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Overview of Mental Syntheses, Categories, and Individual Items

Alexander Berzin
Knappenberg, Austria, March 2010

Session Two: Questions and Answers

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:21 hours)

Now we have some time for questions. There were a few questions during the break that I think would be good to share with you. 

Question: What is the practical use of, for instance, this last topic about conceptual thought? 

Alex: If we just use our ordinary terminology in the West, the thing is that often we have a fixed concept of something which is represented by something which we ourselves have chosen – a concept of how things should be, how I should be treated. Or a self-concept, a self-image. 

Actually it’s very interesting. When you think about yourself, what do you think? Often when we have made a mistake or done something that we regret, we tend to think “me.” So there’s this general category “me,” and now what do we represent it with? We represent it with this particular incident of what we did, and we label it “idiot” and “I’m such an idiot.” We think that’s truly who I am, and we get stuck with this thing: “I’m such an idiot.” We confuse and mix “me” with what is representing me now in my thought, which is “idiot,” and then we think that’s really me. We might have acted like an idiot. That is a possibility. But that is only one item, one individual item, in this whole synthesis of “me,” isn’t it? 

So here we are introducing a method for being able to deconstruct these conceptual thoughts that we have, and see that “me” can be represented in many, many different ways, not just one. And that’s not truly who I am, and the only thing that I am – an idiot. The category “me” is static. Static means that it doesn’t do anything. So the category itself is not something which is changing from moment to moment. We can substitute what will represent this category “me”; we can substitute one thing for another, but to substitute one thing for another is not the same as something organically growing into something else. 

I have a concept of the meaning of the word “voidness.” We have the audio category “voidness” or “emptiness” (people translate it so many ways). And I have a meaning category. That meaning category – when anybody says the word “voidness,” I think it means this. That meaning category is static. That meaning category itself doesn’t do anything. Now I can substitute one meaning for another, but it’s still the category of the meaning of the word “voidness,” isn’t it? But now I’m substituting something to represent what that meaning is with something else. And if you think in terms of the substitution process, it’s not like we can say, “Well, my understanding grew.” It didn’t really grow the way that a plant grows, did it – in terms of each moment, it’s growing. 

So there are many different ways in which things change. This affects our understanding of learning theory, how you learn things and how you conceptually think of things, and so on. The most important aspect here, in terms of the Buddhist path, is how I think of “me” and “you” and what I’m experiencing, because all sorts of disturbing emotions come up when we are confused about that. 

We’re using this example: I’m thinking “me,” the category “me,” and what’s representing it is the most important person in the world, the center of the universe. Now the implied object of that, a me who actually is the center of the universe, of course that doesn’t exist, that’s nonexistent. “I should always have my way.” The implied object – of somebody who should always have their way – is absurd, isn’t it? There is no such thing. And so when we think that, when we mix “me” with this representation (the one that should always get their way), what happens? Disturbing emotions – greed, anger when I don’t get my way. Based on that, then we yell, we do nasty things, we do all sorts of destructive types of actions. And it produces unhappiness. It makes us repeat these types of things. People are nasty back to us. That’s samsara, uncontrollably recurring (from the Buddhist point of view) rebirth. Or you can think of it just even in this lifetime – it’s just going on and on. And we experience other people doing things similar back to us. We have all these different types of results. So this whole sort of cycle, this pattern, is almost self-perpetuating. We have to stop it, and to do that it’s necessary to deconstruct what we’re experiencing. See what are the problematic areas. Which is correct? What can be corrected? How to correct it? Cause and effect, etc. That’s the practical application of all of this. 

Everything is intended – they say that everything that Buddha taught was for the purpose of benefiting others. Therefore it’s up to you to figure out, well, what is the benefit of this? Because the intention was to benefit us. And that’s how you learn to apply all these various teachings – by not necessarily having somebody else point out to you how it is relevant to your life, but try to figure it out yourself. A teacher or a book can give an example, but then you have to work with it yourself. All of this material is intended to work on yourself. If you remember, we have the process of first be sure that you got it right, you heard it right, you wrote your notes correctly. And then you think about it so you understand it, become convinced that it’s true. And then use it, habituate yourself. Try to understand, to view things that way. That’s meditation

Meditation can be done sitting quietly in a controlled environment, but also can be done all the time, as you are dealing with life. Remember it means to accustom yourself to something, to habituate yourself with a certain state of mind, or viewpoint, or understanding. 

But now I must stop giving another lecture, and invite questions. 

Question: In the discussion about subjects and objects, you described three types of phenomena having an object: ways of being aware, persons, and communicating sounds. I did not really understand how persons have an object. 

Alex: As she said, in our discussion of subjects and objects, we have three types of things that take objects, have objects. We have ways of being aware of something, persons, and communicating sounds. Could I explain how persons take objects? 

As persons, as individuals, there’s a mental continuum, which is a continuum of uninterrupted moments of mental activity. Every moment, that mental activity has content, so it’s taking an object. I mean, let’s not get too hung up on the word “content,” because the content can also be the emotion, the way of knowing something. But I’m talking here about the object, of what is experienced. It gets very difficult actually, when you talk about it, because you also experience the happiness. But we’re talking about the – well, let’s just leave it as “object,” the sense object or the thought or something like that. Also I could be aware that I’m happy or that I am unhappy. That can also be an object. 

So the sense consciousness is seeing the dog. “Me” can be labeled on every moment of our awareness of our mental activity. And so we would also say that it’s not just that the eye consciousness sees the dog, but “I” see the dog. So the consciousness always has an object, and the person (me) always has an object, because the consciousness always has an object. 

Question: Does the “me” equal my consciousness? 

Alex: No. “Me” does not equal my consciousness. “Me” can be labeled onto the consciousness, but it’s not equivalent to the consciousness. Whose consciousness is this? Mine. Is there a “me” – and now I’m playing with you – is there a “me” separate, sitting in our head, that has that consciousness and is now using it? No. 

So one goes quite deeply and extensively in analyzing how does that “me” exist. It is similar to this phenomenon of the movie Star Wars, but I’m not just a movie. Now the movie “Alex” is playing, and on your side the movie “Marianna” is playing. It’s not quite like that. But on a very simple, beginner level, that’s not a bad analogy to use. Playing here in this room is the movie of “Corinna,” the movie of “Alex,” the movie of each of you, isn’t it? This is a scene in a movie. But that is only an approximation, it’s not quite like that. We’re not just a movie. Or are we? Are we separate from the film, watching it? Sometimes it feels like that. “How could I have said that? How could I have done that?” As if there was a “me” separate from the film, watching it. “How could I have done that?” 

This gets into voidness meditation, which is very, very profound. It has great effects. That it seems as though I exist in an impossible way, so there’s this conceptual thing, but the implied object, what’s implied by that, is complete garbage. It doesn’t exist at all. I’m thinking “me” and what’s representing it is a me that is the observer of the movie “me,” which is really weird. And the implied object of that, an actual me sitting watching a movie, in my head, of “me,” this is ridiculous. This is nonexistent. 

Question: Is our arm an object? 

Alex: I think you mean cognitive object. When we’re talking about subject and object, to have an object, are we talking about something like my arm. That I have my arm. And if it’s cut off, I no longer have the arm. Is that what you mean? 

Participant: Yes [laughter] 

Alex: But we’re talking here about a cognitive object. It’s not talking about possessions. We don’t have to have the same object all the time. And so if I see you, for example… So now I am taking the colored shape of your body, and the body, the whole body, and the person, and you. So I’m seeing you. But when you go away, and I go away, you are no longer an object of my cognition. So the same thing with my arm. I can feel pain in it when it’s attached to my body. When it’s not attached to my body, I don’t feel pain in it, so it’s not my object of cognition. I can look at it lying on the table, but that’s something else. I mean of course, I forget the term, but when you have your arm cut off, you still imagine that there’s pain there. I’ve forgotten what that’s called, but that’s not referring to anything real, is it? I forget the English term for that [phantom pain], I’m sorry. There are so many ways of dividing objects. You can divide objects – those that are connected with a mental continuum and those that are not. So my arm and the table are quite different in that sense. 

Question: I have a question on cause and effect. Specifically, what is causality? Or what constitutes that? You gave an example of simultaneously arising cause as like the body parts, the vocal cords that make the sound or enable you to do that. Also vocal cords, was that mentioned as a natal source? For me it’s a bit like – it’s also circumstance, like the infrastructure that brings you the coffee beans that enable you to have a coffee. What’s the difference? And where’s the causality? 

Alex: She’s asking about what is causality, and I think more specifically you are asking what is the division between a cause and a circumstance.

That’s quite difficult – I don’t have on the tip of my tongue the definitions – because the term “cause” is used for so many different types of causes, so it’s hard to have a general definition like “something that directly brings about a result.” And then “something that helps to bring about the result” for the “circumstance.” Well, one could argue are those really specific enough definitions? 

What I think we need to understand here is that anything that we’re talking about can belong to more than one category. And so something could be a certain type of cause, but also a certain type of condition. The vocal cords are the simultaneously arising cause of the sound, but it’s also the natal source of the sound. It’s both. It’s also one of the acting circumstances, or something like that. It’s a simultaneously arising one. It’s a causal condition. It fits into many categories here. 

So when you study this material the way the Tibetans study it, and I’m sure the way the Indians studied it as well, it is all studied in terms of set theory, which is the topic of our next lecture. So these are categories with a meaning, and each of these categories has a set of individual items that belong to the category, and then you see how many overlap with each other and what is the way in which they overlap. That gets very, very complicated. Then you really start to understand, once you work out all the logical pervasions. That’s what they do, the way it’s studied. 

Question: [inaudible] 

Alex: When we talk about karma, is it a direct – is it the last one before the result? No. Well, it depends on what is the effect of the karma. If you talk about the tendency, then it is. 

I need to preface what I just said. There’s another division of direct cause (dngos-rgyu) and indirect cause (shugs-rgyu). So the direct cause is happening the moment right before. The indirect cause is happening before the moment right before. So you have the karmic urge that is going throughout the action, and then immediately after you have the tendency. So it’s the direct cause of the tendency, but it’s the indirect cause of what will come from that tendency, maybe in some future life, when it ripens into this moment of feeling unhappy. Do you follow that? 

My mother giving birth to me is an indirect cause for my delivering this lecture, isn’t it? If she never gave birth to me I couldn’t deliver this lecture. 

Question: And what would be a direct cause here? 

Alex: The direct cause? What I was thinking right before I spoke to you, right before I said these words. Would that be a direct cause? I’m asking. You have to analyze. You have to think. The potential of my understanding that then allows me to answer, or my tendency or habit that has built up from teaching this material over so many years. That potential has ripened to give this moment of being able to explain. Those would be direct causes. 

Circumstances or conditions, that’s hard to really define. It “supports” this whole process. So, for instance, Monica and Geshe-la organizing this course, and you coming. And me coming, for that matter. These are the conditions or circumstances for this explanation to occur. Also, without them, it wouldn’t happen. But it’s not that one thing just exists in one category. Categories overlap, and they overlap in many different ways. We’ll discuss that. 

This thing here, sitting on the floor, is both a dog and an animal. Anyway, I must refrain from giving tomorrow’s lecture now. 

Last question. 

Question: [inaudible] 

Alex: Very good. Thank you. You have caught an error, or perhaps a lack of clarity. The question is about static and nonstatic phenomena and, within them, those phenomena that have a beginning and no end. 

And perhaps I was unclear in terms of parting from anger, or confusion, so let me rectify what I said. The no-longer-happening of an incident of anger has a beginning and that has no end. That is nonstatic, it is no longer happening. I mean, “no longer happening” – I’m just trying to put it into English – but it’s one minute before, then it’s two minutes before, then it’s no longer happening. What happened one minute before? Now it’s no longer happening. What happened two minutes before? No longer happening. What happened three years before? So it’s changing. It’s nonstatic. But it goes on with no end. Whereas the state of being parted forever from anger – that is static. That’s now a fact. Well, “fact” – there is no word for “fact” here, so let’s not use that. That state of being parted forever doesn’t change, and it starts with the attainment of that being parted, of that separation. That’s static. That state of being parted, parted forever. I think the confusion came up by inadvertently using “parted” within the context of “I’m parted from this particular incident of anger,” but that’s not very accurate. Thank you for pointing that out. 

Good. That brings us exactly to six o’clock, so let’s end here. I believe tomorrow we have another question and answer session.