Categories, Conceptual Isolates, Mental Representations

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We started our discussion of conceptual cognition last time and I asked you to think of a dog and examine: what is it that appears? Did you think of all dogs in general? Or did a mental picture of a specific dog come to your mind? Answer please.

My dog.

So, a specific individual dog. Do all dogs look like that? No, all dogs don’t look like that. So we have a representative dog. It's the same with anything that we think. If I think of my mother, a specific mental image comes to my mind of my mother – she’s not always frozen in that position and in that moment of time, wearing whatever she’s wearing etc., is she? Same thing when we think of the taste of orange juice or the sound of a bell. There’s one specific item, an appearance, a mental hologram of a specific representative of the category.

When we look at an animal and we think “dog,” we’re using the category “dog,” aren’t we? But it isn’t that we have our sort of almost archetypical dog that I superimpose onto this dog, do I? So it’s slightly different when we are actually looking at the object and thinking “dog,” “What a beautiful dog,” or whatever, and when we’re just thinking of a dog.

So, let us see in more detail what actually is composing the appearance that arises with the conceptual cognition – according to Gelugpa. Now, we make a distinction here between an appearing object and what appears. The appearing object, it’s something that seems as though it’s directly in front of the mental consciousness. This is nangyul (snang-yul) in Tibetan. So the appearing object is the category. Remember, when we’re talking about appearing, we’re just talking about something that arises. A category is a metaphysical static phenomenon, it doesn’t have a shape or a form or a color or anything. It’s the appearing object for the mental consciousness.

Now, what appears is what it’s imputed on. And so what it’s imputed on is a... let’s translate it as a “mental representation” (snang-ba) of an external objective entity, a commonsense object. So, we have what’s directly in front of the mental consciousness, a category, the category “dog.” What am I imputing that on? What am I mixing it with? I’m mixing this with a mental representation of a dog. Right? A dog is an external objective entity. And that mental representation is of a specific item. It’s a representation, it represents dogs. This is basically also a static phenomenon. It is what will specify a dog, an individual dog. It is a, to translate it easily, it is “nothing other than a dog,” mayinpa-lay logpa (ma-yin-pa-las log-pa), it’s a mental exclusion, it is a “conceptually isolated from all other items.”

So I’m thinking of “dog” – category. What am I imputing it on? It’s nothing other than a dog. What we’re doing is going from a general category to something specific. When we look at an animal and see it as “dog,” we don’t think of it as “all dogs,” do we? We think of it as a specific item which is nothing other than a dog. Do you follow that? That’s not so easy. It’s talking about how do you make a connection between a general category and a specific item.

“Nothing other than a dog” is also a static phenomenon; it doesn’t have any shape or form or color; it’s also metaphysical. So, in addition what we would have is a mental aspect that would resemble a specific dog. Now I impute it a category onto a specific item “nothing other than a dog.” And then we have a mental image which represents “nothing other than a dog.” So, here is my general concept of dog and now I’m superimposing this general thing on a specific item which is represented by this mental picture.

The category is semi-transparent, which means that it slightly veils the metaphysical entity of “nothing other than a dog.” This is the problem; this is where the confusion comes, because these two are mixed. We think that this is what a dog is, our mental idea of a dog, “That’s what a dog is.” Now, obviously, if we’re thinking of categories like “good,” “beautiful,” “attractive,” we all have “our own concept,” we would say in the West, of what is beautiful and what is good and what is delicious and so on. So we are confusing the general category with what we have conceptually isolated to represent that category. Do you follow?

I have conceptually isolated “attractive” from everything else and this is – in our Western language we say – this is “my idea” of what attractive is. So, one person could conceptually isolate something and another person could conceptually isolate something else as a mental representation of the category in order to specify and represent – in our Western terms – “my idea” of what’s attractive or what a dog should look like. Or how curry sauce should taste like – a taste, we can conceptually isolate a taste, right? It could be with any type of sense object – not only a sense object. What represents happiness for us? – a way of being aware.

The category, they say, is semi-transparent, in other words, it veils, so you get confused that this specific conceptually isolated metaphysical thing represents that category. So you confuse the two. That’s what it means to say that it’s partially transparent. You don’t see that these are really two different things.

So, “nothing other than a dog,” that “nothing other than” is fully transparent. And through it one could see the objective entity outside, externally, if the external object is present. And it’s this mental aspect which has a shape and a form, not the metaphysical thing, not the “nothing other than a dog.” There is then a shape and form, like our hologram that we were speaking about, when you see something. The one with shape and form is not metaphysical, that’s an objective thing, except it can only be known by the mind.

Two cases here. One case: I look at this animal and I think “dog.” So we have the category “dog,” general category, which is the meaning category of the audio sound “dog.” By the way, that audio, the word can be represented not just by sound, it could also be represented by straight and curved lines, so with writing, which are also totally arbitrary. Somebody decided that this combination of straight and curved lines actually has a meaning, which is quite extraordinary if you think about it. Audio, although they don’t discuss this in the text, I think we have to extend it to written, some representation that has meaning. We have a category that no matter what type of handwriting, what color it’s written in, the size of the writing and all is the word “dog,” a written representation of the word “dog.”

Let’s go back to our example. I see a dog. I see an animal and I think “dog.” Now, of course we’re talking about an accurate labeling. If I look at it and think “door” – a door, like you open a door – then obviously it’s not accurate. But in any case, I look at it and label it “dog,” so there’s the category “dog,” both audio and meaning category. The meaning category is the meaning of the audio category. Whether the audio category is present or not doesn’t matter, we don’t have to be thinking the sound of the word. Now, conceptually isolated a specific dog, nothing other than a dog. Now the mental hologram with a colored shape and form that will appear will be one that looks like this animal in front of me. This is a specific example of an individual dog and through this whole hologram, transparently, I see the dog.

Do you follow that? There’s the dog, I see the dog. Now there’s a mental hologram that looks like the dog. And what is superimposed here is that this is like a specific thing and the category “dog.” Then it’s confusing that, “Well, all dogs are like this.” Do you follow that? This is really very subtle and difficult. And if there isn’t any animal in front of us, then we have our own private mental image of what a dog looks like. So the actual physical form – color, shape, or taste, or whatever it is – of that mental hologram will be different depending on whether we’re actually looking at an animal and calling it a dog or we’re just thinking of a dog. And it could be… what I think a dog looks like and what you think a dog looks like could be a totally different dog. And also we can look at many actual external dogs and call them all dog correctly.

Why don’t we take a moment and think about this, digest it, and then, if you have questions about it, please ask. Actually, it starts to get us into thinking as well of: what’s wrong with conceptual thought? We have to ask the question. What’s wrong with conceptual thought? A lot of people say, “Uuh, you have to be nonconceptual all the time.” A Buddha doesn’t have conceptual thought, that’s true, but we have to examine what’s the problem with conceptual thought. Is the problem language and that we have conventions of sounds and straight and curved lines that actually mean something? Is that the problem? What’s the problem? Why doesn’t a Buddha have conceptual thought? Let’s think about this for a few moments and see if we’ve understood and then perhaps you have some questions.

Conceptual Cognition and Mental Labeling

Any question about conceptual thought?

Is the problem here that we have an object and we don’t see the object, we mix it with a model of the object in conceptual thought?

I wouldn’t say that that’s the problem because the model is the mental hologram that represents it. I mean my understanding of the meaning category of the word “model.” Maybe your idea of what “model” means is something else. The model is the mental hologram. When we see a dog and we think “dog,” the mental hologram which is specifying a dog, which is a representation of a specific dog, is the model of the dog. That’s fully transparent. That’s no problem. It’s the same as when you see it – for Sautrantika, because Chittamatra has complication with this, but we won’t get to that yet. What is being mixed here is a general category with a specific item.

When a Buddha looks at this animal, does a Buddha know that it’s a dog? Does Buddha see a dog? That’s the question. A Buddha doesn’t think in terms of concepts or categories, but does a Buddha see a dog? Yes, because there are commonsense objects. And what is a commonsense object? We go back to our definition – it’s what a word or concept for it refers to. So these are individual items that would fit into the category by convention. So a Buddha doesn’t have to think with the general category of “dog” when a Buddha sees this dog.

What establishes that it’s a dog? Well, there’s a concept and word and it’s what the concept or word refers to. It doesn’t create a dog. But what establishes that there is such a thing as a dog? Well, the only thing is something from the side of the mind, a concept, a category. But a Buddha is not confusing the category “all dogs” with this fixed idea of what a dog is, of what it should look like. This could be either in general, when just thinking, or with this specific animal. Can a Buddha communicate with other people, “Here’s a dog.” Sure a Buddha can communicate – that’s not a problem – a Buddha can talk.

We really have to examine within ourselves when we think anything or communicate or label things, how much are we confusing an individual item with a category? Because how do we normally think? “A dog should be like this and it should be like that and etc.” I had a dog in India. This dog didn’t like to be petted; it didn’t like to sit in anybody’s lap; it didn’t play any dog-games. You threw a ball or a stick and it just looked at you, “Don’t be stupid. Do you think I’m going to run after this?” Monkeys would come into the yard, the dog didn’t bark. So, what’s my idea of a dog? “This animal is not acting like a dog,” is what I might think. Well, this is absurd, isn’t it? That is a fixed idea of what a dog should be and I’m mixing it with this thing, this animal that’s there, this creature, and saying, “Well, OK, you could call it a dog, but it’s not really a dog because a dog should be like this and this and that,” and then I’m disappointed.

Or we are looking for a partner, so we have, to use our Western words, “my own idea” of what a partner is. There’s a category “partner” and a conceptually isolated individual, what a partner should be. Now, I see this person and I label this person “partner. This is my partner.” And even if it’s an accurate mental depiction of what they look like, my conceptually isolated representation of what a partner should be is quite different from the way that this person acts. We have a “projection,” we call that in the West, with unrealistic expectations and so we think, “This person is my partner,” and we have our private idea of what that really means, what we conceptually isolate to represent what a partner should be.

This is the problem. A Buddha doesn’t do that. But nevertheless a Buddha sees a dog, knows what a dog is, and can say to somebody else, “Hey, look at this dog!” OK? We think again, a few moments, reflect on that.

Further Questions

Can we say that the karmic seeds are the causes for those representations?

Now, this is a very nice introduction to the Chittamatra presentation. What is the natal source of the actual image of the hologram, what it looks like? When we get into Chittamatra, then Chittamatra would say that that comes from a seed of karma. It’s part of the whole package of this cognition. It all comes from one seed of karma. Whereas from our Sautrantika point of view, why you think of a dog in terms of what your personal dog looks like, that the natal source of that image of your personal dog comes from your actual dog.

Now, there are many causes and conditions which are karmic causes and not only karmic causes but other causes from your mental continuum why that particular animal is your dog. That depends not just on your karma, but the parents of the dog and... so many other things.

Is there a difference in terms of conceptually thinking of a dog or of a Buddha?

I don’t know that necessarily one is more dangerous than the other. I suppose... Let’s use concrete examples. If my concept of a dog, what I isolate as what a dog is, is “something that is vicious and cruel and is always going to bite me,” well, there’s obviously some danger, because then whenever I’m with a dog I’m very, very nervous and upset and the dog can sense that and it probably will bite me.

Now, with a Buddha, of course what we can conceptually isolate as a Buddha and the qualities of a Buddha could be incorrect. We could imagine that a Buddha is like a creator god, an omnipotent creator god, for instance, and a Buddha is not that. “So all I have to do is obey and Buddha will save me.” So is that more dangerous than thinking every dog will bite me? I don’t know. It depends on what we conceptually isolate to represent the meaning of the word “dangerous,” doesn’t it? It certainly is a big hindrance in terms of our refuge, safe direction, what we’re aiming for with the spiritual path. Whereas if we think all dogs are going to bite me, that’s not going to necessarily damage our spiritual progress.

But in terms of the two types of conceptual cognition that we mentioned in terms of a dog – the dog is present or I’m just thinking of a dog without a dog present – you know, I can also see the dog nonconceptually. With a Buddha, if we’re thinking in terms of what’s called Dharmakaya, the omniscient mind of a Buddha, all these sort of things, or enlightenment in general, we can’t really know that except conceptually. We know the word, we know the list of the qualifications, so we know what it’s supposed to mean and then we have some sort of representation of what a Buddha is. But we wouldn’t really be able to perceive those qualities even if a Buddha were in front of us.

When we are focusing with bodhichitta on our individual enlightenment which has not yet happened – that’s the focus. When you meditate on bodhichitta, what actually appears in your mind? What you’re focusing on, the focal object, is “my individual enlightenment.” I’m not aiming for Shakyamuni’s enlightenment or somebody else’s enlightenment; I’m aiming for my own, not-yet-happened individual enlightenment, which can be imputed on the basis of my individual Buddha-nature. So, that will always be conceptual until we are a Buddha, according to Gelugpa, because we could never know, until we’re a Buddha, non-conceptually what that enlightenment really is like.

What actually appears, what’s the mental hologram, when you’re sitting there focusing on bodhichitta? It needs to be something – with shape and form will be more helpful – that represents my individual enlightenment that has not yet happened. And so, for instance, we visualize a Buddha-figure. So I visualize a Buddha. Is that my future enlightenment, my enlightenment that hasn’t yet happened? No, not really. I’m not going to look like that, am I? So it’s a representation.

We have conceptually isolated “my individual enlightenment that hasn’t happened yet” from the general enlightenment, the category, and now we have some representation, so we can think about it, in a sense, and focus on it in meditation. Obviously there’s more to the enlightened state than just looking like what this mental image looks like. So that’s why, when you focus with bodhichitta, you have to be aware of all the qualities and so on, not just these colored shapes in a mental image.

But this is just my private idea of what actually enlightenment will be. I really don’t have any idea, actually, do I, because I’ve never experienced it non-conceptually. So it’s deceptive, even if it’s accurate in terms of the whole list of what the qualities of a Buddha are, if I think that that’s what enlightenment is going to be like. So, “trick-y,” as they say in Indian English, “trick-y, very trick-y.”

Or “I’m aiming for success.” That’s even more vague, isn’t it, what our idea of success is. So in our Western language we talk about ideas and in the Buddhist analysis there’s much more detailed analysis of what actually makes up an idea – there isn’t actually a word equivalent to an “idea” or a “thought,” but it’s all in this general category of mental appearances, mental holograms.

The Conceptual Category “Voidness”

This is the course about appearances –the fourth session of the day, the fifth of the entire course. Now that we have conceptually isolated and specified what this lecture is, then we can start. By giving those words, what’s implied is that it’s nothing other than this date and this number in the lecture. But that’s a conceptual thing that we do. We don’t have to actually think of absolutely everything in a whole list of absolutely everything and say it’s not this, it’s not that, it’s not this, it’s not that – it’s nothing other than what it is, it’s a conceptual thing and those are very helpful and discussed in great detail in Buddhism, but they’re really quite difficult to understand.

But it is very much involved with what we were speaking about yesterday when we spoke about decisive determination of what something is. And when we are talking about discriminating awareness, which is what’s usually translated as “wisdom,” particularly in terms of it being about voidness, then it really has to be very, very decisive determination, we’re not just distinguishing it, decisive that it is nothing other than what it is, not anything else.

We have the category “voidness,” an audio category which is derived from many, many sounds of different people, different voices saying the word “voidness“ and many different ways of writing it. And at the beginning we might not have any meaning category associated with it. We have no idea what it means. We hear one teacher talking about voidness. We hear another teacher talking about voidness. We hear the sound of somebody saying “voidness” and we put it into the audio category “voidness,” “They’re talking about voidness,” but still we have no idea of what it means.

Then we read some explanations or we hear some explanations of what it means and now, derived from that, but not organically growing out of it, but derived from that there’s a meaning category of voidness, what the word means. So there’s the general category here of the meaning of the word “voidness.” Now, there’s a conceptually isolated specific meaning that when I think of voidness, then I mix the category, what voidness means, with this particular meaning that I have conceptually isolated.

Now, the conceptual isolate, the “nothing other than,” that’s sort of like a mechanism, that’s not actually a meaning, that’s just a mechanism that is “nothing other than some specific thing,” and then with that we have an actual meaning. So there’s a general category and then some sort of mechanism that says “nothing other than something specific.” That’s also static. And then there is a representation of an example of what is a specific meaning. And then we think that that’s the general meaning of what voidness means. That’s the confusion.

The general category, the meaning of the word “voidness,” that doesn’t change, that doesn’t do anything, it’s metaphysical, it doesn’t do anything, it’s just a category of what the word “voidness” means. And this mechanism, a conceptual isolate, that also doesn’t do anything, that doesn’t change. What could change, however, is the actual meaning that we isolate as being what voidness means. And that of course can be replaced when we have a better understanding. So that’s how we get a better and better understanding of something like voidness.

And not just voidness. As we get older and have more experience, then we have also a more accurate, we would say in the West, “idea” of how to deal with different problems, how to deal with children... all of that. We are replacing the content of what represents a general category, like “how do you deal with a crying child.”

Non-conceptual Cognition of Voidness

So, that becomes very interesting. What does it mean to focus non-conceptually on voidness for example? What we focus on, is that still what the word “voidness” means? Yes, a conventional object. There’s one aspect in which voidness would be a conventional commonsense object, which is defined as what the word or concept for it is referring to. Do we know that this is an understanding of voidness when we focus on it non-conceptually? Well, yes, but we’re not thinking “voidness, voidness, voidness.” We’re not mixing it with a category of “general what voidness means.”

I can’t pretend that I actually really understand that. But when we get the various pieces that are needed for us in order to understand what it means to focus non-conceptually on something like that, then we can start to analyze, we can start to try to figure it out. Using an easier example, I see a dog. Before I conceptually think “dog,” do I see a dog? Yes, Gelugpa would say you actually see a dog. How do I know that I saw a dog? Now this becomes not an easy question and so now you have two explanations.

One explanation, which you have in Sautrantika, is that there is something called reflexive awareness, rangrig (rang-rig), which is part of that package of that moment of cognition, that in a sense is like a tape recorder. That is aware that the cognition took place and aware of its accuracy or inaccuracy. And that’s what allows you to remember it. Gelug Prasangika disagrees with this, it says there are a lot of faults with this, because then, if you need something else to know that you were aware of it, then you would need yet something else to know that you had something that was aware of it and it’s an infinite regression. So that’s no good.

The Gelug Prasangika explanation is that we have implicit apprehension that the cognition occurred. Remember we had in the first session the difference between explicit and implicit apprehension; that there’s an implicit apprehension that the cognition occurred and that it was accurate because of it being a decisive determination. So, I see a dog. Now, there are conceptual isolates, but there are also object isolates. So, I see a dog and the hologram of a dog, colored shapes and a dog appears. Remember, implicitly we also knew at the same time that “not a cat.” So also implicit here is the object isolate “nothing other than this item” – we might not know what it is. Remember, this is what allows us to remember this thing, “I saw this before, I don’t know its name, I don’t know what it is, but I remember seeing it,” so there’s some decisiveness there. What makes the decisive determination is that we know that also “nothing other than this,” so it’s very clear that it’s this, not something else. That means that implicit as well is knowing that the cognition of it actually occurred and it was accurate, because of “nothing other than what it is.”

So, we have non-conceptual cognition of voidness. Well, it’s not going to occur just for no reason, but let’s just hypothesize that we have this understanding non-conceptually. Now, I’m decisive, it’s a decisive determination of this understanding, then I can recall it. Now, it doesn’t matter whether I know the word “voidness” or not. If this cognition was accurate, what makes it an understanding of voidness? Well, what establishes that? Well, it is what the meaning refers to. It’s what it refers to. I didn’t know what it was called, but that doesn’t matter; it is the meaning of voidness, that some people have made up this word and it has a meaning and the meaning refers to this, nothing other than this, and it’s accurate.

Now, does a Buddha know that it is what the word “voidness” refers to? Yes, a Buddha isn’t stupid, a Buddha knows languages. But at the time when a Buddha cognizes it non-conceptually, there’s no need for the category there. OK? This is not easy, but these are the things that we’re led to analyze when we start to analyze: what’s conceptual understanding, what’s non-conceptual, what’s really going on with conceptual cognition?

Who Cognizes Anything?

I hope that didn’t go over everybody’s head and nobody understood. In any case, you asked the question about: who is it that knows these various things? “I know it.” So we have to think, “I know it, me, me, me, I know it?” No, we don’t have to think that or perceive this whole experience in terms of “I was aware of it.” Nevertheless, who was aware of it? “I was aware of it.” So, it’s the same mechanism, implicit apprehension. We know that cognition occurred, implicitly, that it was accurate, there was a decisive determination, and also that who knew it? “I knew it, not somebody else.” But I don’t have to make a big thing out of thinking me, as a separate part of the mind that’s looking back at the experience and thinking “Me, oh I, I thought that. I’m so wonderful.” But I do exist, I cognized this, so I thought this, I focused on this, not somebody else.

So, there’s mental activity and we can speak about consciousness and mind. That’s not something separate, as a separate thing that’s doing it, but there is consciousness and consciousness has an activity and there can be a physical basis for it. Then the question is, well, is it just mind that knows this? Is it just consciousness that knows something, like knows the dog, sees the dog, and I don’t see it, only consciousness sees it? No, we would say that I see it also. So both consciousness and the person, I, see it and experience it.

So what type of phenomenon is the “I,” the person, “me?” We discussed this already. This is a noncongruent affecting variable, which means that in order to focus on “me,” that first there has to be a basis of imputation. Which would be, for instance, a moment of mind. And then, in the next moment, both the moment of mind and the person imputed on it, “me,” would appear – I mean, you could have a physical representation of a body or a brain, but most of us don’t think in terms of that. We are thinking in terms of there is an arising of an understanding – it’s a mental hologram – and on the basis of that understanding, then an imputably knowable “me,” “I understand it.” “It’s not just the mind, it’s not just the consciousness that’s understanding it, I understand it as well.”

The basis appears first. It’s like when you look in a mirror. First you see a physical form and then the next moment you continue to see the physical form and on that basis we impute and say “me,” “Now I see me.” Was “me” there the first moment or was it just created the second moment? No, it was there already. However, in terms of having it as an object of focus, first the basis and then, with the basis, what’s imputed on it, the “me.” So that “me” is not something which is separate from the basis from the cognition. It’s not a separate thing that’s totally apart from it. It’s not, but it is what is imputed on the basis of a cognition and a body and so on.

Is there a “me?” Sure, there’s a “me.” How do I think of “me?” The only way that I can think of “me” is with some sort of basis of imputation. So what’s the basis of imputation? It could be a mental image of my body, it could be a mental image, a hologram of a voice, like you hear a voice on the telephone, “Oh, I’m not just listening to a voice, I’m listening to my friend Sasha.” Do I hear Sasha? Yes, I hear Sasha, but do I hear only Sasha? No I hear a voice and on the basis of the voice I say that I hear Sasha. We can’t know Sasha without a basis, even if the basis is just a word, “I’m thinking Sasha. Well, I’m just thinking the word, I don’t have a mental picture.” But it’s on the basis of the mental sound of the word “Sasha” that I’m thinking of Sasha.

Conventionally, is there a “me” that is aware of these mental holograms? Sure, of course there’s a “me.” It’s imputably knowable on the basis of the awareness of the cognition, the implicit apprehension of the cognition. It is imputably knowable on the basis of the implicit apprehension that the cognition occurred when you have the cognition. Now that’s very complicated.

I’m seeing a dog. There is the seeing of a dog that is occurring. Explicitly, the mental hologram that appears is colored shapes and a conventional dog and implicit with that, besides “not a cat” and “nothing other than a dog” etc., but implicit with that is that this cognition is occurring. That’s implicitly apprehended. Now, on the basis of that, then we know that “I apprehended it,” that “I saw it,” because that’s imputably knowable on that basis of the cognition itself.

But we don’t have to think, “I saw it.” But we could think that. “Oh, I saw that, I met you before.” It’s not that a mental hologram arose of you and now we conventionally say, “I saw you, I remember seeing you. It’s me. I saw it.” So what I explain is the mechanism of: how do we know that “I saw you yesterday?” Do you follow? That’s not so easy. It’s very subtle. But that’s a very interesting question: How do I know that I saw you, but there’s no separate “me?”

Self-Images and Preconceptions

We have this “mere,” the word “mere” in the definition of mental activity, that there’s the arising or making of a mental hologram. Another way of looking at it is a cognitive engagement with a mental hologram. So the engaging and the arising that’s one activity and that’s happening without there being a separate me that’s either making it happen, observing it, or experiencing it, even with a Buddha.

Now of course we can think of “me” with the category “me,” and then we have a conceptual isolate and then something that represents “me” and this we call a “self-image.” I mean, that’s Western terminology, “self-image.” Now, this could be a real problem, because our self-image is, in terms of conventionally what it is, is usually quite inaccurate, “I’m a loser,” “I’m fat,” “I’m ugly,” “Nobody loves me,” “I’m God’s gift to the world,” “I’m eternally young.” All sorts of really very crazy self-images, inaccurate. So it could be either a negative self-image or one which is overinflated, “I’m God’s gift to the world,” “I’m the most clever one in the world.”

But we have to also be careful enough to differentiate within this mental hologram of “me,” that represents “me,” what it is and how it exists, because it might be accurate that “I am fat now.” Well, fat, of course, is relative to an elephant or relative to very skinny, it’s a relative term, but according to a certain convention it might be accurate that “now I’m fat.” But the way that I think it exists, it appears as though “I’m eternally fat,” no matter what I look like. Like an anorexic thinks like that.

Usually we mix lots of categories. It might be accurate that “I’m fat” in terms of a certain convention, but I might be happy about that. There could be also the category “this is good,” or there could be a category “this is bad, this is no good.”

So, what it is could be accurate or inaccurate. Also it has to do with a convention in terms of a certain group of people. That could be a bad-enough troublemaker, but the real troublemaker is when we have a completely distorted idea of how we exist that way, “I’m a loser, I was born a loser, I’m always going to be a loser,” “There’s something wrong with me.” Or tiredness, there is the hologram of tiredness that is appearing. And likewise implicitly we know “I’m tired.” Well, it may be accurate. At this exact instant I may be tired. That doesn’t mean “Now I’m tired, I can’t continue” and “I’m going to continue to be tired for the next five minutes.” It doesn’t mean that, does it? But when we have that – we call that a preconception in the West – then we believe that and then it’s hopeless, isn’t it?

Once we really get into this whole topic of understanding appearances and these holograms and all the different aspects of it, then it’s very helpful for deconstructing this and overcoming the problems that are associated with it.

The Soul and the “Me”

What about soul? Where does that fit into this concept? And what’s the relation of the soul and “me?”

So, again we have an audio category, “soul,” and then there’s the meaning category. So, what does “soul” mean? Let’s leave aside the fact that there are Christian explanations and many Christian, not just one, and Islamic explanations and Jewish explanations and all sorts of explanations of what a soul is, many meanings of what that word is. So the word doesn’t have just one meaning, does it?

But when the Buddha lived, what Buddha was referring to in terms of soul was the Hindu concept – not just Hindu but in Jain, Jainism was there already as well – of what is known in Sanskrit as atman. And we can look at the way in which it’s defined in these various systems and the best word that I think we can come up with for it, I think, is a “soul.” Now, when they translate this into Tibetan, they use the word dag (bdag), which is also translated very much as “self,” as in selflessness, anatman. So, what we’re basically talking about is me when we talk about soul.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, there’s no reason to be afraid of the word “soul.” What we have to differentiate is an impossible soul or an impossible me, that this is impossible that there can be a me or a soul that has these characteristics, so that’s impossible. And then there’s the conventional one, whether you call it a conventional “me,” or a conventional soul or a conventional self. That’s only a word. Why be afraid of a word? It’s just a convention. Now, in our perception or cognition of a person or a self or a “me” or a soul, well, first there has to be a basis that appears. How do you think of a soul? Well there’s some sort of representation, a light or something, or just the sound of the word “soul.”

It’s the entity that never dies and reincarnates.

Fine, no problem. The Buddhist view is that the conventional “me” has no beginning, no end, goes on forever, one lifetime to another and into enlightenment. No problem. So, when I see this body, I don’t just see this body, I see the person. You want to call it a soul? Whatever you want to call it, a person, individual, self, me. It’s just a word. OK, so I see a person as well. That is a commonsense conventionally existent object, not just one moment, so it has continuity. Do I see the entire continuity? No, of course not, because I have limited hardware of a human body and a human mind. I can only see one moment at a time. So I see the conventionally existent soul here on the basis of seeing the colored shapes of the body.

Now, conceptual category, now this category “soul” or “me” or “person” or whatever you want to call it and a meaning category and what I have conceptually isolated as the meaning, there is a conceptual isolate, so I have some specific meaning. And that meaning, what I represent it as, is that this is something that never changes from moment to moment and is a monolithic thing, either like a little dot of light or the size of the universe, and that it can exist totally independently of a body and mind, so it goes all by itself into another body and mind; it is independent of it.

Now, this type of me is something that we had to be taught. You wouldn’t naturally think of a me like that; you had to be taught that. Or we can take even the more subtle one which is that there’s a me that’s self-sufficiently knowable. “I see Sasha.” It seems as though I just see Sasha. I don’t understand that I see colored shapes and I see a body and on the basis of a body I see Sasha. No, it just seems as though “I see Sasha,” “I hear Sasha on the phone.” This automatically arises. Even animals have that.

Whenever we see a person, this is the appearance, the hologram. Through that hologram we’re perceiving the actual person. Now, that’s inaccurate. So we think that this person really is self-sufficiently knowable. “I love Sasha,” “I hate Sasha.” What do I love? Or what do I hate? The shape of the body? The shape of the head? The sound of the voice? What is it that I hate or love? We just say, “I hate Sasha,” “I love Sasha.” So, if our category is “impossible me,” then OK. But if our category is the real “me,” then we have a problem here.

Because we have believed in this inaccurate mental hologram, this inaccurate appearance, because we believed that what it implied – it’s conceptually implied object (zhen-yul) was an actual me – because we believed that, then that makes a habit. And because of that habit, not only do we continue to believe that what it refers to is actually real, that that’s how people exist, then the mental activity continues to produce that deceptive appearance. Not only do we believe that the appearance refers to something real, the habit not only causes that, but it also causes the mind to produce that appearance to start with. “I believe that this is true and so it continues to appear that way to me.” Do you follow?

The first thing we have to get rid of is believing that this refers to something real, because when we believe that it refers to something real, then we think that there really is this Sasha and “Sasha is so wonderful” or “Sasha is so terrible.” How could Sasha be so wonderful or so terrible without the sound of the voice or the shape of the body or the behavior or something on the basis of which we say “Sasha” and conclude that Sasha is wonderful or terrible? On the basis of that confusion, thinking that “Well, there’s a self-sufficiently knowable Sasha,” then I’m angry with Sasha or I’m attached to Sasha, so the disturbing emotions arise.

But if we don’t perceive Sasha through this incorrect, inaccurate mental hologram – first we stop believing in it and then eventually, if we stop believing in it, then we’re not reacting to it and eventually the mind will stop making it, the more we focus on voidness, that it’s not referring to anything real, “this is impossible.” Then we focus in terms of a category of “me” which is an accurate one, which is imputably knowable. So, now it’s accurate, we don’t have it as something which is referring to a separate me, totally separate etc., that could be known by itself.

This is very important. His Holiness the Dalai Lama over and over again stresses this. We can look at the behavior of somebody and on the basis of the behavior we’re looking at the person. Imputed on the behavior, what the body does, I mean, there’s a body and there’s shape and so on, but there’s the action, so imputed on the action, the behavior of the body, also there’s a person. Let’s say the body kills somebody or persecutes somebody, so it’s not just the body doing that, the person did that. So the basis for imputation, the behavior, could be unacceptable, it could be harmful, it could be negative. But that doesn’t mean that the person that is imputably knowable on that basis is bad. So His Holiness always says you have to differentiate the behavior from the person.

The behavior is bad, it’s unacceptable, it’s harmful, and you have to take a measure to stop it, but the person, like every person, wants to be happy, doesn’t want to be unhappy and therefore is an appropriate object for love and compassion. That allows us to deal with unacceptable behavior on the basis of love and compassion. Although all this discussion may sound terribly abstract and difficult and philosophical, actually it leads to a very beneficial behavior and ways of transforming our understanding in a very practical way, which will help us to benefit others and reach liberation and enlightenment.

And when we have a detailed explanation and understanding of how something works, then we have a decisive determination of it, “It’s nothing other than this.” So, what comes with that? As we said, implicitly you know that we have been aware of this and that it was accurate – of this point that we’re explaining – so you have confidence, because you know that this is correct.

The more that we understand, the more confident we can be that this is correct. It’s not just based on, “Well, Buddha said so,” or “My teacher said so.” I mean, we could have confidence, “Well, my teacher wouldn’t lie,” or “The Buddha wouldn’t lie, so it must be true,” but the more that we understand, actually that adds more confidence. The fact that Buddha said it or our teacher said it would lead us to investigate it further to try to really understand it ourselves.

What and Who Makes the Mental Holograms?

If we speak in terms of the mental holograms coming from a natal source, like a loaf of bread coming from an oven, and we said that the mental hologram is like the loaf of bread and from the Sautrantika point of view the oven is like the external, objective entity, the thing, then what makes the loaf of bread and who made it?

We would have to say here – this explanation comes in from the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, hopefully we will get to that tomorrow – that what it’s made of is the subtle energy-winds, so the subtle energy, the hologram. Now we could differentiate between what makes the appearance of how something exists and what makes the appearance of what it is. Then what it is involves subtle elements and so on. But most general we can say that it’s made out of the subtle-energy winds. There are various levels of them.

And if we say who made it, who made the loaf of bread, remember we were speaking in terms of mental activity, the word “mere,” it occurs without there being a separate me or a separate mind which is doing this or controlling it or observing it or experiencing it. So we can say conventionally, “My mind produced a mental hologram,” “I produced a mental hologram,” “I experienced it,” and so on. But it’s not that there’s a separate me. That’s just something imputable on the phenomenon.

Did I cause the photons to come from the dog to my eyes? Well, that’s a difficult question, isn’t it? If I didn’t come close to the dog, the photons wouldn’t have reached my eyes. So, am I responsible for the photons coming out of the dog? Or just responsible for the photons reaching my eyes? What’s going on? And how do we know that photons were coming out of the dog before we saw it or before anybody saw it. And that of course leads us to the Chittamatra explanation which will come tomorrow. But conventionally we can say, “I saw it,” and “My mind produced the hologram.” So there’s a “me.”