Subtle and Gross Disturbing Emotions: Gelug Prasangika

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“Grasping for an impossible soul of a person” – usually translated as “grasping for the self of a person” – refers to the coarse levels of mind making an appearance of an impossible self (an impossible “me”) and taking this deceptive appearance to correspond to what actually exists. The appearance of an impossible “me” that automatically arises is the appearance of a “me” that is self-sufficiently knowable.

We say that all the time: “I see Michael, I’m seeing a person." We don’t say, “I’m seeing a body, and on the basis of that body, I can designate Michael.” We think that “I’m seeing Michael” independently of anything else appearing. Or “I’m sitting on the couch.” A body is sitting on the couch, and labeled on the body there’s a ‘me.’ Are there two things sitting on the couch? Is the body sitting on the couch and I’m sitting on the couch, so there are two things sitting on the couch? Well, no. That’s what a self-sufficiently knowable self means.

The appearance of a person as being established as that automatically arises and we automatically believe it corresponds to reality. We all think that, you know, “I know Mary.” All right. What do you mean, I know Mary? What do you know? I know the body of Mary? I know the mind of Mary? What do you know? I know the name Mary, and on the basis of that, I can say I know Mary. But we don’t think like that. It automatically arises that “I know Mary.” Everybody has that. That’s what automatically arises.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explained that people were thinking and thinking and thinking about this, and they came up with these pre-Buddhist Indian philosophical systems. They asserted that this “me” is an atman, a soul, and they believed that:

  • This “me” is static. That means it never changes. I’m always the same.
  • It’s a monolith, which means it has no parts. There are two positions regarding this: either it’s one with the universe or it’s a tiny monad, like a spark of life that’s in everybody.
  • And it’s separate from the aggregates, separate from a body and mind (because it goes into a body and comes out of a body and goes into another body), and is either the inhabitant of the aggregates or the possessor of the aggregates or the controller of the aggregates.

Gelug Prasangika asserts that this is what the lower Buddhist tenet systems consider as the gross impossible me and, like these lower systems, it refutes such a “me” as impossible. It doesn’t exist. That’s just a fabrication. Grasping for such a “me” to exist is doctrinally based – it is based on believing one of the non-Buddhist systems. But underlying that doctrinally-based grasping is automatically-arising grasping for an impossible me that’s self-sufficiently knowable. According to the lower Buddhist tenet systems, then, doctrinally-based grasping is coarse grasping and automatically-arising grasping is subtle.

All the lower Buddhist tenet systems assert that once you refute the self-sufficiently knowable “me,” you are left with a conventionally existent “me” that that has self-established existence (inherent existence). But because Gelug Prasangika refutes self-established existence, Gelug Prasangika calls what the lower Buddhist tenet systems considered as automatically-arising grasping for an impossible “me” “doctrinally-based grasping for an impossible me.” Such grasping is based on accepting and believing the doctrines of one of the lower Buddhist tenet systems. It is coarse grasping, and so has both doctrinally-based and automatically arising forms. Gelug Prasangika considers grasping for an impossible “me” that has self-established existence also to have both doctrinally-based and automatically-arising variants, and takes it to be subtle grasping.

Based on this special assertion, Gelug Prasangika differentiates coarse and subtle disturbing emotions. Coarse disturbing emotions are based on grasping for a self-sufficiently knowable “me.” In other words, we think, “This is ‘me,’ I know myself. I’m sitting here, on the couch.” And then from this you get “This is my seat and don’t you sit on it,” and there’s attachment to it, and anger if anybody else sits near, and so on. So, all our usual coarse disturbing emotions are based on this coarse grasping for “me” to exist as a self-sufficiently knowable entity. Underlying it, however, is the subtle automatically-arising grasping for a self-established “me.”

Tsongkhapa, in formulating the Gelug Prasangika assertions, says that with the understanding of the lack of a self-sufficiently knowable “me” that the lower, non-Prasangika tenet systems assert, you can get rid of that coarse grasping and the coarse disturbing emotions. With total absorption on voidness based on their understanding, you can get rid of them forever as a lower tenet system arhat (liberated being). However, what you haven’t gotten rid of is what underlies that, which is the subtle grasping for a self-established “me.” So these lower tenet system arhats are not really liberated. According to the assertions of their own tenet systems, they have rid themselves completely of the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib), but from the Gelug Prasangika point of view, they have not completely done so. They still have what Tsongkhapa calls, “subtle grasping” and “subtle disturbing emotions.”

In summary, according to Gelug Prasangika, with subtle grasping for an impossible “me,” the mind makes an appearance of a self-established “me” and believes it corresponds to reality. With coarse grasping for an impossible “me” on top of that, the mind makes an appearance of a self-established “me” that is self-sufficiently knowable and believes that that appearance corresponds with reality. Based on that two-leveled grasping, you experience coarse disturbing emotions. When your mind no longer makes appearances of a self-sufficiently knowable “me,” but still makes appearances of a self-established “me” and believes it to correspond to reality, then you have only subtle grasping for an impossible “me” and subtle disturbing emotions.

The subtle disturbing emotions underlying the coarse ones are extremely difficult to recognize.