thing that is not solid?” So it’s like an illusion, in that it seems to be solid, nevertheless it functions. That takes quite a while for that to sink in, and to really understand that, and to accept that, and to accept that on all levels.

Did you ever think about language? How do you understand anything? You hear somebody speaking and all you hear in one moment is a consonant or a vowel, a tiny little sound; and when the next syllable is pronounced and you hear it, you’re not hearing that first syllable any more; it’s finished. So you never hear a word in one moment. You only hear tiny, little sounds in one moment; and you certainly don’t hear a sentence in one moment. So there is nothing solid about the sound of a sentence at all. Nevertheless, here is the difficult one, nevertheless we understand the sentence and it communicates. That’s incredible, if you think about it. How in the world can that work? Think about that for a moment.

That is very funny, we are sitting here and we are not falling through the floor. All we are hearing is tiny little sounds at a time, and nevertheless we’re understanding something – hopefully. That’s unbelievable. So, to understand this Vaibhashika position is not so simple. But if we can understand it, it can be very, very helpful. Somebody says, “You’re an idiot! You’re stupid!” and what is it? It’s just one tiny, little sound, one syllable after another. What is it? It’s just sound. What’s the big deal? It helps us not to get so angry. Nevertheless, they did say something and we have to stop and rethink the situation, but it helps us not to get angry. So it’s useful.

Now, what Shantideva says, if we can understand this “nevertheless,” that is the word here, “it is like an illusion, but nevertheless it still functions,” if we can understand that with the simple example of particles, then maybe we can understand how things are like an illusion on a much more subtle level – not devoid simply of being solid, but they are devoid of much more subtle, impossible ways of existing, and nevertheless…. We always have to preserve our understanding with these two sides, that “it’s devoid of existing in an impossible way” – that helps us avoid the extreme of thinking that things are solid, permanent, and so on – and we have to always reaffirm that “nevertheless they do function,” which helps us to avoid the extreme of nihilism, to say that “nothing exists, there is just nothing.” Let’s take a few more moments to let that digest.

Does Vaibhashika stop there, saying that this doesn’t exist as a solid, indivisible something, but it’s made of particles, nevertheless it functions. Does it just stop there?

Vaibhashika, first of all, is only asserting voidness of persons. So, what I am explaining here is the Vaibhashika description of phenomena, but they don’t discuss it in terms of “type of voidness.” What they speak about is two types of true phenomena. One type are the conventionally true phenomena, which would be these solid objects, but that’s just the superficially true phenomena. The deepest truth phenomena are these particles things are made of. So these superficially true phenomena, the conventionally true phenomena, these solid objects – they work because they are affected by causes and conditions, and things like that, and they produce effects. Although it is necessary in the Vaibhashika system to understand the two types of true phenomena, it’s not essential for gaining liberation from disturbing emotions, according to their explanation. But one does need to know them.

But the way that I am explaining here is a way of looking at the assertions of Vaibhashika, and then the next schools, and the next schools, and so on, in such a way in which we could see how the understanding of voidness could develop more and more sophisticated levels, although it is not the traditional way in which the material would have been presented in India, or even in Tibet. But, this way in which I am explaining is implied, is implicit, in Shantideva’s explanation of the method with which one gains an understanding of voidness.

The Use of Equalizing Deep Awareness in Western Ways of Explaining Emptiness

One of the things that I think can characterize Buddhism in the West is a way of explaining that takes advantage of our Western way of training the mind. I am looking from a historical perspective of how Buddhism has evolved and developed over the centuries as it has gone from one civilization to another. So what can Western civilization do to contribute to the way in which one studies and masters Buddhist teachings? That is the question I am investigating.

There are five types of deep awareness, sometimes translated as five types of “Buddha-wisdom,” but calling them Buddha-wisdoms is a bit misleading, because even the earthworm has these five. It’s just simply the mechanism, the structure, with which the mind works. One of them is the individualizing deep awareness: it is looking at individual details – this individual point, that individual point, that individual point – as an individual thing. I look at you in the room and I see each person as an individual, not just as a group of people. The Tibetans specialize in this type of deep awareness. Their entire education system emphasizes this through debate – debate on very individual aspects, very individual points.

Another type of deep awareness is the equalizing deep awareness and this is the awareness that allows us to see patterns, to put things together, to look at them equally with equalizing awareness. So it is with this type of awareness that I can look at some people in this room and put them equally in the category of “women” and others equally in the category of “men.” We all have this. This is not profound. The earthworm has that. It puts things equally in the category of “food.” We are trained to develop this type of awareness in our Western education. We are trained to look at patterns of how did something develop historically, theories of how things fit together, and so on. It’s our specialty in Western thought.

In presenting the Vaibhashika insight the way that I did, what I am doing is applying that Western way of thinking, that equalizing deep awareness, to try to see the pattern of how you would develop an understanding of “things being like an illusion, nevertheless they function,” going from one Indian system to another. See the pattern, see how it evolves, that the Western mind is perfectly suited to. The typical Tibetan mind is very limited in being able to do that, because of their education system. This is what I think in terms of the historical development in Western Buddhism. What can we contribute? This is what we can contribute: it’s that usage of equalizing deep awareness as a pedagogical tool to help us to understand and put together the Buddhist teachings. It is suggested by Shantideva’s text and it is certainly something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is very unique as a Tibetan, is able to see, and what he is trying to do with this unified theory, to put everything together.

How to apply equalizing deep awareness would be another type of deep awareness, the accomplishing deep awareness. This we can help in terms of the development of Western Buddhist methods. As we, Western teachers, develop these pedagogic tools of putting together patterns, of developing training programs that work with these patterns, then that makes it easier for the Western mind to understand and to follow. On that basis, then I think there is a much better chance that people will be more successful in their practice, in terms of actually doing it, making sense of it, rather than it being just discordant, little fragments of things that they can’t put together, and be more successful in applying it in their lives.

I think that these are important points for understanding how can we deal with the Tibetan Buddhist teachings, how can we make sense of them, because it’s very easy to say, “Well, trying to put these teachings together, and so on, that’s just making concepts and we must not be so conceptual.” This equalizing deep awareness isn’t necessarily conceptual. It may be, but there is nothing wrong with conceptual thinking. Conceptual thinking is putting things together into categories, and I think that it’s very necessary for us to try to identify the patterns to see how the teachings fit together. As I said, the traditional way of teaching is that we are given pieces of the puzzle, and it’s up to us to put it together. And most of us don’t really know how to put them together, but we have the training with a type of deep awareness, this equalizing awareness, which can help us to put them together.

Identifying the Conventional “Me”

When we speak of an absence of impossible ways of existing, we can speak of that with reference to persons, “me and you,” that we don’t exist in impossible ways, and we can also speak in terms of everything: all objects, and everything including me and you. When we get angry or when we get greedy of someone, primarily because of our projection of impossible ways of existing onto me. “You insulted me!” “I want you!” “I want you to like me!” “I want this object for me.” “You just ruined and broke my computer.” The problem is not the computer. The main problem is me. “It’s mine.”

When we look at these schools of Indian philosophy, the initial ones say that the impossible way of existing of persons and the impossible way of existing of objects is different. But when we look at the most profound explanation, the Prasangika explanation says that the impossible way of existing of persons and objects is the same. So Prasangika agrees, of course, what the so-called lower schools say is impossible about a person is impossible. But there is a more subtle impossible way of existing, which applies to everything, including “me and you.” So we look at what is an impossible way of existing of persons. That’s quite important to understand first.

For this, we have to understand what is the conventional me? Remember, we spoke about the stages for gaining an understanding of voidness. First we need to know the basis, the conventional “me” that does exist – then the false “me” that we are projecting on it, and then the negation of that impossible “me.” First we have to know the conventional “me” that does exist. That is very, very important, because if we don’t identify the conventional “me” that does exist, and we just refute the false “me”, then just refuting the false “me” leaves us with nothing. And that is psychologically extremely dangerous.

If we are a young person, for instance, and we haven’t really established ourselves in the world, with a conventional identity and so on, we are left with nothing and then they fall to the extreme of thinking, “Well, why get an education, why get a job, why do anything? Everything is void.” That’s a big mistake. Even if we are an older person, if we have low self-esteem, and we haven’t confirmed the conventional “me” that does exist and we just refute the impossible way, it just makes our low self-esteem worse, “I am nothing, I am no good.” So the next step is “I am nothing,” isn’t it?

The Conventional “Me” Is an Imputation on the Five Aggregates

So in order to understand the conventional “me,” we need to understand what is known as the five aggregates. Five aggregate factors, I call them, which make up each moment of our experience. In other words what that means is that each moment of our experience is made up of many, many things that are changing all the time. This system of aggregates is only a system for classifying changing phenomena, things that change from moment to moment, so-called “nonstatic.” These groups don’t exist somewhere in big boxes in the sky. It is just a conceptual classification scheme, which is helpful for understanding what is going on in our experience. Each moment of our experience is made up of one or more items of each of these five so-called boxes or categories.

In each moment, we have some form of physical phenomenon. Let’s say colored shape, something visual, or it can be a sound, or a smell, a taste, physical sensation, and also the cognitive sensors, I call them. These are like the photosensitive cells of the eyes, the sound-sensitive cells of the ears, smell sensors of the nose, and so on. We are talking about body, basically, various physical things within the body through which we are able to perceive sense data, basically. Every moment of our experience of life has one or more items from this category, even when we are asleep.

Then there is in each moment some sort of consciousness. In Buddhism we don’t speak about consciousness in general, like we do in the West, but we speak of eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-, taste- and tongue-consciousness, body consciousness and mental consciousness. It’s like what channel are we on, on the television. Are we on the seeing channel, the hearing channel, the smelling channel, or what channel are we on?

Each moment of our experience has some level of feeling, and feeling here is a very, very specific mental factor. It is speaking only of feeling some level of “happy” or “unhappy.” It has nothing to do with emotions.

Then, each moment has some distinguishing in it: I call it, “distinguishing.” That is often translated as “recognition,” but that is really very misleading and incorrect. “Recognition” is much too sophisticated here. What we are talking about is, within a sensory field, for example in the visual sensory field, being able to distinguish one colored shape from another colored shape. “How do I distinguish the colored shape of your face from the colored shape of the wall?” That distinguishing is what we are talking about here. It doesn’t mean that we know what it is. It doesn’t mean we are giving a name to it, or a label to it or anything like that. It’s just how we distinguish things within some sort of cognitive field. Without that, it’s impossible for us to be able to be aware of anything.

Then the fifth aggregate factor here is “everything else,” everything else that changes that is part of our moment of experience. So it is here that we get all the emotions, both the positive and the negative ones, plus all the mental factors that help us in knowing things, like concentration, and attention, sleepiness, these sorts of things. Everything else is in this last “box.” I call this the aggregate of other affecting variables. Everything else that is a variable, that changes and affects our experience, which is literally what the Sanskrit word samskara means. It’s something that affects something else.

In each moment, we are on one or more channels. There is a big discussion whether we can see and hear simultaneously or not. There are different opinions on that. It doesn’t matter. But anyway, we are on some sort of consciousness channel, and some objects, some physical forms that we are aware of, and there is a distinguishing of various features within the sense field, and some level of happiness with that, and then everything else, all the emotions, and concentration and all of that. All these are changing constantly and they are changing at different rates.

Now what is the “me?” The “me” is an imputation on all of this, in a sense as a way of integrating the continuity of the moment-to-moment of all these changing factors. But it is not something which is physical. It is not something which is a way of being aware of something, although we say, “I know this,” or “I see you,” but it’s not the same as a consciousness. It is an imputation on these ever-changing factors. It is not a mental construct; it is not merely projecting onto the aggregates. It is validly knowable both non-conceptually as well as conceptually.

Let’s give an example that might make this easier to understand. What is an orange, a fruit – an orange? I see this object, sitting on the table. What do I see? I see an orange ball; I see an orange circle, an orange sphere, actually. If I am able to see in three dimensions, I see an orange sphere. Is an orange an orange sphere? I could draw an orange sphere, couldn’t I? That’s not an orange. I smell something. Is the orange a smell? No, it’s not. I could hold something in my hand, and my eyes closed, and I feel something, some physical shape. Is that the orange or is that a physical shape, is that a physical sensation? It’s a physical sensation, isn’t it? I could put something in my mouth and I can taste it. Is that taste the orange? Is that all that an orange is? I could take the orange and throw it against the wall and hear a sound. Is that the orange? I can close my eyes and think of an orange ball. Is that the orange? What’s the orange?

A conventional orange is an imputation on the basis of all of these things: the colored shape, and a smell, and a taste, and a physical sensations, etc. On the basis of these various pieces of sense information, on the basis of all of that, there is “an orange.” But none of those things by themselves ­– for instance, an orange-colored sphere – is an orange.

Is there such a thing as an orange? Yes, of course there is. I see this colored shape. I don’t just see this colored shape, I see an orange. I see a colored shape of this body and I see a person. I don’t just see a colored shape and I don’t just see a body. I see a person. But, that person that I see is not just a colored shape, is it? It is an imputation, to use the technical term, on the basis of these colored shapes.

It’s the same thing with “me.” There are always certain sights that are seen, and consciousness, and feeling happy, unhappy, and all this other stuff – none of them are “me” – although you might think that “I am my body” or “I am my mind,” but that’s pretty weird, actually. So, “me” is an imputation on the basis of all these things that are changing all the time. Like an illusion, it seems as though there is a solid “me” there. It seems as though I’m seeing Sasha. What am I seeing? I’m seeing some colored shapes. Nevertheless, this is Sasha and he is a person and can speak and do all sorts of tricks and things. Here is our “nevertheless” factor. It is like an illusion. It seems as though there is a solid thing all by itself. This orange-colored sphere seems to be an orange, nevertheless I can eat it, and it fills my stomach, and it tastes good.

Let’s take a few moments to think about that. That’s not very easy at all, but I think if we use the example of the orange, it can help us to get into this way of thinking of “something,” like the orange is an imputation on the basis of all these different pieces of sense information and that’s analogous to how the “me” is an imputation on all these different aggregates that make up our experience each moment. And that “me” does this; that’s the “me” that each moment “I’m talking,” “I’m listening,” “I’m sitting,” “I’m walking.” It’s true. It’s not just “the mouth is talking” and it’s not just “sound is happening.”