We’ve been speaking in depth about mental appearances or holograms that arise in both non-conceptual and conceptual cognition, and we’ve seen that it’s rather complex. Before we go any further, perhaps it might be a good thing to ask if you’ve understood at least something and if you have some questions, specifically about what we’ve been discussing.
Concerning the transparency of the mental hologram in non-conceptual sense perception, is the fact of its transparency demonstrated by the fact that when you see a dog, for instance, you can see all the parts at the same time as you see the whole thing?
I don’t know that that necessarily demonstrates or proves the transparency. It is part of the whole process of sensory perception that one sees the parts and the whole at the same time. When we speak about the transparency or the semi-transparency or the opaqueness of these various mental holograms, we’re not talking about the top half of it being transparent and the bottom half not being transparent, which would prevent seeing all the parts. We’re not talking about that, but rather we’re talking about the hologram as a whole, in each case.
What, then does it mean to be transparent?
“Transparent” means that you can see through it or smell through it or hear through it without a loss of vividness. The difference between a conceptual and a non-conceptual cognition in terms of subjective experience is usually described in terms of the variable of vividness. For example, if we speak about dreams, dreams are a mental cognition and, within the dream, we can have a non-conceptual mental cognition that takes as its object a form or a sound or a smell or a taste or a physical sensation, like in a dream it seems as though we are seeing somebody. These are, as I say, non-conceptual. Of course you can also think in your dream – that’s something else; that would be conceptual. But what we see in a dream, so-called “seeing in a dream,” is much more vivid than when we are awake and thinking of somebody. When you think of somebody that’s conceptual. So, when you think of your mother and when you see your mother, there’s quite a difference in terms of vividness. Vividness means that the mother seems quite alive in the dream and when you think of your mother that doesn’t really feel as though she’s alive.
What do we see through the mental hologram?
Are you asking in terms of non-conceptual or conceptual? In both actually, we are seeing the actual object – in Sautrantika – the objective entity, both conceptual and non-conceptual. This is not so simple actually. When we see our mother, then obviously she’s directly in front of us. So with the mental hologram of the mother, we’re seeing the mother directly in front of us. Now, when we see our mother and then in the next moment we think “mother,” then at that time, as we analyze within the conceptual cognition, within this appearance, there are many components:
We have the category “mother” and then we have a conceptually isolated item “nothing other than mother,” which is also some metaphysical thing, and that is going to represent my mother. Right? Our mother is in front of us. Then you have an actual mental aspect, an actual image, with colored shapes and form of my mother, because there are two static phenomena here that don’t have shape or form, which are static, they don’t have physical qualities. And then we could either have our actual mother standing in front of us, or not, where we’re just thinking of her when she’s not here.
What are the various levels of transparency of all these components? The category is semi-transparent. Of course this is confusing because it’s a static phenomenon and it doesn’t have physical qualities, so you ask: how can something without physical qualities be transparent or not transparent? That doesn’t seem to bother anybody with this analysis, although it may bother us. But nevertheless, we try to understand this in a more metaphysical way rather than in terms of an actual physical transparency or non-transparency or semi-transparency.
The category is semi-transparent and so the isolated metaphysical entity of “nothing other than my mother,” what is going to specify a representation of my mother, that is semi-veiled by the category because the category is semi-transparent. If we ask: what does it mean that it is semi-veiled? First of all in terms of a quality, here is where the loss of vividness occurs, this is what accounts for the loss of vividness. And if we describe this in terms of our understanding, then what is added here is a level of confusion. This is called a “deceptive appearance” and the deceptiveness is because of this semi-transparency, this veiling.
Another way of describing it in the texts is that these two metaphysical entities are mixed with each other. And so, because they’re mixed with each other, what is our confusion, we can ask. How does that mixing together make us confused? It makes us confused because we confuse the category “mother” with this one example that represents mother and then of course we think that that is our mother at all times. Then we get into: how does it exist and so on. But that’s the confusion.
I’ll give you an example. My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease and she suffered very seriously from it for the last more than four years of her life. And for most of that time she didn’t know anybody; she didn’t even know if you put her on her bed how to lie down. And although she said words, the words were completely unconnected, so she couldn’t communicate. And my sister remarked several times, “This is not our mother.” Why? Because she had an “idea,” if we use our Western terminology, of who our mother is and what our mother is.
She conceptually isolated one image of our mother when she was healthy and younger and “That is really our mother and this woman lying here in bed, not even knowing how to lie down, that’s not really our mother.” Of course this was an emotional defense and it’s understandable – it was very painful to see her in this condition – but this indicates what I’m trying to explain, that there is confusion here of the category when it’s mixed with one specific example that represents it.
Now if we go deeper, if I can use this physical metaphor in the appearance, this conceptual isolate “nothing other than my mother,” which specifies one example of “mother,” that’s transparent. Through that you would have a mental image with physical qualities, like a shape and colors and so on, that represents the mother. And through that, if our mother is in front of us, then that doesn’t obscure the mother, if I look at my mother and say “mother.” Because usually when you’re looking at your mother, then what actually appears to your eyes represents your mother. So that’s what is conceptually isolated at that time, usually.
Now, if we use the terminology that André introduced, we could say that that mental aspect, that mental image, as it were, is a “model” of the actual objective mother, externally, who might be in front of our eyes. Now if our mother is not there, still this mental image is fully transparent, through which appears the actual objective form of our mother. She might not be present, but it is modeled after that, so it doesn’t obscure that. In other words, there’s a mental picture of our mother and the actual picture that it’s modeled on might not be present now and it might not even have occurred exactly like we imagine it. It could be a composite of different aspects of what my mother looked like ten years ago and maybe I don’t exactly remember. So there’s no obscuration there, the mental image is transparent.
Now what happens in this example with my sister, when she sees our mother and, “This is not my mother.” Here she has a mental image, which is still fully transparent, of the model that she’s basing that image on. It might not correspond to what’s in front of her eyes. That means it’s an inaccurate hologram, in a sense, it’s inaccurate in terms of what’s in front of her eyes.
Here’s an example with an object that we’ve been discussing where it becomes even more common, is with qualities. “This is a terrible meal,” “This is a terrible restaurant,” “This is a great meal,” and so on. This is modeled after something, so it is totally transparent of what it’s modeled after, but then what are we projecting it onto that’s in front of us or that we’re remembering? So we need to differentiate these two aspects here.
By being transparent, does that mean the mental image doesn't change the appearance of the object?
Transparency causes the model to be accurate. In this example of the mental image versus the objective entity, it means that the model is accurate. When we say that the category is superimposed on this conceptual isolate, then it’s accurate if you understand that this is just an example of the category. But if you identify the whole category with this example, then that’s not accurate.
Of course you can conceptually isolate something that doesn’t fit into the category. That’s another classification, as in when you see a scarecrow and you conceptually label it as a man, as a human being. So there are many variables here.
Can you explain more about natal sources.
In Sautrantika, when we talk about the mental hologram, let’s say of a table in front of us, there are two different natal sources. The natal source of the form and shape of the table is from the external object and the natal source of the consciousness and all the mental factors that are involved and from tendencies imputed on the consciousness. Remember what are we talking about with mental activity? There’s the arising of a mental hologram and the cognitive engagement. So we have two aspects here. The mental hologram, the form of it, the natal seed or source is the external object and the natal seed of the consciousness, the engaging, cognitive aspect is from a seed of karma, a karmic tendency.
If we go into the Chittamatra explanation, they say that both these aspects – the physical form, the shape of the hologram, let’s say of the table, and the conscious aspects of it all come from the same karmic seed or karmic tendency as the natal source. And there’s a very good reason for saying that. If we go back to our definition of an external phenomenon, it is an existent phenomenon that is existing in the moment immediately prior to the cognition of it. So the question of course is, how do you know that it’s existing in the moment before you cognize it? How could you establish or prove that it exists the moment before either you perceive it or talk about it or think about it? There is no way to establish that it exists that moment before it is an object of some sort of cognition. Therefore how can you possibly say that the natal source of the physical form of the hologram is coming from an external object existing the moment before you cognize it?
This makes a lot of sense. We can’t say that any of these Buddhist tenet systems are stupid and make no sense. It makes a lot of sense actually.
The Relevance of Understanding the Two Truths in Sautrantika
So when we speak about voidness, a lack or an absence of impossible ways of existing with relation to phenomena in general, not just in relation to a person, then this is discussed and presented only in the Mahayana schools, Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, and within Madhyamaka its divisions Svatantrika and Prasangika. In Sautrantika, nevertheless, in order to become a Buddha we need to understand the two truths. And in Sautrantika – and Vaibhashika as well – when we talk about the two truths we’re talking about two types of true phenomena. So, in Sautrantika we have objective entities and metaphysical entities. Both of them are true phenomena. In that system the objective phenomena are the deepest true phenomena and the metaphysical entities are – here I think superficial true phenomena is perhaps better. We could also call them “conventional” or “relative,” but I think “superficial” gives a better understanding, because the actual word kunzob (kun-rzob) means that it veils, so that gets into our whole discussion of how the category veils the specific item.
In Sautrantika we don’t need to understand any voidness, any absence of impossible ways of existing, concerning phenomena, but what we do need to understand is a clear differentiation between the two true types of phenomena and not confuse the two. This is very meaningful, because what it implies in terms of practice, in terms of our practical life, is differentiating our projections from objective reality. I have the category of “nice person” or “terrible person” and I illustrate it, “model” it, after one thing and then I project it onto somebody that I judge as being a terrible person. This is where the confusion and the problems come, so if we can differentiate, not confuse, specific items and metaphysical entities, then we won’t have so much trouble.
The Coarse Voidness of All Phenomena According to Chittamatra
Now we go to Chittamatra and now we have a discussion of voidness of phenomena, the absence of impossible ways of existing of all phenomena. And here the two truths are talking about two truths about a specific item, they’re not talking about two different phenomena or two different things; it’s two truths about the same thing. That’s going to be the same in Madhyamaka as well. We’re not getting into the definition of the two truths here, the two true facts, in Chittamatra. I don’t want to make it too complicated, it’s complicated enough. So, what’s impossible here in terms of how something exists, is that a form of a physical phenomenon – and here it can only really occur in a cognition – that it and the cognitive aspects that take it as its object come from different natal sources.
That’s an impossible way of existing, so one has to understand the voidness of that, the total absence, there never was such a thing. If we can understand that, that’s also very helpful. This is very helpful because then we understand that how I perceive something and how something appears to me is not necessarily the way that it’s going to appear to everybody.
Now if you remember, yesterday I made one point of the difference between Abhidharmakosha and Abhidharmasamuccaya, the two Abhidharma systems, in terms of the natal source of the primary consciousness and various mental factors within one moment of cognition. And Sautrantika follows the Abhidharmakosha tradition and there the mental factors and the consciousness and the actual physical image and so on, all of them are coming from separate natal sources. Any event has a conglomeration of all these factors, that’s called the five aggregate factors of experience, they fit into these five. So we have in a moment of experience all these different pieces and they’re coming from different natal sources. That means that you can, in a sense, fix different parts of it if something is at fault. Some of it might be OK; some of it might not be OK.
Whereas from the Chittamatra point of view, they follow Abhidharmasamuccaya, and here it says that everything in the cognition, all the nonstatic phenomena in the cognition – static phenomena don’t come from a natal source because they’re not produced – all the nonstatic elements in here, so the image and the primary consciousness and all the mental factors, all these things are all coming from one and the same karmic seed as a whole package.
So we can ask, how would this affect our approach in practical life in terms of when we have problems? And if we think about that, I’m sure we can come up with various answers. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but the first thing that comes to my mind when I analyze this is that if we’re experiencing some problem, in a relationship for instance, and we say, “Hey, the whole thing that I’m experiencing, it’s all, in a sense, in my head and the whole problem is coming from a single root and so I need to go to that root to eliminate the thing because everything is confused here.”
Now with Chittamatra – just one thing before our break that’s very, very important – one should not have a mistaken idea that Chittamatra is asserting that everything exists in my head and there is nothing existing other than me in my mind. There are individual items, including other beings. If there weren’t other beings, if they all existed in my head, how could you possibly develop compassion to help them; it would be absurd. And why would I want to achieve enlightenment in order to help liberate them?
But how do we know that other beings exist? It’s only within the context of perceiving them or talking about them or thinking about them. You can’t establish that they exist outside of the context of mind. And that doesn’t mean outside of the context of them existing in my mind. It means outside of the context of when a mind cognizes them. It doesn’t mean that you can’t establish the existence outside of being in my head. It means you can’t establish they’re existent outside of the context of a cognition of them.
This is a step toward the Prasangika understanding that you can’t establish their existence outside of what a mental label refers to. Well, that mental label is part of a mental process. So, this is a stepping stone to that understanding.
OK, that is the coarse or rough voidness of all phenomena in Chittamatra.
Introductory Comments Regarding the Subtle Voidness of All Phenomena in Chittamatra
We were speaking about voidness of all phenomena and we saw that this is asserted by the Mahayana schools, Chittamatra and Madhyamaka. And we saw that in Chittamatra the coarse or rough voidness of all phenomena is that forms of physical phenomena and the cognitions of them, so the cognitive aspects of it, primary consciousness and mental factors, that they’re devoid of coming from separate or different natal sources. So, that’s directly refuting what the Sautrantika assertion is.
Now to understand the subtle voidness of all phenomena in Chittamatra, I think we need to go back to Sautrantika and what is their assertion of how things exist.
The Sautrantika Assertion of the Manner of Establishing the Existence of Phenomena
According to Sautrantika, all existent phenomena – that means all validly knowable phenomena, both metaphysical entities and objective entities, so if we speak of it very simply, categories and objective entities that would fit into these categories – they all share certain ways of existing.
First of all, all of these have existence established by their own self-nature (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa) or “self-establishing” existence, don’t call it “inherent.” So, something establishes its own existence. That means that its existence is established by the fact that when you search for the referent “thing” – tagdon (btags-don) it’s called in Tibetan – for the referent “thing” that corresponds to the name or concept of something, you can actually find it. In other words, we have a name or a concept for something – what does it refer to? And if you look for what it refers to, you can find it on the side of the object that’s being labeled or named. So, this is equivalent to existence established from something’s own side (rang-ngos-nas grub-pa) So, basically it’s establishing its own existence. So that’s categories as well.
In addition, everything has existence established by individual defining characteristics (rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis grub-pa). Now, what we’re going to be dealing with, these individual defining characteristics, there’s two types:
One is just a defining characteristic that defines it as something existent. This is what I’m always referring to with the analogy of a plastic coating. There’s some defining thing on the side of the object that makes it existent as a thing, separate from everything else as an individual thing. When I look at this visual sense field, it’s not just pixels or colored shapes, there are actual conventional items or things. This is saying that there’s something on the side of these items or things, in a sense, that separates them from what’s around them and establishes the fact that they exist as a thing. If we think about that, OK, that makes sense. And they assert that this can be found on the side of the object. It’s not just my mind drawing the line around a certain set of colored shapes. Then you could put a line around any group of colored shapes and call it an object. That doesn’t work, so it must be on the side of the object.
Then there are individual defining characteristics that are more specific; for instance that make something a dog rather than a cat. So we’re not just talking about what establishes its existence in general as a validly knowable phenomenon, but what establishes its existence as this or as that. And this second type of individual defining characteristics is also the basis for the qualities of the object, like size and color and these sort of things. A pea is round, for example, so there’s a defining characteristic on the side of the object that you can then label onto that the category of “round.” There’s a defining characteristic of “roundness” or whatever you want to call it. The defining characteristic itself isn’t round, it’s a defining characteristic mark, it’s called, that can serve as a basis for it being labeled as “round,” or being labeled as a “pea” as opposed to being labeled as “existent.”
This is true of categories as well, according to Sautrantika. All of this is true not only for objective entities but categories as well. Categories, there’s a plastic coating around it that makes it a category of a dog or a category of a cat and the category has defining characteristics.
How do you define a category? What’s the difference between an objective entity and a metaphysical entity, a category? It’s not a difference in what we’ve just discussed, the difference is in terms of whether or not they can perform a function. The objective entities can perform a function and that is called substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa). It just means that it can perform a function, substantially existent; you can see it doing something. Whereas metaphysical entities, their existence cannot be established substantially because they don’t do anything; they don’t perform a function.
Also, objective entities, now this is a complicated way of saying it, their existence is established from their own individual manner of abiding without depending on being imputed by words or conceptual cognition. Whereas metaphysical entities have their existence established merely by being imputed by conceptual cognition. So, what does that mean? What that means is that objective entities have their existence established outside of a conceptual cognition, whereas metaphysical entities can only exist within the context of a conceptual cognition. Their existence cannot be established outside of the context of when you’re thinking with a category.
My dog exists even when I don’t think of it. It’s an objective, substantially established existent thing. The category “dog” can only establish its existence when I’m thinking. It only exists when you think the category “dog.” It doesn’t exist by itself somewhere outside of conceptual thought. OK? So, that’s Sautrantika.
As I said, the main thing that we want to overcome in terms of our dealing with appearances is to not confuse, putting it in simple language, our projections from objective reality. So when we are perceiving something by sense perception, is the mental hologram accurate or not accurate? Is it a hallucination or not a hallucination, basically. And then, when we are thinking in terms of a category, not to confuse what we represent the category with the category and think that everything in this category is like that example.
That’s why sometimes we can think of this type of conceptual cognition that’s discussed here as private, our private concepts, “My private concept of what I think is good, what I think is delicious, what I think is bad, and so on.” Of course we have to be taught language and words, but nevertheless we form our own private isolate, as it were, of what represents “what a good meal should taste like,” “what a pretty person should look like.”
The Chittamatra Assertion of the Manner of Establishing the Existence of Phenomena
Now we turn to Chittamatra. With Chittamatra, they don’t necessarily use these words “objective entity” and “metaphysical entity,” they use different terminology here. So, instead of saying objective entities, which implies external existence, they just call them dependent phenomena, zhenwang (gzhan-dbang), they’re dependent on something else; they’re dependent on causes and conditions, therefore they are nonstatic, they change from moment to moment. Zhenwang means dependent on something else, under the power of something else; that means dependent.
Then static phenomena, what are all lumped in one category in Sautrantika as being metaphysical, here they differentiate voidness from the other type of static phenomena. Voidness is thoroughly established (yongs-grub), they say, a thoroughly established phenomenon. And categories are totally conceptional (kun-brtags); they only exist in conceptual cognition. Sometimes people translate it as, I used to translate it as well, as “totally imaginary phenomenon.” That I think is misleading because that gives you the impression they’re not real. Totally conceptional.
All of these have existence established by their own self-nature, self-established existence, and existence established from their own side. All of them have this, all these phenomena, these three kinds, Chittamatra says that. So when we search for the referent “thing” that corresponds to the name or concept for it, it’s findable on the side of the object. You can find a referent “thing” of the label “dog”; you find a dog.
However, you don’t find a dog external to a cognition. Where do you find the dog, the referent “thing?” Well, in the mental hologram! I can point, my category “dog” is referring to this thing that appears in my mental hologram. There it is. You can find it. I can point to it and it appears to me. It’s like I’m pointing to it, isn’t it? I’m seeing what appears to be external to me. What I’m seeing through my eyes is actually a projected mental hologram. Mental activity, it makes a mental hologram.
How can I know that you were sitting there the moment before I saw you? How do I know? And I always think of the light bulb inside the refrigerator. Is it on or not? Is there food in the refrigerator or not? You don’t know until you open it. Unless you have a camera inside the refrigerator or something like that, how do you establish the existence of food in your refrigerator? Only when you see it. Or you remember putting it in the refrigerator, so that’s also a thought. OK, but I say “food in the refrigerator.” I open the door of the refrigerator, what do I see? I see a mental hologram. And I can point in the mental hologram, there’s the food. Alright?
So the concept or word of “food” I can find on the side of the object in the mental hologram, there it is, establishing itself, self-establishing, from its own side. Same thing for category “dog” or “food.” Within my conceptual cognition in which I’m thinking about food and I’m using the category, not only can I point to the food that appears, but also there’s the category. And the category is self-established from its own side. There it is in my cognition.
Now, individual defining characteristics. Everything has existence established by individual defining characteristics that make it a thing in general. A shared manner of existing. So, it agrees with Sautrantika on this point. Within the context of the mental hologram, everything, including categories, is coated in plastic as a thing. And when we talk about things that we see and perceive in sense cognition, these sort of things do have the individual defining characteristics that make it a specific thing. You have to be very careful here, it’s very subtle. Things in general do have the individual defining characteristics that make it one category or another or one thing or another.
But we have to get into another point which is called a conceptually implied object (zhen-yul). So, the conceptually implied object in Sautrantika of my mental hologram when I’m thinking – conceptually – of my dog, the implied object of that is my actual, external dog, objectively existing. This is a difficult term – zhen of zhenyul means “to cling,” like in Sakya you have the parting from the four clingings. So it is, in a sense, an object that our conceptual hologram would cling after, would want to cling to, so it clings to – and I think “conceptually implied” is a clearer term here. It implies an external object, an actual thing.
The Chittamatra Assertion of the Subtle Voidness of All Phenomena
So, what the subtle voidness of phenomena is all about in Chittamatra is: when we have a mental hologram in a conceptual thought, then that form which appears in the conceptual thought, its individual defining characteristics are devoid of being a basis for a conceptually implied object; it’s not a basis for a conceptually implied object. I’ll explain this.
Sautrantika now. I’m thinking of my dog and my dog has these various defining characteristics that make it individually my dog – what it looks like etc., etc. – and it’s on the basis of these individual defining characteristics that I imply that there is externally existent the conceptually implied object that has these defining characteristics. If I know all the characteristics – you have to think about this – if I can remember what my dog looks like, then I can find my dog if I lost my dog, because those defining characteristics of what it looks like implies that there’s a real dog that looks like that, doesn’t it?
When I think of my dog, there are defining characteristics of what it looks like – size, shape, color, etc. – and so if I can remember what my dog looks like and it’s accurate, it implies that if I lost my dog I can actually find what the dog looks like and I can find the dog. That makes sense, doesn’t it? If somebody lost their dog, they put a poster up on trees and lampposts with a picture of the dog. And the defining characteristics of what that dog looks like implies that there is an actual, real, objective dog somewhere out there that you could make a correspondence with and actually identify it as being the dog. It has the same defining characteristics.
Whereas from the Chittamatra point of view, if I think of my dog, then those individual defining characteristics in what appears in my thought – well, there’s no external object that’s implied by that. It’s not a basis for a conceptually implied object that exists externally. So, it doesn’t really have that type of defining characteristic. Now, whether or not the implied object of my thought of the dog would actually imply a dog that I can see, also in a cognition, this I must say I’m not clear about. I’d have to ask further. Is the implied object of my thinking of my dog, of remembering my dog, is the implied object of that an externally existent dog? No. Is the implied object of it though the dog that I can see according to Chittamatra? This I’m not sure. We have to analyze and I haven’t had a chance actually to ask in depth this particular point.
In the Chittamatra point of view, if I think of my dog or remember my dog, what’s the relationship between that and when I actually see the dog? Between those two holograms? In other words, do defining characteristics really only deal with things that you can see and so on, and that the actual things that you just think about, they don’t really have defining characteristics of something that is alive or perceptible? In other words, what is the difference between – this is Chittamatra, so you don’t know that anything exists externally, so what’s the difference between seeing you, Sasha, and thinking about you? There has to be a difference. So this is the question.
It’s clear that what I think doesn’t imply something externally. It doesn’t have the same characteristics as something external because the things external don’t exist at all, because nothing external exists – well, we can’t establish that something externally exists. But if I think of you, what I think, does that have the type of defining characteristics that would imply that I could actually see you? Or does it have just the defining characteristics of a memory? That’s the interesting question.
Think of somebody. Usually you would have a mental image. Imagine your mother. Could you actually see your mother looking exactly like what she looks like when you think of her? Wearing the same clothes, sitting with her body in exactly the same position and so on? I would think that probably not. I think that’s a more subtle point that Chittamatra is making here. When one starts to analyze mental appearances, these mental holograms, these are some of the factors.
When you study the different philosophical schools you would consider, how accurate is my memory? Can I infer from my memory that it was exactly like that? I don’t know, this is an interesting question, isn’t it? Or do we understand that it’s really just an appearance in a memory and that’s not the same as actually having seen my mother? So it’s not the same and therefore this would fit in with the description that thinking of somebody is not as vivid as seeing somebody. So this would explain why, from another, deeper point of view.
Obviously these are very difficult points, but the key is understanding these technical terms. That’s what’s so difficult in the Tibetan, this word zhenzhi (zhen-gzhi), a basis for a conceptually implied object.