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Deluded thinking and labeling

Deluded thinking and labeling

Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks given during the Green Tara Winter Retreat from December 2009 to March 2010.

  • The truth is not inherently existent
  • In terms of labeling there are criteria for things to exist conventionally

Green Tara Retreat 061: Deluded thinking and labeling (download)

This is about the whole topic of having the proper context for a basis of designation. Someone has asked: “How do we apply this to the concepts of truth and falsity? Wouldn’t someone who is very skilled at delusional thinking be in danger of being able to use contexts to their advantage, of turning that which is true into a lie, or vice versa. [Would they] be somewhat justified in their argument that they are able to prove that in this context to tell this lie was actually telling the truth? Does the truth have inherent existence?”

The truth doesn’t have inherent existence. Aside from people having delusional thinking, the rest of us (who are supposedly normal) all of the time say things that we are convinced are true. If we are lucky, later on, we realize these things are totally irrational and off the wall. Yet at the time we say them, or at the time we make a certain decision, it is similar to: “This is true and this is it.” Just because somebody says it, doesn’t make it true. In the same way, just because we label something, doesn’t make it that thing.

In terms of labeling there are three criteria for something to exist conventionally, in other words, for there to be a proper basis for the label. In other words, the basis can function as the definition of what the label is given.

First of all, it has to be something that is just conventionally known to people. It doesn’t have to mean everybody knows it, but it is something that is known.

Secondly, it is not contradicted by another conventional reliable cognizer. If I look over there and I say, “Oh, there’s a scarecrow.” I can believe it’s a scarecrow; the rest of you have valid cognizers, and see that that is not a scarecrow, but it is Venerable Chonyi. I can’t label her as a scarecrow just because I want to. Whether I am delusional or not, whether I am lying or not, I can’t do it, because other people’s reliable cognizers can contradict that.

The third criteria is that it’s something that is not contradicted by an ultimate reliable cognizer. This is a cognizer that understands the ultimate nature: emptiness.

While I may look over there and I perceive an inherently existent Chonyi, the rest of us don’t. I’ll assume that I don’t know about you and whether you have an ultimate valid cognizer that can disprove it. This doesn’t mean that there is an inherently existent Chonyi there just because we don’t have the cognizers. Because there are people who do have an ultimate reliable cognizer, (and) who can say there is no inherently existent Chonyi.

For something to be the correct label for that base, for things to exist conventionally, these three criteria for things to exist conventionally you actually have to have:

  • It is commonly known somewhat to some people;
  • It is not contradicted by a conventional reliable cognizer; and,
  • It is not contradicted by an ultimate reliable cognizer.

Then, you can say it conventionally exists.

Audience: This question sounds like maybe it hedges a little bit on some area of skillful means. Is this some of the things that they’re talking about? Because sometimes, it seems that buddhas and bodhisattvas, and even just our teachers, say things in certain ways that might be taken out of context. You give the example of someone who came to find Milarepa [as in the movie about Milarepa]. The old man just says when they asked, “Did the young man come here?” The response was, “People don’t come up this way very often.” Rather than a yes or a no, he gave an answer to a different question. I’m just wondering if that starts hedging on what they’re asking in this question.

Venerable Thubten Chodron: I think this person is talking specifically about delusional thinking. Your point about, “isn’t there a thing of skillful means and saying slightly different things to different people,” actually brings up a whole topic. For example, in the Buddha’s sutras, to some people the Buddha said, “There is inherent existence.” In other sutras, he denied inherent existence. Now, somebody could say, “Isn’t the Buddha lying?” Well, [just] try and say that! It doesn’t go over very well. There we say the Buddha wasn’t lying, because he was talking to different groups of people. His intention was to lead all of them to enlightenment. Even when he said, for example, to the Cittamatras (who are the people who became followers of the Cittamatra), that there is a basis of all, they interpret it one way—but his actual intention was another meaning. The Buddha wasn’t lying, he was saying things that maybe superficially appeared one way, but when you look deeper, the actual meaning was this.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.